I’m contemplating a project (which is still tentative, so I’m not ready to say more about it), for which I’ve undertaken a re-read and re-edit of the Signal Bend Series. Other than to skim sections here and there to check for continuity points as I’ve continued telling stories in the same world, or to sample a few passages I especially like, I haven’t read any of the books from that series since shortly after I finished the manuscript of Leave a Trail—when, in a blaze of nostalgia, already homesick for the world I was leaving, I read through the whole series in a week. That was right about three years ago.
I just finished re-reading/editing Leave a Trail, completing the series, and now I feel bloggy. I have some nostalgic thoughts and observations about writing (and living) Signal Bend that interest me, at least, and I thought I’d share them in case they might interest you, too.
Fair warning: It’s long. I had a lot of thoughts. Also, here there be spoilers.
My writing style has changed noticeably since Move the Sun—and by “changed” I mean “improved.” Holy wow, was it hard not to dig my hands deep into MTS and really change the language. I still like the story, and I still think Isaac and Lilli’s chemistry crackles like Pop Rocks and Coke, but I see novice weaknesses in the actual craft that make my fingers itch.
However, throughout this re-edit of the series, I made myself stick to fixing actual errors and formatting glitches, limiting my editing of sentence structure mainly to style consistency and verb tense fixes. (LIKE USING PAST PERFECT TENSE CONSISTENTLY WHERE IT BELONGS, 4-YEARS-YOUNGER SUSAN. GEEZ. NOT LIKE YOU’RE AN ACTUAL EXPERT IN THIS GRAMMAR SHIT OR ANYTHING.)
That said, though, I wouldn’t change anything about the story of MTS. I still vividly recall the experience of writing Signal Bend. I began thinking about my writing process as a being named “Lola” because throughout that series, I barely had the feeling of crafting a story. It flowed through me as if I were merely transcribing someone else’s dictation. The saga wanted to be told, demanded to be told.
After this re-read, I think I see where those weaknesses of craft originated. It was more than simply a writer finding her footing in a new endeavor (it was that, too, of course). It was that I was chasing after the story, slapping words down on the page as quickly as they came to me. And I was still deeply living the story during the editing stage, so I still had that “flow” feeling and didn’t want to meddle with the magic.
Now, I wish I’d meddled a little. But I’m proud of the work.
Behold the Stars was written before I published MTS. I’ve always kept at least one book “in the bank,” as it were, so I’m sure what the next thing will be before I put something out. It helps control my anxiety about publishing. Currently, since I slowed my publication schedule down a little last year, but not my writing, I’ve generally got three books in the bank at any given time. When I release something, it’s probably been sitting, completed, on my hard drive for about six months or so. I keep telling myself that means I can take a break, but then I never do. It drives my husband nuts.
Anyway, Isaac and Lilli’s main, two-book story was wrapped up before MTS came out. I’d been waffling about publishing MTS, riddled with my usual anxieties, and I forced the point by refusing to allow myself to start Show’s story (which clamored to be told) until MTS was out in the world.
That’s worth mentioning for this reason (and confession): when I published MTS, I hadn’t read a romance novel in something like 25 years. Fabio was at his peak back then, and Johanna Lindsey and Laura Kinsale were my go-tos. I could not have named any current romance writer; the closest I’d come to reading romance in all that time was Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries.
Or Twilight. I’d read the Twilight books.
Even coming from writing popular SOA erotic fic, I had literally no idea that “MC romance” was a thing. I wasn’t even sure that I had written a romance. I’d simply written a story that wanted to be written about people I wanted to be with.
So I was a total n00b in the genre. Since I didn’t know that MC romance was a thing, I also didn’t know it was a hot thing. I completely lucked into that. I didn’t have a website, or an FB page, or any kind of author “platform.” I used Amazon’s cover creator for MTS’s first cover. I did literally nothing but slap the book on Amazon and hope my friends would buy it.
And then MTS got reviewed online at USA Today. Favorably. Things got a little crazy after that.
But I didn’t understand the romance world or the trade at all. These days, I understand it better, but I still suck at it. I’ve come to terms with that. For a while, during the Signal Bend days, I seriously considered giving up my day job—I was making a lot more money with book sales than as a professor—but I didn’t, for a couple of reasons: 1) I like my day job; it’s a career I worked hard for. And 2) I live with anxiety every single day. Writing is my haven and release. I didn’t want to turn it into something that had to make money. I didn’t want to be beholden to anyone but myself and my muse. That would have driven me straight off the cliff.
I’m so fucking glad I didn’t react to Signal Bend’s success by changing my life. Because writing is a lucrative hobby and not the way I pay my bills, I can write what I want, chase the stories that interest me, and not worry if anyone comes along for the ride.
So…Behold the Stars was written and in the can when I published Move the Sun. All the controversial elements of that story had occurred. Comet had died on fire. The kittens had been gruesome wind chimes. Daisy Ryan had been brutally murdered. Marissa Halyard had been killed. Lilli had been taken and brutalized by Ellis. All those things had happened.
I began writing Into the Storm approximately fifteen seconds after I clicked “publish” on MTS, weeks before BTS came out and the backlash hit. (What I thought at the time was backlash. The scale got reset a while later. Anyway, I got my first hate mail.)
Would I have written BTS the same way if I’d known I was writing romance, and if I’d understood the trade better? That was a question I went into this re-read with. Does the story hold up as it is, with its controversy, knowing what I now know about the romance world, and now that my head is out of the Signal Bend zone?
Answer: yes. (Phew!)
Yeah, those events aren’t “romantic,” yeah, at least one of those events puts some serious tarnish on the “heroes’” armor, yeah, I totally freaked myself out during this re-read, and yeah, it’s intense. But the story works, and it’s right for the world I’d made.
Here’s a thing that’s been true since I started writing bikers all the way back in fanfic: I don’t want to romanticize the outlaw MC world. I don’t want it just to be a backdrop for Bad Boys™. I’m not trying to write “heroes” and “heroines” (you’re never going to see me do the “H/h” thing). My leads are people I like—no, people I love—always, but when I write outlaws, they’re going to do bad things. Hopefully, they’ll do them for reasons they see as right, and they’ll want to, and try to, atone when it goes wrong, but they’re going to cross over into the dark—and I don’t just mean they’ll be assholes. I hope they’re not assholes, in fact. Even though they torture. And kill.
As a person and a writer, I’m interested in the complexity of people. I’m not interested in writing bikers because they’re hot (or, not solely for that reason, haha). I’m interested in outlaws, in people who reject the “right” way and find their own way. People who do bad things (and “bad” things) because they feel they must, but who aren’t, at their core, bad people.
I’ve said that all before at some point or another, but I went back into this re-read of BTS sort of peeking through my hands, hoping my rationale held up. For me, it does.
Also, the writing in BTS is a lot tighter than in MTS. In the second book, I got my legs under me and started to run. I can just about pinpoint the moment it happened, when the insistent demands of the story and my assertion of my voice to tell it really locked in.
Reading Into the Storm this time, I was struck by how much I LOVE SHOW. I mean, I’ve always loved Show. But wow. He’s awesome. I barely feel like I can take credit for that, lol.
I remember when I was finishing BTS and just DYING to tell Show’s story. That poor man! I spent a few days, as I was finishing BTS and figuring out how to publish MTS on Amazon, thinking about what Show’s story should be. I knew it had to be different from Isaac and Lilli’s story. I didn’t want to write the same story over and over, and anyway, Show needed something totally different.
The way I write, I almost never have any idea where a story is going. There are a couple of exceptions to that rule: final books in a series, for one—more on that later—and, in a singular instance, I wrote an entire book in my head while I was on vacation without my laptop, and that story, though it changed a lot in the writing, followed the main path I’d imagined (that would be Soul’s Fire, btw). What I otherwise do is figure out the main characters and the setting, then let the characters loose in the setting and see what they get up to.
So, for ITS, I asked myself: how on earth would Show come back to life, and who on earth would bring him back? I knew a couple of things, because I knew Show:
1) There was absolutely no chance that Show would open himself up if there was ANYTHING dangerous going on with the Horde. After what he’d lost, he’d never intentionally risk someone else he cared about getting hurt like that. He had to have some sense that things could stay quiet in Signal Bend.
2) It would have been completely unrealistic for me to populate Signal Bend with a bunch of superheroes. I already had Lilli, my badass chick who can do just about anything. There are more ways to be strong than that, though. I wanted a woman who was successful and smart, and strong in a more normal way. I also thought Show would respond better to a woman like that. Someone who’s not as combative and confrontational as Lilli is, but who asserts herself. From those ideas, Shannon was born.
I didn’t know about her secret until I was well into writing the book. That happens in almost every book, and I’ve come to trust it. The first time I alluded to Lilli having some kind of secret purpose for moving to Signal Bend, I had no idea what that purpose was. When she had a trunk full of weapons, I had no idea why. Likewise, when Shannon avoided holding a baby for the first time, I didn’t know why.
Like I said, I let my characters tell me their story. It works better when I get out of their way.
I’ve always considered Alone on Earth the weak link of the Signal Bend Series. It’s the transition book, the one that puts pieces in motion (though I didn’t know it at the time), sets everything up to bring the series story to its climax and resolution, and in my mind, it wasn’t as strong as the others. I was pleased and relieved about how strong the story felt to me as I read it now.
It definitely serves to transition from the peace of ITS to the Santaveria storyline. But the original reason I moved Bart out of Signal Bend had nothing to do with any of that.
I put him with Riley because he was so starstruck in ITS, the only Horde excited about the movie, and I thought that would be a cute, sweet, light story with some humor. Then, as I got into it and learned about Riley, as I came to understand her, I realized there was no way she’d give up her life and move to Signal Bend. Moreover, I didn’t want her to give up her life for Bart.
But I couldn’t imagine Bart ever leaving the Horde. I didn’t want him to give up his life for Riley, either. Neither is weak enough to be absorbed into the other so completely, and either would be a fish out of water in the other’s world.
But oh, shit. Wait. I’m halfway through writing this story. What the hell do I do now? Do I break them up?
Well, the Scorps are right there, in the clubhouse, being all threatening and douchey. What if something compelled Bart to give up the Horde to save it?
He totally would do that. Oh, man. Imagine the painful scenes (Lola and I, we love writing pain. Oh so very much.). All those goodbyes to write. When I started to bawl at the thought, I knew I was on the right track.
I also knew Isaac’s conflict with C.J. needed to get resolved, but I didn’t plan that resolution ahead of time. When it happened, I knew, by the way the words flew from my fingers, and the tears from my eyes, that it was right.
Anyway, it was good to read AOE again, remember how and why the story unfolded as it did—and also to realize that the writing is pretty tight in that one. It is funny, and Bart and Riley really click. The pacing is good, and the action is sharp. I went into this read a little nervous, like “Oh man, I hope this one doesn’t suck worse than I think.” So I was thrilled to discover that it doesn’t suck at all, lol.
I’m not going to say much about In Dark Woods, except that I wrote it in like three days. 20,000+ words. Talk about a story that wanted to be told.
A confession: I fucking love the hair-washing scene. I cried so hard when I wrote it. (Maybe you’ve noted a recurring theme: if an idea makes me cry, it’s getting written.) Sometimes, I go back and read just that scene, and revel in my own writing. (Ugh. Well, confessions are supposed to be embarrassing, I suppose.)
I didn’t want to write a story for Havoc. I didn’t especially like Havoc. He’s a bully and a jerk, and a sexist d-bag. I prefer “Gamma” males to Alphas—the tough badass who might be emotionally guarded, but actually treats people, especially women, well. The guy who doesn’t demand that a woman get behind him and isn’t threatened when she steps out in front.
Isaac. That’s my ideal guy. Gamma all the way.
But then Havoc and Bart had Bart’s last day in Signal Bend, and Hav was so hurt and mad and lost. There was something soft, even a little needy, inside that asshole shell, and that caught my interest. So I started his book. All the Sky was kind of an experiment: could I fall in love with a guy like Hav? (I have to be in love with my leads to write them.) Could he realistically fall in love and be a good partner? (Because NO WAY am I writing a lead woman who will just accept total douchebaggery from a guy.) Who would love him the way he needed to be loved and demand that he return the favor?
Uh, yeah, he really could learn to love and do it well. I love Hav’s evolution. I love how he learned to be a role model, a friend and a father, to Nolan, and a strong partner for Cory. But still kept his sharp edges, too. He didn’t get a personality transplant; he simply grew. I’m pretty proud of that.
And Cory is probably the lead female character I’ve written who’s most like me (Sadie is another who shares a lot of my own stuff), so I’ve always loved her.
But damn, was it hard to read ATS this time.
Actually, it was hard to read it the first time. I’d already written Show the Fire when I first edited ATS, and I think ATS was, originally, my least well-edited book, mainly because I couldn’t focus as well as I needed to. It was so damn hard to read his story, knowing what would happen not long after.
There’s a lot of foreshadowing in ATS, too, which I’d never intended. It’s like he knew long before I did how his story would end.
As you might imagine, I got a LOT of hate mail for Show the Fire. I even got death threats. Lost a lot of readers, some of whom still bear a grudge. Occasionally, I’ll still come across a stray comment somewhere on social media, somebody saying DON’T READ FANETTI, SHE KILLS LEADS! (Which, incidentally, I’ve never done in a romance. I’ve killed previous leads in two romances. Out of thirty books published.)
Even now, almost three years after I published STF, I still occasionally get angry messages.
I get that. Death threats are very much not cool (don’t do that, seriously), but angry readers expressing their anger, I get, and I expect. However, I occasionally also get messages from people calling me a “fraud” or a “cheat” or a “thief” because I call my work romance and then kill lead characters. Those messages piss me off a whole lot.
Again, I don’t kill lead characters—not when I call a book a romance. I have—rarely—killed previous leads. Call that a fine hair to split if you will, but it’s true. Always for story, and never for shock, but I’ve done it, and I won’t promise not to do it again. But the books I publish in the romance category all meet the Romance Writers of America’s definition of the genre (which seems to be the trade standard definition): a central love story, and an optimistic ending for the couple. The genre doesn’t require an ironclad HEA. At most, it requires an HFN, and all my books (but one) end with at least an HFN. The one that doesn’t, I don’t categorize as a romance.
Individual readers might require anything they wish of the books they read, obviously. Groups of readers, even large groups of readers, even the majority of readers, might require anything they wish of the things they read. If the stories I write aren’t what some readers want in a romance, that’s to be expected. To each their own. But I’m not a fraud or a thief because a book I wrote didn’t meet a reader’s demands.
I accept that the things I write make some readers so angry they hate me. I accept that some readers will never read me again, will write angry reviews, will tell all their friends to avoid me. If that’s the price for writing what I want, okay. But I don’t accept having my integrity impugned because something I wrote pissed somebody off. That is not cool, and it’s not fair.
Okay. That’s been sitting on my chest for a few years. Phew.
Anyway. Where was I? Oh, right. Reflecting on this re-read of STF.
STF has become sort of a battle standard for me, for probably obvious reasons, and I went into this one with fingers and toes crossed, hoping that the story made as much sense now as it did to me when I wrote it, that the events were as important and organic as I remembered. I was terrified that I’d read it now and regret.
No regrets. It helps, I’m sure, that the rest of the Night Horde’s story has been told, and I know how Hav’s death forged the rest of the series—and not just that, but entire Night Horde saga. I couldn’t take it back if I wanted to. But I don’t want to. His was a good death.
And, in my opinion, for whatever that’s worth, STF is the best-written book in the series.
And here’s the other book in the series that I had to sit on my editing hands as I read this time. When I set out to write the conclusion to Signal Bend, I knew I had a lot of open threads that needed to get tied off, so I made a list. That was the closest I’d ever come to making an outline ahead of time.
Reading Leave a Trail now, I can see a couple of things going on that I wish I’d had a better handle on: First, trying to get that list done and close everything off. I think that affected the pacing a bit, at least in the first half or so, as I tried to build a story that didn’t just shove those open questions in any old place. It was a different way of writing from what I’d learned to trust, and it didn’t allow me to follow my characters so blithely. I had to tell them to do things so I could move the story toward loose ends. Reading it now, there are a few scenes where I can feel my hand pushing too heavily on the story.
Second, I think I just wasn’t ready to leave Signal Bend. The story was ready to end, but I wasn’t ready to move away. So I think I lingered too long, maybe.
Anyway, I love Badge and Adrienne, and I love the way Signal Bend ends. But the book would read a bit differently, and be a bit shorter, if I were writing it now.
The True Seed, on the other hand—the epilogue?—wouldn’t change a damn thing there. Isaac + Lilli + angst = writer in the zone. Those two will always and forever be my favorite couple. I love all my leads, but they will always be my greatest love.
So. What have I learned?
Well, I’ve learned that a lot of things about my writing style have changed, and improved, over the past three-plus years and thirty-plus books. But even so, I think Signal Bend is still my best series (with The Northwomen coming up hard in second place). All the way through SB, that story needed to be told. I rarely felt like I was really creating it. It just flowed through me.
And back then, with my first books, every way I had of seeing and saying something was new. I hadn’t repeated myself yet. I’m very aware of that now, of my tendencies of language usage, and I’m always pushing myself to find a new way to describe something I’ve described before. (To that point: OMG WE NEED MORE SEX VERBS.)
I’m also in a steady battle not to allow the language to dominate the story. I write in Deep POV, a sort of hybrid between 1st person and 3rd, so I want my language to reflect the tone and personality and usage of the POV character, rather than a narrator’s voice. I’d much rather readers forget the words because they’re so immersed in the story than marvel at my linguistic pyrotechnics. If you’re marveling, then you’re reading, not living, a story. I want you to move into Signal Bend and slide into a booth at Marie’s to catch up on the gossip. (But don’t order off the menu. And don’t ask for fruit. Unless it’s pie.)
It’s a fine line to walk, being fresh and innovative without allowing my sentences to shout LOOK AT MY PRETTY WORDS. I don’t always keep the balance, but I’ve always got my arms outstretched, trying.
Though I still, and likely will always, let my characters tell me their story, these days, after so many words written (something like four million words in four years, including all my fanfic) and so many scenes described and worlds built, I actively craft the language more, pushing for freshness. Thus, the act of writing doesn’t flow quite like it did, when I was only taking dictation from my characters.
Writing has gotten harder, but I’ve loved writing almost every book I’ve written. Writing is my therapy, my refuge, my sanity. A hardcore introvert, I would rather be with my characters, all of them, than with most real-life people.
I hope I always love writing and never lose its comfort. But I know that no writing experience will ever again be as fulfilling, as inspiring and exciting and downright blissful, as writing Signal Bend.
It’s my soul’s hometown.
If you made it all the way to the end here, I hope this little tour through my head was worth the time.
PS: While I’m not yet ready to talk about the tentative project that spurred this re-edit (I will when/if it stops being ‘tentative’ and starts being ‘in progress’), I’ve uploaded these fresh files to Amazon. You can get the updates if you have the books on Kindle. No big changes. Just formatting cleanups and some corrections of typos and errors, stuff like that. Oh! And hyperlinked Tables of Contents! I added those!
PPS: I considered changing the book covers with this update, and I put some effort into it, but I like the original covers. The only one I’d change is MTS, and that’s only because the cover image has been used by too many other writers (another n00b move on my part). But the theme of the covers is just as it should be, so they stay.