Monday, 26 June 2017

Weekly Update: June 18 to 24

Weekly word count: 2400

I had a couple of days where the words just weren't flowing, so I went back to my basic principles: conflict, character and pacing.  (I wish I had another C word to make the whole thing pop, but this is how it actually works.)

Step 1: Review my conflicts: By "conflicts" I mean the challenges to the hero and heroine in the plot.  If a conflict is fuzzy in my mind, then it doesn't translate well onto the page.  Or sometimes I've been focusing too much on one conflict and I've let other conflicts drop out.

Step 2: Review my characters: I have multiple points of view in my novels, usually the hero, heroine, villain and sometimes, a prominent secondary character.  If the words are drying up, sometimes it's because I need to switch to a new point of view and build up tension in their plotline.

Step 3: Check the pacing: As someone who always wonders what happened in the scene break, I have a bad habit of extending scenes and sequences.  So I check myself and ask if the scene I'm writing has fulfilled its purpose, making it possible to skip to the next stage.

Those three steps are usually enough to get me jump started again.  But I always have to resist the temptation to spend my writing time wallowing in self-doubt and procrastination.  Once I settle in and do the work, I can usually move forward but there's always a part of me which thinks this time will be different.

Other than writing, it was a nice week.  I enjoyed the quiet of not having the kids at home... something that will change at the end of this week.  I got to visit with some ORWA ladies at the Author's Lounge, including SM McEachern, who dropped in from Vancouver.  It's going to be interesting to see how this week plays out, being the last week of school and then into the summer, which is usually a time of lower production for me.  But I will prevail!

Friday, 23 June 2017

Reader Beware: The New Amazon Buy Button

Over the last few days, the RWA message boards have been inundated with authors discussing a new Amazon policy where third party vendors can compete to "buy" the Amazon Buy Button to sell print books in new condition.  

There have been a lot of angry articles posted about how this policy undercuts authors.  There are a few key issues:

1) It appears that when a third party seller wins the button auction, their Buy Button supercedes the Amazon Buy Button, but not in an obvious way.  So a reader may believe they are buying the book from Amazon when they are in fact, buying from a third party.  And it becomes very difficult for readers to find the actual Amazon Buy Button.

2) Because this is a third party sale, the author receives no royalties from the sale.  Amazon gets a payment from the button auction and the third party seller gets the reader's money.  These sales also don't count towards an author's sales ranking.

3) The third party books appear to be free samples given away at conferences and signings, ARC review copies or pirated copies created from digital PDFs of the ebooks.  They are often priced significantly below the retail price for the book.

4) Often a third party seller only has one or two copies of the book.  If a reader wants to buy multiple copies (for gifts or a book club for example), then they are unable to do so.  Once the copies are sold, then the book is listed as "sold out" or "out of stock" even though Amazon may have dozens of copies or the book is available through Print on Demand.  Until the third party seller's purchased time is completed, it is very difficult for readers to buy the book.

Now, I can appreciate the appeal of a bargain.  There have been (and still are) many times in my life when I needed to make my pennies stretch.  So I've got no problem with readers deciding to purchase a cheaper copy of a book they want.  On that side, it's no different from going to a used bookstore.  But I think it's also important for readers to be aware of what is going on, especially because the online market makes it much easier for sellers to disguise their intentions.

However, I do care when readers pay for a book and get something other that what they've expected or are tricked into believing a book isn't available.  So what can a reader do?

First, be aware that this policy is in place.  Tell your fellow readers about it so that everyone knows to look for the subtle signs when ordering books.

Second, if you decide to purchase a book from a third party, take a screen shot of the initial order.  Then, if the book you receive is obviously used or damaged in some way (for example, a cut on the cover or spine indicates that the book has been returned from a bookstore and was not supposed to be resold) then take a picture and send the picture and the screen shot to Amazon.  This policy came to light because readers complained to the author about receiving damaged books.  Amazon has said they will only take action if they have proof that a third party seller is misrepresenting used or damaged books as new.

Third, if a book you want is listed as unavailable or if it's difficult to find the Amazon Buy Button, then wait a day and try again.  These third party sellers are only given a brief window of opportunity, in some cases, only a few hours.  Again, contact Amazon and include a screenshot.  If readers complain, then Amazon will revise its policies.

There has been speculation that this Amazon policy is a strike against the traditional publishers, who have been pushing up e-book prices in an effort to drive people back to print books.  (Take that statement with a grain of salt on all sides, I'm a conspiracy-theory kind of girl and even I'm not convinced of the reality of a shadowy battle to control book sales.)  My thought is that Amazon is simply out to make money and hasn't thought through the process.  If they discover it is costing them sales and money, it will probably be changed.

Meanwhile, I think it's important for readers to know what's happening.  So please share this information.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Weekly Update: June 11 to 17

Weekly word count: 4100

Finally back above 4000 words in a week!  

It was much harder than I expected.  My creative brain seems to have run dry and would much rather watch Penny Dreadful on CraveTV than write.  But, like a primed pump, things seem to be flowing smoother each time I make myself sit down to the keyboard.

My life disruption has definitely cost me.  Normally at this time of year, I would be about halfway through a second or third draft of my manuscript.  Right now, I'm still in the early chapters of my second draft.  I'm hoping that maybe I'll still be able to make a September deadline but realistically, it may be later than that.

While I'm disappointed about the delay, I'm also accepting the fact that I needed that time to cope with life and get myself physically recovered.  As much as I would like to be a superhero and only need a commercial break or end credits to get back to normal, I'm human and I need time.  

I'm grateful that my head is finally getting back into the lalassu world and is ready to share stories again.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Playing with What If

Alternative histories are some of my favourite stories of speculative fiction.  Taking a small change and extrapolating what might have happened differently is a fascinating mental exercise.  For example, what would have happened if Christopher Columbus hadn't sailed west in search of a faster route to China?  Or what would have happened if the Black Death had never swept through Europe and Asia?  Or if Rome had remained a democracy instead of becoming an empire?  

History is a fine balance between powerful social, economic and geographical forces and the choices of a few individuals poised in the right place at the right time to tip the status quo.  I find the paradox fascinating.  For the most part, the grand forces cannot be stopped, though they may proceed very slowly.  As the Black Death killed a third to half of Europe's population, the available manpower for things like building and farming decreased.  This led to people being more willing to try new techniques (leading to the Renaissance) and an increased value on individual human life (leading to the fall of the nobility and the feudal system).  An increased interest in mechanical innovation eventually sparked the Industrial and Information Ages while the higher value on individuals would eventually lead to democracy over monarchy, women's suffrage and the civil rights movement.  

There were (and are) many people who have tried to stop this inexorable process.  They try to drum up fear and bitterness, pointing back at so-called "golden ages" and seeking to blame others for their own disappointments.  But each generation becomes more accepting of the changes done by the generation before and pushes for further change.

And yet there are individuals who make a huge difference in the direction of the world.  If there had been no Christopher Columbus, the countries of Europe would not have had the wealth of North America to fund centuries of battles and the civilizations of North America would have continued to develop.  Contact would have eventually been made, but it might have been between cultures at a very different stage.  If there had been no Augustus Caesar, Rome might have reverted to being a democracy after Julius Caesar was assassinated.  There would have been no Pax Romana and no global Roman Empire, and very likely, no Roman Catholic Church.  Would there have been a push towards greater equality and expanded Roman citizenship?  Or would Rome have fallen into the forgotten annals of history as a failed experiment?

The individuals who make a difference are able to capitalize on the larger historical movements within their society.  Columbus sailed on the wind of Spain's greed and religious and territorial aggressiveness.  Augustus played on the Roman citizens' desire for a strong hand at the wheel and their fears of a drawn out civil war.  But it is unlikely that someone else at the same time could have convinced the Spanish to abandon the Inquisition or Rome to see their conquered territories as equal partners.

To me, the fascinating part is how everything plays out.  People make choices of their own free will, but are influenced by these huge patterns.  Things can seem to change very quickly and unpredictably in the moment but then, as we look back, each step seems inevitable based on what came before  It's a creeping tide of lines drawn in the sand by those who refuse to be pushed back.  

Monday, 12 June 2017

Weekly Update: June 4 to 11

Weekly word count: 2400

I was aiming for four writing days in the week and I got three.  I'm still finding it hard to concentrate and find the words but it's improving.

These days I'm finding the list of other things I need/want to do weighs on me much more than it used to.  Perhaps I got too much out of the rhythm of writing while I was off on medical leave and now I have to retrain my mind to get back to that process.

It's probably also the depression, which definitely has its teeth in me.  Everything feels stale and trite.  But I also know what works for me to get through it: ignore my own feelings because they are lying to me.  The world is not solely difficult and harsh.  There will always be moments of joy, even in the worst circumstances.  And even though I feel this way now, I will not feel this way forever.  I will get through it.

It's easier said than done, but it at least keeps me from doing anything particularly stupid while in the throes of my own Black Moment.  

Now I'm going to buckle down and get back to work.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Heroine Fix: Stahma Tarr from Defiance: Ruling the World

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at the characters who I admire and who influence my own writing.  (Warning: this article contains spoilers.)

Usually for my Heroine Fix, I like to root for the good gals, but sometimes a villainess comes along who deserves time in the spotlight.  And Stahma Tarr was one of the most interesting and multi-dimensional bad gals that I've ever seen.

The television show Defiance had an intriguing concept.  Set thirty years after a mass alien invasion, it showed a world where humans and aliens have to work together in a post-apocalyptic landscape.  It was based on a game but still managed to have an interesting and character-driven plot.  Stahma and her husband, Datak, are Castithan and run the equivalent of an organized crime ring.

Castithans are a layered society with strictly defined roles according to gender and caste.  Stahma, as a female and member of a high caste, is expected to be deferential, self-effacing and serve the role of hostess and noble lady.  Her husband, Datak, is of a low caste and is thus able to "soil" himself with business and criminal dealings.

For the first few episodes, Stahma plays her expected role brilliantly.  She whispers in her husband's ear, soothing his rages and prompting him to consider new opportunities.  The audience can see that she is clearly the brains of the operation, but she accomplishes her goals by working through her husband and manipulating the others around him.

As the series progresses, we learn more about Stahma's background.  She used to be a performer of Castithan poetry with a devoted following but her father stopped her, saying such visibility was not proper for a woman of her rank.  She and her family fled their dying planet.  While on the journey, she was betrothed to another Castithan of high rank but when she saw Datak, they were immediately attracted to each other.  Stahma's fiance challenged Datak to a blood-duel but had a fatal accident with an airlock before the duel could take place.  As she shares the story, the audience is left with no doubt that Stahma is the one who arranged for the accident.

Since arriving on Earth and in the town of Defiance, Stahma coaxed her husband to work with the humans and other aliens, despite his adamant anti-human views.  She persuaded him to allow their only son to marry a human, since the girl's father owns a valuable mine.  When Datak found himself in jail, Stahma stepped into his role and discovered a taste for real power, rather than ruling from behind the curtain.  

Stahma rarely raised her voice, speaking in soft, melodious tones.  But she also showed a chilling level of ruthlessness, personally murdering any number of people in order to protect and promote her family.  The combination of softness and brutality reflected each other, throwing each side into sharp relief.

I often found myself wondering how Stahma would have fared if she had been in a more gender-equal society.  She is highly intelligent but also has an impressive level of insight into other people and society as a whole.  She is persuasive and can bring people around to her point of view, as well as keep track of social connections and obligations.  Is her viciousness a result of not being able to control her own life?  If she could have pursued ambition for herself rather than needing to hide behind her father, husband and son, she could have achieved almost anything.  

She is almost the perfect culmination of the manipulative female, using her femininity as a weapon.  When she attacks, her opponents are left floundering because it wouldn't be honorable to attack her back.  Or no one would believe them if they tried to accuse such a noble and soft-spoken lady.  She can move openly in both the upper and lower levels of society, always watching and waiting for her next opportunity.

I think what makes her attractive as a character is that hint of vulnerability and stifled potential.  It wasn't that long ago that our ancestresses had that same choice: if they wanted to exercise their talents, they needed to work through a man.  Stahma's skills are both undeniable and impressive, but it is her husband who takes all the credit.  After decades of being denied, is it any surprise that she takes advantage of opportunities to vent the rage that must be building up inside her?  Anything that isn't allowed to live will go bad eventually.  And Stahma never truly had a chance to live.

She is a great example of a powerful and dangerous woman existing in a male-dominated world and under strict restrictions.  As such, she serves as an inspiration for any number of gals who would consider world domination to be the ultimate accessory.

Are you addicted to strong and intriguing heroines?  Sign up here and you'll never miss a Heroine Fix.

Next month, I'll be looking at Alice from the TV show: The Magicians.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Weekly Update: May 28 to June 3

Weekly word count: 800

Not good.  But I'm feeling more energized this week.  Last week, everything seemed to be falling apart and I had no idea what I was going to do.  This week, I have plans.  Maybe not the best plans, but plans nonetheless.  

June 3 and 4th was Limestone Genre Expo.  It was much quieter than I'd expected, and much quieter than the organizers had expected as well.  They said they'd sold about 100 tickets to the event but I would guess only about 20-30 people actually showed up.  Now, those 20-30 people were lots of fun and engaged, so I'm glad that I went but it was definitely the quietest dealer's room I've ever been in.  

Some people were saying that they wouldn't come again next year.  I'll give it another shot as those who were there in previous years said that it's usually a small con but a very active one.

Tanya Huff was there and she bought book 2 in the lalassu series and she's agreed to give me a cover blurb for book !!  That was the highlight of my weekend.

This week, my goal is to write, write, write.  Time to counteract the inertia of life getting in the way and start banging out the prose.  

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Words Matter

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." - Mark Twain

We all know the words we use to describe the world around us matter, but sometimes we don't understand how much they can matter.  We don't realize how our choices can actually change our perceptions and sometimes we don't realize that we are causing harm with our choices.

Authors have a chance to expose readers to different words and descriptions, giving them a chance to expand their vocabularies.  I've been reading Tanya Huff's An Ancient Peace, which uses the gender neutral pronouns xi and xir.  Xi is the equivalent of he/she/it and xir is the equivalent of his/her/it's.  She didn't go into big explanations about them, just used them in a natural way as part of the dialogue and descriptions.  By providing a model, she's made it easier for me (and other readers) to use them in a natural way as well.  

The same strategy can be used for other descriptive terms as well.  As I was editing my latest book, Inquisition, my line editor pointed out a spot where I had described someone's skin as the colour of fresh bread.  She explained that describing a racial group using food terminology can be considered offensive for two reasons: first, it equates the person with something consumable (raising links to slavery and implying disposability) and second, the foods most commonly used for such descriptions (coffee, sugar, chocolate, etc.) actually have links with the slave trade and plantations.  Obviously, it wasn't my intention to be offensive, so I changed the description.  Since then, I've become aware of how pervasive food-descriptions are and how there is a growing pool of non-food-descriptions.  As these become more common, then the potentially hurtful options will fade out.

Some people might argue that the links are too tenuous and that readers/listeners are being too sensitive.  However, there is strong evidence that language choices have a powerful subconscious impact in how we see the world.  A study was done on how people viewed their weddings.  We all know that major events rarely go smoothly, but what they found was that as people repeated the stories of their weddings over and over, their perception of the event shifted to match the story.  At first, people had a mixture of feelings about the event, some frustration, some happiness, some embarrassment.  But as they kept repeating the story about their feuding relatives, or mismatched napkins, or bug in the salad (that one's from my own wedding), the way they told the story changed their feelings.  If they felt the day was "ruined" then the happiness was overshadowed and the whole thing became a catastrophe.  Those who shared the story as a joke minimized their hurt.  But it wasn't just how people told their own stories, it was also about how other people told the story.  If it was presented as a catastrophe, even if the couple tried to make it into a joke, they were less successful.  

That's why I feel it's important to make the effort to avoid harmful language or dismissive language as well as including positive or self-chosen language.  It's a way to help improve the world, one syllable at a time.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Weekly Update: May 21 to 27

Weekly word count: 3100

My medical leave is officially over and I'm now back to working two jobs, plus dealing with various major and minor domestic crises.  I have a lingering North-American-work-ethic guilt that I should have spent my "time off" being more productive, but I remind myself that I needed the time to recover.

I'm still having a struggle and have had to review my priorities to make sure I don't end up immediately ill again.

One delightful note: I got an email from a reader who picked up the trilogy at Ad Astra and she loved it!  Always great to get those kinds of notes.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Ink Tip: How To Sell At Conferences

Getting readers to discover you as an author is one of the hardest parts of launching a writing career.  Indie, small press or traditionally published, no matter what your career path, no writer can afford to ignore promotion opportunities.

I've found conferences to be a good place to interact with readers.  A lot of them are eager to try new authors and books.  So how do we get them to pick up our book?  Here are a few tips that I've found very helpful:

1. Be approachable.  Conferences can be stressful, particularly for introverts (which seems to include most writers).  But as tempting as it can be to spend your time chatting with your booth-mates, or checking your phone or computer, being occupied sends a signal that you are not available to talk or interact with readers.  At the same time, don't be overly desperate or eager, trying to drag over people from across the room.  Smile, make eye contact and say hello.

2. Have a lure.  People need to spend some time at your booth in order to decide whether or not to buy your book.  If you have swag to give away or a prize draw or something else which brings people to your table, that gives you an opportunity to pitch your book to them.  

3. Sharing details and finding common ground.  If a reader can relate to you personally, then he or she is more likely to pick your book out of the multitude.  It takes some time to talk to people and find out what they're interested in, but that gives you a chance to personalize your pitch.  At Ad Astra this year, I discovered one reader had special needs children, so I mentioned that the hero of my first book used his psychic powers to help developmentally delayed children.  Another expressed interest in the fact that my heroine was a burlesque dancer, so I shared some of my stories about researching with different burlesque troupes.  The goal is to make you and your book stand out from the crowd.

4. Get people's hands on the book.  This was a tip that I got at my first conference from another author and it's proved to be invaluable.  If people are holding the book, they're more likely to take the time to look at it and, hopefully, end up buying it.

5. Be gracious.  Good impressions are everything.  At one of my first conferences, I watched an author scowling at everyone who came near his booth.  If someone picked up one of his books, he would shout at them that he wasn't a library and they better be ready to buy it.   I still don't know what he wrote, but even if it was my favourite sub-genre, I wouldn't have been willing to buy from him.  On a subtler level, I've also watched authors lose interest in talking to people once the reader has said they're not interested.  But it pays to still take the extra time.  If a reader isn't interested in my work, I try to recommend someone else at the conference.  At a minimum, I wish them a good day and try to have them leave with a smile.  Because even if they personally aren't interested, that doesn't mean they don't know someone who might be.

6. Get to know your neighbours.  Conferences are a community.  Taking the time to get to know the other vendors at the conference gives you the option of referrals (and hopefully also gets you some).  And it can be invaluable for those times when you have to leave your booth for a time.  I went to a panel once and came back to discover that my booth-neighbour had sold five books for me.  She didn't have to, she could have told them I would be back later.  But since I had sent several readers to her table, she didn't want me to miss a sale.

7. Know your conference.  Every conference has a difference flavour.  Some are very business-like and precise, others are more go-with-the-flow spontaneous.  If possible, before you arrive, talk to other people who have been vendors.  They can give you invaluable information about the type of readers to expect (for example: do they tend to prefer ebooks or print?).  How many authors will be giving away swag or books?  For example, at romance conferences, my experience has been that many authors are giving away free books and almost all of them will have some kind of swag.  On the other side, at speculative fiction conferences, there aren't many giveaways but authors are more likely to be offering a discount on their books.  

8.  Always be on the lookout for new ideas.  Figure out what is working for you and what isn't.  For example, I've discovered that a significant proportion of readers would like my book but want it in an e-book format.  I've been giving them postcards with my book cover and blurb as a reminder, but when I get back home, I'm not seeing a corresponding sales bump.  So I've been researching ways to directly sell the ebooks at conferences (unfortunately, much of what I've discovered so far only applies to conferences in the US).  

I've really enjoyed my experiences at conferences so far.  Even though I have to overcome my own introverted tendencies, getting to meet readers and seeing complete strangers pick up my book has been a real thrill.  Even better, when I've done the same event the following year, I get returning readers who have come to pick up my latest book.  That is a real ego-boost to me as a writer.  My next conference is Limestone Genre Expo on June 3rd and 4th in Kingston and I can't wait.  

Monday, 22 May 2017

Weekly Update: May 14 to 20

Weekly word count: 2200

I've gotten the okay from my doctor, so next week I'll be heading back to my day job.  It's been nice having the time to de-stress (particularly since we got hit with a couple of school related crises for my son) but it will also be nice to start having a regular paycheque again.

Writing continues to be slow for me these days but it's picking back up.  I'm still not going to impose minimum word goals on myself.  Instead I will allow myself the flexibility to listen to my mind and my body about what I need.  Unless they try to convince me that I need to binge-watch Netflix.  

There's a part of me which worries about taking it slow.  Will I be able to get Judgment out in time for a February/March release next year?  Will I be able to work on my other manuscript and get it done in time to pitch to an agent for July 2018?  And I have to remind myself that the answer to those questions is: I don't know.  But if I can't, then that is still okay.  It is better than burning myself up and risking not being able to do anything.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Taking Advice... Or Not

Everyone's got tons of opinions and they're almost all happy to share them with other people.  Some people are even official opinion-givers, appearing on television and writing books to help out those of us who haven't reached their special combination of insight and experience.  Wherever I turn, there are dozens of people quite happy to tell me what it is that I'm doing wrong.

Most of it is kindly and earnestly meant, but I still find that it can lead to confidence erosion.  Just strictly on the writing career side: traditionally published, indie or hybrid?  Monthly promotions or only with new releases?  Pricing?  Distribution?  What types of plots to explore, how often should I be releasing?  And forget listing off the challenges of parenting, work-life balance, politics and social awareness.  

So now it's my turn to share my $ 0.02 worth of opinion: Life is not a video game.

By that, I mean that there is no magic combination of action, preparation and opportunity which will automatically allow a person to "level up" in life.  It's possible to follow all of the "rules" for a given goal and still come up short.  Failure doesn't mean that someone hasn't done all that they could.

Instead I try to focus on the following tactics:

Be honest with myself about my limitations.  I would love to do weekly or monthly giveaways, tons of guest posts and other promotion-building options.  I'd love to be able to have a quality book ready for release every three months.  I wish I could go to all the amazing conferences across North America and take research trips across the globe.  But I only have limited time and money ready to invest.  So I have to make hard choices rather than taking advantage of every opportunity or desire which comes my way.  It means that my path to success will be slower and less direct than those with more resources and I have to adjust my expectations accordingly.

Commit, don't flip-flop.  Chasing a trend can be tempting.  But if someone constantly changes direction, then they also don't tend to gain any ground.  I decided that I would self-publish my first series and I've stuck to that decision and the marketing plan that I created to go with it.  I make adjustments as I see what works and what doesn't, but I'm sticking to my plan rather than racing off to pursue other options.  The plan has always been to also pursue traditional publishing with other series and now that I have the foundations of my self-published series ready, I can start taking some time and mental energy to start on that path.

Pay attention.  My life gets overwhelming with predictable regularity, but if I've set something in motion, then I also have to follow up and pay attention to what's happened.  That's what lets me know if what I'm doing is effective, which helps me to avoid throwing away my time and money on dead ends.  It also reminds me of my hard-earned wins, putting back some of the confidence.

And one last piece of advice: no one really has the answers.  No matter how confident a person seems, there is no "right" solution for everyone.  Everyone is simply doing what seems like the best choice in the moment, feeling their way into the future step by step.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Weekly Update: May 7 to 13 (With Photos from Ottawa Comic Con)

Weekly word count: 3600

Another quiet week, moving more towards a productive time.  I spent the first part of the week dealing with the aftermath of Ad Astra (counting inventory, ordering more swag, doing my giveaway draw, etc.).  It's always a bit of a bittersweet process for me.  On the one hand, I really enjoy the conventions but it's always an effort to get myself organized afterwards so that I'm not scrambling at the last minute for the next one.

Then there was the big event this weekend: Ottawa's Comic Con.  This is one of the highlights of my personal year: an opportunity to geek out and get the behind the scenes info from some of the actors from my favourite shows and movies.  (Wish list: more writers at Comic Cons.)

Gates McFadden: aka, Dr. Beverley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation
I started off with Gates McFadden and John Billingsley, sharing their Star Trek memories.  John was super-excited and constantly moving around the stage.  Gates was more reserved but shared a witty sense of humour.  For example, John had a bag of candy for the most embarrassing question and Gates replied that she would give away a Range Rover for the best question.   

John Billingsley, aka Dr. Phlox from Star Trek: Enterprise
Both of them talked about how they often can fly below the radar without being recognized but people tend to figure out who they are when they speak.  Gates shared a funny story about how the entire cast was on a plane and the stewardess asked for everyone's autographs except for her.  And when Brent Spiner prompted the stewardess, the response was: "Oh, yes, I'd love your autograph, too, Mrs. Spiner."  Gates signed the autograph: Lots of love, Mrs. Spiner.  She also talked about her work on Labrinyth with Jim Henson and about his hands-off, jump-into-the-deep-end approach to management.

John Cusack: do I really have to list everything off?
Saturday started off with John Cusack, who seemed a little tired and uncomfortable with the crowd, until we started talking about music.  That was where his real passion shone.  He spoke at length about how he feels people reveal themselves through the music they create or like.  So he likes being very involved with choosing the music for his films.

John Barrowman: aka Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Merlin from Arrow/Flash
 John Barrowman was the highlight of the con.  Exuberant, funny, prone to breaking into song at random moments and a relentlessly dirty mind, he's made my top five wishlist of people I'd like to have dinner with someday.  He shared a bunch of great stories, like when he ran into a friendly rival from his school days and got to enjoy a bit of a triumphant reveal that John was now the lead dancer while his rival was in the chorus.  Or during the futuristic game show episode of Doctor Who, where he did one scene completely naked and surprised an unsuspecting crew member.

But in between the dirty jokes and salacious stories, there were also touching moments.  Several people shared how John's openness helped them to come out of the closet as LGBTQ+.  One girl began to cry and John brought her up on stage, telling her that he could understand her being emotional, but from now on, he didn't want her to cry any more when she was telling people who she was.  "Never cry for who you are," he told her as he gave her a big hug and then prompted the audience for a round of applause.

He lead the entire audience in a sing-a-long of "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", letting me cross "Sing with a Broadway Star" off my bucket list.  His voice is amazing and he's still an impressive dancer (especially since he just turned 50).  I'm still laughing to myself at some of his stories and if any of you have the chance to see him in person: do it.  You will not regret it.

Peter Capaldi: aka, Doctor Who.
On Saturday evening, there was a special Doctor Who panel with Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Alex Kingston.  All of them were gracious and took the time to make sure that the audience's questions were fully answered.  My favourite question was: what crossover would each of them like to see with Doctor Who.  Peter would like a Game of Thrones crossover, Alex would like Lord of the Rings and Jenna would like Gilmore Girls.

Jenna Coleman, aka Clara Osmund and Alex Kingston, aka, River Song, both from Doctor Who.
Jenna talked a bit about her experience playing Queen Victoria in the recent PBS/BBC series and Alex Kingston talked a lot about how she interpreted her character, River Song.  She greeted every cosplaying Doctor with a "Hello, sweetie" and "You're my husband, too."  She said it took her a little while as an actress to wrap her head around the idea that the Doctor's spirit is the same no matter whose body he's in and that's who River is in love with.

Robin Lord Taylor, aka, Oswald Cobblepott, the Penguin, from Gotham
On Sunday, Robin Lord Taylor showed he was very different from his mob-boss role as the Penguin.  He was charming and witty (and I swear he was looking right at me for most of his panel).  He gave full credit to Gotham's writers for keeping his character sympathetic while also keeping true to being a villain.  He said he'd like to finish the character arc by becoming completely irredeemable.  He wants the Penguin's final scene to leave the audience ready for Batman to take him down.  

Alex Kingston, again.  Because one hour was not enough.
Alex had her own panel again on Sunday, which was wonderful because she was a delight to listen to.  She talked about her experiences on ER, including some of the pranks that George Clooney would play on the cast.  She also talked about how, although she loves the character of River and isn't ready to finish up with her, she also likes having the flexibility to take different roles.

She also shared a great story about the importance of consent.  She was doing a production of Much Ado About Nothing and at the end of the play, her character and another were supposed to share a very chaste kiss.  However, her counterpart kept trying to stick his tongue down her throat.  She told him that she didn't like it, and didn't think it was appropriate for the characters.  He persisted.  She told him that if he did it again, she was going to bite his tongue.

He did it again.  So she bit his tongue.  They did their final bows and she headed off to unwind at the pub.  The next day, she noticed he was only having soup and asked him what was wrong.  He replied that he'd just come back from the doctor and now had stitches in his tongue from where she'd bitten him.  She said she knew she should apologize but instead felt rather satisfied at having stood her ground.  She got much applause at the end of that story.

Matthew Lewis, aka Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter.
I ended the con with Matthew Lewis' panel.  He began acting very early as a child, and said he remembered feeling sad that he'd been born too late to participate in Star Wars and that his generation wouldn't have that kind of defining epic.  Then he began to read the Harry Potter books and got very excited about them.  Then there was the announcement that there was going to be a movie and he, as a 10 year old boy, was going to be exactly the right age to participate.

He went to audition and said that although he was hoping to be Harry, he just wanted to be a part of the film, even if it was only as someone in a crowd scene.  Then, when he found out he was going to be Neville, he was really pleased.  And as we found out more about Neville's role in the wizarding world, he was feeling pretty excited about the whole thing.

One thing I liked was how he talked about the importance of the audience.  He said that the writers conceive of a story, the actors and other film people try to recreate it, but it's the audience that truly bring it to life.  The audience and fans are the ones discussing it, thinking about it and making it into more than just a few hours of fantasy fun.

It was a lovely weekend, despite the poor weather, and I'm glad I got to go.  I'm definitely looking forward to next year.  

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Heroine Fix: Lisbeth Salander

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at the characters who I admire and who influence my own writing. (Warning: this contains spoilers.)

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series became a worldwide phenomenon, in part because of its unique heroine, Lisbeth Salander.  She's described as surly, violent, anti-social and uncompromising, and yet she is also fiercely loyal and an inherent protector.

Salander is a great example of how to take a character who could be unlikable and make sure that audiences are rooting for her.  When we first meet her in her boss's office, it's made clear that she operates on her own schedule but delivers impressive results.  "Her reports could be a catastrophe for the individual who landed on her radar," digging up any and all skeletons from their graves.

The author describes her as a "pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrows.  She had a wasp tattoo about an inch long on her neck, a tattooed loop around the biceps of her left arm and another around her left ankle.... She was a natural redhead but she dyed her hair raven black.  She looked as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers."

The description paints a vivid picture of Salander for the audience, letting them clearly picture her in their minds.  Her small size is continually referred to throughout the novels, reminding people that despite her larger than life personality, she is the tiny David to her enemies' Goliath.  By presenting her as an underdog, Larsson creates sympathy for her.  And by explaining that she has amazing investigator skills, the audience is encouraged to admire her.  Together, these two things offset Salander's sullen crankiness but wouldn't be enough to make people root for her.

Larsson transforms Salander from an interesting secondary character to heroine by putting her in harm's way.  But he doesn't make her into a simple victim.  When her guardian forces her to give him a blow job, she arranges to videotape their next encounter, with an eye to using the recording as protective blackmail.  When he brutally assaults her, she doesn't go down weeping, fight futilely or involve the authorities despite having the assault on tape.  Instead, she waits until she has sufficiently healed and then goes on the offensive, assaulting him in turn and tattooing a warning across his chest.  Then she forces him to commit to a two year plan to arrange for her to be out of his care and threatens to contact the police if he causes even a hint of a problem.

Salander's tactics are unusually well-thought out.  Throughout the series, she never forgets a slight, but clearly agrees with the sentiment that revenge is best served cold.  She's self-reliant with a deep distrust of authorities, but also a deep level of compassion for the victims.  She doesn't hesitate to attack a sadistic killer to save Mikael, and when faced with a conspiracy to bury the killer's identity and actions, insists that the killer's victims be identified and their families compensated.

Unlike many action heroes, Salander never takes an emotional leap of faith and hopes it will all work out.  She calculates, plans and persists despite seemingly impossible odds.  She even manages to steal the fortune of a corrupt businessman in an untraceable way, giving herself sufficient funds to achieve independence.

She has a photographic memory, almost magical hacking skills and enhanced pattern recognition.  She solves problems and defeats the bad guys with her brains, but isn't afraid to resort to her fists.  Or a golf club.  This makes her an interesting role model for young women, a kind of anti-princess who doesn't wait for princes or dwarves or anyone else to rescue her.  She's a direct counter to the typical message which encourages females to be patient, understanding and not make a fuss.

Larsson created an iconic character by imagining an adult Pippi Longstocking.  He imagined she would be an outsider, possibly even viewed as a psychopath.  Like Pippi, Salander fights against a world that seems to be stacked against her.  She is an avenger, a protector and a watchful eye in the night.  

Are you addicted to strong and intriguing heroines?  Sign up here and you'll never miss a Heroine Fix.

Next month, I'll be looking at the deceptively mild but ruthless Stahma from the short-lived television series, Defiance. 

Monday, 8 May 2017

Weekly Update: April 30th from May 7th (With Photos from Ad Astra)

Weekly word count: 2950

It was a fairly quiet week.  I took the time to rest but still got some writing done.  But the big focus was preparing for Ad Astra in Toronto.  It was my first time at that convention and my first time doing a non-hometown convention, so I was a little nervous.  But I packed up my car with bins of books and swag and headed out on Friday, with my younger son in tow for a visit to his aunt and uncle in Toronto.

As those who live in Southern Ontario know, this weekend was a record breaker for rain.  So it was a long drive and there were a couple of time where we slowed down to a crawl because of lack of visibility.  But for all that, there were no real complications or problems, and we arrived in Toronto in good time.  I got myself registered and my booth set up well before the dealer room opened at 8pm that night.

I had some new elements for my table this year: a vinyl poster with the promo blurb from Deb Cooke, which rolled up nicely into a bin and was much easier to deal with than my big board-mounted cover; my table-top sign with the Revelations cover and blurb; and of course, book 3: Inquisition!  I also had my sign up for my mailing list, with a chance to win an Amazon gift card, my swag tote bags, my promo buttons, and a bag full of 250 packets with my card, a button and a Hershey's kiss.

I was pleased to see a lot of variety among the vendors.  And I had some great neighbours.  Beside me was Kraken Not Stirred, original music based on nerd and geek culture (about Dr. Who, Star Wars, Firefly, etc.) 

On the other side was Black Currant Jewelry, which was absolutely gorgeous handcrafted earrings, necklaces and more.  It took her almost four hours to set up her stock display and all weekend, I was tempted by the sparklies.  

Across the aisle was Brain Lag publishing, a small press representing local Toronto science fiction and fantasy authors.  I picked up a copy of Tinker's Plague from them, which is a post-society-collapse novel set in Southern Ontario.  But I was also tempted by Extreme Dentistry in which Mormon dentists fight against vampires.

My other aisle neighbour was Ira Nayman, author of Welcome to the Multiverse.  I met him at my first convention, Can-Con back in 2015.  We were having a laugh because it seemed like every time he visited my table, I made another big sale.  He also has a cool campaign going: Reading Is Sexy, taking photos of people reading books.

I also got to reconnect with the folks from the Myth Hawker travelling bookstore (carrying Canadian authors across the continent), Pat and Lisa, whom I also first met at Can Con 2015.  They took me out for my first Korean barbecue on the Saturday night (very delicious and fun).  And I went to the book launch for Brave New Girls 2, which was a lot of fun, too.  And I've worked out a deal that Myth Hawker's travelling bookstore will be carrying my first book, Revelations, to some of the conventions that I can't get to.  And I'm going to be talking to Lisa about doing some promotions for me.  

I met so many great people, had a ton of interesting conversations and sold lots of books.  It was an amazing weekend, though exhausting.  I've already signed up for next year to do it all again.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

5 Less-Helpful Things I Learned From Superhero Stories

I love superhero stories in movies, TV, books, comics... wherever.  And I think they have good messages like: standing up for what's right, protecting others, and holding to a moral code.  But there are some other inadvertent messages that creep in.  Like...

1) Ordinary people who try to help end up dying/getting hurt.

The audience needs to see that the bad guy is, well, bad.  Which means we need to see them doing something horrible.  But not so horrible that it prompts the audience to stop watching.  For many writers, this sweet spot is having the bad guy hurt someone who is trying to help them.

We've all seen it.  "Hey, are you okay?" the Samaritan-victim asks as they get closer and closer.  Then the monster/bad guy leaps out as soon as they get close enough.  Then cut to the good guys finding out what the bad guys have done.

I'm fine.  Thanks for asking.  I really appreciate your concern.
Although I'm logically aware that I'm probably not going to encounter a vampire or a supervillain, I've seen the trope play out so many times that it's left an alarm bell in my brain.  The not-so-subtle message here is that helping others is best left to the costumed (or at least titled) professionals.  Which leads to the next point.

2) The authorities can't help or aren't prepared.

Again this comes from a logical narrative necessity.  If the only challenges are ones that should be directed to the cops and that they could easily handle, why would superheroes be necessary?  A larger-than-life hero demands larger-than-life villains.  

The downside of this is that after watching Gotham and the Batman movies, I'm pretty sure that the Gotham Police are the last people you would ever want to call if there was a problem.  They probably handle traffic tickets okay, but anything more than that and they are inevitably corrupt or about to be corpses.  One of the key plot points in Dark Knight Rises is that the entire force gets locked underground, having been tricked into it by the bad guys.

In The Avengers, the New York police show up and desperately try to help, but are severely outmatched by the alien invasion already in progress.  The Avengers use them as crowd control, sending them and the other potential collateral damage victims out of harm's way.

You say that the 6 of you can handle the incoming horde?  Okay then.
The flip side of this is that superheroes also tend to be more efficient than real life police work.  Someone threatening you?  A hero will punch them until they agree to leave you alone.  Police expect things like documentation, and will issue a warning.  Or possibly get the legal system involved.  None of which is fast or emotionally satisfying.  But they have to do that, because the cops can't assume all their targets are bad guys.  It's actually kind of a big deal in the real world.

3) Experiments always go wrong.

Quick.  Take a minute to think of every lab you've ever seen in a superhero story.  Now ask yourself if things ended up going well for the people inside.  Fantastic 4: mutated by a cosmic storm while trying to take measurements.  Hulk: created by gamma rays while trying to experiment in regeneration or supersoldiers.  Joker fell into a vat of chemicals, Ultron was created in Tony Stark's lab while trying to create a less-hurtable version of the avengers.

There's even an obvious bias in most of the character names.  "Doctors" tend to be evil while the good guys are "Mister" even if they have a Ph.D.

If only Doc Ock had gone into marketing like his mother wanted...
"Experiment gone wrong" makes a convenient short-hand for how someone becomes a murdering psychopath or gets supernatural powers or both.  Actually having to delve into the psyche of how someone became a hero or a villain takes away valuable fight-scene time.  But the frequency of the trope does tend to make people automatically leery about any kind of innovation or experimentation, which is bad because that's how we find out about things or make beneficial changes.

4) Romances are doomed to fail.

This is one that particularly irks me.  If we see a superhero happy and in a committed relationship, it is a virtual guarantee that the partner will be dead/kidnapped within 10 minutes or 3 pages.

Happy Wolverine = Boring Wolverine
The happy part is supposed to come at the end of the story.  It's something that the characters earn.  But the problem is that, like soap operas, superhero stories never really end.  Spider-man doesn't get a happily ever after because there's always new bad guys or escaped old bad guys to fight.  And in the interest of always drawing in new readers, there are efforts to make sure that it's easy to join the series at any point and still figure out what's going on.  Which means that character arcs reset with depressing frequency.

Now he can get back to kicking ass.  And now it will be personal.  No one's ever thought of that before.
It's an interesting tug of war between two opposing principals.  On the one hand, being attracted and falling in love with someone is a universal human experience.  It immediately creates a connection between the audience and the character.  On the other hand, these characters have to stay roughly the same so that they can continue having adventures.  No one wants Captain America to call a halt halfway through a battle because it's time for date night or to pick up the kids from daycare.

There's another variant of this: the Old Friend trope.  

Hero: "Hello, Old-Friend-Whom-I've-Never-Mentioned-Before.  It's great to see you."  This is the moment when you know that some pain is about to happen.  Either we will discover that the Old Friend is actually the bad guy that the hero has been searching for or is otherwise mixed up in the plot.  Or the Old Friend is about to be killed by the bad guys so that the audience can feel bad for the hero and want him/her to win even more badly.

Audiences respond better to their heroes being in pain, which means...

5) Being happy means bad things will happen.

There's an old joke that writers spend their time thinking of ways to ruin other people's happiness.  And, to a point, it's true.  Happiness in stories almost always signals that something is about to go wrong, unless it's at the end.  And then that happiness will almost certainly be taken away by the sequel.

I was chatting recently with a friend and commented that when anything starts to go well, I find myself constantly worrying about the other shoe dropping, which tends to spoil the happiness.  My friend said she felt the same.  We speculated that maybe it's because happiness tends to be trap or a ruse in superhero and other speculative fiction stories.

Like in Astonishing X-men, when a psychic held all the world's heroes in a trance where they thought they were saving the world but were actually standing there drooling.

Don't worry.  She hit him back off-panel.
Or happiness is given specifically so that it can be taken away.  Either way, it's not going to last and it signals a major problem about to occur.  So the message to take away is: be glad we don't live in a superhero world.