Philippa Grey-Gerou

 

We just received the sad news that the British actor Robin Sachs has passed away.

I think it’s no secret that Emery and I cast most of our main characters when we write.  Afterwards, the characters develop their own personalities and traits apart from the actors and their characters that inspired us, but that actor is always the seed.

Robin inspired many of those characters for us.

From Peter Oberon in our Rule of Three series to Sebastian Byrne in the Frost and Byrne series we are currently working on to the eponymously named Robin Faulkner in Creatures of Sin, Robin Sachs, with his jocular snideness, cutting humor and, honestly, unconventional British handsomeness, has in many ways been our muse since we started writing together, lo these many years ago.

Thank you, Robin, for everything you’ve done, both for the fandoms you have been so generous to with your time and talents, and for us, as our inspiration and encouragement.

We will miss you.

 

Sometimes the hardest thing in writing is knowing the right point to stop.  Sometimes it’s knowing when to give in.  And sometimes it’s knowing that the tease is more important than the reveal.

 

We’re struggling with this in two stories right now.  In one, we built up this McGuffin into a big thing in one of the character’s minds.  But in the end, we glanced off the reveal and moved on.  And it left a hole in the story.  A build-up needs a reveal.  You have to pay it off if you’ve made the reader wait for it for so long.  And we punted it.  Except we didn’t really notice until the third read-through.  Thankfully that story is short, so we can expand on it, make the payoff and meet our word quota.

In the other, well, we didn’t build it enough.  (It’s probably my fault.)  We set up a tension between two characters who are attracted to each other but shouldn’t act on it, developed it for two chapters when suddenly WHOOP BOOM, they’re having sex.  Um, what?  Again, it’s entirely a timing issue.  With these two, it’s not about the having sex, it’s about the getting to sex, building the relationship and the tension before they both (and hopefully the reader) pop.  To be honest, I’m not sure these two should even *have* sex before the big conflict.  Even though it goes completely against one of the character’s personalities not to.  Not in a character breaking way, but more in a tension building way.  He wants this, any other time he’d just have it, but in this case he shouldn’t, so he holds back, which only makes him want it more, which leads to some frankly delicious tension.  If we as the writers can get our acts together and do it right.

Emery’s rolling her eyes right now.  She thinks we’ve given up on these two.  Little does she know how much they’ve been poking at me.  But we have to get the other story done and submitted first.

So there’s a piece of advice for writers.  If your story isn’t working, look at the timing in it.  Are you rushing things?  Are you paying off your hooks?

Timing is everything.

(And by the way, if you don’t know what a McGuffin is?  Go look it up.  And then watch The Maltese Falcon and some Hitchcock.)

 

Probably because both Emery and I come from academic backgrounds, all of our stories involve some kind of research.  It may be simple Wiki searches for basic information, but we tour locations on Google maps and dig around in State Department travel warnings and medical databases and all sorts.  We never know where a plot idea is going to take us, and while you should write what you know, you can’t know everything.  Which is where the fun comes in.

Blood on the Mountain was a great example of this.  We went into it knowing we wanted to have some sort of a bodyguard relationship to parallel Keith and Tanner in Under a Rock for putting them together into an anthology.  So, enter Gabe and Nathan. Now, why does Nathan need protecting?  Okay, um….

At this point my blog reader spit out a great article on using shipping containers to create affordable housing, and that was our hook.  But where?  Afghanistan?  Africa?  Where?  Someplace exotic, but something we could visualize.  Someplace in need.  I don’t even remember at this point how we hit on Rio.  Probably in relation to the Olympics.  But when I started reading about Rio and the favelas and the drug wars there, it turned out to be just the perfect place to set this story.  Everything we document in the story is accurate.  The favelas are the slums of Rio, outcast and ignored until the drug violence becomes too great or too much of a detriment to the tourist areas.  They back up literally to the back of the hotel strips along the beaches, so close to all that wealth while living in these hovels with no running water, no security and no hope of change.  City planners have tried again and again to close the favelas, but are never able to.  The people move to other fringe places, and usually are able to move back a few months later when nothing is actually done.  A plan like Nathan’s could radically change life for people in these areas.  It’s too bad it’s only in a story.

But that’s one of the joys of writing.  Yes, write what you know.  But combine it with things that you don’t know, give yourself a chance to learn something new.

I now have to go back to researching Gondwanaland geologic ages and die-outs for fossil deposits in Australia.  I get all the fun jobs…

 

The problem with being a woman writing fiction about men is that you have women parts, which are very different from menly parts and sometimes do really nasty things that you had no way to see coming.

Such has been the case for me this month. I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Before you run away screaming, this isn’t about to become a cancer blog. I have other places to talk about that. But I did feel like I needed to let our readers know because a) there may be someone else going through this out there who would like to not feel alone and b) it is going to have an effect on our India Harper production.

Fear not, the next (last?) book in the Creatures of Sin series is all done but the editing, and we have a new series that Emery kickstarted which we will hopefully be producing on as well. But it may (most likely will) mean that the shorter stories we’ve been publishing will trickle down to nothing. Which disappoints me. I like those little pieces. They’re a fun way to develop characters and relationship without having to delve into a terribly complex plot. But they’re also the easiest to put aside and pick up later. So this we do. I may be screaming for a distraction over the next few weeks, but right now it’s the best idea to sit back and let those ideas lie fallow and ripen until we can pick them up again in the fall.

In the meantime, we both hope you enjoy what we have completed, and hopefully you’ll be as excited as we are when the new stories start reappearing. And for anyone else out there who’s going through the challenge of breast cancer, good luck and best wishes, and if you want to visit, let me know. This is all new to me, too, and there really isn’t a manual!

 

On Tuesday night, I made the mistake of asking a question.

“So, how are you feeling about how the story’s going?”

Because honestly, I wasn’t feeling so great about it. We’d been writing very slowly after a sudden burst of energy the week before, but that might just have been the burdens of work. The previous chapter and a half had been like pulling teeth, and some of the character elements I’d thought we’d agreed on seemed to be going by the wayside. But if Emery felt good about it, I wasn’t going to fight it. It’s one of the C’s of team writing. Compromise. Which is not to say I won’t fight like the devil for something I think is important, but if it’s not, I have to give way. Which leads to the other major C. Communication. I needed to know where her head was at so I could follow along.

“Honestly?” she answered (I’m paraphrasing) “Not so great. We skipped all this stuff two chapters ago which is making this all feel very disjointed.”

I was gobsmacked. Not because she was wrong, because she wasn’t (and she’s enjoying rubbing my nose in the fact that I’ve admitted that), but because that hadn’t even been on my radar. I had a whole different set of issues and had been clueless about hers. We talked about it and agreed we need to go back and flesh things out, but it left us both not feeling very good about the project.

That’s the peril of communication. Sometimes you hear things you don’t want to. But you still have to ask the questions and have the conversation, even if it leaves you on shaky ground.

So we’ve been ignoring that project. For now.

In the meantime, Emery’s been reading one of our old, abandoned WIPs. It was meant to be the next book in the Rule of Three series, but we’ve brought that series to an end more for market reasons than for lack of passion for the characters. The book was a little darker than the rest of the series (hard to do, considering!) and it left the characters in a bad way with no out. Parts of it we adored, and the premise overall was strong, but it was in that series, and that series was done. End of.

Until Emery asked a question.

“What if…”

Well, the what if was genius. Absolute fucking genius. And as soon as I said yes, she was off, renaming characters and working on titles and being very quiet on her end which either means she’s working in meatspace or she’s rewriting. I know I’ve said this before (and she grudgingly accepts it) but she is the best rewriter I know, bar none. I have seen her take perfectly decent stories, work her magic on them, and end up with something better than brilliant. I’m so excited to see what she’s doing until I get to jump in and play, too.

Asking questions is dangerous. But it’s worth it. Even when you don’t get the answer you were expecting, or get an answer to a question you didn’t know you were even asking, it’s still worth it. Every time.

 

 

Emery and I both consider ourselves to be literate, literary people. I have a master’s degree in humanities (folklore). Emery has an honest to god English degree. I read Pride and Prejudice annually. Em just finished a critical reading of Frankenstein. We both love doing literary criticism, even when it gets ridiculously post-modern.

But that’s not what we write.

Don’t get me wrong. I love what we write. I’m one of the few authors I know who rereads my old work, not just to learn how to improve my work, but because I love our characters. But I would never consider any of it to be literary. We basically write the equivalent of Harlequin romances. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a place in the world for stories you don’t have to think about, that you just feel and enjoy and then move on. There need to be M/M stories like that as well as het, and we enjoy writing them, even when we piss and moan about how hard it is. But there are days when we both ask ourselves “Shouldn’t we be writing something better? Isn’t it time to move on?” We both start feeling like hacks, like we should just hang up our pens and do something else with our lives.

But then something happens. We get a review. Or one of us gets bored and opens a half-finished draft. Or we see something on the news or TV that sparks our interest. And suddenly we’re off again, shooting sentences back and forth until we’ve finished another one.

I’m proud of our stories. I love our characters, and I have fun with the situations we put them in. If they aren’t the deepest, most complex things out there, that’s fine. Other people can write those. Hell, we might write those. But for now, this is what we’re writing.

It’s all good.

 

Some days, putting words down on paper is a challenge.  Too many days lately, it’s been bloody AGONY.  Those are the days where my only communication with the internet world is one or two tweets.  When I need to make a menu and grocery list but the thought of even writing down the days of the week makes me nauseous.  And too many times, it’s the days when I’m due to write our blog post.  It’s easy to wave it away.  “It’s just one post, they won’t notice.”  Or “Emery posted last week, so we’re fine.” Until I look at the blog and realize it’s been almost a month since either of us posted.  So this is me, pulling up my big girl panties and writing.  Not necessarily exciting words, but this, too, is part of the writing process.  We shall overcome.  Woot.

We are actually working.  We’ve been getting the revisions done on the next Creatures book, which is going, but slowly.  (In fact, I think the current round is with me.  Whoops.)  Emery’s getting poked by her zombie series (which is not a series about zombies, although she should be working on that, too), and I am determined, DETERMINED to finish my zombie as well.  

Emery alluded to zombie stories in her last post.  These are the stories that you have declared dead and are determined not to write on any more, and yet they won’t leave you alone, poking at you and distracting you with guilt and flickers of idea without ever giving you a full-blown muse moment.  I’ve had one of these haunting me since the Pittsburgh RT Convention in 2008. 2008.  I had put it aside after reworking it twice and never being happy with it.  But it’s only two scenes away from being done, and my writing mind knows that.  It’s been very “You can’t have dessert until you eat your meat” with me, and I blame it in part for my current writing stagnation.  So I am determined I am going to break the curse.  I am going to finish this story, and I am going to submit it, and then I won’t ever have to think about it ever, ever again.  I’ll be able to move on to write other things.  I open the file every day, and if I can write just 100 words a day on the missing sections, eventually it has to end.  Right?  

Oh, please God, be right…

 

It’s back to school time, which for my kids means losing all the extra video game time they’ve been squeezing in around camp (especially my teenager who hasn’t had camp), and for me it means purging all their clothes to figure out what they need new and then going shopping. Which is okay. I like school shopping. I’ve always been an office supply junkie. Back in college, I would come up with a new organizational system every semester just to have an excuse to buy new stuff. I would also buy textbooks for classes I wasn’t taking, but that’s another geek story.
 
I miss school sometimes. I spent the first half of my life going right from high school to college to grad school. But in the end, it was too much. I burned out, stopped going to classes and in the end never finished my graduate degree. Even now, twenty years later (and how the hell did THAT happen?) just the thought of going back to school makes me nauseous. But I know it’s a possibility. My mother went back for her bachelor’s and master’s at my age and got her PhD at 60. I’ve got time.
 
It does make me envious of Emery, though. When we first met seven years ago, she was wrapping up an English major and planning to go to med school to become an ME. But she ended up dropping that idea for many of the same reasons I had with my advanced degree, and she went out to have some life experiences that included becoming a published author and moving to Philadelphia on the 4th of July (symbolic) and dropping a bed on my head. But now that original idea has reassearted itself with roaring ferocity and she has grabbed it with both hands to wrestle it into actuality. Just her study plan for the MCAT is a thing of beauty. I’m a little bit jealous that she has this great vision for herself and a little bit selfish that it’s going to mean she’ll have less time for me and our writing, but most of all I’m excited and eager and totally cheering her on (probably more than she wants me to).
 
She’s going to be magnificent.

 

The Pittsburgh Pirates were briefly first in the National League Central division this week.  They are having their best season in eighteen years.

The Monongahela Incline, a 635-foot inclined railroad track that carries riders 370 feet to the Mount Washington neighborhood overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, was shut down due to heat related electrical problem, but reopened Saturday afternoon.

 Odd little newsbites from the week for me to notice, especially since I don’t care about sports and don’t live in Pittsburgh.

 But our characters do.

All of our characters live in the real world, in space if not in actuality.  I’ve lived in and around Philadelphia for over twenty years, so I know exactly where Graeme, Diana and Peter’s homes are, where the nonexistent Schuylkill College stands (apologies to the kids and dogs whose park I stole for it), and even many of the restaurants and coffee shops that appear.  Even simple things like the cars that appear we do research on.  I just about blew out Emery’s ear with a squeal when the Masarati we had given our bad guy in the first Rule of Three book showed up on Top Gear.  Especially since it was PERFECT for the character.

 For our Creatures of Sin characters, the connection is a little more distant, but we do try our best.  We spent five days in Pittsburgh a couple of years ago for the Romantic Times conference and came to love the city.  We walked around the downtown area a lot, talked to locals about good restaurants and drove around a bit to get a taste of the town.  When we started writing David and Carver’s first story, I would have Google Maps open on the hybrid setting, zooming in on neighborhoods and comparing them to the descriptions on the Pittsburgh tourism webpages, finding the perfect places for homes and buildings.  I’ve memorized the pages for the Pittsburgh police department and familiarized myself with several of the college campuses.  We know the world Carver and David, Scotty and Chris and Kieran and Lucas all inhabit as though we lived there ourselves.

 The first rule of thumb for writers is to write what you know.  That is as true for setting as it is for plot.  Knowing the area you’re setting your story in gives your writing a level of detail you don’t have writing someplace you’ve never been.  And even if you haven’t been somewhere, you can fill in some of the knowledge with good research. 

 But it’s a great excuse for a road trip.

 

Emery and I both follow a lot of sites and blogs every day.  For me it’s gardening and webcomics, for her it’s skeptics and information.  Some of our stuff overlaps, some is really of interest only to us, and some we share.  It’s a good way to keep the pumps primed, looking for new ideas or input for current ones (or, more aggravatingly, source material for stories we’ve either a) already completed or b) have given up on and don’t need encouragement).

Em checks Wikipedia every morning.  Today she tweeted “Wikipedia’s article of the day amused me. Oh, Doomsday, you would have been so much better without those last ten minutes. #doctorwho” and then followed it with “Sometimes a wall is a good place to end.”  The article in question is here.  For those of you who aren’t familiar and don’t want to bother reading the article, Doomsday was the last episode of the second series of the revived Doctor Who.  It’s a great story, full of action, adventure, romance, scary monsters, joyful reunions and one heartbreaking separation.  And that’s where it should have ended.  Unfortunately it didn’t.  Instead, the writer/show runner went for a mawkish, manipulative, overly sentimental half-reunion that ended in One Perfect Tear(tm), which for many of us spoiled the impact of the rest of the story.

But then, that’s always the challenge for any writer.  Knowing when to quit.  Whether it’s a term paper or a novel, you get to a point where you have to think, “Is this really adding anything?  Or am I just distracting from my main premise/thrust/emotion?”  Unfortunately, more often than not for novel writers, asking this question often means lopping off a couple thousand words at the end.  Emery and I have had to do this too many times to count.  But she’s absolutely right.  Sometimes a wall is a good place to end.

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