Monday, 27 February 2017

Weekly Update: February 19 to 25

Weekly word count: 4400

I've got around 21 000 words done on Judgment, book 4 of the lalassu.  I'll probably have to rewrite most of them but that's par for the course at this stage.  But the plot is coming together nicely and I've got some really interesting ideas to explore.

I've been doing a lot of research into different internment camps, the Japanese in World War II, modern refugee camps, and, of course, the Nazi concentration camps.  I'm surprised by the commonalities between them.  Perhaps I shouldn't have been.  There are only so many ways to bulk warehouse large numbers of people and then deal with the issues of sanitation, feeding them and keeping them contained.  It's a bit of a depressing realization.

The highlight of this week was getting to do my Beyond the Furrowed Brow presentation for the Low Country Romance Writers of America.  The ladies of LRWA were awesome and I am more than a little envious of the lovely February weather they're getting right now, vs my 3-4 feet of snow.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Ink Tip: Writing What You Don't Know

This may come as a surprise to some people, but I have never shape-shifted into a bear.

Writing is full of sharing experiences that don't come from an author's personal history.  Some of them are impossible to experience, like time travel, shape-shifting, magic and living on an intergalactic space ship.  (That covers my personal wishlist.)  Some can be learned, like how to fire a gun, pick a lock, cook a gourmet meal or play an instrument.  And some can be observed and researched, like different cultures and groups.

An author doesn't have to be restricted to only what he or she knows and the key to expanding those horizons is research, research, research.

Creating the Impossible:

It might not be possible to travel in time, but an author can do the research to make certain that he or she has portrayed the historical period accurately.  He or she can speak with physicists to learn about time as a fourth dimension.  For magic, an author can study different magical systems across different cultures to get an idea of what we have believed is possible.  

The key to creating something impossible that feels real to a reader is to set up a solid groundwork beforehand.  Decide what the rules are going to be: does a character need to touch someone to get a psychic read or can they touch a photo?  Does the space ship have artificial gravity or does it need to rotate to create the illusion of gravity?  By setting up a framework, an author can avoid the temptation to suit the requirements to their story.

It's also critical to make sure that any big plot points have been set up properly.  There are three common complaints in speculative fiction.  The first is when authors tip their hands too much with an early "never do X" scene, making it obvious that X will be the solution to the big crisis.  A classic example is Ghostbusters, where the characters are told to never cross the streams, but then have to cross the streams to defeat the big bad in the end.  The second is when a useful ability or piece of technology is used initially and then never heard from again.  The best example of this is in Iron Man, when the bad guy uses a device which emits a noise that immobilizes anyone who hears it.  We never hear about this technology again, even though it would have been useful any number of times.  The third is when the solution to the crisis isn't shown before the actual crisis.  Someone reveals a new superpower or technology that would have been useful in the past.  My favourite example of that is the "Oh yeah, R2-D2 can fly" moment from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

The Learnable:

For things which can be learned, the author has a different challenge.  How many skills should an author acquire in the course of writing a book?  With dozens of characters, each with their own skills, trying to learn them all could make it impossible to have the time to actually write the book.  Each author has to find their own balance between research and writing.

Authors don't have to become experts in order to realistically portray a skill.  Most experts are quite happy to share their expertise, and where possible, share some hands-on experience.  For Inquisition, I spoke with police officers, prison guards, stage magicians and escape artists.  I wanted to make sure I could realistically portray the skills and professions of my main characters and key secondary characters.

The Researchable:

Writing about different cultures and subgroups is a touchy subject.  No matter how diligent an author is in their research, he or she will never duplicate the experience of being in a different culture or subgroup.  This is one of the main drives behind the #OwnVoices movement, which seeks to promote minority voice authors writing about their own cultures.

But at the same time, it's limiting to be restricted to writing characters which are all of a similar background to the author.  And it creates an illusion of segregation and diminishes the presence of minority cultures and subgroups.

It's critical to do research, as much research as humanly possible.  Speak to those within that culture or group, read books and articles about them and their experience, watch documentaries and whatever else an author can think of.  An outsider's perspective will never be the same as an insider's, and there will always be differences between what the author portrays and what individual people have experienced.  But if an author is sincere in wanting to portray a different culture with respect, it is incumbent on him or her to do the work to minimize those potential errors.

Using a sensitivity reader can also be a technique to minimize errors, but it isn't a replacement for proper research.  A sensitivity reader is someone who is knowledgeable about a particular group or culture and who will read a manuscript in order to point out errors and things which could be offensive.  

It can be intimidating to try and portray something which an author isn't familiar with, but with the proper work, it can open up a rewarding diverse landscape to explore.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Weekly Update: February 12 to 17

Weekly word count: 1200

Between getting the final proofreading and formatting done for Inquistion and a flu bug which kicked my butt, my productivity has been low to non-existent.  

It's actually been surprisingly hard to keep my writing levels up over the last few months.  I need to find a way to step things up again.  Hopefully once I get over this flu, I can get things back on track.

I've also been struggling with another decision.  Registration for Prose in the Park, an Ottawa literary festival, is coming up.  Last year, things did not go very well.  The organizers seem to have a disdain for romance in general and we've been stuck with a woman who is both rude and unprofessional.  They treated Deborah Cooke and Eve Langlais with a great deal of disrespect.

But, the organizers are not the fans and it was still a good day of interacting with readers and fans.  I'd like to have the opportunity to do that again.

However, I really don't want to deal with the rude woman again.  And I've seen on the map that there will be only one table for romance, which means a guarantee of dealing with her.  So I've been thinking of registering as a science fiction/fantasy writer instead and being at those tables.  But it feels like I'm turning my back on the romance community and I'm worried it could be interpreted as being ashamed of being a romance writer.

I'm proud of being a romance writer and it bothers me to deny any aspect of that.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Why I Read And Write Romance

Last week, Romance Writers of America asked the Internet at large: Why do you read romance?

"Because so many of its characters, 
authors and readers represent 
what's best about humanity." 

It got me thinking about my own journey into reading and writing romance.  I used to avoid the shelves in the bookstore with their covers full of half-naked men and swooning women.  I'd bought into the stereotype that there was something shameful about those shelves and those who bought the books from them.

But the thing was, I liked books that had a subplot which focused on the characters' relationships.  But those were speculative fiction stories, not romance, at least in my head.  However, the endings were not satisfying.  The couples didn't last.  One of them would die (usually the woman, although I did notice a trend where if the woman was too strong to succumb to a relationship, the man would die between her deciding to take a chance and actually trying), or the couple spent the book separated due to a kidnapping (again, usually the woman), or they would break up for what always seemed like easily overcome-able reasons.

"I read romance because no other genre 
so consistently centers women as the 
protagonists of their own stories." 

I'd had a number of friends tell me that I needed to give romance a proper try.  That it wasn't an overblown caricatures and parodies, or the Hallmark story of the week that we saw on TV.  That the books were smart, full of great adventures, sharp wit and interesting characters.

Eventually, I tried it.  I was out of town and went into a bookstore.  I took a deep breath and headed for the shelves marked Romance, still feeling somehow that I was doing something wrong.  I scanned the shelves and picked out two books that involved magic and post-apocalyptic societies, figuring they would be the easiest to get started with.

I tried the first one on the plane home and read it all before we landed.  I didn't even blush at the sex scenes, despite being shoulder to shoulder with actual strangers.  I enjoyed it and ordered the rest of the series as soon as I got home.

"I read romance to discover the diverse voices
 of strong women creating fierce heroines and 
intriguing heroes who live HEA." 

I became an avid romance reader.  The romance section no longer intimidated me and now I find myself mildly insulted when there isn't a separate section in a bookstore or library.  I realized that the stories I'd been writing for years were romances, that this was the genre I'd been at home in all along, without ever realizing it.

Real life doesn't come with guarantees.  But it does come with hope.  Romances take that hope and build on it.  If things are going badly, it's to set the hero or heroine on a path to greater happiness than they could have ever had on their previous one.  And not just happiness with each other, but happiness in their work and in all of their dreams.  Suddenly, the things that we don't quite dare dream about become real possibilities.

"I read romance because the stories are so 
well written and they are about women 
succeeding at life. 
Whatever that life happens to be." 

Shamers will attack that hope, calling it unrealistic and escapism.  But in order to improve anything, we first need to be able to dream that it can be different.  Escapism is the start of all meaningful change.  Whether it's a divorced woman dreaming of finding love and trust again or a former CEO trying to make a ranch work or a former therapist making sense of a post-apocalyptic world, it's all about not accepting where you are and dreaming of where you could be.

Romance is also an opportunity to create new narratives.  In the 70's and 80's, the sex in romance novels can only be charitably described as "coerced" because it wasn't socially acceptable for a woman to want to have sex.  The heroines were virgins who were despoiled by the heroes, who didn't take no for an answer.  But the novels changed that expectation.  They began to show women who enjoyed sex, who didn't need to be coerced into participating.  Romance novels began to incorporate regular condom use into the sex scenes, giving women a script for insisting on the use of condoms in real life.  Heroines stopped quitting their jobs to be with a man.  They demanded equality.

I have a number of friends who write LGBTQ romances, and the progress there is similar.  The books insisted on pushing back against the spectre of AIDS, prejudice and social disapproval.  They told stories of acceptance, of finding families to replace the ones who rejected them.  And those stories started to inspire real life.

So I'm proud to write paranormal romance and urban fantasy.  I'm proud to represent both speculative fiction and romance.  Because there's always room for more hope and dreams.

"It makes me happy. Plain and simple." @bylisahahn

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Happy Valentine's Day: 15 Quotes Celebrating Love and Romance

Today is a day for celebrating love and happily ever afters.  So I've put together a list of quotes about the power of love and it's ability to transform ordinary life into something extraordinary.

And one last bonus quote, from The Mirror Has Two Faces:

Myth or manipulation, we all want to fall in love.
That experience makes us feel completely alive.
Our everyday reality is shattered and we are flung into the heavens.
It may only last a moment, an hour, but that doesn't diminish its value.
We're left with memories that we treasure for the rest of our lives....
So the final question is: why do people want to fall in love - 
when it can have such a short run and be so painful?...

I think it's because, as some of you may already know,
while it does last, it feels f**king great.

- Barbra Streisand

Monday, 13 February 2017

Weekly Update: Feb 5 to 11

Weekly word count: 4250

I'm almost done chapter five of the first draft of book 4, now tentatively named Judgment.  I've tried writing scenes with a couple of different options and approaches for my hero, trying to get a sense of what best fits.  These particular words will probably not reach the reader but there's good structure underneath that I can build on.

I got my first preliminary review back from Lauren at Romance Novel Giveaways and she's really enjoying Inquisition.  Always good feedback to hear. 

I've been having some challenges with my registration for Ad Astra.  My payment for the vendor table went through and I got a confirmation email that my application was submitted but they don't seem to have it.  Hopefully we can get it all sorted out.

One more slightly disappointing discovery this week.  I've been looking for a place which does a small banner that I can display on a table (12" by 14" ish) and I found one but they won't ship to Canada.  I'll have to see if one of my US friends might be willing to let me ship to their address.

But the week ends in good news, I also got an invitation from LRWA to present my Beyond the Furrowed Brow workshop in a few weeks.  We'll do it over Skype, which I've never done before.  But it'll be a good group to try with.  It's pretty cool to be recognized, although I do find myself fighting some impostor syndrome symptoms.  (Who am I to be talking about this stuff - the person who's done over four years worth of research into it, that's who.)

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Heroine Fix: Penelope Garcia, Oracle of Quantico

There is no one in reality or fiction quite like Penelope Garcia of Criminal Minds, played by the fabulous Kirsten Vangsness.

Garcia: Oracle of Quantico. Speak if you deign to hear the truth.
She is smart, she is sexy, she is delightfully whimsical, she is scarily smart and skilled, and she has the sort of devastating wit that only comes from having at least four screenwriters behind her at all times.  She provides a necessary relief from the horrors that the BAU team encounter in their search for serial killers and her creative phone answering techniques are often a highlight in every episode.

It would be easy for the character to topple into self-parody and ridiculousness but the show and Vangsness have refused to allow her to become a farce.  For every glib comeback, there is a moment of genuine passion and compassion.  For every eccentric hairdo and wardrobe choice, there is a fierce drive to help others.  And for every casual flirtation, she has shown a loyal and devoted heart to her friends and lovers.

Garcia: Are you lonely in the Lone Star State? And are you wearing chaps?
Morgan: Only in your dreams, Garcia.
Garcia: Oh, not necessarily. I have Photoshop.
Morgan: Garcia, I had better never find any Photoshopped pictures of me on your computer.
Garcia: Oh trust me, my vision, you will never FIND them.

That is the key to creating a character who becomes more than caricature.  The more extreme a character trait that the writer assigns, the more balancing traits are needed to keep the character feeling real.  Garcia might be flippant in how she speaks, but she also displays how deeply she is affected by the work she does.  She doesn't want to look at the crime scene photos but can cross-check multiple databases to track down a serial killer in moments.  She's dedicated to her work even though the audience gets the impression that it leaves nightmares in her mind.  I've always felt that she does what she does because she knows that she is the best and if she didn't, then more people would be hurt by the horrible things in the world.

Morgan: Garcia, baby girl, please tell me something I want to hear.
Garcia: You are a statuesque god of sculpted chocolate thunder?
Morgan: How about something I don't already know?
Garcia: <pauses> I have a sweet tooth?
 Garcia and Morgan had a great relationship of friendship and flirtation.  Although there was never any hint that they would take it beyond the level of banter, there was also never any hint that the possibility was a joke.  Too often, a plus size actress's attractiveness is made into a punch line of the "how could she ever believe that anyone would be attracted to her" type.  But Garcia has never lacked for admirers and, more importantly, doesn't suffer from a lack of confidence in her appearance.  

Garcia: Penelope's House of "How May I Save Your Ass Today"
In the end, I think it's Garcia's confidence which makes her a larger than life character.  As every women's magazine and self-help book tell us, most women do not have that kind of confidence in themselves and their abilities.  That makes her someone that we can look up to and aspire to become: someone with the confidence and courage to be ourselves, no matter how others react.

Garcia: He who seeks the Queen of All Knowledge, speak and be recognized.

Join me for next month's Heroine Fix on March 9th, when I'll be celebrating the formidable Agent Melinda May from Marvel's Agents of SHIELD.

Monday, 6 February 2017

January 29th to February 4th

Weekly word count: 5100

Bam!  Got it this week.  And we had a great ORWA meeting.  Sgt. Garneau came to share his expertise in forensics and blood spatter patterns.  It's amazing what can be learned from a little drop of blood.  He even walked us through some sample cases to show how what can seem obvious can actually be misleading.

It's been a good week for me.  The fourth book of the lalassu is coming along nicely.  I like this part, when the characters are revealing themselves to me and I'm getting to know them.

The sad part of this week was the attack on a Quebec mosque.  I had truly hoped that Canadians would see through the increase in hate-fueled venom being spewed by those seeking to hide their own fear by inspiring it in others.  But there are always those willing to seize on an excuse for their violent urges and they are in every nationality.

My heart goes out to the families who have lost fathers and husbands.  It aches for those whose sense of safety has been shattered, who question their place and welcome.  But I'm proud to be part of a nation who has reached out to embrace those who have been the targets of hatred.  It's too early for these words to matter much, but I hope that one day this event will be regulated to its proper perspective: the actions of a damaged man looking to hurt others.  

Men like him are the minority.  They do not speak for the rest of us.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Introvert or Extrovert?

Here's the paradox, to write books, one needs to be an introvert.  A writer needs to be able to spend a lot of time alone, both at the keyboard and inside his or her own head.  But to sell those books, one needs to be an extrovert, connecting with readers and promoting oneself.  It can be a difficult balancing act and it's one that I struggle with.

Last week, I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  I found it interesting that she distinguished between introversion, which is defined by being comfortable in one's own company and in an intellectual world, and shyness, which is a dislike of social situations and pressure.

I'm happy in my own world (or worlds, depending on how imaginative I feel).  My day job lets me work from home and I much prefer that to being in an office.  Not only do I not lose precious writing time while in transit, but I enjoy the lack of distraction and interruption.  I know some people who go stir crazy if they don't get out of the house and interact with people, but if I can do a whole week without having to leave or talk to anyone, that sounds like a good week to me.  I'm happy in my hermitude.

But I don't dislike dealing with people.  I actually quite enjoy going out to reader events or out with friends.  I do feel some anxiety, since I am not someone who easily reads social situations and I always worry about saying something stupid or committing a social gaffe.  But those worries don't poison my enjoyment, so I wouldn't consider myself shy.  Instead, I see it more as a recognition of my own limitations.

Another interesting point in Cain's book was that people are often more balanced between being an extrovert and introvert than they realize.  Someone might say "I hate parties" but what they mean is that they hate big group events where everyone is competing for attention in a loud and chaotic environment.  They could still enjoy small gatherings with friends where there is room and quiet to talk together.  Cain suggests that people should pay attention to where they are comfortable and what causes them to need to recharge.  And she emphasizes that introverts aren't necessarily at a disadvantage to extroverts, even in situations that require a high level of social interaction.

One example she gives is a high pressure negotiation, where one side was being highly confrontational and aggressive.  Cain, an admitted introvert, refused to engage on that level, keeping her voice calm and using more inclusive tactics, such as asking questions like "What if we did it this way?"  By avoiding becoming emotionally engaged and keeping the discussion more on an intellectual level, she defused what could have been a highly unpleasant situation and managed to get most of what her client wanted.

Another example was of a highly-sought after speaker who suffered from a great deal of social anxiety.  He didn't have a problem during a prepared talk, but needed time to recharge after.  After giving a lecture, his hosts invited him to a luncheon.  The speaker knew that he wasn't going to be able to manage the (for him) stressful environment of a spontaneous luncheon and so professed a false fascination for a local landmark.  For many years, he gave his lecture and then spent an hour pretending to study the landmark, while in reality, giving himself the time and space needed to deal with the next round of social interaction.

I found her book to be quite encouraging as it didn't give the usual advice of "just pretend to be more of an extrovert" but rather encouraged introverts to see their own skills and preferences as equally valuable, with a little creative thinking.