From the library

Sharon Ashwood
June 29, 2011  •  No Comments

For those looking for some fun summer reading, here’s some recent reads that I’m giving my personal stamp of approval:

The Bunnicula Collection by Deborah and James Howe

I encountered this 25th anniversary edition as an audio book read by Victor Garber. It contains three short novellas: Bunnicula: a Rabbit Tale of Mystery, Howliday Inn, and The Celery Stalks at Midnight. These stories are told from the point of view of Harold, the family dog. Other characters include Chester, the well-read, haughty, and over-imaginative tabby and the family rabbit who quite possibly is one of the evil undead. Blanched zombie vegetables are also a sinister feature. The phrase I keep coming back to in describing these tales is simply charming. They’re loopy, smart, and light-hearted–great for kids and adults.

The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith

The best I can do to describe this book is dystopic steampunk alternate history with vampires and magic. I was hooked. There’s a streak of romance that’s touching and surprising. The authors have created fabulous characters for this adventure, and I’ll certainly be reading the next instalment. Highly recommended for readers tired of the same old vampires.

Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

Steampunk again, but this time set in nineteenth-century London’s Ministry for Peculiar Occurrences. The protagonists are archivist Wellington Books and his slightly off-the-rails partner, Eliza Braun. From the cover, I was expecting a frenetic romp, and it does make me grin as I read. But, I’m about halfway through and there’s a solid plot in amongst the magical artefacts hidden in the Ministry’s underground library. As well as being fun, this book has an entertaining cast and a cold case mystery to solve.


Tick, tock

Sharon Ashwood
June 22, 2011  •  No Comments

As I write this, it’s the first day of summer. The warm weather has been dragging its heels to arrive here. This is the first week I’ve actually worn a light coat, and only the second day I’ve worn sandals. I look at the calendar and think someone’s playing tricks.

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I mention this, not just because complaining about the weather is a favourite occupation in the Pacific Northwest, but to illustrate how slippery is that beast called time. Although we have devices to measure microseconds, time remains perceptual. There’s always either more or less of it than we think. We try to kill it. It slips away. It’s always hang heavy on our hands until … well, it runs out, doesn’t it? Then one wonders where it went, and whether it was wasted.

The effect is magnified by creative endeavours. I am great at promising things that will occur in a misty future only to find the deadline is breathing down my neck. Due dates have a way of making the future accordion into a frightening present. When I am in the zone and doing great work, time zooms by unnoticed. I’ve come out of a white heat of writing only to notice that I’ve lost a whole day.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by timepieces. Apparently, they’re magical machinery quite beyond my control. And, they’re thematically appropriate to the turning of the year, when I tend to get a bit philosophical anyway.

In my constant battle to tame the fleeting hours, I have learned this much: If there is something I want to accomplish, waiting for circumstances to be right doesn’t work. I hesitate, time flies, and I’m no further ahead. Even if I never reach my goal, moving toward it puts me on a better path. It’s like the universe waits to see if I’ll commit before coming on board. That’s when happy “timing” might occur—after I’ve done 95% of the work.

Think of it this way: It’s the first day of summer and the start of a new season. The wheel is turning, but toward what? Where do you want to be on the first day of winter? Even if you know you can’t be there, can you be closer? What do you need to do to make it happen? What are you willing to put on the line?

If you want to do something, don’t wait. The sands of time are running through the glass. Be brilliant, brave and take no prisoners.


New book nerves

Sharon Ashwood
June 15, 2011  •  No Comments

Last week, I launched FROSTBOUND, the fourth of the Dark Forgotten series. I’m not totally out the zone of guest blogs and promo contests, but the initial push has passed. Now I’m eyeballing the dates for the RWA Conference in New York and wondering if Air Canada is still going to be on strike when it’s time for me to get on a plane. File that one under “never a dull moment.”

In the meantime, I’m in that odd post-book launch mood.
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It’s two parts fatalistic, one part empty nest. We wind ourselves up to be dynamos of energy and, once the confetti has settled, feel let down. We’re no longer the centre of attention. Another book has come along, displacing our moment in the sun. All that’s left is the anxious wait to find out how our baby is doing in the big, bad world. Will people treat it kindly? Will my hero and heroine remember to wear mittens and cross only at the lights?

I’ve never learned how to effectively deal with this state of mind, other than to plunge back into writing. Put another way, the only antidote for present nerves is future plans. I did the same thing when I was entering contests prior to publication—I always made sure I had one more entry out there, because if entry A didn’t do well, entry B just might. Having lots of irons in the fire kept my nail-biting at a bearable level.

And while I fret and wonder and wring my hands for my newborn novel, I’m also jubilant because a story I desperately wanted to tell is now in the hands of readers. How lucky is that?


Time out

Sharon Ashwood
June 1, 2011  •  No Comments

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One of the recommended activities for writers is to “refill the well.” Cryptic, but I think that means “have fun every so often.” As a working adult with writing ambitions, time is scarce and usually fun gets left till last. Trying to co-ordinate with friends in a similar situation is almost laughable.

However, after a year and a half of stalling around, it happened. A friend and I had a weekend excursion away. I wanted to visit Granville Island in Vancouver, which I envisioned as a setting for a story. As I am a crappy photographer, I cleverly put my friend in charge of the camera.

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What I like about the location is the mix of industrial, artistic, and natural scenery. It has a bit of a carnival atmosphere. There’s an arts school, a farmer’s market, many restaurants ranging from funky to upscale, and a lot of interesting boutiques. What it doesn’t have is enough parking, but that’s another story.

After a miserable spring, the weather turned warmish for the day. Although the area isn’t actually that big, there was enough to see to keep us walking for hours.

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What I picked up for the story wasn’t everything I needed. In some ways, it was too cheerful—I do better atmosphere with fall weather. But it was what I needed as a human being—a couple of days without responsibility.

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Good for the gander, maybe not the goose

Sharon Ashwood
May 25, 2011  •  1 Comment

geese-nd-gooslingsIn the writing world, there is a great deal of talk about motivation. Without a doubt, it is key to any good characterization. Without it, books seem too much like real life, full of meaningless sound and fury.

For the record there are two kinds of motivation: internal and external. External is driven by things from outside of us: We are motivated to call the plumber because the tap is dripping. Internal is driven (you guessed it!) from inside: We are motivated to call the plumber because secretly we are working out daddy issues, and daddy was a pipe and porcelain man. If we call, we symbolically confront him one more time.

Audiences—and by that I mean editors, agents, reviewers and blog commenters because those are the folks whose opinions I know about—are particular about what is acceptable internal motivation in protagonists. This is thrown in stark relief when we get to what could be sweepingly termed boy books versus girl books.

In a thriller, Agent Manly Man is given the task of putting away Evil Guy, so he does it. It’s his job. No one questions that. He might do it as a cop, a special agent, or in the courtroom. Gotta earn a pay cheque, and these occupations make good pulp fiction. Often/usually Manly Man is a loner. Audiences ache for his lonely state and hopes someday he’ll find solace in the bosom of, well, a bosom. These books—and they are legion—have a definite following.

However, wheel Agent Jane into the same scenario. The first question you’ll get as an author is, “Why is she a police sergeant? What happened to her that she wants a job with so much violence? Why isn’t she, like, a teacher or something?” You have to put a good reason out there before folks will move on to paragraph two.

Jane can’t wake up one day and think, “Gee, it’s Career Day at school. I like excitement. I think I’ll go check out the booth with the cops” any more than she can announce, “There’s a company over there with good assets and earning potential. I’ll think I’ll take it over and damn the torpedoes.” No way. What she’s allowed is, “My daddy was a cop and I never got his love because Peter was the boy. I’ll go be more of a cop than Peter and finally earn Daddy’s love.” Well, I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to go scuttling into a shoot ‘em up wearing Kevlar and a prayer, I’m doing it because I want to and to heck with what Daddy thinks. But that’s me.

Better yet, Jane is a cop because a child was murdered somewhere in her past, and she’s out there to defend young ‘uns everywhere. (No one ever oversets their lives in a crusade to defend middle-aged couch potatoes.)

But I digress.

I’ve run into the same problem plenty of times with female characters in the boardroom—I’ve never had a storyline pass go if it features a career woman, and I’ve tried many times. I know plenty of females who are ambitious and career-minded in real life. They do it for the same reason as guys: because they’re good at it, and they like the idea of retiring comfortably. However, if you translate that onto the fictional page, it’s necessary to counteract that “cold” ambition with a lot of factors that make her “softer” and “likeable.” Preferably kids. If her kids interfere with her job and she chooses family over personal success, so much the better. Does this mean boy exec = breadwinner; girl exec = not likeable?

I’m completely sure there are exceptions to this. I’m just going by my experience. However, the conclusion I draw is that there is a segment that sees female motivation convincing only in the context of family. A woman has to be motivated by factors outside of her own self-fulfillment before some readers can accept her.

As I say, I’m going by my own limited observations. What do you think? Am I right or wrong?


Strategic Swatting

Sharon Ashwood
May 11, 2011  •  No Comments

Every so often, I realize that I actually learned something useful in my business classes. While this comes as something of a shock, I shouldn’t be so surprised. Writing is a business. Ergo, business theory occasionally applies.

Take, for instance, strategic planning. It’s a lovely buzz-phrase. It sounds clever and important. Basically it is a response to the question, “I want to be/do/have X, how do I get there?” It’s a question writers have, too, especially when one is talking career.

In order to answer “how do I get there?” we have to decide where “there” is. Yes, good old goal-setting is a first step. Let’s say: Writer Jane wants to get an editor seriously interested in buying a book. She can’t MAKE an editor buy her work, but she can do her best to get firmly on the radar. Good. Simple. We’re on track to a strategic plan.

So how does Jane form an action plan for getting herself in the game? One tool is called a SWOT analysis. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with special ops guys with rifles. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The business or person doing the analysis makes a list of each category with reference to their stated goal. That is, what strengths does Writer Jane have that will advance her toward the goal of getting on an editor’s radar? What weaknesses? Not all of her strengths/weaknesses will apply. What could be a strength one time (she’s a great writer of sex scenes) may be a weakness the next time around (the editor in question avoids writers with a reputation for writing hot). It’s important to keep the goal firmly in mind and think carefully about how well each item on the list fits.

So, what goes in each list?

Strengths = internal strengths. What do you bring to the table? A great work ethic? A fabulous proposal? A talent for characterization? A background in marketing and promotion?

Weaknesses = internal drawbacks. Where do you fall down? Can’t finish a project without a gun to your head? You haven’t a clue about promotion? Time challenges?

Opportunities = external strengths. Is the market for your kind of book trending up? Is that publisher opening a new line absolutely suited to you?

Weaknesses = external problems. The publisher you want to pitch to is folding. Nobody likes your sub-genre anymore. The market is glutted.

Of course, the more specific and insightful you make your goal and your lists, the better information you’re going to get. Then, once you’ve done the analysis, you’re ready to do your planning. The object, of course, is to work your plan so that you end up with lots of strengths and few weaknesses.

Step one is figuring out how closely your strengths match the opportunities available. This is where you will find your competitive advantage. For instance, if publisher X is launching a new line of medical mysteries and, hey, you spent twenty years working in Emergency, you have an edge. It’s amazing how confident this process can make you feel, and how well it prepares you for making a pitch to an editor. But don’t stop there: make your competitive advantage everything it can be. How can you enhance your strengths? Or do you need to adjust your goal for a better fit? The closer the alignment between your goal, opportunities and assets/abilities, the greater is your likelihood of success.

Step two applies to the weaknesses and threats. How can you make this list shorter? What weaknesses can you mitigate? Can you convert disadvantages to opportunities? If no one is publishing books about roller-skating zombie FBI agents, can you be the first in the field with this—um—original concept?

The objective of the SWOT is to generate plans and ideas. When it works well, it can take one a long way from fuzzy thought to detailed to-do list. I find it useful for organizing priorities. This makes a good basis for talking to an editor or agent—you’ve done your brainstorming in advance and will have something to say for yourself when you pick up the phone.

A final thought: a quick search on Google will give you a ton of links to SWOT tools and examples which are interesting and possibly fun to play with. However, it doesn’t need to get any more complex than what I’ve listed above. It’s the thinking part that counts, and no software can tell you what your dreams are.


Creative apathy

Sharon Ashwood
May 4, 2011  •  No Comments

I don’t tend to get writer’s block per se, but I will confess to the occasional case of severe apathy. No matter how well/badly things are going, there are days when I just can’t get excited about deadlines, sales, market stats or anything else book-related. All I want to do is watch bad TV and sulk.

This is probably healthy and normal, but there is a little voice in my head that panics. If I’m not writing, is this the beginning of the end? The departure of the muse? The slide into irrelevance? *Gasp* will the page police bang on the door and demand to see that day’s production?

Do I care? Some days, not so much. And, if I leave it alone, in less than a week I’m banging at the keyboard again—sulk over, moxy back in gear. What causes these lapses? Rebellion is probably just a sign that vacation-time is overdue. Cure? Take a mini-vacation. Apathy might have something to teach us.

The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to indulge. Do nothing. Watch television. Read trashy magazines. Paint toenails. Get well and thoroughly bored. It could be considered research. For instance, in my last bout of indolence I learned:
· That there is a new crackled trend in nail polish that looks vaguely like a zombie disease
· That a hat that isn’t a hat is called a fascinator
· That according to a 2009 study, women are more accurate at hammering nails than men are
· And that goji berries taste kind of like soap
. Women are most likely to win an argument with a man at 3:00 pm

Priceless information. No, really. And if wading through gems like that is the alternative, I’m way more than ready to get back to work.

The question is how many of the factoids above can be used in a book. Better yet, a single paragraph …


Proposals – not the marrying kind

Sharon Ashwood
April 20, 2011  •  No Comments

It takes me forever to write a proposal. I’m fairly sure my agent just doesn’t believe me anymore when I say that I’m going to produce one.

It’s not laziness on my part, nor is it lack of ideas. It’s trying to connect my germ of a concept with the finished product. There are a lot of obstacles, not the least is which requiring great tracts of time to ponder the whole thing and answer some key questions.

One number one: what genre is this? For some, this is easy. For me, not so much. I tend to write in between, around, or hopping to and fro genres because that interests me. It tends not to interest industry professionals quite so much, despite their vaunted love of mash-ups. Eventually one has to settle on what a proposed book MOSTLY is, just so folks know where to file it. If one colours too far outside the lines, the marketplace tends to shy away. Sucks, but true.

Two: who is the main character? The standard answer is “whoever changes the most.” I’d rather say: “whoever I think I can stand hanging around my head for the next six months.” The point is things get a lot easier if you have one focal character, even in a romance. If, like me, you are prone to ensemble casts, it becomes critical. One very important reason is that readers like to have a character to cheer for. The more time they spend with the protagonist, the more sympathy has a chance to build. It’s not that the other characters aren’t nice people, but readers like that familiar touchstone.

Three: how much world do I really need to build for just a proposal? Um, all of it? The more unfamiliar the landscape, the more work has to be invested. This is what sucker punched me on the current WIP. I finished the first draft of the first fifty pages last night and realized those gaping holes were due to bad preparation. I hadn’t made enough decisions about the universe, so (shockingly) it didn’t manifest on the page. I had created universe lite (all of the cosmos, none of the gravity) and it worked about as well as artificial sweetener. An easy fix, but it goes to show sloppy doesn’t pay.

So, yes, it is possible to spend hours working on your book without actually writing a word. You need to dream up a world, decide on your market, research your market, and ponder your cast list before much else happens. This is why it is entirely permissible to sock someone who sneers at your paltry page count and says, “Gee, you’ve been at this for ages and is that all you got done?” Grrrr.

Better yet (and more productive than outright homicide), keep a notebook of these decisions so that progress is still measurable. Check off what choices you’ve made and jot down why. Word count isn’t everything, but work accomplished certainly deserves reward.


Going old school

Sharon Ashwood
April 13, 2011  •  2 Comments

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Lately I’ve been dipping into my someday-I-gotta-read list of classics and catching up on gems like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. They’re novels written for pure entertainment. Sure, some things about them are dated, but as adventure yarns they stand the test of time. There’s ticking clocks, secrets, comedy, conflict, exotic scenery, betrayal and heroism.

These books break a great many “rules” espoused by today’s fiction-writing experts. Not that Doyle and Verne would necessarily care. They must have been doing something right to stay in print for at least a hundred years—but we do see some things in the nineteenth-century novel we don’t see much of in today’s pulp fiction.

Point of view is one. The Victorians weren’t shy about using the wide-angle storytelling lens, aka the omniscient view. With that, an all-seeing narrator sets forth long passages of description about a location, society, or milieu. It makes me think of an opening sequence of a movie, where the camera lovingly pans over the countryside to set the scene before the star enters the picture. Today, we’re told get into the action and deep POV as soon as possible. That’s great, but there’s something to be said for taking time to set the scene.

Another interesting difference is that the authors way back when weren’t shy about what we’d call authorial intrusion. That is, the author expresses their opinion about what’s going on in the story, sometimes very directly. While I’m less tolerant of this, I’m forced to admit that part of Dickens’ unmistakable touch is his personal opinions—be it around social injustice or the right kind of Christmas office party. Though these interjections would be chopped out now, his exhortations add a huge amount of character to his books.

Another custom fading into the sunset is a certain level of narrative complexity. Even in the seventies, there were sprawling best-sellers with a bazillion characters, all with their own points of view and story arcs. In genre fiction, these days (and, yes, this is a sweeping generalization with significant exceptions) we get the hero, heroine, maybe villain, and rarely anyone else. And, they’re generally focussed on one main storyline with only piddling subplots. Even juicy double couple romances are becoming hard to find. Why the push to keep it simple? After all, readers aren’t stupid and surely could follow more than one story arc.

Probably there are many reasons, and some of it is undoubtedly just our current tastes. One, I’m sure, is the price of paper. More complex = more pages = more expensive. Not a good thing unless you’re an ebook.

Anyway, I’m not saying these older practices are better or worse, just that it’s interesting that some very successful and long-lived stories don’t adhere to the current concept of “good” writing. This may seem obvious. However, my experience reading some older works was a bit of “wow, this is different” combined with “huh, that works okay.” And it also reminds me that storytelling comes with a very full toolkit. Surprise and variety are good. As writers, we shouldn’t forget that.


Maybe what glitters is gold.

Sharon Ashwood
March 30, 2011  •  No Comments

The interesting thing about awards is that they can mean a lot and not much at the same time. Conventional wisdom says that shoppers and therefore publishers pay no attention to book awards. They do not help sales and they ultimately do nothing but collect dust on a shelf. But, like most such grumpy assessments, I don’t think that’s the whole truth. I have won awards before, and as shiny dust collectors go I think they are mighty fine.

My third book, Unchained: the Dark Forgotten, has been nominated for a RITA® Award in the paranormal category. I really, absolutely, utterly did not expect this. It’s not because I don’t think it’s a great book, but there are a lot of great books out there by bigger names than mine. I am hugely honoured and humbled.

For those that don’t know the RITA®, it’s awarded by the Romance Writers of America and is considered the Big Deal in romance awards, rather like an Edgar or a Hugo are regarded in their respective genres. One would think such news would involve champagne and confetti. My initial response was disbelief; I’m good at that. I finally figured out it wasn’t a mistake later on in the evening of the announcement day, when I was poring over the two-page email from the RWA outlining what I had to do by what date to keep my nomination in play. Apparently, if you want my attention, send paperwork.

Then came gratitude, because I suddenly realized that some people out there read and understood my vision, and it made them happy. The book I wrote gave them a few hours of escape and pleasure. That, above all things, is what an author wants. And maybe, just maybe, this nomination will help me keep on telling my stories to a wide audience. That would be the biggest win of all.

So when people wonder what good awards (especially ones without cheques attached) can do for an author, this is it. They act as a guarantee of quality. Maybe they’ll open doors. More important, it lets the author know someone out there gets what they’re doing. Suddenly, this weird one-sided conversation we engage in has a response. In this case, a thumbs-up.

What else really matters?


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