Effortless Diversity : a book review

Some books can justifiably be defined as masterpieces. These are literary works that stand the test of time; The Classics, and all the other fine novels and texts we can read over and over again without tiring. All of us have books like that. I, for one, have always loved losing myself in words, in the geography of my imagination.

My husband, however, is not like that. If he reads a text-heavy book, it is probably nonfiction. However, a true Frenchman, he has long been an admirer of graphic novels. In the American context, these have until recently often been dismissed as (or rather, lumped in) with comic books. Superheroes and stuff. No offense if that’s your thing; too much spandex for my taste.

One book we can both agree on, now, is Saga. This is fast becoming one of my favorite series ever. It is, essentially, a space opera. Think SciFi/Romance. Yet of the deepest, most engaging kind. Yes, sexy aliens are getting naked and busy on a regular basis (That’s fun! And hey, graphic novel, so you get the artsy eye candy to go with…), but there’s so much more to it. Themes of diversity; clash of cultures; discrimination and stereotyping; the meaning of family; even the uniting power of literature; are woven throughout the main story. Adventure can be found aplenty, but for me, Saga is an inspiring example of effortless diversity. (Much like the delightful online cartoon I previously mentioned, Fated.)

15704307With my recent musing on how to address white privilege in writing, reading the recently-released sixth book of Saga was a welcome reminder that there is lots of great literature out there already fighting the good fight. In Saga, aliens come in all shapes, sizes, ages and colors. They live together, fuck together, fight each other, and generally are no better or worse than most “humans;” except way more badass. The blend makes this fantastic world excitingly familiar. Reading Saga, I can totally imagine how an inter-galactic, multi-species society might be. And you know what? All of a sudden, small differences are erased by the bigger picture. That picture happens to be an endless (and pointless) civil war, but hey, conflict has to come from somewhere.

Saga is the real deal. If you want some seriously good science fiction – and enjoy beautiful art, snappy dialogue, an un-put-downable story, thoughtful sexiness, and effortless diversity to boot – then you need to buy a copy right now. I’ll just be counting the months until the next book comes out…

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Guided by The Cards

I’m usually a person who values the traditional writing process (as described here – it’s an invaluable tool!), but these days I’m trying something different. Instead of outlining my story from beginning to end – leaving space for plenty of fun in the middle, of course – I’m letting myself be guided by the cards. Tarot cards, to be exact. Specifically the 22 cards of the Major Arcana.

Tarot has fascinated me for years. The deck I use is one I made myself, back in the days when I had way more free time. It’s not fine art, but each card is meaningful, and speaks to me on a deeply personal level. I don’t consider myself an expert, or even a regular reader, but from time to time I find peace and guidance in doing a quick Celtic Cross for myself. It’s soothing to let the subconscious take control for a while, remove all thought and decision from the process, and just allow the Universe to speak. Some people (like my husband, no doubt), concrete thinkers and evidence-based decision-makers, might scoff at the idea, but I can say that there is energy in the cards. A kind of a tingling, a sense of being drawn towards one card over another. You can feel it, and be guided by it. It’s your subconscious speaking. The hard part is forcing you rational mind, bogged down by over-analysis, to listen.

Inspired by this, I had the idea many years ago to write a romance based on the Major Arcana. These 22 cards are a journey – some people call it The Fool’s Journey. Essentially, the cards are stepping stones through a person’s development from ignorance (childishness, innocence) into maturity (awareness, empathy, understanding). At first I thought I would write the story in order – this website does a good job summarizing it.  Then I thought “Wait a minute… if I just write the story in the traditional order, I’m really just doing the classic writer’s process! That’s not much of a challenge. And anyway, you’re supposed to let the Tarot guide…” That’s when I began to change my thinking. At that point I decided to start and end with the same cards – The Fool to The World – but let the middle be totally random, depending on which card I pick at the beginning of each chapter. My experimental erotic romance, currently published on WattPad, is the result.

Major Arcana: sex, love, and Tarot , is just that. (Hey, you can’t say I don’t deliver on a title!) The challenge for me has been to keep the idea of the story in my head – yes, I already know some of what will happen before I draw a card – yet allow the Tarot to guide each chapter. So far, I’ve been pleased with how it has worked out. Sometimes there were surprises (for example, I didn’t expect The Devil to pop up so soon!), and some of the cards have stymied me briefly (Judgment, for example, was really sticky for a bit), but it’s amazing to see how it is all coming together.

Who knows? Maybe my subconscious had it right all along! Wouldn’t be the first time. 🙂

If you’re curious – and I hope you are! – check out Major Arcana on Wattpad. I do love comments and critiques!

maor arcana

 

I’ve got the cow – so have some milk for free!

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Missed the giveaway? Never fear! You can still buy it here! (Wow, I must be in a rhyming mood…)

First of all, congratulations to the eight lucky winners of my Goodreads giveaway! I’ll be mailing out free signed copies of An Amazon’s Equal later this week, along with my usual plea to kindly read and leave a review. You know how much those mean to us indie authors!

Now, a lot of people are totally against giving anything away. In a way, they’re right: all work has value, and people should be paid a fair wage for whatever work they do. When it comes to creative arts, though, there is a sticky question: What is the value of art?

Art vendors put price tags on it all the time, but does that truly make one work more or less intrinsically valuable than another? If I happen to LOVE the $10 painting, and think the $1000 painting is only ho-hum, then it’s clear which one has more value to ME. (Whether or not the art experts agree is neither here nor there.)

I do consider myself an artist. Like most artists, I have a day job – which everybody else calls a “career” – and I invest most of my time and energy into it. However, writing and imagination is an essential part of who I am. What I produce is, therefore, art, for art’s sake, not for any hope of material gain. (Of course, I do love it when people purchase my work! And yes, it IS work, and I feel I should be paid for it, just like all other types of creators.) But…

Sometimes I just want to milk that creativity cow and give away glasses of that warm, frothy, creamy fresh drink for free!

Hence the Goodreads giveaway. 🙂 Also, did you know that two of my earliest works – One Night to Tango and Taking The Reins – are always, absolutely, 100% free to read? Grab ’em here if you’d like to have a taste before you actually buy the rest of the creamery’s fine dairy products. 😉

Okay, that’s enough milk metaphors for today. Anyway, enjoy!

tango cover (804x1024)One Night To Tango  :  Meet Esme, a shy wallflower who releases her inner seductress with a dark and handsome masked stranger. He quickly sweeps her off the dance floor, through the parking lot, and up against a chain-link fence… where a whole new kind of dancing ensues. Sensual and satisfying!

cowboy cover NEWTaking The Reins  :  The local horse show seriously steams up with the arrival of a sexy cowboy. Sparks fly. Hands touch. Pants start feeling way too tight. Belt buckles are strained. Perfect for the horse-loving girl and the cowboy-loving woman; it’s all the butterflies of a first date, with the rough-and-ready action of a truck fuck!

Unite in the Dance

This morning I went to a spectacular belly dance event / brunch. Amateurs and professionals all performing to live music, glittering in their costumes, showing off all their favorite moves. As usual the dancers were a delight to watch; one was particularly hypnotic with her zills. For me, though, the best part of the event was the audience.

Belly dance has its origins in specific cultures of North Africa and the Middle East, but I believe it has truly become an international women’s dance. Women of all backgrounds, cultures, and body types have embraced it. Each dancer brings her personal take to the dance, elevating it from a cultural relic to a celebration of the feminine in all its diversity. You don’t have to look a certain way, think a certain way, or be from a certain place in order to belly dance; you just have to feel it in you.

There’s nothing better, for me, than to see women from diverse backgrounds coming together in dance. One of my dancer friends is Nigerian-American, bringing her West African flair to the stage. Another performer was Japanese-American; one came from Algeria, another from Ukraine, one of Mexican heritage, and of course some were good old-fashioned “American blend,” like me, the product of so many European ancestors we’ve lost track of where they came from originally. I sat by a charming older Chinese-American lady, and we chatted and bonded watching all those beautiful women dance. At the table next to me was a group of ladies (Somali, maybe) wearing headscarves. Later we all danced together on the open floor, along with the other giddy audience members.

Diversity, I think, means creating a space where we can all feel comfortable, where we all belong. As evidenced by the above paragraph, I come from a culture of jarringly specific labels, mostly in an attempt to be politically correct yet also open about people’s varied backgrounds. But better than pointing it out, rather celebrate it. Just love and appreciate this dance where we can come together, all of us, and share the stage.

It is better to be a part-time artist than a starving one

I have always had an affinity for art. Notably visual art, such as painting and sculpture, but also the artistry of words, and of movement in dance. True artists make huge sacrifices for their craft, devoting uncountable hours to practice, revision, and the perfection of each element. This is admirable – awe-inspiring, sometimes – and those who make these Herculean efforts become exceptional artists.

However, they aren’t always paid for it. Yes, yes, I know the whole “starving artist” thing is a stereotype, but like so many it has deep roots in reality. For me, it has a personal flavor.

Two of my grandparents were artists all their lives. That’s how they made a living. They were good, too; professional quality work, because of course they were professionals, and they were always, always working. Yet it never seemed quite enough to make ends meet. They made do, of course, like everyone who grew up during the Great Depression and matured during WWII. But the stress and strain of living paycheck to uncertain paycheck drained them. Their talent never wavered, and a passion for art was with them to the end – they were both still working on paintings the day each of them died – but their zest for life had been dampened by hardships. The hardship of being, if not actually starving, certainly struggling artists.

I remember when I was very young, even before I could read (much less write), I was always drawing. Proudly, I told my grandmother I would like to be an artist. She shook her head and said, “No, dear, anything but an artist.” This from a woman whose whole life had been devoted to art. In her admittedly brutal way, she was trying to discourage me from committing to such a difficult (sometimes painful, always uncertain, occasionally transcendent) career path. Art was always part of me, and continues to be, but after many twists and turns it turns out I followed her advice. I am not a starving artist, as she was.

Instead, I am a part-time one. It’s taken me a while to come to terms with what that means, and that it’s okay. However, the reality is most artists are also – some might say primarily – “something else.” My dance teacher works in an office; another fabulous dancer does her 9 to 5 at the DMV. (Oh, the horror!) Most painters I know are either retired, or weekend/vacation artists who paint in their extra time. Writers, naturally, are the same. You can find us hunched over laptops in cafes, typing madly while occasionally remembering to sip our cooling cappuccinos. Or, as I tend to do, sitting in front of computers in the evening, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, maybe some little snacks, waiting for inspiration to flow from our minds into our fingers (ideally the kind that requires no thinking at all, because the story has already taken on its own breath, it’s unexpected life, and is now out of my hands…). All of this outside of typical working hours.

This is why, as I’ve said before, it’s so important to keep that balance between art and day job. Luckily for me, I enjoy my job (at least, most days). It’s hard, and it takes up a lot of time – 40 hour weeks are not something I know much about at this point in my life – but that’s okay, because it’s my career and I am invested in it. Because I have to be, but also because I want to be.

We’ve all gotta pay the bills somehow or other. But that does not make our art any less important, or of lower quality, simply because we artists are part-time. Would my grandparents have been exceptional artists if they had also been, for example, lawyers or secretaries? Perhaps not, but probably so; just maybe at a different point in their lives, or in a different context. Art is in a person’s blood and bone. Nothing – not even 11-hour workdays – can stop it. But I think my grandparents would agree: if you have to choose, it is better to be a part-time artist than a starving one.

Why Sex Doesn’t Sell

There’s that old advertising adage we’ve all heard several thousand times before: sex sells. You know what I mean. Let’s say somebody has to market toothpaste, so they whip up an ad with a gorgeous bikini-clad woman lounging on a beach in the Bahamas, with an enormous pink umbrella drink and a frighteningly large, white smile. Buy our toothpaste! The implication being, if babes like this brush their teeth with our brand, then you should too – because then you will become/get with a similar babe.

Of course we all know that’s bullshit. Nobody ever had their life changed because of their choice of toothpaste brand. (Dental care, now, that is another story!) Also, I can’t be the only person who finds these sorts of ads ridiculous. They are so common, it’s not even worth me finding links to pages and pages of them. Just do a quick search and you will find more of this crappy advertising than your brain can handle. (Incidentally, sex is almost always selling women, not men. That’s another annoying piece of reality, but not one I’m going to delve into now, even though it seriously pisses me off).

No, the reason I’m here today is to offer my thoughts on why sex doesn’t sell in the realm of published writing. I have no basis for this whatsoever, except for my observations, thoughts, and experiences. It might be complete nonsense, but if you’ve read this far you might as well stick around and see what I’ve come up with. Here is my thinking: sex doesn’t sell because, fundamentally, it’s boring.

Scandalized, you ask how an erotica writer could possible think sex is boring?!

Personally, I have had the great good fortune in my lifetime – with the exception of some ill-advised dates in college, and that one time overseas… neither of which I shall share in detail – to enjoy some pretty amazing sex. However, when you come right down to it, the mechanics are just about the same every time. (Unless you know something I don’t, in which case please share!) As a sex writer, then, I have to be careful. Nobody wants to read pages and pages of what is, at the end of the day, nothing more than the ol’ in-and-out. In order to make sex sell, there has to be more. This is what makes erotic fiction so much different than pornography.

First, you need a story. Yes, a real story, with beginning, middle, end, conflict, resolution, climax, strong ending, and all that other writer-ly stuff. If the story isn’t good, I don’t care how much sex there is. The way to test if a story is any good is simple: take the sex out. (Don’t worry, this is temporary!) Now read the story. Is it still interesting? Does it make sense? Do all the pieces come together? Great! Now you can spice that baby up, because frankly life is too short to plod through stories with no sexy parts in them. Sex is a major aspect of life, love, and happiness, and I want to read about it.

Next, you need characters. Keep in mind, you are asking your readers to jump into bed with these people. (Or aliens, or centaurs, or vampires, or tentacle-beasts, or whatever they are). These characters have to be real enough, detailed enough, and hot enough, that you wouldn’t mind spending a six-hour Greyhound bus ride sitting next to them. That’s a long bus ride, so these people had better have something worthwhile to say! As a rule, it’s usually polite to be introduced to someone before ripping their pants off. Depends on the situation, though. The characters should guide you to how they might behave, and the kinds of erotic encounters they would enjoy. Let them keep their pants on, as least until they’ve met the reader properly.

What makes sex really interesting, in fiction as in real life, is who you’re doing it with. Also where, under what circumstances, and in what environment. The “how” is the fun part, once you really get down to business, but the sexiest part of the “how” isn’t the mechanics. It’s the unexpected reactions, the wild emotions, the submission to uncontrollable urges, the teasing, the release. We read erotica for that, because those are the things that turn us on. (I wish a couple of those guys back in my college days had gotten THAT memo!) So, give it to your readers! Give them tension and frustration, uncertainty and triumph, because that’s what really keeps the pages turning.

Reading back on it, I really should have titled this post “Why Sex ALONE Doesn’t Sell.” Creativity sells. Great characters sell. Beautiful writing sells (though sadly not as well as it should, because not everyone appreciates it). In the end, it’s the story that sells. In this glutted market of e-erotica, self-published sexual fantasies, dubious editing, and limited readership, you really need to have something more to sell than mere sex.

At the end of the day, though, those are still my favorite parts. 🙂