The Weight

The one piece of advice you’ll find from successful authors is: Read. It’s one of the surprisingly few agreed-upon mantras; you gotta read as much as you can.

This always intimidated me because a) I do not read very fast and b) all these successful authors always talk about how they “devoured every book they could get their hands on”. That wasn’t me, and I think that anxiety can carry over to today’s spec fic writer when it comes to keeping up on your own genre.

I picked up How to Write Tales of Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, partially because it’s such an old text and I was curious. While Bradbury’s “Thing at the Top of the Stairs” is always good, many of the articles collected are showing their age.

Today’s writers know they live in a constantly shifting market. Genres are visiting one another more often these days. They’re interbreeding and creating adorable little monstrosities with Fantasy’s face but obviously Horror’s eye color. We are enjoying what I would call an unprecedented mixture of genre, where the ghost of the horror story can freely walk into urban fantasy or even sci-fi and feel welcome.

And then, of course, it’s that much harder to stay sharp, stay relevant. What’s the best balance for all the weight? For all the reading you must have to do? This has been one of my largest personal demons in my effort to commit myself to writing, and I imagine other people struggle with it, too.

I couldn’t imagine having full-time college, a full-time job, and still manage to read dozens of blogs every morning, get my hands on new SF/F anthologies, read up on the new trends in spec fic, and still scratch out some time to pen words down. Never mind dealing with other creative people!

But that’s okay. It’s a process. Especially for science fiction in fantasy, I think, the growth, the gestation period, is crucial. So I’ll share the concept that allowed me to alleviate the stress that came from the inability to devour all the books.*

When I was in therapy in my younger days, I told my psychologist I wanted to be a writer, and he was practically delighted, because he said, and this sticks with me every time I sit down at my keyboard: “Writers are singularly gifted in that they draw from everything, all the time, to create entirely new things that only they can produce.”

It really blew my mind. I still wonder if he was waiting for a patient of his to be a writer so he could bust that one out. Look at it; it’s a lovely sliver of dialogue. Savor it, digest it, print it, pin it, frame it, you’re welcome. But, yeah, I think it’s advice worth following.

If you feel like the Weight is an alien concept to you, or you are only worrying about all you need to read because I just mentioned it now (sorry!), then relax. Finding your pace as a reader will help you forge your path as a writer. Do you have to put the time in? Absolutely. Do you have to break your comfort zone and do research and make the time to write? Yup.

But you still have a pace, and you still have that singular gift of a unique voice. One that no one else has heard before, that no one will hear after you. Sure, when you start out it may sound like a mod of your favorite authors, but keep at it.

The voice of the speculative fiction author is one that uses comfortable words and a familiar hand to bring us to exhilarating, mystical, and quite often terrifying new places. And that’s all kinds o’ fantastic.

*sidenote: I would still take the superpower of being able to read a book by touching its cover. Would totally be the coolest thing in the world.

 

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Don’t Forget To Laugh

I deserve a great big smack. Yup, I forgot my 8th deadline. In my defense…wait, I’m not sure I have one. Can I just apologize?!

I don't know what happened...

I don’t know what happened…

I decided last month I would write about the thing we often forget when immersed in writing – our sense of humor. I can attest to the great amount of laughs we all imbibe in. Yet it isn’t talked about often enough, in my not so humble opinion. I want people to remember to smile – even as we get hit with “tough love” critiques, rejections and the inevitable “What on earth were you thinking in chapter X?”  Maybe that is just me.

Not completely, anyway.

Not completely, anyway.

So many thing about writing just plain hurts. But if you look, you’ll see plenty of laughs. Especially at yourself. For example, one writer talked about sending a query to an agent with “Dear Agent.”  *cough* Yeah, I did that too. Oops. Needless to day, I had a rejection email.

The query trenches, or preparing to self publish, is enough to test a writer’s dignity, skin thickness, and make them wonder if they truly have enough talent.

I'd say this hit the shark on the nose...

I’d say this hit the shark on the nose…

It’s during this time many show their humor. Whether passing around virtual cups of caffeine, wine, chunks of chocolate or rashers of bacon, humor is used to cheer on the writer-ly community. And it can be a sanity saver. I send emails of thank yous, talk to several writers who gently keep me off the ledge, and make jokes at my own expense to keep schlepping forward. We chose a hard road to travel. No matter how you publish, working towards the end imagined, getting smacked down is going to happen – and often. Getting back up can be an accomplishment in, and of, itself.

The smack down comes from everywhere...

The smack down comes from everywhere…

And now you know my secret. Laughing. Find a reason, no matter how hard I fell, to let others giggle, guffaw, chortle or snicker. Granted it might be because I did a carpet slide into the closet trying to get out of bed, klutzing my way into the dolphin pool at Sea World, forgetting my name when talking to someone I admire, the self – V8 smack for stupidity when sending out a query, or laughing at my rough drafts – it’s worth it.

hamster checkmate

Lesson? Don’t let the mistakes get you down, or the rejections, or the long days and longer nights. We are here to help you smile again.

live long

When Characters Speak

‘You mean that thing called dialogue?’ Nope! Not this time.

One of the earliest– and most confusing– pieces of advice I was given about writing was, “Listen to your characters.” My view of the craft was at such a meta point that this idea was barely fathomable to me. I could maybe understand it, sure, but it seemed either too figurative to be helpful, or just straight-up counterintuitive.

Worldbuilding and consistency are what give your characters a real voice. You don’t have to go full-tilt Tolkien or even full-tilt Rothfuss to get this voice, but it helps. When you as the author have an idea of geography, technology/magic/religion, some sociocultural quirks, you’re establishing an identity.

This identity, then, gives voice to your characters, and you have to listen to them.

Even when I started writing I didn’t feel like I could “hear” them. I was still in control, guiding the story and directing the plot just how I wanted it. Sure, I was discovering it (as opposed to outlining everything), and that’s a fun creative process. But I was still holding the strings.

So what does it mean? How do you listen to the people you want someone else to care about?

Part of it is realism; addressing all the concerns, being aware of the questions your reader will have.

It’s being aware of when your characters say, “Why can’t we just do X to solve this plot issue?” A firm grasp of the situation, and a solid, realistic portrayal of whatever your conflict is, will lead you to some situations where your characters will straight-up ask you the simplest, most direct questions.

And the only response would be, “Well… you could.” And then there’s no conflict.

But you also listen to them to avoid falling into the trap of over-written dialogue. The biggest examples of this can be found in movies. Characters speak for the sole purpose of setting up a dramatic line (usually in the form of “Then what are these things?”). Christopher Nolan is currently my favorite director, but he’s guilty of this a lot. The character drops out of their three dimensional space and becomes a flat rebounding board for someone else– typically the hero– to say something cool and succinct.

It might work, and it gives the narrative that “punch”, but when you’re really listening to your characters’ needs and concerns, you start to hear different dialogue. You hear something more natural.

We know that real life speak, perfectly transcribed, isn’t real dialogue. There’s fiction dialogue, and it’s its own ballgame. Making it work and making it sound natural is tricky. But, if you can listen to your characters, the benefit is that you get that perfect middle ground between ‘Fiction Dialogue’ and ‘What a real person would actually say’.

But tapping into character– the most important element for making your story interesting in real– will allow you to hear them. And if you listen, the other elements fall into place.

What’s in a name?

“Someday I am going to publish my book.”   A lot of work happens with that goal.  A story is inside and must escape onto paper, or word processor, or something.  Plot, setting, theme, characters, genre, the list goes on and on.

My fellow contributors on this blog have been giving a lot of good advice on writing.  Today I want to take a moment and look at the business side of writing.  We all enjoy the art side, and talking about books, movies, the stories and what we like and didn’t like.  However the business side of writing is also a large arena full of decisions, and in today’s market a lot of decisions need to be made.

Self publish, large publisher, indie, e-pub, and POD.  However, I want to focus on something even more basic.  Your name.

Why stage and pen names?

John WayneMark Twain, John Wayne are two examples of a pen and stage names.  Mark Twain is the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  Marion Mitchell Morrison, better known by his stage name John Wayne, was an American film actor, director, and producer.

There are many reasons writers chose to have a pen name.  It keeps their worlds separate.  As a writer, you want to become famous. However, fame has a price.

No privacy.

Look at many famous people today; the paparazzi follow them everywhere.  Your name is your identity.  Your family and friends know you, professionals know you.  Some people want to keep family and friends separate from the professional side of things.  Now Samuel Clemens doesn’t sound like too bad of a name, but he liked the Mississippi River.  Mark Twain was a depth call used on riverboats.  The Mississippi River was a prominent part of his works.  Those who rode the river were familiar with the river culture would immediately identify a book by Mark Twain as being a part of that life.

Today the publishing world has genres and sub genres that a name will be forever associated with the genre the author writes in.  However, a good writer may want to try a hand at a different genre.  Thus, a pen name would allow the writer the ability to explore a new area of writing.

Your pen name becomes your identity.  If you go to a writer’s conference, sign in as your pen name.  Introduce yourself with you pen name.  You are that persona.  Think of it as your writing business.  Thus in today’s world it would be Mark Twain, LLC.  The LLC is not part of the pen name, but think of it as part of it.  Your writing company so to speak.

Some of the contributors to this blog are using pen names.  So it isn’t as uncommon as you might think.

Using Your Own Name

 

You can also use your own name.  Just be careful where and how you do things online.  It is you.  For me I want to see my book cover with my own name on it.  However, that choice has pros and cons to it as well.  How do I separate my writing life from my personal life?  It all blends together, but I am comfortable with that.  Other people are not, so a pen name would work better for them.

Now with all that said before here is the take home point.  Before you begin to build a platform, (I’ll blog more about that in the future).  Before you send out query letters, you need to decide on a name.  What will that name be under (or over) the title of that best seller you are working so hard to write?

What do you think?  Is a pen name for you?  Why or why not?

Antagonists: Who, Why and When

The antagonists, the villains, the ‘baddies’, you’ve got to love them. In many scenarios, they give our good guys purpose. Whether it’s defending the people they love, the home they’ve always known, or fulfilling some greater sense of destiny, without the bad guys they would just have to settle for living out their life in peace and without adventure.

Pft, boring!

A few months ago, Dean C. Rich talked about villains and Salty Sam (it’ll open in a separate tab, go take a look). In it, he discusses the concepts of your villain having a purpose, a reason for mass genocide, world domination, or whatever other twisted machinations they have up their sleeve (or evil robe, we don’t judge). I’m hoping to expand on that topic just a little bit by posing three questions I think we should all consider in regards to our villains and how they fit into the plot of our stories.

WHO?

Who is this guy? Where did he come from? What was his childhood like, his teenage years? Who is he to the rest of the bad guys? Does he have any bad guy competition? (I’ve always wondered if the Batman villains have quarterly meetings to discuss who’s hatching which even plan during what time of the year since they rarely overlap. Very polite, these guys.) Who is he to his henchmen? Their boss, their fearless leader, the guy holding the chains and wielding the whip?

The Badguy is like any other character in the book. Like Dean said, he can’t be evil just to be evil, he has to have motives, just as the heroes do. Like any other character in the book, his actions will have consequences and lasting effects. On the heroes, on the setting, on his own plots.

WHY?

We’ve already touched on this a little but, WHY is this guy the way he is? What’s his motive? There are the favorites: world domination, power, money, he wasn’t hugged enough as an evil toddler. Dig a little deeper. Honestly, I cringe a little whenever the whole reason a Baddie is doing what he’s doing can fall under power, money or domination. It feels a little lazy to me because it’s very easy to take those building blocks (’cause that’s all they are) and raise them to the next level. You can start by asking, Okay, once he’s got all this power and money, what does he intend to do with it? Is there a grand plan? Whether or not this plan comes to fruition doesn’t matter. I wholeheartedly believe your Badguy needs to have a goal in mind, something they’re aiming for beyond the power and money. Because, really, that’s a pretty shallow reasoning for being a Baddie. Unless that’s what you’re going for. But consider this, if your Badguy has no ultimate plan, no aspirations, no skinny jeans stapled to the wall (okay maybe that’s just me), then how will you ever convince the readers he’s a force to be reckoned with? How will you convince them to care? Or to be legitimately concerned the good guys may not win?

WHEN?

This is the question that popped into my mind that spurred this whole post. You may think with a well defined concept of Who the Baddie is, where he’s coming from and Why he’s doing what he’s doing, you’ve got enough to get started. Weeelll, I mean, you could, if you really wanted to. OR, you could ask your self one more question that could make all the difference.

When does he make his dramatic appearance? As SpecFic writers, heck as writers period, we’ve got certain ‘rules’ drilled into our brains. Start with the action, being one of them. But let’s consider, is there such a thing as starting with the action too soon?  I’ll use two movies that have come out recently as examples, while trying to avoid any spoilers.

Wreck-It Ralph. If you haven’t seen a commercial, go ahead and youtube it. I’ll wait. So, the general idea we’re given is that it’s a dude that is unhappy with his game and his lot in life and decides to go on an adventure and starts trying out different games.
The reality? As a mockery, one of the other characters challenges him to complete a task and if he does, they will give him the one thing he’s always wanted. Bam, our Ralph has purpose.
But where’s the Baddie? Our villain doesn’t show up until well into the movie, I’d venture half-way through. While trying to complete his task, Ralph meets some people, makes some friends, and wants to help them get what they’ve always wanted in life by helping them stand up to those standing in their way. By the time the Badguy shows up, we know Ralph, we’ve seen his struggles, why he’s unhappy, we’ve seen him go for the gold, we know his new-found friends, we saw them meet and build a bond. We’re invested in these good guys so that when Badguy shows up, we WANT the good guys to win. We care if they’re in trouble, may get hurt, or may have their dreams wrecked.

To make it even more delicious, the Badguy isn’t even who we were led to believe it was all along! PLOT TWIST. (Seriously, that movie is amazing, you should watch it. I know, I know. But Jace, you cry, there are hairy barefooted halfmen and bearded-men and wizards running around! Yes, fine. Go see your precious Hobbit, THEN SEE WRECK-IT RALPH.)

Moving along…
Obviously, there’s got to be a flip-side to all this. Is it possible to introduce your villain too soon? Can it do damage? Yes, I believe it is and it can. Here’s another movie example.

Rise of the Guardians is a great movie but it falls short for me and I think I’ve narrowed down the entire reason to the introduction of the villain. Have you seen the trailers? We know there’s this badass Russian Santa, Sandman, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy and all the fangirls’ favorite: Jack Frost. We know they all get together to fight against a foe that is apparently targeting children by using fear. We get all of this from the trailer. When the movie starts we get a nice little prologue from Jack then we jump to Santa and within the first 10 minutes the Badguy makes his appearance. Santa seems genuinely unsettled, enough to get the gang together, but it felt a little …off to me. I didn’t know enough about the characters, their personalities, their wants and hopes, to really fear for them going up against the Badguy. Yeah, you could argue that they’re all based on very well-known and prominent figures from fairy tales and folklore so what else is there to know, but they’re still unique to this world (hello? Russian Santa with TATS?). So as the story progresses I have to get to know these characters while I’m getting to know the Badguy. And to be honest, I liked the Badguy. He had his Who and Why fully conceptualized. Which only made it harder to really root for the goodguys and boo when he came around.

It’s possible this was done intentionally. The antagonist in Guardians isn’t exactly pure evil, he’s doing what he’s good at, what he’s meant to do. Just as in Wreck-it Ralph the badguy isn’t who we think he is, and Ralph isn’t really a terrible guy afterall, even though he’s the villain of his world. (In that respect both stories do an amazing job of tackling the topic of settling for your ‘lot in life’ versus discovering who you really are and being happy with it. But, that’s a topic for another day.)  I recently told a fellow SpecFic writer that I’ve often noticed when beta’ing and critiquing that there seems to be this mad-dash to get all the important characters introduced to the reader within the first few chapters, sometimes, within the first one or two!  So we’ve got the MC, their buddies and the bad guy.  It feels unnecessary to me.  You’ll overload the reader with, at the moment, unnecessary information and prevent them from building a bond with any of the characters, which is needed for them to give a hoot.  For myself, in my own MS, we see the handiwork of the badguys within the first chapter, it’s the instigating event, but we don’t meet the bad guys until several chapters later, once we know who our heroes are, their personalities and their goals.

What say you readers?  Am I way off-base here?  Does it really matter when you introduce your villain so long as they’re well-thought out, genuinely threatening and have a plan?  Can you think of any examples when a villain was introduced very early on but it didn’t have any adverse effects to your enjoyment?  Or when they were introduced much later in the work but by that point you just didn’t care?  Do you think Batman would be more or less badass if he rode a unicorn?  What if it was a robot unicorn?

Action Sequences As Seen By T.J.

Please welcome our guest blogger for this week, speculative fiction writer and Queen of the Huggy Jackets, T.J.

T.J. is a knowledgeable writer who generally writes in the paranormal genre, and can be found blogging at Queen of the Padded Room. Com. Check out her wit, humor and general words of wisdom there every time you get a chance.

So without further adieu… Here’s T.J.

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Action sequences.  As writers in Speculative Fiction this is almost a given to be in the book. Small ones, big ones, over-the-top-melees keeping our readers on the edge of their seats wondering what is going to happen next.

The issues I’ve found in many action scenes is the unbelievability.

Most writers, not all of them, have never worked in a profession requiring this type of real life.  A few have some seriously kick ass ability in a dojo and frankly, I wouldn’t want to meet them in a back alley.  Many did have a few school yard dust ups.

Very, very few have ever had their life on the line.  Yet their imaginations run rampant with wonderful ideas and scenes, the emotions possibly involved and they write those action scenes beautifully as inner TV screens play it for them.

When I read this type of scene, I can automatically tell if the writer has been in situations with their life on the line and those which are following the Hollywood style – choreographed action.

There is nothing wrong with a well-choreographed scene.  This type is the lifeblood of many a book. One of my favorite authors uses this type and does a bloody good job of it.  What is getting tiresome is reading the same type of scene over and over and…well…over.  As a reader I am disappointed because I am able to tell you the outcome with relative ease after the first sentence of the sequence.

I’ve heard through various outlets, and friends after reading, in which many are looking for a more realistic action sequence.  Meaning, instead of the practiced moves, falls and fly overs, something they can identify with.  Tripping, losing the weapon, a true “Oh, shit” moment.

I’ll be an example.  I worked as a CO3 in a Men’s Max Unit for four years.  One hundred seventy nine, uh, physical disagreements.  Most of which my arse was handed to me on a silver platter.  The size of the inmate rarely mattered.  Big, small, average, every size and shape.  Weapons involved in more than a few.  The reason I survived can be attributed to biology, a good amount of luck and just plain how things really happen.

If you put two equally trained combatants in a ring, think UFC, in an all out fight, it rarely lasts more than five minutes.  I’ve watched on occasion, and the winner is usually decided because the opponent missed, tripped, slipped, misjudged distance, underestimated his opponent, didn’t look for the winner’s weak spot.

One rotation early in my CO career I’d been assigned administrative segregation.  These males were dangerous, manipulative and couldn’t pretend to work well with others.  They required high amount of security. An inmate decided to target me.  His hatred of women ran fairly deep and fully resented when a female was in charge.  I didn’t notice he’d blocked the locking mechanism of his full steel door.  I turned after shutting it, didn’t wait for the “clunk” of the lock and walked away.  The door slammed open and a burning pain started in my side, spreading through every nerve.  I turned, grabbed his groin, twisted and pulled.  He screamed, falling to his knees with a strangled sound and I grabbed the radio off my belt and hit him in the side of the head, shattering his cheekbone.  I, on the other hand, landed in the hospital for four days because of the two inch shank in my left side.

I didn’t win because of superior fighting skills, training, or moves thought about ahead of time.  I won because he underestimated me and my need to go home to the kids.  Truly expected me to fight using the Queen’s Rules of Pugilism.

Of course, two months later I lost in a fist fight that landed me in the hospital yet again with a broken nose, broken jaw and a broken arm. Not because the little guy had better fighting skills, but because I’d underestimated him, slipped on  recently mopped concrete flooring and fell flat on my face.

It wasn’t the last time. I’ve misjudged distances, didn’t get my arm up in time to ward off a blow, couldn’t get up after landing on a table or sliding into a concrete wall.

And my Lieutenant, with his black belts and constant training, lost to a little street fighter because of misjudged distances.

When writing action sequences, think first. What is in the area? No floor is perfectly clean. Nobody truly thinks of where they are going to put an arm, a leg, land a weapon.  Instincts, when in a fire fight, rule the day. Nobody is infallible.

Tight clothing hinders reach and breathing. Weather plays a large part. The very air a combatant breathes plays a part. Other characters in the scene always play part – good or bad.  Nobody can twist into a pretzel wearing clubbing outfits or move perfectly on stilettos.

Make the scenes real.  By thinking of the little things, the reader will be hooked, holding their breath because they can’t predict moves and outcomes. Use the unpredictable and imperfections of your world.

The reader will thank you for it.

Are We There Yet?

Arizona Grand Canyon from http://traveltherockies.com

Arizona Grand Canyon from http://traveltherockies.com

Many years ago, more than I care to admit, the family was on vacation. Our destination – The Grand Canyon.  I so wanted to see it.  I kept watching the road signs and tried to calculate how long it would be before we would be there.

From the front seat my Dad smiled and said, “You sure are enjoying the Grand Canyon.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You always enjoy something the most just before you get it.”

I didn’t understand at the time, I just wanted to get to the Grand Canyon. I wanted to see it, how could I enjoy it when I had never even been there?

As usual Dad is right.

Now, I have been counting down the days until The Hobbit comes out.  I’ve even called my friend in another state and left a VM on his phone, “David, only ten days!” and hung up.  He knows it is me, and he knows exactly what I’m talking about.  Again, more years than either one of us will admit to (before the advent of the VCR) we recorded the cartoon version of The Hobbit with a cassette tape.  So yes, we are both looking forward to seeing Peter Jackson’s film version.

My children went to the bookstores at midnight to purchase the latest Harry Potter books, then sat up half the night reading.

Why all the hype?  What makes all this so special?

Anticipation.

PR works to get everyone wanting to be the first in line.  (I had tickets number two and three for Return of the Jedi.)

So, The Dark Knight Rises, Star Wars, The Hobbit, Harry Potter all have huge followings, and folks are willing to lose sleep to see/read them.

So my writing friends, the same thing works inside your stories as well.  Build the anticipation.  Let the reader know what is going to happen, but make the ride full of anticipation, and then give them the satisfying ending.  The end of the story is the ultimate goal, but the ride must be full of promises.  The secret is not to break any of those promises, you must deliver.  That makes the end so great.  That is the oxymoronic deal.  The End, great read, but it is over.  No more anticipation.  But the time spent reading was well worth it.

I still remember my first look into the Grand Canyon, but the ride and the conversation made that look even more memorable.