Wow, it's been a year since my last blog post. Strange to see my cat's face up here. A year later, I'm still keenly feeling his loss, imagining his presence on my desktop as I write and he tries to get me to pet him instead. The other day I caught myself moving to go feed him. I sometimes think he's still hanging around in spirit form...
So the past year has been mainly focused on finishing THE DEVIL'S REVOLVER series. I'm editing a draft of the final book now. After that, I'll be taking a writing hiatus to refill the well, start reading all the books in my TBR pile, and spending time with my Irrational Biped, turning three this October. I've been greatly blessed with a loving, understanding husband, and I need to have time with my family to appreciate what I've accomplished.
For anyone in Toronto, I'm doing a few workshops and making appearances over the next little while: I'll be doing a one-hour workshop on Worldbuilding at the Toronto Romance Writers first ever convention Sept. 22. I'll be at Word on the Street Toronto as V.S. McGrath reading from The Devil's Standoff, book 2 in the series on Sept. 23. Then I'm hosting a two-hour Romance 101 workshop Nov. 3 at the Pape/Danforth library. In April, I will be presenting a 3-hour workshop on Characterization and Complex Conflict. Details for all of these events are available on the Events page.
The world is kind of a terrible place right now, which is why you might only see RTs on my Twitter and Facebook pages. As much as I like engaging, I am at a stage in my life where I've decided my mental health, as well as my physical health, can stand not being exposed to toxic garbage all the time. But I'm here, and I'm listening and watching.
The death of a pet is hard. Even moreso for writers, for whom these furry companions are often the only company they have day in and day out while they work. And so, here I grieve in the only way I know how: by writing in the absence of a cat no longer here to sleep on my laptop, or swat at my furiously typing fingers. His ghostly presence remains, in the echo of feet padding up and down the stairs, in the phantom brush of his soft fur at my ankles, reminding me not to push my chair back before checking. I keep looking around, expecting to see him basking in the sun or sleeping at the top of the stairs. But he's gone.
Smartikus was diagnosed with congestive heart failure more than a year and a half ago, and has been on strong medication since then. At the time, the vets couldn't say how long he had--days, weeks, months. All we could do was be grateful for what time we had with him.
He survived past the average 5-months allotted to cats with this condition. He survived through basement renos and the birth of baby Mara. He got to watch her grow from pooping burrito creature to full-on walking, talking toddler who pet him "gently, softly" and cuddled him whenever he let her. He spent much of his last night on earth in her nursery, watching her while she slept, and when we were headed to the vet's, she meowed to him softly, singing a kitty dirge.
The vet was shocked to see him still alive and kicking in July. We thought he might live forever--he was always a warrior, after all. At age four, he'd survived a life-threatening urinary tract block that resulted in full penile removal; he'd lived to tell of the time he got out onto our roof the night Rob Ford was elected. If he could talk, he would regale you with tales of that time the vents were cleaned, or that time he got a plastic bag stuck around his neck and exorcised it by peeing all over the house. He would tell you about the time he conquered the defrosting chicken breasts, dragging their carcasses throughout the house as one might drag their slain enemies' bodies through the streets.
He probably wouldn't tell you about all the cuddles he loved to give his feeders, or admit to nightly routines of standing on the dinner table, pushing his furry head into their bowls to see what they were having that he could share. He loved to bite John's ankles after he'd showered, had a disdain for food that'd touched the floor, loved having his silky hair brushed, and enjoyed smothering his keepers while they slept. He was a cat that contained multitudes.
Alas, Smarty's literally big heart failed his body, though his spirit was strong. He'd stopped eating two days ago. He was panting heavily, foaming at the mouth constantly--a clear sign his belabored heart was not strong enough to clear his lungs of the fluid that was slowly drowning him.
He lost control of his bowels that morning, and when he stumbled down the stares and looked bleakly into our eyes, we knew it was time.
He left this world peacefully and painlessly at the vet's, with his loving owners at his side. They say pets are heartbreak waiting to happen, and we'd been waiting for a while. His upkeep was expensive, but worth every penny. All I have to do is think about how soft his fur was, how silky his ears, how loud his purr rumbling against my chest. He met us at the door every day, seemed to know when we needed his comfort the most, and never failed to remind us who was really the boss in the house with a simple cat butt to the face at 5 in the morning.
He was loved and adored and irreplaceable. He was the best cat and companion we could have asked for, and we were blessed to have had him in our family.
We received news this Monday that five of the series romances are being shut down, including Superromance, where I started my writing career. As a result of the shrinking business, many of my longtime colleagues and friends will be laid off.
SeriesLast Pub Month
Harlequin Western June 2018
Harlequin Superromance June 2018
Love Inspired Historical June 2018
Harlequin Nocturne December 2018
Kimani Romance December 2018
There's been lots of chatter and criticism on social media about why these programs failed or are being cut. As I work for Harlequin as a full-time employee and am bound by certain rules, all I can say is that these programs were specifically chosen because they make up a minuscule percentage of series earnings.
I wasn't surprised that Superromance was disappearing--since I published Her Son's Hero in 2011, I saw the series go from full runs of regular and large print in retail, to large print only, to direct to consumers only. It was only a matter of time before they disappeared altogether, and there are lots of reasons for it: increasingly competitive pricing with ebooks, a shrinking mass-market paperback business, shrinking DTC demand, a dwindling hunger for women's fiction in series format, branding issues, decreased marketing budgets...it's a tough game right now in publishing.
Yes, I've lucked into the trifecta of Harlequin dream jobs! Last month, a company-wide call for women to model for a national Harlequin advertising campaign went out and I decided, why not? I went to the call, not expecting to make the short list, and then I did. And then I had THE BEST. DAY. OF. WORK. EVER.
The 12 shortlisted models, all employees at Harlequin, arrived at the photo studio in the west end of Toronto at staggered times throughout the day. My scheduled time was about 10 in the morning. I was asked to wear a button-up shirt, blue jeans and flats. I brought an extra change of clothes in case they wanted something different.
First off, the most important thing: FOOD! A high-energy environment needs fuel to keep everyone in top form. Breakfast, snacks, catered lunch and a fully stocked fridge that even had beer and wine kept models, photographers, art directors, makeup and wardrobe all well fed and hydrated throughout the day.
Shoots were already underway when I arrived, with the first three models working with Tristan dressed as a firefighter, so I explored and goofed around with the props. Because of course I did.
The set was constantly busy with people adjusting lights, fans, clothing, props, and the art directors and photographer shouting suggestions for poses. You'd think this job was easy, but as I soon learned, it takes hundreds of photos to get the exact right one.
Each model spent about 20 to 30 minutes on set. From the sidelines, they looked like they were having so much fun--and who wouldn't in the arms of a hottie like Tristan?
Me and my cohorts had to get ready for the next set. Tristan would be dressed in naval dress uniform. THe makeup artist applied light makeup to keep me "natural looking," and the art director got me to change into my other shirt. Light colors can be easily Photoshopped and filtered so you can turn a piece of clothing any color.
Unfortunately, the shirt was a little too light and ended up washing out my face and, in my opinion, it looked a bit frumpy on me, so wardrobe pulled out a pink sweater. It was a wee bit too small, but all my luscious rolls were going to be hidden by Tristan's manly body, so no worries there.
Now came the hard part (hur hur hur...okay, I promise no more childish innuendos...). The idea was for Tristan to look like he was carrying me off, sweeping me off my feet while I read a Harlequin book (Note: the cover of the book is blank so that any cover can be 'Shopped in later.) I had to perch on some slightly wobbly boxes while Tristan held me up. So he had to look like he was carrying me while not actually breaking his back.
Meanwhile, I had to hold my feet up, toes pointed in a "natural" way, while holding the book with three fingers outward, keeping the cover spread, one arm around Tristan, and then act with my face like I was really into the book I was reading (I have no memory of what title it was. I think it was a Presents.) "Play to the back of the room" was one of the directions given to me. And while I can usually pull a face in any situation, I had a really hard time smiling and half looking at the camera at the same time.
In fact, it was excruciating. My core strength just hasn't been what it was since the baby came, so holding a crunch pose for 20 minutes was really challenging. I tried to switch the position of my legs and did something to my hip that made it click. It was not comfortable. I should also note that I haven't been in close quarters with any man other than my husband since we started dating, so it was a little awkward for me to be held by a good-looking 20-year-old who looked into my eyes and said, "Fall in love with me."
I think I laughed in his face, then immediately apologized. It wasn't personal--I was thinking about the diaper I'd changed earlier in the day. Gazing into his dark eyes, all I could think was, "poop, poop, poop..." It was hard not to laugh.
I asked Tristan what it was like being a model, how he prepped. He said he went to the gym, worked on his arms the day before. But otherwise, he just rolled out of bed and showered. I had to hate and love him just a little more for that.
Tristan had already been shooting since 8:00, and had held five models in his arms in this pose. I was trembling with the effort of staying aloft. He was trembling slightly, too--it was near lunchtime and we were both starving and boiling under the lights. Soft as they look, they're hot.
Finally, our shoot ended. We ate the catered lunch brought in by the studio and I mentioned that I was really disappointed that the cowboy shoot didn't feature a real horse. The creative director, Tony, looked at me oddly and said, "It's a real horse."
"Wait, what? Are you serious?"
"Yeah. We always use real horses."
I had the day off and was free to leave BUT I HAD TO STAY BECAUSE A HORSE WAS COMING.
A huge winter storm had just blown in, and I was in no rush to leave. I stuck around and wrote while the other models shot with Kyle Andrew, a professional actor and model who measures 6' 8" and is the viking in the Make A Date With Harlequin commercial. Yes, you do have to watch that commercial. And no, that is not his real hair.
All the while, I thought maybe the art directors were kidding about the horse. The studio was on the second floor--how would they get a horse into the building and through the door?
"On the freight elevator, of course," was the answer.
I waited by the window.
No way. NO WAY...
I was joined by my colleague Dana Grimaldi, and we delighted in meeting the horse, Cisco. Dana got to sit in model David's lap atop the horse. Cisco was so calm and absolutely professional, even when he had relieve himself (the handlers caught everything quite neatly in a shovel before it hit the ground). Cisco got paid in carrots and yummy treats and cuddles.
My day ended with a huge smile on my face, feeling glamorous and so lucky to be part of this awesome, talented team. The Make A Date With Harlequin campaign is out now! I didn't make the top 4 ads, but just look at my colleagues! So fabulous! Make sure you visit tryharlequin.com today!
Who would helm your (relation)ship? Here's a ranking of captains I'd bang (or not).
Captain Malcolm Reynolds
As seen in: Firefly, Serenity
Boinkability out of 10: 8
On the one hand, Mal is a sturdy, loyal, heart-of-gold guy with tight pants, a wry sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye that aims to misbehave. On the other hand. there's a good chance he'll be cancelled before the end of his first season, leaving you whining about his loss fifteen years later.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard
As seen in: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection, Star Trek: Nemesis.
Boinkability out of 10: 6.5
I have a soft spot for Jean-Luc. He's a tea-drinking, Shakespeare-quoting, bald headed beau who has helmed the Enterprise for more than 7 seasons and numerous movies. And he doesn't age. Seriously, the guy looks younger now than he did when he started the series in the late eighties. Still, I can't imagine the son of a vintner and former borg hostage/mouthpiece being as wild in the sheets as his generational predecessor, James T. Kirk.
Captain Hook aka Killian Jones
As seen in: Once Upon A Time
Boinkability out of 10: 9.9
I like me some seamen. Which is to say, I appreciate a true seafaring captain who knows how to have a good time, and Killian Jones has had over 300 years of good times, which include mastering the artful application of guyliner while manning the Jolly Roger. Except for a slight drinking problem--which he thankfully never seems to let get out of control--Hook is the bad boy you take to your bunk when you've dry docked your ship for too long.
As seen in: Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel's The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War
Boinkability out of 10: 8
You really can't say no to a perfect man, even if he is the blancmange Aryan boy scout who turns out to be a secret Hydra all along that Steve Rogers is. Still, I can't resist those puppy-dog eyes and carved-from-butter muscles. Didn't think "super soldier" meant smooth and hairless as a dolphin, but there you go.
Captain Jack Sparrow
As seen in: Pirates of the Caribbean franchise
Boinkability out of 10: 7
Despite my love of seamen and the fact that he's played by Johnny Depp, Captain Jack falls much farther down the list from Hook based on the simple fact that hygiene in the 18th century wasn't particularly conducive to passing-ships-in-the-night encounters. Even if he is the most cunning and courageous of pirates, I can't get over the teeth. Or the matted hair. Or the general air of unwashedness around him.
As seen in: Cap'n Crunch cereal
Boinkability out of 10: 0
Nothing boinkable about the Cap'n. He's not even than old--53 according to the history--but he's got a bit of paunch on him unbecoming of a naval officer of his rank. His roof-of-mouth-destroying bounty doesn't make for great foreplay snacking, either. Best to leave the cereal out of it altogether.
That mega sale on my books that I mentioned? You can get all my books for $1.99 in all kinds of formats, including epub, kindle, and kobo.
You: But I want to own a hard copy!
Me: Sorry, but they don't do print runs after their on-sale month. However, you can preorder my November title, MATINEES WITH MIRIAM, and have that on your shelf!
You: But I don't have space on my shelves!
Me: See above re: ebooks
You: But I don't have time to read!
Me: Frankly, I don't care if you read it. This is about my ability to pay for daycare and you supporting working writers like me.
You: But I can't afford it!
Me: If you can afford a $6 latte that takes 3 minutes to make and 10 minutes to drink, you can afford to buy 3 of my books which each take 8 months to write and several hours to read. The cost amortization and return on investment is well worth the investment, I promise. Of course, if you're really hard up for cash, do me a solid and borrow it at your local library. Those hits count.
You: But I don't read romance.
Me: Because the patriarchy has drilled into your head that fiction by women and for women is somehow worth less than work written by a dead white man? Or because you're prejudiced against a genre you've never tried?
You: Is there some other way I can help you that doesn't require me spending money?
Me: Absolutely! First off, rate it and review all my books on Amazon, Goodreads, Kobo or wherever you do your book buying! Even the shortest "Great read!" and a five star rating helps bump my visibility up in rankings. It only takes a few seconds, so please, rate and review everywhere you can!
You: I can't read a romance book something something Fifty Shades something something bodice rippers something blah blah blah shirtless men blah blah formula blah....
Me: Look, I can't make you like anything. I'm just asking for a chance. I never liked olives before, either. Now I love them. Most of them. When I'm craving them. For $2 you can say at least you own this book, and maybe, one day, if you're trapped in a cabin with your kobo and have nothing else to read, you can read it and then tell me how much you hated it.
You: But I hate you.
Me: Then why are you still here?
Telemarketer: Hello, I'm Rob calling from home air duct cleaning services.
Me: Good day to you Rob. Just so you know, this call is being recorded for quality assurance.
Rob: Um...okay. I'm calling today to offer you a special deal--
Me: Listen, Rob, that's great, but I have a great offer for you. Do you like stories?
Rob: ...I guess.
Me: Well, I've got a fantastic story for you, and I'm offering a special deal right now. My book, MATINEES WITH MIRIAM, is coming out November 1, but I'm offering it to callers today for the low price of $5 plus shipping and handling fees.
Rob: I think you've misunderstood the nature of my call--
Me: MATINEES WITH MIRIAM is about a young woman desperately trying to hang on to her late grandfather's defunct theater. When a condo developer tries to take it from her by sweeping her off her feet, they have to decide what's more important.
Rob: That sounds nice, but--
Me: Order now and the author, Vicki Essex, will sign and personalize the book for you! You'll also get a free limited edition postcard designed by the author.
Rob: I'm not really a reader. My job today--
Me: Of course you're a reader! You're reading a script right now, aren't you? Let me tell you something, Rob, reading is the most important thing you can do for your brain. As you get older, your brain slows down production of new neural connection. Reading keeps building those neurons, keeps them firing...just like cleaning your air ducts!
Rob: Oh, I'm glad you mentioned that because--
Me: The latest studies show that reading fiction is especially important for developing emotional intelligence and empathy. You don't want to be viewed as a sociopath, do you?
Rob: Well, I am a telemarketer.
Me: That's fine, Rob. Listen, I have a really special deal just for you, because I like you. I'm going to read the first three chapters of MATINEES WITH MIRIAM to you, alternating between my Julia Child impression and my John Wayne impression. You get all that for free today, no obligation. All you have to do is provide me with an address, phone number, valid credit card number, your mother's maiden name, your social security number, and your date of birth. If you agree to this, remain silent.
Me: Fantastic! Let me take down your information and I'll get to reading. Hello? Hello? Rob, are you there?
So, if you haven't figured it out yet from my posts, or lack thereof, having a baby is hard.
But I have managed to put my last Harlequin Superromance to bed, so yay! MATINEES WITH MIRIAM will be out in November!
Meanwhile, I'd love you all to check out my newest project and penname, V. S. McGrath.
I'm proud to announce I have signed a 4-book contract with Brain Mill Press for my YA fantasy Western (weird West) series, THE DEVIL'S REVOLVER.
THE DEVIL'S REVOLVER takes place in the sunset days of the magical Wild West, a time in history that was much like our own, only with magic. Seventeen-year-old Hettie Alabama goes on a desperado quest to save her kidnapped sister from bandits . She is aided by a magic revolver that takes a year of her life for every man she kills, and nothing, not even hell itself, can stop her.
Nothing quite as humbling as trying to sing a lullaby to the baby and realizing you don't know the words to ANY songs or that the ones you learned as a child are now kinda inappropriate.
Case in point...
Hush little darling, don't say a word,
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird,
And if that mockingbird won't sing,
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring,
And if that diamond ring don't shine,
Mama's gonna wonder why she bought that ring,
And if you still need me to buy you crap,
Mama's gonna have to go into debt...
*hums the Star Wars theme*
*sings Bohemian Rhapsody, plays the guitar solo on baby's belly*
Rock your BUUUUUUUNNNNY,
Rock your BUNNY right!
BUN-NY'S BACK, A'IGHT!!!
Old McDonald had a farm,
And on that farm he had a sloth,
All around the mulberry bush,
The monkey chased the weasel,
The monkey thought that this was such fun!
STOP HARASSING ME, NO MEANS NO, I'M CALLING THE COPS goes the weasel.