What I Learned from Failing NaNo

First, let me start off by saying I didn’t officially sign up for NaNoWriMo. I wrote about my reasons for taking the best of NaNo without committing to the event in an earlier post. Suffice to say, after a terrible year for me personally, I didn’t need the additional stress.

But even with the extremely modest goal of 200 words per day, I failed. How lame is that, right? 200 words EVERY DAY and I failed to meet this low bar.

In my defense, it wasn’t entirely my fault. As most of you know, I have a young puppy. He’s about 8 months old now, and full of beans. One ear up, one ear slightly floppy. Legs that go in all directions and a tail that spins like a helicopter when he runs. He’s a big goofball with little sense of personal awareness.

Last week, he was under my workstation when he got caught in the power cable to my laptop. His movement jerked the laptop sideways into my glass of wine. As the wine tipped over, I snagged it with catlike reflexes–we’re talking WINE here–but some of it slopped over the brim into my keyboard, shorting it out.

I wasn’t going to let this defeat me, however. I knocked the dust off the desktop, one I had inherited last year but never set up. I met each setback with grim determination. The monitor was missing the power cable–no problem, I found an old one that still worked. The mouse wouldn’t interface with the system? No problem, I found a wireless one that did. The ethernet cable didn’t work even when directly connected to the PC? Got it covered–we’ll connect to the modem wirelessly. I’m listing these things because normally tech issues like this have me pulling out my hair and cursing a blue streak. But I refused to give in to these issues. I solved them.

And then I discovered the inherited PC didn’t have Word on it. Seriously?? Who doesn’t have Word??

Not wanting to mess up my WIP trying to integrate some alien word processing program with it, I pulled out one of my many lovely notebooks and wrote by hand while the SO worked on my poor laptop. Take that, One Ridiculous Setback After Another!

Only the words ground to a halt. I couldn’t muster even the measly 200 words per day I’d set as my goal.

Why? Because the story was a hot mess, that’s why.

I had 39 K written by the time of the Wine Incident. Very respectable for 3 weeks, NaNo or No NaNo. But to my dismay, those 39 K words only covered the first 24 hours of action… and my story was supposed to take place over a six month time span.

*facepalm*

Obviously I had a serious pacing issue. Not to mention a ‘bogged down in minutia’ issue. The story might have had good bones (and I still think it does) but it was seriously flawed. And it took being forced into inactivity for me to admit it.

I could have kept plugging away at it and reached 50 K easily. I would have unofficially ‘won’ at NaNo but I still wouldn’t have a usable story. Worse, I would have continued to build on an unstable foundation. It would be like laying down railroad tracks with an incorrect map. The tracks would have gotten progressively off-course, needing a much larger correction than if I’d just stopped and regained my bearings.

So in short, what I learned from failing (once again) at NaNo:

  1. NaNoWriMo is not for everyone. There is no shame in this. Sure, when everyone else around you is constantly posting and tweeting about their NaNo experience, you might feel left out, but ask yourself if NaNo is really right for you. If not, there is nothing wrong in not participating. Seriously.
  2. There is one very important lesson to be learned from NaNo: park your butt in the chair and write. I can’t emphasize enough how much this matters. All the writing courses in the world, all the marketing advice out there, they all boil down to this: you must commit to writing on a regular basis. You must create and publish no matter what, come rain or shine, in order to build your audience. More than anything else, the next story is your best marketing plan. So shut your browser, stop checking your social media or sales rankings, and sit down at the keyboard.
  3. Writing is a muscle you must exercise in order to make stronger. But just like with your own muscles, you have to mix things up to prevent injury or strain. Yes, you’ll go farther with daily training. Want to get good at something? Practice, practice, practice. But just like with your own body, you have to learn to respect your creativity. You don’t weight lift every day–you alternate weight training with cardio in order to give your muscles a break. You need time to rest and rebuild your creativity too. I recommend do something every day with regards to your writing–but remember that reading and watching movies–exploring how other people tell stories–is part of the process. Sometimes the story you’re working on needs to marinate a while during which you figure out what the next move might be. Don’t rush that process just to bang out words.
  4. Don’t just bang out words. Not unless that’s part of your process. I’m a pantser by nature, but with the current WIP, I can see I’ve gone off the rails. I could just keep pounding away at it, but I think it’s better to take a little time to solve my pacing issue before I go any further. Either I need to shorten the projected timeline, or introduce time jumps that don’t jar the reader after detailing every minute of the current time frame, or both. The trick is not letting too much time pass while you let a story mature. Give yourself a deadline: set the story aside for 48 hours and come back to it. If you can’t solve the problem by then, maybe the thing to do is shelve the project until such time as a solution presents itself to you. Or slog your way through it. Only you can tell which is the best course of action.
  5. I saw a Tweet today from Chuck Wendig, in which someone asked him for ‘advice you wished someone had given you when starting out as a writer’. He said, “That every book takes the time that it takes, and the writer you are when you begin is not the writer you are when you finish.”

Some stories are more complicated than others. Some stories you’re not ready to tell, even though you think you are. Some stories practically write themselves–but that doesn’t mean they are any better or worse than stories that someone slaved over for ten years or more. Give your story the time it needs to grow up. NaNo is a wonderful concept with many good things to offer, but it is not the only path to writing a story. That’s different from author to author and from story to story.

The current WIP is a hot mess. It’s up to me to decide if it is salvageable or not. I think I know how to fix it, so I’m going to give it my best shot. But for me, the worst thing I could have done would have been laying tracks in the wrong direction.

Sometimes ‘failing’ is the right thing to do.

 

 

You Don’t Have to Wear All The Hats: The Indie Author’s Secret to Staying Sane

I’ve worked with publishers and I’ve published on my own. One of the biggest differences between the two is how much work the publisher does on your behalf: cover art, editing, sending your book out to review sites and so on. There’s also the advantage of the built-in audience your publisher already has, the value of a larger group newsletter, as well as networking opportunities with other authors in the same publishing house. Sure, when you go indie, you retain more control over every little detail of your work. You get to set your production schedule, retain complete control over cover art, have the last word on editing, and get a bigger share of the royalties. But there’s a reason publishers take the lion’s share of sales earned. 

You have to wear a lot of hats to be an indie author.

There are some people who love this. They relish having all the control. But there are others who are overwhelmed with spinning all the plates at once: finding a good cover artist and editor. Scouring the review sites to find ones that will accept your story. Lining up beta readers and ARC readers. Designing eye-catching graphics and running Facebook groups. Scheduling posts across the board to all your social media sites. Holding giveaways and writing guest blog posts. All the while working on the next release because we all know the next story is your best advertisement.

Where does anyone find the time to do all of this? Especially if you haven’t a freaking clue how to set up a newsletter or your attempts at  website design or graphics look as though a second grader created them.

The good news is you don’t have to wear all the hats. (Do you like my image above? It was from a Peggy Carter cosplay photo session I did last month 🙂 ) You are allowed to delegate.

The bad news is you might have to pay for that delegation.

Here’s my take on where you can and cannot skimp.

  1. Pay for an outstanding cover. No, seriously, you can’t let your BFF with Photoshop make your book cover unless he or she is a graphic artist and is looking to expand their portfolio. For one thing, you can get in a lot of trouble if your cover artist isn’t using royalty-free images (or images they purchased) that have been licensed for cover art. But even more importantly, if your cover art looks like it’s been done by an amateur, if it doesn’t match genre expectations, then readers will give your story a hard pass. People DO judge a book by its cover. And a crappy cover will sink even the most amazing story. You have a nano-second to catch a reader’s eye and make them take a second look with your story. Don’t blow it with a crappy cover.
  2. Pay for quality editing. Yes, good editing is expensive. There’s a reason for that. An editor doesn’t just correct your grammar and punctuation, though that is important. A good editor tells you when you use repetitive phrases or actions. When your story has continuity errors or plot holes you could drive a truck through. When you are writing outside genre expectations. A good editor meets deadlines and does more than give your story a cursory read. It may take time to find an editor that’s a good match for you, but when you find him or her, cling to them for all they are worth because they are worth their weight in gold. Readers will notice crappy editing and comment on it in their reviews.
  3. Formatting: if you can’t figure it out, pay someone to do it. There are lots of people out there who offer formatting for all the major outlets for reasonable fees. Nothing pisses a reader off more than weird formatting on their e-readers. Yes, there’s software out there like Calibre that will put your book in the different formats, but if you want elegant formatting–pretty chapter headers or reliable reading across the different file formats–pay someone. If you have to cut costs (and believe me, I’ve been there) teach yourself how to do it.
  4. Graphics: Social Media Posts and Teasers. This is a tough one for me because there are some great options out there for creating your own, like Canva. However, I simply don’t have the time right now to learn how to make sophisticated graphics. I can make a serviceable image, but an elegant one? Not so much. If I have to chose between spending 3 hours messing around with Canva to produce an image that looks cheesy or write 3 K on the WIP, I’m going to choose the WIP every time. Eventually, my skills will improve. But in the meantime, I’ll pay someone to give me this:It doesn’t have to be expensive. Talk to your friends. You probably have friends who would love to make something like this for you without charging you an arm and a leg. Or again, find that graphic artist looking to expand their portfolio.
  5. Marketing: You have to do it. You can’t simply launch your book like Noah releasing a dove from the deck of the Ark, hoping it will eventually return with evidence of dry land. I wasn’t able to nail down exact numbers but read that in 2014, Amazon reported at least 5 K new releases each day. You might think that’s insane, but what’s really crazy is expecting your book to get singled out among the pack for notice if you make no effort to call it to anyone’s attention. I highly recommend Bad Red Head Media’s 30 Day Book Marketing Challenge. Get it. Read it. Do it. If you want to pay someone to promote your book you can, but this is one area if you’re willing to do the legwork yourself, it will pay off.
  6. Create a Book Bub account for yourself. If someone follows you, boom. They get notified every time you have a new release. Post that link on your website so people can find and follow it. Easy. Free.
  7. If you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, consider hiring someone to teach you the ropes at first. Yeah, you hear me say ‘hire someone’ a lot, and believe me, I know what it’s like not to have the funds to do that. But you only have a couple of options: Teach yourself or pay someone to do it for you or pay someone to teach you to do it yourself. I’m a big believer in hiring the right help to teach you how to do it for yourself.
  8. Don’t have the discretionary funds to pay for the right help? I get that. Then join groups/lists/sites where you can learn what you need to know for free. Consider offering your services to another newbie needing to learn the ropes. I like the ‘watch one, do one, teach one’ philosophy because I think (aside from being a cool thing to do) sharing what you’ve learned helps you retain those lessons. Face it, if you only ever set up a newsletter once every few years, you’re going to forget how to do it.
  9. Decide what’s really important to you and what works best. Don’t waste your time on things that frustrate or annoy you. If participating in every Facebook group or wasting hours on Tumblr is not your thing, don’t do it. You only have so much time and most of it should be spent working on the next story. Because even though it isn’t sexy or cool to say it, THE NEXT STORY IS YOUR BEST ADVERTISEMENT. Sure, there are lots of people out there willing to take your money to teach you how to make your next book a bestseller but if you aren’t writing and releasing on a regular basis, it’s all for naught. Readers are like stray cats: feed them and they will come. Stop feeding them, and they will drift off in search of food elsewhere.
  10. Check out the time-saving options for scheduling posts across various sites. Crosspost whenever you can. This post will automatically appear on my Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr pages. When I use Hootsuite to schedule a post, I can set it to post to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook simultaneously. Simplify your life whenever you can. But pick a schedule and post regularly. Your audience, like stray cats, will expect you at certain times once you establish your schedule. Don’t disappoint them.

One other thing I would add: be authentic. I confess, I struggle sometimes to balance the author side of me with the part that is enraged about world events or just wants to post pictures of my pets. Don’t work so hard at presenting your brand that you show your readers someone who doesn’t actually exist. Yeah, there’s a risk in revealing your real self. You might lose readers. But truthfully, your real self is revealed in every word you write. So what do you really have to lose?

Bottom line: if you have the time, energy, and skills to teach yourself what you need to know to be a successful indie author, go for it. But in those areas where you have doubts, where your skills are subpar, hire the right help until you can master those skills. There are some things I believe should always be left to the experts–cover art and editing being the biggies–but be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you’ve been skimping on services because you can’t afford them, consider saving up to give your story the best launch possible before releasing it into the world. After all, you want that dove to bring back an olive branch.

My Non-NaNo Month

Back when I first began writing, I found out about NaNoWriMo and thought what a cool idea! There was so much I loved about the concept: committing to writing a novel in 30 days, the community, the support of fellow writers. The concept that everyone has crazy-busy lives and the only way to become a writer is to park your butt in the chair and write–no matter what–really resonated with me. So many people I knew talked about how they wrote their first book with NaNo, or their NaNo book went on to become a bestseller.

I signed myself up. At the time, I was already writing the equivalent of a novella a month in fanfiction. Stretching my output to 40 or 50 K would be a snap.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the crushing pressure putting a set number of words to paper each day would entail. I ended up with my first (and worst) case of writer’s block as I stared at the calendar on the wall and realized I hadn’t made my word count for the day. By the time several days had passed, I would hyperventilate every time I thought about sitting down to the keyboard. I gave up after only a week.

It took me a while to find my groove again after that. At first, it wasn’t clear to me why NaNo proved to be such an unexpected stumbling block. I was already a productive writer. So what was the problem?

Well, for one thing, NaNo asks that you simply sit down and pound out the words–no going back and editing. No correcting. You’d think as a die-hard pantser, this would be right up my alley. I could understand why someone who is meticulous about plotting might find NaNo challenging (unless they spent October plotting out their NaNo book). But a pantser? Piece of cake, right?

No. See, part of my technique is I re-read what I’ve written over and over again, massaging and tweaking as I go. This helps me recognize underlying themes and plot points only my subconscious noted before. Then I can expand on those themes, fleshing them out or seeding hints along the way. I love doing this. It’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process, as cumbersome and slow as it may be. I’m sure if I was more of a plotter, I could speed my productivity up. The problem is too much outlining is a sure-fire story killer for me. If I do more than jot down a few notes or story ideas, I feel as though I’ve already written the story.

So the ‘rules’ of NaNo inherently go against the way I write. Back then, I didn’t realize this was the issue, nor that I didn’t have to stick that tightly to the rules as long as I made my word count. I just floundered and failed, and it took me so long to recover from it, I decided never again. NaNo wasn’t for me.

Which is okay. Really. Sure, everyone else you know is doing it, and when you see all your social media friends talking about it, you want to play along as well. But if it is not for you, THAT IS OKAY.

This year, I’ve got a story I’d like to get finished, so I decided to use the NaNo momentum to help me write. Only this year has been a very sucky year for me personally (and it’s not over yet, more bad news on the way). Seriously, I’ve had so many losses this past year if I put them all in one story readers would claim it was unrealistic. So I reasoned that I didn’t need any additional stress right now. No NaNo for me.

But a kind of Non-NaNo I could do. 

What I needed more than anything was a commitment to parking my butt in my chair and writing every day, no matter what. Neil Gaiman has some great quotes along these lines. I was looking for the one in particular about butts and chairs and didn’t find it, but found this one instead:

“Just write. Many writers have a vague hope elves will come in the night and finish any stories for you. They won’t.”

So I decided November would be my Non-NaNo month. I made a very modest goal: 200 words per day. I figured I could commit to that without too much stress and that most days I’d exceed that goal. So far it’s working. I’ve been averaging about a thousand words a day, which is awesome.

Only my story is a hot mess. I’m sitting at around 34 K and my characters are snowed in together, learning about each other. From that standpoint, it’s kind of cool. Only they’re being too nice to each other and I have to figure out what’s going to happen when the snow melts, and how I transition from a blow-by-blow account of a snowy weekend to the progression of six months that I had originally planned for the story to take place. ARGH. I have a strong feeling most of this draft is going to end up on the cutting room floor.

They won’t be wasted. I’m learning about these characters as I go. But I’m also learning that even this Non-NaNo method might not be ideal for me. Still, the important thing is that I’m writing. As Nora Roberts says:

“You can fix anything but a blank page.”

Which is why I am still writing every day this month. Cheers to NaNo and Non-NaNo participants alike! Go us. 🙂

 

 

The Big Chop: The Hair Dilemma for Middle-Aged Women

I’m obsessed with my hair at the moment.

Let me preface this by saying I’ve always been ‘the girl with the hair.’ Mountains of hair that could barely be tamed. People have been commenting on it my entire life. Stylists jokingly begged my mother to stop putting “Miracle Gro” on my hair when I was a child. I like to think I looked like Rachel from Friends, but the truth is, I looked much more like Young Hermione from Harry Potter.

So I’ve always had this love-hate relationship with my hair. I go through cycles where I can’t stand it any longer and I chop it all off. This provides relief for a variable period of time. I love the convenience of short hair. I love being able to zip in and out of the shower, without the prolonged ordeal of shampooing and conditioning a pelt worthy of Chewbacca–especially living as I do now, in a house with low water pressure. I love being able to run my hands through my hair messily and dash out the door. No blow-drying. No attempts to tame the frizz. No hours of damp hair (of particular concern now that winter is rolling in again). Better still, I’m not using my hair as an excuse not to do things. I don’t know when I turned into that person to be honest. Maybe it was when I moved into a house with crappy heat and water pressure. But I find myself weighing whether I have time for a shower before I choose to do certain activities now. And forget about swimming. Between the coloring and the chlorine, my hair felt like straw. The big chop is an excellent way of getting back to healthy hair.

What I don’t love is looking like an angry hedgehog. Because that’s what I look like with short hair. I am not a pretty woman, and it takes having the right kind of face to pull off a pixie cut. Heck, there are beautiful women out there who can’t wear a pixie well and they don’t have my square jaw and rather masculine features. So any love I have for the short cut soon turns into absolute loathing. I begin the growing out process and swear I will never cut it short again.

The things I love about long hair? I love how it makes me feel sexy. I love being able to style it different ways. I do a little cosplay, and I have more options when my hair is long (unless I want to invest a lot of money in wigs…) With long hair, I can toss it back in a ponytail or barrette and it’s out of my face. I can put it up to look professional and curl it to look romantic. Most actresses have long hair–for a reason. We associate it with not only beauty, but youth as well.

A small part of me thinks as a romance author, I should maintain the ‘look’ of romance, if you know what I mean. I’m also very much aware that, no matter what my SO says, he prefers my hair long rather than short. (A wise man, he avoids rendering any sort of opinion on my hair, only to say it’s my hair and I should do what I like with it.)

This time, my chop or not chop decision is harder than usual. I’ll be honest, this past year has been rough. 2017 has been a train-wreck of colossal proportions: personally as well as for my country. I’ve been struggling, and only recently felt like I might be turning the corner in my downward spiral. For the first time in over a year, I find myself getting serious about cleaning up my diet, exercising more, eliminating or decreasing the stressors in my life. I want to spend more time writing and less time stewing. Cutting my hair short feels like it would be a step in the right direction to meet these goals. A clean sweep, a fresh start. A dramatic change to signal the dramatic (well, okay, little shuffling baby-step) changes I’m making in my life. Part of me really wants to do this.

Another part, the chicken-shit part, is afraid. Scared I’ll look as terrible as I fear. Worried that I’ll hate it and then be stuck with it while I go through the misery (the YEAR LONG MISERY) of growing it out again, wearing hats and refusing to look in mirrors and in general being a snarling bitch until it is long enough to pull back off my face again.

But mostly worried that I’m somehow kissing youth and beauty goodbye with the big chop. Yes, I know, not beautiful in the first place, but okay, the possibility of beauty. Of somehow announcing that I’m done with romance. That I’ve accepted middle-age and am willing to look my age. I read an article that suggested far too many women my age hang onto their long locks well-beyond the time a shorter cut would look better on them. I feel I might be in that category now.

When I read back over this, I’m struck by the vanity of it all. There are women out there who have no choice when it comes to their hair. Illness or hormonal imbalances or simple genetics have determined their choices for them. And I still have a lot of hair, though my part is definitely wider than it used to be. But for most of my life, my hair has been the only thing I could be vain about. So yeah. Decisions, decisions.

I’m excited and nervous. I want something dramatic but want something easy to grow out if I change my mind. I think the worse thing is the sneaking suspicion that no matter what decision I make, it won’t change my life in any meaningful way. I’ll still have to work on that diet, and fit more exercise in, and park my butt in the chair and write the next story. The puppy will still need training, work will still be stressful, and my house will still have crappy heat and low water pressure.

But maybe I’ll lose twenty pounds of pressure to be something I’m not. Maybe I will find the shedding of locks to be freeing in more ways than one.

 

My Me Too Story

It wasn’t my intention to go into details about my experiences with sexual harassment and assault. I’d seen the #MeToo hashtags on social media and shared them, in part because I believe there is value in victims realizing they are far from alone. I understood that many people who have experienced such negative situations might not be in a place where they felt like they could share, and I was okay with that too.

I also felt that though I’d been harassed and assaulted too many times to count, my experiences didn’t count on some level because I’d managed to avoid the ultimate assault: rape. So perhaps it was best that I simply shared the hashtag and otherwise remained silent on the subject. What did I know anyway?

But here’s the thing. The Harvey Weinstein revelations opened some real dialog, and had the potential to provide healing across a large scale. In the course of some of the fallout from these discussions, Twitter has promised to invoke stricter rules with the intent of protecting people from online harassment. We’ll see if they follow through, but at least it’s a step.

People from all walks of life shared the hashtag. Sometimes that was all they could share, and they typed those words with shaking hands. Sometimes seeing those words on someone else’s timeline led people to share more deeply, and in doing so, bring a measure of comfort to those who have suffered in silence so many years.

But then Mayim Bialik posted her opinion piece in the NYT. I have to say, as one of those, ‘Gosh, if you just obey the rules, nothing bad will ever happen to you’ opinion pieces, this is one of the worst. Because the whole thing reads like one long ‘n’yah, n’yah, n’yah’ to every woman who intentionally or otherwise made Ms.Bialik feel bad about her appearance while working in an industry where the roles are largely assigned based on appearance. Whereas the post pretends to be a ‘guide’ on how to avoid sexual assault by dressing modestly, not saying anything that could be misconstrued as flirting, and by all means, go get a degree in neuroscience because everyone knows brains aren’t sexy, the piece is really a giant FUCK YOU to beautiful women everywhere and the popular girls in high school.

Let me say for the record, I belong to neither of those groups.

I take exception to Ms. Bialik’s post on many levels. For one thing, sexual assault is not about sex. It is about POWER. It is about someone saying they own you and they have the right to do things to you without your consent, and the assaulter gets his (or her) jollies out of degrading you to the point you feel helpless to report them. It is a power trip. Your personal attractiveness has nothing to do with it. I would hazard a guess that the greater the disparity between power bases, the more pleasure the perpetrator takes in his or her actions.

The other thing that pisses me off about pieces like this is the implication that if you just followed the Good Girl Rules, then nothing bad will happen to you. The flipside of this implication is if something bad HAS happened to you, it must somehow be your fault for not obeying the rules. And crap like this shuts down any possible healing that might be taking place with the Me Too hashtag, as it turns into a finger-pointing game.

Case in point: me.

I’m going to leave out all the times I was catcalled and harassed on the street. Ditto the times I’ve been flashed, or the times old men have said lewd things to me in passing. I’m not even going to recount the time I was followed on the interstate for over 150 miles (I didn’t notice at first, but once I did, I couldn’t shake the guy until I pulled a dangerous stunt to exit the interstate at high speed as he was passing me) or the time I was run off the road at night by someone who’d been tailgating me with the high beams on. Fortunately, I had no hesitation about putting the car in reverse and backing up the interstate at 70 mph…  I’m not even going to include the letter I received from the father of one of my high school friends six months after his wife died, professing his long-standing desire to date me.

The main reason for not telling all these stories is they are simply too numerous to count, and honestly, after a certain point, it starts to feel like the normal cost of being female. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m just stating a fact. I’d be hard pressed to name a woman who doesn’t have stories like these to tell.

But let’s look at the more serious infractions. I should point out that all of my high school year book pictures were so bad, I never bought any, nor did I buy any of the yearbooks themselves. In high school, I had mountains of frizzy hair, glasses with Coke-Bottle-thick lenses, and teeth only a gargoyle could love. I graduated early, and wound up in college at seventeen, wearing braces. Seriously, as unsexy as you could get, and by Ms. Bialik’s reasoning, should have been utterly safe.

Only I wasn’t.

My first experience with sexual assault came when I was flunking organic chemistry. I approached the TA for help; he recommended a tutor and gave me a name. At the very first session, my male tutor said the only place in his dorm with enough room for us both to look at the books at the same time was on his bed. I spent 40 minutes trying to get him to keep his hands to himself and refocus back on the material, but it was no use. I could have insisted on future meetings at the library or a study room, but I was too freaked out by the experience. I could have reported him, but I didn’t know to whom, and beside, who would believe me? They would take one look at me–gargoyle in glasses–and one look at him, your average clean-cut All-American rich boy–and said it was wishful thinking on my part. Or worse, an attempt to extort money or something. At the time, I bought into the myth that rape and assault were about sex. I must have done something wrong. So I did what most teenagers would do. I said nothing and dropped the class.

The next time I got assaulted, it was by a professor. I was in the lab working on my project by myself. It was 2 pm on a sunny afternoon in a building full of people. I was working at a point where the two counter tops came to a right angle, and standing with my back to the door when this professor entered the room, came up behind me, and pressed his erection into my backside. He pinned me in the corner without escape.

I stomped down on his instep while at the same time driving my elbow into his gut and shoving him backward. Then I turned in all innocence, blinking at him wide-eyed as he bent over double, and said, “Golly! You surprised me! You know, you really shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”

He never came near me again. I found out later he had a reputation for hitting on college girls, but again, I said nothing. I’d taken care of the problem and because he wasn’t my professor, he wasn’t in a position to give me a failing grade. I know now I should have reported him. At the very least, that report would have given ammunition to the next girl who filed a complaint.

The third time was more serious. I was trying to get into grad school and studying hard, no time for a social life. But I met a guy, and he was cute and made me laugh, so when he asked me out, I said yes. On our first date, we somehow never made it to the movie we’d intended to see, and spend most of the evening talking. He wanted to go out again that weekend, and we made tentative plans, but when Saturday afternoon rolled around, I had to finish a project and suggested we meet with my friends for dinner that night instead of going out that afternoon.

When he came over that evening, he took me aside privately and castigated me for ‘canceling our plans’, letting me know he didn’t appreciate that. I honestly couldn’t see what the fuss was about, as we were having dinner that very evening, nor did I appreciate his attitude, but what was I to do? Kick him out? Tell him he was being a jerk and I wasn’t going to put up with that? These days, that’s exactly what I would do. But of course, at the time, I didn’t. I was 21 and raised to be polite.

After dinner my friends wanted to go out, and we went as a group to hear a band play at one of the local bars. I was uneasy about my date, but felt safe because I had company. Then, while the guys got drinks, my roommate informed me that earlier in the day, she’d caught my date going through my car. When she questioned him as to what he was doing, he said he was looking for my schedule. This creeped me out, but again, I thought I was safe because I was surrounded by friends. Only later when I went to the restroom, I came back to find my friends had left without me–and I was alone with my date.

In retrospect, I was very close to being a dating statistic that evening. Probably the only reason I’m not is because I instinctively knew not to let him in the apartment–and because I did some pretty fast talking when he dropped me off. Even so, I shouldn’t have gotten in the car with him, and I never should have told him I didn’t think dating was a good idea on my doorstep. At the time, I was certain he was going to hit me. I realize now I was in far more danger than that. But I made myself the bad guy–it was me, not him, I was trying to get into grad school, I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted, he needed a girl friend who could treat him with the respect he deserved. When he brought up the fact that people got married and went to grad school all the time, all the alarm bells went off, but I kept it cool. It had nothing to do with him being the Conductor on the Wackadoodle Train. It was all my fault.

He eventually left–and immediately sought out my friends, telling them he’d ‘lost’ me and begging to know what to do to get me back. My roommate, clueless as to what had happened (no cell phones in these days) suggested he write me a letter telling me how he felt. So he did. A letter so full of misspellings and poor grammar that I knew everything he’d told me about himself and his career was a lie.

And then the stalking began. I ended up cutting off all my hair and relinquishing my contacts for glasses again. I took an unlisted number. I got a big dog. I moved. Eventually, he no longer knew how to find me, and the harassment ended. Several years later, I ran into him in public and I swear, I saw murder in his eyes. I know that sounds like an exaggeration but you had to be there. He would have killed me if he could. I pretended not to recognize him, all the while my heart pounded hard enough to burst through my chest any second. Only when I saw the doubt cross his face as to who I was did I make my excuses and leave the party.

So when I say I Mayim Bialiked myself big time, it’s true. For years I went about in defensive coloration mode, and I’m telling you, it’s no protection. Years later, I was working at my new job in a new town, and stopped for groceries after work on the way home. I was in hurry, so I dashed across the parking lot into the store, grabbed a few things, and ran back out again. As I exited the store, a truck at the far end of the parking lot turned its headlights on. I thought nothing of it. It was on the other side of the parking lot. Probably someone headed home, just like me.

But by the time I’d opened my car door and tossed the groceries inside, the truck had pulled up in the parking space next to mine. As I closed my door and pressed the automatic locks, a man appeared at my driver’s side window. And the look on his face was that of a predator that had missed its kill. I’ve never been so unnerved in my entire life.

Again, before cell phones. And I wasn’t sticking around to confront the guy. I peeled out of the parking lot as though pursued by the hounds of hell. No, I didn’t report it. What would I have said? Some middle-aged white man with dark hair pulled up beside me in the parking lot. Big whoop. Or if I’d been taken seriously, the police may have watched the lot for a few days, but that’s all.

With ALL of these incidents listed here, my dress was the same, my standard uniform: jeans, T-shirt, and hiking boots. It’s how I dress 97% of the time. Tell me how that is being provocative or flirtatious.

So yeah, when I read Mayim Bialik’s opinion piece, it pissed me off. I said as much on the Twitter feed of someone with a LOT more followers than me, and someone else jumped in to MANSPLAIN my reaction, saying I shouldn’t twist Ms. Bialilk’s words. Um, go read the post yourself. No twisting necessary.

This mansplainer did have some good points in the cascade of Tweets he sent in response to me. He (and I assume male because his Twitter account was in a male name) stated (and I paraphrase here) that seat belts don’t guarantee you will survive a car crash, but to ignore the advice to wear seat belts is foolish and dangerous. That though the drunk driver is still the cause of the accident, don’t negate the importance of seat belts in improving survivability. That because seat belts don’t convey 100% safety, I shouldn’t act as though being ‘safer’ isn’t a valid reason to use them.

Now this is the point at which I stopped responding to the guy. A) He had his own axe to grind and I wasn’t going to let it be at my expense. B) He wasn’t listening to me when I said I that every decision I made was with my personal safety in mind and that I only took exception to people who implied the lack of ‘seat belts’ must have factored into someone’s victimization.

As neat as this little seat belt analogy is, it still points the finger of blame in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t be asking, “Was she wearing a seat belt?”

We should be asking, “Why was he driving drunk?”

Are You A Book Addict?

I started to write a post about my addiction to diet and health books, but as I was gathering the evidence for a photo, I realized I had a much bigger problem: I’m addicted to buying books in general.

No seriously.

I have stacks of unread books all over the house. Books are piled precariously on counter tops and nightstands. They threaten to topple over whenever the cat brushes past them, and on more than one occasion, I’ve had to rescue a book from the jaws of the puppy.

The last time I moved, for giggles and grins, I counted my books as I was packing them. I stopped after 5 K because it was slowing me down. And that’s not even counting what I have on my Kindle! Many I’ve re-read dozens of times. Some I’ve only read once. But lately my TBR stack has grown out of control, and I strongly suspect some of the books I’ve snagged will never be read at all.

The Japanese have a delightful word for this: tsundoku. I am tickled to know there is a word for this, because it means I’m not alone.

 

According to Wikipedia, it means “acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up without reading them.” The image I’m posting here could have been taken from house, if I had the acres and acres of lovely bookshelves pictured here.

Truth be told, it wouldn’t matter how many bookshelves I had, I’d still have an overflow of stacks of unread books waiting their turn.

That’s not to say I won’t read these books. Some day I will. I used to read five or six books a week, so buying books on this scale wasn’t unreasonable. I don’t have that kind of time anymore, particularly since I’m writing as well. I love books. I love going to bookstores and libraries. I love going to someone’s home and checking out their book collection. You can learn a lot about a person by the books they have. 

I hear people talk about decreasing clutter and getting rid of their books because they have electronic readers now. I get it, I do. I see the attraction of having your library on a single device, never being at risk of running out of reading material, only battery life. But it saddens me just the same. I envision homes of the future where blank sterile walls greet you as you walk in, and you cannot glean any information as to your host’s tastes in literature because their library is entirely digital.

And I worry about the future of writing as an industry when I see fewer people reading, and more people exhibiting signs of a decreasing attention span–a problem fostered by our addiction to smart devices. The people who used to read on the bus or waiting in line now seem to be scrolling their Twitter feeds or streaming a television show.

Maybe I’m part of a dying breed, but I came from a time when books were the major gateway to another world, a different existence. They connect us to the past, and with great minds that have gone before us. With a book, far more than with any other medium, I can step into the story and be a part of it. Books have saved my life more than once. I lived for sci-fi and mysteries when I was a teenager. I still reach for my favorite horse and dog books when I need comfort. And there are some series, like the Lord Peter Wimsey books or the Amelia Peabody mysteries, that I’ll read over and over again.

I like to think there will always be readers because there will always be storytellers. That’s the part of me that wants to believe in a happily ever after.

 

These days, I need to believe in a happily ever after. Life is kind of stressful and I need the escapism of a good book. At least I never have to worry about not having something to read! So yeah, maybe I’m hoarding books just a bit. Maybe it is an addiction. But as addictions go, there are worse ones to have. 

How to Handle That Bad Review

A friend of mine recently got a stinging review–the kind of gif-laden nasty review that is a deliberate slam to the author with little purpose except to wound. I went looking for a post I’d read several years ago about the best way to handle ugly reviews to share with her, but I couldn’t find it. Rather than spend several hours searching the internet for similar posts (and reading them all to make sure they were worth sharing), I decided to write my own. Because we’ve all been there. We’ve all gotten reviews that made us wince, cry, or seriously consider chucking the whole writing gig altogether.

Many of us strengthened our writing skills in fandom, writing reams of fanfic because we loved a set of characters so much we wanted to spend more time in their universe. One of the gratifying things about fanfic is within minutes of posting it, you can see the counter change, indicating the number of people who’ve clicked on the link. Within 24 hours, kudos and comments start rolling in. And because you are writing about specific characters and pairings, you have a built-in audience which is predisposed to be kind because they love those characters too and are desperate for more stories about them.

At least, that used to be the case. I’m seeing a greater sense of entitlement creep into feedback on fanfic. Perhaps it’s because nearly every website on the planet encourages you, the consumer, to leave a review, that things are changing. Amazon, in particular, in conjunction with Goodreads, has given an enormous amount of power to the reviewer–the ability to raise or lower a story’s visibility, and therefore, sales. Reviews on original fiction are few and far between compared to fanfic, and are definitely blunter. I see some of this bluntness–and in some circumstances, downright rudeness–seeping into fanfic feedback these days. But I digress.

Not only are there far fewer reviews (on average) for original fiction versus fanfic, but there is a much longer delay between writing and publishing an original story and when those reviews begin to trickle in. Instead of the nearly instantaneous feedback you might receive on posting to one of the big fanfic archives, your original story goes through a lengthy editing and publishing process. In some cases, it may be months before a finished story is released. If you’re like me, after you hit ‘publish’, you keep refreshing your sales page to see if anyone has left a review. I don’t think most of us can help it. We’ve groomed our child, prepped it for school, and placed it on the school bus. We can’t help but wonder how the first day of class went.

But if you only have twenty-five or so reviews, it’s going to make the one or two bad ones stand out even more. Funny how one nasty review has the power to negate fifty or more stellar ones, right? But it can and does.

So let’s break this down.

First, with fanfic, comments are the currency of fandom. People aren’t buying your story, they are ‘paying’ with feedback. It’s one of the reasons I find the ‘kudos’ system on Archive of Our Own a little disappointing. It effectively made every story 99 cents, if you know what I mean. I appreciate getting kudos, but I miss the detailed and loving feedback fellow fans used to give.

When you are publishing original fiction, your audience is paying with actual money. So if your sales are fantastic but few people are leaving reviews, I wouldn’t sweat it. People are leaving reviews–with their money.

The longer I’ve been at this, however, the more I’ve learned to take reviews with a grain of salt–especially the bad ones. Here are some of my ‘rules’.

  1. Stop looking for reviews. No, seriously. I do a search on occasion (and my reason will be listed below) but for the most part, I avoid places like Goodreads. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t solicit reviews from review sites. That’s one of the ways of bringing your story to the attention of the reading public. But don’t set up Google Alerts to notify you of every mention, and stop constantly checking your sales page for stats.
  2. Keep a file of your outstanding reviews. Not only will you want pull quotes for future promo, but it’s helpful to have a folder of lovely things people said about your stories to read when a particularly spiteful piece of feedback lands in your lap. Yes, I know this is contradictory advice to the point above, but often the people who write nice things about your stories send you that information directly. Use it.
  3. Read the reviews of your all-time favorite authors/stories. You’ll be amazed. Books that you think are outstanding, authors so good you would sell your soul to the devil to be able to write even a fraction as well–they all get horrible reviews. If someone can slam a book that you think is phenomenal, then face it, not everyone out there is going to like great writing. Not everyone out there is going to like your writing, or if they do, not necessarily all of your stories. That’s a good thing, actually. It means there is room out there for all kinds of storytelling. One person’s cup of tea might be another person’s poison, but the tea drinkers out there will appreciate your work.
  4. A mean review isn’t the end of the world. It seems to frequently be the case that one person loathes the thing 98% of readers love. Often the thing that the reviewer detests is the thing that makes me dash out and buy the book in question. Which leads me to number five…
  5. Don’t rant about a nasty review in public. Don’t post links on Facebook or Twitter with a furious rundown of the reviewer. That is tantamount to asking your fans to go after the reviewer, and that’s a big NO. No. No. No. Don’t encourage your fans to attack someone on your behalf. That review is someone’s opinion, something they are entitled to. If you find out your fans are vehemently defending you, ask them to stop. By not doing so, you wind up looking like the bad guy, even if you never said a word to your fans in the first place. The ONLY exception to this is if you can post about a negative review with a sense of humor, not outrage. NEVER give specifics. Someone on my Twitter feed recently posted about a negative review she received, citing the reviewer’s objection to her ‘liberal political beliefs’ intruding into the story. She said as far as she knew, the only liberal beliefs were that everyone in town recycled. OH THE SHAME. It was both funny and made me one-click purchase the story. 
  6. The nasty, gif-laden review. Let’s take a moment to address that. It’s my belief this form of feedback became popular after this particular review of 50 Shades of Gray. I could be wrong, but after this review, I seemed to see a lot more in a similar vein. I’ll be the first to admit, I thought this review hysterical. I also don’t feel too badly for E.L. James, as she is probably laughing all the way to the bank. But I do regret the number of people who’ve chosen to leave feedback in this manner as a result of the popularity of this particular review. This kind of copycat review has only two purposes: either to wound the author and/or to appease an audience. I call it the ‘Simon Cowell Review.’ Face it, some people tune into America’s Got Talent to watch Simon roast some poor delusional participant. People who deliberately choose to review in this fashion either intend to destroy an author’s self-confidence or like the attention they get from people following their reviews, or both. In all honesty, this is the type of review that’s the EASIEST for me to ignore. There’s another agenda at play here. Either the reviewer hopes to crush me, in which case he/she is a Dream Vampire stomping on my hopes and ambitions because someone stomped on theirs, or they are there to entertain their groupies. I have no time for that.
  7. If, however, you’ve ignored my advice about reading your reviews and you’re faced with a lot of negative reviews that say the same thing, you have to face up to an unpleasant fact: either you didn’t get the point of your story across as clearly as you’d hoped or there is a major problem with your story as told. If many people are saying the same thing, the sad truth is they are probably right and you screwed up. Still, this is not an end-of-the-world experience. Listen. If necessary, be ruthless. Pull the story, fix it. Chalk it up to experience and vow you won’t release a book before its time ever again. Take writing courses, find a critique group, pay for quality editing. Don’t bristle up defensively and double down on your position. Admit you made a mistake and fix it if possible. If you can’t fix it this time, make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  8. Never, ever respond to negative reviews. Heck, I’m not sure you should respond to positive reviews–the opinion seems divided on that. But everyone agrees you should NEVER respond to a negative review, particularly on Goodreads. Why? Because authors who attempt to address negative reviews, even if it is only to correct a reviewer on something they stated that was wrong, are always the villains here. Always. Goodreads in particular is considered a ‘reader’s’ site. in that, outside of an author-run group, Goodreads is for readers. Readers want to be able to post their honest opinions without feeling as though the author in question is watching over their shoulder. The truth of the matter is most of us are watching. But at the very least, we should have the sense to keep our mouths shut. Especially since dog-piling and blackballing can get very ugly on Goodreads. It is simply not worth it to engage with a disgruntled reader. Not on any level.
  9. Don’t let a negative review derail your writing plans. I did that once. I let a lukewarm review shatter my confidence on a planned story arc, and as a result, I sat on subsequent installments of a series until fans had given up all hope of seeing a sequel. The series lost momentum as a result, and never took off as it had the potential to do. All because one review made me doubt what I had in mind. One out of hundreds which indicated the reader couldn’t wait for more. I could kick myself now.
  10. Accept the fact that reviews have the power to make your book more or less visible with the algorithms that make up sales. But you have to decide right now whether or not reviews have the power to make you stop writing. If the answer is yes, they do, then know sooner or later, you’ll receive one that’s a mortal blow to your desire to write. If the answer is no, bad reviews will not stop you from writing, then congratulations, you’re an author. Now be the best author you can be. Once you decide that nothing will stop you from writing, the negative review loses a lot of its power. That’s not to say they don’t still have the power to wound or infuriate you. But if they can’t stop you from writing, they are nothing more than annoying gnats.

Discouraged as a Writer: You’re Not Alone

Yesterday, someone posted in one of my Facebook groups a comment I’m seeing more and more lately: a statement of how discouraged they are as a writer.

Truth be told, I understand that all too well. Recently, I decided to leave my previous genre and pen name to start over again. I knew it would be tough, starting over from scratch, but I seriously underestimated how hard to would be to gain traction in today’s market, despite all the lessons I’ve learned about marketing, networking, and how to use social media effectively.

So this post could be a long wail about how tough the industry is, and how hard it is to get noticed when 4500 new books are published on Amazon every day.

But it’s not.

Instead, I’m reminded of the horse-mad girl I used to be, and how I would do anything to ride horses–bike five miles a day to the barn to muck stalls, just to be allowed to ride the school ponies. Volunteer to get on the ‘crazy’ horses, to find out how bad they were before letting students on them. Save my pennies for riding lessons when friends were taking ballet or learning to play the piano.

Once, I’d bargained hard for a riding lesson with a new instructor, only to fall ill on the day of the lesson. I begged to be allowed to reschedule, but the instructor said no. Instead, I attempted to follow her coaching while sick as a dog, barely able to sit upright in the saddle. At the end of the lesson, she told me I had no business being on a horse and I should never bother getting on a horse again.

At the time, I was crushed. Mortified, it was a year before I got up the nerve to approach someone about riding lessons again.

But I did it because I loved horses so much, I couldn’t imagine not riding.

The same holds true for writing.

Several years ago, I was warming up my horse for a dressage clinic when one of the women in the class asked, “Does he always just go on the bit like that?” Her tone was clearly one of admiring envy.

I had to laugh. ‘Going on the bit’ requires the horse to round his back and be compliant to the rider’s hands, the impulsion of movement coming from the hind end. It is a measure of the communication between horse and rider, and in certain disciplines, it is highly prized. It is impossible to do if the horse has his head flung up high and his back hollowed out.

I’d bought my horse as a three-year-old from a slaughterhouse, at meat prices. He was the last horse anyone would expect to become a dressage champion. When I first began appearing at the local shows, people shook their heads and wondered what I was doing there. Over a period of nearly a decade (and many hours of diligent training), we went from being the horse and rider that made people snicker to the team that came home with the ribbons.

The woman at the riding clinic was stunned when I told her of my horse’s background and how much work it had taken to make coming on the bit look natural for him. In the world of competitive riding, most people buy the right horse for the job. The right horse, the right saddle, the right boots, the best equipment money can buy: these can make a huge difference in where you place in the show ring. It doesn’t eliminate the need for disciplined training, but your starting point on the podium is higher simply by virtue of having an athletic horse, and a saddle that prevents you from making a wrong move. That being said, I’ve seen sheer hard work and determination overcome genetics and natural ability. I competed with my meat-market nag because he was the only horse I had, and the hours I put in riding him were a labor of love. Winning ribbons wasn’t the goal. The horse shows just gave me a structure for the time we spent together.

So I have to laugh when people ask me if I’ve always been a writer, in that same sort of wondering, envious tone. As though having a natural gift for something is more valuable than working your butt off to achieve the same results. The truth is, I wrote passionately as a child, only to give it up entirely as a teenager because I didn’t think I was good enough to be a ‘real’ writer. I thought it was time to put away childish dreams and get on with the business of making a career for myself. I wasn’t a natural.

It wasn’t until I discovered online fanfiction archives as an adult that I rediscovered my love for writing. My creative self, having been ruthlessly starved and repressed for several decades, woke with a vengeance. I read everything I could lay my hands on regarding my favorite show, and then tentatively, I began writing my own stories. Not because I thought I was any good. Not because I ever thought I’d be any good. Because I loved the characters so much I wanted to spend more time with them. Because I felt compelled to tell stories about them and share them with like-minded souls. While I was active in fandom, I wrote over a million words of fanfic. The enthusiastic support of friends gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction, and eventually go on to submit my stories for publication. Making the transition to original fiction was tougher than I’d imagined, but in the end it was no different from moving up a level in dressage: everything that was once seemed effortless becomes hard work as you increase the challenge and have to master a whole new skill set.

Being a natural is over-rated. It tends to teach poor work habits because everything is easy for you at first, and then when it gets harder, as it always does, you get discouraged and frustrated because you’ve never learned how to put in the hours to reach a specific goal. If you want to get better at anything, you have to put your hours in: under saddle, swimming laps, on the dance floor, at the keyboard. You ‘train’ when you don’t feel like it, when it’s raining, when you’ve had a bad day.

One of my favorite quotes is from Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

They are words to live by—but especially if you’re a writer. You don’t wait until the muse strikes you. You don’t let reviews sink your confidence. You don’t compare yourself to others. You write, pure and simple. Every day, without fail. You hone your skills by practicing. Your creativity is a muscle you exercise. The more you write, the stronger you get. The better your sentences become. Sure, you can sigh and wish you had more talent, but in the end, it is the person who puts the words to paper who is the winner. It is the person who persists who achieves their dream. That person can be you.

Had I been older and more confident, I would have told that instructor if she’d been any kind of decent trainer, she could teach even someone like me. That’s what you need to do when someone tells you that you can never achieve “X”. Decide then and there who you intend to listen to, and keep plugging away. Am I an Olympic level horsewoman? Of course not. But there will ALWAYS be someone who is a better writer than you are at this stage of the game–and someone who is worse.

Keep at your craft. Practice. Take classes. Work with critique groups. If multiple people say the exact same thing is a weakness in your story, they’re probably right. Listen to them. In the end, however, it’s your story, your voice, your vision. No one else can tell your story the same way you can.

Are other people going to be more successful than you are? Hell, yes. But if you are comparing yourself to some Big Name Author who’s been writing for the last 15 years, you’ve done the equivalent of putting your nag in an upper level dressage test when you haven’t done the training for it. 

And once the level at which you’re competing becomes too easy, you’ll find yourself raising the bar. Just remember, every time you do, it will feel as though you’re starting over again. You’re not. You are at a specific point in the path. Everyone else is either ahead of you or behind you–but it’s still the same path.

So take heart. It just means you’re a writer, that’s all.

Make Your Hero Someone Worth Idolizing

As a writer, I’m frequently asked to pen a few words about the most influential book I’ve ever read. There’s no question which book it would be: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. I’ve been a lifelong fan of murder mysteries, particularly the British cozy, in which the body is discovered in the library and the protagonists sit around and discuss this development with wit and erudition. I still regularly re-read the classics of the Golden Age of Mystery: Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allinghmam, Josephine Tey, Patricia Wentworth, you name it.

Gaudy Night remains my favorite book of all time, the one novel I’d want with me if marooned on a deserted island.

I’ve given a lot of thought as to why.

By the time you get to Gaudy Night in the series, Lord Peter Wimsey, the dapper aristocratic peer with detective tendencies, has been seeing Harriet Vane for several years. Harriet, the somewhat cynical mystery writer, is looking to piece together the remains of her life after having been acquitted of murdering her former lover in a time when murder was a capital offense in Great Britain. Harriet is intelligent and strong-willed, determined to make her way in an unforgiving world without compromising her beliefs—the tenant of which caused the break between her and her deceased lover. Peter Boyle had first refused to marry Harriet on principle; when ‘living in sin’ was almost as much a crime as committing murder. Boyle does a turnaround and decides to ‘make an honest woman’ out of Vane, condescending to make things right with society and her family after first forcing a split with both. Harriet refuses to marry, and instead breaks up with Boyle.

When Lord Peter first meets Harriet in Strong Poison, she is a prisoner in the dock for Boyle’s murder, and Lord Peter has very little time to prove that Harriet is innocent. He also falls in love with her at first sight, and subsequent meetings shows the two of them are mentally and emotionally compatible—for Lord Peter is not a slave to his emotions. Though he would have done everything in his power to prove Harriet’s innocence, he would not have proposed marriage to someone he didn’t think he could make happy.

But Harriet, bruised by life’s circumstances and emerging out of prison bloody, but unbowed, will have none of men offering marriage. The next few books in the series continue in the usual Sayers vein: an interesting and clever murder with Lord Peter being witty and brilliant in the course of deduction and solution. Harriet is not always a presence in every story. I confess, I prefer the novels in which she is there. The interaction between her and Lord Peter take the stories beyond the simple murder mystery formula. At one point in Have His Carcass, Lord Peter and Harriet have a very telling conversation about the fictional characters in Harriet’s latest novel. Lord Peter suggests a fix for the story that would require Harriet to rewrite her story in order to make the characters three-dimensional, more real. Harriet protests that this would be a painful process, whereupon Lord Peter gets to the heart of the matter, asking her what difference would that make if doing so gave her a better story in the end?

This is a critical turning point in many ways. My hero, Lord Peter, sets a precedent for doing whatever is best for the story, no matter the personal cost to the author. I frequently say, “Everything is grist for the mill” and it is true: no matter what the trauma I might be experiencing, at the same time there is this Critical Observer taking notes. I know at some point that experience will be transmuted and used in a story. I like to think that Lord Peter guided me to this choice.

In Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers takes this concept further. For most of the series, the Lord Peter we see in the stories is the same face he presents to society: fatuous, superficially shallow, yet clever enough to solve ‘little difficulties’. He solves mysteries while never failing to produce the most appropriate quote. He’s entertaining at parties. He collects rare books, loves music, and is a peer of the realm. It’s easy to see why he is frequently underestimated by his adversaries. However when we meet him in Gaudy Night, it is a Peter who has come back from a series of harrowing adventures—and Dorothy Sayers lets this show. This Peter Wimsey is older than the one we met at the beginning. He loves Harriet, but he’s also tired of the song and dance. He tells Harriet that the next time he asks her to marry him will be the last. Sayers makes good on that earlier suggestion that an author should do whatever is best for the story.

Gaudy Night isn’t just a story about Harriet deciding whether or not she’ll marry Wimsey. She’s deciding what path to take for the rest of her life. She’s having to choose between the life of academia and quiet study, where everything seems clean, ordered, and black and white—and the messy disorder of a life more passionate, with the man who loves her, writing stories to entertain instead of enlighten. Yes, there is a mystery, but it is the catalyst within the crucible rather than the main story. In Gaudy Night, for the first time in their relationship, Harriet views Peter as a man rather than as an appendage, and that scene in which she becomes conscious of him as a sexual being is one of the hottest scenes I’ve ever read. No, seriously. One of the steamiest, most sensual scenes I have ever read. Even though there is no sex involved.

There comes a point in Gaudy Night in which Harriet’s life is threatened—and Peter does her the honor of letting her take the risk. He doesn’t swoop in and forbid her to risk her life. He warns her of the risks of kicking over the ant hill—he acknowledges she can choose to say nothing and walk the cloistered halls of her university for the rest of her life—without him. He is also prepared to be there to pick up the pieces afterward if things go badly. It is one of the most perfect examples of an adult relationship that I’ve ever seen. When at the end of Gaudy Night, Peter proposes and Harriet says ‘yes’, your heart is singing with hers because you know this is the right answer for both of them. Sayers makes Peter an honest, three-dimensional human being in Gaudy Night, putting her money where her mouth is as an author. Not only has this book influenced me in my own personal relationships, but it has definitely influenced me as a writer, too.

I fell in love with Lord Peter when I was thirteen. I named a horse after him. I feel badly for all those young girls who are looking at Edward Cullen and thinking that’s what the perfect man is like. Because Lord Peter is a gentleman who will treat me as a lady—and an equal.

It’s what I strive for as an author, even though I write in a completely different genre. Someday, I want someone pointing to one of my heroes and saying, “This. This is what I want from a relationship. To be treated with honor and dignity. To be treated as an equal and an adult.”

Because let me tell you, baby. There’s nothing hotter than that.

Kill Your Muse

I have to admit, whenever I read someone speak of their Muse’, I cringe inside. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with having an outside source of inspiration for a creative project. Most of us have been there. We imagine a specific actor playing the role of our hero, or we see a photograph that lights up our imagination. I have no problem with that. My problem lies with those who speak of their muse as a somewhat capricious being who abandons them willy-nilly, or leads them on wild goose chases, or shows up in the middle of the night like a bad house guest who parties for three days straight only to disappear for months on end.

No. Just no.

Let’s look at the Merriam Webster definition of a Muse. If capitalized, as most people do when referring to their Muse, then it comes from Greek mythology and is attributed to any one of the nine Goddesses that preside over songs and poetry. It can also mean, as we’ve already discussed, a source of inspiration, a guiding genius.

More interesting to me is the definition of muse when it is not capitalized, which is ‘a state of deep thought or dreamy abstraction.’ I think that is a better representation of the writing process, don’t you?

Because here’s my problem with ascribing your writing to a Muse: you are giving all the power of your creativity to something outside yourself. You are absolving yourself of responsibility for an inability to sit down and tell your story, but you are also robbing yourself of the right to claim achievement over your successes, too.

I’m often amazed at the great lengths people go to describing their Muses—giving them names and detailed descriptions and character traits. I would suggest to you if you’ve done that to take a hard look at your creation and ask yourself why you’ve given your Muse these attributes. I think you’ll see that a lot of what you feel about your writing process is tied up in this artificial construct.

I also think this fabricated being is holding you back.

So I say to you: kill her. Kill your Muse.

Or if you can’t be that brutal, show her the door. Tell her that she no longer has any power over you. She is not the one that decides when you are going to write, you are. You don’t need her to come hold your hand, or whisper in your ear, or show you what’s in your heart. You know this to be true. You know that all you really have to do is start writing the words, and more words will come. They may not be the best words, but you know what? That’s what editing is for. Whatever you do, stop giving her all the credit and responsibility for your writing.

Sure, it may be easier to say, “My Muse has abandoned me,” rather than admit that you’ve been playing Minesweeper or wasting time on Facebook again. It might make you feel better to think, ‘if only my Muse would come back, I could write that bestseller I know is in me.’

One of my favorite quotations is from Calvin Coolidge: Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

If you’ll notice, there’s not one word about a Muse in there. So free yourself of the tyranny of your so-called Muse and start writing again. You’re better off without her. You don’t need her.

So get rid of her. You’ll be happy you did.