Scribble and Nosh

When I left the practice of law, my writing schedule developed a certain mass. I would work on new pages in the morning, a secondary project in the afternoon, and what I called production (copy edits, looking for cover art, updating the website) or marketing/social media tasks in the evening. I got a lot done on a good day.

Several years on, I’m still pretty productive, but that afternoon project is increasingly also a production task rather than a writing task. The publication rights for the entire Lonely Lords series plus a few novellas have reverted to me (yay!), and that has meant a lot of re-reading and re-packaging (not so yay), for books that are in their sunset earning years.

Mary Fran and Matthew CoverSome of the shift to more upkeep and less output has been because of those older books reverting, some has been because I cannot travel to the places that inspire me the most plot-wise. I have noticed though, that a different kind of writing project has nudged its way onto my schedule.

I now have what I call “nosh” projects. My Lady Violet mysteries are one example. I intend to write at least six (one more to go), before I start publishing them. They aren’t on any announced deadline, they aren’t romances (though there’s a romantic arc), they aren’t likely to earn as much as my romances do. I just kinda felt pulled in that direction, and I have had fun writing these stories.

I’m also writing something I call My Book Hates Me, which is intended as a consolation and inspiration for other authors. It’s non-fiction, part how-to-write, part memoir (much that abets me as an author I learned in courtrooms and practice rooms), and a no-particular-order sort of discourse. I may never publish it, and I go for days sometimes without opening the document. I hope I finish it, I hope it sees publication, but there’s value simply in working out what I want to say and collecting it in one place.

To allow myself projects that aren’t on the path to producing income, that have no real schedule, that proceed by inspiration or not at all, is a change for me. Maybe as we move into a post-COVID or less-COVID phase, I will resume the previous schedule. There aren’t that many older books left to revert to me, and travel is once again looking more possible.

But I like these nosh projects, I like feeling as if some of what I do during the day is simply an open-ended frolic. It’s writer-stuff, but not revenue-stuff, and maybe that’s a healthier way to ply my trade over a long term.

Do you have nosh projects? Hobbies that could generate income but don’t have to? Were you raised by people who indulged in nosh projects? To three commenters, I will send signed paperback copies of How to Catch A Duke, which comes out this week!!!!

Positively

I am not much of one for positive thinking. “Look on the bright side,” has always sounded to me suspiciously close to, “Your suffering does not matter, if it’s even real, and even if it is real, I don’t want to hear your whining because why should anybody care about your little woes?” My grown-up head knows that, “Look on the bright side…” is intended as a consolation, a counterweight to whatever feels overwhelming and gloomy, but my emotions do not always correspond with my venerable age. A shocking revelation, I know.

I am just as twitchy about the old, “You can’t change what happened to you, but you can control what you DO about it,” thinking. Sometimes, that’s valid. Just deal with bad luck or unkind fate, and soldier on. But other times, “what happened to you,” is the result of an institutional harm. More women are seriously injured in automobile accidents than men, despite women being the better drivers, because cars are designed to keep men safe at women’s expense.

You can go to all the rehab you want after that accident, get counseling, and cope with the PTSD, but keeping the focus on you “controlling what you do about” the accident obscures our deadly complacence as a society toward women’s safety on the road. Stop lecturing me about self-advocacy and my individual choices when you ought instead to be lecturing profit-driven car manufacturers about their responsibility for dead and maimed women.

I could go on. Suffice it to say, rose-colored glasses get a big old side eye from me. A little more pessimism in the planning stages of some of our social media enterprises might have saved us all a lot of angst and invasion of privacy.

But then I came across this post from Fred Wilson whose thing in life is venture capital. (I don’t know beans from Shinola about venture capital or non-fungible whatevers.) His point is that if you’re given a choice between rooting for the Celtics or dissing the Knicks, rooting for the Celtics is the better option. Criticism and analysis have an important place, but not as a universal default. The universal default should be what we’re enthusiastic about, what we treasure.

I am highly critical of social media, but I treasure this blog. Doing business with some of the larger book retail platforms is an exercise in enduring frustration and disrespect, but a couple of the smaller platforms are absolutely delightful to deal with.

If I let negativity be my default–and there’s tons of conditioning pushing us in that direction–then a) I’m pretty miserable, and b) I lose sight of much that is legitimately joyful, and c) I’m likely to connect with only fellow doomsayers and reinforce my grouchy, anxious tendencies. Phooey on that.

So let’s keep the comments simple: What are three things that give you joy? I’ll start: This blog, spring flowers, a hot cup of jasmine green tea. Big joy right there. Your turn. I’ll add three commenters to my ARC list for the June release, Miss Delectable.

 

 

Under Advisement

One of the tools a novelist uses to tell a story is the reflection character. This person can be a sidekick, mentor, antagonist, companion animal… all of the above. The possibilities are endless. The reflection character’s job (and there’s often more than one reflection character in the cast) is to illuminate the protagonists’ progress as they inch and stumble their way along the arc from a safe, wounded mode of living to a courageous, risky–loving–approach to life.

On a practical level the reflection character is a way to put into dialogue a lot of the musings and fretting that would otherwise take place only inside a protagonist’s head. Dialogue is generally more engaging then straight narrative or description, so that’s a crucial role. The reflection character is also fertile ground for the next book’s protagonist. The character’s asides, anecdotes, and advice all give the reader little hints of coming attractions.

And in the past year, I’ve had less access to my own personal reflection characters. I haven’t hung out with family, and they–being the people who knew me when–often have insights about my upbringing that nobody else can offer. I’m not around other writers at conferences or retreats. I’m not talking to strangers as I travel overseas and gain insights into myself and my home culture. I don’t even get to hang out with my horse or my ridin’ buddies as I used to.

I am at risk for living a less examined life of late, because I have to do all the reflecting on my own, and yet, I’m not completely at sea. In addition to online resources–such as they are–and my own capacity for insight, I’ve also collected a store of wisdom over the years. Some of this advice came from long-ago therapy sessions: If you need it to be happy, you need it.

Another old chestnut from therapy: Anger usually sits on top of another more vulnerable emotion, such as fear, betrayal, or grief.

Some goodies I collected while studying conflict or lawyering: Defining the problem accurately is half the battle of solving it. A non-anxious presence can also be half the battle of solving a sticky problem.

And some gems came to me from friends and family. My dad passed along this insight, which I think goes near the top of the Most Useful Stuff Dad Said: If you face a tough decision, you might not know which choice appeals most strongly, but you can usually tell which option has the least appeal. When in doubt, pay attention to what you know you don’t want.

As a young female adult, I found that guidance particularly useful. I had not been socialized to pay attention to my own needs, wants, or druthers. But I could tune in pretty easily to the things I dreaded or despised. I could gauge future regrets more easily than future joys, and so I backed into some good decisions.

I could go on–learn to spot forced choices and what motivates them. Always pace yourself for the long haul. Don’t waste your fire on people who don’t appreciate you.

I still have reflection characters in my life after all. What about you? What would you say is the best advice you’ve ever been given? The worst advice? To three commenters, I’ll send e-ARCs of the $.99 novella anthology, Shelter and Storm.

 

Stop, Thief!!!

So there I am, in the shower, which I consider a place of refuge because No Tech, and No Stress (I know how to take a shower), and into my head gallops a little ditty called Erlkönig or Elf King. Goethe wrote the poem based on folklore; Franz Schubert turned it into a lied (art song), and my mother learned to play a piano version when she was a girl.

It’s spooky music, all minor and full of tremolo, and a spooky tale. A father is riding through a stormy night, inclement weather bearing down, a sick child in his arms. The child–maybe delirious?–sees the Elf King, who tempts the boy to join him in fairyland. The father reassures his son. It’s just the shadows, it’s just the whisper of dry leaves, it’s just the swaying of the willows in the darkness… and all the while, the music is growing faster, modulating up a half step, becoming louder.

Old Schubert knew his stuff. The Elf King claims he’ll snatch the child by force, though the father has arrived at safety at last. But too late! Dad finds to his horror that the child in his arms is dead. In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

I get to that part, and I just start crying. Why must das Kind be tot? That’s an awful song. Who writes this crap? Half a million Kinder are tot from this stupid virus, and I hate that. And why did this song accost me in the shower when I haven’t thought of it for years?

Then I’m dreaming–I don’t dream much–and the gist of the story is, an autistic child cannot speak until the music starts, and then the lyrics pour forth. What is going on here? Crying in the shower, dreaming? Grace Ann? Is this birthday business? Signs of spring? A new book germinating? Inquiring minds are flummoxed.

Then I’m scrolling through social media, and I see somebody has posted a St. Patrick’s Day version of their church choir doing a virtual rendition of Be Thou My Vision, which–irrespective of theology–is a great old hymn. I sing along, scaring the cats.

Speaking of cats, I’m out on the front porch, feeding the Vandal horde their daily ration of wet food. When Sunny Gets Blue pops into my head, an old torch song I haven’t heard since college. I serenade the cats, and again I’m curious: Where is this coming from? Yeah, I have a music history degree, but that thing is 40 years old…

And then I think: I got my vaccination. I got the one and done vaccination, and this rubbishing, stupid, idiot, detestable pandemic stole my music, and I didn’t even notice. It’s normal for me to cry to sad music in the shower. It’s normal for me to dream music. It’s normal for me to sing–hymns, torch songs, pop tunes. I’m not any good, but I love music.

And I have not sung, danced to, or dreamed music for the past year. Oh, that is an abomination against nature that is. That is thievery of the worst sort, because I did not realize my heart’s pocket had been picked. For shame, damned virus. For shame upon you.

What has the pandemic stolen from you? Are you seeing any signs of hope? To three commenters, I’ll send an e-ARC of Shelter and Storm.

Not Yet Heaven

I love this “not yet” time of year.

It’s not yet time to plant the flowers (except for pansies!!!). Our frost date is still a few weeks away, but we’re getting enough warm afternoons that it’s time to start dreaming of geraniums, petunias, and impatiens.

It’s not yet time to put away the long sleeves and sweaters, but some days, the heaters shut off for hours, and the quiet is amazing.

The trees are not yet leafing out (or making pollen!) so the sunlight comes right down from the heavens to warm and brighten the earth. I love that brightness when I’m outside, and love it coming in through the windows as I sit at my writing desk.

The bugs are not yet out. This is a big one for me. I hates me some house flies and skeeters, to say nothing of the ticks that gave me Lyme disease. I know all of creation depends on bugs, but it’s not yet time to tell myself that three times a day.

This time of year lets me wake up with the sun, and still have a long, dark evening for reading and nosing around the Brit Box documentaries.

We might still get some snow, but it will be what my mom called onion snow. It won’t last, and the trees, bulbs, and beasts will shrug it off–as will I.

My horse is shedding, and soon we won’t have to play the “put your big blanket on, take your big blanket off. Put your light blanket on, and shake it all about…” Darling pony will roll in the dust and mud and be a happy, dirty guy just as Divine Providence intended him to be.

It’s not yet hot, muggy, and humid… not yet loud because the windows aren’t all open all the time and the Yard Patrol hasn’t yet begun subduing the grass twice a week.

It’s not yet time to weed and weed and weed, not yet time for poison ivy (I excel at getting poison ivy). Hot tea still tastes wonderful first thing in the day, though the house isn’t frigid when I come downstairs in the morning. Hot soup and cheese dreams makes a wonderful supper, but I can also take my last cuppa tea out onto the porch if I want to bundle up and watch the stars go by.

This time of year feels to me as if mother nature is drowsing in bed, knowing the alarm will go off eventually, but it hasn’t yet, and she can enjoy a few more weeks of peace, rest, and quiet.

How does this time of year, and this time of THIS year, find you? To three commenters, I will send out ARC epub files of Storm and Shelter, the April anthology that includes eight–count ’em!–novellas for $.99!

 

In spring, a young-at-heart author’s thoughts turn to…

One piece of advice fiction writers hear a lot is, “Give your characters goals in every scene.” To me, that dictum shades a little toward visual media, because the idea is that an audience will become invested in the character’s striving toward the goal, and in the repeated disappointments and surprises as the scene goals elude Our Hero/Heroine.

I don’t know as book characters need to be that obviously running gauntlet after gauntlet, because readers can peek inside the characters’ minds and hearts more frequently and deeply than a screen audience can. The interior landscape, particularly in romance, women’s fiction, and YA, can be more compelling than a race to Boston to win the jackpot.

But goals do matter, whether the goal is tangible like that race to Boston, or intangible, like self-acceptance or the courage to fail. It strikes me as I’m writing, writing, writing my way through the pandemic, that my goals lately have taken on a different feel. The past year has been tough, whether you are struggling with how to manage kids/work from home/elders-at-a-distance, whether you are in Texas, or whether your cousin’s restaurant has gone bust.

Or whether you have lost loved ones among the half a million casualties.

Our objective has been to survive, to endure, to make it through, or to recover. Virtually every disaster movie and thriller ever conceived has exactly that goal, and unless it’s a tragedy, after significant hardship, the protagonists prevail. Where I am, the vaccines  are in very short supply, but we’ve been conscientious about masking, distancing, keeping the schools closed, and handwashing.

Our positivity rates are at about 3.5%, and hospitalizations and new cases are on the wane. The election is behind us, and there’s a sense that the worst is behind us too.

And yet, we could still blow it. We still have major economic readjustments ahead, many people have lingering recoveries to make, and there are those variants lurking in the bushes. Now is not the time to let down our guard, but I find myself looking for some way to ease up a little. To exhale, to have that happy scene in the middle of the book where optimism and courage forge new ground.

There are other names for that scene, but in a romance, the point in the middle of the book is to give the characters a glimpse of the emotional riches ahead if they will remain loving, brave, and true to their honorable selves and each other. To fortify myself at this seventh-inning stretch, I’m writing a little novella. All the happily ever after, but in one third of the words. A frolic, and one I haven’t indulged in for a while.

I’m jealously watching the crocuses sprinkled around my yard, and they have rewarded my vigilance. I polled my sisters about a family trip in 2022, and the reactions are enthusiastic. Next we’ll research destinations… I’m launching a new series in June, and hope to have my first mystery series on the shelves–the whole six book series–by autumn. I’m looking forward in ways I haven’t for the past year, and it feels good.

Are you feeling the urge to indulge in a seventh-inning stretch? What does that look like? I’m starting my ARC list for Miss Delectable (already!), so pass along those comments and think spring!

 

What’s In a Nickname?

The Biggest Bluff is among the books I’m enjoying of late. I you haven’t come across it, the premise is: A PhD behavioral psychologist sets out to understand the balance between luck and skill in her life by conquering poker. The author, Maria Konnikova, studied confidence scams for her doctoral work–hence a game that blends probabilities with bluffing appeals to her–and this is her third NYT bestseller.

I like the psychological insights about everything from why we fall for well told lies, and why we have little instinctive sense for how probability works. I like watching Maria’s progression from novice to pro, but what has interested me most about this book are the personalities.

Every world-class poker player, eventually, is given a nickname on the tournament circuit. “Chewy,” might be the handle given to Elliott Funk, because he looks like Chewabaca, doesn’t say much, and never misses a trick. “Ironman,” goes to some guy named Arthur Winchell, because he does pushups during breaks. The Charminator reels you in with his friendly table talk, but watch out, because he can bluff anybody.

There are two kinds of nicknames, though. There’s the moniker conferred by the collective wisdom of your peers and competitors, and there’s the handle you choose for the online tournaments. One is the label the worlds gives you; the other is the label you want the world to associate with you.

I like this idea of intentional naming. I get to do it in books, choosing who is a Hiram and who is a Sebastian, for example, and I chose my pen name. The name conferred upon me at birth was a foregone conclusion, because one of my mother’s patron saint’s name days was in the same week. That all important first name, by which I will be called a million times in life, was just a function of when I popped into the world.

My pen name, though, was my decision, based on who I wanted my shelf neighbors to be (Loretta Chase, Joanna Bourne, Mary Balogh), and what name I thought resonated with my brand.

If you were going to choose the name by which you would be known among friends or co-workers, a brand new name selected to fit the persona you want to project, what would it be? Conversely, have you ever been given a nickname? Regency society dubbed Sally, Lady Jersey, “Silence,” because she was a compulsive talker. Wellington’s men referred to him as “Old Hookey,” because of his proboscis. And the nickname Lord Bryon applied to William Wordsworth was not very nice AT ALL.

To one commenter, I’ll send an ARC of Miss Delectable. This title goes on sale May-June, so the ARCs will come out in April.

 

Your (Apple) Core Story

There is a school of thought among romance authors that a writer must find her “core story,” and learn to tell the heck out of it. That’s the piece of the craft puzzle, so this theory claims, that opens creative doors; builds a big, devoted, readership; and leads to first-rate fiction. These authors will reliably tell version after version of their core story–small town lady crawls home (or off to Tuscany) to sort out her life after falling from grace in the big city, for example–and should they wander too far from that narrative, their readers will nudge them back onto the core story path.

I got to considering this notion of a core story this week… I threw in with the Mennonites in my thirties, for many reasons, and one of the first things that struck me about Mennonite culture was how it valorized persecution.

Mennonites read the Protestant Bible, but you can’t spend much time around us without hearing about The Martyr’s Mirror. This tome was the largest book printed in America prior to the Revolutionary War. Originally penned in 1660 and written in Dutch, it recounts a whole lot of official murder and misery inflicted on especially Amish and Mennonite believers. The stories and woodcuts are gruesome, and every Mennonite school child is exposed to them (or was until recently).

The book is more than 350 years old, but it is still venerated as an accurate recounting of the Anabaptist core story–not only its origins, but its current narrative. Not that we were victims of persecution, but that persecution is our fate, demanded by our faith.

That is, of course, not the sum of Mennonite theology–much of which I still embrace–but neither is it an aspect of the Anabaptist story that I want to move toward. I don’t think of myself as a core-story author, and seems to me a core story can be a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, that story can memorialize virtues and triumphs, on the other… Do we close doors by sticking to the old tales and expected endings?

I recall my mom attributing many of her own behaviors to “the potato famine,” from cooking way too much, to keeping an overstuffed junk drawer, to inviting anybody and everybody (including some people she should not have allowed into the house) to dinner. But my Irish ancestors were in comfortable circumstances during the potato famine, so why hark back to that tragic tale?

Does your family or employer have a core story? Do you like to read certain tropes and premises over and over? No giveaway this week–I’m donating to some charities active in Texas and Louisiana instead.

Grinchin’ with Grace

Valentine’s Day always makes me a little uneasy. I’m all for love, and for appreciating the people we love, but Valentine’s Day focuses the celebration on one aspect of adult(ish) relationships–the bonded or bonding-in-progress romance.

For some who’ve lost a spouse, I imagine this day is the hardest of the year. For people recently dumped from a long-term relationship, Valentine’s Day is also no fun. For school children, I wonder if it’s still the same puzzling exercise it was for me.

Each child at Our Lady of Perpetual Anxiety (I’m Catholicizing here) was required to walk up and down the rows of desks and leave a Valentine on the desk of every other child in the class. Our moms had to buy the packets of ready-made Valentines, and we stayed up the night before addressing the cards. Some of the Valentines I received were thus from children who refused to allow me to sit at their lunch tables and referred to me as “it.”

Happy Valentine’s Day?

Why, from elementary school on up, do we give this one aspect of some people’s social life a Hallmark nod? Intimate relationships can help us become our best selves (somebody should write a book about that), but intimate relationships can also be lethal, toxic, financially disastrous… Half of all marriages are still ending in divorce, and many of those not ending are miserable.

What is this holiday trying to say?

What does making an international occasion of Valentine’s Day say to a lonely heart? To the one in four women (and one in ten men) experiencing intimate partner violence? I dunno, friends… I would gladly give you back Valentine’s Day for some universal family/personal wellness leave. I’d give you back Valentine’s Day for a drop in domestic violence statistics. I’d give you back Valentine’s Day for a commitment across the chocolate industry to use sustainably sourced, fair trade cocoa.

But then I took a look at this page from the National Retail Federation, where (scroll down) it breaks down the estimated $22 billion Americans will spend on Valentine’s Day into categories. Only half that sum is likely to be spent on partners. The rest is spread over friends, relatives, pets (about $1.3 billion!), co-workers, and others. I’d still like to see the name of the day changed, maybe to Care About Each Other Day, but it appears we’re prying the holiday free of its historical pair-bonded roots, and I hope that’s a good thing.

Where does Valentine’s Day leave you? Is there a holiday you’d like to see added? A time of year that needs another day off? I’m in the process of drafting a Christmas novella for the Rogues to Riches series. One commenter will get to name the Viking kitten who has taken up residence in Pietr Sorensen’s vicarage. We can’t use Loki, because Nathaniel Rothmere’s horse has that moniker…

The Hokey-Pokey

If you want to watch me shoot around the room backward with steam coming out my ears, then avail yourself of Amazon’s “quality assurance” tools, and report as wrong something in my books that is not an error. Tell Amazon that I used the incorrect word when I absolutely did not, or inform Amazon that my grammar is in error when it’s correct. (Rhetorical font!) Amazon kindly passes each and every ding on to the author and expects us to fix or explain them all, lest the book suffer the dreaded Quality Warning. (Not that Amazon pushes out the corrected files, of course…)

Folks, I honestly do not expect a 100,000-word book that’s sold for $4.99 to be perfect. The publishing industry rule of thumb (outside of Amazon) is about one typo or other error (homonyms, transpositions, miscellaneous fumbles) every 20,000 words. A handful of boo-boos per book is considered within normal limits by the big New York houses.

And yet, if I had three wishes, squeaky clean book files would be among them (as would world-peace-and-justice-with-great-chocolate-and-a-livable-planet-for-all). One study I saw claimed that the top reason readers cite for not finishing a book is too many bloopers. So here’s Jeff Bezos himself helping to clean up my books for free (well…), and I’m in an intergalactic swither because readers sometimes miss the mark when they try to assist.

“Grace Ann,” I ask myself, “aren’t you ever both wrong and passionately sure you’re right? Frequently in error and seldom in doubt, like our best old friend Percival, His Grace of Matchmaking?”

You will be astonished to learn that I am. I was a staunch advocate for term limits on political office, for example, but the research says term limits actually have an anti-democratic impact. Well, pooey. For a long time, I was wrong about the word “delope,” because my mother used it to mean “decamp.” I did not know that loath and loathe meant different things.

What it says about me, when I shoot around the room backward over a reader mistakenly taking issue with a single word, is that I would rather be right than learn something. I’d rather be right than open-minded. I’d rather be flawless than human. It says I should not have to take the time to double-check, when it’s my name–and nobody else’s–on those books.

I need to simmer my behonkis down and get some perspective on the fine art of acknowledging author errors. Amazon’s quality do-loop has problems (authors get trolled, and you can’t fix a file that died on your old computer five years ago), but the larger issue is my reaction to it. I do want to know when I’m wrong, I want my books to be squeaky clean. At least for new releases, I have the time (and files on hand) to do the double checking.

Have you ever been wrong even though you KNEW you were right? Has anybody ever presumed to correct you when they themselves were mistaken? How do you handle the whole business of feeling like you’ve screwed up? To one reader, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.