Lord Byron. Mark Twain. The Beastie Boys’ Mike D. Over the years, these artists, and so many others, have made the observation that truth, or life, is stranger than fiction. I was recently whapped upside the head by this concept as I lightly revised and prepared the books in my Underbelly Chronicles series for indie re-release.
Have you ever noticed similarities between your own life, and what shows up in your fictional world? Familiar settings, plot points, jobs and expertise? Characters whose interests, concerns, challenges, internal and external goals, motivations and conflicts, might be…strangely parallel to yours, or to someone close to you?
I’ve long suspected this was true, but…geez. Nothing like revisiting previously published work to reveal that what you thought were fairly random dots actually have straight line connections!
I’ve written here at the blog before about the event that catalyzed my first book – watching middle-aged women flash their bare breasts at drummer Tommy Lee at a Motley Crue show. I was…baffled. Amazed. Astounded. I couldn’t figure out why women would possibly want to do this. I remember thinking, “Geez, is he half-incubus or something?” (An incubus is a mythical sex demon.)
Hmm. What if he was?
The next morning, I went to the coffee shop with a spiral notebook and pen, and started to build the Underbelly Chronicles world.
One thing I’ve realized about world-building? A world developed from scratch, with all its rules, laws, ceremonies, practices, beliefs, and conflicts, reveals much about its creator. Anyone who reads my work can easily discern my fascination with the possibility that humans aren’t alone in the universe; my paranormal creatures’ ancestors are extra-planetary, marooned here when their spaceship crashed.
There are also, in retrospect, some glaringly obvious recurring themes in my work, based on my personal interests and experiences:
Exploration of family, both birth and chosen
Issues of health, and living with chronic illness
Technology, pro and con
The sometimes uneasy boundary between public and private life
I find pieces of me in my characters’ closets, on their bookshelves, in their music collections. My friends tell me that they enjoy looking for these “Easter Eggs” in my work. “I was with you when you bought Bailey’s boots!” (Yes, you were!) “That scene where the power went out in the ice storm. Is that my cabin?” (The main floor, yes. The bedroom? No.)
Seriously, my books are veritable Rorschach Tests:
Taste Me – My interests in music and personal security converge; I plot a bodyguard tale with a twist. After being threatened, burned-out siren rock star Scarlett Fontaine and incubus security guru Lukas Sebastiani are forced into close proximity. As a siren, Scarlett can influence emotions with her voice, but Lukas is a sex demon, and has some skills of his own. However do they cope? 😉 Hospital and cabin settings are based on composite personal experience. (Sorry for setting that sex scene in your sauna, Grandma and Grandpa!) The emotional intelligence classes I was taking for my STEM job definitely helped with crafting my paranormal species’ abilities.
Chase Me – Set in both Minnesota’s remote northwoods and “The Cities” to the south (I’ve lived in both locations), were-shifter Gabe Lupinsky, who has macular degeneration, finally comes to believe that he and buff, fit Valkyrie Princess Lorin Schlessinger are a perfect match. Let’s just say my growing frustration with corporate politics informs the plot. (Yes, Council member Krispin Woolf is based on a real person.) But that scorching love scene set in the overflow parking lot of one of Minnesota’s busiest roadside restaurants? Nope, that’s fiction…though my friends still give Mark and me a side-eye.
Tempt Me – Reformed human hacker Bailey Brown desperately needs to regain some semblance of work/life balance. (Tammy looks at sky, whistling innocently.) Sounds like a perfect job for hedonistic incubus sculptor Rafe Sebastiani – or does it? Exploration of the rural/urban cultural divide continues, with a specific focus on how technology dependence can create some unfortunate blind spots. (If you lose electricity during a northern Minnesota winter, you care a lot more about heat than lack of internet access. Believe me.)
Big life changes ahoy! I tapped out of corporate America in late 2015 to write, edit, and teach full-time. My longtime dude and I also got married.
Enthrall Me (Coming in Fall 2017) – Straight-laced vampire Council member Wyland is attracted to a completely inappropriate woman – Tia Quinn, a young investigative journalist whose work might inadvertently expose the secret of the paranormals’ existence to humanity. Being Tia’s also a vamp, it’s Wyland’s responsibility to rein her in – and you can probably predict how well that goes. May/September hijinks ensue. Explorations of health issues, and that blurry line between what’s public and what’s private, continue – this time with a political twist.
GULP. Holy unconscious recurring themes, Batman. Talk about writing what you know!! And now you know, too, because I’ve left pieces of me all over the damn place. 😉
Thinking about your own writing, are there any topics or themes you’ve consciously or unconsciously plucked from your own life, then puked on the page? Which pieces have YOU left behind?
We won’t tell.
Tamara Hogan is the award-winning author of The Underbelly Chronicles paranormal romance series. An English major by education and a software developer/process engineer by trade, she recently stopped telecommuting to Silicon Valley to teach, edit, and write full-time. Tamara loathes cold and snow, but nonetheless lives near Minneapolis with her husband and two naughty cats.
Her debut, TASTE ME, won a Daphne du Maurier Award for Mystery and Suspense, was nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart Award®, and won Prism Awards for Best Dark Paranormal, Best First Book, and Best of the Best.
“Friends Showing Silence Sign” by David Castillo Dominici courtesy www.freedigitalphotos.net
The idea for this blog post on writing speed came after reading some responses our readers made to Shelley Coriell’s 1/25/17 blog post, Write on 2017! Strengths and Weaknesses. (Awesome series! Check it out.) In retrospect, writing speed has been on my radar since the Ruby Blog’s early days, when I jokingly called Ruby Sister Darynda Jones and me “The Tortoise and the Hare.” (Make no mistake, I’m the tortoise.) While reading comments people posted to Shelley’s blog, it didn’t take long to notice a distinct theme starting to emerge: writers were identifying their writing pace as “slow,” and further identifying this pace as a weakness they wanted to overcome.
I’m here to say…not so fast.
What follows are a few snippets from that conversation, all from published Rubies. First, Elizabeth Langston, who’d identified her writing speed as a weakness earlier in the thread:
I need to let the comparison thing go. But it’s been bothering more than usual since I attended an RWA chapter meeting in November. The speaker is completely indie. I think she said that she releases 4+ books a year. I have another author friend who averages 6 books per year (which is insane). I can’t sustain either pace.
Jamie Michele weighed in:
Damn it, I’m all done with the cult of productivity within our community!! Like most of us, I’m not in a position to perform at that level, so I will not tolerate any career plans that include producing four books a year!!
I think of one of my favorite books — The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. It took her ten YEARS to write that thing, and it was worth every second she slaved over it. I’m grateful to her for that book, even if she never writes another.
YAAASSS – and for what it’s worth, I feel the same way about Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. And here’s my reply:
Beth and Jamie, my sisters! I have the same issues and concerns. An admission: Over the last year or so, I’ve pulled away from some corners of the romance writing community out of sheer self-preservation, because the focus on pace of production just clobbers my self-confidence. My ‘natural’ writing pace right now is one book per year. Compared to most writers in our genre, I will always come up short in comparison. Always. I think my stories would start to suffer if I tried to pick up the pace. My health, and my work/life balance, would certainly take a hit.
Only in Romancelandia is writing one book per year considered “slow.” Regardless of writing pace, I’d like us all to stop beating ourselves up.
Seriously, when did pace of production become the dominant metric by which romance authors measure success? And what does this mean for those of us who can’t measure up?
What it means is that some of us pull away from our writing communities out of sheer self-preservation. It means we come home from conferences and RWA chapter meetings feeling inadequate rather than energized. It means we too often compare ourselves to others, and always come up short.
Needless to say, this mindset is not great for one’s creativity.
As someone who used to design processes for a living, I’ll be the first to say that work methods can improve, evolve and change over time – but I’ve been writing for a decade now, and one piece of self-awareness I’ve gained is that I’m a slow food writer. I like to focus on the individual ingredients, and careful and precise preparations. I revise. I refine. I need things to simmer and cook, testing – tasting – as I go along.
I BUILD WORLDS. This takes time. It takes me time, at any rate. I don’t produce my best work quickly. If I tried to write faster, quality would suffer. I’m not willing to make that trade-off, and I’m tired of feeling guilty about it.
As Ruby Sis Hope Ramsey so wisely says later in the thread, we each need to accept our process for what it is, and set our personal goals accordingly. One size does NOT fit all.
So, I’m here to say: I reject the Cult of Productivity. I reject it utterly and completely. The Cult of Productivity won’t help me produce my strongest, most satisfying work. It certainly won’t preserve my joy in the process, which is the most important thing about this wacky business that’s under my direct control.
Ultimately, we each need to find our own, right rhythm. Our own optimal pace.
Me? I’m a happy tortoise. I’ll be back here, taking in the scenery. Marching to slow and steady the beat of my own drum. 😛
Q: Any thoughts about the Cult of Productivity? How satisfied are you with your writing pace? I look forward to your opinions and insights.
P.S. And speaking of slow food…
I recently got publication rights back to Taste Me and Chase Me, the first two books in my award-winning Underbelly Chronicles series. After a light revision pass on all four books, I just reissued the entire series on Kindle/KDP. (More on that process in my next blog post.) But I wanted to give our readers a peek at my pretty new covers!! and supply some Kindle links if you’re inclined to Buy or borrow.
Tamara Hogan is the award-winning author of The Underbelly Chronicles paranormal romance series. An English major by education and a software developer/process engineer by trade, she recently stopped telecommuting to Silicon Valley to teach, edit, and write full-time. Tamara loathes cold and snow, but nonetheless lives near Minneapolis with her husband and two naughty cats.
Her debut, TASTE ME, won a Daphne du Maurier Award for Mystery and Suspense, was nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart Award®, and won Prism Awards for Best Dark Paranormal, Best First Book, and Best of the Best. Catch her on line at www.tamarahogan.com, or on Twitter, @TamaraHogan1.
Happy Tortoise by digitalart at freedigitalart.net
Readers of the Ruby blog may know that I’ve been waiting out a rights reversion timeline with my former publisher. I have good news and bad news.
The good news? I obtained publication rights back for my traditionally-published Underbelly Chronicles books in December! If my plans hold, I’ll be able to reissue those books sometime during the first quarter of 2017, and publish ENTHRALL ME, Tia and Wyland’s story, later this year.
The bad news? I haven’t published a book in over three years – eep! – and what little insight I had into promoting indie books – any books – is woefully obsolete. It must be said, I suck at promotion. As a lifelong Minnesotan, and a massive introvert, I probably come by this honestly, but I loathe inflicting promotion on others, and I’m really good at ignoring promotion I might see or receive.
/wincing/ Yeah, I know…. #PROMOFAIL
So that’s where you come in! I’d love to pick your brains. As authors, where and how you promote your books? As readers, how do you learn about new books in ways that don’t annoy you?
A few questions to kick things off:
Is “first book perma-free” still a thing?
Do you place ads? Notice others’ ads? If so, where?
Blog tours: Worth the time, or not?
Publicists: do they provide value?
Social media: what role does it play in your promo strategy?
Amazon-only, or wide release? Pros and cons
BookBub: still the Holy Grail of ad buys, but can you recommend alternatives?
Contests and giveaways: what, if anything, do readers value?
SWAG: useful or not?
Signings and personal appearances: do readers actually care?
I hope this post kicks off a lively, wide-ranging discussion, and ultimately serves as a resource for others who might have some of the same questions I do.
So when I read his second book, 2014’s “Love Life,” I expected the writing chops. I expected the storytelling abilities. I expected something entertaining, light, and frothy.
Never have I been so glad to NOT have my expectations fully met. “Love Life” is entertaining, yes – but also deep, vulnerable, and insightful.
We learn about Rob’s exotic day job, yes, but Lowe also explores his time in rehab and recovery, the benefits of marriage, and reveals how hard he and his wife of 25 years, Sheryl, worked to give their sons normal childhood experiences – something of a challenge when their father has one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. (Rob somehow managed to coach his son’s grade-school basketball team, and chaperoned school field trips.)
Today, I’d like to focus on one of the observations Rob makes in “Love Life”: that artists are “truth vampires,” that we tend to absorb life’s little details, sometimes standing slightly outside our own lives, feeding from its essence. We observe, then mentally file away what something looks like, smells like, feels like, tastes like, so we can faithfully render the experience later, in our work.
This, as Rob notes, can be…problematic for those who love us. In this excerpt from “Love Life” (pp. 38-39), Lowe describes having a “truth vampire” experience when his wife’s father, Norm, was dying:
We had to try to get to the hospital right away; the prognosis was grave.
I rushed home and collected Sheryl, who, in shock, was picking out the right shoes to wear for the occasion. Looking at her, pale and shaking, standing in a pile of footwear, I thought, “I need to remember this.” I pulled her out of her trance and into the car.
At the hospital, we rushed to the emergency room. A doctor who looked disturbingly young barred the door. “You can’t go in. We are fighting to save him,” he said, closing it in our faces.
I led Sheryl to a quiet corner where we could watch the ER door. Time expanded and contracted, as it seems to do when crisis surrounds you. Minutes felt like hours and yet everything happened at once. I held my wife’s hand but I didn’t dare meet her eyes.
Eventually the ER door opened. The young doctor began to walk toward us.
“I need to remember this,” I thought. His face betrayed no hint of the outcome. There was no “tell,” which Norm, the inveterate poker player, would have been looking for in this ultimate moment of truth.
“This is just like you see in the movies,” I thought as he opened his mouth to speak, yet in fact, it was nothing like the movies.
“I’m sorry. We did all we could.” His eyes were sympathetic yet businesslike. He was appropriate and decent, but there was nothing more to say and so he didn’t.
I held Sheryl as her knees gave way. Norm was the moon to her, bigger than life and always somewhere on the horizon. She was a little girl who’d just lost her daddy. I held her as she cried.
I hope I was a good enough husband to her on that terrible day. I’m sure I could have been better somehow, maybe stronger or perhaps comforting in ways I didn’t think of then. We got through it as well as could be expected and now, years later, I realize why my inner voice had split me off from the unfolding reality and had urged me to remember the awful details.
It’s because I’m an actor. And actors play real life. Actors play doctors who give bad news and actors play daughters who lose their fathers and we play shock and horror and dismay and we can’t do any of it, not honestly, unless we have been paying close attention to those moments in our own lives.
It can make you feel like a cipher, standing outside observing, taking mental notes. Or worse, like some vacant pretender, feeling and participating in the moment only partway, while you file away the details in an ever-expanding emotional toolbox you must fill to successfully ply your trade.
It is the details of human experience that matter. And as always, what even the most talented screenwriter could write pales in comparison.
Does anyone else find this excerpt…oddly comforting? SOMEONE FOUND A WAY TO DESCRIBE THAT WEIRD THING I DO! How, at random moments, a piece of my consciousness kinda…steps away, steps aside, to take a mental (or sometimes a literal!) note instead of fully engaging in the here and now. Instead of fully engaging in what’s happening in my life.
Thanks, Rob Lowe! I feel less abnormal. I do this because I’m a writer, an artist – and noticing the fine details and tucking them away for later, feeding from life’s essence, is my job.
Job description: TRUTH VAMPIRE. I like it. But then again, I write paranormal romance, so liking vampires is somewhat of an occupational hazard. 😉
Any thoughts about Lowe’s work, the excerpt, or the concept of truth vampires? Care to share a “truth vampire” moment of your own?
— who just received notification that the publishing rights to her first two books, TASTE ME and CHASE ME, have been reverted! Look for reissued and new Underbelly Chronicles books in 2017.
I have to start with a funny story: My first paranormal romance, TASTE ME (2011), is about an incubus security specialist, Lukas Sebastiani, who finally learns to trust his love for Scarlett Fontaine, a siren rock star who can manipulate his emotions with her song. While discussing final tweaks to the manuscript at 2010 RWA National, my then-editor grinned at me, clasped her hands against her heart, and said, “And you completed the extended metaphor!” (At the end of the book, Lukas “boldly crashed his ship into the cliffs,” confessing his love for Scarlett. Because…sirens, right?)
“Of course I did,” I replied. “There is no metaphor I can’t extend until it snaps.”
Unfortunately, this is true – especially in early drafts.
Metaphors, and extended metaphors, are abundant in romance fiction, especially in love scenes. They’re among our most effective and evocative tools. We use them all the time, sometimes without being entirely aware of it.
There’s nothing wrong with being aware of it! Indeed, it’s to your readers’ benefit that you’re aware of it, because well-crafted metaphors – careful and conscious word choice – can add so much to a reader’s experience.
First, some quick definitions:
A metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies one thing as being the same as some unrelated other thing, thus strongly implying similarities between the two.
An extended metaphor is when an author exploits a single metaphor or analogy at length through multiple linked vehicles, tenors, and grounds.
In this post, I’ll focus on extended metaphor, which, craft-wise, requires we choose specific words to evoke the selected metaphor over sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, books – whatever our “linked vehicle” may be – to produce a particular emotional reaction.
An easy way to get a feel for the concept is to study poems or song lyrics. So…here comes my spirit animal, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, to the rescue! Specifically, I refer to the Foos’ 2014 Sonic Highways project.
The creative conceit behind Sonic Highways is that the Foo Fighters traveled to a different American city each week for eight weeks, interviewing musicians and exploring the city’s musical heritage, then they wrote and recorded a song before leaving the city. That’s ONE FINISHED SONG PER WEEK, folks. Talk about deadline pressure! My example, Subterranean, came out of the Seattle session, where, sadly, so many grunge-era musicians died from drug overdoses – including Dave’s former Nirvana bandmate, Kurt Cobain.
Dave couldn’t go to Seattle and not address this topic – and for a man who never finished high school, he teaches an extended metaphor master class here, evoking dirt, and mines, and burial to explore death and resurrection in context with relationships and career. Seattle’s famously rainy, gloomy weather gets a nod here; musical guest Ben Gibbard (from Death Cab for Cutie) says that if you live in Seattle, you spend a lot of time indoors, underground in basements. Subterranean. And the song came from there.
Here’s the ballad, with lyrics conveniently superimposed (6:08). Watch. Listen. Think about the themes suggested by Dave’s extended metaphor:
Can Dave dig his way out? Can he go this alone? Can he begin again? The song doesn’t tie things up in a pretty little bow by any means, but given the Foo Fighters are considered shoo-ins for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in their first year of eligibility (2020), I’d say things look good. 😉
The composition is complex, featuring diminished chords and a plaintive lead guitar. The bass line is a pick axe, pulling the song along.
Need another example? Take a look at “Something From Nothing,”also by Foo Fighters. Another song off the Sonic Highways album, it’s laden with extended metaphor invoking fire, destruction, sparks and ambition. Is it any coincidence that this song was recorded in Chicago, home of 1871’s Great Chicago Fire? I think not. 😉
Some other great examples:
“Every Breaking Wave” by U2. Waves, the tides, chasing every breaking wave… A song about making mistakes, and perhaps learning from them.
Dirt, fire, breaking waves…lonesome roads and theatrical stages… Notice how, in all these examples, small and private human moments become larger, more elemental? When we use metaphor, personal moments become universal moments – moments everyone can relate to.
Consider the romance novels you’ve written, or those you’ve read. How many metaphors have we come across describing an orgasm? Crashing waves, galloping horses, tsunamis of sensation, shattering glass, shooting geysers (OK, eww) but metaphors abound. And there’s a reason for this, right? No matter how tame or hot the love scene, use a good metaphor and anyone who’s ever had an orgasm can relate.
Can you think of a metaphor or extended metaphor, either from your own work or someone else’s, that, to you, made a great scene even more memorable? That turned a serviceable description sublime?
I’d love to see some of your favorite examples in the comments!
P.S. Are you going to be in Minneapolis Saturday afternoon Nov. 12? I’m teaching a workshop at The Loft Literary Center called “Scene + Structure = Story: A Plotting Technique for Advanced Novelists,” and I’d love to see you there!
I got into an online chat with a writer friend the other day about keeper shelves, and an interesting question arose: what was the oldest book we had on our keeper shelves? Which old favorites did we keep coming back to, over and over again?
After some discussion, we determined the word “old” in context with keeper shelves had several definitions. For the remainder of our chat, we focused on two: our oldest book by first copyright date, and our oldest book by physical age.
My oldest book by copyright date:Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897).
My oldest physical book:Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976). I bought this book with my own money when I was 13 years old, when it was first published. I’ve read it positively ragged, and have replaced it with at least two later editions (pictured).
The reason why certain books are placed on our keeper shelf is a much more challenging question, isn’t it? (It doesn’t escape my notice that, in my oldest books, there’s a…distinct subject matter pattern here.) 😉 For me, my most enjoyable reading experiences feature complex characters doing interesting things in a fascinating world, and they’re rendered by an author with a singular, unmistakable voice.
Regardless of genre, those are the books on my keeper shelf.
So, tell me about your keeper shelves! What’s your oldest book by copyright date, and oldest by physical age?
Bonus question: which author is most represented on your keeper shelves? Mine? Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, of course. I bought Irish Thoroughbred in 1981, and like millions of other readers, I never stopped buying.
Dave and me, hanging out @ The Experience Music Project in Seattle
This is the fourth post in an occasional series about finding inspiration in other artists’ creative processes. Read the first, about Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the second, featuring Trent Reznor, and the third, mourning the death of Scott Weiland, at the links.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a massive Dave Grohl fangirl. (Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana, and founded and fronts the Foo Fighters.) So when I heard Dave was keynoting the South By Southwest Conference a couple of years ago, in 2013, I blocked out an hour on my (then) day job’s Outlook calendar so I could watch the webcast uninterrupted.
Dave didn’t disappoint. In an f-bomb-laden, highly personal speech, and sporting ridiculously sexy reading glasses, Dave brought us along on his personal artistic journey, one inspired by wise parents and a love of punk rock. He reveled in his independence, developing and nurturing what he later recognized was his individual voice.
Voice. It’s an aspect of art, of craft, that musicians and writers share. It’s a tone, or a worldview, that makes a piece of work – or a body of work – belong uniquely to its creator.
Some key takeaways from Dave’s keynote that resonated for me:
“There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s (expletive) gone.”
“Am I the best drummer in the world? Certainly not. Am I the best singer/songwriter? Not even in this (expletive) room. But I have been left alone to find my voice.”
“I am the musician, and I come first.”
This statement about creative control of one’s art, spoken with such certainty during a time when my traditional publisher and I were parting ways and indie publishing loomed on my horizon, shrilled into my very bones.
Somewhere along the line, I’d forgotten that.
I am the writer, and I come first.
I won’t forget it again.
I could quote from this keynote for hours – and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it since Dave made it 2013 – but I think I’ll just let the man speak for himself. Here’s Dave, being all hot ‘n wise ‘n awesome. The video is 49:32; it’s well worth the time regardless of how you write or publish, and the language is NSFW.
Listen. Learn. Enjoy. And remind yourself, if you need to: “I am the writer, and I come first.”
I realize fifty minutes is a significant time investment, and that comments might be few and far between at the blog today. But if you’re inclined to comment:
Do you think there are lessons writers can learn from musicians, and publishing can learn from the music industry, about the intersection of art and commerce?
Is there a writer whose voice you absolutely adore? Why do you like it, and which book do you recommend we read to get a taste?
I recently took a virtual workshop about writing multiple series from NYT and USA Today bestselling author Marie Force. Self-publishing trailblazer and author of not one but FOUR continuing series, Marie also owns the E-Book Formatting Fairies, hosts Reader Weekend events for her biggest fans, moderates one of the most useful self-publishing loops on Yahoo, and is a frequent conference speaker. In addition, the busiest woman in publishing generously shares her knowledge by teaching workshops. I suspect that, in her spare time, she’s either invented cloning, or discovered a way to circumvent the space/time continuum. 😉
All joking aside, it was an awesome class, and I highly recommend it for both published and unpublished series writers. Marie shared some great advice about anchor couples, mining connections between characters, world-building (particularly the factors she considers when creating vibrant fictional communities that stand the test of time), and of course, the biggie: how to write characters that readers care about. In the last class lesson, she advised creating a series bible early on—which made complete sense to me—but then she recommended doing something that, in hindsight, seems so completely obvious, but that never crossed my mind.
Re-read all the books in your series, at least once a year. According to Marie, re-reading your books on a regular basis reacquaints you with the details you committed to the page, and it also helps generate new story ideas.
Re-read my own books? Seriously? Study them, like I study the books on my keeper shelf? The very idea seemed…presumptuous. Intellectually, I know my books are decent, but for some reason the prospect of re-reading them with that level of scrutiny made me cringe as much as I do when my sisters haul out my seventh grade school photos.
Yes, really. Marie was serious. So I hemmed and I hawed, I bitched and moaned, but…I finally did it. I was gestating a new project, and…dang it, why take a class from one of the most successful series writers in our industry if I wasn’t willing to at least try something she recommended? Bottom line, I knew my series bible was woefully out of date, so even if re-reading my own books was excruciating, I knew I’d get something valuable out of the deal.
No pain, no gain.
So I sucked it up and started re-reading my first published book, TASTE ME, my 2009 Golden Heart finalist and the kickoff to the Underbelly Chronicles. And yes, there were a few winces along the way: Unnecessary dialogue tags. The occasional copy-editing error. The very rare head-hop that…worked, but that I’d never allow myself now that I’ve become a POV purist.
But…heh. Not bad, if I do say so myself. * buffs fingernails on shirt *
And the details I’d forgotten! The potential plot seeds I’d planted, but hadn’t yet cultivated. The nameless, sometimes faceless characters that walked onto the page for a sentence or two, served their purpose, then walked away again.
Story ideas flew at me hard and fast. OMG, she was right.
I re-read all the other books in my Underbelly Chronicles series over the Christmas holidays, and plot seeds are still sprouting left and right. A character who received two sentences’ worth of real estate in TASTE ME—such a minor character he wasn’t even in my series bible—has elbowed his way back onto the page of Book 5, where he’s a major catalyst for conflict. And an unnamed character in my TOUCH ME novella? Oh my, do I have plans for her. The garden of my imagination is over-run, and I’m still tilling. Still weeding, still cultivating. But I really like how things are setting up.
Another thing I realized? It’s what I didn’t commit to the page in those earlier books that allows me to re-purpose these characters, to expand their utility beyond their original walk-on roles. By not providing more information than was absolutely required, I didn’t box myself in.
I came out of Marie’s class with not only an updated series bible, but with new ideas and a fresh, new energy for my work—a gift beyond price. So, that’s the biggest lesson I learned from Marie Force: that no matter how excruciating it might initially feel, re-read your work, at least occasionally. You never know the bounty your imagination might be ready to provide.
Have you ever re-read your own published or completed work? If so, why did you do it, and what did you learn? Did you find it exhilarating, excruciating, or both?
Last week, I took a day off from security guards, sex demons and assassins (the WIP) and joined a group of undergraduate English majors, MFA students, and other writers on the University of Minnesota Mankato campus, where we had the pleasure of listening to the amazing Roxane Gay talk about writing difference.
Though Gay is both a fiction and non-fiction writer, my exposure to her work has primarily been through her eloquent, insightful essays (and her Twitter feed, @rgay), where she takes on race, gender, sexism, feminism, social class, sexual violence, homophobia, privilege, identity, corruption, and the intersectionality of these topics. While Gay’s non-fiction subject matter can feel fraught and political and scary and huge, the craft talk most emphatically was not—except for a comment about the need for publishers to be more inclusive about the writers they publish, and to expand the breadth of human experience published books present to the world.
Nope, this was a one-hour craft talk about writing difference in an authentic way. And unlike institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and the patriarchy, character development is a writerly choice, something I fully control in my own work.
Note the simplicity of Gay’s phrasing: “Writing difference.” It’s as inclusive as it gets. It doesn’t value any difference over another. It excludes no one, and meets every writer where they’re at. It’s about me, the writer, writing characters who are different than me. Hell, I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, straight Caucasian woman who writes about vampires, sirens, werewolves and sex demons—whose ancestors are aliens—and the phrase still works.
Here are some quick hits from my notes from Roxane’s session. Any errors or misinterpretations are, of course, my own:
Writing difference is about authenticity, about reaching beyond stereotypes and “lazy, half-assed assumptions.” Don’t merely write “the sassy gay friend, the fiery Latina, or the wise black maid. Dig deeper.”
People who are different than you are people first, and different second.
When writing difference, start with universal emotions. There’s natural common ground here.
“No one is any one thing, right?” No one is solely racist, or sexist, or disabled, or LGBT, or homophobic. We can’t assume that any person—any character—is part of any monolithic whole. People are multi-dimensional. Characters should be, too.
Research is important. READ difference. Read across genres. Expose yourself to others’ realities.
As a writer, it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to simply try. Even if you don’t quite hit the bulls-eye authenticity-wise, your attempt means you’re acknowledging that humanity isn’t a monolithic whole. Acknowledgment is a move in the right direction.
“Writers write what they’re called to write,” but authenticity is key. If your story needs a character of difference, write one—but it’s problematic, and inauthentic, and perhaps an issue of ethics, to write difference as a marketing ploy, or as a way to hop on a bandwagon, or to fetishize.
Though Gay writes both fiction and non-fiction, she says that fiction writing is her “happy place,” a way to “self-medicate.” Soft-spoken Gay clearly relishes the power she wields when writing fiction. “I control my characters. I create entire worlds.”
Yes. And by writing difference in an authentic way, we, as writers, help create the world we want to see—one character, one book, one difference at a time.
To get a taste of Roxane in action, here’s her “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” TED Talk from last year. Bad Feminist is an awesome book, and I very much look forward to Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, coming in June 2016.
What are your thoughts about writing (or reading, or watching) difference? Can you recommend any authors who write difference well?
This is the third post in an occasional series about how I find inspiration in other artists’ creative processes. Read the first, about Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the second, about Trent Reznor.
I was on vacation in warm and beachy Key West when I saw the news that former Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver lyricist and front man Scott Weiland had died on his tour bus in my home town of Minneapolis. “Ah, damn,” I breathed. As a longtime fan, I wasn’t particularly surprised by the news. Weiland had famously – infamously? – struggled with drug addiction for much of his career, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume that he’d OD’ed. (Indeed, it was later determined he’d died of mixed drug toxicity – an accidental overdose.) But having had the privilege of seeing him perform live on multiple occasions, having picked apart his spare, evocative lyrics, I was swamped by sadness, and by a growing, helpless anger. One of the most memorable front men of his generation, forever still? That gorgeous, soaring baritone, forever silent?
F*ck addition, man. F*ck it sideways, with a bloody goddamn chainsaw.
Pardon my French.
This post isn’t so much about Weiland’s creative process as it is an appreciation for a gifted artist’s troubled, complex, too-damn-short life.
Scott was a spellbinder, painting beautiful, violent, bittersweet pictures with words, motion, and sound. As a lyricist he was self-aware and utterly fearless, singing of innocence lost (Wicked Garden), and diving unflinchingly into the villain’s point of view (Sex Type Thing, Plush). Mid-career, his work turned hauntingly autobiographical, with songs about the pitfalls of fame (Big Machine), about deaths of loved ones (For a Brother, Pills, Demons, & Etc.), and about how his addictions led him to disappoint his family and band mates over and over again (Interstate Love Song, Sour Girl, Vaseline, Fall to Pieces, Do It For The Kids, Atlanta, The Last Fight).
Days after Weiland’s death, Rolling Stone published a career retrospective, Scott Weiland: 20 Essential Songs, where you can watch many of the videos I reference above. The magazine also published a compelling essay by Mary Forsberg, Weiland’s ex-wife and the mother of his children, about the effects of his addiction on his family: ‘Don’t Glorify This Tragedy.’ But if I had to choose a single song or video that I feel comes close to encapsulating the man and his work, I’d choose “Slither”, Velvet Revolver’s propulsive, gutter-glam debut single. In fine voice, but with his formerly beefy body whittled down to sinew and swagger, the video captures Weiland at his most mesmerizing.
Weiland married three times, and leaves behind two children, a memoir (though it must be said, his ex-wife Mary Forsberg’s memoir is superior) and a Grammy-winning body of work with Stone Temple Pilots, Velvet Revolver, The Wildabouts, The Art of Anarchy, and as a solo artist. Though his voice is now silent, he leaves behind his recordings…songs of reflection, of penitence, of unflinching, brutal honesty. Songs of pleasure, songs of pain…and of his search for a sobriety that he sadly never found.