Monday, 30 March 2020

Weekly Update: March 22 to 28

No writing last week but I did get Division finished and sent in for line edits.

I tried writing but was having real trouble.  I wasn't sure if it was due to a plot problem, stress or the distraction of having the kids home and having to serve as homeschool teacher, not to mention trying to do some day job work each day.

I did my usual check to see if the issue is with a project or with me.  I tried some fanfic writing and I was having a lot more trouble than usual with that, too.  Which tells me that I need to be gentle with myself and recognize the difficulties I'm having.

On Friday, I got my official lay off due to lack of work (in turn due to the necessity of socially isolating).  So the day job is gone until we're not having to restrict ourselves at home any more.  Very relieved to be in Canada, where the government is giving decent support to those of us facing this situation.

I didn't do a tarot draw last week, but I did one for this week.  I drew Temperance for the past, which indicates moderation and blending.  For the present, I drew the nine of coins which indicates self-reliance and financial security.  (Side note: I was going to be the nine of coins in a living tarot deck photoshoot that a friend of mine was putting together.  I had a costume all ready and everything.  But the shoot never happened and neither did the deck.  Ah well, opportunity lost.)  Back to this week's draw.  The future was the ten of staffs, the burden of success.

There has certainly been a lot of blending over the last week, trying to balance different roles in my life, the needs of my family and those of greater society, and the challenge of having four people stuck in a house together day in and day out.  I'm choosing to be a little reassured by the nine of coins, because I'm not feeling particularly financially secure right now.  And the ten of staffs makes sense as well, since part of the challenge right now is that fact that I have been able to do a lot of things with very little support and now people are expecting that I can continue to do it, when I don't know if I can.

I guess we'll find out.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Weekly Update: March 15-21

No words written this week but I did get Division ready for line edits.  And a whole week before the deadline!

I'm going to be taking a bit of a break over the next week.  One of my kids is sick (hopefully not with COVID-19, but we're being cautious).  I'm just going to concentrate on that for the next little while.

Hope everyone is staying sane and healthy.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Heroine Fix: The Many Faces of Harley Quinn

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature where I examine heroines who have inspired and influenced my own writing.  I take a closer look at why they've become real to me, and how the characters are constructed.  Warning: this post will contain spoilers, including ones for Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey.

The Batman DC Universe has been fairly well established since the Dark Knight first premiered in Detective Comics # 27 in 1939.  In 1992, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created a new character, a female counterpart to the Joker: Harley Quinn.  She was cheerful, a little ditzy, and absolutely devoted to her beloved Mr. J.  She was a fun villain without the intensity of Joker, making her entirely suitable for a Saturday morning cartoon.

The fans latched onto the character, making Harley Quinn into a phenomenon.

I was first introduced to the character in the 2002 TV series, Birds of Prey, where Mia Sara played Dr. Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn.  (If you haven't seen the series, I highly recommend it.  13 episodes of amazing comic book stories that were unfortunately ahead of their time.)  In Mia Sara's hands, the character was highly intelligent, frighteningly manipulative, and completely amoral.  She didn't have the same sense of whimsy as the cartoon, but she had the same fearlessness.  She was one of the first competent female villains that caught my attention.  She wasn't an adjunct to a more powerful male villain, she was a complete challenge in and of herself.

However, I think Margot Robbie's portrayal of Harley Quinn in both Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn offers an interesting opportunity to show how the same character can have very different interpretations in the hands of different writers and directors.

Suicide Squad was written and directed by David Ayer.  The movie has a lot of problems but a few characters shone through.  I still watch it for Harley Quinn and Deadshot's stories, both of which would have made wonderful movies in and of themselves.

Ayer played up Harley's insanity and impulsivity.  We were shown her backstory, how Dr. Harleen Quinzel fell in love with the Joker when she was treating him in Arkham asylum.  The way the story is told makes her seem like one of his victims.  It's clear that Joker is manipulating his psychiatrist, with the goal of gaining weapons and escaping.  He then takes her to Ace Chemicals and tells her that she needs to prove herself to him by dying for him.  He's about to walk away, leaving her to die, then changes his mind and dives into the chemicals after her.

That moment breaks Harleen, creating Harley Quinn.  She no longer has any fear and now indulges in whatever impulse she wants.  There's an aggressive callousness to her, which we see most clearly in the prison sequences, specifically when she is taunting the guards, both at her cell and when one slips her a phone from the Joker during transit.  She mocks them, demonstrating her contempt for them.  She shows a similar lack of concern for her fellow inmates, abandoning them as soon as the opportunity arises.

The turning point is when she thinks the Joker has died in a helicopter crash.  She returns to the squad, but still holds herself at a remove from them.  She doesn't seem to be taking what's happening seriously, breaking windows to steal designer purses and breaking into a bar for a drink.  If the bad guy succeeds in destroying the city, she seems to be fine with that.

What I think defines Harley's character in this movie is when the Enchantress tempts her with her greatest dream: a happy life with the Joker, not as the King and Queen of Crime, but as a loving, connected family.  It shows that for all her giddy recklessness, she's not happy with her life.  To me, it casts all of her actions in a new light.  She's modelling herself on what the Joker wants, in the hopes that he will eventually give her what she wants.

Her transformative moment in Suicide Squad is when it initially looks like she's going to join the Enchantress in exchange for resurrecting her Mr. J., but then attacks her, saying "you shouldn't have hurt my friends."  It's the first time she's demonstrated any loyalty to the Squad, or really, to anyone except the Joker.

My favourite moment in the movie is the very end, when she's back in her cell, but seems far more content than she did at the beginning.  She's reading a romance novel, Molly O'Keefe's Between the Sheets.  (Molly O'Keefe had a great reaction to seeing her book in the movie, something she didn't know about in advance.)  I think it's awesome that she's reading romance, particularly that book, which deals with a couple who both have trauma in their lives.  Harley's relationship with Joker isn't a good one, so I thought it was optimistic that she was reading about healthier relationships which are just as intense and passionate.

The fact that Margot Robbie plays Harley in both movies, and that Birds of Prey is a sequel to Suicide Squad gives us a great opportunity to compare the two depictions of the character.

Birds of Prey was written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan (with a nod to Paul Dini and Bruce Timm as Harley's creators).

I've seen people attributing the difference between the films to the fact that Suicide Squad was written and directed by a man, and hence used a dangerous Harley who was aggressively sexual, while Birds of Prey was written and directed by women, allowing a more nuanced, carefree character.  I think that may be part of it, but there's also a significant difference in the tone of the two films.  Suicide Squad is dark and depressing, despite their attempts to play up the comedy.  Birds of Prey was intended to be funny right from the beginning.  I think it's also significant that Harley is one of only two women in the Squad, and Katana is portrayed as devoted to her dead husband, without any sexual overtones.  Whether deliberate or unconscious, it set up the cliched Madonna-whore dyad between the two characters.  Harley is dangerous and sexual, Katana is virtuous and chaste.  Not my favourite trope, even if the film ended up being more sympathetic to Harley.

But I do absolutely love how Harley is portrayed in Birds of Prey.  At the beginning of the film, she's struggling to come to terms with the fact that the Joker dumped her.  There's also a surreal montage of her life before Arkham Asylum, revealing that Harleen was neglected by her parents, driving her to be a perfectionist overachiever but one with a a desperate need for affection and recognition.  It explains why she would be so vulnerable to the Joker's manipulations, without making her character entirely dependent on her relationship to him.

She's hiding the fact that she and Joker have broken up, still trading on his reputation to allow her access to Gotham's nightlife and free reign to treat people however she pleases.  Impulsively, she decides to blow up Acme Chemicals to prove to the world that she doesn't care about being broken up with Mr. J. and isn't getting back together with him.  The act alerts the entire criminal underworld that she is now unprotected.

Insecure narcissist and organized crime boss, Roman Sionis, decides to dish out a little payback to Harley for a long list of indignities.  She bargains for her life by agreeing to get a particular diamond for him, which leads to her kidnapping Cassandra Cain from the Gotham Police Department in a glitter and smoke cloud.  Unlike the gritty fight scenes in Suicide Squad, this fight sequence is light-hearted but still exciting.

Harley has long, rambling stream-of-consciousness speeches which are entertaining but also show insight into her character.  She's more than a little lost, searching for a sense of connection and belonging.  It makes her a much more relatable character.  She's not overtly sexual, but is still very carefree and not self-conscious about her body.  She also demonstrates more of her intelligence, reminding the audience that she has a medical degree.  She's impulsive and whimsical, but not stupid.

Harley's character arc centers around finding her community.  In the initial scenes, she shares her fondness for Sal (who makes the best egg sandwiches) and Doc, her landlord and the owner of the Taiwanese restaurant under her apartment.  She has a brief moment of friendship with Dinah Lance, who becomes the Black Canary, when Dinah protects a drunken Harley from being taken away by two men.  But there's no real sense of connection.  These encounters don't require or inspire Harley to modify her behaviour.

It's only when she takes in Cassandra that her actions begin to change.  As she so eloquently puts it: "You make me want to be a less terrible person."  It's the first time that someone has looked up to her and recognized her talents, rather than using or dismissing her.

Protecting Cassandra and fighting alongside the nascent Birds of Prey demonstrates that her brief flare of loyalty in Suicide Squad wasn't an anomaly.  She's still nowhere near being a hero, but the character is much more sympathetic and understandable in Birds of Prey than she was in Suicide Squad.  Most of the difference is conveyed in Margot Robbie's body language.  By removing the aggressive sexuality from her performance in Suicide Squad, the character immediately seems more innocent and childlike.  But she also has more understandable reasons for her actions and choices.

To me, the biggest difference is that in Birds of Prey, the story is centered around Harley in her own right.  In Suicide Squad, she is defined by her relationship with the Joker.  It motivates every choice she makes.  There's something celebratory in seeing a character break free from an abusive relationship and redefine themselves in their own terms.  And there's a cathartic vicarious enjoyment in a character who refuses to obey the rules of society.  Harley Quinn gives us both in Birds of Prey.

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Monday, 16 March 2020

Weekly Update: March 8 to 14 (COVID)

Weekly word count: 1735
Editing countdown: 38 chapters done, 10 to go, 2 weeks left to deadline.

I'm hoping to get Division done for line editing at the end of this week.  However, I'm going to have two kids home instead of at their March Break camps, so we'll see how that actually works out.

I keep telling myself that I'm not worried about the COVID pandemic.  Canada's got a pretty strong pandemic response and we're acting quickly to contain it.  I agree with statements like: if this ends up being no big deal and looking like we've overreacted, then we've done our job.  So I'm in favour of the measures taken.

That said, I'm finding it hard to keep my primal brain from getting into OMG territory.  I went to pick up groceries and found myself having a visceral reaction to the empty shelves.  I know there are more groceries arriving soon and there's no risk of a shortage (aside from perhaps the start of this week), but there's something about seeing those gaps that makes the back part of my brain start shouting.  And it's not fun to have to keep reminding myself that this is not a panic-necessary situation.  (In case you're curious, this is why so many of my characters have internal brain vs brain struggles.)

Fear is good.  Fear alerts you to a risk and give you the awareness and impetus to protect yourself.  Panic is not good.  (Though there is a theory that panic evolved as a last-ditch brainstorming method.  If you're in an about-to-die situation, then you might as well try anything because there's nothing to lose.  But we're not in an about-to-die situation.)

Last week's Tarot reading was the Chariot (balance), the seven of wands (hold firm), and the six of cups reversed (living in the past).  I'd pointed out that I have any number of ongoing situations which require me to find the balancing point between priorities and responsibilities.  And I'm stubborn, so holding firm is my jam.  But I didn't quite figure out what the living in the past card meant.  If it had been the Tower, then that would indicate a dramatic shift in the environment, but the six of cups is more about nostalgia and looking backwards instead of paying attention to what's in front of you.

This week's reading was the Devil reversed for the past.  That usually indicates a need for freedom, to break loose from the self-imposed restrictions holding you back.  For the present, I drew the Queen of Wands, reversed.  She could indicate a person working against my career ambitions, or be a warning against inflexibility.  The last card was the ace of coins for the future, a new venture/business or a material windfall.

Since I also have the Devil, I'm going to guess that the Queen is warning against inflexibility instead of indicating a person.  That would make sense in terms of consistency.  Coins deal with the physical world: housing and finances mostly.  So the ace is predicting a start of something unexpected financially.  Maybe my lotto ticket is about to pay off.

Hey, a girl can dream.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Advice for New Independent Authors

Making the transition from writing as a hobby to a career as an author involves a lot of decisions.  Today at Ottawa Romance Writers, we were offering advice for those who want to publish independently and I wanted to share it.

I will assume that a manuscript has been completed, professionally edited and that a cover is ready to go.  But now what?

First decision: do you want to distribute widely or stick with Amazon's Kindle Unlimited?

This decision will determine a lot of the choices that follow.  What tends to be currently popular on Kindle Unlimited are shorter stories (50k or less) with a frequent rate of publication (at least once a month).  Kobo and iBooks are claiming increasingly large shares of the publishing market, but going wide means not being able to participate in Kindle Unlimited.

If you decide to stick with Amazon and Kindle, then you only need to work with Amazon KDP.  If you would like to go wide and want to keep things simple, then I recommend Direct 2 Digital, which allows you to use one platform to access all of the online publishing options.  Personally, I also recommend publishing directly with Amazon, Kobo, and iBooks (though only if you have a Mac) but if you're just getting started, only having one spot to check can help to keep things manageable.

Second decision: set up your online presence.

First things first, I recommend setting up your website and your mailing list.  I use Mailchimp but I know authors who prefer Mailerlite.  For websites, you can go directly with Wordpress or a company like Wix or GoDaddy.  But your website is going to be the base for your presence online and, unlike social media, your mailing list is something you control.

After you have a website and a way for readers to sign up for your mailing list, then you'll need to decide how often you'll send out a newsletter or do a blog.  The book Newsletter Ninja has some great recommendations for creating an engaged newsletter audience.  And for authors who don't publish rapidly, a regular blog can be a good way to keep yourself in your readers' minds.  However often you decide to publish a blogpost, make sure it's a schedule you can keep up reliably.

Social media is still a good way to connect organically with readers, though most platforms now require you to pay in order to advertise.  There are lots of choices, so choose the ones that work best for you and match your interests and personality.  I find Hootsuite makes it easy for me to manage my social media feeds by scheduling posts in advance.

Third decision: what's your promotion strategy?

The biggest challenge to making sales as an author is discoverability, letting readers who would love your book know that it exists.  Increasing your discoverability takes both time and money, so it will be up to you to make a budget for both.

When I first began publishing, blog tours and bloggers were one of the best ways to introduce yourself to new readers.  Unfortunately, that's no longer as effective as it was.  A number of review sites require a fee to submit your book (which is fair, given how much time bloggers spend reading books, writing reviews, and promoting authors).

Paid advertising on Bookbub, Amazon, and Facebook can help you to reach new readers, but it will be up to you to decide how much you want to spend.  Kobo runs promotions for their directly published authors, but you need to apply for them.  Which means you need to apply regularly, which takes time.

Multi-author promotions can work, but often require an investment in swag or book giveaways.  Conferences will also give you an opportunity to connect with readers, but again require a substantial investment in time and money.

Finding a strategy that works for you will be a matter of trial and error and it will be constantly evolving as the market evolves.  Tracking which promotions you try and your sales can help you to figure out which strategies were most effective.

I wish I had a guaranteed "this will always work" option to offer, but sadly, what works for one author won't necessarily work for another.  This is one of the reasons why we spend so much time complaining about how hard writing can be.  Because it can be a frustrating challenge to spend so much time crafting a story that means so much to you, and then have to spend your time coaxing readers to give it a try instead of writing new stories.

But even with the frustration, it's still the best job I've ever had.  And I'm thrilled and honored with every new reader who decides to give me a chance.

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Monday, 9 March 2020

Weekly Update: March 1 to 7

Weekly Word Count: 4725
Editing Countdown: 26 chapters done, 3 weeks to go

It’s been a pretty productive week writing wise, though I need to keep reminding myself that this is not a sustainable model.  I’ve been using my regular weekday writing time to move forward on Until Proven Guilty.  I’ve set myself a fairly gentle word count goal of 2500 words per week, and thus far, I’ve been able to do that.

I’m editing in the evening after the kids have gone to bed, though I’ve needed to use one or two weekday writing spots when I’ve needed to substantially rework a scene.  This means I’m going to bed later than I usually would and I’m having a harder time falling asleep because I’m not having my usual “coax my brain to zone out” time in the evenings.  However, this will be something I can recover from once Division goes to the editor for line edits.

In the past, I’ve told myself that I should have a word count goal of 5000 words from my weekday spots and that I should also be trying to write 500 words on a secondary project at least 3 times in the week.  (With the somewhat arrogant assumption from my inner perfectionist, that I could do 500 words in the evening 7 days a week, if I wasn’t being so lazy.  I have words for that part of my brain, but they’re mostly profanities so I won’t repeat them here.)

I can’t do that.  I can manage to push myself for a short period but then I need a gap of no writing to recover and I end up further behind than if I’d just stuck to more moderate goals to begin with.  So I’ll use it when I’m coming up on a deadline, but otherwise, I’m trying to be better about saying “it’s okay if this is what you can do” to myself.

Last week’s Tarot reading was the nine of Swords, reversed (nightmares/depression), the Hanging Man reversed (end of limbo), and the four of coins reversed (money problems).  I speculated it might have something to do with my statement from Soul Mate Publishing coming in.  And it certainly does fit the first two.  I’ve had a lot of anxiety, wondering what my first three months of sales were like (and I’m always expecting the worst).  Receiving the report that details the number of sales and borrows from KU put an end to that.  For better or for worse, I know how it went now.  And for the record, it actually did fairly decently, compared to my other most recent releases.  However, it doesn’t quite fit the “money problems” prediction.  Granted, it would be an issue if I was planning to live on those royalties, but that’s never been the plan.

The other part of my life that had an end to limbo was me being accepted for a graduate program at college.  My work has asked me to get my Human Resources Management certification, and as part of that, I need to go back to school.  However, I don’t think that one fits very well since I haven’t been anxious about it and work is covering the expenses.

This week’s Tarot reading began with the Chariot for the past.  The card shows a cart being drawn by two horses, each pulling in a slightly different direction.  The Chariot is all about finding a middle road and a balance between powerful opposing forces or important personal goals. For the present, I drew the seven of Wands.  It indicates that there are forces attacking my position but that I have the high ground and should hold firm in the face of challenge.  I call it the “nevertheless, she persisted” card, for my own amusement.  For the future, I drew the six of Cups, reversed, which suggests an unhealthy nostalgia or someone who is focused on the past to the detriment of the future.

There are plenty of aspects of my life which would qualify as a balancing act between opposing forces and desires, so that doesn’t narrow anything down.  There are also plenty of situations where I am fighting against what feels like entrenched forces.  The living in the past card is the most interesting one in this spread, in my opinion.  Like most people, I can find myself stuck in a loop of past mistakes, or be frustrated in how things haven’t worked out the way I’d hoped.  Does that count as living in the past?  I’m not sure.  I guess I’ll see what happens this week and see if it gives any insight.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Reclaiming My HEA: Thoughts on Partnership

Reclaiming My HEA is a regular feature where I share what's been going on with my separation and divorce.

It's been a challenging month.  I'm finding myself worn out and struggling to keep up with things.  Which is not particularly surprising since I tend to work pretty solidly starting at six a.m. and going until after ten p.m.  

6-7, I'm doing household or business paperwork.  
7-9, get the kids ready for school (or weekend activities).  
9-2:30 is my day job.  
2:30 to 3:30 is my writing time.  
3:30 to 4, kids get home from school and I get them started on homework. 
4 to 4:30, walk the dog.  
4:30 to 5:30, editing (if everything is going smoothly and I'm not dealing with Bromaggeddon).  
5:30 to 6, make dinner.  
6 to 6:30, family dinner.  
6:30 to 8, making sure the kids have done what they need to do for the next day and getting them started on bedtime.  
8 to collapse, more editing.  Weekends, more editing and doing my social media and blog prep.

I'm the one who manages everything, who keeps track of appointments, makes sure we don't run out of toilet paper, and deals with all the other stuff that needs to happen to keep things running smoothly.  It's a lot of work and frankly, it hasn't been going very smoothly of late.

This week, I read an interesting article talking about how writers don't talk about the fact that the industry depends on authors having outside financial support.  (Not strictly connected, but there's also an awesome thread by Tessa Sharpe about the finances of publishing.)

The author of the article, Ann Bauer, talks about how she couldn't write in her first marriage because she was dealing with all of the responsibilities of the household, parenting, and earning an income.  Then she met her second husband and for the first time, had "a true partner."

Those three words stopped me dead in my reading.  Because I find that I can't imagine what that would be like.  I can imagine how a shapeshifting werebear would work, but I can't imagine having someone I could trust to help me with errands and responsibilities.

That's a pretty sad realization to come to.

The idea of going into the dating world is terrifying.  It wasn't particularly fun when I did it over twenty years ago.  Doing it now... not really something that I see going well.

But that's my fear talking and if decades of reading romance have taught me anything, it's that I need to listen to my hope as much as my fear.

So I'm going to take a lesson from my hopes and believe that it is possible for me to find an HEA.  Which means I will need to take some risks.  And I am strong enough to do that.

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Monday, 2 March 2020

Weekly Update: February 23 to 29

Weekly word count: 1103
Editing countdown: first pass complete, 15 of 48 chapters done with second pass

If I can keep up this pace for editing, I'll have Division ready before my deadline.

It's been a tiring week.  Perhaps last week's Tarot draw was more of a warning about needing to take a break than a caution about the dangers of escapism.  I didn't push myself but I'm still proud of what I accomplished.

The RWA candidates have declared and I'm pleased to see lots of strong voices in support of diversity running.  There are a few candidates that I'm worried about, since they've been dismissive or have a habit of tone-policing.  But the vast majority seem eager to make RWA into the supportive organization it always should have been.  Fingers crossed that this puts us firmly on the right track.  Voting begins in two weeks and then we'll see what we have.

This week's Tarot draw was a new message.  I drew the Nine of Swords, reversed, for the past which traditionally signifies depression (not a big surprise for me since I've struggled with it all my life).  For the present, I drew The Hanged Man, reversed, which suggests a major change to a long-standing situation.  For the future, it was the Four of Coins, reversed, which usually indicates money trouble.

I should be getting my first royalty statement from Soul Mate Publishing soon.  It'll be the first time I'll be dependent on a publisher to receive payment, so that's a change to a long-standing situation.  Hopefully it won't spark money troubles.  Of course, I'm often wrong when I try to guess what the readings mean in advance.  Still, I think it's part of the fun of doing readings.  It's an opportunity to stretch my speculative and imaginative talents.