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Thursday, 26 October 2017

Light a Small Lantern

Reproduced by kind permission of the artist, Hassan Massoudy.
"Instead of railing against the darkness, it's better to light a small lantern."
Chinese Proverb. Hassan Massoudy on Instagram
My husband just got back from working for six months in the Yukon Territory of Canada, very far removed from U.S. politics, natural disasters, hate crimes, mass shootings, and the growing sense of powerlessness among people who wish for something different.

He'd been home only a few days when he pulled me away from the hearing of our children. "Where did all your possibility go?"

His question was a direct punch to the solar plexus, and I knew exactly what he meant. I just hadn't put it into words because it had crept up slowly and insidiously, like a thin, poisonous darkness slipping under the door.

Somehow, in the past nine months, my own sense of powerlessness in the face of all the negativity had become something smaller and more personal. Somehow, that powerlessness had grown a voice and a form, and it came out of my mouth as complaints.

This was truly awful news. I'm a person who firmly believes that a complaint without a request or a solution is just a lot of negative energy being put into the universe. I've never had patience for it, and I rarely indulged in it. In my previous life as a film producer there was no room for my complaints - it was my job to fix the things other people complained of, and to anticipate things so they never became complaints.

When I looked at the things about which I'd been complaining, I felt helpless to affect any sort of change - they were too big, and too far outside my reach. There were too many obstacles and people standing in the way for me to see a solution that I could impact in any way. It was an utterly helpless thing to feel, and for a time I felt like the only option was for me to just say nothing at all.

But shutting up isn't the answer either. We've seen what staying quiet in the face of injustice looks like, and not only is there no power in it, silence actually harms people, and ultimately, affects our own self-confidence in very negative ways.

Yesterday I spent four hours helping an author friend format her book. She had made the choice to re-acquire the rights to this book, re-write, re-edit, and publish it independently when she discovered she had breast cancer - when time and opportunity took on new definitions. It was hot in my house, she'd had another chemo treatment on Monday, and half our time was spent finding creative commons vectors to use in chapter headings and time spacers. She made choices about margins, line spacing, page counts, and fonts, and when she left, my friend had all the tools I could give her to format her own paperback for publication.

My husband asked me if I'd gotten any value from the long session away from my own writing. "Yes," I said. "I made a difference. I helped make something possible for someone else."

In those four hours, indeed for the whole day, the complaints that felt too big had faded into background noise. I might not be able to make a big difference, but I could make a small one, and somehow, it was enough.

To complain is a habit and a choice, and it's one in which I'm finished indulging. There's no power in complaints without solutions or requests, and I need whatever power I posses for all the small differences I can make to the people around me.

Today, on Instagram, I saw the beautiful Islamic calligraphy piece by Hassan Massoudy, and it spoke the words I can once again hear: "Instead of railing against the darkness, it's better to light a small lantern." Thank you, Mr. Massoudy, for the words, for your beautiful art, and for allowing me to illustrate my own sense of what's possible, for which I am again reaching with both hands.

We can all find small lanterns to light, and if enough of us light them, the world will shine.


Monday, 23 October 2017

An Apology, A Confession, and An Excerpt

I've been hiding.

At first it was politics. The election and subsequent scandal upon horror upon disaster have left me feeling scraped raw and staked out on the mountaintop for buzzards to eat my intestines.

So, yeah. I started hiding from Facebook and Twitter, because most days it felt like the news was just pouring acid into open wounds.

I've read blog posts by other authors who said that they've had trouble writing in this political climate - they've had trouble feeling like anything they do could possibly make a difference. It's a sentiment I totally get, and something I struggle with too.

I wasn't writing - or at least, not seriously or with any kind of intention. Maybe politics had something to do with it, maybe it was because I'd finished a series into which I had poured heart and soul, or maybe I was worried I wouldn't be able to pull off something new. In any case, I have 20,000 words of Bas' novel, the first couple of chapters of a contemporary political thriller, and two short stories to show for the last six months.

And boy, have I been feeling guilty.

Writing short stories was an interesting switch to make, and I think they were the things that gave me back confidence that I can do this - I can imagine a story, create interesting characters, wrap them up in a compelling plot, and actually finish the thing. My stories been been submitted to two different short story competitions, so I can't publish them here until the results are announced, but I'm pretty proud of them. One is about the deadliest female sniper in WWII, and one is about a last meal.

If any of you are writers, aspiring writers, or you know aspiring writers (including kids and teens), here are some links to writing competitions. They're pretty valuable resources, and worth checking out: Stephie Smith's Contest List and Winning Writers

So, as most of you have figured out, when I went into social media hiding, I stopped talking about writing, and not talking about it fed into the downward spiral of not doing it, which led to less talking, and then even less doing.

I'm so sorry I haven't been communicating. My excuse is guilt, which is a very poor excuse indeed. And since guilt - especially of the self-induced variety - is one of my least favorite emotions, I'm pretty much done with it. Also, I've missed interacting with readers. I've missed you.

So, this is me now - out of hiding, because I'm finally writing on purpose, with intention, and fully inspired.

Also because Ringo's voice - his adult voice - finally swam up and broke the surface, and now he's smirking at me and challenging me, and daring me to go ahead, try not to tell his stories.

His stories are novellas, which means they're faster to write and faster to edit. My plan at the moment is to publish the first one in January, and get the next two out fairly soon after that. I'll let you know more as soon as I've put dates on the calendar, and in the meantime, I'll keep writing, and keep talking about writing, and hopefully we can pick up our conversations with each other where we left off.

Thank you for your patience while I figured out how to shut Pandora's box on all the scary stuff, and just focus on listening to the voices that inspire creativity.

Ringo's voice is pretty inspiring. So is Oscar Wilde's:

     I looked up to find the enormously amused Oscar Wilde smiling down at me. “Oh dear, I do hope I didn’t frighten that poor child away from whatever nefarious task you had planned for it,” he said cheerfully.

     “She had just successfully picked my pocket. I was merely attempting to restore a shred of my dignity as a reformed thief while relieving her of the ill-gotten gain,” I said, as I straightened the infernal cravat.

I'm going back to work on Ringo's book, and look for more newsletters soon with some other story bites. In the meantime, have a wonderful week, and Happy Halloween!

Friday, 24 February 2017

Hidden Figures - A Review


A few weeks ago, my husband and I were very honored to have been invited by dear friends to the USC Scripter Awards. That evening, we struck up a conversation with a couple we encountered in one of the Library exhibits. Later, as the awards ceremony got underway, I realized that the woman with whom I'd so enjoyed discussing evening gowns and Virginia and Mexico was Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book, Hidden Figures. She was at the Scripter Awards as an honoree, along with the screenwriter for the film based on her work, which my family had just seen two nights before.

After dinner, Ed and I sought Margot and her husband Aran again so I could properly gush about her work. I had loved the movie, Hidden Figures - a deft weaving together of the threads from three of the women's lives, layered in the subtle and glaring racism, and painting a vivid picture of life as an educated, professional black woman in the early 1960s - but after the conversations we had with Margot and Aran, I was inspired to read the book.

I read on a kindle for 3am wake-ups, but I also splurged on the whispersync audiobook so I could listen while I drove, walked the dog, and cooked dinner. My younger son caught several parts of it on our drives to and from swim practice, and we sometimes sat in the car long after arriving home to finish the chapter. My older son heard the book on the way home from robotics, with the same fascination for the science and possibilities of the future that had gripped the women at NASA. 

Hidden Figures is a story about being black in America during a time of social upheaval, when resistance to change was almost as strong as the resistance to affect change. It's a story about being a woman in a world that needed women to work during the war, and then pushed back when they wanted to keep working. It's a story about fighting for an education in a world that offered few opportunities to those who weren't white and male. And it's a story about the grace, strength, and fierce determination it took to be a black women with math, science, and engineering skills, and a desire to make a difference to their country, their community, and their families, in a world that could only see their gender and the color of their skin.

“Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations.” 

Margot Lee Shetterly spent six years peeling back the layers of their stories and reassembling them into a book that was bigger than the women and their journey, and yet so intimate and personal it felt like being allowed into someone's living room to listen to their tale first-hand. She then took the stories of the women and placed them against the backdrop of a time in America that our contemporary eyes can look back on with wonder and nostalgia, but also see, with deep, abiding shame, the injustice, the discrimination, the blatant racism that riddled the integrity of our democracy, as if the very foundation of our freedom was run through like wormwood.

"Who knew American democracy more intimately than the Negro people? They knew democracy’s every virtue, vice, and shortcoming, its voice and contour, by its profound and persistent absence in their lives. The failure to secure the blessings of democracy was the feature that most defined their existence in America."

One of the most striking elements of the book, which also permeated the film to great effect, was the unrelenting grace with which the women faced the adversities that seemed to come from every possible direction. In the face of educational discrimination, inherent workplace sexism, and overt racism, the black female mathematicians and engineers comported themselves with exceptional strength and dignity. The women knew that every step forward they took was one more step forward for their community, and any misstep could have the potential to set the community back with just as much impact.

Margot Lee Shetterly wrote an exceptional book. Her choice of language, her expression of ideas, her weaving of personal stories through the grand tapestry of the history of NASA - all were exquisitely wrought and vividly shared with the reader. Hidden Figures opened a door to a time I only knew by reputation, and it spoke its secrets with directness and honesty. And through the women's stories, the idea that stood out as a beacon among all the shining starpoints of light was at the heart of all that Hidden Figures stood for:

“Katherine Johnson knew: once you took the first step, anything was possible.”  - Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Libraries, Scripters, and Vanquishing Dragons


These are interesting times.

These are times that call for stories - all the stories. Fantasies for escape, romances for dreams, histories for lessons, fiction for truths, fairy tales for strength, and comedies for the will to climb out of bed and face each day.

I've been reading Neil Gaiman's The View from the Cheap Seats in bite-sized chunks. It's a library book that I keep on the table between the Moroccan sofas on which my boys sprawl (boys don't sit - they sprawl) when the TV is on, Sometimes the best way to connect with busy boys is to put myself in the same room with them. And if I can't convince them to watch an episode of Sherlock or Poldark with me (the face that's made when Poldark is suggested is approximately equivalent to a "the dog just farted on me" face) - that's usually when I pick up Gaiman's book.

I find Neil Gaiman to be ridiculously and excessively quotable. Perhaps he's just that relevant, or maybe he has found access to channeling the deepest, least-able-to-be-coherent thoughts of most of the literate world. In any case, I find that he always says what I mean.

For example, this - from his Newbery Medal acceptance speech for The Graveyard:

        We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.
        And that is why we write.

The last book in my YA time travel series was published in January, and a couple of readers have written me to say that some things I wrote really resonated with them. One reader thanked me for writing a Jewish character, because she could see herself in my books. Another reader appreciated my young heroine's growing confidence with her own feminism, and can't wait until her daughter is old enough to read the books herself. These are the highest compliments anyone could give me as an author, and the generosity of my readers blows me away. I'm not sure why I'm so stunned that others can find their own stories in what I've written - I've done the same thing with books my whole reading life. I wasn't a musical prodigy forbidden from my instrument because of my gender, like Menolly was in Anne McCaffery's Dragonsinger, but her defiance was mine when I tried out for the boys' basketball team because there wasn't one for girls. I didn't accidentally impress a clutch of fire lizards who hatched during a storm to become her most loyal friends, but my own most loyal friendships felt just as accidental and impetuous, and I still feel the magic and wonder of them.

When I graduated from eighth grade, the librarian at my elementary school gave me the school's copy of D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths because I had checked it out twice a year, every year, since fourth grade. The Trinity Library in Dublin is my idea of what heaven looks, feels, and smells like, and I just visited the British Library in London, where the original Magna Carta is on display just a few feet away from the handwritten lyrics of The Beatles. These things all speak to my soul. I find myself in libraries. My curiosity grows wings, my questions find a multitude of possibilities, and the words of the dead find new life in my imagination. Libraries are the places where stories have caretakers who share their gifts with anyone who seeks them.

Libraries are repositories of the ideas that, once written, no amount of censorship, or book-burning, or budget cuts will ever take away. Ideas burrow into our minds, and weave their ways into our hearts where they sprout and grow big enough to catch the light and shimmer in the sun. When our stories contain hope, they give hope, when our heroines are strong and our battles are just, they inspire strength and a desire for justice. When children read fairy tales, they learn they can vanquish dragons, and just believing something is possible is the first step to making it so.

My husband and I are very privileged to be able to attend the USC Scripter Awards this weekend. It's my favorite awards event of the season, and not just because it's the ultimate date night in black tie and an evening gown. The Scripter Awards are about stories and storytellers - and the awards honor the screen and television writers as well as the authors of the original source material. But even more than that (and that's pretty much the pinnacle as far as this author is concerned), the Scripters is an event to fund-raise for the USC Libraries.

These times are as uncertain as they are interesting, and common wisdom holds that savers will fare better than borrowers when uncertainty strikes. But what if the savers are the ones who protect the information from the ones who would borrow against our future? Who knew that the next romantic hero could be a rogue park ranger who refused to be censored? Or that the artwork of a resistance could be so powerful? The writers and the thinkers, the artists and the scientists - they make the work that fills our libraries. But libraries aren't bunkers for books. They're living, breathing, transforming spaces that require infusions of new ideas and technologies to progress and evolve.

My eighth-grader and I took a tour of his prospective high school campus the other day, and even more striking than the new pool, the robotics and STEM wing, and the art gallery, was the library. It was literally the heart of the campus - the center around which all other wings radiated. Everything was circular, and in the middle was a space for students to gather and share ideas, to work on projects, to research and discuss and learn. It was a place to read, but much more than that, in the best tradition of all libraries everywhere, it was a place to seek and discover oneself among the pages.

Einstein once said, "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Go to the library. Give to the library. Find your fairy tales there, and let them inspire you to reach beyond the dragons of fear and uncertainty. Because not only do fairy tales teach us about those dragons, but they tell us how to beat them.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Worldbuilders Auction

It's Worldbuilders time again.

Between the edit of Cheating Death and the aftermath of the election, I've had my head down for a couple of weeks. That's how I missed the fact that the Worldbuilders auction for my Tuckerization went live.


Here is a fun fact you may not have known. The character of Tam, the mixed-blood captive and green-haired "Leprechaun" that Ava can See in her mind, who was trapped in the tunnel with Archer after the explosion in the ghost station in Waging War - you remember the guy? He was the result of a Worldbuilders Tuckerization auction. The winner of the auction gave me his name, and a couple of characteristics, and then Tam took on a life of his own.

There's also a Tuckerization character in Cheating Death from last year's auction, and he was A LOT of fun to create. Here's a hint - he's a Clocker/Monger mix, and boy, is he in trouble.

This year, I'm out of Immortal Descendant books to write. Wait, what? Yeah, really. Five books, that's it. There may be some short stories and novellas to play around with from their world, but the series arc is done at five. So, this year's Tuckerization auction is for a character in my new series. It spins off of this one, so there will be some familiar faces, and if you click on the auction link, you can read the description. WARNING - the description does contain a couple of small spoilers about some characters in Cheating Death, so if you don't want to know, don't read the description.

But bid on the auction even if you don't read the description. Here is the pertinent text:

The winning bidder of this Tuckerization auction will have the honor of naming a character (and providing an identifying characteristic or two) in book one of the new series. In the event the winning bid is higher than $250, that character will have a significant interaction with the main character. If it goes higher than $400, that character will become a major contributor to the story.

So, that's the fun stuff (and believe me, it's fun knowing there's a character in a book that you had a hand in creating). Here's the real stuff. Giving to Worldbuilders is one of the right things to do.

We have a lot of choices in life. Every day is full of choices - little ones, big ones, choices for yourself, or your family. Getting out of bed when you'd rather be reading, going to work or school when you'd rather be sleeping - those are right choices. Bullying or  belittling someone - not so much. It's a choice to spread gossip, or speak badly about someone else, just like it's a choice to sit next to a lonely person and strike up a conversation. Our choices affect us and sometimes they even define us. 

I teach my kinds that the best part about Christmas is finding the perfect gift to give someone else, and as they've gotten older, they're taking that part of the Holidays really seriously. For the people Worldbuilders helps, the perfect gift is clean water, or a goat, or a flock of chickens, and every year my kids decide what we're going to give with our donations. 

I believe that what Worldbuilders does is right - it's why I give signed books to their lottery every year, and why I do Tuckerizations. But naming a character in one of my books is only valuable to my readers - which means bidding on this item and raising this money for Worldbuilders will only be done by you.

No pressure.
Just hopefulness.

Please consider bidding on my auction, and poking around the Worldbuilders auction list (there's great stuff on it), and even if you don't buy anything, consider donating directly to Worldbuilders through their website. Each $10 you donate gets matched, and it gets your name entered into the lottery one time. I've been donating to Worldbuilders for four years, and I've won lottery things twice. The odds are definitely in your favor - just look at this one section of the donations wall...


So, that's my annual pitch. Thanks for reading, thanks for considering, thanks for clicking links and poking around the Worldbuilders stuff, and above all, thanks for being awesome.


Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Building an author website


Being an independent author is not only writing books I hope will appeal to my readers. I'm actually running a business. There's marketing and promotions, strategy and speculation, market analysis, and a whole lot of seat-of-my-trousers guessing. (I spent a summer among Brits. I struggle to say "pants" now without thinking of underwear.) I have also discovered a huge network of authors/business-owners who are incredibly generous with information-sharing and very helpful advice, some of which I've been acting on for the past couple of days.

I've been doing a little author housekeeping, if you will, and the following post is probably only useful to other authors and maybe a couple of small-business owners. Fair warning.

I signed up for the Amazon Affiliates program back in February. I got the cool little stripe on top of every Amazon page that I visit, and I immediately changed all by book links on my blogspot pages to Affiliate links. (For anyone who doesn't know about Amazon Affiliates, any products someone buys through an affiliate link registered to me nets me fractions of a cent. Some people actually make enough to cover their whole advertising budget from the affiliates program, which is awesome. I am very selective about what I recommend, so I don't really generate a lot of affiliate income). Recently I actually read the Affiliates rules and realized that I can only use those links from active websites, as opposed to static pages, which means I can't send affiliate links in an e-mail, or attach them to the back-matter of any of my kindle books, primarily because Amazon can't track where they came from. It does make me wonder how BookBub can do their affiliate links from their daily e-mail, but I digress.

Because it makes sense to use affiliate links to my own books in the back matter of my kindle books, I needed a way to do that which didn't break the affiliates program rules. My solution is to send potential book-buyers through my website to Amazon. It adds an extra click to their purchase efforts, and certainly might turn people off, but I'll take that risk. So, it seemed like a good time to build a proper website instead of the blogspot pages I've been using. There are several website builders on the market, some easier and better than others, but researching that can suck up days of writing time, so I picked a convenient one, roped a friend of mine in to help me set up content, and started building.

My goal with a website was to build something decent and professional-looking, with a "books" page that has affiliate links to Amazon, and a newsletter sign-up page to which I could entice readers. New readers don't usually troll the internet looking for author's websites, so I'm not going to attract them. But readers who find me on Amazon (where my books have the most reviews) or after a book promotion are only going to want to know more when they've read the first book. So those are the people I'm trying to target with my website.

Knowing my target audience is vital to building a useful website. They've already read at least one book, and have liked it enough to want to know more. That means I can direct people to different landing pages within the website, according to their interests. For people who want the next book in the series, I linked the "books" page to several places in the back matter of Immortal Descendants book. For people who've reached the end of book four and want news about the release date for book five, get in line. No, sorry, that was rude - I linked my newsletter sign-up page at the end of a new book five teaser that I just added to Waging War.

Newsletter sign ups are vital to authors. Those are readers who already know they want more, which makes them a target market. It's vital to keep them intrigued with just enough information to make them pay attention but not oversaturated to the point that they don't open your newsletters when they land in their inbox. Newsletters are the best place to put new release information, and a way to reward newsletter recipients with exclusive clips of new works. I say this all in theory, mind you, because as of now I've sent out exactly two newsletters. I do finally have a template, and I have grand plans for being organized enough to get serious about once-a-month newsletters, but as of now, I still feel too guilty every minute I'm not writing Cheating Death (this is me, writhing in guilt at the moment. I'll make it up to myself with an earlier morning tomorrow).

This has turned into a very long post about a thing that could probably be summarized thus:

Become an Amazon Affiliate.
Build a website.
Put pictures of your book covers on it.
Attach affiliate links to your books.
Add a newsletter sign-up (I use Mailchimp, which requires form-building and HTML code insertion, and is much easier and less painful than it sounds).
Add other things to entice, educate, and entertain visitors (sounds like a Paris salon)
Dress it up in a pretty design (I'm still working on that)
Add hyperlinks to the newsletter sign-up and your books page to the back-matter of your books.

Optional: blog about it. Post links to the new website on all your social media groups. Actually send an entertaining, enticing, and educational newsletter to the people who signed up. 

Required: Then get back to the business of writing.

Oh, and if you've made it this far without your eyeballs rolling back in your head, and you actually want to see what I've been working on, here's the new site. www.aprilwhitebooks.com.
It's subject to change without notice as I figure out more ways to use it.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

A Month in the Yukon


I’ve been in Canada for a month – specifically, the Yukon Territory – even more specifically, my family and I have been dividing our time between the town of Dawson City and a mining camp two hours on dirt roads away.


It’s been a good month, even great sometimes. The best moments have generally involved good friends, campfires, fascinating conversations, coffee-in-bed mornings, long walks, and the ever-amazing, always-changing Yukon skies.


Every photo I’ve taken this month has featured the sky. It is unavoidable and magnificent, and is in a state of constant change. When we arrived at the end of June, there were about two hours of dimness between 2-4am. Now, at the end of July, it’s almost dark by midnight, and in a couple of weeks, the Northern Lights might even be visible.



We’ll be gone then. Gone back to the land of Pokemon Go, which, in this country where our cell phones don’t work, has been fabulously impossible. Gone back to the world of effortless internet, where streaming political speeches compete with streaming YouTube videos for airtime in our house. Gone away from moose sightings at the pond, daily rainstorms, unguarded cook shack conversations about politics with like-minded Canadians and British, long walks with bear-spray in hand, the ever-present noise of a generator just down the hill from the four-wall tent we call home, and from the Yukon sky.


I carry my cell phone in my back pocket even on walks from the tent to the toilets because of that sky. My husband despairs of my paparazzi-like phone-whip - out of the pocket, held up vertically because it’s always on “square,” and click. Done. He’s a proper photographer, with the right camera and a great eye. I’m a photographer who knows how to crop, and I delight in the “drama” feature of Snapseed to add a little silver gelatin look to that sky.

Because it’s truly all about the sky in the Yukon.

The mountains here are old and the trees are young. Gold mining scars the landscape for a year or two before spruce and birch trees reclaim the topsoil, and settling ponds become new habitats for beaver, ducks, and the occasional moose. Annual lightning-strike fires turn hillsides into fields of blackened twigs through which bear sometimes wander, and fireweed splashes the landscape with glorious hot pink flowers.


The mountains here aren’t majestic like the ones in Alaska: the bear are harder to spot, the eagles fly higher, and the ravens scavenge the town of Dawson like ominous portends of the winter to come. Mammoths once lived here, and their bones and tusks are unearthed by gold miners more often than by archeologists. Whole, undamaged tusks are rare in this place where excavators carve the permafrost, and bulldozers push the earth to reveal the gold-rich bedrock below. Evidence of mining is everywhere, but in this land of midnight sun and afternoon rain, life returns to the landscape in years rather than decades to transform the earth, just like the cloud patterns alter the sky.



Our weekends have been spent in Dawson City, the tiny town at the convergence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, where 30,000 people once lived in a swampy tent camp, fevered by gold. The highway that skirts the river ends at a ferry boat where cars line up to cross the Yukon River eight at a time to continue their journey to the Top of the World Highway on the other side. All other streets in Dawson are made of dirt, and get slick with greasy mud after heavy rains. There are some wooden sidewalks, but they must be rebuilt every few years after minus forty degree winters freeze and shift the ground beneath them.

Nothing feels permanent in this town where 3,000 people spend summers lit by the midnight sun – where a music festival draws thousands of visitors, an arts festival and a literary contest draw hundreds, and a photo contest with the hashtag #ilovedawson highlights the beauty and fun of living here.

Only 1,800 or so people remain after the first ice on the river to endure dark and frozen winters. Survivalists like Caveman Bill in his cave, and the residents of West Dawson in their off-grid houses are trapped on the other side of the Yukon River for weeks each year until the ice is thick enough traverse, while the Dawsonites can spend $3,000 a month in electricity, and keep block heaters in their engine compartments to withstand the brutal cold. It’s a place where Winter Pretty is when twos turn into tens, Spring Break-up doesn’t always refer to the river ice, and some relationships can be made or broken by available reading material or a taste in movies.


In our Dawson City, Saturday dinner is at the Drunken Goat with calamari, lamb, and a Greek Salad, and Sunday is spent eating schnitzel at the Aurora. A person can easily be found by their drinking habits, and the midnight show at Gerties is almost always a sure bet. There are nearly as many gold shops as there are restaurants, but the best finds are always at the thrift store.


The summer farmer’s market by the river yields stunning vegetables every Saturday, while the produce in the grocery stores can be anemic and limp by the time it makes the journey this far north. Cheechako’s Bake Shop makes amazing slow-cooked pork and onion jam sandwiches, and their chocolate brownie has crack in the recipe, I’m sure of it.


There is a play structure in Dawson City that my boys have dubbed The Portal. In their perfect world, the tire tunnel between the second and third floors is really a teleportation device, and would allow us regular Sunday roasts with Ed when he works in the Yukon. We could also invite their friends to come to the Moosehide Festival with us, and to help us invent new hiding places for the Parks Canada geocaches that are tucked into historical landmarks around town. It takes us two days and three flights to travel here from Los Angeles, but if the portal worked, we could bring our dog, Natasha, to play with Rio and Finley in camp.


I have written here – a short story for the Authors on Eighth contest, some pitches for programming at NerdCon: Stories, and some work on Cheating Death. I told the story of the Yukon legend, Joe Boyle, to his gravedigger, through the eyes of the people who mourned him, and spent a week digging for quotes of his lover’s letters. I pitched a panel called “Writing Geek Girls in a Genre Rife with Mary Sue Stereotypes,” and spent a day researching Mary Sues. I’ve re-read my notebooks for Cheating Death, edited the parts I have notes for, and I’ve given myself permission to just recharge.
That’s what this trip has been: a chance to recharge myself, my family, and my creativity.



There’s inspiration here, and a person seeking creativity can find it in the stories, the scenery, the history, the wildlife, and the people who make art.


The sky is the limit in the Yukon.

And have you seen that sky?


Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Update to the Tearjerkers list - A Man Called Ove

It happens sometimes that your heart fills so full that it spills down your face and steals your breath and sounds like sobs. And sometimes tears fill your throat and prickle your nose as you lie in the dark long after the story is done. And the tears are made of joy and hope and love and family, and they leave you feeling full instead of empty - that happens sometimes too.

It happened this time.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Book Recommendations - Tearjerkers and Romance

I was at an author's conference recently where a very high-powered film producer said, during a conversation about a book-pitch, "never, ever call a book a romance." Every timeless story has romantic elements, he said, but if you call a story a romance, even a story in which the central theme is the relationship between two people in love, you will effectively kill all its credibility.

Kill all its credibility. Huh.

(Insert rant here. It will be the subject of another post.)


My book club read Me Before You this month. Now, to be perfectly fair to the book itself, I did read it in a day, I did shed a tear, and it was written well. My primary criticism of the book itself was that I didn't particularly like either of the two main characters (or anyone else in it for that matter) and didn't really care enough about them to heavily invest my emotions in their story. That's a personal opinion and feel free to yell about how much you loved the book. It won't affect my belief in you and your worth, just as I hope my opinion doesn't affect your thoughts about my worth.

I had a big-picture issue with the book too, though - and it became the topic of a book club conversation about tearjerkers in general, and romance in particular. My issue was with this book's marketing. The publisher of Me Before You, The Penguin Group (who, incidentally, decided it was okay to charge $9.99 for the kindle version when the paperback is $6.40 on Amazon - don't get me started), made a deliberate choice to market the book primarily as women's fiction rather than romance.
Me Before You has all the classic hallmarks of a romance - a central relationship between a man and a woman, the growth of their attraction to each other (complete with sexual tension - you can't tell me the shave and haircut scene wasn't FULL of it), that thing that drives them apart, and ultimately, the reconciliation that brings closure to the relationship upon which the plot was built. Now, the publishers may be tricky, listing the book in women's fiction, but they're not stupid. Romance readers are some of the most voracious readers in the book-buying world. More romance authors are making six-figure incomes than any other genre, and the market is positively flooded with romance novels (good, bad, mediocre, sexy, funny, flirty, dark, thrilling, mysterious, sweet, paranormal, western, military, historical - name a genre and it's a romance sub-genre), primarily because readers are hungry for them.

This is what the Amazon rankings of Me Before You look like today (which, by the way, are very impressive):
Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Contemporary Fiction > Women's Fiction
#1 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Women's Fiction > Domestic Life
#1 in Books > Romance > Contemporary

See - not stupid. By listing Me Before You as a Romance, Contemporary, it does make it onto the romance lists and in front of all those hungry romance readers. But Contemporary Fiction and Women's Fiction also put it on lists for people who "don't read romance," because... (fill in the blank. Usually something to do with the assumption of poor writing or the stigma still attached to romance as a genre).  There were women in my book club last night who declared, "Oh, I don't read romance," - except they read and enjoyed Me Before You, which isn't packaged (the cover) or marketed as a romance (except to romance readers). I'm clear it's brilliance on the part of the publisher, and I certainly give them credit for bringing the book to the widest possible audience. But as long as the prejudice against romance exits, as long as romance in the pitch kills a book's (or reader's or author's) credibility, I'm going to have a problem with the subterfuge.

Okay, rant over. For now.
I promised the wonderful women of my book club a list of my recommendations in both the romance and tearjerker categories, so here they are, complete with links to Amazon and the current price for a kindle book.

In the Tearjerkers category (some are romance, some are war stories, all made me ugly-cry, and all got five-star reviews from me on Goodreads):

 

And these are some of my favorite romance novels (comedy, paranormal, time-travel, fantasy, young adult, historical):

 

So, that's it for today - a book review, a mini-rant, and some recommendations.
I hope you stumble upon a genre you "don't read," and suddenly discover that when the story is great and the characters are interesting, you do.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Show me, don't tell me.

I don't own this picture, but there's a whole story written in those shoes.

I was an English major in college, but I actually suck at punctuation. My editor has taught me more about the rules for punctuation than any teacher in sixteen years of education ever did.

Screenwriting taught me how to pare things down to their most visual elements, and to write action scenes with active words. There's a set up to every scene, just so we know who's there and what they're doing, but the story is told through the dialogue between characters. Time spent a character's head does NOT translate into something visible on screen.

In my books, its my job to paint the visual picture with words. I need to show readers what my characters see and do with active words that allow the reader to be there with them, and then whenever possible, let interactions with other characters give voice to the narrator's observations. For example, in an early (unedited) scene from Cheating Death:

I was coated in a thick layer of brick dust, but I’d forgotten about the blood until someone shone a flashlight into my face and screamed, “He’s hurt!”

Revelations about the world around my characters are also best done through direct interaction with their environment. And even better when they can unfold bit by bit. It allows the reader to experience the truth alongside the character:

“I’m fine,” I tried to croak, but the dust choked my voice. Another good Samaritan joined the first and tried to hand me water. I pushed it away, and I was vaguely aware of someone holding their mobile phone up as a torch.
A mobile phone.
This wasn’t 1944.

I try to describe a character to the reader fairly early in their intro, but it can be tricky, especially in a first-person narrative. Honest self-assessments can become lawn furniture (the kind that clutters a yard and gets stumbled over) unless they're blended with something appropriate to the action:

I realized I was in London, my London, where mobile phones recorded images of people who shouldn’t be here, and a bloody, dust-covered, dark-skinned young man garnered too much attention on a pre-dawn city street.

My chest heaved with barely suppressed panic as I tucked myself around a corner, out of sight of the well-meaning Londoners. What had they seen? I looked down at myself, barely visible in the still black sky of early morning. I was filthy and covered in blood, but my clothes weren’t obviously anachronistic in this age of vintage-is-cool, and outwardly, I probably still looked like the eighteen-year-old guy I physically was. I felt my chest, my torso, and my face where I’d been slammed against a wall in the blast. I was battered, but I’d heal after a day’s sleep.
My body would heal anyway.

I doubted the same could be said for anything else.

A challenge in series-writing is to remind the reader about a character's backstory without a full recap. Again, it's tricky in first-person narrative to give historical information that doesn't sound like an info-dump, so I try to tie it to an action or emotion whenever possible:

“Tom?”

I stiffened and my fingers curled reflexively into weapons.

“Tom, it’s Ava.”

Ava. Her voice was a sound from a time when love and laughter had blended with the ever-present pain, and happiness had given it texture and light. It was a time before I knew what true pain was, a time before inky blackness had replaced happiness, and hope had fled in tears.

Ava’s voice was quiet and hesitant … and coming closer. She was in the alley with me. I felt panic rise up again like a vise that squeezed my throat until my heart threatened to pound its way out of my chest. And then I remembered who I was and what I’d done. I wasn’t her poor little cousin, Tom, with an emotionally abusive father, and a mother who hated the sight of me because I reminded her of him and what he had done to her. I wasn’t anything weak or frail or good or right. There was nothing to care about and everything to fear in me. My heart was a dead thing that merely pumped blood through my veins. In fact, I thought dispassionately, I could kill my cousin now and then disappear as if I’d never been here at all. 

More backstory reminders are wrapped around dialogue with another character, with more character reveal about Tom's state of mind:

She stopped moving. Maybe she heard my thoughts. I took a step forward. “Ava?” My voice was definitely not my own, and I decided to use the croaking to sound helpless. “Is that really you?”

I sensed her hesitation in the dark. I looked for her, but couldn’t see her outline – she was still too far away. I took another step forward.

“Adam was in the tunnels when the bomb exploded. I can’t See him.” There was a soft desperation in Ava’s voice and I froze in place. “I can’t See anyone underground – not Archer, not Tam, not … my twin.”

Her twin. My cousin and best friend, Adam. I couldn't let him see me. He would know in an instant who I was - what I'd become, and he would hate me too. I should wrap my hands around Ava's throat and squeeze until she broke, and then I should find a spiral and just ... go.

I try to eliminate as many passive verbs (ending in "ing") as I can. I'd rather have short, simple, active sentences - they keep the tension higher. For example, "I sensed her hesitation in the dark. I looked for her, but couldn't see her outline..." If I'd written, "Sensing her hesitation in the dark, I looked for her..." Tom would sound too self-aware, and not in the moment.

Another word I've tried to eliminate almost completely is "Suddenly." It's one of those words I tell people to search, and then remove 90%. "Very" is another one, and adjectives ending in "ly" should only be used as truly necessary. If a word can be made active, or removed entirely without changing the meaning of the sentence, do it. It propels the reader along with the action, and makes the scene feel immediate, rather than something that's been reflected upon by the narrator.

I'm certainly not a writing expert by any stretch of the imagination. I am, however, an inhaler of books. When I delve into a world that an author has created, I want to be drawn into the action and carried alongside the characters as their story unfolds. I want to be shown the world, the people who inhabit it, and the experiences they're having. Only then am I invested enough to feel the emotions the author intends the characters to feel. 

Tell me what happens and I'll listen, but show me what happens and I'll experience.