Escapist Reads

I know I’ve mentioned my search for “cozy” fantasy before, but I’ve been thinking about it again recently, and then there was some discussion on Twitter yesterday, so I thought I’d bring it up again in a form that’s a lot easier for me than Twitter (I don’t write well in short bursts).

A lot of the fan mail I’ve received about the Enchanted, Inc. series is about how these books helped people get through difficult and stressful situations. I’ve heard from moms who read them while on bed rest during difficult pregnancies, people who read them while sitting through chemo infusions, people who read them while in ICU waiting rooms, even people who read them out loud to stroke patients. These readers thanked me for writing something fun and optimistic that wasn’t too stressful to read but that was still engaging enough to hook them and take them away from their surroundings.

Lately, I’ve had the chance to see just how important that can be. I’ve been dealing with some medical stuff that’s involved a lot of tests, scans, and the like, and then waiting for results that could have been scary (they weren’t). One of the issues I’ve been dealing with is possibly high adrenaline levels that are spiking my blood pressure and pulse rate, which means that for a while, until medication got that under control, it was literally bad for me to get too tense. I was reading a book I was enjoying, but I had to put it aside near the climax because I just couldn’t deal with the stress of worrying about the characters. I could feel my blood pressure rising while reading it and could only finish it once the medication started working.

What I needed was what I guess you’d call escapist fantasy. But that’s tricky to find. For one thing, it’s hard to write because it’s a challenge to have enough tension for the book to be engaging without it being super stressful. If you do manage to write that, it’s a very tough sell because editors are looking for intense books. A lot of readers love it when a book rips their hearts out. Angst sells. “Grimdark” is a big thing.

But it’s not just about having a happy ending because the process of getting to a happy ending can be stressful. The romance genre is built around a guaranteed happy ending, but there are romance books that are difficult for me to read because they put the characters through the wringer first. What I’m looking for is really hard to define, and I’m sure it varies by individual because everyone has their own triggers. For instance, I just can’t deal with gambling in books. It stresses me out, big-time, especially in the kind of story where the person has to stake all they own at very high risk. I also have a very hard time with institutional injustice, like a frame job where the authorities are in on it, so the person has nowhere to turn.

Some things I tend to look for:

  • Nothing really dire happening to or threatening the viewpoint character — you may notice that in my books, most of the real suffering happens to other characters while the viewpoint character is the one coming to the rescue without actually going through more than worrying about those other characters. The tension is about whether the protagonist will save the others, not whether she’ll survive or be okay.
  • Moments of hope or joy even during the tough parts.
  • Friendships or relationships that provide support during the tough parts.
  • At least someone with some kind of power (magical, legal, financial, etc.) on the side of the good guys so that there’s a power balance with the villains.
  • More focus on the heroes than on the villains.
  • The stakes focus more on the world than on the characters — the story question is whether they can make the world a better place, not whether they’re going to survive

Even if books like these exist, finding them and identifying them is tricky, and you may not know until you’re midway through whether or not a book will be “safe” for you at this time. Mostly, it seems to be word of mouth. Apparently, word really spread about the Enchanted, Inc. books in some mothers of multiples forums, and that’s why so many moms were reading them during bed rest. So, I thought I might start a list of books that work for me in these circumstances and why. That may also give an idea of what I’m looking for.

  • My Enchanted, Inc. series does seem to work for other people, though for me it’s stressful reading because I want to edit it. I would like more of something like that, but written by someone else.
  • Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are generally what I re-read when I need a comfort read. I suppose bad stuff does happen sometimes to his main characters, but there’s still a reassuring sense that it will all work out, so I trust him to get me where I need to be. The humor and sense of hope help a lot. I just wouldn’t re-read the last book if I’m not up to strong emotions.
  • It’s science fiction rather than fantasy, but To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, is a big comfort read for me. The stakes are high — history itself — but there’s zero worry that the main characters are going to suffer horribly.
  • Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, is a lovely gem of a book that leaves me with a satisfied sigh.

I’ll have to go back through my reading logs to see what else I’ve found, but these are the ones that come to mind and that I reread often when I’m too stressed out by the real world to handle stress in my fiction. And I’m open to suggestions. I’ll have to put the list somewhere on my web site so people can find good recommendations when they need a low-stress, escapist read.

Subscription Services?

I took a short break to visit my parents, and now I’m hoping to be fully in summer work mode. There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to do this fall, once we’re back to it being cool enough to go outdoors without bursting into flames, so I need to do the bulk of this year’s writing during the summer, when I’m huddling indoors under the ceiling fan.

Of course, wouldn’t you know it, we got a thunderstorm this morning, right after I got up to go take my walk, so that kind of ruins the whole “summer” thing. Not that I’m complaining. I’m definitely okay starting a June day with the windows open, listening to the rain.

One of the topics of discussion at that conference I went to was subscription models like Patreon. I hadn’t really considered doing something like that because I make decent money from my books and don’t necessarily need my fans paying subscription fees for access to my stuff. But it sounds like this has almost become a new promotional platform, with the money you make a bonus. So, you might post a blog there that doesn’t require payment, and then there would be bonus content at various payment levels. Just the announcement of the bonus content gives you something to publicize in between books. Some writers post movie and TV reviews there. Some serialize novels, and some post short stories or deleted scenes.

I’ve been putting most of that kind of stuff just on my blog, and the thought of having to produce extra stuff, in addition to writing books, is a little stressful. But since that seems to be where the cool kids are, it might prove to be a way to stay in touch with fans. On the other hand, I don’t even have 600 Twitter followers, so it’s not that likely that I’d get enough patrons to make it worthwhile.

One thing I’ve considered to start with is doing some rewatch reviews of Once Upon a Time, from the perspective of a fantasy novelist. An online forum I’m in is doing an organized rewatch, so this might be something I’m doing anyway. These posts might be more detailed than I’d do in a regular blog, and it might be of interest both for fans of the show and for writers (because, oh, is there a lot of What Not To Do, especially as we get into later seasons). I wonder how many people might be willing to pay $1-2 a month for access to something like that, along with other writing advice-type posts.

But, really, I mostly need to spend the time writing.


Writing Short

I ran all my errands this morning, so I think I get to just focus on work today. I’ve finished a short piece I was working on, and we’ll have to see if it’s something the person who asked for it can use. I’m not a good short story writer. I get frustrated with the short length and want to develop it more, but then it’s no longer a short story. When it’s truly a short story, it feels too short and underdeveloped to me.

This is why I get angry when writers persist in giving the advice to write short stories first. Short stories aren’t the training wheels version of a novel. They’re an entirely different form, and the ability to write one doesn’t mean you have the ability to write a novel. I’d say it’s more like roller skates vs. a bicycle. They both involve wheels, and some people can both skate and ride a bike, but learning how to roller skate isn’t really going to help you ride a bicycle, other than maybe having leg muscles and a sense of balance.

Learning to write short stories teaches you how to use words, maybe a bit of character development and plotting. But the character development you do for a short story is entirely unlike what’s needed in a novel. The plotting you do for a short story doesn’t necessarily scale to a novel-length plot. Worldbuilding and how it’s conveyed are different.

I don’t think it’s even any easier to sell a short story than it is to sell a novel. With so many online publications, it might have swung back lately, but without the online magazines, there are drastically fewer venues for short stories than there are publishers for novels.

I worry when the “write short stories first” advice gets spouted because if I had taken it, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I heard that advice when I was a teen wanting to write, and I tried writing some short stories. They all failed utterly, mostly because my brain was trying to write a novel, so when I came up to the end of the word count and I was just getting started, I threw in a rushed resolution. I had to get into romance writing, where short stories are something you’re more likely to do later in your career when you’re invited to participate in anthologies, and write a novel before I found out that this was a lot easier for me, and from there I was able to get back around to fantasy.

I make a living as a novelist now, and although I’ve written a couple of short pieces in my own world, I’ve never actually sold a short story.

So, if you want to write short and are good at it, then go for it. That’s a perfectly valid way to start a career. It just isn’t the only way, so if you don’t write short stories well, go ahead and write a novel.


Solo and Star Wars

Now that I’m back from my trip and had a holiday weekend to recover, I’m ready to hit summer. This means getting up early for a walk, and I hope to spend the days indoors, making incredible writing progress. It’s looking like it’s going to be a hot summer, but I may be able to fake myself out. I’ve discovered that Amazon Prime has “sleep sounds” videos of rainy nights, so I may be able to fake a good rainy writing day by closing the blinds, sitting under the ceiling fan, and playing the rainy night video.

One thing I did over the holiday weekend was see Solo. I really enjoyed it — it might not have been quite as awe-inspiring as some of the other Star Wars movies in that I doubt it would have made me a lifelong fan of the franchise if this was the first movie I saw, but it was still a great summer action movie involving characters I like. It kind of had a Firefly vibe, right down to using a spaceship to rob a train, and for me that’s a feature, not a bug. We get to see how Han met Chewbacca, how he got the Millennium Falcon, and exactly what the Kessel Run was all about. They even addressed what’s always been seen to be an error in the original movie. Ever since the time Han bragged about making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, people have been talking about how that’s a unit of distance, not time, so he was bragging about running the 100 yard dash in 40 yards. Well, this movie explains exactly how that worked (spoiler: it’s a shortcut).

They had a great cast and some fun characters. There’s room for at least one sequel and possibly a spinoff with a character who seems to be a setup for her own story. It wasn’t as moving as Rogue One, but it was just the sort of thing I wanted right now.

Watching Solo reminded me that I hadn’t finished watching the special features on the DVD set of The Last Jedi, and the “The Director and the Jedi” documentary was really interesting. It’s a glimpse into the creative process behind a movie like that, going from figuring out the budget and the sets they’re going to need, to the preproduction, to the filming. Obviously, a lot of hard work goes into these films, but it was nice to see that everyone also seems to be having fun even while taking it all quite seriously. Also, I may have developed a teeny crush on Rian Johnson. Is it a sign you’re getting old when your celebrity crush from a movie is the director?

Summer Already?

I can’t believe it’s Memorial Day weekend already. Summer’s beginning (traditionally and soon meteorologically, not astronomically) and I feel like we skipped spring. I should probably do the winter and summer closet swap because I doubt I’m going to need flannel pajamas or a heavy sweatshirt anytime soon. Alas.

It’s also the weekend of a new Star Wars movie. I love that we’re getting more Star Wars content now, but at the same time, it used to be such a major event when we only got a movie every three years, and then there were those big gaps. Now it’s maybe a little less special when it happens every year. But still, more Star Wars is good, as long as it’s good, and I could use something fun right now.

Then we’re having our Memorial Day concert Monday night at church.

So, busy weekend, but I’ll fit in some relaxing because I’m still recovering from my trip and then a bunch of other stuff I had to deal with when I got home. Still, in all the excitement, I manage to draft a short story, and I may even like it.

My plan for the summer is to buckle down and do some serious writing. I will hide in my cool cave and emerge in the fall with a few books.

writing life

Nebulas 2018

I’m home from the Nebula Conference, which is the annual conference of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This is my one real travel convention of the year and is one that I prioritize. The first time I went to one of these, it was really just about the awards banquet, with a few programming items and the business meeting, but it’s evolved into a real conference that’s exactly what I’d been looking for.

When I first started writing, I belonged to the Romance Writers of America. Although I always wanted to be a fantasy writer, I started off in romance, mostly because that’s what I had information about. RWA had local chapters with monthly meetings and a big annual conference. This was where I learned everything about the business of publishing, as well as a lot about craft. After a few romance novels, I really found my footing in fantasy, but since my fantasy novels had strong romantic elements, I kept a foot in both worlds for a while. Then RWA moved away from the “strong romantic elements” stuff to focus more squarely on romance, and I let my membership drop. But I did miss that annual conference, several days of being with other writers in my field and learning about what’s going on in the industry.

The Nebula Conference is now very much like that RWA conference used to be, though on a smaller scale. There’s a mass autographing session, conference workshops, and the awards ceremony. I like that the scale is smaller because it’s a lot more intimate and less overwhelming. I also like that it’s built more on the model of a science fiction convention, so the programming starts at 10 (rather than 8) and there’s a hospitality suite for meals rather than all those hotel luncheons. It’s kind of like the writing/publishing side of a WorldCon, broken out into its own event.

What did I learn this week?

  • I learned something about Draft 2 Digital that I wasn’t aware of previously, which should end up earning me more money.
  • I learned about ways to get more/better speaking engagements, which should end up earning me more money.
  • I learned enough about online advertising for books that I might dip my toes into that, and we’ll see if that earns me more money (are we seeing a theme?).
  • I picked up some hints on how to use social medial more effectively. Maybe one day I’ll really figure that out.
  • I got some ideas of how I might be able to use a patronage type thing to promote my work and maybe earn some more money.

I came away with a rather epic to-do list, and as soon as I get past a couple of deadlines I’m hoping to carve out daily time for dealing with this business stuff.

Meanwhile, I met a lot of interesting people. I think I pick up more new Twitter followers at one of these conferences than I tend to do at a WorldCon. I got to present a Nebula Award to a friend, which was almost as good as winning one, myself.

The people doing the matching for the mentor program should start a matchmaking service because they were almost eerie in how well people were matched. I was glad I signed up as a mentor, in spite of the Imposter Syndrome kicking in and trying to tell me I had nothing to teach, because looking out for someone else and making sure she had a good conference helped me not have my usual social awkwardness and shyness.

Oh, and I came home with more additions to the Strategic Book Reserve. My goal is to read some of the advance reading copies before the books are officially published.

Travel Needs

I’ve been busy wrapping up some things and getting ready for my trip to the Nebula Awards weekend. I may try to post from the road, but things are going to be busy, so I’m not sure it will happen.

As I’ve been planning my packing, I found myself thinking of a feature they used to have in the travel section of the newspaper, in which they had various famous people who travel a lot tell what things they can’t travel without. Of course, they were mostly useless for normal people because these people were rich and traveled in first class, so it was stuff like “my personal set of silk sheets and cashmere blanket.” So, here’s my more realistic list of travel must-haves that make life on the road easier:

My travel hot pot — I don’t drink coffee, which means most hotel coffeemakers are useless because they produce hot water that smells and tastes like weak coffee. I have a small travel hot pot that’s about the size a school lunchbox thermos used to be (before they made them smaller and a different shape). I bring tea, hot cocoa mix, spiced cider mix, some herbal teas, and chicken noodle cup o’ soup. That allows me to have a cup of tea before I face the world, cocoa at bedtime, a refresher whenever, and I’ve got a light meal, if necessary. I learned to bring the soup when I was traveling on business. Our company’s travel department always seemed to have us fly late in the day, so we could put in a full day of work before going on a business trip. That meant I usually got to my hotel after they shut down room service, and far too late to try to go out to eat. After a few meals of hot cocoa and Doubletree cookies, I learned to bring soup.

A pair of yoga pants — these are a multi-purpose garment. They work as pajama pants with a nightshirt, if the room is cold. I can wear them to the hotel gym or to take a walk. I’ve used them as a swimsuit coverup. Mostly, though, they’re for comfortable lounging in the hotel room. I try to travel light, so I often bring just a couple of skirts or pairs of slacks and then have different tops. If I change into yoga pants whenever I’m in my room, I can hang up the skirt/slacks and let them freshen up/not get dirty or wrinkled.

A pair of those fuzzy spa socks — I use these as house slippers while in the hotel room, and they’re also good for recharging if I have a break during the day. Taking off your shoes and socks and putting on the spa socks even for a few minutes can make a big difference, especially if you’re on your feet a lot.

A couple of binder clips — these are good for organizing documents, of course, but they’re also good as clothespins if you’re hanging something up on the over-the-tub clothesline, and they’re great for clipping the curtains shut so you don’t get that gap that lets in light.

My tablet and bluetooth keyboard — I bring this instead of a laptop when I travel. It works as an e-reader and as a computer for Internet access. I haven’t tried to do heavy-duty writing on that keyboard, but the keyboard is nice for making social media posts.

Earplugs — I use the silicon putty kind that you stick on the outside of the ear canal, since the kind that stick in the ear are uncomfortable and tend to fall out. They’re good for dulling the usual hotel noise of the ice machine, people in the halls, plumbing, etc., but I can still hear the alarm clock and fire/smoke alarms.


Preparing for the Press

Next week, I’ll be going to the Nebula Awards conference. I’m not up for an award, but the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has turned the awards event into a conference for writers. There is an awards banquet and ceremony, but it’s surrounded by other activities, including workshops for writers.

I’ll be doing a workshop on dealing with the press. This draws upon my pre-writing background. My degree is in journalism, and as a student I worked in radio, television, and print. I ended up getting a job in media relations, where I used my journalism experience to pitch stories to reporters and help doctors prepare for interviews. That then got me a job at a public relations agency, where I was involved with our media training workshops to help our clients get ready for press interviews, and I continued that in my next job, where I traveled around the country doing media training sessions for clients.

Since I became an author, I’ve been on the other side of things, being interviewed by reporters. I’ve even been on a TV studio interview segment.

Now I have to distill all that into a half-hour session. Whew!

But doing that has made me realize how weak my own PR efforts for myself have been. I haven’t been doing the things for myself that I would have advised clients to do. I haven’t thought a lot about my key messages or what I want to say about myself and my books. I haven’t delved into all the opportunities that are now available for promotion, like podcasts, to pitch myself and my books. I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that I really don’t like doing public relations. There’s a reason I write full-time, in spite of the fact that it comes with a lot of financial uncertainty. I hated my old job, and doing it took a lot out of me. I’m great with the strategy and with coaching others in how to do it, but the actual day-to-day activity of implementing a strategy was utterly soul-sucking. My last couple of years were probably my happiest (minus the last few months). After I tried to quit because I was so miserable, my boss helped me essentially create a job that involved the things I liked to do and none of the things I hated, with a flexible schedule and mostly telecommuting. It only fell apart when that boss left. I doubt I’d find that kind of opportunity again.

I guess what I need is a minion to implement a strategy I come up with, but I’d have to do a lot of publicity work to sell enough books to be able to afford a minion. And I’m not sure that really ramping up any publicity I could do for myself without the backing of a publisher’s publicist would actually move the needle all that much in selling books. I’m better off spending my time writing and getting more books out there.

But even if you aren’t pitching yourself for interviews, there may come times when people ask you for interviews, and for that, you need to be prepared. And I need to be prepared. And thus, the workshop.


Finally, the book is done! Well, this draft, at least. I’m not totally happy with it. I think I’m going to make another pass on the ending later this week to fine tune it. Then when I get back from the Nebula Awards conference I’ll re-read the whole thing. But I got to the end. Yay!

Today’s fun is catching up on the stuff that hasn’t been done while I’ve been focused on writing. My kitchen is something of a disaster area at the moment. I have some business/admin tasks to deal with. And then there’s the epic to-do list before my trip next week.

I also finish entirely with children’s choir tonight. It’s the “sharing program” in which the children’s choirs perform for their families. So I have to get them through one more song, and then there’s a pizza party, and then I’m done until September.

Finishing a book gives a similar feeling to the end of semester in school. There’s a moment of “done!” elation, but then you feel strange and a bit guilty when you’re not writing/studying. You’re torn between doing all those things you said you’d do when you were done and doing absolutely nothing.

I do think I’ll allow myself some patio reading time later today. That counts as work because I’m developing something that I need to get done, and it requires a little research reading.

If I get everything else on the list done by Saturday, I’m planning on a purely relaxing Sunday to rest up for a busy week.

Almost There (Really!)

Still not there, though I did make good progress and have the rest of the book outlined, for real this time. All the bits are tying together, and I can see patterns emerging. So yay! I think …

I’m dying to clean my house right now, but I will prevail!!!!

I may have to shut off the wi-fi, close the blinds, and put in earplugs so that I don’t do anything else until I get this book done.