Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Introducing Shara Summers

With less than a week to go before my amateur sleuth Shara Summers is unleashed on the world, I thought it was a good time to talk about how she came into existence.

I've always been fond of strong female characters, and been a fan of kick-ass female sleuths since first introduced to Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski. When I decided I wanted to create a crime series, I looked to my fictional heroines for inspiration - as well as VI, these include Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, Linda Fairstein's Alex Cooper, and Kathy Reichs's Tempe Brennan. But they are all American, and I wanted - being British - to base my sleuth in the UK.

British private eye stories are an entirely different kettle of fish to US ones, due to the differences in the law (not least of which is the UK's much more stringent gun control laws). And I am not a big fan of research. Writing about a private investigator or a detective inspector involved far too much homework, to my mind.

I decided instead to create an amateur sleuth. Then you can perhaps get away with a bit of creative licence, as people are prepared to suspend belief when it comes to the fact an amateur sleuth trips over dead bodies far more often than a normal person could reasonably expect to. And I wouldn't have to do quite so much homework into the workings of a police department, which I've only really picked up from cop shows on TV.

Then there was another snag. Most amateur sleuth series are set in the past. History is not my strong point. There's no era I know enough about, or wanted to learn enough about to set a series there. So that's why I decided to set my series in contemporary South London, specifically my own stomping ground.

That did prove to be a bit of a sticking point when I started shopping DEATH SCENE around to agents, as it got rejected by more than one on the basis that they didn't feel they could sell a contemporary amateur sleuth novel to a publisher - fans of the genre apparently prefer historicals, or so I was told.

In deciding what day job to give to my amateur sleuth, I decided to make her an actress. The theatre is an area I'm interested in, and I spent many years involved in amateur dramatics, both onstage and behind it. I thought that a sleuth who could act would open up some interesting possibilities - she could disguise herself and play a role when she's poking around where she shouldn't be, in order to get information. And like being a writer, actresses can get away with being incurably nosy - an actress can claim to be doing research for a role, if she's listening in to conversations she shouldn't be.

Finally, I drew on my own history to give my sleuth a Canadian background. I spent eight years of my life in Canada, and I still have an affinity for the place, having family and friends there I visit frequently. So I gave my amateur sleuth one parent in Canada and one parent in the UK (which is my own situation). Although she eventually relocates to the UK, I felt making her a Canadian in London might make her a more interesting viewpoint character, as she adapts to British life and British way of thinking.

And so this is how Shara Summers came into existence. Known as Shari to her friends, she'll step out into the world on Monday, in my forthcoming novel DEATH SCENE.

I can't speak for Shari, but I'm certainly feeling a bit nervous about her debut. I have a lot of ideas for future books about her. I really hope I get the chance to write them!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Digital Potter

JK Rowling has announced a new online initiative called Pottermore which will apparently be interactive and you can get sorted into a house and I don't know what else. I'm sure it'll have some fun stuff but what got my attention was this: she's finally releasing the Harry Potter books as ebooks. As in, she owns the digital rights and they will only be available through her site, so she is essentially self-publishing her backlist in digital formats.

This is not new. An increasing number of authors who have the rights to their backlist are either taking those books to digital publishers who accept works that have been previously published, or they are self-publishing. Which, if you've got the money to self-publish, makes sense. Why not give those books a longer, and digital, shelf life? I think Rowling's decision will make it even more commonplace by virtue of bringing so much attention to the possibility.

Here's something else that caught my eye, from an article on
In a further bold move, Rowling has opted to keep the e-books DRM-free, meaning that they are not locked into one device or platform. She is instead opting for digital watermarking that links the identify of the purchaser to the copy of the e-book. This doesn’t prevent copyright theft but does ensure that any copies will be traceable to a particular user. This is similar to how iTunes is DRM-free, but embeds user account information within each file purchased.
So now that this is possible, I see no reason whatsoever for any publisher to continue using DRM. No reason. But then there's also no reason for the big legacy publishers to continue to offer such low royalty rates on digital editions. And can we get rid of agency pricing while we're at it?

And while I'm asking for things that won't happen, can I get a unicorn too?

Rowling is going to get criticized, and probably already has, for trying to squeeze more money out of the golden goose of Harry Potter. I think the books should be available in digital format, legally and not pirated, and I see no reason why she should hand over control to someone else if she doesn't want to. Control, and a percentage. Self-publishing is a sticky subject with me, but this does highlight some of the issues that legacy publishers don't seem eager to address. Once again I feel quite happy to be with a digital publisher.

I already have the Potter books in paperback so I won't be buying the ebooks, but I am really happy they will be available for a new generation - a generation that will likely grow up more comfortable with ereaders than paper books.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Just My Blood Type

I'm very proud to announce the release of Just My Blood Type, a collaborative short story I collaborated on with the very totally awesome Carrie Clevenger. It's a free read featuring one Xan Marcelles, whom I totally suggest you check out.

As for what went into Just My Blood Type? I'd been following Carrie's progress with Crooked Fang and one of our conversations steered toward a collaboration. Something possessed me to fictionalise my erotica nom de plume, and as for the rest, it's there, it's done, and you can download it here.

This was a great story for Carrie and me to examine the mechanics of our collaboration. It is our sincere hope that you will enjoy reading Just My Blood Type as much as we enjoyed writing it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Busting The Myth of the Word Crunching Machine

Novel #2, DEATH SCENE, is being released 15 months after SUFFER THE CHILDREN, my first novel.

A lot of people, upon hearing this news, have indicated how impressed they are that I have been able to finish a second novel so quickly. What they don't know is that both novels had been finished for a long time, and had been riding the rejection circuit, before they got picked up by Lyrical Press.

And there is the myth. To the average uninformed person, a writer is a word crunching machine, churning off one novel after another. The reality is that most writers have several finished novels under their belts by the time they find a publisher willing to take one on. And once one novel has been released, the publisher's probably willing to take a look at what else you've got, which is when you haul out those other finished novels.

However, I only had two finished novels that I felt were anywhere near publishable standard. The first was SUFFER THE CHILDREN and the second was DEATH SCENE. The imminent release of DEATH SCENE is making me a tad anxious, as I can no longer roll out anything I did earlier for Book #3.

I have to write something new. And that's a scary thought. Although I have several WIPs on the go, they are all a very long way from completion.

I can't help but feel that once I have two published novels out there, the game will have changed. There is no room for procrastination in the life of the professional author. I guess I need to get my backside onto that chair and get on with writing.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Shout Out to My Cheerleaders

This past week, I learned one of my English professors, Victor Macaruso, passed away. And this prompted me to think of those still alive who support my writing.

The last time I met Victor was in 2002 when I returned to my alma mater, Mount Senario College. He taught one of my English Composition classes and I’ll always remember his exuberance. This was not a man who stood in one spot and lectured. He moved about, gesticulating and speaking animatedly, sharing his enthusiasm.

Then, the Mount was struggling to remain open. Sadly, it closed a few months after my visit, a statistic among other liberal arts colleges facing the same challenge. Even when I attended, there were ominous rumblings.

Despite the uncertainty, I don’t regret attending Mount Senario. Yes, the machinations of the administration were worthy of reality TV, which didn’t exist then. Those who attempted to stay out of the fray often found themselves lambasted for not choosing sides or choosing the wrong side. And in this maelstrom, I found two people who were among the first and earliest champions of my writing: English professor Rachel Matheis and writer Brian Oppenheimer.

Rachel taught Composition I and American literature. Shortly upon her arrival to the Mount, I attended her poetry reading at ChaliceStream, a dance studio run by Barry Lynn and Michael Doran (who deserve a blog post of their own). As a college freshman who wrote poetry in high school and briefly studied ballet, these performances inspired me to continue pursuing creative projects, especially (then) music and poetry.

Rachel was responsible for my moving to Louisville, being a former resident herself. I think she wanted me to meet other authors, something she probably believed I couldn’t do in northern Wisconsin. (Remember, this was before Facebook and Twitter.) :-)

We’re still friends. She reads my work and gives her honest, if sometimes brutal, opinion. And I may wail and gnash teeth. Guess what? We can do that to each other. She knows I’m listening to her feedback and, deep down, I can handle her honesty.

Like Rachel, Brian Oppenheimer had a connection with Mount Senario (financial donor) and ChaliceStream. I met him at one of Michael and Barry’s dance concerts, perhaps even at Rachel’s poetry reading. (Don’t recall. Sorry.)

Brian believed in writing the Great American Screenplay. He encouraged me to turn from poetry and short story writing to scriptwriting. But I wasn’t convinced at first. When it became evident my literary writing and journalistic careers were going the way of the crumpled manuscript papers in the waste bin, I thought why not give it a try? In 2004, I wrote my first full-length screenplay. By this time, Brian had moved to LA, selling and optioning scripts. Yet he never stopped encouraging me, even letting me rant when I feared I was a failure as a writer. We shared stories of success and defeat, cheering each other on when it seemed no one else would. Like Rachel, he would assess my screenplays and give his honest opinion. And while I still write the occasional script, digital publishing has opened the doors for my short novels, a form I feel comfortable writing in. However, this doesn’t mean I won’t submit my screenplays. :-)

So thanks, Rachel and Brian, for putting up with my idiosyncrasies and for not giving up on me when I gave up on myself. Your support is much appreciated.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Books and movies

This might not be a popular thing to say but sometimes the movie is better than the book. Not usually, but sometimes. I think it generally happens when a story is just not quite engaging enough to be a book, but it works out okay when you take that top layer and shape it into a movie.

I've read a few popular books that were not really great reading experiences but were more enjoyable as movies. The Hunt For Red October comes to mind. The book is all action, which is good because there's not a lot of depth of character going on. And there's nothing wrong with that because that's what some readers prefer. It certainly made for a compelling movie, what with Sean Connery playing a Russian who just happened to have a Scottish accent. And Alec Baldwin and Tim Curry. Tim Curry! He's always a hoot. Reading the book just wasn't as entertaining (to me at least) as watching the movie. Seems like there were some John Grisham books/movies that I felt this way about too.

In recent months I tried very, very hard to read (and like) an extremely popular novel, one of those that everybody talks about - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I really, and I mean really wanted to like this book. But after two hundred pages I gave up. I just did not enjoy it and I couldn't connect with any of the characters. If I can't connect with characters, I don't care what happens to them. Whereas I used to be better about forcing myself to finish a book I've started even if I didn't like it, I don't do that anymore. Now I set that book aside and find something else to read. So I didn't finish the first book of the Millennium trilogy and therefore have no desire to read the others. But I do want to see the movie.

First I should say, I know there are very highly regarded Swedish films of these books, and I do plan to give them a try. I have to be in the right mood to be willing to "read" a movie so its not something I'm going to sit down and watch just whenever. Let The Right One In was certainly an amazing movie so I'm betting the original Swedish version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo lives up to its reputation.

The American version coming out later this year is directed by David Fincher, who turned Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club into a movie almost as good as the source novel. I had heard about this but had no thought of wanting to see it until the first publicity for it came out. I saw the poster first and it is quite striking.

I saw some discussion of this poster, mostly of the "clutch the pearls and swoon to the fainting couch" variety. I see nothing wrong with it but then I'm not scared of breasts, what with having a pair myself. I also don't think being topless makes Salander seem weak - she looks fierce! She looks like she would be more than capable of either protecting Blomkvist or wiping the floor with him, whichever she thought he needed.

Then there's the trailer:

"The feel bad movie of Christmas" has got to be one of the best tag lines ever. And okay yes, there's Daniel Craig. That's always a plus. I couldn't work my way through the book but hopefully I'll enjoy this movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Is there a book that you didn't especially care for that was turned into a movie you wound up enjoying?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Knowing When To Quit

This post is not about quitting writing. No, even in my darkest moment I don't seriously consider that. It's about knowing when to give up an idea that's just not working.

I have been struggling with the urban fantasy WIP for months - nay, it's years now. Having started from the beginning four times, and never getting more than 10,00 words in, I knew in my heart there was a serious problem. So I sent it out to a few beta readers to get some other opinions. And all the beta readers, independently and unanimously, have told me that the plot, for a variety of reasons, just isn't working.

There are some parts that can be salvaged. Some good ideas have come out of my world-building, including a sub-plot involving Loki the Nordic trickster god that seems to have some mileage. But the main plot has to be scrapped, as everyone who's read the WIP thinks it's either too weak, too flawed or just plain not working. And I think I need to get a better handle on my main character, too.

In some ways this is a bit depressing, but to be honest it's nothing I didn't already know, deep down. The problem is I now have a couple of characters and a sub-plot, but not enough to fill a full-length novel and no idea what the main plot's going to be. So I have decided to abandon this WIP for the time being. Maybe if I let the idea stew in my head for a while, it'll cook up something tasty in time.

Sometimes you get too close to a manuscript to be able to see its flaws. That's when its useful to get other opinions. And painful as it might be, there are times you have to let go of the idea you've been dogging so hard you can no longer see that it's falling apart. And I think that's where I am at the moment.

So I'm letting go of my supernatural private eye for now. Some time ago she stopped talking to me, and I failed to listen. I'm rather hoping that some day soon she'll appear again, saying, "this is my story, and this is how to tell it". At that point I'll go back to the computer and write it down.

In the meantime, I'm going to carry on chronicling my amateur sleuth's adventures. She's been talking to me quite a lot of late. It's time to listen.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Waiting for the Sequel

Statue of an angel from The Bookstore

No, this isn’t a post on writing. Instead it’s a sort of farewell to a small bookstore in Radcliff, Kentucky called The Bookstore.

I learned about The Bookstore last year while at Fort Knox. JR Ward was scheduled to sign Lover Mine. My first thought? Awesome! My second thought? Why hadn’t I heard of this place?

The Bookstore is set in a small unassuming building on Lincoln Trail off Dixie Highway. Its owner, Jerry, not only supports local authors, he doesn’t look down at those of us who read and write genre fiction. (Trust me, I’ve seen bookstore owners eschew commercial fiction, considering it beneath its literary cousin.)

Sadly, though, this particular story is coming to the proverbial end. The Bookstore is closing but not completely. According to a Facebook post, Jerry plans to continue selling used books. So perhaps it’s not a closing as much as a restructuring.

His decision, from what I’ve heard, was partly affected by digital sales impacting print sales. This doesn’t surprise me, considering the Borders debacle.

I’m only sorry I hadn’t heard about The Bookstore before. Thank you, Jerry, for supporting authors and readers.    

By the way, did I mention he also sells awesome angels, dragons, and faeries?

Friday, June 10, 2011

A peek into the trunk

Do you ever go rifling through old stories you've consigned to the trunk? Maybe for ideas, things to steal and reshape, or maybe just to see what crappy thing you wrote years ago so you feel better about what you write now. Y'all, this is why I don't delete stuff anymore, no matter how awful. So Wednesday night I did just that, opened up my Trunk folder and poked around to see if anything could be cannibalized for either of the projects I'm working on now. I had a pretty good idea I might find some stuff for Project B in old trunked Story X, and after I poked around that document for a while I opened another. This is from an abandoned novel I fought with off and on for too many years and never finished, and further evidence of my never ending obsession with Robert Johnson in particular and music in general.

16 August 1938
Star of the West Plantation
Greenwood, MS

“I’m not the devil,” Jim answered. “I just work for him.”

RL’s thin body shook and spasmed as he coughed up another stream of blood, the bright red glowing against the soiled sheets. Jim wiped blood from RL’s chin with a stained handkerchief. The once-white cloth was discolored with paisleys of dried and fresh blood, in worse condition than the sheets. Jim had been there almost an hour but it felt longer. He got Robert settled again, as settled as the man could get alternating between muscle spasms, rigid limbs, convulsions. His breathing was labored and fear was the only thing left in his face.

“I don’t wanna die like this,” Robert said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“You’re not going to die. I’m going to find a doctor - “

Robert cut him off with a shake of his head. “No doctor gonna come out here, even if you could find one. He won’t let no one help me.”

“What do you mean, he – “

"He want me, he gonna have me”

“Who’re you talking about?”

Robert turned his head to face Jim, raised his arm to reach out for him. Jim took RL’s hand in his own, feeling the strength gone from the preternaturally long fingers. He looked at their joined hands, two black hands, blinked and saw flashes of his true skin color; for a second he even thought he could feel the difference in his hair, stiff black curl melting into soft straight blond. Looking into Robert’s eyes, he knew Robert could see him for what he really looked like. That scared him more than the convulsions, even more than the blood. No one had ever been able to see past the veil of one of his glamour spells before.

“I don’t want to go to hell,” Robert said.

“You’re not going to hell. That’s crazy talk.”

“It’s what he told me.”

“Who?” Pretty sure he already knew the answer.

Robert’s frail body shook hard again, his back arching as he cried out. Jim held his hand - he didn’t know what else he could do. He knew even if he could find a doctor who would venture out to a shack like this in the middle of the night, they wouldn’t get back in time.

“Man who was here before. He told me I was going to hell. Told me the devil was gonna come take my soul.” Talking so much took a lot out of Robert - he seemed faded, like a washed out old photograph.

“What did he look like?” Jim asked as he reached to the floor for a canteen of water he’d brought. He gently lifted Robert’s upper body enough that the sick man could drink comfortably, held the canteen to his lips. Robert sipped like he had no thirst. He lay back down, Jim pulling the old tattered blanket up to his shoulders. “What did he look like, Bob?”

“He was wearin’ overalls first, when he looked like an old black man. Then he... he had on a suit. A black suit, and a red necktie. And he was...” All of this came out slowly, painfully. Robert paused and Jim couldn’t tell if it was just to catch his breath, or was he doubting what he’d seen, afraid to tell it. Finally Robert continued. “He was like you, black and then white. Sometimes both. He said a lot of things, an’ he tole me I was goin’ to hell for the things I done.”

Jim wanted to tell him he was delirious from poison and fever, that he would get better, that they’d leave Greenwood and go to Memphis or Chicago or maybe even Texas, someplace where he could get recorded again. But none of that would have been true, and at this moment Jim didn’t have it in him to tell more lies. So he told the truth - the truth as he saw it.

“You’re not going to hell, Robert,” he spoke quietly, leaning close so RL could hear him. “The man who was here before, he’s a very bad man, and he likes to hurt people. He’s had a lot of fun with you, but it’s almost over now. The pain will stop soon, and you’ll be all right.”

Robert started to speak again but the words dissolved in a coughing fit, more blood coming up. Jim wiped away the blood again, raised the canteen again. “Just relax,” he whispered. “Just relax.”

“I’m dying,” Robert said through labored breath. Not asking.


Robert reached for his hand again. “Will you stay until it’s over?”

“Yeah, I’ll stay,” Jim said, running his free hand through his hair. His real hair.

The time passed slowly for Jim. Boarded up windows kept the night air out and the stifling heat heavy with smells of sickness in. A single hurricane lamp on the rickety table by the bed let off a faint glow - the lack of light was one thing Jim was glad for. The smell of blood and coming death, the rattle and moan of Robert’s rapidly failing body as it gave up its last bit of strength, his muscles and lungs losing the fight. As bad as it was now, Jim knew it had to have been much worse for Robert earlier - he’d been writhing on the floor, howling in pain and possibly even fury, when Jim finally found him. Jim wanted to leave, wanted badly to leave. Fought with himself to force himself to stay. Would have even prayed for Robert’s death just so he could get out of this horrible room, if he were the praying type. But he wasn’t, and he stayed, and was surprised to feel more relief for the end of Robert’s suffering when he finally took his last breath than relief for himself. He pulled the sheet over the body and headed for the door, not wanting to linger, feeling the glamour spell fall back into place as he crossed the room. He stopped at the door, glanced at the Gibson Kalamazoo leaning in a corner. Hustled over for it, then quickly left with the guitar slung over his shoulder, almost running into the blue-black delta night.

Yes, I know what you're thinking - this is all kinds of cringe-worthy. Although maybe not quite as cringe-worthy as the Young Adult novel that I did finish and promptly banish to the trunk, but still. Oy. Even so, I like having this. I like seeing proof that I have gotten better at writing. When I am filled with self-doubt and worry that I'll never write anything worthwhile again, I can look back and know that I made forward progress in the past and I can do so again. That's a good thing to know.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Truth Vs. Fiction

There are unquestionable parallels between my amateur sleuth, Shara Summers, and me. But she is still a fictional character, as are the other characters in my novel DEATH SCENE.

But we all write about what we know, intentionally or not. My mother visited me from Canada recently. At one point she was scrutinising my ceiling and made the comment, "your cleaner's not very good. There's a cobweb on the ceiling".

I had to laugh at this. Shara's mother makes exactly the same comment in DEATH SCENE, when she criticises the cleaner employed by Shara's sister (except in the book the suspect dirt is on the window, not the ceiling). My mother hasn't read the book, so she had no way of knowing this. Maybe truth crosses into fiction sometimes. Or maybe it's just that mothers everywhere are all the same...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Research – A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

Perhaps it’s a carryover from my article writing days, but research is an integral part of my writing process along with plotting, writing, and revising.

The reason for research is simple: to bring an air of authenticity to the story. Even a science fiction writer is likely to consider the laws of physics when creating an alien world. Authors whose stories take place in different times study the customs, language, settings, etc. The Prohibition world of 1920s Chicago is far different from today’s Windy City.

I’ve been engaged in fact-finding since high school. Even then my stories were set in the past  (usually Prohibition). Plots take place during the French Revolution, Colonial America, and World War 2. Recently, I’ve started exploring the Victorian era but haven’t yet found myself brave enough to attempt steampunk. (More research is needed.) :-)

One of the biggest benefits of research is it can lead to interest in other areas. The problem is I can become so absorbed in the new information, I forget my original idea. (Which is why I write them down for future reference.)

Research can also be a starting point. For example, in Death Sword, Xariel, an angel of death, suffers from a sex curse as a result of his teaching the lunar cycle and his former relationship with Samael. During my studies of angels, Xariel (Sariel), also a Grigori, taught the lunar cycle, which apparently was forbidden knowledge. Whether or not he was actually punished for this action, or for simply joining the other Watcher Angels, is probably debatable. For me, the important thing is how this punishment affects his character as well as his motivation(s).

Is research necessary? Depends on the author’s preference. Me? I’m the type of writer to go so far as to find out the temperature of a certain location. For example, in a short story I’m writing, I need to know how cold it was during the Louisville winter of December 1917. This way, I know what my characters will wear and how they’ll react.

Apparently, it was pretty damn cold.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tribute to a beautiful woman

I have lost a wonderful woman.

The world may not know her name and no one would think of her as important, but I do. For so long this woman was my rock, my cheerleader, my confidant, and my biggest supporter. She heard my voice when no one else did and encouraged me to speak up.

She taught me that I don’t need a huge platform to be heard. I just need to speak what’s on my mind and in my heart and eventually, someone, the right person, would hear me. This applied to my writing. When I was struggling to put words to paper, to deal with the rejection letters flooding my inbox, she was the one that encouraged me to keep at it.

When my first book came out, she was in my acknowledgements. Though that was a way of saying thanks, I feel I have not done enough to thank her. I can never do enough.

Now that she’s gone, I am determined to honor her memory, much as I honored her in life. I shall continue writing, because if I don’t, she might just rise from the grave and slap the mess out of me. I will continue to do good for others, because she has always felt that there is nothing so nearer to heaven than to help others. She used to say it didn’t matter how you worshiped or if you worshiped at all, all that mattered was what you did to be a good person and that you did it from your heart, not expecting praise.

My great aunt was a strong woman who was self-reliant, caring, kind, loving and giving. She instilled these qualities in me and every day I continue to remind myself of the type of person I want to be. Though I am a work in progress and not perfect, she taught me to never expect perfection. The only way to gain perfection is to be dead. Part of the fun of life is being a constant work in progress.

In honor of her, I'm posting the below video. She used to love to listen to Elvis's spirituals. Said it did things for her soul. So Auntie, this is for you: