Rising above the Painful Review…

ink pen_wikipedia_org“Criticism is a surreal state, like a good drug gone bad. When it’s bad you wish it would stop, and when it’s good, you can’t get enough.” Gale Harold, Queer As Folk, The Secret Circle

One of my fellow authors, Zahra Owens, has this quote as a signature line on her email. I love it. I think it sums up very accurately the love-hate relationship that we as creators have with that part of the creative process that calls for us to release our babies into the world and hope, on some level, that they are not loved or bullied on their way to school.

1_thoreau_quotes_on_confidenceBut the truth is, when we put something out there, we put a little piece of ourselves out there as well, and we invite commentary, good or bad.

In recent years, the accessibility of both the reader/consumer and the author/creator has become a busy two way street. Growing up as an avid reader myself, I have a huge number of favorite books, but it never occurred to me until the last year or so to go leave reviews on these stories. In part, because many of them are old favorites, that have such huge followings they hardly need someone like me gushing about how much I love this work. In part because writing a good (in the sense of thoughtful, eloquent, and useful) review is hard work, and frankly, as a writer myself, my time is best spent writing my next story. I don’t think I’m a very good reviewer, and I’m probably going to do less of it in the future. I’ll confess, a big part of why I’m reluctant to do more reviewing is because of the time it takes to express a critical review in a manner that won’t utterly destroy the author. And that’s important to me. It’s important that even in my criticism of someone’s work that I try to cushion the blow, to word my statement in such a way that I’m not laying waste to some writer’s soul.

handwriting_flickrBack in my fanfiction days, it was understood that commenting and feedback were the currency of fandom. Someone produces a story out of love–if you loved it too, you let them know. If you didn’t love it, you hit the back button and moved on to the next story. Oh sure, there could be flame wars on Live Journal and such, but for the most part, if you posted a story, you could almost guarantee within hours those first, glorious feedback comments would come rolling in. Just like the quotation above says, ‘like a good drug gone bad.’ When the feedback is good, you can’t get enough.

female hands_rings_typing_fotopediaNow we move into the world of original fiction. To start off with, positive feedback is no longer the currency. People buy your stories with real money. This, rightly so, makes them feel entitled to be more critical from the get-go. They also aren’t as invested in your characters as you are. That’s part of your job–to make your readers as invested in your characters as you are. The reader isn’t part of your special circle of friends, either, who all share an abiding love for the universe you’ve created. Feedback in fandom is like having a bunch of friends drop over for tea, and spending a lovely afternoon in front of the fire while they tell you how much they enjoyed your story.

When you post a fanfic story, by the next morning, you may have over fifty wonderful comments on it. Such feedback is rare in original publishing. As such, it makes the negative or lukewarm review weigh more on the author’s mind. If you only get fifteen reader comments/reviews on a story that you’ve worked on for months, are you going to remember all the glowing five-star comments? No, chances are, you’ll only remember the negative one. Okay, chances are if you received fifty glowing comments, you’d STILL only remember the negative one. 😉

A lot of my fellow authors have been talking about this in various places the past few days. Like someone shopping a dinosaur story to Hollywood studio, the next thing you know, everyone is talking about dinosaurs. 🙂 My friend and fellow author, Aundrea Singer, referred to “The Little Haters“, the feedback loop in your head that makes you believe you’re not good enough for whatever it is that you’re attempting to create. In order for us as creative people to continue to produce our passion, our joy, we must learn to ignore The Little Haters.

I can’t speak for everyone else, but I can say what I’ve learned myself over the years. First, no matter what you create, there is always going to be someone who hates it. Who doesn’t get it. Who is left feeling indifferent by it. Sure, your initial reaction to a negative review might be to comment on it–almost every newbie author out there makes that mistake at least once. Don’t. Don’t engage. Because that review isn’t really about you or your story. Nope. Unlike the friend dropping in for tea, this reader-reviewer, with whom you have no relationship, is much more like a graffiti artist rather than someone you’d have in for tea. Sure, graffiti can be a beautiful statement or a defacement of public property–it depends on your point of view. The graffiti artist spray-painting on the wall of one of the buildings in your neighborhood is making a statement, but they aren’t necessarily inviting you to contribute to the conversation. The artist draws the graffiti for them–not you.

It is unfortunate that many of the sales algorithms now are tied into reader-reviewers. If you aren’t getting them, your book might not get noticed amid the thousands of other titles that are released every day. This, I think, has given rise to the Simon Cowell type of reviewer–someone who relishes being snarky because this has given them followers of their own. It’s a shame that many people will let the opinion of one such reviewer keep them from forming their own opinion on a story for themselves, but face it, you weren’t likely to reach those readers anyway.

We're Breaking the Law_wikimedia_commonsWhat matters here is that it is still graffiti on a wall. Not aimed at you specifically unless you choose to take it that way. I’ve had to learn to ignore graffiti. It is the ‘good drug gone bad’ that you wish would stop.

There is only one thing to remember about graffiti artists. You can’t let them fuel your Little Haters. Like feeding the Mogwai after midnight, this is a Bad Thing.

I’ve wanted to ride horses my entire life. It was the only thing I wanted to do as a teenager. Unable to afford a horse of my own, I caught rides where I could. I rode horses no one else would ride. The ones that bucked, and kicked, and bit. The ones that needed to get the freshness worked out of them before they were safe enough for the school kids to ride. I mucked stalls in trade for lessons, rode my bicycle miles to the barn every day after school. When I went to college, I set about finding another barn where I could take lessons. I found an instructor and begged her to teach me. The day of the scheduled lesson, I was ill and asked to reschedule, but she wouldn’t let me. I think she just wanted to get the obligation over with. So I rode, nauseated and barely able to sit upright in the saddle. Afterward, this instructor tore me to shreds. She said I had no business being on a horse and that I should never bother getting on one again.

DevonFor a year, I let her words affect me. I stopped riding. I stopped looking for rides. And then slowly, I began haunting barns again, until I found one person who would let me work with her horses–young green-broke animals that needed patient and consistent work by someone who was ignorantly fearless. (Oh, to be that young and brave again!)

Through the twenty years that I’ve ridden with my friend and trainer, I ended up with my own horses, eventually competing at local and recognized events. I often think about the motivation of that one trainer who felt she needed to destroy me. I suspect she didn’t want to take me on as a student, but worse, she didn’t want anyone else to take me on as a student either. That’s wrong, and unfair, and mean, but that’s the way some people just happen to be.

So when you get that review that stabs you deep in the heart and makes you question why you even bother doing this. remember. A real rider gets back on the horse that bucked her off. Again. And Again.

Don’t let the Little Haters win.

Merissa McCain is still hosting Paranormal Month on her blog until the end of October. The most recent guests are: Shelley Munro, Lisa Chalmers, D.C. Dane, Holley Trent, and Lindsay Loucks. Whew! I’m really behind here on sharing these links! Do me a favor and check out these paranormal romance authors. I’ve really fallen down on my part for promoting and participating in this event, so if you could drop in and check them out for me, it would be a big help–thanks!

 

 

Aging Gracefully…

Today, I think I might finally have accepted the concept of aging with grace. For you to fully appreciate how astonishing a moment this is for me, you have to understand a couple of things: first, if there is any such thing as ‘age-anorexia’ then I suspect I have it. You know how anorexics look into the mirror and are incapable of seeing that they are a rack of bones? Trust me, I lived with one, I know to what extent the mind is capable of playing tricks on your health and sanity. I used to watch with varying degrees of shock and disgust as my sister would litter our room with the detritus of uneaten meals, food that she pretended to eat, only to slip it into the cuffs of her clothing in order to dump it later in her desk drawer in the room we shared.

I’d find it weeks later, green with mold or dessicated into unrecognizable forms. At her lightest, my sister got down to 88 pounds, so thin she could push a bracelet up her arm and over her shoulder. I can recall with perfect clarity the day she proudly announced that all she’d eaten was an apple and a cracker. I was aghast. “All day?” I asked.

“No!” She was indignant. “All week!”

I knew it wasn’t normal, and I knew my parents were trying to deal, and I even knew that they’d decided for the two of us to share a room because in some way, I was supposed to be her keeper after a fashion. But I was twelve, and could only shake my head at such strange, self-imposed restrictions. Later, when Karen Carpenter put a name to my sister’s condition, and the media began posting pictures of skeletal women and the distorted images they saw in the mirror instead, it began to make a little sense to me. A little.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I discovered I had my own form of anorexia–only it involved aging instead of weight. My mother had always had a mania for not looking her age and refusing to let anyone know the exact date of her birth. I used to think it was rooted in vanity, but that was only part of the story. My father, who developed dementia in his later years before the cancer set in, required full time caretakers. He was on my mother’s insurance policy and her organization had a mandatory retirement age. She lied about her age to her employers to retain his insurance. Her elaborate efforts at hiding her real age stemmed from a need to keep her job so she could take care of him–and a deep fear that she would not have the financial resources to do so.

My father frequently told me that getting old sucked and to not do it. (As opposed to what? It’s not like there are many other options…) As a late bloomer myself, I found that I constantly perused my reflection for signs of aging–and was guaranteed of finding them. It wasn’t fair, I thought, to finally start putting my own needs and desires first in my life, only to be faced with the fine lines of crow’s feet, the sagging of skin around the lips and eyes, the hair that grayed early and refused to hold color. My friends jokingly said I could look into a mirror and see an old woman looking back at me–and I know that the joke wasn’t really that far off.

I’ve blogged about this before, I know. I deeply resent the fact that I put my life on hold for good, altruistic reasons, yet when I finally starting living my life, that time where I could really enjoy my relative youth was pretty fleeting. Not that I put my life on hold, mind you. I made the only choices I could live with. But that when it became ‘my time’, that time flashed by in a nanosecond. These days, like most people I know, I deal with chronic health issues. I struggle with pounds that refuse to drop and neck pain that prevents me from getting a decent night’s sleep, and I can no longer eat my favorite foods. In short, I’m becoming the cranky old woman I’ve always feared.

Oddly enough, it was during the time I spent coloring my hair this afternoon that I began drafting this post in my head. Despite my best efforts, my hair is stubbornly refusing to take up dye these days. Double or triple the time, it doesn’t matter; when I rinse out the dye, you can scarcely tell I’ve applied color. I foresee a day where I will just have to give up and accept the gray, and I’m not ready to do that yet. Sure, I can pay someone to get it right, but with the price of a professional dye job these days, and the fact that in less than three weeks the gray skunk stripe is evident again, it’s just not worth the cost.

And yet today I was strangely okay with that.

Many years ago, I saw an episode of Oprah that made a big impression on me. An incredibly beautiful woman had just turned thirty-six. Her husband threw her an elaborate party, pulling out all the stops to make sure she knew how much she was loved and adored. Instead of spending her special day celebrating with family and friends, she spent the entire day in bed sobbing because she’d turned thirty-six. I was in high school at the time, but this woman was more beautiful than I would EVER be in my entire life and I thought she was being incredibly stupid. I also thought that some day soon, her loving spouse would probably find someone who would appreciate him more.

So today, as I was cursing my ineffective dye job, I found myself thinking back to what I was like at twenty-five, the age that seems to be the magical one in my memory. The one that I would revert to in a flash if I found a spell book and a wand. You know what? At twenty-five, I was a lot like the woman crying in her bed–I thought I was ugly, so I acted like I was ugly. I assumed I would never find anyone to love me. I did not have the faith in my talents or abilities to pursue my dreams. I wasted those years because I thought I wasn’t good enough to have the things I desired. How stupid is that?

Yeah, so I can’t eat anything I want anymore. I strongly suspect a diet that consisted largely of Pepsi and peanut butter crackers wasn’t exactly balanced anyway. And yes, I’m carrying around a few extra pounds. But I woke up this morning beside someone I love, someone who tells me in a thousand small ways every day that he loves me back. The day was unseasonably sunny and warm, so I set up fences and jumped my horse. My trainer shook her head and told me that most people can’t go six months without riding over fences and retain their form the way I can, and that I should value that. Later, I walked my dog across stubbly grass fields, the stalks of the last cutting of hay crunching under my boots, climbing until I could see the Blue Ridge Mountains in all directions.

No, I’m no longer young. I’m not a huge success in my chosen career, I’m not financially well-off. Sometimes, the thought of my future old age scares the crap out of me. But I am very wealthy just the same.

I’ve been discussing with various people lately the difficulty in accepting compliments with grace and what that means (and I will be blogging on this later), but one of the things that kept coming up is that when you reject a compliment out of a false sense of modesty or feelings of unworthiness, you are in effect insulting and rejecting the person who gave you the compliment. I’ll have much more to say on this subject when the time rolls around, but suffice to say that it occurred to me today, as a direct result of this online discussion, that when I look in the mirror and reject my years, wishing I could turn back time to when I was twenty-five again, I am in effect, rejecting me. Me, the person I am now and everything I’ve achieved since that time.

At twenty-five, I said I could never be a published writer and set aside my passion for over a decade, calling it impractical and childish. It would never have occurred to me to submit a story for publication. Hell, I had never even finished a story. Trufax. I didn’t have the slightest concept of how to carry a story to completion, develop characters, construct a plot, write believable dialog.

At twenty-five, I sold myself short. No, I couldn’t have published anything then, but I assumed that because I couldn’t get published, that I shouldn’t waste my time writing either. I shut myself out of my passion because I didn’t think it would be a profitable use of my time.

What I’ve learned since then is that life isn’t always about making the decisions that are the most practical or profitable. Life is more than mere survival. That there is nothing wrong in doing something that makes you happy. Life is too short for a lot of the bullshit we think is important and necessary when our youth is like a fat bag of gold to be spent at will.

And somewhere along the way today, I realized for the first time that my twenty-five year old self wouldn’t have appreciated this fact. Because it takes losing things that are important to you, and fighting like a lioness to keep things you cannot bear to lose, and in general just plain living to make you truly appreciate life. My twenty-five year old self wasn’t the writer she wanted to be because she had nothing to say.

Every single one of the lines on my face has a story.

It’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept because I have stories I want to tell. That’s my fat bag of gold now.

That doesn’t mean I’m ready to stop coloring my hair. Dyeing my hair is something I do because it makes me feel better about the way I look, like wearing eyeliner or buying a rocking pair of boots. And that’s okay too.

While I’m here, I want to let you know that I have a guest blog with Nessa L. Warrin coming up later this week, and that Dreamspinner Press is closing out the year in fine style! From their website:

Dreamspinner Press is celebrating the end-of-the-year holidays in style! All in-stock paperbacks and all audiobooks are 20% off through Dec.5. All holiday ebooks will be 25% off Dec 6-12. All short stories (Daydreams and Nap-size Dreams) will be 20% off Dec. 13-19, Everything in the store will be 25% off from Dec. 20-25. All series will be 20% Dec 26-31!

Congratulations to all our winners at the 2012 Rainbow Awards! All winning titles will be discounted 25% through Dec. 8.

In addition to our sales, we’ll be giving away a Kindle to one lucky customer during the week of Dec 2-8, a Nook to one lucky customer Dec 9-15, another Kindle Dec 16-22, and an iPad Mini, Dec 23-29!

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for a daily opportunity on one site or the other to win a Gift Certificate!

 

Sex in Romance Stories: Love it or Leave it?

Some time last year, I participated in a large informal survey of people who read fanfiction, and one of the surprise results was how many people skipped sex scenes when reading these stories.

Given the recent overwhelming popularity of certain fanfic-turned-original fiction stories, this astonished me, especially since with regards to romance, one would expect sex scenes to be an important factor in a story. Then too, there are some publishing houses that have a set formula that authors must maintain: a sex scene every so many pages.

I ran my own mini-survey among some fellow authors on a chat over Thanksgiving, and the general consensus was that if the sex was rote, if it didn’t reveal anything about the characters or move the story along in some fashion, many of my fellow authors skipped it as well.

I was kind of floored by this–after all, we’re romance writers! I like sex: I’m interested in the subject, I expect a certain amount of it in my romances, I enjoy writing a smokin’ hot scene that I hope will reveal something about my characters when they are at their most vulnerable. I put a lot of time and thought into writing these scenes, trying to keep their fresh and interesting. I assumed they were important to the reader as well–a major factor in what made a romance (erotic or otherwise) different from say, a mystery or a sci-fi story where the romance (if any) was a subplot.

And then last night, while reading a story in which the characters where a little too perfect, where they accepted even the kind of relationship assumptions that would try the patience of most of us and leave us in high dungeon (rather than making out in the closet when no one was looking), I caught myself skimming. *gasp* I know, I know!  But I did!

I asked myself why, and I realized that it was because of the complete lack of believability of the scenario as it was set up, and the improbability of the character reaction being what any real person would do under similar circumstances. Which lead me back to my poll of the Thanksgiving Chat. Now I want to know: do you skip the sex scenes–the presumed reason for reading the romance in the first place? If so, why?

You know what that means, right! Time for a poll!

Do you skip sex scenes in romances?

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And another one!

What throws you completely out of a sex scene?

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And one more…

What are some of your favorite sexual tropes?

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Okay, maybe a couple of more, but only for the purposes of curiosity.

Would you mind stating your gender? However you identify yourself...

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How about your age bracket?

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I read mostly...

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Right, well, it’s back to the WIP for me now. My deadline is looming and I’m entering what I hope to be the final third of the story. So enough procrastinating, yes? Yes!

So, the silence means I’m busy, right?

I know, despite good intentions to the otherwise, it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’m not going to linger here tonight, either.

The short version: we weathered hurricane Sandy just fine here, being on the outskirts of the storm and missing any major damage. My heart goes out to the people who weren’t so lucky. I can’t imagine the devastation and destruction this hurricane wreaked on people’s lives–I can only hope that those affected can find the means and the will to stand up from the ruins and rebuild their lives.

I can’t begin to convey the relief I felt when President Obama not only won his re-election bid, but did so handily. I can only think that the people who blamed hurricane Sandy on Romney ‘losing his momentum’ and called the hurricane a judgment on the area of the country hit for supporting marriage equality could not possibly have known anyone personally affected by such a terrible storm, nor fully engaged their brains before running their mouths. Regardless, I am relieved to be able to lay my outrage (over some of the policies the GOP seemed to be promoting) down for a while, and move on to other topics of importance to me.

In the upcoming weeks, I’m going to be hosting various authors as they discuss their upcoming releases and allow me to interrogate them! We’ll be hearing from Claire Russett, Nessa L. Warrin, and Lex Valentine, among others. I’m also going to be doing some guest spots myself, as well as participating in some blog hops. More on all of these events as they approach!

I’m still working feverishly on expanding my Sport Horse story, Lightning in a Bottle (part of the Olympic themed M/M anthology Going for Gold, now out with MLR Press) into a full length novel. Hold the Reins takes the story beyond Jake’s qualification for the Olympics all the way to Greenwich Park, where he must overcome personal challenges to both his renewed relationship with Rich, as well as a threat to his ability to compete at all. I’m excited about this story, and frustrated that my day job is keeping me from wallowing in hours of Olympic footage while I clicketedy-clack to my heart’s content on my laptop. The story is starting to move along now, however, and I hope to have it finished before the end of the year. I’m glad that work is rolling in, don’t get me wrong! But I miss the days when I had hours at a stretch to indulge in my passion for writing.

For an excerpt of Lightning in a Bottle, check out this link to QMO Magazine!

Speaking of which, I should get back to it. I’ve got a scene that’s begging to be written and a chunk of time to do it in! Stay tuned, though, for more posts and giveaways to come!

My last political statement of the campaign…

Because you’re all tired of it, right? The hype, the rhetoric, the ‘distortion of the truth’ (heck, they can’t even come right out and say the word “lies”).

Everyone has pretty much made up their minds anyway. The level of frustration in this nation is high–believe me, I sympathize. Here I sit on a glorious autumn morning, waiting to meet a client instead of going out and doing the things I enjoy on my one day off. I’m not out walking the dog among the fall foliage when it is at the height of its color. I’m not working on my story-on-a-deadline that I will probably miss.

No, I’m working on my day off because that’s par for the course right now. That’s okay. I’m glad for the increase in work. After the last five years of not knowing how I was going to make ends meet, after borrowing money from my mother to make my health insurance premiums (why yes, Mr. Romney, borrowing from your elderly parent is indeed a perfectly acceptable way of paying your bills, thank you for suggesting that as a permanent solution to my economic woes), and even seriously considering dropping my health insurance altogether in favor of paying the mortgage instead, I’ve seen things pick up dramatically in the last year.

I work in what is essentially a luxury industry. I don’t think of it that way myself–I think pets are vital to the health and happiness of many people, and my pets are members of my family. But like dentists and eye doctors, business falls off when times get tough in favor of paying bills for things that you simply can’t function without, like a working car or the well pump in your house. Sure, eyes, teeth, and pets are important, but they are things people will let slide for more pressing debts and concerns. So I feel my profession is a sensitive indicator of economic recovery–and I’m telling you, business is booming. After a long dry spell, people are coming in again. They are still picking and choosing services, they still have to defer expensive, non-lifethreatening procedures. But the day is packed with appointments, and I am meeting clients at night after work and on my days off to get everyone seen. Why? Because after five very lean years, I can’t afford to turn away ANY business right now. I’m so deep in the hole that I don’t know I’ll ever get out. And yes, I write smutty stories on the side because a) I enjoy writing them and b) the royalty check from them usually pays the mortgage.

But right now, I am so swamped, so over-extended that I come home too tired to write, too exhausted and drained to walk the energetic dog, too apathetic to do dishes, laundry, cook dinner, etc. etc.

So why am I supporting President Obama’s re-election? Because the upsurge in my work is proof positive to me that his gradual reconstruction of the American economy is working after the eight years that the Bush administration had to run it into the ground. You can’t build on a crappy foundation. When the basic foundation is rotten, you have to tear down the existing framework, dig out the rot and decay. and lay new footers on solid ground. That takes time, people.

But I’m writing now because I’m angry with the President. I’m angry because we have more at stake than we’ve ever had before and I’m sick with fear that he will lose the re-election. As I drove to my appointment this morning, once again, I noticed the placement of political yard signs–more this year than I can ever recall seeing before.  I’m sad to say I live in a red state and that the overwhelming number of signs have been for Romney. (I’m sorry, but my brain sees that wavy R on the white background and auto-corrects his name to R-MONEY.)

The signs aren’t just flat out supportive of their candidate either–they are also ugly, anti-Obama signs with a level of meanness that I’ve never seen in a campaign before. In fact, when I went looking for a photo of the newest Obama yard sign to post in this blog, I found more hateful anti-Obama signs than pro-Obama signs. NOBAMA seems to be the most common one, but I’ve also seen in blaze orange (from the sportsmen, presumably) DEFEAT OBAMA and more recently, a stylized figure of a star spangled woman on the new, light blue background: Sluts for Obama.  Seriously?

So why am I angry with the President? I’m mad because he needs to fire his campaign designers and re-draft his message at the eleventh hour. The pale blue sign with “obama for president” in tiny letters comes across as anemic and self-deprecating. You can barely read it from the roadside–it makes it seem as though the people posting the sign are ashamed to support President Obama. I can see the yard signs for the opposing side 50 feet away as I approach them–their names are emblazoned on my retinas by the time I pass the house displaying said sign.

Fire your marketing guy, Mr. President. Seriously.

Oh, yeah, and while you’re at it–you’re not mean enough. You’re too educated, diplomatic, and erudite. Sure, these are qualities we value in a President, but not in a Presidential candidate. Your pauses to carefully respond to the outrageous rhetoric of Mr. Romney make it look like you are uncertain of how to respond. You need to take a page out his book and ignore questions you don’t want to answer by bulldozing over them with the main message you want to hammer home. Heck, it’s like subliminal advertising without being subliminal about it.  I know that you are more polite and respectful in general, but if it is woman reporter, try bulldozing your way over her speech, like Mr. Romney here:

Take a page out of Mr. Romney’s binder, Mr. President. You can go back to being diplomatic and a responsible, effective, thinking leader of this country after you are re-elected. After all, apparently a good portion of this country has no problem with backing a candidate who will not state clearly what his policies are, only what he intends to do.  Well, I intend to be an international best-seller of outrageously sexy romances, but without, you know, a plan, then I am just hand-waving and bullhorning.

Sure, that’s what CEO’s of companies do. Mr. President, you would do well to take note. Company CEO’s are the masters of misstating the facts in such a way that put them in the best light. Of keeping the truth about the safety and efficacy of products from the consumer. Of outsourcing to China so that the overall bottom line of the company looks good on paper, but the employees are looking for another job. I think it is telling that Massachusetts is a blue state, don’t you?  The state that Romney governed isn’t supporting him.

Mr. President, I wish you would state more strongly what’s at stake here. I wish you would tell Mr. Romney that Back to the Future called and they want their DeLorean back: because we will not willingly go back into the 1950s. I wish that you would tell seniors like my mother straight up what Mr. Romney’s intent to abolish the health care reform act will do to people like her–and me, for that matter. She’s voting for Mr. Romney because her church has been telling her that only a Man of God can restore this nation to the greatness that it once was, by abolishing Godless organizations such as Planned Parenthood, and reversing Roe v. Wade, and by demonizing homosexuals.

When she tells me these things, I counter with the fact that Mr. Romney still defends putting his Irish Setter in a crate on the top of his car for a 12 hour drive during a family vacation. God verses Dog is a tough one in her house, so it is usually the winning argument for me. Sad that this is what the election is coming down to. Not the fact that trickle down economics doesn’t work, or that Mr. Romney is so out of touch with his constituents that he thinks windows should open on airplanes (I’m guessing he hasn’t flown commercial in a very long time, else he’d be getting those ‘pressurized cabin’ speeches from the airlines).

Lest you think that a print article can be skewed to favor the liberal left, try interpreting this video in any other fashion that what it is–a blatant lack of empathy for a living creature they profess to love.

My mother thinks a vote for Romney is a vote for Religion, America, True Believers, the Righteous, and Patriots. Mr. President, I am deeply distressed that the Democrats have let the far Right co-opt these terms as their very own, with the implication that if you don’t follow their side, you are none of these things. I’m sure the Sanhedrin felt the same way about their place in politics. Funny how they saw Jesus as a threat to their political base, eh?

Mr. President, I wish you would tell the young people of this country, those whose apathy has them deciding not to vote this election, how very much is at stake here. The undermining of the entire civil rights movement. The ability of young women to have access to birth control.The implication that women should either be married and producing babies or not having sex at all. The education system that allows people to rise up out of their backgrounds and succeed despite the odds being against them. The declaration to cut funding to Public Television is not just a talking point to make fun of Romney attacking Big Bird–there are children everywhere who learned to READ because of Sesame Street. Romney’s goals are nothing short of keeping the poor ignorant and hamstrung, incapable of changing their lives or fighting as a group to demand a better system. Romney’s goals are to keep the wealth among the upper 1 %, his supporters among the 48% of his choice, and the other 47% can go hang.

Or borrow money from their parents to pay their bills.

Right. Enough said. As soon as my appointment is over, I’m going to take my dog out for a nice, long walk. Oh, and look, Mr. Romney: his crate is in my car.

The Quiet Observer

This morning dawned as a perfect September day. I don’t know if I can convey to you just what it feels like after a summer of oppressive humidity, the air so wet that your glasses fog when you step outside, and even when the temperatures drop in the evening to what should be a reasonable level, it is still like trying to breathe underwater.

So when I woke up this morning to temperatures in the fifties (the FIFTIES!) and the air so clear and crisp it was like biting into a Red Delicious, it was a no-brainer as to what I would do this morning. Laundry? Uh, no, despite the fact that if I don’t do some soon that is not dog-related, I will be reduced to wearing my PJs. And I don’t own any PJs. Working on the presentation I’m supposed to give next week? Ugh. No. I need to do that, I know, I know. Working on my expanded version of Lightning in a Bottle, the novella that is part of the Going for Gold Anthology? Yes, definitely, I know I need to do that today. I will find the time somewhere.

But hands down the winner this morning was taking the dog out for a run in the National Forest. How could I resist? Lately H has lost both of his regular exercise activities, as the move to a new barn meant moving to a no-dogs barn, as well as losing access to a dog-friendly swimming pool that decided to close. When you have a 95 pound German Shepherd that needs to run until his brains come out his nose every day in order for you to live with him (otherwise it is a bit like having a 2 year old racehorse living in your house), finding the time and place to exercise him safely is challenging. Fortunately for us, a friend told me about a little used access road that takes me to a part of the forest that is not as well traveled as some. The paths are still well-marked, but they are more like goat-tracks with long winding climbs up a ridge and ankle busting rocks at every step. Not a favorite for joggers and cyclists, but perfect for me and the dog.

It occurred to me as I was huffing and puffing my way up this trail today that a change in routine might not be such a bad thing. I’d been pretty upset about the no-dogs policy at the new barn and stressing about how I would carve out yet ONE MORE activity in the day, given how I used to combine running the dog in the woods with my barn activity at the old place. When you are as pressed for time as I am on a routine basis, even small adjustments to the schedule are tough. Finding an extra hour and half to take the dog some place safe to run off lead–well, let me tell you–I thought I was looking at a future in which H never got to run off lead again. And I’m sorry, but I simply cannot run enough myself with him trotting alongside me to keep him fit and sane.

What I realized this morning though was I’d gotten complacent. The goat-track was tough; more of a workout than I’ve been doing lately. It was also beautiful, and there was an exhilaration in being in a different place for a change. My senses were on alert, my brain was not simply on autopilot. I gloried in the play of light and shadow on the path before me, the excitement of a happy dog running ahead. I even noticed the tiny little flying bugs that would light up from within when they flew into a sunbeam (and recall how Ridley Scott, a talented director in many ways, got that so very wrong in the little remembered Legend, filling the screen with so many golden gnats no one would have been able to speak in such a forest without eating them).

I am quite the shutterbug. I don’t have any real gift for it, and I have a pretty simple camera, but I love taking pictures. I think part of the reason I like taking pictures is because I have this insatiable need to ‘capture the moment’. I want to remember clearly how it felt to walk the sun-dappled path. To watch my dog come to a halt in front of me, a laughing grin on his face as his breath curls in a vapor around his panting mouth. To look at a picture of this morning six months from now and remember how great it felt to be in the woods on this September morning, the clear blue sky visible through the trees at the top of the ridge ahead of me. I have tons of pictures of my dogs, my cats, my horses in the sunlight. Pictures that are meaningful to no one but me. Pictures of the same scene over and over. Because I want to capture it.

Even as I was walking, I was thinking about writing this blog. I found myself comparing my out-of-shape walking muscles with my out-of-shape writing muscles and telling myself, “Oh, that’s good, you need to write that one down.” I realized that I’m much happier as an observer than a participant in most cases. I love taking pictures–I’d rather be the photographer than the competitor at the horse shows (though sadly, I wish at least ONE person of my acquaintance was any good with a camera because I don’t have a decent picture of me doing anything with any of my animals…)

I write because I want to capture moments with words. I want to put feelings into situations, to work out problems on paper. Even when I am going through some traumatic event in my own life, there’s a part of me in the background, quietly documenting my reactions and thinking, “Oh, this is soooo going in a story some day.”

Sometimes, though, you need to participate rather than observe. How else do you get more grist for the mill?

My latest release, Lightning in a Bottle, part of the Going for Gold Anthology, let me tap into my experiences (albeit on a small scale) into the world of eventing. I’d say more on the subject, but there is a very big horse waiting for me at the barn now, and I’d rather go ride her on this gorgeous day instead. 🙂

Self-Promo: What makes you uncomfortable?

I’d been idly considering what topic to blog about today when something came up in a recent discussion that made me realize that my attitude toward self-promotion has been slowly evolving over time… and that I still don’t know where I stand on it completely.

When I first began to publish my stories, I was so excited! I couldn’t believe that anyone wanted to read my works (okay, let’s clarify, I couldn’t believe anyone would be willing to pay to read my stories) and I happily told my friends and the people I knew in fandom. My fandom friends were *awesome*, by the way, rushing out to buy copies when they became available and recommending them to their friends as well.

But then I published again. And again. And suddenly it was apparent that this wasn’t just some random fluke–I was really an author.

I rapidly discovered a couple of things then. First, that the world of original publishing is a lot… I don’t want to say meaner, but it is certainly more impersonal. Think of the difference between living in Mayberry and moving to New York to try and make it in the Big City.  It’s not to say that you can’t make friends, but it’s tougher than it was in Mayberry. People don’t go out of their way to speak to you. They are more often brusque when they do speak.  You make stupid, newbie errors out of ignorance, and you are treated like an idiot. It’s less common to get a friendly smile and a wave as you drive by. There are simply a lot more people in a large city like New York, each going about their own business, trying to make a living.  Most of them don’t really care about you and your life. Feedback on your stories, when it occurs, is more like discovering graffiti in your neighborhood than finding a lovely handwritten note in your mailbox. These things aren’t necessarily bad–just different. And it takes time to get used to this. To understand that it doesn’t even occur to most people to leave feedback, and that 3.5 stars might actually be quite good by the standards of society at large.

The second thing I discovered was that I hated self-promotion.  I’ve been very fortunate as a writer. The very first thing that I submitted for publication was accepted–and everything else that I’ve submitted has been accepted as well. Okay, I had a short story get turned down for an anthology, but it blew past the word count by 150%. *coughs*  I know I can easily expand it further ( I have plans for this puppy, she says, rubbing her hands together with an evil smile) and market it to the right people when it’s ready.  I’m not worried about getting it sold.

So, I haven’t been through the harsh experience of rejection that most writers go through. (Believe me, I keep waiting for the day when some famous author shows up at my door and says, “Ooops, we made a mistake, you’re not a writer after all! Give us back all your book covers and royalties…”) Sure, I knew intellectually that it was up to me to promote my stories if I wanted anyone to read them. I spent a lot of time learning what I could about social media, building a platform, a website, and branding. Some of the information I discovered was faulty. Some of the recommendations made me cringe. Some of it just ‘wasn’t me’. I resisted the idea that I needed to promote myself at all. Surely having a good product, producing stories frequently, and word of mouth was all I needed, right?

I was always the odd man out in school–until I discovered theater. From the time I auditioned for my first play, I never had to audition again. The theater director began choosing plays to showcase my acting.  We took the one-act competitions by storm–going all the way to State three years running. I went from being the kid that was shoved into lockers, pushed down the stairs, and definitely the last one picked for any team to being the kid that everyone knew. While never one of the cool kids, finding something that I was good at lent me the confidence that a brainy, homely, unsocial girl needed to get through high school.

Hmmm, until now I never realized that I haven’t experienced rejection as an actress, either. Trust me, I do understand what is it like to be rejected. I’ve have been on the fringes of every social group I’ve ever attempted to join.  I actually had a friend in high school once inform me that I was on my way ‘out’ of the group and to not drag her out with me. Anyway, there’s a point to this and I’m getting to it.  Promotion. I began experimenting with the various kinds and trying out the advice I’d been given.

I was told that chats were crucial. What I discovered, however, is that I loathe live chats (they make me break out in a clammy sweat). I am not much better with chat groups on yahoo or goodreads–I can only handle the social interaction for an hour at most, and then my metaphorical face hurts from smiling so much and I have to bail. I worry excessively about saying the wrong thing in an online interaction (the BF keeps telling me there is no “tone” in an email and to not take things the wrong way, which is why I pepper everything I write with smiley faces so no one can misinterpret what I am saying). I’ve noticed that in some groups if I enter into a conversation, the very act shuts the thread down. In others, I forget the rules (and face it, they change from group to group and short of keeping a spreadsheet there is no way to keep up with them), and end up posting a promo on the wrong day or at the wrong time.

On the other hand, I love blog hops. I love contemplating thinky-thoughts and putting them into words, and be-bopping around the internet reading other people’s thinky thoughts and commenting on them. Blogs are well within my comfort zone.

So you can say that in the early days of my writing, my self promo persona was a lot like this:

It didn’t take long for me to become uncomfortable announcing another new release date to my fandom friends. I created a different journal account so as not to ‘bore’ my fandom friends with my original writing news. I really disliked the bullhorning I saw on Facebook and Twitter.  Facebook is another one of those “you must” recommendations I heard all the time, but Facebook is not my happy place, as anyone who follows me might be able to tell.  Unfortunately, these days I spend most of my time on Facebook posting ranty political notices because I am THAT UPSET by what I perceive as the GOP’s War on Women (which to me, is just an extension of their war on anyone who is not white, married to someone of the opposite sex, and professes strong religious beliefs with no tolerance for anyone with any beliefs that differ from their own. DON’T GET ME STARTED). But there are some author names that pop up on my feeds so often that I have a negative reaction to seeing them. The sheer volume of promotional material that comes my way from some people is off-putting to me.

There has to be something in between, though, right? Between “I’m going to get in your face first thing every single morning and half a dozen times throughout the day because I’ve got my Twitter on autobot mode” and “Here’s my new release” (mentioned once on a blog no one reads and never again). I’m not sure yet what that “between” might be for me. No one wants to be this guy:

(Guy with bullhorn by avidd from flickr creative commons)

But while I struggle with not wanting to ‘put myself out there’ and blow my own horn, I realize that the bottom line is if no one buys my story this time, I’m less likely to get a publishing contract next time. Face it, the publishers aren’t in this just to be nice to me. They offered me a contract because they liked the story and they thought it would sell.  That’s part of the story’s job. If it doesn’t sell, then no matter how much I love writing, I will always be forced between choosing to write and doing something that helps pay the bills.  I could write for my own pleasure alone, (and I can tell you that I would still write even if I was the only reader) but selling the stories may make the difference between working 6-7 days a week and working only 5–thus giving me two more days a week to ride the horse, go hiking with the dog, hang out with the BF, and yes, write more stories.

So where does that leave me? I’m not sure. So I’m curious. How do you as readers find new stories to read or new authors to try out? How do you as writers balance your introverted natures with the need to get the news of your latest release out?  What really turns you off when it comes to promotion? What was the cleverest idea you’ve run across recently? What is considered standard operating procedure and what is considered crass?  What works best for you and what was a total waste of money?  What is something you did even though you knew it wouldn’t generate sales but you just wanted to see your name on something pretty?  🙂 Inquiring minds want to know…

My latest release, Lightening in a Bottle, is part of the Olympic-themed M/M anthology Going for Gold, now available from MLR Press, Amazon, and ARe.

The Devil is in the Details

 

I love researching background material for a story. I know some people view it as a necessary evil; still others handwave around it and hope no one will call them out on their lack of factual details. I’m one of those people who really gets into a subject, wanting to know more about it, taking the research well beyond what is necessary to the story.
But there’s a fine line to walk between learning enough about the Battle of Britain in order to lend authenticity to a particular story and getting lost for hours on Wikipedia. And sometimes the obsession with getting the facts exactly right can get in the way of the story telling itself.

I’ve seen writers never progress off the second page of their story because they spent the last four hours trying to fact-check a minor bit of background detail—something not essential to the story at all, but because it was so important to the writer to get the facts straight, they never finished the story. I have to say, if you can’t find the information quickly and easily, it’s time to ask yourself just how important is it that you verify this fact in the first place? If you can’t find the answer, will the answer matter to anyone else?

I’ve also seen writers suck the life out of their own stories with a pedantic need for verisimilitude. There is such a thing as artistic license, and as long as we don’t use that as an excuse for shoddy research and bending the facts to fit our story needs, sometimes it’s better to go with convention than the actual truth. Take for example, the “murder board” as it is depicted in the average cop drama. I have it on good authority (a former homicide detective, teaching a writing course on murder stories) that the murder board—that white dry erase board where the detectives post pictures of the victims and suspects, draw time lines, and write up important facts—doesn’t exist.

Yep, you heard me. Doesn’t exist. At least, not in the form that we know it.

There are murder books, a case file where all the pertinent information concerning the crime is kept for working access, including crime scene photos, autopsy reports, and witness statements. No doubt with the ability to scan important documents and the push for more and more organizations to go paperless, the murder book will eventually be replaced by other means of record keeping. But that ubiquitous white board that makes its appearance in almost every episode of your favorite weekly police procedural television show is a fabrication.

Why use it then? Because it allows the show’s writers to share important information with the audience in a manner that isn’t information dumping. It puts names to faces and posts them in front of us. It provides a framework around which characters can ask each other questions—again, for the audience’s benefit, sometimes even having a eureka moment when they piece together the final bits of the puzzle. Not to mention creating a focus for dramatic shots of the lead actor staring morosely at the board in a half-lit room, cradling a cup of coffee.

So should we as writers, knowing that this is a convention for story-telling through television and movies, eliminate the murder board? There is one very compelling argument for continuing to use them in our stories. They are used so widely on television and in the movies that the audience expects them. To not use them feels like you haven’t done your homework. That you didn’t research your topic thoroughly enough. Ironic, isn’t it?

Because I love research, if I’m not careful, I’ll spend weeks reading and watching videos in order to get the right background for the story I want to write. If I’m not on a deadline, well, no big deal, I can wallow in my background details to my heart’s content. But I have to watch out and make sure I don’t use ‘research’ as an excuse to avoid the harder task of writing. So I’ve developed some personal guidelines which you may find useful.

1. Resist stopping every five minutes to look something up on Google. If you’re working on a first draft and you know you need to fact-check something, mark it with an asterisk and come back to it. If it is a minor background detail like what sort of weapon your hero would carry or what year penicillin came into widespread use, you don’t need to let it interrupt the flow of your writing. I know, I know! You think it will only take you a second to look it up, but seconds can turn into an incredible time sink when you are in first draft mode and your brain eagerly latches on to any reason not to finish that paragraph you’ve been working on. Focus on the story first and research second. You can do it! Resistance is not futile.

2. Determine how important the background research is to the story and allot the correct amount of time to it. If you are writing a WW2 story that takes place 24 hours before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you’d best have all your facts straight. Getting that wrong, either with anachronisms, or factual errors, or simply not having good feel for the mindset of the average person of the time—all these things will be woefully obvious if you don’t research the material thoroughly. A good rule of thumb: the more important the background is to the story, the more time you should spend on it. Your character dreams that he’s a rodeo clown and wakes up because a bull slams into his barrel? Yeah, you can probably get everything you need to know through a quick search on Google. You’re writing a story in which the main character suffers a spinal cord injury that completely changes his life? You’d better know what you’re talking about. You’ve chosen a condition that will affect every single aspect of your character’s life now. If you aren’t intimately familiar with your subject, it will show.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. The more realistic your setting, the more factual you should be, but if you’ve built a world where magic and the mundane co-exist, you probably don’t have to spend hours determining if your character can or cannot have access to aspirin unless the whole story hinges on this fact. And even then, there’s a place for some handwaving in such a world because you’ve already bent the laws of science and nature by having magic be possible.

4. You’re there to write first and foremost. When you get big and famous, maybe you can pay someone to fact check for you, but for now, you’re doing everything yourself. If you spend too much time on the non-essentials, you’re wasting valuable writing time. Mark it, come back to it in the editing phase. And remember, most people aren’t going to care what kind of shoes your character is wearing unless your story is set in a time before shoes were invented.

Bottom line: do your homework, but be smart about it. It is secondary to the story, not the story itself.

My latest story, Lightning in a Bottle, is part of the Olympic-themed M/M anthology from MLR Press, Going for Gold. I wrote about my own sport, eventing, which meant short of a few facts to check, I didn’t have to do a ton of research. Now I’m looking at writing a sequel, which means I have to learn a whole lot more about competing at the Olympic level—something I will never do myself. Which means, gosh darn, I have to do some additional research. I’ve already bought the eventing DVDs from the Games, and a book on training for the sport from my favorite eventing coach, and…

What’s the subject that you enjoyed researching the most and how did you end up using that information? Inquiring minds want to know!

Dealing with Disconnect

I’ve been struggling a bit lately with an increasing sense of disconnect in my life. Funny, how were are more connected than ever, what with Facebook, and Twitter, and various other social platforms–and yet there are times when I wonder what the heck I’m doing spending so much time connected to a device rather than the people and things that I love.

I said as much to the BF last night, after noting how he waited patiently me to stop participating in a chat so we could watch a movie together.

“Why do you say that?” His tone was wry. “Is it because you reach for your cell first thing in the morning to check your Tweets before even getting out of bed?”

In my defense, Twitter is the main way I keep up with some of my friends, and one of them has been very ill recently. I began looking for an update each morning (because of the time difference) ever since I’d missed an important message from her because it had been snowed under by the hundreds of promotional tweets I’d received.

Since then, I’ve thinned the Twitter nest and learned how to make lists, so I can check for the really important stuff every day and filter out the crap. Even so, my phone is constantly vibrating in my pocket. Hell, even when it doesn’t, I think it does, suffering from what Craig Ferguson calls Phantom Phone Vibration Syndrome.

No joke, I get upward of 100 emails a day, and that’s with me being on digest for 99% of my lists. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking people to stop emailing me–I LOVE it when you guys email me and give me feedback on a story, or ask me questions. I love, too, making internet friends and having nice thinky discussions either here on the blog, or via email. Please keep doing that!

What troubles me though is that my need to stay connected to the internet is almost an addiction. I circle through the same social networking sites looking for something to respond to, to ‘like’, to ‘retweet’. I check Twitter at stoplights. I find myself pushing my dog away and telling him I’ll take him out later–not because I am in the throes of a current chapter–but because I’m in the middle of a chat, or a blog hop, or answering 40 responses on Live Journal or a Goodreads thread.

So the irony here is that I’m more connected than ever–and yet increasingly isolated from everything that really matters to me. There’s got to be a better way of balancing things.

Initially when I began writing professionally, I quickly became overwhelmed by the degree of social media connections I was supposed to make and maintain. I rebelled, fighting the rallying cry to blow the self-promotion horn. I lurked on lists, I avoided live chats like the plague (I’m still not super comfortable with them), I wrote silly, self-indulgent blog posts titled “Are Blogs Dead?” and “Shut Up and Write.” I still believe there is merit in shutting up and writing, you know. I look at the time I spend in social media and the current level of productive writing and it makes me cringe.

So I think the key here is doing it effectively. Not the all-or-nothing I’ve been swinging back and forth from lately. I’ve been following Kristen Lamb’s blog for a while now, and she has some good things to say along these lines. What finally tipped me into buying her books, however, was taking a webinar on social media success that touted all things I hate most about that mentality–how to use automation, how to gain huge numbers of followers all with the idea of how they can best help you, presenting a fake persona to the public eye so as to never, ever offend anyone.

I spent the first 40 years of my life never offending anyone. I was practically sewn into a Cloak Of Invisibility. So it goes a bit against the grain now to be told to air only benign, generic opinions for fear of alienating people. I know, I know, I believe that a negative internet presence is more damaging than none, but I also believe in stating what I think and not being mealy-mouthed with my opinions. Anyway, I was so annoyed with the teachings of the webinar that I broke down and bought Kristen Lamb’s books:” We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media” and “Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer.”

I say ‘broke down’ because my purchasing these books was akin to someone with an eating disorder being told they needed to keep a food diary. However, I found these books to be extremely useful (as well as easy to read and entertaining). Oh wow, nothing like discovering you’ve been doing everything wrong–and worse, that you were PROUD of it.

Okay, I still maintain that obsessively reading reviews and watching sales rank on Amazon just messes with your mind. But a lot of the other stuff I have defended–such as not blogging, or chatting, or promoting–well, let’s just say I was wrong and I was right.

I was right in that the methods I was being taught, the ones that rankled with me, were indeed counter-productive and off-putting to most people. And simply not effective. The key to social media is the social part. If you are acting like a spam-bot, people will treat you accordingly. Worse, you will actually make a negative association with your name.

Where I was wrong, however, was in my stance that social networking and self-promotion was unnecessary. Okay, I knew this on some level, but I still kept resisting the idea because putting myself out there is not really my thing.

So where does this leave me? Seeking balance. Finding a way to balance doing the necessary bits of being a writer with the important bits that give my life meaning. Taking the dog for a run in the woods. Riding my horse. Hanging out with my boyfriend. And yes, writing.

In that vein, I will be blogging more here. I will be doing more blog hops (because I love them) and fewer chat/promo/excerpt lists (because they make me squirrely). I invite you to email me (there’s a link on the side but I’ll give it to you here too: akasarahmadison at gmail dot com). I’ll post updates via Twitter and Facebook, but will spend less time there too.

Because I really want to get back to writing. After all, that’s the whole reason why I’m here.

Two guest blogs you might want to check out: I had a spot on QMO (Queer Magazine Online), where I talk about being ‘just’ a supporter of the GLBTQ community and a spot on E.m. Lynley’s blog (the editor of Going for Gold, the new anthology from MLR Press, in which I have a story) where I share a bit about not giving up on the dreams that really matter.

Going for Gold is now available on MLR Press.

Do contact me and let me know what you think! I really enjoy interacting with people online and my path to balance doesn’t preclude emails!