Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Bad Culinary Decision

A few days ago, on a whim, I bought a bag of Lay's Potato Chips in their new Chicken and Waffles flavor. I figured my kids (who love both chicken and waffles) would enjoy it, and I was curious to see how Lay's managed to deliver this flavor via a potato chip.




The taste can't decide if its chicken, waffles, or some terrible hybrid of the two that ends up just tasting like syrup-drenched roadkill. And the aftertaste? Holy Noxious Swill, Batman! Soooo bad. And it just does NOT fade.

Even my boys, who will eat anything and who regularly come up with concoctions no sane person would eat (Chocolate sauce and gummy bears in a rootbeer float, for example. Or pouring the ramen seasoning packet over the UNCOOKED noodles and munching on it for hours.) wouldn't eat more than one chip.

Basically, eating a single Lay's Chicken and Waffles potato chip looks like this:

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Creation of an Effective Villain

One of the things I often hear from readers is that the Commander truly scares them. He's been called one of the worst villains in literature by several who've written to me, and this pleases me. Naturally, I live to scare my readers. *cue maniacal laughter*

Actually, I live to write effective stories, and that requires pushing my characters to their limits. If the villain isn't worthy of my heroes, then the story no longer matters. Readers don't sign on to read a story about characters who are kind of facing a few irksome problems that are easily dispatched if only they would simply communicate with each other and decide to do the right thing. Readers want stories that sink into their minds and whisper their secret fears. They want stories where the heroes have a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding. Stories where the victory costs nearly as much as it would cost to fail.

To deliver that, the villain must be effective. Being evil for the sake of being evil is boring. Every effective villain has a defined agenda. A cause that he is fully committed to, no matter how much collateral damage he might cause himself and others on the way to achieving his goal. Conflict happens when the hero's agenda runs perpendicular to the villain's.

But having a defined agenda and a fanatical devotion to his cause (even if his cause is himself) isn't enough. For a villain to be truly effective, readers must BELIEVE that he will follow through on his threats.

That was the secret to creating the Commander. I knew he was a brutal man who didn't truly see people as anything other than pawns in the chessboard of life. And I knew the secret fears that drove him to covet absolute power (and to be so afraid of having his word challenged). But all of that was useless if he was the kind of villain who stopped to have long threatening soliloquies, making grandiose promises of violent consequences if my characters didn't bend to his wishes. The secret of the Commander's reign of terror (both over my characters and over my readers) is that he always keeps his promises. And I had to write the scenes that proved it.

That was the hardest thing. To bring to life on the page the absolute disregard he has for human life, and the lengths to which he'll go to force people to bend to his will. His very first threat toward Rachel and Logan is instantly accompanied by a brutal murder right in front of them to drive home how easily he will keep his promises to destroy them if they try to double cross him.

I had to escalate it from there, though, because the other ingredient to a truly effective villain is to make the consequences of his actions PERSONAL to the hero, and therefore to the reader. The Commander had to hurt my characters where it really mattered, and he did it in the cold, efficient style that is his hallmark. No emotion. Just brutality so that he would get his way.

For those who've read the book, I'm talking about the wagon scene. It was a horrible scene to write. I cried all the way through it, and then I couldn't write another word again for three days. But I knew that with that one scene, I'd solidified the Commander as an effective villain because now the heroes and the reader knew without a shred of doubt that the Commander would keep his word. Instantly, the stakes in the novel rose. Failure now carried an impossibly tragic consequence, and everyone believed it.

In Deception, a new villain is added to the mix (though the Commander is still very present). This villain has a very different agenda, very different motives, and very different demons driving the actions the villain takes. But one thing remained consistent: this villain keeps his/her word. The methods are different, but the outcome is the same: the reader believes that the villain is fanatically devoted to his/her cause and will do what it takes to reach his/her goal. I had to prove it all over again. And yes, I had to make it personal because if it isn't personal, then it isn't really frightening and it doesn't truly matter. So yes, there's a scene that broke me. I still can't read it without sobbing. I guess I should apologize ahead of time to my readers, but I'm not truly sorry because for the story's outcome to matter, the villain had to be effective.

And besides, if you've read Defiance and decided to come back for more, you know what you're getting into. ;D

So, that's my recipe for an effective villain:

*A defined agenda
*Total devotion to his/her cause
*Makes the consequences for disobedience/failure personal
*Demonstrates that he/she keeps his/her promises

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Selling Out?

The topic of being a "sell-out" came up the other day while I was talking with one of my kids. For context, he was shocked to learn that I loved the new Fallout Boy single. Mostly because he couldn't believe his mom knew who Fallout Boy was. But also because he and his friends considered the single a "sell-out."

When I asked him why that song qualified as a sell-out, he shrugged and said that all the fans were saying it. He didn't really know why, except that the song was different from earlier artistic offerings from the band.

That's a strange label in this situation. Usually, when a band gets labeled a "sell-out," fans mean that a band who produced alternative/niche music changed their style a bit and found commercial success. In Fallout Boy's case, they've already found commercial success. Their 2005 album went double platinum, and their 2007 album debuted at #1 on Billboard's Top 200. So, if the outcry isn't based on the band suddenly finding commercial success, then the problem must be the experimentation with a new sound. Fallout Boy earned their spot on the charts as a pop punk band, and their new single sounds more pop than punk.

Accusing musical artists of selling out isn't a new thing. Last year, the hip hop community was enraged when Nicki Minaj's album STARSHIPS hit the airwaves. She'd gone the pop/hip hop route and disappointed fans who felt that she had a chance to be a legit female hip hop star and instead had softened her approach in favor of radio play and a fat paycheck.

Green Day. Metallica. Liz Phair. Weezer. Taylor Swift. The list of those accused of selling out by changing their artistic approach and finding more commercial success is lengthy. The list of authors who've been accused of selling out is shorter, but it exists. Mostly the accusations raise their ugly heads when readers discover a little known author of some brilliance and feel a sense of ownership, only to then feel betrayed when the author writes books that hold more commercial appeal and thus find a larger audience.

In that sense, the criteria for selling out, both as an author and as a musician, seems to be this: you gained your place in your chosen field through the devotion of a niche group of fans who feel betrayed when you experiment with your artistic approach and then find commercial success with something other than the niche product that gained you those fans in the first place.

Even authors who've already achieved incredible commercial success can't escape the label. When J.K. Rowling published THE VACANCY, the outcry from many fans was intense. How dare she write a book aimed at adults? How could she write a little murder mystery instead of something that upheld the legacy of Harry Potter? The reviews left on THE VACANCY's Amazon page during its debut week bore testament to this. There were just as many 1 stars as 5, and most of those 1 stars centered around fans' disappointment that the book wasn't another Harry Potter.

On a deeper level, slapping the label of "sell-out" on an author or artist says "you've lost your integrity." I take exception to that for several reasons.

One, there's nothing inherently wrong with finding commercial success. We don't all have to be starving artists for our work to have merit. To equate lack of income with artistic brilliance is short-sighted and frankly stupid. I don't know many authors who go into their publishing career hoping to just be heard, no matter how little money they make. Yes, we love writing and we desperately want to keep writing books and putting them in the hands of readers. That won't ever change. But we also want to eat and pay our bills. Most of us approach our publishing career with a plan to find some level of commercial success so that we can eat and pay our bills and maybe, if we're really fortunate, send one of our kids to college. To accuse someone of "selling out" because a book hits the list is to assume that the author never intentionally sought to earn a paycheck.

Two, creativity isn't something that thrives well inside a box. It needs the freedom to stretch its boundaries and experiment. Sometimes those experiments flop. Sometimes they send your single straight up the Billboard charts or land your book on the NYT's list. Often, those experiments will stray from your original book/song/album/whatever. My writing voice has stretched and grown over the years. It grew leaps and bounds from Defiance to Deception, and I expect it to continue to grow because I plan to continue to experiment. Some of those experiments, some of the projects that are steadily gaining shape inside my head, bear no resemblance to Defiance. Readers who fall in love with this series might love my next books. They might not. I can't stop and look over my shoulder and second guess my creativity because someone might think I've left my roots. Why shouldn't all artists have that freedom?

Three, labeling someone as a sell out indicates that YOU understand their inner drive, their passion, and their vision for their life better than they do. Nicki Minaj wasn't supposed to step away from hip hop. Green Day wasn't supposed to stretch beyond punk. Metallica wasn't supposed to care about album sales. J.K. Rowling wasn't supposed to write anything but children's fantasy. Grisham wasn't supposed to write anything but legal thrillers.

But they did. And I don't think that makes them a sell-out. I think that makes them human. Artists. Creative. Passionate. I think it means they wanted to try new things. Or maybe they had a different career trajectory in mind than their fans thought they would. Or maybe they sat down one day and the voice of their next project was just different from the voice of their last.

We can't be afraid of that as artists. We can't stay shackled to our roots, huddled against the ground producing the same thing over and over again because if we stretch too far in any direction we might fail. We might turn our fans against us. We might sell too many copies or too few.

For me, it comes down to the same philosophy that keeps me happily ignoring my reviews and filtering out any voices but the few I've intentionally chosen to allow into my creative process: If I wouldn't cry for you at your funeral, I don't have to care what you think of me now.

I'd love to see the accusation of "selling out" dropped. I know that's a pipe dream because there will always be niche fans (I'm often one of them!) who feel a kinship with an author or artist and then feel slapped in the face when that author/artist moves in a different direction. But I'd like to offer the idea that healthy people grow emotionally. They don't stay in the same cycles. Who we are and what we have to say about life when we're twenty-three is different from what we have to say when we're thirty-five. Sometimes our voice doesn't change all that much, though our words do. But sometimes, the voice, the words, and the entire approach undergo a metamorphosis along with us.  And sometimes, it has nothing to do with growth and everything to do with being business savvy along with being creative.

I don't consider either to be selling out. Selling out is when you KNOW your voice is gritty and dark, but you pull back from that ledge because you aren't sure you have what it takes to go there. Selling out is when truth is burning inside of you and you cover it up because you're afraid of what others will think when they see you without any walls to hide behind. Selling out is desperately wanting to experiment with a new style, a new genre, a new hook, and saying no to it because it might fail. You might fail.

If we sell out, we do it to ourselves by short-changing our creativity and chopping our vision off at the knees out of fear. I say write what you want to write. If it's commercial, fabulous. If it isn't, and you wish it was, then find a way to say what you need to say in a way that will still entice people to buy your book or your album. I say experiment and push your own creative boundaries and see where it takes you. If you land on the list and there are those who decry you for moving too far from your original works, then ask yourself what you're doing listening to them in the first place. Really. Who are you listening to and why?

I hope you're listening to your own creativity. To your own vision for what you want to say and how you want to say it. And I hope you're allowing other artists to step outside of the box you might have built around them. Even if it looks like the only reason they stepped out of it was to pay the bills.

Please share your thoughts about selling out in the comments below. I look forward to hearing your opinions!

Monday, February 25, 2013

I Really Should Start Paying More Attention ...

1. I had a busy week last week, mostly because I was trying to fit seven days worth of stuff into five days because I attended a writing retreat over the weekend.

2. We all know I can't leave my house without doing something absent-minded or ridiculous.

3. Usually because I'm almost always somewhere else inside my head while I try to live real life, and that often blows up in my face.

4. My week was fine until I left the house to drive to the retreat. I had to stop by Target for my contribution to the weekend's menu and then by Dress Barn to find a pair of non-denim, non-yoga pants to wear at my daughter's dedication on Sunday and to an upcoming reception for the Nashville literary community. (Although, let's be honest ... any reception for a literary community will probably include at least ONE pair of yoga pants in attendance ...)

5. I think my mistake was in stopping at Target first. Why?

6. Because the automatic doors ruined me for all other doors.

7. Ruined me.

8. Need proof?

9. I walked into Dress Barn, grabbed the first pair of nice black pants I saw, purchased them, and then headed for the door. I had a two hour drive ahead of me, and I was already running a little behind. I had no time to waste with browsing or dressing rooms.

10. I was focused on leaving.

11. Sadly, I should've been focused on HOW to leave.

12. I walked toward the front doors like a Boss. I had it timed just right. Slow enough to give the sensor for the automatic door time to realize I was coming, but fast enough to hit the doorway right after the glass obligingly got out of my way.

13. The problem?

14. Dress Barn doesn't have automatic doors.

15. You'd think since I had to manually open the door to enter the store that I would've realized this, but alas. My mind had left Dress Barn the second I'd finished purchasing the pants. My body was simply trying to catch up.

16. I closed in on the door, and some small presence still lingering in my head (instead of thinking through my route and running over the workshops I was scheduled to present) said quietly, "The door isn't opening."

17. I didn't slow down.

18. The voice spoke louder. "The door isn't opening. It ISN'T opening."

19. The rest of my brain, yanked rudely from its contemplations, said "Huh?"

20. At this point, I was maybe twelve inches from the door.

21. My brain blinked, looked around, realized the danger, and screamed, "ABORT! ABORT!"

22. But as is usually the case with me, physics, my old scientific nemesis, got the best of me.

23. I was already in motion, and the only thing that could stop me was an immovable object.

24. The door decided to volunteer for that task.

25. I slammed into the glass door like I'd robbed a bank and was trying to make a getaway. Like I meant business.

26. Like a BOSS.

27. Because when I do something? I never do it halfway.

28. It looked a lot like this:

Followed by this:

29. The poor saleslady next to the door made a dreadful snort-cackle sound before she swallowed her laughter and asked if I was ok.

30. I told her to just go ahead and laugh. I know if I saw me? I'd be laughing for the next hour.

31. I gathered the shreds of my dignity around me and left the building like THIS:

32. And then I got into the car and called Myra McEntire, MG Buehrlen, and Jodi Meadows to tell them what I'd done. They weren't surprised in the least. I think the only thing that would surprise them at this point is if I leave the house and DON'T do something stupid.

33. Aaaaaand, speaking of doing something stupid ...

34. I wear contacts, which means that when I travel, I need travel-size contact solution. Thanks to my eye doctor (whose somewhat combative relationship with me is documented here), I have TWO travel sized bottles. He gave me samples the last time I was in. One is a regular saline solution. One is a hydrogen peroxide solution that must be neutralized by putting my contacts in a special container that has a metal disk and then leaving them there for a full six hours.

35. Guess where my brain was while I was packing?

36. Not in my bathroom reading the labels on my contact solution bottles, I can tell you that much.

37. Know when I figured out I'd taken the hydrogen peroxide mixture by mistake?


39. My eye was red for an hour afterward. It. Was. Awesome.

40. And guess what? I'm traveling again this weekend!

41. What could possibly go wrong?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Pep Talk Fail & Other Things

1. Yes, I laughed myself stupid over that pic.

2. Yes, I've been a sucky blogger. Some days/weeks/months I have to make the choice between sucky blogger or sucky writer, though, and writing pays the bills.

3. I am going to try hard to do better.


5. Clearly, I got a little distracted by the various EPIC movies I love ... so yeah, I am also sucky at pep talks.

6. At any rate, I'm here! Blogging! And also writing under another fast-approaching deadline, so we'll see just how well I can juggle the two.

7. As most of you know, Defiance hit the shelves on 8/28 and it was lovely and crazy and exhausting and fun. The local launch party was a blast, and I was so amazed at how many people showed up!

8. Of course, I did advertise the fact that my hubby would be making one of his infamously yummy cakes, so that helped. :) Defiance and cake! Destined to go together.

9. The online launch party was also tons of fun, and I really enjoyed the question and answer portion. Some great questions were asked! If you missed that chat, I have two more coming up in the next two months. Check my Appearances tab to see when you can talk to me either online or in person.

10. The weekend after launch, I traveled south to be on a panel at Dragon*Con and one at the Decatur Book Festival.

11. Both events were fun in different ways (very different atmosphere and audience but same intelligent, interesting questions!) and thankfully, I didn't eat anything while having to also be "on" because we all know how well that turned out for me last time.

12. When I returned home, I came into my local bookstore to sign some stock, and a man noticed me standing at a counter scrawling my signature across the title page to a stack of books. He got WELL into my personal space and the conversation went as follows:

Him: What are you doing?
Me: Um ... signing books.
Him: Why?
Me: Because the manager asked me to.
Him: Did you write this book?
Me: Yes.
Him: All of these books?
Me: *kindly does not point out that all of the books in the stack have the exact same title* Yes.
Him: So, you get to sign your name in books if you write them?
Me: Sometimes
Him: I mean, I guess if you're an author you could just sign any book, really, because your signature is what's worth money.
Me: No. No, that's not right at all.
Him: Think about it! You could sign this book *grabs Rick Riordan's latest* and someone would be excited because it's like getting two authors for the price of one!
Me: I just ... that's not exactly ... I don't think Rick Riordan would appreciate that. I'll just stick with signing my own books.
Him: Well, is your book any good?
Me: I'm done signing now. See you later.

And yes, I think maybe I do have a "crazies welcome" sign blinking over my head.

13. Coming this week:

Tues: Ask C.J. - in which I answer a variety of questions sent to me via Twitter and Facebook.
Wed: Author Interview and giveaway. (You're going to love this one!)
Thurs: Fast Five questions with a 2012 debut author
Fri: Weekend Reading Recommendations (I'll tell you what book I just read that I absolutely loved, and you share your latest book crushes with me as well!)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Defiance Trailer!

Since VH1's exclusive has expired, Harper posted the trailer on youtube so that the regions who didn't have access to view it on VH1 can see it now. Here you go!

Monday, May 7, 2012

AwkwardFlail FTW

1. Oh, reader.

2. I had my first official author event this past weekend.

3. It was a trial run which should probably be titled "C.J. Tries To Be Authorly In Public."

4. The subtitle is "AwkwardFlail."

5. The fine print reads "If you invite C.J. to an event, and you haven't done your research, you deserve the spectacle you're about to witness."

6. What happened, you ask?

7. I was invited by the lovely people in the Heart of Dixie RWA chapter to host one of the tables at their annual Reader Appreciate Luncheon.

8. The event was wonderful. Fun, high energy, and very well attended.

9. There was a meet and greet beforehand, and then a fancy catered lunch, and then gift baskets and door prizes etc.

10. And there were photo ops.

11. Sadly, I believe my table was treated to more photo ops than anyone else.

12. I should come with a warning label. Something along the lines of "Read her blog BEFORE you meet her, and then sit near her at your own risk."

13. But I didn't have a warning label.

14. So innocent people who wanted to meet a new YA author sat at my table.

15. And brought their teenage daughters with them.

16. The lunch went something like this.

17. We all sat down at our table. The caterers had already placed glasses of tea and water by our knives, and had also set a selection of desserts around the table.

18. I began talking to the two teenage girls seated to my left.

19. I gesture as I talk.

20. At one point, I leaned forward to say something, and I slapped my hand SMACK DAB in the middle of a piece of pie.

21. I was covered in whipped cream and shame.

22. Well, not so much shame because I ran out of that about a decade and a half ago when I realized that growing up didn't necessarily mean I was going to grow out of general klutziness and epic fails.

23. But whipped cream? Oh yes. My hand was covered.

24. I could see the others at the table were trying to choose the correct response.

25. I can't blame them. I don't think there's a bylaw in the Social Etiquette Handbook that tells you how to act when a gregarious girl slams her hand into a piece of strawberry whipped cream pie.

26. So, I chose the response for them.

27. I very solemnly said, "That will be my piece."

28. And then I assured the girls that I do stuff like that all the time, and that they should feel free to laugh and find me slightly ridiculous.

29. The conversation moved on, and one of the girls told me she was being bullied at school for being different.

30. As she was saying that, the waiter set salads in front of us.

31. I assured the girl that the small-minded morons who bully others in school find themselves adrift without a victim or a vision when they graduate because outside of school, those of us with different brains and strange dreams are the ones who go on to greatness.

32. And then, dear reader, I took a bite of salad.

33. The fool of a chef who thought bite-sized pieces of lettuce were for wimps and who then followed that egregious error with a whopping half a bottle of dressing for a tiny pile of greens is on my LIST.

34. Because I forked up a bite of salad.

35. And the leaves were too big to fit completely in my mouth.

36. As you may have surmised, I have a big mouth. So these leaves of lettuce? HUGE.

37. Realizing I couldn't fit the entire bite in without stabbing the back of my throat with my fork, I closed my lips over the half-inserted leaf.

38. There is a law of physics that applies here.

39. I don't know the official name, but it has to do with leverage, and momentum, and copious amounts of salad dressing.

40. I bit down, the un-inserted end of the lettuce leaf shot up toward my mouth, and all of that extra salad dressing?


42. And worse?

43. IN MY EYE.

44. I may be the only person in the entire world who can shoot herself in the eye with salad dressing using nothing more than a fork, a leaf of lettuce, and her own lips.

45. Here is the truly sad part of this tale.

46. I was so concerned with the dressing to my eye (Balsamic vinegar burns ... just a little bit), I failed to even realize there was dressing anywhere else.

47. Everywhere else.

48. I gently dabbed my eye and said something to the effect of "Crap. I shot salad dressing into my eye."

49. And when I looked up, everyone at the table was trying to signal to me.

50. Surreptitious swipes against their foreheads. Pointed glances at my cheekbones. Finally, one of the ladies just said "You have some on your face, too."

51. Hurray for understatement!

52. It was on my forehead. Both sides. On my nose. And on my cheeks.

53. I had to use my fancy cloth napkin to just wipe my whole face.

54. And then I turned to the girl beside me and said, "See? You can be awkward like WHOA, and your dreams can still come true. And then people will pay to come sit by you at lunch and think you're cool even though you've insulted a piece of pie and done terrible injury to yourself with salad dressing. People like us? Teenage years are torture. But the rest of life? It's wide open possibility."

55. And her mother said, "I told you C.J. was cool!"

56. Somehow, losing a poorly planned battle for my dignity with a plate of salad equalled cool. Those kind of things don't happen when you're a teenager. But when you're an adult? And you've learned to laugh at yourself? (Because hey, food was around. SOMETHING was bound to happen, but it doesn't have to derail you.) When you've learned to embrace the things that make you different, and when you value the stuff that once made you want to crawl into a hole and die from the awkwardflailness of it all, you win. You attract people who like you because you aren't afraid to just BE you.

57. And when you aren't afraid to BE you? Anything is possible.

58. Still, for all that pep talk, I think my publicist will read this and probably issue a memo to all future events instructing the organizers to keep me far, far away from food.

A Bad Culinary Decision

A few days ago, on a whim, I bought a bag of Lay's Potato Chips in their new Chicken and Waffles flavor. I figured my kids (who love bot...