My Hero is a 12-Year Old Boy

Image courtesy of Christopher Stadler via Flickr

Image courtesy of Christopher Stadler via Flickr

People talk a lot about role models. “Who is your role model?” is one of the most common questions I’m asked in interviews. I love the question because I believe it’s important for everyone to have someone to look up to, to model your behavior after, and to aspire to be like. So who is my role model? He’s a 12 year-old kid from my church. For the purposes of this post, I’m calling him “Max”, which isn’t anywhere close to his real name, but it happens to be one of my favorite boys names and he’s one of my favorite boys, sooo….

Max is my role model. He doesn’t have any special handicap that makes his life a struggle. He hasn’t exactly overcome long odds, no more than the next person trying to get by in the modern world. Outside observers wouldn’t necessarily consider him special at all, although they would notice right away that there’s something different about him. Max is ridiculously intelligent. No, I mean he’s gifted like great minds of science have been gifted. He was recently telling me all about a book he read recently on paradoxes, and then went on to explain Schrodinger’s Cat…and it made sense. This boy is going to cure cancer and stop global warming and bring world peace, yo.

But that’s not why he’s my role model. Sure, I admire intelligence, but Max has something that goes beyond intelligence. I am always tempted to be worried for him because his social skills are completely different from kids his own age. He talks to adults with perfect ease…blended with childlike enthusiasm. A lot of adults have made the mistake of talking to him like a kid at first, but he always surprises them in a hurry with the scope of his comprehension. He clearly doesn’t fit in perfectly with his peers. Sometimes they look at him a little funny. But when I see him interact with the other kids there isn’t the same sort of dynamic of bullying and ostracism that you would expect to see.

I’m friends with Max’s mom, and I recently expressed my worry that such a unique, old soul would be picked on or made miserable by his peers, especially as teenagerdom looms. You know what she said? Kids don’t bother bullying him. You know why? Because they can’t get a rise out of him. She told me a story about how he accidentally went to school with two entirely different socks last year. One kid tried to tease him by pointing out that he was wearing two different socks. Max’s response? A calm shrug and “And your point is?”

Max is my hero because, at age 12, he is comfortable with who he is and doesn’t let the opinions of others get under his skin. He is fascinated with the world and eager to reach beyond what he’s taught in school to discover things for himself. He engages with everyone as if he is their equal and isn’t afraid to meet you on your own turf or to explain his turf to you.

Wow.

Girl-writing-brightThere are a lot of things I think we can all learn from Max, especially writers. I was a total basket case at that age and I cared from the tips of my toes to the highest hair on my head what people thought about me. I imagined a thousand horrors that would (and frankly did) happen if my peers didn’t like me. I ate my heart out trying to fit in by pushing aside who I knew I was. I think we all do. But Max, for me, is living, breathing, punning, weird sock-wearing proof that even in middle school, if you are who you are and if you wear that person with pride and focus your energies on the things you love, you’re un-bully-able.

Every time we write a book, I can guarantee that somewhere in the backs of our minds is the worry about what people will think of us. We tie ourselves up in knots obsessing over whether we’re writing the right genre, if our characters are engaging, if our prose will appeal to readers. When the reviews come in, we tear our hair if someone didn’t like our writing and get super overexcited when they did. We care what people think. And not in the useful, constructive way.

These days, I’m all about approaching my writing career the way Max approaches life. I know what I write. I’m confident in my abilities, but I’m also always searching for new and better ways to do things. I try to talk as confidently with people who write my genre as I do with those who write other genres. And when those reviews come in, if someone didn’t like the choices my hero or heroine made, well, your point is? Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but I don’t have to let them get under my skin. All I have to do is write.

So kudos to you, Max! I look forward to watching you grow into a teenager. I have a feeling you’re going to be just fine. And I’ll continue to look to you for the way I should be behaving in my career and my life.

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Introducing Debut Author Felice Stevens

fs_rescuedGuys! I’m so excited! Today I get to introduce you to Felice Stevens and her new book Rescued. It’s such a pleasure to be able to highlight a new author AND a truly special m/m romance all in one. Take it away, Felice!

First, could you tell us a little about yourself and Rescued?

I am a married mother of two, a lawyer and a voracious reader. I’ve always loved reading; mysteries, historical fiction, mostly about English history and of course, romance.

Here’s the blurb for Rescued, which comes out today from LooseId:

Ryder Daniels has spent the last year recovering from rejection: his parents couldn’t accept his sexuality and his lover chose drugs over his love. The only bright lights in his life are his younger brother and his rescued pit bull. But now his mother’s punishment for his lifestyle has cut him off from his brother he loves so deeply. Devastated, he throws himself into the work of the Pit Bull Foundation he and his friends started.

Jason Mallory can no longer hide the dissatisfaction of his relationship with his longtime girlfriend. When her marriage ultimatum pushes him to break things off, he’s determined not to jump into the dating scene. But when a group of injured pit bulls are found on his construction site, he can’t forget the guy who shows up to help.

After Jason adopts one of the dogs, he and Ryder become fast friends—until one night, Ryder lets down his guard and Jason recognizes his desire. Soon, they can’t deny the passion between them but will family differences and ugly prejudices keep them apart, or can they fight to prove that love is precious, no matter the flavor?

What inspired Rescued?

I have no idea! I was walking home from work one day and the whole book popped into my head; names, plot, everything. Pearl, one of the dogs, is based on a real life rescued pit bull one of my oldest friends owns. She was held in a lab where they planned on doing brain experiments on her. Luckily, she was rescued.

What is your favorite part of writing?

When that moment hits, and the words flow with ease. Unfortunately, doesn’t happen that often!

What is your least favorite part of writing?

Edits!! But seriously, when I go back and see the plot holes and have to rework what I’ve already written.

How likely are people you meet to end up in your next book?

Not at all. My characters come out of my head.

Do you prefer to read in the same genres you write in or do you avoid reading that genre? Why?

I love reading in my genre, because there are so many awesome gay romance authors. They are my inspiration. But, I also do take breaks, and still read my mysteries and historical fiction, as well as some of my favorite historical romance authors.

Has your muse always known what genre you would write and be published in?

Ha! NOT AT ALL!! I started out writing Regency romance, and still plan to publish my books. I have three full regencies waiting in the wings. One day I picked up a male/male romance and was swept away for want of a better phrase. I just knew I wanted to write that genre.

What do you have planned for the future? What’s next?

I have a series planned about three foster brothers who have all suffered some form of abuse, and have a hard time accepting love. The series title is To Hell and Back, and the first book, A Walk Through Fire, is on submission. I am now working on the second book, After the Fire.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Felice. Check out Rescued here:

http://www.loose-id.com/rescued.html

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22881962-rescued?from_search=true

About-Face

The following story is a cautionary tale. It’s a cringe-worthy true story that is basically me offering advice about writing couched in telling tales on myself. There are a few morals to this story. One is “Do your research before you start writing.” The other is “Follow your writer’s heart.” Here it is.

11-26-13 © vsurkov | istockphoto.com

11-26-13 © vsurkov | istockphoto.com

So. Historical Romance and Science Fiction, right? Those are the things I write. I love all of it. I particularly love the stories that have been rolling around in my mind for years now. This summer I finally published the first two books in my Grace’s Moon sci-fi series. Yay! I’ve had those stories in me for years. I actually have a major portion of the entire history of that world in my head. Fun stuff.

This month I’ve been writing the third book in the series. It involves the children of the main characters from the first two books, particularly Grace’s son, Grayson (see what I did there?). A major focal point of the third book—in fact, the central object and plot device that provides the core of the action, the climax of the book, and all of the intent from the beginning of the story through to the last word—is the discovery and rescue of a massive spaceship that has sunk to the bottom of a lake.

Okay, so giant spaceship (capable of transporting a thousand people), a great big lake, and people trapped but still alive in the ship eighteen years after it sank. Very cool, right?

Aaaaand this is why you should do your research before you start writing a book. When I got to about 65,000 words of what was shaping up to be a 75,000 first draft, while Grayson and his buddies were devising and carrying out all sorts of plans to dive to the ship and discover the keys to a lot of plot threads and motivators, it dawned on me that I should probably Google the question “How deep can you dive without any equipment?”

The answer? Your average human who has not trained as a diver can only go down about 15 feet before the pressure becomes painful. (Although the record for free diving is about 600 feet, which is kind of ridiculous if you think about it) Translation? There is no way my characters could dive deep enough to reach, let alone rescue, a submerged spaceship. And there is no way I could place the ship in a shallow location without bringing up questions of why its inhabitants haven’t tried to get out on their own.

So basically, I have to not only rewrite almost the entire book, I have to reconceptualize just about everything about the external plot in order to make it work. I’m working on it. I’ve got a few vague ideas, but this opened a giant can of worms for me.

Research is one of the most fun parts of writing, but as I’ve just learned, the time to research technical questions that you know you’re going to run into is before you start. Now, I knew that you can’t dive particularly deep without equipment. The thing is, I didn’t realize it was THAT hard to dive. But when you’re researching, sometimes it’s hard to grasp what you don’t know that you don’t know. I’m beginning to think I (you?) need to create a spreadsheet or a list of possible technical questions that I have before I start the drafting process.

And now we come to the second moral of the story.

Now, I hate it when things that people have told me for years turn out to be true. I want to be iconoclastic and buck the system so badly. Maybe it’s hubris, but there’s that part of me that wants to be the exception to the rule. In this case, it’s all about the challenges and pitfalls of writing outside of your genre.

10-25-11 © John_Brueske | istockphoto.com

10-25-11 © John_Brueske | istockphoto.com

So as I finished publishing Saving Grace and Fallen from Grace and geared up to write book three, something unexpected and wonderful happened to me. I met a bunch of really great fellow western historical romance writers. Not just met them, I was accepted into the fold of both writers and superfans of the subgenre. I’m actually going to be part of a box set called Wild Western Women this fall! (You heard it first here!) I am totally in the western historical romance zone right now. And I had a miraculous brain-flash for a series set along the Oregon Trail in the midst of all this. We’re talking a half dozen specific romance stories and subsequent characters showing up in my head at the same time singing halleluiah.

At the same time that my sci-fi story was experiencing utter breakdown.

My heart said, “Hey, let’s set the sci-fi aside for a few months and work on this really cool western historical idea!” My head replied, “Dude, that sounds a little too much like quitting for my comfort.” But then my heart said, “You’re supposed to write what you love, though, right?” And my stubborn head said, “I love Grace’s Moon too.” And my heart countered with, “Yes, but your fans are primarily in historical romance, you are hot in historical romance right now, and odds are that you’ll sell more historical romance than you will sci-fi.”

I asked some friends, writers and non-writers. The response was pretty much unanimous. Set the sci-fi aside and work on the western historical romance. Listen to your heart.”

So what have I learned from this nails-on-the-chalkboard painful reversal of the momentum I’ve been trying to build all summer? What advice can I share coming out of the situation? Write the books you want to write, but put things into perspective as you write. If your goal is to publish the books you’ve always wanted to publish without any care for reception or income, then work on whatever feels right. If you want to write for both yourself and the readers you already have and/or if you’re hoping to generate income from your writing, consider directing your efforts to the tastes of the fans you’ve developed.

And above all else, strike while the iron is hot. If someone hands you a hot iron, you’d be a fool not to strike it.

So write on! (But research first) And don’t make the same mistakes I did.

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Sold My Soul to the Company Store

Marquette Lumber company store, circa 1891 courtesy of Wikicommons

Marquette Lumber company store, circa 1891
courtesy of Wikicommons

Yesterday I got to do a very fun character interview from Phineas Bell, protagonist of Somebody to Love’s point of view for the Kimi-chan Experience. I was surprised by the last question she asked Phin, which was about how a company town in the late 19th, early 20th century worked. I had actually done a lot of research into the whole company system and learned a lot of fascinating and terrible things. So why not share that with you here?

If you’re at all interested in the 21st century debate about minimum wage, if you paid even a little attention to the Occupy movement or the 1% versus 99% discussion, then you will likely flip your lid when you learn about what the company system was back in the day and how it affected the lives of working men and women just over a hundred years ago. Because in a time before labor laws, back when the Gilded Age was also known as the Robber Baron Age, the 1% could get away with a lot more than they get away with now. (And I know, they get away with a LOT now)

“Company towns” generally grew up around mines or other sorts of remote, labor-intensive operations. In the simplest terms, the mine employed the men, paid them, owned their houses, and owned the store where everyone bought everything. These were the days before everyone owned a car, and a trip to the next town over or anyplace where an average person could shop at the competition’s establishment was a major, expensive undertaking. In essence, you were stuck where you were.

The disadvantage of being committed to one place was that whatever the owner of the mine where you worked and the town that you lived in wanted to charge for rent or groceries or just about anything, they could charge. You had no choice but to pay their price or hit the road, homeless and unemployed. It’s easy to think from our 21st century perspective that hitting the road would be the obvious choice, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time before unemployment compensation or easy transportation, a job could literally be the difference between life and death.

courtesy of Wikicommons

courtesy of Wikicommons

Unfortunately, it was the most vulnerable strata of the population that was at the mercy of these company systems. We’re talking uneducated laborers without a lot of support. They had families that depended on them and very little recourse to lodge complaints when times were tough and bosses were unfair. It wasn’t until much later that the government began to step in and pass laws to fix the blatant abuses of company towns.

One of the most shocking problems that these company systems had was that when times got tough for the bosses, they would start paying their workers in scrip instead of cash. Scrip was more or less Monopoly money that could only be used at the company store. It was worthless, especially for anyone hoping to save enough to get out of the horrible situation they were in.

Now, it wasn’t all super horrible, and the company town system did begin to change near the turn of the century, particularly after the Pullman Strike of 1894. Pullman, Chicago was one of the earliest company towns, planned and paid for by the Pullman railroad car manufacturer. When the company hit hard times in 1894, it tightened its belt by reducing workers’ wages without reducing the rents on their company-owned housing. The workers went on strike, demanding fairer conditions. The government stepped in, and after an investigation found that the workers’ lives were better off under the company system than they would have been otherwise. However, public opinion condemned the “paternalistic” style of the company town as “un-American.” Compromises and new ways of creating a balance between industry and humanity were hammered out.

It didn’t all happen overnight, and the reason why I’m a little vague in that last sentence is because there wasn’t one big push or law or incident that changed things, but rather a slow, steady progression through the first two decades of the 20th century. Wage laws were passed, health care laws came into being, but most importantly, automobiles became much, much more affordable. Honestly, the company system declined when workers no longer needed to live in the company town immediately surrounding their mine, and instead had the mobility to live miles away in a friendlier environment.

Don’t you just love how the dots connect in History?

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Quantity of Success

elevator to successThere have been a whole bunch of really great articles about the capacity for success in self-publishing that exists these days, including this cool one from Yahoo! Finance yesterday. I love hearing about other self-publishing authors who are doing ridiculously well. I love seeing my fellow writers achieve amazing things. My friend Sandra Owens’s new book Crazy for Her is on the Amazon Top 10 of all books right now!  It’s a really exciting time to be a part of the publishing world, let me tell you, especially with friends who are bestsellers and shooting stars.

Meanwhile, back on earth, I’m having a completely pitiful summer of sales. Absolutely nothing is working for me. Ah, the joys of how the other half lives! And while, yes, I do get depressed about the volume of suckage at this stage of my publishing life, and yes, I am a teensy bit jealous when I start comparing myself, I also know that this is just the beginning of the beginning for me.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about publishing, one thing that I really wish wasn’t true, but sadly it is, it’s that size matters. And by size I mean quantity. I’ve heard authors like Courtney Milan and Bella Andre and any number of other bestsellers say that it takes a lot of books in publication before the magic starts to happen. There seem to be certain magic numbers for people, 5-6, 9-10. Numbers like that. I think there’s something to that.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Billy Joel this week. Some of my coworkers went to a Billy Joel concert over the weekend and came back to the office full of rave reviews. A few desks down from me, the conversation started to fly with song titles that sparked bundles of remembered music and lyrics in my mind. That in turn brought my entire childhood pouring to the surface.

Being the research nerd that I am, I immediately had to go online and read Billy Joel’s entire life history. I learned something (obvious) that I didn’t know that kind of changed my world as a published writer. “Piano Man”, Joel’s first super hit, was released in 1973. Guess when he first started recording and making records? 1965. Now, I may not be good at math, but I can subtract to discover that it took 8 years for that first big hit to hit. That was 8 years of playing clubs, finding the right bandmates, trying things that didn’t work, writing songs, and never, ever giving up. And while the first hit came in 1973, the Billy Joel songs that stick in my heart and the ones I consider his best work didn’t come out until the late 80s. That’s at least 10 more years. That’s twenty years of hard work before Billy Joel recorded my favorite of his songs!

tire slashIt wasn’t just him either. I have this little obsession with Davie Bowie these days too. And Bowie worked and recorded and switched up bands and tried new things and failed and failed and FAILED before he finally succeeded. And boy did he succeed! So much so that he’s been in my dreams twice in the last few weeks…once as an oncologist, but that’s a long story.

The point is, there is a universal truth to every creative effort, every effort of any kind. It takes a lot of hard work to be an overnight success. YEARS of hard work. The more I learn about the publishing industry, the more I’m convinced that, really, anyone who wants to succeed at it CAN succeed, as long as they’re willing to put in the work that their individual career path needs for them to succeed.

Part of that is quantity. You have to write a lot of songs before you write “Piano Man”. You have to write a lot of books before you write the bestseller. And yes, even those people who hit the lists with their “first book” have actually written book after book after book that never saw the light of day. I started writing when I was ten. I can’t tell you how many novels I started but never finished before I finally cracked the code and finished one. And the number of novels I finished before I started publishing? Lots.

It’s two things, as far as I can see. First, it’s that old “it takes ten thousand hours of practice at something before you can master it” rule of thumb. I firmly, FIRMLY believe that to be true. Quantity of time is as important as quantity of output. Second, it’s the inescapable truth that right now in the genre fiction publishing world, series are king. Readers want ‘em, writers need to write ‘em. A series is not one book. A series isn’t even two books or three books, honestly. A series is a lot of books about the same characters and their relatives and their friends and their community. Series. Word.

So am I upset that this has been the summer of suck for my book sales? Okay, yeah, a little. Am I giving up and going home? Not on your life! I’m looking for the combination that works. I believe in my books. I know they’re good. I know all of the ones I have yet to write, have yet to even dream up are good. I just don’t know which one is “Piano Man” yet. But when I do know, oh boy, you’ll know it too!

Don’t give up. Ever.

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