Thursday, 31 March 2016

Why It's Popular to Attack 50 Shades

Earlier this week I saw an article about a charity bookshop in South Wales which had received so many copies of 50 Shades of Grey that they built a fort out of them.

First of all, that just strikes me as an awesome option to do with books.  Forget couch cushions, I want to create myself a literary fort out of my collective bookshelves.  An inspirational structure to curl up and write in.  Of course, then I'd have to pull the fort apart whenever I wanted to read... so it's not practical long term.  But it would be cool for at least an afternoon.

However, once the entertaining musings died down, what stuck with me was the tone of the article.  It was snide, beginning with "It seems like there's no end of the pain Fifty Shades of Grey can inflict" and continues with such asides as "Come on, Fifty Shades - haven't you done enough?" and "The problem with the Fifty Shades books (apart from the fact that they exist at all)". 

Now, I am not a Fifty Shades fan.  I tried to read the book and put it aside because I found it poorly written.  I know a number of authors who write BDSM romance and erotica and they were upset because they felt the depiction of BDSM in Fifty Shades was inaccurate and likely to get people hurt.  There are a number of valid complaints about the book but it deserves better than such cheap shots.

However one might personally feel about it, the book opened up a conversation about a side of human sexuality.  It prompted a huge number of discussions about consent and boundaries.  It gave people permission to speak about things they might have otherwise been too ashamed to share.  For that, it deserves some respect.

I don't think the backlash against Fifty Shades is simply because it's popular (although there are always those who try to appear superior by dismissing anything to achieve popular success).  I think the ridicule has been triggered because of its target market: women.  Or rather one particular subset of women: mothers.

Mothers are not supposed to be sexual or have sexual feelings or dreams (as determined by the almost universal "ick" from our collective children at the thought).  North American society is uncomfortable with sexuality in general but particularly when it threatens to crack the whitewash of wholesomeness applied to moms.  I believe that this is the reason why romance as a genre is subject to ridicule.  It strikes too close to the nerves and refuses to allow the Victorian stereotype of the "angel of hearth and home" to prevail. 

Women do not deserve to be ridiculed for having fantasies and feelings which don't fit into comfortable preconceptions.  Nor do they deserve to be made the object of shame for enjoying Fifty Shades.  I'd still encourage them to seek out other authors who do their research and can present a better written alternative.  But I won't indulge in snide mockery.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Weekly Update: March 20 to 27

Weekly word count: 4010

Just squeaked through but made it.

This has actually been a difficult week for me.  Not quite sure why things are hitting me so hard, but I've been finding myself waking up in the middle of the night with a to-do list running through my head like an old clackety teletype machine.  Loud, repetitive and impossible to ignore.

At first, I tried my usual "write it down to deal with in the morning and try to go back to sleep" technique, but it hasn't been working.

I've found myself burning the midnight oil (as well as the 2 am, 3 am and 4 am oil), which has left me exhausted during the day and more prone to talking to myself.  Thus far, luckily no one has decided I've tipped over the edge into worrisomely crazy.

Maybe I've just had too many commitments in the air to balance of late.  Or maybe I'm just feeling worn out as winter continues to intermittently cling on.  This time of year is usually difficult for me, add in post-release promotion and the upcoming flurry of events in May, and maybe I've officially tipped it over the edge of what I can handle without consequences.

And yet, there is no aspect of my life that I would choose to give up if someone offered me peace in exchange.  (Okay, maybe the day job.  Although I do like it, I would certainly love more time during the day to write and deal with the business of writing.)

So I guess I just have to keep crossing things off the list and hopefully, I'll get my nights and my dreams back where they belong.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Ink Tips: Go Ahead and Judge: Cover Art

This month, I thought I'd take a look at the sultry siren who lures us all to pick up that book on the shelf: the cover art.

"Don't judge a book by its cover" might be a frequently referenced proverb, but it's completely false.  Everyone judges a book by the cover and there is an entire industry devoted to making sure the inside matches the outside.  It's a visual code which is so ingrained that most people probably never realize how much it influences their choices.

Take a look at these covers:

Without needing to know anything else, I bet you could pick out the non-fiction book with it's mostly text cover.  The children's book is another easy gimme, with its paler colors and an illustrated cover.  Maybe you hesitated at the third one, wondering if it was science fiction or a young adult.  Surprise, it's both.  And the attractive young man on the fourth is promising a happily ever after before the final page.

Choosing the elements of a book cover goes far beyond simply making sure it matches the contents (like not putting a racing car on a medieval historical).  The colours have to match the tone of the novel (urban or rural, dark or optimistic).  Taking a look at the two romance covers below, it's easier to see which has the darker and more sensual tone.  A reader would not pick up the left hand novel expecting a twisted and tortured hero or heroine.

I'm not a slouch or newbie when it comes to Photoshop manipulation, but I would not try to design my own cover.  Instead I hired a professional from Streetlight Graphics, someone who understood the inherent language of covers.

They delivered a cover which captured the essence of my novel and provides important visual clues to potential readers.  My heroine's level of dress shows that the book falls in the moderate range for sensual content.  The dark colours and cityscape elements identify it as dark urban fantasy.  The snake provides an interesting teaser, while still hinting at a dark overtone.  Even the blue wash provides an important cue, suggesting a hint of science fiction rather than fantastical magic.
The cover is an author's statement and lure.  "I liked the cover" is still the reason most readers give for picking up a new author or novel.  Once inside the pages, the cover has set the reader's expectations, and they will be bitterly disappointed if those expectations are not met.  Most online shoppers aren't looking at descriptions, only scrolling down through pages of thumbnail covers, waiting for one to catch their attention.
After months and sometimes years slaving over making sure each word is right, it can seem unfair to need to dress up a masterwork in colours and flashy text.  And it is unfair that a cover can make or break an author's chances of finding their readership.  Most of the time, the author is only minimally involved in the cover, even if he or she has final approval of the design.  So why does the cover rule?
Because humans are visual creatures and respond faster to a visual than to a story.  Stories take time to take up residence in the human mind, whereas images are branded in our memories in fractions of a second.  We can register an image faster than our brain can recognize we've seen it (which is why sponsorship of racing cars works).  Humans still shop like we used to hunt and gather, scanning the surrounding area with only half our attention until something jumps out.  That's why it's called "catching" someone's attention. 
Like it or not, the cover is an author's hook, reaching out to snag readers with colourful fingers.  Without it, we would likely pick up entirely different selections.  There is a novel at the library which I pick up from the shelf almost every time I go, despite the fact that I've read it and it was so bad that I didn't get past the first few pages.  Yet every single time, something about the cover snags my attention and I have a few moments of intrigue before I recognize it and put it back.
It just goes to show, a great cover won't save a horrible book.  But a great book with a horrible cover will never be discovered in the first place.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Weekly update: March 13 to 19

Weekly word count: 3100

Technically, this is a fail since I didn't make my 4000 word count.  However, I'm counting it as a partial victory (because I need all the encouragement I can get).  Last week was March Break, which meant a little family vacation to Toronto and then kids home, so I knew writing was going to be challenging.  What I did not expect was to get knocked on my butt with a nasty cold as soon as we got home.

For three days, the only creative impulse I had was whether or not to get a drink of water before collapsing back into bed.  It was bad enough that my husband (who usually believes I have the get-it-done capabilities of Batman) actually stayed home to help me.

Come Saturday morning, I had a zero word count.  Nothing.  Not even a doodle on a piece of paper.

Now usually when this happens, I chalk it up to a bad week and promise myself to do better.  This week, with my 90 day plan in place, I decided that a bad week simply wasn't good enough.  So I dragged my little computer out, planted myself on the couch where I could supervise the child-related chaos, found some nature documentaries on Netflix to distract the kids and got working.

It took me most of the day and there were a lot of interruptions, but I wrote 3100 words.  And while it leaves me 900 words shy of my weekly target, it's still 3100 words closer to completion than I would have been if I hadn't made the effort.  And it was a valuable lesson to me, a reminder not to give up.

This week, the house is quiet and while I already know I will lose two writing days this week due to appointments and other commitments, I am more confident of being able to reach my goals. 

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The P-word (Plagiarism): How Close Is Too Close?

Most of the authors I know work very hard to keep their stories original.  There are some notable exceptions (like Laura Harner, who plagiarized entire books from best-selling authors) but for the most part we earn our legal disclaimers: we make it up ourselves.

But on the other hand, we're all influenced by what we've seen, heard and read, which means that some similarities are inevitable.  So when is a story too close to another story?  If I had a solid answer to that one, I could make millions as a trade infringement lawyer but the answer always boils down to: it depends. 

For example, last month, Sherrilyn Kenyon launched a lawsuit against Cassandra Clare, the author of the Shadowhunter series.  Kenyon and her lawyers are claiming that the main characters are too close to Kenyon's own Dark-Hunter series.  Per the lawsuit, Kenyon's fans alerted her to the similarities in 2006 and Clare agreed to remove the term "shadowhunter" from her book (Mortal Instruments: City of Bones).  Since then, the term has apparently crept back into the sequels and the movie.

Clare's lawyers and Kenyon's lawyers will have to battle it out.  I haven't read Clare's series but I have read the Dark-Hunter books and there are surface similarities based on the description.  An elite, but isolated and brooding band of men and women with supernatural powers have to fight against an unknown supernatural world, which is completely unknown to the ordinary people in the books.

The problem is that the idea of a secret society of superpowered individuals is not exactly original to either of them.  One of my favourite TV shows from the early 1990's is Forever Knight, about a vampire who becomes a police officer to protect people against the hidden occult world.  This predates both series.  People and objects imbued with magic or other powers have been a standby since the epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest written story.  Myths of shamans and heroes protecting the innocent from unseen forces, also ancient.  So it comes down to the details.

Are the names too similar?  Do the plots follow similar lines?  Are there phrases or word choices which appear in both series?  Those are the questions which must be answered to both parties' satisfaction.

Then there comes smaller details.  I recently saw a post from an author who was concerned because she had created a character with a peculiar idiosyncrasy for her latest book, only to discover another recently released book with a character who did the exact same thing.  The plots and genres were very different, but this one small detail matched up.  In this case, given that both books are recent releases, the overlap is probably a case of parallel inspiration (the excuse usually given for why we can have two volcano disaster movies released in the same year). 

This minefield is terrifyingly intimidating for a new author.  Without the deep pockets of established or best-selling authors, proving that any overlap was accidental may be an out of reach goal.  There are certain things which can be done to protect oneself, such as keeping records and files (both hard copies and digital) of the creative process.  Also be wary of any brilliant ideas which come into your mind fully formed.  You may be remembering them rather than creating them. 

I've been caught by that a couple of times, such as when I was excited about an idea I had for a group of time-travellers who would go through history witnessing key events.  My husband reminded me that I was basically talking about Dr. Who, Sliders, Quantum Leap and the Observers from Fringe.  Now, if I'd had something original to add to that formula, I could have gone ahead, but upon further reflection, I decided I didn't really have anything new to offer which hadn't been covered in the original series.

In the end, authors simply have to forge ahead.  Those of us creating our own worlds shouldn't be too afraid of the rare and few outright thieves.  Inspiration is nothing to be ashamed of, but make sure that it acts as a launching pad hurling you out into unknown realms rather than a trampoline, letting you land exactly where you started.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Weekly Update: March 7 to 12

Weekly word count: 4550

It's been a busy week.  I launched my Kindle Countdown Deal and learned something important.  Last time I launched a deal, I pulled my advertising because when I checked on, the book was still showing as full price.  Later I checked and it indicated that the deal ran.

Some further research revealed that the sale might well have been on.  Those checking outside the US are not shown the sale price.  This time, I've confirmed it.  The sale is on, but I won't be able to see it unless I log on from a US computer.

I've also managed to figure out scheduled posts for Twitter and Facebook, which is making promotion for the sale easier.  Soon my blog tour will begin and my promo will be in full swing.

Coming up is the March Break for school, so I'll have my kids underfoot.  Writing will be a challenge but I'm determined not to fall behind on my word count.  Wish me luck!

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Heroine Fix: Rogue from X-men

I've been reading comics and watching the related cartoons and movies for longer than I care to admit.  I spent as much time playing superhero with the boys as I did playing Barbies (who were usually  singing superhero ninjas anyway) with the girls.  However, one of the great frustrations I had was that most of the female superheroes were ridiculous, with silly powers and always needing to get themselves rescued.

With one notable exception: Rogue from the X-men.

Created by the awesome Chris Claremont with her first appearance in 1981, Rogue is a fascinating character.

To begin with, her powers are unique.  She absorbs people's memories, personality and abilities through touch.  Those personalities and skills can then remain dormant inside her.  (Which I personally believe is the inspiration for Joss Whedon's entire Dollhouse series.)

However her powers aren't under her control, which adds an irresistible element of tragedy.  She can't ever be touched, not even a simple pat on the shoulder or a hug, let alone a kiss or anything intimate.

Anyone she touches ends up in a coma, unconscious while Rogue has their memories.  Something she found out during her very first kiss. The boy ended up in hospital and Rogue ended up with a horribly guilty conscience and foreign memories which would never entirely leave her subconscious.

I wish I had been the one to think it all up.  It's positively brilliant and leaves a huge scope to explore as a writer.

That's probably why she's been one of the more enduring X-men characters, appearing in almost all of its incarnations.

Personally, I've always liked her combination of kick-butt determination and aching vulnerability.  One of the scenes which has stuck with me over the years is from the 1980's X-men Saturday morning cartoon.  A heavy door is about to slam down, trapping our heroes somewhere unpleasant.  Both Wolverine and Beast are struggling to hold it up and Rogue saunters over to lift it up with one hand (in that particular version, she had permanently absorbed superstrength and the ability to fly from Ms. Marvel).  I loved the fact that she was able to effortlessly save the day and, looking back, I'm especially pleased that no big deal was made about her being stronger than the men.  It just happened to be her superpower and didn't need to be made the butt of a joke.

Rogue was one of the first true heroines I ever encountered.  She didn't need help from anyone else's storyline.  She was powerful and interesting enough to star in her own right.  She could stand toe to toe with any hero or villain and yet was still entirely feminine.

One of Rogue's most powerful storylines is one which was adapted for X-men 3, where a "cure" for mutant abilities is discovered.  She has to decide whether or not to have a normal life, without superpowers but with the ability to touch someone, or maintain her powers and her isolation.  There have been several versions of this character arc.  In some she takes the cure, in others she doesn't.

To me, it's always raised an interesting question to explore.  What parts of myself would I consider essential and what would I be willing to sacrifice to achieve my dreams?  Would I sacrifice my eyesight for the ability to fly?  (I didn't say they had to be realistic dreams.)  Later, when I was doing research for Revelations and speaking to families whose children had special needs, I found myself thinking of Rogue and the cure.  These children had severe challenges, requiring constant care, but would their parents "cure" them if it meant sacrificing a part of their personality?  It would be a difficult decision.  On the one hand, a normal, possibly happier life, but it would be a terrible price to have to pay.

Rogue is a great heroine for exploring identity issues and the impact of isolation.  She's got hundreds, if not thousands, of voices in her head: the personalities she's absorbed.  Her strength of will is what holds them back.  When her character is well-written, those second-hand memories give her a depth beyond her apparent age.  She's denied the most basic of human comforts and can never allow herself to drop her guard, or else she could hurt those she most cares about.

In my fan-fiction days, I always wanted to give Rogue a happy ending without having her lose her powers.  I'm not alone as the character has been given a number of romantic relationships with creative work-arounds for the touching issue.  However, like many of the most interesting heroes, it's the air of tragedy which keeps writers coming back.  Every reader can identify with feeling isolated and how our greatest gifts can dovetail with our deepest sorrows.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Weekly update: Feb 28 to March 6

Weekly word count: 4050

I managed to just squeak through on my word count for this week.  I'll have to do better next week, especially since writing is going to be very difficult during March Break with both kids home all week.

It's been lots of fun watching the reviews and feedback come in for Metamorphosis.  Thus far the consensus is good.  It's a different feel from the first book, a less frantic pace which I feel suits the long nights and more natural rhythms of life up North. 

I finished the first draft of Rose on the Grave, the second short story for Spirit Sight.  It still needs a lot of work but should be ready for another pre-Hallowe'en release. 

And we had a fantastic workshop with the Ottawa Romance Writers this month.  All about practical goal setting and not letting your fears block your dreams.  I think the information on common fears and how to overcome them will be very useful for creating powerful character growth arcs (as well as personally).  But it was the goal setting which really caught my attention.

Cynthia Boyko recommended setting 3 practical, realistic and concrete goals for the next 90 days.  By only focusing on the next three months, it doesn't get overwhelming while still keeping a sense of urgency and focus.  The goal needs to be something that can be easily determined if it was met or not.  "I'm going to get more serious about my writing" is too fluid.  "I'm going to write for half an hour a day" is either happening or not, no debate.  She cautioned against getting too ambitious.  The point is to succeed, which means leaving room for unpleasant surprises.

So here are my goals:

Write at least 4000 words per week. (This was already a goal, so  I'm keeping it in the loop)

Have at least 2 weeks where I write each day Monday-Friday. (Too often my time gets bumped for appointments, errands and other life stuff.  In three months, I should be able to manage two full weeks of writing.)

Do at least two tweets per day for my upcoming promotion.  (I am still promo-shy when it comes to letting people know what's going on.  Time to stop being embarrassed to toot my own horn.)

Next month's workshop is on editing.  Edit Like A Pro with Laura Paquette.  Another one I'm looking forward to.

Simple, direct and theoretically achievable.  We'll see what happens.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

10 Cool Quotes by Hot Guys

"The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense." - Joseph Conrad

The right words have the power to move us to places we never thought we'd go.  I'm fascinated by how a few choice sentences or words can sum up a character or a moment in a way that can't be replicated by dozens of pages of the almost right words.

Wittiness has always been a character requirement for me.  A handsome face with a dull brain doesn't work.  But the combination of brains and attractiveness is worthy of celebration.  So here's a list of my favourites:

I'm not a psychopath.  I'm a high-functioning sociopath.  Do your research.
- Benedict Cumerbatch, Sherlock

You ever wonder why there was a job opening?  Don't turn your back on the cage.
- Chris Pratt, Jurassic World
You're not afraid of the dark, are you?
- Vin Diesel, Chronicles of Riddick

I am not a good judge of hotness.
- Lou Diamond Phillips, Longmire
Don't try to tell us there's nowhere to go but up, because the truth is: there's always more down.
- J August Richards, Angel
Welcome to the end of the thought process.
- Hugh Laurie, House
Well, my days of not taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle.
- Nathan Fillion, Firefly
The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many, and before this battle is over, that even a god-king can bleed.
- Gerard Butler, 300
I thought this was the part where you leave me behind and say 'Lucifer, stay.  Good devil.'
- Tom Ellis, Lucifer
You picked the wrong house, bub.
- Hugh Jackman, X-Men II, X-men United

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Weekly Update: Feb 21 to 27

Weekly word count: 5500 words

This week was one of those good weeks where the words just flow.  I had two 2000 word days and a 1500 one.  Unfortunately, I had to lose two of my writing days due to appointments and wanting to not get fired from my day job.  (My boss is pretty good, but even she's going to notice if I get more than a week behind on returning calls.)

The second Spirit Sight short story is nearly done for the first draft.  Hopefully I can get it all wrapped up for next week and get back to Inquisition.

Sales for Metamorphosis are going well and I've even had my first successful Square transactions, using my phone to process credit cards.  This really makes it easier to deal with more spontaneous requests (although I have to make sure I have the reader accessory with me).  I've got a bunch of friends and family coming over next weekend to pick up their copies, which should be a lot of fun.

I've still been having a lot of challenges finding stock photos for my RWA workshop handout (I can only use photos I own the rights to).  I think I'm going to have to do something with my own photos.  I caught myself looking at my husband's eighteen inch fully articulated Tron action figures and wondering if I could use them to demonstrate different types of hugs.  My kids have a lot of toys, surely some of them could be stand ins ... we'll see.

I've also been setting up the final details of my promotion campaign with Pub-Craft.  I've got my quote cards done, my blog posts written and a selection of tweets and facebook posts ready to share.

And last but not least, I got my provisional membership in PAN, the Published Author's Network, with Romance Writers of America.  This entitles me to take the specialized PAN workshops when I'm at the annual conference in San Diego, as well as access to some special events.  All in all, it's been a pretty good week.