Archive for April, 2012

Writers these days
by Jessa Slade on April 30th, 2012

Currently working on: Filling plotholes
Mood: Asphalty

This last Saturday, I attended Write to Publish, a writers’ conference organized by Portland State University’s Ooligan Press. (Conveniently, the Saturday Farmers’ Market was going on in the park next door, so I was able to stock up on brownies and chocolate chip cookies too. I suppose I could have gotten kale, but…) I had the chance to sit on a writing panel with a handful of romance writing friends and talk with aspiring authors about writing in general and writing romance in particular.

In my four years now as a published author, I’ve done a bunch of panels discussions, and funnily enough, it’s getting harder, not easier. The more I learn, the more I want to tell. I want to talk, non-stop, for days about the mistakes I’ve made, what worked for me, what the future holds. And usually, I have about ten minutes.

So I thought I should try distilling my thoughts down to three (of course three) main points when I talk to aspiring authors:

1. Learn everything you can. Take in information from every reputable source. (Learn from the disreputable sources too, just be more selective.) So much is changing in publishing that you can never know too much. Learning about writing and publishing is a full-time job — on top of the full-time job that is ATUALLY writing and maybe the full-time job that is your full-time job. But heck, nobody said it was easy.

2. Write. Write a lot. So much of writing is… well, writing. Everything you learn in step one is irrelevant if you don’t put words on the page and write write write.

3. Keep writing. There are hella distractions to the writing life. You’re a small business. You’re a promoter and marketer. You’re a public speaker and compatriot to other writers. And that’s just distractions in the writing realm. You’re probably also a friend, lover, spouse, parent, dog walker, whatever. But steps one and two above are irrelevant if you don’t keep writing.

Wow. It looks like this writing thing IS easier than I thought. The devil is in the details, of course. But I think those three points are all you really need. I could relay those is way less than ten minutes, even with a mouthful of brownies.

World building for junior planetary engineers
by Sharon Ashwood on April 25th, 2012

I’ve seen lots of information on world building that helps an author lay out the rules of their universe. There are tons of things to consider: climate, currency, social castes, political systems, and on and on. One can draw maps and list all kinds of flora and fauna and cuisine. It’s all good.

What I rarely see is information on how any of that contributes to the story beyond setting, such as why or how, let alone how much.

I had a lively discussion recently about just this thing. I’d given some chapters of a fantasy to a beta reader (poor thing) who came back with a recommendation for more world building details. Piqued that my genius would be questioned—after all I had tons of just such info in mind—I reread to see what I had (or had not) done. She was right. I’d fallen to the low end of the world building spectrum because I hadn’t used my ideas effectively.

· Low end of spectrum: the Stingy Approach. Don’t introduce anything unless you absolutely need to.
· Gone crazy end: the Victorian Bordello Approach. Don’t bother with the plot, the fun is in the gizmos and webbed feet.

Needless to say, there is a happy medium. However, the underlying problem in my story was that I had not thoroughly examined what role the world building elements in my book played.

Example: let’s say our fantasy society has an economy based on solar power. That could translate into: their jobs, where their family money came from, do they live above ground or under it, are there medical consequences, what crops do they have, can anybody access the power, has it affected population migration or birth rate, do they sell the power somehow? Why did they go to solar power and how did they learn the technology? Does it have spiritual or religious implications? What about the rest of the ecology?

Once the author has deeply pondered this squirmy mass of connecting ideas, the trick is then to drop in just the right details, as if in passing, to imply all of the above. Reference it as a fait accompli the way we talk about catching the city bus. After all, one’s point of view character probably lives in that world.

Example: They wouldn’t ponder the caste system of their planet. They’d simply kick the scum into the gutter and move on. Show, don’t tell.

It’s a casual slight-of-hand that makes the difference between the plodding obviousness of bad sci-fi and the opportunity to draw a reader deep, deep into the playground of your imagination.

To take this one step further, one has to ask why a certain element is pertinent. How do the two-headed dog packs on planet x affect the choices available to the protagonist? Where does it impact the central story conflict? Does it say something important about the state of society?

Example: planet x is a mining planet digging up a dangerous mineral. The resource conglomerates are telling the inhabitants the two-headed dogs with five tails are a naturally occurring species, but really their ancestors were cute little boxer pups and these are a mutation caused by the mining operation. Our hero discovers this secret just after his wife conceives. Cue plot motivation.

So, that is the worldbuilding lesson I learned. If I had done my homework, I would have known when and where to use my fantasy elements with the precision of a master chef seasoning a dish. Scrap that. They would have been essential ingredients to the meal, driving my characters and their actions.

Now let’s see if I can take my own advice :oops:

RT book fun! Plus giveaway!
by Jessa Slade on April 23rd, 2012

Currently working on: Catching up
Mood: Juggling (cue circus music)

I was in Chicago last week at the RT Booklovers Convention and missed my post because I was just having too much fun! (And also because I left the power cord for my netbook at the hotel and couldn’t download my pix. If netbooks could be powered on caffeine and giggling, I would’ve been fine.)


Leaving at o’mg’dark-thirty in the morning, I captured this thrilling shot of the full moon setting at the Portland airport. What? You can’t see the pale, fuzzy circle in the upper left hand corner? I couldn’t either because I was still basically asleep.


But I did get a better shot of Mt Hood which I always take on the way over. What? You can’t see the pale, fuzzy triangle in the lower left side of the photo? I guess I was still basically asleep. You gotta sleep as much as possible before RT.


We stopped at Anderson’s Bookshop in Downers Grove to sign copies of DARKNESS UNDONE which completely woke me up. Most of the bookstores in the greater Chicagoland area probably have signed copies now. So swing by your favorite bookstore.


Since I had a few free days before the convention started, we got to stop by the Chicago Botanical Gardens (which shockingly I’d never visited before) to stock up on some peace and blue skies before plunging into the madness of book world. I took a bunch of pictures that made me want to write a historical romance, with heroines sneaking out to meet their heroes in beautiful gardens. There would be roses tucked behind ears eventually, I’m sure.


When we got to our conference hotel, the architecture made me want to write more science fiction romance. Check out these great levels. Can’t you imagine a Logan’s Run-style adventure, jumping from floor to floor? There was definition a lot of running on my part since our room was located at the farthest possible point from the elevators. But we compensated by having a great view.


Over the trees, we could see downtown Chicago beyond a strange little temple. One night, we had a great crashing lightning-and-thunderstorm, which we rarely see in Portland. The rain reminded me of home…

But we didn’t spend much time in the room, of course, because it was books books books and more books!



There was Linnea Sinclair & Friends Intergalactic Bar & Grille party with treats and games and — naturally — books.

rt-speakersI sat in on a great discussion with (tiny from right) Jeaniene Frost, Charlaine Harris, and Nalini Singh with RT’s Morgan. (The photo is fuzzy not because I was half-asleep this time but because I was fan-girling too hard. That’s my excuse, anyway.) Three vampire writers telling us secrets about their upcoming books; and refusing to tell us secrets too, the teases.


We had themed dance parties every night — hip hop night, Scottish night, Night of Stars and more. I brought waaaaay too many shoes… and wore them all :)


The costuming even applied to mascots, such as Bob the Alien (who escaped from the Intergalactic Bar) and showed up in a kilt at the Scottish party. In case you were wondering what Bob the Alien has under his kilt, if you look very closely, you’ll see that he has anatomically correct candy. Shocking!

But RT isn’t all fun and games. Well, it’s all fun, but not all games. Authors are there to work! We had the Ebook Expo and Giant Book Fair to meet readers and sign books books book.
I signed books and trading cards and book bags and e-book covers and t-shirts and scrapbook pages, but some other authors found other things to sign…


What could be better than man chest (okay, man belly) signed with your favorite romance authors?

Don’t answer that quite yet.


The end of the party is always a little sad. I thought I’d grab a shot of the aftermath: snapped rubberbands, scattered pens, a few leftover books, empty candy wrappers (or maybe that was just my table). Definitely nap time.

But the party never really ends. I’ll be at Authors After Dark in New Orleans in August, where the party REALLY never ends. But also, I brought home 104 lbs from RT which I haven’t even unpacked — thus ensuring the party continues — and at least some of it should go to one of YOU.

So, if you’d like to get some RT-themed goodies, assorted swag, and — naturally — books, leave a comment about what you’re reading these days and you’ll be entered for a chance to win a bag.

Step away from the keyboard …
by Sharon Ashwood on April 18th, 2012

Once upon a time they used to torture people into confession by tying them down, putting a plank of wood over them, and then piling rocks on top until the victim was squished. I know, not a really attractive image, but a useful metaphor #1 for this discussion.

Metaphor #2: I had a really excellent story idea last night. It was still with me this morning, fluttering around like a colourful butterfly, bonking against my nose once in a while just to make sure I’m paying attention. Like most really good ideas, it is slowly coming into focus, showing more and more of its pretty patterns as I, all unwilling, try my best to ignore it.

Ignore it?? Why ever would I do that? Well, gentle reader, because I have absolutely no time to deal with it right now. Back to the guy under the rocks—or rather, me under my rocks. If I make it through to the end of June, I’m golden, but right now I have three impressive deadlines a few weeks apart. Completely doable, as long as I don’t drop any balls. What less convenient time for my muse to send a butterfly?

But that’s just the thing. The more pressure I’m under, the more I’m suffocating from workload, the more effectively my brain pops out excellent ideas. When I’m kicking back and watching the grass grow, I get nothing.

I’m not sure why it works this way. My theory is that new ideas are very delicate things and, like butterflies, not meant to be handled. If we try to pin them down too soon, they become specimens rather than living creatures. Therefore, the most logical thing for the muse to do is to send them along when I can’t mess with them.

Right now, all I can do is look and appreciate and wait till they grow up. Then, during the slow moments when I’m rock-free, they’ll be robust enough for me to coax to my hand without doing damage.

Spreading my writerly charm
by Sharon Ashwood on April 11th, 2012

One of the odd parts of being an author is that sooner or later one has to do public speaking. Yes, take those engaged in the most introverted, ivory-tower occupation possible and shove them in front of a mic. Counter-intuitive? Oh, just a bit—but it turns out I had a great time!

Last week saw me visiting two libraries in the Fraser Valley Regional Library system : the Ladner Pioneer and White Rock branches. Both were lovely facilities with lovely librarians and well-appointed rooms for holding readings and lectures.

My assignment was to read a bit from one of my books (I picked Frostbound) and then give a short writing workshop. The total time allowed was just over an hour. I’ve done a handful of writing workshops over time, but this one was the best organized so far. I think the fact that I had to be very focused and brief helped me.

Things I learned:
• Think about how you’re going to read the dialogue in your story to differentiate the voices
• When computers go into sleep mode, they totally mess up your PowerPoint and need to be rebooted
• If you plan to sell books, bring a float
• Always bring an extension cord

Things I loved:
• People taking notes.
• People asking real questions about writing.
• Getting so excited by talking writing that I forget I’m talking in front of strangers
• The excuse to visit with friends.

Jessa at #RT2012
by Jessa Slade on April 9th, 2012

Currently working on: Stealing Easter candy from careless children
Mood: Sneaky

This week I’m at the RT Booklovers Convention in Chicago. If you aren’t attending, you can follow the fun on Twitter at #RT2012.

If you are my XY reading this, thinking, “I thought you said it was work?”, see all the work:

This picture doesn’t even show the big box of books coming with me.

If you ARE attending RT, I hope you’ll come find me and say hey. All Silk & Shadows readers who come hey me (let me know you read the post here) will be entered to win an RT schwag bag. Readers at home, leave a comment here about your favorite memory of meeting an author, and you’ll be entered for a chance to win too.

My RT schedule is all over the place, but you can for certain find me at:

Wednesday: Linnea Sinclair’s Intergalactic Bar & Grill, 4:45-5:45 p.m.

Thursday: Ebook Expo, 4-6 p.m., Grand Ballroom

Friday: Humor writing workshop (What? You don’t think I write humor? We shall see!): SPRINKLING SMILES INTO SAD (SEX, ACTION & DRAMA) SCENES with Dee Brice, Ashlyn Chase, Marcia James, Delilah Marvelle and Jessa Slade, 11:15 a.m.

Saturday: Giant Book Fair, 10:45 a.m.-2 p.m., Grand Ballroom

I’ll also be at all the evening parties, of course, probably dancing. If you see me limping during the days, you’ll know why.

Also also, I’m taking part in a “stalk the author signature” game with Ann Aguirre, Tes Hilaire & more. Come find me for your game sheet and signature. Someone will win an e-reader, a basket of books, and more.

If you’ve wondered about attending a romance reader convention, here are three useful tips:

  • Bring an empty priority mailing box from the USPS, already filled out with your home address so you can mail your books back to yourself. You can pay online and drop the box at the hotel business office, easy-peasy. Books are crazy heavy, and you’ll be going home with more than you might expect. At least that always seems to happen to me ;)
  • Bring cute shoes AND comfortable shoes. You can wear the cute shoes the first day while you still care. On the second day and every day thereafter, you can switch to the comfortable shoes, because by then, you’ll be friends with everybody in the hotel and they’ll be in their comfortable shoes too. Heck, bring your slippers.
  • Stay hydrated. I know, you think, it’s not like we’re lost in the desert. But those hotels are big enough that you can march for days. Bring a couple chocolate bars too.

You can never go wrong with extra chocolate bars.



Alphas are in, but can we pick them out of a line-up?
by Sharon Ashwood on April 4th, 2012

Just about every protagonist in romance these days is supposed to be an alpha—and this often means a dominating male who prefers action to words and is never so happy as when there is a damsel to save. At his best, he’s a true knight in shining armor. At his worst, he’s a big swaggering guy who drinks the milk without replacing it, drags the girl off to his cave, and never lets anyone else use the remote.

But how do we draw an accurate portrait of an alpha in our books? We’ve all seen people trying to fill that role, with varying degrees of success. Which ones are the real deal?

There are leaders who are all about hoarding information and power like dragons, not trusting anyone to do anything themselves. That might be mistaken for alpha, but I think that’s not leading staff so much as keeping it like slightly dimwitted pets.

There are leaders who cheer loudly, have a lot of rah-rah sessions, and talk teamwork all the time. I’m okay with this as long as there is substance underneath the hype. However, I’m not sure real alphas need to work that hard to inspire loyalty.

Then are leaders who invite the opinions of their team, give them what they need, and then get out of the way so their trusted workers can do their thing. They understand the details of the work almost as well as the workers. They’ll step in if needed, but the measure of their success is if everyone gets to go home on time with the work done and minimal drama. They’re not necessarily flamboyant leaders, but they tend to attract the best talent.

In my opinion, the last example is the closest to a real alpha. They’re thoughtful about their decisions and confident once those are made. They put the team’s needs first and will defend them tooth and nail. They’ll often pick ambitious, almost impossible, projects because they know how to get excellence from their staff. They inspire trust, but largely because they give it.

It’s something to remember when creating an alpha character—they’re first and foremost hard workers and good decision-makers. They may or may not be the ones with the power suits and expensive cars, but they will have a lot of people looking up to them. Responsibility is their watchword, and they never delegate a task they wouldn’t do themselves. Rather than being a party animal, it’s tough to get them to stop pushing themselves and cut loose.

Boring? No, not when it’s time to make them fall in love. They may be all about trusting their hand-picked lieutenants to patrol a boundary or design a bridge, but the one type of control they never share (remote control notwithstanding) is self-control. Strip them of that, and their identity goes to pieces. And what tests self-control like a steamy romance?

Never stop learning
by Jessa Slade on April 2nd, 2012

Currently working on: Retyping notes from Larry Brooks workshop
Mood: Studious

Way back in college, I learned that if I read the course materials before the lectures, listened to the lectures and took notes, transcribed the notes from my notebook into my computer, and then re-read the notes, I was usually good for the test. This is why I like to attend workshops in person; even if I’ve read the speaker’s book, it forces me to take notes and then I remember more.


So when I found out Larry Brooks ( was coming to speak to my local Romance Writers of America chapter, I was psyched. I’d read his STORY ENGINEERING writing book and loved it. It is my kind of writing book; very analytical and no-nonsense, but fun too. (Nonsense and fun being not the same thing, necessarily.) But as much as I love reading craft books, I also like to hear the information presented.

Sometimes speakers have found new ways to present their information and it’s always interesting to hear what they emphasize. Writer friend Terri Reed says hearing previously learned information again is like looking at a diamond from another angle: from the top you see mostly the flat surface, while from the sides you see the angles, and from the bottom you see the point.

I highly recommend the STORY ENGINEERING book to fellow writers, because there is a lot of content best absorbed from the original source, but I thought I’d share some nuggets of thought from the weekend too:

  • choco-teaTo stand out from the slush pile, a story has to be better than good. It has to be better than what is out there already. What makes your story stand out, not from the slush pile, but from the second cut?
  • What is your central dramatic question? Can you make the question more provocative, more emotionally engaging? The more compelling the “what if” question, the more compelling the answer. And the answer is why the reader keeps reading.
  • What is the burning ember of your story? Pass that burning ember to the editor and to the reader.
  • Don’t settle; make it bigger.

Having spent a couple weekends ago in New York on the business side of writing, it was a joy to spending a weekend on the art and craft of writing. Next weekend, I go to Chicago for the RT Book Reviews Reader Convention. That will be the party side of writing!