How do I make a world come alive?

DCIM100GOPROA quick glimpse at social media shows that every author has their own way of taking an idea and making it into a book.  I’ve never spent a lot of time thinking about mine, until someone asked last night, but it’s pretty easy.

I drown.

My goal is to lose reality, immerse myself in the mythos of the story, and bring the whole thing to life with just 26 letters organized onto a page.  I want my readers to forget there are words and allow themselves to see through space, time, and reality into a life that has never existed.  In other words, if I want to make magic, then I must lose all relationship to the mundane.

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The image that started a series

For me, the first step is always art.  Maybe that’s a photograph, a painting (digital or otherwise), or a song.  Something has to spark a reaction in me, to make me start thinking, “what if?”  For Rise of the Iliri, it was a rather popular piece of fantasy art.  Two lovers kiss under the cover of night.  He’s clearly a slave.  She’s quietly showing her control by taking what she wants.  There’s this feeling of defiance in the couple, like it would be dangerous to get caught – and it made me think.

So I opened up my music collection and found a song that felt right for it.  That, I played on repeat while staring longingly at the image, allowing the words to pick me up and carry me away.  Very quickly, I realized that if I told the story in that picture, I’d be telling his story, not hers, because it was the more interesting of the two.  Considering that I’m a huge fan of strong female leads, I decided to switch things around.  While my music played, I just stared and thought.  For me, this is the most important part of my writing process, and yes, I do consider it “writing”.  I also go back to it whenever I’m stuck.

And that was the song.  Each time it played, I began to know a little more about where I was going.  Some of it was inspired by the words, but much of it was just the hopeful concept.  Hope.  Hmm.  That’s kinda central to the whole Rise of the Iliri series.

As I’ve said before, I type stupidly fast.  Right now, I’m averaging between 180 and 220 words per minute.  In other words, I type about as fast as the thoughts flow through my head.  So, once I have the basic idea down, I need to get it out.  I’ve learned that the best and easiest way to do that is to write the description of the book.  It lays out the main characters, gives a hint to the major conflict, and leaves the ending open.  Plus, if I don’t know myself what’s going to happen, I’m not going to give it away in the book’s blurb.

Granted, it took me a while to figure that part out, and I’m still not perfect at it, but a rough description (usually about 500 words, which will be edited before the book’s release) is a great way to form the bones of the story in my mind.

Here’s an example:

I’m a magnet for trouble.

The Senator’s daughter is exactly that. Gorgeous, spoiled, and annoying as hell, I should just walk away. I can’t. Not even the rules can get her out of my head, and every time I turn around, there she is.

Then I stood between her and a gun.

I didn’t mean to. Hell, that wasn’t really my intention, but I’d promised to keep her safe. To me, that’s called honor.

To her, it’s hope.

Everyone needs a little hope.

Tonight, I made the mistake of carrying her home. My home. Now I’m in over my head. This girl isn’t spoiled – she’s desperate. She has nowhere else to turn and the longer I’m around her, the closer I get to going over the edge.

I should just take her back, but I can’t. I should just walk away, but I won’t. I swore to protect her with my life and I’m not about to stop now.

She may be trouble, but I have nothing left to lose.

Except her.

That book hasn’t been written yet (ok, it has a few thousand words to it) but I know a few things already.  It’s told from his point of view, possibly his and hers.  He’s a bad ass, she’s in trouble but most people think it’s just because she’s spoiled, and they have some pretty amazing chemistry.

Now, I start to build my list of music that I will listen to very loudly, on my headphones, to block out the reality around me.  For the book above, I’d pick songs with powerful tempos, some with a feeling of desperation, and a lot of male vocals.  Like this:

It has both the desperation and the persistent drum line that keeps moving.  The lyrics seem to fit the description.  It also adds another layer to my main character.  He feels compelled and is hoping that she’ll give him an out.  In other words, he’s put HER in a position of power.  Yep, that’s something I can write.

And then I start typing.  I don’t worry about the first line or first chapter.  In fact, I actually have an easy way to make sure it’s going to be potent enough.  I write one chapter to get the “let me tell you all about this” out, and then cut it.  The second chapter naturally starts off powerfully enough, and in the middle of the action, so it just falls into place.  Granted, I often need to go back and introduce characters, but meh.  That’s a couple of sentences worth of editing.

Then I keep writing.  And keep writing.  I do not go back and edit.  I try very hard not to go back and READ it even.  With that said, if I get pulled away from my book for too long (a week without being able to write, as an example) I will read the whole thing from start to finish, and I will correct typos and basic punctuation issues, like a comma instead of a period.

Then there’s the series problem.

Rise of the Iliri

A lot of people have problems writing series.  This is why serials are so popular.  Keep the world that the author worked so hard to build, but change the story to another couple, another incident, or such.  Very common to see them in romances and mysteries/crime dramas.  For fantasy, it’s not typically accepted by the readers.

Yet these epic stories want to be long.  Some authors compromise with a cliff hanger ending.  Me?  I hate those so much that I refuse.  Instead, I think of it like battles within a war.  Each book is a battle.  The series is the war.  Talking about World War II, there are plenty of things to say.  Talking about D-day has its own stories that are a lot closer and more personal.  When you add the Battle of the Bulge together with D-day, you end up with a “series” (aka, one big nasty war).  This is how I broke down the Rise of the Iliri.

Each novel needs its own conflict.  Each book deserves to tell a single story, but those stories are tied together into something bigger.  Before I even start my book, I want to know the conflict of the first novel, plus the conflict of the series.  Again, using WWII as an example, D-day was all about deception and one group taking the majority of the punishment so that the allied forces could get a foothold.  That was a major stepping stone in overthrowing Hitler (the series goal).

 

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The photo inspiration for Zep

I try not to worry about what conflict I will have for the second book and on.  So long as I know the series conflict and the primary novel’s issue, I can go crazy.  You see, I don’t overly plot out things.  I learned that’s a bad idea, because my characters like to change the rules, and I really like to let them.  Just try to imagine Rise of the Iliri if Zep had been the antagonistic character I designed him to be!  Zep and Sal, constantly at odds?  Bickering, often even breaking into fist fights?  Just not the same at all.

 

Besides, it really would have been a waste of such an interesting character.

But, once I have this simple frame work – characters created, world researched, and a conflict – I get to writing.  I refuse to tell myself whether or not the character(s) will achieve their goal.  The story tends to decide that on its own.  In When We Were Kings, Leyli’s goal is to resume her rightful place.  Tristan wants to live long enough to earn his freedom.  As the story goes on, their desires change a little to add happiness into that, but things are rarely simple.  They win some, they lose some, and the ending isn’t quite as clean as the characters would like.  It wasn’t quite what I planned, but by letting the characters be true to themselves, I found myself with one hell of an amazing story on my screen – and that led to the conflict for the second book.

As far as my method for getting the words out of my head and onto the page?  Well, that’s easy.  I’m married to the most amazing man in the world.  For his privacy, I’ll simply call him Mr. Perfect.

Img_1461You see, the day Mr. Perfect and I decided to make a real push at turning this obsessive hobby into a career, he agreed to help.  As a feminist, his idea of being helpful was to split the work evenly, not just ideally.  We gave it two years.  During that time, I’d push myself to my limits, and he’d handle everything else.  I went to work and came home to write.  He literally did every single thing that was left.  Dinner?  All him.  Feeding the pets?  He had that down.  Mowing the lawn, making sure I had clean clothes to wear to work, and even renovating the bathroom were all his purvue.  I just had to “work”, which meant go to the job and come home to type.  A lot.

But transitioning from the day job mentality to the artist’s mentality isn’t that easy.  From the moment I walk in the door, I start to decompress.  There’s a bit of talk time with Mr. Perfect.  That gets out the “stupids” that happened over the course of the day and naturally moves on to the stuff I’m writing.  He listens to me talk about Kolt’s kinky side, Zep’s insecurities, and Cyno’s, um, everything.  (See, he really IS perfect!)  Then I’m ready.

I fire up the desktop, assume my writing position (for maximum comfort) and plug in my headphones.  The music I choose is based on the scene I’m working on.  Right now, I’m writing Rise of the Iliri #7, and Sal has finally figured out that she really is a bad ass, but her Kaisae powers are making her mind slip.  That disconnect is reflected in the songs I choose, like:

Power, despair, disconnect… they’re all in there.  And cranked up to the max?  Yeah… the only lyrics that are clear and easy to make out is “I’d love to change the world” which is kinda the point of this book.  The EDM (Electronic Dance Music) element in there just works for how I perceive Sal’s little sanity issue.  I’ll let y’all ponder who I think the line “So I leave it up to you” is about.

And maybe, I’ll put together a youtube playlist for the books I’ve written, so all my adoring fans (I mean obsessed individuals that I adore) can hear the inspiration for my currently released novels.  Stay tuned, because that’s going to have to wait until I finish writing this chapter.  My characters are at it again, twisting things around to suit their own little desires, and I need to keep them under control a bit.

Just a bit.

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But not too much.

 

 

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From there to here, the lessons I’ve learned.

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Once upon a time, I was poor, broke, stressed out, fighting depression, and pretty desperate.  My career had just become very un-fun and my income had dwindled down to catastrophic failure levels.  Pretty much the only thing I had left was the solitude of my mind and a strange fondness for enjoying the act of typing.

To me, typing has always felt like my fingers dancing.  The keys are like tapping of shoes on a hard floor, the choreography of my fingers finding the right letter is complicated, and the faster it goes, the more amazing it always feels.  Then there are the words.  I figured I wasn’t so good at those, but it didn’t really matter.  It wasn’t like **I** could ever write a book, right?

I was wrong.  I was so wrong.  I didn’t have just one book inside me or one series, I have a lifetime of suppression ready to burst out and shock the world.  Well, at least the world of people who knew me.  So I wrote a book.  It was kinda cool, I was kinda ignorant, and in the end, I didn’t think it would amount to much.

Boy was I wrong.

But let me not get ahead of myself.  Back then, when I started on this crazy trip of becoming an author, I was broke.  I couldn’t even afford the $50 dollars for a pre-made cover, let alone an editor.  So, I decided to get inventive.  I reached out to someone I happened to know and offered a trade.  She accepted (and no, I didn’t trade her for a book) and sent back this wall of red text.  *gulp*

My book sucked.  My writing was atrocious.  I had no idea how to properly punctuate things like dialogue, introductory phrases, or even compound sentences.  Commas peppered the page like a default option, easily interchangeable with spaces.  Yeah, it was bad… But the story was there.  And to think, I’d been so convinced that book was perfect, but it wasn’t.

So we worked at it, then worked some more.  I wrote another book.  I found some decent pictures on a free stock photo site.  My own experience in advertising design left me with the skills to design the typography.  It wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but it all cost me about twenty bucks to get a tolerable book in the market, and that was a price I could afford.

So, I decided to test the waters and published One More Day.  The first month, it earned a whopping hundred bucks.  When I got the check, I reinvested it, improved the cover, did more editing, and made it something to be proud of (instead of just “good enough”).  Sales naturally increased.  Then I did it again, and again, and finally, I sent my second book to the editor.

Now, these weren’t published in the order they were written.  I was wise enough, and objective enough about my writing, that I knew my first book had a great story but needed more help than I was qualified to give it.  (Trust me, the editing remarks from the first one made an impact!)  I let that one sit, slowly fixing as I learned, and kept writing other novels.  The newer books were much cleaner and cost a lot less to get out without making a fool of myself.

And every check I got, I put back into my literary empire.  From outside help with things like formatting, cover design, and of course editing, I kept moving FORWARD, always intending to make the best book I could.  I judged myself on traditionally published works, not the dearth of crap lingering at the bottom of the indie market.  I put a lot of money into my work, because I’ve always believed that if I won’t pay for my books, why would a stranger want to?

But even when the books were good, I still was just limping by.  I wasn’t even close to being the rich author that everyone hears about.  I certainly was NOT a breakout success.  I was spending a lot of time at a hobby that was going nowhere, but I seemed to know one thing that a lot of authors don’t.  Discoverability isn’t accidental.  It’s all about marketing.

So, I invested even more.  Fifty bucks a month here.  Five dollars there.  I tested, I kept records, and I learned about things like ROI and click through rates.  I changed the description of the book, changed covers again, and tried to make the view rate as close to the buy rate as possible.  If I wanted to be writer, publisher, and money maker, I was going to have to do more than just type.  Then, finally, it happened.

Then, finally, it happened.

Sales started to increase.  I could afford to pump out novel after novel, allowing Amazon to do half my marketing for me.  My income rose exponentially, allowing me to invest even more to make books that my readers truly deserved – and the whole time, my friends kept giving me a hard time about it.

“Isn’t it good enough yet?” they’d ask.  The answer was simple.  No.  I’d still seen typos, I’d found size issues, formatting problems, and more.  Oh sure, all books have them, but if I wanted to be a serious author, then I had to take all of it serious.  Close enough wouldn’t cut it.  My friends’ opinions were biased, because they didn’t want to hurt my feelings.  If I wanted to be a professional writer, I had to make professional quality books.  There is no middle ground.

Somewhere along the way, my editor, formatter, cover artist, and a few fellow writing friends all came together to make SHP Publishing.  It’s a cooperative of people interested in the book industry who want to work outside the constraints of “normal publishing”.  In other words, we’re pretty sure we can find better ways, new tech, and work together to all succeed.

Yeah, I’d also gotten a day job.

The day job paid my bills.  The book job paid for my dream – one I never knew I had until then.  From the moment I woke up until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, I worked.  I wrote my first book in 2013.  I published my… I think it was the third or fourth book I wrote, but the first to market… in 2015.  From that day on, I had no free time, I worked a minimum of eighteen hours a day (over 120 hours a week), I didn’t watch TV, I stopped gaming or even sleeping, and I had to put alarms on my phone to remind me that my husband couldn’t be ignored.

But we had a plan.  We’d talked this through, and he was all in.  He’d handle everything else.  All I had to do was work at my two jobs.  He cooked, cleaned, cared for the pets, made sure I had clothes to wear to work, and did literally everything.  I wrote, I went to the day job, and then I came home to write more.  I’d stay up until 3 am, wake up at 7, and start it all over again, but we could see the progress, and he believed in me.

He always believed in me.

Needless to say, that faith helped so much.  When I was so tired I couldn’t think of words, he’d remind me of some amazing review I’d gotten.  When I was convinced that this would never work, he always told me he believed in me.  Enough so that he was the one who said, “your day job is actually cutting into both your writing time and your chance to make a living out of this.  Quit.  It’s time.”

Twenty-three months after I first released my book, just shy of that two-year mark we’d agreed upon, and I’ve finally done it.  I’m a full-time author.  It was “easy” in some ways.  It also was harder than I expected (the parts that weren’t about the writing).  It just required a lot of dedication for a very long time and a willingness to do whatever had to be done.  In three weeks, I will no longer have to worry about taking a break from writing, losing my place in my story, and struggling to sleep enough.  I will no longer get burned out on a story because I had to go over the same part, again and again, to remember where I was and where I was going.

Today, I spend more a month in marketing than I used to make and live on.  Every time I hear authors wail that it’s not fair, I’m torn between shaking my head at them and feeling the pain.  I know what it’s like to not have enough money to pay the utilities this month.  I also know that complaining never made any progress.  It’s a crutch, and one that’s too easy to use.

My point isn’t that I’m so great.  It isn’t that there’s some miracle answer out there.  I just want people to know it’s possible, but it takes WORK.  You will never become a success if you aren’t willing to bleed for it, to sacrifice for it in some way.  And if the sacrifice it will take to get there isn’t worth it?  Then you have no one to blame but yourself.

See, readers don’t owe us a damned thing.  If we want to be considered “real authors” then we’re the ones who owe them a properly made, professionally edited novel.  We can’t cut corners.  We can only work harder, learn more, and struggle to always improve upon what we did the day before.

And if people aren’t buying your book, it’s not because of the competition.  It has nothing to do with a flood of crap in the market.  It’s because YOUR book is part of that crap.  Even if it’s beautifully written, you’ve missed the mark somewhere, and no one cares if YOU like it.  They care if THEY do.  They care if it’s worth the time they spent doing something they hate.  They want to know that the book they buy will give them more enjoyment than that cup of coffee for the same price.

They are the readers, the fans, and the experts.  They are the ones buying it, and they worked just as hard for their money as you, dear author, do for yours.  I’d even dare to say harder.  THEY are the ones who deserve to be pampered, and I sure hope my stories can do that…

So they can keep pampering me in return.

 

What does it mean to be a Strong Woman?

pink-hair-1450045.jpgIn every movie, every book, and quite a few TV shows, we hear people talking about “strong female characters” but what are they?  Is a strong woman someone who can lift 100 pounds?  200?  More?  Is she the person who can’t feel hurt by something as pathetic as an insult?  Are these fictitious creatures able to bend steel with their mind?

Maybe – or maybe not.  You see, a strong woman is one that fails and tries again.  She’s the one who took a risk because the chance of reward seemed worth it.  Her strength may be physical, mental, emotional, or any combination of those.

It does not mean she’s invincible.

Strong female characters are the ones that get bullied, cry their eyes out, and still go to school the next day.  They’re the ones who get pushed into a new situation and make the most of it, even when it’s hard.  These are the ladies who realize that no one else is going to do it – whatever it is – for them, so they decide to do it themselves.

That’s basically it.  They aren’t SuperGirl.  They don’t have to be butch, girly, or androgynous.  They sure as hell don’t have to be pretty.  They just need to face a challenge and at least try to deal with it on their own.  Weak female characters are the ones who whine, cry, and break the heel of their shoe just before the bad guy gets them.

Oh, sounds easy to write/film, you think?  Uh, no.  See, the moment you put in a man who’s ten times better, you just destroyed your strong female character.  In modern movies, she’s the girl that can be as good, but never better than, the leading guy.  Just look at Rogue One as an example!

According to the trailers for that film, some scenes didn’t make it to the final cut.  Jyn kicked ass, right up until suddenly, the hero arrives (who she hated for most of the movie) and then she swoons as he cuts down the baddie for her.  You know how it goes because we’ve all seen this before.  Dude looks dead, but at the last minute, he summons up just enough strength to save the day, because that poor chick couldn’t do it without a penis around to…

Er.  Sorry.  I think I let my bitterness show a bit there.  The irony here is that I loved that movie.  I typically love all Star Wars things, but I was very disappointed to see that Hollywood had reshot the ending to be more in line with modern mentality.  SAY WHAT?!  Yeah.  The idea of that girl being a bad-ass was just too much, and you know that would definitely kill sales (or something).

And this is why women get so annoyed with the whole strong female character thing.  Granted, some of us don’t notice it.  My mother, for instance, was raised at a time when the women in our fiction would be considered shockingly equal.  To her, it’s nice to see women who aren’t scorned for acting like Princess Leia.  Me?  I was raised to think critically, and I kinda like the idea of a strong woman being perfectly ok without a man to back her up.  Know what?  I also like the idea of a weak male character being portrayed as heroic.

The problem is that “strong female character” has become a buzzword, and so few people really understand what it means.  It doesn’t mean having a smart mouth, just so you know.  It doesn’t mean spending the whole book fighting against what has to be done, just to trip and fall into it at the last minute.  Those books/movies have their place, but they are NOT strong women.

In a world where women are still judged by their perceived value to men (usually by their looks) most of us find ourselves drawn to the strong women who can fall in love but don’t NEED to in order to complete the task at hand.  We like the women who are leaders, regardless of whether anyone likes it or not.  And, deep down, we want her to have a few insecurities inside, too.  Being strong doesn’t mean being invincible.  It means falling down seven times, but standing up eight, even when everyone is screaming at you to just give up already.

 

Love – in a good way

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I’ve been writing lately.  A LOT of writing.  Between Rise of the Iliri #7 and Wolf of Oberhame #3, and all those annoying ideas that pop into my head and HAVE to be jotted down so I won’t lose them, I’m basically a writing machine.  Interestingly, almost all of these books have some aspect of love in them.  Love of friends, love of family, and of course, lovers.

And, because one can not live on writing alone, I read.  All too often, I get so far and just can’t take it anymore because the relationship has turned toxic.  Oh, the reviews all say it’s sweet and amazing, but I’m reading about a guy who is making the girl feel bad about herself, has so few redeeming qualities outside his sex appeal, and her hormones are just driving her to obsession.  Not. Healthy.

So, because I’m the annoyingly analytical type, I plop myself down in my husband’s lap and just ask.  “Honey, why do you love me?”  Now, keep in mind that my man is, um, perfect.  I don’t mean perfect for me.  He’s completely perfect in a way that is a little intimidating.  Like, women write about men that are half as good as him.  (I might be biased here.)

Mr. Perfect doesn’t even hesitate on his answer, though.  “Because you’re my partner – in everything – and you always appreciate that.”

Hmm.  I think he’s onto something, but again, that annoyingly rational mind isn’t satisfied with such fluffy and romantic type language.  “How so?  Why are you still happy with an old, fat, dorky, neon-haired bookworm who spends all her time living in a fantasy world?”

“Because I happen to LIKE women who look like women and have curves, I’m older than you, and while you might be a dork, I am definitely a geek, and your writing time lets me play video games.  Plus, I like the hair.  Who cares what society says we should be like.  It just works because we work together on everything.  Even our hobbies.”

BINGO!

Because he likes me.  He doesn’t just love me, lust after me, support me, want to protect me, or all of those other great things.  He likes me for who I am.  He doesn’t want to change me.  He doesn’t try to fit me into a mold made by society.  He likes me, which I can honestly say isn’t the same thing as love.

See, I’ve loved a lot of people.  My parents, my brother, my friends, and even guys that came before.  I didn’t always like them.  But when I think about that line between loving and liking, as compared to loving and liking (at the same time), well, I realized that some of the old wisdom we’ve always heard is wrong.

Love isn’t about giving without expecting to get.  It’s about expecting to get something so much bigger than flowers or power tools.  Loving someone is about giving them confidence, compliments, and a pillar of support.  Being loved is about finding a person who gives those things back.

For me, it’s having someone who is willing to understand that writing time is not to be disturbed.  My “work” might be fun, but just because I’m sitting in my jammies with my feet on the desk and tossing a ball to my dog doesn’t mean I’m not working, or that my work is somehow unimportant.  It’s knowing that sly little smile that says he likes how I look even when I don’t.  It’s never doubting that he thinks I am good at something.

For him, it’s having someone understand that the dinner he made and set quietly at my elbow is his way of saying he loves me.  That when he needs help, I’ll leave in the middle of a sentence because he’s the most important thing in my world.  And, a little of it is that when things go bad, the first place I turn is him – even if it’s just smudged mascara – because he’s my eternal protector and I believe he can always fix it.

In other words, Love is what happens when someone else allows us to feel good about our bad parts as well as our good ones – and we’re allowed to expect that.

So why don’t we see much of this in literature?  Because it’s so easy to fixate on the superficial stuff.  It’s harder to write the vague and ambiguous feelings.  It’s almost impossible to be sure your reader will grasp the idea if you can barely wrap your own head around it as the author.

Still, I find myself wishing there was more of this type of things in books.  Someone should fix that.

af7c20194303f6a9984279a1407d58d7And what do you know.  I happen to be an author.

Let’s just say, I’ve been inspired.

I keep thinking about writing a male lead…

background hands.pngMost of my released works are from the perspective of a female character.  This is for two main reasons: 1. being a woman, I understand that point of view and 2. Women are still underrepresented as heroic figures (sad as that may seem with the rise of YA novels).

But, I haven’t gotten there yet.  I do have a few stories in my “to be released” folder with a male main character, but they always get sidelined.  Often, like in the Rise of the Iliri series, or even in some chapters of The Wolf of Oberhame series, males share the spotlight as one of many main characters, but they have yet to be the primary.  I’ve been pondering this a bit lately.  First, because I really enjoy writing from the male POV, because it allows a degree of freedom not accepted from female characters.  (More on that later.)  But I also want to challenge my writing.

So why haven’t I?  Because there are so many things that can’t be shown as well from a male’s perspective.  Let’s be honest.  The horror of slut shaming isn’t the same for men (in most cases!) as it is for women.  Pregnancy?  Again, not as easy to show the myriad of problems that can run through a woman’s head.  Men do have their own issues that deserve the spotlight, but women still end up the one carrying (pun intended) the burden.

And then there’s the current political climate.  To me, it’s simply disingenuous for someone so strongly opposed to sexism and misogyny to take the easy way out – and writing from a guy’s perspective is often the much easier path.  Just look at how many people complain when a female character uses foul language in a novel, but expects a man to speak like that!  They aren’t even aware they’re being sexist, but… someone needs to poke the bear, and I’m totally up for it.

In fact, the current oppression of women has compelled me to write even more.  There are these topics that need to be discussed in a way that removes the political party preference from the conversation.  Fantasy is a wonderful way to do just that.   There is no American president in a world with no America, so it no longer matters who supports and who resists his policies.  The point becomes nothing more than if it is or is not proper to enslave humans for crimes, or to discriminate against a man-made species, or even to dwell on the lack of awareness of evolution and the possibility of divine intervention.

A new setting and new rules make all of us rethink the problem and readdress the situation from a whole new starting point.  It’s no longer about who we know/knew, how we were raised, but rather it comes down to which side we’re rooting to win.  Is the story told from the POV (point of view) of a selfish jerk?  Maybe an orphan with a heart of gold and a depressing back story?  Does that change how you feel about them stealing and the potential punishment for it?

Now, what if we took all of that and made it about women’s issues?  Pregnancy and the rights of the unborn.  Should a warrior fight for her freedom and potentially risk her unborn child’s life for the chance that they may live in a better world?  What about the sexism of work valuation?  And how about gender roles?  Oh, I play with that one a lot in the Rise of the Iliri series, and I’m still not sure how many people notice the angle those little beasties took.

But I do have this book in my work list with a male lead…

I promised my husband I would write something steam punkish.  Now, since I’m not a big reader of the genre myself (no time!) I won’t even try to be true to it.  Mostly, I’m playing with a Victorianesque setting, steam type technology, but in a second world fantasy that focuses minimally on the tech.  I am, however, dwelling on the secondary character’s gender.  Mouse is… let’s say confused about gender.  Taught that boys do somethings and girls do others, Mouse has chosen a more male dominated profession, but still has a weakness for feminine things.  Mouse’s exceptionally masculine mentor is beyond frustrated at trying to figure out whether or not external genetalia has any bearing on Mouse’s gender identity – and I’m not sure Mouse knows either!  In all honesty, I have no clue what decisions Mouse will end up making about gender roles, or how the mentor will adapt to their friendship, but I have a feeling these characters will be the ones figuring it out.  And don’t worry, Mouse’s gender is a very minor role in the whole story.

But, I still have one very jealous gladiator who demands that I write the next chapter.  Tristan is adamant that his story will be finished sooner rather than later.  The problem is that Sal doesn’t like to share the limelight.  There are days that I wake up and I’m like “Ah ha!  That’s what happens in chapter 42!” so I’m writing the book that grabs me.

I just need more time, more hands, and a few more keyboards to get all of these stories out of my head.  How else can I dive into the diversity of my imaginary friends?  Needless to say, if you don’t hear from me for a bit, it means I’ve stepped into another world…..and am writing like mad!

Even when I should be sleeping.

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.