How I earned my stories (and why I write).

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I have experienced all that life has to offer.  I’ve been fat and thin, fit and soft, old and young.  I loved and lost, then loved again.  I pondered, feared, and wondered.  In the end, I earned the stories I have to tell the hard way: by living them.

The irony is that I never wanted to be a writer.  Oh, I didn’t try to avoid it or anything.  I just always assumed that writing was something that other people did.  I mean, one hundred and twenty thousand words, all in a row?  There was no way I could do that.

Then my life fell apart.  I don’t often talk about why I got started writing; it’s because I was bullied.  I got singled out, stalked online and in person, but never in a way that was criminal.  It was always just enough to leave me unable to do a single thing about it – unless I had a lot of money.  The worst part was that my job, my business, and my entire life was crumbling around me because of the lies.

I supposedly committed tax fraud, abused animals, immigrated illegally (for the record, Iowa is still part of the USA).  You name it, I was accused of it, until no one wanted to be anywhere near me.  I was toxic.  If you showed any sympathy to me then you were next, and my attacker had an entire herd of followers willing to say anything she wanted, scream it louder, and make sure it was noticed first.  I was lost, alone, and unable to see a future where I’d ever be happy again.  I also wasn’t a child.  At my age, bullying is something people protect their children from, not suffer themselves!

girl-1098609I couldn’t go online anywhere without hiding who I was.  I gamed – because that was one world where my attacker had little control, but I had to stay vigilant.  It became so exhausting that I eventually decided to just stop.  I couldn’t take anymore.  I was willing to do whatever it took to end the suffering.  My time was spent daydreaming about what the world would be like without me.

And then I said something.

My husband shielded me from the world, picking up the slack so I could just hide and heal.  My best friend launched into action, going so far as to balance my bills and handle the daily chores that I just couldn’t care about anymore.  The two closest people in my life never asked for a single thing back.  They just told me to do whatever I had to so I could heal my mind.

And sitting right there in front of me was a keyboard.

I’ve always loved typing.  As a gamer, I learned to do it fast, sending out orders for a raid, trash talking the “jerk” who managed to get a clean kill on me, or holding a dozen conversations at once to keep my guild running smoothly.  As an artist, I always thought it felt like letting my fingers dance.  When I started, I typed about 100wpm.  Today, I’ve more than doubled that.  My writing programs clock me at an average of 220wpm.  It was one thing I could do well and needed to stop feeling like a failure.

So I started writing a story.  I honestly never thought I’d finish it.  This was just something to do to pass the time.  Some way to show that I wasn’t bad at everything.  One month later, the rough draft was done and I was onto the second book in the series.  Then the third, fourth, another series, and more.

It felt like the gates to my imagination had opened.  As an atheistic science-loving pragmatist, I spent my life in love with just the facts, but now?  Now I was losing my misery in imaginary worlds.  I could slay my demons, fight battles so much easier to explain than my own, and always come out the victor.  For the first time in months, I found myself living again.

I’m not really sure when it happened.  I can’t put my finger on the moment of change, but change it did.  I went from being so miserable to enjoying life – to a point.  It didn’t take long to see that I’d traded one obsession for another.  Instead of working to avoid others, now I was working to finish the next book, to create something good enough to share, and to learn every single thing about writing ever.  On the outside, I looked better, but I was still brittle and writing had become my crutch.

I’m still learning, but a few years down the road, I’ve also figured out that life is about so much more than the carrot hanging in my face.  It’s about kissing my man, hugging my dogs, and having a few too many drinks with my best friend.  It’s about debates that rage hard and fast but are filled with giggles and those quiet moments when the world could just pause for a little longer so I can memorize every detail.

I got a tattoo.  I dyed my hair blue, then red, then magenta, and eventually orange.  I got another tattoo.  I stopped worrying about whether or not that was professional, proper, or something women “my age” shouldn’t do.

In the end, I’d been all the way down to rock bottom and clawed my way back up with the help of the two best people I have ever known.  My excesses are my battle scars.  I lived.  I learned.  And now I have the stories to share.  I know what it feels like to wish I was dead.  I know how bad it hurts to lose everything.  I’ve felt the joy of love and the anguish of failure.  Looking back, I can almost taste each and every emotion, and they flavor my stories, adding in that truth my readers can feel.

For me, it’s a reminder that no matter how bad it gets, all we have to do is say something.  Those impenetrable walls around our emotions hold in the pain – they never keep it out.  Once they’re shattered, then the light can finally get in, the story can come out…

And beautiful things happen.

Today, I’m happy.  My life may not look perfect to anyone else, but it is to me.  My complaints are pathetic, but those dreams still live on.  I have worlds still waiting to be built.  I have challenges to face with a clear head and glowing keyboard.  I have stories to tell, and while I might slow down just a bit, I still plan on telling every single one.

Because who knows.  Maybe somewhere out there is another person hiding from the real world, looking for a fantasy to help them make it just a little bit longer.  It’s now my job to throw open the doors and invite them in.

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If Boys will be Boys, then what will Girls be?

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We live in a time where equality is a light at the end of the tunnel.  We can see it, reach for it, but never quite know what it feels like.  We’re so close that it will only take a few more steps to get there, but we aren’t sure which direction we should be walking, and everyone is yelling at us to go a different way.

Our place as women is confusing.  I’m not saying that isn’t true for men as well, but their issues are best left for a different post.  Today, I want to think about the subtle nuances of sexism that alter how most women in North America act, and why we can’t even see it most days.

See, there are the big things that distract us.  Rape culture, victim blaming, and misogyny, just to name a few.  With attention-grabbing headlines dominating all of our media – from facebook and twitter to MSNBC and Fox News – the simple things are so often missed.  Mainly, that we’re all sexists – even me – because we don’t know any other way.

Because right now, women don’t get a “right answer” to choose from.  Our culture is set up to judge others, but we’ve made it impossible for women to win.  This is a power struggle, and one that even the people using it aren’t aware of.  They say women shouldn’t but how often are we told what we SHOULD?

Like sex and you’re a slut.  Don’t like it and you’re a prude.  Tolerate it and you’re being unfair to your husband.  Refuse it and you’re being manipulative.  Seek it out and you’re promiscuous.  There’s no right answer except to never talk about it ever.  That’s kinda unfair, don’t you think?

It gets worse.  When a woman gets pregnant, she’s judged – regardless of if it’s an expected pregnancy or not.  If she can’t make enough money, she’s failing her child.  If she focuses on her job to pay the bills, she’s failing her child.  If she isn’t ready for kids, she should still raise the baby because those are the consequences.  If she gives it up, she’s heartless and uncaring.  Seek out financial help to care for your kid, and you don’t deserve to have kids.  Get pregnant unexpectedly and consider abortion and you should have thought about the consequences of your actions.  There’s no way to win!

And it’s not even just reproductive issues.  Women are judged on their appearance.  For a beautiful woman, this is easy to miss but try being ugly.  Try being fat.  We’re so used to this that we don’t even see it until someone points it out (like Blake Lively recently when asked about her fashion).  And when a woman does say something, people are repulsed that she made it an issue.  It’s not the time or place, they say but tell me.  When is?

And no, I don’t blame anyone for this.  I don’t think men are responsible.  Hell, truth be told, much of this my husband brings to my attention.  Rather, I have to face the hard truths when designing a new world.  How can I have equality in a science fiction novel if I’m unaware of the inequality we have now?  How can I justify culture continuing on for hundreds of years without evolving?  Even fifty years ago, our gender perceptions were so different.  If I want to write a convincing society, I need to dwell on these things – and then try to imagine how they will change, and what those changes will destroy.

Sadly, I believe there will always be discrimination.  The what will change, but we’re humans.  We survived because we fear that which is different.  We thrive because we convince ourselves we are better than some other group.  We marginalize others to keep depression and negativity away.  We rise up on the backs of those who brought us here, and we gladly use them for our own gain.  In the abstract, we feel guilty for it, but in the moment?  That’s when we feel justified, but our justification is all wrong.

 

Why she forgives his wrongs

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How many romances are written about falling for the man with money, fame, an impressive job, or some other trait that basically gives him social power?  How many of you noticed that the image above is Salryc Luxx?  And last, but not least, who thinks those two questions might go together?

One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen about BloodLust is that Sal forgives one man too easily.  It always makes me smile – because that’s what the reader is SUPPOSED to hate about it.  It was very intentional.

I wrote a character who is relatively mature for her situation, intelligent, plans things out, and (since the world is presented from her point of view) believes that she’s correct in her way of thinking.  Then I let her make a very bad decision… to stay with a man who hasn’t necessarily treated her as well as he could have.

Why?

Because every woman I’ve ever known has done this, and most of the men.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a lover or a friend, we’ve all forgiven a person for a reason besides how they act toward us.  Maybe it’s because we’ve already been dating him so long.  Maybe it’s because of the kids.  Often, it’s just because we don’t want to face the reality that we made a mistake in the first place.

And it doesn’t necessarily mean that person is bad.  He’s not.  He’s a good man, just not a good man for her all the time.  Sometimes, two personalities just aren’t meant to fit together like that.  All too often, we convince ourselves that we owe another person something because [insert reason here].  He does it, she does it, and then they are miserable.  But here’s the thing.

We don’t owe anyone anything.

No one should feel like they “should” get back together with someone, forgive them, ignore their tantrums, or anything else because of past history.  And yet, I know so many people who make this excuse every day because leaving is so much more terrifying than staying.  I wrote something in BloodLust that pissed people off – and it SHOULD!  It should make everyone mad that we’re trained to be polite instead of protect ourselves.  And even worse, it should make us so mad that we all understand, because we’ve all done the exact same thing.

We lie to ourselves.  We say we’re fine when we’re not.  We say we’re in love when we’re falling out.  We say we don’t need help when we really do.  What we don’t realize is that the people around us can see it.  We can feel it by that twisting in our bellies, and still we push on, insisting that “everything’s fine.”

It’s not.  And it shouldn’t be.  I’m glad people are pissed about it, because if they weren’t, it’d mean something even worse.

The trick to being a good author

There’s only one thing that writers need to know to become a great author: your writing sucks.
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No matter what you do, how hard you try, or how many times you check it yourself, it will still suck.  Know why?  Because you, dear author, know what you MEANT to say.  You have a mental image of what should be happening.  The problem is that you didn’t necessarily make that image appear on the page.

This is why we need editors.  Those poor souls read our crap, tell us when we miss the mark, and then get screamed at by psychopaths with a writing addiction who can’t believe you talked about their baby like that!  Yes, I do it too, and I try to learn from it when it happens, but it will happen.

You see, being a good author isn’t about having great ideas.  A story can be great and still be written horribly.  Typos happen.  Comma splices happen.  Missing punctuation happens.  Leaving out words happens.  We all do it, and the faster you type (ahem, I speak from experience here) the more likely those little issues are to crop up.  Your fingers are flying, transposing letters, and you don’t want to stop the thought until it’s done.  You’re on a roll.  You’ll change it in a second…

Then your spell check doesn’t see it.  It doesn’t know that should have been who not how.  Change or chance?  Now/not?  Those are my worst ones.

Then there’s the redundancy factor.  Sometimes, we redundantly use the same word over and over, forgetting that the redundant use is annoying.  Redundancy crops up mostly with nouns and names because we think of the simplest word to use, forgetting that a few redundant repetitions of a redundant word really grates on the eyes!  (Wow, that was actually hard to type!).  Ahem.  But, in all honesty, if your character’s name is in every paragraph, you’re doing it wrong.  Try a pronoun or descriptive phrase, like the person writing this, the blogger, the author, the insomniac with orange hair… you know, not just Auryn, Auryn, Auryn.

See, when we know what the story is supposed to be about, we so often forget what the story is ACTUALLY about.  We stop reading what is there and add in a few words to fill in the gaps.  Forgot to put the subject into that sentence?  No problem.  You won’t even see it, because your mind already knows it should be there.   Let’s not talk about the sex scenes with extra hands appearing out of nowhere.  Totally kills the mood!  Oh, you’ll catch a couple, but not even the majority of them.

Not until your work is published.

And then it’s too late!  People can see that you suck.  They rate you on the mistakes, refusing to ever read your work again, tell their friends how bad your work is, and you’re left to start ALL over.  A new book, maybe a new name on the cover, and certainly a new start at building a fan base.  It’s hard enough to do the first time.  Trying again?  Ugh.

But, there are a zillion people in the world that would love to help you.  Ask a friend to read it – and brace yourself for his or her honest opinion.  Then edit again.  As another friend.  Rinse, repeat.  When you can’t find anything else to make better, then hire an editor.  There are people out there who will read your work and rip it apart for only a few hundred bucks.  And trust me, if I can get a novel edited for less than a grand (at approx 140k words) then so can anyone else.

Pay the money.  Just do it.  No school friend or buddy is going to know the difference between an em-dash and an en-dash.  Semicolons, fragments, adjectival phrases, intro commas, curly quotes, straight, drop caps, page margins, font size, kerning, leading space, first line indents….. trust me.  Pay someone.  It’s easier than learning it all yourself.

And then, when all of that is done…. edit it again.  Because, my aspiring author friends, it isn’t your STORY that has issues.  It’s your writing.  You’re human and we all make mistakes, so don’t feel bad about it, just accept that it happens, and make sure you fix it before publishing.  Identify the problem (you aren’t a machine) and find the solution (hire an editor).

Now excuse me… I have to go back and edit this crap I released with only five editing passes.  How did this stuff make it through?  I KNOW I fixed that once… gah!

Diversity in Fantasy

Shiny-Latex-1You know, the diversity in my genre is growing – and fast!  When I was a kid, the hero of the story was always a little boy or a successful man.  Now, we have countless women taking center stage, from Young Adult to Urban Fantasy.  Back then, it used to be white, caucasian, or, um, white.  Now?  I see Latinos, blacks, Asians, and dozens of people with mixed ancestry.

That doesn’t mean it’s good enough.  And you know what?  I’m as much to blame as anyone else.  When casting a story, I often imagine people like myself filling most of the roles: middle class, American, white, female.  I think that’s what most authors do (thankfully, not all are quite as boring as I am!).  But, I’m always making an effort.

Zep Standing.pngBut what’s made me the happiest, is that in one of my most diverse series, Rise of the Iliri, no one has complained about the abundance of brown-skinned characters.  Zep, Ran Sturmgren, Rayna Mel, and so many more!  And while skin color is a defining characteristic for the line between human and iliri, it’s not the main one.  Sharp teeth, growling, and “beastly” attitudes are more likely to get a person in societal trouble than how they look… to a point.

Why?  Because it’s human nature.  We have learned to fear that which is different.  It’s normal for most animals to act like this.  I mean, just show a cat a cucumber!  New things could be monsters, and well, I could make a very good argument that the iliri are exactly that!  But that’s not my point, today.

Rather, it’s how interesting it is to write a diverse cast.  Thinking about things like natural hair on a foreign world, or how to describe the difference between a pale-skinned black man and a dark-skinned middle easterner.  Shades of brown are most often attributed to foods (caramel, chocolate, latte, etc.) but what happens when those foods don’t exist?  I’m not even going to get into the problem with describing a people as something to eat!

Rand.pngAnd so, I just use colors.  Zep’s skin is dark, nearly as black as his uniform – according to Sal.  Ran Sturmgren is pretty average, in a world where brown is average.  Rayna is just pale enough to make Sal wonder if she has any iliri ancestry, while Dominik Jens is lighter due to the climate and lifestyle he grew up with (less tanning).  Then there are the “white” humans.  Compared to an iliri, they are pink, but so many crossbreds have pigment as well.  I tried to show that the colors are different, such as blonde vs golden hair, to demonstrate that the line isn’t about color, but about species traits.

But it’s HARD!  And why bother, right?  Why go through all of this just to portray fictional characters that readers will imagine their own way?

Because I believe that it matters.  How many readers have realized that Zep is a black man?  A very sexy, very smart, incredibly loyal black man, who is fast, strong, and one of the most beloved characters of the series?  How many black men are given a role as the hero/love interest?  I mean, it’s getting better, but there’s still not enough.

арт-девушка-красивые-картинки-fan-art-Dothraki-2765794And minority women being portrayed as the STANDARD of beauty?  Sal’s always comparing herself to black women.  Yeah, I know a lot of people haven’t realized that, yet, but that’s what she does.  Because darker skin means more purebred in the CFC, and humans always got more rights than iliri, Sal grew up dreaming of dark skin and human features that she could never have.

Currently, I’ve been researching for a sci-fi series I can’t stop thinking about (in my “free” time).  I want to have a Japanese/African American girl as the main character.  Here’s the problem: I have no clue what type of hair she would have, what daily problems she would encounter when Earth society is removed, and no concept of how to describe her without either removing her cultural background or turning her into a minority caricature.  I’ve never grown up as the mixed-race daughter of a black professor and a Japanese immigrant.  The only way I can figure out what she might feel is to read stories of what people in those situations have felt before.

98367a82dfe9ca0675bc6fe98cc0d00c.jpgIn other words, my understanding of their struggles comes from a story.  Just like my readers understanding of oppression comes from Sal’s stories about her situation.  A fake person, with fake problems, helps a real human grasp that life may be different in different shoes.  It creates understanding, empathy, and normalization of those emotions.  Let’s be honest, being an outcast is something we ALL feel from time to time, so we can all “get it”.

And that, right there, is why I think diversity is so important.  It allows the writer to show a reader a comprehensible perspective on something they’ve never had to live through.  A silly story can become a bridge.  Why wouldn’t I want that?  It’s one of the most powerful emotions I can think of: understanding.