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Worrying about wordcount

An editor friend once told me to let a story be as long as it needs to be. Which is good advice in theory, but not always realistic when worrying about submission guidelines.

Short story calls tend to be in the range of 2,500-5,000 words, with 7500 words as an upper limit. Totally Bound, which is the publisher behind Capturing the Moment says that novellas start at 25,000 words and novels at 50,000. Other publishers say a novel is 75,000 or 80,000 words. Other wisdom holds that a novel is around 100,000 words.

In general I find that it is easier to trim a story than to lengthen it. Taking a story and trimming off all the tangents, the many times I use “just” as a filler word, and other bits here and there streamline the story. If you look at a writer like Malin James, every single word serves a purpose–there isn’t so much as a spare syllable.

However, when I sat down to write Capturing the Moment, it was with the explicit goal of writing a novella. That felt like stretching my writing muscles, as the longest thing I’d had professionally published at that point was a 5,000 word story. Writing 25,000 words wasn’t easy, and I had to keep asking myself what I could have them do within the guidelines of a 24 hour story (at the time I was writing to a specific call, but ended up going with a different publisher for personal reasons).

It took me eight months (with a big health related break) to get from the first word to submitting to a publisher.

Plunder began life as a short story in October or November of 2015. The characters wouldn’t leave me alone, so I started a novel. Unlike when I wrote Capturing the Moment, I didn’t have a specific publisher or call I was responding to. There was no exterior framing device to use. This was all on me, with the goal of at least 50k words, even as I knew 50k is often considered a long novella or a super short novel, but that was still twice the length of Capturing the Moment.

In the roughly two and a half years since, I wrote a first draft that almost killed me to get to 50k words. I felt desperate by the end of it, watching my word count slowly trickle upwards to that goal. I had a beta read and respond to it, and I began to mess around with it again at the end of last year, taking it from 50-75k words because I was then responding to questions I hadn’t answered, making things more obvious, and stregthening the weak spots that had been called out to me. I then sent it to several more people and a good friend who is also a sometimes editor of mine (Jessica Augustsson, owner of Jayhenge Publishing).

Jess asked several key questions that, along with my conversation with Beverly Jenkins, made me realize I hadn’t done anywhere near as much research as I should have for a historical.

Now I am back at the drawing board, and my writing is both ticking upward as I fill in gaps, fix historical errors, and shifting down as I trim the fat. As you could see in the top picture, my word count as of this minute is 77,003. At the end of today it could be 78,000 or 76,000, although my final goal for the book is in the 80-85k range.

Then I’ll send it back to Jess (I asked her to let me go through and fix the historical issues to the best of my ability) and we’ll see what happens then. At that point, though, the focus won’t really be on wordcount.

So what advice do I have?

My solution was to keep messing with their happiness. I think that’s probably lame advice, but it’s one of the pieces of advice I’ve always gone back to when struggling with my work. Oh, are they happy? How can I create a situation–interior or exterior–that will fuck with that.

What do I mean?

So in Plunder, one of my two MC’s is Bree, who is a young woman who grew up on her father’s ship, but was sent away to what was in effect an early finishing school. She’s leaving school and thinks she’s going to return to living on a ship when she learns that her father has arranged a marriage for her. When her ship is attacked by pirates, she negotiates with the captain for the safety of her crew. A night turns into a week, and she falls for him. Everything seems to be going well, and that could have been the end of the story. But I have him send her back to her father’s ship–an act with repercussions for the rest of the book.

In Capturing the Moment, I kept bringing in Meg and RJ’s past, because the relationship they’d had in college and just after had repercussions on how they interacted six years after their broken engagement. Eventually, they also needed to have a massive fight to deal with their past. Each time the past came up, it affected the present. By figuring out their past, it not only helped me understand where the story had to go, it affected word count.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s a magic bullet to deal with word count goals. If there was, I’d be producing stories at a much faster pace than I do. I think it’s a muscle that gets stronger as you practice your craft. I could write a novella because I’d grown strong muscles writing short stories. I can write a novel because I wrote a novella.

 

 

Traveling, or how to get even less writing done

A few posts ago, I talked about how summer was going to be a tightrope walk in terms of trying to accomplish some real writing. Then I went on vacation with my daughters, but without my partner and learned what really getting no work done feels like.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets. We saw Wicked and Anastasia (another example of changing a story without lessening either version) on Broadway, sketched in the Egyptian section of the Met, checked out the Bronx Zoo, and they climbed some big boulders in Central Park. There were girl/doll manicures and doll salon appointments at American Girl. They’re big fans of Christina Tosi on Masterchef Junior so we went to her desserterie called Milk Bar. They sulked while I made them take a photo in Times Square (#worstmomever). It was lovely.

New York was followed by a visit home to Boston. Which means seeing friends, catching up over dinners, hanging out with family, and generally having a wonderful time. I took the girls to the Museum of Science (a favorite location of mine and my husband’s), and on a Duck Tour of the city.

While I got zero writing done (even on this blog, apart from the pre-scheduled post), I’ve been left refreshed and ready to go. Apart from the minor inconvenience of surgery on Friday.

Bear with me–once I’m done with surgery, I’m all yours until August.

Thoughts on writing stories set in “exotic” Southeast Asian locations

As someone who lived in Asia for seven years and has written stories set in Asia, I have some thoughts about do’s and don’ts about doing so. I think some of this is applicable about writing about any location you are unfamiliar with, but I’m focusing on my former home.

Do’s

  • I hope this is an obvious one, but DO YOUR HOMEWORK. To use an example from the TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale”–in season two June spends some time hiding out in the former headquarters of The Boston Globe. She asks where she is and is told the Back Bay. Three seconds of Googling told me that the headquarters an in the financial district and the printing presses (which are in the story) were in Dorchester (another neighborhood in Boston) but have since been moved to Taunton (another town far away). The show is set somewhere in the mid 2000’s based on the soundclip they used of the Red Sox winning the World Series. This isn’t a detail that would’ve been hard to get right. The Back Bay is a district that is famous for it’s beautiful historic brick townhouses, and would never be knocked down for a building like that. Does them getting that detail wrong affect the story? No, but it’s irritating and could have easily been done correctly. Things like weather make a difference–Singapore is so humid that it feels like a slap across the face everytime you exit a building like a mall which is over air-conditioned.
  • As a follow up to doing homework–bookmark things you will need to refer to again. If your research doesn’t involve physical books (like my research for Plunder), bookmark websites and photos that inspire you. Or create a Pinterest board, if that’s your style. I’m using a mix of physical notes with topics and stars to indicate something that my research has inspired for my revisions. When I wrote Capturing the Moment I referred to not only my guidebooks and art research books (for info about the temples and their carvings) and my memories, I had a file of photos I took that were going to show up in the book whether as actual photos Meg took or just places that she and RJ would visit.
  • Try involve a local character, if you can do so without resorting to stereotypes (more on that later in the don’ts section). Singapore, from the outside, is a rigid country full of laws like no chewing gum (it’s actually more nuanced than that) with the death penalty for drugs (but moreso if you’re poor and not white–white people get deported for the most part, not executed) and is famous for canning Michael Fay in the 90’s for graffiti-ing (again, more nuanced than that). It’s anti-lgbt. BUT I have queer friends, including a drag queen. BUT I have a good friend who is an anti-death penalty activist and independent journalist. BUT there are plenty of parents who worry about the test culture. Make them a well-rounded person. They don’t have to be a main character, but they should be there (see Darany and Saroj in Capturing the Moment).
  • Do slip in some education. Details like Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW’s, more frequently colloquially called maids or helpers) in Singapore are women who are from poorer countries (the Philippines, India, Myanmar, and Indonesia) and often who have children of their own only have the right to go home for a week every two years. If they switch jobs, the clock resets and sometimes they request the money it would cost to send them home instead of actually going so they can send it home to pay for homes or education. These women take care of other people’s children while almost never seeing their own. I mention that temple children can’t afford to go to school for the most part, so the children who are riding their bikes and wave to Meg are the lucky ones in CTM. You can do this without being didactic.
  • Accept that you’ll fuck something up. I’m sure that an expat from Cambodia could rip apart parts of Capturing the Moment, and that a sailor will be able to rip apart parts of Plunder. Doing homework doesn’t mean you’ll get it 100% right. Aim for your mistakes to be smaller ones like the location of the Boston Globe and not a racist stereotype.

 

Don’ts

  • Try to refrain from the word “exotic.” It’s a word with a lot of loaded meaning and is offensive to many people. It defines the world as white and western, often American=normal, and everything else as foreign and something to gawk at. As an example, it is often applied to my elder daughter who is too dark to pass as white and not dark enough for people to accurately pinpoint the other side of her heritage as Indian. (Which in and of itself is a stereotype. She’s darker than my father-in-law who isn’t half white, and Indian can range from white-passing to people who in the US would get classified as black). It is hurtful when I hear her called that, because it is dehumanizing. Food is exotic when it’s not what you’re used to, but it’s plain old everyday food to the people who live there. Same with the weather, the flora and fauna, and facets. You can describe how alien the environment is to your MC without using the word “exotic.” Do better.
  • Do not use stereotypes about countries. When talking about Singapore, it’s cheap to just say gum is banned. Note that having the trains run on time is key in a city that largely depends on public transit (cars are six figures plus another six figures in taxes), and that when people kept putting gum over the sensors, the doors weren’t closing properly and the trains got all fucked up. The easiest solution was to prohibit public consumption of gum–you can bring gum into the country from abroad (and abroad is a 30 minute drive into Malaysia, for example), and you can purchase smoking cessation gum with a prescription, but you can’t chew it in public. Talk instead about how complex the city state is–there are giant parks to protect the natural flora and hence fauna, there are sky scrapers, there are wet markets where you can buy live frogs/halal meat/fresh fruit/etc, there are diverse neighborhoods, and vast economic disparities. Even books like Crazy Rich Asians, which portrays life in Singapore is rife with its own problems–like ignoring non-Chinese characters–Singapore is incredibly ethnically diverse, but only Chinese people figure in CRA. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
  • Do not use racial or language cues as shorthand. Darany in Capturing the Moment does not speak perfect English. But his English isn’t broken either. This is a bit of a departure from real life as my drivers’ English was not as solid as Darany’s, but using broken English to show that someone isn’t a native speaker is cheap and disrespectful. Keep in mind that due to class or history, some people in Southeast Asia *are* native English speakers. English is the main language in Singapore. Parsis in India speak English as a first language. Wealthy families throughout SE Asia may speak English as a first language, or speak it fluently enough to pass for a native speaker. Darany is from a lower class, so his English is not perfect, and doesn’t include idioms that he wouldn’t know, but it’s not broken either.
  • Don’t forget that there is significant history in SE Asia. Colonizers like the British left their mark (especially see places like India/Pakistan, and Singapore/Malaysia) and is why English plays a bit part in the lives of SE Asians. The Japanese occupied a lot of SE Asia and the oldest generations remember what it was like to live through that occupation. When Lee Kuan Yew died, the entire country went into mourning because he was the founder of Singapore–the country is only just over 50 years old but at the same time, some institutions and history predate the independence by hundreds of years. History will play an important part of your story. I mention the civil war in Cambodia briefly because there are places like Artisans Angkor which uses the funds generated by the sale of handicrafts to train young people in the art forms that were almost lost because of the civil war. So even the existence of a store can mean some within it’s historic context.

None of this is meant to discourage you from writing about Southeast Asia. It is a wonderful part of the world in which to set a story. You don’t have to visit it to write about it. But you do need to do your homework and stay respectful.

Summer

Tomorrow my baby graduates from kindergarten and the school year ends. This is a time of year that I am quite conflicted about. On one hand summer means that we don’t have to adhere to a tight schedule, and I don’t have to police homework or bedtimes. On the other hand, it is about to become immensely more difficult to get writing done.

June is actually almost a complete disaster, writing-wise. I’m going away with the girls on my own for two weeks to the East Coast, and then when we get back I’m having surgery. Nothing serious, per se, but I’ll still be out of commission for a week.

On the up side (?) my research for Plunder is coming along.

I’m on my fourth research book. I’ve read about ships, pirate myths vs reality, the history of rum, and now another book on pirates. I’ve had to go and correct an embarrassing number of things already, and it’s only the start. An example is that pirates did not wear boots. I have multiple books on race and slavery in the Caribbean, and I’m trying to think of a way to include those important details without either creating a white savior or ignoring them altogether.

As long as I can read and take notes, which I will be able to do, then hopefully I’ll be making some forward progress.

But the balance between family and work is going to go out of balance, and I’ll need to find a way to move forward. I get cranky and antsy when I’m not writing.

With the holiday, I’m only posting Tues and Thurs this week, and I hope to go back to Mon/Wed/Fri next week.

Writing a historical book and research

In preparation for writing the full version of Plunder, I did some research. I read a few books and thought I had “enough” to write.

After reading a lot of historical romance by Beverly Jenkins specifically and others more generally and reading an unrelated comment about anachronisms like desks when they didn’t exist, I realized that what I thought I knew and how much I needed to know were two very different things.

I may have overcompensated by buying 15 non-fiction titles on pirates, the history of rum in the Caribbean, racial politics, ships, and so forth.

I am still making a conscious choice to ignore some of the less desirable traits of piracy (the rape, the violence, the fact women pirates were super rare–we only know of two during the “golden age” of piracy in the Caribbean) but I want to get other things right. I want to get the ships right. I don’t want William to win Puerto Seguro via poker when it would have been cribbage (side note, I learned cribbage last weekend). I don’t want them wearing boots when no one wore boots in that era unless they were riding horses. Things like that.

To some extent, I’m sort of doing a Titanic story–the details are mostly correct (in the movie the details of things like china are painstakingly correct) but the actual love story is implausible.

If you write historical fiction, how much research do you do?

 

I got to talk to Beverly Jenkins!

About a month or so ago I saw on Twitter that The Pixel Project (an organization dedicated to stopping violence against women worldwide) was raising money and that a number of romance authors had donated things to help do so. Alisha Rai tweeted that one of the rewards was a half hour Skype session with Beverly Jenkins. I immediately donated.

On Friday I got to speak with Beverly and I’m still a bit in awe. We talked about process, agents, writing as the mom of two small children, and advice she wished white authors would heed when writing POC characters.

image from Beverly Jenkins’ website

I’m not going to rehash the whole conversation, but some of what we talked about that I think other writers would be interested in hearing include

Everyone has imposter syndrome. Everyone.

As someone who struggles with imposter syndrome all the time, it’s a relief to hear that even established writers feel it sometimes. You’re not alone. But you have to believe in yourself and your work.

Don’t compare yourself to other writers/do what works for you.

I probably spend too much time worrying about how fast I’m writing relative to how fast other writers produce work. Long time readers know that Plunder has been a project for almost two years. I sometimes freak out and wonder how authors like Seanan McGuire and Nora Roberts can put out five or six books a year and if I’ll ever be able to produce like that–and what it means about my commitment to my craft that I can’t work faster.

Beverly told me there was a point where she put out two novels and three novellas a year and that almost killed her, so she cut back to two novels a year. Hearing that someone whose work I admire as much as I do Beverly’s hit a point of “too much” and that she gave herself permission to cut back to what worked for her helped unknot that insecurity. (At least for today–I’ll need to come back and re-read this entry on days I get stressed).

We also talked about process. She’s a pantser, just like me! I feel like I read about “serious” authors who are plotters so often that I also have insecurity about being a pantser (that it somehow marks me as more of an amateur). She talked about how the first book in her Blessings series wrote itself (if you aren’t reading Blessings, you’re not living your best life, by the way), but that another book of hers just wasn’t ready to be written and had to go sit on her hard drive until the time was right. She gave me permission to go with my instinct and be a pantser and let the work flow.

She also told me about how one of her characters just decided to do something out of left field. That reminded me of an event late in Plunder, after which I metaphorically looked at Bree and William and was like “since when was that supposed to happen?”

Along with that, we talked about writing as the mom (or parent) of small children. Beverly talked about giving one of her children crayons and telling them to write their own story while she was writing hers, and editing in the five minutes before a band concert started. She also told them pretty much the same thing I’ve told my children–unless there’s blood or fire, let me work.

Being white and writing POC–write people, not stereotypes

While I have non-white friends, I never want to put someone in the position of speaking on behalf of their race. And while I’m lucky that some of these friends beta read for me, I should have done the work so that they don’t have to police me. I don’t want to be an author who writes all white books because our world isn’t all white. But I also don’t want to write a racially insensitive character or dodge a cultural issue. (And if I’m telling the truth I’m also a bit nervous about getting dragged on Twitter, and rightfully so, if I do fuck up.)

Her advice to me as a white author was to write people and not stereotypes. To remember that not all black people can dance, for an example. That some black people are shy, and that others are dermatologists.

While this may seem like straightforward advice, you’d be surprised how frequently people don’t take it.

What resources did she recommend to me

Beverly was kind and gracious, and I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.

When a story isn’t yours to tell

Every writer fails, and we all have story(ies) that go unfinished for any number of reasons. Sometimes they defeat us. Sometimes they aren’t our stories to tell.

I have been working on a ghost story since roughly 2002. A couple of years ago, I answered the question “What is your next book about” on Goodreads with this answer.

My novel, which I’m just calling “The Ghost Story” publicly, dates back to a Halloween contest on Literotica over a decade ago. I wrote a short story for the contest, but to my surprise the characters wouldn’t leave me alone.

I was inspired by several things–my deep love of New Orleans, my fascination with New Orlean’s unique history-especially placage relationships, and my desire to write a ghost story.

I’ve actually tried to write this story various times over the last decade, but I would inevitably get stuck and rather than keep writing I would just keep trying to make that part perfect. Things like having kids and moves also would break my momentum and I would pick up something else and put the book down again.

This is the first time I’ve tried to sit down and write it since becoming published, so hopefully this will be the time I succeed

It seems like wanting to turn my short stories into novels is a particular curse of mine (coughPlundercough).

But the point is that this story has defeated me time and time again.

Yeah, they’re vampires, but they’re hot men who “lived” in New Orleans, so it’s the best image I could find

The last iteration that I tried to write had dual timelines–one the events leading up to why there’s a ghost in the first place, and the second in modern times (2014 per my last drafts).

I think one of the problems that I keep running up against is that a key part in the historical chapters deals with plaçage, or the process by which a black girl would enter into a business relationship with an older, white man in New Orleans. There is a trope in literature called the “tragic mulatto” and I had been desperately trying to avoid falling into that trap.

As a regular person, I adore New Orleans. I almost moved there before meeting my husband–our relationship killed my plans, and New Orleans is like the lover who got away.

As someone with a degree in history, I am fascinated by the sexual history of New Orleans, because it is so unlike that of any other city. Plaçage relationships were usually arranged at or after the Quadroon Balls. Jazz came out of Storyville, the red-light district. The Black Creoles’ relationship to white Creoles, other free black citizens, “Americans,” and slaves is the subject of many historical texts, which I’ve read over the years since my first visit to New Orleans.

But there is the problem of me, a white woman, writing about a black woman’s life. In the end, I’ve decided that changing the ghost’s backstory entirely is for the best. Not because I think my original idea is bad, it’s that I’m not the right person to tell it. No amount of research will make this particular story work. I will fuck it up—with only the best intentions, but good intentions pave the road to hell for a reason.

Does this mean I’m never writing a romance with a character of color? No. I think I did Arjun justice in Capturing the Moment. I think I did the character of Saanvi justice in “Love is a Virus.” I think I can write the Lioness in the shifter novel, a black woman, with respect and sensitivity.

Plunder is set in the Caribbean, which means I can’t ignore the issue of slavery–especially given that William won Puerto Seguro (Safe Harbor) via a bet. In the current draft he doesn’t want to be a slave holder, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to deal with the slaves who are part of the sugar cane plantation. They distrust him, and with good reason. He must use an intermediary to do so–in this case the man who has been like a father to him, who is also black, and therefore more trustworthy. And because this is an incredibly sensitive part of the book, and one I have a lot of potential to fuck up, I am asking my betas to go over with a fine toothed comb. My research isn’t worth a damn if I can’t write it well. Depending on their verdict, the plantation could be deserted upon his arrival on Puerto Seguro, which is a cheap sidestep, but it may be better to do that. But I’ll still have to deal with the question of slave ships, and the role slavery played in that period of time.

I have a number of beta readers who aren’t white, and they know that I won’t push back if they tell me I’m fucking something up or being a Becky. An example is that in an early draft of Capturing the Moment, I used a food metaphor in relation to RJ–that his eyes were like liquid chocolate or something. One of my betas sent me an article discussing why that’s a bad thing, and I changed it.

I think my job as an author is to remember that the world isn’t white and to include POC characters, when I can do so with thoughtfulness and respect–and hopefully without fucking it up. But it is also my job to know when to stay in my lane and not tell a story.

Moreover, it is my job to elevate the voices of POC romance authors through the purchase of their books (because money talks) and reviews of their work/recommending their work to my romance-reading friends. Can I write a book with a black character/s? Yes, I can. But Alyssa Cole, Beverly Jenkins, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Talia Hibbert, and Shelly Ellis (among others) can do it immeasurably better.