The Writers Zodiac (part one)

Let’s have a little fun. I don’t believe in the zodiac any more than I believe in Santa Claus, but if I did… this is how I’d make a writer’s zodiac.

Aries: Aggressive and dominant by nature, you never back down from a challenge. Whatever you write, rest assured you’ll have readers or you’ll bludgeon them with your completed series of tomes. No is not in your vocabulary, nor is it allowed in the vocabulary of those around you, especially those whose opinions actually merit something, like your editor and your public relations manager.
Suggested genre(s): medical research books, tax law, assembly instructions for toys.

Taurus: Once you roll out of your 100-count Egyptian cotton sheets and polish off half a pound of bacon, you are always a ready, steady, and reliable writer. Unfortunately, because you rash up at the slightest discomfort you rarely step out of your groove and write something unpredictable. Step back from the line between determined and pigheaded and live a little, will you?
Suggested genre(s): food blogs, luxury vacation spot reviews, Amish romance.

Gemini: With your natural curiosity, your mad social skills, and your smarts, just think of the stuff you could write if you’d stop talking about it and grab a pen! A real Gemini does not know the feeling of writer’s block because the ideas never stop coming. If you really want to produce something read-worthy, hone in on things that keep you up at night, that make you stop and ponder. Don’t be a goldfish.
Suggested genre(s): science fantasy, fiction thrillers, fox news articles.

Cancer: It’s no secret that home and family life are important to you. You undoubtedly have a plethora of photos with paragraphs on the backs of them, newspaper clippings of family events and several volumes worth of dirt on everyone who shares a bit of DNA. I might even be able to find you with an membership, regularly posting on a discussion board. Which is why you haven’t written that historical fiction novel yet. When you’re finally ready to use your formidable perceptive skills to craft characters of your own instead of chasing leaves on your genealogy tree, you might pen a book. Or several.
Suggested genre(s): tabletop devotionals, historical fiction, scrapbooks.

Leo: Charismatic and attention seeking, if we aren’t immediately blown away by your brilliance, we’ll most definitely succumb to your prowess in chapter two because you are the epitome of performer. Most days you could write about pond scum and make us salivate for a bowl of it but unfortunately for you and your larger-than-life ego, not everyone likes you all the time. Chill out, will you? The pond scum is better scum for your efforts, and the majority of us who do love you are fat and happy. Really.
Suggested genre(s): Pirate novels. Slapstick comedy skits. Slam poetry.

Virgo: Precise and analytical, if you pen it your reader can believe it because you do your homework. You are a consummate fact checker and you’re never flippant about your efforts. You’re a unicorn where editors are concerned because you would rather dig out your eyes with a spoon than miss a deadline. There isn’t any style of writing you can’t tackle and we all know it so quit being so harsh on your fellow writers. You’re making us look bad.
Suggested genre(s): self help, sestinas, Speaking Mandarin for Dummies

We’ll finish up next week.

Tammy Boehm, Associate Editor

The Dark Side

Contrary to sporadic outbreaks of facebook kitsche, the Dark side does not in fact have cookies.

Let me be clear. Hell is hell. It is a real place full of real monsters and it has a real presence in reality.

Bear with me, I’m not tying bottle rockets to my makeshift pulpit. I just want to give you something that transcends the chaos, dear artist. Because you, by your desire and gift to illuminate and magnify all that is what ever it is about the human condition—you are susceptible to joining the dark side and never coming back to the light.

What am I getting at? Well I’m gonna make you think for yourself here about your influences, your inspirations—musicians, artists, writers who resonate with you and even those things which you yourself pen or draw or choreograph.

There is a mindset that beauty born from pain is relevant, lasting, and deep. And those things which are lighthearted, bouncy, are perhaps vapid and destined to disappear like so much happy unicorn glitter. Ephemera evaporates. Blood congeals. And most humans are more prone to slow down and ogle a car accident than they are to contemplate a rainbow.

Unfortunately, for the artist, there is real danger in that.

You see, many of us with a creative bent actually lived the whole “beauty from pain” bit. We can and do write books about it. We lived with demons in parent skin or sibling skin or the skin of someone who should have nurtured us but instead destroyed parts of our lives with whatever horror available to them to mete out on us. And in order to purge what we couldn’t digest, we wrote the pain. We danced the anger, the loss. We drew the blood in dark ink. And we lived it again, and relived it. And it became a part of us until we too lived in the darkness. Absorbing the abuse, the neglect, until it became us. And we perpetuated the chaos we so desperately wanted to escape.

Why? Because in the very act of validation we so desperately crave we allow it to become our muse, and then our identity.

Dear artist, your gift is there so you can heal.

Your talent to write exists so you can purge the monster and move on. Your story should help others perhaps not so eloquent to understand that not only are they not alone, but that there is beauty and light and joy beyond the pain of broken, of abuse, of neglect, of addiction, of slavery. Expose the darkness—and then kill it. Allow your gift to heal you, and then use it to heal others.

This is where the real power of “artist” lies. When we dance in the light, when we pen the victory, when the palette reveals the rich tones of life, when we offer hope…

When I pass from this place, sure, there are a few things I’ve written that may make my family cringe a little. I’m a faulted human. But after generations of creative souls lost to the dark side, not only did I step into the light with my gift, but my grown children are taking their creativity further. That’s a win. That is what you deserve.

Tammy Boehm, Associate Editor

Don't be me

On the cusp of losing an hour of precious sleep due to some compendium of elected officials assuming they are smarter than the God who invented circadian rhythms and an unholy upwelling of snot from my lungs, I was a bit loopy this morning in the shower.

As I stood contemplating the condition of my razor and whether or not it was worth scraping errant bits of fuzz from my person with what looked like a prime delivery system for lockjaw, I found myself considering that which makes the gender specific me, a specific identifiable gender. Someone somewhere at some point in time determined that females should not sport lush growths of hair in certain places. Keeping it family friendly, this societal bent is causing my demented, aging mother-in-law significant frustration exacerbated by, well, dementia. Not only does she struggle with the concept of which personal hygiene items are hers and what regimen the hygiene product is for, when she does take a whack at scraping the lichen off the barn, she only succeeds in removing several layers of skin whilst the walrus whiskers on her chin remain stubbornly fixed. My exhortation of “Mom, no one is going to feel the stubble on your chin,” is of little solace.

Somewhere in her malaise an alarm is sounding, and those whiskers are the flashpoint in her quest for normality. And while in her case, she struggles with any level of cognition, her distress is not entirely foreign.

We humans love to label a thing and then hold the thing to the standards of the label—even if the label is inaccurate, irrelevant, or just plain stupid.

Just like my mother-in-law is innately female, no matter how swarthy her visage, something at her core eats at her, compelling her to acts of what are now self-destructive, because at that core she is insecure in who she is. And we writers, and creative types are prone to this behavior as well.

In our competitive, hyper-focused world of me me now now me me now identity isn’t just who you are, what you believe and what you do, there’s that viscous goo glommed on everything …. How successful are you at what you do?

The convo goes a little like this: “So what do you do?” “I’m a writer.” “Oh really? I wrote a novel. I should give it to you to read. Are you published?” “Yes but I’ve only sold a few books.” “So what do you do?”

Like we walk up to surgeons and say “What do you do?” “Oh I’m a surgeon.” “Really? I cut up a frog once. I should bring it in…” NO.

For all the bazillion of us who are creative, who identify ourselves as writer, artist, musician, dancer—just because we also hold down a soul-gutting day job and in our itty bitty hearts know we may never win a grammy or an emmy or any other meme, we are still who we are. It is society that has determined that in order to say you ARE something you have to put a dollar-per-hour tag on it.

You know this to be true even as that stomach acid inducing “So when are you gonna go get a real job” sentence rings in the ears of those of you who have actually stepped out in your chosen passion, and are on food stamps or living in your parents basement because of it.

Let me tell you something. I have a day job. And a family. And a mortgage and all those identifiers that deem me “normal” and inside, curled fetal, is a banshee.

Today, after a week of phlegm and obligations, the banshee is silent. But she won’t stay that way. She is my penance for attempting to conform. The only “day job” that will ever satisfy my inner screaming she-beast would be “novelist” or “editor” or “poet laureate of the known realm.” Accountant? That is a necessary evil in my life. Writer is who I am.

So here is my horrific warning. Don’t be me.

Don’t sell out. Don’t conform. And above all, don’t develop the myopia that tells you you are not successful if you’re not making money at the thing you love to do more than you love breathing. If you allow the world at large to define you, you may find yourself bitter, old, and crusty. Which is cool I suppose if you are a crouton. But if you are a creator of images and words and worlds, crusty won’t suffice.

I didn’t use that razor this morning, and guess what. No one questioned my girliness. My identity as a writer though? For now, it’s not common knowledge, even among those who think they know me. Don’t be me dear artist.

To thine own self….you know the rest.

Tammy Boehm, Associate Editor

And... Action

Here I am again, the bane of your existence, oh Indie author extraordinaire.

I know it seems like I’m picking on the very souls who frequent the publishing entity to whom I am enslaved, but it’s not true. I only vilify your horrific habits because I love you and want nice things for you. Oh, and because everything I share with you isn’t fabricated whilst I’m hunched over a converted PC desk in the corner of a spider infested, cat haunted, frigid basement. It’s just me, gnawing on the bones of my very existence and sharing the marrow of my experiences with you.

I get it. You’ve spent at least ninety days developing this complicated shmuck, flawed but lovable, and you’re parading him—we’ll call him Jaxton for effect—through the vast and lofty verbal cornucopia that is your novel. Page after page of pitfall, tension, and ego-crunching experience. Perhaps he suffers from a skin condition that stifles his abilities to socialize so he’s lonely but brilliant due to a lifetime of ego-bruising—enough to squeeze some wine (or whine) out.

You’ve done your homework.

Dialogue, rounded characters, excerpts on your website, and you’ve built your fan base.

Your book should be leaping off your virtual shelves. But it isn’t.

All this work—a lifetime of trial for your protag, and no one cares enough to spend the $12.50 to see what happens next.

Why? Well, because you’re not Dickens and this isn’t the 1800’s.

In a world where your potential readers are bombarded by information and overwhelmed with choices, you and your book have to stand out amidst the chaos. And you, dear writer, only have seconds to set your book hook and land that new fan.

Pay attention: you have to grab your reader within the first page of your novel if you want them to read the second and subsequent.

That means, get to the action and get to it quickly. Jax loosed his white knuckled grip on the steering wheel as he fixed his gaze on the front door of Cheryl’s Chic Boutique. A manicured hand adorned with chunky rings appeared in the window. There it was. Cheryl flipped the “Closed” sign, finally. She’d be alone in the store now. A bead of sweat dripped from his temple, stinging his freshly treated cheek severely enough that his eyes watered. His foot hovered over the gas pedal. All the years of injections, painful chemical treatments, were nothing compared to the pain that constricted his chest every time he thought of Cheryl. He just wanted an end to the pain. Taking a deep breath, he slid the car into drive… BANG.

I know. You’re thinking—okay, but that was my climactic scene! On page 244! Don’t worry. Unless you’ve never watched CSI, or Bones, or pretty much any dramatic anything lately, you should recognize the thing I did just now. Yup. It’s called getting the action on the first page.

Now, you can continue with your story in “how did he get to this place” fashion and your reader will eagerly follow your twists and turns for 243 more pages because you gave him, her, it, something to be curious about. Your climactic moment is still safe because you’ve actually revealed nothing about the outcome—that car has not moved, yet. So you, writer, are free to build to the inevitable—does he kill himself? Does he kill her? Does a pug run across the road, foiling his endeavors again? I must now buy your book because I have to know.

And that is how you hook a reader.

Well, okay, my example was purposely kitschy, but give it a try if your plot is slow to simmer and your readers are comatose before the good stuff happens.

Doesn’t have to be a life and death scene, but it does have to be integral to your character’s story and it does have to pop off that page. That very first page.

Unless you’re Dickens. Then write on….and on….and on…


Tammy Boehm
Associate Editor

The Smut Card

So awhile back, I was reading this great little sci-fant bit with monsters and magic and a whole fantastical world. It was a real page turner by an indie author, fast paced and full of characters about whom I was incredibly curious.

There I was, halfway into the journey and boom. There it was, like fresh roadkill on an idyllic autumn drive and I didn’t have time enough to swerve out of the obstructed lane: a great steamy pile of porn complete with guttural noises, graphic descriptions of intimate parts and functions and lots and lots of body fluids.

We aren’t talking a pulse quickening smooch and squeeze or even a seductive slow dance and lingering touch. This was straight up pornographic writing so in your face that it made me—a married mom with two grown male children—incredibly squirmy while reading. And not in a good way, either.

The smut card had been played

Suffice it to say, I felt awkward with the storyline after the intrusive sex scene. And unfortunately for me, the writer dropped in another X rated escapade a few chapters later. Not only did the jarringly explicit dual scenes disturb me, but also the fact that the author made no attempt to warn readers regarding the lengthy narratives of mature content halfway through the book. Until the two scenes were dropped on my eyes like they were hot, the book itself would have been a prime read for adult or YA sci-fant fans. Unfortunately, the needless inclusion of gratuitous and over-the-top pornography garnered this otherwise solid story a brown paper cover and a spot in the naughty section of the bookstore. In the back. Where all the creepers hang out.

Seriously now. I’m a grown woman, and I like a little spice every now and then, but dumping the entire bottle of cayenne in the dish will not only ruin the flavor but it may scorch a body’s innards as well.

We owe our readers the integrity as writers to protect them from ingesting that which might damage them.

I get it. People meet, fall in love, and intimacy is a real part of life. In fact it is to be enjoyed. But there is a huge difference between creating a connection between characters who demonstrate intimacy and physical affection and/or attraction for one another and straight up smut.

If you as a writer choose with eyes open and conscience unmarred to write pornographic material, rest assured you will have an audience who hopefully will be as adult as you are. But if you are just wrapping your characters personal parts around each other and throwing in some blue language for effect to grab your reader, don’t.

Check your skill set as a writer first.

If you have to prostitute your characters to keep the attention of your reader, something is wrong with your characters, your storyline, or your writing itself.

Reread your work up to the point of your characters defrocking, and correct your story. Create some tension, add some danger, take a writing class, but don’t add an explicit sex scene just for shock and awe.

Here’s the deal:

That book I mentioned would have read stunningly without the sweaty, sticky, contortive side bar. It was obvious the protags were passionate about one another. And while a moment of procreative endeavors could have been alluded to or given a few sentences, the pages of porn did not advance the story one iota. In fact, they detracted from it, because they pulled the reader out of the amazing world the writer had so painstakingly created.

The two potentially offensive scenes took the characters from otherworldly to disappointingly boorish and, even more damaging, the scenes put constraints on the book in total: an otherwise stellar story now really requires a graphic content warning.

So, when gambling for your readers attention, don’t play the smut card. It’s constrictive to your reach as a writer, it cheapens your characters, and ultimately it’s a cop out—a cheat for a writer. If you need drama or tension, add a teenage girl or a mother-in-law. But don’t write something that makes your reader want to gouge his or her eyes out and soak them in disinfectant.


Tammy Boehm
Associate Editor