Thursday, 30 November 2017

Ink Tip: Tortoise Victories: How to Win While Writing Slow

We've all heard the story about the fast, but lazy rabbit and the steadfast and trusty tortoise.  It's one of those great early childhood morality tales about finishing what you start and not being overconfident.  But in the publishing world, it seems that it's the hares who always win and tortoises are encouraged to invest in some jet-packs to keep up with the pace.

Ready for a word sprint?
Last month, Susanna Kearsley came to speak with ORWA about how to weave multiple-story lines into a single novel.  That was fascinating, but what really connected with me was when she talked about writing slow.

She shared that she is not a fast writer.  It usually takes two years for her to publish her next book and she usually only writes a page or two at a time.  But she is still a bestseller, proving that the publish, publish, publish strategy is not the only route to success.

There are so many messages and articles out there about how to write faster.  New authors are confronted with expectations of publishing three or more books each year, sometimes as many as one each month.  The message is: if you don't have something new out, you'll disappear into the void of constantly churning content and readers will forget about you in their search for something else.

But that's not necessarily true.

Yes, it may take longer.  After all, if an author is only putting out one book every year or two, then it takes much longer to set up a backlist that fans can discover.  No matter how brilliant a writer is, if there's only one or two books available, then that is all that fans can buy, even if they are super-enthusiastic.

And yes, it is important to stay visible.  Readers have their own lives and don't just sit breathlessly by the computer waiting for announcements that their favourite authors have released a new book.  It's important to try and keep yourself in their awareness, so that they remember that they loved your book and will be excited when the countdowns begin for the next one.  Regular social media and blog posts, attending events and sharing bits from your work in progress can all keep an author from disappearing.

There are ways to make that kind of online presence easier:

- Find something you're already excited about that can be tied into your book.  Are you great in the kitchen?  Maybe do a regular recipe connected with your stories.  Do you travel a lot?  Post photos and reviews of your adventures, emphasizing the parts that inspire you to keep writing.  We all have passions and those passions usually tie into our writing, so drawing in people who share those passions means a much larger crowd of potential readers who will learn about your next book.

- Get a posting routine.  I have two monthly blog features (Ink Tip and Heroine Fix) as well as my weekly writing update.  That leaves me two blog posts each month that can be spontaneous or reflective of what's going on in my life and the world, which I find is a good balance for me.  For social media, I participate in #1LineWednesday, sharing a quote card from my previous books and a line from my work in progress.  I also share a quote about either writing or reading each Monday, a romance-inspiring song lyric on Tuesdays, and a quote about characters, superheroes, or different genres each Friday.  There's also a floater post each week, where I post a picture of a hot hero in connection to various Internet holidays (like Tell A Fairy Tale Day, February 26).  I call that one my Hero Worship post.  I still tweet and facebook about my life and my thoughts on a spontaneous basis, but these regular postings cover me when I'm swamped or uninspired or otherwise not in a social media mood.

- Schedule your social media and blog posts in advance.  Its a lot of work coming up with posts, so blocking out some time on a weekly or monthly basis makes sense.  There are plenty of programs that let you schedule things in advance (I use Hootsuite) so I can take an hour or two once a month to schedule my Hero Worship and #1LineWednesday quotes, and about a half hour each week to schedule my quotes and lyrics.

- Pictures can be good branding tools.  Humans are visual and we're far more likely to take in a picture while scrolling (thus prompting us to stop) than we are to read text.  By finding an image which you can use to mark your different kinds of posts, you can create a visual shorthand, making it easier for readers to catch the posts they're interested in.  And if you can't create a shorthand, then a picture still makes it far more likely for your post to be noticed.

The real caveat behind all publishing advice is that readers don't like being disappointed.  So if you're a slow writer, then be honest about that.  Forcing the writing process into a breakneck pace can lead to trite and repetitive stories, which readers will quickly saturate on and move on from.  Be honest about your expected deadlines (whether self- or editor-imposed) and if there are life delays, be honest about those, too.

Some writers can produce a book that readers love in an incredibly short period of time.  Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were both written in what amounts to a weekend writing blitz, according to their respective author's memoirs.  I'm in awe of authors who can produce 70 000 to 100 000 words each month, allowing them to put out well-edited and exciting books every two to three months.

Until Ms. Kearsley's lecture, I was harbouring a growing doubt about whether or not I would ever truly be able to succeed.  I am a fast writer, but I have very limited time in my life for when I can write, which makes me a slow writer in reality.  She was a welcome reminder that there are all kinds of paths which lead to being able to call oneself a successful author.  It's a matter of stubbornly sticking to it, even in the times that we doubt ourselves and our talent.  The lesson of the tortoise and the hare isn't about their relative speeds, it's about who never gives up.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Weekly Update: November 19 to 25

 Weekly word count: 14 122

With only a few days left to go in NaNoWriMo, I'm feeling pretty good about my progress.  If I can keep up this kind of pace, then I think I've got a good chance at being able to get my companion series manuscript ready to pitch for July.  (I also really need to figure out a title for it.)

As you can see, I was struggling with writing on Wednesday and Thursday.  I've been fighting a nasty cold and decided to get some sleep rather than pushing myself to stay up late.  It was a difficult decision for me.  I was fighting some depression and was thinking that if I didn't stay up to write, there was no way that I could achieve my NaNo goal.  But I was also falling asleep at my keyboard, so I decided to choose my health.

The next day I was in a more reasonable frame of mind.  And the extra sleep helped my creativity so that I was able to write more than I think I would have been able to if I'd pushed myself.  Lesson learned.

I took a look at my outline and decided to up the estimated final word total to 125 000.  I'm almost at 100 000 words and there's between six and eight chapters left to go.  

I've had to be careful not to conflate finishing NaNo with finishing the novel.  There's probably another 10 to 15k which will have to be written after I reach my 50 000.  So I'm going to hold off booking my edits until I have the draft complete.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I can get book 4 out and on the market before the spring conferences begin in May.

I've also started to look at what needs to happen after I get this draft done.  I need to get the second editions of the first three books ready (the only changes are to the front and back matter and changes to the tag lines for the covers) and then get them into wide distribution.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

My First Experience With NaNoWriMo

We're coming to the end of NaNoWriMo and I wanted to take some time to talk about my experience with it so far.  This is my first time participating, since I'm usually doing editing in October, November and December, and it's been a pleasant experience so far.

I was surprised to discover how effective it was to be able to enter my word count for each day.  It motivated me more than I expected, to the point that I decided to continue it with a daily graph which will appear on each weekly update and an overall progress graph to stay up on the blog.  The visual graph of total word count really kept me moving, although I wasn't a fan of the goal line (especially since I didn't get over it very often).  Even if I had a really good writing day, it was discouraging to see that I still hadn't made it over the official goal line.

I found the community to be very supportive with a lot of encouragement.  I wasn't in a position to do any of the local events here in Ottawa, but the online group was always ready with some virtual applause.  The website was confusing and non-intuitive but I gradually figured out how to add writing buddies and enter my daily counts.  

My biggest concerns were from people who were boasting that they were going to take their NaNoWriMo project and immediately publish it on Amazon as of December 1st.  Now, I'm a self-published author, so I don't have a problem with self-publishing, but it took me aback to see people who didn't think they needed an editor or even a second draft.  Some of the stories had some great ideas and those boasting were articulate and well-spoken, but there are too many first drafts clouding the waters.  I've tried gently pointing out that even brilliant bestsellers need more than one draft and editorial support, but I'm not sure how well my cautions were received.  

The hardest part has been writing every single day.  I've got a lot going on in my life and it's just not sustainable for me to find time every day.  I've ended up doing a lot of writing between 10pm and midnight, which ends up being hard when I have to get up six hours later.  But, on the positive side, it's also shown me where I can expand my writing hours, which should help in the future.

I've definitely learned a lot about my writing process and what motivates me, and for that I count it as an invaluable experience.  Will I do it again?  If November 2018 rolls around and I'm not in edits, most definitely.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Weekly Update: November 12 to 18

Weekly word count: 9200

Another good week, although I'm looking at my overall total for NaNoWriMo and thinking I'm probably not going to reach 50 000 words by November 30th.

But that's okay.  I think I've got a good shot at having the draft of Judgment ready for December 15th, which will let me start the ball rolling on editing.

Then comes the next round of projects: getting my books available on wide distribution (which is admittedly making me nervous) and working on my manuscript for book one of the companion series, which still needs a title.  Coming up with titles is always a challenge for me but luckily I've got a bunch of friends who are happy to title-storm with me.

On the plus side, there is a chance that I might not having to be writing on the night shift for much longer.  I've got a meeting with my day-job boss on Monday to talk about me going back to my usual hours, which would give me writing time in the afternoon again.

Hopefully I can keep up the pacing once November is over.  If I can do between 8000 and 10,000 words per week, then that will really help with my productivity.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Using Sexual Assault As Threat Or Background

Two weeks ago, I was writing a scene where one of my bad guys threatens my heroine and I had to decide what kind of threat he was going to use.  He's in a position of authority, so he could threaten her job.  He could threaten her physical safety.  He could threaten to tell her secrets.  Or he could threaten her with sexual assault.

This brought up a mental debate which has long been raging in my head.  On the one hand, sexual assault is a very common threat which women face, as the #MeToo campaign illustrated so distressingly.  Even if a woman hasn't faced it directly, the fear of assault is omnipresent.

On the other hand, I feel that sometimes sexual assault is used too often as a lazy story-telling technique.  It's tossed out without much thought and with minimal impact on the story beyond the moment.  This bothers me even more when I consider that mentioning the assault in the story can trigger those who have survived assault.

Personally, I don't like to casually use sexual assault as a plot device or character background.  I used it for Dani in Revelations, but it was a major part of who she was and why she had trouble accepting her connection to the Huntress.  I very deliberately did not use it for either Lily or Cali, because I didn't want it to become trite.

Using it for Martha in Judgment makes sense.  I took a long time to weigh the options and explore possibilities and this feels like the right choice.  Because assault does happen and bullies use the threat of it, knowing how hard it hits home and how much fear it can create.  

However, I still feel that too many writers use it as a default.  I've been recently hooked on Outlander, but in watching it, I'm struck by how often the heroine is threatened by rape.  It's as if every male character is lusting after her and doesn't care about her consent or preferences.  As a mother of sons and friend to many folk of the Y chromosome persuasion, I find that insulting on their behalf.  Men are not rapists by default, they're not even predators by default.  To imply otherwise is to reinforce the "all men are bad, so women have to be careful" fallacy that is part of rape-culture expectations.

There is one character who has threatened an assault in my story.  My heroine is not under constant bombardment and needing a strong man to protect her from the others.  In Revelations, it is a different story as part of Dani's character development was dealing with a mystical allure which drew the worst of humanity to her and destroyed their self-control.  But even then, not every man was after her.  It was a minority.

Don't get me wrong, that minority does a lot of harm, far out of proportion to the simple numbers.  But it's important to never forget that they are a minority, that they can be identified, stood up to, and stopped.  The rest of us should not have to live under constant fear.

When I began studying martial arts, my sensei told me something which has always stuck with me: 

If someone puts their hands on you without your permission, then you can assume that they are planning to kill you and react accordingly.  You don't need to wait for them to hurt you.  You don't need to wait for them to prove themselves.  You are within your rights to defend yourself as you see fit.

Now, he also taught us ways to escape, disable and prevent, but if it came to the ultimate threat, he wanted his pupils to not be the ones who ended up in a hospital or morgue.

As I watch the accusations roll in, followed by backlashes of predators claiming that they were only joking, I find myself wondering how many of them would be willing to grope and grab if they knew that one action would eliminate all of their rights.  Would it be worth it if they knew that squeeze or fondle would open the door to physical pain?  If the judges and police of this world stepped back and said "He was asking for it."

As writers, I feel we have the responsibility to be aware of how the stories we tell impact society.  We can choose to reinforce the expectations or we can choose to expand them.  We can educate and inspire changes.  So to all my fellow NaNoWriMo people out there, I'd urge you to take a moment to think before using sexual assault in your stories.  Decide if that is really the story you want to tell, and if it is, make sure that it's told well.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Weekly Update: November 5 to 11

(First off, apologies to all of those who were looking for this on Monday.  I hadn't realized it hadn't gone up since I put the wrong date on the scheduled post.)

Weekly word count: (checking NaNoWriMo site): 9 313

Whew!  That's way better than I've been doing.  So a few things are clearly working for me:

1) Staying up late to write rather than trying to do it in the afternoon and early evening while I am also trying to keep an eye on the kids.

2) Using the weekend for writing blitzes instead of blogging or tweet-boarding or other writing business.

3) Getting to enter a daily word count and watching the overall progress on a graphic.

The staying up late has been a problematic success.  I'm getting less sleep, which is taking a toll on both my alertness and productivity, but on those days when I've skipped writing, I find I still have a hard time falling asleep and I feel frustrated and irritable.  So there's no real win either way.  Ideally, I'd like to have my early afternoons available for writing again (or heck, the whole day while the kids are at school) but that's not a reality right now and I'm not going to put myself on hold until it is.

I've started using the post-school to kids' bedtime hours to do my blogging, planning my tweets and managing the business of writing.  Again, not ideal, but I find it easier to divide my attention between those tasks and parenting than I do when I try to be creative and parent at the same time.

I wouldn't have though the graphic would be such a motivator.  After all, I've always included my weekly word count in these posts and I hate when I have to report a 0 week.  But getting to enter information every day is proving to be a good counter to my bouts of mental inertia.  I think I'd have to be careful about it, since I'm already finding that the projected "here's where you need to be" total is a dragging discouragement.  But it would be great to have a similar graphic on my own site that I could see on a regular basis.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Heroine Fix: Willow Rosenburg, Witch, Redhead, Genius

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

Anyone who knows me knows that I love Buffy the Vampire SlayerI quote it frequently, still sing the songs from "Once More With Feeling" and have a huge crush on James Marsters.  But it was the female characters that really brought the series home for me, and the one that inspired me the most was Willow Rosenburg, as played by Alyson Hannigan.  

She was smart.  She was cheerful.  She was powerful.  She was a redhead.  There were many levels of connection and inspiration for me.  One of the things I thought was most inspiring about her was her willingness to be entirely genuine about how she felt, what she thought and what she wanted.  Unlike Cordelia, who hid behind a mask of cool, Willow embraced herself in all her glory.  She gushes about Sunnydale High's library, gets excited about chicken feet and quartz crystals, and gives her whole heart to her friends and partners.

One of the first things that struck me about her character was how she seemed impervious to the darkness around her.  When her clothes are mocked, she glances down at herself and is confused, but she also shrugs it off quickly.  She isn't interested in being one of the popular girls, because the popular girls don't get to do research in the library or hack into city hall or do magic like Willow gets to do.

When it came to love, Willow's first on screen interests were Xander (who was oblivious), Carmine (who was a vampire planning to kill her), and Malcolm (ancient demon hiding in the Internet and planning to destroy the world).  It would have been very easy to portray Willow as the naive damsel in distress but that's not how it works in the Whedonverse.  She might be naive but she's no pushover.  When she realizes that Malcolm is really Moloch the Corruptor, she hits him with an axe, shouting "I think we should break up!"  With Carmine, she resists being dragged into the graveyard, challenging his assertion that it's a short cut.  And although she knows Xander is never going to see her as a romantic interest, that doesn't stop her from being his best friend and wanting the best for him.

Then Willow finally got someone who woke up and recognized the awesome: Oz.  From the first moment he saw her in her Eskimo costume, to the moment he started the best asking out moment in screen history, Willow had him wrapped around her little finger.

Oz: I'm gonna ask you to go out with me tomorrow night.  And I'm kinda nervous about it, actually it's interesting.
Willow: Oh.  Well, if it helps at all, I'm gonna say yes.
Oz: Yeah, it helps.  It creates a comfort zone.
But Willow doesn't take advantage of Oz's devotion.  She supports him whole-heartedly, helping him to graduate and adjust to the whole being a werewolf thing.  She's not perfect (and as a teenager, she shouldn't be).  While she is with Oz, she and Xander end up flirting with a relationship, but Willow does what few of us would have the strength to do: she walks away from the dream of her first crush to focus on her real feelings for Oz.  When he decides he has to leave because he's unable to handle his lycanthrophy, Willow is devastated.

She doesn't stay crushed for long, though.  Personally, as someone who has always fought depression, I found Willow's ability to get back up and genuinely find the joy in the face of despair to be one of her most inspiring qualities.  She wasn't white-knuckling her way through life, hiding her tears.  Instead, she was sad but hadn't lost herself in it.  And soon, she found someone new: Tara.

It took Willow awhile to understand how her feelings for Tara were going far beyond friendship and a magical pairing, but once she did, she never looked back.  She accepted who she was and how she felt without any sign of angst.  Their relationship was one of the great love stories of the Whedonverse, but like all Whedon love stories, it ended badly.

When Tara died in her arms, Willow goes full dark side.  She is ready to rip apart the fabric of reality so that everyone can share in her pain.  Forget roaring to the heavens, Willow gets right to business.  I believe it spoke to the depths of her agony and love.  When Oz left, it hurt, but when Tara was taken from her, she was ready to hurt back.  And there is nothing that anyone can do to stop her.  She is more powerful than Buffy.  Xander reminds her of who she truly is, standing defenseless in front of her.  "You've been my best friend my whole life.  World's gonna end, where else would I wanna be?....  you're about to do something apocalyptically evil and stupid.  And, hey, I still wanna hang!  You're Willow."  And I agree with him.  Even at the end of the world, I'd want to hang with Willow, too.

And despite hitting a level of despair that most people can only nightmare about, Willow still opens her heart yet again to love Kennedy, one of the proto-Slayers from the final season.  Because being open is a big part of who Willow is.

In the episode "Doppelgangland" Willow faced the vampire dominatrix version of herself, a juxtaposition which showed the core of the character brilliantly.  Vampire Willow broke a vampire's fingers asking: Who do you work for?  When the vampire told her, she did it one more time, so he could understand that now he worked for her.  She walked into a bar and when someone was a jerk to her, she tilted her head, said "Bored now" and flung him across the room.  Good Willow helps Anya with a spell to retrieve her lost necklace, puts herself in danger to rescue the hostages at the Bronze, and makes the wonderful joke that she and Oz play Mistress of Pain every night.  

Both Willows are unreserved.  Vampire Willow loves the fact that in her world there are people in chains and she can ride them like ponies.  When Anya's spell goes wrong, Willow seizes her chicken feet and storms out.  Both Willows take action to solve their problems rather than waiting for someone else to solve them.  Both make jokes and are focused on what they want.  Although Buffy and the others hasten to reassure Willow that the vampire version of her is nothing like the original, the truth is that the parts that make Willow stay consistent no matter where her moral compass is pointed.

But there's a dark side to always being open.  Willow struggles with addiction, becoming intoxicated with magic.  She likes feeling powerful and being able to solve problems with the flick of a finger.  Of course, just because she can make people do what she wants doesn't mean that she should, but it's so easy that she fails to resist the temptation.  Her life spirals down out of control and she has to work hard to get it back on track and earn back the trust of Tara and her friends.

It would have been typical for the show's writers to put Willow in a position where she is tempted to use magic again and show her growth by refusing.  Instead, they put Willow in a situation where she must use magic in order to save the world.  After a season of struggling to keep herself closed, Willow had to trust herself again and open herself to everything she truly is: a witch, a hero and a helper.

She connects with the magic and activates every potential Slayer across the globe.  The sequence of girls and women standing up to face their fears and tormentors is one that still triggers a straightening of my spine.  And Willow did it, not through denial of herself, but by embracing herself.

That's worthy of celebration.  Willow was the inspiration for the heroine of my first novel, the one still under my bed because writing a heroine who is cheerful and happy and faces adversity without flinching was beyond my newbie skills.  But I still love the story and the character and hope that one day, I'll have the writing skills to bring her to life.  

Are you addicted to strong and intriguing heroines like I am?  You can sign up to get each month's Heroine Fix by email and then you'll never miss the next fix.

I'm still in a witchy mood, so next month, I'll be looking at one of my favourite romantic comedy heroines: Sally Owens from Practical Magic.

"Sometimes, when the wind is warm or the crickets sing... 
I dream of a love that even time will lie down and be still for."

Monday, 6 November 2017

Weekly Update: October 29 to November 4

Weekly word count: 67oo words

After last week's writing success, I knew I couldn't go back to hit or miss sessions at home.  Trying to write between supper and the kids' bedtime just wasn't working.  There was always something ready to interrupt.  So I've switched to writing from 9 until 11 in the evening.  There's a definite downside to this: less sleep, since I need at least 30 minutes to unwind after shutting down the computer (and usually it's more like an hour).  There have also been a few days when I looked at the previous day's work and realized it was completely incoherent towards the end.  But I'm having fewer non-productive days.

I'm also pleased to report that my Nanowrimo account is up and running.  I don't find the website to be very intuitive but it is gratifying to watch my little total creep up.  (Or at least it is now that I figured out that I have to enter a cumulative total since November 1st rather than a daily total in the update section.)  Anyone who wants to buddy up can find me under Jennifer Carole Lewis (not imaginative, but direct).

I've been debating whether or not I want to enter Inquisition in a contest.  It's not too expensive to enter, but I have to send signed physical copies for the entry.  It's tempting since I still would really like to be able to add "Award Winning" to my name, but I did a lot of contests in 2016 and there wasn't much of a return.  

This month's ORWA workshop with Susanna Kearsley was amazing.  Her explanation of the techniques for weaving multiple storylines was invaluable and brought me a lot of clarity on things that I've done intuitively.  

November is going to be nose to the grindstone month.  Fingers crossed that I can begin the editing process by December 4th.  I'm in the mid-twenties of a planned forty-five chapter outline and getting to explore a lot of fascinating themes, like the dark side of Peter Pan and interspecies fertility.  This is the part of writing that I love: the chance to story-splore.  

Thursday, 2 November 2017

The Awesomeness of Women's Friendships

This is one area where I think women have got a leg up on men: our ability to have great friendships.

Last week, I spent a week at a Charleston beach house with an amazing group of women.  I didn't know the vast majority of them before I arrived but by the end, we knew each other's stories, had laughed enough to make our ribs hurt, shared some painful moments from our pasts, and were hugging one another like family.

I've been very lucky to have some amazing female friends throughout my life.  They've been there for me through some of the most awful times in my life and some of the most exciting times, too.  These are friends who will help me however I need, and while I've never needed to test this assertion, I am firmly convinced that if I called them and said I needed help getting rid of a body, they'd be there in under an hour with shovels.

With all the talk about how common assault is and how often women are told to be afraid (don't do <blank> because you might get hurt), I think we sometimes forget how powerful women are in groups.

One woman might have trouble standing up for herself.  She might freeze and be uncertain how to proceed in the moment.  But three women together can have two Amazons to draw on.  I've seen it again and again as women closed ranks against the insulting jerk or the leering letch and made him regret opening his mouth.  Even if it's another woman who's seeking to draw some verbal blood, good girlfriends will have each other's back.

It's easier to stand up for someone else than it is to do it for yourself.  And it's easier to stand up for yourself when you know that someone else has your back.

It disappoints me that the female friendship often seems to be an all or nothing proposition when it comes to stories.  Sex and the City and Thelma and Louise had plots that revolved entirely around female friendships, but too often there's a lone female cast member who never has another woman to talk to (unless they're discussing men, which you often see in romantic comedies).

I want to know who Black Widow hangs out with when she's had a shitty day and needs to unwind with some popcorn and watch Lucifer.  I'd love to see Wonder Woman kicking back with Hawkgirl and complaining about how Batman leaves his shit all over the Justice League headquarters.  Because that's side of real women that's worth celebrating: our ability to share and support one another.

Maybe I'm biased, having just gotten to experience it firsthand and having such friendships that have lasted longer than the Jurassic Park franchise.  Maybe I'm just suffering from an overdose of Grrrl Power.  Or maybe it's that the older I get, the more I realize how wonderful it is to have someone that I can both laugh and cry with, where there is no pressure to fit into a prescribed societal mode.  

To the ladies who made the Charleston trip such fun: may your upcoming year be full of profit, pleasure, and discovery.

To the women who have stood by me since my awkward high school days (and the new additions to the collective who have joined us since): I would not still be here without you and I am hugely proud of you all.  You deserve everything in life and if you need a shovel, just tell me when and where.

To all the women out there: please, take a moment to reach out to your girlfriends and tell them how amazing they are.  

As healing and cathartic (and necessary) as it is to focus on the crap that life continues to deliver, it is also important to celebrate the great.  Because the great is what's going to get us through the crap.