• Join 716 other followers

  • Facebook

  • Twitter

  • Most Recent Posts

  • What I’m writing about

  • Archives

Missing the Mark

There have been several occasions where I’ve missed the mark, professionally. Times when I mangled the call, or pushed myself to write something I think the person might like that isn’t true to who I am, or just plain fucked up.

I have rushed to submit. Sometimes, even though you’d love to be part of an anthology, you miss the mark because you rushed, and the quality of your work suffered. Sometimes all you get is the rejection. But sometimes the editor lets you know that they like your work, but what you sent them is half baked. Sometimes you just have to say that you’d love to have been a part of something but your work just wasn’t ready.

I have pushed myself to be edgy. I wrote a story called “Lab Rats” last year to submit to a call. I thought the author wanted edgy, so I ended without the happily ever after/for now, and ended on an ominous note. I haven’t given up on the story, but I’ve put it to the side for now. It would fold into the larger paranormal I want to write at some point, and will be much more romance and less edge. I’d say write true to who you are. If you love happy endings, don’t feel guilty for writing happy endings–with everything going in the world today, we need happy endings. And if you’re dark and ominous, be dark and ominous.

I have triggered beta readers on several occasions. We all have our buttons and it’s hard to know when you’re going to hit someone’s buttons. I can’t read any story where someone gets kidney damage–it’s an oddly specific one, but because Athena almost died as a baby and lost a kidney to that infection, it’s very triggering to me to read that sort of thing. But somethings just don’t work, and don’t come across the way you mean them to, and it upsets your readers. Sometimes it’s a not every book is for every reader. Other times, it’s that I fucked up and hurt someone unintentionally. But intentions don’t matter when you cause someone grief. You just hope they can forgive you.

But when you fall down, own up and accept the consequences. No one is perfect, but we can all strive to do better. As authors, and as people.

Changing Up Writing Styles

For years I’ve said I’m a pantser, and that I begin with very little preplanned. I usually know the inciting incident, and an idea of the end of the story, and then I let my characters fill in the blanks. I don’t do outlines. I write the story in a linear fashion–I might throw out some chunk of the first bit of book, or reweave it into the story in the editing process, but for the most part, I write start to finish.

Book three, which has the very trite working title of The Game of Love (because it takes place at a video game company ,GET IT?), is confounding me at every turn.

I first conceptualized the story many years ago. So many I can’t tell you if it was in my literotica days, or if I started a story later and then moved onto something that answered a specific call in the years since I turned professional. It’s stayed on the periphery of my radar, but it’s never been quite the right moment to write it. I’d thought I would do a big multi-pov paranormal for book three, and I have a ten bullet points or so list on tentpoles through the story, but ultimately it was too political for me at the moment. There is a subplot of wanting to take shifter children from their parents, and with everything that’s happening to migrant families, it felt like the wrong time to sit down and try to write it. So when I put away the paranormal, I started going through my “ideas not in production” folder. Some of what’s in there is a single sentence. Other files have the start of a story. The Game of Love had two false starts, and that was it.

When I decided that I was going to play around with The Game of Love, I sat down with my little Ravenclaw notebook and made some preliminary notes. Having done a full length novella and a full length novel meant that I had an idea of what pitfalls were ahead of me. Corporate espionage is one of the biggest tentpoles of the whole book, so I need to know who did what, who got set up to take the fall, and how. But character sketches led to thinking about the books in general, and I started to note down more ideas. Noted down ideas started to come together to make up a plot, until I had essentially plotted out the whole book. I typed up my notes, and ended with a six page, single spaced document of characters and the plotted events of the story.

Thus far, I’ve been writing in a linear way, sort of, in that I’ve written things that took place prior to the start of the book that will end up needing to be in the book, like where my MC’s met, their first kiss, etc in some sort of linear order, but I’ve written very little of the actual book’s chapter one, so to speak.

I’ve joked with friends that they’re rubbing off on me, but really I think that the process of writing is an evolving one, and I don’t know if I’ll ever write two books exactly the same way. I don’t know if any authors truly do, especially at the start of their careers, where every new book brings a slew of new discoveries like I CAN WRITE BUT ONLY IN MY BLUE SWEATSHIRT or I CAN WRITE, BUT ONLY AFTER MY DVDS ARE PROPERLY ALPHABETIZED. All kidding aside, as long as I have flow, I’m down with experimenting with process.

One, Two, or Many Narrators

When I sit down to write, one of the questions I ask is “How many narrators does this piece need?”

For me, short stories are exclusively single narrator. There’s so little time to get the story told that it’s nearly impossible to establish two characters voices. I’m also not sure what a secondary viewpoint would add to the story. Would Dumped have been made any better from getting Storm the asshole unicorn’s voice? No, because it wouldn’t serve any useful purpose. I can show that he’s a jerk without jumping into his head. There’s nothing he knows that my MC needs to know that she doesn’t find out organically within the story.

 

Novellas and novels are trickier. There are great single voice novels, like the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire. There are also great multi-narrator/omniscient narrators who jump into multiple characters point of view. But for me, the higher word count gives me the opportunity to full establish two points of view. For example, both Capturing the Moment and Plunder I write from the female and male lead characters’ voices. Books like the Black Jewels series by Anne Bishop, in which we get easily more than five points of view are harder to pull off, but when done well are amazing.

I will confess to trying to write a multi-pov with more than two narrators and it was something of a mess, much like my attempts to write sex scenes with more than two people in it. Not my strength, but something I may do better at in the future.

What about you? Do you deliberately write single/multi narrator books? What motivates your choices?

Rereading your own work

I first started writing for Literotica in 2001/2002. I got lots of good reviews, feedback, and all the affirmations a new writer could ever hope for.

I’ve worked at the university stacks for 5 years now…and can I tell you, nothing beats sex among the stacks. I’ve had horny professors, pervy grad students, and uptight law students fuck me up against the books more times that I can count. Who knew bookworms were such sex addicts?

None of what I wrote was….good. Or even okay. I can actually reread that story, even if I roll my eyes multiple times each paragraph. It’s so bad that I wouldn’t even bother using the idea as an inspiration without ripping out the guts of the story and starting over from scratch with a title and a setting. The rest of it? Right in the trash. Why do I still have it? I have no idea–I have a subfolder in my cloud called “Literotica” and all of my terrible, wretched writing is there. I guess it occasionally gives me bare bones inspiration?

Then came my “first novel” if we’re going to call it that. I call it the NaNo novel that must never see the light of day. I started with a decent premise–what if my husband’s family rejected me? But if I hadn’t been in NaNo, which favors word count over quality or process, I would’ve realized that the main character’s sister’s lesbian romance was the far more interesting direction and chucked it to start over. But in NaNo, there is no starting over. There is no going backwards, only forwards. So forged on and I hit 50k words in November 2006.

That book is so unreadable I can’t force myself to read past the first page, if that. I don’t even think about it when I talk about first novels–for me Plunder is my first full length novel. But the truth is that I wrote it, and it taught me important lessons like “write a good book, not a bad book in an arbitrary amount of time.”

My first professional sale was “Renewal.” It was…okay. I rewrote parts of it to resubmit it to If Mom’s Happy, which makes it unique.

But I don’t frequently re-read my own work, mostly because I want to rewrite it. Which I think is common–we are constantly evolving as authors and part of evolution is that things you’ve written in the past feel “bad” even if they represented the best you could do at that time.

That desire to rewrite old work is why time is a gift an author can sometimes give themselves. Sometimes you’re up against a deadline. Other times you just want to get something done with. But if you can, try and create wiggle room in your work schedule. Because sometimes the best thing you can do is let a story sit in a drawer for a while. The irony was that while I didn’t work on Plunder for a little over a year, it was probably a good thing because then I hit it with fresh eyes. While I don’t recommend taking year long hiatuses from your work if it’s avoidable, it can be good to put something in a drawer for two weeks. A friend caught typo errors/missing words in a story I was rushing to finish and was just blind to, even when I read it out loud to myself.

Now this isn’t a universal rule. I recently re-read Capturing the Moment to get a quote for an interview, and I was surprised how much I still like three years after I wrote it, but I may feel differently in another three years, or in thirty years.

What about you? Do you reread your old work? What do you think of it?

 

Worldcon 76

In my last posted I noted that I would be at a conference over the weekend, focusing on writing. It was actually a sci-fi/fantasy convention where they give out the Hugo Awards (the biggest literary prize in the genre, if you’re unfamiliar). While I am not primarily a SFF writer–I identify as a romance writer who dabbles in the genre–I have been a SFF reader since I can remember, more on the Fantasy than Sci-Fi side. I mean, never say never–I’ve been considering turning Dumped into a longer piece, but I think that I’m more likely to make romance a central plotline, which would mean it would be marketed as a paranormal romance, more or less.

The classes I took were specifically for genre writers, but a lot of the lessons translate. Classes like the one I took on contract negotiations were incredibly useful, as was the lesson that I probably will never write children’s/middle grade/YA books, apart from what my children make me write for them. The class on wounds you can get from various weapons was useful for me specifically to help me think about a fencing match Bree engages in while on the Ghost in Plunder.

One of the things that comes up again and again is word level polishing, which is an area where I could definitely improve. Do you do it? If so, where in the process do you do it? Is it its own round of edits, or is it part of your revision process as you’re simultaneously doing chapter/paragraph level fine tuning? Come to think of it, how many drafts do you go through?

Another topic that was referenced more than once, and was even the subject of an entire panel, was that of imposter syndrome. We all have it, and it’s both comforting and exhausting to realize that there probably isn’t a writer out there (person, but today we’re focusing on writing) who doesn’t suffer from it. Which means that no matter how successful I become, I will probably always have imposter syndrome.

I’m starting to plot out my next book, a contemporary romance. I’m usually a pantser who knows the goalposts I need to hit, although I leave such big gaps between the goalposts that my characters sometimes wrest control of the book away from me at time. This is still a goalpost sort of planning, but I’m fleshing out the world, figuring out the characters, etc. Which is relevant because the main character owns a gaming company.

I did a bunch of panels on gaming, specifically women in gaming because as a woman my MC will face a set of barriers and gatekeepers that a man in her position wouldn’t. I’m not much of a gamer, which is why when my new laptop arrives I’m buying World of Warcraft and a few other big games to get to know them, and am also adding a bunch of mobile games that have commonalities to the sort of games my MC would develop. I also took a class on writing interactive fiction, which a layperson would call writing video games. I’m now well informed enough to be intimidated by my choice, but not so intimidated that I’d scrap the idea.

There was also a class on roads to publication. I’d thought indie publishing wasn’t easy, but I didn’t realize how expensive or challenging it really is. Thus far I’m traditionally published and I think at the moment I’m planning to keep it that way. If you self-pub, you have my respect.

If you get a chance to go to a convention with writing panels, check it out. Like I said, even if you rarely write in that genre, there is so much useful information to take away.

Why Did My Story Get Rejected? — Stephanie Andrea Allen

I’m sharing this post by Stephanie Andrea Allen, who is an excellent editor. Why did your story get rejected?

My short piece, “Why Did My Story Get Rejected?,” was originally published on the BLLC Review. Rejection is hard, and let’s face it, as writers, we’ve all been there. We’ve worked tirelessly on a new story, only to be rejected from what we thought was a the perfect medium for the piece. Why? Well, no […]

via Why Did My Story Get Rejected? — Stephanie Andrea Allen

 

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.