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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.

 

 

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.

2016–The Year in Review

2016
From the loss of Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, and Carrie Fisher (among so many others) to the political disasters of Brexit and Trump, I think we can all admit that 2016 kind of sucked on a macro level. I had two procedures (one major) on my spine and continue to have chronic pain, but at least I’m (mostly) out of a wheelchair now.

However, it’s wasn’t all bad.

Recommended Reads

I wanted to read more than I did in 2016, but I still have some year end recommended reads that I’ve reviewed this year. I’ve joined the Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge. Follow my progress and add me as a friend here.

  • I loved Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Short Fiction, edited by S. Andrea Allen and Lauren Cherelle. It includes two stories by one of my favorite authors, K.A. Smith. Read my rave review here.
  • Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins was so amazing, I ran out and read a ton more of her books. There aren’t a ton of authors of color in mainstream romance, and she’s possibly the best of the best. Not only are her stories well plotted, she does her homework on the history as well. My review here.
  • Basically anything by Kait Gamble (I reviewed five of her books here, but I read even more) but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Sins in the Sand. By the way, she just published a new book, Faking It, which I’ve bought and am looking forward to reading.
  • Basically anything by Alisha Rai (I three of reviewed of her books here, although I’ve read even more) but my favorite is Glutton for Pleasure.
  • Finally, one of my favorite reads of 2016 was Tamsin Flower’s serial novel, Alchemy XII. It opens on New Year’s Eve and continues month by month through December. (I was a beta reader for this series, and I loved every minute I spent with Harry and Olivia.)

Big Publication News

(Check out my Published Works page for a complete list of purchase links if Amazon Kindle isn’t available in your country)

 

Capturing the Moment

under-the-mistletoe

My first solo title, Capturing the Moment , and my first anthology, Coming Together: Under the Mistletoe were published and both have received great reviews!

 

Other Publication News

  • Intrepid Horizons, edited by Jessica Augustsson, included my story, Dumped. Blurb–A Unicorn’s (former) Virgin is left out as bait for a dragon, but things don’t go exactly as planned.
  • Rogues, edited by Delilah Devlin, included my story, Plunder.  Blurb–Sparks fly when the Caribbean’s most fearsome pirate falls under the spell of a sexy spitfire who’d rather send him to Davy Jones’s locker. I am working on a full-length novel version of this story, which will hopefully be published in 2018.
  • Coming Together Under the Mistletoe, edited by me, included two of my stories Kid Comet and an updated version of Baby it’s Hot Outside.
  • My essay An Expat Fourth of July was published by Long and Short Reviews.

 

Other Stuff I Wrote

  • Flash Fiction (for Wicked Wednesday) Dream or Nightmare
  • Flash Fiction (A Wicked Wednesday Top 3 story) Off Limits
  • Flash Fiction (for Wicked Wednesday) Keep the Shoes On
  • What I did for Lust, will be included in the upcoming anthology, Prompted.
  • Kid Comet, the third in my North Pole Chronicles series, was in Under the Mistletoe.
  • I further updated Baby it’s Hot Outside, was in Under the Mistletoe
  • For Love of Snow White was submitted
  • I expanded my first published story, Renewal, and submitted it
  • Lab Rats, was rejected (nbd, how publishing rolls)
  • Forbidden Territory was rejected (nbd, how publishing rolls)
  • I expanded Love is a Virus, and it was rejected (nbd, how publishing rolls)
  •  I wrote the first draft of the full length novel version of Plunder. (It sucks–all first drafts suck)

2017

My writing goals for 2017 are to finish Plunder and to write 5-10 short stories, including at least one more installment of the North Pole Chronicles.

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Recommended Read: Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins

Forbidden Beverly Jenkins

 

Like the past several recommended reads, I discovered today’s because of the people I follow on Twitter. When people start declaring a day National Drop Everything and Read Beverly Jenkins Day, you pay attention and check out the book they’re talking about. Or at least I do.

Beverly Jenkins writes mainstream historical romances, which means I wouldn’t have necessarily ever picked her books up. I would have been missing out.

My earliest exposure to romance novels were historicals I stole from my mom’s poorly hidden collection. When my mom signed off on my borrowing from the entire library, as opposed to the kid’s section, I moved onto contemporary romance authors like Judith Krantz, Danielle Steel, Olivia Goldsmith and Nora Roberts. I would’ve told you I had little interest in historical romances these day–and I would be wrong. I am now firmly #TeamJenkins

Forbidden was probably the perfect book to introduce me to Jenkins.

Rhine Fontaine is building the successful life he’s always dreamed of—one that depends upon him passing for White. But for the first time in years, he wishes he could step out from behind the façade. The reason: Eddy Carmichael, the young woman he rescued in the desert. Outspoken, defiant, and beautiful, Eddy tempts Rhine in ways that could cost him everything . . . and the price seems worth paying.

Eddy owes her life to Rhine, but she won’t risk her heart for him. As soon as she’s saved enough money from her cooking, she’ll leave this Nevada town and move to California. No matter how handsome he is, no matter how fiery the heat between them, Rhine will never be hers. Giving in for just one night might quench this longing. Or it might ignite an affair as reckless and irresistible as it is forbidden . . .

from the Amazon description

Her hero, Rhine, is a biracial man passing as white in reconstruction Era Nevada. My undergraduate degree is in history, and the dramatic tension of being a biracial black man struggling to decide if passing as white or pursuing a relationship with a black woman he’s falling for and revealing his true heritage appealed to me not only as a reader but as a historian. It added a deeper, more complex angle to a love story that was already interesting.

Eddy, for her part, is a three dimensional woman. She’s somewhat appalled by her reaction to Rhine, a white man who must only want her for his mistress. She’s clear that she wants no part of that sort of arrangement, and will be on her way as soon as she saves enough money to get to California. (other strong female characters from her books include train robbers, doctors, and bankers)

Jenkins populates her story with characters of all colors and doesn’t shy away from the complex politics of the day, while keeping the romantic tension of the couple in the foreground of the story. As a romance, it’s a forgone conclusion that the couple will get together, but I found myself holding my breath about whether they would and what the consequences would be.

I honestly can’t give a book a higher recommendation than to say that

  1. I resented my children for wanting things like getting picked up from school and meals because I was READING, damnit.
  2. I immediately ran out and devoured several more of her books, and after taking a break to read a few new releases I’ve been waiting for, am now currently reading my fifth Beverly Jenkins book in a month.
  3. I just bought another five books from her backlist on my kindle.

From reading more of her books I can say that her writing is consistently strong, and that she world-builds on a large scale.  Reading stories centered around characters of color means you don’t just get a fantastic love story, you get perspective on history that you don’t learn about in history class (even if you’re a history major–history is most often dominated by the lives of white men). Characters pop up in other books (Rhine first appeared in Through the Storm, published in 1998, which is about his sister Sable) and the worlds of her books connect, creating a rich tapestry.

Run, don’t walk, to go buy Beverly Jenkins’s books. All of them. Then tell you friends and family you’ll be unavailable until you’ve read everything she’s ever written. Even if you don’t like historical fiction, you will like her books. I promise.

Beverly Jenkins

Check out Beverly Jenkins website , follow her on twitter and like her on facebook.

Have a book recommendation? Leave it in the comments or email me.