Writing Where the Heart Is

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I recently had a conversation with a publisher who was interested in an older property of mine, something I wrote some seven or eight years ago. However, the book would need considerable revisions and reworking to suit them. That’s fine; I know the book isn’t publishable in its current format. (Long story, but the details aren’t important.) Still, the more I think about it, the more the piece of work in question feels like something I once had a passion for but no longer do. In short, while I could rework it, my heart’s not in it.

Whenever someone tells me I should write more Sherlock Holmes or, well, more anything really, I nod. Yes, I should. Readers might like that. Might. That’s key. And yet, if my heart isn’t in it, if my love for that character or subject has migrated, even temporarily, I won’t like it. And I’m pretty sure that will show in the work. Then readers won’t like it either, and what will I have written it for?

Part of this is my own damned easily distracted mind. I get bored and wander off from things. So while conventional wisdom is that an author should sit and write a series so that readers get hooked and keep buying . . . I struggle with that. I’ve written four Sherlock Holmes stories (if you count the Moriarty one, which I do), and while the first flowed, I had a much harder time with the others. I’m fighting my way through Changers 2. I have a strong idea for another K-Pro novel, though I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it. Maybe, if I find that enthusiasm for it again. I had it once, but I don’t know where it went.

It’s weird because I used to have an obsessive nature. TV shows, movies, books—I would fall in love and fixate. But it seems I’ve outgrown that, or else haven’t found anything recently that calls to me that way. And while my own characters do sometimes bewitch me—I was in love with Peter Stoller for a very long time—they seem to be easily supplanted. A shiny new somebody knocks on my brain and tally-hoo, I’m off in another direction.

I’m probably not disciplined enough to be a writer.

Actually, though, I seem to have found a happy medium. Something that feels fresh enough to keep me excited while still hangs together in a loose way. 1. Regency romances. Because readers of the genre will happily read more, and yet the characters and situations I write can be all new. Which is why I’m having such fun writing Faebourne. 2. My Shakespeare adaptations. Hamlette was a hoot to write, and I’ve outlined two more in the “series.” Yet, again, the stories are all new each time, so I don’t lose interest with the work.

Still, I do promise to finish Changers 2. And I won’t rule out more Sherlock Holmes some day if and when the mood strikes. Or even more Peter Stoller, though I think it will be Simon and/or Jules that I focus on in the next go-round.

All I’m really saying (in very long form) is that I must write where my heart is. Follow my passion—for whichever character(s) have set fire to my blood.

When I look back at this old piece of writing the publisher and I discussed, I’m very proud of it. In fact, I think it’s some of my best work, and maybe that’s why I don’t feel compelled to rework it. But I think it’s more that I’m a different person now. That story was a part of me back when, is now an artifact of something past. I could drag it into the present. But do I want to? Or would I rather walk forward unencumbered?

I stop and look behind me, and the view is lovely. I can take a photo. But I can’t take it with me, and I have no desire to walk up the hill and rebuild a replica of what I’ve left behind. I learned a lot building those previous structures. Now I will use those skills to create something new.

WIPjoy #20

20. When your WIP is a movie, what would the credits sequence be like?

I’m going to assume end credits here. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say the book ends on a somber note; it’s based on Hamlet, after all. So there would be a slow fade out, and some deceptively slow, sweet music—or something moody, anyway. But then the rock beat would kick in.

There wouldn’t be outtakes or any of that stuff, but I think we might have a parchment background with some Shakespearean (Elizabethan era) writing? Or the actual names might be in a stylized calligraphy on the parchment? In any case, something that ties back to the source material. Sketches or faux paintings of the main characters in Elizabethan garb that then fades into them in modern clothing or something.

We could also possibly do something where we see Nerissa on the job. (If you read the book if/when it comes out, you’ll see what I mean.) There’s potential for lightheartedness there so that the whole movie doesn’t end on a down note.

Really, though, I don’t see my WIP as film material. Some books are (The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller definitely is), but this one . . . I don’t know. I’m not sold on the idea.

WIPjoy #19

19. Your biggest daydream about this WIP’s future.

I’d like this book to be my break-out hit. The one that gets me noticed, the one featured in Publisher’s Weekly, the one that gets me invited as a guest to more conferences. Of course, I hope that about every new book, so . . . “This is the one!” I think. So far, I’ve yet to be right. But maybe this time?

We’ve Got Another One

The Guardian is batting, uh, maybe not 1.000, but the number is up there this week as they approach the subject of celebrity endorsements on books. Someone (a judge of the Man Booker Prize or something?) said such blurbs “blackmail the reader.” Do they?

What do you think when you see a celebrity quote or blurb on a book? I’m jaded and cynical, so I often think, “They probably didn’t even read it.” Or, “They’re probably just friends with the author and so were cornered into saying something nice about the book.”

The whole thing makes me feel a bit ill, really. A bunch of snobs rubbing shoulders and patting one another on the back. That’s how it comes across to me.

But what about you? Do you feel like you’re missing out if you don’t read the latest, hottest thing? Particularly if a celebrity has blurbed it? Do you trust a celebrity’s review or opinion more than anyone else’s? (And if so . . . WHY? I really want to know.)

I’ve worked with celebrities, so maybe I just don’t have it in me to be swayed by their opinions. I don’t know. I do know I’ve never picked up a book just because someone famous liked it. The blurb may get me to look at the book, but I always decide for myself whether to read it.

So let’s say your favorite actor or singer or writer “recommended” a book. You pick it up and start to read it, and you hate it. Do you, as the Man Booker judge suggests, feel stupid for not liking something a celebrity likes? Do you try to convince yourself to like it? Do you make yourself finish reading the book no matter what?

I just . . . I mean, does anyone really read the quotes to begin with? I usually only notice them after I’ve already bought the book because I, you know, read the back of the book or the dust jacket or whatever and thought it sounded good. Then I might notice the quotes and think, “Oh. Cool.” But most likely I think [see paragraph 2].

But I’m also not one of these celeb culture followers. So maybe for other people it’s different. Maybe some people only read books their favorite celebrities read. Or wouldn’t read at all if those famous faces didn’t encourage it.

I’m NOT judging. I’m just acknowledging that circumstances may be different. Just today I was explaining to a second grader that, yes, he had to learn to read well because life requires that skill. But I told him, “Look, reading for fun may not be your thing. And that’s okay. You have to learn to read, but you don’t have to spend your spare time doing it. It’s not for everyone.” Because, much as I love reading and writing, I’m aware that there are people in the world who don’t.

So, you know, maybe celebrity blurbs are a good thing. If they get people to read.

But I don’t know the statistics on that. I don’t have any data. Just like no one know whether these blurbs “blackmail” people either. It’s an opinion, but what is it based on? Some old guy’s irritation? Seriously, I don’t know, I’m just wondering.

Anyway, let me know if celebrity book blurbs sway your reading choices. They’ve never really impacted mine.

Is There Such Thing as “Wrong” Fanfiction?

I’m asking because this Guardian headline suggests there is.

I suppose fanfic can be “wrong” if it gets things about the characters just completely wrong. And I know fanfic can be bad; there are tons of bad fics out there. But I wonder at the posing of the question of who should be “allowed” to write it.

Sure, if it’s going to be something “official,” then . . . Well, it’s no longer fan fiction, is it?

The Guardian author frets over who might be hired to write sequels to her favorite books or movies or whatever. But no one says she has to read them. I didn’t read Scarlett because I didn’t want to ruin Gone with the Wind for myself.

Lumping official sequels with fanfic is problematic. Fan fiction is, by definition, written by fans. For no money. (Amazon Worlds notwithstanding, I suppose.) Fanfic = fans who may or may not actually have an ability to write playing in the sandbox next to the fabulous sand castle that is “canon.” Anyone is allowed to do it. The beach isn’t closed. And maybe some people are crap at building sand castles or whatever, but that doesn’t mean we don’t allow them to try. We don’t go stomping on their efforts.

I got started as a fanfic author, and I think it was a great way to hone my skills. I’d say I had more fans when I wrote fan fiction than I do now because those worlds have built-in audiences. (But also because I was a guest fan author at cons, which built my fan base.)

Some authors get irritated when fans try to write their own stories about characters the authors have created. Those authors want ultimate control over their work, and I get that, too. Anne Rice has asked that people not write fics about her vampires. (I did it anyway, before I knew her stance. Then I stopped.) She can’t really keep people from doing it, but respecting authors’ and creators’ wishes just seems like the right thing to do if you really do love them and their work.

That said, if you want to write fic about any of my stuff, go for it.

I think any time there’s going to be a sequel to something, people have a certain amount of trepidation. There’s always the question of, “Will it suck?” And then we learn who’s doing the work: the writer, the director, the actors, whatever. And we either feel better or worse. And sometimes even the original author can suck at writing a sequel, so there’s no safe harbor. Sequels are inherently dangerous. They may always alter the original in ways we don’t like, no matter who is making them or writing them.

That’s the balance: we want more of what we love and are terrified of ruining that love at the same time.

Which is why fan fiction is so wonderful. You can love it or hate it, but it doesn’t count, so it doesn’t ruin the original work! Ta-da! You can decide to take or leave what you want with fan fiction. When it’s good, it’s very, very good, and when it’s bad, you laugh and walk away. No harm, no foul.

In short, I think the Guardian piece is misusing the term “fanfiction” (they make it all one word there). They’re talking about an official sequel and worrying over other possible franchises that could get “new” authors. Eh. Whatever. To go back to the sand castles, this kind of sequel is like letting someone build a new wing of a standing castle. It’ll either look awesome or look really bad, but if you walk around to another side of the sand castle, you won’t be able to see it at all. You can pretend it doesn’t exist.

Happy Birthday, Daddy

So it’s my dad’s birthday. Which for the first 50 years of his life was a perfectly good birthday to have. But on his 51st birthday, that all went to hell.

It’s got to be weird, having your birthday be a national day of mourning.

One of my high school friends has his birthday today, too. And I know no one is saying he and Dad and others who have this birthday can’t celebrate. But conspicuous celebration on a day like today is . . . Well, it doesn’t feel right.

Most people say, “Celebrate on a different day, the day before or after.” But it’s kinda lousy not to be able to celebrate your actual birthday.

This isn’t an argument, just an observation. I’m not saying, “They should be allowed to celebrate.” I’m only acknowledging the difficulties and the mixed feelings. Dad’s a veteran, after all. And he’s never said to me he wished he could have his birthday on his birthday, so I’m probably just projecting, imagining how I’d feel. I think about kids actually born on September 11, 2001 and wonder how strange that must feel—every time they fill out a form . . . SMH. Or maybe you don’t think about it that much after a while. I don’t know.

But in any case, I want to wish my dad a Happy Birthday. Even as I know silence will be observed at so many places, even as social media fills with images and memorials: Happy Birthday, Daddy. You’re worth celebrating.

August Falter

2017 has been a good year for me so far in terms of my writing. Both Brynnde and the collected Sherlock Holmes stories have done fairly well. Alas, August has been a bit of a dip. I had half as many page reads and sold less than a book a day. I don’t know if it’s due to everyone focusing on going back to school? I also think I probably should have spaced Brynnde and the SH stories a bit farther apart. Releasing two books (one new, one a compilation + audiobook) at the beginning of the year means the end of my year might not have as much oomph.

I did hope/expect to have something done for the end of the year, and my current WIP is coming along at a nice clip, but I don’t know when it will actually be published.

By law of diminishing returns, maybe the high point of my writing year is already behind me. I hope not! I’d like it to at least remain steady. Hopefully August was a fluke and September will be a pop fly that somehow sails right out of the park.

(Am I using the baseball metaphor correctly? I like baseball, but I don’t always get the lingo right.)

P.S. Remember you can read many of my books for FREE via Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited! And you don’t need to own a Kindle to do it! You can use the free app to read on your phone or tablet!

How Do You Build Your TBR Pile?

I’ve written about this before, but I’m wondering what makes you, as a reader and/or fellow author, pick up a book to read?

There was a debate in one of the Facebook groups to which I belong—how much do reviews matter? By which was meant Amazon reviews, reviews left by general readers. Do you take them into account when choosing a book?

When posed with this question, I tried to mentally go step-by-step through my process. There are variations depending on whether I’m seeing the book online or in the store or library. After all, a library requires less commitment from me than spending money on a book.

Okay, so, best I can tell, here’s how it works for me in a store or at the library:

  1. I see a book. The cover and/or title are interesting.
  2. I pick it up and read the blurb on the back. If that sounds promising…
  3. I open to the first page and read a little bit of the actual book. If it’s good…
  4. I borrow or buy the book.

Now for online books I think it’s harder to sell me. Which sounds weird, right. But the product is not right in front of me, even if it’s an ebook. It’s not something I’m picking up and handling. So say I’m browsing Amazon and I maybe see something in the “Recommended” section*:

  1. The cover and/or title are interesting.
  2. I glance at the star rating. Here is where I may or may not continue. I’m pretty forgiving, but if the star rating is less than 3, I probably won’t bother. Still, if the cover is pretty enough, I might still look to see if I can figure out why the rating is so low.
  3. I click and read the blurb. This will usually give me a sense of whether the writer can actually write. If the blurb is a wreck, forget it. If the blurb is good…
  4. I click the “Look Inside.” If there’s no Look Inside, I probably won’t buy. I don’t want a nasty surprise. If the sample is good…
  5. I buy the book.

Extra points for books I’ve heard of or seen around the ‘net. They say we need to see things repeatedly some 7-10 times before we’ll take them seriously, which means getting your book in front of readers about a dozen times (and in different places) is necessary to boost sales.

And of course I’m more likely to risk 99 cents on an unknown author than $4.99. So while I agree we shouldn’t devalue our work, I think having at least one free or less expensive book makes a nice gateway for potential readers.

So how do you find books to read? What’s your process for selecting a book?

*On Amazon there’s so much content that it’s pretty impossible to find a book unless you already know what you’re looking for, or the recommendations are good. If you’re an author, few people are going to stumble across your book by some blessed accident. Which is why you need to do all you can to be where readers will find you.

IWSG: Pet Peeves

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

Question of the Month: What are your pet peeves when reading/writing/editing?

Well, I used to work in publishing as an editor (and sometimes still do freelance work), so I have a healthy list of peeves. I think the thing to keep in mind is: there’s a difference between things that are correct and incorrect versus preferences. Certainly, anything incorrect is annoying, and when an author seems unschooled in basic grammar, that’s a problem for the reader. “Bad writing” can therefore be listed as a peeve. But many writers can at least put a sentence together. Some just have “tics”—little writing quirks. You see it in even the most established authors.

I know one writer who is what I call “comma happy.” I mean, I use commas pretty freely myself, and this guy outstrips me by a lot. Most of the commas are unnecessary, though not “wrong” per se, though I find reading his work halting because of all the pauses the commas create.

Tense problems are something that bother me, and they’re a common problem. Even I make those mistakes. Every peeve I have is one I’ve committed, probably more than once, at that’s what bothers me most.

As for peeves when I’m reading or writing or editing: noise and interruptions, of course!

Writing Women

By which I mean, writing female characters. It’s an ongoing topic of discussion, the center of many a college course, debated and mused upon. We use the term “strong women,” usually interchangeably with “kick-ass heroine.”

I don’t write kick-ass heroines, so I guess maybe I don’t write strong women, either.

There are other ways to be strong, of course. The woman who doesn’t need a man and is out to prove it usually ends up with a love interest anyway. Oh! But we’re supposed to believe she’d be fine without the guy, that this is a choice she’s made—to let the guy into her life, make him part of her world.

It’s a choice women make in real life, too: whether or not to pursue relationships with people, male or female. Who to allow in, who to keep out. A woman doesn’t have to be fighting vampires or whatever to qualify on that front.

Think about strong women you know. In what ways are they strong? Why do you see them as strong?

I know, I know, you’re writing fiction. You want characters who do more than the average, everyday human. That’s fine, but . . . I dunno. I’m kind of tired of all the kick-ass women. (Except Wonder Woman. That movie was awesome.) Especially since the kick-ass women in most books have emotional dysfunctions that eventually only end up being “fixed” by that love interest I mentioned before.

Everyone has problems. But we don’t all have to be dysfunctional, emotionally distant, bitchy, off-putting . . . Yet these are the character traits that I often see being used as shorthand for “strong.” Even in male characters.

I really meant to go into this post discussing the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori Test. The thing about the Bechdel Test is that it was taken from a comic strip whose punchline was that, if you were to only watch movies that pass that test, you’d never go see any movies. (Even when the comic character says she went to see Alien because two women discuss a monster instead of a man—I mean, come on. How is talking about a monster significantly different from talking about a guy?)

If you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Test (called a “rule” in the comic but now used as an informal test by those looking for sexism in media), a passing grade is achieved if a movie (a) has at least two women in it who (b) talk to one another (c) about something other than a man. In other words, a man cannot be the glue to the relationship.

So many kick-ass book heroines fail this. They usually have no female friends to begin with.

The Mako Mori Test is taken from Pacific Rim. To pass this test, a movie (or text) must (a) have at least one woman who (b) has her own story arc (c) that is not merely a support for a man’s story.

Those kick-ass heroine books pass this one since they’re almost always about a woman who has her own story arc . . . Though usually that arc is significantly impacted by a man/love interest and sometimes becomes about him.

I don’t mean to dump on all these books. It’s just that they all sound and look the same, and I’m not convinced that writing about “strong” women in this way is helpful. Female main characters? Yes, absolutely. Flawed? Of course, who isn’t? But can’t she be strong in other ways? Can we broaden the definition of “strong female character”? (Or strong male character for that matter?)

Maybe it’s a genre thing. I enjoy books by Kate Morton, whose female characters are strong, I think. They have secrets, backbones, determination. Tana French’s books—a couple of them have had female narrators, though they almost always interact with men rather than other women. The historical fiction I enjoy, stories of the Tudor queens, well . . . The women in those books mostly talk about the king and the court, so . . . Still, I’d frame many of these characters as strong, even if they fail the Bechdel or Mako Mori Tests. These are characters dealing with high-pressure situations, having to think and act quickly. These are intelligent women in worlds stacked against them. Women who make difficult decisions and stick to their proverbial guns when it would be easier to let things go.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. It’s mostly me musing aloud (well, as I type anyway). Tell me about strong women you’ve read or written. What you like and dislike in female characters. Give me some examples of well and badly written women. What makes a character—of any gender—well rounded? Tell me all about it in the comments.