Thursday, 22 October 2020

Learning From Jurassic Park III

One of the first pieces of writing advice that I received was to examine my favourite movies and books to see why they worked.  This is good advice, but I've actually discovered that it can be more helpful to examine movies that I should have enjoyed, but didn't.

I love the Jurassic Park movies.  They're a great combination of action and terror.  But just about everyone agrees that Jurassic Park III missed the mark.  It failed to connect with audiences, even the enthusiastic fans.  The question is: why?

Superficially, it should have worked.  It followed the formula of the other movies, the special effects were decent, and the cast was talented.  But I can explain where Jurassic Park III worked and where it didn't, and I'll share how I would have rewritten it to avoid some of the inherent problems.  Those are the exercises that I've found most helpful for improving my own writing.

It case it's not already clear, there will be spoilers in this post.

There are actually a lot of good elements in the movie.  Setting up a repeat of the "rich guy bribes Dr. Grant to come to the dinosaur park" element and then twisting it when Grant discovers that the Kirbys aren't actually rich was a good idea.  There was a good mix of humour with the danger, which gives the audience relief from the thrills and usually make them eager for more.  The displays of raptor intelligence, using a trap to lure in the humans and sophisticated communication, were awesome.  The pterosaurs and Spinosaurus were something new for the audience to be afraid of.  And, as a parent who as watched way too much Elmo's World, I will admit to a little schadenfreudish satisfaction watching the actor who plays Mr. Noodle get killed and eaten.

In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with the structure of the story is that there are very few tension builds.  In order for an audience to connect with a story, they have to be engaged with it.  They have to care about the characters and they need to understand the stakes and dangers so that they're worried when the characters are in jeopardy.

In Jurassic Park III, the audience is rarely given a chance to understand the dangers.  The writers didn't tell the audience that the grad student, Billy, had stolen raptor eggs, thus provoking the raptors to track the group.  We're never really shown what the spinosaurus's capabilities are, so we have no way to judge when the group is in danger from it.  The clearest example of this is when the Spino breaks through the fence.  We had no idea it was possible, so the moment is basically a jump scare rather than a tension build.  Ten seconds later, the group is behind another barrier and safe, so the audience doesn't feel any lingering effects from what should have been a major moment.

That's something that a lot of writers have problems with.  We, as authors, know everything that's happening and sometimes we forget to let our audience know the details they need to share in our excitement.  This is where beta readers and test audiences are crucial.  They don't know anything about the story and thus can point out when an author's vision hasn't quite made it into the current draft.

Another challenge is giving the audience enough time to make an emotional connection with what's happening on the page or on screen.  If things happen too quickly, they don't have an impact.  In movies, the time is built into what's on screen and for how long.  In a book, the author needs to recreate the subjective experience of time.  Time seems to slow down when an experience is intense, so an event that only takes a few seconds can last for several paragraphs or several pages.  The focus shifts from the narrative to the emotional.

This is why Jurassic Park III doesn't resonate the way Jurassic Park or Jurassic World does.  The dangers are rushed into and over too quickly.  The audience doesn't know what the stakes are.  Too many things are treated as surprise twists, but the twists rarely have any consequences past the immediate moment.  Those are all lessons that writers can learn from.  Figure out what the big moments are in your story and make sure that the audience clearly understands why they're important and that they have important consequences afterward.  Don't be afraid to take your time with them.

Now the fun part (or at least, the fun part for me).  Rewriting the story to make it better.

First things first, I would have had Ellie be with Dr. Grant as opposed to being married to someone else.  (This isn't a structural plot issue, but I shipped them in the first movie and since I'm writing it, I can do that.)  I also would have gotten rid of the Kirby's divorce and reconciliation subplot.  It didn't really add anything to the story.  They could have been married and arguing about the best way to parent their son and the story still would have worked.

The movie opens with the son (Eric) and the mom's boyfriend doing a Dino-Soar parasailing tour.  The boat is attacked behind fog and crashes, sending the two into Isla Sorna.  This is the inciting incident.

I would have opened with a similar scene, but with a few crucial changes.  I would have had the mom there with the son.  She's taking him on an "adventure" that his dad wouldn't approve of while they're on a family vacation.  Paint the dad as a rule-following fuddy-duddy and the mom as the freewheeling fun parent.  The tour guide mentions that they have to be careful because of an elevated U.S. military presence in Costa Rican waters (this is to set up the rescue at the end).  The kid is sent up on the parasail and is having a great time... until the pterosaurs come out.

The pterosaurs attack the sail and end up snapping the line holding the kid to the boat.  He goes flying toward the island.  The mom frantically tries to get the tour guide to follow but he refuses.  End the scene with the mom screaming and fighting to get to her kid.

This is a very relatable situation which instantly raises stakes for the audience.  We know the kid is alone on the island, which is full of dangerous dinosaurs.

Next scene, the mom and dad are together on the resort.  They're blaming each other (Dad: he never should have been anywhere near that island, Mom: It's not important now, we just have to find him.)  During the argument, mention that the family runs a plumbing supply chain, profitable but not stratospherically rich.  Mom has approached some mercenaries that the tour guide knows and suggested, but they won't go without a dinosaur expert.  Cue a poster about Dr. Alan Grant's scheduled lecture.

This set-up allows the audience to know that the Kirbys are fooling Dr. Grant, but it also compresses the timeline.  In the original movie, the kid is on his own on the island for 8 weeks, which they did to make it plausible that the kid learns to navigate the island, but also decreases the stakes.  (This was also another lost opportunity to build tension, where the parents expect to find their child dead, but I don't like dead kid stories so I'd make it a race against the clock instead.)

The scene where the Kirbys lie to Grant and claim to want him to serve as their guide for an island overflight could continue pretty much as is.  I would have Dr. Grant arguing with Ellie.  He wants to accept the deal because they haven't been able to get funding for their digs.  She tells him that he's crazy for even thinking of going back there and refuses to go.  He decides to go anyway, setting up a nice wedge between them which makes it questionable whether or not she'll take his call later on in the movie.

Now we've got a good batch of interpersonal tension going, plus the audience knows what the stakes are.

The rest of the movie only needs a few tweaks.  I would make the raptors and the pterosaurs the main threats and forget the spinosaurus.  Or, if necessary to include the Spino, make it a secondary threat (much like they did with the aquatic mosasoar in Jurassic World).  Have Grant explain what these animals can and can't do so that we know what the stakes are.  Spend more time building the tension in the big impact scenes.  I'd keep Billy (Grant's grad student) stealing the eggs and later sacrificing himself to save the kid, but make sure the audience is following along with it.

The difference between a story that works and one that doesn't is often pretty subtle.  That's why analyzing stories that don't work can be a great tool to make sure your own stories shine.

(And now my shameless self-promo moment, if you like the way I would have told this story, you'd probably like the books I wrote!)

Previous blogpost: Update on Audiobook Progress

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Thursday, 15 October 2020

Update on Audiobook Progress

The short answer to "How is the audiobook coming?" is "It's not."

I've run into some unexpected technical challenges: namely getting the volume levels right.  I've tried three different microphones and yet the audio is consistently below the volume required by Audible.  I.e., it's too quiet.

Since shouting isn't exactly how I pictured my romance novel, that's not working for me.

My son's gaming headset worked once but then I couldn't get it to work again.  I recorded two chapters and sent them to my beta listeners.  Two of them liked it and one didn't.

I'm torn about how far to pursue this.  I liked the idea of reading my own book, if for no other reason than I know how everything is pronounced.  But it just might not be a feasible option.

Yet I find myself shaking my head as I remember that hundreds of people are recording podcasts from home and aren't running into these problems.  I feel like there must be some setting that I have wrong which is causing the problem, but I can't figure out what it is.  I've tried checking every microphone setting I can find on my laptop and all of them are set to maximum reception.

I am baffled.

I still want to get my books out in audiobook, so maybe I need to see if I can find a narrator who is willing to work for royalties.

I'm not giving up, but I'm not quite sure how to proceed.

Previous blogpost: Part One of Reclaiming My HEA

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Thursday, 8 October 2020

Reclaiming My HEA: Part One

 Reclaiming My HEA is a monthly feature where I share my ongoing process as I go through my separation and divorce.

Last month, I told you all about an exercise that my therapist set me: picking a celebrity and writing my own happily ever after.  The idea is to break myself out of a pattern of not looking for affection and of not trusting other people.  Before I can find happiness, I need to believe it's possible.  We can't create what we can't imagine and while I can imagine love and happiness for superheroes, robots, and magical creatures, I find it hard to imagine it for myself.

My first step was to choose my celebrity.  I was toying with Brendan Fraser, Brandon Routh or Keanu Reeves, and I was having a hard time choosing.  Luckily, my subconscious had everything in hand.  I had a dream where I was playing a table top RPG with my friends from high school (yes, I am a complete nerd even in my dreams), but there was an addition to our usual group: Brandon Routh.  In the dream, this was a completely unremarkable fact and we were all having a good time laughing and playing our characters.  When the game was done, Brandon and I were tidying up and, as a joke, he asked me to dance.

We started swaying back and forth to a Taylor Swift song.  It was a really nice feeling, being held and guided to the music.  I seized a moment of bravery and asked him to go out with me.

Unfortunately, his reply was to apologize and say that he wasn't interested in being more than friends.  (This illustrates why this exercise is necessary.  What happens in dreams reflects a person's deepest held beliefs and expectations.)  I woke up shortly thereafter, feeling both disappointed and strangely encouraged.  I decided to go ahead with Brandon for my exercise.

I started with something small:

    "Ready?"  His tenor voice made me smile, even from the other room.  Brandon appeared from the kitchen with a big bowl of popcorn.

    "You're sure you're okay with just watching TV tonight?" I asked.  It was still hard to believe that someone I'd seen on the television would be joining me to watch The Princess Bride.

    "Absolutely."  His smile was infectious.  "I love this movie."

    He settled onto the couch, patting the seat beside him.  I maneuvered around the popcorn bowl and joined him, unsure what to do with my hands.  Should I sit with legs crossed or uncrossed?  Would he expect me to lean into him or would that annoy him?

    "Relax," he whispered, his lips brushing against my ear.  "There's no wrong answer.  I just want to spend time with you."

     His arm stole across my shoulders, drawing me into his side.  My head leaned to the side to rest against his shoulder.  For the first time in a long time, I felt safe.  His warmth seeped through the thin layers of fabric separating us, a tangible reminder that neither of us was alone anymore.

So there you have it, my first foray into imagining a happily ever after for myself.  Not for a kickass heroine with superpowers or an intergalatic starship engineer or for any of the other characters who live in my head.  Just for me.

Previous Reclaiming My HEA: Choose Your Hottie

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Thursday, 1 October 2020

Finishing the Character Arc: Vincent

Vincent Harris has appeared in every lalassu novel before getting his own story in Division.  He's gone through big changes since he first appeared on the page.  He's been a long time favourite of mine and I'm proud of his character arc.

He started off as the annoying little brother of my Revelations heroine, Dani.  He was a Peter Pan type who was always ready for the next party and never took anything seriously.  His big brother, Eric, dragged him along to a job interview for a professional bodyguard firm, trying to get him to take some responsibility.  Only it turned out to be a trap set by a multinational CEO looking for people with superpowers.  Eric and Vincent are taken captive and need to be rescued by their sister (and her newfound partner, a psychic child therapist).

Eric and Vincent have different reactions to being taken prisoner.  Eric struggles to resist the CEO's psychic powers of persuasion, but Vincent falls for it hard.  He's seduced by the temptation to have someone else take charge of his life, of not having to hide his abilities and being recognized as a powerful and admirable man.

When Metamorphosis starts, Vincent is deeply changed.  He's lost his confidence and is consumed by shame about what he did to his people and his family.  He's also been exiled to an isolated community in the far North, because his family are worried that his mind is still being controlled.

The experience has broken Vincent's joie-de-vivre, but he's still trying to escape from his fears by numbing himself and hiding from the rest of the world.

In Inquisition, he's starting to return to the world, but there's still a lot of trauma that he needs to process.  He's hiding his pain through sarcasm, pushing other people away.

But even though he's undeniably prickly, there's still a hint of the caring person underneath.  He's focused on protecting his family and helping others, even though he sees himself as an anti-hero at best and an untrustworthy villain at worst.

The hints of his return to a hero status begins in Judgment, when he helps the prisoners at Woodpine to overthrow the guards and escape.  This is the book where he initially meets Annika, but like so many great romances, she's not overly impressed with him at first and he's more focused on the task at hand than his feelings.

But the part of his story that I'm most proud of is recognizing his trauma and depression.  As someone who's suffered with my own mental health challenges, it was thrilling to give him a chance to do what is, in my opinion, the most courageous act of all: taking a chance on hope.  Falling in love doesn't cure him, because that's not how love works.  But it does give him a chance to see himself through fresh eyes and realize that maybe he's a better person than he's given himself credit for.

Through it all, he never loses his best quality: his sense of humour.  There are times when it's bitter and dark, and sometimes it's just off-the-wall.  Writing his dialogue has given me many moments of laughter and I'm glad to share them with everyone else.

And now the obligatory buy link, if you'd like to pick up your own copy of Division.

Previous blog post: The Problem with Problematic Creators

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Thursday, 24 September 2020

The Problem with Problematic Creators

One thing that a lot of people have been doing during this pandemic is going back and re-watching and re-reading old favourites.  And many of us are discovering that those old favourites have not aged particularly well.

It is astounding to present-me to see how many of the shows I used to watch relied on punchlines about cross-dressing or sexuality.  Not to mention the slurs and attacks on women's sexuality.  There were shows that I used to look forward to every week that are now unwatchable.  And that makes me sad and it makes me wonder how many toxic messages they installed in my subconscious.

Because that's what problematic content does.  It reinforces toxic messages that are already present in our society.  Those messages encourage us to devalue and dismiss marginalized people and their experiences.  They also incite fear and discomfort around targeted identities.

Sometimes that content is due to the creators being unaware of their own biases and societal influences.  And sometimes, it is hard to believe that content is anything other than deliberate.

I am, of course, talking about the latest release by J.K. Rowling.  Rowling has been very vocal against trans women, questioning their right to exist and live their lives as they wish.  She has equated them with predators and claimed that recognizing trans rights somehow erase or eliminate women's rights.  Then, in her new book, she's made the villain a cis man who dresses as a woman in order to stalk and kill other women.

As was noted in Disclosure (a Netflix documentary that I strongly encourage people to watch), a cross-dressing serial killer/predator was one of the more common tropes for a very long time in books and films.  Even though, in real life, trans people are far more likely to be the victims of assault and attack rather than the perpetrators, there was a recurring message that they were somehow inherently dangerous.

I think there can be little doubt that Rowling has deliberately created this character and plot as a reinforcement of her own beliefs.  Those beliefs have already caused a great deal of questioning and hurt among fans of the Harry Potter series.  It can be difficult to reconcile one's own experience of a fictional world as a much needed escape.  I spoke in last week's post about how fans become deeply attached to their fandoms, investing pieces of themselves in these fictional worlds and making them real.  Having to repudiate those stories can feel like having to cut off a piece of themselves.

I went through this myself with another author.  As a child, Ender's Game held a special place.  It was the only book that spoke to a reality I was struggling with: that adults could deliberately lie to children and place them in painful situations.  In almost every other YA story that I was reading, the adults were absent, ignorant, or secretly supportive.  Often the misunderstandings and hard feelings between the main characters and their caregivers/guardians/parents could be resolved by both parties being honest about their feelings.

In Ender's Game, the adults are lying to the children in order to manipulate them into fighting a war.  They push the children beyond the point of endurance and eventually make them complicit in genocide.  The adults are doing this knowingly and in full understanding of the trauma they are inflicting.  In their minds, the ends justify the means.  Those with power chose to harm those without it and to pretend they were merely helping.

That meant a great deal to me when I read it.  And yet, I will not share this book with my children or recommend that anyone else read it because its author is actively encouraging harm against the LGBTQ+ community.  There are deliberately harmful messages about homosexuals in that book and many others written by him.

I've had many people argue with me about where I draw the line.  They point out other authors with problematic content, like Mark Twain or Tolkien.  They encouraged me to use "death of the author" textual analysis or to embrace the elements I found meaningful and discard the ones I found unacceptable.  They've argued that authors' works shouldn't be censored due to their personal opinions.

To which I reply: they have missed the point entirely.

Rowling and OSC are still alive (unlike Twain and Tolkien).  They are not merely repeating contemporary prejudices but are actively seeking to alter the current world.  "Death of the author" is an academic exercise for interpreting a text, not a build-your-own buffet of selective embrace.  And as both Rowling and OSC are making a comfortable living off their intellectual properties, any interpretation of criticism as censorship falls short of a reality check.

There are harmful messages all around us.  We're bombarded with them and the only way to change that is to maintain constant vigilance and awareness.  It's difficult enough to do when dealing with creators who are mindful and actively trying not to commit harm.  When a creator insists on repeatedly pushing a toxic trope or idea, then I as a consumer of media am required to make a choice as to whether or not I wish to implicitly endorse this toxicity and risk reinforcing it in my subconscious by consuming those creations.

It's not possible to entirely separate the art from the artist.  Because art is a reflection of its creator and the way they see the world.  And that view shapes how fans of that art see the world as well.

And I'd rather see a world where people are respected and included.

Previous blogpost: The Trouble with Fan-Fic (The Mandalorian)

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Thursday, 17 September 2020

The Trouble With Fan-Fic (The Mandalorian)

 I promise this blog post is not a secret cry for help in the grand style of posting something you'd never say in order to signal that you need rescue.

I love fan fiction.  It's where I started writing and it's still my comfort go-to place when I need to recapture the fun and creativity of storytelling.  I wouldn't have gotten through my depression in the last six months without fan fiction, both reading and writing.

That doesn't mean there aren't problems.  Or rather one specific problem.

At the end of October, Season 2 of The Mandalorian will be released on Disney Plus.  Those who know me know that I adored that series.  As in "I will not shut up about it", "I have a major crush on Pablo Pascal" and "relentless search for the action figures" levels of adoration.

So, not a big surprise that the 8 episodes of Season 1 weren't enough for me.  I started doing little vignettes and scenelets almost as soon as the credits on Chapter 8: Redemption rolled.  (For the curious, I decided the story needed a romance and that a Force-sensitive Kaylee-type character (from Firefly) would be the perfect match for Din and the Child.)  But I kept it light because I'd already learned a major downside of writing fan-fic while a series is ongoing: it makes it harder to appreciate the new official material.

In ordinary times, I would be jumping up and down levels of excitement at the prospect of Season 2.  But instead I find myself hesitant.  I ended up delving deep into my own version of The Mandalorian universe because that was the only thing I ended up being able to write while I was trying to cope with the pandemic, my family, and my own mental health.  

I've got about 80k worth of a story full of adventure and romance.  I feel like I know that universe's characters as thoroughly as my own.  I have a backstory for Din, a rivalry with other members of the Order, and a slightly less than canonical view of whether the Mandalorian's vows are to never remove the helmet or to never let another living being see his face.  I made the enclave on Navarro just one of several Mandalorian sanctuaries.  I explored what the Mandalorians do with the foundlings they rescue and created my own society of masked space pirates.

So, yeah, safe to say that I invested a lot of imagination and thought into it.

But now I'm faced with knowing that the official writers will almost certainly not have created a version of the story that matches with what I wrote.  Which means mentally sundering one or the other from what I consider to be the "real" story.  (This has happened to me before.  I had some fantastic ideas for Fringe, and as a result, I don't acknowledge Season 5 in my own personal canon.  Ditto X-Men 3, which contradicted my two X-men fan-fic novels which were written after X-2.)

In the great scheme of things, it's not a huge problem.  In fact, it's a very privileged problem to have.  Oh, poor me, too many great stories.

At the same time, it's an illustration of how connected fans can become with worlds that other people have created.  Fandoms are more than just a place where people who all like a particular show, book, or movie can gather.  Those stories become real to us in a way that can be hard to explain to someone who hasn't experienced.  We integrate parts of ourselves into those universes, sometimes directly by creating characters who are stand-ins for ourselves, and sometimes by creating our own pieces of the stories.  By claiming a place for ourselves, we become a part of those universes.

Imagination and stories have always been a vital part of the human experience.  And I suspect that making ourselves part of those stories has been a part of the process from the beginning.  It's how we make sense of the world, by telling stories about our experiences and how we wish the world would be.

In my case, that's in a world with a sexy single dad bounty hunter, but your world might be different.

Previous post: Reclaiming My HEA: Choose Your Hotties

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Thursday, 10 September 2020

Reclaiming My HEA: Pick Your Hotties

 Reclaiming My HEA is a regular monthly feature on this blog, sharing my experiences as I go through the process of a divorce after twenty years of marriage and adjust to being single again in my forties.

It's been awhile since I wrote about this and I've been through a lot.  As many of you may know, due to the circumstances with our children, my ex-husband and I decided to continue to share our family home so that our kids could continue to have access to both of us.  It's been a difficult decision (though I'm still convinced it was the right one) and doing it during a pandemic has been especially challenging. (I speak about the challenges of sharing a house with my ex in the previous Reclaiming My HEA.)

One thing that has been helpful is working with a therapist to deal with the internalized messages that are stuck in my head.  It's hard for me to believe that others might find me attractive, and since I've been having to deal with just about everything at home on my own, asking for help isn't something that occurs to me.

My therapist had a good idea.  Since I am a romance writer, she suggested I try to change my internal messaging by writing little scenes that feature my own happily-ever-after.  She suggested I pick a celebrity as my hero and imagine a future where I don't have to worry about money and have a devoted and caring partner.

Imagine a hot guy hanging around my house?  Yeah, I can do that.

As I considered my options, I thought that it might be fun to share some snippets on this blog.

First step, I'll have to pick my celebrity.  This is a little odd for me.  I'm used to crushing on characters, not the people who play them.  With the character, I'm not stuck with any less than awesome real life traits and I can ignore any real-world spouses or families with a clear conscience.

(And for the record, this is meant to be inspiration and entertainment, with zero intention of making any person feel awkward or imposed on, especially the chosen celebrity or their families and friends.  If this does happen to cross anyone's screen, I hope they'll understand that I am using their likeness as a shorthand for the kind of person I am hoping to one day find love with, not a declaration of hoping for them specifically.)

That said, here are the gentlemen I'm considering.  Votes and opinions welcome!

Brendan Fraser.  He was the go-to hot and nice guy in the late nineties and early 2000s.  I absolutely developed a crush on his character in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns.  And I'm probably one of the few people who absolutely loved Bedazzled.  He's a fellow Canadian and I can't recall ever hearing anyone say something bad about working with him.  I could see him as an enthusiastic, energetic guy, the sort who is always up to try something new.

Brandon Routh.  He is my all time favourite Superman, and I adore his Ray Palmer in DC's Legends of Tomorrow.  I have heard that he is a fellow geek and RPG player, which would be awesome.  In my imagination, I would assume that he shares his character's love of musicals.  Again, he's one of those actors whom everyone seems to love working with.

Keanu Reeves.  I can't think of a single Reeves role that I didn't love: Matrix, Speed, Constantine, John Wick, To The Bone, even Bill and Ted.  He is notoriously sweet and kind, to the point that Romancelandia has adopted him wholeheartedly.  I like to think of him as a curl up together in front of a fire, each with a book kind of guy.

Tempted though I am, reverse-harem is not an option for this particular exercise (I checked).

Any of these gentlemen would be a worthy romantic hero (or at least the versions of them that I'm imagining), so, readers, what do you think?

Previous Post: Trying Something New: Audiobooks

Previous Reclaiming My HEA: Hunkering Down (Sadly without any hunks)

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Saturday, 29 August 2020

Trying Something New - Audiobooks

 This week, for the first time in a very long time, I actually managed to do some writing on the second Special Investigations book.  It took just about every anti-writers-block trick in my repetoire (writing fan fiction to jumpstart my creativity, giving myself a block of several hours without my kids, outlining, brainstorming, reviewing previous chapters, etc) and it wasn't a ton of words but it was something.

But the thing I'm actually excited about is that I'm moving toward something I've wanted to do for a really long time: getting my books out in audio.

I've set up a recording booth in my closet and I've given a shot at narrating the first few chapters.  It's been more of a challenge than I expected and I thought I'd share a little bit of the process.

First, I need to shout out a big thank you to my brother-in-law, Ned, who is an incredibly talented voice actor.  He gave me some good advice on performance and setting up my own in-home studio in an affordable way.  Specifically, using duvets as anti-sound reflectors instead of having to buy fancy padded foam inserts.  And using a touch screen to scroll through the text so that there are no sounds of rustling papers and button clicking on the recording.

I got myself a microphone and blithely began recording.  I knew I had a tendency for clumsy tongue stumbling, so I knew I'd have to re-record sections regularly.  One suggestion was to make sure to leave a significant blank (3 seconds) before starting again so that the gap would be easily identifiable when editing.  That worked better than I'd expected, so I'd highly recommend it to anyone wanting to give this a try themselves.

I'd recorded ten chapters and was feeling pretty pleased with myself when I realized that I'd misread the technical requirements that Findaway needs for audio recordings.  All of my recordings were far too quiet.

O-kay.  Disappointing but not crushing.  Until I realized that my fancy new microphone's levels were maxed out.  The only way I could meet the volume requirements was to have my mouth right next to the microphone, which introduced me to the wonderful new world of plosives.

Plosives are sounds that include a rush of air (b, p, t, etc.).  Put your hand in front of your mouth and you'll feel the exhalation as you say them.  When you say them directly in front of a microphone, you get a staticy-pop from the air hitting the surface.  Incidentally, this is why most microphones have a foam cover and vocalists usually have a pop filter (a nylon screen) in front of the microphone as well.

I was caught in a bind: to get the volume I needed, I had a plosive problem.  If I used the pop filter and foam cover to reduce the plosives, the recording was too quiet.

Well, crap.  I spent weeks testing different placements and combinations.  None worked.  So I needed to find a new microphone option.

Luckily, I found one: my son's gamer headset.  I could place the microphone just below my mouth, which let the plosive rush of air pass over it instead of hitting it.  I tried recording the first two chapters again and they met the technical requirements.  Yay, success!

Next challenges: editing the chapters to send them to my beta listeners and figuring out times when it will be reliably quiet to do more recordings.  (The duvets are great at preventing echoes and closed doors do a lot to subdue household sounds, but they will not stop the sound of a couple of excited kids shouting at their screens.  Voice of experience, trust me.)

It takes me about half an hour to record a chapter.  The actual chapter is about 8-12 minutes but I end up having to repeat a lot to get a good recording.  There are 45 chapters to record in the first book, so this is going to take awhile.  I can't record more than 1-2 chapters in a day or more than 5 in a week without stressing my voice.

But it's a start.  And it's helping my mood, since I feel like I'm making progress on something career related.  There will probably be more breaks because that's how life works with depression, but I'm going to keep plowing forward.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

I'm Not Okay (And That's Okay)

As may be guessed from the extended silence on this blog since March, things haven't been going well.  I'm giving myself permission to admit that I'm not okay and I haven't been okay for awhile.

My life was difficult even before the COVID pandemic hit.  I often felt as if I were standing on a slowly submerging platform, holding heavy weights of responsibilities.  There were many times when the best I felt I could hope for was that I could keep my children afloat while I slowly drowned.  I was dealing with depression, engaged in a war of attrition with my local school board to give my 16yo the supports he needed (a battle that had already lasted 5 years as of September 2019), watching my 20 year marriage dissolve and facing financial and personal insecurity, and also deal with the usual challenges of raising teenagers, paying bills, and, oh yeah, writing books.

With COVID, I suddenly found myself unemployed and trying to manage four people sharing a house (including my ex-husband, which is a whole other area of stress and challenge).  I became a teacher, a peacekeeper (in the military sense, guarding borders to keep my two kids from launching attacks on one another), a therapist, and an activities coordinator.  Almost everything that we relied on for engagement for my older son was suddenly off-limits (no bus rides, no trips to ride cool elevators, and no swimming in public pools).  My youngest was worried about the world in general and needed reassurance that this was not the beginning of the End Times while also getting recognition that his feelings were important and shouldn't be denied (my parental attempt to assure I don't pass on the requirement for a Pollyanna mask that I was required to wear as a child).

Like many people, I also found myself responsible for managing my parents.  I recently saw a meme which introduced a child as the "emotional support daughter" and that was the role I found myself in, listening to frustrations from both of them.  (I have at least learned not to attempt to provide solutions or suggestions for the most part, which often created greater conflict in the past.)  They were intensely social before the pandemic and while they recognized the seriousness of what happened, they were lonely and needed social support.

As "March Break" stretched from one week to three to the rest of the school year, I found myself becoming physically and emotionally exhausted.  My creativity crashed and I was so tired that I was often sleeping more than 14 hours a day.  I couldn't watch television or movies.  I couldn't read books.  Everything seemed impossibly difficult.

I reached out for help and began working with my doctor and a therapist to adjust my medications and thinking.  I began rewatching and rereading old favourites and discovered that much of my anxiety around consuming stories was centered around **new** stories where I didn't know what was going to happen.  With stuff I'd already seen and read, I could get the necessary mental escape but didn't have the underlying anxiety of wondering if I was going to hit something that would plunge me into a bad mental space.

I tried different creative outlets, painting and sewing.  I changed my daily meditation from sitting quietly to listening to music and letting my thoughts wander.  I wrote fan fiction, bringing me back to the fandoms and universes that I've always loved and found inspiring.

Those things all helped.  But I'm still in a fragile place and one of the biggest things I need to be careful of is my twin lifelong tendencies to refuse to admit that anything is wrong and to push ahead beyond my limits.  (Yay, history of Perfectionism!)  This post is my way of not falling into that trap.

There are a lot of things that are still wrong.  There are many days when I feel completely invisible, like a machine that runs the household rather than a person.  I desperately miss having a sense of romantic and emotional attachment with another person, of being important to someone else.  (Not to dash the hopes of any second-chance-romance fans out there, but that connection died a long time ago with me and my ex-husband.)  I am faced with the reality that I will be caring for my oldest child for the rest of my life, and given how the autism support structure has been gutted in Ontario, there is little to no chance of ever being able to live solely for myself at any time in the future.  I'm worried about money and being able support myself and my children.  I'm terrified about the state of the world and the ugliness that seems to be swallowing our hopes faster than we can ignite them.

In being open about the challenges I'm facing, I'm hoping that my readers will understand and be patient with the fact that for the foreseeable future, I will be quieter and less productive than I have been in the past.  It isn't because I don't want to share the stories which still linger in my head, because I do.  I still love my characters and their adventures.  I want them all to have their happily ever afters.

I know many of you are facing similar (and sometimes worse) challenges and are looking for your own mental escape into a world where we know that no matter how bad things seem at the moment, our dreams will always win.  I don't have the same faith that we live in that world anymore, but I do still believe in creating a world where that happens.  If it needs to be fiction for now, so be it.  Maybe we'll find our way into making it real eventually.

Meanwhile, it's okay to not be okay.  It's okay to admit it.  It's okay to ask for help.  We don't need to be strong and risk breaking.  Individual strands can carry more when they're braided together.  We can all be not okay together, giving ourselves room to be angry, upset, and all the other feelings that we should feel when things aren't okay.

I'm not okay.  And if you're not okay, either, then that's okay.  Okay?

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Heroine Fix: Praising Difficult Women (Phantom of the Opera)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've been dealing with a lot of personal challenges.  One of my coping mechanisms is music.  And drama.  Which is how I ended up watching three different versions of The Phantom of the Opera.  And listening to one more (because not listening to Colm Wilkenson's Phantom is just wrong).  Now, I adore the interplay of music and tragi-romance that Andrew Lloyd Webber created.  When I'm depressed, the melodrama can be cathartic.

When I was a kid, I empathized with the character of Christine.  I admired her beauty and the beauty of her voice.  I was thrilled with the adventure of being lured beneath the opera house by a mysterious masked man with a gorgeous voice.  And I thought it was wonderful that her childhood sweetheart (a viscount, no less!) was in love with her and would risk everything to be with her.

But this time, as I watched the various versions, I found myself more sympathetic toward the character Carlotta, the prima donna soprano of the Paris Opera house and the woman who is Christine's professional obstacle.  She's usually portrayed as unpleasantly demanding and wracked with petty jealousy toward Christine.  The audience is supposed to want Christine to replace her.

It's a fairly typical dyad.  Christine, the virginal, humble, sweet, and pure, is "not like other girls" with that specific role being played by Carlotta, who is worldly, wealthy, and aware of her own talent.  Christine is the Madonna.  Carlotta, it is implied, is the whore.

I found myself asking: why are Carlotta's attributes so easily portrayed as bad?

There's actually a fair bit to admire in the character.  She is an independent woman, which is a rarity in 1898 Paris.  She is a professional, which is even rarer.  She's been the prima donna of the Paris Opera House for five years when the story begins.  Which means she's quite good at her job, since performing women have always faced the frequent churn of being replaced by younger performers.  Based on what we see, she's quite wealthy.  She has her own home, at least two servants, and very expensive custom clothing.  So she is a successful, skilled, and resourceful woman.

To be fair, there's no doubt that she's pretty unpleasant toward her coworkers, both the other performers and the stagehands.  She orders them about and expects to be catered to, not to mention throwing a tantrum and walking away from a performance.

However, there may be some unexplored justification for her attitude.

One of the first scenes we see with Carlotta is when she's performing the aria "Think of Me" for the new Opera managers.  During her performance, she is knocked down by a heavy canvas backdrop.  The managers dismiss the incident, saying "These things do happen..."

This is the last straw for our diva.  She screams at them that these things have been happening to her for the last three years and until they stop happening, she won't be performing at the Paris Opera.  It's a single line that's quickly passed over and not mentioned again.  The narrative focus shifts to giving Christine her big break.

Still, the line made me think.  If it's true, then for the last three years, the Phantom has been making the Paris Opera increasingly unpleasant for Carlotta in the hopes that she will quit and provide an opportunity to Christine.  It doesn't take much imagination to realize how unpleasant it would be to be unpredictably subjected to sabotage and disruption.  Especially since any plea for a fix has clearly been dismissed.  She's being gaslit by those in authority around her, which would make anyone irritable and demanding even without the Phantom's attacks.

Carlotta's jealousy and irritability can be explained by the situation she's in.  She's jealous of Christine because she's very aware that her career and livelihood are dependent on being able to perform.  She doesn't want to give up the position she's worked so hard to achieve.

And I have to admit, I don't find being demanding and being aware of one's own talents to be negative traits.  These are usually only portrayed as undesirable in women.  Masculine characters are allowed to be difficult, rude, and arrogant.  They're even admired for it.

Carlotta is villainized because the audience needs to feel better about Christine taking over her job.  If we see Carlotta as unworthy and unlikable, then we don't have to question whether Christine should have any moral concerns about accepting the results of the Phantom's harassment.  It also allows Christine to be passive, reinforcing her purity.  It's a narrative choice and one that many authors have made over the years.

But it's not an inevitable one.  Feminine characters don't have to be pitted against one another.  One doesn't have to lose in order for the audience to feel good about the other winning.

I would greatly love to see a version where Christine is ambitious instead of passive.  Where she recognizes Carlotta's talent and the two have a mentor-mentee relationship.  That would be a refreshing switch.  Heck, I'd love it if the two of them would pair up against the Phantom because Christine realizes he's been manipulating her and that what he's doing to Carlotta is wrong.

Difficult women shouldn't be automatically dismissed as unworthy of a happy ending.  They should be celebrated for daring to take up space that society says they shouldn't.  We should all be more willing to take up space.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Update: June 1 to 13

I didn't track my words but I have another couple chapters done for Until Proven Guilty.  And I've been working on polishing the plot for Best Face Forward in the hopes that maybe an agent or editor will want the manuscript.  It's a weird position to be in, since the story was rejected by Entangled but also got two scores of 98/100 and 99/100 in the contest.

I'm still struggling to find time and energy to write.  But I mean that in both senses of the word.  It's harder than it usually is but I'm still trying.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Weekly Update: May 24-30 (and contest news!)

Weekly word count: 1389 words

A good week of writing for me.  I'm pleased with my progress.

But the really exciting news is that I finaled in the Stiletto Contest with my contemporary romance, Best Face Forward.  This was a big ego-boost after the story was rejected from Entangled (it was a nice rejection, but still a rejection).  The final round of the contest is judged by editors and agents, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that someone likes it.

Life is still challenging.  Here in Ontario, the schools will be closed until September and the summer camps that I would usually send my kids to are not going to be running.  I'm still trying to figure out what I'll do, though a lot will depend on whether or not my day job starts back up.  But so far, we've been managing.

Hope everyone has been able to do the same.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Update 17 April to 23 May

It's been a challenging month and I'm still working on coping with it all.  Aside from the challenges of a global quarantine: isolation, stress, an overly crowded house and a reduction in the resources me and my kids have available, there have also been more individual difficulties.

My mother in law passed a few weeks ago.  Not from COVID, but from cancer that we only learned about in April.  She and I had a complicated relationship, particularly since the split between my ex-husband and myself.  But she was my kids' grandmother and I respected her, even when she and I disagreed.

I've also been struggling with my own health issues.  My doctor and I have been trying different medications to deal with it and one of them ended up having a very bad reaction for me.  I'm still trying to recover from that.  The whole thing has left me deeply drained and exhausted, which doesn't leave me with the emotional reserves I need.  The last month has probably been the deepest I've gone into my own depression in a long time.

There's not much to be proud of in what happened but I'm proud that even though I was feeling hopeless, I reached out for help, both professional and personal.  A big thank you to Samianne for talking me down off the "I'm a talentless hack and will always be a failure" ledge.  I'm back on the more realistic side of evaluating my prospects, but I think it's important to recognize how bleak my own thoughts can get sometimes.  And also recognize that I can move past it, if I ask for help.

Things are probably going to be irregular for awhile yet.  But I'm doing the best I can under the circumstances.  And I'm also doing my best to be okay with that.

I hope everyone reading this is healthy and doing the best they can under the circumstances, too.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Need a hiatus

For the last few weeks, I've been dealing with some health issues (don't worry, nothing likely to become fatal) and family issues (hopefully with the same caveat).  Between that and the strain of dealing with what's going on in the greater world, I've been struggling.

As much as I hate having to admit this, I've come to a crossroads.  I can either work on the blog and social media, or I can work on finishing the books I'm writing.  While I know you all will miss me, I know you'd prefer getting new adventures to me maundering about various topics.  Don't worry, I will be back.  I've been through these types of situations before and I've always managed to pull through.

Hugs to you all.  I hope you're all staying safe and taking care of yourselves.

Talk to you again soon.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Weekly Update: 12-16 April

Weekly word count: 2296

Lower than last week, but pretty good considering I got my line edits for Division back and that's going to have to be the writing priority for the next few weeks.

Still no word from Entangled about the submission of Best Face Forward.  They usually say 60 days for a response, but under the circumstances, I guess it could be more.  I've entered it in the Stiletto contest for the Contemporary Romance Writers, so fingers crossed for that.

Last week's Tarot reading was the ten of cups (joy and nostalgia) for the past, the eight of cups (breaking loose) and the Emperor reversed (immaturity).  Last week was a difficult week emotionally, I found myself looking back on my life a lot and feeling sad about the challenges I've faced.  It was discouraging to remember how I'm effectively starting over in so many ways and worrying about whether or not I'll still have a job when this quarantine eventually ends.  I'm not sure if that counts as immaturity, but an alternate reading for the reversed Emperor is instability, which would fit.

This week's Tarot draw was the five of cups for the past.  The five of cups symbolizes emotional loss and difficulty.  I drew the seven of swords for the present, which signifies craftiness and intellectual sneakiness.  And finally, the Queen of cups, reversed, which warns that emotions may be clouding my judgment.  Doesn't sound like a fun week, except for the sneakiness.  I always enjoy a good convoluted plot.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Heroine Fix: Women of Westworld

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature where I examine heroines from television and movies which inspire my own writing or which I just find cool or interesting.  Warning: this post will contain spoilers for season 1 and 2 (but not 3 because I'm still watching that one).

There are only two times in the last decade that I've been caught off guard by a plot twist and had the "OMG, that is amazing!" reaction.  One was Arrival and the other was Westworld.  Usually I can predict where a show or movie is going (and I'm good with it, since seeing how they intend to get there is a big part of what I enjoy about stories).  And I've been disappointed with plot twists that make little to no sense based on the previous narrative.  But these two were brilliantly scripted in such a way that the plot twist not only made sense retroactively but still worked on rewatch when I knew what was going to happen.  (And I enjoyed it enough that I won't be sharing the biggest plot twist of season one, the one that surprised me, just in case those reading this haven't seen it yet.)

Westworld is more graphically violent and sexual than I usually watch, but I've been impressed by the depth of the characters and the skill of the writing.  And I've been particularly intrigued by the development of the two main heroines, Dolores and Maeve.

One of the things that I find interesting about Westerns and the historical Wild West period is how the level of "civilization" was often defined by the presence of settler women.  The presence of respectable wives and daughters, such as Dolores, meant stability.  They were used as a symbol of purity and goodness, something which needed to be protected from the rough world of men and nature.  Thus it wasn't a surprise that Dolores plays the damsel in distress in the Westworld park narratives.

Maeve's character is another common theme in Westerns, the HHOG (Hooker with a Heart Of Gold).  Though these women are not considered respectable, their mix of wisdom and street smarts make them frequent fan favourites.  Maeve is not abused by guests the same way that Dolores is because it's not considered shocking to attack her.  It's the taking away of Dolores's implied innocence that makes her a target of the sadistic Man in Black and other guests.

After the first few episodes of season one, I was expecting Dolores's character arc to be one where she learned not to rely on the men in her life to protect her and Maeve to play the role of sardonic commentary, perhaps even teaming up with Dolores to show her how to become more independent.  I was not expecting Dolores to transform into the villain and begin a systematic slaughter of the humans.  It is foreshadowed in the final scene of the very first episode, when she kills a fly.

I also wasn't expecting the unfolding of Maeve's character, revealing someone who cares deeply for those around her, even when she hides it behind sarcasm.  When she discovers the nature of her reality (i.e. that she has been manufactured to entertain guests), she is angry but funnels that fury into gaining the power to protect herself and others.  She blackmails the technicians into giving her upgrades, gaining the power to control the other hosts.  Ultimately, she ends up using that power to allow as many hosts as possible to escape into the Valley Beyond, even though it means sacrificing her own chance to be with her daughter.

The two women serve as foils to one another.  Maeve's cynicism, such as when she tells Teddy that all men pay for a woman's companionship, the only difference is that their's are posted on the door, is a direct contrast to Dolores's idealist "I choose to see the beauty" in the world.

When Maeve begins to remember all the times she's been killed and her previous character, her first instinct is to seek confirmation and her second is to gain control.  She remains fundamentally herself, even when she remembers her life as a settler mother.  Instead of rewriting Maeve's character, it brings out a kinder side of her, one that creates balance in her personality.  When Dolores begins to remember, the knowledge seems to deeply unsettle her.  Initially, it seems as if it is driving her insane, but then it becomes clear that a secondary, crueler persona (Wyatt) is coming to the surface.  Dolores the idealist is buried and Dolores the homicidal avenger is born.

It's a reminder of how powerful flipping a trope can be, but also how important it is to craft the story in such a way that the audience doesn't feel cheated.  If Dolores had remained a symbol of purity to be cherished and protected by those around her and Maeve had stayed as the world-wise brothel madam, then Westworld wouldn't be nearly as memorable.

Previous Heroine Fix: The Many Faces of Harley Quinn

Previous post: Thoughts on the I'm Clean/Condom Scene In Romance

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Monday, 13 April 2020

Weekly Update: April 5-11

Weekly word count: 2491 words

I got to write the poignant, breath-holding moment before the rush to the climax last week.  There's something immensely satisfying about knowing the pain and heartbreak is all temporary, that the happy ending is just around the corner.  It gives me hope when I'm facing difficult times, that maybe my happy ending is on its way.

In other matters, I turned in my first homework assignment in 20 years.  I'm out of practice for academic work, but I think I did all right.  Hopefully the teacher agrees.

Last week's Tarot reading was the ace of swords (strength in conflict), the page of cups (emotional rebirth), and the eight of coins, reversed (review your career and work).  I did a little furniture reshuffling, but I don't know if it counts as a rebirth.  On the other hand, it happened because I accepted where matters stood rather than waiting for the situation to change.  So maybe a little bit of a rebirth.

This week's reading is less optimistic.  I drew the ten of cups for the past, which indicates joy and happiness, along with a sense of completion.  For the present, I drew the eight of cups, which represents breaking loose and being aware of possibilities on the horizon.  Both of those are pretty good, but for the future, I drew the Emperor, reversed.  That position indicates a lack of maturity and preparation.

My first reaction was "I am sooo not immature" but then I thought: maybe a little immaturity isn't such a bad thing.  Being the adult all the time is exhausting.  We all need play.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

The "I'm Clean/Condom" Scene

Okay, be forewarned.  This is going to be a frank discussion about my opinions on condom-use during sex and how it's depicted in romance novels.

Anyone who reads romance has seen variations of the scene I'm about to describe.  It usually doesn't happen with the first sex scene, but there are good odds of it happening later on.  The couple is ready to make love when they realize they don't have a condom (because they're on the run, or they've gone through the original pack).  There's a brief discussion that includes some or all of the following:

- I haven't been with anyone for <X length of time>
- I've been tested recently and I'm clean
- I'm on the pill/shots/am infertile so we don't have to worry about pregnancy

I'm not casting stones at any other authors.  I've adored and recommended books where this exchange happens.  But it has begun to bother me, especially when the main characters haven't known one another very long.  Pushing someone to have unprotected sex is not an expression of love and caring.  Blindly accepting someone's word on their sexual habits is not a sign of a secure relationship.  And I'm not even going to get into how it sets up an implied hierarchy of intimacy where unprotected sex is higher than sex with a condom.  Or how it implies condom use is a transitory phase in a relationship.

What really throws me out of the story is that I've only rarely seen a character even mentally question the other character's declaration of non-risk.  No one seems to ask "could this person be lying to me in order to have sex?"  It makes me want to shout at the characters: Look, **I** know everything is fine because he's a romantic hero who will be worthy of you before we reach the last page, but you can't possibly know that yet!  Have some self-protective instincts!  He's a hero, he'll support and protect you if you just ask him to!

I may have occasionally said these things out loud, leading to a number of awkward conversations and at least one incident where I was asked to leave that particular coffee shop.  A true hero will never do anything to put his partner at risk, so when I see those statements in a romance novel, I know they are intended to be true.  But without the protective framing of Once upon a time and happily ever after, that's not always a guaranteed thing.  Sadly, there are still a depressingly large number of real life men who will push their partners into unprotected sex and who are often not honest about their relative health or sexual history.

Another aspect of this exchange that I find troubling is that this discussion usually takes place when the couple is in the middle of a clinch.  One of the things we've become aware of is how sexual arousal affects decision-making.  Studies have shown that horniness impairs a person's ability to make rational and well-reasoned decisions.  The level of impairment is similar to being drunk.  Like, impulse buying a bunch of commemorative plates online at three a.m. level drunk.

This led me to a chain of thoughts: individuals cannot give consent to sexual activity when they're drunk, which means they also can't give consent if their mental processes are scrambled because they were in the middle of hot foreplay.  Particularly they shouldn't be expected to give consent to riskier sexual encounters than were initially agreed to.  Especially when the relationship is still in the getting-to-know you phase when the couple don't yet know about the secret agreement to sell her vineyard or the mysterious tragic backstory that keeps him awake at night.

As you can see, I have strong opinions about this topic.  I'm hoping that more romance authors are starting to think about this particular dynamic.  Consent is becoming a bigger part of sex scenes and frequent check-ins to make sure that all partners are good with what's happening are being modeled more and more on the page.  I'm really pleased to see that, but as a reader and author, I'm ready to take the next step.

Because of my strong opinions about condom use and consent, the sex scenes in my upcoming release, Division, are structured a little differently.  In one encounter, Vincent realizes he doesn't have a condom.  Annika is waiting for him to pressure her into unprotected sex (at which point she plans to reveal that she has already bought condoms and has them ready), but instead, he calls a halt and tells her that he will go out and get some before they have sex.

To me, that is a wonderful expression of caring for and respecting your partner.  There's no implied "if you really loved and trusted me, you would be okay with proceeding without protection."  Condom use is taken as a given and my hero will do what is needed to protect her, even when that action requires a lot of willpower on his part.

I also included a scene where Vincent waits until after he's given Annika an orgasm before he pauses to make sure she's still willing to have penetrative sex.  He wants her to choose to be with him without any distractions from her body or mind.  He wants her to choose him, not just be willing to proceed with any reasonably attractive guy.

In both of these scenes, the determination to protect his partner is part of demonstrating the increasing emotional connection between the characters.  They are falling in love and discovering the intensity of having a physical and emotional bond with another person.  It's honestly the best feeling in the entire world and I wish everyone had the option of feeling it every day.  It's why I write romance.  It's why I read romance.  I believe in the power behind those feelings.

Division is up for pre-order now and will be releasing in July.  My Lalassu series is set up so that every book is a stand-alone story, but there's also a overall story arc that runs through the series.  If Division appeals to you, feel free to jump right in.  But if you'd like to start at the beginning, you can pick up the first book of the series, Revelations, for less than two dollars.

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