Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday Poetry: Once I Pass'd Through A Populous City

"Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes." -Joseph Roux

Once I Pass'd Through A Populous City 
by Walt Whitman

Once I pass'd through a populous city imprinting my brain for future
use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a woman I casually met
 there who detain'd me for love of me,
 Day by day and night by night we were together--all else has long
been forgotten by me,
I remember I say only that woman who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again she holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see her close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Beautiful Strangers: On Writing Diversity (Pt. 3)

Part 3: So What The Heck Do I Actually Write?

"Allow the diversity to exist. There is nothing wrong with it."
-Jessica Lange

Hey there! I'm glad you're back for the final installment of my little series (read: ramble-fest) on writing diversity.

By happy coincidence, NaNoWriMo has partnered up with the grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books for the entire month of October. A huge shout-out to the NaNoWriMo blog, where you'll be able to find even more awesome posts on literary diversity! Seriously, guys, this is worth checking out.

Now, one last time, let's recap:

In my first post, I talked about the lack of diversity in mass-market fiction, and put a call-to-action out to the people who have the capacity to change things: us! Writers of the world, diversify!

In my second post, I went back-to-basics, and looked at what the terms "stereotype" and "caricature" actually mean. Hopefully, now we know what to avoid.

So where does that leave us? Rather, what does that leave us? We want to populate our worlds with diverse characters, but how do we do that? What should we be aiming for in our writing? 

The answer may come from a surprising place.

ECRP (Early Childhood Research & Practice), is a peer-reviewed, multilingual journal on early childhood development. Back in 2001, it published a fantastic article titled "Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom: Possibilities and Pitfalls."

The entire article is worth reading, but of particular value to writers is the section "Using Theories of Race to Examine Children's Literature." It talks about the importance of "reading against the grain," also known as "resistant reading." This concept promotes reading with an eye towards recognizing stereotypes or biases on the part of the author. ECRP called it "interrogating" the literature.

The article offers several questions to guide readers in these "interrogations." Tweaked slightly, some of them are also excellent questions for writers to ask themselves about their own work.

Here are some of the most relevant questions (in my opinion). Any italicized commentary is my own:

- Question #1:
Are characters "outside the mainstream culture" depicted as individuals or as caricatures?

This may be the most important question out of all of them, and it's deceptive in its simplicity. We start falling into stereotypes when we recycle old tropes or generalize about a given group. This is also known as lazy writing. 

Our characters should be believable as people, first and foremost. Everything else is just window dressing.

- Question #2:
Does their representation include significant specific cultural information? Or does it follow stereotypes?

One of the reasons stereotypes are so common is because they're so easy. Again, don't get lazy. Put in the time, do your research, and both your characters and your writing will be all that much richer.

- Question #3:
Who has the power in this story? What is the nature of their power, and how do they use it?

To these questions, I'll add one of my own: are the people with the power the people you would expect to have the power? If so, that's not necessarily bad. Like I said in my first post of this series, not every character needs to be a Beautiful Stranger (again, quoting Nisi Shawl). 

However, if there is room to do so, consider playing around a bit. If nothing else, you might end up with some characters/ situations you didn't expect... and that can be fun.

- Question #4:
What are the consequences of certain behaviors? What behaviors or traits are rewarded, and how? What behaviors are punished, and how?

In other words, are certain cultures/ lifestyles portrayed as "acceptable", whereas others aren't?

- Question #5:
How is language used to create images of people of a particular group?

Language is tricky. Used well, it can add flavor to a particular character or scene. Used carelessly, it can come across as patronizing and ridiculous. My advice is, a little dab'll do ya. Most readers tend to get lost in hyper-slang anyway.

- Question #6:
Who has written this story? Are they inside or outside the groups they are presenting? What are they in a position to know? What do they claim to know?

Writers, this means us! What are we in a position to know? I would argue we can position ourselves to know more, but it takes some effort. And by effort, I mean research. 

Firsthand knowledge is always best, so however you can obtain that, do it! Read from firsthand sources (books, magazines). Go to a cultural festival. Check out the taqueria down the street where everyone speaks Spanish, and order something you wouldn't normally get (I suggest horchata). 

Make yourself a cultural ambassador. Your writing will be better for it. 

- Question #7:
Whose voices are heard? Whose are missing?

Are there places where you could add these missing voices in? At first, this will probably feel stilted. The more you do it, however, the more natural it will feel. And once you start seeing the added layers in your writing, I think you'll be hooked. I know I am.

- Question #8:
What do(es) this narrative... say about race? Class? Culture? Gender? Age? Resistance to the status quo?

In my opinion, there is no "right" or "wrong" answer to this question. Whatever your narrative is saying, just make sure it was your intention to say it. 

Not to suggest our books don't or shouldn't take on a life of their own -to the contrary, I find it incredibly exciting when that happens! I'm merely counseling vigilance and awareness.

I'll leave you with a final quote from Nisi Shawl, whom I also referenced in my initial post on this subject. In her fantabulous article "Transracial Writing For The Sincere," she says:

"Remember that difference is in the eye of the beholder. Black people don’t spend their whole lives thinking of themselves as black. We’re Ghanaians and editors and diabetics, and lots of other -ians and -ors and -ics. Use these self-categorizations to add points of audience identification to your characters."

I can't think of much to add to that.

I hope you've enjoyed this series! Thanks again for reading. If you're interested in more of my writing, I hope you'll stick around and check out the rest of the blog.

Otherwise, happy wordmaking!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Beautiful Strangers: On Writing Diversity (Pt. 2)

What Are Stereotypes, Really? 
(AKA, Know Thy Enemy)

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

If you're here, it means my previous post didn't scare you off. Hooray! Before we dive in again, let's re-cap.

We've agreed the lack of diversity in mainstream fiction is problematic.

We've acknowledged we, as writers, have the power and the obligation to change this.

We've decided we want more diverse characters (main, minor, and everything in between) in our own writing.

So what now?

I've done a lot of thinking about this. If you're like me, you've spent so long walking on eggshells, it's hard to know where to start. How do you distinguish between the things you should handle delicately and the things that are, in fact, acceptable to print?

Here are just a few of the issues I've come up against in my quest to diversify my characters:

* When writing about racial minorities, do you describe skin color? If so, when, how, and how much?
* If your character is a lesbian, can she have a butch haircut and wear button-down shirts? 
* If your character is gay, how masculine/femme can or should he be?
* Can your villain be a minority (racial, sexual, or religious)?

I realize these may sound silly, but they are all things I've genuinely questioned and struggled with. The last thing I want is to propagate what Ray Bradbury so eloquently called "the terrible tyranny of the majority." I want diversity in my books, but it's not enough for me to simply shoehorn in a lineup of tired caricatures and call it a day.

I want to get it right. How do we get it right?

First and foremost, I think it helps to have an idea how to avoid getting it wrong. How do you know if what you're writing qualifies as a stereotype? Sometimes it's glaringly obvious, but not all stereotypes necessarily sound like stereotypes. At least, not right away. What to do?

Let's start small.

The following is copied directly out of the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

transitive verb \ˈster-ē-ə-ˌtīp, ˈstir-\
: to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same
:  to make a stereotype from
a :  to repeat without variation :  make hackneyed
b :  to develop a mental stereotype about

This might also be helpful:

noun \ˈker-i-kə-ˌchu̇r, -ˌchər, -ˌtyu̇r, -ˌtu̇r, -ˈka-ri-\
: a drawing that makes someone look funny or foolish because some part of the person's appearance is exaggerated
: someone or something that is very exaggerated in a funny or foolish way
:  exaggeration by means of often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics
:  a representation especially in literature or art that has the qualities of caricature
:  a distortion so gross as to seem like caricature

Lest you think I'm deliberately patronizing you, let me explain.

In my last post, I said overly-P.C. language has muddied the issue and confused people. I believe that's a bigger problem than most of us realize or acknowledge. We're so terrified of producing "stereotypes" and "caricatures" that we've lost sight of what those words actually mean.

It's time for some clarity. What is a stereotype, really?

According to the above definition, "to stereotype" something means "to repeat without variation." In other words, if you're writing about a character who is, say, Muslim, and all your descriptions are recycled from media talk shows and the news, chances are your character is going to read like a stereotype. We've all heard this information. You are not providing anything new.

According to another part of the definition, the belief that "all people or things with a certain characteristic are the same" is also stereotyping. We've all seen those pics of the angry Muslim toting a submachine gun and stomping on an American flag*. I hope you don't need me to tell you such pictures are blatant stereotypes, and don't represent the majority of those out there who practice Islam.

*If this resembles a character you have or were planning to write, please visit a local mosque, talk to a few actual Muslims, and call me in the morning.

Now, for caricatures.

I have a love/hate relationship with caricatures. On the one hand, I have a drag queen in my noir romance series who is the most glitter-fied human being you will ever meet. Almost his entire character is caricature, from his bouffant beehive up-do to his pink silk pumps.

Note how I said "almost".

I think you really start running into problems when the caricature becomes the entire basis of your character. True, much of Cookie Mambo is caricature, but there's a lot more to him than just false eyelashes and fuchsia lipstick, and I'm having a lot of fun exploring that.

I'd also argue that there are appropriate and inappropriate usages of caricature. Look at some of the words in the definition: "funny", "foolish", "ludicrous". That suggests humor.

Not all characters are meant to be comic relief. Cookie Mambo is, and as a drag queen, caricature is literally his job. If that's not true for your character, I would avoid caricatures when describing them.

Phew! Still with me? This is a lot to digest, so I'm going to leave it at that for now. But never fear, I won't leave you hanging! There's still a lot more we haven't covered.

Stay tuned for...

Part 3: So What The Heck Do I Actually Write?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Beautiful Strangers: On Writing Diversity (Pt. 1)

Originally, the plan was to make this one post. As I sit down to write, however, it occurs to me a single post would barely scratch the surface of this vast, under-discussed topic.

Hence the "Part 1" in the title.  Here, we'll get the ball rolling and identify what I see as a major problem in literature today: the marked lack of diversity. The next post (or two) will offer some suggestions and pointers on what we, as writers, can do about it. 

Thanks for reading! I'm looking forward to the discussion...

"He who is different from me does not impoverish me - he enriches me... For no man seeks to hear his own echo, or to find his reflection in the glass."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Diversity, race, orientation, prejudice: all these are sensitive subjects for writers and non-writers alike. With that in mind, I feel I should start off with a few disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1:
I am not, nor do I claim to be, an expert on the subject of diversity in literature (or in general, for that matter). Way smarter people than I can and have tackled the philosophical, literary, and political aspects of diversity. 

Rather, the purpose of this series is to examine what diversity means for me as a writer, to encourage other writers to venture outside their comfort zones, and to offer some solid suggestions on how and where to start.

Disclaimer #2:
I will not attempt to comment on diversity in countries other than my own. I love you, citizens of the world, but let's face it, I neither know nor understand your particular cultural climate, at least not well enough to offer an opinion on it. 

For that reason, any anecdotes I use or observations I make will be drawn purely from my own experiences in the continental United States. Hopefully you will still find them useful, no matter where you live.

Disclaimer #3:
Some of what I say here may come across as politically incorrect. It's not my intention to offend anyone, and I sincerely hope I don't. 

That said, I believe overly-P.C. language has muddied the topic and left everyone confused. This subject is too important to sabotage with feel-good platitudes. I'm going for the jugular here. If that's a problem for you, I humbly suggest you utilize the nearest exit.

Still with me? Awesome! Now let's get real.

Confessions first: writing diversity has always scared the shit out of me. The reason for this (ready to get non-P.C.?) is that I'm white.

*crickets chirping*

As a conscientious modern white woman, I have trouble saying stuff like that. Hell, I even have trouble referring to myself as "white". It connotes painful images of race riots and people running around in bed sheets, things no one wants to be associated with.

Before you get the wrong idea, I'm not going to start whining about "reverse-racism", or anything like that (for an excellent article that sums up my views on that particular subject, click here). That's not my point, and it's not the point of this post.

My point is, I don't think I'm the only writer who has struggled with this, and rather than risk offending people, many of us have simply opted out of writing diversity altogether.

A quick scan of Amazon Kindle's categories for Fiction tells a depressing story. Of the major genres (Mystery/Thriller/Suspense, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance), only Romance has sub-categories for non-white, non-hetero titles. On one hand, this isn't particularly surprising; the Romance genre has more sub-categories and sub-sub-categories than an IRS tax form.

Where it gets depressing is when you start looking at the numbers. I'll stick to Romance, both because it's the genre I write in, and because it's the only genre with any actual data. Here are a few numbers to consider (current as of Oct. 17, 2014). Please note, in the interest of simplicity, they have been rounded off: 

# of titles in the Romance Genre: 212,000
# of titles in the African-American sub-genre: 5,000
# of titles in the Multicultural/Interracial sub-genre: 4,300

The LGBTQ categories don't do much better, though the popularity of M/M romance has skyrocketed over the last few years: 

# of titles in M/M and Gay sub-genres*: 12,000
# of titles in the Lesbian sub-genre: 3,000

* On Amazon, M/M Romance and Gay Romance are categorized under the blanket heading "Gay Romance", despite the fact that there are significant differences between the two. For more information, check out Yaoi Research's article, On Defining M/M Romance.

If these numbers have gotten you thinking, I'm glad. They got me thinking, too. But even these don't tell the whole story. 

What about books not intended as African-American/ Multicultural/ Interracial fiction? Not all heroes/heroines will be --or need to be-- Beautiful Strangers (term coined -as far as I know- by SF author Nisi Shawl).

To me, the biggest problem isn't necessarily the dearth of culturally diverse sub-genre books. Rather, it is the insidious absence of any non-white, non-hetero main, minor, secondary, tertiary, or quaternary characters at all, period.

Which brings me back to my initial confession. 

We're all afraid. We're afraid of rubbing someone the wrong way. We're afraid of "getting it wrong". We're afraid that for all our research, care, and best intentions, we're still going to end up with this guy:

I get it. Believe me.

The problem isn't being afraid. The problem is being controlled by our fear. In our desperation not to offend, we've inadvertently created a literary landscape that is glaringly one-dimensional. It's time to own that. And it's time to change it.

If that scares you, awesome. It means you're seriously considering leaving your comfort zone. That's the first step, and you should give yourself a pat on the back for taking it.

I'm going to end this segment with a bit of good news: 


If anyone has the ability, the brains, and the compassion to take this issue on, it's us. We see more, hear more, feel more, and intuit more than your average shmuck-on-the-street. It's what makes us so good at what we do. 

It's why we do what we do in the first place.

So who's with me?


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Poetry: Self Pity

"Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes." -Joseph Roux

Self Pity, by D.H. Lawrence

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

Best recited by the Master Chief (aka Viggo Mortenson) in G.I. Jane:

Friday, June 27, 2014

Research Trip! Fort Mason

Those of you who know me know I value my day trips.

Writing is a solitary business. Most of my time is spent at a desk, swigging cold coffee and tossing back Ibuprofen to combat lower back pain. What can I say? It ain't always sexy, folks.

Which is why I seize any excuse I can to venture out into, you know, The Real World.

I am fortunate enough to live near the city that has become my Muse. San Francisco is one hell of a town. Every time I go there (which I do, as often as time and gas prices permit), I discover something new, something wonderful, something that would be perfect in a book.

One of my recent trips took me to Fort Mason. This old Army installation is located on the waterfront at the edge of The Marina district.

Today, the old officers' quarters have been transformed into rent-able living spaces and a youth hostel. As you can see (below), there is also a lovely community garden (this is San Francisco, remember?)

(Below) Part of the city skyline from the recreation field at Fort Mason.

(Below) And more of the city skyline. This is a view out over The Marina and Cow Hollow districts. And of course, the Golden Gate out in the distance.

(Below) Another gratuitous Golden Gate shot, over the rooftops of Lower Fort Mason.

(Below) And another, from a slightly different position, and with the masts from the marina in the middle.

But the coolest part of the trip? Check this out (below): the abandoned entrance to the old San Francisco Belt Railway! I read about this online, and it was the main reason I wanted to check out Fort Mason. Well, I found it, and yes, it's every bit as awesome as I thought it would be!

Now, I'm what you might charitably call a "geek," especially when it comes to history. I've also traveled a fair bit. Most other cities I've visited are purely modern creations. History is bulldozed, paved over, shoved aside. While in many cases this makes perfect economic sense, it is, nonetheless, sad.

San Francisco is one of those magical places that hasn't tried to hide or cover up its colorful past. Rather than pave over history, the modern city of San Francisco is literally built around it.

You see it in obvious things, such as the still-functioning street cars and the obviously-old buildings. But you can also see it in more subtle touches, such as the long-obsolete etchings in the sidewalks on Market Street that mark where telegraph lines used to run.

With so many layers to peel back, I doubt I'll be running out of inspiration -or excuses to visit- anytime soon.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Plotting? It's Easy! Sort Of...

“Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” -Gene Fowler

You have an idea.

Maybe it's a good idea. Maybe it's even a great idea. Your characters have started talking. You're ready to start writing.

Hold that pen, Slick.

How many times have you been down this path before? How many books have you started? Perhaps more importantly, how many have you finished? If the answer to that question is less than one, allow me to make a humble suggestion.

Plot first.

I've been down this road myself. I had already been writing for years before I finished my first book. That I never finished any of these earlier projects wasn't a huge deal to me. It was still just a hobby, after all.

When my son was born and I decided to get serious with my writing, I realized I needed to do things differently. In short, I needed to learn how to plot.

I proceeded to read a shit-ton of books on plotting and story-boarding/mapping/voodoo/whatever.  The lightbulb came on for me when I realized I wasn't going to find all the answers all in one place. I still believe that early research was important, but more for recon purposes.

Since then, I've cobbled together my own approach from several of the books I read, including The Romance Writer's Handbook (Rebecca Vinyard) and Writing A Romance Novel For Dummies (Leslie Wainger). I found both useful in different ways, and cherry-picked different things from each.

Are you at a loss where to start? Looking for a simple, flexible way to plot your book? If so, stick close.

 My (Unpatented, Super-Anal, Probably Thoroughly Unprofessional) Plotting Process:
*Note: I write romance novels. This is reflected in how I plot. If you write in other genres, you may still find this helpful, but you'll probably need to tinker a little more*

1) Create the characters. I have some basic character sketch templates I fill out before I start plotting. It helps me get to know who I'm dealing with.

2) Plot the relationship trajectory. I've read this referred to as the "Major Plot Points". They include any interaction between the hero and heroine that furthers their relationship (first meeting, first kiss, first sex scene, etc.).

3) Flesh out the rest of the plot. Think of it as "connect the dots", the "dots" being your Major Plot Points. What needs to happen to get from one dot to the next? This usually is where you insert your sub-plot, or the part of your book that doesn't have to do with the love story.

Then after all that's done...

- Go back and insert where the scenes/chapters start or end.

- Go through, chapter by chapter, and outline everything (EVERYTHING) that is going to happen in that chapter, right down to when someone sneezes. Make note of any excerpts that pop into your head, any great pieces of dialogue, any description that needs to be woven in, that sort of thing. Keep all of this where you can refer to it easily (I have a notebook), and devote maybe one or two pages to each chapter.

- At the top of each page, define what your objective is for that chapter- increase sexual tension, flesh out characters, major turning points, etc. It helps you focus when you're actually writing. It's so easy to get carried away in the creative flow, it helps to have a visual reminder of what you're actually trying to accomplish.

- Finally, give yourself permission to completely change everything if you need to. I've noticed, especially after the first sex scene, the hero and heroine often go in a totally different direction than I had anticipated. It's a very organic thing, so make sure to leave room for the story and the characters to breathe.

Does it work? I've published three-going-on-four books since I started a little over a year ago, so I'll let you be the judge.

Starting out is always tough, but sometimes it helps to know it was (and is!) tough for other people too. I had a tough time starting. I think it was because I hadn't figured out who I was as a writer, and didn't realize I'm the type who needs to plot my stories out first.

If you're still reading, I assume you're ready to get serious. I hope this post provides some clarity. Kudos to you for knuckling down, asking questions, and figuring stuff out! A lot of people don't take that step.

Those are the people who end up writing journals, but not books.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Poetry: The Highwayman, Part Three

"Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes." -Joseph Roux

The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,  
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,  
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.  
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there  
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
         Bess, the landlord’s daughter,

Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Poetry: The Highwayman, Part Two

"Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes." -Joseph Roux

"The Highwayman's Footsteps", Tristan Elwell

The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes


He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon;  
And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon,  
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,  
A red-coat troop came marching—
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead.  
But they gagged his daughter, and bound her, to the foot of her narrow bed.
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!  
There was death at every window;
         And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.
They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle beneath her breast!
“Now, keep good watch!” and they kissed her. She heard the doomed man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
         Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!  
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
         Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.  
Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.  
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;  
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
         Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing clear;  
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding—
The red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still.

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!  
Nearer he came and nearer. Her face was like a light.
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,  
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
         Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood  
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own blood!  
Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey to hear  
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
         The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

Back, he spurred like a madman, shouting a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
         Down like a dog on the highway,

And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Bad Reviews Suck. Except When They Don't.

“From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review. ” -Isaac Asimov

I can't think of many authors who actually like bad reviews.

Understandable, right? I mean, no one likes to hear that the book they worked so hard on, their literary baby, didn't resonate once they released it into the world. Or worse, that its very existence outright offended someone.

I'm coming to the keyboard having received my very first bad review this week. And I'm not talking about one of those "nice try, better luck next time" reviews. The reviewer hated everything about the book, from front cover to back.

But I'm not here to vent. Or cry. Or bitch.  Because guess what?

There's nothing wrong with that.

If anything, I'm glad they wrote that review. Because while it may have stung, it also forced me to do something I've never really had to do as an author: I had to do a little soul-searching.

They were very specific about the things they didn't like. And nothing they said was wrong. Most of what they listed were things I had done with great intent. A couple weren't, and thanks to them, I have some new ideas on what to work on (and hopefully improve) in my next book.

But what about the things I knew about? The things I had done intentionally, that they didn't like? That's where the soul-searching came in.

As authors, it's important to be able to take criticism. Many of us can't- at least, not well. But it's equally important to know where and when to stand your ground. Not everyone is going to like the books we write. Does that mean we should try to write to suit every audience?

Absolutely not.

Sometimes it takes a pinch in the soft place for us to decide to stand our ground. Stand by our characters, our style, our story. To write with passion means to risk alienating some people, some of the time.

So I appreciate that bad review. I'm grateful to the reviewer for giving my book a chance. I hope the next thing they read will be something they enjoy.

But if you'll excuse me, I have another book to write.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunday Poetry: The Highwayman, Part One

"Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes." -Joseph Roux

The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes


The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.  
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.  
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,  
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,  
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.  
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
         His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.  
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there  
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
         Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked.  
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,  
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
         The landlord’s red-lipped daughter.
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,  
Then look for me by moonlight,
         Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;  
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
         (O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)

Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Getting Wet: Recipe #5

Tough times call for tough drinks.

When life gives you lemons...

That's right. You make cocktails.

Or rather, you make candied lemon peel to be used in cocktails.

A delicacy this delicious can only be enjoyed one way. You guessed it: with alcohol. If you have the candied lemon peel, you need just a few other ingredients (and if you don't have the candied lemon peel, what are you waiting for? It's easy).

Laura's Lemon-Gin Fizz

In a shaker, combine...

1 jigger Gin (any, but I prefer Hendricks)
1 tsp Candied lemon peel (with syrup)
3 jiggers Tonic water
1 dash Blood orange bitters

Shake vigorously until cold.

Strain into your snootiest glass.

Sip or slug, depending on how long a week it's been.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Adventures In Head-Hopping: What To Do, What Not To Do, And Should You Attempt It At All

Fellow writers, it's time we had The Talk.

You know the one I mean. It's the talk every writer has had at some point or another, either with an editor, critique partner, beta reader, or friend. It's the "time-to-take-yourself-seriously-as-a-writer" talk.

It's the Head-Hopping Talk.

Before we get too far, allow me to define this increasingly obscure literary phenomena for any who don't know what it is. Simply put, head-hopping is when the writer uses more than one character's point of view within one scene.

Now, then.

There are a lot of excellent articles out there about why you should never, ever head-hop in your writing. I agree with many of them. Head-hopping-gone-wrong is an epidemic in the literary community, especially with the explosive growth of indie publishing. Done badly, it's the mark of an amateur. Done well, it's still not for everyone.

But is head-hopping the evil stepmother we've all been told it is? I don't believe so. And while I realize this is not a popular stance to take, I'm going to attempt to defend it anyway.

I'll use my own journey as an example. That's right. I've used head-hopping in my own writing. I hardly consider myself an expert on the subject, but I have learned a few things about what doesn't work and what does. Because yes, it can work.

Many people are already familiar with head-hopping's pitfalls. Here are a few of the most common complaints:

- It's confusing.
This is often true. Some (usually novice) writers will use two, three, four different viewpoints within a single scene, sometimes within a single paragraph. I'll be the first to acknowledge this is maddening to read. It can also get real confusing, real fast.

- It's awkward.
Keeping track of multiple POVs within a scene is no easy thing, especially if the writer doesn't make it clear whose POV you're in at any given point. I can't think of anything more jarring than humming through a scene from the heroine's point of view, then moving to the next paragraph and finding the hero thinking about his cock. Or something.

- It prevents readers from bonding with the characters.
This is one of those truisms that gets trucked out so often, it's almost become a cliche. That doesn't however, make it in-valid. If you're continually bouncing between characters' POVs, it can be hard to get to know either or any of them well enough to care what happens to them.

- It's amateurish.
I saved this one for last because it's one I have mixed feelings about. Yes, head-hopping can sound amateurish. But so can every other form of writing if it's written by, well, an amateur. I find it difficult to accept a writer can improve at every literary device except head-hopping. Sorry. I just don't buy it.

This is usually where posts about head-hopping stop. Head-hopping is terrible, it has no literary value, it's impossible to do well. By now you probably realize I disagree with all those assessments. I promised I would defend my thesis. So here goes.

Most writers never learn to head-hop properly.

Did head-hopping fall out of vogue because writers don't know how to do it right, or do writers not know how to do it because it fell out of vogue? An interesting chicken-and-egg sort of question, but the point remains: many writers who head-hop are doing it wrong.

This post is about letting it all hang out. To that end, let me present an example from my first book, All That Glitters. I head-hopped with both intent and abandon in this book. The intent was not the problem (if you're going to head-hop, it should be a conscious, deliberate decision).

The problem was the abandon. See for yourself (POV shifts in red):

Case Study #1: All That Glitters (my first book)

She leaned in and pressed her lips to the letters.  He tasted like salt.  She looked up.  He was at rapt attention.  She raised herself to her tip-toes.

Ethan crushed his lips down over hers.  He needed this.  Needed her.  He hadn’t realized how badly until he’d watched the Bering Sea swallow her whole.  All the adrenaline that had built up in his system surged out.  He took everything she offered, and pushed her to offer more.

Ava ran greedy hands across his chest, over his powerful shoulders, up the back of his neck, and buried them in his hair.  Desperation clouded her senses.  

Yeah, I know. Risky move, calling out the faults in my own work. In my defense, the entire book didn't read that way. But a lot of it did. And it was because I hadn't learned some of the most basic rules of head-hopping.

So after an example like that, is it possible for "promiscuous viewpoint" to find redemption?

I believe the answer is yes.

I mentioned the Basic Rules Of Head-Hopping. Here they are, listed in what I consider to be order of importance:

Rule #1: Don't use more than two (2) points of view within a scene.
In romance novels, these are usually the POVs of your hero and your heroine. That doesn't mean you can't write from the POVs of your other characters, but you should NOT try to cram them all into one scene.

Rule #2: Make it obvious whose head you're in when you change points of view.
There should always be a cue when you leave one character's thoughts and enter another's. I'm relieved to say I always had a sense of this, which you can see in the example from my first book.

Rule #3: Don't change point-of-view more than once within a scene.
This could actually be an addendum to Rule #1. Too many POV changes within a scene is both confusing, awkward, and amateurish. Start with one character, change POVs once, and finish out the scene with the second. It flows much smoother and leaves less room for the reader to get lost.

Rule #4: Don't change point-of-view in an awkward place.
There are good places to change POVs, and there are bad places to change POVs. Where those places are is largely subjective, and depends on your story. But you're a writer. Odds are that means you have an ear for language. Use that ability to divine where a POV shift will enhance your story. Failing that, there's always voodoo.

Fortunately, I learned these rules before I put out a second book with the same mistakes as the first. Which brings me to:

Case Study #2: What The Body Needs (my second book)

Something close to panic started to build in her chest.  It barely dimmed when she unlocked her truck.  His eyebrows raised.  She stopped.  "What?"

"That's a lot of truck."

Jak stared at him.  "What's that supposed to mean?"

He shrugged.  "Means that's a lot of truck."

Jak climbed in.  "Nothing is going to happen to me at the city planner's office."  She looked down at him.  "Why don't you just take the rest of the day off?"  Give me some space to figure all this out.

Marcus gritted his teeth.  Damn it, she wasn't making this easy.  Not that he entirely blamed her.  His system still hadn't recovered from the shock of seeing her again.  "Can't do that."

He walked around the front of her truck to the passenger's side, mildly surprised she didn't try to run him over.  He tried the door.  Locked.  He rapped on the window, saw her smug look through the glass.  She started the engine.

This was the only POV shift that took place in that scene. It occurred at a pivotal moment between the two characters, and allowed me to explore their reactions after their unorthodox meeting. To break that interaction into two scenes would have felt clunky and contrived, and to only represent one side of it wouldn't have felt right, either.

That is what head-hopping can do for you. It doesn't have to be confusing. It doesn't have to be awkward, or amateurish. And rather than distance you from your characters, it has the potential to bring you closer to them while they develop at the same pace.

I realize this post isn't going to change everyone's opinion about head-hopping, and that's just fine. But if I've done anything, I hope I've inspired you to give this oft-misused  literary device another look. Maybe it deserves the bad rap it's gotten.

Then again, maybe it doesn't.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sunday Poetry: The Call Of The Wild, by Robert W. Service

"Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes." -Joseph Roux

The Call Of The Wild, by Robert W. Service

Have you gazed on naked grandeur
where there’s nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?

Have you swept the visioned valley
with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence?
Then for God’s sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.

Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,
The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?
Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,
And learned to know the desert’s little ways?

Have you camped upon the foothills,
have you galloped o'er the ranges,
Have you roamed the arid sun-lands through and through?
Have you chummed up with the mesa?
Do you know its moods and changes?
Then listen to the Wild -- it’s calling you.

Have you known the Great White Silence,
not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?
(Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies).
Have you broken trail on snowshoes? mushed your huskies up the river,
Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?

Have you marked the map’s void spaces, mingled with the mongrel races,
Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?
And though grim as hell the worst is,
can you round it off with curses?
Then hearken to the Wild -- it’s wanting you.

Have you suffered, starved and triumphed,
groveled down, yet grasped at glory,
Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?
"Done things" just for the doing, letting babblers tell the story,
Seeing through the nice veneer the naked soul?

Have you seen God in His splendors,
heard the text that nature renders?
(You'll never hear it in the family pew).
The simple things, the true things, the silent men who do things --
Then listen to the Wild -- it’s calling you.

They have cradled you in custom,
they have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you're a credit to their teaching --
But can't you hear the Wild? -- it’s calling you.

Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There’s a whisper on the night-wind,
there’s a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling... let us go.