We Need a Hero Who Looks Like Us

It began in 1977. Somebody…God, the Goddess, whoever…said, “Thou shalt,” and I did. Thirty-seven years later, and finally, I can say, “It’s done.”

I wrote a story about a girl with a mythical destiny. Along the way I learned all sorts of stuff—like, there is a male model of myth. Male heroes fight their way out of things, killing a lot of people along the way and making a huge mess which someone has to clean up, and you know who, right? Not that Lisen doesn’t fight; she does. Not that Lisen doesn’t kill; she has. But after every step I went through to get here (write a book, check; write more books, check; rewrite the first book, done; self-publish, start all over again, self-publish again, start all over again, all check; self-publish all three books for real in the end, check) I realized that something had to give.

Back in 2005 when Revenge of the Sith was released, a short documentary appeared on the extras DVD. It was called “The Chosen One.” In it George Lucas explained how Anakin Skywalker was, indeed, the Chosen One of the Jedi prophecy. As he showed us why this worked (something I already understood), he spoke of how Anakin/now Darth Vader lost some of his power with the Force when he was maimed to the point of near-death.

Wait a minute, whoa, that’s not how I see it. Power comes from within, not from the physical body.

Snap.

That’s it. Who came up with these myths—the ones on which we base all our fantasies and life-changing stories? They may come from myths from the times of matriarchy, but they’ve been redressed and retold for the profit of men so many times that they now follow the very-much-physical male model.

Snap.

So I asked myself, “Self, how can I change this? What must I do to take my female protagonist without female baggage from the point of being the ignorant-young-person-with-no-idea-who-he/she-is and turn her into the hero of a myth based on the power-from-within female model?”

Oh, and then there was this other thing. A reviewer of book 2 (Tainted) said, “In leaving her parents and childhood on Earth behind, Lisen has been forced to rise to the occasion and prepare herself to become the adult her empire requires. This transition parallels the mental and physical changes of puberty, and thus might especially appeal to the young adult reader.” – See more at: IndieReader.com.

Well, that was an assignment I hadn’t anticipated. I was the kid who, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, replied, “Peter Pan.” And I was going to have to make growing up look like a good thing? I sat back, considered where Lisen was going to end up at the end of the story. Did it play up the perks of adulthood, you know, the good stuff? What good stuff you ask? Oh, let’s see, responsibility, freedom that isn’t freedom, life choices that wring your heart. Yeah, that sort of thing.

Okay, so Lisen ends up…oh, wait, I can’t give that away. Not now, not ever. You have to read the books. But I looked at the ending, and here’s what I decided. There’s resolution to the turmoil she suffered throughout the books. Life ain’t perfect, but she’s able to look at what she’s been through with calm acceptance. And there are rewards for her hard work and commitment. Which is the way life is when you’re a grownup, if you accept being a grownup.

So, let’s see, given the mission of telling a story, with a female hero in search of a metaphorical grail, with an alteration of the traditional male-dominated paradigm of myth and with an ending that makes becoming an adult attractive, did I succeed? Only time will tell, but if you’re interested, read Fractured and Tainted, the first two books of Lisen of Solsta which are free until 2/26/2015, and then check out Blooded, the final volume.

In the Beginning

What a few weeks it’s been. After avoiding the holidays entirely (except for the incessant ads on the television), I’ve managed to begin my new book in earnest. Even took the first scene into my writing group last week. The verdict? Well, that’s what I’m here to discuss today.

“Beginnings are such delicate times.” Thus did Frank Herbert write in his SciFi classic, Dune (p. 441, Kindle edition). And, oh, how very right he was. Where and how to open the story is one of the most critical decisions a writer must make in any writing endeavor, whether it be a novel, a memoir or an essay. In my case, it’s a novel, and although a great deal of the setting is well established, years and many events have intervened.

So, where did I begin? Did I begin with a moment of movement and the near-immediate introduction of conflict? Did I hand the reader as little back story as possible in order to avoid confusion as I have often cautioned others in the group to do? Hell, no. I wrote a scene with too many names, too many explanations—in short way too much detail—and not a hint of conflict. And boy, did my workshop come down on me. Hard.

They didn’t actually say, “This is not where the story begins,” because they don’t know what the story is. But they knew I’d dropped them into a maelstrom of TMI and not enough story, and they were none too happy about it.

Feeling a little defensive, I dutifully took notes, then started adding a few of my own as the light began to dawn. This was not the beginning. In fact, this particular scene had no place in the story at all. It turns out my tale begins with what was the second scene, with the addition of one character in order to complete the establishment of the moments I will call up for remembrance at the end.

And when I rewrote the new opening and the scene that follows it, everything came together like a piece of Ikea furniture when you finally figure out what that one diagram actually means. All the building blocks of a delicate but powerful story lay before me eagerly awaiting assembly. Now, the story begins. Let’s see what my workshop has to say about this.

Shaking

Tomorrow I greet a bunch of strangers and hopefully regale them with the story of my 37-year journey writing the Lisen of Solsta series. This is hard for me (like it isn’t hard for everybody?). It’s hard because I have an anxiety disorder. It’s hard because I’m a zaftig woman, a very zaftig woman, and people tend to judge me as not terribly bright on first impressions. It’s hard because I’m an introvert who is uncomfortable in groups of unknown people. It’s hard because… Oh, damn, it’s just hard.

I’ve prepped my presentation. I’m planning on speaking off the cuff, but I’ve written out notes to keep me on topic (and not wondering off on some tangent or other and using up valuable time—an hour is a lot but not unlimited). I’m taking a few props. I chose not to use PowerPoint this time as I’m not familiar with it and couldn’t think of more than one slide I’d actually want to put up for this particular “lecture.” So I’ll be passing around the various self-published versions of the story—one of which I actually printed and bound myself with the help of my father—for them to ooh and ah over. (I’m not actually expecting oohs and ahs, but a little appreciation of my commitment would be nice.)

I’m taking a sign-up sheet in case they want to be notified of the publication of book 3 (hopefully near the end of December). I have a hand-out of my web sites and sites that might be helpful if any of them want to self-publish. I have four pens, a sign that says “Please make checks payable to…,” and a butt load of book marks. Oh, and books. Yes, I’m taking plenty of books. Just in case, you know. And a single printed-out manuscript copy of a scene from Fractured.

Do you know how hard it is to pick a sample to read in front of a group? When an agent or publisher requests sample chapters, they mean chapter 1 through whatever number of chapters they ask for. Easy-peasy. But for a reading, I feel that a true taste of the spirit of the book is required. This meant finding a scene where Lisen was at her outspoken best, but one where I wasn’t giving the bank away by reading it. I tried several scenes from both published books and finally settled on the end of Chapter 6 from book 1. Lisen is telling off the sooth who got her into all this trouble in the first place, and it contains a lot of questions that I do eventually answer (but not until the end of book 3).

So that’s where I’ll be tomorrow (Saturday, November 22)—at a library in Ontario, California, shaking inside but smiling and breathing deeply to keep the nerves from sending me running from the room. I plan to bring my MP3 player so I can listen to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” before I begin—you know, just to shake out the cobwebs. I’d like to find someplace private, say, the bathroom, where I can dance like white girls dance. And then I’ll step out and shake the room up. Well, at least I hope so. Wish me luck.

Applause, Applause, a Little Applause

Many, many years ago, I began collecting buttons. Not the kind you use for fastening clothing; the kind with statements on them. You know, the original memes? My first one, given to me by a guy in my senior English class in high school after the summer I first fell in love with The Lord of the Rings read “FRODO LIVES,” in dark blue letters on pale pink. Many more TLoR buttons followed—“COME TO MIDDLE EARTH!,” “FRODO FOREVER,” “FRODO FREAKS OUT,”  and my favorite, “FRODO GAVE HIS FINGER FOR YOU.” I keep those in a small cloth drawstring pouch in my Wedgewood tin along with the rest of these treasures.

The summer after high school I visited Wales, Ireland, England and France. I must have come home with a dozen buttons from that trip. My favorite is the one that reads “UNINHIBIT.” Well, it was the 60s, after all. I loaned that one to someone who never returned it (and if you’re reading this, I want it back). There were also the requisite 60s staples—“MAKE LOVE NOT WAR,” “LONG LIVE THE ETERNAL NOW,” and “MELTS IN YOUR MIND, NOT IN YOUR MOUTH.” Others that were not so common were “EATING PEOPLE IS WRONG” and “UP IS A NICE PLACE TO BE.”

I also own several political buttons, from Tom Hayden’s Senate campaign in 1976 to Kerry/Edwards in 2004. I have a great quote on a beautifully crafted piece which reads, “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got!” credited to Janis Joplin. And how about “NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO THERE YOU ARE”? Ain’t that the truth.

“HOMOPHOBIA DESTROYS FAMILIES”

“to Life, AIDS ACTION COMMITTEE”

“PRO CHILD PRO CHOICE”

You can see it’s an eclectic selection (though the politics remain fairly stable). I even have one that simply says, “HERO,” in white on red.

Today I’m a hero to me. Today I can announce that I am now officially “Award-Winning Author D. Hart St. Martin” whose second book in the Lisen of Solsta series, Tainted, won the Indie Reader Discovery Award in young adult fiction. See their review. Long live the eternal now!

front cover shot - low rez (2)

Celebrate this event with me. Both Fractured and Tainted books are free for Kindle from 5/30 through 6/3/14.

*The theater cat from Archy and Mehitabel

Craft versus Crap

Last week I made the mistake of critiquing something online that was written by someone I hardly know.  This person didn’t ask me to critique it; it was only a general call for comment on a small opening paragraph in first draft.  Now, personally, I think sharing a first draft is like sharing an uncooked pie—hard to cut and even harder to get out of the pie tin.  In addition, the person didn’t know me or my work—I don’t have a “name” or reputation—and had no reason to trust a word that I wrote.  And I wrote plenty.  (When will I learn?)

But this is not about my woeful and misbegotten critique.  It’s about respect for the craft.  Any craft—painting, acting, architecture, dancing, singing, writing, whatever—anything that requires experience, practice, time and the input of others who know what they’re talking about.  Shortly after I posted my lengthy critique, encouraging this person to get some more practice in, get input from a writing group, etc., before attempting to publish, I got slapped hard (my name wasn’t mentioned, but unlike my private critique, this was public) for being “mean and vicious.”  Condescending and arrogant I’ll accept, but mean and vicious?

Anyway, I swore off critiquing online where my tone of voice and my facial expressions can’t be included in the picture and where they don’t know me from Eve so who am I to say anything negative.  Then I moved on with my life.

Last night on American Idol, I watched as three very talented, very experienced and very committed judges (Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban) gave magic golden tickets for the next stage of the competition to contestants they felt had a chance and denied the same to those they felt either needed to practice more to try in another year or needed to reconsider their life choices.  They rejected these people (the ones the show followed through the process) in as gentle a way as they could while still being honest.  Most of the rejects came out of the audition room in tears, hugged their friends and family and appeared to pretty much get on with it, some vowing to work on improving and then return to try again.

A couple, however, got pissed.  The following are not direct quotes, but they capture the essence.  “That Harry Connick is stupid.  He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”  “I’m the best American Idol contestant ever.  They’re idiots for turning me down.”  The gist was that these people hadn’t been listening.  They didn’t care about craft; they cared about fame.  And that’s the stupidest way to approach the creative life where fame is rare and fleeting and the work and the process should be the real reward that you seek.

My advice to this person I insulted badly was to learn the craft and then finish the book (with all the hard work that entails, not to mention the writing) and only then to consider getting it published.  I see too many books shot up to the magical place in the sky where electronic books go to live that haven’t been rewritten once, nor have they been proofread or edited by anyone other than the author.  This gives all of us indies a bad reputation.  Yeah, what you, the unwilling-to-trust-the-process author, do is screw it up for those of us who struggle with commas and “just” and “only” and why-would-the-character-do-that-when-they’ve-never-done-it-before dilemmas.

So please, I beg of you, do this one thing when you choose any creative endeavor.  Give a shit.  It matters.

FREE

For the heroic teenager inside every a woman, a female hero who carries none of the usual female baggage into the story.  In Fractured, the first book of the Lisen of Solsta trilogy, Lisen views her non-sexist world of Garla through the eyes of a 17-year-old young woman who has just returned from a 7-year sabbatical on modern-day Earth.  Get her for free July 1-31 only.  Fractured on Smashwords in nearly  every possible e-reader format.  Just fill in the code at the top of the page when you check out.

I Don’t Want to be One of Those

I have often thought of myself as the kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes.  You know, the one who points out the emperor’s buck naked?  I look at things that others take for granted and ask WTF.  This does not aid my popularity.  Most people don’t want to be pointed out as fools, no matter how the fairy story goes.  I’m about to open my mouth again, so get ready for the tar-and-ruffled-feathering.

I signed on to Facebook back in December of 2010 for the sole purpose of using it to promote my writing.  I had nothing published at the time, but I figured I’d require some time to adjust to social media.  I adjusted, and not quite a year ago I established a page for my series, Lisen of Solsta.  Dropped like a dead balloon.  An initial rush of 18 likes and then nothing for many moons.  I let the page languish, occasionally posted bits of news and then moved on, remaining active on my personal page.

About a month ago, after posting a comment to Anne Rice’s page, I was contacted by a wonderful man who edits books for a living and who, even after I declined his offer of editing my next book, shared my page with others and invited them to like it.  I got to 30 likes within a couple of days.  This opened up the world of Facebook’s analysis and various data on the activity on my page.

Over the next several weeks, I got to 49, but I’ve been stuck there for a week.  Can’t get one more person to like my page to get me up to 50, and I’ve been somewhat of a pain in the butt about it.  How come all these other writers are crowing about 300 likes, 400 likes, and I can’t even get to 50.  Yeah, how come?  I don’t know the answer, but I do know something and I’m about to dress down the emperor.

Here’s how I likely got most of likes 19 through 49.  Message to my page:  “Hi, just liked your page.  Please like mine.”  With appropriate link to get me there.  Dutifully I would comply.   I was networking, and this was great.  Making friends with other writers.  What a rush!  What I didn’t know was a page cannot like a page, so all those pages liking my page didn’t count towards my quantity of likes.  Nor did my like count if I got there directly from my page.  (Check it out; you don’t even have to like it.)

But I digress, ever so slightly.  My point is this.  Anne Rice has over 700,000 likes.  Her “People of the Page” are readers of her books, fans of her books, hence fans of hers.  They didn’t make a deal with her that if they liked her page, she’d reciprocate by liking theirs.  She earned those likes because she is a writer who has written multiple best sellers and influenced these people’s lives to the point where they wanted to share some little part of her by participating on her page.

Not so with my likes #19 through #49.  I had to barter for their love.  Are any of them actually interested in what I’ve written?  I believe one or two have bought my book, and maybe they’ll read it one day.  But the rest?  A deal struck between two attention-starving artists.  How can that be right?

And more.  Most of these writers with their multiple hundreds of likes pound out one book, seek out little or no counsel on what they’ve written, maybe edit it once, maybe—just maybe—proofread it once, then toss it up onto Amazon for Kindle publication.  Because that’s all there is to writing, right?  Who cares if the grammar and punctuation suck?  Who cares if the sentence structure is shit?  Who cares if the formatting looks entirely unprofessional?  Writing is writing, right?

Wrong.  Writing is a craft, a skill honed over time.  Like a blacksmith with a sword, a real writer pounds the steel once and calls it a first draft, then folds it over on itself, often  many, many times, until  she can offer up a weapon which in its unity is much stronger than its components (in this case, the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the scenes and the chapters become a work of art known as a book).  She allows others to beat the steel so that her weaknesses get worked out of the metal by the strengths of others.  Writing is a craft, and it is work.  Making up a story isn’t writing; it is merely mental masturbation.  It is in the execution that mastery can shine, but only if one is willing to give over large chunks of her soul.

I know I’ve gone on long enough for a single blog, but here’s the thing.  All those likes for writers (many of whom do not respect the craft) from other writers (many of whom do not respect the craft) are empty.  Just a popularity contest.  Yeah, the more likes you have, the more attention Facebook pays you, but they signify one thing and one thing only—how many asses you had to kiss to get them.  These people aren’t your fans; they’re bartering partners.  I’d rather my likes came from my fans.  And if that number remains at 18, I can live with that.  Because those people can’t wait to read my second book, and I don’t want to disappoint them.

Check out my web site which will connect you with, amongst other things, my Lisen of Solsta Facebook page.

The Prize

Months ago I began my first “official” post to this blog by talking about my adventures in self-publishing and why I’d taken on such a daunting task.  It was a multiple-choice question, with “All of the Above” being the correct answer.  One of the answers (answer B, I believe) encompassed in that All of the Above was “I wanted it read, in its entirety, by someone who felt no imperative to like it.  No imperative to hate it either.”

For some reason I can’t fathom, I’ve put off sharing the results of that adventure on my blog.  I’m shameless in shouting it from the rooftops (irritating as well), but I’ve said nothing here.

Cue the drumroll….

I received my review from IndieReader the beginning of this month, and although I didn’t win, I did get a 5-star review from a reviewer who mirrored back everything I’d stuffed into my little 304 page tome.  She GOT it!  Not only did she get it, but I know now that my vision manifests on the page with such clarity that it remains intact once it reaches the reader .

Do you know how amazing to me that is?  I’ve been living with this vision for over 30 years.  Its ultimate fulfillment does, admittedly, remain incomplete until I’ve finished the last book in the trilogy.  (Do people even refer to them as “trilogies” anymore?  Or do they just use “series” to cover all contingencies?  Hmmm.)

There is a key to this reaching, and my reviewer even mentioned it.  A few years back, I made the decision to send Lisen, the hero of the piece, to spend a few years on earth.  Important years, ages 10 through 17.  Now we view a large part of the story and the strange, nonsexist world in which its characters live through the eyes of someone who knows us as her own.  She may be Garlan, but she often steps back to study her world as we as humans would, giving the reader a sense of accessibility that had previously been lacking.

I did it.  I wrote my best.  I rewrote my best.  I formatted for publication my best.  I designed a “professional” cover even though I’m anything but an artist.  I put every bit of best that I possess into Lisen and into Fractured, and it worked.  I hope one day that the borders of Lisen’s niche expand to include many more readers than she currently has nipping at my heals for volume 2 (Tainted, due out late this year).  In the meantime, I take pride in the fact that although I didn’t win a prize from IndieReader, to me I won the whole damn lottery.

Shut up and Write

I made a significant decision today about how I’ve been approaching the writing/rewriting of book 2 (Tainted) in my trilogy (Lisen of Solsta).  I’m going to let the forest be.

As those few who frequent my blog know, I’m writing a trilogy about a young woman named Lisen who believes she was born on Earth but discovers within a few pages of the beginning of book 1 (Fractured) that she is not human, and Earth is not her home.

What are now books 1 and 2 were once book 1 of a slightly different trilogy in which Lisen never spent any time on Earth.  I invested a couple of years into pulling that book together.  A couple of drafts made their way through my writing group.  And then I changed everything.

The short of it is—Lisen went to Earth and then came back, and I broke up the big book into two books with a concluding volume still in the imagining process at the moment (though my notes are quite detailed and I do know how it ends).  I worked on Fractured for a couple more years, continually refining until I was satisfied.  Then I independently published it, both in paper and electronically, and entered it in a couple of contests, the results of which are still pending.

Although I have tackled (and achieved) perfecting the electronic version over the last several months, I’ve also had pressure from my solid block of a dozen or so fans who continue to clamor for Tainted.  So I’ve kept at the reworking of the draft which, when I began, lacked any reference to Lisen’s Earth experiences and contained references to plot points which I chose to eliminate in order to make room for new, more productive twists and turns.

(It is truly amazing how many little tiny changes must be made in order to accommodate one added character.  And the choices I’d made proved more complicated to incorporate than I’d imagined.  Not complaining, mind.  They’re good, and they’re worth it, but here’s where the aforementioned decision comes in.  Are you still with me?)

Part of my process includes what I’ve come to call the read-aloud.  (I recommend that all writers read their work out loud to themselves in a quiet room with no interruptions.  Read it more than once.  And perhaps more importantly—LISTEN as you read.)  For some reason, in this mightily modified draft, I’ve done whatever I can to avoid the read-aloud.  I put off writing for days because I have a scene awaiting that step.

Today I realized that I’m working with a draft that I’ve already vocalized multiple times.  Yeah, I’m adding stuff and taking stuff out, but who cares in this draft.  I’m going to be back to work on it at least once more (two or three times more for the newly added scenes), so why stress over it now?

Because right now I’m clearing my forest of old branches and laying down new seed.  Which means when I’m done, the forest will have altered in ways I can’t see now.  I’ll only be able to see the damn forest once the trees have settled into place.  So tonight, three scenes went to the printer in one day (rather than the usual one scene in three or four days), and now I’m more than two-thirds of the way through.  How’s that for progress.

Sanity—Vastly Overrated

I’m a mental case.  An antisocial, introverted, scared-as-shit-of-everything mental case.  And I find myself wondering if this isn’t a prerequisite for a writer.  Then again, there are some apparently very sane, very together people who write like crazy but aren’t.  Crazy, that is.

It really cuts into my ability to produce.  I’m saner when I’m writing on a regular basis, but getting to writing on a regular basis requires that I believe in myself.  I’m a mental case, for god’s sake; I never believe in myself.  Ah, the ambivalence of it all!

But here’s the thing.  I’m pretty good.  At writing, that is.  (Forget about believing in myself; never gonna happen.)  I write novels; I make short stories long.  I plot and plan and manipulate and finagle until the mix gels and makes magic.  I’ve gotten better over the years to the point where now I believe that my abilities as a novelist are pretty well set.  I’ll seek out critique when I’ve done everything I can on my own, and then I’ll send the second and then third books of my trilogy out into the world.

For you see, I no longer need to seek out validation from a whole group full of writers over multiple rewrites.  I’ve found my mojo, and I know my weaknesses.  Deserted, the second book in the Lisen of Solsta trilogy (see “A Taste of Deserted” below), is far from perfect now, but it will evolve under my hand, my watchful eyes.  I don’t have to stand up and shout, “Pay attention to me!” anymore.

And you know why?  Here’s why.  I sent Fractured, the first volume of Lisen of Solsta, out to two contests, and this week I received a review from one of those contests.  It’s only the first step of many in this particular competition, but Lisen and Fractured are moving on to round two.  I wrote a while back about how I decided to publish independently and then enter these contests so I could get a review from someone who had no reason to like the book.  And amazingly, my reviewer, who, indeed, doesn’t know me, not only gave me five beautiful gold stars (out of five) but also noted that I, D. Hart St. Martin, am her “new favorite author.”

Wow.

It doesn’t get any better than that.