Reading, 'Riting, and Ramblingshttps://blog.tkmarnell.comT. K. Marnell's BlogTue, 25 Apr 2017 02:44:31 +0000With Great Authority Comes Great Responsibility I'm going to talk about a subject near and dear to every academic librarian's heart: authority.

Now when librarians talk about "authority," we don't mean the word in the common sense of "the power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge." We use it in the context of evaluating sources, i.e., "Does the author of this book or article have the authority to write on the topic, or is he a random Joe Schmoe with no claims to expertise?"

What is "authority" in publishing?

The concept of authority is difficult for students to grasp because it's not "real." It seems to be completely arbitrary. College students know they're supposed to use academic journals instead Wikipedia, but why? Who says this stranger with a PhD must be more trustworthy than this other stranger with the screen name scienceguy1985? The information from both strangers is the same anyway!

Authority seems arbitrary...because it is somewhat arbitrary. The truth is, authority isn't actually a question of whether a person is qualified to write about a topic. It's a question of whether other people will believe this person is qualified to write about the topic.

"For example," I tell the classes, "If you say to your friends that you read on Wikipedia that sugary snacks worsen symptoms in kids with ADHD, they might say, 'Oh, that makes sense!' But if you write that in a paper, your readers will tear you apart. Readers, especially ones who disagree with you, are always on the lookout for weaknesses in your sources. They'll scoff, 'Well, that's just some quote from Wikipedia. Anyone could have made it up.' But if you can find that same quote in an article by researchers at Harvard Medical School, they'll say, 'Well, I guess that must be true. People at Harvard know what they're talking about.'"

In reality, the anonymous authors who contributed to the Wikipedia article might know more about ADHD than those researchers at Harvard. People at Harvard have published just as much nonsense over the centuries as people from anywhere else. But what's important, when picking sources for an academic argument, is that your audience will believe Harvard studies are always reliable.

"Authority" is the reason why people in the publishing world talk so much about platform. Having a platform is especially important for nonfiction writers. Even if an amateur historian/psychologist/etc. has the same knowledge as an Ivy League expert, if she can't put "Dr." in front of her name and wax at length on her accomplishments in the field, nobody will buy her books. It's not fair, but it's true.

In fiction, an author's platform is slightly different. Potential readers don't look for PhDs from fancy universities, but they do look for literary awards, celebrity endorsements, and other evidence of "quality." People are much more likely to take a chance on an author with a dozen critically acclaimed books and a "bestselling" label to her name than on a newbie with no apparent credentials.

The essence of authority is trust.

Authority is something we, as a society, give to people because we trust them. We trust researchers from Harvard to write medical articles with solid data and flawless reasoning. We trust people with "Dr." in front of their names to tell us the truth about history/psychology/etc. We trust people in police uniforms to enforce the law fairly.

So we're outraged when scientists publish lies, when police murder innocent citizens, or when high school teachers prey on impressionable young students. If an inner-city gangster lies, kills, or rapes...well, that's horrible, but we don't expect any better. But the scientist, the cop, the teacher? We trusted these people, and they broke our trust and stomped all over the brittle fragments.

Writers, even in fiction, have more authority than many realize. Simply by being authors we have authority. (Who'd-a-thunk?)

When a reader picks up a book, she basically hands her heart over to the author on a silver platter, saying, "Do with it what you will." She trusts the author to do great things with her heart, to make it race and stop and soar in an unforgettable experience.

And that's why, when a novel doesn't deliver that experience, readers are infuriated. They wouldn't get angry about a $15 lunch with a disappointing dessert, but they'll storm and rage about a $15 paperback with a disappointing ending. The author beguiled them into handing over their hearts, and then she just dropped them in the dust and walked away.

Never break a reader's trust.

After I wrote my previous post, "In Defense of Telling," my mother emailed me with a comment on my complaints about "bait and switch" openings. She was recently certified to teach cycling classes, and the award-winning personal trainer who led her certification course said, "Never trick your trainee. Build trust and follow through with your word."

In the past few months, I've read a couple of books that "tricked" me as a reader. The author set up expectations in the beginning, but then she didn't follow through with her word.

One of them was a YA fantasy, the sequel to a bestselling novel I thoroughly enjoyed. When I finished book #1, I thought I'd found a new favorite author to add to my ever-growing list. I was excited to learn it was the first of a trilogy, and I eagerly downloaded the audiobook of #2 from my local public library and listened while sewing.

The book is about a teenage girl who can control minds. If she desires, she can force anyone in the world to love her, to tell her all of their secrets, to do whatever she wants them to. Everyone fears and distrusts her, especially the prince of the kingdom. The heroine's father, who had the same ability, used it to lead the king down the path of ruin. The prince despises him for it and would never, ever trust her, a monster like him.

"Ooh!" I thought while ripping out tangled stitches. "This is gonna be amaaazing!" Just imagine it: the girl struggling with the temptation to use her ability, trying to remain a good and kind person even though victims of her evil father want to kill her and powerful royals want to use her for their own ends. The handsome prince, falling in love with her but resisting it every step of the way, because he can never tell if his feelings are real or if he's being brainwashed by that wicked siren. The conflict! The heartache! Bring it on!

And then...nothing.

The author did absolutely nothing with this amazing setup. That heartbreaking romance? After one minor act of kingdom-saving by the heroine very early on, the prince feels bad for saying mean things and decides to treat her better. They get to know each other during long walks in the moonlight. They become best friends and eventually lovers. End.

And that internal struggle to be a good person? Well, after some nice people in the palace convince the heroine she can use her powers for good, she thinks quietly for a while (and by "a while" I mean many, many chapters) and decides to accept her power and herself. She helps the royal family put down rebellions and soon everyone in the kingdom worships her. End.

The book was very mature, very realistic, and mind-numbingly boring. I listened to all twelve hours of the audiobook on principle, wondering all the while how the same author who wrote that wonderful book #1 could turn out a dud like this.

Writers say conflict drives plot. While that's true in essence, it's not the whole story. Conflict, by itself, doesn't drive anything. It's only a setup, a promise of exhilarating scenes to come. What really drives the plot is how characters react to conflicts: fighting, fretting, trying to fix problems only to create more of them.

So it's not enough to say, "The prince and the heroine hate each other but they're destined for each other. Isn't this exciting?" If the conflict doesn't put the characters in painful situations, doesn't force them into ugly confrontations with each other or themselves, the story will still be a dud.

Setting up a conflict, but then doing nothing with it, is breaking a promise to readers. So is hinting at a romance that never blossoms; or introducing a villain who doesn't do villainous things; or portraying the heroine as a kick-butt warrior on page one, only to have her spend the next 300 pages wallowing in self-doubt and pining for hot guys. Like the personal trainer said, you have to follow through with your word.

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 09:43:57
In Defense of Telling: Orienting Readers and Respecting Their Time recovered from my crisis of confidence, but I still have yet to begin Rainie Day #2 because of matters of life and death. Literally. In the past month, I attended two conferences and a funeral. (Not quite as catchy as Four Weddings and a Funeral, but believe me, it's been just as manic and emotionally fraught around here as that movie.)

I have many things to write about, but I'll save the heavy subjects for another day. Today I want to talk about that ubiquitous and well-intended, yet ultimately reductive "rule" of writing, "Show, don't tell."

The morning after I came back from the funeral, I dragged myself to work and opened my email accounts to find a rejection from a literary agent. She thought there was "too much telling rather than showing in the opening pages."

This email was upsetting for many reasons, and only one of them was the agent's accidentally horrible timing.

  1. The agent misspelled my name in the salutation. I don't care how many emails she sends in a day; that's just plain sloppy.
  2. There is no such thing as "too much telling." A writer might bog down a story with irrelevant telling, or tell when showing would be more effective, but she can't tell "too much." There is no hard-set maximum of telling allotted per novel.
  3. I'm a meticulous writer. Every sentence I type, I choose after carefully weighing it against the many other sentences I might type instead. And then I revise, revise, revise. So it's infuriating when someone dismisses all of that careful thought with a blanket statement like, "there's too much telling."

I wrote those pages the way I did for a reason: they do what opening pages ought to do.

What Opening Pages Ought to Do

After looking up some of the novels this agent recently represented, I can see that she likes fast-paced action right out of the gate. These novels begin with startling dialogue and dangerous confrontations. They drop readers head-first into adrenaline-pumping action. Another cozy mystery writer commented on Query Tracker that the same agent rejected her manuscript because the murder occurred too late...on page 12!

Many times, in many places, I've read that the opening pages of a book need to "grab" readers and "suck them in." Writers (and agents, apparently) often interpret this to mean they need to stuff page one with thrills and chills. They write prologues showing the last terrifying moments of a victim's life, or a grisly crime from the perspective of the unhinged serial killer. Or they write a short teaser of the life-threatening climax of the novel, and then they fly back in time to start the story properly at the beginning.

This approach can suck readers in, but it can also push them away. "Bait and switch" openings can come across as cheap and manipulative. Readers get invested in the characters on page one, only to see them bite the bullet on page three. Then they have to start over and get to know the real protagonists.

Most importantly, dropping readers in the middle of Crazy Town with no context is disorienting. When I skimmed the first pages of those fast-paced novels, I didn't know who these people were, or what was going on, or what the heck these stories were supposed to be about.

The opening pages of a novel should answer three basic questions for a reader.

  1. Who is the hero, and will I like him?
  2. What is the setting, and will I enjoy it?
  3. Where is this story going, and will it be interesting?

Simply answering these questions satisfactorily will "grab" readers who will enjoy the story. You don't have to dangle the heroine off of a cliff on page one, you just have to give readers an accurate idea of the reading experience they're in for.

Telling Orients Readers

Below are the first 300 words, thereabouts, of the manuscript for Whacked in the Stacks. Arr, there be telling ahead!

I'm not a superstitious person, but the morning of Friday, March 13 nearly turned me into one.

First I ruined my best skirt. That was my fault. I should know better than to read emails on my phone and eat strawberries & cream oatmeal at the same time.

Then my cat, Mr. Rochester, coughed up a hairball on my favorite Mary Janes. That was also my fault. I should know better than to leave my things on the floor, where Mr. Rochester can and will destroy them.

After I changed my skirt, scrubbed my shoes, and jogged through the freezing rain to my car, the engine wouldn't start. That wasn't my fault. I'd taken Cindy the Civic to a service center the weekend before, and the mechanic had said there was nothing wrong with her. Cindy disagreed. She grumbled and screeched when I turned the key. I petted her dashboard and gave her compliments until she started up begrudgingly.

I checked the clock compulsively on my way to work. With every minute that passed, my blood pressure rose. It was the worst possible day of the month to run late.

At 8:47 I turned onto Duvall Street, the main thoroughfare for Downtown Sea Breeze. At 8:49 I passed the Rocket Burger, where a five-foot plastic astronaut named Buzz All-Beef saluted me with one hand and held up a giant double cheeseburger with the other. At 8:51 I reached Fields Park, a.k.a. "The Fields." The magnolia trees stood with buds at the ready, itching for the go-ahead from the sun to burst into bloom. As I imagined the lighter skies and pink flowers soon to come, my blood pressure lowered a bit. If nothing else went wrong, I'd arrive at the library a few minutes before nine.

Of course something else did go wrong. Very, very wrong.

Looking at the list of questions opening pages ought to answer, I hope it's obvious why I wrote mine this way.

First, I aimed to give the reader a general picture of my heroine in the short space of one page. She's humble and readily admits her faults, she's modern in her habits yet conservative in her dress, and she responds to problems with patience, not tantrums. Also, she's highly educated and bookish, as one must be to name a cat after a classic literary character.

Second, I aimed to root the reader in the setting of the stormy Oregon coast. The freezing rain, the quirky seaside resort town, the hint of spring in the air.

Third, I aimed to signal to readers that the upcoming pages hold conflict aplenty. My very first sentence announces that many things are about to go wrong. Not only is my heroine about to meet disaster head-on, but more disasters await her when she arrives to work late.

Now, here's how I might have written the opening pages if I believed showing to be universally better than telling.

The oatmeal fell from my spoon in slow motion, pink and shimmering in the fluorescent light of my kitchen. Plop! The warm glob of strawberries & cream landed right in the lap of my best navy pencil skirt. Dry-clean only, of course.

"Nooo," I moaned. "Not today!"

I put my phone down on the table and grabbed a napkin to wipe off the oatmeal. It was my fault, I knew. I should know better than to read emails and eat breakfast at the same time.

As I was scooping up the last oat flake, I heard a suspicious hacking noise behind me. My heart sank even lower.

I turned just in time to witness my cat, Mr. Rochester, cough up a hairball on my favorite Mary Janes. I swallowed my irritation. This was also my fault. I should know better than to leave my things on the floor, where Mr. Rochester can and will destroy them.

I sighed and rose from the table. I grabbed my Mary Janes and headed to my bedroom. I scrubbed my shoes in the bathroom sink and dug through my dresser for a clean skirt.

Ten minutes later, I jogged through the freezing rain to my car. I rubbed my hands together to warm them and slipped the key into the ignition.

The engine wouldn't start.

I dropped my head onto the steering wheel. Why today, of all days? I'd taken Cindy the Civic to a service center just the weekend before, and the mechanic had said there was nothing wrong with her. Cindy clearly disagreed.

Taking deep, calming breaths, I tried again. Cindy grumbled and screeched when I turned the key. I tried again, and again, petting Cindy's dashboard and giving her compliments until she started up begrudgingly.

I checked the clock compulsively on my way to work. With every minute that passed, my blood pressure rose. It was the worst possible day of the month to run late.

This isn't a bad opening, but it doesn't do what the real one does.

First, I cover much less in these 300 words than I did in the first 300 words of my manuscript, because "showing" takes up a lot of space. I don't even get to the setting. This could be any woman in any city in an English-speaking country. Readers won't know where they are, and they won't see anything that might entice them to stick around.

Second, this passage gives readers no reason to care about the heroine, and the story doesn't seem to go anywhere. So she had a bad morning and she's running late for work. So what? Why should anyone be interested in a glob of oatmeal falling from a spoon, or a cat hacking up a hairball? As I wrote in "Show, but Sometimes Tell," the purpose of showing is to get readers emotionally invested in a scene. Only the most melodramatic of fashionistas would be emotionally invested in an oatmeal-stained pencil skirt.

Third, and most important to my mind, the humorous voice of the heroine is now buried under all of the showing. She seems to take herself and her apparel much too seriously. Imagine if The Wonder Years had no witty voice-overs, and it was simply a drama about a cute kid growing up in the 70s. The tone of the show would be completely different, right? Similarly, the way Rainie tells the story says as much about her as what she does and how she feels.

It is possible to orient readers through showing, but telling conveys much more, much faster.

Telling Respects Readers' Time

As I read some of those fast-paced novels, I was irked by the authors. They seemed to purposely withhold crucial information, forcing me to dig through their words for clues about the characters and the events taking place. Here's the first page of one of them.

Every Southern belle knows it's not so much what you do, but rather what you're wearing while doing it. And when in doubt, always apply more lipstick.

Good thing Sandy had never been mistaken for a belle, because there was no shade of lipstick in the South that matched grand theft auto charges while wearing ducky galoshes.

"Either get on or get out of the way," Sandy said to the stubborn male standing between her and freedom.

Diablo had mammoth thighs, a trunk for a neck, and as Mr. Ferguson's contracted stud bull, horns that could tear through a steel wall. And right now those horns were pointed at Sandy.

But she wasn't about to let some misinformed male with caveman tendencies and bad breath stop her from doing what was right. Even when doing what was right sucked. Even when it accompanied a brutal summer storm, interrupted the only solid sleep she had gotten in weeks, and landed her smack dab in the middle of trouble.

Even then. Because Sandy could live with trouble. But regret was something she never wanted to feel again.

So who exactly is this woman, and what's going on? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that the heroine lives in the South and her situation involves grand theft auto charges, ducky galoshes, a bull, a thunderstorm, and sleepless nights.

Not only does the page not tell me what's going on, beyond vague hints of "trouble" and "regret," but it plays with readers' heads. When someone writes the word "male," a reader images a human male. I formed a picture of the scene in my mind based on what the author told me was happening. Then she tore the picture up and made me rebuild it from scratch, mid-sentence, by revealing that the "stubborn male" is a completely different species. I was left disoriented and very annoyed.

This author must have been under the impression that if you confuse readers, they'll be intrigued and feel compelled to keep turning pages to figure out what she's trying to say. I know from personal experience that readers have the exact opposite reaction to muddy writing. If they can't tell where and when they are, and who exactly they're reading about, they get angry and put the book down.

In my early novels and short stories, I tried to be fancy. I tried to show everything in creative ways instead of telling people point blank what was happening. The comments in the margins from critique partners frequently looked like this.

  • "I was confused about who said this line."
  • "I can't really tell what just happened."
  • " much time has passed since the last chapter? Where are we?"

And then they would stop critiquing after chapter three and never contact me again, because I had committed the unpardonable offense of wasting their time.

Being fancy forces readers to put time and energy into interpreting scenes. This is a good thing for creating emotional investment, but a very bad thing for conveying simple concepts. There's no point in making readers work hard to determine...

  • Who is acting or speaking
  • What the actors are doing
  • When and where the scene takes place

In other words, you shouldn't show readers what's going on. You tell readers what's going on, and what's going on shows them more complex ideas.

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 07:13:23
Sewing Projects haven't written a word of fiction since I finished Whacked in the Stacks. I haven't even outlined Rainie Day Mystery #2 in detail.

To be frank, I've been battling a crisis of confidence in my writing. The query process is long and psychologically draining. As the form rejections pile up, I start to wonder if I was naïve to write a low-concept, character-driven cozy mystery. I wonder if I should have written something "sexy" instead. Rainie Day doesn't live in a lighthouse-turned-bookstore off the coast of Scotland. She doesn't explore ancient ruins for a living while doing aerial acrobatics for spare change. Evil wizards won't destroy the planet if Rainie fails to find the killer before he strikes again.

But then I remember all of the Betty Crocker baking mix novels out there. I'm sure the authors of those books didn't set out to write bland, formulaic paperbacks. They set out to write great books, but then they caved to real or imagined commercial pressures.

Every year, thousands of writers turn out sexy high-concept manuscripts that never see the light of a literary agent's bedside reading lamp. Even if I were to stick my heroine in a Cirque du Soleil costume and set her loose in the evil-wizard-infested ruins of an ancient city underneath a Scottish lighthouse-turned-bookstore, I might never sell the book anyway. I might as well write the books I want to write and let the chips fall where they may.

Finally I decided, yesterday, that I'm going to forge ahead with Rainie Day soon as I can pull myself away from my shiny new sewing machine.

Brother CS6000I Sewing Machine

While doing battle with my confidence, I found an outlet for my creative energy in sewing my spring wardrobe. Tired of hunting through the stores for hours for attractive clothing that fits me, only to return home empty handed, I dusted off the Kenmore sewing machine I bought in college and started stitching away. Then a crucial part of the machine broke, and the local repair shop said they would charge $125 to service it. Sears doesn't carry Kenmore sewing machines anymore, and the part that broke was discontinued years ago.

So I wheedled Sweetie into paying a teensy weensy bit more to get this super-cool computerized wonder instead. It has an automatic needle threader! And it adjusts stitch widths and lengths on its own! And the stitches it makes are so pretty and even...I was appalled when comparing them to the valiant efforts of my poor old Kenmore.

Below are my creations so far, modeled by Missy Mannequin.

Missy is my birthday present from Sweetie: an adjustable dressform configured to my basic measurements. She's not a perfect replica of me, but she's pretty close. Our biggest differences are in the neck (mine is a bit smaller), the arms (mine are much smaller), and the slope of the shoulders (mine isn't as steep).

My hips also don't flare out in a bell shape like Missy's, but that's not her fault. She was designed to have a more balanced waist-to-hip ratio than I do. I'm Chinese on the top and German/Irish on the bottom. When configuring Missy, we had to keep the top and waist at the near-minimum, then crank out the hips to the near-maximum. So some things hang a little oddly on Missy, but they look fine on me.

First I made a purple dress out of Sew Classic Knit Ponte from Jo-Ann Fabrics. I hadn't sewn with knits before, so I chose this thick polyester fabric with a two-way stretch because it would be easy to sew. I made my own pattern, because that's how I roll. (And because I've used patterns in the past, and they always required major adjustments. I might as well draw the pattern from my measurements to begin with!)

Purple Ponte Dress - Front
Purple Ponte Dress - Side

Emboldened by my success, I then tackled a long blue dress made from the lightweight Jet Set Knit from Jo-Ann's. I like the flowy feel of this fabric, but it is very thin. Even with a lining, every bump and wrinkle shows through. I have to be very careful about what I wear underneath, lest I end up looking like Missy here.

Blue Jet Set Knit Dress - Front
Blue Jet Set Dress - Side

This is my sewing buddy, the panda. He chews on his plastic bamboo while watching me repeatedly unpick seams and try again. I bought him at Uwajimaya when I went to Portland for a workshop last week, along with a month's worth of frozen udon and miso. There isn't a single Asian market in the entirety of Central Oregon, so I have to stock up when I can.

My Sewing Buddy, The Panda

Finally, here's an A-line skirt made from a fabric by Art Gallery, "Yinghua" from the Pandalicious collection. The pattern is the same one I used for the curtains in the background, though those are made from a cotton in the "rainwater" color and the skirt is a jersey knit in "cherrylight."

Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Front
Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Side

I took a few photos of myself wearing the skirt. I'm glad my garments always look better on me than they do on Missy, instead of the other way around!

Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Front, in Mirror
Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Side, in Mirror

Under the skirt I'm wearing a pair of white leggings made from a Robert Kaufman Laguna cotton jersey. It's made of 95% cotton and 5% lycra spandex, which makes it very soft, very stretchy, and very prone to snagging. I disliked the fabric at first because it kept getting sucked down into my machine. Then I tried sewing through a strip of tissue paper on top, and now I'm snag-free.

I can't wait to sew more leggings, pajamas, and exercise pants for myself. The ones in stores are all too long or too short, too big at the waist, and too small in the thighs or calves. Since I'm short, one pair of pants requires a little less than one yard of fabric. The cotton jerseys cost only $5-$10 per making them myself will be cheaper, too.

Not pictured is a failed project: my first attempt at making a qipao, a.k.a. a cheongsam. Qipaos are close-fitting dresses typically made from stiff satin brocade, with mandarin collars and frog closures. This is what it was supposed to look like, but with plainer fabric so I could wear it to work.

Qipao Contest by David Yu

Photo: "Qipao Contest" by David Yu (from Flickr)

The stiffness of the fabric and the body-hugging nature of the style make qipaos very difficult to sew. I tried anyway, using a cheap satin from Jo-Ann's. The result was close, but "close" doesn't cut it for qipaos.

I'm going to try again with a stretch satin. It might be "cheating," but that's fine with me. The stretchy fabric will be more forgiving to minor imperfections in fit, and it will be more comfortable to wear.

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 20:10:36
Faux Diversity in Fiction increasing frequency, I'm seeing a certain word in Tweets and blog posts about publishing: diversity. Agents and editors clamor for books in all genres featuring diverse characters. They want books that represent a wider range of human experience than "mainstream middle-class protagonist faces first-world problems."

This is a fine goal, but it's harder to realize than you might think. Most writers and publishing professionals are mainstream middle-class intellectuals, including yours truly. When we attempt to portray fringe voices in fiction, our own experiences and cultural conditioning undermine our efforts. In the end, we don't create diverse characters. We create mainstream middle-class characters wearing skin of a different color.

What Is Faux Diversity?

When a writer puts a solidly mainstream character in a diverse costume, I call it faux diversity. A certain fantasy we'll call Silence is an example on multiple fronts.

The premise: The heroine, Fang, lives in a completely isolated Chinese village without sound. The population lost the ability to hear generations ago. Soon the villagers start to lose their sight, too. Then one night, Fang wakes up to a sound. Using her newfound "magic" ability, she courageously leaves the village to explore the outside world and save her people.

The reality: The heroine, Fang, is a feisty Western girl with an Asian name. One Goodreads reviewer says, "If I dressed up in traditional Chinese clothing for Halloween and started calling myself Ling, I would actually be more Chinese than this book." (Ouch...but accurate.) And though sound is but an old legend to everyone in the village, Fang thinks like a person who lost her hearing late in life. She constantly bemoans that nobody can hear, which is like someone who grew up with bedtime stories of magical ancestors constantly bemoaning that no one can fly.

The author probably had golden intentions when she set out to write Silence. Her editor probably had golden intentions when she okayed the manuscript. But because neither of them were familiar with either Han culture or deaf culture, they thought giving the heroine black hair and putting the dialogue in italics would cover all the bases.

The Problem with Faux Diversity

In the case of Silence, the author's missteps were mostly harmless. She disappointed and alienated a lot of potential fans, including me, but at least she didn't portray Chinese or deaf culture in a negative light. No readers will close that book with new prejudices or erroneous assumptions they didn't have before.

However, in other cases, well-meaning authors have done more harm than good by writing about groups they didn't understand.

Another book we'll call Shadow Bride is a historical Japanese retelling of Cinderella. All right, cool. The fairy godmother character, Hikaru, is a beautiful concubine ("Shadow Bride") who turns out to be trans. Also cool...until Hikaru tells her backstory.

"I was one of many, many children. Some strange accident of fate gifted me with this face and this slender frame, and my parents knew that a child who looked like I did would be valuable. Of course, I would have been more valuable as a they raised me to talk, move, and even think as a girl would. I barely realized that I was any different from my sisters. When I was eight, they sold me to a kabuki theater....

"One of my patrons was a minor lord who thought it would be a very fine joke to arrange for me to dance at the Shadow Ball....I was convinced I would die. A man pretending to be a woman in the Moon Prince's chamber....I asked [the prince] if he ever wished I had been born a real woman. He said that my heart was a real woman's heart, and that was all he was concerned with."

Aw, how heartwarming. And how utterly infuriating!

According to this sweet little story, Hikaru has a "real woman's heart" because her parents brainwashed her into thinking like a woman. Therefore, if her parents had given her swords instead of silk fans, and told her to take a wife instead of a husband, she would have grown up to have a "real man's heart" instead, right?

The natural and insidious conclusion: all trans women in the real world must be acting that way because their dads let them play with Barbies.

I'm alarmed that no other readers are bothered by this. At least nobody complains about it on any site indexed by Google. Readers also say nothing about this frightening exchange at the end of the novel, after the heroine runs away from the palace with her love interest, Ochieng, an African nobleman.

"Ochieng," I said abruptly, "what would you have done if you had come here but I did not change my mind and agree to go with you?"

"Gagged you, thrown you over my shoulder, and taken you anyway," he said promptly. "I have some ropes braided around my waist. Actually, I do not know whether to be relieved or disappointed that it is not necessary."

And this threat of sexual violence is...funny? Flirty? Ochieng is super hot and adorable, according to reviewers—especially when he physically grabs and shakes the heroine in anger, kisses her without her permission, and otherwise acts like a big sexy African brute.

How to Avoid Faux Diversity

Just like you can't stick heroine in combat boots and call her strong, you can't simply stick a label that says "Asian" or "African" or "LGBT" on a character and call it diversity.

1. Research the culture.

Last year or the year before, somebody submitted a query for a middle-grade novel to a critique blog. The premise: the principal of a junior high asks a young Asian girl to organize the Chinese New Year festival. But the girl isn't Chinese...she's Korean! Incensed, the girl decides to sabotage the festival to teach the school a lesson. Hilarity ensues.

The problem: the lunar new year, Seollal, is actually one of the biggest holidays in Korean culture. A real Korean girl in this situation might be miffed that the principal assumed she'd make a good organizer just because of her ethnicity, but she wouldn't fly off the handle because she's "not Chinese." Most likely, she'd be proud to share her heritage with her classmates.

If the author of this manuscript had done some cursory research about Korean traditions and holidays, she wouldn't have made such an embarrassing mistake. Since she was clearly not Korean herself, she should have at least watched a couple of Korean TV shows. Just like most of our sitcoms have Christmas episodes, most Korean family dramas have at least one Seollal episode in which everyone makes dumplings and dresses up in traditional clothing, and the young people bow to their elders to earn their red packets.

2. Question cultural assumptions.

I admit that it's better for a writer to assume diverse characters are "just like me" than it is to assume they're totally different because they have a different skin color, religion, or gender identity. I'd rather people erroneously portray Chinese characters like individualistic Americans than like buck-toothed caricatures in old movies who start every sentence with "Confucius say..."

But still better would be for these writers to question their assumptions. People tend to think their values are the only values in existence.

For example, we in the West grow up watching countless movies and TV shows that teach us standing up for ourselves is "strong" while smiling for the sake of harmony is "weak," so we assume Chinese characters would think the same way. We're annoyed by real Chinese characters who lower their eyes to abusive elders.

Or we're dependent on our hearing to communicate and the thought of losing that ability scares us, so we assume a deaf character would be angry about her condition and long for sound. We're shocked and appalled when people in the deaf community don't want their children to undergo surgery to "fix" their hearing.

Or we all agree that marriage should be based on true love, so we think arranged marriages are horrifically backwards and misogynistic. When we write books or movies about young Hindi or Muslim or Orthodox Jewish women, we tend to go on and on about how put-upon they are.

3. Rethink what "diversity" means.

Do the agents and editors asking for "more diversity in fiction" mean, "I want to see more arbitrary Latinos because that's where the money is?" No. (Well, maybe for some unscrupulous trend-chasers, yes. But you don't want to work with those people, so ignore them.)

What "more diversity in fiction" really means is, "I want to see new and interesting perspectives." Adding diversity to publishing means writing about a variety of characters who see the world in different ways, who have different values and beliefs and face different unique conflicts.

If everyone sees the world the same way but wears different hats, that's not diversity.

Sun, 05 Feb 2017 19:37:24
How to Stay Sane in an Insane Industry Saturday I sent out a half dozen queries to literary agents. Bright and early on Monday morning, I woke up to a rejection in my inbox.

I knew this was going to happen, and I know enough about the publishing world not to take rejection of a query as a judgement of my work. But even with many years of rejection notched into my writer's belt, it's still difficult to stay upbeat and confident when reading emails like, "After reading your letter I'm afraid I just wasn't hooked enough to want to ask for more."

A cold, hard fact of the publishing industry is that a "hook" is everything, and quality of writing means little. While a writer's number one concern is whether readers will enjoy a story, a publisher's number one concern is whether readers will buy the story.

When seasoned agents and editors evaluate manuscripts, they don't ask themselves, "Is this a good story that will make readers happy?" They ask, "Does this premise sound sexy in a single sentence? Can we convince Target to put this book on the shelves in a five-minute sales call? Will people see this title at the checkout counter in Kroger and grab it impulsively?" In other words, "What's the hook?"

So what, exactly, does it mean when an agent says she "just wasn't hooked enough"? It could mean many different things.

  1. The premise doesn't sound like a sexy mega-bestseller in a single sentence.
  2. The book doesn't fit into any of the specific slots publishers are looking to fill right now (e.g., "Realistic contemporary YA featuring diverse characters.")
  3. The agent is already representing a client with a similar project.
  4. The genre or subject matter was "hot" with publishers last year, but it's gone cold now.
  5. Nothing at all. This is an auto-generated form letter the agency sends to everyone with the click of the Decline button.

What "wasn't hooked enough" seems to imply, but does not necessarily mean, is that the query isn't well-written or the book isn't interesting.

More cold, hard facts about the publishing industry: advances for debut and midlist authors are shrinking to nothing. Even bestselling authors are getting "eBook only" releases. A novel can be a thrilling page-turner, a poignant masterpiece, a memorable story that readers will want to relive over and over for many years...but still no publisher will buy it, because it doesn't fit into a free "slot" and the author isn't named Danielle Steele or James Patterson.

One literary agent wrote that, statistically, a new writer has a higher chance of getting struck by lightning than she does of getting published. If she does get published, she'll be lucky to get a $5,000 advance. Then she probably won't earn out that measly $5,000, publishers will label her a bad investment, and she'll never sell another book again.

Knowing all this, how do we stay positive? How do we keep writing, keep hoping, keep sending those query letters to their doom, instead of burning our lucky writing pencils in abject despair?

A lot of people do succumb to despair. They give up and stop writing or, even worse, turn into vengeful banshees who haunt the Internet, shrieking about gatekeepers. How can we avoid becoming those people?

1. Adjust your expectations.

When it comes to the arts, people have a bizarre expectation that the economy will work differently than it does for every other industry. They think quality and creativity will trump all else, when that's not the case for any other product in existence.

Does Old Navy stock thin, scratchy shirts made by kids in Indian sweatshops because those are the most comfortable and flattering shirts available? Does Lowes sell nine-foot-tall blow-up penguins because those are the classiest Christmas decorations they could find? Does Fred Meyer throw Hershey's Milk Chocolate Hearts in your face the second you walk through their doors because those are the most delicious candies ever made?

Businesses will sell what makes them the most profit, period. Publishers know they'll profit from any book with Danielle Steele's name printed on the cover, regardless of the words printed inside. They know it's very difficult to get people to buy a book with an unknown name on it. When consumers have a choice between cardboard-like, chemical-tasting Chips Ahoy they grew up eating, vs. gourmet cookies by some new brand they've never heard of, which do you think the majority will pick? Only adventurous cookie connoisseurs will take a chance on the new brand.

We writers want to believe that if we write good stories, we will be swiftly rewarded. Publishers will fight over our manuscripts. The New York Times will rave over us. Hollywood A-listers will Tweet about how desperately they want to star in the movie adaptations of our books.

This is a fun fantasy to imagine while drifting off to a peaceful sleep at night, but it's silly to be disappointed when it doesn't come true. When I go to work each morning, I don't expect the college president to suddenly rush at me and say I'm the best librarian she's ever seen, and she's promoting me to director right away. I expect to keep going to work every weekday for many years, slowly building my resume and earning the respect of my colleagues, until one day I'm lucky enough land the directorship of a tiny library in Nowhere, Oregon. Why would my writing career be any different?

2. Stop assigning blame.

The current situation in publishing is nobody's fault. It just is. Both writers and publishing professionals are just trying to survive in an insane world.

The shrieking banshees want to believe everything is somebody's fault. They grumble that literary agents are brainless twits who couldn't recognize a masterpiece if it bit them in the derrière. They opine that editors are greedy vultures who care more about soulless numbers than beautiful words. "Just take the gatekeepers out of the equation," they say, "and Great Stories will reign once more."

I wonder if there's an unpublished manuscript called Zen for Writers somewhere in the world, because we all need to read it and chill out. I imagine this manuscript would have calming lines like, "To rage against the publishing industry is to rage against the sea. One cannot control the market trends, as one cannot control the tide."

Blaming people for your publishing misfortunes might make you feel better temporarily, but the bitterness gnaws away at you. Soon you're spending all of your writing time crafting barbs about twenty-something interns in New York, instead of crafting new stories. If you want to remain sane, happy, and productive, you're going to have to forgive the universe for not playing fair.

3. Make contingency plans.

So you can't sell your books, it's not your fault, it's not anybody's fault, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Now what?

This is why no one should depend on writing to make money. Just like the visual arts, theatre, and music, writing is a career for a lucky handful and a mildly lucrative hobby for everyone else. I believe every aspiring writer should build a career in something other than writing, for many reasons. Here are the reasons pertinent to this post.

  • Even if/when you don't win the publishing lottery, you can still pay the bills without worrying.
  • Every weekday morning you must close your laptop, make yourself presentable, and leave your house. You will be forced to accomplish things for the next eight hours, instead of stalking agents on Twitter and obsessively refreshing your Gmail to check for more rejections.
  • You'll build a network of colleagues with whom you can share your publishing woes in the breakroom. These colleagues will cheer you on and tell you how awesome you are for writing a whole book, and they can't imagine how you found the time.

When you finish a manuscript and send out a batch of queries, of course you'll hope to finally win the lottery this time. But you should formulate a contingency plan for what to do if you don't.

  1. You can self-publish.
  2. You can submit directly to small presses.
  3. You can drop the project and move on to new ideas.

I personally suggest number three. If the project didn't work out, it didn't work out. Maybe the next one will. I'm not of the camp that endlessly revises and resubmits the same stories, hoping small tweaks will suddenly make the project more appealing to agents.

If no agents or editors are interested in Whacked in the Stacks, I'll probably skip the sequel. I'll send CreateSpace paperbacks of WITS to family and friends to enjoy, but I won't try to self-publish it for money. Too much headache, too little return. That time would be better spent diving in to the Xing Dynasty trilogy instead.

Yes, I'm dubbing my fantasy wuxia project the Xing Dynasty trilogy. Xing ("star") is a silly play on Qing ("clear") and Ming ("bright," with the radicals for "sun" and "moon"). Also, I can abbreviate it to XD.

Thinking about what you'll do if your book fails might be depressing, but then if the worst happens you won't be left adrift. When you receive that rejection from your very last hope, you won't feel like your whole world is falling apart. You'll be hurt, you'll be angry at the universe, you'll eat a ton of raspberry cheesecake gelato...but then you'll sigh and say, "Well, on to Plan B."

Thu, 02 Feb 2017 09:08:14
Thoughts on Serialization week I finished book one of the Rainie Day Mysteries, Whacked in the Stacks. This week I revised it based on feedback from a beta reader, a.k.a. Sweetie. Next week, I start on book two.

I've never written a sequel before, but I've read hundreds. I can count on one hand the number of standalone mysteries I've read—all of the others were installations in series. As I prepare to dive in to book two, tentatively titled Crushed by the Classics, I've been thinking about what works for me as a series reader, and what rubs me the wrong way.

What Rubs Me the Wrong Way: Recycling

Recycled Introductions

I don't need to re-read the heroine's life story in chapter one of every novel. I don't need to re-read the life stories of all her friends and relatives, either.

Imagine if every episode of Castle began with Richard Castle rambling for ten minutes about who he is, what he does, where he grew up and where he lives now. Every time his mother Martha sashays into the kitchen, a voice-over explains that she's a glamorous Broadway actress who lives with Castle because her ex-husband absconded with her life savings. Every time his daughter Alexis pops in to say, "Hi, Dad," another voice-over informs us that she's eighteen and a student at Columbia University, and her mother Meredith is off her rocker but Alexis is a sweet kid who's wise beyond her years.

Though novels aren't TV shows, info-dumps like these are just as boring on the page as they are on the screen. There are certain mystery series that I adore...from about chapter three on. First I have to get past the recaps in chapters one and two. The authors might be afraid that new readers won't know what's going on without brief bios to introduce every character, but readers aren't stupid. They can figure out who characters are and how they relate to one another from their dialogue and behavior.

Recycled Jokes

I'm reading Laura Levine's Jaine Austen mysteries right now. Levine wrote scripts for classic Hollywood sitcoms like Laverne and Shirley and Three's Company, so all of her books are amusing...but her wit is a lot less impressive after reading four books than it was after reading one.

Levine recycles the same comedic material in every novel. Jaine lives in the slums of Beverly Hills. Jaine is a struggling writer whose most noteworthy project to date is a motto for Toiletmasters Plumbing. While all of the size-two fashionistas in SoCal eat a lettuce leaf and call it lunch, Jaine wears elastic-waist pants and her best friends are named Ben and Jerry. Jaine's love life is a disaster, and her most persistent admirer is a lecherous octogenarian from the Shalom Center. Jaine's cat Prozac is a terror who pees on Jaine's pillow when she doesn't get her daily serving of Fancy Fish Guts.

I have now read each of these jokes at least a half dozen times across four books. The count for variations on "fish guts" and "In a rush to flush?" has probably topped a full dozen. Levine is whip-smart, but I wish she'd do something new with that intelligence.

Recycled Conflicts

Mystery authors often leave one or two loose threads untied at the ends of their novels, in order to entice fans to read the next one. The most common class of loose thread is the romantic subplot.

I don't mind "open endings" in early installments of a series, but I get tired and annoyed when the same loose thread drags on book after book. The heroine and her love interest recycle the same conflicts in every novel: he says he loves her but he won't commit, she knows he's bad husband material but she can't resist his charms, she saw him with another woman and she's not sure where they stand anymore. Over and over. There's only so much "will they or won't they?" a reader can take.

I also get tired when a heroine knocks heads with the same archenemies over the same petty issues. I put a series down immediately at the first whiff of a Never-Ending Love Triangle. (Just pick one already!) And it's exasperating to see a heroine make the same dumb mistakes and land in the same tubs of hot water in every novel. (Why does Jaine never learn to close the door when she's dressing for a big event, so Prozac won't sneak in and destroy her new clothes?)

What Works for Me: Fresh Ideas

Maybe writers who recycle the same material for every book think they're giving their fans what they want. They think readers liked the characters in the first book and want them to return exactly as they were, with no growth whatsoever. They think readers liked the "will they or won't they?" tension, and the series will go the way of Moonlighting if the heroine and her love interest actually work out their problems.

But fans of a series don't keep coming back because they want the exact same story retold in future books. They want new books with new stories that make them feel the same way the first one did. Recycled jokes and conflicts will not make them feel the same way a second time around.

A sequel needs fresh ideas to be as interesting as its predecessor. The tricky part is incorporating these new ideas into the story world you've already created, so fans will feel like they're returning to a favorite place and meeting old friends, while at the same time getting a fun new reading experience.

Introduce New Settings

Cozy mystery writers often blog that their readers want to return to the same settings in every book, because these places feel like home. This is partially true, but these "same settings" are much bigger arenas than you might think.

For example, in Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness mysteries, the setting fans like me look forward to visiting is "Glamorous Interwar Europe." That can include the heroine's childhood fortress in Scotland, the family townhouse in London, a spooky castle in Transylvania, or sunny mansions along the French Rivieria. I would have bored of the series long ago if every novel took place in the same handful of buildings in London.

On a smaller scale, Miranda James sets each of her Cat in the Stacks murders in different locales within Athena, Mississippi. One book might center around the local college, where the hero works, another at the public library, and another at the home of an eccentric book collector. He spends a lot of time at cozy old haunts, sure, but we also get to go to costume galas at Antebellum mansions.

Make Characters Grow

In the Jaine Austen mysteries, Jaine's friends and relatives never change. For example, in every book her neighbor Lance and her best friend Kandi find new loves of their lives. By every epilogue, they find out these loves are cheating finks. All relationships between the characters conveniently reset, and Lance and Kandi are ready to chase new loves of their lives in the next book. Neither of them ever mature, settle down, move up the corporate ladder, have kids, or change subtly over time like real people.

In the Cat in the Stacks books, many of the characters do change over time. The hero's son comes back to town an angry, disillusioned young lawyer, but then he picks himself up and studies for the Mississippi bar, gets married, and becomes a father himself. The hero's recurring nemesis/ally, the deputy sheriff, starts out hostile and ambitious, but then she assumes more responsibility at her job and mellows out. Boarders move in and out of the hero's house, find partners and get on with their lives.

The great thing about change is that it introduces new conflicts. Characters don't just spin their wheels, rehashing the same old issues. When the hero's son meets his future wife, he has to deal with personal traumas that make him push away attractive women. When they get serious, he has to deal with his meddling future father-in-law, who also happens to be his boss. Then his meddling future FIL wants him to take over the law practice, but he's not ready yet. And so on.

Use New Story Structures

This one is the most obvious, and the hardest to pull off. Readers of sequels want new stories, not the same old story with cosmetic differences.

The basic story structure of a cozy mystery is this:

  • Sleuth finds dead body.
  • Sleuth snoops for clues.
  • Sleuth solves murder.

Within that simple structure are infinite possibilities for variation. Yet as writers, we tend to fall back on a few comfortable tropes, instead of exploring those possibilities.

I'm not sure I'll continue with the Jaine Austen series, because Levine seems to have gotten stuck in a Murder She Wrote rut. The heroine simply goes around interviewing a string of suspects until she figures out the culprit. Then she exposes said culprit in a thrilling confrontation. Roll credits.

When mystery lovers pick up a novel, they look forward to twists, turns, and surprise curveballs. Real curveballs, not ones they've seen a dozen times before. The victim's husband was having an affair with the hot housewife next door? I'm shocked. The victim was blackmailing a coworker for embezzling from the company? Gosh, never seen that one before. The culprit is actually her sweet, long-suffering assistant who seemed like she couldn't hurt a fly? Well, blow me over with a feather.

Shocking subject material doesn't necessarily make for a shocking twist. A twist is shocking when the author manipulates readers into seeing the story world a certain way, and then the revelation of the truth turns that world on its head. The last author to successfully shock me was Dorothy L. Sayers, in Murder Must Advertise. She tricked me into believing a certain event was just a humorous anecdote, when it was actually the key to figuring out the entire nefarious plot. The nefarious plot itself wasn't all that shocking, but the fact that I had been completely bamboozled was a delicious surprise.

Sun, 29 Jan 2017 10:23:25
What I Learned from Twilight: Writing with Sincerity the three-day weekend, I read Stephanie Meyer's Twilight for the first time.

Yes, I know I'm twelve years late to the party. But I never read the book when it was popular for a few reasons.

  1. It was popular, and I was at that stage of late adolescence in which one is obligated to sneer at everything popular.
  2. The movies came out when I was in college. I watched the first one and found it boring, so I wasn't eager to try the book that inspired it.
  3. Over the years I've read countless articles about how the Twilight trilogy promotes traditional gender roles, portrays sex as something dangerous and shameful, and romanticizes stalking and abusive relationships. Who would want to read something like that?

But since I'm gearing up to write my own trilogy for young adults, I need to know my intended audience. It's an undeniable fact that Twilight whipped a significant portion of that intended audience into a frenzy of fandom for many years. So I checked out the eBook from my local library and went in with an open mind, determined to read it without being influenced by any preconceptions or prejudices.

And you know what? The book really does promote traditional gender roles, portray sex as a dangerous sin, and romanticize worrisome behavior. But the book also has its charms, and I understand why teenagers in the 2000s were so drawn to this story.

Twilight is clearly Stephanie Meyer's first novel. The chapters ramble and often go nowhere (e.g., Bella lies in the grass to think about Edward...and that's it). Redundant dialogue tags clutter every page (e.g., Bella makes many sarcastic remarks followed by "I said sarcastically"). No real conflicts pop up until the book is nearly over.

Then there are the bad relationship lessons. If Bella were my daughter, I would sit her down and say, "Sweetheart, a boy who sneaks into your house to spy on you in the dark is not romantic. A boy who physically drags you around while you're shouting at him to let go is not cool. A boy who secretly follows you when you go out of town with girlfriends, who gets angry when other boys talk to you, and who reads your classmates' private thoughts to find out every word you say, is not in love with you. He's pathologically obsessed with you."

However, I don't think any of that would have bothered me if I were fifteen years younger. I would have adored Bella Swan, because she's the very definition of adolescent wish fulfillment.

  • She's a martyr from page one, sacrificing her life in sunny Phoenix to move to depressing Forks, WA because she wants her mom to be happy with her new husband. She hates stupid Forks and its stupid clouds, but she hides her pain behind a cool facade. (Edward: "You put on a good show, but I'd be willing to bet that you're suffering more than you let anyone see.")
  • She's so mature for her age, a vampire who's lived for more than a hundred years comments that she seems much older than seventeen. She had to grow up fast because her bumbling parents couldn't feed or dress themselves without her. (Bella: "My mom always says I was born thirty-five years old and that I get more middle-aged every year....Well, someone has to be the adult.")
  • She's so gorgeous, every boy she meets instantly falls in love with her. Bella's admirers include three popular classmates who follow her around like "golden retrievers," one super cute werewolf, and one glittery vampire who finds her petulant temper so adorable, he's willing to endanger his entire family by using his powers to rescue her from certain death. Repeatedly.

And yet, Bella's voice has charmed millions of readers since 2005. I believe there are two qualities to this character that lure people into the story of Twilight.

The first is relateability. All seventeen-year-olds think they're different from the other seventeen-year-olds, and they're suffering more than anyone could ever understand, and they're way smarter than the clueless adults around them. Bella is what teenagers believe they are, so they can put themselves in her place and feel what she feels.

The second quality is sincerity. Not once did I feel like Bella's character was disingenuous. Self-centered and immature, yes. Fake, no. Meyer didn't create Bella Swan thinking, "This is what teenage girls like in a heroine, so I'm going to give them what they want and sell gazillions of books." She wrote this story because she loved it. I might not personally find the hero's domineering behavior romantic, but it's clear Meyer's own heart was thumping as she wrote those scenes.

It makes no sense that an invincible 105-year-old vampire would move to small-town Washington and enroll in high school, when he could live happily in the wilderness of Eurasia hunting bears. It makes even less sense that he would fall head over heels for a sulky teenager who smells, to him, like the world's most delicious cheeseburger. (Can you imagine falling in love with a wise-cracking cheeseburger?) The romance in Twilight is unbelievable and cliché in the extreme.

Yet legions of Meyer fans don't care, because the improbable Bella Swan and the impossible Edward Cullen bare their souls on the page without apology or embarrassment.

Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, A Song of Ice and Fire, the Millennium trilogy...every mega-hit series in the book world, regardless of genre, shares this one common quality, sincerity. A writer can come up with the tightest plot, the wittiest dialogue, and the keenest observations of the human condition, but if she doesn't write with sincerity, her readers won't connect with the story.

What Sincerity Is and Isn't

Sincerity does not mean "brutal honesty." It does not mean pouring out your raw feelings in a feverish confessional, heedless of your audience. It means respecting your readers and making an honest effort to touch their hearts.

In the seventh grade, my drama teacher listened to me read a scene from a play and told me, "Stop acting." He said to be a good actress, I had to stop acting the way I thought actors were supposed to act and be myself.

It wasn't until my twenties that I understood what that drama teacher really meant. The "myself" he wanted to see wasn't my raw self, but an artificial self that would come across as artless to an audience. He didn't want me to stop acting; he wanted me to act like I wasn't acting.

Like actors have to work hard to look like they're not acting, writers need to work hard to make their stories seem effortless. An effective writing voice is not a "natural" voice. It's a lucid voice that appears to be natural. To put it baldly, we need to manipulate people into thinking they're not being manipulated.

Readers don't mind being manipulated. In fact, they enjoy it. They want authors to create stories that will make them feel wonderful and terrible things. They don't want to waste their time and money on books that bore them. They just don't like it when it's obvious they're being manipulated, when they can see the author behind the curtain pulling the strings.

When I read insincere books, I can see the authors pulling the strings. I can sense them attempting to manipulate me into giving them royalties and glowing reviews. The scenes seem too glossy, like they were assembled by machine. The characters give me the same impression I get from politicians whose smiling lips spout whatever they think the voters want to hear.

Sincere books, on the other hand, make me feel like the authors and I are kindred spirits. The scenes seem to be written for me personally, lovingly crafted for emotional punch. The protagonists seem like real people. I'm right there in the story with them, feeling the same excitement and terror and sorrow they do.

How to Write with Sincerity

Conquer your fear of "sap."

There's a certain lie I hear surprisingly often, nearly word-for-word, from the mouths of unrelated strangers: "I couldn't care less what other people think of me."

Many people are terrified that "caring" will be seen as "weakness." This is an understandable fear, because kids are awful. To hide their own insecurities, children and immature adults try to humiliate others for having feelings. Kids who get upset when they're teased are "crybabies." Boys who openly express affection are "gross." In middle school, my friends pestered me to tell them the name of the boy I liked. When I worked up the courage to trust them with this precious secret, they laughed in my face. "That guy? He's a total loser!"

When people are afraid of derision, they create personas that are too cool for emotions and stuff. They roll their eyes at "sappy" love stories and scoff at "cheesy" happy endings. This kind of bravado is mildly exasperating in real life, and it's downright fatal in creative writing.

A sad number of novels, especially ones by and for men, feature characters who act like they're emulating Sam Spade. Macho posturing infuses every sentence. The heroes respond to danger by making snarky quips, and to tragedy by shrugging. They feel nothing, sympathize with no one, and describe members of the opposite sex in the language of frat boys trying to impress their bros in the locker room. (Why, pray tell, must every private eye catalog the breast size and leg length of every female he meets? Do men actually see women this way? Sweetie claims not.)

This problem is less common in fiction by and for women, but we're certainly not immune. In my own writing and in real life, I tend to hide embarrassing emotions under humor. Romance is especially squicky to me. (My middle school traumas might or might not have something to do with it.) I physically blushed at some of the outrageously suave lines Edward Cullen delivers in Twilight. Just the thought of writing anything like that myself makes me squirm in my office chair.

But to write with sincerity, I need to be willing to make myself vulnerable. I know I can't bluster my way through a novel, shying away from any sentiments the snarky porcupines might call "sappy." The sappiness of Twilight is exactly what makes fans of the books and movies swoon. If Stephanie Meyer had worried about whether people would think Bella and Edward are "squicky," she wouldn't be a wealthy woman today.

Think outside the formula.

I've read some cozy mysteries so formulaic, the authors seem to have used a Betty Crocker baking mix for instant novels.

  1. Pour mix into a large bowl.
  2. Add one love interest, one crafting theme, and one dash of small-town setting. Stir until large lumps dissolve.
  3. Pour batter into a prepared 75,000-word pan. Bake until an editorial toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  4. Cool completely. Top with a picture of a cat.

Then there are other cozy mysteries like that gourmet cake my boss brought in for a coworker's birthday: a decadent gateau with a creamy white chocolate filling and a dark chocolate ganache. Just like I still remember the taste of that cake and want to try others from that bakery, I vividly remember the experience of reading those novels and want to find other titles by those authors. Nobody remembers the taste of a Betty Crocker cake with canned frosting.

Twilight isn't gourmet, but at least it didn't come out of a box. It's like a birthday cake your aunt baked for you from scratch. Your aunt isn't a professional pâtissier, so the layers are uneven, the texture is a little dry, and the cream cheese frosting came out gooey. But the homemade cake still tastes ten times better than a Duncan Hines, because she baked it with love.

Most authors who write formulaic books probably aren't being lazy or greedy for sales. Maybe they think the formulas are better than anything they could come up with. Maybe they're afraid if they tweak the usual recipe, their fans will get upset.

But writing like that doesn't come across as sincere, because there's nothing of the author's heart in them. Readers might close the covers thinking, "That was a well-written book. I acknowledge this author's skills." But they won't think, "Nooo it's already over! I didn't want it to end! I want more books and I want them now!"

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 09:13:22
Reflections on 2016 and Goals for 2017 on 2016

People have been saying dire things like 2016 was "the worst year in history." But in the grand scheme of humanity's track record, 2016 was a cake walk. No warlords tore through the U.S. razing fields and enslaving farmers. No dictatorships with aspirations of world domination stormed our shores to slaughter twenty million people. Our next president, whether you like him or not, was duly elected; he didn't invade the White House with a rebel army and name himself Emperor, forcibly take the First Lady and her daughters into his harem, and then command a bloody purge of the country's liberal scholars and their families. Considering what humans are capable of when they lose their heads, I think we're doing pretty darned well.

On a personal level, 2016 was a big year for Sweetie and me. We had a lot of adventures and went through a lot of "firsts."

  • We rented and drove a U-Haul from drizzly Portland, through treacherous Mount Hood, to sunny Central Oregon.
  • We moved into a house with a garage and an enclosed backyard.
  • We learned various things about taking care of said house, and Luna went out to play in said backyard after eight years sitting in the windows of apartments.
  • We made friendly overtures to our neighbors.
  • We graduated to a queen-sized canopy bed.
  • We got new tires for the car.
  • We learned how to use snow chains.

As a librarian, I moved up to an administrative position with more responsibility than I've ever had before. As a web developer, I took on contract work for the first time.

As a writer, I wrote the bulk of my first cozy mystery. I have only five chapters to go and hope to finish two of them before the ball drops on New Year's Eve. I feel like I've made significant strides since the days of Kagemusha, when I cut out whole chapters because they were too hard to write.

Goals for 2017

My goals for 2017 are simple, yet ambitious.

1. Secure an agent and a publisher for my cozy mystery.

I'm confident I'll be able to find at least one literary agent willing to represent my cozy mystery. Unlike my previous novels, Whacked in the Stacks ("WITS") is in an established genre that generates steady, though modest, sales. Two years ago when agents read the manuscript of Kagemusha, they said, "I love it, but I can't sell it." Hopefully this time they'll say, "I love it, and I know several editors who might want to buy it."

2. Write my second cozy mystery.

I have the sequel to WITS planned out, and I intend to start writing it as soon as WITS is polished and ready to go. Though I write comparatively slowly because I work full-time, if I stick to my daily writing schedule, I can finish a novel of this type within six months. I'll start in January or February and aim to finish by June or July.

3. Start on the first book of my YA fantasy trilogy.

To be frank, my love for cozy mysteries as a reader is not the only reason I decided to write one. WITS is a training novel of sorts. It's a fun, light story I knew I could finish within a reasonable time frame, instead of fussing over it for years and trying to turn it into my magnum opus. While working on it, I experimented and found my optimal writing schedule—from 6 am to 8 am on weekdays—and I trained myself to stick to it and write a couple of pages every day.

My real magnum opus will be the steampunk wuxia trilogy. It will be much harder to write than the cozy mysteries. (A) The setting is an exotic fantasy world. (B) The plot is an intricate epic of intertwined romances and mysteries. And (C) the scenes will be packed with high-flying sword fights and heartbreak. I can write comedy easily enough, but action and tragedy are challenging for me.

After I finish the WITS sequel, I'm going to take another stab at Book 1. My first stab missed the mark because I tried to write it in the third person. Then I read The Moonstone and realized the key to pulling off this story will be to create distinct first-person voices. I don't know if I can finish Book 1 by the end of 2017, but I can at least start the first half. I'll be very proud of myself if I can finish the first book by my thirtieth birthday in March 2018.

Mon, 26 Dec 2016 12:01:56
Mystery Tropes I Wish Would Die #2 winter vacation starts today! For the next two weeks, I get to spend my days like a lady of leisure: sleeping in, eating bread pudding for breakfast, and lounging around all day in my pajamas reading and writing books.

Over the past couple of weeks I've raced through great stacks of cozy mysteries from the public library. Some of the books I finished and liked, or even loved—Rhys Bowen and Rae Davies are now on my list of "Writers I Wish I Could Meet for Tea." Other books I put down after the first couple of chapters. The prose was hard to follow, or the protagonists rubbed me the wrong way, or the plots never took off.

Many of the books, even the ones I liked, tragically fell victim to some of my least favorite cozy mystery tropes. When I see one of these tropes pop up in an otherwise lovely book, it puts me in a stormy mood for the rest of the day.

1. The Domineering Love Interest

Trope Description

The smart, independent heroine butts heads with an arrogant, smirking detective. The detective insults her intelligence and orders her around. The heroine bristles, but she can't help noticing the piercing blue of his eyes or the manly strength of his arm muscles. In the middle of an angry confrontation, the detective pins the heroine against the wall and smothers her with kisses. The smart, independent heroine melts into the jerk's embrace.

Common Variations
  • The smirking love interest is instead a sheriff, an investigative journalist, and/or an old flame.
  • The smirking love interest is a shameless playboy who flirts with every woman in sight, and when the heroine gets upset, he teases her for being jealous.
  • The smirking love interest takes on the role of "protector" a la Edward Cullen. He bosses the heroine around in the name of keeping her safe, and he drops suave lines like, "If I leave you alone for one second, you get yourself in trouble."
Why This Trope Exists

Prior to very recent history, arrogant SOBs were the archetypal heroes of Western fiction. Who do we think of as the great romantic heroes? The judgmental aristocrat Mr. Darcy, the cynical bully Mr. Rochester, and the puppy-strangling sociopath Heathcliff. Though readers and writers surely don't find disrespectful behavior a turn-on in real life, we're trained from childhood to think it's super-duper romantic in fiction.

In addition, anger and fear are easily confused with romantic arousal. When we read scenes that make us angry or afraid—like scenes of powerful men shouting at petite heroines and pinning them against walls—our hearts start thumping and adrenaline starts rushing through our bloodstreams. We falsely interpret the scene to be "exciting" and "romantic." Scenes of men treating women with respect, in contrast, are "boring."

Why I Hate This Trope

I can't respect a heroine who pines for a jerk who treats her like a dog he can pet, abuse, or ignore at his whim. Worse, I can't understand her. When men push me around—and some do try, on occasion—I am the exact opposite of attracted to them. My heart flutters for selfless gentlemen, not for insensitive boors.

My enjoyment of many a great book has been ruined, or nearly ruined, by an atrocious love interest. I'll be reading along, loving the spunky heroine, and then she suddenly starts acting like a spineless fairy-tale princess because a haughty prince has pretty blue eyes. Even in The Black Hour, a book I admire in every other respect, the whip-smart heroine falls for a cocky reporter who needles her every chance he gets. I skimmed over those parts and prefer to pretend they don't exist.

It's perfectly possible to create an exciting romance line without resorting to Slap-Slap-Kiss tactics. A loud clash of personalities is only one type of conflict. There are many other internal and external conflicts you can use to force two lovebirds apart and add tension to their relationship.

2. The Conveniently Oblivious Heroine

Trope Description

Near the end of the book, it becomes glaringly obvious to the reader which of the suspects is the real killer, but the heroine hasn't yet cottoned on. The real killer knocks on the door, and the heroine cheerfully invites him in. She answers a phone call from her friend, and the friend says something that makes the heroine realize, "Oh my gosh! Real Killer is the real killer!" She spins around to find a gun pointed at her face.

Common Variations
  • The heroine rushes to meet Real Killer's girlfriend/sister/mother and tell her breathlessly that she knows who did it. Real Killer steps out of the kitchen with the gun.
  • Real Killer helpfully offers the heroine a ride to the police station, and she accepts. The heroine chatters about her latest discoveries, which will surely help the detectives solve the case. Real Killer compliments her on her brains and pulls out the gun.
  • The heroine has a flash of insight at midnight and must go to a dangerous location right that minute, alone, to make sure she's right. She decides she shouldn't call the police or tell anyone where she's going, because what if she's wrong? She steps out of her car, and Real Killer steps out of the bushes with the gun.
Why This Trope Exists

Modern mystery readers expect a life-threatening confrontation at the climax of every novel, so somehow writers have to wrangle the heroine into one. The easiest way to do it is to make her waltz right into the line of fire.

Why I Hate This Trope

It's highly frustrating when main characters grab the Idiot Ball because the plot won't work any other way. For the author's convenience, the previously intelligent heroine suddenly becomes dumber than a scantily clad co-ed in a horror flick. Frustrated readers will be left screaming, "Don't go into the dark woods alone, you numbskull!"

Instead of handing the protagonist the Idiot Ball, a writer could do any of the following, or more.

  • The heroine figures out who the villain is and tries to protect herself, but the wily villain breaks through her careful defenses.
  • The heroine aids the authorities in approaching the villain in a safe way, but something goes wrong.
  • The heroine willfully dives headlong into danger to protect someone else.

3. The Wise-Cracking Psychopath

Trope Description

As soon as he points a gun at the heroine's face, the real killer instantly becomes a witty mustache-twirling villain. He discards any semblance of his previous personality and inexplicably morphs into a 1940s Hollywood gangster, tossing off flippant one-liners and all but laughing "Mwahaha!" as he locks the heroine in the bakery freezer to die.

Why This Trope Exists

I have a couple of theories about why cookie-cutter psychos are so common in cozy mysteries.

First, cozy mystery novels are often installments in long-running series. It's a tall order for one person to come up with twenty unique murderers with believable motivations.

Second, writing about unique murderers with believable motivations is emotionally draining. Writing about two-dimensional cartoon villains is easy because they feel nothing. They just rant a bit in a superior tone and then get shot. Writing about three-dimensional human villains is exhausting because they're drowning in tempests of emotions. To write in their voices, you have to brave the storms of rage and panic and despair yourself.

Why I Hate This Trope

Cozy writers might think psychos waving guns around makes the climax more exciting, but in my experience, it's just the opposite. As soon as the villain starts twirling his mustache, I lose any emotional investment I had in the story. I know the rest of the book is just going to follow a clichéd pattern. I think, "Well, now the villain is going to brag about how he pulled off the murder—yup, he did—and now he's going to march the heroine into that freezer—there they go—and now the smirking love interest is going to charge in and save her—yay, there he is."

My favorite mystery endings of all time didn't put the amateur detective in physical danger at all. The strength and excitement of the denouements came from the villains' confessions, and the way my heart wrenched for them even as I despised them for what they'd done. The ending of Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night is nothing more than a maid throwing a tantrum, but I felt for her a lot more keenly than I ever did for any nosy caterer fleeing for her life from a crazed killer.

Mon, 19 Dec 2016 09:46:02
Besting Burnout past Friday I finished chapter 20 of 28 in my cozy mystery, which means I'm only one chapter shy of being three-quarters done!

I'm making progress slowly but surely. Monday through Friday, I wake up between 5 and 6 am to bundle up in my warmest pajamas, have my tea and peanut butter toast, and write for a few hours. Then it's time to get dressed and plow through the snow to work. I get home between 6 and 7 pm and have just enough energy left to eat dinner and shower before I collapse.

By the end of the week I'm a zombie. On Saturday mornings, I tell myself I "should" open up Word and get cracking. But I can't bring myself to do much of anything other than throw the laundry into the machines and nap. And drink a lot of cranberry ginger ale and Candy Cane Lane tea. And nap some more.

I've come to think of this as a good thing.

At both my workplace and in the virtual world of writers, I'm surrounded by workaholics. The librarian in the office next to mine is currently pursuing her PhD, teaching credit classes on Saturdays, and working at the public library on Sundays. It seems every successful writer, when asked for advice on how to succeed, will inevitably say, "You have to think of writing as a job. Whether you feel like it or not, you just have to glue your behind to that chair and crank out the words. Every single day. No days off." That vulgar Americanism, "weekend," is not in the vocabulary of any of my colleagues.

I used to be like that too. In high school, I would lock myself up with my textbooks and study all weekend. When I wasn't studying, I was practicing my flute or running up mountains. I felt the need to accomplish things every second of every hour of every day.

Then I moved to Indiana and met Sweetie. He put a game controller in my hand and said, "Try it. It's fun."

I said, "Fun? What is this 'fun' of which you speak?"

I've since learned that pushing yourself to accomplish things all day, every day is a bad idea for several reasons. For one, stressing yourself out all the time is bad for your health. For another, rushing through life with a hyper-competitive, must-write-a-million-books-before-I-die mentality severely limits your worldview. If you do nothing but glue your behind to a chair and crank out words every day, you'll quickly run out of thoughts worth writing. And eventually, you're going to burn out.

Below is the definition of "burnout" from an article in Psychology Today.

Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:

  • physical and emotional exhaustion
  • cynicism and detachment
  • feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

I've watched burnout settle like dark clouds of cynicism over several promising series. The first book or two would be vibrant and fascinating. Then as the authors pushed out more books under contract, the protagonists become less likeable. The voices become less engaging. Reviewers started complaining, "I loved this author's other books and I was so excited when this one came out, but I couldn't get into it. The heroine just cries all the time and she's mean to people for no reason."

To a cozy mystery writer, cynicism is the kiss of death. Cozy fans don't want to read books by Debbie Downers. They can tell when an author's heart isn't into her work, when she doesn't love or even know her characters anymore, and when she starts rambling about whatever just to get the stupid thing done.

Just like it's a singer's professional responsibility to take care of her voice, and an athlete's responsibility to take care of her muscles, it's a cozy mystery writer's responsibility to take care of her psyche. In order to write books that make people happy, we have to maintain happy outlooks on life.

I'm not a psychologist or an Elizabeth Gilbert, but here are the little tricks I use to cope with the pressures of working full-time as a systems librarian, juggling contract web development projects, and trying to make a name for myself in fiction writing.

1. Schedule "not writing" time.

I often see people advise, "You have to schedule time to write and stick to it." I haven't yet seen anyone say, "And it's equally important to schedule time to not write."

On the Saturdays I wake up and don't feel like writing, I make other concrete plans. I tell Sweetie, "Today I'm going to go shopping, and then we're going to have teriyaki burgers, and then I'm going to bake a cheesecake and watch Korean dramas." And I promise myself not to feel guilty about any of it.

Early last week, Sweetie asked for a block of time on Saturday to put up the Christmas tree. So I committed myself to a Not Writing Day dedicated to holiday preparations.

Christmas Tree 2016

We bought this tree in my sophomore year of college from a dying Kmart. Miraculously, this teetering hunk of plastic has survived nine years of Christmases, a cross-country move, and multiple attacks by a badly behaved cat.

I baked pumpkin scones for our afternoon snack, and then I spent the rest of the day on Not Writing Commitment #2, making treats for a holiday party at work next Wednesday. The college mascot is the bobcat, so I used a paw-print-shaped mold to make red and green candies with a dark chocolate filling. I call them "Bobcat Bites."

Bobcat Bites

2. Take full advantage of your "not writing" time.

When people yo-yo diet, they go through cycles of overly restrictive periods followed by fits of binging. When binging, they don't savor treats they genuinely enjoy. They instead stuff themselves with a ton of cheap junk food they hardly taste and don't even like, as a way of punishing themselves. Celebrating at a restaurant with family, they'll refuse even a small forkful of the decadent chocolate lava cake. Then at home, they'll inhale a whole box of stale animal crackers.

Similarly, when I was a Type A overachiever, I'd allow myself only a kind of "junk happiness." Whenever I "slacked off" or "procrastinated," I'd do things that weren't even fun. I'd zone out to aggravating TV shows, or I'd waste hours reading boring magazine articles about how I've been painting my nails the wrong way all this time.

Now if a show doesn't interest me, I stop watching it. If a book or magazine doesn't make me happy, I stop reading it. I try to choose activities I really enjoy and wring every drop of happiness out of my downtime.

3. Know your limits, and stop pushing when you meet them.

It's true that in order to finish a book, there are days you have to sit down and write when you're just not into it. But there are also days when pushing yourself to write will do more harm than good.

Here's what Sweetie and I always ask each other when we're undecided about doing something: "If you don't do this, will you regret it?"

If I don't feel like writing in the morning, I ask myself whether I'll regret skipping that day. Usually the answer is yes. I know if I don't write, I'll feel empty and disappointed in myself when it comes time to go to work. But on some days, the answer is no, I won't regret skipping at all. I'll be more relaxed and content if I do something else. Those are the days I know I shouldn't force myself.

Sun, 11 Dec 2016 20:38:36