NaNoWriMo 2016

I haven’t updated at all until now about my progress for National Novel Writing Month 2016, mainly because it went so smoothly. I reached 50,000 words on November 13. A record for me, by the way.
I don’t know why the words came so freely this year, other than I had a solid idea in September and fleshed it out (notes, not an outline) in October. Some things that had happened in my past had long been waiting for a way to express themselves, and it turns out the idea for this year’s NaNoWriMo was the perfect medium.

Some Characters Return

In 2012 I wrote a piece of flash fiction, which was well-received on a site where I posted short fiction in response to a photo prompt. The flash fiction piece was about a young woman hiding the body of a baby in the wall of a half-finished house. Almost every commenter said, “You have to tell the story of how that happened.”

In November 2012, I did, and the result was Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season, a literary novel about a successful author (so, not autobiographical) and her husband who find a baby’s bones in the wall of a room they’re renovating. The author, who’d suffered a stillbirth some years before, wants closure for the abandoned baby and sets out to find who put the baby in the wall.

The novel’s working title was “Amontillado,” from Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” which involved burying someone alive in a wall. As the story moves back and forth in time between roughly present day and 1944, the author has to face reality about her life and her marriage, but the twist comes when she discovers whose baby ended up in her wall.

I intended for it to be a standalone, but as someone who beta-read the MS pointed out, I left something hanging.

For NaNoWriMo 2016, I brought some of the characters from 2012 back, put them solidly in 2016–more or less–and had a new secret dumped in the lap of the author, another mystery for her to become involved in.

This one is more of a “real” mystery–I think–though like Supreme Madness the death in question occurs some years before, it’s pretty obvious who did it, but there’s a twist at the end.

This year’s working title is, Mournful Influence of the Unperceived Shadow, taken from a line in another Poe story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

Yeah, I have a Poe thing. In fact, he watches over me as I write.

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Edgar Allan Poe, watching from his perch atop my bookcase.🙂

Hitting a Brick Wall (No Pun Intended)

I’ve met (exceeded) the word count goal for NaNoWriMo this year (60,521 words) and have been working on winding up the story. I’m down to the last few chapters and scenes, and for some reason I’ve put off drafting them. I know where I want the story to go, I know the ending, but I’m stalled at getting there and didn’t know why.
The recent turning back of the clocks means I’m waking at 0630 (really 0730 to my brain), a time just before dawn when there’s some light in the sky–enough to wake me–but it’s still quiet before neighbors get moving off to work. The last few days I’ve used that time to lie in bed, run through the story thus far, and think about how to get to the ending.
This morning I realized I was putting off writing the ending because I abhor stories where the resolution is that the female protagonist is in danger and has to be rescued by the male protagonist. This isn’t a new thing. I’ve always hated it.
When I write my spy stories, my female protagonist never hesitates to face danger because, hello, she’s trained to deal with it. This year’s NaNoWriMo story features a strong woman, but she’s an author and former English professor–not a kick-ass heroine. The male protagonist is a former Army Ranger turned private investigator.
Ideal set-up for the dreaded, female-in-trouble, man-comes-to-the-rescue ending, right?
That, I realized, is why I hesitated–no, couldn’t summon the wherewithal to write it. I would be going against my authentic self as a writer. And with that epiphany, came the ideal solution to the dilemma.
What is it, you ask?
Wait and see.
Yes, I’m evil that way.
P.S. If you want to read some excerpts, go to my Facebook Author Page or to my Instagram account, paduncan1.

Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New!

Wait, we’ve got a few months to the new year, don’t we?

Of course we do. I’m announcing a new cover for an old book. Well, it’s not that old. It came out in 2012.

I’m working on a little project to update the covers of my short story collections to make them stand out more. It’s been fun and has stretched my PhotoShop skills, but I like the results.

So, have a look.

Fences and Other Stories

This was a collection of some literary and fantasy stories, ones I’ve always been fond of. Here’s the cover I selected from CreateSpace when I published the collection in 2012.

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2012 Cover

Not bad, but I could do better–or so several people told me. Four years later, I know about a great site called Pixabay, which is a large repository of public-domain photographs. You can use the photos commercially and without attribution–though I’ve at least given Pixabay an attribution. Pixabay’s selection is extensive, though the more obscure or detailed you get in your search, the fewer returns you get.

The title story for this collection (“Fences”) involves a white, picket fence, which this cover doesn’t evoke at all.

A search on Pixabay, and I got more than enough to choose from.

I selected this one, imported it into PhotoShop, added the title, subtitle, and byline (of

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2016 Cover

course), and this result, I think, is more true to the title story.

This is one of the advantages of indie publishing: If you want to refresh a cover or even the interior (I, uh, may have found a few typos.), it’s relatively easy to do. Your book isn’t available for sale for a couple of days until the databases communicate, but for me, it was worth it for a better-looking cover.

What say you?

 

Blood Vengeance

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2012 Cover

I used to be into minimalist covers. I wanted people to be attracted to the story inside, not pretty cover art. Yes, I was naive. When Blood Vengeance, my first collection of espionage stories came out in 2012, I thought this cover, again from CreateSpace, was eye-catching. I liked the cover color and the stark font for the title.

It resonated with me, and with some readers, because when I sold it side-by-side with another book, which had art on the cover, the minimalist Blood Vengeance cover out-sold the other.

After a few years of reflection, and learning about the importance of a good cover for an indie-published book, I came to realize the cover was dull as rust.

Another excellent resource for indie authors is SelfPubBookCovers. For relatively low prices (most well under $100), you can purchase a professionally designed cover, which you can customize yourself, either on the site or in PhotoShop, which is what I did. (It can also be imported into other graphics programs and sites, e.g., Canva.) For the price, you get a 300 dpi jpeg suitable for a print cover and a 72 dpi jpeg for a Kindle or ebook cover. All you have to do is give an attribution to the cover’s artist, which SelfPubBookCovers provides.

You can also pay extra for more customization, including a back cover and a spine, and for additional covers for a related series of books. I purchased a cover from SelfPubBookCovers for my 2015 novella, The Yellow Scarf, and I was wowed by the result.

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2016 Cover

Here’s the new cover for Blood Vengeance. Again, I feel as though this cover, even in its simplicity, is more eye-catching and relates better to the title story (“Blood Vengeance”).

The other thing you may have noticed is a slight change in the byline. The espionage genre is mostly a man’s game. That’s changing. I’m certainly not hiding the fact I’m a woman who writes about spies, but bearing in mind the person who picks up a book on the basis of its cover, why not give myself a little extra step on that break-in ladder? Again, I don’t hide my gender–you’ll find it on the “About the Author” page in the book.

What’s Next?

Expect new covers for 2012’s Spy Flash and 2015’s The Better Spy, as well as a new cover for the other 2015 novella, My Noble Enemy.

And before the year is out–[insert drum roll here]–cover reveals for Spy Flash II and my first novel, A War of Deception.

Yes, you read it here first. In 2017 my very first, standalone novel will come out.

Are you as excited as I am?

P.S., I doubt it.😉

 

Why Do I Write?

Possibly the second most-asked question for writers, after “Where do you get your ideas?”, is “Why do you write?”
 
I’ve reposted the meme about (paraphrased) “writing is like breathing; if I don’t do it I die” several times. A bit dramatic, of course, but I’ve spent so much of my life writing, I can’t imagine doing anything else. When I got a job as a reporter on an aviation magazine, it was a died-and-gone-to-heaven moment: They paid me to write about what I loved, airplanes.
 
I write because it’s how I communicate best. Often, the spoken word fails me, but the written word never has.
 
I write because I feel deeply about the world around me. When I saw genocide in the Balkans, I had to write about it. When I saw a disproportionate number of black men killed by police, I had to write about it. When I see injustice, racism, sexism, etc., I have to write about it.
Writing for me is catharsis. I’ve exorcised the demons of my father’s suicide and my mother’s alcoholism by writing them into my fiction. As I said, when the spoken word fails me…
 

How I Got Started

I started writing stories in elementary school with my weekly list of spelling words. You remember–the exercise where you had to use each correctly in a sentence. My sentences comprised a story, usually about horses.
 
One year for Christmas, I got an alphabet, rubber-stamp set, and I set about printing a newspaper for my neighborhood–based on what I heard my mother and her friends talking about at the kitchen table. I hand-printed, letter-by-letter, a half dozen copies and left them on doorsteps. Needless to say that didn’t go over well with my mother because I’d essentially repeated her gossip. The rubber stamp set mysteriously disappeared.
In high school, my English teacher caught me writing fan fiction in her class. She confiscated my notebook but gave it back to me the next day. “Keep writing,” she said, “just not in my class unless it’s an assignment.” My very first spy story she accepted as an assignment for class. My first book of short stories, Rarely Well-Behaved, I dedicated to her.
In college, I was the first non-English major to be published in the literary magazine–my first published sci-fi story. (It sucked, as I discovered when I found it thirty-plus years later.)
I had a break in writing after college when I taught school for a few years. I got a job as an editorial assistant for an aviation insurance consortium, and that led to my dream job writing about airplanes and aviation for the FAA. While I wrote articles and briefing papers and white papers and studies and regulations and manuals and congressional Q&A, I still wrote fiction at home.
But it was a long, long drought of having my fiction published–more than thirty years. So, I decided it was time to retire and write for myself.

The Big Mo Builds

That first year after retirement, nothing got published. I remembered how much I disliked those rejection notifications, but I kept at it. First came a story in a start-up lit mag; then, another. Publication in an anthology. Placing well in a contest. Another anthology. More lit mags. Another contest.

In between were agent rejections, self-publishing some short story collections, small publisher rejections, and a few more agent rejections.

Still, all this has made me feel I’m on the edge of something I’ve wanted my whole life, something that’s about to happen. I’ve always said if I could simply get my stories in people’s hands they would find something to like about them, that they would want more.

In the midst of all this, I stopped being the writer others said I should be and became the writer I’m supposed to be.

Why do I Write?

Because it lets me be vulnerable and forces me to be authentic.

What more can you ask of life?

Pick a Cover, Any Cover – Update

Actually, I only want you to pick one of two (now three) choices. Easy, right?

A couple of months ago, I mentioned I’m trying a new type of promotion for my work–giveaway short stories. I have two in print: “Spymaster” and “Blood Cover.” Using canva.com, I came up with great covers for them, which I’ll share in an upcoming post. I have a third story about ready for printing, and this cover is proving to be a challenge. That might be because of the subject matter.

Writing from Current Events

I characterize myself as an “historical/political thriller” writer, meaning my works use history and current events as a basis for the fictional story. With these giveaway stories, I’m practically in present day, i.e., they have been prompted by news items I’ve seen this summer.

For example, “Spymaster” is based on a series of real events where American diplomats in Europe and Moscow have been harassed allegedly by the Russian security services (think, the old KGB). “Blood Cover” is about the perils of living in a theocracy with harsh methods of punishment.

The next giveaway short story to come out is called “Best Served Cold,” and it involves something that invokes either sympathy or ire, the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cultural appropriation aside, I write stories essentially where the characters tell me to write them. Sometimes those characters look or are completely unlike me. I believe a straight person can write about gay issues, a black person can write white characters and vice versa, that cisgender writers can write trans characters, etc. However, it is incumbent upon us to be authentic to all our characters and not to devolve into stereotypes.

I had a painful experience a couple of years ago where a contest-winning story was pulled from publication because I, as a western white woman, had dared to write a story wherein the protagonist was an aboriginal man from Australia. I had carefully and thoroughly researched as I wrote, and that aboriginal man “dictated” his story to me. Someone complained I wasn’t following Australian cultural guidelines, and the publication’s editor caved to a single person’s criticism and removed my story. (Joke’s on them. That story was later published in an anthology.)

All that being said, I was skeptical of my ability to write a story about the murder of a black man without offending anyone. But, sometimes writers have to offend. I did my research, I drew on distasteful things I’ve witnessed in my life, things that have made me angry but which I, as a white person, thought it best to be silent about.

That’s the thing. Silence is tacit acceptance of injustice. So, I wrote the story, “Best Served Cold,” and I took measures to make certain it was authentic.

“Best Served Cold” Back Cover Copy

To help in your choice–coming up in a bit–here’s the back cover copy for “Best Served Cold” to give you an idea what it’s all about:

Nathan Hempstead has long been the United Nations Intelligence Directorate’s cyber-guru. A hack, a tracking app, anti-eavesdropping tech, you name it, he can do it. For nearly four decades he’s worked in an environment that not only honored his genius but also kept him free of bias and racism and let him indulge in his favorite pop-culture fandom, Star Trek.

A critical Directorate mission fails because a dictator’s access to social media didn’t get blocked as planned. In fact, Nathan didn’t bother to show up to monitor the operation. The Directorate’s operational head, Mai Fisher, wants answers, not only for why the mission failed but why a critical employee, and a friend, let her down.

In his office Mai finds Nathan, seething with anger he directs at Mai, but when she presses him for what’s wrong, he has a cardiac emergency.

In hospital Nathan tells Mai about a son he thought no one else knew about and how that son had become another statistic in a deadly standoff between law enforcement and black men.

Mai knows how to get revenge; she’s done it before. Nathan, however, doesn’t want her help. He already has a plan, and it involves the most unlikely ally in the world.

Nathan teaches Mai the subtlety of an old Klingon proverb: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” She comes to understand, as well, that black lives do matter.

“Best Served Cold” Cover Possibility 1

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Cover Possibility #1

 

Let me give you some background on why I picked this as a possibility. I liked the sense of movement, the blurred background, the indistinct human figures. I could write a dissertation on why, but that’s not the point.

The “BLACKLIVESMATTER” overlay is supposed to be graffiti-like, but I’m not one hundred percent happy with how it turned out.

I’ve used blue on the title and my byline to imply cold. I didn’t really want a cover which implied warmth, given the subject matter and the allusion to that famous Klingon proverb.

What I like about it is its modernity and mostly, the movement aspect. That appeals to me for some reason.

What do you think?

 

“Best Served Cold” Cover Possibility 2

This possibility has a number of things going for it. It’s bright and stark.

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Cover Possibility #2

There’s a scene in the book where someone likens the flow of blood over asphalt to how the ocean flows over sand, and I thought this implied that.

The red on the cover isn’t quite blood red, and, unfortunately, it’s something I can’t change.

The warmth of the cover color contrasts with the title. You don’t look at this and feel cold.

However, the meaning of the “best served cold” proverb is that you’ll enjoy your revenge if you let some time pass, i.e., that the person won’t know what hit them when revenge comes. It’s not a cooling down period; it’s to make the revenge “hotter.”

What do you think?

 

New! “Best Served Cold” Cover Possibility #3

It’s great when you have friends who are real graphic designers, unlike moi, who is a hopeless wannabe. Thanks to Becky Muth, here’s a third possibility you can vote for:

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Since computers and hacking figure in the story, this may be the ideal cover for this story.

It’s stark, like the story, has a bit of an air of mystery about it, and ties in more obviously than cover possibility #2 (or #1).

I have a new favorite. What about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Pick the Cover

In the comments below, tell me which cover you like and why. Here’s why you should vote: I’ll pick a winner at random from the commenters and send you a copy of the three giveaway short stories when they’re all in print.

What do you have to lose? You get to express an opinion and have a chance to win free stuff!

I look forward to reading your comments.

To Boldly Go…And I Did

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I’ve had few constants in my life, so to have something be part of it for fifty years is certainly a milestone.

September 8, 1966, a Thursday, was within the first week of school, and negotiating with my parents to stay up to watch a new television program was a contentious issue. I persisted, using, I might say, logical arguments: my homework was done and checked; I could use the small TV in my room and not disturb anyone else (though my father preferred all television be supervised); and I may have stretched the truth a little when I said this new show was like a Saturday morning cartoon.

I won, and the rest is personal history.

Issues with Sci-Fi

My mother didn’t like the show because it was that “science fiction” stuff. I’d been a sci-fi fan since my grandmother (her mother) introduced me to Superman comics when I was a pre-schooler and taught me to read using them. I discovered Marvel comics in elementary school, and my local library had a small collection of sci-fi books and magazines.

Back in those ancient times, sci-fi novels and mags had fairly lurid covers: scantily clad women pursued by leering aliens or images of grotesque space monsters. I’d been having nightmares that summer, and my mother attributed it to my reading “all that weird stuff” rather than typical adolescent angst exacerbated by her alcoholism.

My father thought sci-fi wasn’t educational, that it was escaping reality at the least, psyche-damaging at worst. I would read Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein at the library, returning there to finish books or short stories rather than checking them out and bringing them home.

That summer, my mother had sent me to a Baptist camp in southwest Virginia where a woman confiscated a Heinlein paperback which had cost me my allowance for a month and told me it was a sin to read such “trash.” (A youth minister assured me I’d get my book back when I left, and he was true to his word, perhaps the last minister in my life to be so.)

All of these parental concerns were pretty generally held by people who didn’t understand science fiction. I read on, and I watched Star Trek.

A TV Show Can Be Life-Changing

I’ve never done cosplay of any kind. I find nothing wrong with it. I simply don’t have the personality for it. Rather, the philosophy of Star Trek appealed to me more than imitating it. Oh, be assured, I indulged in typical fan behavior. I went to conventions. I tried to buy the shooting script of my favorite episode (“City on the Edge of Forever”) written by my favorite author (Harlan Ellison) and was, thankfully, outbid, because I couldn’t have afforded it anyway. I collected Star Trek novels.

Star Trek got me on the road to writing. My first “coherent” stories I wrote were Star Trek and Man from U.N.C.L.E. fan fiction. It wasn’t called fan fiction then; it was only writing to me. To this day, I wish I could write “good” science fiction, but whenever I try, it comes out dystopian.

Star Trek got me interested in astronomy and physics, but no matter how hard I tried, no matter what logical arguments I used, I couldn’t convince my high school counsellor to let me take physics. Too bad back then I didn’t have this argument: There are doctors today because of Leonard McCoy and Beverly Crusher; engineers because of Montgomery Scott and Geordi LaForge; scientists because of Spock and Data; and astronauts because of the vision of Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry. We have cell phones and talking computers and medical scanners and ion engines and many, many more things because of Star Trek. We send probes to the planets in our solar system for the sole reason of “Let’s see what’s out there.” I became a pilot because that was the closest I could get to space, and, yes, that Cessna 150 I learned to fly in was my Enterprise.

Mostly, Star Trek showed a young woman who’d grown up in the shadow of the Cold War, who’d participated in nuclear attack drills, that there was a future, a good one, one to strive for.

There was an episode called “Operation: Annihilate,” the final show of the first season, where Mr. Spock is infested with a parasite that causes excruciating pain. He manages to get the pain under control without medication, to Dr. McCoy’s amazement. “Pain is a thing of the mind,” Spock said. “The mind can be controlled.” Later, he struggles to maintain his control, saying, “I am a Vulcan. I am a Vulcan. There is no pain.”

Sometimes the pain of my youth was physical, from a mother who couldn’t manage her own demons; sometimes it was mental, from that same individual. At night, in bed, I would murmur, “Pain is a thing of the mind. The mind can be controlled. There is no pain.” It became my mantra.

Star Trek saved me.

A Personal Connection

When Star Trek was twenty years old, I was an associate editor of an aviation magazine. We regularly did features called “Famous Flights” and “Famous Flyers,” historical articles and the more obscure the aviation history the better.

In the summer of 1986, the magazine’s editor was on vacation, and I was acting editor. I decided one issue’s “Famous Flight” would be one that, on the space-time continuum, hadn’t happened yet. I wrote a feature about the twentieth anniversary of Star Trek.

Gene Roddenberry was unavailable for interviews, because he was busy trying to convince some studio to produce “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” but at a con in Baltimore, I managed to ambush Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, his wife, to confirm a missing piece of biographical information about “The Great Bird of the Galaxy.” You see, Roddenberry had been a pilot, too. That was my hook for justifying the article in a conventional aviation magazine. We pilots like to talk about the aircraft we’ve flown, and I wanted the readers to know exactly which aircraft Roddenberry had flown for Pan-Am after World War II. (A Connie, by the way.)

All our articles got run through my agency’s public affairs department to make certain we didn’t say anything embarrassing about the agency. That gave me some worry; if the public affairs officer who read our articles decided my Star Trek piece was inappropriate, it wouldn’t get published.

No email then; we passed documents around by hand, and I came back from lunch one day to find the public affairs officer’s comments in my in-box. He hadn’t changed a word, and he’d written a note that said, “This is great! Boldly go!” We published the article in the

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My 20th Anniversary Star Trek article, framed and hanging on the wall of my writer cave.

September-October 1986 issue of FAA General Aviation News.

The editor groused a bit on his return, said it wasn’t aviation related, and didn’t take my word for it that public affairs approved it. We got no negative reaction from our readers. End of story, I thought.

A few weeks later, an envelope arrived from the mail room, addressed to the “Editor, FAA General Aviation News.” The magazine’s assistant editor showed me the envelope. In the upper left corner where the return address usually goes was a small U.S.S. Enterprise and the words, “Paramount Studios.”

Oh, sh*t, I thought, Paramount is suing the magazine for that article (an issue the disgruntled editor had raised). The assistant editor opened it, and this is what was inside:

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A letter from Gene Roddenberry to the “unnamed writer” (me) of the “very well written article” about Star Trek, also framed and hanging in my writer cave.

Needless to say, I was speechless. How on earth, no pun intended, had Gene Roddenberry seen an article in an under-read, low-circulation government aviation magazine? The assistant editor asked the Government Printing Office for a list of subscribers, and there was Roddenberry’s name. He was a pilot, and he subscribed to our magazine, and he’d read my article, and I was beside myself with many emotions.

You see, because Star Trek saved me, something Roddenberry had probably heard from thousands of fans, but this simple note meant everything to me; it validated twenty years of being a fan.

I see that article and Roddenberry’s letter every day when I sit down to write or edit, and, unbidden, the words come into my mind:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise,
its five-year mission, to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life
and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before!”

And I write. Because Star Trek saved me.