Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bloodchild


I’ve always been fascinated by alien races which parasitize humans.

This never gets old, because it can be written in so many ways—the aliens could be like the souls of Stephenie Meyer’s The Host, and genuinely believe they’re in the right. They could be like the creatures in the Outer Limits episode “The Surrogate”, which change pregnant women from the inside out. The sky’s the limit.

What intrigued me about Octavia Butler’s short story "Bloodchild" was the painting it inspired for a cover:















Children, being specifically targeted by the aliens. That was new. So once I found a copy of the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories, I settled in for (what I thought would be) a chilling read.

The premise is simple. Humans live on another planet in what’s called the Preserve. They coexist uneasily with the natives of that planet, the Tlic, who have multiple limbs, stings and a lower body temperature. They’re intelligent, but they’re wonderfully different from humans.

T’Gatoi whipped her three meters of body off the couch, toward the door and out at full speed. She had bones—ribs, a long spine, a skull, four sets of limb bones per segment. But when she moved that way, twisting, hurling herself into controlled falls, landing running, she seemed not only boneless, but aquatic—something swimming through the air as though it were water. I loved watching her move.

Tlic males mate and die, but the females live to adulthood and lay eggs. Here’s where the humans come in, since the eggs have to be laid in hosts, and the size and strength of the resulting Tlic depends on the kind of host. Having the eggs introduced isn’t difficult, since the Tlic females release a fluid that relaxes the host, but what’s painful, terrifying and potentially deadly is the hatching. The grubs eat anything except the flesh of the Tlic who laid them, so if they’re not removed from the human in time…

This could have been an excellent horror story by itself. What makes it deeper and more intriguing is T’Gatoi’s relationship with Gan—the human narrator—and his family. His older sister, Xuan Hoa, wants to be a host. His mother is torn between her friendship with T’Gatoi and her need to protect her children. And T’Gatoi tries to balance her biology, the demands of other Tlic, and her fondness for Gan’s family.

This is one of those stories that can be read again and again. I loved the dual meaning of “host”, the complex ever-changing interplay between humans and Tlic as groups, and the different attitudes to being parasitized. I liked how Gan grows up in the course of the story. When he refuses T’Gatoi’s eggs and uses a rifle to show how strongly he feels about it, she makes it clear this has to be his choice.

“How could I put my children into the care of one who hates them?”

The utter alienness of the Tlic is beautifully balanced out by this, and the ending is quiet but emotional. I only wish Butler had written more stories set in this world.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Five great things that happened last week


1. Signed a contract with Samhain for Christmas Yet To Come, a paranormal historical romance featuring the third ghost from the Dickens story. Silent faceless terrifying wraiths need love too!

That story will be out in time for Christmas next year, so watch out for it.

2. Signed a contract with Loose Id for Marked by You, a multicultural fantasy romance set in the African savanna. Which I have always wanted to visit but could never afford, so at least I wrote about it. That one will be out early next year, and I'm really excited about it - it's probably the hottest thing I've written yet.

3. Won this in Lenora Bell's giveaway to celebrate her debut novel being sold. Just in time for the cold weather, too!

4. Discovered a really interesting blog for writers, with a high emphasis on fantasy : E. L. Wagner's Umbral Musings. Exactly the kind of thing I like to read while I'm having breakfast or dinner.

5. Oh, and speaking of food... Thanksgiving. Celebrated that yesterday. Roast turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing with raisins and olives, wild rice, ham, mashed rutabagas with grated cheddar, pan-fried baby potatoes, broccoli and carrots, tourtiere, pumpkin soup with cornbread, apple pie with ice cream. This was the best meal of the year.

So it's been a very productive week.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Always Chaotic Evil protagonists


This isn’t a main character who’s a loveable rogue, or a sexy bad boy, or a tortured hero, or an anti-hero, or someone due for a redemption arc.

This is an evil protagonist. Completely and irredeemably evil, with no positive qualities whatsoever. So the story is about all the loathsome things he does.

I’ve come across two such manuscripts being offered for critiques, and they were… interesting. But that’s interesting to discuss, rather than to read. In both cases, I was so turned off by the protagonists’ amorality, casual murders, sexist attitudes and cowardice that I couldn’t read much further.

“The characters are supposed to be hateful,” the writers said in explanation.

Which is all very well, but hateful =/= interesting.

It’s certainly unusual to have the main character be a psychopath. It might even be edgy and dramatic, because some readers will be hooked by a character who tramples on all of society’s rules, who rapes and murders her way through the land without anything so cumbersome as a conscience.

The question is whether there’s enough of a line attached to that hook. If the character doesn’t have a solid, interesting goal, then the story might come off as gore porn. If the character isn’t smart enough to see the consequences of openly killing people (because intelligence is a positive quality, and she can’t have any of those), then the story's likely to end soon unless other characters take on the responsibility of protecting the psycho.

“Well, yes, he’s stupid on top of being self-centered and cruel,” the writers said. “But that means readers will be eager to find out how he's defeated in the end. He’s like Joffrey!”

I think one reason Joffrey never got a POV of his own was because he didn’t even have the fig leaf of enough sense to consider the consequences of his actions. It would have been difficult if not impossible for him to carry the story on his own.

And I've read books where I wanted the main character to fail - The Day of the Jackal was the first of these - but the MC usually had some quality that made them interesting (and I don't mean qualities like sadism and stupidity). The Jackal was extremely smart, competent and fearless. Hannibal Lecter was brilliant and sophisticated and had his own moral code, such as it was.

Another problem with characters who are Always Chaotic Evil is that they’re predictable. If you always know how a perfect saint will act in any given situation, then you also know exactly what a sadistic coward who hates women will do. This rarely makes for a engrossing experience.

Finally, if these characters are meant to be frightening—for me, personally, they aren’t, because they’re usually so over-the-top in their vileness that I find them difficult to take seriously. Whereas if the evil character has even a spark of humanity, one point of contact, it can make him much deeper and more disturbing. One of my favorite moments in Misery was when Paul saw what Annie might have been if she wasn’t murderously insane. In other words, he recognized that spark of humanity.

It didn’t make him any less determined to get away from her. But it did make her something more than just her madness.

Likewise, one improvement that Game of Thrones (the TV show) made to the books was to have Ramsay Snow Bolton eager for his father's approval. I still want him to die. But I can understand him, and I find him much more interesting than I ever found Joffrey. It also helps that he's smart in his own way - he'd be hopeless as the public face of House Bolton, but he's clever enough to make his own gains on the side.

There's room in fiction for characters who are roast evil with stupid sauce on the side, but if they're to take center stage and carry the story, they need more than just that to go on.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Wild Oats




The first interesting thing about Jedwin Sparrow is that he’s a mortician. The second is that he wants to sow some wild oats—and there’s only one woman, a divorcee five years his senior, who might be prepared for some… planting.

Pamela Morsi’s Wild Oats, set in the early 1900s in the small town of Dead Dog, Oklahoma, kicks off the romance with a great start. Jedwin makes the most endearing indecent proposal ever; not only is he nervous, but he offers some financial compensation. Since the divorcee, Cora Briggs, clearly doesn’t receive any money from her ex, Jedwin suggests he repair her fence and provide her with a “modest stipend” for her “discretionary use”.

Cora is nowhere near the scarlet woman the town believes her to be. She could use the money, because she barely manages to feed herself by selling preserves to the local shopkeeper—who knows she has no choice but to accept a pittance in return. But she does have her self-respect. So as Jedwin stammers out what he hopes to receive in return, she begins to tell him to leave her house.

And then she changes her mind. Because Jedwin’s mother is one of the respectable matrons who spread nasty rumors about Cora after her divorce, and although she’s not a malicious person, Cora imagines how horrified Mrs. Sparrow will be if her precious little boy has anything to do with the town harlot.

Cora won’t seduce him, of course. She’ll just play along. So she tells him she’ll allow him to court her, because even women like her enjoy flowers and poetry prior to seduction. What she doesn’t expect is for Jedwin to take her up on it. As the mortician, he’s learned how to preserve flowers, and his attempts at poetry are funny but genuine. She begins to like him, and Jedwin soon feels something deeper even than attraction.

But one by one, the townsfolk slowly suspect a harvest of wild oats is growing under their noses. And Cora knows the dalliance can never come to light—not least because of the secret she has to keep from everyone, the truth about why she was divorced.

Pamela Morsi’s Americana romances tend to be feelgood reads, and Wild Oats is no exception. Her characters are down-to-earth, flawed but good at heart; I especially like the fact that Cora’s ex-husband is not demonized. He didn’t abuse her or leave her unsatisfied in bed; he just, for a good reason, was not in love with her.

I liked everything about this book, from Jedwin’s unusual profession to the fact that Cora was curvy, older and more experienced. Not to mention determined to manage for herself, even if she had to scrimp and do without. This isn’t a heart-wrenching romance, but it’s a very pleasant read and I hope I find the sequel, Runabout, so I can visit the town of Dead Dog again.



Thursday, October 2, 2014

Cover for Secret Water


Isn't this a beauty? Happy October to me!






















So step 1 was the cover. Step 2 is to run the novella past a couple of beta readers, and once I'm confident that the story works, step 3 will be getting it ready to publish. Copyright and blurb and bio, not to mention selecting a couple of chapters from the novels to add to the back. It's still nerve-wracking, but it'll get easier.

But wait, there's more! Good news, that is, way to start the month off. Before the Storm is on Scribd! Meaning readers can get unlimited stories for a set fee each month, but authors get paid the normal royalty if more than 20% of a book is read. So it's a good deal for everyone.

Besides, no one ever stopped reading that book after the start. :)

And as I was almost done with the first round of edits for The Coldest Sea (plus promotion for The Highest Tide), I got an acceptance from Samhain Publishing for a novella! This one is a standalone, an odd little idea I got when I thought of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come - you know, the silent faceless wraith who shows Scrooge the vision of his death. I wondered what would happen if that ghost was turned into a human. Before I know it, I'm coming up with a paranormal historical romance - and it'll be out in time for Christmas next year.

Happy October!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Cover for THE HIGHEST TIDE


Check it out on What I'm Reading : In Search of Great Romance. Thanks for the reveal, Melody!

Also, The Highest Tide is now available on Amazon for pre-order. I'll just share that in this one, the hero and heroine get together on page 3 in a brothel - and it gets hotter and more complicated from there. Will put up an excerpt soon! For today, basking in the cover love. :)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Foodskin descriptions


















In a sample of a book on Amazon, I read that a character had “mocha skin”.

This didn’t make me close the window. I’m brown-skinned, but I don’t feel offended by these kinds of descriptions. But it did make a change in the way I was reading the book. Suddenly the enjoyment level had lowered, and instead I was alert for any further such descriptions.

Sure enough, there it was again. The second character with “mocha skin”. And at that point, I stopped reading.

I thought about this, and realized why foodskin descriptions don’t work for me.

1. They’re cliched.

Chocolate, caramel, mocha, coffee, cinnamon, hazelnut. Chances are, the description is going to involve one of these. I’m guessing if someone has Nutella skin, since this is both chocolate and hazelnut, it means this person has TWO brown parents.

The worst is from a blurb I once read:

…all he could think about was her long, slender, mocha colored legs wrapped high around his cream colored hips.

“Maybe they’ll have a frappucino colored baby,” I thought.

So if a book hits a note I’ve heard once too often, I’m going to subconsciously wonder if there are other tired, stale descriptions. This isn’t a frame of mind that lends itself to enjoying a story.

That said, if the book is amazing, I can overlook flaws. I love Gone with the Wind despite the portrayals of black people. But if an author hasn’t written the Great American Novel, it’s safer to correct mistakes.

2. They give me the impression the author is uncomfortable with the words “brown” or “black”.

This impression may be completely off. But it’s still what I come away with. These are disturbing words and therefore they need to be prettied up, or expressed in terms of synonyms.

I’m brown-skinned. I think of my skin as brown. It doesn’t offend me at all to be called brown. No need to reach for “tea” or “coconut” or “demerara sugar”. Just call me brown.

Brown.

One writer said the reason she repeated “chocolate skin” was to emphasize to the readers that these characters were people of color. That was an admirable intention, but unfortunately it’s likely to turn off readers who are tired of such descriptions (or who notice that it’s never applied to white characters). Plus, if certain readers are determined to see characters as white-with-a-tan, then whatever you say doesn’t matter.

So you could find some less cliched description. Coppery or earth-dark skin sounds attractive to me, without the overuse/fetishizing factor of food.

Or just say black or brown.

Image from Creative Commons

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fanfic writers and artistic rights


Some time ago, there was a discussion on Absolute Write about fanfiction, so I peeked into the thread. It was interesting to read, but there was one claim I disagreed with : the assertion that fanfic writers have a right to the characters that original authors create. All quotes in blue are paraphrased from that discussion.

“Not a legal right, but an artistic right.”

I was puzzled as to what gave fanfic writers this artistic right when they hadn’t created the characters.

“They love the characters.”

Is love alone enough to establish any sort of right over someone else’s intellectual property? I like the original Transformers cartoon, and my favorite characters from it are the Stunticons. I heart these incredibly dysfunctional ‘cons and have written a lot of fanfics about them—fanfics which developed them far more than the cartoon did. Readers have often told me how they never noticed or cared about these minor background characters before encountering my fics.

But I don’t own the Stunticons in any way, nor do I feel entitled to any such rights.

Because I didn’t create them.

“Your characters are like your children. Once you publish them, it’s analogous to their growing up. You don’t have any more control over them after that.”

Well, if we’re pursuing this (bizarre, IMO) analogy, then a fanfic writer who feels an artistic right to my characters doesn’t get that either, because my characters didn’t consent to it.

“I don’t believe characters can be owned by anyone.”

It’s nice if you believe that I can’t own or control my characters, but the thing is… I’m the person who thought about them and wrote about them and got them published. They didn’t exist before that.

Here’s the other thing. If I write a future novel where, say, Alyster and Miri from The Farthest Shore separate for some reason (which they never will; together forever, those two, but humor me for the purpose of this discussion), and a fanfic writer pens a similar novel where they stay together despite their differences, guess which one will be canon?

The fanfic writer can swear on a stack of Kama Sutras that his/her vision is more artistically true to the characters. More romantic than what I wrote. What the characters would want. It still doesn’t make a difference to whose version is the official one, and who gets to say what happens to the characters.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law. And I possess all my heroes, oh yes I do. Heroines too, of course. And villains, mustn't leave them out.

“Trying to own characters is like trying to own people.”

At this point I realized my worldview and that of the person making this claim were so far apart that there was no point in continuing the discussion. A slavery comparison is only one step away from Godwin’s Law.

Plus, as I said, I don’t consider my characters to be real, actual, living people entitled to all the same rights and freedoms that real, actual, living people have.

I don’t care if someone else feels their characters can’t be owned. Do whatever you like with the characters you come up with—renounce copyright, let them roam free, whatever. But I don’t have to humor any such claims about my creations. And now I’m off to make more of them.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

How I found a cover artist


The previous process for cover art was simple. I filled out a form with a brief plot summary, the motifs and elements I’d like to see on the cover, and short descriptions of the hero and heroine. Then I sent it off to my editor.

But now what was I to do about my novellas “Secret Water” and “Silent Water”? I felt at sea. No pun intended.

One thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want an obvious Photoshop product with a title slapped on a stock image. I saw enough of those when I was putting together a thread about PublishAmerica’s covers. That ruled out doing the cover myself.

In the Cover Design forum on Absolute Write, I browsed the thread where designers offered contact information and showed examples of their work. The sheer variety was a little overwhelming, but I didn’t have much money to spend. That automatically ruled out any covers which might be $200 or more. Having to buy two would double the cost, though. :(

Then it occurred to me there might be another way to save money while still having a good cover.

The novellas feature the same character in the same setting. Why not have the cover be the same except for a change in one obvious, striking motif? Just like the covers in an erotica series where each features legs, but the color of the shoes is altered. That way I could afford one great cover, rather than two mediocre covers, while still showing that the novellas were different.

So I picked out a few cover designers from the thread and emailed them. All responded promptly, and all of them said that since the covers were going to be the same except for the title and one change, they could offer a large discount on the second one. I’ll keep them in mind for the future, but the one I decided to go with was a bit of an unexpected late addition to my list.

I’d liked Amber Feldkamp’s premade covers when they first appeared on AW, but when I originally browsed her website there was none with a shark fin image and the site said she wasn’t doing custom covers at the time. For some reason I checked the website again after I’d emailed the other designers, and that had changed. She was accepting requests, so I jumped on it.

Amber created a mockup fast. Speed alone wouldn’t have won me over, because one thing you get used to in trade publishing is waiting, but there was something else I really liked about one of the images she’d chosen. With other designers, I’d said one of the elements I wanted was a woman on a rock overlooking the sea. They sent images of women lounging (no) or sitting (which I was OK with).

Amber sent a picture of a woman standing with an outflung arm, as if she was holding back the tide. This stance hadn’t occurred to me, but once I saw the image I knew it was right.

This is why covers are one of the nerve-wracking things about self-publishing, for me. No regrets, but I’m very much aware I’m in charge of something I’m not overly familiar with. Thankfully Amber knew what she was doing. Her positioning of the title was brilliant. And I knew better than to get overly specific (“the woman should be wearing an ankle-length gunmetal grey dress with a blue belt and a knife hanging at her right hip and…”) or to request too many elements on the cover.

All I really wanted was the woman, the sea, the shark’s fin in the water and the moon overhead. The moon was the element which would change: blue for one novella, red for the other. I also requested that my name be on the bottom in a typeface that mirrored that on my Samhain books, to show they’re in the same series.

I’ll be posting the covers here as soon as I can.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Self-Publish















I’ve been thinking about self-publishing for some time now. Of course, I also think about getting more exercise, and all that thinking does me a lot of good.

But anyway. Self-publishing has gone through rapid changes, and I’m not the kind of person who wants to be on the cutting edge, keeping abreast of every new development. I like being published by a company which will handle the cover art and editing and formatting, and I intend to try for this at every opportunity.

Last year, though, I considered putting a short story up just to test the waters. So I emailed a friend of mine called Merri Hiatt.

Merri was a fellow romance writer who died unexpectedly this year, but she lived life to the fullest, especially when it came to writing. She started from scratch—making her covers herself, learning along the way—and what I liked most about her approach was how businesslike she was. Her progress with multiple series was charted with spreadsheets and sales. No “Success is holding my book in my hands” for her; she counted numbers.

I asked Merri where to start, and she sent me a copy of the Smashwords Style Guide. Let’s just say I am not a technical person and found this a bit overwhelming. Since I didn’t need to have the short story out this way (submitting to magazines was an option), I shelved my self-publishing plans.

But then this year, my novel The Deepest Ocean came out, and a couple of the reviews mentioned wanting to see more of the heroine and her great white shark. This gave me ideas for a couple of novellas and I wrote them in a white-hot streak of creativity.

Except these didn't fit my publisher's requirements, and since they featured the characters (and shark) from the novel, they couldn't be sent elsewhere. In other words, they were ideal for self-publishing.

The question was how much I’d have to spend in advance. There are several reasons I like commercial publishing, but a major one is that there’s no money out of my pocket beforehand. This post by self-published writer S. L. Huang is especially interesting, because she spent more than $2000 on her book.

Though as she points out, the reason this price was so high was because she wanted to reach a certain minimum production standard. I didn’t plan to bring the novellas out in paperback, so typesetting wasn’t needed. There were a few other areas I could cut costs as well.

But for now, I’ve taken the first step to becoming a hybrid author—and that step is to have written something that’s right for self-publishing. I don't know if the novellas will sell, but that's a risk I'm prepared to take. A risk I'm comfortable with. I'm mentally prepared for this journey in a way I wasn't before.

So let the voyage begin. I’ll be charting the rest of the steps here as I go along. Wish me luck!