Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Blackfire, Day Two

I got in a few hours of work and finished the opening sequence. Then I had a cigarette.

Okay, I don't smoke. But if I did, I would totally have busted out a cigarette after finishing that chapter. Of course, then the smoking police would have hauled me away for lighting up in a coffeehouse - we don't allow such things here in sunny Illinois. But I'm getting away from the point.

The point is that Sara's back.

There's a bit of melancholy to the opening. While THE COLD ONES started with a scream, BLACKFIRE is a bit more atmospheric. Sara is different now. She had to be, no human being could go through what I did to her in THE COLD ONES and emerge untouched.

And the place where Sara hides is important, to her character and to the story. I've done the best I could to capture Nantucket considering I've never been there. As much as I'd love to expense a Nantucket research trip, barring corporate sponsorship that ain't happening.

So far I'm pleased. It's a long road to Mordor and back, but I love writing Sara. She's possibly the second-most-badass character I've ever written - no one beats Aurora Crawford - but she's also the most dedicated. She's still a Marine at heart, still one to step up and take the shit assignment because it needs doing and she can get it done. I do love my Sara.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

What's in a Name?

It took a long time to come up with BLACKFIRE, and right away someone pointed out that there is a 1987 Star Trek tie-in titled BLACK FIRE. That teaches me not to Google.

Sure, but it's two words, not one. And there's also an anthology of African-American writing titled BLACK FIRE and novels by James Kidman, Steve Brown and Maggie Bonilla-Thompson. All two words, which makes it a different Amazon search.

Want one word? There's plenty:

• A Native American music group focused on public activism;
• A DC supervillain (only seen in the New Teen Titans);
• A line of car care products;
• A Canadian mining company;
• A erotic magazine for black men (they got the dot-com);
• A clamping flashlight;
• A web and software development company;

and probably more.

Here's the thing: I've been mulling it all morning, and I find I don't really care.

I mean, I survived having THE COLD ONES unintentionally named the same as those damn sparkly vampires in TWILIGHT. Every morning my Google search tracker comes up with nine freaking message boards and untold amounts of fanfic drooling and fawning over those poor beleaguered Cold Ones. I want to introduce those sparkly emo twits to MY Cold Ones.

Let's talk NOCTURNEs. Ho-lee shit. From a 1999 video game to a play by Adam Rapp to one of Ed McBain's mysteries to an entire line from Harlequin (that one completely mucks up my searches), I'm drowning in NOCTURNEs. And that's leaving out Caitlin Kittredges Nocturne City series. I survived a switch from Latin to ancient Hebrew for the title of ABADDON and every bookseller in America trying to call it ABANDON.

And do we want to talk about how many books are titled SANCTUARY? (Hint: More than 400 returns on Amazon in fiction alone, starting with Faulkner's version and including Nora Roberts, Raymond Khoury, Edith Wharton and a Dragonlance book.) I knew that book would be the death of me.

I like Blackfire, both as a title and as the company name. It was the result of a long slightly-oversugared idea session in the cozy living room of my dear friends at Rivendell, as we bounced so many possible names off the wall that I think we chipped the paint.

Frankly, the only thing really giving me pause is the fact that the dot-com is taken, so I wouldn't be able to set up a promo web site for my fake company.

I was looking for something reminiscent of Blackwater, which shed its own name to become the ridiculous Xe, while evoking something physically impossible in real life and could conceivably be someone's last name as well. Blackfire was perfect.

There's a reason we can't copyright titles. (Didn't know that? You can't.)

The reason is that eventually we run out. I'll be the first to admit my titles aren't always great - I got SETTING SUNS via a reader poll, thanks to constant reader Brent Hutfless who got a character named after him for his assistance. Eventually there will be six books for the most imaginative title.

At that, BLACKFIRE's not doing too badly.

It's possible a different name will occur to me as I write it. But at the moment, I'm keeping it. And watching that, in case they blink.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Blackfire, Day One

There's a method to my madness. I didn't stop SANCTUARY just because it's an endless behemoth with no hope of publication or being, y'know, good. I stopped because I had a new book to write. Temporary title: BLACKFIRE.

And we had a good start.

Not bad for a first day, though we're nearly 2,000 words in and we're just getting to the first monster. But I think I'm doing okay at capturing a place I've never been. I've been obsessed with Nantucket Island to an unhealthy degree for many years, and though I can never afford to actually visit it, I knew when Sara Harvey ran away, Nantucket is where she went.

Plus I really love my opening line.

"Sara Harvey thought she was doing pretty well until the corpse started in with the puns."

Watch this space. I'm hopeful this one might not suck.

P.S. Thanks to Cole Gibsen and Rebekah Shelton for putting up with my endless questions. NO THANKS to the smartasses on Twitter. I ask a simple question about Nantucket and immediately the limerick war begins...

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket
His daughter named Nan
Ran off with a man
And as for the bucket ... Nantucket.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Disproportionately Sucky

Claire Light writes about women and people of color not submitting to top magazines and anthologies. She's taking a lot of flack for a poorly phrased statement that such subs are "disproportionately sucky," but the rest of the article gave me a lot of food for thought.

Specifically, she writes that women and people of color tend to stay in their comfort zone of their own community. And while I never thought of it that way, I think she's right.

It takes a leap of faith and bravery, she says, to go from the subculture in which a writer first finds his or her voice into mainstream acceptance. Most never take that leap, she says, not because they aren't good enough, but because they never develop the skills/guts/knowledge to learn the rules and then jump off the cliff. You have to know the rules, even if you intend to break them.

I'm about halfway on her side. I see so many writers - most of them women, people of color or GLBT individuals - who are simply content to keep writing for the same small readership and the same small community, who are never going to take the leap for mainstream/New York publishing, or who eschew publication altogether, preferring to write for their small critique group and never risk the rejection that comes with the big jump.

And yet it's rather bittersweet for me, as I took a leap recently in the hopes of something better for myself… and fell flat on my face. And I don't know what I did wrong. Five books in and I haven't figured out the trick yet.

Is Ms. Light right? Am I breaking some cardinal rule I didn't have any voice in establishing and of whose existence I am unaware? (Possibly the rules of grammar as well, but I'm tired, shaddup.) Is there some hidden signal in my cover letters that screams GO AWAY to editors and agents? I know my slush subs have generally gone nowhere at the speed of sound, and many of my publications have come from editors who met me in person and then bought my work, or I was otherwise recommended to them.

Most of my acceptances are from women. Most of my rejections are from men. But not all - my editors on SETTING SUNS and THE COLD ONES were both white males, and my most recent rejection was from a woman. If there's a pattern here, it escapes me.

Unless, of course, I suck eggs. You don't mind if I try to pretend that isn't a possibility, right? Thanks.

Nick Mamatas goes the other way, says that women are "on average, better writers than men, probably because they read a lot more and perhaps because males who show an interest in writing and reading as children are often gay-baited or picked on." Yikes, really? That's a little bit of the male experience of which I was unaware.

Mamatas centers mostly on the "disproportionately sucky," which is an unfortunate statement. As I have never been a slush reader, I can't speak from personal experience as to any trends in the relative suckiness of women/poc slush. I'd hope that the gender differential would be about equal. I leave that to people who actually have experience to decide. I certainly hope the people who read my subs don't automatically think I must suck because I'm a woman.

Then again, I know at least three writers who publish under a gender-neutral name for this very reason: the presumption of suckiness.

I know my own goal: To someday have a publisher who can sell more copies of my books than I can myself. I do pretty damn well in self-selling. But I'm getting tired. And the salesmanship takes time that could be spent actually, y'know, writing the damn books. My publishers are wonderful; in partnership, we put together some great products. But they're small press, with one exception, and distribution is limited.

Is Ms. Light right, and I am violating some unspoken rule that keeps me from getting published? Is Mr. Mamatas right, and there is some other factor that keeps people like me from being accepted?

Or maybe I'm just disproportionately sucky.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

more raffle prizes

As of now, my paltry offerings have been joined by:

• A copy of INTO DARK WATERS by Angelia Sparrow and Naomi Brooks;
• A complete set of Shane Moore's ABYSS WALKER series, autographed by the author;
• An original CD from folk musician Tom Atwood;
• A copy of M.B. Weston's ELYSIAN CHRONICLES, first edition.

I have also received this:

I'm a professional photographer and am willing to donate gallery quality prints of anything on my website (or other extensive catalog, upon request) to anyone who donates $50 or more to the trust up to 50 prints. They will shipped within 2-4 weeks of "McCall sale close", date to be negotiated. Forwarding me a copy of PayPal confirmation will serve as proof of donation, and if "gift" or "other" is marked in the PayPal designation they do NOT charge a service charge.

Well Wishes and Peace to all touched by this,

Roberta Mander Maghouin
SomewhatBent Images

Please donate via the web site as directed, and remember to forward me your paypal receipt so I can enter you in the drawing. Thank you all for your generosity.

Friday, February 12, 2010

taking care of our own.

Friends, I want to tell you about the McCall family.

Bud and Dawn were a St. Louis couple with four children, struggling as many of us do - Bud had been laid off from his job, a very common occurrence here in the sunny Midwest. Unfortunately, their load became much heavier last weekend.

Today they bury their 10-year-old daughter.

A housefire struck last Saturday, burning their home to the ground and killing little Tegan. Bud sustained serious injuries, both smoke inhalation and burns, from trying three times to get back into the house and rescue her. Several members of the family were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

Meet them.

My heart breaks for them as they endure the worst pain that can strike a family. As a mother, I cannot imagine anything worse - something I cannot imagine surviving myself. They're close friends of my dear friend Geoffrey, and he has been there holding their hands through this tragedy. And like so many of us, I wish there was something I could do.

Actually, there is. And you're part of it. Yes, you.

A website has been set up to help coordinate donations, which are being handled by the St. Louis Public School Foundation. The McCalls had no insurance, and they lost absolutely everything in the fire.

According to Geoffrey, they're getting along pretty well for clothing donations - something our circle of friends has in abundance is Schtuff. That which is needed is listed on the website, along with multiple ways to help and news links, so you know it isn't one of those email forwards.

Here's what I can do, and I need your help.

I am raffling off autographed copies of all my books, including a couple of rarities. Every $5 you donate to the McCalls gets you an entry in the raffle. Email me a copy of your donation receipt at elizabethdonald at yahoo dot com and I'll put your name in the hat.

Already have my books? Fine, if you win you can choose an equivalent gift certificate to the Literary Underworld.

You have through next weekend. There will be a fundraiser at the close of Conflation next weekend, and I will draw the names then.

In addition, 100 percent of sales of the Aardvarks on Literary for the month of February will be donated to the McCall Family. Aardvarks, as you'll recall, are ebook short stories downloadable for $2.50.

For my Literary Underworld authors: if you are willing to donate your share of any sales we make at Conflation to the McCalls, please email me immediately. Anything you want to add to the raffle? Email me.

EDIT: Added to the prize pile: autographed books from M.B Weston, Shane Moore and Angelia Sparrow, with others checking in regularly.

We could box up piles of clothes that may or may not help, we can commiserate and grieve with them at a distance, but let's be blunt, folks: what they need is cash. They will need a hundred things we'll never think of for donations. They'll need to pay medical and funeral bills. They'll need to find a place to live and set it up as a new home for their family. The world - and the bills - don't stop turning for tragedy, more's the pity.

None of us can fix what happened to the McCalls that horrible night. But if there's something I know about my community - my friends, my readers, my fandom - it's that we take care of our own.

I hope you'll help us. And if you simply cannot spare any money, I hope you'll repost this in your own corner of the internet, in the hopes that we can boost the signal and spread the word. If ever a family needed our support, this one does.

Thank you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

waiting... waiting...

My birthday present arrived today.

It's a glorious toy. My darling stepmother came up with the idea on New Year's Day: an early boon for my writing career and bookselling business in the form of a new MacBook Pro. My mother and stepfather, my grandmother and my dear friend Andy all joined in, and I get a new computer to replace my five-year-old iBook that has needed several hundred dollars' worth of repair in the last eighteen months.

In case I haven't said it enough yet.... thank you, family. Without your support, I'd never have written any of my books. (I leave it to you, Dear Readers, to decide if that's a good thing.)

Given how I usually use things until they're worn down to nubs... for example, my fourteen-year-old microwave, my hand-me-down television that snows over if I plug my computer into the same power strip, the ripped-up remnant of my mother's old fruits-and-vegetables couch, the surviving battalion of bookshelves dating back to my first college apartment - my iBook still has a bit of life to it.

But a shiny new MacBook means I can do all the things I need to do and stop worrying about how I'm going to replace the iBook when it dies. Plus, the kid gets the iBook, which will help him become more computer-literate and make him happy. I spent last weekend installing about 400 parental controls.

I am waiting to play with my new toy.

See, I thought it would be easier to transfer my files from the old laptop to the new one via my wireless network. It was an option on the Migration Assistant screen, so why not use it? It worked like a charm, until I saw that it would take TWENTY FRIGGING HOURS to complete.

What? Transferring from my father's old desktop to my iBook in 2005 took about twenty minutes. I even called Apple and asked how I stop the transfer so I can try it again with a Firewire cable - I could cannibalize one from my modem/router setup. They said it was a bad idea - it could screw up the transfer, require me to reinstall the entire operating system. Best to just let it finish.

Eleven hours and forty-three minutes to go.

I am so frustrated. In this amount of time, I could have manually transferred every file I wanted, including the music and TV episodes. I could have created a new user profile and customized the whole thing, reinstalled my software by hand, set all my preferences and organized every file, and still had time to try out that funky trackpad. Hell, by this time I feel like I could have RETYPED all my files from scratch and restored my modem and router as a side note.

I've had my shiny new laptop all day and haven't gotten to play with it.

Setting aside my frustration with Apple - and yes, contrary to popular belief I do have frustrations with Apple, just because it's my tool of choice doesn't make it perfect - it seems the Muse has chosen a particularly bad time to wake up.

With both my old laptop and new one mating with pornographic abandon on my desk, all my files are temporarily withheld from me. (But Donald, how can you be talking to us? Shh. That's between you and me, grasshopper.) The Muse therefore thinks now is a great time to fix that nagging plot point in BLACKFIRE, the working title of the new book.

I didn't always outline every book. But I've had so many cases of writers' block, so many instances of wandering narrative and painting myself into literary corners, that I've fallen onto extensive outlining to keep myself on track. Usually a solid outline makes me happy - it's a roadmap to a new adventure.

But more than that, an outline is the story as it exists in my head. I know how a book begins, and I usually know how it ends. In between I have some good ideas, and I know it'll twist and turn around a bit, but as a whole I know my book before I get started.

The problem is, the book is never as good on paper as it was in my head.

Take THE COLD ONES. I knew from the beginning how I wanted it to end. I wasn't sure about the flashbacks and I didn't know who would die and who would live, but the final scene... that was a standoff I wanted.

It was an ending that had great power over me. The whole time I was writing the book, I kept that ending in my head. Everything was tilted toward that ending - it was practically inevitable. I dreamed that scene, it had so much power in my imagination. There were times when I got bogged down in other scenes and wanted to skip ahead, write the ending and then go back to this. Almost did it a few times, too.

And when I finally wrote it, I thought, "Well, that sucked."

It didn't suck. It just wasn't nearly as good on paper as it was in my head. Not the first time, or the second. I was still futzing around with it when I finally sent it to the publisher. At a certain point, my editors have to wrest the damn manuscript out of my hands and tell me to pour a goddamn bourbon, it's done. Fortunately Tyree Campbell is more diplomatic than that. The man has the patience of a saint. So does Mary Moran, who lived and suffered through three (3) Nocturnal Urges books.

No book is ever really done. Not if you ask the author.

What does this have to do with the status bar on my new laptop?

The Muse thinks she knows how to solve the problem with BLACKFIRE. And I rather like the story... but it isn't as good as it should be. It isn't as good as I want it to be. And that bodes trouble, as it's only an outline and a few character sketches at this point. I don't love it, not like I loved THE COLD ONES and DREADMIRE before that and ABADDON before that. I love my books like a mother loves her children, and if they turn out a little rougher than you'd like - DREADMIRE, I'm lookin' at you - they're still your babies. Still your books.

BLACKFIRE wants to be good. BLACKFIRE wants to rip your heart out and feed it to you. And the story just isn't there yet. Nobody's going to care who I kill. Nobody's going to be afraid of my monster.

And yet.

The Muse keeps showing me Sara.

She's sitting on a beach, but it's not some sunny photo out of a screensaver. It's the cold dark hours in the middle of the night, past the time the barkeeps have closed the doors and swept the peanut shells into the street.

The wind coming off the ocean is cold, just cold enough to keep her awake but not chill enough to drive her indoors. It lifts her hair off her neck - it's longer now, not much but a little. She doesn't care about the sand in her shoes. She's listening to the gentle murmur of the Atlantic rushing relentlessly up the shore and retreating back to the depths.

She's alone. She watches the ocean, and she doesn't care about the cold. She's not hunting anything. She has a gun, because she's Sara. But it lies beside her - carefully placed on a rock, so she won't have to clean sand out of the barrel later. She doesn't want it.

The sound of the waves keeps her awake. That's what she tells herself. That's why she never sleeps, but she wouldn't think of going anywhere else. It's the waves, their constant rushing whisper up against the rocks and the sand. Its faint metallic smell wafts up the shore and into the open windows of the cottage behind her, the only place she calls home.

There is blood on her hands.

The Muse is losing her patience. The status bar crawls to the right. Slowly. And tomorrow there will be news to write, software to install, chores to be done, meetings to attend. Tomorrow there will be no time to play.

BLACKFIRE. It wants to be written. It doesn't feel ready. The story isn't ready. But Sara is.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Okay, so I haven't updated my Flickr in six months. Time to catch up. MOBOT, by the way, is short for "Missouri Botanical Gardens," to which I am addicted.

Mobot Summer 2009 (Smaller than usual because my membership expired and I had to wait several months to afford the renewal.)

Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis.

ArsonFest 2009

Chain of Rocks hike/Six Flags (My family's Grandkids Week)

Fall Foliage (with bonus Kiddo)

Indianapolis War Memorial

Mobot Train Show 2009

Mobot Winter 2010

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

your 900th blog post on Macmillan v. Amazon...

I don't need to summarize it; if you care about this particular fracas, you already know. My sympathies are mostly with Macmillan, as they have the right to overprice their ebooks if they choose, and while I think the graduated pricing plan is a poor idea, Amazon's bully tactics and bad faith make me disinclined to champion their cause.

That said, there are a lot of people screaming about boycotts and protests, and frankly, that's not helpful. While Mom and Dad fight, the authors for Macmillan's imprints suffer. That includes a good percentage of the science fiction genre, as Tor Books is part of Macmillan.

Look, we authors have no control over 90 percent of what happens to our books after they leave our hands. We accept this fate because we have no choice. But despite Amazon's cute little blog post that they will "have to capitulate" to the price set by Macmillan for Macmillan's own product, they have not restored the books - including print books - for the authors.

As John Scalzi points out here, authors are freaking. And rightfully so. Amazon is a big source of retail - at least half my vampire sales come from them - and if I were with Macmillan I'd be drinking myself into a stupor.

So if you care either way, buy the books of Macmillan's authors. Buy them at Borders or Barnes and Noble - hell, find them at your local independent. B&N's online store prices only about 50 cents to a buck more per book than Amazon. The authors have absolutely no say in this particular fracas, but they will be the ones to starve while it sorts itself out.

Help them stay alive until Mom and Dad kiss and make up.