A Good Story vs Good Writing

I learned to love books at a very young age. My mother and grandmother both read to me, and the time spent in their laps, following the words on the page, soon taught me how to interpret those words on my own. Growing up in a house full of books, I was never at a loss for something to read. By the time I was six, I was reading books on the sixth grade level. From loving books, it was only a short step to wanting to tell my own stories.

And I did. I wrote stories similar to those I’d read about things I loved, illustrating them with laboriously colored drawings as well. Well into my teens, going to a library was an exciting event. The Scholastic Book Fair was the best day of the school year. To this day, my idea of a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon is to go to a bookstore.

But somewhere along the line, I gave up on my dream of becoming a writer as something impossible for the average storyteller to achieve. By the time I left college, I was focused first on my career, and later juggling a family with being a professional. I wrote short stories for fun every now and then, but they were few and far between.

Then one day, I discovered online fanfiction archives. Suddenly I realized there were thousands of people just like me who loved to tell stories about their favorite characters. I became obsessed with fandom, cranking out story after story. After a lifetime of suppressing my creativity, the stories poured out of me in a flood. I wrote for the sheer joy of it and the fun of interacting with like-minded fans. For years I read nothing but fanfic, completely immersed in the delights of finding stories that were tailor made for me.

I never let the fact I was a neophyte storyteller stop me. I wasn’t swayed by the fact there were far better writers in my fandoms. I was in love with my characters, and that joy carried me through any confidence of crisis.

The confidence I learned in fandom gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction after a lifetime of doubting it was possible to become a writer. It just so happened that this was about the same time when e-readers suddenly made publishing within the reach of a lot of people, and small presses were eager to take a chance on new authors. When I made the transition to writing original stories, I continued writing fanfiction at first, but gradually I began leaving fandom behind. My shows went off the air, and I had trouble finding other shows I wanted to write in. More importantly, however, I became invested in my original characters. I only had so much time to write and it seemed stupid to “waste” good ideas on fanfic when they lent themselves to the original stories bubbling inside of me.

But as I’ve said before, when you’re learning a skill set, every time you move up a level, the work gets harder. There’s less fun, especially when you know things should be done in a specific way and what you did before no longer passes muster. These days I’m working with critique partners and tough editors who push me to write cleaner prose and with more efficient style. Don’t get me wrong; I love the input from these sources. I’m a better writer now than when I started ten years ago.

But those same critical voices, the ones that tell me to eliminate adverbs and cut out unnecessary verbiage, and strive for active constructions in my writing are the same voices that often leave me staring at a blinking cursor for hours at a time, struggling to create a sentence that won’t embarrass me. I find myself massaging the same text over and over again because my natural style is wordy and breezy and it needs a fair amount of editing to be presentable to the public at large.

It’s a bit like taking a pony out for a gallop across an open field once you know all the pitfalls and dangers of doing so. When you know about the rabbit holes, and you think about how breaking an arm will mess up your life, it makes it a bit harder to simply clap your heels against your pony’s flanks and let her take the bit in her teeth and run.

Back when I was learning to ride in group lessons at a barn, once a year when we trooped into the arena, we were told it was Broom Polo Day. Instead of trotting sedately around the ring, following one another in line as we popped over a little cross rail or practiced our equitation, we were handed brooms and directed to chase down a large rubber ball, smacking it between goal posts that had been arranged at either end of the arena.

It was insane. We became fiends as we clung to our ponies necks, throwing ourselves into a vicious melee, bouncing our ponies off each other as we crowded in for a hit. We chased the ball from one end of the arena to the other, howling like demons. The ponies got into it too, running flat out at our direction, spinning on a dime to make a course change, letting us hang off their sides as we swung down for a stinging hit. I suspect never in a million years would we be allowed to play Broom Polo these days, but back then we loved it. And the best part was we never knew when Broom Polo Day would appear. One day we were practicing our positions, remembering to keep our heels down and shoulders back, and the next, for one glorious hour a year, we rode like we were Centaurs–at one with the horse. It was a sneaky way of teaching us riding wasn’t always about looking pretty.

This past weekend, instead of struggling with the barely started WIP that already needed to have a plot hole fixed, I accepted the plea of a friend to pinch hit in a fandom fest. Though rusty as hell and not convinced I could even portray the characters I loved so that a fan would recognize them, I sat down at the laptop to pound out the required word count for the fest, only to end up with twelve times as many words as I needed. I won’t say it was effortless, but it might as well have been compared to the difficulty I’ve had writing lately.

What was the difference?

I was having fun. It was Broom Polo Day, but for writing.

And it taught me something very important. Sometimes it’s okay just to play. To throw off the restrictions of rules and “this is what you should do” and just let ‘er rip. And no, I’m not going to go back to reading and writing fanfic the way I did at the height of my obsession. But I will remember sometimes you need to focus on telling the story first before you worry about how well you’re telling that story. That the first draft is galloping toward the ball and smacking it with glee across the arena. It’s the second, third, and fourth drafts that let us look pretty while sending that ball through the goal posts.

So my advice to myself in these coming weeks? It’s okay to bang the story out sometimes without paying as much attention to the rules. Sometimes it’s the best way to get back in the groove when you’ve lost your mojo. Don’t be afraid to have a little fun and ride like a demon. You can always go back to sitting up and pretty when the time comes.

Walking the Fine Line of Burnout

Let me start off by saying first of all, this is not meant to be a whiny post about how I wish I could quit my Evil Day Job and spend all my time writing books (although I do). Nor is it a contest to see whose job sucks the most. Since I’m writing this post, chances are I’ll think it’s mine, no matter what you say. 🙂

It’s a post about walking that fine line between being able to do your job to the best of your ability and burnout–and what to do about it.

See, I think most of us are closer to burnout than we think. It’s almost a given these days. Who hasn’t heard of the newly minted lawyer or the medical resident who is worked to the bone as some sort of rite of passage, putting in over a hundred hours a week into a job that demands nothing less because they think that’s how it’s done. That’s how you advance, become partner, a senior staffer, move up in management. That one day you’ll have the corner office and the healthy paycheck and you’ll be able to catch up on sleep or your kid’s recitals or afford that really awesome vacation.

Only it’s never enough, is it? Because (at least in the US), our workplaces demand more and more from us every year, expecting us to get more done with less support staff, improve the bottom line with fewer rewards. Accept a “promotion” that is largely a title for doing the work we’re already performing. Forcing senior, experienced employees out because they can hire two new graduates for what they have to pay the veteran employee. I recently overheard employees at my local grocery discussing how everyone’s hours have been slashed to just under full time so the national chain can avoid paying benefits like health insurance. At the same time, the company is replacing cashiers with automated systems for checkout, and eating the cost of shoplifting instead of keeping the live people on staff.

And we accept it because we’re scared we’ll be the next on the chopping block.

I live in a rural area where work is hard to come by. I have a mortgage and bills to pay, which as I age, increasingly includes medical bills. I’m lucky to have a FT job which contributes significantly to the household economy. I know this. And at the same time, I resent the degree to which the job owns me.

I resent putting in 10 hour days and having that never be enough. I resent the advent of mobile technology making you accessible to your employer 24/7 with demands you fix something or take care of something on what should be your down time. Twenty years ago, my employer would have paid my health insurance in full as a perk of the job. Now I’m expected to contribute $400/month out of my paycheck every month to retain coverage.

I resent coming home at the end of a long day irritable and fried, unable to interact pleasantly with those I love. By the time I get to the house, I’m too tired to make reasonable decisions about what to have for dinner, let alone find the energy to work on the current story. I don’t like the person I am right now. And yet I scarcely know how to change.

It’s a little thing, but one of the dictates of my workplace is that management gives me the next day’s assignments before I’m finished the current day’s work so I can review them in advance. They take this one step further in that I receive the workload for the day after my day off as well. The end result is my inbox is never empty. I never get to check off the day’s assignments as complete because there is always more sitting in my inbox.

Small wonder I dream about work as though I’ve never left, nightmares in which I look out the office window to see long lines of people waiting to be seen, like the lines outside Best Buy before a Black Friday sale. I never get to say I’m done for the day.

For a while now, I’ve been saying I’m on the edge of burnout, because in my head, “burned out” is a state of non-functionality, where you are incapable of doing your job, one step away from a nervous breakdown. Not willing to declare myself a charred cinder, I admit to being close just the same. And I have to admit there are days when the idea of a nervous breakdown sounds good if it means weeks spent in an asylum with nothing better to do than stare at the ceiling.

But I’m starting to think the gradient toward burnout is more subtle than you’d suspect. Whatever it is, I think I’m nearly there.

But if I am, then what? I still have bills to pay. I can’t just lie on the couch and read books all day, though I’d dearly love to give that a shot for a few weeks.

Which was why I was glad to stumble across Burnout:The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. Various people on my social media feeds had been talking about it, and though I didn’t want to admit to actual burnout, I felt I was close enough to consider reading it.

I haven’t gotten very far into it yet, but I’m already of the opinion almost every woman I know could benefit from reading it. Not just those suffering from near burnout, either from work or their family lives, but also women struggling with PTSD, or relentless perfectionism, or just the demands that society seems to place on most of us. Men, too, with their struggle to meet society’s needs as well as those of their families, all while holding their emotions tightly in check.

According to the book, the biggest factors in burnout stem from never completing the cycle: as cavemen, if we were attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, we either survived the attack or we died. If we died, our stress was over. If we survived, there was a huge sense of relief and a celebration among our other cave-dwellers as  we shared our story of our exciting near-miss. The adrenaline spiked, our muscles expended the energy in our survival, and then it was over.

In modern society, it is never over. The saber-toothed tigers are always with us, snapping at our heels, demanding we run faster, jump higher to escape–only we never do. We nap fitfully on the ledge outside our caves, always ready to leap up and run again.

Small wonder we struggle with weight issues here in the US. Our adrenal glands are on maximum overload all the time. And how do we handle stress? We eat. It’s a physiologic drive for survival because we always feel under threat.

Frankly, I’m not sure how I can change things given I have so little say so in how management tells me to do my job. But change I must. I can’t keep dozing on the edge of my ledge, longing for the day when I’ll be able to rest knowing I am in a saber-toothed tiger-free zone.

So while I take most self-help books with a grain of salt, this one is resonating with me.

Bishop Takes Knight: Book Tour and Giveaway!

What a whirlwind this day has been! Work was the usual hectic scene, but today was also the launch of Bishop Takes Knight, the first book in the Redclaw Origins series! The response so far has been enthusiastic. I’ve already received a glowing 5 star review from the Paranormal Romance Guild

 

I’m also doing a book tour and giveaway with Silver Dagger Book Tours. Check out the tour for your chance to enter to win the reader’s choice from my backlist and a chance at an Amazon gift card!

 

 
Bishop Takes Knight
Redclaw Origins Book 1
by McKenna Dean
Genre: Paranormal Romance
 
 
New York, 1955. Former socialite Henrietta (“Rhett”) Bishop,
destitute after her father gambles away the family fortune, takes a
job at Redclaw Security. But Redclaw is no ordinary operation. Part
detective firm and part enforcement agency, Redclaw regulates matters
involving the growing population of shifters who have emerged since
the onset of the nuclear age.
 
Peter Knight is a nuclear scientist shattered by the death of his wife.
Blacklisted by the government and scientific organizations, he drowns
his sorrows while searching for the people behind his wife’s murder.
 
When Rhett is assigned to recruit Knight, their meeting is more than
either bargained for—a rival organization will do anything to
secure Knight for themselves. Following a lead to locate a missing
cache of alien technology stolen from Redclaw, Rhett is thrown back
into her previous glittering life with Knight as her pretend
boyfriend. But when someone from the past turns up to start a bidding
war on the artifacts, Bishop and Knight wind up in a fight for their
very lives.
 
 
 
 
 
McKenna Dean has been an actress, a vet tech, a singer, a teacher, a
biologist, and a dog trainer. She’s worked in a genetics lab, at
the stockyard, behind the scenes as a props manager, and at a pizza
parlor slinging dough. Finally she realized all these jobs were just
a preparation for what she really wanted to be: a writer.
She lives on a small farm in North Carolina with her family, as well as
the assorted dogs, cats, and various livestock.
She likes putting her characters in hot water to see how strong they are.
Like tea bags, only sexier.
 
 
 
 
Follow the tour HERE
for exclusive excerpts, guest posts and a giveaway!
 
 
 
 

Couples Series Romance: What is it and why do we want it?

Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man movies. Remington Steele and Laura Holt. Jonathan and Jennifer Hart (does anyone remember Hart to Hart but me??) The Scarecrow and Mrs.King. Maddie Hayes and David Addison. Rick Castle and Kate Beckett.

What do they all have in common? Couples that banter their way into a relationship while solving crimes.

I love this trope. It’s my personal catnip.

While I love romance stories, I love action and adventure, too. I love mysteries, science fiction, and paranormal stories. I WANT IT ALL.

And I can get it with stories that combine these elements. Even better, when I fall hard for a particular couple, I want to spend more time with them. I want to go on a series of adventures with them. I love watching them meet, seeing the sparks fly, longing for them to get together—but I also believe the story needn’t end when they fall in love or say “I do.”

Granted, I think a TV show that’s built entirely on UST takes a big risk of imploding once the characters finally get together. (I’m looking at you, Moonlighting.) I want to see progression of the relationship, but I also believe it’s possible for the relationship to continue to be interesting and relevant after the couples are an established pair.

It’s like when I first began reading fanfic. I concentrated heavily on first-time stories until I found my OTP, and then all of the sudden, I couldn’t get enough of that pairing. I wanted MOAR, and I didn’t care if they were just meeting for the first time or celebrating their 50th anniversary together. I wanted to spend time with that couple in their universe.The more stories, the better.

From a storytelling perspective, I think writing established relationships is tougher than first times. In part because we romance readers are geared toward Happily Ever After being the end of the story—and I’m not saying romances shouldn’t have HEAs or Happily for Now endings! Far from it! What I’m saying is it’s harder to depict a happy couple as having the kinds of conflicts that make their continued stories interesting.

But it’s what I crave.

I wish I knew how to categorize these stories. Are they considered romances? Genre-based stories with romantic elements? I don’t know. To me, they are romances, even if the genre storyline is a somewhat bigger player than the love story. I know people will argue with me on that point, and I get it. The general rule of thumb which says “if you can remove the romantic elements from the story and it doesn’t fall apart means it’s not a romance” holds true for the most part.

Except when you get hooked on a pairing. 

For me, all bets are off if I fall for a couple. I’m going to eat up their series with a spoon because in addition to fighting mages/shifters/criminals/ and solving the crime/murder at the village fete/mystery surrounding buried treasure, I’m there for watching my couple trade witty comebacks and do their mating dance. And I don’t care if it takes a couple of books to get there, as long as I can see that it will.

Take Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. I only recently started this series, but even I can see where things are headed between Kate and the Beast Lord. I’m enjoying watching these two powerful beings battle it out as they move closer together, loving the little hints (and clues left in plain sight) as they dance their way toward a committed relationship. I got my husband hooked on the series as well, and one of the things he likes about it is that the characters are working their way toward love.

Finding the love people have for this series has lead me to start the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh. And every time I find a new-to-me series that features a long, slow dance between the lead couple, I fist bump the air and go, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Mind you, I want to know my “pair” will get together. Extra points if the first story ends with them in each other’s arms. I’m just saying if I can see the pairing coming, I’m willing to give it some time, too.

Recently, I had a conversation with fellow paranormal romance and urban fantasy author Jenna Barwin about her own Hill Vampire series, which includes her 2019 Rone Award Nominee, Dark Wine at Sunrise. I asked her what drew her to write a couples series?

She said, “I write a paranormal romance couple series because I love that genre! As a reader, when I fall in love with a couple, I don’t want their story to end at getting engaged or married, I want to see how their “happily ever after” plays out over the long term, long after they say “I do.”

The Hill Vampire series features an exclusive community of winemaking vampires and their mortal mates. They live on vineyard estates in the Sierra Escondida foothills.

My Hill Vampire series follows the romantic relationship of Cerissa and Henry, who, along with other members of their community, are trying to stop the vampire dominance movement (VDI), a vampire conspiracy that is determined to kill the leaders of Sierra Escondida and take over. The VDM plans a political coup, and once the path is cleared, will turn mortals into blood slaves. So it’s equal parts steamy romance and paranormal mystery/suspense. The mystery/suspense plot is strong enough to satisfy urban fantasy readers, and the romance between Cerissa and Henry is hot enough to satisfy romance readers.

The series begins with Dark Wine at Midnight, in which research scientist Cerissa Patel must find a way to save humanity from a vampire conspiracy without revealing what’s hidden beneath her skin. But her cover story isn’t enough to fool vampire Henry Bautista—he’s dark, dangerous, and will do anything to protect his town, including stopping her.”

So you can see, I have another series to add to my TBR list!!

As for me, I’m trying my hand at writing my own couples series: Redclaw Origins. If you’ve read my books, you know the Redclaw Security series features a new pair in each book, with cameos from previous books and introductions of future characters as well. Redclaw is an elite paranormal agency tasked with investigating matters in the shifter realm as well as securing dangerous artifacts that became active at the same time shifters began making a widespread appearance.

In Redclaw Origins, I introduce Bishop and Knight: two humans hired by the recently formed Redclaw Security to be its newest secret agents. Bishop Takes Knight opens in 1955, and the advent of nuclear technology has triggered the activation of latent shifter genes in an unsuspecting population, while at the same time activated powerful alien tech. Rhett Bishop and Peter Knight proved to be such a delightful pair, I knew I wanted more of their adventures together.

I also have another planned couples series in the Redclaw Universe: The Better Off Red series, which will concentrate on a single team within Redclaw, the Major Shifter Crimes Division, and its lead investigator Morgan Delaney. When Morgan butts heads with her boss’s half-brother, Rian Stirling, over a series of shifter murders, she must resist the pull of fated mates and the appearance of a conflict of interest while she hunts down the real killers.

Of course, this means I need to get cracking on the next book, right? Right. But I’m smiling as I envision all the trials and tribulations I’m going to put my couples through before they get their HEA.

 

 

 

 

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.

Introducing Bishop and Knight: Redclaw’s newest Secret Agents #MFRWhooks #MFRWauthors

I can’t believe it! Bishop Takes Knight is ready for pre-order and will be released NEXT WEEK!

I can’t tell you how excited—and nervous—I am about releasing this new story in the Redclaw universe.

Let me share the nervous part first and get that out of the way. I’m nervous because this story is a departure from me in many ways. It’s a historical (the origin story for Redclaw Security), set in the 1950s. It’s also told in 1st person POV from the viewpoint of Henrietta Bishop, our intrepid heroine. The characters have big obstacles to overcome before cementing their relationship, so while it ends HFN, it’s going to take further stories and adventures before we see the relationship come to fruition. As for seeing that, while Rhett, as she prefers to be called, is a passionate woman, she doesn’t tend to share all her personal details on page.

Whoa. That’s quite a difference from my previous stories in the Redclaw Universe. I have a feeling people will either love or hate Rhett Bishop and her new partner, Dr. Peter Knight.

But I’m hoping you’ll love them.

Rhett Bishop is delightfully dry, frequently witty, resourceful woman trapped in an era where women were largely decorative or homemakers, preferably both. Peter Knight is bitter, brilliant, and desperately unhappy until he meets Rhett, who soon teases him into crawling out of the hole of despair he’s fallen into and using his brains for something other than sulking.

Knight is sarcastic, inventive, and clever. He thinks fast on his feet, and has never met a piece of tech he couldn’t manipulate. He’s spent the last two years frustrated by the lack of justice for his wife’s murder, but his time with Rhett reminds him of who he used to be before Margo’s death.

Both are out of their depth when they take up with Redclaw Security: part detective agency, part enforcement team for The Council, a longstanding secret organization of shifters living among us.

No superpowers. No shifting ability. Just their wits and nerve to see them through the search for Margo’s killer, a cache of missing artifacts of immense power, and the rival criminal syndicates who want to get their hands on the technology.

I adore Bishop and Knight. I hope you will too.

Now available for pre-order:

Amazon 

Barnes and Noble 

Apple 

Kobo 

 

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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.

 

 

A Hint of Fall

Anyone who knows me knows I hate summer.

I’m an autumn girl all the way. Give me the crackle of dead leaves scuffling along the sidewalk underfoot. The morning air as cool and crisp as that first bite of a juicy red apple. A touch of frost rimming the blades of grass. Boots, sweaters, and cups of frothy hot chocolate. Long walks in the woods as the trees drape the mountains in shades of red, orange, and gold. Autumn is all things pumpkin, and baking pies, and galloping your horse across an open field surrounded by the glorious change of leaves all around.

But I get ahead of myself.

I come by my dislike of summer honestly. Growing up in the South, summer means mosquitoes the size of tractors, which all seem to know the instant I step outside the house. Ticks. Copperheads. Air too thick to breathe. Sunburn. Poison ivy. Clothes that become damp the moment you exit an air-conditioned room. My mother hated air conditioning and relegated it to one room only–I used to lie in the hallway at the edge of the closed door and whimper at the small draft of relief that wafted out from beneath it.

At night, my sister and I shared a room with an oscillating fan. The huge metal fan swung slowly from side to side as we lay panting for breath in our twin beds, holding out for the blissful 20 seconds when the air passed over us. I had asthma and allergies as a child, so breathing at night was an issue. I remember once my sister crawling out of bed to sneak to my side. Leaning down, she whispered, “If you don’t stop breathing so loud, I will kill you.”

Yeah. Yay for summer.

My mother also had strong feelings about the amount of skin her children were allowed to expose–sensible, given we all burned and blistered at the drop of a hat. But that meant long sleeves, long pants, and large floppy hats even when it was 100 degrees out. Wearing T-shirts over our swim suits because they didn’t make sunscreen strong enough to protect us back then. Add to that my poor vision, and summers by the lake or pool weren’t all the fun for me, as I had to leave my glasses on my towel. As an adult, between the mosquitoes and the sunburn risk, I still avoid tank tops, shorts, and sandals. It’s too ingrained at this point.

So believe me when I say that I live for that first day–usually in September–when the temperatures dip 20 degrees F. That day when the humidity breaks and it’s actually pleasant to be outside. The dogs stop panting in the shade and become playful again. It doesn’t last, this brief promise of cooler weather to come. It’s a tease, a reminder that eventually summer ends. Most times, the temperatures shoot back up again, and sadly, “summer” is lasting longer and longer, outstaying its welcome, as far as I’m concerned. Autumn, the time I jokingly refer to as my Holy Season, is scarcely more than a few weeks now. October, my favorite month, starts out hot more often than not, as the leaves turn brown and the light spectrum shifts from gold to winter white. November’s rains, with gloomy skies and naked trees, comes all to quickly.

This past weekend, we had a glimpse of the change of seasons to come. A break in the 90 degree F+ heat and humidity, a breath of fresh air. I rode the horse, and thought about taking the dogs for a run in the woods, but the day got away from me. I regret that now. Part of the problem with having so little free time is I have to pick and choose how to spend it. I’ve got a book on deadline I’m trying to finish, and I managed to complete 1500 words on a new story. But that meant skipping the hike with the dogs in the woods and doing something closer to home. The nice weather is supposed to linger another day or so.

I plan to enjoy it.

What’s your favorite time of the year and why? I want to know!

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.