Meeting Real Writers and Readers

I had to be in Minneapolis/St. Paul for the #dayjob this last week. One of the best parts of traveling for the job is getting to meet the people I usually only talk to online. On this trip, I got to meet two people, one who was already a good friend.

In the last six months, Carolyn Crane has become first a favorite author, then an online friend and then a critique partner. We were hooked up through a bit of savvy writer-matchmaking by Sullivan McPig. This was our first time, after increasingly copious online conversation, to meet in person.

We had dinner twice and, yes, talked a whole bunch. She even introduced me to her husband, who was a little dubious about who the hell I was, anyway. Carolyn got to meet my boss, Laurie, who joined us for some wine. We ruminated on how much the internet has added to our friendship connections this way. Without the internet, it’s highly unlikely that an enthusiastic reader in The Netherlands would have connected me to a writer who lives in another city and with whom I share so much.

The other person I met up with is Susan Doerr, who works at a book publisher (U. Minn Press). We had drinks after work and chatted about books we both love. She’s been lovely to me about my own books and asked lots of questions. When I told her about plans for stories I’m working on (*cough*Rogue’s Pawn 2*cough*), she actually jumped up and down with excitement about getting the “inside scoop.”

We may also have gossipped a little about various industry folks. Shhh….

But the whole conversation made me think about what readers like to know about the authors they read. I fill out the blog interviews and it’s hard to answer some of the questions because I often feel like so much of it is old hat. What can I possibly say about myself that everyone doesn’t already know? It’s easy to forget the enthusiastic readers on the other side of that equation – even though I am one, too.

So, I’m back home again at my house in the country, and savoring the wonderful in-person conversations I was privileged to share with these two very sharp, totally fabulous women. And I’m going to try to remember that, despite the physical distance and the lack of cocktails, real people are on the other side of these conversations.

Here’s to internet friends!

A Pat on the Back for All Writers

One of my favorite restaurants anywhere  – the courtyard at 82 Queen.

So, I wound up my travels last week with a visit Friday morning to my day job corporate headquarters in Boston. I only make it back to the mothership every couple of years, but it’s always fun when I do. I forget sometimes, working from home in New Mexico and interacting with my colleagues virtually, how great the people I work with are. They were excited to see me. They hug me, my big bosses kiss me on the cheek. They complained that I should have let them know I stayed at a nearby hotel the night before, so they could have taken me out to dinner.

I work with wonderful people.

Along with socializing, I had a few agenda items – just some people I wanted to touch base with on projects we’re working on. It’s fun to get to talk in person for a change. One gal is someone I’ve never worked with directly before. She’s a title-level above me, but she’s handling a task on one of my projects. I stopped by her office, but she was on the phone and waved that she’d catch up with me. I ended up in the office of another gal I’ve worked with for many years and we ended up gossiping – about her stepdaughter and my writing. I showed her the cover for Rogue’s Pawn on my phone and she was appropriately oohing and ahhing when the other gal found me. She wanted to see what we were looking at, so I showed her.

She looked at it, asked some questions and gave me an astounded look. She said, “Wait – you write NOVELS? Don’t you work full time like I do?”

It was a funny moment for me and a good reminder. What we do as writers is not an easy thing. Immersed in the community, we forget how many people out there are *not* writing books. Whether we’re sandwiching writing time around our day jobs or structuring our days around family obligations and other distractions, this is not a common thing to do. It’s not easy.

In truth, it can be pretty damn hard sometimes. As we all know.

That’s something to be proud of.

Please Answer the Security Question

At my dayjob, I have to change my password every six months.

Such is the tyranny of IT.

And really, I understand. I do. I mean, sure, a part of me wonders what bereft soul out there truly wants to hack into my user accounts to obtain all sorts of deadly dry government reports. I can just imagine this villian. “Bwah ha ha ha! I refuse to capitulate to regular channels and FOIA this! I shall STEAL the information and then… and then… I shall HAVE it!”

This is why I don’t write espionage novels.

The thing is, I’ve been coming up with passwords for over twenty years now. Most of us have. When the whole computer thing, followed very quickly by the computer security thing, started ramping up, I had a system for passwords. I had a low-security password that I used for all sorts of non-financially related information, a medium-security one for more sensitive stuff and a high-security one for stuff that connected to money.

Yeah – I have nothing more important than money to protect.

Back then, I understood my tiering system. It was based on a coding only I understood. I easily remembered my passwords. Then they started telling me how my passwords should be. You know what I mean. More letters. Symbols. No leading or following numbers. And with complication the IT folks developed to foil hackers, the less likely they made it for me to remember all the contortions of my passwords. In fact, my passwords have gotten more consistent in many ways, because I don’t dare add my arcane spin on top of all of theirs.

And then.

The security questions started in.

Yeah, I know I’m supposed to know the answers to these things. After all, I put them in. Still, when I’m trying to transfer money in between conference calls and the computer asks me for the name of my first pet, I have to pause and think. What would have the past tense me have answered? The dog we had when I was born? The cat who was run over on the highway when I was four? The first cat that was really mine?

Or name of my paternal grandmother? Come on guys – like I have only one paternal grandmother?? We live in an age of multiply blended families. Did I pick my blood father’s mother or the mother of the stepfather who raised me? Besides, I always called her “Grandmother” – how did she spell her name again?

And don’t get me started on those first grade teacher ones. I had a team of six teachers (as I recall) and I can think of the names of about half of them. Favorite sports team? I don’t watch sports. Favorite song – are you kidding me?? When people ask me for my favorite song, book, movie, dessert, beetle or Beatle, I generally pick whichever feels shiniest to me at that moment. I don’t dare record that and hope to remember what past tense me thought she liked on any given day. As for my high school mascot, I can never remember if I think it’s singular or plural, the full name or the shortened version.

Recently, with the big Zappos hacking, I had to relinquish my low-security password. It was past time and I knew I had to do it. But it was my first password, nice and obscure, but I’ve been using it easily since 1988, I kid you not. I used it on sites like Zappos – the ones that insist I register as a customer, but with no consequences. I really didn’t care if someone ran amuck on Zappos masquerading as me, since I didn’t store any personal information on there. What were they going to do – screw up my shoe size preference?

Still, Zappos kindly sent me a warning saying that, if I used this password anywhere else, I should probably change it.

You people would not believe how many places I’ve used this one stinking password. I’m still finding them. It’s like cleaning out nearly twenty-five years of basement crap. And then examining each thing, cleaning it and slapping a brand new, infinitely more complicated password on it.

So, tell me I”m not alone in my rant. What’s the worst security question you’ve encountered?

The “No One Edits Me” Syndrome

This isn’t a great photo, but I wanted to show you all what a pretty blue this pinon jay is. He doesn’t much like me pointing the camera at him, though.

For today’s installment on the How My Day Job Has Made Me a Better Writer series, I want to talk about Quality Assurance (QA).

I once saw an interview with Anne Rice, who has long been one of my very favorite authors. This was right around the peak of her career. After The Witching Hour, when the Lestat books were oh-so-good. She was riding high, confiding to the televised audience that she’d been given a phenomenal amount of money for her next six books. She even said how much it was, as her contract forbade her to do, so that we would all know we could do it, too. At one point, she gave the interviewer a look and said, “Oh, believe me – No One edits ME.”

I’ve never forgotten it.

Especially as I slogged through her next books, each worse than the last, chock full of rambling and irrelevant information. I wondered what the hell she was thinking. Now I understand what her problem was.

She didn’t spend years in a corporate day job.

I think a lot of us have this idea about our work, whatever work it might be, that there’s something holy and perfect about it. And, if someone finds a flaw, this is somehow a personal indictment. When we’re young, especially, it’s almost unbearable to receive criticism of our work. Each point feels like a little flesh wound and we’re terrified of bleeding out.

In a work environment, you grow out of this really damn fast. Or you don’t succeed.

My firm does environmental consulting. I usually say I’m a data-jockey, but a seat-mate on an airplane recently corrected me and said, “No, you’re much more, because you understand policy. You look at the numbers, but then you bring the understanding of how to apply them in real-world situations.” That’s likely apropos of nothing, but I thought it was an interesting insight.

But that is what we do. I work with a lot of really smart people and we’re paid to give good advice. Our CEO often remarks that we have practically no inventory – the value of the company rests entirely in the brains of the staff. If our numbers aren’t spot-on or our reasoning isn’t sound, then we have no product.

QA is king.

We have levels upon levels of QA. People read, they spot check, they read again. If a client questions anything, we go over it again. Exhaustively. Believe me, if you ever had any ego tied up with being edited, you lose it. They’re not flesh wounds. This is people telling you when you have spinach in your teeth before the big photo shoot. Edit me – please!

On one of my writers’ loops lately, someone commented that an editor had asked for a revise and resubmit. She said she didn’t agree with the editor’s take and so she planned to self-publish it. I thought of my current client, who asks for all kinds of revisions I don’t agree with and how I do them anyway. Now, granted, this is my client’s report and not “the book of my heart,” but it is also my job. That’s what they pay me to do.

It occurs to me that, if I want them to pay me to write, then it becomes my editor’s book, too. And my publisher’s book. If I want them to invest in me and my book, then we all work together to make it a great product. As a writer, I have no real inventory. All the value is in my head. Without careful polishing, I have no product.

That’s just good business.

How My Day Job Has Made Me a Better Writer

Writing is a funny business.

We all know this. It’s a funky combination of emo artistry, social climbing, and snake-oil salesmanship. Now with the internet, we all get a ringside seat to the various shenanigans. The word “professionalism” gets bandied about a lot. Unfortunately, the people who seem to use it the most, often wielding it like a club to silence detractors, are the least professional at all.

From time to time I’ve bemoaned my corporate day job. For a number of years now I’ve been working towards supporting myself as a full-time writer. I’m lucky to work for a company whose mission I believe in and who treats me well. I’ve been with them coming up on 15 years. I’ve learned a great deal over the years, about dealing with colleagues, with clients and all the delicate balances of the corporate world.

I’ve realized recently that, as much as I’ve wished I’d spent the last 15 years writing instead of in this career, what I’ve learned will make me a better writer overall. So, I’m going to spend the next week or so exploring some of these lessons. Things like:

1) Understanding billable hours and being good at knowing how long something will take to do.

2) Taking advantage of leave time, because you need it.

3) Accountability and working with other people.

4) Working when you don’t want to.

5) Professional relationships – remembering the boundaries

6) Teamwork – dealing with edits and QA/QC

Let me know if you all have other topic ideas. I might even host some guest bloggers, if you have a particular tale to tell along these lines.

Should be fun!

Having It Both Ways

A storm rolled in yesterday afternoon, producing rain, sleet (or hail – we weren’t sure) and then snow. I love all the looming shadows and the layers of cloud here.

I was IMing with one of my Critique Partners yesterday, about how I’m hitting this new place in my writing career. KAK (who just redesigned her blog AND actually posted to it here) is pre-published and is hitting the querying and submitting now. She was catching up with me on how Sapphire is doing, and I said it seems to be doing really well, though I make a point of not looking at sales rankings, etc. (With the glaring exception of that run on the Carina Press website, which I caught by surprise and then all the people who love me kept checking and telling me that I was still #1. That was pretty damn fun.) One way I knew was that my Carina editor, the insightful Deb Nemeth, emailed to ask if I was sending them more BDSM romance. Check that, she said “you are submitting more right?” and then said things about building readerships and frequency of publishing and so on and so forth and other things that I just don’t like to keep in my head for very long. KAK holds marketing stuff in her head much better than I do – one of the reasons I love her – and she said that Deb is right and that you need 3-4 books a year to build a readership. And I asked her if she wanted the email address for my boss at the day job.

Okay, I might have been whining a little bit.

Because she said, hey, you should be happy that editors are ASKING for your work. (I may have mentioned that my Ellora’s Cave editor, the lovely Grace Bradley, has been making similar noises.) I was chastened. I should be grateful. I *am* grateful.

The thing is, they ask what I’m working on and the novel I’m finishing is not one they’re asking for. So far, nobody is really asking for The Body Gift, either. So, I’m in this funny place where I have limited writing time and I’m spending it writing the books nobody is asking for instead of the ones they really want.

I’m insane, right?

I’ve seen career writers talk about this particular struggle – the work you want to write vs. the work they want to pay for. From that I know that this will never change. Charlaine Harris wrote the Sookie books way longer than she wanted to because of this. And you keep reminding yourself how tremendously lucky you are that they want to pay you to write more.

But then there’s that other reason we write. The love of it. “To touch the hem of the gown that is art itself” as Ann Patchett says. (Yes, I’m still reading that book. I went back, slowed way down and now I’m highlighting great lines to share here.)

I suspect the next step will be finding a way to do both.

Bioluminescing for the Win

One more shot of the infinity edge pool and the Caribbean Ocean beyond. So lovely.

What I don’t have photos of is the bioluminescence, which is why we picked Vieques in the first place. See, in Vieques, there’s a bay that’s famous for bioluminescence. The tour guides call the place “the bio bay,” also known as Mosquito Bay. Because of a combination of the warm, nutrient-rich Caribbean waters, the mangrove swamps and an extensive barrier reef, this bay is the best in the world for seeing bioluminescence. For those readers who aren’t biology geeks (*gasp* – how can it be??), these are glow in the dark organisms.

In Mosquito Bay, it’s dinoflagellates like these that do the glowing. Thanks to the Allen Centre oceans site for this pic – they have more info on the geeky end of bioluminescence.

What I want to tell you about is the magic.

We paddled out into the bay in sea kayaks, after full dark. The fingernail moon hung low in the sky, which was serendipitously perfect lighting. The tropical air matched the temperature of the warm water. Then they tell you to dip a hand in the water and let it run down your arm.

My skin looked like it was covered in thousands of stars.

They’re quite large and glow brightly when agitated. So the brush of any touch lights them up with a sparkle that rivals the constellations above. Like fairyland.

More, as you paddle over the water, you can see the fish light up below. As they swim, they brush through the dinoflagellates, so they look lit up with Christmas lights, leaving trails of sparks like comets. Deeper down, huge fish loom like dimly glowing Zeppelins. A sea snake whizzed past, undulating like a fireworks show.

Amazing. Astounding.


Weekend in Vieques

At last, the final wind-up of my week of work in San Juan – and our little weekend side-trip to Vieques.