Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Two More Sleeps Until FantasyCon

I've been rather quieter than I would prefer to be on this blog, because other life stuff keeps getting in the way. This is due in no small part to my being manically busy in the day job at present. In the middle of a horrendous week, the only thing that's keeping me going is the knowledge that it ends with FantasyCon.

FantasyCon was the first Con I started going to, and as such it holds a special place in my heart. Contrary to the title it's not just for fantasy writers. FantasyCon is the official convention of the British Fantasy Society, which embraces horror, science fiction and fantasy and all of their sub-genres. And indeed, it was through joining the BFS, through my love of horror, that led me to discover FantasyCon in the first place.

It's also the Con where I run into the most people I know outside of the Convention world, as a significant proportion of the writers' group go. This year's FantasyCon is at Brighton, and the weather forecast is unseasonably balmy this weekend, with temperatures forecast for the high 20s. So if we want a break from the panels, the schmoozing and the boozing, a walk by the sea front in the fresh air will be an attractive option.

The Con is offering a reading programme, which is rather being hijacked by my writing group since no fewer than eight of us are reading over the course of the weekend. My reading is at 3:30pm on Friday, and I will be giving my audience a sneak preview of my forthcoming anthology SOUL SCREAMS, reading a story from the collection. At least, I hope there will be an audience. If you're at FantasyCon this weekend, please stop by Room 134 at 3:30 on Friday to offer some moral support!

This is the last Con I'm booked for this year, which is all the more reason to relish it. Next years' Con schedule is uncertain at this stage - not on the part of the Cons, as they're all confirmed and taking bookings. But I have yet to make up my mind which ones to go to. If only I had the funds - and the leave allocation - to go to all of them...

I'm counting down the hours now until I depart for Brighton, but in the meantime I have a great deal of work to do for the day job, not to mention the Con-related things such as practising my reading and that all important decision of What To Pack. If you're attending FantasyCon I hope to see you there - if you're not, I'll give a full low down next week!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My Black Journal

Today I thought I'd share some of my writing techniques. Please realize these are still in the experimental stages and I'm in no way suggesting you should follow what I do.

What prompted me to start keeping a notebook on the Zaphkiel Project, my current WIP, was the amount of research I accumulated on the Transit of Venus, planetary harmonics, and pentacles. Rather than shove printed copies into a file or binder, I decided to tape them into a journal I'd picked up at my local Barnes and Noble. Not only were my references organized, I had room to jot any notes.

During this time, I also worked on the plot and characters using yWriter, a free writing software. Again, rather than let loose sheets of paper get misplaced in files or shoved into bulky binders, I decided to cut and tape the pages I printed into the black journal. These included chapters and scene breakdowns and character profiles. 

Part of my reason for compiling notes is I have a terrible time with character motivation. (I can see my editor nodding. "Yes. Yes.") By doing extensive character profiles, including GMCs (goal, motivation, and conflict charts), I hope to spot any potential plot problems in the preplanning stages.

The character sheets are courtesy of Anne Olwin. I've filled out several such worksheets but I think these are my favorite by far. I also use Josh Lanyon's techniques in creating unique characters via The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, a blog post on Romance University.

Seems a lot of prep work, doesn't it? Next month I'm participating in BIAM_Writathon and hope to compile another notebook for my vampire Victorian paranormal. That's my proposed NaNo project.  Of course, it'll probably take more than one journal.

Will I keep this technique? Good question. Right now I like it, even if I do use a lot of tape. I suppose there's rubber cement. :-)

Here's the way I see it. Whatever helps me write a damn good story works for me.

Monday, September 26, 2011

New challenge: short stories

Having recently finished my sixth book of either novella or novel length, I've now got short stories on the brain. I'm of the opinion that writing short stories can actually be harder than writing longer length stories. It requires a kind of precision and laser focus that helps you cut down all the extraneous stuff and get right to the heart of a story, like packing for a three-week vacation and fitting it all in a small carry-on bag. That's some serious skill right there.

I've written short stories, though I don't know how many right off the top of my head. It's not something I've put a lot of effort into, though. For one thing it can be hard for me to stick to what I think is the number one rule of plotting a short story: keep it simple. I also have trouble connecting with characters that aren't going to be around long. The best shorts I've written so far are two that feature characters from my novel Mojo Queen. Slipping into that world for a short story felt much more comfortable than visiting a place to which I might not return.

The fact that it's difficult for me is exactly why I want to make a serious effort at writing short stories. To kick off this new goal I'm going to do two things: go through all my old short stories, dust them off, and see if there's anything worth salvaging by applying any new skills I've learned since; and write some new stories. For that I'm going to start by seeing if I can come up with something to enter in the Bloody Parchment Anthology short story competition. If you write horror or dark fiction you might want to take a look at the guidelines and see if you've got anything you can submit. To be honest, other than this anthology I don't know much about the short story market. I'm not going to worry about that too much unless I'm able to write some stories I think are good enough to submit.

Note: my Write Club posting day has moved from Friday to Monday. So Happy Monday everybody!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Writers on screen

Since writers tend to be nerdy and meta, most of us love stories about fictional authors. It's not all that unusual to find books where the main character is a writer. I think most of Stephen King's books are like that. Making your main character a writer might straddle the line between meta and jumping the shark, and it's easy to blame it on the adage write what you know. This is, after all, what we know. It can work really well as long as you don't make that character too much of a Mary Sue, but that can be said for any and every character. It's more unusual to see writers portrayed in TV and movies so it's always kind of neat when it happens, especially when it's something popular. There are two TV shows right now where the main character is a writer. One of them I like, one of them I love.

Bones - Dr. Temperance Brennan - is a forensic anthropologist who works with the FBI to solve murders, and she's also a best-selling crime novelist. That premise is no more of a stretch than any other TV show so okay, fine. My problem with Bones is that I have a very hard time accepting her as a writer. She displays very little empathy or basic understanding of human emotions and motivations. That's part of who she is, and that's fine, but it makes me glad they rarely mention her books. It's barely a part of the show, which is a good thing because it's completely unbelievable to me that she could write books anyone would want to publish, much less read. If you're going to write you have got to have empathy. There's no way around that. It's so important, the subject needs it's own post. Anyway, Bones is an interesting character but I'm glad they don't delve into her writing too much or it might distract from my enjoyment of David Boreanaz. Don't get me wrong, I like the show and the character, but I wouldn't want to read a book by Bones.

The show I love that's about a writer is of course Castle. Another best-selling crime novelist, Richard Castle used his connections with the mayor to score himself a permanent ride-along with NYPD detective Kate Beckett so he can use her as inspiration for his new series. He's got charm, he's got brains, he's got a bullet proof vest labeled writer, and yes, he has empathy. Loads of it. He's also obsessive, which may be as important a requirement as empathy. The show is mostly light-hearted and built around the characters rather than the cases, though the ongoing investigation into the murder of Beckett's mother is proving to be a heavy hitter. Those episodes are always intense and now because of that case Castle has his own version of what I call a murder wall. You know that trope in movies and TV where somebody is obsessively investigating a crime they're not supposed to for whatever reason and they've got a big whiteboard or a wall or in Castle's case a huge digital screen with all of the evidence and leads on it? I know it's a cliché but I don't care, I love it. What's really great about Castle is Nathan Fillion, who is thirty-one flavors of awesome as the eponymous character. I might cringe when they show him signing the cover of a book instead of the inside, but Fillion makes me believe Castle really could have written that book. In fact, I found the first Nikki Heat book at the library and read it. Nikki Heat is the series Castle writes about Beckett and the book was just like the show, only with sexytimes between the Castle and Beckett characters, and good grief that's meta. (Castleception!) 

What to get the writer who has everything: a bullet proof vest.
Do you have any favorite fictional authors?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Write What You Know"

Sooner or later, the novice writer is given these words of advice: "write what you know". To a certain degree, it's sound advice. If you can get inside the head of a character, they are more believable. A scenario reads as more 'real' if it appears the author is writing like they know what they're talking about.

But if you start writing young, this advice can seem a bit daunting. At 16, you don't know much (even if, at the time, you think you know everything).

I do have a tendency to write about what I know, but it's largely down to a very literal nature and being too lazy to do research. When I started writing stories as a child, I was writing about myself - literally. I enjoyed writing stories about the wonderful - and extremely fictional - adventures of myself and my best friend Helen and our respective younger sisters. I guess I thought my real life was far too ordinary, so I made up something far more exciting.

When I got to about ten or eleven, I started writing stories about fictional characters. But they were still largely about me - they were always girls the same age as me, with the same character traits. At the time this seemed a perfectly natural thing to do. I had no experience of how someone who wasn't me might react in a given situation, so all I could do was write about the character in the same way I would react to the situation.

As a writer, you have to learn how to put yourself in someone else's head. You might react in a certain way, but someone with a different background, with different personality traits, might not. That was a lesson I found difficult to learn, as a young writer. One of the most frequent criticisms I received about my writing when I was in my teens and early twenties was that my male characters came across as flat and unbelievable. Even now, I sometimes have trouble writing men. Well, having never been one, I find them hard to understand sometimes. But I digress...

"Write what you know" is an important lesson. But part of that lesson is learning to understand what you don't know, so you can write about it effectively. Reading other writers can often help, especially reading in genres you might not necessarily be drawn to. Talking to people is a valuable source of information. I see parties as more than just social occasions these days. Sometimes I get chatting to someone I've just met and find out they work in a career that might actually be a useful source of information. If it turns out they are a police officer or coroner or even undertaker, for example, chances are I'll try and get their email address before I leave the party.

I still get nervous about straying outside my comfort zone as a writer, but sometimes it's necessary to stretch one's writing. When I wrote SUFFER THE CHILDREN I had to get inside the head of a young woman who'd been brought up by a neglectful mother addicted to drink and drugs, on a grotty council estate, repeatedly abused by a variety of men who passed through her mother's life. This was all daunting stuff, way beyond my own sphere of experience. But most people who've read the book and fed back on it have told me that Leanne is a believable character. I worked hard to make her so. Research helps, talking to the right people is even more helpful, and of course the writer's imagination can help fill in the gaps.

"Write what you know" is good advice. But "know what you write about" is even better advice.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Writing Your Heart Out

Many writers know the meaning of BICHOK: "Butt in chair, hands on keyboard." And many writers have every intention of starting or finishing that novel. Sure, there's National Novel Writing Month, but the prospect of writing 50k words in one month is daunting. Not to mention it's the holidays and your relatives have designated your home as Turkey Central.

So you're not quite sure about NaNo (although I'd encourage you to try it), but you need a push to get your creative juices flowing. You need encouragement. You just need to get that damn story started.

Maybe you need BIAM_Writathon, an online writing challenge that occurs every April and October.  Organized by AnneMarie Novark, BIAM_Writathon is a chance for writers to lock their internal editors in the closet, give their muses free reign, and write their hearts out. The good news? No restrictions. Write a short story or a novel. Edit a work in progress or plan for the NaNo challenge.

I've done BIAM_Writathon a few times now and I don't always succeed in completing my goal(s). Nevertheless, I enjoy the group and look forward to it. This time, I hope to rewrite my werewolf novella and finish a vampire short story. That plus preparing for my NaNo project.

Interested in BIAM_Writathon? The Yahoo group is by invitation only. To learn more,

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pantsing and chaos

As I write this it's Thursday evening and my mouth hurts from a trip to the dentist. I can still feel where the needle went in to numb the area in preparation for drilling a ginormous hole in my wisdom tooth and then refilling it with metal or perhaps drywall mud, I have no idea. Before the drilling began the dentist and his assistant and I had a nice if brief chat about books that I wished could have gone on longer because it's always fun to talk about books and find out what people like to read, plus it would have delayed the drilling. But the drilling had to commence and anyway I'm fine now, except my mouth feels weird. While it's possible I may have had a post topic in mind earlier today, if I did it's gone now. But I am determined not to miss another Write Club Friday, so I'll be doing this by the seat of my pants, which makes it just like everything else I write.

The whole "pantsing v. plotting" thing is something I've thought about quite a lot this year. I have repeatedly used different methods of outlining and filled out several kinds of character worksheets, and none of it ever works. Once I start writing all bets are off. Despite reading numerous writing advice articles that stress this is how professionals do it, it still doesn't work for me to plan out every detail before I start writing. Filling out all those outlines and worksheets is  a very left-brain logical and orderly type activity, or at least it seems so to me. The actual writing, the storytelling, is more of a right-brain creative and intuitive act. What I have a problem with is reconciling the two so that I can be more workmanlike and professional with my writing instead of ruminating over things and turning ideas over in my head until I figure out what works best for the characters/story.

It seems to me there's a component beyond outlines and worksheets and daily word counts that doesn't get discussed much. Maybe people don't want to sound crazy, or maybe this doesn't happen to them when they write, but there is definitely a sense of stepping off the map of the known world when writing fiction. Part bard, part shaman, a storyteller crosses into another world and brings back tales of heroism, love, revenge, redemption, healing, grief, and so many other things that are universal parts of the human experience. The part of the storyteller that enables them to cross over, to create, may be deep within the brain or the soul or that indecipherable concept we call heart. Wherever it is, it's just as real as the fingers that fly across the keyboard. As real as the feet that carry you through a dance. Telling a story is an act of raising energy just as surely as dancing or chanting or singing or any of the other numerous ways magic is raised. Energy and magic are chaotic things. Chaos doesn’t let you color inside the lines, or stick to an outline.

I realize this goes against the conventional wisdom. If extensive outlining and filling out character worksheets and meeting a daily word count quota is what works for you then by all means - carry on. Every writer is different, just as every story is different. I just thought I would present another side of things. Order is important, control of the story and the characters is important, but maybe at least during that first draft a little chaos is important too.

Feel free to berate me in the comments for being unprofessional and even a bit daft. ;)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Coming Soon...

I am pleased to be able to announce that my next publishing project is in the pipeline. A collection of my short stories, with the working title of SOUL SCREAMS, will be released as an e-book and POD version, with a scheduled publication date of February 2012.

I'm working with a new e-publisher for this project, but their editor I know well and have worked with in the past, and I have every faith in them. The anthology will contain previously published short stories, as well as some unpublished ones. They are all horror-themed, but much of my earlier work dealt with psychological horror rather than supernatural horror, and characters in very dark places. It's not going to be an uplifting read, put it that way. Unlike my novels, my short stories rarely end happily.

I am not able to say much more about this project at this time, but I am very excited about working on it. I will release more information soon, so be sure to watch this space!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ready for NaNoWriMo?

Remember that definition of insanity? The one about doing the same thing over and expecting a different result?

Welcome to my relationship with NaNoWriMo. Every year around this time, I promise myself I will prep in October and write a well-developed first draft in November. After all, planning is everything, right?

Also recall what they say about the plans of mice and men?

Yet I hope each year will be different. This year I'm planning to write my vampire Victorian paranormal. Not that I'm anywhere near finished with my research. This is going to be a manuscript with a lot of notes.

If you're doing NaNo this year, good luck and happy writing! I look forward to meeting you. :-)

Friday, September 9, 2011

First Novel Lesson

I wanted to be a writer for many years before I actually was a writer. I knew I wanted to tell stories but I didn't know any of the things I needed to know. At least I was self-aware enough to know I didn't know. ;) I took a creative writing class at a nearby university but all I learned from that experience was that the professor hated the publishing business and was bitter about the stack of rejections he had for his literary masterpiece. My short stories  had the whiff of genre fiction so he never had much to say to me.

A few years later I felt on the verge of giving  up. I had a manuscript I'd been struggling with for a long time but it was going nowhere. Ultimately I put it away. I didn't give up writing, though. I had a few ideas about a very different type of story than the one I'd been working on unsuccessfully for years. About a year later I had my first finished novel, a Young Adult paranormal that came in at a hundred thousand words.

What did I learn from the experience? Nothing about point of view, that's for sure. The thing was full of head-hopping. Didn't learn tight plotting either. The story meandered around like a wayward puppy with a bad case of "ooh shiny let's go over there! ooh shiny what about this over here?" It was littered with adverbs and egregious comma abuse and no telling how many other grammar offences. What I did learn was invaluable: I learned I could finish something.

There comes a point in every manuscript, sometimes several times, when it feels like it will never be finished. It will feel as if the story is falling apart and that it would be a merciful death to delete the document. When that happens, especially when it happens more than once, you will hate your book. You will hate it with the fire of a thousand suns and a whole lot of other overworked metaphors. You will want that book to DIE.

Unless you are insanely lucky, this will happen with every book. The way I deal with it is to think back on that first book and the lesson it taught me - that I can finish. Whether I get a second wind or a grudging determination from that thought, it helps me to fight my through to the finish line on the current book.

It doesn't matter how bad that first book sucks or that no one will ever read it. What matters is that you  did it, you finished it, and you can carry that knowledge through every book you write, through every dark period in the writing that makes you want to give up and switch to fan fiction. This is why I think National Novel Writing Month can be a great experience, even if the novel you have at the end of the month stinks so bad you hide it away in the darkest corner of your hard drive. That breakthrough experience of reaching THE END is one of the most valuable lessons a writer will ever learn. Whether it takes you a month or a year, it's a lesson you have to learn if you're serious about writing.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Does Crossing Genres Kill Your Career?

Whenever I see the latest book by any best-selling author, I am always struck by how similar the cover is to the last book, or the last half a dozen books by this person. It would appear that publishers like series. If a first book about a particular character does well, another book featuring the same character is much more likely to be published (and, more significantly, promoted).

For this reason, large publishing houses seem rather nervous when their best-selling authors decide they want to branch out and try something a little different. They seem convinced the fans won't go for this new idea. After all, readers want more of the same.

Or do they? What I'm not clear on is whether this is actually true, or if it's a myth perpetuated by the publishing industry. Do readers go for a writer's books because they are hoping for the same thing again, or because they like this person's writing style? Michael Marshall Smith had several excellent science fiction novels published. Then he wrote a series of crime thrillers which appear under the name Michael Marshall, presumably to avoid ONLY FORWARD being picked up by people expecting another gritty crime thriller. Though if they did, they might well enjoy it anyway - it's a fabulous book.

My second novel DEATH SCENE is a mystery novel, with no supernatural elements at all. But because my first novel SUFFER THE CHILDREN was horror, I have noticed that a lot of the e-book websites that are selling DEATH SCENE have categorised it as horror. I do worry about this sometimes. Am I killing my career by writing in two separate genres? Are people going to pick up DEATH SCEN expecting supernatural beasties and be disappointed? Or are they going to pick up the second book because they enjoyed the first one, and want to see what else I've written?

Sonya Clark had a marvellous post on her blog recently about this topic. And after reading it I feel a lot better.

There are some people out there who only read crime, and some who will only read horror. The majority of people who read, however, read because they enjoy the stories. And they can be trusted to make their own judgement on what they read. If they find an author they like, they will likely explore all the genres that author writes in.

I may never be a best-selling writer. But if I find a handful of people who look forward to my next book, no matter what genre it is, then I feel I will have achieved something.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Less Like Me"

A Dilbert comic has the titular character asking Dogbert for dating advice. Dogbert replies, "Try to be less like you." 

As writers, we tend to project ourselves onto our characters. And why not? It's an indirect way to share our interests, likes, dislikes, etc., without (hopefully) being intrusive. Also, creating characters familiar with the same things we are allows us to remain in a comfort zone of sorts. No surprises.

But is Dogbert's advice something we should consider? I say "yes."

By forcing our characters to adapt to our standards, we're working within a limited range. Now if we apply the same traits to all our characters, well, you can see where the problem lies. The characters will most likely end up carbon copies of one another. If not for the characters' goals, we might not be able to tell them apart.

Am I guilty of doing this? Hell, yeah. It's a habit I'm trying to break. In my current WIP, I'm reworking my character charts, trying to make each character different and "less like me." My hero Zaphkiel tends to be analytical whereas his lover Caliel is more artistic minded. Actually, this dichotomy doesn't seem that strange to me because I can move back and forth between both thought processes with ease. Now Raziel is more mechanically minded and I can't hammer a nail without the threat of bodily injury.

Another way to create a character unlike you is to have him or her embody ideas or beliefs you may not agree with. This requires opening your mind and being receptive to new ideas. For example, you might cater to a Liberal point of view but have a character who chooses to see things from a Conservative viewpoint.  Or a character who is Christian whereas another is atheist.

But whether you choose to people your books with characters who are just like you, somewhat like you, or not at all like you, keep in mind actions, beliefs, etc. have to fit that character's personality. You can't pick and choose traits arbitrarily. For one, character motivation won't make any sense.   

What tips and tricks do you use to make your characters different? I'm working with Anne Olwin's character charts and sometimes I have to dig deep into my mind to answer some of the questions listed. :-)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Back to School Blowout

We're all Lyrical Press authors here so I thought I would share the news of a big weekend sale at the Lyrical Press store.

Back to School Blowout! 
With the wee ones trotting off to start a new school year, here at Lyrical Press we know this means reading time for the adults! As a reward for surviving summer, Lyrical Press is reducing the price of our entire catalog by 50% for the weekend. 
Beginning Friday September 2nd and lasting throughout the weekend, all Lyrical titles will be 50% off list price.  
Don't miss out on this incredible sale. It's the perfect way to discover your new favorite author.

You can find links to all of our Lyrical Press books in the sidebar just by clicking on the book covers. It's a great time to feed your ereader!