Posted in Books, Other People's Awesome, Politics, Pop Culture, Publishing

The Excellence You Swear You Cannot See

nicole's bookThe Romance Writers of America has released the names of the nominees for their yearly RITA Awards, and, you guessed it, they’re about as diverse as a glass of milk beside a plate of sugar cookies with white chocolate chips. So all of us writing and publishing types have taken to the Facebooks and beyond one more time to discuss the diversity problem. Even among those of us nice white cis straight folks who have stopped twitching every time we admit it exists, there’s a lot of panic, anger, and confusion when we start trying to decide what to do about it.

Like most of the RITA nominees, I’m a middle-aged straight cis white woman who writes books. In my current romance WIP, the heroine is Persian. In the Southern gothic I finished earlier this year, the protagonist is a Black woman. In the next book I’m scheduled to write, one of the main background characters is gay, and I’ve written multiple gay characters into books in the past, from medieval romances to urban fantasy. Having even this much diversity in my work does great stuff for me as an artist, assuming I do it right. It makes me step out of my comfort zone and enriches my narrative voice in everything I write; it broadens my market for the finished product.

For the cause of diversity in publishing, it does dickory do.

michael's bookEven if I do my research, get every detail as right as it’s possible to get it, my non-white, non-straight, non-cis characters are never going to be drawn with the same authority a writer who shares that identity could give them. And at the end of the day, my success with these books, artistic and otherwise, is success for yet another white straight cis writer. And don’t get me wrong; I am all about succeeding. Nobody is asking me or expecting me or wanting me or any other white straight cis writer to be otherwise, and I wouldn’t oblige them if they were. But if I honestly give a shit about creating a level playing field for all writers, I have to work beyond that, outside it. I have to get past my own fear of failure and focus that part of my energy on people who aren’t me and work that isn’t mine. I have to stop thinking like a writer and think like a reader instead. And as a reader, I have to actively seek out diverse voices. And when I find good reads from those voices, I have to make sure other readers know about them, too.

Every time an award-nominating body or a publisher or a whatever gets accused of lack of diversity in their choices, their first excuse is always, “We would have been diverse; we wanted to, really, really, but we just couldn’t find anything to read at the level we were looking for that wasn’t written by a white straight cis person!” That’s bullshit so blatant, it’s laughable on its face, but still, my purpose here is to be helpful. So in addition to the amazing work of already-famous people like N.K. Jemison, Michael Cunningham, and Colson Whitehead, let me recommend a kind of Whitman’s sampler of fiction from various genres written by amazing writers whose work I happen to know. As a reader, I would recommend any and all of them without reservation—this, my kittens, is the good stuff. If you want your own reading and publishing in general to be more diverse, this is a great way to start. Click on the links to buy. Read them, review them, tell your friends. Be part of the solution.

Sisters of the Wild Sage, a collection of weird western short stories by Nicole Kurtz, a Black woman. Nicole also writes horror, science fiction, and urban fantasy, and it’s all well worth your attention.

A Fall In Autumn, an amazing new science fiction novel by Michael Williams, a gay man. Futuristic noir, first in an on-going series.

Black Magic Women: Terrifying Tales by Scary Sisters, an anthology of horror short stories written by Black women. I have already gnawed the ears off everybody who will listen about how great these stories are, but if you haven’t read them yet, DO IT NOW.

Girl In the Gears: A truly fun steampunk adventure by E. Chris Garrison, a transgender woman. First in an on-going series.

And finally, dear ladies of the RWA RITA-nominating committee …

Passion and Ink: The latest bestselling contemporary romance by Naima Simone, a Black woman with multiple series on-going and a voracious readership of romance lovers of every ethnicity.

And so many others I could happily mention if I had the space. If you can’t find the best work in your favorite genre being written by writers who break the white, straight, cis mold, then I’m sorry; you’re just not trying. And if anybody has other recommendations for me, by all means, add them to the comments!

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Posted in Editing, Writing process

Protect Your Through Line. Be Batman.

My fiction writing teacher in college told us there are only two kinds of stories: character stories and situation stories. In a character story, the protagonist evolves over the course of the action from one thing into another—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rocky, and “The Ugly Duckling” are all character stories. In situation stories, the protagonist(s) is/are dropped into a negative situation, and the action of the story is how she or he or they deals/deal with it—Moby Dick, Twelve Years a Slave, and Night of the Living Dead are all situation stories. Most stories have some crossover back and forth—the hero of a character story evolves by dealing with a series of situations; the poor saps in a situation story might well be changed forever by their harrowing experience. But the spine of the story is one or the other; the reason the story exists is to demonstrate either how this person evolves or how this person or these people get out of the mess they’re in.

My fiction writing teacher in college was wrong about a lot of stuff, but I think in this case, he was right on the money because what he’s actually talking about is a through line, and every good story has one. The greatest hook, the most interesting characters, the most mind-blowing world-building fiction has ever known won’t save a story that wanders all over the place and takes forever to figure out what it’s trying to say or, worse, never seems to figure it out at all. Yes, you need to grab the reader’s attention; yes, you need to show them something they haven’t seen before or haven’t seen in quite that way before. But more important than all of that, you have to give them something to hold on to at the very beginning that they can keep clutched in their fist all the way to the end. They have to know what or whom to root for and why. Otherwise, they are just not going to care.

From my reading, I would say the biggest and most common problem talented and hardworking new and indie writers have is their through line–either not knowing what their through line is or not making it plain to the reader early enough to do them any good or not following it through to the end. This is the single most common reason why they aren’t getting paid for the stuff they’ve worked so hard to write, why they aren’t getting accepted by publishers, why the stuff they publish themselves isn’t selling. (Untalented and lazy new and indie writers don’t sell because they suck.) And it feels really complicated; it feels like a hard fix—I actually had to look up the definition of through line before I started this because it’s such a vague and floofy concept. But you can train yourself to recognize the through line in other stories pretty easily, and once you’ve done that, it becomes easier to find your own.

So how do you find it? Step one: is it a character story or a situation story? Step two for a character story: how does the character evolve? Who are they in the beginning? Who are they in the end? How do the different things that happen in the story change them from that first thing into that second thing? Step two for a situation story: what’s the problem? How do they fix it? At first glance, the situation story looks simplest, and it can be—there’s a reason why murder mysteries and Godzilla movies never go out of style. But a good situation story can be incredibly artful and complex, and a good character story can be packed front to back with action. Every origin story about every superhero ever written is a character story—mayhem does indeed ensue, but only so Superhero can deal with it and thereby become the Superhero she or he is meant to be.

Actually, the best example I can think of to demonstrate what I’m talking about is the trilogy of Batman movies written by Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Because they are action movies about a superhero, they might all three seem like situation stories. But in fact, both Batman Begins and  The Dark Knight Rises are very much character stories that exist primarily to show the evolution of the character of their protagonist. In Batman Begins, every incident that occurs leads Bruce Wayne further down the path to becoming Batman. It’s not a single situation to be managed but a series: Escape the audience of an opera about bats; survive the mugging; try and fail to make a new life as an orphan; try and fail to get revenge on his parents’ killer; go off to Asia to feeeeeeel something; take the blue flower to the top of the mountain; etc., etc., etc.—this is why haters like me think this movie takes foreeeeeeeeeever to get started, but in fact, it’s a very carefully and deliberately crafted character story that begins with Bruce Wayne as a child and ends when Batman saves the day and becomes a superhero in the imagination of Gotham City.  The Dark Knight Rises is almost the same story in reverse. Batman begins the story as a feared and hated public figure and through a series of incidents that thwart his efforts to be a superhero at every turn evolves back into private citizen Bruce Wayne. Only The Dark Knight is a situation story—it’s Godzilla, and the Joker is the monster. It’s complex, beautifully crafted, and has amazing character work throughout, but the point, the spine, the through line is, the Joker appears, and Batman has to deal with him.

But what’s all this fannish movie commentary got to do with the writing we’re doing now? Picking the spine out of a story that’s already grossed a couple of billion dollars is easy because that story already exists; how do we apply this mind trick to our own stuff? By doing it in the second draft. Every how-to book on fiction writing in the universe will tell you every story starts with a “what if?” Your first draft is for exploring that, following it down all the dark alleys and squiggly forest paths, spending half a chapter inside the head of the villain “remembering” childhood abuse, getting to know the characters, finding out shocking secrets you never dreamed they had when you started, letting them lead you along, letting the incidents lead you along, cause and effect. Your first draft is an organic, growing, evolving, mutating monster, and it’s your precious baby, and you love it, and you should, every little morsel of it. But in the second draft, after you’ve put that baby away long enough to forget just how hard it was to make, that’s when you find that spine, that through line. That’s when you look for evolution in your main character and look at the situations they survive and decide which one is more important for your story—what does your story spend more time and energy pursuing? Where do you start? Where do you end? What exactly are you trying to say? Are you all about your character, or is it all about the situation? Define that through line. (And by the way, if this story is part of a series, you have to do this for every single installment. Telling yourself it will all make sense by Volume 3 is the primrose path to disaster.)

Then comes the REALLY hard part. You have to jettison every single freakin’ thing that does not serve that through line. ALL OF IT. If you start out with an aaaaaaa-maaaaaaa-zing action hook about two kickass characters who create the MacGuffin then disappear for the rest of the story, guess what? They’re outta here! And if you finally figured out in Chapter 9 that the protagonist is really a werewolf trying to find a cure, guess what? Chapter 9 just became Chapter 1 – or at least some elements of it have got to be moved to the front. Again, if I had to pick one problem that I see over and over again, that would be it—stories that start in the wrong place or wander off across cool but pointless pastures of narrative in the middle. And it’s all because the writer skipped that second draft. Before you start worrying about typos or commas or markets, you have got to deal with that. Find your through line. Polish it up, make it so shiny your reader can’t help but grab it and hold on to the end. Be Batman.

Posted in Books, Fairy Tale Romance, Free Reads, historical romance, Medieval Romance, Paranormal romance, Witch Romance, Works-in-Progress

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 1

viking and the witch serial coverSo here lately, most of what I’ve been writing and publishing has not been historical romance. But y’all know me; I can’t just give it up. So I’ve been working sporadically on an old school paranormal just for my own amusement, and it occurs to me that y’all might want to see it, too. All the cool kids I know have started serializing stuff on their blogs and elsewhere to bring in more traffic, and that seemed like a good idea, and a good fit for this story. I’m not promising anything, but I’m going to try to put up a new chapter at least every couple of weeks. It’s a work-in-progress; the finished, published product might turn out very different. So by all means, let me know what you think.

xoxo Lucy

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Chapter One

The late summer raids had gone well. Asmund and his brother, Hagen, had seized much spoil and lost only one man in a month of sailing up and down the British coasts. But now a sudden squall with high waves and deadly lightning seemed determined to kill them all. Asmund leaned all his weight against the tiller, willing the longboat to come about to face the waves head on.

“We must turn back!” Hagen shouted over the roar of the wind. “We must try to find the shore!”

“Help the others bail!” Asmund shouted back. If his little brother wouldn’t keep his peace, he’d kick him overboard, prince or not. The shoreline was the last thing he wanted to see now. The storm would break them like twigs against the rocks and suck them down to oblivion under the cliffs. All that could save them now was the open sea where the water was deep enough to absorb the force of this storm. Hagen was young; this was his first long voyage. He didn’t understand. But Asmund had no time now to educate him.

“Row, you dogs!” he shouted as another great swell rose before them. “Faster! Faster!” The rowers obeyed, leaning into their oars, some of them with eyes closed in prayer or concentration as they trusted him and the gods to steer them through the tempest. Even Hagen had fallen to his task, scooping water in a leather bucket with his back to the storm. Only Asmund saw the dragon’s head prow silhouetted by a flash of lightning against the solid black wall of the sea. “Row!” he roared, holding the tiller with all his strength, muscles screaming with pain. Only when he felt the wood begin to bend under his hands did he let the tiller go. The ship lurched forward, and the dragon’s head broke through a crown of foam, cresting the wave and gliding down the other side.

In the sky ahead, he could see light through the clouds, the soft white glow of the moon. The worst was behind them. They were almost free. The storm would have blown them off course. They would have to wait for the clouds to clear in the open sea and use the stars to guide them. But they would be safe. He put his hands back on the tiller and turned his back on his men for just a moment to look back the way they’d come.

Suddenly the ship lurched forward again as he felt something strike him hard from behind. Sharp, burning pain stabbed through him as he was struck again. Before he could turn, he was swept over the side. The sea rose up to swallow him, sucking him down into the dark. He fought his way to the surface, then dove deep again to dodge the great black shape of the ship. He heard Hagen screaming his name as he went under. Then one of the oars struck the back of his head, and he sank and knew no more.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Last night’s storm had washed all kinds of debris into the narrow inlet that ran beside Maeve’s hut. Two of her traps had been completely destroyed. But the third was still intact and held a fat, silver salmon. She slapped the fish against a rock, killing it quickly. She scooped out the smaller fish and tiny crabs that had gotten caught in the trap and set them free, then wrapped the salmon in wet ferns and tucked it into the pouch at her waist. Then she waded back into the water. She had three more traps to empty, and the tide was rising fast.  After three months alone on this beach, she had learned its rhythms well.

Half-buried in the sand near the next trap, she found an oiled leather sack. Inside were some eggs, a skin of fresh goat’s milk, and a haunch of salted meat—supplies left for her by someone from her village. Maeve had been exiled by her own mother, the queen of their tribe. But not everyone had agreed with Queen Asha’s decision. Maeve was magic born; the Lady was not likely to smile on a people who left her to starve. A tiny scrap of sheepskin inside the pouch was marked with the symbol of a half-moon—Luna, the blacksmith’s wife. She closed the bundle and tucked the scrap into her pocket, making a note to say a special blessing for the kindly woman and her house.

The tide in the inlet had risen to her thighs and begun to show tiny breakers of foam by the time she emptied her last trap. She was just about to head back to her hut when she noticed the ravens. Half a dozen of the black birds were circling over the beach in the distance, and as she watched, two more joined the circle. Either some dark magic was afoot, or something on the beach was dying. Shouldering the bundle of her broken traps, she headed for the water’s edge.

When she saw the man lying facedown in the sand, she broke into a run. But when she saw him more closely, she almost wished she’d never noticed him at all. From his weapons and the thick bronze bracelet on his wrist, she knew he was a Viking. His kind came every summer to raid up and down this coast, burning villages, slaughtering men and boys, carrying off women and girls and whatever treasure they could find. Only her mother’s magic had kept their own village safe so long by hiding them behind a glamour that made it look deserted and burned out already.

This one’s ship must have gone down in the storm. His skin was deathly white, and he had a nasty wound in his back. His blood had soaked the sand underneath him and stained the ripples of the incoming tide. Surely he was almost dead already. She put down her traps and picked up a rock, whispering a prayer to the Lady for his spirit. One hard, swift blow to the back of his head, and his travels in this realm would end.

Then he moved. He let out an angry-sounding groan, and his hands clutched at the sand, digging deep as if he were trying to push himself up or crawl forward. Without thinking, Maeve dropped the rock and helped him, rolling him over on his back so he could breathe.

He moaned again in pain. He looked younger than she would have expected, smooth-skinned under his beard, and his brow was high and fine, the brow of a sorcerer or poet, not a brute. But he was huge and obviously strong. On his feet, he would have towered head and shoulders over any man she had ever known. Broken or not, he was dangerous. If he recovered, she had no doubt he would bring destruction. It was the Viking way.

But he is only one man, a voice seemed to whisper in her head. What can one man do? Viking warriors had come to her people before, the wounded or deserters or outcasts left behind when the longboats sailed away. Grateful for sanctuary, they had married into the tribe and had fathered children and taught the people enough of their customs and language to help them defend themselves. But this man was no deserter. If he survived, she didn’t think he would be content to be some village woman’s husband.

“Lady, you must decide,” she prayed aloud. She walked back to her hut at a pace neither hurried nor slow to fetch her little raft. If the Lady wished the Viking to survive, he would. If not, it was not for her to question. She floated the raft back down the inlet to the beach, half-expecting to find he had died. But he was still alive.

She rolled him onto the raft, ignoring his groans, and dragged it back to the inlet. Treading water, she floated it back toward her hut. His weight made the raft bob and list in the breakers, and she told herself that if he rolled off into the water, she would let him drown. But he didn’t.

She dragged the raft into her hut and rolled him off it beside her fire. “As you will, Lady,” she sighed, setting about the magic that could make him well.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Asmund wandered barefoot through a snowy forest. The ice burned his feet, and the wind cut through him like a thousand knives. Tall, black trees rose all around him, and the mist was thick as blood. The long winter’s night had fallen, but he saw no stars to guide him and no shimmering rainbow from the northern lights. He was abandoned and alone.

After what felt like hours, he emerged from the trees onto a broad, flat plain of pure ice—a frozen lake. But in the distance, he could see the glow of fires. Steeling himself against the pain, he started across the ice, leaving bloody footprints with every step. He walked on and on for what felt like miles, but the far shore seemed no closer. When he looked back, he saw no sign of the forest he had left, only a long trail of his own gleaming, black blood.

He fell to his knees. “All-Father!” he shouted in fury and pain. “Why have you forsaken me?”

“He cannot hear you.” A woman stood before him. She was as tall as any man with smooth, brown skin and long, straight, honey-colored hair. Her brow was crowned with silver, and she wore a long, white robe. “You did not fall in combat, warrior,” she said. “Your god of battle knows you not.”

“Who are you?” he demanded. “What is this place?”

“You were betrayed, Asmund,” she said. “One who held your trust struck you down as you saved him and the others from the storm.” A warm breeze swirled around the strange goddess, and he smelled summer flowers. “By the laws of your gods, he has stolen not only your life but your honor.”

“Who?” he said. “Who has done this?”

She smiled and touched his cheek with a hand that was soft and blissfully warm. “That is not the comfort I have brought you,” she said. “Your only hope is to survive. You must return to the living and take vengeance on the traitor. That is the way of your gods.” She stepped back from him, and the cold winds captured him again, crueler than before. “If you do not, you will wander this wasteland forever.”

“Help me, lady!” he beseeched her as she backed away from him. “Let me live!”

“I have sent you help, Asmund.” Even her voice was fading. “But there will be a price.”

Posted in Black history, Books, History, Sherlock Holmes, Short Story

Dr. John Watson and “The Adventure of the Burning Man”

sherlock-300x444Mocha Memoirs Press and editor A.C. Thompson have done another anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories with a paranormal twist, Curious Incidents: More Improbable Adventures, and I have a story in it! The theme this time was any time or place EXCEPT Victorian London, and most of the stories have a definite science fiction double feature flair—steampunk, Weird Wild West, dystopian futures, pure stark screaming horror. But mine, “The Adventure of the Burning Man,” is a classic 1940s-style noir set in Los Angeles. And I guess the biggest twist on the usual canon (other than the Nazi fire demon) is that Dr. John Watson is black.

african-americans-wwii-042In this version, both Holmes and Watson are veterans of World War II, and Watson was one of the more than 19,000 men and women of color attached to the US Army’s Medical Department. Primary source information on the specifics of their service is thin on the ground—a stronger historian than me really should write a book on the subject because it’s fascinating, and there’s a definite gap to be filled. Racist segregation was rampant in the MD the same as everywhere else, particularly early in the USA’s involvement in the war, and most black medical personnel apparently worked as ambulance drivers and medics or in “sanitary companies,” regardless of their medical training. But there were some segregated hospital units with black doctors and nurses for black wounded soldiers. The picture above is from the National Archives: “Captain Ezekia Smith, 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division, receives treatment at the 317th Collecting Station, for shell fragments in face and shoulders suffered near Querceta, Italy.” February 10, 1945.  Bull. 111-SC-236685 (african_americans_wwii_042.jpg). In my story, Dr. Watson started the war driving an ambulance in North Africa and ended it as a field surgeon in France. Now he’s running his own small medical practice on the first floor of a seedy L.A. office building also occupied by a certain English consulting detective.

Curious Incidents is available now from Amazon as a Kindle e-book and in print through Mocha Memoirs Press. And here’s an excerpt, the opening of “The Adventure of the Burning Man:”

 

For Watson, it started with the girl.

He had just locked up the clinic for the night and was waiting for the elevator. It finally opened with an oily wheeze, and the four employees of the second floor accounting firm came out, each one giving him their own version of the stink eye as they passed. “Evening,” he said, tipping his hat to the prune-faced receptionist. “Y’all have a good night.” Usually he took the stairs specifically to avoid these little scenes. But tonight it was raining, and his leg was paining him, and these California crackers would just have to cope.

He was just about to step inside when the girl ran in from the street—blonde, tall, soaking wet with her little blue frock plastered to her body like a second skin. With an inward sigh, Watson stepped back to let her board the elevator without him. “I’ll wait for the next one.”

“There’s only one, and it’s slower than Christmas,” she said, laughing. “Come on, don’t be ridiculous.” Miss Prune Face had stopped at the street door and turned all the way around to gape at them, and her mouth dropped open like a dead trout’s as he stepped inside. The blonde waved to her and stuck out her tongue just as the doors heaved closed.

“What floor, miss?” Watson asked, suppressing a smile.

“Three,” she said. “I work for Mr. Holmes.”

Watson had never stopped on the third floor, but he’d seen the name on the directory in the lobby. “So what does a consulting detective do?” he asked. “Spy on cheating husbands, that kind of thing?”

“Nothing like that,” she said. “At least not so far. To tell you the truth, all I’ve seen him do since he hired me a week ago is think a lot and teach me to make what he calls an almost passable cup of tea. He’s English.”

“Oh.” Even Watson, who wasn’t particularly inquisitive by nature, wondered what kind of tea brewing she meant to do at seven-thirty on a Friday night. But then, seeing the way her wet dress clung to her hips, he reckoned he could guess. “Here we are then,” he said as the elevator lunged to a stop. “Third floor.”

“Thanks—Dr. Watson, isn’t it?” she said.

“It is.” She was a pretty girl; he hoped this English Mr. Holmes deserved her. “Have a good night.”

“You too.” She took his dangling hand and shook it. “I’m Grace.” She stepped out and started down the hall. “Good night.” When the elevator closed, he was still watching her walk away.

The rain was still pounding when he stepped out on the roof. The pigeons stirred and cooed as always, sidling along their perches, jockeying for position. “Sorry, kids,” he said, filling their troughs with seed. “It’s too wet to fly.” The old man who had left him the birds as payment of his bill had spent hours on the roof, day and night, rain or shine, talking to his pets and letting them fly for hours. But Watson didn’t have that kind of time. He tried to release them to exercise for a little while every day, but he didn’t keep the careful count when they came back that Mr. Rosenbaum had, and over the past month, he’d lost a few. He wouldn’t have grieved much if they’d all flown away for good; keeping pigeons was not his idea of a good time, and the stairs were murder on his leg. But the old man had been his first patient when he’d come to Los Angeles. He’d never mentioned or seemed to notice the color of Watson’s skin, only that he was a doctor close by who made house calls. He had trusted him, respected him, befriended him, and he had died. So Watson took care of his birds.

A crack of thunder made the building shake under his feet, and the pigeons screeched and fluttered as lightning lit the sky. But he heard something else, too—a woman’s scream. “Help!” It was Grace; he was sure of it. “Somebody help!”

He sprinted down the stairs, leaping the last flight in a single clumsy bound, ignoring the pain in his leg. Her screams rose again, sharper, wordless with pain. His brain flashed on the revolver locked in his desk drawer on the ground floor then on the heavy cane he’d dropped on the roof, but he ran on.

The door to the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Agency was standing ajar. As he reached for the knob, still running, it crashed open, knocking him backwards, his forehead cracking the glass. He only caught a glimpse of a male figure dressed in black, some kind of big, floppy coat and a hat pulled low on his brow, shading his face. But he smelled him, a pungent, acrid smell like burning leaves. The mystery man had disappeared into the stairwell before Watson got his bearings. He thought of going after him, but the girl was still inside.

But she wasn’t screaming any more. He found her on the floor behind the desk. She had been stabbed in the chest; there was blood everywhere. But she was alive.

He fell to his knees beside her. “John.” Her voice was weak but urgent. Her pretty face was deathly pale and slick with sweat. “Listen.” Her dress had been ripped open, and her chest was gushing blood in spurts in rhythm with her weakening heart, too much to actually see the wound. He tore off his jacket, wadded it up, and pressed it to the blood flow. She screamed, grabbing his arm, and he felt her sternum giving way.

“Holy God.” The bastard had cracked her open like a surgeon.

“Dying.” Her red nails dug into his wrist. “Tell Mr. Holmes…the fox.” Blood bubbled from her lips, and her eyes went blank.

“No!” He could hear footsteps coming closer, voices from below. At night, the empty building was like an echo chamber, but he thought someone was coming up the hall. “Somebody help me!” he shouted. “We need help!” But Grace was gone.

“Don’t move,” a man’s voice commanded. “Stay exactly as you are.” He heard the door creak, and looked back over his shoulder. “I said don’t move!” This man was white and dressed in brown, a strange, cloak-like tweed coat and a hat Watson’s grandfather would have called a deerstalker. Watson started to stand. “Please, be still one more moment.”

Posted in Books, Horror, Lucy Blue Short Story, Paranormal romance, Short Story

Valentine Zombies, Old West Edition

updated-deadsperadoIn honor of Valentine’s Day (and as a break from our regularly-scheduled political outrage and apocalyptic panic), we chicks over at Little Red Hen Romance have put our entire catalog on Amazon for free. Here’s a link to one of my favorites: Dead-Sperado

And here’s an excerpt:

I woke up to the sound of Cade loading a shotgun. I sat up in bed to find him standing at the window with his back to me, dressed in nothing but his longhandles and boots. “Are they here already?” I said, still half-asleep.

“Who?” he said, looking back at me.

Before I could answer, the door crashed open, the lock and frame splintering. Some nasty, moaning, dead-looking thing that looked like Deputy Coy Carter with his guts spilled out ripped the remains from the hinges and flung it toward me, making me duck under the covers. It bounced off the footboard, and I slid out of the bed on the far side from the door, wrapping the sheets around me.

Cade fired the shotgun, blowing another hole in the thing from the back big enough I could see the outlaw through it, but the dead thing barely staggered. It reeled around like a drunk to face Cade, waving its pistol over its head like a club. Cade shot again, aiming for the head this time, and brains exploded in every direction, including all over me. I screamed, and the now-headless thing lurched forward. Cade never batted an eyelash, just started reloading his shottie. But the thing couldn’t live without its head, apparently. After a couple more staggering steps in Cade’s direction, it fell flat to the floor with a sickening splat.

“What the hell is that?” I demanded.

“Put some damned clothes on,” Cade ordered at the exact same time.

“Yeah, but what is it?” I crept out from behind the bed.

“How the hell should I know?” He kicked the body over and looked down at his badge. “Deputy Somebody.”

“Carter,” I said. “Coy Carter.” I grabbed clothes out of the wardrobe, my plainest dress and boots, and dove behind the bed again to retrieve my good corset. “But what the hell happened to him?”

“I couldn’t tell you, honey.” He kicked off his boots and pulled on his pants, then grabbed my hand while I was still hooking up my corset. “But it seems to have happened to most of the town.”

“Wait,” I said, half-hopping, half-falling as he dragged me toward the door. “What are you talking about?”

“Look.” He grabbed my face and turned it toward the window.

Down in the street, it looked like a cross between a drunken riot and a lynch mob. People who still looked healthy were screaming and fleeing in every direction as walking corpses like Carter lurched and crawled after them. “Holy Mary, Mother of Christ,” I said.

“Any help she can offer would be most appreciated,” Cade said, putting on his boots.

“Cade!” One of the dead things had climbed up the steps to the balcony and was staggering towards the window.

“Get back.” He raised the shotgun and blew the thing’s head off. Only as it was falling did I recognize Doc Hastings.

“Oh my God,” I said, trying not to be sick.

“Friend of yours?” Cade said, grabbing my hand again. “Come on.”

We crept half-crouching down the hall to the gallery that overlooked the saloon. “I don’t remember telling you my name,” he said like we were having a casual stroll among the buttercups.

“Like you didn’t know I knew exactly who you were.” One of the other girls, Sadie, came out of her room looking terrified, and I motioned for her to fall in behind us. “Swaggering in here like you owned the place, scaring everybody else out.” She crouched just behind me and reached for my other hand. I let her take it for barely a second and squeezed then let her go. I had the feeling I might need it.

“Fair enough.” Cade let go of my other hand and drew the six gun from his belt. “But when you woke up, you asked me if they were here.” The saloon still looked deserted, but I caught a scurry of movement behind the bar. I nudged Cade, and he turned the pistol that way. But it was just Hector, hiding. Cade nodded to him, and he crossed himself. “Who were you expecting?”

“The sheriff,” I said. “I was supposed to keep you busy until he and his posse showed up.”

Mr. Lindstrom from the general store came crashing through the saloon doors. “Help!” he screamed. “Somebody help us!” A monster in a big hat and a long coat with a silver badge I’d have known from half a mile away lurched in behind him and grabbed him. Before Cade could raise the pistol, the thing had bitten Lindstrom on the neck, tearing his head half off. Sadie screamed, and Cade fired, and the monster fell back twitching as Lindstrom fell forward. Cade went down the stairs still firing, unloading his pistol dead into the monster’s face, but it was still moving, still moaning, still reaching out for him. “Caaaaaade,” it growled, its lips barely hanging from its bloody skull. Only when Cade raised the shotgun and blew its head off did it fall.

“That sheriff?” he said, emptying the shells.

“Yes sir,” I said. “That would be the one.”

“Sorry, honey,” he said, reloading. “He ain’t coming.” He snapped the barrels back into place.

Lindstrom was moaning, trying to roll over on his back. “Mr. Lindstrom!” Sadie said, running down the stairs to him.

“Sadie, wait!” I said, running after her. “I don’t think you should touch him!”

Just as she reached him, Lindstrom lurched up and bit her, too. His skin had already gone green like he’d been dead for days, and as Sadie stood there screaming her fool head off, she started to turn green, too. Cade shot Lindstrom point blank, decapitating him with a single shell without a second thought. But he backed away from Sadie, looking shaken up for the first time since the madness started.

“I ain’t gonna hurt you, mister,” Sadie said, her voice slurred like she’d been drinking whiskey with a laudanum chaser. “I’m just so hungry.” She was moving closer, reaching out for him, and he couldn’t seem to make himself shoot.

A machete sliced through the air, and her head went flying as her body fell. Hector was standing behind her, still holding the blade. “Sorry, chiquita,” he said, making the sign of the Cross.

Two more men came running in, and Cade raised the shotgun, and Hector raised his machete. “Hang on!” Cade said. “They’re with me.”

The two men looked frightened out of their minds, but very much alive. One was black-skinned; the other was wearing a serape. Both were carrying pistols, and the black man had a shotgun slung in a holster across his back. “Holy shit, boss,” the serape wearer said to Cade. “Holy shit.”

“Zombies,” the black man said.

“Zombies?” Hector repeated. “What the heck is a zombie?”
“You want me to explain, or you want to get out of here?” the black man said.

“Both,” Cade said. “But one at a time.” I was behind the bar grabbing all the ammunition I could find. “Come on, Daisy.” I threw it all in a sack and came out, and Cade grabbed my hand again. “When all this is over, you and I are going to have to have a conversation.”

“Shotgun shells,” I said, handing the sack to the black man.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat and smiling. “Much obliged.”

“We should go to the mission,” Hector said. “Father Rodrigo will know what to do.”

“Not a chance,” Cade said, moving to the window, dragging me behind him.

“Actually, boss, it’s not a bad idea,” the black man said, following. “I’m Thomas, by the way, miss.” He offered me his hand.

“Daisy,” I said, shaking it.

“You think maybe we can stick to the subject?” Cade said.

“A priest has a better chance to turning these things away than anything else,” Thomas said. “Plus whoever raised them probably stole some kind of holy relic to do it. We’re going to run out shells eventually.”

Cade did not look happy. “Well hell.” He looked at me. “Can you shoot?”

“I can,” I said.

“If I give you a gun, are you going to shoot me?” Thomas and the serape wearer both snickered.

“I reckon not,” I said. “For now.”

He took a second pistol from his belt, checked the bullets, and handed it to me. “The bang comes out of that end,” he said. “Now come on.”

I couldn’t resist pointing it at the back of his head as he walked away, but Thomas shook his finger at me, grinning, and I lowered it again and followed him out to the street.

Posted in Books, Other People's Awesome, Publishing, Sneak peeks at the new stuff, Works-in-Progress, Writing process

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Comma

chasing the dragon coverAs a lot of people know, my sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are pretty much the entire standing staff of Little Red Hen Romance. We both write stories and novels for the press, and we edit one another. There are many advantages to having your beloved sister as your editor. But there are times, particularly for Lexie, when it’s a real pain in the ass.

Lex has just finished a truly amazing Sherlock Holmes novella that should be coming out in the next few weeks, and I’ve been working on the copy edit. Lex is one of the most amazing, original, intelligent writers I know, and her grammar and punctuation are almost perfect. But that girl will party hearty with a comma; she gets it drunk and lets it sprawl naked in the most ungodly places or forgets it entirely and leaves it dead in a ditch. As a former composition instructor, I tend to lose my mind about this on a regular basis. And since this is apparently becoming a hot topic issue (see here: Daniel McMahon for Business Insider 5-2-16), we thought it might instructive or at least entertaining to see our latest exchange on the subject:

THE SAME STUPID COMMA MISTAKE THREE TIMES, ALL FROM THE SAME PARAGRAPH!!!!!!!

Okay, you’re gonna learn how to do this if it kills us both.

Example Number One:

As written by the brilliant Lexie Christian:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

This sentence is two independent clauses joined by the conjunction “and.” As are all of these examples. And it’s the EASIEST FREAKIN THING IN THE WORLD TO IDENTIFY!!!!

So, what are our two clauses? How do I know we have two? We start with the verbs. What are the verbs?

1) offered

2) managed

Okay, so who or what offered? The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat – so there we have the spine of clause number one, “coat and hat offered.” Everything that tells us information about the coat and hat (whose it was [the doorman] and what he was like [unfortunate]) and what they offered and how [an easy disguise]) are part and parcel of that clause. So Clause Number One is:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise.

So our next verb is managed. Who or what managed? He, Sherlock, our intrepid hero. Everything about him and what he managed is Clause Number Two:

This time [when he managed] he managed [there’s that spine] to pass through the doors [what he managed to do] without incident [how he did it].

Because neither of these clauses begins with an adverb like when or as or because or anything else that would turn it into a dependent clause/super-adverb supporting the other that can’t stand alone, these are two independent clauses joined with nothing more than the most common and beloved of all conjunctions, and. So you put a FUCKING COMMA IN FRONT OF THE AND!!! And thus after edits it becomes:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

SIDE NOTE ON DEPENDENT CLAUSES WHICH YOU ALMOST NEVER USE AND USUALLY GET RIGHT WHEN YOU DO: To make these the joining of a dependent clause to an independent clause, one of these clauses has to become a super-adverb. If it comes at the beginning, you need a comma:

Because the unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

But if it comes at the end, you don’t:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise when this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

Your way, the two independent clauses is MUCH BETTER; it’s stronger and gives the reader chunks of easily visualized information. It was Mark Twain’s favorite sentence construction. AND HE ALWAYS PUT THE DAMNED COMMA IN IT!!!

So on to Example Number Two. As written, thus:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What are the verbs:

1)had been set up

2)had been moved (accommodate is also a verb, but by adding the “to” to it, you’re using it as part of an adverb modifying had been moved; it tells why the moving was done. Lesser minds would be confused by this; I know you can see it.)

What had been set up? Stage

What had been moved? Chaises

So our two clauses are:

1) A small stage had been set up along the back wall.

2) The cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What is joining them? There’s our lil buddy and again.

So our edited sentence becomes:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall, and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

And finally, coming to you live from the exact same descriptive paragraph, I bring you Example Number Three:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Verbs?

1) was swathed

2) hung

What was swathed? Room

What hung? Musk

Two clauses then?

1) The entire room was swathed in red and gold.

2) The heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Add our friend and and the comma it should have rode in on:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold, and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

If you could ever just absorb that this is WHY this comma needs to be there, I promise, you’ll just put it there naturally without having to go through this half-assed diagraming of the sentence. But just saying, “Fuck it, I can’t do commas; sue me,” looks like a consistent, habitual amateur mistake, the kind of thing that can make less imaginative editors who don’t love you and your writing like I do dismiss you as a lightweight. And that just is not acceptable. Every one of these sentences is brilliant; you’ve compacted massive amounts of vibrant information into just a few words and created a whole scene. So just get the commas right!

Posted in Backlist, Books, Lucy Blue Short Story, Publishing, Short Story, Writing process

The Shocking Truth About What Writing Fiction Pays (a personal comparison)

librarianEarlier this week, I got my royalty statement for Little Red Hen Romance for September 2015 from Amazon and went into a full-blown fidget. In spite of the fact that we had outsold our previous best-selling month, June 2015, by more than two to one, moving more than twice as many books to paying customers (excluding promotional freebies from both months’ sales figure, of course), we made less than one-quarter as much money. How the fuck does THAT happen? I shrieked, racing figuratively around the internet squawking for most of the afternoon.

The villain who had stolen from me, I soon determined, was that damned Jeff Bezos with his double-damned Kindle Unlimited – specifically, the new rules for Kindle Unlimited that went into effect July 1, 2015 (you know, the day after our big month). Under the new system, publishers and self-pubbed writers get paid by the page read instead of by the copy downloaded. In June, the Hens were paid $1.25 per KU download, quite a trick since our books average about 25 standard pages and only cost 99 cents each. We were, to be perfectly bald-faced frank about the thing, one of the short works publishers who were unintentionally scamming the KU payment system, collecting as much payment on our short stories as novelists at comparable sales rank were getting for full-length books. Even in mid-squawk, I had to admit that wasn’t fair and that some sort of correction had been required. But I still felt screwed by the steepness of the sudden drop.

After a little arithmetic, I figured out that for KU downloads, we were now being paid about 12 cents a book or $0.005 per page. Since the royalty on those books when sold outright is about 35 cents, Kindle Unlimited still seemed like a really bad idea for us, money-wise, and I met with my fellow Hen, Alexandra Christian, to discuss how much we wanted to continue to help Amazon sell free shipping and baby diapers with our books.  We’re still working on that, and to that end, I sat down this morning with my calculator and contracts (including the stone tablets on which my traditional publishing contracts were carved back in the 2000s) to do a little comparing. I also took into account good points made by friends on both sides of the issue about what something like KU takes away from authors and publishers versus what it offers in exposure and promotion. My findings surprised me, and since I know a lot of other people are trying to make the same kinds of decisions at the moment, I thought it might be helpful if I shared them here.

I have published just about every way there is except Xeroxing my fan fiction and selling it out of the back of a van in the parking lot at Comic Con. For my purposes here, I’ll compare traditional publishing (contracts under Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster for full-length romances under the old template, about 400 pages/100,000 words), independent small press publishing (contracts under Purple Sword Publications, a fairly typical, better-than-average small press for full-length romances under the new template, about 250 pages/60,000 words), Little Red Hen Romance (a sort of self-pubbing co-op my sister and I started for short story romances, about 25 pages/7500 words), and Kindle Unlimited downloads of those same shorts. (None of the other stuff is available from Kindle Unlimited; the people making those decisions have already voted no.) All of these figures are for e-books; the Pocket contracts were primarily negotiated for print sales, but they do establish an e-book royalty that I’m still collecting on e-book editions of those books today.

Traditional Publishing: My cheapest e-books from Pocket retail for $8.99 (yeah, I know, no kidding), and I get paid a 15 percent royalty or $1.34. The books are about 400 pages long, so that works out to be about $0.003 per page. My two most successful books with them retail in e-book for $15.99 for 400 pages, with the same 15 percent royalty. So if anybody is desperate enough for medieval vampire romance in e-book to pay that, I make $2.39 or 0.005 per page (which, incidentally, is the same rate KU downloads pay–probably a coincidence, but I don’t know). The obvious advantage for Pocket in print is scope and reach–those books in print sold in the tens of thousands, not the tens, because Pocket was able to ship and place multiple copies all over the world at once and did; you could buy my books in any mall in the US and most of the world. But them days are over, for chain bookstores and for me, and these e-books are competing on the same digital playing field as stuff that’s much, much cheaper. I suppose there are probably readers who are more likely to buy a book from a traditional publisher (assuming they happen upon it in their keyword search), but at those prices? And by this royalty scale, if the sales figures aren’t hugely better, I’m not making any more money; my share comes out to be about the same in spite of the inflated price tag.

Small Press:  Most of my e-books from Purple Sword cost $6.99, run about 250 pages, and pay me a more-than-fair royalty of 50 percent. This works out to be about $3.49 or $0.01 per page paid to me, which for me is as good as it gets. (Writers who self-publish AND self-distribute are working in a different office.) Problem is, I don’t sell any books through Purple Sword. It’s not their fault; other PS writers are doing much better through them than I am. I’m pretty sure the problem here is me and my books–not enough active promotion on my part of those titles and books that don’t really fit the brand of the press as a whole.

Little Red Hen:  My sister and I started Little Red Hen as a way to try to give the people what they want – good, cheap romances short enough we could afford to sell them for only 99 cents each. (Because it takes us a couple of weeks to write each one versus the six months to a year we’d put into a full-length novel.) Currently, we distribute them only through Amazon, and our royalty for each one sold is 35 cents. This works out to be $0.01 per page, the same as the small press books, except that I’m actually selling quite a few. So while I’m still not pricing summer homes in Tuscany, I am able to call the experiment a success; the co-op is self-sustaining. But obviously I’d prefer to do more.

Little Red Hen – Kindle Unlimited: And here’s where we get to the problem of today. Little Red Hen shorts downloaded through KU pay us $0.005 per page or about 12 cents per full book, less than half what non-KU sales pay. We also tend to have 3 KU downloads for every 1 outright sale. (This is not an exact statistic – some books do better in KU; some books do better in regular sales. But it’s a fair generalization for the press as a whole.) Amazon is obviously committed to promoting KU; consequently books listed through KU are treated more kindly by their sales ranking algorithms. We’ve also been doing a free book promotion for every new release, something that’s only available through Amazon for KU books. Like a writer friend who is listing his on-going serial with KU pointed out, we are almost certainly reaching readers through KU that we would never reach without it, and that can’t be easily dismissed. But are we losing royalties to Amazon on readers who would want the book enough to buy it if they had to but are downloading it through KU instead? The many KU haters would say of course; Amazon would say certainly not. Me, I just don’t know.

I’m still mad at Amazon for the snake oil salesman approach they’ve taken with writers about KU. I get emails from KDP every month congratulating me on my brilliance for signing up and promising the moon when in fact, best case scenario, it’s paying me at exactly the same page rate as the fat cat traditional publishing model Amazon keeps saying it means to vanquish forever. (As I wrote more than a year ago in an open letter to Jeff Bezos, stop pissing on my shoes and telling me it’s raining.) But KU’s sins aren’t nearly as black as I wanted to paint them when compared to the alternative. My guess is Lexie and I will end up compromising, listing some books through KU for the sake of the promotional push and withholding others; in any case, we will have to take a hard look at every step in our current protocol. And I would advise any other author who isn’t James Patterson to do the same.