The unfairness of hair

2016-05-08

When my hair started to turn grey, I embraced it.  When the grey came in patches, I tried to convince myself it was cool.  Then, I realized that I looked kinda like I had mange, and admitted it was time to fight this whole aging thing a bit.  But, keep in mind, this is me.

So, I decided that doing the normal thing and trying to match my natural hair color (which is mousey blonde/brown grossness) wouldn’t happen.  I doubled down and dyed it a lovely dark brown color with some neon red streaks.  Since I worked for an internet company at the time, this was a perfectly professional hairstyle – right up until my stylist had to find other work to make her own ends meet.  Cue panic attack.

And so I found my current stylist.  I asked about vivid colors, prices, and all the normal things.  We decided on a gorgeous color scheme that suited me.  The goal was to have Sunset hair.  Oh, it was so pretty!

15965215_1201669383282413_4071693069082125799_nSadly, that dark brown didn’t want to cooperate.  In order to get rich, vivid, neon colors, the hair beneath has to be pale.  The closer to white, the better.  Yeah, I never learned how to do things by half, and so we bleached.  We colored, then the next time, we’d bleach again.

I’m sure most women out there can see where this is going.  We did a LITTLE bit of damage to my hair (read: fried it to smithereens).  I also learned that mixing warm and cool colors together is a great recipe for brown.  Yeah, all of that pretty blue at the top, there?  It faded into the pink, orange, and yellow.  My hair was puppy poo brown within a week.  Not exactly the end result I was looking for.

So, one more round of bleaching it all out, and we decided we’d start over with something a bit more complimentary to itself.  Instead of a sunset, we’d go with fire.  Bright, retina-burning colors that made me happy every time I looked in a mirror.

Fire HairThe end result has been my go-to color for just over a year.  I love my orange and pink hair.  Even more amusing, I dislike both orange and pink, but it sure looks good on me (in my opinion, and it’s kinda the only one that matters).  Ahem.  But yeah, my point in all of this is to get to what comes next.

You see, about two years of abusing my hair to achieve happiness (oh, and it honestly does make me happy) had some tragic effects on my hair.  Just look at those split ends!  Well, we’ve treated, pampered, and babied it, and I’m finally at the point where all of the fried bits are gone.  My hair is once again soft, silky, and just as orange as ever… but I wanted to do a little more.

You see, for decades, black women have been using a collection of protective styles to look good while growing out their own natural hair.  The ingenuity of these styles is amazing, and they’re gorgeous!  Someone recommended that if I want to protect my own hair, I should try Sengelese Twists.  This involves something similar to microbraids but twisted instead.  To get the length I wish I had, I simply add in a little fake hair at the ends.  Sounded like a good plan, looks beautiful on the women I’ve seen wearing it, and the kanekalon hair also comes in neon.  Yep, I was sold.

7489197700205743110So, yesterday, I spent 9 hours with my stylist.  Look at those sexy twists!  I adore my new waist length hair!  It’s gorgeous, it’s neon, and it’s relatively easy to care for… but it’s so not fair.

The whole time we worked on my hair, other clients entered and exited the salon.  Quite a few had something to say.  Some people adore my neon colors and atypical fashion sense.  Most?  They grumbled about the stupidity of what I was doing.  I couldn’t believe the horrible things people were willing to say to a complete stranger simply because they don’t like her choice of style!

Now pause and think about this for a  moment.  Many black women basically have to do their hair like this to be considered “professional” looking enough to get or maintain a job.  Styles with only natural hair, like afros, are called disgusting, unkempt, and ugly.  Dreads?  Well, they’re dirty, right?  (Uh, they really aren’t.)  Microbraids, Sengelese twists, and such are the only natural hair options to look close enough to be acceptable in school or at work.

And this style wasn’t CHEAP!  I’ll have to see my stylist again in six to eight weeks to replace the twists due to hair growth.  That averages out to about a hundred bucks a month just in hair care, probably more.  For me, that’s a luxury I can afford (and do in place of things I wouldn’t use such as cable).  For so many black women, it’s mandatory.  Large bills at the salon are the minimum required to keep from being kicked out of school, get a job, or be seen as respectable…

And on me, at least five people thought it was disgusting.

Now, I’d like to make it clear that I really don’t care if people like my hair.  I mean, I’m basically a hermit except for my salon visits.  I have no one to impress with my appearance but my husband (and he says my hair is sexy, just so you know).  But the more I thought about it, sitting in that chair while my stylist literally twisted the skin from her own fingers, I couldn’t help but wonder how the very women (and the culture) that invented this style deals with it.

For so many people, affording a wardrobe for a new job is a hardship.  Never mind feeding the kids, paying the bills, and keeping it all together.  To be required to add in the equivalent of a used-car payment on top of that, just to meet the bare minimum of someone else’s opinion about your looks, an opinion that is based on an ideal you weren’t born into (white, Eurocentric beauty standards) is basically disgusting.

I’m lucky.  I get to have this gorgeous hair, in a style I’ve always wanted and there are no repercussions for my eccentricism.  Being made aware of my own level of privilege, however, is the best encouragement to write a book.  I may not get it right, but I want to have beautiful main characters who don’t always fit inside the boundaries our society expects.  I want to examine our perceptions of beauty and why it’s so hard to find cover art with non-white women for fantasy.  Most of all, I want to write stories that aren’t whitewashed simply because it’s easier.

Basically, I just want to think outside the box, and help others see what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

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How to make it believable

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Recently, I had a discussion with a friend that went something like this, “Well, then why didn’t she say anything sooner?”  I’m sure you have all seen or heard something similar, right?  But when we try to explain the fear that comes with speaking out, it’s dismissed as being stupid.  Doesn’t matter if that’s speaking up about sexual harassment, rape, or just bad service.  The reality is that most women get this, and a very small segment of men do not.

It’s called privilege.  One of my friends is a comfortably middle class, white, Christian, conservative male.  He ticks off every single checkbox.  Now, he’s a great guy, and possibly one of the most giving people I know, but he can’t even begin to understand what it would be like to suffer at the mercy of society.  To him, if there’s a problem, just speak up.

He can’t envision the fear of all the possible repercussions.  No one has that much power over his life.  If his boss does him wrong, he’ll just get a new job.  There’s plenty of places he could work.  The idea of having a black mark for being one of “those” types of people on his resume is unimaginable.  As a pretty good sized fella, trying to understand the fear of being overpowered is even harder.

And yet, in my writing, sexism is a topic I address pretty often.  Mostly because while we live in a world that is more equal than ever before, it’s still not EQUAL.  My friend knows that no woman would ever come up and grab his dick and shove her tongue down his throat.  In his mind, if something like that happened, she’d look like a supermodel so he wouldn’t mind.  When I asked him how he’d feel about an obese old lady doing it, he basically said, “Well, I wouldn’t let her get that close.”

Because he COULD physically stop her.

He can’t understand.  He’s never had to be afraid of the dark corners on the street.  He’s never wondered if the person he’s meeting for that online date is going to abuse him.  He’s never had to question whether his supervisor’s smile is leading up to a very complicated situation.  He’s never been in a situation where didn’t have the power to change things.

In my stories, I like to flip things around.  Make the damsel in distress become the hero, turn the villain into the savior, and things like that.  In this case, I’m completely stumped.  I have no idea how to take the powerful (especially when it comes to sexual harassment) and make them the powerless – at least not with any plausibility.  Sure, I can chain a guy down (in a book, people!) and have some horrible person do horrible things, but those aren’t the types of stories I write.

This time, though, I’m stumped.  I have no idea how to remove the privilege, and without it, my characters just aren’t believable.  The saddest part is that I think that says more about society than my skill as an author.

 

Sorry, but that’s not sexy

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It’s everywhere.  No man seems safe from the accusations, and everyone is being sexually harassed.  Why?  Why now? What the hell is going on?

As a writer of strong female characters, I’m not shocked at all by this.  It’s called equality.  As women gain even more acceptance in our society as true equals (as opposed to being equal enough) certain privileges are being challenged.  What bothers me is that we Romance and Fantasy writers haven’t necessarily caught up.

C’mon, we all know the tropes.  That hot rock star with all the women dropping at his feet who assumes the hottie he wants will do the same – only to pressure her, grope her, or… what’s that?  Yeah, sexually harass her to fall for him.  Or the rich business man, or the hotshot celebrity… there’s almost too many versions to count.  Why do we WOMEN write this crap?  Because it’s what we’ve been taught to think is sexy.  Our kids and our kids’ kids don’t agree.

And good for them!

Sure, back in the day, what these guys were doing was considered normal.  That doesn’t make it right.  History is filled with a lot of horrors that people accepted at the time.  Hello, slavery!  For centuries, women were assumed to be the inferior sex (notice I said sex, not gender) and laws gave control of our lives to men.  The problem is that these men can’t seem to wrap their mind around why we might not approve.  We’re better off than our moms, so isn’t it enough?  They’re giving us GOOD attention, so shouldn’t we like it?

But the problem is the assumption.  Yes, I know, our societal norms encourage men to be the aggressor in a relationship.  We praise the guys who demand what they want – then turn around and punish them – but there’s a difference.  There’s a very big line of consent, and while it may be a little grey, that doesn’t make it invisible.

And all of our popular media limits the power of women.  I mean, when was the last time you saw the heroine succeed without the help of her male counterpart?  How often does she need him to save her, teach her, or lead her in the right direction?  Why do we women write this crap?  Because we unconsciously think that a guy who doesn’t know something can’t be sexy.

Just look at my book FLAWED.  Dez is a fragile broken thing.  Her strength lies in her ability to keep going, even if she is at the end of that rope.  Her power lies in her knowledge of coding.  Her man?  His skills are different, yet complementary.  He owns the company that gives her a second chance, but he’s just as broken, although in different ways.  He can’t succeed without HER help, and she can’t move on without his encouragement and support.  The only thing he offers her is a platform.  He doesn’t teach her how to do her job – she teaches him.  His method of “saving” her is to accept her as she is, broken and fragile, not to change her at all.  Instead, he changes himself.

Or in Challenge Accepted, where Logan is the better gamer, but he never teaches Riley.  She already knows enough to be his equal – or close enough.  What she needs is a little pushing, a bit of taunting, and a reason to face the parts that are uncomfortable.  Sure, Logan uses his skills to help her, but in a networking way instead of a mentor.  Riley finds her own success – and figures out how to give Logan his dream while she’s at it.

It could be argued that my male characters aren’t alphas, but I disagree.  I think both Logan and Chance are very confident alpha males.  They just don’t have to be in control at all times (which in my opinion makes them even stronger).  Oh, yeah… and they’re sexy.

And then there’s consent.  That’s another problem with this whole sexual harassment thing in the news lately.  Women are forced to give consent – but that isn’t true consent.  Being pressured to give in or risk things like a career, income, or the basics of a stable life?  It doesn’t count.  In fact, it’s a whole lot like blackmail.

But consent can be sexy as hell.  In fact, I challenge more writers to make their consent clear and steamy.  Make the guy feel awe at her approval, allow the women to know they don’t have to fall into bed with the guy to get ahead.  I think this is especially important in YA and NA literature.  When we’re talking about kids who are still figuring out how to have realistic relationships, including a few ideas for being sexy while making sure she wants to go that far?  Yep, I think that’s not only awesome – but hot as hell.

I spend a lot of time asking my male friends some really awkward questions.  I’m used to the eye rolls, but the interesting thing is that most of them have already thought about this.  Guys don’t naturally want to be a dick.  They want to find that middle ground between being sweet and being sexy – and it’s a very murky place.  What impresses me the most, though, is how they handle it.  From asking, “Do you want me to strip you down?” to the more hurried, “Are you sure?” it’s all still a form of making sure she wants to go that far.

And having the hottie tell her no because she can’t give consent?  Yep, I’ll be one of the readers swooning!  Girl gets drunk, he takes care of her and fends off her inebriated advances, and I’m gnawing at my nails and fanning my face.  THAT is hot.  A man who can keep his head in the heat of the moment and realize that she might regret this in the morning?  Yep, sign me up.

But how about all those marriages or relationships of convenience?  That sounds like a challenge I’m dying to read.  One where she agrees to be his lover, but he STILL manages to get consent in the bedroom?  I dare someone to write that.  I mean, he’s already using his power (see sexual harassment above) and walking a very narrow line.  To have a hero who either realizes that he’s just been a complete jerk and try to reform or even better, work hard to remove the pressure his power puts on the situation before it reads like something in our current media run – that would be amazing.

But what I want to see the most is a woman who will stand up and say, “No, you don’t have the right to pressure me just because you’ve grown up with a dick.  That’s not how this works anymore.  Now be sexy in a different way.”

To quote Emmet Fox: “Do it trembling if you must, but do it!”  Wouldn’t that be the perfect mantra for the quiet, bookish girl that’s all too popular in modern literature?  Just imagine the readers whooping out loud with excitement when the shy girl figures out how to grow a (trembling) spine.

Yeah, I want to read that book.

 

The sound of color

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The turn of phrase.  An eloquent description.  Sarcasm, puns, and rhetoric.  Words are the color of our communication.  They’re what we notice first when talking, allowing body language and situational awareness to seep easily into our subconscious.  They’re picked apart, debated, and slung like weapons.

In other words, they’re powerful.

As an author, I’ve become much more aware of my word choice over time.  I’m amused at the difference between how I “speak” in text as compared to when I actually use my vocal chords.  Chatting online or on social media has a completely different language than the prose in a novel.  I’m not saying it should, I’m saying it does.  I cringe at the idea of posting on facebook using the same phraseology I’d use to start a chapter.

There’s a time and a place for words, a proper setting, and even a feeling.  The things we don’t say are just as important as those we do.  As a Gen Xer, I can remember a time before texting, before social media, and even before the internet.  My formative years were made talking to people across the world using the written word.  As typed communication became more and more common, a phrase became popular.  It goes something like this: “It’s hard to tell tone with text.”

Back in the ’90s, we used that as an excuse to explain away a written miscommunication, but I don’t agree with it.  Long before we had the ability to smack haphazardly at a keyboard to rant in 140 characters, well before we could just pick up the phone or drive over, people relied upon the written word to communicate.  Every time I see an example of old-timey love notes or handwritten diatribes, I fall in love with language all over again.

Sure, the prose was a little “purple” (too flowery) for today’s audience, but the meaning was always clear.  Those writers went overboard to make sure their meaning was understood, painting it with bright colors and bold strokes while using nothing but words.  Today, we have politicians and celebrities falling back to the “you didn’t get it” idea as a way to explain away mistakes, blaming the character limit or inability to hear emotion from the written word.

It makes me irate every time.  My job is to fill words with emotion.  To make it clear to my reader how someone feels, even if their words don’t match.  I create worlds, destroy them, and do it all with 26 simple letters.  I can’t fall back on body language, scents, and sounds to add intrigue – without using words to create them.  And to make it even harder, my goal is for my readers to never notice the words at all.

With nothing but those letters, I get to bring an image to life, allowing it to suffuse the reader’s mind so they can lose themselves.  The words I chose must incite, entwine, and contain just the right emotions.  Each and every one must be heavy with meaning, chosen for the subtle connotation – or lack of it – and sewn together seamlessly without any jarring stops or starts.  I must bleed feeling from each and every one.

So when people try to explain something away as just being a problem with text, I can’t help but roll my eyes.  So many people aren’t aware of those little things that show what the other is really thinking.  Things like avoiding contractions when they’re angry or selecting single syllable words for emphasis.  The power of a word doesn’t come from its definition, it comes from its use: why someone chose it over another with a similar meaning.  We’ve all heard the example of cheap vs. inexpensive, but other things matter just as much, like sentence structure and repetition of words.

I often get annoyed.  I see paragraphs that have the same problem.  I notice all the sentences feel the same.  It pulls me right out of the flow.  The rhythm is too jarring.  (See what I did there?)

Noun, verb, ending.  Noun, verb, ending.  No introductory phrases to smooth the flow.  No complex verbs or compound sentences to pull the ideas together.  In the end, the language feels elementary and stilted.  It comes across as hesitant or grumpy rather than easily shifting from the page to the mind as something bigger.

When we start writing our first novel, we read how every word must matter, how adverbs and adjectives should be avoided to keep it clean, and how we must show and not tell.  I’ve never seen anyone advocate adding a few extra words to build voice or maintain flow – but I’m going to.  Yes, I agree with much of the advice, but rules are meant to be broken.  Sometimes, putting in that extraneous little sentence leader (like “Sometimes”) can soften the blow, ease the transition into the idea, or just keep the thoughts feeling smooth.

For me, when I’m writing a book, I imagine the character telling the story to someone else.  I think of how they’d talk years after the events of the novel, and then I let my imaginary friend just go.  Different points of view get different language styles.  The characters end up with verbal ticks that easily identify them.  The descriptions come alive because of the power they have in my (admittedly warped) mind.

The goal isn’t just to share, but to paint with these words.  To chose the right ones to make the images tangible in the reader’s mind.  To breathe in life and add color.  I am an artist, and words are my paint, made up of nothing more than 26 different pigments.  My goal is to one day master my media.

It’s a whole new life!

Fire HairAs many of you already know, I quit my job in August.  This means I’m a full-time author.  Since then, things have been changing at light speed.  One of my big home renovation projects is basically done, and I have a whole new living room (with an office in it).  I also have decided that it’s time to fight against the “sit on my butt for 18 hours a day” spread.  I’ve been exercising.

And I’m so bad at it!

So, moment of truth here.  I have an elliptical.  When I first got it, I had these big visions of 15-minute workouts, high intensity, and some amazing legs.  Yeah, no.  I climbed on at the lowest resistance (i.e. baby mode) and lasted……two minutes.  I sweated, I panted, and I realized that two years of sitting in a chair cranking out books is bad for me.

But, now that I’m not chasing the clock all the time, I am going to actually change that.  Two weeks ago, I was maxing out at two minutes.  Now it’s four.  A month ago, I was working to get five thousand words out a day.  Now it’s ten thousand.  The best part?  I even have time to play with my doggies!

So, I’ve been a full-time author a few months now, and I honestly feel like I’ve finally hit the groove.  It’s amazing what getting one tiny piece of the puzzle in place does to all the rest.  The best part, though, is that I’m FINALLY getting to those books that had to be put off due to a lack of time.  When We Were Crowned, the Wolf of Oberhame 3, is currently in progress.  Virtual Reality, Gamer Girls 3, is next up.  Oh yeah, and Dissent, Rise of the Iliri 7, releases in a couple of weeks.  I’m not sure all of those are going to make it out in 2017, but it’ll be close.  Virtual Reality might release early 2018.

And you wanna know something?  All those minutes spent on the elliptical?  Yeah… I’ve got a new idea brewing.  Hey, it’s not like I can do much else while sweating my flab off!  I’m just proud of myself for actually being productive, and I figure I’ll look back at this in a year and cringe at the thought of 4-minute workouts wiping me out.  But hey, we all gotta start somewhere, right?

 

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.

 

 

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.