Archive for the 'Ideas' Category

Alice wonders why
by Jessa Slade on February 1st, 2010

Currently working on: Judging RITA books, the Romance Writers of America award of excellence in romance fiction
Mood: Awed by some great talent

There’s a lot going on in a writer’s head, I swear, even though a lot of time it looks like I’m staring off into space.  While I’m staring, I’m plotting, testing out lines of dialogue, thinking about whom to kill.

And more often than I’d wish, I’m just afraid to start.

See, while the stories in my head are endlessly entertaining to me (hence the long periods of blank-eyed staring) getting what’s in my head onto the page can be a maddening proposition.  In fact, I often feel like my writing sessions are a bit like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, where too many conflicting (and crazy) voices have been invited to the table.


The White Rabbit of Overwhelm
He’s the one always chanting “I’m late, I’m late” in my head (because, really, aren’t we always late for something?) which doesn’t much get things off to a convivial start.  Trust me, if you go chasing rabbits, you know you’re going to fall.

The Mad Hatter Muse
Yes, even when not played by Johnny “I’m too sexy to <fill in the blank>” Depp, everybody swoons for the Muse, so he must be invited to the party even though he’s — you know — psychotic, encouraging everyone to run amok and constantly asking silly questions like “How is a raven like a writing desk?” when everybody knows we needn’t answer that question until Chapter 23.

The March Hare Moment
He’s best friends with the Mad Muse… and equally crackers.  He comes around holding out inspiration like a big cup of tea… Only to jerk it away at the last moment.  Emphasis on jerk.  At best, I’ll be left with a little spill of inspiration that I try to mop up and ring out over my pages.

The Queen of (Broken) Hearts Internal Editor
Everybody has to tip toe around her for fear of coming under her gimlet eye.  She’s always deflating the mood with her muttered “Off with her adverbs!”  Heads and hearts are constantly at risk around her, and yet she has a chair of her own because somebody has to be in charge of cutting words and killing our darlings.

The dormouse
He’s already asleep, curled up at the keyboard with his head on ZZZZZZZZ, even though we still have a thousand words to go.

And there, at the far end of the table — she’s lucky she even got a seat — is poor Alice, who just wants a story that makes sense.

Well, forget it, Alice.

It’s impossible to get all those voices to speak one at a time, much less use their napkins instead of their sleeves.  So I’ll take what they spew out and try to capture it for you in all its mad glory.

Maybe a raven is like a writing desk because, with the wind under their wings, they can both take flight.

Anybody else looking forward to Tim Burton’s vision of Alice In Wonderland?  He’s one of my heroes, because if he doesn’t get everything that’s on his head down on paper, I can’t even imagine what else is in there!


Writing in the dark
by Jessa Slade on January 25th, 2010

Currently working on: Brooding
Mood: Broody

Last year, the grapes tried to come in the house.

XY bought me a couple gorgeous Interlachen grapes for my birthday three years ago, and last year, they really took off.  They ran up into the birch tree and across the porch.  They tangled in the yuccas and wrapped around the sun shades.  When they started scratching eerily at the front door on windy nights, we knew they had to move.

So this weekend, while they’re dormant for the winter, XY whacked them back and transplanted them to brand new holes on their very own trellis, where they can run this way ‘n’ that way without opposition.  XY also moved the fruit trees to accommodate the new grapes trellis.  One of the roses, a lilac, and a bunch of perennials had to go to make room for the fruit trees.  It was cold, wet, muddy work, and the front yard looks like a cemetery with its piles of dark earth and skeletal plants. 

Tonight, when we took Monster Girl the dog for her walk, we paused in the 5 o’clock, low cloud darkness to stare at the wreckage, and it was hard to believe spring will ever come.

 At some point in my writing, I always feel like that.


There always comes a time in my writing when the story is out of control.  Tendrils are choking the life out of anything nearby.  Too scraggly and unwieldy and ugly, my writing begins to creep me out.  The darkness descends.  The winter of our discontent, indeed.

This is my fallow season.  Since the cycles of my writing echo the seasons in my garden, I’ve learned to apply a few rules to both.

1. Just cut back the dead wood already.
I have roses that bloom through November.  At Thanksgiving, they still have buds forming.  But invariably, sometime in December we finally get a hard frost which kills the last blossoms.  The buds blacken and slump on their stems.  The surviving leaves give me (false) hope that I’ll get another glimpse of pink.  But no.  Really, there’s nothing to do but get out the clippers and whack everything back to sturdy greenery.  That first cut is the sharpest, but the harsher I am, the more lush and vigorous the blooms are the following year. 

2. Lay the ground work and run the guide wires now.
I read a garden book once that said you should always put your 50-cent peat pot in a five-dollar hole.  I get impatient (and cheap) and am sometimes tempted to skip ahead.  But there’s no rushing the prep work.  So now I start by honing the spade and invest time in reading craft books and taking workshops that can make me a sharper writer.  I dig a deep and rock-free hole of prewriting.  I string my story arc wire on securely concreted plotting posts.  And I turn my well-aged compost into a hot and steaming muck.

3. Nurture the seedling.
Good God, but a seedling is so small and pathetic.  With only two baby leaves, I can’t even tell the peppers from the potato, the carrots from the kohlrabi.  And knowing how long it will take before harvest, sometimes it seems so pointless.  But I have faith that if I put a tiny toilet paper roll anti-slug collar around them, if I spread the compost thick, and thin the weeds, if I water them regularly with my blood, sweat and tears (minus the cliche), in the end — The End — I will hold the fruits of my labor.

Sure, it’s a dream.  But it’s always easier to dream in the dark.

Do you have rituals for the dark and fallow months?  Or do you vegetate?


Blame it on Buffy
by Jessa Slade on October 19th, 2009

Currently working on: Arm wrestling Book 3
Mood: Sore but unbowed

Powerful women.  Hot men.  Zinging dialogue.  Fate of the world and the human heart at stake.  If you’ve enjoyed those elements in a paranormal romance, I believe you can blame Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a good chunk of it.  Oh sure, brooding bad boys existed before Spike and definitely high school was hell all along, but when it came to mixing big paranormal love with big paranormal problems, Buffy was in a class by herself.


In previous posts, I’ve betrayed my adoration — which is not to say weird stalkeryness — for Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy and the equally wonderful spin-off Angel and the even more wonderful Firefly plus the wacky Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog.  So why keep reliving the glory days?  Because I don’t think they’ve been done better since.

Lost lost me.  Heroes had a few too many to keep track of.  Smallville felt that way to me.  Supernatural… okay, that one has the hot guys.  Still, the lack of a compelling-t0-me romance in most of today’s paranormal themed television shows leaves me cold.  I’m at a disadvantage because I don’t have cable; maybe True Blood would have been ”my show”?


So many of the things I love about a paranormal story can be done so well on screen:  Claustrophic close-ups to heighten the tension of what’s sneaking up behind; creepy fog-filled settings with obligatory search-light backlighting; eerie music to heighten the tension of what’s sneaking up behind; high action quick-cut edits to make you feel like you’re really there; terrific gore-ific special effects to release the tension of what was sneaking up behind.

And yet portraying that compelling-t0-me love story is apparently really hard.  Maybe because the course of many months — years, if the show is lucky and good — is a tough timeframe.  A two-hour movie can get away with a kiss, some witty banter, and a soft-focus love scene.  But a television show has the opportunity to build a romance from first glance to true love with all the stages in between.  And maybe that’s not easy at all.

So maybe that’s why I read romance novels while my 11-year-old TV sits in the basement with dust on the screen and the picture slowly blowing out into strange flares of red and blue.

But could be I’m missing something.  I’m watching Whedon’s newest show Dollhouse in its second season.  No love story, except my love for Whedon himself.  So perhaps I have room for another show, one with a romance I can sink my teeth into, although I don’t demand vampires necessarily.  Enlighten me, those of you with a working television set — Any worthy successors to Buffy?

Setting the stage
by Jessa Slade on October 12th, 2009

Currently working on: Recovering from last weekend’s Emerald City Writers Conference — Jessa’s unofficial motto: Too much fun, not enough sleep
Mood: Groggy

I chose my hometown of Chicago for the world of the Marked Souls, because the city has so many facets.  Its changeable weather, its rich and poor neighborhoods, its many moods offer endless potential for any scene. 

But before I started writing, while I was still just in thinking mode about the story, I also scouted — at least in my imagination — a few other possibilities.

setting-nawlinsWell, who doesn’t think of Nawlins, Loosyana as a wonderful setting?  And never mind what kind of story it is.  The city reeks of character (character and soured alcohol, that is).  I’ve visited twice.  Once was for a Romance Writers of America conference.  Yup, 2000 romance writers loose on the streets of the French Quarter.  Sadly, a missed opportunity for the Girls Gone Wild video guys.

But the second time was a strange, surrel trip when XY and I showed up late on Christmas Eve.  We’d scored a ridiculously cheap room in the Quarter.  The city was all but empty, the streets eerily quiet.  We walked our dog down to the river.  An old homeless man stood on the bank, swaying a little.  He sang “Old Man River” and never looked at us.

But, New Orleans has been so done but so many that I couldn’t justify using it, even though I’d already half-written a tasty love scene with Cafe Du Monde’s beignets.  Powdered sugar is insufficent building material for a whole story.


I also considered the American West.  I love all those sprawling states and have traveled through swaths of them.  Desolate, wild and elemental with the best star displays in the country IMO, the deserts have graced the backdrop of many a stripped-down lawman on the trail of a heartless killer, which certainly would’ve worked for the demon-possessed warriors in my storyworld. 

But I decided I needed more cannon fodder characters to people my story, and while the scenic West abounds in dramatic colors, vast skies and dangers aplenty, the one thing it’s often missing is people.  Hard to stage a battle for souls when there aren’t souls enough to go around.

setting-portlandOf course, I also contemplated my current city, Portland Oregon.  A less often used setting, no doubt, with a good range of sub-settings: Mt Hood on the skyline, the beach an hour away, a pretty river through the center of the city.

But in the end, I couldn’t stage an epic battle between good and evil in a town where plaid flannel is still considered appropriate evening wear.  Obviously, purgatory has already won.

I’m happy with my final choice, but I do sometimes wonder how a different setting might have changed my story.  And whether, say, a setting in the Caribbean could’ve justified a “research trip.”  Maybe I’ll do another short story. Maybe “Demons Gone Wild” could be set in Cancun, where my moody, broody heroes get a new eyeful of wicked.

Do you think your life story would’ve been different if you’d had another setting?  Where would you stage the movie version of your new life?

Crosstown traffic
by Jessa Slade on October 5th, 2009

Currently working on: Biting nails for tomorrow’s official release!
Mood: Thinking about buying nail polish

Ever since I read a review of the first season of 24 and the reviewer complained how nobody could travel around congested LA and still have time to save the world, I’ve been conscious of my characters’ modes of transportation.  What would a demon-possessed immortal warrior clan keep in their company fleet?


In Book 1 of The Marked Souls, the Chicago league has done well for itself over the centuries, and has invested in a sturdy collection of decent towncars and SUVs.  Nothing flashy, of course — wouldn’t want to draw attention to the end of the world, or anything – just need a few big trunks to haul the bodies around after a particularly grim night of demon-slaying.

Due to some unfortunate circumstances in Book 1, however (totally not my fault!) by Book 2, they are reduced to rougher rides.

I admit, part of the downgrading has to do with my own travel methods.  As long as all wheels spin in approximately the same direction, I don’t much care about style.  My car shows the dings of many a camping adventure (who knew a pot hole could get so big in a desert?), and my bike’s not much better — a no-speed cruiser with rust patches.  But, hey, it gets me to the dog park.

If our vehicles say something about us, my rides better keep their mouths shut.

And while we’re on the topic of movin’ movin’ movin’,  I have a little movie I’d like to share as I move one step closer to release day!


A life of learning
by Jessa Slade on September 7th, 2009

Currently working on: Two more days of Book 2 revisions — Argh!
Mood: Wondering if I use “argh” too much

Since most of us are lifelong readers, I suspect we all agree that learning is a joy that never ends.  Oh, maybe not calculus, true, but even quantum physics can be compelling when someone like Brian Greene writes THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE with cool pictures.


I’ve recently been asked to become a workshop leader for a paranormal writing community.  The Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal Chapter of  Romance Writers of America is hosting an online conference called “60 Days to Pro” which is meant to help serious writers make the transition to professional writers.  If you’re a writer — especially a paranormal writer — I think this is a great program.

So this back-to-school season, I’ll be going back as a teacher, presenting a workshop on plotting for “60 Days to Pro) and a chat on the shadow side of writing.

I’m nervous about it.  I don’t consider myself a natural teacher.  I’ve had the luck to score many good teachers in junior high (a social studies teacher who had us build our own economy), high school (a chemistry teacher who — with great zest — set stuff on fire) and college (a comparative religion professor who taught us the proper pronunciation of YHWH, aka God).  So I know good teaching when I experience it.  But giving it back…  Trickier.

Deeply understanding the topic isn’t enough.  Even feeling the topic won’t do by itself.  I have to make someone else understand and feel it.  Kind of like writing, I suppose.  But writing is easy compared to being a preschool teacher standing up in front of 35 youngsters and feeling in control.  Eesh. 

Not that teaching at FF&P will be like teaching preschool.  Or maybe it will be like teaching preschool to toddlers who drink blood, zip through time, play with swords, and shapeshift into large carnivores (see blood drinking referenced above).

My plan is to prepare, practice, present and be patient.  Be patient with myself, I mean, since this is a relatively new skill for me.  Hopefully the class will be patient with me too.  Because under my nervousness, I’m excited about this opportunity.  Thinking about writing and how I’ll present it to others is giving me more insight into my stories, and after I send my Book 2 revision on Tuesday (YHWH willing) I get to start Book 3 using everything I’ll have learned from teaching.

Did you have a teacher who inspired your love of learning, even if the topic (like economics, chemistry and religion) wasn’t one you would’ve normally pursued?  What was it about that person that made you pay attention?

This little piggy went wee-wee-wee, all the way to the bookstore
by Jessa Slade on July 20th, 2009

Currently working on: Sleep
Mood: Exhausted

Having just returned from the Romance Writers of American national conference in Washington DC, I have nothing to say.  I won’t have anything to say for several days while I refill the well of words emptied from me in a week of talking, talking, talking writing with friends and colleagues.

And yet I find myself able to write a few words :)  The topic here at Silk And Shadows this week is reading and writing series.  Despite the fact I am writing what I hope will be a series, I’m torn about whether I truly like series.  No, that’s not true, I LOVE a good series.  I just finished Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books and am fidgeting for the next one.  But it’s hard to do a series well.  As a reader, here’s why I shy away from some series:

1. The author dies.
Or sells the series to a lesser writer.  Obviously, the first one isn’t the author’s fault (probably) and the storyworld shouldn’t have to die just because its creator did.  But so often something of my enjoyment is lost along with the voice of the original writer.

2. I’m already too far behind.
I loved Star Trek fiction as a kid, but I didn’t have time for it in high school and college.  By the time I came back to it, entire universes had changed.  The canon had grown so large and diverse, I was hopelessly intimidated.

3. I have a mind less like a steel trap and more like a rusty sieve.
Even when I love a series, if somebody does pull my head out from under a rock and then smack me lightly on both cheeks a few times to bring me around, I often forget that I’m supposed to be waiting for book next.  Honestly, this is one of my favorite things about social networking like Facebook and Twitter; I can finally stay current with my favorite authors! 

Oh, but a well-done series with enough books to immerse me for days…  That is a thing of wonder.   My next trick is trying to write one…  Here’s what I will be attempting:

1. Tie every book to the overarching storyline.
Because that’s so simple.

2. Make every book strong enough to stand alone.
Oh, is that all?

3. Deliver a knock-out punch at the end of every book and keep ‘em coming back for more.
But of course.

I’ll check back in five years and let you know how I did.

Do you seek out new series, or do you shy away?  If you shied away — without bashing anyone — what scared you off?  If you download countdown clock widgets from your favorite author to remind yourself when her next book is out, what draws you to a series?

A hero by any other name…
by Jessa Slade on July 6th, 2009

Currently working on: Refilling the well (writer-speak for reading as many books as my eyes can consume)
Mood: Wordful

The Bard was sooo wrong.  I know, I know, where to start with all the places Shakespeare went wrong.  Like making teen suicide sexy.  Like forcing high school students to read King Lear (right, like we can relate to the dynastic difficulties of another old white male).  Like wearing pantaloons.

Okay, that last one wasn’t necessarily his fault.  But I’m particularly thinking of his line:

That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.

Sorry, no.  There is a world of difference between a hero named Xavier and a hero named Clyde.  Ask that other nemesis of high school English classes, Mark Twain (since I’m in a quoting mood):

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — It’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

When it comes to Xavier and Clyde, didn’t an image jump into your head, full formed and inescapable?  Oh, there’re hidden depths to Clyde, no doubt, and Xavier probably isn’t always the confidently sexy beast he pretends to be either.  But already you have a mental image and preconceptions about our heroes, based solely upon their names.

Names have power

We learn this lesson on the playground the first time we call someone a nasty name.  Or the first time some skeezy guy at a bar says, “So, what’s your name?’ and we’re tempted to lie.  Not that any of us have done either of those.  Names have power, and words come with built-in associations.  Assigning a word to someone or something transfers those associations.  And that power. 

Fairy tales play on this understanding.  Remember Rumpelstiltskin?  The poor heroine was in a lather trying to discover his name.  To know a thing’s true name was to have power over it.  Or to invoke it.  Which is why we come up with euphemisms to avoid saying words that have too much weight and power.

Certain names evoke responses for a variety of reasons:

Personal: One bad childhood run-in with a Marykay Sue (who probably called you names on the playground I mentioned above) and you might shudder every time you hear that dreaded trimvirate.  Which would be rare, hopefully.

Cultural: Based on histories we hold in common, we come to associate certain names with certain characteristics.  Bond, James Bond conjures up one package — images, movements, even vocal inflections — while Adolf has probably been ruined forever.

Peculiar: Because of the way our brains are wired and how we learn language, some names take on nuances we may not even been entirely conscious of.  Names that end in an –ee sound tend to be diminutives or nicknames that downplay authority and emphasize familiarity.  Not surprisingly, many female names end in the –ee sound.  Even more obscurely, the K sound tends to tickle people’s funny bone even without context.  One of the reasons poor Clyde can’t catch a break as a hero.

When the time came for my confirmation and my mom told me I got to pick my name in the church, I thought, what an opportunity!  I’d name myself after a character in a story I was sort of writing.  She was pretty, had really long hair, and could talk to animals.  Her name was Raven Witchhazel.

Needless to say, that choice broke personal, cultural and peculiar rules for confirmation names.  And anyway, it turns out, you have to pick a saint’s name.  Sigh.

“And I will call him George”

There are lots of rules — spoken and unspoken — for names.  Which is why I fret over character names.  I just sent Book 2 to my editor last week, but this week I’m thinking about Book 3.  While I have the story partially outlined already, I don’t have names for the characters yet.  They have to be “just right” to start.  Which isn’t to say they won’t change.  (Yay for global search and replace!)  But they should at least start, like the tolling of a bell, with depth, clarity and resonance.

No pressure or anything.

I look for characters’ names that are:

  • Unique but not weird
  • Unlikely to evoke a negative reaction in anyone reading it
  • Easy for the eye to absorb (no full Russian names with patronymics five generations deep!)
  • Revelatory about some aspect of character without being coincidentally unlikely
  • Not too similar to a name I’ve used before

Simple, right?  Of course not!  Ask any soon-to-be parents who’ve locked up potential baby names in a time-access vault that responds only to voice and retinal scans in an attempt to circumvent well-meaning friends and relatives who all have the best suggestions and rejections to share.  They too know it has to be “just right.”

And don’t get me started on book titles.

Which character name jumps to your mind and what’s the dominant characteristic that comes along for the ride?  Would you name your child that?  Would you want to be named that?

How Daydreamers Save The World
by Our Guest on July 2nd, 2009

Idleness is the devil’s workshop — or so the Puritan’s believed. In school, kids were always getting yelled at to stop daydreaming and pay attention. “You’re wasting time, you’ll never amount to anything…”

Really? IMHO, it’s daydreams that inspire us to try new things, go new places and be more than we already are. Some people call it “visualizing success.” Semantics. However you term it, daydreams spark the excitement in life.

But even more than that, throughout history it’s been the daydreamers who have saved us from stagnation, hardship, hunger and, yes, even tyranny.


Daydreamers are the mothers of invention. When life gets tough, daydreamers retreat — into a personal wilderness of fanciful discontent, a seemingly disordered hodgepodge of imaginings that spawn inspiration, aspiration, and so many of the things the rest of us will eventually take for granted.

Where would we be if some daydreamer, grown sick and tired of lugging stuff around the forest, hadn’t daydreamed the wheel? What if, 233 years ago this Saturday, a bunch of malcontents hadn’t daydreamed what life would be like if they didn’t have to answer to Mad King George, or any king for that matter? What if the Wright Brothers hadn’t daydreamed about that funny thing birds do?


From our first primal ancestors who looked at fire and thought, “Gee, maybe we shouldn’t scream and run away. Maybe we should try cooking some of that dead mastodon instead,” to Stephen Hawking who taught the world new ways of looking at space and time, it’s been the dreamers who have explored the impossible and made it plausible. Like the universe, the mind is an infinite place. It’s filled with infinite possibilities, from romance to rocket ships, and sitting quietly in a comfortable place and letting your thoughts wander is a lot like strapping on survival gear and setting out like, Sir Edmund Hillary, to scale life’s loftiest heights.


Well, almost. :smile:

Happy Almost Birthday, America!

Power corrupts; superpowers corrupt… superly?
by Jessa Slade on June 1st, 2009

Currently working on: Redesigning website
Mood: Baffled

I shouldn’t have a superpower.  I say this because I am fairly certain I would abuse my superpower.  My XY tried to reassure me.  “You’d be a benevolent dictator,” he said.

Sure, that’s what all the dictators say. 


It’s like that 1981 study by the Swedish research who survey American college student driver, 88% of whom declared themselves better than average drivers.  Now, you can play with the numbers to make average mean whatever you want, so that more than 50% can indeed be “better” than average at something.  But anyone who drives knows that the aforementioned 88% is patently delusional.  And I’d be deluded to think I’d be a force for good (or at least above average) just because the universe — or maybe aliens or radiation poisoning or whatever – gave me a superpower.

Lord Acton’s full quote in 1887 was:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Since I’m not a Swedish researcher, I won’t argue percentages with Lord Acton, I’ll just point out that Superman wasn’t from Earth, so he doesn’t count.  But back to my superpower or lack thereof.

I think, in order to keep my corrupting influence off my superpower, I’d be Dharma Girl.  I’m envisioning some sort of invisible-but-sparkly-under-special-goggles fairty-type dust drifting in my wake as I pirouette through the world.  Those who encountered my steps would see their ideal path laid out before them in matching sparkly footsteps — literal and metaphorical.  They would know unequivocally they were going the right way. 

And woe be unto she who did not follow.  Because of course I can’t entirely give up the Dark Knight dastardly deeds — my evil alterego would be Swamp Gas Girl, whose arrival is preceded by the stench of low tide and whose twinkly lights lead followers to an early grave.


Tragically, every superpower has a superfailing.  And mine is obviously that I don’t trust myself to be sure I’m on the right path.  Then again, the universe — or maybe aliens or radiation poisoning — gave me a talent for words and I’m using them on romance writing.  So maybe I would use my superpower for good.

Does your favorite superpower reveal something dastardly about you?  Do share.  Supervillains are people too.