Saturday, March 17, 2018

Moment of Doubt

 "No girl would do that. You have to change that part."

That's what the agent said. He'd read my first chapter as part of a private consultation at a writers conference, and his feedback was generally positive and supportive. I had already attended one of his talks and found him to be very knowledgeable with a long career in the publishing industry. He knew his stuff and he was telling me my story wasn't believable.

Specifically, he referred to a scene where my main character, a high school girl, stands up to a bully and stares him down with a threat of physical violence. To be clear, she's big and physically strong, but the guy she's facing is bigger and stronger. And a total a-hole who just made a racist joke. So the sentiment is fine, the agent said, but he was adamant that girls just don't do the whole physical confrontation thing, especially not towards a boy. I had gotten it wrong.

My immediate response was self-doubt. I think that's the default for most writers: assume the criticism is deserved and we failed. Because we know we fail a lot. We fail and fail and keep trying until someone, somewhere tells us maybe we got it right. So I believed him, and in spite of his other praise, I left the consultation demoralized. This was doubt with a capital D, maybe a few exclamation points and sad emoji. I had tried so hard to create a strong character, not just physically tough, but a strength of character. One who fails and cries and often has no clue of what the right thing is or how to do it, but when she has clarity there's no hesitation on where to come down and she's willing to put everything she has on the line. That's believable, isn't it?

When I got home I shared the day's events with my wife, as I normally do. She immediately sensed my frustration and sadness, as she always does. She didn't give me a pep talk, she didn't praise my writing (she does that often enough). Instead, she told me a story of her own. About how, when she was in high school, some boy made a sexist comment to her friend and she slammed him against a locker and made him apologize.

That's why I love her so much: for knowing I needed that story and for being the girl in that story. That's why I want to write these stories. The agent wasn't a misogynistic jerk. He was a really nice middle-aged guy who actively encouraged female writers and liked the idea of books with Strong Female Characters. But his view of what that meant, of what girls can be, was limited by his experience and most likely society's expectations. It may even be accurate on the average, but it is not all-encompassing.

I'm not saying my character is the perfect embodiment of what it means for a girl to be strong, and I know other writers can, will, and have done it better. I'm sure I'll get stuff wrong. I'll fail again and again.  But not this time. Some girls would do that. Some of the very best have done that. Those girls deserve to have their stories told.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

#WriteMentor: Fog Line

Okey-Dokey, I've been away from this blog for quite a while but time to dust it off for a good cause. I've been working on a new project (not so new anymore) and it's almost ready for the query stage, always an exercise in anxiety and ego-bashing, and I've found a new program that sounds like a great way to get some help. WriteMentor is a group of YA (and some MG) authors who created a system to help mentor aspiring authors who have a Work In Progress (almost) ready for submittal. You apply using your work and the various mentors each pick out a mentee who they would like to work with, and from that point on you have an experienced critique partner to give you feedback and help you with revisions.

That's always seemed so hard for me: finding someone to give feedback who has the credentials to be believed. It's not that hard to find critique partners, and many of them do give good advice, but I've always received such contradictory advice and it normally comes from people who have the same background and experience as I do, so it's really hard to know what to listen to and what to ignore. I like the idea of getting help from someone who has gotten at least a little farther into the game - they have an agent, quite often have sold a novel - and that experience and perspective can make a world of difference.

So I'm actively looking for a mentor! My project is a YA Mystery entitled Fog Line which I've been working on intermittently for a couple years now. It's my third book (the first is best not spoken of, the second, a YA SciFi, didn't fare well in querying but I still have faith). Fog Line has had several beta readers and gone through a couple revisions based on feedback and my own musings. I think one more revision is needed and I'd really like to find someone to work with who sees what I have, what I'm going for, and what is possible. Here's a little bit more about my story:

Fog Line

Veronica Mars meets High Plains Drifter, with a stocky Latina in rural, pot-growing NorCal.

Four months ago, seventeen-year-old Malena killed her best friend. She doesn’t remember the party, much less the accident—too much alcohol and a severe concussion—but that’s what Josh told her when she woke up in the hospital. He was first on the scene and slid her friend’s body into the driver’s seat to save Malena from jail time. Under the weight of that secret and her guilt, Malena limps through her senior year with a simple strategy: keep her head down, don’t burden her mom any more than she already has, escape high school and this crappy little town forever.

The new girl at school, Zoe, makes it hard. Somehow she knows everyone’s secrets and enjoys revealing them to the world. But she says the crash wasn’t Malena’s fault, wasn’t an accident.  Any hope of redemption is enough for Malena to buy in, and when the police report backs up the claim, Malena must find out why Josh lied and who else at the party was involved.

With Zoe’s strangely accurate guidance, Malena uncovers pot dealing, police bribes, and secret relationships. But as she gets closer to the truth,  more kids start dying in ‘accidents’, and Malena wonders if vengeance is coming for her or if she should be the one dishing it out. 


I moved to the Mendocino Coast of California several years ago now and it's one of the most picturesque areas in a very photogenic state. I visited frequently in the past to enjoy the ocean and the quaint shops, but living here introduced me to a different landscape: the people. While the backbone of the economy used to be lumber, that dried up with the closing of the local sawmill a decade ago. There's still some commercial fishing, but this is a blue-collar area without many blue-collar jobs left. There's also been a hippie art scene combined with a back-to-the-land movement since the sixties, and enough tourist money coming from the Bay Area to keep several studios afloat, but hardly enough for everyone. Marijuana is the where the real money is, and so much of the economy works off the cash that flows from the crop. It creates this weird mixture of liberal politics, poor working-class communities, and lots of uncertainty around the financial future of legalization and the benefits and drawbacks it brings. Add to that a growing Hispanic population, often spread from more farm-dependant areas of the state, and you have enough natural conflict for a dozen good stories.

So I knew I wanted to write something that involved the intersection of the diverse groups of people. But that isn't a story. Somehow my mind reached back to one of my favorite films, Brick, a film-noir set in a modern high school. (It's one of Rian Johnson's early movies and an early work of Joseph Gordon-Levitt - check it out if you've never seen it.) High school, drugs, different cliques, a loner who's tough and resourceful, determined to find the truth. It translated to the area really well and the idea of writing a dark mystery appealed to me.

I came up with my basic story idea off that: a girl is dead, what really happened is a mystery, it involves drug dealing and lots of secrets. But it needed something more to drive the action, to give it the pacing and conflict I wanted. I found it in another movie: High Plains Drifter, a classic Clint Eastwood western. Not where you'd normally expect to source a YA novel, but by inserting a character based on Eastwood's classic man-with-no-name, I found a unique element that drove the plot, added conflict to every other character, and created a fascinating dichotomy with my main character.


When I started actually writing, my main character changed most of my plans. I had thought of a dark story, told through eyes of an emotionally detached, hard-bitten detective (though in this case a teenage girl). But Malena Thompson wasn't so tough. She was large and strong, and emotionally broken, sure, but as I crawled into her head it became very clear that her motivation wasn't to simply find the truth, or to punish those who might have hurt her; she sought redemption. For her own failings, but also to honor her lost friend. A friend who she loved sincerely and who was a truly decent person in an often inhospitable world. A friend who made Malena better and for whose sake Malena wanted to become better still. It wasn't a story of darkness and depression but of light and hope, just buried deep under a gritty veneer. It was Malena's story.

Malena is the daughter of a second-generation Argentine immigrant and a Silicon Valley rich kid. Her dad abandoned her mom when she was born, but her mom kept his last name for Malena in hopes it would help her avoid the life of physical labor and disrespect that dark skin can bring. Mostly it made Malena an outsider from both communities, which, ironically, is why her friendship with the only black girl in town worked so well. That friendship centered Malena's life, allowed her to draw manga without worrying about cultural appropriateness, and gave her a sense of home beyond her doting mother. Losing that friend, especially believing it was her fault, was a devastation from which she sees no recovery.

Everyone who has read the first chapter remarks on how powerful the New Girl character is. They're right, she's a force of nature. But she isn't the MC, and while I did face my own doubts that having such a strong secondary character could unbalance the book, over time, and through revisions, it became more and more clear that Malena has a strength of character that holds her up against anyone. It may take some time for the reader to realize it, but those are my favorite characters: the ones who always have more to show and depths to be plumbed. 


Where I've ended up is a little different than where I started. I've had a couple beta readers who really like it, I've made some changes to connect all the characters and expand the motivations for everyone involved. I've worked in a few more details so the twist ending will still surprise but is also laying in plain sight. Fog Line definitely has more of a Veronica Mars vibe now - one of my all-time favorites, so I shouldn't be surprised it worked its way in. It has some witty humor, it has some decent adults who try to help, it has a geeky sidekick who doesn't fit the stereotypes you might assume. At its heart it's still a story about a loner poor kid who's searching for the truth in a world of contradictions: wealth and poverty, white and brown, illegal and legally sanctioned. I hope it shows the place I call home, but more importantly, I hope it gives the world a character that they learn to love and respect the way I have.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Dragon in the Garden, by Erika Gardner

I am deep in the middle of working on a new novel - it has consumed every moment of my writing time and it is so easy to get lost in my own world, my own struggles, and miss the many great moments that others are happening around me. When someone I know has success, whether big or small, whether a close friend or a name that blurred by on my feed, it makes me a little happier. Happy for them and happy to know that one day my own moment will come. A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved; a joy shared is a joy doubled.

I'm happy to share the joy of  my friend Erika's new book. I met her a few years ago at the San Francisco Writer's conference and in spite of my best efforts to be a writing recluse, she's always kept in touch with not only me but the community formed at that event and beyond. She's one those people who doesn't get so lost in her own world that she forgets to look after her friends :)

Erika is a great writer - I've had the chance to read some of her previous work and can't wait to get my hands on this novel. You never quite know exactly where she's going to go but it's always a little further than you expect and lots of fun getting there. You can learn more about Erika on her blog.

The Dragon in the Garden

There is magic beneath the mundane and in The Dragon in the Garden, Siobhan Orsini witnesses it all. No lie can fool her, no glamour or illusion can cloud her Sight. She sees through them all and wishes she could close her eyes. Returning to face her past, Siobhan inherits her grandparents’ house in California’s wine country. She encounters a talking dragon, a hot fallen angel, a demon lord, a Valkyrie, and, oh yes, her ex-boyfriend. And that is just in the first twenty-four hours. 

Available for preorder now on Amazon and Smashwords- release date 2/19/16 everywhere!!! Special preorder promotional price 0.99! Preorder and the book will download to your device on Feb 19th.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My profile on Freshly Squeezed

I know it seems like I haven't been blogging as much as usual, but it's only perception. The truth is I have three different blogs and this one has been a little lacking in attention lately. That's because I actually just self-published a book (under my real name) and I've been buried in that and the blog that goes with it. I have learned a lot through my self-publishing journey and I'll be sharing that wisdom gained here as well - writing is writing and publishing is publishing.

But in the meantime, I don't think I ever mentioned the contest that I won for the first chapter of Synthesis. I wasn't the only winner - they had several categories. The contest had both industry professional judges and real-life teen readers (it was for YA and MG books), and I garnered one of the Professional Choice Awards. The full list of winners is at Freshly Squeezed.

The award is nice, and it's really good to hear from pros that you're doing something right. Another thing that I really like about Freshly Squeezed is that it provides a lot of feedback and even gives you a chance to incorporate it. It helped with my first page and it definitely helped with my first chapter. It was really nice to get feedback from actual young adult readers - so much of the writers network is made up of writers, which is great, but it's also not the same as the marketplace.

In addition to the contests, Freshly Squeezed does a really nice job of profiling a lot of the winners, their projects and their backgrounds. They did a nice little piece on me and if you want to learn a little more about who I am, here's the link to check it out:

Blair B Burke Profile

So I promise to be back shortly, with information on how to self-edit, tricks I learned from cover design, and the many ways that uploaded an ebook can suck up your time and sanity. See you soon,

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The importance of word choice

"Out of the way, lard-ass."

What do you think of that line? Completely out of context, who do you think would say something like that? Who would it be directed at? What does it tell you about the world and place where it was uttered?

That's a line from the opening scene of a new project I've started working on. The line itself is not an important one - it's definitely not the opener. It comes a couple pages in and has nothing to do with the plot. The speaker is a faceless person passing through, never named and totally irrelevant. But to a writer, every little word can seem like a pivotal moment that will make or break your story. We obsess over our choices, try a million different options and combinations, and can justify exactly why we ended up with the phrasing we did while the reader skims past it to get to the good stuff.

I thought I would break down how and why I ended up with that particular line and that particular insult. Writing this out forced me to really examine the process and I found it fascinating. Hopefully you will too.

I wrote the line the way most good lines come - it was in the moment and I didn't think twice about it. But afterwards I went back to consider it in more detail. I lengthened it, I changed the wording, I tried different insults. But in the end I stuck with what felt right. Those are the words that would come out of the character's mouth (even if that character is completely unknown to me). Here's why:

First, the setting. The story takes place in modern-day Northern California. Now, I know when most people think 'California' they think of Southern California. Warm weather, sunny beaches, people everywhere and everything popular and trendy. but Northern California is an entirely different beast. It's wet and cool. It's rural. It has much more in common with the Oregon coast and the people are quite similar to those I grew up with in a small midwestern farm town. I wanted to help draw that distinction right up front.

The scene is at a high school - one kid talking to another. He's trying to get to class on time and someone's in his way. It's a public place where teachers might possibly overhear, so the insult is going to be a mild one. Something that might get the speaker a reprimand but no real punishment. My main character is on the receiving end of the insult and she's a bit of an outsider. She doesn't fit in to any particular clique and is recovering from a traumatic accident that's left her a little shell-shocked. She sees everyone else continuing on with their lives while she's stuck in time. So 'out of the way' works on many levels.

The boy who casually throws the insult her way is part of the majority at the school. A white kid with a bunch of white friends who thinks sports are the only important part of school and life is about drinking beer and having fun with your friends. While my character is half Hispanic she's third generation American and passes for white, as opposed to the small but noticeable transitory immigrant farmer population that comes and goes in the school. She's lived there all her life and the locals view her as one of their own, if not necessarily a friend. The insult wouldn't have any racial overtones.

But she is a large girl. Normally strong and stocky, the accident has left her out of shape and she feels even more homely and awkward as a result. At the same time, she's been picked on for her looks for her whole life and one more insult goes completely without notice. She doesn't pay any attention to the words or the speaker since he isn't at all important. But I wanted to work in the type of thing she faces on a daily basis.

'Lard-ass' seems appropriately insulting and insensitive and does help create a proper picture of the character before much description has been given. It's also a rather lame insult. It doesn't scream cool teens - which these kids definitely are not.

Again, this isn't an important line. It quickly flies past the main character and she doesn't even consider who said it. I expect the reader will do the same. But it is the sum of all these little words, the ones that don't seem to matter, that make a story that's compelling and draws the reader into a world. It's easy to tell someone what happened. It takes a lot more to immerse them and let them feel it. As writers we strive for the latter. Sometimes it flows out effortlessly, sometimes we spend hours to get it right. The important thing is that we care. If we don't, no one else will.

"Out of the way, lard-ass."