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Rediscovering the Joy

Rediscovering the Joy

A few weeks ago, when it became clear that I was on the verge of (finally) finishing the first draft of Cemetery Hill (Sunshine Walkingstick, Book 3, by Celia Roman), I decided to re-read the Daughters of the People Series (Lucy Varna) in preparation for continuing work in that story world. The last series release was in August 2015 (Sanctuary, Book 5), and while I've been fiddling with developing the final three books in the series over the past two years, I wanted to refresh my memory on the story world before diving into it again.

The evolution of the cover for The Prophecy, with the original cover on the left and the latest one on the right. All covers were designed by L.J. Anderson, Mayhem Cover Creations.

I've written elsewhere about the way the Daughters of the People Series came about, from the initial concepts to writing The Prophecy, my first novel. The magic of discovery, that first moment when I realized I could actually write fiction, changed my life. Finishing The Prophecy was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and the start of my career as a writer.

My first year of writing was so steeped in that magic, I couldn't stop writing. The dam, built over forty plus years of dreaming and trying and, often, failing, had broken. Words gushed out faster than I could capture them, and the ideas flowed with them. My editor jokes that if I never had another idea, I could write at a steady pace for years without running out of the ones already found.

Somewhere along the way, under the stress of family tragedy, a surprisingly well-selling novel, and a reader-oriented publishing schedule, I lost that magic. Writing became a chore, one I began to dread, and over the past two years, I struggled to write. It wasn't just that the joy I'd discovered in writing had disappeared; my entire process collapsed. Anyone who's followed my career can easily tell this simply by looking at the number of titles published in 2016 and 2017, compared to my first two years. The difference is staggering.

My mother used to tell me, "Thursday's child has far to go." I always took that to mean I had a lot of work to do before I'd get anywhere, that I had a long, long road ahead of me. When I told Mom this, she looked startled and said, "No, it means you're going to do great things."

Whenever I doubt myself, I try to remember that conversation, and her implicit faith.

 

The original cover for Light's Bane (left) and the current one (right).

For the past nine months or so, I've been concentrating on writing and publishing the Sunshine Walkingstick Series. It was an experiment, to see if I could write non-romantic fiction and to try to determine in which genre my writing style will fit best. Although I love each and every story world I write in, I've grown tired of Romance. My (writer's) voice and the style of stories I write don't fit well with what Romance readers enjoy reading.

Some, yes. Of course, yes, as I have a dedicated audience for each of my romantic series. 

But I kept asking myself if I'd be better off writing in a genre that tolerates, for example, deeper world building, a slower build, and stories that make the reader think. The umbrella of Speculative Fiction seemed like a good fit. I've always wanted to write short stories, I love all things Weird and Wondrous, and I had ideas by the bucket load. 

So I started a new pen name (Isobel Fletcher) under which I planned to write short stories of all genres fantastical, as well as novel length SciFi Horror. I'm still heading in that direction.

My plan (and I did craft a plan) entailed writing under two pen names, neither one of which would produce strict romances.

Eh. I should know better than to plan. 

From left to right, the first cover for The Enemy Within, the concept cover I created one afternoon, and the cover L.J. created based on that concept. It was at this point that she redesigned the covers for the first two novels in the Daughters of the People Series, and the concept off of which the covers for later novels were designed.

I promised myself that before I went too far down a new path, and especially before I added any new novels to my schedule, I would finish all the series I already had going so I could start with a relatively clear slate. Getting through the Sunshine Walkingstick Series was like slogging through cold molasses. That constant pressure to hurry up and publish killed 95% of the joy of writing in Sunny's world. For the first time since finishing The Prophecy, I found myself unable to juggle stories, a process that had been incredibly successful for me during my first two years writing fiction. Yes, I snuck in a few short stories here and there, but that was later, after I began to realize that I was doing everything all wrong.

When it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.

But this is the advice that nearly everyone gives to other writers: Write in series. Write in genres that sell. Create a publication schedule and stick to it.

That doesn't work for me. It took me entirely too long to realize that, and now that I have, I wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea in the first place, when what I'd been doing (writing what moved me, publishing as I finished) had worked so well. Organic planning works for me, and yes, I do have a plan. Rigid schedules? Not so much. 

Here's another piece of advice some writers tout as absolute truth: Never read your finished stories. Never look back. Always look forward.

That one doesn't work for me either. For one, some of my story worlds are so intricate, there's no way I can store all that information in a series bible. I mean, for pete's sake. The Daughters of the People Series is a nine book series, plus half a dozen or so short stories (several already published), a spin-off series (beginning with Say Yes), and more to come. It's just easier to read the stories.

For another, I actually like the stories I've written. Imagine that, a writer enjoying her own story worlds. 

It's been so long since I've written in the Daughters of the People world, there's no way I could finish the final three books in the series without refreshing my memory. But let me tell you, I dreaded the thought of picking up The Prophecy and reading it again. I knew my writing style had changed. Shoot, it changed so much in the first year alone that I ended up revising my first two novels and issuing second editions of each one.

I knew going into this re-read that I couldn't revise those books again, no matter how flawed they were. I just don't have the time. There are going to be problems, I thought, and tacked on a well-meant, Just cut off your internal editor and get through the story so you can move on.

The middle three books in the series: Tempered; In All Things, Balance; and Sanctuary. Tempered was not an original part of my seven-book-series plan. The main female character, Hawthorne, appeared in the first book, and grew on me so much, I decided to give her her own story. It was a finalist in the 2015 Maggie Award for Excellence (Georgia Romance Writers) in its category. 

And you know what? I found problems. The opening was slow, the writing was stilted, those damn misused participle phrases I hate so much kept popping up.

Know what else? About a third of the way through The Prophecy, I forgot all that and started enjoying the story. I rediscovered the magic I'd created nearly four years ago during the seven weeks it took me to write it.

By the end of the story, I was hooked. As soon as I finished The Prophecy, I picked up Light's Bane and sped through it, went on to The Enemy Within and ditto, and am now halfway through Tempered. These books are my bedtime reading. At times, I literally have to force myself to put them down so I can get enough sleep to function the next day. I don't always succeed, but now I know why some readers call the series addictive. 

Before my process breakdown roughly two years ago, I had planned on expanding the Daughters of the People world with two spin-off series, one being the aptly named Sons of the People Series and the other a seven book series that would take place after the final book in the Daughters of the People Series. Additionally, I had planned two short story collections, one of which I decided to go ahead with regardless (I already have a cover, too), and a three-part story starring the Woman with No Face.

The funny thing is, before all the craziness that started in the summer of 2015, I knew I could write in the world of the People for a very long time and be happy for it. Now that I've rediscovered the joy of this story world, I have also rediscovered that certainty. 

No Good Deed by Lucy Varna
The Christmas Surprise by Lucy Varna
Trick or Treat by Lucy Varna

The covers I created for three Daughters of the People short stories, which I wrote for newsletter subscribers. Two of the stories will be included in the first short story collection. The third will serve as the opening scenes of a Sons of the People novel. 

I was able to resist the temptation to fix the flaws in The Prophecy, including the typos. They weren't so numerous that they detract from the story.

Light's Bane, on the other hand, needs another pass. When I revised it (early 2015), I remember carrying a really heavy workload and hurrying to get the revision finished so I could move on. I wish now that I'd taken the time to read it again, or send it to a proofreader, this after my editor and I had already done numerous passes searching for problems.

Not enough, apparently. Halfway through reading my personal paperback copy, I had found so many typos, missing words, and extra words, I finally gave in and printed the entire manuscript off, after which I red-inked errors as I read. As soon as I can work it into my schedule, I'll go back and proofread the first half, but that won't be until I finish re-reading the series to date.

By comparison, I found one typo in The Enemy Within. Yes, I have a rigorous process. Errors will slip in, no matter what steps an author and her team take to prevent them. Nothing is perfect.

That said, when I published second editions of the first two novels, I standardized a format for the print editions that I then used in subsequent books. For some reason, I never reformatted The Enemy Within and Tempered so that the series would have a uniform interior look. I'll also be making time to do that, but again, probably not until I finish re-reading the entire series.

I could leave everything as it is, but writing is my business and it behooves me to do everything I can to create a professional product. When readers open my books, I want them to have the best reading experience possible. There should never be any question that I'm a reputable writer and publisher; where quality is concerned, my books should be indistinguishable from those released by corporate publishers. 

From left to right, The Gathering Storm (the next book in the Daughters of the People Series), the cover for the first short story collection, and Say Yes, the first Sons of the People novel. 

After handing off that last Sunshine Walkingstick novel to my editor a couple of weeks ago, I started working on The Gathering Storm, the next Daughters of the People novel. To be honest, it took me a while to get into it. I'd lived in Sunny's perspective for so long, it was difficult for me to adjust to the more subtle and detailed style I used for the stories written of the People. Writing the first couple of new scenes felt like I was pulling my own teeth.

Last night was different, though. After sitting down and studying my plot cards, I began a scene from Sigrid Glyvynsdatter's point of view. (The lead female character, who is a geneticist with the Institute for Early Cultural Studies, the People's primary research branch.) Her assistant, a non-member of the People named George Howe, with whom readers of earlier books should be familiar, walked in with some very interesting information. Big clue revealed in that scene, although I may tone it down in subsequent revisions, but that's not the point here. The point is that for the first time in a very, very long time, I was so excited about what I was writing, I forgot that I was working.

Yeah, that's been a problem.

People have a lot of funny notions about writing. Richard Parry, a fellow writer, shared a post with me a few days ago in which he outlined what non-writers believe a writer's schedule looks like. It involved a lot of drinking and angst. I laughed so hard, I cried. (And then I went and bought another one of his books, because dang, is he good.)

Folks, writing is a lot of hard work. If you haven't read the post in which I described how I wrote my first novel, I urge you to do so now. Take note of how long it took, in particular the number of hours. If you don't want to go look, that's ok. It was seventy-seven. Yup, seventy-seven hours just to write the first draft of a novel. Those seventy-seven hours were spread over thirty-three days, and those thirty-three days were spread over seven weeks. And that was just the first draft. It doesn't count the time my editor put into reading that draft as I wrote it, nor the time I put into the second draft, nor his time editing that second draft, nor any time I put into polishing the story and, finally, revising it.

Writing is not easy.

But it should be fun. It's taken a lot for me to rediscover the fun in writing. I hope I never lose it again.

In case you're interested, here's the current suggested reading order for stories written in the world of the People, including the final three as-yet-unpublished novels in the Daughters of the People Series:

The Prophecy
"No Good Deed"
"Trick or Treat"
Light's Bane
Original Prologue, Light's Bane
"The Christmas Surprise"
The Enemy Within
Tempered
Say Yes
Bonus Scene, Say Yes
In All Things, Balance
Bonus Scene, In All Things, Balance
"Tomorrow's Promise"
Sanctuary
The Gathering Storm
Redemption
War's Last Refuge

More information on the series is available at a dedicated website for all things People, including the official translation of the Legend of Beginnings and some commentary on it and the Prophecy of Light.

Friday Finds

Friday Finds

Header image:
Smoke has become a real problem across Western North Carolina and the surrounding areas as wildfires burn in several national forest locations.
Photograph courtesy of Cris Bessette.

A roundup of interesting books, movies, and tidbits, some old, some new, and some stuff I just wanted to share.

Halloween may be over (unless you're a Hobbit, in which case, Second Halloween!), but this movie is one I'll be watching again soon. 

Because I only watched it twice leading up to Halloween, thank you very much.

Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman deliver outstanding performances in the lead roles, and are supported admirably by Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as The Aunts, and Goran Visnjic and Aidan Quinn as the Owens sisters' love interests. 

Now, some of you probably think that because I'm a writer, I should be pointing to the book on which the movie was based, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. Uh, no. This is one of the few cases where the movie was far, far better than the book. Stick with the movie. Don't watch it alone and, for pete's sake, "Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder. Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Add pepper to your mashed potatoes. Plant roses and lavender, for luck. Fall in love whenever you can."

Dubbed a techno-thriller by reviewers, Chuck Wendig's Zeroes is the story of a group of misfit hackers who are pulled together and coerced (read: imprisoned and forced) to work for a shadow government agency to an end that becomes clear after a terrifying and weird twisting journey. Technology geeks and nerds of all flavors will enjoy this one particularly, but anyone who likes a fast-paced, intense story should find a good read between the covers. I did, and no one can accuse me of being a geek... Oh, wait.

Every once in a while, I go on a mini-book-buying spree. A couple of days ago, for instance, I ordered five paperbacks ranging the gamut from Epic Fantasy to Urban Fantasy to Science Fiction. Amazon is my friend. 

So is Barnes & Noble. Whenever I'm in Asheville, I try to stop by the local B&N and browse the new releases, and usually come home with at least one book. On the trip before last, I picked up one by debut author Becky Chambers, whose first work is titled The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The title alone is worth the read.

Amazingly enough, Harper Collins, the publisher, has set the Kindle edition's price to $1.99, completely contravening the Big 5's usual practice of pricing digital editions as high as, or higher than, the paperback edition. (Or, at least, that was the price when I wrote this blog post at 4:38 p.m. on Thursday, 10 November 2016, EST.)

This was the book I took with me to read during my recent Kodak/Knoxville, Tennessee, trip. Unfortunately, I didn't get very far into it during the trip and had to turn my attention away from fun reads toward more serious, work-related reads (see the sidebar for what I'm currently reading). Don't tell me how it ends! I want to figure that out myself.

The crew working the Jones Gap fire northwest of Highlands, North Carolina, just a few miles from my current home.
Photo courtesy of the US Forest Service.

While most around the United States are preoccupied with the recent election results, folks here in the Southeast are more concerned about the wildfires spreading across the Southern Appalachians. Some of them are being set by an arsonist(s), including those in the Macon County, North Carolina, and Rabun County, Georgia, areas. Many are being forced to evacuate, while others are under a state of emergency, and many more try to find a way to cope with the smoke permeating our air.

This is my home area, friends. The smoke is so thick in some places, the roads are impassable. My son is asthmatic. A couple of nights ago, we drove from his home in Georgia up to Sylva, NC, to eat at Bogart's. (Best burgers in Jackson County!) The smoke was so bad and so hard on his lungs, we contemplated turning around.

Smoke from wildfires diminishes the sun in Franklin, NC. Photo courtesy of Brandon Ledford.
Thick smoke from wildfires obscures the sun in the Frogtown area of Franklin, North Carolina.
Photo courtesy of Brandon Ledford.

Good thing we didn't. Halfway through our meal, a group of about eighteen forest rangers walked in, and that eventually led to my son and I visiting the Jackson County Command Center, where we spoke with a young man about donations. The folks fighting the fires include, from my understanding, forest rangers, members of the National Guard, and others flown in from at least nine states across the country, as well as local firefighters and other emergency service personnel. Under the harsh floodlights shining down on the command center, the men and women looked completely worn out. I later learned that they're shipped out to the fires after breakfast and don't come back until bedtime.

That's a long, hard day, especially considering that the only food they have in between is what they can carry in their packs and clothes.

I ended up going in with my editor (Richard, for those who don't know him) and donating a crap ton of Slim Jims, nuts and dried fruits, and sodas, the latter having been specifically requested by members of the fire crews. After the hours they work trying to stop the spread of these wildfires, the least we can do is provide something other than water and Gatorade for them to drink.

As far as I know, the command centers are still accepting donations. I only know of two, the one set up at the Holiday Inn Express just north of Dillsboro, NC, and the one set up at the old Caterpillar factory outside of Franklin, NC. (This article mentions a command center in Clay Co., NC, but I don't know the location.) Considering the scope of the fires, there have to be others, so if you're interested in donating or otherwise helping, try contacting local emergency services or ranger stations for more information.

The men and women who came here from outside the South have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the locals. Let's continue doing what we can to make their lives easier until they can return to their own families and communities.

Ledford Road smoke by Amy Watts
Smoke hangs over the road leading to property owned by my family near Franklin, North Carolina.
Photograph courtesy of Amy Watts.
Pumpkintown wildfire by Erica Welch Arvey
Fires burning across the road from a populated area in Pumpkintown, North Carolina. 
Photograph courtesy of Erica Welch Arvey.
A Vampyr Series Movie? Here’s How You Can Help.

A Vampyr Series Movie? Here’s How You Can Help.

My son recently attended DragonCon, and because he’s a good son, he sat in on a panel discussing how to turn a book into a TV series or movie. We’d been discussing this in particular with the Vampyr Series. I mean, let’s face it. Vampires make for good TV, so why not a Vampyr Series movie?

Here’s the thing. In order to do that, the most basic requirement is social credit, which translates (according to the panelists) into a minimum of 50,000 followers on one social media platform, plus great reviews on the books and so forth.

So I’m reaching out to my readers and asking each of you to follow me on Twitter, like my Facebook page, and comment on this blog post. If you haven’t already, please leave an honest review for each of the books on Amazon: The Vampire’s Pet, The Vampire’s Favorite, and The New Vampire. (Reviews at other online stores are welcome, too.) Finally, spread the word. Tell your book loving friends about the Vampyr Series and encourage them to dive into this story world. Don’t forget. The first e-book is currently available as a free download.

The Master Vampire is currently in the works, so keep an eye out for news on it. I’m also moving and updating all my websites and social media platforms, so please have patience while I rearrange everything.

Thank you all for your help!

Dreamland

Dreamland

I just finished watching both series (seasons) of Dreamland, originally titled Utopia, an Australian satire mocking bureaucratic waste and inefficiency centered on the fictional Nation Building Authority. The show is part of the research I’m conducting prior to traveling to Oz in the next couple of years. I want to have a good feel for the culture and language before I go, as I intend to set a story there.

Why else would I travel halfway around the world?

Oh, right. Vacation.

Anywho, if it’s a vacation, it’ll be a working one.

Dreamland is hilarious, if you understand the comedy inherent to this sort of satire. If not? Eh. You’ll be lost. Some of the humor is dry and some went completely over my head. (That depending on Australian slang, for instance.)

What makes Dreamland so great is the way the actors completely buy into their parts. There’s not one bit of incredulity, even under the most ridiculous situations, like when the WiFi goes out and the only place anyone can get a signal is in the men’s toilet.

Pre-trip Reading

Coincidentally, I also just finished reading Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia by David Hunt. It’s billed as a satire, but struck me as more of a smartassery than anything. I did learn more than I probably will ever need to know about Australia’s founding, and particularly of its early explorers and settlers. If you pick this one up, don’t skip the footnotes, as they contain the funniest bits.

I have a handful of other books on Australia stacked in my various to be read piles, one of which I’ve already started. Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey–and Even Iraq–Are Destined to become Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport was written by Simon Kuper (a sports writer) and Stefan Szymanski (an economist) as every footy’s answer to baseball’s Moneyball.

There are enough statistics in this thing to give even the most dedicated numbers man a headache. It’s taken me weeks to get ninety pages into it. Now, don’t get me wrong. Soccernomics is a fascinating look at the sport that captivates much of the world, but it’s a dense read, especially for a newbie like me. My closest brush with soccer was two seasons of rec ball a decade and a half ago when my son played. Yes, I coached both years, but what did I know? The other mom/coach did all the coaching and training. I stood on the sidelines and made sure the kids didn’t kill each other in a Gatorade-induced frenzy.

Soccer is apparently huge in Straya. The number of leagues and clubs is astounding. I think every ‘burb there must have at least one team (club?) for every age group. I’m not kidding. Since it seems to be something of a national past time, I reckon I’ll have to catch a few matches while there.

I’d really like to understand the game first, though. Since I don’t have a way to watch sports at home, every week, my son and I eat at least once at La Cabana (Dillard) so I can watch part of a match.

I’m the one wearing the wacky t-shirts while avidly watching the TVs mounted high on either end of the main dining room. My son is the one wearing the wacky t-shirts while avidly chatting away about work and such.

And a good ol’ time is had by all.

Bribery

The picture at the top of the page was taken by a good friend who lives in the state of Victoria. She’s bribing me to visit by sending gorgeous imagery of her vacations and off-day trips. Yup, it’s working. I don’t even like beaches, but after seeing the pictures she sends, I’m dying to go.

To satisfy visa requirements, my bucket list trip was originally supposed to alternate between two to three months in Australia and a month or so at home. I’m trying to work out the finances now so I can live in Australia for at least a year, the length of time I figure I’ll need to research and write the aforementioned book. It’s likely I’ll get other stories out of the visit, considering that satisfying visa regs only requires a trip out of country. I don’t have to go all the way home to do that.

Say, isn’t New Zealand nice this time of year? How about Niue?

No idea when I’ll pull everything together for the trip, but I did finally get a passport. Step one, fulfilled. Now on to step two: Global Entry and TSA preCheck. Fun. What was that about bureaucracies again?