Feeling Guilty over Joy When the World is on Fire

photp by Ashutosh Sonwani pexels.com

TW for frightening world news events and the despair they cause. (I promise I’ll make it better, though)

 

 

I have a new book coming out this week, and I gotta tell you.

Most days it feels wrong to talk about it.

I’m not the only one. I think when you take the natural reticence many authors have about self-promotion and add it to the fact most days, the world news is a dumpster fire, it’s difficult to feel right about promoting something as trivial as a new book, or celebrating any event in your life. What if you line up a bunch of timed social media releases, and they hit your timeline on the same day of some horrific event? I don’t know about you, but something like that makes me cringe inside. If that happened, I’d rush off and delete the rest of any planned posts and downplay my book news.

And yet, as of the first of this month, there have been more mass shootings in the US than there have been days in the year. It’s fair to say it’s nigh unto impossible to avoid releasing your doves of happy news on a day when nothing bad has happened. Not a day goes by when we don’t learn of fresh horror: be it rampant, unchecked government corruption (honestly, there are too many stories to link here), the acceleration of climate change, the news that the same insecticides killing the bees are also affecting songbirds, another dozen stories on racial injustice, or whatever hits the news that day. With today’s social media, it’s easier than ever to connect to world events, whether or not the reporting is accurate.

Recently, I wrote a blog post about a reporter who attended a romance conference under false pretenses in order to blast the industry and those who work in it. A point this so-called journalist kept making was that these authors came together to “peddle their soft porn” while “the Amazon burns.” Essentially, she compared romance authors to Nero fiddling while Rome burned (another case of history being written by the victors).

The article by this journalist seeking a free weekend away from her kids enraged many romance readers and writers alike. And for me, it pointed out one glaring hole in her argument about the frivolousness and uselessness of romance stories: as long as the Amazon burns, ANYTHING someone takes pleasure in counts as a selfish waste of time. That includes taking your kids to Little League, being excited about a new job, sharing your vacation pictures online, or seeing the latest blockbuster movie. By this standard, there should be no sports fans, no knitting groups, no book clubs. Why bother getting a new puppy or kitten; we’re all going to die.

Problem is, that holds true regardless if the end is 20 minutes or 200 years from now. Sneering at romance is simply more acceptable than belittling diehard football fans.

Face it, “the Amazon burns” is the perfect metaphor for human civilization as a whole right now. Moderating climate change should be our greatest priority, but that requires a whole chain of events, including putting people in power who believe in science and prioritize global concerns instead of lining their pockets. To take pleasure in the little things in life isn’t a repudiation of making things better in the world.

It helps.

It reminds us the world is worth saving, that people are worth saving. That there are good things in this world, worth sharing with others.

On a more practical level, our social media interconnectedness, while great for sharing things, can also make us more anxious and depressed. And for many, reading is a stress-reducing activity as powerful, if not more so, than meditation. I know this to be true. Without even realizing it, I stumbled upon this a few years ago. I work long hours at a high-stress job, and while I’ve always been a big reader, I desperately needed to spend my 20 minute lunch break with a book each day. If I’m behind my book, don’t talk to me. Don’t expect me to answer work-related questions. I’m the taxi driver sitting at the wheel with the OFF DUTY sign engaged. That twenty minutes absorbed in a story is twenty minutes in which my brain has disengaged from a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety. And I can take a deep breath and come back to slog through the rest of the day’s problems.

The truth is, regardless of whether the world is on fire, we still have to go to work, raise our kids, take care of our elderly parents, deal with relationship issues or that cancer diagnosis, decide if we should take the promotion that moves us across country, and mow the lawn. We still have to live our lives and living without joy is no way to live at all.

So I say, revel in your vacation photos to the Grand Tetons. Celebrate your daughter’s win at the science fair or your son’s award in the local talent contest. Post your puppy pictures and make someone smile. Learn to crochet. Share images of that crafting project you finally completed. Go out to that anniversary dinner. Laugh with friends over a movie. Live-Tweet your favorite TV show or the book you’re reading.

And don’t be afraid to promote your art. It might be exactly the thing that helps someone get through their day.

Dealing with Writer’s Block: Creativity Thrives in the Quiet Places

I’m in the process of final edits on my current project with a tight deadline, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with the manuscript lately. To the exclusion of just about everything else, I might add. No long walks with the dogs. No taking photographs on my rambles. Not riding the horse or swimming or anything. I sure as heck am not cleaning the house!

Just me and the manuscript, day after day. I’m in the final stages of polishing—looking for typos and making sure I have my ellipsis with consistent spacing throughout—that sort of thing. No major changes.

Yesterday we got a cool breeze rolling in, another hint of fall to come, and I decided to ride for an hour just to clear my head and move some muscles.

Shortly into my ride, as I was trotting around the arena in a circle, I had a eureka moment about the final scene in my book. Something that by changing, I could deepen the connection between the main protagonists and honor the fact that real character change doesn’t happen overnight. It was a great moment, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the draft and make the changes.

I love these moments, but as I finished my ride, it occurred to me I’ve been having less and less of them lately.

It’s really not that hard to see why. Fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take a phone with me on a dog walk. Ten years ago, when I began writing again, the phone stayed in my back pocket while I climbed hills and crossed creeks behind my dogs. Five years ago, when I began writing intending to publish, the phone was in my hand, but mostly to take pictures. But two things have happened in the last couple of years that give me pause. The first is an injury has sidelined me for months from many of my former activities. I haven’t been walking in ages because of plantar fasciitis, and then a knee injury.

The second is more insidious. I’m always looking at my social media feeds.

I used to watch my dogs at play, or take pictures of cool mushrooms, or close my eyes to the sun on my face and listen to birdsong.

Now I endlessly scroll, react, comment, or RT. Most of the time, to be honest, I’m in a state of rage over what I read. Not good for my mental health, but not good for writing, either.

In the book, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, the author speaks of the importance of freeing the creative power within you. Of releasing the imagination to go on rambles of its own. She describes how talking 5-6 mile walks does this for her, but only if she exists in the present during those walks. If she heads out on them with the intent of either plotting a story or performing “exercise”, the ideas don’t come. I recently read that Tolkien plotted out large bits of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on similar rambles with his dogs.

But it doesn’t have to be a long, physical activity. The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, once said she got her best ideas while doing the dishes. I find this to be true myself. Some of my best ideas–my eureka moments–come while I’m doing mindless tasks, such as cleaning stalls. And Ueland herself describes “little bombs of revelation” that go off when doing other things: sewing or carpentry, whittling or playing golf, and yes, dreamily washing the dishes.

The problem is, we have less and less time to free our minds to wander these days.  Something constantly demands our attention. We have tendonitis from constantly scolling and a crick in our necks from looking down at our phones. And that wonderful, lovely brainstorming time, those little bombs of revelation? Well, they aren’t happening nearly as often because our brains are never quiet enough to meander freely. And I’m coming at this as an adult who didn’t grow up with a smartphone plugged into my ear. I can’t imagine how much harder it’s going to be for the people behind us to find that sweet spot of creative revelation. It’s not just so you can get those little bombs going off either. If you’re blocked on your current project, I believe letting your mind out to play is one of the best ways to get around whatever hurdle is blocking you.

I’m reminded of an article I once read about a bomb-sniffing dog who got burned out on the job because his handler used to take him to the golf course on the weekends and have him find missing golf balls. The handler mistakenly thought the dog was having fun doing this simple activity, but what he didn’t realize was the dog took finding golf balls as seriously as hunting out explosives, and the poor dog was effectively working seven days a week as a result.

So I plan to incorporate more ‘free time’ into my brain’s activity each week. I challenge you to do the same. Find “your moment of Zen” by whatever means necessary. If music takes you there, make a playlist and run it on repeat. Pick back up some of the activities you’ve set aside so you can grind out your stories. Stop grinding and let your brain out to play.

You’ll be glad you did.

The World May Be Burning but Romance Saves Lives

photp by Daria from pexels

Like many in Romancelandia this morning, I woke to hear about the hatchet piece done on NYT bestselling author, Nalini Signh, by someone named Vicki Anderson for New Zealand’s Stuff magazine. I won’t link to the post. Suffice to say, not only is the overall tone condescending about the romance industry and community, but the best part is Ms. Anderson attended the romance conference she skewered as a paid guest of Nalini Singh.

Yes, you read that right. Ms. Anderson entered a $1500 all-expenses-paid scholarship contest held by Ms. Singh so that two recipients could attend the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference. 

After opening with a scathing commentary on how the participants of the conference are discussing “beautiful jiggling breasts” and “manly bulging thighs” while “the Amazon burns”, Ms. Anderson then blasts the romance industry further by sneering with the voice of literary purists, describing romance authors as laughing all the way to the bank as they peddle their soft porn.

At this point, I have to ask Ms. Anderson: who hurt you, baby?

In all fairness, I, too, have said E. L. James is laughing all the way to the bank, but my tone was more of envy than scorn. Ms. Anderson has nothing but scorn for the genre, though she admits to liking many of the people she met at the conference, including the lovely Ms. Singh. She also admits that attending the conference basically amounted to a free weekend away from the kids, so whoo-hoo! Let’s go.

As she describes her weekend experiences, you can tell the conversations and the people are making a difference to Ms. Anderson. Her descriptions become less arch, her attempt to be witty, cutting, and clever as a store-brand Dorothy Parker fades as she becomes more involved with her subject. But as the weekend draws to a close, she has to go back to her real life, and her bitterness and cynicism resurface.

It would have made for a better, if still unethical, article for Ms. Anderson to say how the experience of attending the conference changed her mind about romance stories. That she now understood the joy that brings romance writers together, that as a community, we believe in hope. I might have forgiven her dismissive and belittling manner if she’d come to that kind of conclusion, but she did not. She finished her post with a reminder that the Amazon still burns.

I can see where she might be bitter and disillusioned. I’m angry too.

I’m livid that the wealthiest people in this world aren’t content with what they have, and must grab more to the detriment of us all. I’m furious that people can willfully deny climate change, and that we’re escalating to an unsustainable world habitat that will destroy societies and take us back to the Stone Age—if we survive at all. Daily I despair over the irreplaceable loss of species, and how toxic algal blooms that can kill your dog are becoming more widespread, how arctic ice is melting, and extreme weather events will only become more common, and how these end-game climate changes are likely to take place in my lifetime, to say nothing of the mess we’re leaving behind for our children. Perhaps that’s also why Ms. Anderson is so mad.

But I have to ask, why is her sneering disdain reserved for romance writers? Why not mock the scores of people who sit fixated in front of television sets or packed into stadiums this weekend to watch football or soccer? Why not rail at the parents taking their kids to Little League, or the theater-goers piling in to see the latest blockbuster?

Because making fun of romance isn’t new, and oh by the way, Ms. Anderson, your misogyny is showing too. And if you’re so bent about the fires being set in the Amazon, fires that the President Bolsonaro of Brazil refused financial aid to battle, tell me, what are you doing about the Amazon? Didn’t you just get $1500? How much of that went to fire relief?

For some time now, I’ve been writing about the struggle to find your creativity in a world that seems hopeless, and how I take refuge from the news in comfort reads. At the recent RWA conference in NYC (the American version of what Ms. Anderson attended in NZ), keynote speaker and author Jennifer L. Armentrout told the audience flatly that “I am here to tell you, 100%, you have saved someone’s life.” Today, authors and readers have filled my timeline with statements of how reading—and romances in particular—has saved them in dark times.

Readers share the series that got them through chemotherapy or that terrible divorce. Books that helped them survive crushing depression, when it was all they could do to get out of bed. The books that gave them temporary respite from their lives as caretakers to the elderly, or suffering from chronic pain, or a job that sucked the life out of them. Please tell me how reading a romance is somehow a stupid waste of time, an activity to be mocked, but being obsessed with Game of Thrones or a video game is not? (I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with things either. Hey, man. Whatever gets you through the day…)

I went through a spell a while back when I read a book every 2-3 days. For months, this was the only way I got through the day without panic attacks or taking a fistful of pills. I tried meditation apps, counseling, binging-watching The Nanny (do NOT judge me!), but reading made the most difference to my mental health. The only thing that stopped the loop of anxiety and depression.

I call my representatives in Congress to urge them to do the right thing, even though my voice shakes. I attend marches, despite my extreme fear of mass shooters and crowds in general. I donate to causes I believe in. Most days I have to choose: do I send something to the candidate I support, or help out a friend’s GoFundMe for medical bills?

Ms. Anderson’s take on reading and writing romance is akin to my boss thinking I’m not a hard enough worker because I read a book during my 20 minute lunch break, despite the fact I’m putting in a 10-12 hour workday. It’s like telling a soldier they should never try to take their minds off the battle ahead, or a climber Mt. Everest must be scaled in a single day, forget acclimating to the thinner air or taking shelter when a storm blows up.

I’ve said it many times, but while I dream of hitting bestseller status, I don’t write for that reason. I write because life is pretty crappy most days, and we get inundated with horrible news on a daily basis. I write because spending a few hours in my own universe every day, one where I can make sure the good guys win and the heroine gets her happy ending, keeps me sane. I share my stories because if I can take even one person out of their crappy existence for a few hours—to make them forget their chronic pain, their financial woes, their mean boss, their dying family member, the fact the world is a dumpster fire and we’re all going to die—even for a brief time, then I’ve done my job as a storyteller.

When I think about why this is, and why writing stories with happily-ever-after endings MATTER, damn it, I can think of no better way of putting it than this statement by a very good friend of mine:

We build instead of destroy.

Maybe you should think about that, Ms. Anderson.

 

 

Sometimes Less is More

Except for a few short breaks, I’ve been at the keyboard for the last 12 hours now.

I fed the animals and took the dogs out for potty breaks. I fixed a series of healthy snacks–if you count cheese and crackers, cookies, buttered toast, and apple pie as ‘healthy’. There was an intense break when I stormed around the yelling that the ziplock bag with all the chargers HAD to be in the house because I’d used the phone charger since my return from RWA (I found it under a pile of clean clothes from the trip). But starting at 8 am, I had my butt in the chair, determined to finish the edits I’d been working on for the last week. I had to get them done—I have a deadline.

I also wanted to get them done by 3 pm because that’s when the online writing course I’m taking had its next session. I haven’t been keeping up with either of the online courses I’m currently taking because, yeah, edits, but I had high hopes of  getting caught up if I just worked hard enough.

At 3:05 pm, I discovered the document I’d been working on all morning had phrases in it I thought I’d deleted the day before. That’s when it hit me: that little glitch I’d experienced the night before, when the elderly laptop suddenly closed the file I was working on? Yeah, when I recovered the file, it was an old version. I’d lost all my edits and there was no way to recover them.

Bad words were said. Tears were shed. And I came this close to chucking the whole thing. Not just the draft, but the whole shebang. The writing, the marketing, the constant push to do better, the entire demoralizing, nerve-wracking, frustrating process. I was ready to quit.

I felt as though I’d wasted the entire week, the evenings clacking away at the keyboard after work, the hours not walking the dogs, or riding the horse. The house uncleaned, the laundry undone. Heck, I still haven’t finished unpacking from our remodel and it’s been nearly six months. I could have been doing that instead of working on a book that only a handful of people will ever read. (Yeah, I was that down)

The good news is I didn’t chuck the draft, though I was sorely tempted. I had too much invested in it. I’ve been working on this story since before my mother died over a year ago. I have a cover I adore. And I like these characters a lot. They deserve to have their story told. I want to share their story with you.

So instead of participating in my online class, I went back to the keyboard and worked on restoring as much of the edits as I could remember. I worked for another five hours before deciding to stop for the evening. I tried to get as much done as I could today because working piecemeal around my day job makes everything harder. The edits went better than I’d expected, and with luck, I can get them done in the next few days.

But I learned a few things along the way.

First: I don’t really need to take any online courses right now. I’m up to my eyeballs in courses, books, articles, and videos I don’t have time to read or watch. They’re lined up on my shelves, stuffed in my inbox, and languishing on my hard drive. I’ve been shelling out money to learn more about the business of writing in all its forms, hoping against hope I’ll somehow find the magic formula that will make me an awesome writer AND bring my stories to international attention at the same time… while I think this is all important and necessary if I want this ever to be more than an expensive (exasperating, frustrating, and depressing) hobby, I also have to write the stories in the first place. So maybe the smartest thing for me to do right now is contact the class moderators and explain I need to drop out.

Second: I don’t run well on a steady diet of sugar and carbs. Seriously. I need more green things in my diet. Ditto with getting up and moving around from time to time.

Third: I was on fire to assimilate and implement the knowledge I received at RWA, but like Rome, my writing career won’t be built in a day. A lot of what I learned at RWA simply isn’t applicable to me at my current stage of my career. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever use that information, or that I won’t even begin using some of it now. But I can’t start putting up walls if I haven’t laid the foundation yet.

Fourth: I wasn’t a very nice person today. I hissed and struck like an irritable rattlesnake, blowing up over stupid things and then losing my cool when I discovered the glitch. I know I’m stressed by my work, the state of the world, and all the personal things I’ve gone through in the last couple of years, but the writing is supposed to be the fun part. The part that brings joy into my life I can then share with others.

I don’t want to be this person. The person snarling and snapping at everyone around them because I don’t have enough time or energy to do the things I think need to be done.

Fifth: I have to let some things go. I can’t do everything I want or need to do in a given 24 hours. I need to re-evaluate and prioritize, making way for the stuff I really want to do. Do a Marie Kondo on my life, but the mental and emotional aspects of it. If it doesn’t bring me joy, let it go.

So I will drop out of the coursework. I’ve got enough material to keep me occupied for a very long time, so no more new stuff until I’ve made a dent in what I already have. I’ll finish the edits. I’ll go back to doing self-care stuff—meditation, listening to music, taking the dogs for long walks in the woods (okay, when it’s cooler…). I will spend LESS TIME ON SOCIAL MEDIA. I will go back to the heart of why I do this: the writing itself.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll discover my better self again. The one who is kind, compassionate, and fun to be around. Not just the person my dogs think I am, but the one they deserve. Let’s hope so, at any rate.

Why Editors are like Riding Instructors

Recently, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, I wound up with a story with an incomplete edit. Anyone in the writing business knows how hard it is to find a good editor at the best of times. When you’re in the middle of fording the river, it’s a terrible time to switch horses. But it couldn’t be helped.

I tried to explain the difficulties to a friend of mine. “It’s like trying to find a new hairdresser right before a major event. You don’t know if you’ll get a genius or a disaster.”

I could see I hadn’t convinced her. And then it came to me. The perfect analogy. “It’s like finding another riding instructor.”

As a horsewoman herself, she instantly got it.

I’ve written in the past about the similarities to writing and riding horses, so it should come as no surprise I find editing and riding instruction comparable activities, too. There is a lot of commonality between the two roles.

A good riding instructor assesses your skill level and does her best to make sure you understand the basics of horsemanship before putting you in a situation where you might get hurt. (What you do on your own time without her knowledge is on you) Good riding instructors are skilled at reading their students. They are firm because making mistakes could kill you. They know when someone needs encouragement and praise. They are quick to dole out correction when someone makes a bone-headed move. They know when to push a student to the next level and when to stop someone before they jeopardize themselves and the horses they ride. The best instructors can do this without demoralizing or belittling their students, all while pointing out bad habits and little errors that will keep you from winning in the show ring. They also realistically assess your level of talent, dedication, and the ability of your mount, and try not to over-face you. The goal is to keep you safe, and make you and your horse the best possible team you can be.

Likewise, a good editor will pick up on those habitual phrases you use and correct your SPAG. They’ll praise your writing’s strengths and point out its weaknesses. They’ll drill the basics into until you can perform them in your sleep—until you automatically correct your own draft before sending it in to them for editing. And if you’re not ready for “competition”, they’ll tell you. They’ll also tell you when it’s time to move up in the ranks and push yourself harder. The goal is to help you make your story the best possible story it can be.

The relationship between a writer and editor, or student and riding instructor, is a special one. The person giving the expert advice is in a position of power. A thoughtless or overly harsh criticism can to do great harm. What works for one paired team might not work for another. Sometimes the only thing that keeps a person plugging away after crushing criticism is a deep abiding love for the thing they desire: be it riding horses or writing stories.

I’ve had riding instructors tell me I had no business being on a horse—and for a while, I believed them. I’ve ridden with an Olympic coach—and had him consider me and my backyard nag beneath his notice. I’ve also successfully competed with my slaughter-house mount and won reserve champion with the highest test score of the event. It took me many years and many instructors to find the right one for me. It wasn’t easy. Just because you find the right person doesn’t mean that relationship is all rainbows and flowers, either. There are times when I get deeply frustrated with my instructor, but you know what? Most of the time she’s right.

There are a lot of reasons why you might need a new editor. Maybe you’ve outgrown the one you started with, or their life circumstances have changed and they can no longer work with you. Maybe you tried someone’s services and recognize they aren’t a good fit for you. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are to train a horse. Trust your instincts and do what is best for you. Find the person whose advice resonates for you. If you disagree, ask yourself why? Are you resisting sound advice because it’s hard taking your writing to the next level or because that advice is wrong for you and your story?

Because in the end, it’s just you and that half-ton beast galloping down to that double oxer. The instructor might have given you the tools to get to the obstacle, but you’re the one jumping it.

We’re All a Little Bit Weird, and That’s Okay

I came very close to deleting this post. I’d gotten 3/4 of the way through it, only to have a lightning strike take out the transformer near our home. By the time the power came back, not only was it quite late (and I’d pretty much missed the #MondayBlogs window) but I also had second thoughts about the content. But then I read something online about the Us vs Them mentality, and it made me decide to finish the blog and publish it anyway.

You see, for some time now, I’ve suspected the need to categorize people into Us and Them is something deeply ingrained in human nature. When you think about it, survival pressure has probably selected for those of us who have the ability to organize ourselves in communities, since those who live in groups have increased survival rates. But the flip side of this benefit is the tendency to see everyone that is not Us as Them. It’s as though we’re constantly playing a game of “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” only the consequences of saying “You don’t belong” has gone far beyond kids sorting themselves into Jocks and Nerds. That process itself is not innocuous either: there are real consequences to bullying and being ostracized. But that’s just one end of a spectrum that includes racism, homophobia, misogyny, sports team rivalry, and more.

In the past, not being part of a tribe could get you killed–but the process of sorting you into a tribe can be an anxious one. I think J.K. Rowling got it right when she depicted the competition and tension between Houses at Hogwarts, and the concern Harry had about being sorted into the ‘right’ house.

More than ever, politics has become a polarizing issue here in the US, especially given the fact that people’s lives are at stake. It’s gone far beyond “this is what I believe” and entered into the “You want to kill me and mine” category. People are drawing lines in the sand and standing by their candidate no matter what. In fact, at a recent gathering of friends, we had to declare a ‘no politics’ rule. Not because I don’t think we could have discussed the current issues without coming to blows, but mostly because we’re all so sick of it and we were there to get away for a few days. But the subject of Us against Them came up, and it struck me that this mindset was so deeply rooted in all of us that probably the ONLY thing that would unite us as one people on this planet would be the threat of an alien invasion or the threat of another pandemic–which is a nightmare for another day.

Sometimes, in my fear of the hatred and hostility I see out there, I forget the value of having tribes. The importance of finding *your* tribe, the place where the people get you. The people with whom you can be your real self.

Last month I had the chance to attend a big sci-fi convention. It was the first time I’ve been able to go to one of these in at least ten years. My husband had to back out for work-related reasons, which almost made me cancel the trip myself. I rarely travel, and for me, a trip to the Big City means going into Raleigh. I tend to get overwhelmed by large crowds, too. But the tickets had been purchased and I was going to meet up with friends, so I decided to go after all. Most of my friends are as introverted as I am, so if I said I needed to take a break and go to my room, everyone would likely understand.

Most of the friends I was meeting were people I’d met before, but each of them brought friends of their own. Initially, I found myself somewhat nervous about meeting so many new people. Under those circumstances, I tend to talk too much, and then later, kick myself for things I said at the time. I replay my conversations, wincing at things I said, wishing I’d just kept my mouth shut.

But as the days went on, I noticed something–all of my friends had their own individual quirks. The truth is, we’re all a little bit weird, but in a good way. I started to relax. Lest you think I was congratulating myself for being the ‘normal’ person in a room full of odd ducks, that wasn’t the case at all. I was reassured that everyone there was as weird as I was–and this was okay. It made me realize my particular brand of weirdness would be recognized and accepted by my tribe.

The convention was held at a 4 star hotel–and the contrast between convention goers and the regular guests was noticeable. At one point I got into an elevator with a woman about my age–but we couldn’t have been more different. I was dressed in jeans and a fandom T shirt, my short blonde hair tipped with temporary purple dye. In contrast, the other guest wore a conservative suit and had her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun. She made a point of fixing her gaze on the elevator doors, ignoring my presence until she got out.

My con badge identified me as a convention-goer, but truthfully, the badge wasn’t necessary–my whole outfit screamed “FAN!” But for other convention attendees, the badge was an open invitation to start a conversation.

I followed an older gentleman down the corridor one morning. He was using a cane and moving slowly. I didn’t want to be rude and blow past him, so I adjusted my pace accordingly. When we got in the elevator, I noticed he was wearing a con badge. He turned to me and asked if this was my first con. I smiled and told him it was the first in many years. He said he was a new fan, having only recently discovered Stargate streaming on Amazon. He then told me he’d lost his wife the year before, and his son had taken it hard. My heart plummeted at his words. But then he shared that they’d begun watching the show together, and enjoyed it so much that he decided to see if there was a sci-fi convention they could attend. There were tears in my eyes when he confided his son was having a great time, and so was he.

Another encounter occurred when I was waiting in line. A gorgeous woman struck up a conversation with me. She’d noticed me waiting in the same lines, and began telling me how she and her boyfriend (who smiled and nodded as she spoke) had met over a shared love of geeky things. She said no one else understood her passion the way he did, and neither of them had been able to talk about their fandoms until they’d met. They’d traveled a great distance to come to the convention, and despite coming from widely divergent backgrounds, their bond over sci-fi was solid gold. While we were chatting, we broke off to admire a woman passing us who’d dyed her cornrows in the colors of the rainbow.

The last day of the con, I got up early and posed some action figures in front of a little fountain in the hotel lobby so i could take photographs of them. I sensed someone behind me watching, and I looked up with an apologetic “sorry.”

I needn’t have bothered. The guy was dressed in a military uniform from one of the TV shows. He grinned. “No, that’s so cool. Do you have any others at home?”

Er, yes. From Stargate. Doctor Who. Captain America. Wonder Woman. Even Jem and the Holograms. Sometimes I stage huge scenes mixing characters from various shows and movies…

Okay, I admit, it’s a little weird. But it’s fun, and I believe that play is good for all of us, but especially those of us who create. Play fuels imagination, and imagination begets creativity. You should try it sometime. The important part of the story here is that this random stranger didn’t think I was a total freak for carrying action figures with me and taking photos of them because he recognized me on some level as being part of his tribe.

I’ll be travelling to an even bigger convention in a bigger city soon:The Romance Writers Association Conference. It’s my first time attending. I’ll go, swallowing my nervousness, with the hopes of experiencing terrific conversations, meeting in person people I only know from online interactions, and soaking up knowledge and experience. I’ll exchange my Doctor Who T-shirt for my Romancelandia one, my Agent Carter tote for the one that says, “I love Mr. Darcy”, and decorate my bag with buttons that say things like “Writer’s Block: When Your Imaginary Friends Stop Talking to You.” I’ll wear the trappings of my tribe with pride because I want my tribe to recognize me.

It’s a big tribe, and I don’t imagine my presence or absence there will make much of a difference either way. I hope I don’t embarrass myself, the Country Mouse in the Big City. Either way, I’m going with the knowledge we’re all a little bit weird in our own ways, and that’s okay.

 

 

Managing Marketing for Authors in 20 Minutes a Day

Are you familiar with the website Unf*ck Your Habitat? I first learned of it on their Tumblr site. It’s a place where people upload pictures of their personal space before and after after cleaning up. It’s very satisfying to see–much, as I imagine, the same kind of fascination people have for Dr. Pimple Popper.

The idea behind UfYH is brilliant, however. This statement is from their page: 

So jump in. Don’t worry about catching up. This is about doing what you can, when you can. 5, 10, 20 minutes at a time. And then back to your normal life.

The beauty of it is that it can be applied to so much besides cleaning up your home–getting back in shape, organizing your photos, sorting your finances, you name it. Any project that seems overwhelming to you, that you keep putting off for lack of time and energy.

I decided to apply it an area of being an author I find frustrating: marketing.

See, I know on some level, I produce a decent product. Not world-class, mind you, but solid writing with good storytelling. But relatively speaking, few people know I exist. In part because I’ve refused to use KU (as a romance author, I’m going to have to rethink that…more on how to use KU without letting it eat you alive in a separate, future post), in part because I can’t produce more than one novel a year with my current workload. But also because I don’t market effectively.

I sign up for marketing seminars, Facebook groups, newsletters, etc all the time. I’m on mailing lists I never open, I’ve shelled out big bucks for workshops that I barely attended, I pay a monthly fee for good advice I never take the time to read or listen to, and in general just sort of wing it when it comes to book launches. I pay for promotional tours and buy ads, but I’m never really sure if I’m just throwing my money out the window. It certainly feels that way to me sometimes.

Ditto with craft. I’ve got all kinds of books on how to be a better writer (yes, I’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, thank you). Romancing the Beat. Bird by Bird, etc They line my bookshelves. People love to give them to me as gifts and I appreciate their support by doing so.

But most of them are unread.

That’s on me. But the truth is, most days I feel overwhelmed by my To Do List. And after all, isn’t writing the next story the most important thing I can do as a writer?

Well, yes. But if I keep making the same mistakes, then my launching a new story is about as fruitless as Noah releasing doves every day after The Flood, hoping they will come back with evidence of dry land out there somewhere. It might eventually happen, but I could be more effective, now couldn’t I?

So I’ve decided to take the Unf*ck approach to lots of things. I’m going to tackle my marketing in bite-sized chunks of time. I’m not going to stress about what I haven’t done or read or how full my inbox is or how much time and money I’ve wasted thus far. Ditto with improving my craft. Writing itself. Or exercising, for that matter. Anything I choose.

Obviously, I don’t have endless “twenty minute” blocks of time to devote to something every day, but I can make a point of devoting 20 minutes two or three times a week to anything I choose. I’m prioritizing things into daily, bi-weekly, weekly, and monthly categories depending on urgency and need.

The other thing I’m going to do is take a hard look at the advice given by people who’ve made a successful career out of writing–and resist the urge to jump on every bandwagon that comes down the pike. No more seminars. No more expensive programs. I’m going to focus on the material I already have before taking on any more right now.

It might be like chipping away at stone a little at a time, but it’s better than doing nothing and complaining about the lack of progress. And if I keep at it, eventually I’ll have something to show for it.

First up for me is to read BadRedHeadMedia’s 30 day Book Marketing Challenge by Rachel Thompson. I’ve had a copy for several years. Now’s the time to read–and implement–it.

I’ll let you know what I think. In the meantime, what can you do with 20 minutes?

Pets in My Stories: The Joy and Heartbreak

Trigger warning for the loss of a pet

I’m in the homestretch of the current WIP, and I couldn’t resist adding a dog in the story.

Not just any dog, but this one. This ridiculously cute terrier who is a cuddlebug and the sweetest little guy you could ever hope to meet–unless confronted by vermin, in which case he’ll turn into a ferocious killer in the blink of an eye.

The dichotomy of his behavior is intriguing–and just a little amusing–to me. And since it suited the nature of the story, Captain makes an appearance in the upcoming Bishop Takes Knight, and if he has any say so in the matter, will be a series regular. I can’t wait to share him with you!

You’re going to find dogs, cats, and horses in most of my stories. Not just because my stories are set in shifter universes, but because animals are a big part of my life and I want to include them in my storytelling.

At the same time, I tend to get nervous when I read about animals in other stories or see them in movies. Killing the pet seems to be a common way of ratcheting up tension or creating emotional impact. Let me say up front that this is something that I don’t do as a general rule. I won’t say never because I believe in writing the story that needs to be told. But since so many times I’ve stopped reading a book or series because of the casual extermination of a pet for the purposes of creating angst, I’m extremely unlikely to do that myself. As a matter of fact, if an animal appears in a story, I frequently read ahead to make sure it doesn’t die or else I get someone else to read the book for me first.

There’s a website called DoesTheDogDie.com, which describes itself as crowd-sourced emotional spoilers for movies, TV, books, and more. It has icons which indicate what stories include pet death, which ones end happily, and which ones seem to indicate the pet dies, but in the end, doesn’t. I routinely check this site out for movies, but haven’t spent as much time on it for books. I’m definitely going to do that more in the future.

But one of the things I hadn’t counted on when giving my pets roles in my stories is how sometimes it hurts when you lose the namesake–not in the book, but in real life.

Recently, I released Ghost of a Chance, in which the eponymous Ghost is a stray German Shepherd taken in by my heroine after her previous owner dies. The German Shepherd in the story was based on my very first dog, Abby, who’s been gone more years now than she was alive. I gave the dog in my story her personality, her courage. Having lost her so long ago, it was easy to give my fictional dog Abby’s traits and smile while doing so. But I chose the name from a little feral cat I’d started feeding and eventually trapped, neutered, and tamed.

He was still a wild animal, but he’d come running whenever I left the house with the dogs, and join us on our rambles around the property. He’d let me pet him, as long as I didn’t try to pick him up. Making him a house cat wasn’t an option. He wasn’t that tame.

Ghost rapidly became a favorite of mine, despite knowing how risky it is to give your love to a feral cat. Sadly, six months after I published Ghost of a Chance, my favorite wild cat was hit by a car. I knew he’d been crossing the road at night sometimes. I did everything I could to encourage him to hang around and not leave the property. I blamed myself for the disruption to the general environment with the heavy construction we’d undertaken, that probably threatened him enough to make him wander. In short, I was devastated.

For many weeks afterward, I found it hard to look at the book I’d so joyfully written. I couldn’t think about it without remembering the shy little cat I’d loved and lost.

It wasn’t until I re-read another story in which I’d included a cameo from another pet now deceased that I was able to see this with new eyes. I’d written a little fluffy piece of fanfic and included my dog, Sampson, for the fun of it. I lost Sampson two years ago to cancer, but in my story, he was alive, tongue lolling, tail wagging, eyes alight with mischief, ready to go for a walk (or to chase a bear up the side of a mountain). 

When I wrote that story, I had no idea I’d be losing him so soon. I also didn’t give much thought to how I might feel years later, coming across that story again. When I began reading, that same emotional wrench of loss was there–but as I read on, I became fiercely glad I’d included him.

It was no different from taking a photo or video that I could look back on with a teary smile, remembering the joy he brought me. I’d captured his essence, and it would always be with me.

As Abby the dog and Ghost the cat live in Ghost of a Chance. As Captain will live in Bishop Takes Knight.

Being immortalized in that manner isn’t such a bad thing after all.

 

A Cultural Inability to Focus: What it Means for Authors

Lately, I’ve been battling the fear that I’m becoming–I don’t want to say stupid.  Let’s say cognitively impaired. That I’m losing my ability to process a reasonable amount of information. I find myself having difficulty reading a lengthy article, or wading through a basic legal document. Most books fail to hold my attention, and I lay them down never to pick them up again, something that never used to happen to me. When I do read, it’s usually on my Kindle, and I find myself skimming, in part because it’s just so easy to tap, tap, tap and turn the pages.

I’ve been writing the same scene for weeks. I’m lucky if I peck out 300 words in a writing session. I wouldn’t mind if they were 300 fabulous words, but they aren’t. I look at my WIP and think it’s stilted and cliched. Most writers cringe when they look back on their earlier works. I do too, but it’s because part of me believes my earlier work showed more promise. I should be getting better and this, right?

Instead of hashing out the scene and moving on, I find myself picking up my phone and cycling through my various social media sites. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. When I’m done with that, I scroll through my email, read forum digests, and check out my lists. And when I’m done, I start at the beginning and go through them all again.

My inbox is filled with links to articles on marketing and publishing that I never read. I sign up for online seminars and coursework I never take. Sometimes, in a fit of desperation, I delete them all just to whittle my emails down to something less than 400 notifications.

I could blame this on being exhausted most of the time–I am. I work long, hard hours. Chronic pain makes sleeping problematic. Healthy food choices and exercise is always on tomorrow’s To Do list. I can’t keep running on fumes and expect to remember the lyrics to a song I didn’t particularly like that I haven’t heard in twenty years or the name of my next-door neighbor whom I only know to wave to. (I know his dog’s name. I have my priorities right) But I don’t think that’s the biggest factor in my inability to focus.

I think our cell phones are to blame. 

I no longer know anyone’s phone number–I don’t have to–all my contacts are in my phone. Wikipedia is at my fingertips. Google will find me those song lyrics, direct me to that business I went to last year, remind me who said that clever quotation, and more. I don’t have to remember anything.

I’m never without entertainment, either. I can a read one of nearly a thousand books on my TBR list, watch a TV show, see the latest Avengers trailer, laugh over a viral cat video, or check out the latest drama in my writer’s forum. It used to be if I was out walking the dogs or tending to the horses, I used that time brainstorming for my stories. I’d come back from my activity on fire ready to write. Now I check Twitter.

It used to be if I had a few minutes to spare while waiting to do something, I’d open a book. Now I pick up the phone–and it’s not unusual for me and my husband to be sitting across from each other, phones or tablets in hand, concentrating on our screens instead of each other. We’re both introverted, so there was a time when that felt comfortable.

Now it feels like an addiction.

Our attention spans are getting shorter because we are being bombarded with information constantly. We bring it with us wherever we go. Work can reach us 24/7 (that’s another post for another day) and so can any friend or member of our family. Gone is the time when going for a walk meant you were temporarily out of contact. Sure, there are benefits to this–the most important of which is safety–but we’re never unplugged now. It means we can feed the streaming monster: be it TV shows, news feeds, or our Twitter timeline.

And if I struggle to put my phone down–picking it up first thing in the morning, sneaking glances at it at stoplights, opening social media at work when I want a break–if I struggle with the addiction of scrolling, having come to it late in life, what about the generation of people who grew up with a cell phone in their hands from day one? You have to wonder if the plasticity of young minds are being modeled to be incapable of concentrating on anything longer than a three minute video.

I’m sure when television first came into people’s homes, there were a lot of people who bemoaned the loss of family activities such as puzzle solving or reading aloud. I’m certain there were people who decried the bad influence TV had on young minds then, too. They were probably right to a certain degree, though not all the dire predictions came true. But now we have our TVs with us all the time.

When I was serving as one of my dad’s caretakers, I temporarily developed aphasia. I’d be in the middle of a conversation and start snapping my fingers, unable to think of the word I wanted to say. For someone who’s been an avid reader with a massive vocabulary most of her life, this was kind of terrifying. It didn’t occur to me I was worn out from working 12 hour days and then caring for my dad from six pm to midnight every night. Since he was struggling with dementia, it was no great stretch to fear I was developing serious cognitive dysfunction as well.

Back then, I ran across one of those ‘assess your memory’ tests in a magazine that asked you to look at a list of ten unrelated words for one minute, and then read the rest of the article. At the end of the article, you were unexpectedly asked to list as many of the ten words as you could remember. I could remember all ten because I’d made up a little story about them.

Years later, I still remember eight of those words. So I don’t really think the problem is memory loss or cognitive dysfunction. The aphasia resolved when my life stress improved. I’m under a tremendous amount of stress right now, so that’s probably the reason my eyes glaze over when I try to read something meant to enlighten and educate, right?

But maybe not. Maybe I need to spend less time scrolling on the phone and more time making up stories.

I came across this great post How to Focus on Writing Right Now by Rachel Thompson of BadRedHead Media, and I’m taking it to heart. 

If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on a specific task or simply in general, consider cutting yourself off. Unplug. Put the phone in a drawer or lock out your social media apps while you’re working. Take a walk without talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or playing a game. Put your brain on an information diet.

Your creative side will thank you.

Dear White Ladies of Romance: We Must Do Better

I’m a relatively new member of the RWA, having joined in 2017. One of the first things I did as a new member was submit a story to the RITA awards, which is the romance industry equivalent of the Oscars. I confess, I didn’t pay that much attention to the process last year. It was my first time participating, and I had a lot of personal stuff going on as well. I had no expectations.

I also submitted a story this year. No surprise when I didn’t become a finalist. The competition is brutal, right? Each time, as a participant I was required to judge an assortment of entries–none of which were in my own category, paranormal romance. There was the usual mix of hopeful entries (like myself), the enjoyable, above average submission, and the occasional outstanding read. But this year, after the finalists were listed, I became aware of a furor among romance novelists on Facebook, Twitter, and the RWA forums. Like the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the same phenomenon has been ongoing in the romance industry. Not once since its inception has a black author won a single RITA award in any category. This year, five AOC finaled, which is an improvement over the stats of 2017, in which no AOC made it that far, but suffice to say in general, AOC are grossly underrepresented in these prestigious awards.

Conversations opened up on various social media platforms and forums, and naively, with the best of intentions, I waded into discussions on how this problem could be addressed.

What resulted was an eye-opening experience. 

I learned about scare quotes, and tone policing. Clutching pearls and white fragility. I would encourage everyone to read the articles White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement, as well as White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard To Talk To White People about Racism. If you are a white female author, I guarantee you if you are honest with yourself, you will recognize past behaviors. And if not in yourself, then you will certainly recognize these defensive traits in others.

I learned that it’s hard to discuss race issues with white people because since we’re the default mode, we’re blind to our own biases and prejudices. Worse, we tend to get hostile and defensive when the status quo is questioned because it threatens our position of privilege.

Some of the proffered solutions ran the gamut of eliminating covers and author’s names in the judging rounds (which would not eliminate bias against characters of color), or offering AOC (as well as GLBTQ authors) their own, separate awards or categories (as if that wasn’t totally insulting). Rubrics that held the judges accountable for their scoring were put forward. Some people thought the awards themselves should be tabled until this judging issue was addressed.

As the discussion raged across a wide variety of platforms, other elements crept in. A denial there was an issue at all. The suggestion AOC weren’t winning because their books were inferior or they weren’t entering in the first place. The bemoaning of the fact finalists weren’t even allowed a day to celebrate their nomination before the inequities of the system were yet again being addressed.

I found myself thinking of the “thoughts and prayers” offered after every mass shooting, and how it was always “too soon” to be talking about gun control after such an event. (See that? I made good use of scare quotes there.)

I found myself wondering how we’d be reacting if instead of white women dominating these awards, it were men? Would we be saying women simply couldn’t write a romance as good as a man? That not enough women were entering the awards? That we just can’t relate to a love story written by a woman? That we prefer to read romances written by men that feature men? As ludicrous as that sounds, I saw white authors, some of whom are Big Names in the industry, making just such statements about race, religion, or the sexual orientation of characters, as well as the perceived inadequacies of AOC of color themselves.

We’ve invited AOC into the building for the feast but have given them a seat at the children’s table. If they dare to complain, we denigrate their works, chastise them for their anger, and chide them for their ingratitude. All with a brittle smile and the suggestion that we should all “be professional” and above all, “be polite.” When in doubt, attack the tone of the complaint, thus rendering it invalid, right?

I reminded myself that like most women affected by #MeToo, I’m tired of remaining silent. Of swallowing my anger. Of living in fear to do simple things, like going to the grocery store or stopping for gas after dark. Of accepting that by virtue of the fact I’m a woman, I come in for a certain amount of harassment, discrimination, and even assault. And I haven’t experienced anything like what AOC go through on a daily basis, both at in general and within our own industry. Their anger is justifiable. And it should be heard, not silenced.

We keep wringing our hands and saying something must be done–and then continue as we’ve always done without making significant change.

I can’t speak for all cis het white Christian white women. I can only speak for myself. I believe change can only come through an acknowledgment of being in the wrong and a determination to educate ourselves to be better. These are the rules of engagement I’m laying down for myself now.

1.Shut up.

This isn’t about me. I am not the injured party here. If multiple people tell me my words are hurtful, it doesn’t matter what my intention was. It doesn’t matter what my “accreditation” is. If I’m beginning my defensive statement with a list of credentials as to why I’m not racist, I am automatically in the wrong. Because whether I want to believe it or not, I am racist. I can’t help it. I was raised to it by virtue of being born white at a certain time in the Southern US. My indoctrination might not be as blatant as some others, but it’s pervasive just the same. I will have to battle it the rest of my life. I can hate it. I can be determined to do something about it. But I can’t deny it. Not if I want to be better than this.

I was very, very tempted to include an excerpt from my latest story here as a kind of proof that I’m thinking about these things and trying to include diversity in my stories. I stopped myself cold because that’s part of the problem: the insistence I can’t be biased because I promote diversity of all kinds–religion, race, sexual identity, etc–in my stories. I don’t get a free pass because I write about open-minded characters from all walks of life.

You cannot change anything if you refuse to admit there’s a problem. You can’t change an organization or an industry if you refuse to change yourself.

2. Apologize.

If I say or do something hurtful, I need to apologize upfront. Heartfelt and not half-assed. Not “Oh, you must have misunderstood me.” A straightforward acceptance that I screwed up and owe someone apology. End of story.

3. Listen.

I can’t learn if I’m so full of my own self. Of my credentials in the “I’m not racist because” game. The bias is there, whether we want to believe it or not. The only people who “don’t see color” are the default winners in the race game. Everyone else has the color of their skin (or their religion, or their sexual orientation) rammed down their throats every day. Refusing to acknowledge color bias (or any other bias) is the equivalent of erasure of the marginalized group–and not in a good way.

4. Diversify my reading.

There is an easy way to expand my horizons, to learn more outside my middle-aged white woman existence. Yes, I love Regency romances that feature characters set in England. I cut my teeth on Jane Austen! It’s familiar and beloved. But genteel impoverished white women who get rescued by incredibly wealthy white men isn’t the ONLY historical romance story out there. Ditto contemporary romances, paranormal romances, romantic suspense, you name it. Likewise, racism isn’t just individual acts of hate and spite. If you’re an AOC, it’s the inability to find cover art for your characters. It’s deciding whether or not to enter contests when you know there is existing bias. It’s knowing if you made your character’s race ambiguous, you might sell more copies when your heart cries out against such a move. It’s knowing if you give your character of color a certain wealth or status someone will question the accuracy of your creation. (I suggest you read Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack on this subject,)

The more you know about someone different from you, the more you realize how much you have in common. Reading about those outside your experience expands your compassion and acceptance.

My personal experience is VERY narrow. I live in a conservative, rural, small Southern town. Ninety percent of the people I interact with on a daily basis are white. My white privilege blinds me to things POC must deal with every day. I’ll admit right here, I’m sometimes hesitant to include characters of different racial backgrounds in my stories because I’m worried about getting my depiction wrong. That’s not a valid excuse. It’s up to me to expand my own horizons. It’s up to me to make sure my writing choices aren’t hurtful. That I avoid white savior tropes. That my characters aren’t caricatures or stereotypes, two-dimensional cameos so I can tick off some diversity points.

If I’m concerned about ‘getting them right’, I’m not doing enough diverse reading. I’m not talking to enough people.

What I can’t do is assume that race has no effect whatsoever on the character I’m building, nor assume it is the only thing, either.

5. Support AOC and those in the industry.

As authors, we have the power to use and promote whomever we wish. In general, I’m not as good about supporting fellow authors as I should be. I need to rectify this by promoting books I enjoy and services I appreciate. Follow AOC on social media. Branch out of your “comfort zone” and take a chance on editors and graphic artists who bring something different to your table. You’ll wonder what took you so long.

I wish I could name each and every person responsible for enlightening me here. I’ve read so many posts on social media and forums this past week that it would be challenging to name them all–not to mention some of these posts were made to closed platforms, so I’m not sure how much I should share. I’m also not going to call out people who exemplify white fragility, or point fingers at those who’d rather maintain the status quo than manifest real change. This is not the post for that.

Instead, I invite you to take a hard look at yourself and the assumptions you make about AOC (or other marginalized groups) and the stories they have to tell. I’m betting you’ll find more common ground than you’d think, if you’d only give everyone an equal chance.

If you don’t know where to start in broadening your reading horizons, I ran across these resources for finding books by diverse authors:

http://www.wocinromance.com

http://girlhaveyouread.com

And on Twitter, you can use the hashtag: #weneeddiverseromance to search for authors and titles.

I’m going to be expanding my reading list. And though I tend not to leave reviews on Amazon (the whole pen name thing), I’ll be making better use of my Goodreads and Bookbub accounts to share my impressions of stories I love. I invite you to do the same.