Sunday, September 9, 2018

Penetrating the Heart of Darkness

Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is The Book You Didn’t Want to Read and Ended Up Loving.

This was kind of difficult for me to answer, because most of the books that spring to mind when I cast back and try to recall which I didn't want to read are the ones I ended up hating. If I ended up loving them, I kind of forget that initial pain. Like childbirth.

But I finally settled on HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad, which I had to read for AP English senior year of high school. The edition above is the one I read - and still have.

I know a lot of you mentioned this book when I talked about THE DEERSLAYER as my most loathed book I had to read. And I get it why. I really do. It's a super slow story, which is interesting because at 152 pages, it's really a novella and not all that long.

I'll confess I did not love the story when I read it. I had the same reaction many of you do, that it was boring and impenetrable. I'm pretty sure I read/finished reading it on an airplane, which helped because this was back in the bad old days when we didn't have eReaders with thousands of alternative reads at our finger tips. The book(s) you brought on the plane were the ones you got to read. It was either that or stare out the window at the landscape (I did a lot of that) or talk to your seat companions (no no no).

I remember all of this, even though it was a long time ago, because I was on a series of flights with my mom, visiting various colleges that I'd applied to. (I only applied to three, so it was pretty easy.) One of them was Northwestern, which my first love and HS boyfriend, Kev - who was a year ahead of me - was attending. All of this stands out vividly in my mind, not only because of the love/lust tizzy that consumed me at the prospect of seeing Kev after being separated when he went off to college, but - and this says a lot about my loves and lusts - because of the Northwestern Library.

See, this trip occurred during fall semester of my senior year and I was taking a pretty heavy courseload, including three AP (Advanced Placement) classes. To keep up, I had to do homework on the trip, which meant finishing reading (or reading entirely) HEART OF DARKNESS and writing a paper on it to turn in when I got back. So, I went to the Northwestern Library while Kev was at class to do my research for the paper.

And, people!

Oh. My. God.

I'll never forget the thrill of finding the shelves and shelves of literary criticism on this story. This was pre-internet, and while my high school library was good, it simply couldn't compare to the breadth and depth of knowledge at the library of a major university. Saying it was intellectually orgasmic would not be going too far.

Researching that paper illuminated the story for me in thousands of ways. I understood the allegories and how all that boredom and impenetrability MEANT SOMETHING. I think I'll always love HEART OF DARKNESS for the way it opened new worlds of understanding storytelling for me.

I also got an A+ on that paper.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Planning Is Not My Thing But I Can Make Characters Do It


Our subject yet again is planning, in the short, medium and long term. I’m not a planner of any variety. I addressed the topic as exhaustively as I can in a post here on SFF7 in April, “Planning Is Ants vs. Grasshoppers for Me”. I’ve got absolutely nothing to add so I was thinking about not posting at all today but then I decided to share a quick excerpt from one of my ancient Egyptian paranormal novels because the ancient Egyptians did plan, on the very VERY long term scale. See, so at least I can write fiction about planning LOL!

So here’s my hero Sahure explaining to heroine, high priestess Tyema, what he hopes to do in his career.

From Magic of the Nile, set in 1550 BCE Egypt…edited from published version…

“Do you know who gets to build things in Egypt? Buildings and monuments standing for all time?”

“Pharaoh,” she said, inserting a question into her tone.

He nodded. “Pretty much. Pharaoh and those he empowers or commissions to build on his behalf.”

“Like the consideration he’s giving to creating a new harbor and port city in my province?”

“If the river complex gets constructed, yes.” Sahure sat beside her, leaving a small space between them. Tyema had to fight the urge to slide closer on the stone bench and put her arm around him as he went on speaking. “In my family there’s only one career a man can follow-- the military. We’ve been soldiers going back generations. Fortunately, my grandfather and father loathed the Usurper Pharaoh, hated the way she allowed the Hyksos to have authority in Egypt, which they used as an excuse to plunder and ravage. My relatives were happy to ally with Nat-re-Akhte when he decided enough was enough. They took their battalions of highly trained soldiers into the field on Nat-re-Akhte’s behalf early in the rebellion, reversed the outcome of a hard fought, pivotal battle. He remembers that support with gratitude to this day. Members of our family have done well ever since, received honors and promotions, achieved positions of authority.”

Tyema considered his explanation, never having stopped to wonder before how the current nomarch* of Ibis Province had gained his position. “Like your uncle?”

Sahure nodded. “Yes, he was a successful general and Pharaoh appointed him to replace the old nomarch who’d given his loyalty to the Usurper. The elevation in rank was a reward for significant military victories. And as nomarch, my uncle’s gotten to build, including monuments and temples to carry his name through the ages.”

She thought she saw what he was driving at now. “Your uncle commissioned temples and government houses and a new granary--”

“Right. I want to do what he’s done, but there’s a great deal of competition at Pharaoh’s court for the positions allowing a man to leave a mark on Egypt. And I want to have a hand in actually designing what I build.” His voice was full of firm conviction.  “Not merely oversee the execution of someone else’s plans.”

Tyema was fascinated by this new insight into the ambition driving Sahure. “You said your family was a military one, though?”

“Through and through.” He nodded. “So of course I was destined for the sword and shield from birth.”

Tyema heard an undertone in his voice, as if he hadn’t been completely pleased to be born into the military strata of Egyptian society, honorable though it was. “I know a man doesn’t get invited into Pharaoh’s Own Regiment unless he’s one of Egypt’s best warriors, proven himself.” She touched the golden badge on his shoulder. “And Edekh mentioned the other night at dinner you received gold of valor for breaking the siege at Kharga. I was proud for you.”

Smiling, he captured her hand. “Thank you. Fortune and fate favored me at Kharga.”

(Note: A bit of a jump in the conversation here...)

Author's own photo
“When I was a boy, I spent much time with my mother’s oldest brother, who was an architect. He designed the new portions of the greater temple complex.” Sahure waved a hand in the direction of the sprawling buildings on the rise. “I was fascinated by his tools, by the models his draftsmen built, by the idea of creating something where nothing had been before. As it happens, I had an aptitude for architecture and I enjoy it. Since he was working on this large commission at the time, he indulged me with the assignment to design a nook for contemplation.” His lips twisted in a wry grin. “I think he gave me the task to keep me out of his hair, but I surprised him.”

“Here,” she said, spinning in a leisurely circle to take in their peaceful surroundings.

He nodded. “My uncle did the final drawings, of course. No one but he and I knew the concept was mine. We couldn’t tell my family.”

“Because you were destined to be a warrior?”

“And I am, one of the best,” he said as a simple statement of fact. “I was born with the necessary physical skills, and I had the right training from the moment I could walk. But my greater goal is to be in a position to create for posterity, to ensure what I design is built and acknowledged as mine. Done under Pharaoh’s command of course, for the good of Egypt, but done by me, with my cartouche on the keystones.”

Not saying my entirely fictional hero designed or built any of the Egyptian landmarks still standing but at least he had long range plans...

*Ancient Egypt was divided into 'nomes', like provinces, each ruled by a 'nomarch' under Pharaoh.

Sobek - DepositPhoto

Friday, September 7, 2018

Long Term Planning - They're More Like Guidelines

Warning. Genre quotes whiplash ahead.

I approach Long Term Planning (tm) in the spirit of the Pirates of the Caribbean. You recall the scene. Elizabeth has been captured by the crew of the Black Pearl. She attempts to bargain with Barbossa, quoting the pirate code. It doesn't work out.

Long term planning is Elizabeth. I'm the undead pirate (some days deader than others.)

Yeah, yeah. I know. I handled data for a living. Damn it, Jim, I was a SQL DBA not a project manager! You might think I ought to give you screenshots of my exquisitely sorted (indexed, with prime and foreign keys!) data of my long term planning.

You'd be wrong. This is where I channel Barbossa and growl, "The code is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules."

Long term planning spreadsheets, color-coded and cell-linked are enough like rules to make me want to gouge out my eyes with my pen. I am so glad several people posted shots of their planning spreadsheets for you, and I am honestly pleased those constructs work for them. For me, they're soul and creative impulse crushing. Don't know why. Don't much care why. I only care that they ARE. So I don't do 'em. Won't have 'em. I am apparently not wired to work in that fashion.

Instead, I stick to the guidelines. Of course, I still plan. I absolutely keep track of what I want and what I'm doing to move in that direction. Just - differently. Thus the really, really old school list you see above. Crappy photo on purpose. There are somethings that aren't yet ready for the light of day, even as half-baked ideas.

The handwritten lists mature into other formats and get attached to target dates and Bullet Journal short goals and long goals. No. I won't photograph a Bullet Journal page for anyone else's consumption. I practice NSFW Bullet Journaling and we run a marginally family-friendly blog here, so we'll all be happier without that image preserved for internet posterity. The cats get to see my pages, but they don't judge. Well. Not my Bullet Journal, anyway.

Here's the moral of my disjointed story - it's easy to get wrapped up in thinking there's a right way to do long term planning. And maybe there is a right way. The Right Way for YOU. If you are a linear, analytical thinker, detailed spreadsheets may give you all kinds of creative energy and drive. Yay! If you're a spatial, relational thinker, you're going to be driven to drink by those same spreadsheets simply because your brain works differently. Your tools for long term planning will be no less rigorous, no less valid. But they will likely be much harder to screen shot. Just remember to honor the system that turns on your lights. That's the right one.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Long Term Planning, Fall 2018 Edition

I take the long term plan pretty seriously.   This is probably apparent.  To give you an idea, here's what my big productivity spreadsheet looks like right now. (With elements redacted)

To be clear: that has 59 projects on it, ranging in completeness from "Published" to "Vague Idea".  I have nine different levels of priority (ten if you count "complete", and thus not a priority at all).  I have color coding and project codes. 

I am not lacking for things to do, certainly.

Here's a closer look, still with redactions, so you can get a sense of how I use this to plan for the short term (what needs to be done NOW), medium term (looking ahead about next steps in each thing) and LONG term, because: there's 59 things on there.  Because I need to know, what's the next month look like?  What's the next year look like?  The next five years?  And the answers to these questions constantly evolve.  Part of my system means being prepared for that. 

And the next month, as you can see, has a few things on it, so time to get to it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

When goal-setting becomes counterproductive

I used to be a huge goal-setter and plan-maker. Once, during a 16-week technical writing contract that turned out to be pure agony -- I had to physically clock in and wear pantyhose, for the love of everything holy! -- I hand-drew a calendar and gleefully X'd out each completed day. So satisfying! Later, when I managed a department, I had to-do lists and calendars running for twenty or more projects at a time and felt like I was queen of the freakin universe. My personal planning during college was a thing of beauty.

But becoming a writer broke something inside my brain. (At least one thing, you might say.) I don't make plans anymore. I can't. It hurts too much.

As much as folks say you can't take anything personally in this business -- because it's, well, a business -- the near-constant barrage of failure can be traumatic. I've heard of writers making plans to have X number of releases or hit certain lists or write X number of words each day or earn enough to quit the day job, and I'm not saying don't ever do those things. What I'm saying is be prepared for your meticulously laid plans to go sideways with no warning and through no fault of your own. And be prepared for that to happen a lot.

Writing for publishers is notoriously out of writers' control. I've experienced publishers that went out of business, lines that were discontinued immediately after my story was released, publishers that spontaneously decided not to pay out royalties, one series that just stopped abruptly, crap sales, snarky reviews, and anthologies that languished sometimes for years after the contracts were signed.

At the beginning of this writing adventure, of course I made short-term, medium-term, and long-term career plans. I was the queen, remember? I wrote my goals down, affirmed them, created calendars and lists and committed myself whole-heartedly to gettin shit done.

And each time the industry spasmed and one of my stories -- one of my goals -- was affected, I would look at all those intricate plans and see only lists of failures. Irrationally but inevitably I decided these were my failures, and I owned them.

It's not easy to admit, but there were times when the failures became too much, too many, and depression crept in. My critique partner and I went through a lot of similar experiences and took to calling the big D "the pit." We'd text things like "Pit's deep today," and the other would reply with something like, "Yeah, but you're still good. I still believe in you."

So, I don't make goals anymore. I don't have plans in the detailed sense, save one:

I plan to write stories for as long as I am able and
make them available to whomever wants to read them. 

How precisely this master plan goes down is a wide open who-knows. And that's okay.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Release Day: Exile of the Seas by @JeffeKennedy

Make room on your shelves (or eReaders) for the second book in Jeffe's Chronicles of Dasnaria High Fantasy trilogy! The saga of the erstwhile princess of Dasnaria continues in this thrilling adventure of self-discovery and self-worth! 🎉🍾🎉

Chronicles of Dasnaria, Book 2

Around the shifting borders of the Twelve Kingdoms, trade and conflict, danger and adventure put every traveler on guard . . . but some have everything to lose.


Once she was known as Jenna, Imperial Princess of Dasnaria, schooled in graceful dance and comely submission. Until the man her parents married her off to almost killed her with his brutality.

Now, all she knows is that the ship she’s boarded is bound away from her vicious homeland. The warrior woman aboard says Jenna’s skill in dancing might translate into a more lethal ability. Danu’s fighter priestesses will take her in, disguise her as one of their own—and allow her to keep her silence.

But it’s only a matter of time until Jenna’s monster of a husband hunts her down. Her best chance to stay hidden is to hire out as bodyguard to a caravan traveling to a far-off land, home to beasts and people so unfamiliar they seem like part of a fairy tale. But her supposed prowess in combat is a fraud. And sooner or later, Jenna’s flight will end in battle—or betrayal . . .

BUY IT NOW:  Amazon  |  B&N  |  BAM  | iBooks  |  Kobo

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Being the Yoda of Long-Term Planning

Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is short term, mid-term and long-term planning. I assume as related to our careers as writers, though our topicnatrix KAK did not specify.

I suppose I'm a planner. After all, I am dubbed the Spreadsheet Queen for a reason. I have my writing schedule more or less blocked out through 2020 - though some of that is because I have traditional publishing contracts for books releasing in 2021. Traditional publishing really forces you into the long game, at least five-years out, which I know in many industries barely counts as mid-term planning. Also, because trad publishing is so slow and plans so far out, getting books in that pipeline requires looking ahead a couple of years on top of that. I wrote about this artful juggle back in April. I'd like to get better at this kind of planning with my self-published work, but so far that tends to be short-term to spontaneous.

All in all, I'd say I do a lot of short-term and mid-term (3-5 years out) planning. Longer than that? I don't so much.

Oh sure, I've learned how I'm supposed to. I used to work in corporate America and participated in those strategic planning sessions. I understand how the Japanese plan for centuries out, or however that saw goes.

It just doesn't really work for me. When I think about it, I just hear Yoda in my head.
When I look back, lo these twenty-plus years ago, when I decided to become a writer - and at those ambitious plans, dreams and expectations - I didn't predict very well. Things take longer than you hope, and play out differently than you dream. Also, when I started out I was really too inexperienced to know what would work well for me.

Some of the best things that have happened came out of the blue. I'm Taoist enough to be perfectly fine with the universe bestowing its blessings in its own time.

All that said, the very best thing I have done and continue to do for my mid- and long-term planning is to track how I work. I'm a believer in the concept that the structure of an hour becomes the structure of the day becomes the structure of the week, month, year, and lifetime.

Along those lines I recently initiated two efforts: tracking my individual writing sessions each day and using a tracker for different activities throughout the day.
Each of these is a one-hour writing session (though I track if it's shorter for some reason) and the average number of words for each session. The first tends to be lower because I often backtrack a bit to revise and ramp up, and the last is lower because I'm usually writing to a goal of 3800-4500/day and that 5th session is to pick up whatever remains - often ~500 words - if I have to do a 5th session at all. But it's interesting to me to see that the overall trend does drop off after than second session. This helps me understand what kind of speed and productivity I can reasonably expect from myself.

To track my activities through the day, I recently purchased a Timeular from Zei. That's it in the top photo above. I've only been using it for less than a week, so I'm holding out on the verdict, but so far I'm not in love. I'm not sure their definition of productivity matches mine. Also, I moved to using the app on my phone instead of the dongle on my laptop, because running the dongle/tracking program kept stalling my Word every few minutes. When I'm in the middle of a writing flow, getting that 30-second spinning wheel of NOT RESPONDING got to be infuriating. So, we'll see.

Overall that's more to illuminate how I spend my time outside of actual writing, to maybe pare down non-productive activities. To do that I might have to drill down to more than eight categories, however.

It will be interesting to see how the next twenty years play out!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Book Covers Are the Secret Sauce for Me

Our topic this week is appreciation for our cover artists and I LOVE working with Fiona Jayde. She's been my go to cover person for all my scifi romance novels since my debut SFR Wreck of the Nebula Dream in 2012.  She also did my fantasy romance cover and my most recent ancient Egyptian paranormal romance cover.

The cover is such a key for helping readers find your books - the artwork has to look good in a thumbnail size, tell the reader what genre it is and draw them in to come read the blurb and hopefully one click and start reading. It's a very important piece of the marketing and it's also my reward to myself.

Our process is that usually about halfway through writing the novel, I'm ready to have my gorgeous cover as inspiration while I write the rest of the first draft. I go to the stockphoto sites and search for "the guy", which often takes me half a day and does get exhausting. Yes, even looking at gorgeous sexy guys can get tedious LOL. I use a lot of different search terms and can sometimes ferret out photos no one else has used. Or very few people. Or at least not yet! I send Fiona an e mail with maybe ten to fifteen possibilities although I'll tell her which ones are my favorites.

She winnows through those and kindly doesn't ever tell me which ones are totally impossible. Sometimes she can find alternate poses of a guy that I perhaps liked but whose photo wasn't suitable for a romance cover. In the early days before I really understood the limits, I'd often gravitate to pictures where I'd say things like, "He's great if we could change this or make that different..." Which of course you can't do in a stockphoto, although some minor changes can be made. Fiona is very patient and collaborative, which I value highly. I've learned so much from her!

Even though I write strong heroines, for me the process revolves around the photo of the hero. Make of that what you will! I rarely send Fiona photos of the heroine, unless there's an unusual aspect, like the alien sleeping beauty in  Trapped on Talonque, where I lucked into finding a stock photo of a woman with purple braided hair, exactly like Bithea, my heroine.

Since the 'branding' we've evolved usually has the couple on the top of the cover and an alien scene on the bottom, I'll send her a few stock photos to give her a general idea - is it spaceships, planets, alien cities, a rock concert - but I trust her to find the perfect heroine and the perfect 'landscape'.

Fiona evolved the 'Veronica Scott' scifi font and cover layout.

Sometimes I just ask her to go creatively wild and do the cover from scratch, as with The Captive Shifter, and wow, do I love the results! She knows the genre-specific and reader expectations and can make a cover to fit.

Until my current Badari Warriors series, my best selling book of all time (in its release month) was Star Cruise: Marooned and I really give credit to Fiona for the cover, which I felt at the time and still believe had a huge positive effect because it was so eye catching.

We've also had Fiona do the covers for all three annual editions of the Pets In Space anthology.

I also have to give a giant shout out to Frauke of Croco Designs, who did the cover for my first published book, Priestess of the Nile. She captured the essence of the book so perfectly and I felt so blessed to have her cover art on my first ever release. I believe Carina Press asked her to do the cover in part because obviously she loves crocodiles and the Crocodile God is the hero in the novel - it was all just perfect serendipity.

Frauke has also done a number of my other Egyptian covers and I love them too. When working with her I filled out a questionnaire, similar to what fellow SFF7 member Vivien Jackson described in her post here on Wednesday. I sent a couple of Egyptian images as 'mood' and a few covers I admired but then Frauke developed the covers herself.