Friday, April 29, 2011

Mojo Queen event and giveaway

My new urban fantasy Mojo Queen will be released Monday, May 2. Here's the blurb:

Hoodoo and high magic are on a collision course. 
Roxanne Mathis isn't like everyone else. Not only can she see auras and spectral entities, she can mix herbs and roots for spells to do good or ill. She can even light a candle without the benefit of a match. But when she’s hired to exorcise a demon from a young girl, she discovers the limits of her powers.  
With her vampire cousin at her side and a sexy sorcerer chasing her on the rebound, Roxie sets out to send that evil entity back to where she came from.  
Nothing is as it seems and Roxie’s in over her head. It’s not going to be enough for her to just be a paranormal investigator and old school root worker – to defeat this demon, she’s going to have to be the Mojo Queen.

And here's an excerpt that is part of the first scene between main character Roxie Mathis and the character I wound up thinking of as Blake the Sexy Sorcerer:

I sat in the chair opposite the loveseat, placing the candles on the coffee table. Glanced at him to make sure I still had his attention, which of course I did. One side of his mouth still curled up in a smirk, eyebrow quirked. I sat back, let myself sink into the comfy chair and relax as much as possible. First the candle on the left. Focusing on the wick, I visualized a tiny flame erupting from it--concentrating my will, pouring energy into my intention. I could feel myself sliding further into exhaustion as energy curled inside me, but after a long, agonizing moment the candle came to life. I let out a breath before I could stop myself, avoiding his gaze. I didn’t want him to know how much this was taking out of me, but I had a bad feeling it was obvious. I turned my attention to the other candle and though it took even longer this time, it too lit. I felt almost as bad as I had this afternoon.

Blake reached for a backpack on the floor I had not seen in the darkness. He opened it, fished something out, and tossed it to me. I didn’t so much catch it as let it fall in my lap. A chocolate candy bar.

It was my turn to quirk an eyebrow. Waving the bar at him I said, “What, is this to ward off dementors?”

The smirk became a genuine smile again briefly. “Something like that. You need to eat.”

I gave him a skeptical look.

“You know you’re using energy with that.” He gestured at the candles. “The energy needs to be replenished.”

I rolled my eyes but tore open the wrapper. The chocolate tasted, well, damn, like mainlining something illegal. Maybe he had a point. I was halfway through the bar when he spoke again, as if there had been no pause.

“Especially since you don’t really know what you’re doing yet.” Even in the low candlelight I had no trouble seeing the wicked amusement in his dark eyes.

I managed to finish chewing without choking, tossed the remainder of the candy bar on the coffee table and sat up straighter. “Why don’t you tell me why you’re here? Or better yet, tell me where I can find your demon lover? So I can send her back to Hell.”

“Well, actually, that’s exactly why I’m here, Roxanne.” Like we were discussing insurance or something. “I want you to find my demon lover.”

Gob-smacked, all I could manage was, “Huh?”

“And I want you to send her back to Hell.”


You can also read the first scene here at my blog.

I've set up a Facebook event to mark the release and I'll be giving away one copy to a random attendee. All you have to do is click "attending" and you'll have a chance to win Mojo Queen in the ebook format of your choice (pdf, epub, mobi/Kindle).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Writing Lesson #9: Fix It In the Rewrite

Anyone watching writers on TV might get the impression that the first draft comes out perfect. There's never any indication of the endless rewriting that occurs in real life.

I don’t let anyone read my first draft. It comes out in a barely coherent form. With the lessons learned from previous novels, by the time I finished SUFFER THE CHILDREN, and started on the amateur sleuth novel, my priority was to get to the end of the first draft by whatever means necessary.

That tends to mean leaving huge plot holes and scenes that don’t make sense alone, resisting the urge to fiddle with them until Draft 2. If I am struggling with a particular scene, but I know how the next one goes, I might actually skip it completely, leaving a note to myself in the manuscript that says something like, “Character X has to learn about the affair here”, or whatever.

Therefore, when I get to the end of the first draft, what I tend to have is a horribly deformed mass, ugly and clunky with huge chunks missing. So I make a start on Draft 2 fairly swiftly, using my notes to try and fix what’s wrong. By the end of Draft 2 or maybe Draft 3 – depending on how much there is to fix – I will generally be ready for outside opinions. So I submit it to the writing group. By this point I am aware there are still things wrong, but I can no longer be objective about what they are – I’m too close to the manuscript. This is why my system of saving each chapter of each draft in a separate document serves me well. I find it easier to go back and fiddle with chapters this way.

Once the writing group have pulled the manuscript to pieces, I will make a start on the major overhaul that will become the next draft (3 or 4, by this stage). After that, it’s another major rewrite, to fix any new major problems that have been unearthed in the overhaul. Hopefully, by the time I get to Draft 5, I have reached a ‘minor amendments and polishing’ stage.

The Final Draft is normally Draft 7 or 8. Ultimately, you can carry on rewriting something forever more. This is the first lesson about rewrites. There comes a point when you have to say, “It’s done.” When I arrive at that stage, that’s the point at which I put the whole manuscript into one document and tidy up the page numbers, formatting and word count.

With DEATH SCENE, I think I arrived at this stage at Draft 6, and just over two years after I started the first draft – a marked improvement on the ten years it took me to complete SUFFER THE CHILDREN. However, it's undergone several rewrites since being accepted for publication, and the version that will eventually be published will be very different from the version that I decided was the final one.

Because this is the other lesson about rewrites. No matter how many times you rewrite, and how good your manuscript is, when it gets picked up by a publisher, there will always be more edits.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

(Mis)Adventures at ConGlomeration

This past weekend I attended ConGlomeration, a local sci-fi/fantasy convention. Although not an official "guest," I was listed in the programming booklet under "Also Attending ConGlomeration" with a nice little write up and link to my site

ConGlomeration opened Friday April 22. The first workshop I attended was "Steampunk Tutorial Part 1." Christopher Boll showed us how to take ordinary objects and give them a Steampunk spin. We learned about creating a character, including that person's occupation, likes and dislikes, etc. Other discussions included cyberpunk and diesel punk and how steampunk can span different eras (up to about the 1930s).

Now it was time for "A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words.” The premise of this workshop was to swap stories and artwork. Artists and writers were paired off. The author would give the artist a piece of writing the artist would use to draw a picture. Meantime, the author would write a story based on a picture the artist had created.

I partnered with Christine Griffin, a portrait artist who’s done covers for Loose ID and Cobblestone Press. She let me choose a print from the art exhibit.

Copyright & Credit: Christine Griffin & Fantasy Flight Games

This was the piece I selected. Later I discovered it was for “A Game of Thrones” by Fantasy Flight Games. Anyway, I loved it so much, I bought it.

After explaining I didn’t have anything written, either, she asked if I wouldn’t mind a portrait. I wrote a quick description of Xariel and Karla from Death Sword. Then I remembered I had a sample chapter of Death Sword on my IPod. I let her read it to get an idea of the characters and she decided to draw Xariel.

Friday ended on another high note when I got a chance to meet artist Melissa Gay. Melissa has done covers for Apex Publications, including Lavie Tidhar’s Hebrew Punk. So yeah, I went all fan girl on her.  :-)

Day’s panels finished, I headed home to start brainstorming ideas for my artist/author swap story. I’ve been tossing around the idea of writing a story about a Valkyrie and her wolf. So it was a matter of dipping into a little Nordic mythology to come up with a work about a page or two long.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay up too late because the next day’s panel began at 10AM.

Even worse, I missed the first panel on Saturday. But I made the 11AM one, another steampunk workshop. Yes folks, this weekend was steampunk and writing.

After lunch found me awaiting my turn at the “Author Reading” panel. I was one of about a half dozen authors reading that afternoon and followed the guest of honor, Peter David. Luckily, no one fled the room after I started reading the first chapter of Death Sword.

However, what works fine in rehearsal doesn’t always cooperate during the performance. My IPod locked up. What? I was reading an E-book. Might as well read it from a digital device. Although I was able to continue, I went two minutes over my allotted time. (Sorry, Marsha!)

Overall, though, the reading was fun. Even if there was a techno glitch, no one really seemed to mind. (Maybe it’ll make people remember me.) Oh, wait. That might not be a good thing...

The last panel for me that day was “Going Digital.” I had been invited to be on it but somewhere along the line communication got mixed up and I ended up in the audience. (Shrug.) Nevertheless, I participated, giving my perspective and asking questions. It actually ended up being a lively exchange about where digital publishing is now and where it’s going.

Panels finished, I headed home to work on my story. After all, I had a Sunday noon deadline. 

I finished the story Sunday morning and headed to the con. Apparently part of my brain – the one that controls memory – decided to go on vacation. I was almost there and realized I’d forgotten my badge.

Yep. Another head-desk moment. Not only that, it was ten minutes to noon (the start of the panel) and I had to drive back 11 miles. Time to hit the interstate.  I silently thanked the DOT for raising the speed limit.

I arrived for the second part of “A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words” at 12:06PM. I was late but I wasn’t too late. Luckily, the audience seemed to like the story. If you like, you can read it here. (You'll have to scroll down.)

Copyright & Credit: Christine Griffin
Christine Griffin then showed us her version of my hero Xariel from Death Sword. This is the first time I’ve ever had an artist draw one of my characters. Damn, it’s like the coolest thing to see how she  interpreted him. Chris told me she even went back and reread the sample chapter to get a better idea of the character.

So, yeah, I’m stoked. And of course I had the pieces framed to hang on my wall.  

If you get a chance to attend a con, do so. It’s a great opportunity to meet other people (i.e. artists and writers) and to be inspired. 

To learn more about the con and the artists' work, click on the following links:


Christine Griffin (artist)

Melissa Gay (artist)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Escalation, or why you really need to torture your characters

There are three lines you braid together to create a compelling plot. One is conflict, one is motivation, and the third is escalation.

Conflict: somebody wants something, and someone or something stands in their way.

Motivation: why do they want it?

Escalation: This is where you make your characters work to get what they want, and make them face just how far they will go to get it.

There's a great analogy about putting your character up a tree, and then throwing rocks at them. That's exactly how you need to think of escalation. The stakes have get to get higher and your protagonist has got to walk through the flames of Hell to reach their goal. Okay, maybe not literally, unless you're writing a paranormal and your protagonist does in fact walk through the flames of Hell. ;) The point is, you have to make it harder and harder for your protagonist to reach their goal. You have to torture them, you have to ratchet up the tension and the stakes higher and higher until your protagonist is standing on the edge of a cliff, staring into an abyss and thinking all is lost. And then you have to push them off the cliff.

I know you don't want to. Believe me, it's something I struggle with. I love my characters and I want them all to be happy and spending their days doing whatever they think of as fun. In Mojo Queen, I would have been very happy to have Daniel float through the book with a drink in one hand, always on the verge of bursting into song. (A really cheesy off-key rendition of some classic country song, maybe in a small town bar on karaoke night - like this song perhaps.) But that would have been too easy and it would have lacked the tension needed to escalate the plot. So I had to be mean to Daniel. I had to torture him. There were snakes. *shudder* But when it was over I was really proud of myself for having had the fortitude to put such a beloved character through something like that. Writing is the only place where its acceptable to hurt the ones you love. You may love your characters, but you can't just hand them a happy ending on a silver platter. For the sake of the story, they have to work for it. They have to struggle and sweat and take their lumps and have all manner of obstacles put in their way. It has to be this way because in the end it makes the payoff - the characters getting what they want - all the sweeter.

My recipe for escalation is pretty simple: Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Lather, rinse, repeat. When everything seems darkest, push them off a cliff and let them fly into Thunderdome. With a strong enough motivation leading their actions it will make perfect sense for the character to wind up there. After all, they've come this far, been through the worst the world could throw at them, and clearly they want to achieve their goal bad enough that they haven't called it quits and gone home. The stakes are high and they are in it to win it. Once you've put them through a gauntlet, you can let them.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Say it like it is

As author, I love nothing more than when a reviewer picks up one of my novels and writes a great review. Even if they found stuff they didn’t like, it’s useful for me to get feedback. Granted, I’m aware that I’m not going to please all of the readers all of the time, but reviews are vital, not only because they clue potential readers in to my writing, but also serve as a reality check.

If a dozen reviewers all hammer me for the same issue, it’s time for me to sit up and take notice. So, in many ways, reviews provide a useful barometer to authors wanting to keep tabs on themselves.

Writing regular book reviews for a website or publication is a great way to get a broad general idea of any particular genres in which you may be interested. Besides the obvious benefit of free reads, you pretty much have your finger on the pulse of some of the latest releases in the market. Granted, you may not always pick up your favourite authors, but you’ll definitely discover some new favourites—before everyone else does.

So, what goes into writing a great review? I’ve been writing reviews for the newspapers and a few blogs for a number of years now. Each reviewer will have his or her own approach to writing a review, but I’m going to share what works for me, which may serve as a useful template for you, should you consider taking up writing reviews yourself.

Once you’ve read the book, give a broad general overview of the plot. Let’s trot out Little Red Riding Hood as an example, shall we? I generally kick off my reviews by sketching the essentials of the plot.

Little Red Riding Hood regularly visits her grandmother, who lives in an isolated cottage deep within a dark and somewhat perilous forest. Despite her mother’s pleas to stay on the path, Little Red Riding Hood strays one day when she meets a wolf. Consequently she lands herself in a spot of bother.

If there are aspects of the story that are supposed to be a surprise to readers, for the love of all that is unholy PLEASE don’t give spoilers in your review. Hint at them, but don’t ruin others’ reading experience.

Once the overview is there, which should suffice to give readers a good indication whether the story is to their tastes—for instance romance readers will probably not like to read out-and-out horror—you can start going into a bit more depth.

After I’ve given an overview, I like to discuss the main characters and how I feel about them and whether the author did a good job showing character development. Once again, AVOID spoilers.

After characterisation, look at the story’s pacing. Did the author’s plot drag? Were you immediately immersed in the setting? Was there anything that annoyed you? Did any plot holes surface? Was the story typical of the genre? How did the author approach the genre? Was there anything that you really liked? Essentially, ask yourself a bunch of questions then answer them.

In closing your review, try to sum up everything that has gone before. I try to sketch the context in which a book may be enjoyed, or suggest a target market, and try to end on a positive note (well, most of the time). As a rough guide, reviews for print media should be anywhere between 300 to 600 words in length. You can apply the same rules to online reviews.

Remember also, it’s not what you say but how you say it. Try to give valid reasons why you hated something instead of just saying, “This author’s writing stinks.”

Yes, it’s fun to snark, and I admit that occasionally when I write reviews, my inner snark comes frothing out, especially when it comes to big-name authors who SHOULD know better. That being said, if you’re an author, like me, and you write reviews, tread carefully. Writing reviews, much like writing novels, is a highly subjective business, and it’s easy for people to get their goat up. If you’re clever about it, you can say a whole lot more by what people can read between the lines. And sometimes when I encounter a book that is just plain horrible, I write my review in such a way that I deliver constructive criticism. Be honest, but say what you need to say as though you were saying it to the author’s face.

Lastly, on ratings. I’ve often encountered authors who absolutely blow their tops when they get three out of five for their novels. Or fans who want to peck out reviewers’ eyes when their favourite author “only” gets three stars. In my opinion, three out of five is a good, solid rating. It means someone thought your novel was good. Not oh-my-feck-I-have-to-spaz-all-over-the-place wonderful, but they’re saying a book is a good read and that they liked it. Maybe the reviewer wasn’t quite the target market. Maybe they just didn’t love the writing enough to allocate a four- or five-star review. Three stars are good.

The golden rule remains is that the business of fiction remains a highly subjective field. Some people think Nora Roberts or Christine Feehan are paragons of literary greatness. I disagree. We’ll all have our reasons. And, guess what, we’re entitled to them. We can all agree to disagree. Granted, there are some aspects of writing that are non-negotiable, like sound grammar, but as for the rest… Not all of us will read James Joyce, okay?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Overnight Success?

The misconceptions about writers that are perpetuated in the media can be annoying. One previously-mentioned example of this is the writer in a TV show who will bang out a first draft on their Apple Mac (usually in a matter of weeks) and pass it to the editor/agent without having to rewrite a single world. And then the novel appears in print within a couple of months. You'd think scriptwriters would know a bit more about the way publishing works, wouldn't you?

Another example is the concept of an 'overnight success'. I very much doubt there's any such thing as an 'overnight success', and this applies to artist and musicians as equally as it does to writers. The reality is you work for years on your writing, music or art. You rack up countless rejections, and nobody knows or cares who you are. Then you might have a degree of success. If you're a writer you get a couple of books published. You work hard at the promotion, while still working on the writing, but still nobody knows or cares who you are.

Then twenty years and half a dozen books down the line, you may get a book published that does reasonably well. People who like that book start looking for others and discover your back-catalogue. Word gradually spreads and other people start buying and liking your books. And then suddenly the media start describing you as an 'overnight success'. Not so. You're the same writer you were a year ago, or five years ago, or maybe even ten years ago. The only difference is more people know who you are now.

I have a couple of friends in the music industry. They're both doing reasonably well there currently, but only after a good many years of hard work, of not knowing where the next gig was coming from and struggling to pay the bills.

Occasionally a first novel is published that does so astoundingly well the author becomes extremely well known in a short period of time. But such cases are the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, like those writers that sell so well they make vast quantities of money (JK Rowling, perhaps - and even she wasn't an overnight success), they perpetuate the myth that all writers are rich and famous.

There were a few people who said to me, once they found out about my first publishing contract, "I guess you'll be quitting work now". I just didn't have the time or the energy to explain why that won't be happening any time soon.

So, now I've got that off my chest, I'll get back to juggling the writing, promoting and editing around the day job. Maybe in 20 years' time I'll have a dozen or so published novels under my belt. Who knows, maybe even I might one day be be described as an 'overnight success'.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Road Trip Adventures: Kentucky Writers Conference

Each spring, authors and bibliophiles descend on Bowling Green , Kentucky for the Southern Kentucky Book Fest. The two day event hosts regional writers like Silas House, David Domine, and Lynwood Montell and best-selling authors, including  Nicholas Sparks, Jean Auel, and Teresa Medeiros.

This year, the Book Fest took place on Friday April 15 and Saturday April 16. Friday was the Kentucky Writers Conference, an all-day event with four sessions of three workshops each. Panels included “Everything You Need to Know About Agents,” “Writing in Another Voice,” and  “Writing for Children and Teens”.

After picking up Amy, a fellow writer and friend, we headed down I-65 South. The drive was uneventful, if one ignored the construction which, at one point, necessitated navigating one lane. There’s a joke that Kentucky has two seasons: winter and construction. (Feel free to substitute your state.)

Ninety minutes later, we arrived at the Carroll Knicely Conference Center, home of the book festival for the past two years. Unfortunately the delays caused me to arrive too late to attend the first session.

Inside the lobby, Amy and I commandeered a couch. She settled in to do some work on her laptop. I’d brought my computer but decided to return it to the car. (Less to carry.) Now it hadn’t been raining too badly when we arrived. But my luck never holds out. I got caught in a deluge with pouring rain and blustery winds. Yay for unpredictable April showers. Not.

Back in the conference center, and managing not to look too much like the proverbial drowned rat, I headed for my first workshop: Chuck Sambuchino’s “Everything You Need to Know about Agents”. Because the conference committee assumed this would be a popular panel, they scheduled it twice. I silently thanked them for their foresight.

Chuck’s presentation was insightful yet overshadowed with mystery. Who had purloined the first page of his notes? (I blame the garden gnomes.) During a question and answer session, he gave excellent advice on finding a literary agent. I’m only sorry I missed his presentation on Saturday.  

The second workshop (third session) was “How to Write a Winning Query Letter” by Cavanaugh Lee, attorney-cum-author. Her enthusiasm and effervescent personality  invigorated the room. Good thing, too. Query letter rejections are a necessary evil in the writer’s world so a positive attitude is more likely to get you farther than a negative one.

In the session “What Everyone Can Learn from Mysteries”, presenter Leah Stewart explored the application of mystery writing to genre and literary writing. Different types of mysteries were examined, from the police procedural and hard-boiled crime novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to the present-day detective. Citing examples by Margaret Atwood, Leah encouraged writers to look at how much mystery is needed and whether or not it balances with the payoff.

The conference finished, Amy and I headed to Barnes and Noble to write in the cafĂ© before heading back to Louisville. There’s a reason I plot my stories. Sitting there, I had no idea what to write about, except it involved Bela Lugosi, vampires, and Tod Browning. Still, I managed to squeeze out a paltry 250 words. (Don’t ask.)

By the way, if you didn’t know, Tod Browning was a Louisville native and the director of the iconic Dracula. But that’s another blog post.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Book Fest:

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rules for Writing

The other day while surfing the net, I found this interesting article from the U.K's Guardian online.

Some of the highlights:

  • "Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils."--Margaret Atwood
  • "Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do."--Margaret Atwood
  • "You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up."--Margaret Atwood
  • "Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg "horse", "ran", "said"."--Roddy Doyle
  • "If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto­correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: "Niet" becomes "Nietzsche", "phoy" becomes ­"photography" and so on. ­Genius!"--Geoff Dyer
You'll need to read the article for more.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Character motivation

Let's say you've come up with some characters. Heroine, hero, villain. Protagonist, antagonist. Sexy vampire sidekick. Whatever. You give them names, hopefully ones that are pronounceable. Hair color, eye color, height, body type, all that kind of stuff. Or maybe you pick an actor to serve as the model for your character's physical description. (If anyone knows of any smokin' hot alpha werewolves modeled after Tahmoh Penikett please send me the Kindle buy link.*) Next you start working on their personality and all the little details that make up who they are. Maybe you give them a birth date and consult astrology charts. Maybe you do a tarot spread. Maybe you just throw a bunch of random stuff together. "Likes Mexican food, Miles Davis, and manga." The character's history includes a bad childhood, a spouse murdered by a serial killer, or even a charmed life until Page One. Whatever, it doesn't matter. Well okay, those these do matter, but none of them mean as much to your story as one thing:


What does your character want and why do they want it?

Last week I talked about conflict; motivation ties in directly with conflict. They are some of the most essential building blocks to a compelling story. Your character wants something, otherwise there's not much point. But why do they want it? Their reasons for wanting to reach their goal will tell you how far they are willing to go to get it. Motivation raises the stakes, which supplies conflict. You've got to know why your character is so invested in their goal. If your portrayal of a character's motivation is too nebulous and unformed, your reader will find it unconvincing and will soon cease to care. You may not need to share every single detail of a character's back story in the narrative, but writers need to know it all even if readers don't. Especially anything related to their motivation.

The answer to the question why is at the heart of any story. Find the why, the motivation, and a huge chunk of your story will fall into place.

*I was just going to link to a pic of the actor but figured I might as well post it. Battlestar Galactica is the latest thing I've been watching on Netflix Instant. Ah, Helo...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Remembering the Green Man

It’s a year to the day that Peter Steele died, and some part of my soul aches in sympathy with the grief of many. A while back, I read an article where the writer asked why Peter Steele matters. And I mean, really, why should this six-foot something guy from Brooklyn, New York matter to me at all? After all, it’s not like we knew each other. I owned some of his music. Enjoyed annoying a succession of partners to the strains of October Rust.

But Peter Steele does matter. He was human, with good points and bad, and it shone through. And his music and self-deprecating humour touched a particular group of people who're not afraid to look at the beauty in some of the shadow parts of the Self, to revel in what some may consider trite gothic imagery. Peter Steele was honest, personable and heartfelt. He wasn't afraid of laughing at himself in an industry where many take themselves too seriously.

Many probably couldn't see past the long-haired Brooklyn boy. Many didn't "get" the humour or the goofing around. Or maybe it's because that I too have played in metal bands and that base humour doesn't bother me so much and I can relate to its silliness.

We ascribe meanings to people, places and objects that resonate with us that mean very little to others. We see diamonds where others see only coal. But I'm not going to get all existential now. My brain's not wired for that today and it's too depressing.

Peter Steele’s death makes those of us who've already been touched by death realise that all that we have can be taken away in an eye-blink. Which brings me to the Paul Bowles quote used on Brandon Lee's tombstone:

Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless...

And every day I'm so totally driven by this URGENCY, this sense to get a move on and GET THINGS DONE. Because everything exists in a fragile equilibrium. One small thing can be the lynchpin that, when removed, brings it all crashing down.

Peter Steele matters to me because he’s a reminder of work left undone, of a creative spirit snuffed out before he reached his peak. Who knows. The next time I try to kill myself I may just succeed. Or I may get pushed under a train. Or tomorrow evening six men may break into my home, rape me and murder me. Life is red in tooth and claw. I accept that.

Life is short, fragile and fraught with misery. My words may be opiates, pretty baubles, but they give me a reason to exist.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Writing Lesson # 8: Planning

My first novel, SUFFER THE CHILDREN, began life as a short story called “Kiddiwinks”. It was one of the first stories I put to the newly-formed T Party, in 1994, and from there I decided to turn it into a novel.

The novel took ten years to write, and the main reason was there was a huge chunk of time in that decade – years at a time, in fact - when I wasn’t doing any work on it. I didn’t do any planning. I took the short story, thought about how I was going to expand it, decided who my characters were, and started writing. Then every once in a while I would get ‘stuck’. So I would leave it until I was inspired to carry on. Sometimes this would take two or three years.

Then eventually I got to the ‘just finish the damn book’ stage. I forced myself to sit down and write an outline of the plot – I knew how it was going to end, I just had to get it clear in my head how I was going to get there. So I decided I had to plan. After I’d finished the outline, I did a chapter-by-chapter summary. The chapters I had already written were easy enough – I could just summarise what had happened in each. And when I got to the chapters I hadn’t written yet, I looked at my outline, and worked out what had to happen in each chapter for me to get to the end. Using this method I was able to get to the end of the chapter-by-chapter summary, and then using this as a template, I was able to write to the end of the novel.

And I have used this method ever since. First, I do a plot outline – sometimes summarising the whole novel, but more often than not summarising first the main plot, and then each sub-plot separately. Using this outline as a guide, I plan what has to happen in each chapter, to move the main plot and all the sub-plots forward. Then, when I write each chapter, I refer back to my summary. Knowing what has to happen in each chapter makes it easier for me to start writing it.

The chapter-by-chapter summary isn’t set in stone. Sometimes as I go along, I find that the events that are supposed to happen in Chapter 10, say, are more complex than I anticipated, and therefore will also extend into Chapter 11. So if this happens I just amend the chapter plan. I might also find as I write that something quite unanticipated has to happen betweens Chapters 15 and 16 – so I just add the extra chapter to my plan.

Explaining all this in this way makes it sound like a rather complex process. But it means that my method of writing each novel with each chapter of each draft being a separate document on the PC makes more sense. It seems most writers I know work from a complete document. I only combine all the chapters into a full document when the manuscript is fully finished and is at submitting stage.

This method has helped me immensely, though. Although SUFFER THE CHILDREN took me 10 years to write, when I started on the next book after that (which, as it turned out, was my crime novel DEATH SCENE), I started with the summary and chapter-by-chapter breakdown, and I completed it in two years.

Hence, this is today’s lesson. Plan first. It saves much heartbreak later.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What a Week It Was

A few days ago, I announced I’d lost all interest in writing. I also pulled a free short story I’d written off my blog.

My frustration wasn’t based on any one factor. Instead it was a myriad of issues. Remember those Tom and Jerry cartoons where Jerry throws dishes down at Tom? Tom valiantly tries to balance the ever-growing pile and, just when he thinks everything will be okay, Jerry tops the teetering stack with a teacup and the whole shebang crashes to the floor.

That story was the teacup.

Luckily no one in my writing groups threatened to shoot and put me out of their misery.

Should I have vented? I don’t know. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly, knowing I could alienate people. After all, no one wants to listen to Whiny Wendy.

Yet maybe it helped others who felt the same way. After all, writers are still human, last I checked. We all have self-doubts, fears, and frustrations.  

The trick is to KEEP WRITING AND NEVER GIVE UP. (Yes, those are in caps for a reason.)

I reposted the story, a vampire-centric short. Another author pointed out (and rightly so) that I’d once said since I didn’t usually write about vampires, people wouldn’t like/read my work. I think her concern was did I write this story because I truly believed in it or because I thought it would bring me readers?

Rest assured, I would never write a story unless I wanted to. Like I told another writer, we have to write the stories in our hearts and not necessarily what we believe will sell.  

So it’s not that I would never write a vampire story. My first NaNoWriMo was a vampire novella set during the French Revolution. But when I do write vampires (or werewolves), I hope my stories are unique.

Anyway, a big THANK YOU to those of you who encouraged me and ordered me not to give up. Even if I didn’t respond to you individually, I read all your replies. And if there’s someone out there feeling self-doubt, remember this:  

You’re not alone. Trust me. We all go through this at one time or another.

For those of you who read and commented, thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it. :-)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I just got an idea for a werewolf tale and a drawing I need to sketch out.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Begin with conflict

The heart of any story is always going to be conflict. Somebody wants something, and someone or something stands in their way.

The object of a character's desire can be just about anything. A person in particular, love in general, a career goal, some sort of treasure, revenge, power, money - all sorts of things can function in this role. It can be a positive or a negative thing. That will depend on which character wants it.

It could be that your hero wants something and the villain is standing in their way. Or you could turn it around the other way and have a villain who wants something - something that will make them powerful and give them the ability to hurt people, for instance - and the only thing standing in their way is the hero. Either way you set up your plot it comes down to: somebody wants something, and someone or something stands in their way.

But does a story really need conflict, you might wonder. The short answer: YES. Think about the last book you read, or movie you watched. Did the plot revolve around some sort of conflict? Of course it did. Even romance novels. Especially romance novels. There's always some reason why that couple can't get together right away, something that keeps them apart for three hundred pages. Maybe it's something tangible, but a lot of times in romance novels its an internal conflict. One or both of the characters has been hurt in the past and they're trying desperately to protect their heart and not fall in love. You know they'll get their Happily Ever After by the last page but in the meantime the author keeps you on the ropes with that conflict and the tension it creates.

And that is why stories need conflict: tension. There's got to be something at stake for these characters, otherwise there's not much point. With nothing at stake you get a boring story and boring characters that readers don't feel invested in.

Conflict and tension are things that are not welcome in real life, but in fiction they are essential. They are your starting point. When I begin outlining, or even just random notes about a new story idea, the first big thing I have to figure out is what's the conflict, what's at stake? A great deal of the rest of the story and characterization flow from that.


And for something without an conflict or tension - writer/blogger Carolyn Arnold was nice enough to pass along to us the Lovely Blog Award. From all of us here at Write Club, thanks for the award Carolyn!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What do you really want?

I’m getting really, really sick of people who whine about their present situation yet when you ask them what they really want and what they’re doing to get there, they whine along the lines of, “Why’re you asking me that question? I don’t know!”

If you’re in a hole, stop digging!

Don’t even suggest to them that they should start looking at setting short-, medium and long-term goals. Oh hell no!

It’s frustrating when someone consistently turns in sub-standard work because they’re miserable and couldn’t be bothered to do any better. When I try to point out ways in which certain individuals can improve their work (in this case writing), they get short with me. Yet I’m the one who has to correct the same mistakes in said individuals’ writing time and time again. Please excuse me if I’ve run out of tactful ways in which to broach the subject after I’ve highlighted errors for the nth time. I often feel like I’m talking to a wall for all the good it does.

Why do they continue to write uninspired words? I have better things to do with my time than correct someone else’s dangling participles over and over again. Yes, I know it’s my job to fix things but hell, writers can also show editors a little courtesy sometimes by learning from their mistakes. To not improve one’s writing suggests a mental laziness and I’m sorry, such people are only going to get so far in life. It’s a slap in my face to work with them, to be honest.

I have work ethics. I care about words. Words I work on must be as close to perfect as I can get them by the time they go to print.

I’ll add something else. I have a really shyte day-job working on advertorial for a newspaper. But I take great pride in my work despite hating it at times. It gives me the financial freedom to pursue my goals in my spare time without starving. And yes, you know what? I have dreams. I’m working step by step to attain them. I’m never satisfied with what I’ve got and I never stop imagining. But I try not to make myself and others miserable here at the office while I’m wage slave.

And yet, I’ve found ways in which I can make my day job rewarding. I regularly submit entertainment- and travel-related editorial for publication and write guest columns for the lifestyle supplement of a national newspaper. Sure, I do this for free but I have the freedom to choose my topics, which a lot of journalists don’t. Yes, I’m just a lowly sub-editor but I’ve turned aspects of this job into something I enjoy and take great pride in. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a good thing to sometimes make the best of what can be a mundane situation.

Because you never know where showing a little chutzpah will open doors.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

When Sara T Met Sara P

Many, many years, when I was still trying to find my place in the adult world of work, I was a book shop assistant in London. I enjoyed being surrounded by books all day. I wasn't quite so fond of dealing with the customers, but that's a different story.

One of the good things about this job, however, was that every once in a while a famous author would come to us to do a signing session and we'd be given the chance to meet them. One day Sara Paretsky came to see us, to promote her book BURN MARKS.

I hadn't read any of her books at that time. But I was just getting into crime, and then, as now, strong-minded independent female characters attracted me. So I bought a copy of the book and got her to sign it for me.

Ever since I read that book, Sara Paretsky has inspired me. I love her tough-talking private eye V I Warshawski, who is forever the voice of the oppressed and the forgotten minority of America. And who remains, to me, such a positive female role model in a world where there's a chronic shortage of strong female characters in the literary world.

So you can imagine how excited I was when I had the opportunity to meet Sara Paretsky again, more than twenty years later, when Mystery Women helped to organise events for her UK tour recently, to promote the latest VI Warshawski book BODY WORK.

Sara Paretsky was in conversation with Natasha Cooper at Waterstones Piccadilly, London, on 16 March. After the event, she and her publisher came to chat to us, and she signed my copy of BODY WORK (that's me and some of the other Mystery Women with Sara in the picture). Sadly, I was reduced to a lot of fan girl wibbling. However, Ms Paretsky had flown in from Chicago only the day before and was still somewhat jet-lagged - so fortunately for me she may not have noticed the wibbling too much.

I hope to have the opportunity to meet the marvellous Sara Paretsky again at Bouchercon in St Louis this year, where she is receiving a lifetime achievement award. On that occasion, it will probably be me suffering from the jet-lag.

Until then, I have BODY WORK to read.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Should You Write a Screenplay?

Years ago, a writer friend attempted to convince me to write screenplays rather than novels. One of his arguments was screenplay writers had a better chance to make money. (A screenplay can either be sold or optioned repeatedly. A novelist isn't paid unless the book is published.)

I never completely took him up on the idea. My friend now lives in California and has sold and optioned several scripts. I've written three full-length screenplays, none of which have been sold or optioned, simply because I never submitted them.A short screenplay, "Cemetery," placed second in The Writers Place Short/Teleplay screenplay competition in 2004. 

While I enjoy screenplay writing, I'll admit my actual output is relegated to this time of year, also known as Script Frenzy.

Does this mean I've eschewed writing novels? Not at all. But screenplay writing is an entirely different process, more restrictive even. And it's those limitations that actually make it more freeing.

What does this mean? Only write action, dialogue, and description on the page. The saying goes, "If it isn't on the screen, it isn't in the script." No internal thoughts. No camera directions.

Be aware if you read a script, either bought/downloaded from the Internet or purchased in a bookstore, these are usually shooting scripts. You aren't writing this kind of screenplay. Instead you would be writing what's called a spec script. This is a screenplay that isn't commissioned.

How do you write a script? Read both scripts and books about screenplay writing. You can download scripts for free from Drew's Script O'Rama. Learn the rules for formatting. If you become serious about being a screenplay writer, you might want to invest in formatting software like Final Draft or Movie Magic. (Both have free demos.)

Study books related to screenplay writing, such as Blake Snyder (Save the Cat!), Syd Field (Screenplay), or Robert McKee (Story). Other resources include Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Chris Vogler's The Writers' Journey (based on Campbell's The Hero's Journey) as well as Script magazine and Creative Screenwriting.

By the way, these books can also help you write a better story, whether a screenplay or novel.  

Okay, I have 25 days to write a 100 page screenplay. I'd better get busy. Meantime, if you want to try screenplay writing, I say give it a go. If nothing else, it'll give you a new perspective on your writing.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Little from the Musical Archives

This week I thought I would share something from my creative musical archives. The video is off Muddy Waters performing "Got my Mojo Working".

Friday, April 1, 2011

A super challenge

I read across several different genres and sub-genres but when I write paranormal is home base. It's what I love, I think (hope) I'm good at it, and it's a comfortable fit for me. Sometimes writers have to step out of their comfort zones and find a way to challenge themselves. Trying your hand at a different genre is a good way to do that.

This week Samhain Publishing announced a new special call for submissions for a superhero romance anthology. They're looking for novellas submitted by September 1 for publication in the spring of 2012. Read more about it here.

This fired up my imagination like nothing in recent memory. I spent three hours crafting a skeletal outline for a science-based futuristic superhero and even have a small amount of word count. I've pulled my husband's copies of The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, and Superman Birthright off the shelf to read and study. I'm not a comic reader but I love superhero stories and wish there was more of the genre in (non-comic) book form. Superhero movies run the gamut from amazing (Nolan's Batman movies) to really good (Iron Man) to stuff you only watch for a laugh (we made fun of Wolverine all through the movie). I've added a few superhero movies to the Netflix list too. What will probably wind up being my biggest guide is Joseph Campbell's model of the hero's journey. While its true that in a lot of ways every story is a hero's journey, the superhero genre let's you turn that journey into myth writ large. I'd like to try my hand at telling a story like that so I'm going to see what I can do with the outline I've got so far. Even if I don't make the word count or time restriction, stepping out of my usual genre and trying something new will be good for me as a writer, and it will be fun too.

Is the superhero genre something you'd want to write? If not, what genre outside what you normally write would you like to try?