Thursday, 27 June 2019

Hidden Diamond: An Interview with Olivia Dade

There are lots of great authors and books out there, so many that it can be hard for readers to find the books they love to read.  So I want to share the gems hidden among the chaos.  Each month, I'll feature a new Hidden Diamond author.

I am very excited to share this month's Hidden Diamond, Olivia Dade.  I first met this lovely woman through a weekly romance author chat on Twitter and quickly formed an online friendship through our mutual quirky sense of humour.  Then I had the chance to meet her in person last year at the RWA national conference and discovered that she is just as lovely, witty, and caring in real life as she is online.  And she writes some of the most wonderful, three-dimensional characters that I've ever read.  Her latest book, Teach Me, has become my go-to summer reading recommendation.  It features an educational romance between two teachers, a statuesque ice queen and a slightly dorky cinnamon roll of a hero.  And I'm looking forward to Desire and the Deep Blue Sea with its fake relationship, a pair of librarians, and a week on a tropical paradise reality show.

Without further ado, here is my interview with Olivia.

What is the wildest thing you've done to research a book?

One of my upcoming books features a forty-year-old heroine and a twenty-something, former-tennis-pro hero. My exhaustive pursuit of literary excellence, then, required staring intensely at my favorite tennis players as they ran, sweated, emitted grunts of efforts, and bent over from the waist at satisfying intervals. Sometimes—through endless, hard, Google-related work—I even located videos of them training shirtless and/or immersed (again, shirtless) in ice baths after their matches!

I know, I know. It’s sheer lunacy. No one expects writers to sacrifice so much for their stories, but I am fiercely committed to realism in my work, down to the tiniest details. I asked myself all the important questions, such as: How do endless lunges and squats affect the curve of a tennis pro’s posterior? Also, would he make those same sounds in bed?

You’re welcome.

What is your writing process? 

I’ve always, always worked best alone and in silence. Other parts of my writing process have changed over time, though. I’ve become much more of a plotter than I used to be, because—as I’ve discovered—without an overarching framework for a story, I tend to overlook key elements as I write. For instance, something story experts call “a plot.”

Before I begin drafting a story, I now write down my story arc, which gives basic information about the main characters (their appearances, their backgrounds, their goals and motivations and fears) and delineates key plot points. It also traces developments in the romantic relationship and the progression of individual characters’ internal arcs.

I put a lot of thought into that document, so I tend to follow it somewhat closely when I draft—and if I deviate too much from it, I often find I’ve written myself into a corner or gone wrong in some other way. But since I don’t determine the details of various scenes ahead of time, I still have plenty of room for creativity and improvisation as I write.

The process works well for me, but one of the great joys of writing, I think, is seeing how radically different processes can all lead to equally amazing books. So if your process is very, very different from mine, please don’t question yourself or despair! :-)

What is your favourite thing to do to relax?

Reading. Always and forever.

Who is your favourite fictional crush?

This answer changes all the time, but I’ll tell you about my latest crush.

So here’s the story: I’ve never had HBO, I don’t enjoy violence, and I need happy endings. Thus, I did not watch Game of Thrones. However. A month or two ago, my Twitter timeline was abuzz in a shipping frenzy over two characters on the show, Jaime and Brienne. Idly, I clicked on a GIF of the fictional couple.

You should know that when I re-watched Wimbledon (the movie) last year, the first time a particular secondary character showed up on-screen, I gasped and immediately paused the movie to find out what other movies he was in and—more importantly—whether any of those movies included full-frontal nudity. That secondary character was, of course, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. At that point, I must have seen that he acted in Game of Thrones, but again, the whole HBO/violence thing stopped me from pursuing the matter further.

But then. But then. All those Jaime/Brienne GIFs! All those Jaime/Brienne video clips! That FACE! That face GAZING ADORINGLY AT BRIENNE/GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE!

Dear reader, I shipped them. And here’s the glory of the internet: I could repeatedly watch a 48-minute supercut of scenes starring Jaime and Brienne without seeing any of the stuff I didn’t care about or found off-putting. (Such as, say, twincest. Or pushing a kid out a window. Or anything involving any of the other characters.)

Basically, Game of Thrones might as well be called Game of Jaime and Brienne for me, and I’m not even sorry.

P.S. In my head canon, they end up on Tarth, where she’s in charge of everything important and he devotes himself entirely to her sexual satisfaction and making her smile with his sly wit and punching anyone who doesn’t sufficiently admire and respect her. THE END.

And in the spirit of the ongoing Joss Whedon debate, who would win: astronauts or cavemen?

Oddly, even though I could have written like twenty more pages about Jaime and Brienne, I have no answer for this. I want to say cavewomen? Somehow?

Your technique for incorporating organic and non-distracting description is amazing.  Do you have suggestions for authors looking to do vivid descriptions with a minimum of interruption to the flow?

This is very, very kind of you. I want to be clear: I am not naturally skilled at writing description. In fact, about two or three years ago, I decided to draft a story specifically designed to push myself in that area, because I realized descriptive passages were a major weakness in my writing. (The story was a futuristic gothic, which featured entire chapters with no dialogue or sex. Dialogue and sex come pretty easily to me as a writer; evocative descriptions do not, but they are crucial in gothic romances.)

My basic rule is this: Any description has to serve an important purpose. It is not an end in itself. Sometimes, it’s there to orient readers and allow them to picture the characters or a particular setting (especially the first time a character appears or a setting is used). Other times, it’s there for symbolic or foreshadowing purposes, or because it reveals something about a character and/or their emotions and/or the plot. I’ll also include descriptions that are funny, and thus serve the tone of my story.

Even if the description is serving one or more of those purposes, I generally try to keep it brief, because I worry about pacing. I don’t want readers to get bored and set down the book, never to return.

Also, the best description is vivid, with punchy language. It comes from the POV character’s perspective, distinctive to what that particular person would notice and how they would describe it. I’m still working on that part of things, and I highly recommend reading Joanna Bourne’s books as exemplars of POV-infused description. She’s a master.

How do your story ideas come to you?  Do you start with a scene, a character, a concept or something else?

Different books emerge in very different ways for me. For example: the book I mentioned earlier, with the former-tennis-pro hero and forty-year-old heroine? The original idea for that story came from me randomly watching the French Open and thinking idly to myself, “You know, 40-Love would be a great title for a romance.” It’s my only story that ever sprang to life entirely from a title idea.

In “Cover Me” (a novella originally published in the Rogue Acts anthology, which I’m bundling with another story and republishing later this year), I wanted to write a romance about health insurance and breast cancer. Teach Me came from my desire to explore (sexily!) how toxic masculinity hurts people of all genders. So thematic/plot elements sometimes drive me to write a story.

Sometimes, I’ll decide I want to write a particular type of character. An absentminded-professor type of hero (such as Thomas in Desire and the Deep Blue Sea), or a latter-day-hippie heroine (such as Lucy in Tiny House, Big Love), or…anything that sounds interesting to me.

Other times, a certain plot element might drive me. For the longest time, I wanted to write a contemporary romance where one of my main characters would propose to the other—with the expectation/fervent hope of getting turned down. The other character would say yes, even though they didn’t want to get engaged either. Then each of them would try to get the other to dump them…even as they both fell in love. It took me years to figure out what particular set of circumstances would make that sequence of events plausible and fun! But I finally worked it out, so I hope to write that story soon.

Finally, if I end up obsessed with a particular television show or movie or sport or…whatever? It’s showing up in a book, in one form or another. :-)

To me, that’s one of the other absolute joys of writing: Your stories can come from anywhere. Literally anywhere. Obsessive viewing of tiny house shows? Sure. Ogling Dominic Thiem’s very fine ass? Definitely. Shipping a particular couple on a violent television show and ignoring literally everything else about the show, including the on-screen death of half that couple? Oh, JUST YOU WAIT.

Thank you, Olivia, for being one of my Hidden Diamonds!  And if you'd like your own copies of Olivia's books or to follow her on social media, you can find her here.

And thank you for joining us!  Come back next month on July 25th for the next Hidden Diamond.  Or check out last month's double feature of Rayanne Haines and Barbara Nolan.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Weekly Update: June 16-22

Weekly word count: 3059

Another difficult week and one that's got me thinking about what I'm going to do next.  There are a lot of balls in the air and some of them have got to go.

There will be some difficult decisions ahead.  As much as I wish everything was going to happen smoothly, the last year has shown differently.  I keep hoping that I'll get back to a manageable situation and so far it has eluded me.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Hidden Talents

For this week's blog post, I thought I'd take a trip down one of the "what if" thought paths that inspire my writing.

All hope abandon, yadda, yadda, yadda...
I often find myself wondering what hidden talents people have.  Not just the skills they posses but don't publicize (like when I found out a friend of mine worked as a professional magician's assistant for two years), but talents that they themselves don't know they have.

How many of us have talents that we never know about because we're never put in a situation where we would know about them?

Maybe that businesswoman picking up a double shot of expresso would be a skilled hunter with superior spear throwing abilities.  Maybe there's a child in a developing country who could solve the unified field equation or who could create a brilliant new coding language.

I first started thinking about such hidden talents when I learned the story of Arthur Currie (not Aquaman, an actual Canadian who served in World War II).  He wasn't particularly exceptional, until he found himself in the trenches and discovered he had a talent for large battlefield logistics.  His tactical plans led to several pivotal victories.  If he had lived at a different time and place, no one would have ever known he had such skills.

This is one of the aspects I love about post-apocalyptic storylines, the idea of people discovering strengths in themselves they've never suspected.  (Okay, I also love it in a lot of other stories, too.)

In JMS's Midnight Nation, the characters visit a vault where all of the undone projects are.  The really funny novel that Dostoevsky was going to write when he was done being so depressing.  Einstein's unified field theory.  Light-weight tornado-proof construction material that could be made out of recycling.  Renewable, sustainable energy sources.  All undiscovered because the people who would have thought of them took different paths in life.  The idea of this kind of sanctuary of the unknown fascinates me.

Some of my friends find the concept of unknown talents to be depressing.  The idea that someone could spend their lives in mediocrity, never known that they could have been exceptional in some way, bothers them.  I find it has the opposite effect on me.  No matter how many challenges grind a person down, everyone still has the potential to be transcendent.  And it gives me the courage to try things even when I don't think I'll be very good at them, because what if this is the key that unlocks one of my hidden talents?

To me, the real shame would be if I never gave myself a chance.

Previous blog post: Seeing Ourselves in DC's Sara Lance 

Blog homepage

Monday, 17 June 2019

Weekly Update: June 9 to 15

What do you get when you take a 1000 word per day goal and divide it by a low grade fever?  Unfortunately, the math works out to not a lot of words.

That's right.  Biology won this week, as I dealt with a household full of sick people, including myself.  

I don't often get sick (something for which I'm grateful) but this time it has really knocked me down.  It's been hard to accept that I don't have the mental or physical energy to do much of anything.  Even watching a movie proved to be more of an intellectual challenge than I was up for.

I'm slowly on the path to recovery.  (And yes, I did go see the doctor and unfortunately, this is one of those the-body-has-to-fix-it-themselves scenarios.)  Hopefully I'll have more progress to report next week.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Heroine Fix: Seeing Ourselves in DC's Sara Lance (The White Canary)

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature which examines characters whom I admire and who inspire the characters in my own writing.  This post will contain spoilers.

I've often said that DC's Legends of Tomorrow is one of my favourite shows these days.  It's got a great sense of humour and doesn't take itself too seriously, while still managing to touch on some powerful storylines and topics.  One of the most interesting characters on the time-travelling ship is the current captain, Sara Lance, also known as the White Canary.  She's a master assassin with off the chart weapon skills, trying to find her way to redemption.

When I first saw Sara Lance in her recurring role on Flash and Arrow, I'll admit that I somewhat dismissed her as another laconic action hero.  But as I got to know her through Legends, I saw the subtle nuances of her character, such as her sharp wit and quiet, but heartfelt, devotion to those she cares about.  Even though she literally has a time-ship, she has resisted the temptation to save her beloved sister's life, knowing it would cause chaos in the timeline.

Her reserve becomes more poignant when I knew that she was killed and then resurrected without a soul, becoming a feral, merciless killer.  As I got to know her better, I could see how much she fights against becoming that killer again.  It's a constant battle of vigilance, one that has held her back from making connections with others.  She holds herself back from her fellow Legends, but at the same time, she's ready to do whatever is necessary to protect them.

That's one of the reasons why it's been so satisfying to watch Sara grow into her role as captain and mentor.  And most satisfying of all, she's allowed herself to fall in love (and even picture a future with), Ava Sharpe, the head of the Time Bureau.  The episode The Eggplant, the Witch and the Wardrobe (S4E12), where Sara and Ava have to navigate an IKEA analog to their relationship is funny and heartwarming.

Characters like Sara often stay one-dimensional.  They're there to kick-ass and do the impossible.  They often stay mired in tragedy, but one of the reasons why I like Sara and Legends is that they allow her to be happy.  It's not easy, and she has to work for it, but there's a chance.  And yet, Sara hasn't had to give up any of her skills in order to be "worthy" of love.

And since it is Pride Month, it also seems worthwhile to mention that her sexuality has been handled with respect.  She is openly bisexual, and doesn't hide it.  Her attraction to men and women isn't played for laughs, or put solely into subtext, and she's certainly doesn't fall into the indiscriminate sleeps-with-anyone stereotype.  When she falls in love, it's powerful and meaningful.

If she had stayed on Arrow, she would have stayed in a bleak and dark world, but moving to Legends allowed her to explore other aspects of her character, lightening her up and giving her more depth.  It's been fun watching her explore different times and cultures, from disco queen to cowboy to medieval knight.

One of my favourite storylines is when when she goes back to the 1950s and meets a young nurse just beginning to explore her own sexuality.  Sara has gotten a job undercover at the asylum/hospital.  When she sees a doctor sexually harassing the nurse, she comes to the nurse's defense, "accidentally" slamming a drawer into the doctor.  The two of them talk, and Sara shares that she likes girls as well as boys.  The nurse shyly admits that she likes girls.  Later, it's revealed that Sara's encouragement let the nurse gain the courage to live openly as a lesbian.  I'm sure it wouldn't have been easy, but I often think about that moment.  How one opportunity to be seen can make all the difference in granting someone the courage to be happy rather than spending their lives trying to pretend to be something other than what they are.

Those are the little moments where we can all be heroes.  Where we can give encouragement rather than passive silence.  I think it also highlights why representation is so important, because it can make a real difference.

There are lots of people who can see themselves in Sara.  Those who have horrible deeds in their past and who want to atone for them.  Those who are in a position of responsibility and are struggling to find the balance between leadership and mentorship.  Those who are haunted by temptation to take actions that will benefit them personally but which could have negative effects on the rest of the world.  Those who find themselves at a distance from others because of their skills, but who want to have friendships or romantic relationships.  And those who are sexually attracted to more than one of the genders.

Having her succeed on screen gives them all a chance to believe they can succeed in real life.

Previous post: The Despair Moment in Romance (My Favourite Part)

Blog homepage


Monday, 10 June 2019

Writing Update: June 2-8

Weekly word count: 3456 

A difficult week but still plugging away.  The highlight was the ORWA social.  It's always great to hang out with everyone and giggle and swap stories.  I got some good advice on a challenge I've been having and a new author photo (We hired a professional photographer to come and do pictures for us, which worked out really nicely because we were able to split the costs.)

These are the kind of little things that make all the difference in an otherwise solitary career.  And it's why I suggest finding a writing group, either in person or online.  It makes such a difference when you can talk to other people who are in the same situations (or have been in the same situations) as you.

Only a few weeks left before the kids are home for the summer.  This school year has flown by and I'm feeling as if I've not done as much as I should have.  And yet, I have to remember to be gentle with myself and not drag myself down further with "I should have..."

Thursday, 6 June 2019

The Despair Moment in Romance (My Favourite Part)

This may seem contradictory, since I've long said that the main reason why I read romance is for the reminder that no matter how bleak things seem, there is always a spark of hope waiting to ignite a happily ever after, but my favourite part of any romance novel is the despair moment (also known as the black moment).

This is the moment when everything seems impossible.  When there are huge, seemingly impenetrable barriers between the love interests.  (To cite a few movie examples, in While You Were Sleeping, it's when Sandra Bullock's character decides to marry coma guy instead of his brother, whom she has fallen in love with, because he won't tell her how he feels; or in The American President, when Michael Douglas torpedoes Annette Bening's environmental legislation in a Washington Hill deal.)

The despair moment has always been the part of the story which stands out in my memory.  If the story has been written well, when that moment hits I am living the experience with the characters.  I feel all of their pain because I am completely invested in them.

I am also strangely drawn to despair moments that include the apparent death of one of the main characters.  I'm not a fan of fridging (hurting/killing a female character to motivate a male character), but there is something primally powerful about a character who truly believes that they have lost the person who defined their existence.  (It counts as a faux death rather than fridging if the following criteria have been met: 1) the relationship between the characters has been an ongoing focus of the story so that the readers/audience are invested in both characters; and 2) the "death" is resolved to still give a happy ending.)

I think the reason this particular version of the despair moment resonates with me is because there is a brutal honesty to it.  When a character believes their love is gone, they no longer have any reason for fakery or coolness.  It's a vulnerable exposure of everything they've been too afraid to say.

One of the earliest narrative memories I have is from a Saturday morning cartoon.  I don't even remember which one it was, but I remember the scene vividly.  There had been hints of a romantic relationship between two characters (hints I always devoured because even as a child, I was a shipper).  One of them was poisoned and despite heroic efforts, died.  The other walked away from her bedside, ignoring all the others.  He went outside into the rain, fell to his knees and howled his anguish to the skies.  (It turned out that she was not dead though!  The poison mimicked death so that the bad guy could kidnap her for a reason which I no longer remember but the good guys rescued her and then they went back to the not-saying-anything-to-each-other holding pattern.)

In the TV show Fringe, a romantic relationship develops between Peter and Olivia, the two leads over the course of four seasons.  (Spoiler coming for those who haven't seen the show.)  At the end of season four, Peter's father shoots Olivia in the head to stop the world from ending.  The naked despair on Peter's face as he runs to her side and begs her to be okay is heartbreaking.  He is absolutely broken in this moment and I could see the regret for all the lost opportunities where he didn't have the courage to share his feelings.  (But it turns out that his father has a way to heal her, once the bad guys are convinced their plan has failed.)

Turning to a book example, in Kristen Ashley's Breathe, the heroine is buried alive with a cell phone to say goodbye to the hero.  She tells him that she loves him and she doesn't want him to be destroyed by her death, she wants him to live on and be happy.  He is tearing apart the entire town and crossing some serious moral lines in his search because he's realized he doesn't care about anything else, not his profession, not his reputation, nothing except her.  Because if he loses her, he loses everything.  (He does find her and she's okay.)

These moments don't happen easily.  It takes a lot of careful work to make certain the readers/audience are connecting with both characters and want them to succeed.  The despair situation needs to feel natural and not contrived, and hopefully it comes as something of a shock.  It should violate the happily-ever-after expectation (and then swoop in and make it even happier than expected), convincing the reader/audience that this time might actually be the last.

When it's done properly, it shows a truth that can't be revealed any other way.

Most of us will thankfully never have to experience this kind of pain.  Which is good because such deaths are rarely fakes in the real world.  But I think the appeal lies in knowing incontrovertibly how someone else feels.  If a person throws themselves on a grenade, or shelters you with their body, then that's an instinctive reaction which can't be faked.  Losing something makes us realize how much we truly value it and reveals our ego-protective excuses as meaningless.  It brings everything into clarity, and real life is rarely clear.  But in the stories we read or watch, that moment is priceless.

So it isn't contradictory that I love both the despair moment and romance's promise of hope.  The happily ever after is the reason why I love the despair moment because I can trust the author to take me from the pain into joy.  And that's what keeps me going.

Previous blogpost: a Hidden Diamond double feature: Barbara Nolan and Rayanne Haines

Blog homepage

Monday, 3 June 2019

Weekly Update: May 26 to June 1

Weekly word count: 6125

I tried something new this week.  Usually, I write to the clock.  I have 1.5-2 hours to write most weekdays and often it's the alarm that pulls me out and reminds me that I have other things to take care of.

However, over the last month or two, I've noticed that the time seemed to be dragging and I would finish my writing time feeling worn out.  This started a cycle where I was slower to start writing, which led to even less productivity.

I think part of it was the timing.  I was starting writing at 2 or 2:30 in the afternoon (and 3-4 is just a dead zone for my circadian rhythm).  And it's been emotionally exhausting and demanding in my day job for the last six months, so I wasn't exactly starting from a place of "go get 'em, tiger" enthusiasm.

So this week, I asked my day job if I could finish my work at 1 and make up the additional time doing admin work in the evening.  I also decided to write to the word count instead of the clock.  When I noticed I'd reached 1000 words for the day, that was it, even if I was on a roll.

The result is a much higher word count than I've had at any time in the last two months (outside of the writing retreat, which is always an outlier).  I'm going to keep on with this strategy (as long as my day job is comfortable with the split day).

This is something that aspiring authors need to be aware of.  Your writing process isn't a fixed thing.  What works best will change as you and your circumstances change.  Don't be afraid to mix things up if what worked before isn't working now.