Our Favorite Toys

I was trying to come up with a topic for today’s post, and as I sometimes do, I asked my cat what I should write about. As she always does when I ask her what I should write about, she said “me.” Well, maybe it was closer to me-ow, but I got the point. So, why not?

My cat has a flippin’ lot of toys:

Sorry, I don’t have enough to share…

I say this as though she went out and spent her own money on an exorbitant amount of cat toys. No, I bought them for her, because I spoil her. She also gets a Kitnip Box every month, adding to her collection. My son is an adult now but my apartment sometimes looks like I have a toddler because of the toys everywhere.

The thing is, as many toys as she has, a few are her favorites. Whenever she wants to play she almost always picks the same ball or plushie, and she loves to maul anything with feathers attached to it. My son sometimes engages her with the lesser-played with toys, but she always ends up going back to her favorites. I’m sure they smell like her and she finds them the most interesting and entertaining.

As writers, we have our favorite ‘toys.’ That is, plots we love to write variations of, character types we enjoy working with, and formulas we feel comfortable sketching out. Also, the genres we tend to work in. Even with a huge box of ideas to choose from, we pick our favorites. Sometimes we try out a new idea, or something we don’t usually toss around, but it’s not always as rewarding to play with as the one that squeaks, or the one that rattles, or the super squishy one that’s fun to chew on.

Is this a bad thing? No, not at all. Many authors are known for the plots and types of characters they write. Some authors even bank hugely on the fact that their readers fully and eagerly expect them to bring the same toy to play with, if in slightly different colors with different jingles and whistles on it. They want the same plot and formula, and the author knows how to build it, twist it around a bit so it’s not identical every single time, and keep readers coming back for more.

We feel comfortable with the things we like to write, the things we’re good at writing, the things we understand in our heart and can turn into stories. It’s okay to think outside the toybox too, and find something new to play with from time to time. And what if all the toys are your favorite? That’s okay too. Have a blast!

But if you just like the one with feathers, pounce on it!

A Memorial To A Friend

Six years ago today, a friend of mine named Chris passed away. We met when I started working at my very first serving gig in a restaurant that doesn’t exist anymore. Everyone there was like family, and until this day, at all the places I’ve worked, I’ve never found friendships or bonds like the ones we created there. If the place was still around today I’d probably still be working there. I keep in touch with a lot of those old friends via Facebook and meeting up from time to time.

Chris was a wiry, scruffy guy who looked like John Lennon (though he hated when people pointed this out). He was a true dank hippie, loved jam bands, was a huge fan of Phish and The Grateful Dead, and did all sorts of drugs not to get high, but for the existential experience. That sounds like some old stoner who was a teenager in the 60’s, but he was actually only 30. He could tell a story like no one I’ve ever met, and his tales of ‘enlightenment’ were so mesmerizing I believed that I, too, could drop acid and see the face of God (I’ve never done acid, btw). He had an incredibly interesting life and had done so much in his short thirty years it boggled my mind. He also had so many friends it was surreal–and not just acquaintances, honest-to-God friends. He was known and loved by everyone, a truly gregarious and outgoing person, and he always made everyone feel equally important.

He was spastic, a prankster, and loved to make people laugh. He was a trickster with a heart of gold. He was one of my best friends, a brother to me, and we had so many good times together. One of his last pranks, which will live on forever, is that he would change his birthday on Facebook every day so it would alert all his followers that every day was his birthday. Because of this, some people now believe December 27th is his birthday (his real birthday was in July, like mine). It’s bittersweet, because when I see that notification pop up on Facebook it reminds me of his humor, but it also reminds me what the next day is.

He was a writer, too. He was working on his memoirs, Triumphs of An Open Mind, most of which contained stories I’d already heard from his mouth. Since I was a writer too we constantly shared ideas and advice. He was my writer friend and everyone knew us as ‘the writers’ where we worked. He hadn’t gotten published yet, but he was working on it. We both had big dreams of bestsellers and stardom.

Then, a few months before the end of 2010, he was diagnosed with Graves Disease after suffering heart palpitations and weakness. I was adamant that he was fine, and reminded him of this when he’d get down on himself about it or start feeling hopeless. I remember saying “You’re not going to die!” about a hundred times. I was convinced he wouldn’t, that he’d have a long happy life telling wild stories and bouncing off the walls.

A few days after Christmas, he proved me wrong. (Some of my friends still joke ‘he died to spite you’ because it’s the sort of joke HE would make.)

I’d worked an early shift that day and came home, turned the ringer on my phone off, and took a nap. When I woke up I had about 16 voicemails and missed calls from different people, and none of them said anything more descriptive than “call me.” I knew something was horribly wrong. I picked my friend Jodi as the one to call back, and when she answered she was crying and said “Chris died.” He’d passed away in his sleep the night before, from heart failure, at the age of 30. I remember being so disoriented I got up and tried to get dressed and couldn’t figure out how to put my clothes on. Absurdly, Jodi and I went shopping and called everyone we knew before they got the news second-hand. We didn’t know what else to do.

His funeral was massive. I had never seen so many people at the funeral of a person who wasn’t famous. We actually closed the restaurant that day so everyone could attend. I remember thinking ‘I want to live my life in a way that I end up having a funeral like this.’ The place was huge and they still couldn’t fit everyone inside.

A few months later, I had the opening line of his novel tattooed on my arm. I think he would appreciate it, and it gets me through the dark times in my life.

I had a dream about him Monday night, amazingly. We were sitting and talking like we used to, and suddenly I said, “I know this isn’t real, but can I hug you? Because it’ll feel real for a minute.” And of course, it did.

We were both huge fans of Carl Sagan, and so I post this today in honor of him, our favorite essay by Mr. Sagan:

I hope you’re still out there jamming across the cosmos, Chris.

The Christmas Spirit Is Here!

I put my Christmas tree up yesterday. A lot of people I know decorate on or directly after Thanksgiving, but I always wait until December begins because I don’t want to get sick of Christmas too fast. This is the first year I’ve had a full-sized Christmas tree, because I live in a bigger place now and I have room to put it. I always had a table top tree before. That means it’s my cat’s first year coexisting with a full-sized Christmas tree as well…

Look how sweet and innocent I am. How dare you insinuate that I would assault a Christmas tree.

We’ll see how she gets along with it. So far, she’s been ignoring it, but sooner or later she’ll get bored, I’m sure.

Do you celebrate Christmas? Have you decorated yet? Feel free to show off your tree/decorations in the comments!

On a completely different note: Black Mountain Magic got an awesome review at Up Til Dawn Book Blog. Stop by and check it out!

Going to Chi-Town!

Next weekend I’m going to Chicago with my best friend! We always seem to end up going there at least once a year. It’s only a six hour drive from where I live (Cleveland) and we have friends we usually stay with there, so most of the time it’s a relatively cheap trip. We’ve taken Amtrak there as well, which was lots of fun. We both love Chicago and I’d really like to live there someday.

Me and the bestie all dressed up to rock Chicago!

So it’s probably no surprise I write about Chicago a lot. It shows up either directly or peripherally in a lot of my writing. My entire Siren Song series is set there, and even in my upcoming Kentucky Haints series, the main character is from Chicago (though the series takes place in Kentucky). Every time I visit Chicago I discover some new thing and I try to include it in the next book I inevitably write that’s set there. I think the best compliment I’ve ever gotten was from my best friend–last time we visited Chicago, we were out at dinner and she brought up a description of Chicago from one of my books and said it was the best description of the city she’d ever read. I might be a little obsessed!

It’s important to write what you love, though. That’s the lesson to be learned here. When you write what you love, and you write it joyfully and honestly, the result is going to be something that you just might get a compliment on. Also, writing is going to be a lot more fun, and even the days when the words feel more like work than play, you’ll be creating something that feels right to you.

What’s your Chicago?

Happy Fall!

Yesterday was the first day of autumn here in the northern hemisphere. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a FALL FANATIC. Leaves! Pumpkins! Candles! My house is already decorated and ready to go, despite the fact the leaves aren’t even turning here yet:

Happy Fall, everyone! What’s your favorite season?

A Unique View

The apartment complex where I live consists of several buildings. I live in one of the buildings closest to the street, and because of the apartment I live in, I have something unique right outside my bedroom window. The only tree that grows directly on the complex property is right outside my window, on a little lawn, which is also the only lawn in the complex. So, I have scenery that no one else does.

I absolutely love the view out my bedroom window. My bed is positioned so when I’m lying down I look right up into the tree and I almost always leave my curtains open, day or night. During the full moon a few nights ago, the moon shone directly in my window. When I wake up, the sun is shining down on me. I’ve only lived here long enough to experience the summer, but I can’t wait to see what it looks like all snow-covered too. It’s an amazing view that is uniquely my own. The people below me are in below-ground apartments and only see the base of the tree. The people above me see over the top of it. It’s a view only I have.

This is connected to writing, I promise.

We all have our own ‘view’ that is ours and ours alone. There are some experiences that are common to all humans, and some experiences that we share with a few others, but there are some things that are unique to us, and there is no one else, alive or dead, who has ever or will ever see the world through our eyes. That’s how writing is, too. You write in the same genre as many other writers, you may write stories similar to someone else’s stories, but there is no one who can bring to the page the same ‘view’ that you have. No one else has your knowledge, vision, or voice.

Our lives and experiences influence our writing, whether we realize it or not. Even if two writers sat down and wrote the same exact plot, the stories would be different because both writers have a different experience of life. All writing is unique in that sense–no one can bring the things to the page that you can, because they have never seen things from your view. Bring your vision of the world to your writing and you will find it not only the most satisfying, but the most true. It’s the only way we can share what we see with each other, at least to some extent.

I think sometimes when people are new to writing, they fear they’ll write something that sounds like something else, or something that’s already been written, or they’ll ‘steal’ an idea without meaning to. But there’s no real need to fear this, because no one else sees the world through your eyes. When you stay true to what you see, you bring something unique to every sentence you write.

Look out your own window and tell us what you see. No one else has that unique view.

Side Note: Right now I’m giving away a copy of The Burning City at All Things Urban Fantasy! Stop by and find out my top 10 favorite ghost stories and enter to win. Contest closes on Thursday Sept. 22nd!

Organizing A Story

The other day I was sitting on the couch and looked down, and noticed my cat matches my rug. I was so amused, I had to take a picture.

I didn’t plan this, of course. I saw the rug in the store, liked it, it was a good price, and so I bought it. I wasn’t thinking about my cat at the time. It was just a funny coincidence. But, my brain happens to love organization and coordination. They’re my favorite things to do, and sorting things, putting things in order, and making things ‘go’ together gives me a sense of happiness and relaxation.

I promise this has something to do with writing!

I think that’s how I create stories too. And maybe, how many of us do. Writing is about making everything go in its place and work together. It’s about organizing ideas so they form something neat and beautiful, hopefully.

When you’re about to sit down and start a story, it’s like you have a big box of stuff that goes in all different rooms in your house. Like when you’ve moved, and you have to figure out where to put everything in your new place. You dump the box out on the floor and get to work.

New writers may be under the agonized impression that seasoned writers–those who have been at it for a long time, are very skilled, and may have tons of publications under their belts–receive this box for each new project already organized, labeled, and easy to put away. This is not true at all. We all get the same jumbled box every time, and what’s worse, some of what’s in there we may end up throwing or giving away instead of finding a place for. Which things? You won’t even know until you try to put them somewhere and they won’t fit.

As you write the story, one by one, you put the objects somewhere in your house–a character’s backstory, a plot point, some foreshadowing, a little bit of humor. You might place them somewhere only to realize later they look better on a different shelf or wall, but that’s okay. Unpack the box piece by piece, and put things where they seem right at the time.

At the end, things might looking really uncoordinated and you might need to go out and buy some new things to tie it all together, but that’s okay too. That’s what editing is. You’re going to adjust things and toss things out, and add pieces.

But one day, you’re going to look down and realize without even intending it the cat matches the rug, and you’re going to smile, because it’s all coming together.

My Fuzzy Muse

My fuzzy muse is very spoiled, as you can see…

My toys, all mine!

My fuzzy muse is a nine year old tortoiseshell named Francis. She’s a she, though many people mistake her for a boy because I guess Francis is a boy’s name? (She’s named after an old friend, who is male, but it’s his last name.) Almost all tortoiseshells are girls because their coloring comes from the X chromosome. I got her has a kitten, and she’s always been a rather small cat, if you don’t count her circumference.

My fuzzy muse has a wonky eye…

Eye see you.

She was born with a permanently dilated eye, something that makes her look pretty funny in the light. The vet says she’s fine though, and probably still sees better than most humans. She also has a malformed septum that makes her snore a lot, but she’s healthy and happy and just a little damaged, and we love her all the more for it. She often closes her dilated eye in direct light, which makes her look like she’s winking at you.

My fuzzy muse is very much a momma’s baby. She always needs to be touching me. If I’m sitting or lying down she stretches out so she can be pressed against me, and when I’m standing she often leans against my legs. It must be torturous for her when I’m not home! She’s there when I write, and when I edit, and helpfully stretches herself out on my writing planner so I can’t see it or wedges herself between me and the laptop so I have a soft place to rest my arms. Quite helpful!

Now, my fuzzy muse is tired and needs a comfortable-looking nap…

Looks so comfy!

Do you have a fuzzy muse in your life?

A Cover Is Worth A Thousand Words

As I announced on Friday, I had a novella accepted for publication with Siren Bookstrand. Great news! However, when you have something new being published, there comes that inevitable form you have to fill out (which I’m filling out right now and as usual, biting my nails over):

The cover art request sheet.

If you haven’t been traditionally published, I’ll fill you in: MOST publishers give you some say in what you want your cover to look like. You will get a form, through which you get to explain your vision for the cover to the cover artist. This is both great and terrible. Great because, hey, you get a say. Terrible because, do you really know what you want your cover to look like? Have you really thought this through in detail? If you have, and you have a clear vision, good for you. For me, it’s some vague idea or ‘man, I just want it not to suck, okay?’ Also, how in the world do I express exactly what I want to see on the cover? Do they think I’m a writer or something?

Here’s some important tips and things to remember if you gotta fill out that sheet:

  • Your ideas are just that, ideas. You’re probably not going to get exactly what you want, especially if you’re too particular. The project is a collaboration between you and an artist (who hopefully knows a great deal more about cover art than you do) and your suggestions are merely suggestions.
  • The artist has almost probably not read your book, so you’re going to have to be explicit about what the characters look like and what the important themes of the story are.
  • If you absolutely hate the end result, most publishers and artists will work with you to tweak it. On one hand, publishers want you to be happy with the product and not hate the sight of it (they really do). On the other hand, there’s a clause in your contract that states the publisher has the final say on all cover art. The artists aren’t ruthless monsters though, they want you to like the work they do and they want to represent your work faithfully. I’ve only heard a few horror stories of authors who were absolutely repulsed by the covers they ended up with.
  • Check out the other covers your publisher produces. Find ones that are similar to the vision in your head and mention them on the cover art form. Like, “hey I really like the composition in this one, and the colors in this one…”
  • This is something I personally do: most cover art is made from stock photos. I go to stock photo sites and find pictures of people that resemble the characters I see in my head. Then I send links to the artist with notes like “this is what I envision this character to look like, sorta.” It may not be the same stock photo site they use, but it gives the artist an idea of the sort of photos to look for. Sometimes I make comparisons to celebrities as well.
  • Try not to be too terrified on that day when you get the email that has your cover proof attached and you’re going to see it for the first time. Take a deep breath and open that file. You did it!

There’s my tips. Have you ever had a cover you loved, or hated, or had a hard time (or an easy time) getting what you wanted out of it?

Back to New Orleans

In June, I’ll be taking a vacation to New Orleans. Just a few days in the French Quarter, but I’m super excited about it. I’ve been to New Orleans once before, for a week, and stayed in the French Quarter–and never left it. Well, except to go on a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi. I know there’s lots of other things to see in New Orleans, but I was spellbound by the French Quarter and had no desire to leave it once I got in it. I did a lot of the classic tourist things–a ghost tour, visiting Jackson Square (which could be seen from the hotel balcony), and having beignets at Cafe Du Monde. I didn’t get to walk through the cemeteries though, so that’s something I want to do this time around.

Last time I was there I got some beads…yes, the way you get them in New Orleans!

If you’ve never been to the French Quarter, it’s definitely everything you see and read about it. Party every night (and day), crowds, music, lights, beads, endless fun (and trouble) to get into, marvelous food, and an achingly historical air about everything that’s hard to describe. When I first arrived, I was not prepared for how run down and dirty it seemed. But once you’re there for a few hours, you start to realize it’s the reason for the phrase “it has character.” I’ve never visited another place like it, not even other ‘party’ destinations like Las Vegas. In Vegas everything seems very slick and modern, while the French Quarter has never lost the veneer of the past. It’s beautiful in its own raw, sprawling sort of way. While Vegas felt overwhelming and incredibly phony to me most of the time, the French Quarter had a charming cozy grittiness that captured my heart. It felt like being in another world. Maybe I enjoyed it so much because I worked for five years in a New Orleans-themed restaurant. Though I didn’t visit it during my time working there.

I can’t wait to go back! It’s sure to be blazing hot in June, but I love the heat and so does my best friend, who will be accompanying me. We’re staying in a cute little pink guest house at the edge of the Quarter. Since I’ve been there before I’ll be acting as a tour guide. I have a habit of wanting to do EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE everytime I go somewhere, so I’m sure we’ll have a few full, interesting days.

Have you ever been to the French Quarter? What did you think of it?