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J Bennett Builds a World…Or Might Die Trying

August 12th, 2017 3 comments

So, I’m writing this new novel. No, it’s not ready yet. Sorry ‘bout that, but you’re just going to have to hold your horses and let me do my thing. So, new novel. Writing it, that’s what I’m doing. Thing is, it’s some pretty slow going. I really wanted to challenge myself with this WIP. Work in progress sounds so lame. The book doesn’t have a name yet, so let’s call her Sleeping Beauty.

Where was I? Oh yeah, this thing is hard. (Don’t take that out of context.) The challenge is that Sleeping Beauty has a bit of science fiction going on and a bit of fantasy as well. (Yeah, I’m a whole lot of excited about this, too.) It takes place on a totally different planet, and the people on the planet have been doing their own thing, evolving, creating traditions, making up their own looney sports for over a hundred years. Basically, I’ve also got to create an entire planet and all the people on it!

Enter The Planet Construction Kit

It’d be so awesome if there were some kind of manual to create your own planet. Fortunately, my fairy godmother was good to me. She built a time machine (she’s handy like that), went back in time, and convinced a guy named Mark Rosenfelder to just such a manual. And just to make sure I wouldn’t miss it, she somehow convinced him to name his book, The Planet Construction Kit. (Let’s not ask what my fairy godmother had to do to get that favor.)

Planet Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder

This book is awesome!

To put it simply, this book is awesome. Rosenfelder is basically the smartest person in the universe. Need to know how two suns would affect a planet? He’s on it. Want to know everything there is to know about making fabrics? He’s got your back. Need to create a whole new language? Well, he actually wrote a whole separate book about that!

In some regards, The Planet Construction Kit is a little overwhelming. There’s just so much here, but Mark’s true genius, I think, is that he forces writers (along with video game developers, conworlders, and D&D Dungeon Masters) to recognize that everything on a planet is interlinked. A planet’s environment is going to affect what foods the people eat, what clothes they wear, and even their attitudes. A society will likely develop a completely different hierarchy and belief system based on if resources are rare versus abundant.

In turn, a society’s social mores will affect what people do, how they act towards one another, and how they evolve as a society. We are all products of our society one way or another (whether we reject normal social mores, embrace them, or seek to change them). Every person is also a product of their own history and so is a society. American culture is still affected by our Protestant roots and by our fight for Independence from Britain. We still also struggle with the implications of how we treated African Americans and Native Americans in the past. Our past illuminates our present.

A fantasy planet is no different. Its people will have a history. That history will affect their current condition. That current condition will play a role in the perspectives and motivations of every character.

Trying to Make Sense of It All

It’s a lot to think about, and it’s one of the reasons I’m plodding so slowly on writing Sleeping Beauty. I want to build my planet the right way, with lots of rich history. I need to take time to learn about the agriculture for the different kingdoms, the leadership structure of their societies, their wealth, their morality. Then I need to figure out how it affects all the characters.

I’ve never done anything remotely like this before. Both of my previous series, Girl With Broken Wings and The Vampire’s Housekeeper Chronicles, layered a slightly altered reality on top of our own. I didn’t have to stretch my imagination very far; certainly not to the extent that Sleeping Beauty is asking for.

It’s a big challenge, and truthfully, I’m intimidated by it. That’s a good thing. I’m of the mind that if you aren’t at least a little scared of your next big project, then it’s probably not big enough. Sure, this book might go down in flames. (Hell, that already happened this year,) but I’m willing to risk it to try and be a better writer and to give you an awesome, unique story that will be worth the wait.

Thanks for your (forced) patience!

Categories: Essay, Writing Tags: ,

So, I Failed…

April 2nd, 2017 1 comment

Sorry that I haven’t been around much lately. No newsletters since last year, not many Facebook posts. Basically, I’ve been pretty busy failing at writing my next book.

One key rule of writing is that your character has to fail. In fact, she usually has to be a pretty huge failure. Great plots are driven by failure. If Scarlet wooed Ashley before the war, we’d never have Gone with the Wind. If Mr. Darcy clicked with Elizabeth Bennett right on the spot, the world would be bereft of Pride and Prejudice.

Heck, if Voldemort could have just ended a baby, Harry Potter would have never been…literally.

Failing is a not only crucial to a story’s plot, it also drives character growth and change. Failure, in other words, is necessary…it just kind of sucks when it happens to you…or to be precise, me.

Anatomy of a Failure

When I finished FLYING, the fifth and final book in my Girl With Broken Wings series, last July, I was faced with a pretty daunting task. It was time to leave the world I’d lived in for seven years and dive into a brand new story with new characters. I was excited but also appropriately terrified.

Being a normal person, I am naturally plagued with self-doubt on virtually every aspect of my life. My writing is not immune. I worried that despite the fact that I finished five books and two novellas in the Girl With Broken Wings series, those were all flukes. Now, cut free from the safety of that series, I would revert back to my pre-GWBW days when I couldn’t finish a novel for all the cupcakes in the world.

I squished all those fears down, womaned up, and started writing a new story that had been swishing around in my head for a few months. This story intrigued me, because it had a really captivating premise and a clear genre, which I thought would make it easier to categorize and sell.

All gung-ho and with doubts securely stowed, I set sail on creating the outline. This is when I hit a little stumbling block that should have been a major red flag. Even as I began to plot out my story, I felt that I wasn’t really connecting with the characters.

I made excuses. It was a new series. Of course the characters aren’t going to feel real like Maya, Tarren, Gabe. I told myself that I just needed to do more outlining, fill out more character sheets.

Boy, did I complete a lot of character sheets. I tried to talk to my characters, interview them, write scenes of their everyday lives, but the whole time they mumbled short answers to my questions, sagged through their scenes, and avoided eye contact with me…because we both were kind of embarrassed by the whole charade. This felt so different than when I wrote FALLING. In that book, Gabe couldn’t wait to chatter in my ear, telling me his whole life story. I would imagine quiet scenes of Tarren while I did my weekend runs. I felt Maya’s rage and her need for vengeance.

I am a character-centric author. The characters lead the story. They are the story. And I somehow found myself writing a book where my characters didn’t want to come out and play.

But, I kept writing, kept making excuses. The first draft was going badly. I didn’t feel inspired to write in the morning. It was more punishment than passionate toil. That was wrong, but by that time I’d put in too much work. Three months and an entire 70,000-word first draft. I couldn’t give up on it now!

After completing the novel’s first draft, I gave myself a break to “let it breathe.” Secretly, I hoped that the manuscript would somehow age and turn into something different and beautiful, like a mellow red wine. In the interim, I did more (yes, even more) character interviews and research.

Admitting Defeat

The week before I planned to jump into the second draft, I left town for my sister’s wedding. During that trip, something started happening. Deep in the pit of my stomach, I felt a seed of dread growing every time I thought of working on the novel again. In the quiet moments before bed, I would close my eyes and try to watch my characters live their lives. I’d knock on their doors, but they were never home.

The wedding was great. The bride and groom showed up, and I didn’t fall into the cake. Success! Even as I danced with my 89-year-old grandpa (whoo-hoo good genes!), a decision was forming in my mind. It was a decision that I think had already been made, but I’d been fighting tooth and nail. It was time to admit defeat.

The Challenge

The next day, I faced an exciting eight hours in the airport. My iPad was loaded up with old episodes of Battlestar Galactica to get me through the ordeal, but instead of hanging out with my favorite band of survivors, I gave myself a little challenge.

I thought, hey brain, let’s do a little experiment. Let’s say you were going to write a totally different book – and not saying that you are, but just imagine – what would that book look like. No pressure. Doesn’t mean anything. You’re still totally going to write that crappy book you hate, but if you weeeere going to write a different book…

I had a notebook with me, because, uh, duh, writer, but it only had two clean pages left. On my first flight, I began to think. Wonder. Imagine. An idea sparked. My heart picked up some beats. My pen began to scribble. The crying baby two seats behind me faded. Suddenly, I was in the woods, riding on a great adventure to find a princess. My pen kept going, scribble, scribble. Characters formed. I needed a prince. Was he an arrogant, foppish prince? No, the prince told me. There’s so much more to me. I don’t want to be on this adventure, but I have to go because of who I am. I have to always be strong, even though I feel so weak and unsure inside. Even while I listened to the prince, a little maid was jumping up and down impatient for her turn. I am cleverer than them all, she insisted. And I’m in love. I’m going to marry the prince. It’s what the stars say. Let anyone try and stop me.

As the plane landed, I was furiously writing on the cardboard back of the notebook. As soon as I walked off the plane for my two-hour layover, I went straight to a small bookstore in the airport. (Okay, bathroom break first, then straight to the bookstore.)

I bought a notepad and two pens, because there’s no way in hell I was letting my last pen give up the ghost in the middle of my next flight. Alas, Starbuck and Apollo had to play alone, because I kept writing and writing from wheels up in Denver to wheels down in San Diego.

Now, a week after I touched down, that new notebook is almost full. My characters have so much to say and they are rearing and ready to go on their adventure. And that other book? After four months and a full draft, I’m stuffing it in a drawer. (Well, a metaphorical drawer. In reality, it’s just hanging on my computer.)

A little ways up the coast from me is a mythical place called Silicon Valley. Some of the coolest, greatest things come from this strange place. Silicon Valley is unique, because it is a place where failure is a badge of honor. It is a stepping stone to success. The people of Silicon Value believe that failure helps define your character, gives you valuable experience, and lessons to learn.

Looking back, I don’t think those four months were a waste, and I don’t regret the draft that is now wallowing on my computer. (Hey, who knows, maybe those characters are just waiting to find their voice.) I am sorry that my readers will have to wait a little longer for my next novel, but I promise, it’s going to be something that I will be proud and excited to share with you. You deserve that.

All I ask is for a little more patience.

I know this sounds super dorky, but a failure is only a failure if you give up. Failure is a powerful learning experience. After all, we are all characters in our own stories, defined by our failures and how we address them; defined by whether we keep striving for our secret dreams.

Fail on, my friends,

J Bennett

P.S. Yes, I have purposefully be super vague on the plots of both books. I’m holding out some hope that the bad scifi book may one day become a good, awesome scifi book. My new project is only in the early stages, so I need to keep it close to the vest until I can at least get through a first draft and see its bones.

Categories: Essay, Writing Tags: ,

Starting Over

December 3rd, 2016 No comments

a.k.a. J Bennett hyperventilates about writing a new novel

 

pen on top of notebook

Starting a new story doesn’t really get any easier.
Photo via Thomas Martinsen via VisualHunt.com

What does it feel like to begin writing a brand new book in a brand new series?

It feels like diving into a lake at night when the water is black and you can’t tell how deep it is.

It feels like meeting strangers who might one day be friends.

It feels like trying to run on ice – awkward and uncertain.

It feels like starting all over again.

I spent seven years writing in the Girl With Broken Wings universe. Maya, Gabe, and Tarren were my best friends. I knew them in the way you know exactly whether your best friend will laugh at your horrible joke, roll her eyes, or throw an even worse joke right back at you.

Now I am trying to make new friends, trying to see the world through their eyes.  The words I use, the tone, the voice are different, because my characters are different. I am learning it all paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter.

There is an excitement to starting over – all the possibilities, all the chances to stretch and reach – but there is also a great unease, diving into that black, unknowable water. How far away is the shore? What is lurking beneath, ready to pull me down? And, of course, the terrifying, secret questions that lurk – Will I be able to write this book? Write any book ever again? Will it be any good? Even with five books and six novellas under my belt, I still wonder if it all wasn’t a fluke. If my best writing is behind me.

I console myself by knowing I have felt these worries and uncertainties and this jittery excitement many times before. I dove into the black waters and made it to shore each time I started a new book. I made new and wonderful friends. I created stories that I am proud of. I know that even if this particular story flounders or even drowns, my head is full of ideas. I can always start over again.

Categories: Essay, Writing Tags:

How Coping Helped Me Cope: Behind the Scenes of Writing Coping

July 6th, 2016 No comments

Cover of Coping by J Bennett

Warning: This blog post contains discussions about the plot of Coping (the novella that follows Falling) and hints about the plots of Landing, Rising, and Recovering in the Girl With Broken Wings series.

Coping, in many ways, is the novella that shouldn’t exist. Well, I should say that it wouldn’t have existed if everything had gone to plan. By 2010, I had already spent two years painstakingly polishing Falling, the first novel I ever felt was good enough to actually publish. I already knew that the story of Maya, Tarren, and Gabe couldn’t be contained in a single book. They had too much more to do. (Not to mention the fact that Maya’s number one enemy, Grand, was still breathing.) However, I faced one itty bitty problem.

While I loved Falling, the book agents I sent the manuscript to weren’t as enthusiastic. Mind you, some showed interest, but that was almost a worst punishment than outright rejection. Sending a manuscript through the slow-grinding gears of the traditional publishing complex is its own form of purgatory. First, you must send a query letter. If, by chance, an agent shows interest, the next phase is to send her the first few chapters, followed by the full manuscript for her review and consideration. Each step takes months.

I rode this snail-paced merry-go-round with three different agents for over a year, which put me in a very difficult spot. (You can read all about this oh-so-fun adventure in my behind the scenes look at Falling.) I already had the concept for Landing sketched out, and I was eager to start writing the next chapters in Maya’s adventure, but I was also wary of writing the second book in a series that no agent yet wanted.

One consequence of all this waiting was that I found myself with a lot of extra time to think. Over those days, weeks, and months, the characters in the universe of Girl With Broken Wings stayed alive in my mind. I watched Maya slowly becoming accustomed to her new life, Tarren trying to figure out how much risk she presented, and Gabe just thrilled he had someone who would laugh at his jokes. Scenes unfurled in my mind – many just fragments of the Fox family’s everyday vigilante life that would never make it to the pages of a book, but some that hinted clearly of things to come. One or two scenes that are in Flying, the last book in the series, were born in those early days.

With the world of Girl With Broken Wings growing exponentially in my head, trapped by my self-imposed moratorium on writing, one character above the rest began to nag at me.

Rain Bailey.

Picture of man looking at the sky

A kind of sad, romantic picture of a man that of reminds me of Rain.

I am going to abruptly change the subject right now, but I promise I’m going somewhere with this. In 2010, the same time my trapped writer’s brain was going into imagination overdrive, the show Battlestar Galactica had just ended. You might assume from the multiple references to the show in the GWBW series that I a bit of a fan. You’d be right. The series rebooted at the end of 2003 with a three-hour mini-series that basically blew my mind. That initial mini-series was filled with many amazing plot twists and greater-than-life characters, but one character in particular stood out to me.

The first time we meet Helo, he makes an incredibly brave decision to give up his seat on the last Raptor escaping the dying planet of Caprica so that a civilian can be saved. Let’s ignore the fact that the civilian in question happens to be Gaius Baltar, making this probably the worst trade in all of history. In the mini-series, that sacrifice is all we see of Helo. For all we knew at the time, he was just a random blip in the plot, a necessary lever to get Baltar off that planet.

[Note: This is where a big picture of Helo would go if I wasn’t totally terrified of getting sued. HERE is a pretty sexy picture of him.]

Those who watch the show know that Helo goes on to become a main character in the series and that his time on Caprica is one of the most compelling plotlines of the first two seasons. Since Helo was always one of my favorite characters, I was pretty surprised when I heard somewhere that he was never intended to be a main character. He was originally intended to just be left behind on Caprica, one more casualty of that mass extinction attack. However, so many viewers were interested in what happened to him that the show’s writers wrote him what ended up being a fascinating and crucial storyline that includes a very unlikely romance.

I always liked Helo, because he was one of the few characters in a show that could be dismally depressing who was thoroughly good. He had a huge heart and always believed that the battered remnants of the human race would find a new home.

Here’s where we go full circle. You might have connected the dots by now, but the truth is that Rain was never meant to come back after his brief encounter with Maya in Falling. He, like Helo, was just a plot blip…except he wasn’t. I couldn’t get Rain out of my head. I wanted to know what happened to him after he saw Maya. It didn’t take long before I realized that he just couldn’t let his sister’s death go or forget that he saw a girl standing over a dead preacher with glowing hands. No, he would need to find answers. I became convinced that he would keep searching and searching…until eventually his path would cross Maya’s again.

I just had one little problem…Rain wasn’t in Landing…like, at all. If you’ve read Landing, then you know that he does make an appearance, but for the most part I couldn’t find a way to fit him into the plot. This was a problem. His part was so small in Falling that I knew readers would forget all about him if he just sat out a whole book. Also, by that time, I also knew that during the events of Landing, Rain wasn’t sitting idly by. He was actively trying to figure out what angels were and hunting Maya with a vengeance.

Man with crow bar

Rain gets all vengeancy

So, in a very real way, Coping was driven by my need to tell just a little bit of Rain’s story. Since the novella is from Maya’s perspective, we only get to see the disastrous results of Rain’s efforts to solve the angel mystery, but Coping is very much the link that keeps Rain alive (figuratively and literally!) for the rest of the series.

We don’t get to learn a lot in Coping of exactly how Rain ended up in that barn in Poughkeepsie, and when we meet him again in the next books in the series (particularly Rising) his life and circumstances have changed drastically. Sorry about that. The untold parts of Rain’s story do exist, but right now they currently reside only in my head. I’ve actually toyed with the idea of writing a spinoff novel or even a novella documenting his journey from Falling through Rising (including his epic introduction to Gabe in Recovering, one of my favorite scenes to write of all time). I would love to get inside Rain’s head and to also explore his friendship with the troubled Chain and the fledging beginning of the Totem. Perhaps one day…

In the end, after sitting on the literary agent merry-go-round for a full year with nothing but a million new ideas for my series to show for it, I decided that I wanted off this was ride. I didn’t need anyone else to tell me that my book was worth publishing or that Maya’s story was worth telling.

Merry-go-round

This picture of a wonderful, fun, and joyful merry-go-round is nothing like the dreary, frustrating literary agent merry-go-round I experienced. Photo credit: chatirygirl via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-ND

As I started prepping Falling for publication, I finally started writing again. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Coping fell onto the page with amazing ease. (A wonderful experience I wasn’t able to recapture when I finally started writing Landing.)

Coping might be short, and its story doesn’t drive the larger plot of the series, but I love this little novella. It gives readers an important insight into Maya’s growing acceptance of her situation, shows her tightening bond with Gabe, and demonstrates exactly what is on the line in the war with the angels when the Fox family makes its grisly discovery in Poughkeepsie. (A situation that comes to represent the very real risk of what it could mean if angels ever gain the upper hand on the humans.) Most importantly, Coping allows me to briefly reunite Maya and Rain and to keep him in her mind throughout Landing so that I can set up his re-emergence in Rising. And finally, the last chapters of this novella gave me a chance to let Maya seek a small drop of closure in her relationship with Ryan and in the shedding of her old life, which I felt was very emotionally important for her character.

I hope you liked this little novella, too!

The True Story Behind FALLING and the Girl With Broken Wings Series

April 30th, 2016 1 comment

A.K.A., a Long-Ass Post on How I Wrote and Published My First Book

Girl With Broken Wings series

Worth all the tribulations? Definitely!

I am, right now, putting the finishing touches on FLYING, the fifth and final book in my paranormal series, Girl With Broken Wings. This is kind of a big deal for me. Not just finishing another book – which is awesome – but putting this series to bed. When I started writing the first book in the series, FALLING seven years ago, finishing it felt so hard. That was the beginning of my journey within the world of Girl With Broken Wings and my journey into publishing as well. As I gear up to complete the series, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic about those early days. If you’ve ever been curious about how the GWBW series started or about evolution as a writer and self-published author…well, here are a lot of honest words about it.

FALLING into FALLING

I mostly wrote FALLING by accident. At the time – this was back yonder in 2009 — I was actually struggling to write another book. As a writer, I had floundered for years with trying to complete a full novel. Looking back on it now, my problem was really obvious. I would get inspired by a scene in my head, start writing, and then pray to the universe that the story would just somehow work. This is known as the “seat-of-the-pants” writing method. Some writers (pantsers) do well with this method and somehow manage to cobble together something worth reading. I am not one of them. Too often, my characters would just lurch blindly from one crisis to another or spend scenes just shooting the breeze with each other, because I couldn’t think of what to do with them. My plots would either run out of steam or just hit a wall and combust.

This is exactly what was happening with my novel. I was stuck. So was my plot, my characters, and basically everything related to the book. At the time, I was watching a lot of my favorite show, Supernatural. (The most supernatural thing about the show these days is that it is somehow still on.) One episode in particular captured my attention, and from the seed GWBW would eventually be born. The Supernatural episode that changed my life was Episode Four of Season Four (Metamorphosis). In the episode our hunky heroes Sam and Dean come across a man named Jack. Jack has kind of a big problem. He is a pretty decent normal guy…who (through no fault of his own) just happens to be turning into a Rugaru, a creature who is irresistibly drawn to feeding on human flesh.

Dean, at this point in the series, is the bad ass, straight-up killa’ of the pair. He’s all for blasting Jack’s brains out. Sensitive Sam sees Jack’s humanity and wants to try and find a way to save him. Seeing any similarities between this conundrum and another set of vigilante brothers who have to decide if a certain someone is too dangerous to live?  Yeah, that episode really got to me. I wondered what it would be like to be Jack; to try and fight against terrible urges to hurt others. I also liked the difficult choice Sam and Dean had to make. Could Jack be saved, or by sparing him, were they putting other innocent people at risk? Yummy, yummy tension!

Several months after watching that episode of Supernatural, I had one of those wonderful moments when a scene just flashes through my brain. I saw a girl in a hotel room trying desperately to control her urge to drain the life out of her trusting brother who was sleeping in the next bed. (Here’s another Supernatural influence — Sam and Dean travel the country fighting evil and end up sharing a lot of hotel rooms.) I was fixated on this scene, on the girl’s struggle and the brother’s slumbering innocence. Since I was getting absolutely nowhere with my work in progress, my fingers started typing, and what came out ended up being the prologue to FALLING.

FALLING is Born…and Then I Have to Edit A Lot

As soon as that first scene was down in pixels on my computer screen, I had to know how Maya got into that room. (Fun fact: Maya’s original name was Misha before my sister forced me to change it.)  How had she been turned into an energy-sucking creature? Writing FALLING became about answering that question. It was rocky. It was messy, but the words kept coming. The scenes piled up. Somehow, I managed to do something I had never done before – I made it to the end.

Because I was a pantser, the book’s plot had more holes than a colander, but I knew I had something special. How? Because I absolutely loved the characters of Maya, Gabe, and Tarren. Each of them felt real to me, and I cared deeply about their mission. Even as I was writing that first book, I started to understand Tarren’s deep internal struggles and Gabe’s desperate optimism. I began to fill out their backstories and discovered that Tarren had quite a few skeletons in his closet (some of which will finally come out in FLYING).

I had to work that book to the bone, scrubbing and scrubbing, to get it into decent shape. It took me over a year just to edit (compared to the roughly three or four months it takes me to edit a full novel now). Looking back on my files, I realize that I eventually went through ten separate drafts of the book! Compare that to the four drafts that will take me through FLYING (first draft, first edit, beta edits, grammar/final polish). This terribly long and arduous process along with the fear of repeating it all over again when I started on LANDING is what finally helped me shift from being a pantser to an outliner.

It’s ALLLLIVE…but Unloved

In 2010, I completed what I considered to be the final draft of FALLING. It was still early days for the Kindle and, more importantly, for Amazon allowing authors to self-publish their works. At the time, self-publishing had an incredibly bad reputation. It was considered by many, including myself, to be the last refuge of the author who wasn’t good enough to get an agent and a traditional publisher. In my view, self-publishing meant epic failure.

So, for over a year, I worked to get an agent. I sent out dozens of carefully crafted query letters and attended writing conferences. The first chapters of FALLING won top pick from an agent at one of the conferences. I got a cool certificate. That agent, along with two others showed a lot of interest in the book. Here’s the problem though, the pitching process is SLOOOOOOW. If an agent likes your query, you might hear back from her in a month or two requesting the first few chapters. Now, wait another two months or so, and she might request the full manuscript. Only a very small percentage of authors get this far. When/if you do, most agents request exclusive rights to consider your work, which means you don’t continue to query other agents. I got to this stage three times. In one instance, the agent declined. In another, the agent informed me that she had taken on as many new authors as she can handle. (I realize that this is basically the agent equivalent of the “I’ve decided that I’m not really ready to date anyone new right now and just want to work on myself,” classic dating rejection.) In one instance, I waited four months until the agent came back and told me she was leaving her job.

It was extremely frustrating and disheartening. Each time an agent requested my full manuscript for consideration, I felt like I was on the brink of achieving my one true dream in life, only to get that terrible NO and have to start all over again. In the year that this process was going on, I felt paralyzed. Should I start on the next book in the series? Maya, Tarren, and Gabe were chattering non-stop in my head wanting me to continue their story. But if no agent loved my book, then wouldn’t it be smarter to write something totally new that I could pitch?

Self-Publishing to the Rescue

At the same time I was bogged down in agent-pitching limbo, something curious was happening in Kindle World. Some of those loser self-published authors were actually selling a few books. Okay, not a few books. A lot of books. Amanda Hocking was one of the first self-published authors to sell a million copies of her books. This was also the time that a handful of brave traditionally published mid-list authors decided to experiment with self-publishing. A lot of authors were writing about their journey, and as I read more about their experiences, my mind began to change.

I realized something really important. I had put my writing on hold for an entire year waiting for an agent to tell me that FALLING was worth publishing. I had given them all of the power just because I was afraid that self-publishing was a cop-out. I asked myself one simple question: Do you believe FALLING is worth reading?

The answer was yes, and so the path forward was obvious. I wasn’t going to wait any longer for someone else’s approval. I was going to put FALLING into the world and let the readers decide if it was worthy. I doubt FALLING will ever top any best-selling lists, but since I published it in 2011, it has been downloaded over 10,000 times, reached the top ten ranking in Amazon’s New Adult book category several times, and generated some amazing and heartwarming fan mail. (Which I love getting and always respond to, by the way!)

The decision to self-publish also meant that I could write LANDING, RISING, LEAPING, and finally now FLYING. I could tell the story of Maya, Tarren, and Gabe.

I had that first epiphany of Maya struggling not to kill Gabe in the hotel room in early 2009. Now, seven years later, I am about to say goodbye to these characters for good. It’s been a long journey, but I’ve grown significantly as a storyteller, as a craftsman, and as a person. Thank you so much for coming on this journey with me. Don’t worry, this is only the beginning. Saying goodbye to Maya, Tarren, and Gabe will be hard, but there are many story paths yet to walk, and I hope you will walk them with me.

Read the Full Behind-the-Scenes Series

Difficult Choices – Why You Can Only Find Some Books On Amazon

April 10th, 2016 No comments
Unlocked handcuffs

Time to break my books out of Amazon exclusivity! Photo credit: Insulinde via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

As an author, I naturally want my ebooks to be available in as many places as possible. I want to put them on Amazon of course, but also in the Apple bookstore, Kobo, BarnesandNoble.com. Heck, if I could, I would dress up in a pink tutu and magically sprinkle print copies of my books onto every bookshelf in the world – The Book Fairy! (You know, if breaking into strangers’ houses wasn’t considered such a social faux paus).

Despite my personal preferences, you may have noticed in the past that only Falling, the first book in my Girl With Broken Wings series, was available on platforms outside of Amazon. The rest of the books were trapped, Rapunzel-like, exclusively on the giant retailer. Several readers have asked about this, so I’m going to lift the curtain of the publishing world and explain why authors face so much pressure to publish exclusively through Amazon…and why I’ve decided to buck the trend.

A Little Note About Amazon

Amazon is by far the largest book seller in the world; and not by a small margin. Barnes and Noble – one of the last remaining chain book sellers, is like a cute little smart car compared to Amazon’s growling monster truck.

Don’t think Amazon is a courteous, polite driver in that monster truck. No, it is all about rolling over the competition with its huge tires and selling power. Amazon knows that it benefits when books are only available on Amazon.com. It also knows it has a ton of leverage, because it can offer authors access to more readers than any other book selling platform.

Is Amazon – engines growling – going to use this leverage?

Uh, yeah.

KDP Select

Amazon wants exclusivity. Amazon has reader leverage to offer authors. What does it do?

Answer: It builds a program called KDP Select. In a nutshell, the job of KDP Select is to entice authors with all sorts of special privileges in order to convince them to publish exclusively on Amazon. Authors who sign on the dotted line (okay, it’s really just a super easy box that they click) agree to keep their books exclusively on Amazon in exchange for some pretty sweet perks.

What’s so awesome about KDP Select that so many authors would be willing to turn a cold shoulder to all their less cool publishing friends like Kobo, iTunes, and Nook? Lots of stuff, it turns out. KDP Select members can run special promotions on their books not available to other authors and set their books for free, which regular authors aren’t allowed to do on Amazon.

(Note: You may have noticed that, as of this writing, both Falling and Employment Interview with a Vampire are free on Amazon. Yep, there’s a super sneaky, complicated way of making this happen. Let’s just say that I am an author ninja!)

Probably the biggest benefit of going steady with Amazon is that signing up for KDP Select allows an author to enroll their ebooks into the Kindle Unlimited Program. This is Amazon’s book subscription service that lets readers borrow an endless supply of participating books. Emphasis on the word participating. Things may be different for Lee Child or Stephen King, but for us smaller authors, the only way to get into the program is to agree to go exclusive with Amazon.

This is a hard choice for authors. The Kindle Unlimited program offers authors the opportunity to earn more money, oftentimes more than what we can earn on all the smaller book selling platforms combined.

On the other hand, we also want to offer our books to readers across the spectrum. We know that some readers only own Nooks and that others shop through the iTunes store or through Kobo. Seems kind of mean to cut them out or force them to download a Kindle app or purchase a more expensive print book off of Amazon.

Breaking Out

So, what choice did I make? Weren’t you reading the beginning of this blog post? I went for the money, of course! I signed up almost all of my books exclusively with Amazon for the better part of two years. I kept Falling out of KDP Select, because it was already free on Amazon. This led, inevitably, to readers finding Falling on different book selling platforms and then getting justifiably ticked off when all of the rest of the books in the series were on Amazon.

I was never comfortable keeping all of my books on Amazon, but the extra income was…how shall I say, too good to refuse. However, over time, scammers learned how to manipulate the way Amazon paid out royalties on books in the Kindle Unlimited program. It’s this whole big, complicated story, but the bottom line is that legitimate authors started earning less and less. Amazon has promised to fix the system and filter out the spammers, but to me, this was as good a time as any to jump ship and go wide.

Yes, this means losing money, at least in the short term, but my hope is that with a little elbow grease and hard work, I can introduce my books to readers on all the different platforms. Regardless, it feels good to break my books out of the Amazon tower. To be clear, my books are all still for sale on Amazon, but they are no longer participating in the Amazon Unlimited Program.

And…drum roll….all of my books in my Girl With Broken Wings series and The Vampire’s Housekeeper Chronicles are available on:

I’m sorry it took me so long!

Sad Endings Make Me Sad, and Other Profound Thoughts

March 31st, 2016 No comments
sad woman

This was pretty much me for the rest of the day after I read the Red Wedding chapter in A Storm of Swords. Photo via Visualhunt.com

I just finished reading a really good book series. As per my usual, I fell right into the story, heart and soul. So when one of the main characters died valiantly saving many innocents from a dire threat and another character was permanently maimed, it felt like I’d lost two dear friends in one fell swoop.

It actually hurt me in my soul.

I definitely had some bad flashbacks to previous reading-related trauma, like the Red Wedding scene in the Song of Ice and Fire series. My favorite character was treacherously murdered in that scene. I remember desperately trying to hold myself together after finishing that chapter and then tearing up as I drove home. (Note to self: Maybe stick to playing Candy Crush at the public car wash.)

That night after completing this latest book series, I lay in bed feeling the loss of those characters. I started thinking about books that end in tragedy and came to this profound conclusion:

Sad Endings Make Me Sad

Sad books don’t sit well with me. It feels like I’ve put in all this time and effort, invited characters into my life, and then the author sucker punches me and skips away laughing at the end.

Happy endings are so much more satisfying. Yep, I clearly see the double sexual meaning in that last sentence, but I can’t figure out a good way around it. Let’s ignore that and move on. I enjoy books that end on a good note, because even after I turn the last page, I can still imagine my favorite characters alive and well living in their new happy circumstances. It’s like knowing your best friend from high school is happily married with two adorable kids just like she always wanted. You two haven’t spoken in years, but it just feels good to know that she’s out in the world doing well.

Sad Endings Are More Powerful

As I lay in bed fretting over the loss of my favorite character instead of, you know, actually going to sleep, it made me realize that tragic endings are usually far more powerful than happy endings. It hurts the reader to lose a character, and it also hurts the other characters in the book as well as the fabric of the story’s universe. It’s like a festering wound that makes the story stick with me.

A happy ending lets me close the book (metaphorically since I read everything on a Kindle), sigh contentedly, and then move onto the next book.

Choosing an Ending

All of these considerations are more relevant than ever as I put the finishing touches on Flying, the last book in the Girl With Broken Wings series. My characters inhabit a very dangerous world that has become ever more perilous at the start of Flying.

When I was originally sketching out the book, I grappled with how I wanted it to end. I could see both an ending of supreme tragedy and an ending of unity and second chances. (Trying so hard not to create spoilers!) Even as I started writing, I wasn’t sure who was going to survive and who was not.

Regardless of the final outcome, Flying is a very dark story. Tarren, Maya, and Gabe each face dire challenges, and no one comes out of the book unscathed. Tragedy has a purpose. It is a sculpting force. It can break survivors, or it can make them stronger and fuel heroic acts.

Not every character will make it to the end of Flying, and the ones who do will bear new scars. Tragedy is hard on characters and readers, but it also gives a story a profound edge, maybe makes us a little more appreciative of the light.

As for whether the book ends in tragedy or joy…you’re just going to have to find out for yourself. (You knew I was going to say that, right?)

I’ve Just Realized That I’m A Total Review Hypocrite

February 4th, 2016 1 comment
Embarrassed baby

Total review hypocrite here, nothing to see! Photo credit: Mandajuice via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Trying to get reviews for my books is kind of the bane of my existence. Reviews are more important than most readers realize. They help give an ebook credibility. Think about the last time you scrolled through a list of books on Amazon. Your eyes scanned the title and the book cover…and the star rating. You probably looked at the number of reviews too. It’s hard to miss, since the book’s rating is right at the top of each book’s page.

Reviews are also important, because many of the best advertising opportunities for authors only accept books with a certain star rating (usually at least 3.5 stars) and a minimum number of reviews, (anything from 10 reviews to 50). This is the reason you’ve probably noticed that most indie books, (including mine), conclude with a slightly desperate request from the author for their readers to leave a review.

<<< Want to write a review, but not really sure how? Here’s my quick and easy guide to writing an awesome book review>>>

But Writing a Review Is Hard…

Here’s the rub…writing reviews more than kind of sucks. At least for me. I always feel like I have to be thoughtful, clever, and insightful in my reviews, but what I really want to do is just start reading the next book in my list. Writing a review seems like homework, and once I’ve got that thought in my head, it gets lodged there. Writing a review becomes just about the last thing I want to do, along with cleaning the grout in my bathroom and clipping my bunny’s nails (which he treats with the same amount of hysterics as if I were giving him a live autopsy).

Manning Up….er, Womaning Up

But I know that reviews are incredibly important, so my goal this year is to write a review for every book I read. I’ve come up with a fail-proof system for accomplishing this – I simply won’t start a new book until I’ve written and posted a review for the previous one.

Imagine how smug and self-congratulatory I felt after making this resolution. Yeah, J Bennett’s getting serious this year. Helping authors. Doing her part. A hero? No, no, well, maybe a little.

Then, this morning, a realization hit me with the gentle tap of an aluminum baseball bat. I am a total review hypocrite.

Books Aren’t the Only Things That Deserve Reviews

This whole time, I’ve been patting myself on the back just for writing a handful of book reviews, as if books are the only things in the world that need reviews. All around me, every day I consume media, use products, and patronize businesses that live or die in a big part on reviews. Have I written a positive review of the CrossFit gym where I’ve been a dedicated member for over two years? What about the brilliantly made podcasts that I gobble up like the last chocolate cupcakes on the planet? Or any of the myriad things that find their way to my Amazon cart?

I never once considered writing reviews for any of them.

Shame on me.

My rating and review might convince another person to try out a product, business, or media that I love. That person could then become a loyal fan and continue the positive cycle.

My new challenge to myself is to be an equal-opportunity reviewer, to support all the things I really like, whether it be a book, my dentist, or the new headlamp I just bought on Amazon. I encourage you to consider posting more positive reviews as well and give a little boost to the businesses and products that have served you well.

Categories: Essay Tags: ,

How The Movie Ant-Man Kinda Sent Me Into A Spiral Of Despair

January 17th, 2016 1 comment
I just want to ruin your PB&J sandwich. Don't send me into battle against my will! Photo credit: Thomas Shahan via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

I just want to ruin your PB&J sandwich. Don’t send me into battle against my will! Photo credit: Thomas Shahan via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Ant-Man. Dude gets small. The premise seemed simple enough. Given that it was a superhero movie, there was no notion that I wasn’t going to get around to eventually seeing it. In my typical six-months-behind-the-curb-of-pretty-much-everything fashion, I finally saw the movie last weekend, even though it hit theaters in July of 2015.

My friends said it was okay. Amusing. Not as good as Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, but worth seeing. I believed them. I watched the movie. I spiraled into an ever deepening hole of despair.

Take One on Ant-Man – The Non-Hyperbolic, Normal Person’s Rendition

Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd) is just your average hottie thief (not robber!) with a Robin Hood complex looking for a second chance after a prison stint. Too bad his ex-wife won’t let him hang with their daughter, and – oh yeah – she’s dating a cop.

Fortunately, it just so happens an eccentric rich scientist named Dr. Pym (Michael Douglas) needs a guy with Scott’s unique talents to stop his power-mad protégé from recreating his too-dangerous-for-the-world shrinking technology. (Peter, debauched, wreck-of-a human-being from House of Cards graduates into a lamb-slaughtering, mad scientist for this role). Why, out of all the people in the world – including Black Widow, Captain America, and Samuel L. Jackson – does Pym choose Scott?

Stop asking stupid questions!

I suppose you also want to know why Pym doesn’t just give Scott a ring and ask, “Hey, I’ve got a bad-ass suit that shrinks and an army of ants to control. You in?” This, instead of paying a woman to talk up his massive safe to some dude who talks to other dudes who just happen to eventually talk to Scott’s adorable, hilarious, and utterly scene-stealing roommate (played by Michael Pena), who then mentions it to Scott who just so happens to shortly thereafter arrive at a key personal crisis that launches him back into his old criminal ways. Pym then allows Scott to steal his previously stated extremely dangerous, seemingly irreplaceable, and oddly perfectly fitting suit and just try it on wily nily. No worries that Scott could up and die or kill someone or simply run away with the precious suit.

Well, the answer to that is…STOP ASKING STUPID QUESTIONS. It was all part of Pym’s brilliant plan to recruit Scott, train him in the uses of the suit, and inadvertently set up a tepid romance between Scott and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lily) which possesses all the tension of a wet noodle.

Oh, and one other thing. In no actual relation to the technology surrounding the suit, Pym has also – just as a hobby – discovered a way to mind control ants to do his bidding. Can he control other things that might be additionally useful for Scott’s mission, like hornets, black widows (not the kind in skin-tight body suits) and mosquitoes carrying loads of dysentery?

What did I say about asking stupid questions? The movie is called Ant-Man. ANTS! The guy controls ants. Okay, so cue the training montage. Failures. Everyone is all frustrated because Scott keeps running his handsome face into doors. But then, poof, he gets it. He’s ready to go.

What follows is sometimes massive but usually very tiny fighting and lots of ants getting fried in the quest to help Scott.

Yep…here we go.

Take Two on Ant-Man – My Horrified Viewing of Unnecessary Ant Slaughter

If you are of a certain generation, then Ant-Man will not have been your first introduction to ant violence. That’s right, I’m talking about Antie from Honey I Shrunk the Kids. I consider it my pre-Mufasa Mufasa moment. At least in Antie’s case, he was killed protecting one of the kids from a scorpion.

In the case of Ant-Man…well, the dude straight up mind rapes ants all over the place and makes them put their little ant lives on the line to help him in his quest. Ants die. The ants were totally minding their own business, doing their thing of getting in everyone’s way and ruining picnics, when Scott up and enslaved them.

For all its silliness and the fact that I was completely aware that all the ants were CGI (I promise I’m not writing this from an anti-ant violence picket line of one in front of Marvel studios), Ant-Man made me think of how easily we dismiss insects. By “dismiss,” I mean squash them and swat them and squish them. If someone leaves their dog out in the cold, the internet is up in arms, but we kill bugs without remorse, without even a thought.

Couldn’t Scott have, I don’t know, shrunk a motorcycle and grappling hook and pretty much done all the same stuff the ants did for him? Look at Yellowjacket. Yeah, he be crazy and not at all a friend to lambs, but at least the dude realized – hey, instead of inventing a way to force ants to do my bidding maybe I just add an awesome jet pack to the suit and lasers. Cause we all know lasers make everything better.

I’m even thinking Ant-Man could keep his name without the ants, because he still gets small. Makes a certain kind of sense if you like doofy, completely un-intimidating superhero names.

So, Ant-Man, how about not killing lots of CGI ants in your next movie? I’ll let you keep the almost-painful-to-watch romance with the if-being-annoying-was-an-Olympic-sport-she’d-get-the-gold Hope. Be a hero. Free the ants!

Categories: Essay Tags: , , ,

My Recipe For Not-So-Instant Novel

June 30th, 2015 No comments
Keyboard

Go on, start typing. You know you want to.

You have a bucket list. Don’t deny it. Even if you haven’t written it down or saved it on your phone’s note app, you’ve got a secret list beating away inside of your heart of accomplishments you want to hit before the coffin closes. And, since we’ve already gone this far, you might as well admit that writing a novel is on that list.

A perennial bucket list favorite, writing a novel is a secret dream for a huge portion of our population. Why? Simple. We all have a story to tell. We’ve watched a less than impressive movie or read a mediocre book and thought, I could do so much better! Some of us dream of amazing fantasy tales or a detective novel with a plot so twisty that even the greatest minds won’t see the ending coming. Others of us have experienced incredible events in our own lives or reached a new understanding of life after many knockdowns, and we want to share our unique story with the world.

So, if writing a novel is on your bucket list, then why is that box still unchecked? Why is it clanging around in your head, all sad and haunty, like Marley’s ghost?

You can write your novel.

It’s easy, I swear!

Here is my famous recipe for not-so-instant novel:

Step One: Go to bed one hour earlier each night.

Step Two: Wake up one hour earlier in the morning.

Step Three: Spend that extra hour in the morning planning/writing/editing.

Step Four: Repeat until book is complete.

There, novel in a box. You’re welcome.

The truth is that writing a novel is no different than any other major undertaking. Generally if you set aside a certain amount of time, even just one hour a day, to focus solely on the project, you’ll eventually get it done. Writing a novel isn’t sexy. It’s about creating a habit and putting your butt in the chair over and over again.

In other words, just write. You will never, ever, ever write your novel if you only talk about it.

Here are a few more tips that will help you along your novel-writing way:

  • Outline your novel first so you know where you are going.
  • Take time to develop your characters so you have a good feel for them. That may mean interviewing them, writing a day in their life, or finding a celebrity who they look like. None of this will make it into your novel, but understanding your character will help them come alive.
  • Write your first draft with reckless abandon. Don’t worry about whether it’s good or not. Don’t overthink it. Just write, write, write.
  • Edit the hell out of your book. Unless you’re working on your 30th novel, your first draft will probably be utter crap. That’s fine. If you even created a first draft, you’re amazing. Now, go back and clean it up. Fill in plot holes. Tighten every chapter, paragraph, and sentence. Make sure your characters are consistent. Cut out all the extra stuff your novel doesn’t need.
  • Find other writers to critique your book. You may be able to find a writer’s group in your area. You can certainly find them online. Writer’s Café, Goodreads, Facebook, and LinkedIn are all great places to start looking for critique partners.

When you complete your first book, congratulate yourself. You did the thing that 99% of the population secretly wants to do but never will. Now, throw it in a drawer, forget about it, and start on your next book.

What? Don’t publish? After all that blood, sweat, and tears? Yep, my fingers didn’t stutter on the keyboard. For all but a few writers, their first book is utter swill. Yours probably will be too. That’s because writing is a craft, and getting good at a craft takes a lot of practice. The Mona Lisa wasn’t Leonardo Di Vinci’s first painting.

Trust me, this advice is for your own good. My first book was so terrible, I think it would have melted any Kindle unfortunate enough to download it. It will never see the light of day.

So, please don’t stare wistfully out the window at work and think, if I had more time, I’d write a novel. (Or insert other secret wish). You do have enough time. Anyone can find at least one hour a day. No excuses. Your bucket list is waiting.

Categories: Essay, Writing Tags: