Why your marketing shouldn’t seem like marketing

When you are in sales and marketing, you don’t want to come across like this guy, Harry Wormwood from the movie Matilda, played here by Danny DeVito. Harry is an all-out crook who turns back odometers, glues on bumpers, and puts sawdust in transmissions.car salesman

You want to be like this guy, the late great Cal Worthington, who built a car sales empire out of a good reputation and some amazingly corny commercials.Cal Worthington

About ten years ago, a master salesperson in the luxury-goods field shared with me a tip about high-end sales. What was being sold, it turned out, didn’t matter that much.

“The trick is that luxury customers are rarely buying just an object or a service. They are buying an experience*. Especially the ‘new rich’ entrepreneurs and people who’ve inherited a new fortune. They haven’t grown up with money. They want to feel pampered and exceptional, and if you can do that without being too overt, they will eat out of your hand. You can sell them nearly anything as long as the experience is positive for them – and the product itself doesn’t disappoint them later.”

I had seen that phenomenon already, in my associate’s workplace.

“On the other hand, Old Money wants its needs met quietly, quickly, and professionally through minimal interactions with those providing the product or service. Want to see how to behave with Old Money? Watch butler-training videos from the UK and Europe, and behave that way. For Old Money, quality sells itself. You shouldn’t fall all over yourself and the client trying to prove that.”


Why bring that old conversation up now? Because great marketing can be as blunt as an outrageous or funny ad campaign, or as subtle as a change of typeface on advertising material. Even lame marketing works as long as it’s obviously aware of its failings, and invites patrons to share the joke.

Inadvertently stupid marketing is just a waste of time.

Inadvertently, many authors have been guilty of it, by following the advice of inept marketers who have told them to spam followers with endless ‘Buy My Book!’ tweets, posts, paid ads, etc. Even though – as long as six years ago – I was seeing more-balanced advice begging authors to use social media in a more organic, roundabout way.

Non-marketing online content is more valuable than ever before. That’s the content that drives readers to your social media pages. That keeps viewers humming your jingle, nodding at your observations, or laughing at your jokes long after your video has ended.

Dos Equis is a decent beer, but now we associate it with The Most Interesting Man in the World, and come running when there’s a new commercial. Car, clothing, and perfume companies try to make the oddest things into sex-objects, and often succeed. Our political system runs not on results now, but on marketing spin and talking points.

I’m horrible at marketing myself. Put me in a gallery or a retail space, with products I believe in, and I can sell like crazy. My own stuff? You’ll either like it or you won’t, and I can’t do more than introduce you to it. You’ll notice that my books and art are not splashed all over this page. They’re buried in a line of text links off to the left. You can find out more than you want to know about me – but you’re the one in charge of looking.

I like Twitter, but I don’t use as much of it as I probably should, because I don’t have time to search out huge niche communities. When I do, I hate spamming them. I also really dislike the tacit obligation to uncritically retweet other people’s posts. When I retweet something, it’s because it struck home with me.

I’m barely on Facebook. I may go months without checking my author profile. I’m not alone, as recent changes at FB may be driving away many more businesspeople and content creators.

In 2015, FB looks like it will start charging more businesses for the ability to reach large numbers of useful, engaged followers. The currency of FB is the ‘like’, a digital thumbs-up symbol of approval and engagement from viewers. Businesses adore real likes, because these tend to herald potential buyers.

Already, there’s some apparent evidence that FB has essentially been selling or condoning the distribution of ‘fake likes’ to online businesses attempting to purchase FB’s legitimate promotional services. Even when the fake likes are not directly sourced through a Third-World clickfarm, they may come from such outfits as a way to ‘screen’ other fake likes in a sea of responses. Worse, there’s no way for a FB user to remove fake likes from their page. That makes their content less interesting to the world at large. In return, that may prevent future posts from being seen by premium viewers, forcing the page owner to pay for more promotion.

For authors, that means they may need to pay to reach more genuine readers – and that it may be an ineffective scam in the end, benefiting only FB’s coffers. I’ve been watching authors’ groups go into a tizzy for a month, as their members finally begin to realize that constantly posting ‘Buy My Book’ is less of a marketing strategy than it ever was.

New social media services like Ello and Tsu have started up, threatening FB’s market share, but are subject to their own disadvantages.

What’s a writer to do?

Simply, bluntly: create valuable content in your social media that ISN’T directly related to your books. Engage with many different social media outlets on your terms. Be genuine. And for godssake, focus on the quality of your books and stories first.


* I’m especially seeing this hold true in the erotic romance markets right now. For a long time, many readers were uncritical of content flaws, as long as the book fulfilled their basic expectations of the genre. Now that erotic romance is ‘growing up’ as a genre and getting more professional, quality is becoming far more important.

I’ve seen publishers implode from unprofessional behavior. I’ve watched poorly-published authors come to the stark realization that low-end publishers are probably always going to have poor sales. Both publishers and authors are left with the choice to improve or leave the game.

Because even if we were like Harry Wormwood (and most of us aren’t), we can’t glue on bumpers forever.

Toffee Bacon

…I thought that might get your attention.

To add to the holiday foodie season, here’s a recipe I stumbled upon last week. I’ve seen other variations, up to actual toffee made with bacon bits inside. My food thermometer and I have an uneasy truce: I don’t ask too much of it, and it doesn’t trick me into blowing up the kitchen in a sugar fire. So this is bacon with a melted toffee and chocolate topping.

This recipe is really easy, and was inspired by my lackluster attempts to make Praline Bacon. (I messed up the proportion of brown sugar to ground pecans, with a lovely crust that just slid off the bacon.) While making toffee brownies last week, I realized I needed to cook some slices of thick-cut bacon in the fridge. Toffee is caramelized sugar. butter, and nuts, with maybe some chocolate thrown in, right?

The experiment turned out so well I repeated it tonight. Here is a pan ready to go into the oven. Toffee Bacon 1

Here’s the end result.Toffee Bacon 2


1 pound (roughly 12 to 15 slices) of the thickest bacon you can afford.

1 small bag of crushed toffee chips (found in bakery section of grocery store, or you can smash up a largeish toffee bar. I used Heath brand chips.)


2 flat, large baking sheets

aluminum foil

metal fork

trustworthy oven

third pan or plates lined with folded paper towels or parchment paper

some kind of storage container*


Preheat oven to 350F. Line baking sheets with foil to give a cooking surface with raised edges (saves on collecting bacon grease later.) Lay out uncooked bacon strips with slight gaps between them. Sprinkle with toffee chips. Move large chunks that fall on the foil back onto the bacon.

Cook for 30 minutes, or until brown & crispy but not black. Watch carefully at around minute 18 or so, in case the toffee decides to catch fire. If it turns too brown too fast, with the bacon still underdone, slack off heat to 330F.

Remove when done. Let cool only a few minutes. Slide the metal fork under the ends of the bacon, and drag under to gently lift. Transfer to paper towels on plate/sheet. Warning: do this while the bacon is still warm, otherwise the sugar will stick almighty well to the foil. If you’re worried about sugared paper towels, use parchment paper until the toffee cools, then drain excess fat.

Congratulations, you have an earthy, rich meat** candy with the blended flavors of toffee, almond, chocolate, and bacon.

Store in bag in freezer. *If it lasts that long.

** In deference to my vegetarian friends, I’m working on an adapted recipe for them, but it will involve nuts and dairy.

Reading and researching, for new writers

On three separate online writing forums, I’ve recently been treated to the same unfortunate spectacle: writers (often very young ones, but not always*) who know very little about classic or even current science fiction and fantasy, and who want to write in the genre.

They don’t read it, or they may not read much at all. They may come to SFF from movie tie-ins, fan fiction, or Dr Who (and about 75% of those seem to have only seen post-reboot Who from the last ten years). They may come from anime and manga, with the mistaken idea that anime is only about crazy hair, superpowers, and explosions, and struggle to tell similarly vivid stories in text form. (When someone comes to me with a bad case of Dragon Ball Z, I usually prescribe Cowboy BeBop or Ghost in the Shell. Or at least Trigun. Vash has Hair and a Backstory.)

This is like announcing that, although you are overweight and out of shape, you will be entering a triathlon next week. Are you likely to win, or even place? Nope. Are you likely to hurt yourself? Possibly – if you even get to the physical stage. At the very least, you might derail your progress by setting unrealistic goals.

The simple, brutal solution for the triathlon? Hit the gym and actually train. For writing?

Jon Stewart 'Read a book' GIF

If you don’t read, you are probably not going to be able to write readable stories. You can happily wank around with bad fan fiction and self-published shorts on Amazon, but the odds are not good on you winning a Nebula or Hugo Award. Or earning J.K. Rowling or E.L. James-levels of moolah. Who knows? You might. But the lottery’s probably a better long shot.

One example last week was particularly salient: a person loftily asked whether the fantasy-reading world was ready for a mainstream fantasy book with an openly gay M/M relationship. Within a couple of hours, other writers had offered links to several hundred mainstream recent and older SFF books with LGBTQ characters and relationships, and more discussion as to why it’s no longer even a point of contention for many SFF publishers. Part of the discussion veered off into a snide rant about ‘Pink SFF’ being forced upon readers, and how manly men were hoping to reclaim spec fiction for the survival of the species (which was hilarious to read.) The original poster was a bit stunned, but now has a reading list. And hopefully new inspiration.

All too often, when more seasoned writers gently point out that 1) the SFF community has been having a deep, wide-ranging dialog for over a century, and that 2) the Shiny Young Thing’s* shiny new world-changing idea is likely to be a familiar old trope…there is much gnashing of newbie teeth. Much flouncing and declamation of ‘I am New! I am Shiny!’ Or there is a disheartened and demoralized newbie creeping away, certain that nothing they create will amount to much, so why even try?

The best battle-plan falls somewhere in between. Ideas, after all, are ridiculously common. Most writers and artists have more ideas for projects than they can ever fulfill. What we do with ideas is more important: how we frame them, dress them up in philosophy or action, and make them uniquely ours. I joke that N.K. Jemisin and I stole the same trope from Tanith Lee, but filed off different serial numbers…but that’s not far from how older ideas really do spark newer ones.

If the problem is simple unfamiliarity, the new writer can read. Read Best-of lists and the best four or five-starred books on Amazon or Goodreads. Brush up on the critical skill of Google-Fu, and learn how to use Wikipedia, TV Tropes, and various compiled booklists to narrow down your focus. Take the books that spark your interest, and try to analyze them for what made them work. Not even the strongest speed-reader can hope to absorb a 100+ years of speculative fiction quickly, so it’s wiser to take it slow, in easy portions. From there, you can go into writing exercises, revision tricks, how to research the publishing industry itself…

But it all starts with reading a book.

*The same reaction also seems to come from writers between 55 and 75 of age, often male, often self-published, who haven’t kept up with genres and technologies, either. Several of the most entertaining recent AuthorFails have come from this group. It has happened enough that it’s a data point in Filigree’s Rule.

Moro’s Price first chapter (adult content advisory)

(Adult content warning, just in case you’ve forgotten the disclaimer on the left sidebar: the following post contains male/male erotic references. Don’t read or follow the links, if that’s not your thing.)

(Note added 12-6-2014: Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you to all the readers who have tweeted and re-tweeted the link to this chapter! You are all wonderful people, and I’m not on Twitter enough right now to properly thank you for your support. Does it help if I tell you I’m writing?)

This week, the DRB1stChp blog will be hosting the first chapter of my (very adult) M/M erotic romance space opera Moro’s Price.

Thank you Zenobia, for hosting me on your blog! First chapter reads are a necessary luxury for both readers and authors. Sometimes digital publishing platforms don’t provide sample texts, or they’re too hard to find in the sea of published matter. Blogs like DRB offer targeted snapshots of books to readers interested in that genre. If you like it, we give you links to learn more.

In the case of Moro’s Price, Chapter 2 is the teaser snippet on Amazon and other platforms. It’s about as raw as the book gets, so readers know they’re wandering into angst, some dubious consent issues, and probably way too much political intrigue for an erotic romance novel. But I did actually write (and Loose Id published, bless ‘em) a first chapter that introduces my little genius/crown prince/sadist-in-training Valier and his best friend Mateo, on their way to a questionable adventure.

Yes, I’m still typing away at Moro’s sequel. But at the same time, I’m working on a smaller, more intimate M/M story: how Mateo DaSilva gave up his impossible dreams of romancing Val, and focused on someone only slightly less out of reach and socially unacceptable.

This is the very rough first chapter of the novella called ‘Leopard’s Leap’ (for now). If you search through my posts on this blog, you’ll find a few more bits and pieces. I can’t release more than that, sorry.


Mateo’s life changed on his fifteenth birthday, in a Taverna DaSilva storage room. Far from the chaos of his extended family’s party, he’d hidden behind a stack of crates to get away from a female guest’s fumbling gropes. He calmed his breathing in the dark, spice-scented peace; no longer puzzling over why he’d run away, but how to break the news to Papa DaSilva.

The door began to slide open. Expecting the girl, Mateo flattened himself on the wooden floor. The room blazed with light from a panel in the ceiling. Gruff voices announced the arrival of Papa and another man.

“Be reasonable, Vidan,” began the stranger.

As soon as the door shut, Papa’s voice rose. “Heral, pimp your son as much as you’d like, as long as he’ll stand it. But no child of my family will go to school on such evil credit. How dare you bring a fighting-whore into my house?”

The other man said, “He asked, Vidan. We know the restaurant is in trouble. You can barely pay your suppliers. How will you pay for Mateo’s school? Sign a slave bond for the rest of your children, until Mateo frees them? He’s a bright boy. I’ve seen his holo recordings. They’re good. If he gets hired by the bigger entertainment channels, he might pay back our investment in what, five years? Your Lena talked to us last night. Jason is making more than enough money in the fights. We’re almost free ourselves, fifty years early! My grandchildren will be free-born.”

“Lena and I are free. None of my children are slaves,” said Papa with brittle dignity.

”Keep them so,” Heral urged. “Jason suggested it first. He is Mateo’s best chance.”

Mateo finally placed Heral. A distant kinsman, some third or fourth cousin impugned in scandalized whispers at family gatherings. When Heral’s grandfather lost a bad business gamble, he and his children were sold into bond to pay it. That would have meant a century or two of grinding debt. But Heral had a son who was a god of the arena, whose earnings in a single fight were more than Papa’s restaurant made in several years. Heral’s family had new clothes and the newest-model hover cars. They did not carry themselves like the cringing, dispirited bond-slaves Mateo had recorded as a school project, in the east Cedar-Saba produce markets.

Mateo heard new footsteps in the corridor, pausing in the doorway. “Father?” asked a rich baritone voice, “Did you ask him?”

“I did. The stubborn old fool said no.” Heral sounded more insulted than Papa.

“Jason Kee-DaSilva, I am honored by your offer,” Papa began.

“But you cannot take a whore’s credits?” Jason asked. “Would it help if I said I chose this life? I like money. I like helping my family. I like fame. I love sex. As long as the gladiators are willing to fight me, I’m willing to take their credits – or their bodies.”

“And to give up your own, when you lose?” asked Papa. “With crowds watching?”

Laughter purred in the fighter’s voice. “Every credit they don’t take goes to my family. And I like to be watched.”

Mateo’s mouth went dry and his heart hammered so loudly that everyone must surely hear it.


New fiber art: Tempe Festival of the Arts award ribbons

Warning: if you are not a crafty type, this will be a very boring post. I’ll forgive you if you go look at pictures of Grumpy Cat instead.

Twice a year, I have the honor of making the seventeen award ribbons for the Tempe Festival of the Arts, a major regional art fair in the southwestern US.

We’ve fallen into a more-or-less efficient pattern. The nonprofit foundation running the festival picks a featured artist whose work is used for that show’s promotional poster – as well as becoming part of the Festival Gallery collection in downtown Tempe, Arizona. Then I come up with a thematic riff on that artwork, for the fiber art ribbons that will go to the category winners as well as the Best of Show artist.Tempe Fall 2014 Best of Show

Then follows a mad scramble of designs shunted back and forth, as we narrow down what we like, and what best reflects the featured artwork that season. (You can see past efforts on my Artist Book pages along the left side of this blog, going back to 2010.)

Nemaeus The Vicious for blogThe Fall 2014 featured artist is Shawn Harris, whose surreal photography uses real-world locations, human models, animal masks, and some wonderfully devious photo-manipulation tricks to make haunting, multilayered art. His ‘Nemaeus the Vicious’ is a great example of his Hadaptation Series.

I won’t go into the artspeak reasons why ‘Nemaeus’ is a gutsy, provocative choice as featured art for the Tempe Festival. There are viewers who will agree with me, and viewers who will object. For the latter, Arizona already has lots of Dancing-Kokopelli and Howling Coyote art, plus all the other southwestern tropes.

The challenge here was keeping the rich, dark, almost-Christmas color scheme, as well as referencing the motifs of pine, lion, goose, and snow.

Once we had a sketch or three that worked, I gathered materials: tan-gray linen, dark green printed cotton, red silk velvet, brown and blue brocade, dark blue and silver-painted broadcloth, tan and neutral gray accent fabrics with interesting patterns, and dark red and green grosgrain ribbon (Thank you, SAS Fabrics By The Pound!)

Thanks to pack-rat instincts, I already had glass accent beads for more sparkle.

I printed the main motifs on specially-treated cotton and linen. Those motifs include the new Festival logo and category listings, and a lion face mimicking the mask Harris used in the photo. While the lion was lightly printed, most of its detail came from hand-inking later with colorfast acrylic ink pens.

Fall 2014 ribbon progress 1I cut out sixteen 4″ x 16″ linen blanks and one 5″ x 20″ blank with plenty of selvage space, and added pine trees via a combo of hand-painting and monoprint, to look like this.

Once those were dry, I made the goose appliques, the lion faces, and cut out dozens of accent fabrics and ribbons. I lightly glued those into place and started up the trusty old Elna sewing machine. Here are the ribbons at that stage. Nemaeus ribbons stage 2

Once the fabric and ribbon strips were sewn, I trimmed the selvages, zigzagged the edges to prevent fraying, and began hand-sewing the red, green, and clear glass accent beads into place. On all seventeen ribbons. That’s a lot of beads.

I backed the ribbons with a beautiful, moody rose-print cotton in shades of dark green and gray-blue. To make a border, I folded the edges around to the front, ironed and glued them into place, and sewed down the strips. I stitched a hanging ribbon at the top, and added a sew-on pin to the upper back. That way, each lucky artist has at least two display options. I signed each ribbon in silver ink, and documented them via scanner.

Then I fell over and slept for about twelve hours.

I think these came out pretty cool, in sort of a Goth Narnia vibe.

Now I’m wondering what the festival organizers going to hit me with, for the Spring show. (Note: by the time I posted, I had seen the Spring 2015 featured artwork. Wow.)

For anyone in central Arizona during the first weekend in December: wander over to Tempe and see our festival. (Follow the links above, for more info.)


opinions on the new header

Over two years in, I decided it was time to change out headers on the Blue Night blog. I’m curious: all five of you who regularly read this thing, which header art do you like?

Here’s the old one.Black iron header Dusk to Dawn 3


Here’s the new one.cropped-Illarhun-header-for-blog2.jpg

Same world, same motif, probably the very same night – just different landscapes. The theme has meaning in the context of the epic fantasy series I’m currently writing/editing. But I’m not going to explain more than that.

Added: because I cannot leave stuff alone, I tightened up some details on the header image.

Length matters…

school ruler for blog

…or, another ranty essay about word counts.

Rant Part One: A couple of weeks ago, a 54K novel of mine went out on submission. It got some kind notice from some important people, all of whom said the same thing: ‘It’s good, but too short for print. Can it be 85K?’

Oh, but I hear the chorus calling, ‘What about all the new e-pub fantasy imprints? What about established romance publishers? All of those will take shorter books!’

For this novel (and possible series), I want to aim for mainstream SFF print publication from the start. In fantasy, that’s still where the strongest buying market and best publisher support intersect. The good news is that I can probably do 30K on this novel easily, since I trimmed a lot from the original short story so many years ago. The bits that still actually do work in the story (advance plot, refine character development, or set backstory without infodumping) are going back in.

Oh, yay, that only means that I have a target of around 90K to write on three separate manuscripts in about three months. I naturally write enormous books, so I’m used to gutting my word counts and constantly revising chapters and scenes as I go. This will be an experiment in ‘write first, revise later’.

Rant Part Two: Dear self-published authors, I suspect many of you need a primer or refresher course on word counts in genre fiction.

In order to classify SFF works’ eligibility for the Nebula Awards, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have this handy word count chart:

Short Story: less than 7,500 words;

Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;

Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words

Novel: 40,000 words or more.

Whether you are writing mainstream fantasy, adventure thrillers, YA romance, or XXX dinosaur porn for Amazon Kindle, these wordcounts and classifications are going to hold generally true across the whole publishing industry. Some publishers will call them slightly different things. And yes, e-book authors on Amazon, I’m talking to you specifically, since you seem to be the worst offenders.

What does this mean for e-book authors?

If you have written and self-published a work of fiction up to 7,500 words, that is not a novel. It’s a short story. Be proud that you’ve written and published one, or a hundred of them – but please don’t call them ‘novels’. They would barely be novels if they were written for the Middle Grade kids’ market, and heavily padded with illustrations.

Calling these works ‘novels’ indicates AuthorFail on a couple of levels.

One, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and are showing your breathtaking ignorance about publishing terminology. For in-the-know readers, that may indicate you’ll be failing at editing and writing, too. It may also indicate, in a reader, someone whose opinion I might take less seriously. (A reviewer of one anthology called the short stories ‘novelettes’. When I know damn well that the editor worked with most of the authors to trim stories to well under 7K. Ergo, this was a reader who was spouting off, and using terms they didn’t really understand.)

Two, if you charge more than jack for a short story when the readers are expecting a longer novel, they will get angry with you. That will lead to more negative reviews from readers who think they’ve been somehow cheated. They’re right. The most notorious author mills and vanity publishers routinely ‘pad’ works with larger print and format tricks to make a shorter book seem longer. Readers eventually figure it out.

Three, if you stick exclusively to short-format works, you may be depriving yourself and your readers of a richer writing/reading experience. Novels are bigger than short stories because more stuff happens in them.

Rather than hide your actual word count behind claims of novelhood, take a lesson from erotic romance publishers, who describe their shorter offerings in terms like ‘Lust Bites’ or ‘Quickies’. Celebrate the fast read and the short story! Done well, they are just as tricky to write as a 100K epic. Readers reared on PowerPoint and text messages may not have time for long chapters in a giant book, but they’ll make time for short stories from a writer they trust.

Plotting and Planning, by Suz deMello

Here’s a new writing how-to book from author Suz deMello, for the rest of you poor fools trapped in NaNo-land. (I am, too, I’m just not formally keeping a wordcount on the three manuscripts I’m trying to hammer out over the next 45 days.)

I have two reasons for giving blog space to this one.

1) I passionately agree with the author’s assertions about characters, conflicts, and plots. It took me too long to learn, but I got there. (I’m the idiot currently turning a 54K novel into an 85K novel. How? Characters building plots, that’s how.)

2) Suz is one of the many Ellora’s Cave authors left wondering if they’ll ever see rights reversions, proper treatment, or even royalty checks out of the ongoing death-spiral that appears to be Ellora’s Cave. A few weeks ago, I made the promise that, while I would not review EC titles while this court case was going on, I would be happy to give EC authors blog space to promote their non-EC books. That offer still stands, and will continue until EC either drops their case against Dear Author, goes bankrupt and the authors get their rights back, or the EC backlist is sold to a responsible third party with a clue about publishing.

Now onto today’s offering. Here’s Suz’s intro, in her own words:


Suz book plotting and planningPlotting and Planning–a #Writing Manual, Just in Time for #NaNoWriMo! (@suzdemello #MFRWAuthor #iamwriting)

Hey there, aspiring authors! Ever wondered how an author plots and writes a book?

Wonder no more! Suzie deMello is here to tell you the secrets, or at least a few of them.

Plotting and Planning is Suzie’s second writing treatise, following the best-selling Write This, Not That!

Here’s the blurb:

Another engaging, witty writing primer from Suz deMello, whose Write This, Not That! was an Amazon bestseller. Plotting, point of view, character creation, conflict and much more are examined in this brief but pithy writing manual.  A must for the serious writer who wants the basics without boredom.

Says bestselling author Kylie Brant: “Sue has written a concise manual that is valuable for both beginning and seasoned writers. Going to write a book? Read this first!”

From Silver James: “Suz deMello’s PLOTTING AND PLANNING is a concise, informative, and entertaining look at writing a novel.”

Here’s an excerpt to pique your interest:

How does an author write a book?

Unfortunately for aspiring authors, this is not an easy question to answer. It’s tantamount to asking, Where do authors get their ideas? which, believe me, is our least favorite question. I often tell people I get them at Sears—they’re sold by the dozen in the basement between the barbecues and the bikes.

In reality, I get my ideas from almost anywhere. Maybe a magazine article about a place or event. Perhaps someone I meet or something a person says may trigger a train of thought that will eventually lead to a book. Maybe travel to someplace new ignites the creative spark that will inspire me.

Here’s a better question: What are the building blocks of plot and story?


How important are these? Quite simply: No characters, no conflict. No conflict, no plot. No plot, no story. No story, no book.

It’s as simple and as difficult as that. Without characters with solid inner and outer conflicts, there’s no story, because your story is the journey that the characters travel to solve their conflicts. This journey may be physical, with characters actually going somewhere (Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz), or it may be emotional (Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird).

Diane Farr, a multi-published Regency and teen novelist says, “Conflict arises from character and plot arises from conflict. The most basic level is interesting people in an impossible situation.”

Plot and story should flow naturally from the characters and their conflicts. Otherwise, the story and the events in it will seem forced.


If you like what you read, here’s where you can buy the ebook:


About Suz deMello:

Suz venice maskBest-selling, award-winning author Suz deMello, a.k.a Sue Swift, has written seventeen romance novels in several subgenres, including erotica, comedy, historical, paranormal, mystery and suspense, plus a number of short stories and non-fiction articles on writing. A freelance editor, she’s held the positions of managing editor and senior editor, working for several including Totally Bound and Ai Press. She also takes private clients.

Her books have been favorably reviewed in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, won a contest or two, attained the finals of the RITA and hit several bestseller lists.

A former trial attorney, her passion is world travel. She’s left the US over a dozen times, including lengthy stints working overseas. She’s now writing a vampire tale and planning her next trip.

Check out Suzie’s site: http://www.suzdemello.com

And her blog: http://www.TheVelvetLair.com




Sneak Peek Sunday snippet: Moro’s Shield

(Six paragraphs from my current WIP, the sequel to my debut novel Moro’s Price. I’m posting them on Saturday night because I intend to be comatose on Sunday morning. Enjoy.)


“Dear girl, I’m sorry deprive you of fresh berries,” said the articulated, eight-foot-high steel skeleton waiting for Syene in Fortunero’s docking bay. Benny’s exo-chassis was Camalian military stock, a burly war-bot he’d bought at auction years back. He’d be more terrifying if he didn’t still have a white and red-striped fabric apron around his waist and gleaming chest. A legacy of their customary post-landing breakfast. He couldn’t ingest food, but his taste and smell sensors were remarkable. Sy was a lackluster cook, so she was happy to eat the more savory leftovers of Benny’s experiments.

“If you’d let me upgrade our hydroponic booths, I could grow them,” Sy said as she hopped out of the hovercraft. She grinned up at her employer. “I didn’t say berries. You were listening in! Having doubts about Dolan’s Rock, Captain Fortunero?”

Benny wrangled the last crate onto the hovercraft. His deep masculine voice routed out of speakers in his shoulders: “Hardly. I knew Dolan’s great-grandmother when she was an infant. We’re not upgrading the booths. Who would take care of them?”

“I will, as long as you cook. Think about it. Blackberry pie,” she intoned.

“Ah, Syene, you won’t be with me forever. Should I interview all my new candidates about their gardening skills, too?”

Sy clenched her jaw to keep from blurting out: I’m not going anywhere. Benny always spoke of her moving on to better employment. She meant to spend the next few hundred years out here. She might even make the final choice Benny had, and upload her consciousness into an AI-driven robot chassis. Then the silence in her mind would be complete. Would that be worth giving up a flesh and blood body?


Read more Sneak Peak Sunday snippets here.

What it feels like…

Nasa gif for blog

…To know a manuscript (that has earned an almost career-wrecking place in my life, that I spent a ridiculous amount of time writing, and that I wonder if anyone besides me, three beta readers, and my agent will even care about when the dust clears) – is going out on submission this week.

To people whose work I’ve admired for as long as I’ve been writing.

It’s terrifying. (OMG, what the hell are we thinking?)

It’s embarrassing. (It really shouldn’t have taken me that long, or that many revisions and rejections, to write. Added 11-8-2014: triply embarrassing, since I just realized that those last-minute-changes caused a minor formatting glitch I didn’t catch until today. Ugh.)

It’s exhilarating. (I’ve done everything I could on this end – now it’s up to the mms and the people seeing it for the first time.)

In a few hours my emotions will be tempered once more by hard-won pragmatism.

Twenty years ago, if this gambit failed at the mass-market paperback level, I’d have to expensively self-pub the damn thing in print, or inexpensively put it out in ‘zine format. Now I have self-publishing options galore, and many digital vendors to choose. I’d still be out the money and time spent on marketing or packaging, but there’s a lot more hope and room for new authors.

But I’m not quite to the point of ragging on the publishing industry as some kind of dinosaur* out of touch with the real world. The large genre imprints and their smaller independent cousins still have a lot to offer authors: great cover artists on staff, brilliant editors, dedicated marketing, and the aegis of a respected imprint ‘name’ to give an unknown author at least a little boost. I adore my agent (who is tough, smart, and experienced in this game, which is why I work with her) and I want to see what she can do with this project before I hit the ‘Upload’ button to Kindle.


* Yes, I chose the heading GIF for a reason, with full awareness of the comparisons between space exploration and publishing. Especially this week. Still, go here to see the original NASA photo and some other incredible shots.



Emily Asher-Perrin has a great post concerning the Marvel Comics Universe Loki’s apparently-canon genderfluidity. Emily brings up the point that gender is not about sex acts but identity. Loki-as-a-woman is not presented in the MCU as a guy who sometimes seems to look like a woman – but simply is female, a person who refers to herself as ‘she’. And so does everyone around her. Even Odin, in a line that actually made me sniffle when I read it.

I have an authorial stake in this, well beyond my fannish explorations of things Loki. In my original fiction, I have several genderfluid characters. Making the distinction between sex and identity becomes very important for plot reasons. Take Singer in Rhunshan, the fantasy novel soon to go out on sub: Sfassa is always thoroughly female, and Eridan is male no matter what species he is that day. But Hayfern can be either – or none-of-the-above – depending on mood or political expediency.

The fact that Disney now owns a huge stake in Marvel – and Loki – may mean we are finally getting away from the infamous Disney tendency to codify many villains as gay. Or maybe not. The studio handling of the Loki arc in Thor II was shameful and idiotic. Let’s not forget that studio execs were fully prepared to actually kill off Loki at the end of the movie, before Tom Hiddleston’s masterful and hilarious moment at San Diego ComicCon convinced Disney they had lightning in a bottle. They rewrote the script, apparently.

Jury’s still out for Disney’s future handling of the issue. But those of us who like and write gay and genderfluid characters are getting more ammunition in the mainstream genre markets.


The manuscript game pt 2

I love the digital era. In the great old days I’d have typed everything, made carbon or photocopies, and spent way too much in postage. I’d have waited months for news on a manuscript. Now, for the most part, I deal with Word doc format files and rapid email communication.

Such as this morning, when I got an email request for seven tiny changes* on the fantasy mms, to be done ASAP. I know why, too – though I’m not jinxing that development by talking too much about it here. It could lead to something wonderful or fizzle out, and it’s too early to call. My cynical self is of course planning alternate options in case of fizzle, while my inner five-year-old is Snoopy-dancing.

Of course I fixed the errors and sent off the corrected draft within two hours. They were reasonable requests, and I was neither insulted nor traumatized by them.**

And now I’m eyeing my version of glass slippers.

* Seven errors out of a 53K mms is pretty good for a working final draft. That probably represents fifteen years of on-and-off writing, at least twenty revision passes, five submissions to shorter fiction markets, and over 46,000 added words from the original story. If a publisher is interested in this beast, there will be more edits and revisions. It’s a horribly inefficient way to write. Welcome to my mind.

** I’m still amazed by the number of writers who balk at all change requests. I have seen abusive and/or clueless editors, but I’ve also seen authors who viewed their errors with the fervent adoration of a Biblical literalist. If someone else can show me a better way to say something, I’m happy to learn from them.

This episode proves once more to me that an idea is like raw ore, but revisions are where alloys are smelted and forged.

Fan fiction and original characters

Apparently, there’s a hot fan fiction debate I’ve missed. I’ve accidentally avoided the fracas on Tumblr and non-AO3 fansites, and I don’t engage that much on Twitter and other ‘instant’ social media.

People seem to hate original characters (OCs) in fan fiction. The mere inclusion of a tag of ‘OC’ in a story somehow seems to bring out the worst calls of ‘author insert!’, ‘Mary Sue!’ or ‘Marty Stu!‘ The assumption is that, most times, OCs in a fandom story tend more to indicate the author’s lower skill and wish-fulfillment fantasies, rather than heralding a coherent and entertaining story.

That assumption is not baseless, in my opinion. I can tell within five paragraphs or less whether a fan fiction story with prominent OCs is going to be tasty reading or a waste of my effort. Many times – though I haven’t bothered to numerically organize the data – the presence of OCs can be an indicator of an awkward story.

But my benchmark isn’t whether or not an author uses an OC, it’s whether or not the author can write. Period. I’m thrilled to read fan stories with well-written OCs who act as great plot movers and foils to the canon characters. I cringe when I see yet another clumsy author-insertion of the bright, brave girl (or boy) swooping in to save the denizens of Hogwarts – or Lothlorien or Avengers Tower, or whatever fandom – from themselves. Especially if there are other signs of sloppy writing.

Fan fiction has a structural advantage in that the worldbuilding is often complete already, and writers only need to plug in their variants of characters and situations. In such settings, original characters not only have to be well-written themselves, they have to ‘blend’ with the canon characters. This isn’t easy to do for newer writers.

Currently, I have two benchmarks for great original characters, at least in Avengers fandom. I’ve written about these stories in my fan fiction rec list, but here are specific reasons I love them:

Lucy Piero from Scifigrl47’s ‘Fairytales and Clockwork Hearts’. Lucy is a brilliant, quick-thinking young engineer: fiercely passionate about science, deeply aware of her luck hinging on an internship at StarkIndustries, and caught up in a plot of shapeshifting and magical revenge. All because she’s had the bad sense to fall in love with a quirky boy who is much more than he seems. She has a boss speech about the legacy of survival that any minority reader or writer should learn and internalize, and some of the best lines in Scifigrl47’s already amazing Toasterverse/Tales of the Bots epic series.

Alex Richardson from VenusM’s ‘Born From the Earth’. Alex is an Omega like his universe’s version of Tony Stark, but utterly unlike Stark in key areas. Alex is playful but deadly, having turned his sweet nature into a weapon. His loyalty to Tony is unswerving, his friendship to Captain American deep and honest, his recognition of the utter hell his society visits on Omegas answered by his black-market crime-ring attempts to make their lives better through illicit chemistry, corporate espionage, and some targeted assassinations if necessary. Alex, in the world of BFtE, is as real a character as Tony Stark or Steve Rogers – and that’s what makes him strong enough to carry his own part of the story.

These are just two examples that I can think of in scribbling down notes for this post.


I love fan fiction not only because it is a guilty pleasure, but because it keeps challenging my fossilized assumptions. In 1991 I assumed all fan fiction was the horrible Trek stuff, slavish MZB Darkover stories, or treacly Misty Lackey-inspired Valdemar author-insertion pieces I’d seen at media conventions. I even wrote an anti-fan fiction filk song about it, though you’ll never find a recording of ‘There Are No Black Companions in Valdemar’.

Then a friend introduced me to fan fiction I could handle, much of it astonishingly well written. A few years later, I even crafted poems and artwork* for several Lackey fanzines. I learned to set aside those first assumptions in the face of overwhelming evidence that, yes, fan fiction was real writing.

VenusM’s ‘Born From the Earth’, as I’ve explained earlier, completely shredded my disdain for much of the Alpha/Beta/Omega fan fiction and original erotic romance I’d seen before. Rather, I still loathe the bad stuff, but now I see how the concept can be handled flawlessly.

My ultimate point: quality should matter. I’m tired of lower standards, in fan fiction or original fiction.

We shouldn’t a champion a bad story just because it contains our favorite tropes. (Like the Chocolate Effect: horrible domestic chocolate is only good when that’s all you can get, and loses ground after one discovers single source chocolate and the better examples of the chocolate world.)

We shouldn’t excuse bad writing for either canon or original characters.

* To firmly establish 1) my bad art and 2) my two decades of messing about in fan fiction, go here and look at the cover art for the first group of Companions’ Grove fanzines.

More authors behaving horribly (adult language, graphic violence)

(Sigh.) I’ve written about this before, but two stories that made the rounds this week have made an update necessary.


As new authors, we’re told “Reviews are for readers, not authors. Don’t read your reviews.” Or we’re told: “Read them, learn what positive stuff you can, then let them go, and be a damn adult about it.”

Hint: Being an adult does not involve intensive stalking or physical violence.

A few days ago, author K@thleen H@l3 got an essay into the Guardian, ‘documenting’ her reaction and response to a critical reviewer on Goodreads. (Summary: she doxxed and stalked the reviewer in some very creepysad ways.)

It’s uneasy reading for me, since I believe both author and reviewer behaved worse than middle-school girls fighting over who was more popular that week. (An aside for adults writing YA: write it, please don’t live it.)

The resulting freakshow adventure thus proudly documented is hard going, and worthy of many facepalms and repeated mutterings of ‘I can’t believe I’m reading this’.

A Jezebel article points out that H@l3 has done some awfully juvenile things before, and has powerful supporters in her court, raising the specter of acquittal by nepotism. Whatever. I don’t care, since I’m unlike to read anything in H@l3’s catalog or follow what that Goodreads reviewer thinks. I’m providing the links as cautionary examples of the following rule:

Goodreads is fun, but it shouldn’t ultimately matter. What people think on Goodreads, or Amazon, or Wattpad, or AO3, or wherever – shouldn’t matter. A one-star review might briefly drag down sales, or backlash into many sales as other readers take issue with the reviewer. Whether careful or clumsy, ‘gamed’ five star reviews stand out like hired ringers in a late night infomercial, and have about as much validity.

Reviews are only useful in aggregate, if they show positive or negative trends an author should notice. Good reviews are a source of happy ego-boosting, but even those should be taken with some skepticism.

If you are an author – especially an emotionally fragile author – take a lesson from TeddyGate and do not respond to negative reviews.

You probably shouldn’t respond strongly to positive reviews, either. (Once upon a time, Chris Brashear was Jaid Black’s biggest fan, was instrumental in the founding of the erotic romance publisher Ellora’s Cave, and went on to be a major force behind separate erotic romance publisher Samhain. The Brashear/Black friendship shattered in a lawsuit in the late 2000’s. Working for/with your friends and fans can be very dangerous, if you don’t take mutual steps to protect yourselves. You shouldn’t need to read Stephen King’s Misery to guess that.)

Which leads to one of the most shocking incidents I have ever seen (and I remember an agent being stalked on FourSquare): After Paige Rolland reviewed a story by Rich@rd Britt@in, the latter traveled several hundred kilometers to physically assault her. (Warning: the photos in that link are graphic accounts of a serious head injury.) Moreover, Britt@in apparently has a history of attempting to shout down negative reviewers, and seriously creepy stalkerish issues.

I halfway expect self-published authors like Britt@in to lack the emotional distance to ignore bad reviews. I don’t expect people like H@l3, with strong industry connections and experience, to behave the same way.

Chill, folks, chill. And grow the hell up.

Update to the update 1-23-2014: Now Salon.com has looked at the matter, with some interesting analysis of the YA writing/reading culture.


courtesy of http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/bad-parking-job-shamed-hilarious-graffiti-article-1.1755683

courtesy of http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/bad-parking-job-shamed-hilarious-graffiti-article-1.1755683

It must be a rule of nature and traffic that the driver of the biggest SUV in the grocery store parking lot absolutely has to do one or all three of these things:

1) Stop their vehicle right outside the doors in the walk zone, even when there is plenty of parking out in the lot. And stay there, idling while their passenger goes in and leisurely shops.

2) If they do park in the lot, they must take up at least two parking spaces.

3) Once leaving the parking lot, they must try to turn left into rush hour traffic, away from a traffic light.




fun with traffic

The manuscript game

Bad: suddenly realizing there’s a logic error in the manuscript I just sent out.

Worse: not remembering where or what the error was.

Honestly, at this stage of writing I just hope the agent and editor will find it. Because I’m going quietly nuts trying to figure it out.

I shouldn’t, because I have done this with every single art and writing project I’ve finished and released into the world for the last two decades. Whether the project has huge mistakes or not. I cringe at the flaws I know about but didn’t fix. I obsess over the ones I didn’t find. I startle art critics and editors with my joy and gratitude when they find my gaffes. Because that proves I wasn’t imagining things.

Do sane people do this, too?


Liesmith, by Alis Franklin

Author note: I was provided with a free Advance Reader Copy of this book from NetGalley. This review is my personal opinion, and is otherwise unsolicited and unpaid.

liesmith cover


Many modern media interpretations of the god Loki leave out some of the more obscure, problematic, and often gruesome details of his stories in the Norse Eddas – and most often, the existence of Loki’s wife Sigyn.

Not Alis Franklin. In her debut novel LIESMITH, she takes on and fearlessly adapts the myths of Sigyn, in an urban fantasy/horror/romance tale that establishes its own unique view of the Loki mythology.

Sigmund Sussman is a young IT professional coasting through an obligatory job in a high-tech city that seems to be a slightly-sideways version of Canberra crossed with Silicon Valley (and given its own darkly intriguing backstories). Sigmund is also a gamer (with vast familiarity to game and fantasy culture tropes); an important plot-point navigating around the usual ‘denial of magic’ themes found in many older urban fantasy novels.

You can read plenty of synopses of this book already. I won’t waste time with them. So beware, there are spoilerish things ahead.

What I didn’t like: precious little, to be honest.

While this book can be partially classed as a M/M romance, it’s a sweet one. There’s nothing explicit here. (Regular SFF readers, if you can handle Lynn Flewelling’s Seregil and Alec, you might enjoy reading about Sigmund and Lain.) Franklin gives plenty of good reasons for her star-crossed boys to take things slow. This may put off M/M romance readers wanting more overtly erotic fare, but I’d say be patient with the characters and the story.

Some of the action scenes can be a little jarring, but they’re meant to be. This book has a strong horror element in it, one necessary to the plot and character development.

There are several stories and viewpoints woven into this book, taking place in different timelines and realities. I could follow them (because I’m kind of a freak, that way), but readers accustomed to a single storyline might have to stop and reorient themselves every so often. Do it. It’s worth the payoff.

The cover: it’s a tiny bit of nit-pickery, but I bristle when image-collage covers don’t quite fit the story. Sigmund is perfect. The font choices are wonderful. That spear? Poor job, Random House. Photoshop covers do not have to be cut-n-paste! The text doesn’t describe quite that kind of weapon in that particular moment of the story. Any propsmaster or illustrator in NY could have created the ‘right’ spear in actuality or in Photoshop, in a few hours, especially given the filters applied to the imagery. This was a credible effort to get the ‘feel’ of the book, so I’ll hope for a better effort on the next cover. (Whattaya want? I’m an art geek, okay?)

What I loved:

Sigmund being not only a gamer geek and an IT guy, but somewhat pudgy and very much a Person of Color, and being unsure enough about himself to be somewhat asexual, to boot. I loved Sigmund’s unerring knack for hearing truth and lies.

Lain, Sigmund’s love interest. I adored Lain’s characterization, and the sneaky, underhanded way Franklin showed very early that there was Something Very, Very Wrong with Lain – I knew it, saw part of it coming, and the author still snookered me. I love it when I’m utterly surprised by plot twists.

I really liked the supporting characters: Sigmund’s friends, who show a sensitive but no-nonsense portrayal of gender-neutral expression (as well as a lot of very fine humor and true friendship). Sigmund’s dad, who has his own character arc and poignant backstory. An Artificial Intelligence who is the second-in-command of one of that world’s most powerful companies, and still has major flaws. A snake named Boots. A Valkyrie’s sentient automobile.

And last but certainly not least, the Godmonster. He’s tough but fragile, inhuman but personable, an (anti?)hero swept up into machinations that he can barely control. If nothing else, he proves that Alis Franklin and I both have high esteem for feathered theropods. Franklin’s portrayal of the Godmonster reminds me very much of this Wallace Stevens poem, in tone and imagery.

Is this a perfect book? Nope. But for an ambitious debut novel that attacks on several fronts, it’s far better than many recent urban fantasies by established authors.

I wouldn’t give this book a pass just for containing an open M/M romance published by a mainstream SFF imprint. (My interests have been recently burned by other mainstream authors who tried but had no idea how to write convincing M/M fantasy romance.) Even from seeing the early synopsis, I knew LIESMITH had to fulfill all the previous promise I saw in Franklin’s fan fiction stories several years ago. And judging from those? She’s just getting started. I look forward to the journey.

Buy links and official synopsis here.



‘Ants’ by Gringa

Warning: pure, unrepentant silliness ahead, which I am posting late at night.

Point 1: I am a book artist, which means I am very interested in manipulations of text and blank space, and I celebrate great examples when I find them.

Point 2: Central Arizona’s recent deluge of storms, plus slightly milder temperatures, has produced shockingly green deserts in October and a sudden increase in the insect population. Some of this is benign but annoying (gnats!), some startling (scorpion in the bathtub, eek!) Thanks to some strategic planning, I don’t have my neighbor’s problem with ants, but that doesn’t mean the little pests aren’t daily hammering the house defenses.

Point 3: Which is why I remembered this AbsoluteWrite post from a member named Gringa, documenting her struggles with a recent ant invasion. As minimalist expression, it’s right up there with Alex Lifeson’s thank-you speech at Rush’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. As text art, it’s a masterpiece of word arrangement and spacing. And it’s hilarious – at least to me. I’ve been told my sense of humor is questionable, so count that as a second warning.

I bring you ‘Ants’, by Gringa





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Why I won’t read therapy writing*

*Unless it’s great writing, first and foremost.

I am not downplaying the importance of therapeutic writing. It’s a valuable tool whether self-directed or used in a more formal recovery program. I’ve used it, myself.

But I’m not being paid to read what other people write, and then evaluate it in terms of their recovery from (insert applicable trauma here).

I’m just a reader – of original fiction, fan fiction, and nonfiction across many genres. When I read, I want to fold my entire attention into reading. I love the luxury of trusting an author to have nearly transparent writing. However they achieve it, whatever their style, their writing should vanish into the story.

That means no glaring errors or sloppy writing, which are guaranteed story-stoppers for me. That means strong (if not damn near perfect) characterizations, dialog, action, and worldbuilding. Fiction and non-fiction both should contain accurate facts. If not, the nonfiction should be ashamed of itself, and the fiction should give me a good excuse.

That means I usually never bother to read more when someone’s tags, blurbs, introductions, and sample texts make a big deal about their use of therapeutic writing…and even the front-matter writing is *awful*.

I feel for those writers. They’re often at the stage where even the act of writing is a triumph. Whatever comes out, however technically and artistically awkward, is a true expression of their pain and their adaptation to it. Outside criticism of the writing seems like a slap at *them*. They don’t have the emotional distance to separate themselves from their art. They may never gain it.

I’m not their therapist. I don’t know their history. My critique may hit them at an especially vulnerable time and trigger a setback. If they’re not ready to overhaul their writing, my observations are probably a waste of time for both of us.

So I don’t assess bad writing that appears to have been created at that part of a recovering author’s life. I don’t directly critique it online. I won’t beta-read it for possible publication. I try not to even get into explaining my reasons for avoidance, because that alone could further antagonize such writers.

I’m delighted to read stories from recovering writers who can actually write and tell a compelling story. I’m thrilled when they weave deep and powerful observations into what might be a bit of fluff, whatever the genre. I love it when writers of deep and powerful tomes are able to pull back and give me some lighter, sparkling moments in contrast.

But I won’t bother with more than a test page of bad writing, whatever its origin.