Would You Have Been a Colonist?

© CoreyFord  | istockphoto.com

© CoreyFord | istockphoto.com

Okay, in my newly released novel, Saving Grace, the characters were all on their way to Earth’s first extra-planetary colony when their ship explodes and they have to land (crash) on the nearest habitable planet (or moon in this case). They have to start over from scratch where they are. However, they were almost going to have to start over from scratch once they got to the planet Terra, as the colony there is only ten or so years old. So what does that make this? Yep, it makes Saving Grace a story about building a colony.

This is another one of those ways that this “Science Fiction” story of mine is actually a historical novel in disguise. I’ve always been fascinated with stories of the earliest colonists that came to America. What American kid doesn’t start learning about the Pilgrims every November by dressing up in black with big buckles and funny hats? It also doesn’t take us long to learn about the Oregon Trail and other intrepid pioneers heading West to set up a new life. Even European history is full of storied of colonists. Australia, Africa, India…every continent has stories of colonists to tell.

And of course the first thing we learn about colonists is how hard their lives were. Carving civilization out of the wilderness is a challenge, no matter what era you live in. The Pilgrims may have come to Massachusetts seeking religious freedom, but their first challenge was simply to survive the winter. They had a lot of material to work with—good land, tools, knowledge, and determination—but they had to apply all of that to a land and climate that was unlike the world they had left behind.

Pioneers heading West were faced with the same problems. Land was abundant, the soil was fertile, minerals waited in the hills, but the sheer vastness and wildness of the territory was overwhelming to the small bands of people who set out into it. Not to mention the fact that it was already inhabited.

Spoiler alert, the moon that Grace and her friends (and foes) land on has no other human inhabitants (well, that they know of, at least), but it has abundant wildlife, rich mineral resources, and fertile ground. The whole thing is just waiting for them to claim it. The biggest problem they encounter—and it’s a huge problem—is each other.

© Americanspirit | Dreamstime.com

© Americanspirit | Dreamstime.com

Grace and company aren’t the only colonists who had that problem. One area of history that I am dying to explore more of is that of the initial colonization of Australia by the British. What I know of it paints an odd and exciting picture of ships full of convicts turned loose on the virgin landscape, surviving, evolving, devolving, causing chaos, and somehow, amidst all of that, eking out a living and creating a vibrant culture that lasts today.

This is what really excited me about writing the Grace’s Moon series. Taking what I learned in my history classes and studies about how colonies form, who the brave souls are who tend to start them, and the reasons they were founded formed the bedrock of the world on which this series is built. What would these advanced, clever people do when they suddenly had all of their technology taken away from them? How would they deal with the problems and conflicts they brought with them from Earth? Is it even possible to form a Utopian society, even when the landscape around you is rich with promise?

I wonder if the waves of colonists we have seen on Earth asked these same questions. Certainly the Puritans came to New England seeking a Utopia, but further south, in, say, Virginia, it was more of a “get rich or die trying” sort of inspiration that drove people.

Incidentally, I have an ancestor, a carpenter named Jonathan Lax, who was a settler at the original Jamestown settlement in Virginia. I don’t know much about him, but I wonder what made him leave his home in the Lake District of England to risk his life in a land that was as far away to him as the fictitious moon Grace and her people land on is to us today. Would I have been that brave? Would I have been a colonist?

You know, I think I would have. In fact, given the right promise, I think I might volunteer for a colonial mission to another planet myself. How about you? Would you leave everything you know to start over in a virgin land?


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© Dreamstimepoint | Dreamstime.com

© Dreamstimepoint | Dreamstime.com

Ah! There’s a reason why the day a book is published is called Release Day! It may mark the day that a book is released to the public but to the author it represents a great big exhale and release from the intensity of that final phase of a writing project.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing a novel is a long process that certainly doesn’t end when the book is published. Writing is one thing, editing another thing entirely, and marketing the book so that it finds its way into the hands of eager readers is a whole different can of worms. Every different writer has a different opinion about which phase of the process they love or hate more or the others, but any way you slice it, the sheer liberation of clicking publish and moving on is the biggest release of all.

I published two books—Saving Grace and Fallen from Grace, the first two books in my all-new Science Fiction series, Grace’s Moon—on Tuesday. The first drafts of the books were actually written as long as five years ago. I’ve tinkered with them over the last few years, but the serious work of revising them enough to show them to other people has absorbed me for the last three months. And believe me, it’s been an intense last few months! But Tuesday I clicked “publish” and sent those books out into the world.

And now here I am on the other side.

There’s an important lesson to be learned in the aftermath of publishing a book. After putting all that effort into producing a product that is presentable to an outside audience, we can be tempted to fall too far to one side or the other of the fence. On the one hand, it’s so easy to let out that last great breath and collapse back, completely spent…and to do nothing. I mean, at this stage of the game we’re so done with the damn book that we may very well want nothing to do with it ever again.

The problem is, though, books don’t sell themselves. Publishing is only the beginning. Unless we’ve already made a huge name for ourselves (and really, how many writers can say that? 5%?) we still need to work on finding promo opportunities, lining up guest posts, and seeking out places to talk about the book and sell it to new readers. If left on its own to find its way in the world, your book will die. And nobody wants that.

woman readingOf course, there is another side to this whole post-pub coin that can be equally as dangerous. This is the pit I fall into after every book. It’s important as a writer to stop and rest now and then. Yep, sometimes once you click “publish” you actually have to flop back, take a deep breath, and close your eyes. I tend to want to jump right into writing the next book in the series or to start a new series all together. It’s an admirable impulse and one that will keep any given writer brimming with possibility for years to come. But as Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says, you have to sharpen the saw for a while before you can go back to cutting down trees.

My weapon of choice when it comes to combating post-pub burn-out is to read. There’s nothing like a good (or even a bad) book to mellow you out after all those months of frantic work. It’s not just a method of relaxation, it’s a way to work on your craft through the art of observation. It can even be a way to get new ideas. I’m not talking about the kind of ideas that get you in trouble with readers later for imitating the masters, I’m talking about methods of showing backstory, character nuances, and even good old sentence structure. There’s a lot to be learned from reading, as we all well know.

So yay and congratulations to anyone who finishes a book and publishes it! Way to go! And I wish you all the best in navigating that treacherous balance between taking on too much work after you’ve clicked “publish” and not doing enough. It’s a fine balance, but listen to your writer’s heart. You’ll know when you’ve done enough and need a rest and you’ll know when it’s time to get back in the saddle and write again.


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Tiger Writers and Dolphin Writers

© Caan2gobelow | Dreamstime.com

© Caan2gobelow | Dreamstime.com

There are days when I swear that I’m far too insecure to be a writer. I mean, if there was a World Cup for stressing out about things, I would beat all y’all the way Germany beat Brazil! I may not give off those vibes all the time, but believe me, they’re there. I think they’re there with all of us creative types. My particular anxiety lately has been over what type of a writer I am.

As far as I see it (as determined by observation of my peers, particularly in the Romance world), writers are either tigers or dolphins.

Dolphins swim in packs (well, pods, to be precise). They are swift and beautiful and daring. They leap out of the water and do fabulous tricks, sunlight glittering off of the trail of water droplets they leave behind them. They are social animals and enjoy talking to each other, making noise, and entertaining crowds. Dolphins are awesome.

Tigers are loners. They pad through the jungle on silent feet, going after the things they want intensely. They hunt alone, preferring to stay hidden in the underbrush. But when they move in for the kill, boy do they get what they’re after! Tigers are beautiful animals, colorful and glorious, but they are solitary, maybe a little temperamental, and passionate. They don’t play well with others.

I, Merry Farmer, am a tiger writer. I absolutely thrive doing things on my own. This is the main reason I chose to self-publish instead of going the traditional route. I prefer to write on my own, edit with the help of a very few trusted professionals, and market through my brilliantly talented publicist. I enjoy writers conferences, but they sap every last ounce of my energy. I am not the writer you will find staying out late at the bar every night of a conference and whooping it up with other writers.

The thing is, I have a lot of writer friends who are dolphins. They excel at networking. They have formed author co-ops and pitched in together to create multi-author blogs. They cross-promote each other with their whole hearts. I love following the Facebook conversations they have with each other and seeing how well they get along. It’s so awesome!

I am completely incapable of having that kind of professional relationship with that many people. I am extraordinary wistful about the awesome bonds they have created. I totally want that…and I totally don’t.

Ah, the life of the contradictory artist! My big, stripy, tiger writer heart sighs with envy while at the same time being grateful I don’t have to expend that sort of energy being social. Where I start to stress out about the whole thing, though, is when I stop to wonder if the dolphins have the right idea.

© Lukyslukys | Dreamstime.com

© Lukyslukys | Dreamstime.com

Writer co-ops and author conglomerates are very in right now. With all the uncertainty in the publishing world, it can be comforting to band together with a group of like-minded peers. I have seen these groups accomplish some really snazzy stuff. They are able to position each other in strategic ways that solitary writers don’t have. I am a great admirer of the writer peer group.

So does this mean that writers should all join together in groups? Does it mean that we won’t find success unless we are dolphins?

That is exactly the question that stresses me out so much. Should I be making a bigger effort to go against my nature and become a part of one of these groups? Should all writers?

Ah, but here’s the thing. I also have a lot of writer friends who have found great deals of success going it on their own. In fact, a few of my fellow tiger writers are the ones who have hit the top of the Amazon charts, have garnered the most fans, and have landed on the USA Today Bestseller list. They didn’t do it through fostering connections with other writers, they did it by working hard on their own for the goals that matter to them.

So which type of a writer should any given writer try to be? Are tigers more successful than dolphins or vice versa?

Honestly, I think that comes down to the style of working that fits best with the individual writer in question. As for me, I think I need to learn to embrace my tiger-ass self. That’s the working style I feel most comfortable with and that allows me to do my best work. Another writer might feel exactly the opposite. They might work best with the accountability and support of their own pod. It really depends on who you are.

And so here is my advice to myself and to the other writers out there wondering if they’re “doing it right.” Stop stressing out about it. If you’re a tiger, embrace your tiger. If you’re a dolphin, live it up with the dolphins. A tiger wouldn’t survive for three seconds in a dolphin’s habitat and a dolphin couldn’t live a tiger’s life. There’s no need to spend energy wishing you were the other kind of writer when that energy could be put to better use WRITING. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you got the words on the page, it matters THAT you got them there.

But just out of curiosity, which kind of writer are you?


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From History to the Stars

© Noirodts | Dreamstime.com

© Noirodts | Dreamstime.com

One week, people! In one week the first TWO books in my Science Fiction series Grace’s Moon will be released! Yep, the epic adventure of stranded colonists trying to build a new civilization on a habitable moon in the middle of nowhere is my first foray out of Romance and into Sci-Fi. Sure, there is a romance that plays a key role in the plot that stretches through these two books, but it’s an entirely different genre for me.

So what, you might ask, is an Historical Romance writer doing penning extra-planetary Science Fiction? What kind of a leap is that?

Truth be told, I don’t see it as a leap at all. In fact, in order to write the Grace’s Moon series, I’ve ended up doing a lot of historical research. Real, deep, involved historical research.

There isn’t all that much of a difference between writing a novel set in the past and a novel set in the future. Both kinds of stories involve some place and time that is not here and now. Both require a lot of world-building and setting of scenes that are unfamiliar to the reader. Details become hugely important. What people wear, how they talk, how they interact with each other, and how they view their world are key elements to bring into a story to make the reader feel at home in a strange world. Both genres take the reader away from where they started and open new horizons.

But for me, for Grace’s Moon in particular, I have sought to bring as much history as possible into this story of the future. The kernel of the idea that sprouted this story and the end that I am aiming for is one simple question: If a highly technologically advanced society suddenly lost all technology and lost the capability to make more, what era of history would their society devolve back into? What would people do if they had advanced knowledge but didn’t have the infrastructure to continue it? How quickly would the knowledge die and what would be preserved?

Cool stuff, eh? And believe me, I’m going to spend a lot of books examining these ideas and developing a society that is both advanced and ages behind where we, the readers of the 21st century, are now.

But what about that historical research that I did for these books? What exactly do you research to help develop a brand new civilization on a distant moon?

The first thing I found myself researching (years ago, actually) was how animals became domesticated here on Earth. I mean, at some point in pre-history, animals were animals and humans weren’t that far behind. So how and why did some species end up on a farm while others stayed out in the wild?

ffl-cow-field.jpgThe answer was kind of fascinating. As far as we can tell from ancient records and modern animal behavior, some species are naturally inclined to be herd animal. Cows and sheep in particular seem to be born to be around humans in packs or herds. Ancient records suggest that once early humans started feeding these kinds of animals and keeping them close, they stayed close and let themselves become farm animals instead of living life in the wild. Humans protected them from predators as much as they were the predators themselves.

Not so for other animals. Some just refuse to be tamed, no matter how you dress them up and put them in Vegas shows. Yep, I’m thinking of big cats here. But this is my science fiction world, right? I can tame whichever animals I want to and leave the rest to develop in the wild. And being a cat person (with secret fantasies of owning a tiger), well, some of the animals Grace and her friends discover on the moon are not quite the same as their corresponding species on Earth.

Of course, my stranded settlers have some advantages that naturally-developing humans on Earth didn’t have. They do bring some technology with them. Maybe even by forethought, maybe by slightly nefarious means. *wiggles eyebrows* You’ll have to read to find out. I did have a great time researching shelters that would be easy to build with limited resources, where cereal grains, salt, and yeast came from if not from the supermarket, and how long it would take for modern, manmade clothes to disintegrate. You’ll see.

One week! In one week Saving Grace and Fallen From Grace will be out!


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Writing Lessons from the Seven Kingdoms, Part Two

Game-of-Thrones_George-RR-MartinLast week I talked about how Game of Thrones is teaching me so much about the craft of writing. I looked closely at how the creation of vibrant, three-dimensional characters has really helped me to get into the story and kept me reading. The reason so many people are upset when George R.R. Martin kills off a character is because they have come to like the characters so much.

Well, this week I want to talk about the other huge, important writing craft thing I’m learning from GoT. Because it isn’t just the characters that have drawn me in, it’s the stakes.

Okay. You might be asking yourself “What exactly are stakes and why are they important for a story?” I first came across the concept of stakes—or rather, had a concept that I vaguely knew about solidified into the category of stakes—while reading Donald Maass’s excellent book on writing, Writing the Breakout Novel. Maass talks in theory about what Martin executes perfectly.

Stakes are basically what risk the characters are taking as they navigate through their stories and what they stand to lose if they don’t meet their goals. The tricky thing about stakes, though, is that what you might think are the highest stakes your characters could have—namely dying or having the world blow up or some other cataclysmic event—aren’t actually the most dire nor the most emotionally satisfying risks on which to build a story. Stakes are directly tied into how much we like the characters and how intricately our emotions as readers have been woven into their fates.

Yes, the stakes are pretty dark high for a lot of the characters in GoT. Kingdoms hang in the balance. People teeter on the verge of life and death in just about all of the subplots. But you know what? It isn’t the fact that the kingdom is on the line that keeps me glued to the page. It’s things like whether Arya will get to learn to sword fight or if Jon will make peace with his place in the Stark family or how Tyrion will get himself out of the situations he finds himself in that I love. They are the personal plots of the characters as opposed to the great big machinations of the world that Martin has built. At the same time, the personal stakes for the characters are profoundly influenced by the world they inhabit.

writing_the_breakout_novelI think the key to writing a page-turner with characters that you end up thinking about long after the book is done is the immediacy of the stakes that they’re up against. And when I say that, I mean in terms of immediacy for the reader. None of us (hopefully) are in a position where our kingdom and our fate is tied to a conflict generations in the making. But we have all experienced conflict. We’ve all run into selfish people and those who should be doing a better job than they are. We all know what it feels like to want something that we’re so close to having, to be thrust into a spot where we don’t want to be, and we’ve all been young and foolish.

Human drama is far more exciting than tales of kings and power. Although, really, it’s all tied up together and kind of the same thing. It’s those personal stakes and the emotion behind them that make a great story. The same is true of Romance too, btw. I have read a lot of plots in which the hero is determined to win the heroine in spite of her resistance. The dull ones have stakes along the lines of “He must win her or he’ll be disappointed because he wants her”. The really juicy ones have stakes like “He must win her because without her he will lose his inheritance or position”. And the really, REALLY juicy ones are more like “He must win her because without her everyone who has ever called him a wastrel and a rake will be proven right and he will disappear into that dark pit forever”. There can actually be a lot of incredibly compelling stakes involved in Romance, because Romance is, in essence, about the most intimate relationships between people.

So if you find yourself writing and things just aren’t clicking, if even you are falling asleep as you read your own work, it might be because the stakes you’re working with aren’t high enough. Take a lesson from Game of Thrones and the interlacing of personal goals and the influences of the world you’ve created. Think about what your characters stand to lose if they don’t achieve their goals, and then bump that up a notch. It’s all about making the reader completely unable to put the book down.