Archive for March, 2019

writing life

Origins and Influences: Tolkien

Last year, I started doing some posts on my origins and influences as a writer: the things throughout my life that made me want to write or that made me want to write fantasy. I’ve talked about making up my own stories to go with musical theater cast albums, girl sleuths who probably influenced the kinds of heroines I write, Star Wars and how it woke my imagination in a big way, and children’s fantasy.

In sixth grade, I hit two things that had a huge impact on me. I’m not entirely sure exactly which came first because they were both in the same semester. That fall, I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (and at the time I didn’t know there was any connection between them).

I’d already read The Hobbit in fourth grade, when the animated TV version was on and my fourth-grade teacher read the book out loud to the class (and then I got impatient with the chapter-a-day pace, checked the book out of the library, and read the whole thing). But I hadn’t followed up with other books by the same author or even other books like that. I didn’t really think in genres then. I liked books about certain things or by certain authors, but I didn’t group books into categories. There were witch books and books with elves and books with talking horses, but I didn’t consider that they were all part of a larger category of fantasy.

Though I suppose one reason I didn’t find more books by Tolkien was that in fourth grade, I was using the elementary school library and the children’s department (its own room) in the post library, and I don’t think they generally put The Lord of the Rings in the children’s section. But when we moved to Germany right before I started fifth grade, the American school was divided up in an odd way. Kindergarten through third grade were in one campus and fourth through eighth grades were in another campus. That meant that our school library included books for older readers. I saw The Hobbit on the shelf, remembered liking it, and then saw that there were other books in that “series” and checked out The Fellowship of the Ring.

I was instantly hooked, though I must confess that my favorite part of that series is still the beginning, up until the party splits up. I just liked the travelogue through the world and getting to Rivendell. I wasn’t as fond of it as it got more serious and gritty. Still, I tore through all three books, then got very excited when I saw that they’d made a movie (the animated version), begged my dad to take me when it came to the base theater, then was very disappointed, especially when it just ended midway through the story. Still, the way they depicted the Ringwraiths was gloriously creepy.

Since I discovered the Narnia books at around the same time (though I think that will be its own post), this launched me into fantasy as a genre. I wanted more books about other worlds where magic was real. It was kind of like the fairy tale settings of the Disney movies, but made bigger, richer, and more real. I think my mental writing was still focused on Star Wars-related things at that time, but there were definitely some seeds planted.

I re-read the series in college when I was taking a parageography course and the professor referred to the books often, and I found it rather slow going. It’s funny, I tore through them when I was 11, but when I was 21 they were difficult. I think I may do another read next winter — they’re definitely fall/winter books for me, something to read with a cup of hot tea and a fire in the fireplace. I’m curious what I’ll think of them after seeing the more recent movies, after learning a lot more about Tolkien, and with many more years of life, reading, and writing experience.

There’s been some Internet noise lately after a clickbait blogger with an agenda picked up some tweets by an author I know about the disproportionate amount of shelf space given to Tolkien. It does seem odd how much shelf space this very old series gets in the chain bookstores, given that you can easily find all these books at any library and at any used bookstore. I don’t know who’s buying all these new copies. Maybe nice collector’s editions with lovely illustrations and leather binding, but paperbacks? I’m always tempted to hide a little bookmark in the backs of the books on the shelves full of Tolkien so I can monitor and see if those copies are actually selling or if they’re just taking up shelf space. I find it frustrating because the last few times I’ve gone to a store to buy a fantasy novel, a new release that really should be in the store, all I find are shelves full of “classics.” I hate buying books on Amazon, so when a new book I want in print comes out, I go to a bookstore. And then I usually end up coming home and buying on Amazon because the bookstore doesn’t have it but does have a shelf or two of Tolkien. Given the financials of the chain stores, I’m not sure they’re making the best merchandising decisions. But it’s dangerous to do anything that hurts the feelings of the manbaby whiners on the Internet. Apparently, it got brutal.

Pro tip: Even if someone outright insults your favorite author, it does not merit a death threat. Suggesting that maybe bookstores should devote a little more shelf space to something newer definitely doesn’t merit death threats or even attacks and insults.

And as influential as The Lord of the Rings was in forming my reading taste, I must say that if it’s still your pinnacle of fantasy, maybe you should read more widely. I really side-eye any bookstore staff recommendation tags for Tolkien. I would hope that a) a bookseller would have read more widely and recently and b) they wouldn’t waste that promotional opportunity on showcasing something that anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock has already heard of. And bookstores might make more money if they actually stocked things that you can’t find shelves full of in any used bookstore.

writing life


I have generally found that when I’m stuck on a story, it’s because I’m doing something wrong, usually making a character do something because that’s what in the outline when it’s not something the character would actually do or when it’s not something that would naturally happen in those circumstances.

After spending a day getting frustrated about not being able to figure out how to move forward, I realized I’d put events out of order and had something happen before the logical next step. I backtracked and now it seems to be flowing again.

I think maybe that’s a good lesson for life, too. Sometimes when you can’t seem to move forward, the real problem may be that you’re heading in the wrong direction. You’re trying to force yourself down a path that isn’t right for you, and in order to really make progress, you need to backtrack and figure out what your path really should be.

I’m still working all that out for myself. I feel a lot better than I did last week. I’m still not sure where I’m going to go, but I’ve backtracked enough to allow myself to explore multiple options. My timeline has had to change because of things involving other people, so it may be summer before I start making decisions. I may end up changing nothing other than what my goal really is. But changing my attitude has helped immensely.

publishing business

A Surprise Boost

I got a bit of a surprise yesterday when it turned out that Enchanted, Inc. was a Kindle Daily Deal. My publisher forgot to let me know about that in advance, so I only learned when I got tagged in a tweet about that day’s book deals. So that turned out to be a bit of a distraction as I tried to promote it as well as I could and as I watched my Amazon ranking soar.

But the whole thing emphasized what I’m up against. I could really push myself to tweet, blog, post on Instagram, etc., and not see noticeable results. The publisher does one thing (that I can’t do on my own), and the results are huge.

That’s why I’m iffy on trying to continue doing much independent publishing. I just can’t seem to get the word out there in a big enough way to get results. I can sort of reach my existing readers, but I don’t seem to be able to get beyond that without publisher support. It’s cool that the publisher is pushing this book still after 14 years (though it makes me wonder what might have happened if they’d supported it this much when it was first published), but I have zero control or influence over it. Most of the time, they don’t even remember to tell me it’s happening.

But it was a nice surprise, and it did seem to boost sales of my other books. Hopefully, that will linger as people who bought the book end up reading the rest of the series and maybe spreading word of mouth about it.

Was this enough of a “sign” to keep me going? I don’t know. It means I’ll have some money coming in this summer, but I’m not sure how much. My independently published earnings on Amazon went up by about $40 yesterday, so while it looked like a huge spike on the chart, it may not make that big a difference in my income unless the boost continues and people read the rest of the series.

Sparking Joy

In all my existential angst about figuring out my life, I’ve been really thinking about what makes me happy. I guess you could say I’m doing the Marie Kondo process on my life in addition to my closet and bookcase: what sparks joy? I need to remove the things that don’t spark joy so that I have room for the things that do. And that made me realize that I haven’t been prioritizing things that are actually important to me.

I really hate the term “self care” because I think it says something about our society that we have to coin a clinical-sounding term in order to justify doing things that make us feel good, and then that process got warped into the things we need “self care” to escape from as it became stuff like Instagramming your bubble bath and fretting about whether you got enough likes on it. But I do think it’s good to take time to do the things that make you physically and emotionally healthy, and to spend less time on things that are less likely to do that.

I’ve decided that one priority for me is getting my house in order. I’ve been gradually working on that for ages, but when I get busy with a project, it falls by the wayside. I seem to not be counting that as “work” so I feel like I’m wasting time or procrastinating if I do housework during a workday. But I think that this is important to me, so I’m going to dedicate time to it. It will be even more important if I go back to full-time work to have things in order before my schedule changes. I don’t really spend all my workday on actual work, so when I catch myself doing stuff like reading social media because I consider that to be part of my publicity, except I’m not saying anything so it’s not doing me any good, I’m going to stop and go organize something instead. I need to ask myself if doing something sparks joy, and then go do something else if it doesn’t. I think having my environment in order will really help my emotional health. Then I can have those spa nights or relaxing reading days in peace (and probably won’t be Instagramming them).

Not that my place is a total disaster (well, other than my office). I just really wish I could live in a space that feels like a hotel room with a bit more personalization.

Meanwhile, I’m spending the rest of my time writing and enjoying it more.


The Hills Are Alive

This weekend I finally got to something I’d had sitting on my DVR for months: The PBS airing of the “live” (in the UK, we got it years later) TV production of The Sound of Music — the one they did in the UK, not the US one that I understand was pretty painful.

I have to confess that I’m a huge Sound of Music fan. We had the original cast recording of the stage version when I was a kid, and then I got to see the movie on the big screen when they must have done either a revival showing or a special event (it was at an old theater downtown, as I recall, so it may have been a special event), and I was blown away. When we lived in Germany, one of our summer vacations included going to Salzburg and seeing a lot of the settings for both the movie and the real story. In seventh grade, one of the options for our social studies semester project was reading Maria von Trapp’s autobiography and putting together a presentation using a pie chart about it.

Plus, the music is lovely and catchy and fun to sing, and most of the songs are the sort of thing that are good when you’re feeling down and want to make yourself feel better.

Being in a production of this show was one of my dreams as I was growing up. For the longest time, I desperately wanted to play Liesl and do the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” number. Then I aged out of that and figured I could do Maria. And then I aged out of that and thought doing the Baroness would be fun (she gets a lot more to do in the stage version than in the movie). Now I figure I might make it as one of the nuns.

I may even have killed my chances of being a Rhodes Scholar over this show. I made the cut to be interviewed as one of the candidates from my university, and I’d mentioned musical theater as one of my interests. They asked me my favorite show and when I said this one, they all got that look on their faces, and I knew I’d bombed it. Later, I realized I should have explained about having read the real history and visited the real place, but I was just kind of frozen at the time. There’s that popular perception of the show as being sickeningly sweet, and maybe the movie is, but if you really pay attention to it, there’s some weight to it, since one of the central issues is whether or not to collaborate with Nazis, and they end up leaving everything behind rather than go along (though their escape wasn’t nearly as dramatic in real life. Climbing over the mountain wouldn’t have done them much good because it would have just sent them into Germany. They took a train in real life).

I have to say, I loved this TV production, maybe even more than the movie (aside from the scenery because it’s fun to spot places I’ve been). It’s a film of the more recent stage version, not a remake of the movie, so there are different songs and some of the songs are in different places. The issue of whether or not to collaborate is much bigger. And it fixes one of my main issues with the movie: the costumes. Even though the story is pinned to a specific time, everything else about it is basically the early 1960, especially the hair and costumes. In this version, it looks like the 1930s. The sets even look like pictures I’ve seen of the actual house, and they look like the 1930s (the events depicted in the musical actually happened during the 1920s, and they’d been married for a while and had a couple of kids before they left Austria, but that’s another issue). Plus, Maria’s songs are set for an alto, which is what the real Maria von Trapp was (I think that’s also the case for the original stage version. It was just changed for soprano Julie Andrews in the movie).

Alas, I haven’t seen where any local theaters are planning to do productions of this anytime soon, so I can’t go cross this one off the bucket list by playing a background nun.

writing life

Letting it Go

I spent yesterday speaking to a college creative writing class about the realities of the writing business. I tried to be realistic without being too negative.

But the thing is, I seem to have shed a lot of the negativity this week by admitting it. It just is what it is, and it’s freeing to stop fretting about it. For a long time I’d pushed myself so hard, thinking that maybe if I did something more or did something different, I could change things. I came up with all kinds of schedules and policies to make myself write faster. I angsted over the fact that I can’t seem to get much traction in social media. Maybe if I posted more to Instagram or was active on YouTube, maybe if I went to all the conventions, maybe, maybe … and when I didn’t live up to these expectations, I felt like I was at fault for not becoming any kind of hit, not catching on.

And the truth is that few of these activities move the needle in a meaningful way.

I guess if I wrote more or faster I might make more money by getting more books out there, but from what I’ve heard, the Amazon algorithm is set to require you to publish something every 60 days to maintain any kind of visibility, and even if I wrote more or faster, I still couldn’t hit that and sustain it, not with the kinds of things I like to write that are longer and require a lot of research.

I don’t think I’ve sold enough books because of someone discovering me on social media for it to make that big a difference. Really breaking out in something like that requires something to go viral, which you can’t plan for or control, and it seldom actually affects book sales. Only something about the book itself going viral would do anything to book sales, and that’s not something I could post. Maybe if a celebrity posted about it, it would help, but if I go a few days without tweeting anything, it’s not going to make a difference in my book sales. Ditto with any other social media.

I think I got some boost from going to conventions early in my career, but once I became familiar at those cons, I don’t think it had much benefit. I never saw a corresponding rise in sales after going to a WorldCon. I spent a year in which I went to every event that invited me, and it didn’t change anything.

You can either look at that as depressing or see it as liberating. Realizing I can’t control things means that I’m not really to blame for not doing all of these things, and I can stop beating myself up over it. I can get back to the work, the part I like, and if I come up with something that I want to publish, I can, but I don’t expect anything I do to have a big payoff, and I don’t blame myself if it doesn’t.

Purging my twitter feed of the people I felt I should follow has already made me a lot happier. I was trying to be a good networker and followed people I met at cons or was on panels with, and I tried interacting with them. It turns out that few of them followed me back, and they didn’t engage when I tried interacting, and when I met them at later cons they acted like they’d never met me. I didn’t need a constant reminder of how great their careers were going. So, if they didn’t post things that I found interesting or that made me happy, if they didn’t follow me, and if they never interacted with me, I unfollowed or muted them.

I’ve realized that I’ve had fewer nightmares this week. I’ll have to check my blood pressure and see how that’s doing. I may give myself a mental health day today, then next week look at how I want to use my time. I do want to write, I know that now. I’m just not going to worry about what I’m going to do with it.

writing life

Making Plans

Apologies if I alarmed anyone yesterday. I think our culture has some unhealthy attitudes toward negative feelings, so that expressing them is seen as some kind of danger sign. I’m actually feeling really good. I’ve had so much of that negativity simmering beneath the surface for so long, with me refusing to acknowledge it, so being able to say that this is bad and I’m unhappy about it and going to do something about it was a rather positive thing. I feel like I’ve taken back control of my life.

If I were working for someone else and my pay kept getting cut even though I was doing the same amount of work and even though my work was generally considered to be of good quality, and if I kept having new duties added to my work that weren’t in my original job description, and if I never got promoted and I was ignored or forgotten when it came to getting assignments or opportunities, I’d definitely be looking for another job, even if I liked what I was doing. Why not allow myself the same consideration when I’m working for myself?

I started thinking about what I’d want to do if writing fiction was off the table, and I think my dream job using my existing skill set would be to do communications work for a non-profit, some cause I could believe in. That’s where being able to find and tell a story using narrative structure can really help. Spouting statistics doesn’t get much of a response. Telling a story about people we can relate to does. And as soon as I put that out there, I got a response from someone who wants to talk.

That gave me the idea of maybe starting a business doing this as a consultant to smaller organizations that can’t necessarily hire a full-time staff member but still need some help. Sometimes just helping them find their story and developing their talking points and then maybe creating some brochures and web site copy is all they need to get them going, and they can take it from there. That way, I’d still have the flexibility and freedom I enjoy now, but I’d have another source of income and something else going on in my life to give me a sense of accomplishment and purpose. That would lessen the sting from all the ups and downs of a writing career. And I might still be able to write — if I didn’t have a lot of work, I could do some writing, or if I had a writing deadline, I could back off on work.

I may still need a little time away from the publishing world just to get my head back on straight and find the joy in it again. I’m feeling pretty beaten up right now and need a new perspective. I guess I’m still looking for a sign that I should stay in it.

But it’s amazing how good it feels to have a plan. You can’t have a solution to a problem unless you acknowledge the problem, and that can mean facing some negative things. But once you analyze the problem, you can start coming up with solutions. I hadn’t realized how long I’ve been living in a constant state of worry, hurt, and misery, and it feels like a huge weight off my shoulders to get it out of my system. I wonder if some of my health problems may even have been related to this eating away at me. Now, in the immortal words of Elsa, I can Let It Go!

writing life

Moving On

I had kind of a rough Monday in which a lot of things that had been simmering below the surface came up all at once, which forced me to look at some things in a different way, with the result being that I actually let myself acknowledge some issues, and that may end up leading to some big changes.

So, there’s a good chance that I’m going to quit writing for publication this year. I’m essentially moving backwards, selling fewer and fewer books, making less money, being less known. When I got upset about not being invited to cons, not being considered as a special guest, not being included as a workshop speaker, I tried telling myself that it didn’t really matter, that it was just my ego being bruised. But the fact is, if you’re not known in this business, you’re not selling books. You have to have a certain amount of visibility to get fame, and you have to have a certain amount of fame to get visibility. I’ve had a few times when I seemed close to cracking into that cycle, but it never stuck, and now, after 14 years of being published in fantasy and 14 books, I’m farther away than I ever have been. I’ve done what I can to promote, and now am at the point where making it anywhere is going to take something bigger than me, beyond what I can do, something I can’t control or make happen — a movie or TV series based on one of my books, a celebrity discovering my books and talking about them, going viral in a good way.

Otherwise, maybe this isn’t where I need to be. My work may be lacking whatever “it” it takes to break out. People like it, but it doesn’t seem to generate the kind of passion that makes something take off, that makes a publisher give it a push, that creates an active fandom that gets noticed. There’s also the fact that I really hate being my own publisher. I don’t like having to deal with and negotiate with people to do editing, art, and design. I’m currently in the middle of a weeks-long panic attack about contacting an artist about cover art. I was doing this through my agent, and she handled that stuff, but she got out of that and now it’s on me, and I’m not very good at it and don’t enjoy it, but publishers haven’t been all that interested in me lately, and I don’t have the numbers to get them interested. I like writing, but publishing is getting to me. Meanwhile, I’m making less and less money with each book, and it’s no longer enough to make a living. That means I need to change careers.

I can’t quit right away, since I still have editorial revisions to come on the book for Audible, and I have some other commitments, so I can’t even start looking for a job until May. I’m going to keep working on the book I’m currently writing, and maybe it will be something publishers are interested in and that will make me change my mind. There are things that can happen between now and then that may change the way I feel — if my sales go up, if Enchanted Inc. 9 does really well and gets a lot of attention, if something happens to give me hope that things will get better. I’m just giving myself permission to quit and move on if I still feel the way I do now.

The ninth Enchanted Inc. book will still come out (if I can make myself arrange for cover art). I don’t know beyond that. I may still end up writing in my spare time because that’s what I like doing, but if I go back to a full-time job, I’m not going to force myself to spend my spare time that way, and I may not worry about dealing with publication. I’m so used to working at home that an office job will be a huge adjustment. If it takes a while to find a job, I may work on Rebels 4 in the meantime. Or something wonderful may happen that gets me going again and this will have just been a down phase in my career that makes me appreciate the good things. But at the moment, I think it’s been fun, but I’m ready to move on instead of constantly worrying and struggling and feeling bad.

I’m sorry if I’m leaving any series incomplete or disappointing readers, but I can’t afford to essentially work for below minimum wage and keep taking pay cuts, and I’m just not emotionally up to everything that comes with publishing. I need some financial security and to not have what I’m doing so tied into my self-image.

Out of the Comfort Zone

Sunday was a big “step out of the comfort zone” day for me. Our church was doing a Sunday focusing on women and their role in the church, so they had women doing all the major parts of the service. But we have two simultaneous services and one female pastor, so our pastor asked me to do the “sermon” part for the traditional service (since I had to sing in the choir). It wasn’t a regular sermon. What they were doing was a dramatic monologue done from the perspective of a woman in a Bible story, and they looked to me, as a writer, to write and present something.

I used to do a lot of drama stuff. In high school, I was in drama club. I was in plays and competed in things like prose interpretation and dramatic monologues. I took drama classes as most of my electives in college, and they were my favorite classes. I took some acting classes and was in a show when I was right out of college, so this was within my skill set. But doing a play is different from essentially presenting the sermon in church on a Sunday morning, especially when it was an unusual kind of sermon. There’s some resistance to “drama” in church. That made this a little scarier than reading scripture (which I’ve done) or even singing a solo.

I spent most of Saturday rehearsing it, trying to memorize it. Then it turned out on Sunday morning that there was a handy spot to hide my notes for reference, which relaxed me, though I ended up not even looking at them. I think it went pretty well, but I went into out-of-body experience mode and don’t really remember it. I just started talking and it all came out, and next thing I knew it was over and I had to run back to the choir to sing.

It’ll be nice to let the pastor talk next Sunday, I think.

And now back to writing my usual stuff.


Unfair World

I’m sure everyone’s heard of the college admissions scandal that’s made the news this week. I went to one of the universities involved (the University of Texas). I did get in fair and square, and although it’s a lot harder to get into now than it was then, I probably still would have been automatically admitted since I was a valedictorian and National Merit Scholar.

I didn’t even know until I got to school that there were courses you could take to learn to take the SAT. I just took the practice exams in the registration book, and I think I got a book from the library with more practice tests. Then I got to the university and learned that there were things like advanced placement courses you could get college credit for, as well as test prep classes. I was from a small town that didn’t have any of these options. I couldn’t help but wonder what my score would have been if I’d had that kind of help.

Then there were the things people with money could take advantage of once they were at school. There were entire businesses providing notes and materials for classes — professional note takers who went to the big lecture classes (we had some classes with as many as 800 people in them) and took notes that students could buy so they didn’t have to attend the classes. The fraternities and sororities supposedly kept files of the notes and past exams for these courses to help their members.

But I think my first real awareness of just how unfair the world could be came when I was applying for internships in my field, broadcast journalism. There was one highly coveted internship with the Austin bureau of one of the Dallas TV stations. That intern not only got to do real work, but it was a rare paid internship — a whole $4 an hour. I went above and beyond to apply, not only going through the formal process of submitting an application, but since I had press credentials for the state legislature, thanks to another internship, I got into the capital newsroom and approached the correspondent to talk to him about my application. He called me in for an interview, then had me come back for a second interview. He liked my work samples and my resume tape. I had high grades, good previous internships, and had even won a scholarship granted by the company that owned his station. He made it sound like I had the job and he’d be getting in touch with me to finalize it.

About a week later, I ran into one of my professors, who asked what I was doing for an internship that summer. I told him it sounded like I had that one. He then told me that, actually, someone else had been hired. The photographer at the bureau next door had brought his younger brother with him to work and sent him over to talk to the correspondent. The younger brother was a bit of a screwup who’d dropped out of the school he was in (he hadn’t made it in to my school) and was looking for something to do. Not only was his brother in the business, but his father had been in the business and was influential. So he got the job on the spot.

Then when I’d graduated and was looking for a job, I heard about an open position at the Dallas bureau of one of the networks. My real career goal was to be a field producer for a network — not being the on-camera person, but doing the groundwork to prepare the story — so getting in at the ground floor at a network seemed like a good idea. It turned out that this was more of an administrative/clerical job, part time, and at minimum wage. The bureau chief liked my resume and my tape and said I had the ability to do what I wanted — but I would probably never make it. He was willing to hire me, but he discouraged me from taking the job because it wouldn’t get me where I wanted to go. I’d have a better chance getting a reporting job at a local station and hoping for a big news event that would bring me to network attention. Otherwise, all the jobs were pretty much filled by network executives hiring their friends’ kids, and their friends hired their kids in return. If I didn’t have some connection with a major corporate executive or politician, I would have a very hard time making it in the business.

After that, I started looking for other jobs in addition to reporting jobs, and after I got tired of going to interviews with news directors who were enthusiastic about me but admitted that they couldn’t hire me, I took a job in public relations. It was probably for the best because what I really, truly wanted to do with my life was write books, and I’m not sure I’d have had time to write novels while traveling the globe, doing the groundwork and investigation for TV news stories. But I do have to wonder how many talented, bright people there are who missed out on opportunities because they didn’t have connections. And then there are all the people without the smarts or talent who got opportunities handed to them and probably wasted them. I don’t think that guy who got the internship I was on the verge of getting ever ended up going into the business, in spite of his connections. As far as I know, he didn’t even finish school. For him, it was just something to do with his summer to keep him out of trouble and make his father happy. For someone else, it might have opened the door to a career.

I guess this is something I’m also thinking about because the book I’m working on is about someone struggling to get past doors that have been shut to people like her. I do seem to be writing a lot lately about people upending unfair systems.