I had planned on exploring the fun of writing humor with you today, but the torrent of finals has not yet subsided. As my husband Bo reminds me time and again, it is VITAL to respect my limitations. The finals will soon be graded, and then I can return to sharing more than story cuppings with you.
In the meantime, let me share some music and one of my favorite stories from Diana Wynne Jones about her writing life. I first shared these posts back in 2015 when I participated inNational Novel Writing Month. Six years later, this music still grips me and these words still inspire me.
Take heart, my fellow creatives! Whether or not you join in thirty days and nights of literary abandon, your stories will always be there inside you. You will find the time to write them, and you will find a way to share them.
We all will. x
Originally Posted November 1, 2015
National Novel Writing Month is upon us. You’ll have to pardon me as I wish to dedicate my time write–feeble as it is–to the challenge of 50,000 words in 30 days.
So rather than blog, per say, I shall share music I find useful for various elements of story. For starters, a starter: music that marks the beginning of adventure. James Newton Howard’s score for PETER PAN has an excellent bit of fantastic to inspire you: a light giddiness that builds into the dramatic departure of the known for the unknown.
Are you ready to embark on Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon? Don’t be afraid. Let your story hold out its hand. Take it, and fly.
Originally Posted: November 8, 2015
In celebration of passing the 15,000 word mark, some music.
There’s something blissfully cool about the first meeting of two companions, be they friends or moreso. John Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon has one of the most beautiful themes ever created in the spirit of friendship, and that this friendship transcends the ordinary makes it all the more powerful. Treat your characters to a first meeting that is nothing short of memorable.
Originally Posted November 15, 2015
John Powell again? You bet.
In celebration of reaching the halfway point of my story, I think it’s time for a chase. Any story, especially one with murder, kidnapping, and other intrigues, has got to have a chase. Plus, this chase from BOURNE SUPREMACY has some excellent percussion/string sequences for fighting. Now, set a fire under those characters and set them a’runnin’.
Originally Posted November 22, 2015
At some point, I hope, your characters seek something that will help fulfill a goal, or quest, or what have you. In my case, my characters are seeking a member of their group who’s been taken. Stakes are always high in such situations, and it gives a writer the challenge of laying clues that readers MUST be able to see without feeling obvious, for characters to drop verbal clues without sounding like they’re being dropped. It’s a delicate balance, not often achieved in a single draft. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t try, and if a little bit of mysterious air can help, all the better. Let Alexandre Desplat’s music from the final Harry Potter story help provide the necessary ambiance for the mystery woven in your plot.
Originally Posted on October 27, 2015: “Just Bash on and Do It.”
With National Novel Writing Month just a few days away, I think it’s worth pausing my own nonfiction and lessons from my favorite writer until December. However, to help those who also revel in the Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon, I shall continue sharing Writer’s Music posts throughout the month.
That said, I wanted to talk about something from Diana Wynne Jones’ Reflections that feels especially appropriate on the cusp of NaNoWriMo.
In 2011, Charlie Butler interviewed Jones in her home. At one point he asks about her writing process, and if others, such as editors, see the work in progress. Jones is very clear that this is NOT how she works:
I hate being edited, because my second draft is as careful as I can get it. I try to get it absolutely mistake-free, and absolutely as I feel the book needs to be. Then some editor comes along and says, “Change Chapter Eight to Chapter Five, take a huge lump out of Chapter Nine, and let’s cut Chapter One altogether.” And you think, No, I’m going to hit the ceiling any moment. Then I call for my agent before I get my hands round this person’s throat.
Thank God it was the days before computers. I said, “Send me the typescript back and I’ll see what I can do.” So she did, and I cut out the bits she told me to alter, in irregular shapes, then stuck them back in exactly the same place with Sellotape, only crooked, so it looked as if I’d taken the pieces out and put new pieces in. And then I sent it back to her, and she rang up and said, “Oh, your alterations have made such a difference.” And I thought, “Right! Hereafter I will take no notice of anybody who tries to edit my books.”
Now while I can only dream of having this woman’s confidence and ability to write sideways and backwards and ALWAYS create something awesome (such as Hexwood), she still marks the point that it is the SECOND draft she makes perfect. Her first draft was always written by hand, and she accepted that chunks of it would need to be done over: “If you want to make your story as good as you can get it, you have to go over it and get it right.”
For some of us, who are on draft #8 (ahem), “getting it right” in only one or two rewrites still sounds like a miracle. But it is nice to know that one whose plots knot every which way and still produce these beautiful woven works does not expect it to be right the first time. Yet another reason NaNoWriMo is so wonderful for writers: it forces us through that first draft–in Jones’ words, “Just bash on and do it.” Then, with the time crunch gone, we can take our time, pick the story threads apart, and concentrate completely on “getting it right.”
I hope you enjoyed that little trip back in time! I’m still lost in the past myself, as my 2019 crack at NaNoWriMo resulted in the start of a story that transcends seasons, a tale of bloody magic set in the deadly quiet snows of Wisconsin’s northern wilderness. All Hallows Eve may have passed, but Winter is on Wisconsin’s doorstep. It is only a matter of time before snow and spirit meet…
Hello, my fellow creatives! Summer has returned to the Midwest at last. While my kids eagerly toss their backpacks into the air crying Hallelujah, I am wrapping up finals while also preparing for the next term. It’s a little scary, changing over terms, but, you know…we manage somehow. 🙂
But all this monsterly ruckus does not mean we cannot think of writerly things. In fact, I was fortunate enough to host a virtual Creative Salon for some fellow teachers about the importance of oral storytelling for its cultural, creative, and classroom significance. Let me take you through a few bits of research, perhaps a pondering or two, so that we may all remember just what is treasured–preserved–known through the tradition of oral storytelling.
The oral traditions and expressions include of many spoken such us riddles, proverbs, folklore, tales, legends story, myths, epic songs and poems, charms, prayers, chants, songs, dramatic performances and more. Oral traditions and expressions are used to give information about the knowledge, social and culture values as well as the collective memory.
Cultural Preservation: Rediscovering the Endangered Oral Tradition of Maluku
Think back to your days listening to a story a loved one tells you, or that you told yourself. “Once upon a time”… and off you go into someplace Other and New. Such a common little phrase, isn’t it? We hear it over and over in familiar fairy tells and legends. You can even trim that phrase down further to simply “Once.” Countless stories start at this very moment. These stories come from across land and time to reach us, here and now, and pull us into their “once”: stories of battles waged, quests completed, families reunited.
Or perhaps those stories come from an Elsewhere altogether different: lands of myth and magic, where the Impossible is just as real as you, or you…ooooryou!
Campfires call upon that Impossible Magic, don’t they? When the words of a spoken story combine with the sparks and stars, we cannot help but fall under the story’s spell. Such was the way we and others wove with words: summer camp’s ghost stories, Dad’s evening devotions, or the bizarre fairy tales we’d tell ourselves while poking the embers with our sticks still sticky from the last of the marshmallows.
In the time of Dickens, reading aloud at home was very much a common household entertainment. The practice had become broadly accessible in Britain a hundred years earlier, with the spread of literacy and the increased availability of books and periodicals…they saw reading as a pick-me-up and a dangerous influence, a source of improvement, a way to stave off boredom, and even as a health-giving substitute…
The Enchanted Hour
But let us not be so foolish as to suppose the stories told could only be for fun. Telling tales aloud could be extremely instructive, too, for any class. From oral historians describing battles to Caesar as he dined, to the man reading newspapers to Cuban cigar-rollers as they worked, we have depended on the oral storyteller to take us outside of ourselves and witness that which we cannot experience otherwise. It is through the telling of lives that we have learned what it is like to emigrate to a foreign land, to live in a centuries-old slum, to hide in the trenches as bombs decimate the land. Countless cultures have depended upon oral storytelling to preserve their histories and customs, and it is through such practice that modern generations have been able to preserve the ways of their ancestors.
The art of storytelling was practiced by both men and women in Lakota culture and society, where a form of high culture existed prior to the reservation period. Those individuals born in the early part of the twentieth century retained memories of narratives told by grandparents who lived during this “high culture” period, which extended from the time before contact with Europeans to approximately 1850.
George Sword’s Warrior Narratives
Nowadays, Kapata is performed (sung) widely [in Indonesia]. In its development, Kapata helps to carry out the function as the medium to enrich language and literature…Another function of Kapata is a social control function. It can be found in the texts of Kapata such as in Kapata Nasihat in Central Maluku from parents to children or from kings to his people. Kapata [maintains] the sanctity of customs regulations and upholding custom laws in a particular community; and to preserve and maintain custom relations that have been established in a community for years.
Rediscovering the Endangered Oral Tradition of Maluku
Māori who participate in ceremonies and meetings there, descendants of those who composed and passed on the ancient records, know the lineage of their forebears because of often quoted genealogies, which were also preserved in the oral tradition. The words handed down from the ancestors are cherished and kept current in various ways and through new media….The literature that bears the closest relationship to the oral tradition in its original form are the texts that Māori first wrote down from memory or that were written for them as they dictated…
Maori Oral Tradition
The West had shaped the knowledge and discourse about Africa for hundreds of years and it was important to shift that power relationship. Obviously, decades of European colonial incursion and rule needed to be sorted out as it pertained to earlier scholarship….Certainly, African societies have preserved their histories, cultures, and ideas in nonverbal forms in the plastic, musical, dancing, and ritual arts, and these need to be taken into account when seeking a thorough historical picture. This also allows us to understand how earlier events have been reconsidered or even reshaped over time for contemporary purposes.
On the Status of African Oral Tradition Since 1970s: An Interview with Robert Cancel
Reading becomes a priority again. One of my university colleagues broke down the current literacy plight as an inevitable consequence of the “multimodality” of our entertainment. Once radio and film came to Main Street, people no longer needed newspapers and books like they used to. A representative of Wisconsin Literacy concurred, noting that a child is not raised in a home where reading matters, that mindset is carried into adulthood and passed on to the next generation. This mindset propels that vicious cycle of low-literacy onward: no motivation to read = inability to decipher and synthesize text both simple and complex. Forget research–low-literacy means being unable to properly fill out a job application or understand a medical prescription. Studies shared in The Enchanted Hour show that the majority of a child’s neurological development occurs in the first five years, and when a child watches a video instead of listening to a book being read, that development suffers greatly.
Listening to a picture book being read, however, helps children connect the pictures and words they see with the words they hear. They hear how the words sound, how the sentences sound, and are therefore able to use those words and sentences themselves with confidence. And this isn’t just for kids, by the way. I have recommended my adult learners reading fun stuff for years, and the response is overwhelmingly positive. Reading for fun makes reading for school a smidge easier. Reading for school makes writing for school a smidge easier. Writing for school makes writing for work a smidge easier. Put all those smidges together, and you’ve got yourselves a broken vicious cycle.
If a child sees something in a parent that that child aspires to, he or she will copy that parent and be content.
The Reading Promise
This is another reason why I started my podcast last month: in all my encouragement to students, I was neglecting myself. Story Cuppings became a way for me to not only sample and study stories through reading their first chapters, but to read aloud and experience new language again and again. If you’ve a book–be it one you love, wrote, or both–you’d like me to share on Story Cuppings, just let me know!
Passion swells to share one’s life experience, the struggles here and now. “Once upon a time” is not limited to Past Days or Elsewheres. “Once” means “now” as much as it means “then.” “Once” there is a group of people who struggle, not struggled, against adversity. That “once” takes us to the accounts of individuals in Hong Kong, in the United States, in Myanmar, in Poland, in Mexico. It is through the words of an individual—what they see and hear, what they experience at the hands of others—that we learn of the epic quests and battles of today.
And do not assume “epic” must mean “global stakes.” On the contrary, the most epic victories can be one family, one person, living life one season to the next. Such are the stories we hear at family gatherings, be they around a campfire, kitchen table, or fence post. As fellow Wisconsinite storyteller and documentarian Jeremy Apps explains:
My father and my uncles were storytellers, and so were several of the neighbors in the farming community where I grew up in central Wisconsin. Family members told stories when we gathered for celebrations, birthday parties, anniversaries, and at Christmas and Thanksgiving family affairs. Our farm neighbors told stories during threshing and wood sawing bees, while they waited at the grist mill for their cow feed to be ground, and when they came to town on Saturday nights and waited for their wives to grocery shop. These stories were always entertaining, as many of them had a humorous bent to them, but they were also filled with information—how the cattle were surviving during the summer drought, what price Sam got for his potato crop and how he managed to get that price. How the weather this year was not nearly as bad as the weather twenty years ago. Many of the stories were also sad, such as how Frank was making it on his poor farm since his wife died and left him with three kids to fee and care for.
Telling Your Own Story
When I read App’s words and see his work like A Farm Winter, I see the shine of the pivotal truth he wrote in Telling Your Own Story….
Your stories are snippets of history.
Never, EVER, sell your own story short. Whether you weave your experiences with imagined elements or you stitch the raw details together for all to know, YOUR story matters.
Now, tell it aloud.
Hear the sounds of the words you choose, the rhythm they create like the genealogies repeated by the Maori over and over as the story is told by the teller. Listen to the nuances of your characters’ voices–what words embody the tones you use when your voice dresses up as each character? What words bring sensory feeling to the settings you describe?
There is beauty in your story’s language, my fellow writers. Share it with the sparks and stars, and see its magic pass from one generation to the next.~
Would you believe I’m actually working on a humor writing workshop for my university this summer? I’m still working out how I got roped into that, too. Plus we need to FINALLY talk about the process of choosing character names. Let’s not forget studying those character archetypes that cross time and culture! There’s lots of literary fun to share over the coming months, not to mention some more kickin’ author interviews.
I have written about The Hobbit’s worldbuilding before. If you’d like to read about that, click here.
If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories. I keep discovering more and more fantasy books I’d like to try, so perhaps we’ll stick with fantasy? Or perhaps not! I’m enjoying the promise of possibility far too much. x
Whether you’re a mother or you’re the one who mothers; whether your mom is present for a hug, or a wave, or a kiss heavenward, take a moment to share love with those who share their nurturing love with you.
To celebrate Mother’s Day, Blondie has finished her pictures andstory so I can share them here with you. Looks like a day off for me!
Welcome, my friends, to Blondie’s story: THE FOUR REALMS.
The Four Realms #1: Four Kingdoms
T’was the winter of the fall of Tyrannus when the realm was divided into four kingdoms. The Kingdom of Dragons was the most powerful of them all. King Flamescale ruled the land. He was a ruthless, unforgiving king, and treated people from other kingdoms with no respect. The neighboring kingdoms often rebelled against him with no success. They were powerless against him. One of those kingdoms was not really a kingdom. It was the QUEENDOM of Foxes. The queen was none other than the wielder of the Vermillion Sword, Queen Scarletfire. She was a born warrior and was kind to her people. She never really trusted other kingdoms and their ways, even though they fought for the same purpose. The wolf kingdom was mostly the same way. The king was the wielder of the Axe of Titor, King Siberius. He was the leader of a great pack and took care of them all. The wolf kingdom and the fox queendom hardly knew each other existed, until one day…
The king of hawks, King Skyfighter, turned rouge over the years, so he decided to attack.
Hundreds, thousands, millions of hawks came from the sky and attacked the foxes and wolves. They barely had time to suit up for war. CHARGE!!!! The wolves and foxes were fighting separately at first, until Scarlerfire saved Siberius from a diving hawk. Then, in return, Siberius saved Scarletfire from a hawk, too. Soon, the kingdoms were working side by side. Seeing they were losing, the hawks retreated hastily. Meanwhile, King Flamescale oversaw the entire battle from the battle from his palace. He was worried about the kingdom and queendom might attack his kingdom. So he thought of a plan to get rid of their leaders. He called the king and queen to his palace and said, “Wait out in the field you fought the hawks so we can pay tribute to the dead.” It sounded pretty suspicious, since the King rarely did so, but they obeyed.
As the sun went down, Scarletfire and Siberius waited. Then, dragons of every size, shape, and color imaginable came roaring from the skies. The king and queen realized the Dragon King had the whole thing rigged. So, under the cover of darkness, Scarletfire and Siberius jumped onto the dragon army’s highest general, and steered him toward the palace. The general was none other than Toothless the Night Fury, confused and lost, and decided to join the army. The entire army followed Toothless, unaware what in the world was going on. Scarletfire and Siberius stormed into the king’s throne room.
“(You’re still alive?! Darn army has failed me again.)Well, looks like you caught me red pawed.” The king said, smiling slyly.
“You tricked us, you sniveling worm.” Siberius snarled. “Are you going to kill me? Ha! It would disgrace the legacy of the dragons if their greatest king was slain by two mutts.”
“There are three things wrong with that. One, yes, we are. Two, you are the WORST KING EVER. And three, WE ARE NOT IN ANY WAY MUTTS!!!!” Scarletfire roared, stabbing the king in the wing.
“CURSE YOU, YOU DAFT DOGS!!!!” the king yelled, slashing at Scarletfire, missing, and hitting Siberius in the face. Siberius growled and cut at the king’s legs. The king, crippled, began breathing fire EVERYWHERE. Scarletfire then leapt and blinded the king with her sword. The king, beyond enraged by this point, screamed and tried to swipe and scorch Siberius and Scarletfire. Together, they jumped and slashed at the king’s unprotected chest.
The king shrieked, and was no more.
From that night forward, the dragons, wolves and foxes built a new civilization and lived in peace. The hawks remained rouge and kept themselves hidden in the shadows, plotting their revenge. Rumor has it that there is a lost heir to the dragon throne, but that’s for another time.
(P.S, Toothless met Hiccup again and promised to come back to the Realm again and bring his friends. But that is for another time)
This historic legend and novel is by: Blondie the Dragon Tamer
I’m so proud of my eldest! She’s even working on a new story about a girl forced by her awful aunt to face a wizard. “Can I post my story on your website when I’m done?” she asks.
Me on the outside: “Of course, Kiddo!”
Me on the inside:
This Mother’s Day, I hope you find many moments to dance on the inside as well as the out. Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!
Welcome back, fellow creatives! I hope spring brings you days of renewal and hope. I’m in a daze with all the conference work for university, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel! With the right music and support, I can pace myself to reach that light.
We all learned when we were wee that music carries a special storytelling power. Maybe there was that one movie soundtrack you listened to over and over again to relive your favorite scenes. Maybe there was a favorite musical where the songs of characters help tell the story, or an opera where the emotions of instruments and characters alike blended into one voice. I was very much a soundtrack child, but my father’s love of New Age music had its influences on me, too, and one album in particular got a play on our stereos: David Arkenstone‘s Quest of the Dream Warrior.
Now you may be wondering why I titled this blog post Two Steps from Hell and here I’m sharing New Age from the 90s. Hold yer hightops, I’m getting there.
In a highly, highly visually-charged culture like the U.S. of A., engaging in music that told a story–no stage, no movie, no book, just music–felt very unique to me as kid. Music like this feels more…more open to the possibility of telling multiple stories. Yes, Arkenstone had one story in mind when he composed the music, but because the visuals of the story were left to the audience, I felt like I could take those sounds and make a story of my own. (I did, too. It involved a band of bandits helping a kid thwart an evil sorcerer. At one point he became a giant eagle for coolness. Wonder where that story is…Anyway.)
This is where Thomas Bergersen comes in. Another kid from a small town, though his is in Norway. Just another soul who loved music. But while I enjoyed taking my lessons and then moving to words, Bergersen taught himself composition and orchestration. In the mid-2000s He partnered with Nick Phoenix, a composer based in the States, and together they created Two Steps from Hell. Their music has appeared in loads of movie trailers like Batman v. Superman, but I’d rather focus on their albums here, for what is this month of May but a time to celebrate the fantasy storytelling we love?
Yes, my friends, Wyrd and Wonder is back! Let us see how story-music of others may inspire your own storytelling.
Perhaps your characters are on a journey through a land of light and mystery. Perhaps danger runs as freely as the river alongside their road. Can’t you feel it in the strings, in the herald of the brass singing in the air?
Oh, don’t let the synth take you out of this moment. One of my favorite elements of Two Steps from Hell is their ability to bring voice and synth together with the orchestra. There is a timelessness here, a genre-bending that allows the music to reach those in the future, the past, or an Elsewhere altogether.
Like the sea. Perhaps your characters are not upon the land at all, but upon the water, their ship leaping with the crest of every tumultuous wave as they close in upon the enemy before it can attack the innocents ashore.
Fear is cast overboard as your characters take to the cannons, take to the ropes, take to the enemy’s hull and climb, swords divine with sunlight as they battle the enemy from hull to stern.
Two Steps from Hell have several albums available, and I wish dearly I could review them all here. While all albums are epic, each also carries its own identity. Dragon brings such an air to it through the strings without synth, for instance, while Skyworld embraces that synth to add the presence of technology to the setting. Dragon‘s trilling strings show us the dragon wings beating in large, sweeping motions. It cuts the clouds as the warring windjammers upon the water. When the violins run their scales downwards, you know the dragon is diving…to aid? To conquer? It is up to you, storytellers.
For that is the joy of music such as this. It is up to us to create the story, to share what we see when the story is told. Whether the story takes us on a journey of swashbuckling under the sun or through the shadowed realm of our own grief, music guides us into the unknown on wings of hope.
These are the days where we celebrate Impossiblity’s rightful place in our imaginations. All is never truly lost if we take heart. Even the courage of one soul can be enough to vanquish the darkness and rise a legend.
I’m really excited to share my pilot podcast episode next week! We’ll study the story-starts of some fantasy books throughout May–for of course we must–and hopefully by the end of May we’ll know if this hair-brained scheme of mine is, um, you know, going to work, and what have you.
I’ve got a publisher interview coming up as well as some ponderings about names and the importance of oral storytelling in the home. Blondie is also finishing up the illustrations for her story to share here about The Four Realms, which makes my heart smile.
A good morrow to you, my fellow creatives! The cold clouds of April blanket my Wisconsin skies these days. The world is a palette of tans and browns, the wee specks of new green, new life, just barely peeking.
There is, however, always new life to be found in our words. I’m excited to share an indie author who has planted a number of stories across multiple publications. My friends, please welcome Rob D. Scott!
Let’s work through the niceties first. Tell us a bit about yourself, please!
I live in Edinburgh and work in a community college. I only started creative writing three years ago, which is crazy. I should have started years ago. That’s life.
It was winter and a period of really awful weather. I started writing a novel for something to do and out of curiosity. I enjoyed it, so kept going. I read books about writing, did a short on-line course, and started submitting short stories to on-line magazines and competitions while I worked on my first novel (which is now hiding in a cupboard). I’ve started a second one, which will hopefully turn out much better.
I find a lot of writing inspiration in the rural landscape of my state, Wisconsin. How would you say the urban setting of Edinburgh—or the countryside of Scotland—inspire your storytelling?
Edinburgh is a beautiful, amazing city and so many writers have used it. I haven’t that much yet. The countryside is more likely to find their way into my stories.
I usually start a new piece of writing using a memory (recent or distant) of a place or moment; that might be in the city or countryside. I write it almost as a factual description and the story develops from there. Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ talks about fossils that writers dig up and that’s what I feel I do. Once I find the right fossil, it soon turns into fiction; (to mix my metaphors) it’s like a paper ship floating down a stream. I just go with it and see where it goes. I might have an idea where it’ll end up, but not always.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
When I was twenty-one, I went for a job interview in a town at the other end of the country just so I could visit the Thomas Hardy museum there. That’s not very ethical – especially as they paid for my travel and a hotel! I was first in the museum in my horrible new interview suit and I lingered there too long and was late for the interview. I didn’t get the job, but the museum was great and the countryside from the train ride was amazing. I had forgotten all about that. I should write that up as a story!
Someday, I’ll visit the USA and go to lots of writers’ houses and museums. Carson McCullers is a big favourite, so I would maybe head down there first.
As you should! 🙂 Nothing saps my creativity like a telephone call from my children’s school principal. What is your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
I really have no excuses not to produce thousands of words every day. I work but I have free time; especially in lockdown. I am amazed how people with busy lives and family responsibilities (like yourself) manage to write.
Although I don’t think I could live without it now, writing is not the top of my priorities. Work, other people, a day in the countryside, a trip to the cinema, etc make me put down my pen. Life comes first, writing second.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I just absolutely love this Ray Bradbury quote:
“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
As an amateur/beginner writer, this makes a lot of sense, and is great advice – I guess for successful authors as well. We’re all different – so just do your thing. Give it your best shot. Try to find something that’s meaningful to you in some way to keep yourself going through the trickier times.
Your encouragement here reminds me of the theme of hope I see in your flash fiction “Goodbye, Frenetikov.” The beautiful level of detail in the beginning uniquely balances with the uncertainty felt in the end. Do you find yourself drawn to themes uplifting to readers, or do you take readers into the darker feeling as well?
Thank you for your comments. I wrote a few very sad stories during lockdown. I think I’m out of that, now. In fact, I’ve just started writing a longer piece, and before I started, I decided that it should be something with a very positive theme. If I am going to spend the next few months on it, given what’s happening in the world right now, I feel that’s where I would like to spend my writing time.
In writing short fiction, you have to hook readers to care about characters, ground them in your story’s setting, and leave them pondering about your story’s end all within a few hundred to a thousand words. (“You Die If You Worry” comes to mind.) Can you walk us through the process of crafting your fiction’s pacing and language to accomplish so much so quickly?
I am very much learning the craft and that there are many different ways to produce a successful short story. The word-length requirements (e.g. 300, 500, 750, 1000, 1500, 2000) can influence the plan. I usually write the story to its best, natural length and worry about where to submit to later.
If I pick up a collection of published short stories, what strikes me is the quality of each line, the language. So that is the number one goal for me; the quality of each sentence, the appeal and magic of the jumble of words. For the structure, I really only think in terms of a beginning, middle and ending. You get in the car, start it up, go for a drive and stop somewhere. Apart from that, there is so much variety in short fiction – anything goes. For example, you might have no dialogue or almost all dialogue in a story.
With very short fiction it can be frustrating not being able to fully flesh out character, setting etc, in the way a novel allows you to, but equally that provides much of the fun and challenge of the form – perhaps like poetry – to find evocative/resonant ways to hint at what’s missing, the spaces in between.
You are published in a wide variety of literary magazines and anthologies. Do you have any favorites you’d like to recommend?
The ones that accepted me are the best, of course!
HA! Sorry, go on. 🙂
There really is something for every taste out there. Much of my experience of the writing for the literary world has been for on-line magazines. The creativity and quality right across the board is very impressive.
I have to say Popshotmagazine is just a beautiful object, as well as the great writing. It’s a lovely paper magazine with poetry, fiction and illustrations. I was lucky to get in there once. They commissioned an illustrator to produce something to accompany my short story, which was just amazing – that someone would do that.
Thank you for the recommendation! I’ll have to check them out. What would you consider to be common traps for aspiring writers? I imagine there are a few when it comes to short fic submissions.
I had to learn a lot about the technical side of things – voice, point of view, plot and so on. I think it’s good to remember there is a lot to learn (I notice in your other interviews, writers say this, too).
In terms of submitting to litmags, not understanding at first why you get so many rejections can prove very disheartening. And it would be a great shame if beginner writers gave up because of that.
You learn that you have to know your audience and the market to give yourself a chance, so submitting to the right sort of magazines is important. That means reading the stories in the magazines to guess if yours might work for them, which is both enjoyable and a great way to learn from other writers’ work.
I must mention editors here because they really are the superheroes, along with their ‘readers’. They often do the job for love not money and are the people who choose your story. So be nice to them! And when you submit, follow all of their guidelines very carefully about format, word length and so on.
If you’re lucky they will help and even give a little advice. For some reason, I’ve found sci-fi editors to be especially supportive – or perhaps they’re just super-skilled at letting people down gently! I’ve been trying to ‘find a home’ for a couple of sci-fi stories since I started writing, with no luck. When I started, I kept a folder of ‘nice rejections’ to cheer myself up when the piles of rejections got too much.
I think one useful tip is that if there is a ‘themed call’ for an issue, you might have a better chance with that if you have a story to fit the theme.
As an indie author who is also having a go at lit mag submissions, I’d love to ask about your process in searching magazines and sending multiple pieces. Do you find yourself writing your stories first and then finding magazines that fit the story, or do you scope out the magazine themes first and then craft stories to fit them? I noticed you recently published in a “lockdown” themed anthology, for example.
Good luck with your submissions.
I usually write my story then look for a place to submit. The word length is a big decider on where to submit to, along with the house-style of the magazine.
Calls for submissions for a themed issue – with prompts such as ‘Road trip’, ‘First love’ or ‘Winter’ – can be a great way to get going on a story that you can end up submitting to more than one place or developing into something longer. The theme of the ‘Lockdown’ anthology I was published in fitted with something I was writing at the time and I spotted their call.
The submission pages are crucial. They describe the type of story they are looking for and often say ‘read some of our stories to get a feel of what we’re looking for’. That’s a must, but it’s also great to read the stories. You mentioned, Jean, that you’re inspired by the countryside – there are litmags that have a specific focus on that.
After three years of submitting, I have a much better idea of who might consider or accept a particular type of story.
Having said all of that, it is an amazing, random-feeling process, of being in the right place, at the right time, with a story that appeals to a particular editor, in terms of what they are looking for right then. Getting published anywhere – no matter how big or small – is an enormous thrill, but of course you set targets and have favourites you aim to get into.
Receiving acceptances are tremendously encouraging and validating. There really is nothing else like it. There’s more than a little ego and pride involved there, of course. But, it’s also reward for hard work and effort. And for not giving up.
Let’s wrap up with a little inspiration. Writing and reading can, to me, be a transformative experience. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
Yes, in a way. It is certainly a deeply personal process, and also both reflective and instinctive. I often find it quite meditative, even therapeutic. It can be fulfilling and quite emotional at times – as you go through your imagined characters’ experiences. Although it’s a solitary activity you are very engaged with memories and thoughts of other people and the world.
Maybe it sounds corny, but I think words and the way they can be strung together really are magical. It expresses who we are.
Making the connection with a reader is very special too – even if you never meet them beyond a ‘like’ on Twitter or Facebook, or a purchased magazine. The thought that people read your work and find something interesting, rewarding, enjoyable makes the whole process more of a communal, shared activity. It must be great to have people buy your book because they know your work and love your characters. That’s something to aim for in future, for me.
A beautiful encouragement we all should aspire to, Rob. Thank you so much for sharing your time and thoughts here!
I’m super stoked to share an interview from a new SFF publisher as well some amazing music to inspire the epic adventurer within you. There’s also a side project of mine in the works that is so close to “publication”…
Every semester I encourage my newest group of students to read for fun to improve their writing skills, but then here I am, not getting much reading in. Oh, I’d just tell myself the excuse that if I commit to a book, I want to get something out of it as a reader and a writer, and how am I to know what book will give me that? I’ll just watch what my favorite book bloggers recommend and just go from there.
But that doesn’t force me to commit to reading, and that’s just not cool. Sure, time has always been that elusive treasure in this life as a mother, teacher, and writer. That’s not an excuse, though. Besides, there are plenty of other writers with jobs who don’t have much time to read and–
And so, I decided to start a podcast.
Please watch for updates in May while I get this wee podcast off the ground. x
I’d like to continue on this path today, as this pandemic has kept many in their homes. Some homes are in the midst of a bustling city, others out in the middle of nowhere. I’m not in one, but not quite the other, either. My town has neighborhoods (including one on the other side of the tracks), two gas stations, two bars, a library, and a post office. (We shan’t discuss the curious carnival or rock shop today…or the RV campground someone thought would be great to build between a cornfield and old industrial area. Yup, that’s scenic, all right.)
My town, you could say, is small. Built around a river mill and railroad, like so many other rural towns in this country. Just one of thousands, right? The kind teens are so determined to escape to “find themselves” elsewhere.
Well in all my travels through all the small towns as a kid, two towns always struck me as a little weird. Oh, they looked fine from the car: post offices, gas stations, bars, maybe a little general store, or a mechanic operating out of a shoddy barn. Bait and/or feed supplies. Houses of old siding and older brick with uneven sidewalks and prim gardens. The park playgrounds have lost their happy colors, the benches more often used for sharing crude notes than motherly conversations. I didn’t understand those notes as a kid, thinking them a sort of secret code. I bet such notes could be a secret code in a future story, couldn’t they? We’re so quick to dismiss such scrawlings as adults. We complain that the benches should be replaced, or at least painted. Then we remember that small towns often can’t afford such frivolities, and we let it all pass out of mind, just as we let the small towns we drive by pass from our minds.
Except, for me, the Ashippuns.
Let me explain.
First, there would be Old Ashippun.
Then, barely a few miles later, there would be…Ashippun.
Why on earth are there two Ashippuns, and why are they so close to one another? Was there some vicious family feud? Did someone lose land in a legendary poker game? I bet if you look at your state, province, county, parish, etc., you may just find your own version of the Ashippuns, too. Perhaps their origin stories tell the tales of escaped convicts, smuggled ales, or buried treasure. Or, perhaps their origins are blandly pleasant, full of nothing but nice people nicely settling down to build a nice town just a little ways up from the other nice town.
Are the Wisconsin Ashippuns rooted in seedy beginnings? Sadly, Wikipedia says we can blame the railroad for not coming close enough to the original settlement, founded a few years before Wisconsin achieved statehood. Still…the whole town didn’t move, just a portion. And the portion left behind was left to the past, to decay into posterity among the grassy hills and broken county roads. It reminds me of the small farming town where I grew up, a tiny gathering of homes around a railroad station hardly used, held at the mercy of a river that can irrigate plenty of cattle and corn farms one season or simply flood over all of them the next. No one stops at such a place, not when all the highways bypass it. Who would care about strange goings-on in a nothing sort of town with nothing sort of people?
I wondered about that as a kid. I wondered about that a lot as an adult. I wondered so hard I had to make up my own versions of the Ashippuns and put them in a story.
Old Sanctuary had never bothered with paved roads, let alone road signs. Who needed them in this dirt hole of a so-called town?
It would take a certain kind of soul to visit such the old, forgotten town, let alone live there. That certain kind of soul wouldn’t visit on a whim, either. There’d have to be a purpose, a special purpose, to come to a “so-called town” like this one. I was reminded of the Autumn Carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, its Autumn People eager to harvest desperate souls from small towns along its travels. Stephen King had a similar approach with the nefarious demon LeLand Gaunt selling people the one thing they desired most in Needful Things. Then another book came to mind: Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker.
And I knew what I needed to write.
See, The Boneshaker is a fascinating story. You’ve a young girl named Natalie coming into her own but still fiercely protective of her sick mother as they make ends meet in a small town. Many have their own little problems in a small town, problems that surely can be solved by the miracle cures advertised by the stranger Jake Limberleg and his traveling medicine show. But those cures come at a price. They always do.
We still see people paying that price in the real world, don’t we? Just replace “tonic” with “essential oil.” “Mixture” for “shake.” “Sure thing” for “time freedom.”
You’ve probably seen the ads on your social media, or gotten the messages from a person you went to school with ages ago. Social media has blessed those in every small town with the ability to reach out and connect with anyone anywhere, so they gather up the school year books and find the names online, and ding! The messages pour in. They say they want to catch up…and then invite you to a “business opportunity.”
All too often, people drink the dream. All too often, people drink nothing but poison.
Herbalife. Younique. Avon. LuLaRoe. Amway. Beachbody. Mary Kay. Scentsy. Shaklee. It Works. La Vel. Monat. DoTerra. Young Living. Optavia. Norwex. Color Street. There are dozens more, rising and collapsing every few years. They promise you the world by “social selling.” You can “change the world” by working in “pockets of your time” on your phone selling cosmetics. Insurance. Vitamins. Kids’ books. Weight Loss. Shampoo. Cleaning products. They have oils that can cure Autism and cancer. They have silver cloths that can be used to clean a toilet and your face in one go. They have wax melts to calm animals and plastic wraps to eliminate your fat.
They have everything the evil doctors and big corporations don’t want you to have. Capitalist society is such a crime. You can escape it and come to the real people who care about you and want you to succeed in the true way. You can be a part of the multi-level marketing family…for a start-up fee. For a monthly renewal fee. And be sure to get your inventory updated. Be sure to try the products for yourself. Be sure to sell the life to your family, your friends, your neighbors. And if your loved ones don’t support you? They’re toxic. Cut them out of your life. You don’t need them, you have your new family…
Nicole points to her Suzy Ray! bag with her drink straw and smiles extra-wide. “Suzy Ray! Living is, well, it’s not just body care. It’s really a way of life.” Nicole leans back and closes her eyes as usual, emphasizing her one-ness with the sunlight. “Suzy Ray! can heal your hair or skin, your gut, your muscles, your spine. Their specialized formulas that no other doctor’s been able to match bring vital nutrients to your marrow. They even,” Nicole opens her eyes slowly and looks upon the water pump and those sitting by it, “can bring function back to muscles that haven’t worked before.”
There are many YouTube creators warning people of these multi-level marketing (MLM) scams, and plenty of news outlets continue to show just how many people who cannot afford to lose money are giving hundreds and even thousands to these companies in the hopes of “financial freedom.” The creator Munecat’s deep dive into the company Arbonne is an excellent one, I think, as it shows how this company not only scams people, but grips them tight with cult tactics. Click here if you’d like to see it. I’m still working out how I can talk to my own family members and friends involved with the companies like Norwex and Optavia. They’re spending hundreds to have the right nutrition powders and latest cleaning cloths on the off-chance someone on their Facebook pages will buy them. There are women in my church who swear by Shaklee vitamins to the point they won’t take their own kids to the doctor because “those are just pills. These vitamins are made from plants, from God’s earth.” Heck, I have a friend who keeps changing MLMs, always changing her “business” to whatever sounds good at the time and insisting that “this time” it will work. Right now? Board games. Yes, there’s an MLM for frickin’ board games.
I suppose “The Hungry Mother” is born out of that frustrated confusion, that desire to show my loved ones they are not in any sort of family with those companies. To an MLM, they are nothing but dollar signs.
Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of tall shrubs is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes to snag the rest, and that yes is due any minute.
I hope you’ll check the story out, and please, PLEASE do what you can to encourage loved ones to leave these MLMs. Such “business opportunities” promise nothing but loss: loss of money, loss of friends, loss of family, and loss of one’s own integrity.
Admittedly, I get weary of the small town life at times. The kids, too. It’s just the same library, the same playground, the same streets day after day. I’m very blessed the three little Bs enjoy taking off into their own imaginations, using whatever space ship, robot, or dragon will carry them into any Elsewhere they can think up.
Thank goodness they enjoy drawing! I wish I could say the same. When Aionios Books asked me to make a map for my first book Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, I cringed the whoooole time. It makes sense in MY head, I wanted to say. Who needs a map?
But after studying Tolkien’s The Art of The Lord of the Rings at our small town library, I better understand why such maps can be so important.
HOW DID J.R.R. Tolkien create The Lord of the Rings? The simple answer is that he wrote it….The more complicated answer is that in addition to writing the story, he drew it. The many maps and sketches he made while drafting The Lord of the Rings informed his storytelling, allowing him to test narrative ideas and illustrate scenes he needed to capture in words. For Tolkien, the art of writing and the art of drawing were inextricably intertwined.
This is such a vital point, one that I need to remember as I dive into series writing with multiple lands and locations. Though these places only reveal themselves to me as I write them, I must still map their locations and details so they are not simply forgotten like the small towns of the real world. Readers need the guide, and frankly, so do writers. We can’t afford to switch locations around or forget where the mountains are. Even if the mystery of borders is a part of the story, the writer needs to know them. And if you’re a writer like me who doesn’t really know them until the story’s done, then you better map them as you go so that when the time comes to revise, you can walk the same road without losing a step.
I suppose the biggest obstacle I face with drawing is, well, my pride. I am NOT an artist. I am fine with that. But to be required to look at my own drawings, even for reference, just makes me squirm as one may squirm with having to dissect a dead frog. Blech. And Tolkien makes it look so bloody easy!
But The Art of the Lord of the Rings is an important reminder that Tolkien wasn’t aiming for perfection every time. Just look at that drawing of Helm’s Deep. He did that on a student’s examination paper! He didn’t care. It came to mind, and he drew it. How much detail and how “good” it was didn’t matter. He just had to get it down so he wouldn’t forget it when he did have the chance to write.
The world [Tolkien] built extended into his art. His art breathed life into the corners of that world he would never find the time to write about. At the same time, those drawings, maps, and doodles also helped readers immerse themselves in his never-before-seen invented realm, “a world,” Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis once noted, “that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it.”
THAT is the lesson to be learned here. What one draws and how one draws it shouldn’t prevent a writer from exploring a story-world, especially when one is building anew. Besides, technology allows writers new options if they don’t wish to draw their own. My fellow indie fantasy authors Wesley Allen and Michael Dellert both have extensive maps for their stories, but they didn’t publish their own sketches. Wes loves using special map-making software, and I confess–it looks pretty sweet! Michael commissioned a designer online to craft a polished map, and it’s a perfect reference to include with any of his stories.
So, it’s time I “Suck it up, Buttercup” and get mapping. After all, Charlotte’s not the only one who must explore the unknown. Two brothers must win a race through worlds to beat the crying sky, and Meredydd and her comrades must find where the Cat Man hides before he poisons the gods of their land.
Time for these teens to leave their small towns behind and discover what they are truly capable of.
More interviews on the way, of course! I’ve also got to do a school presentation on names, and considering the importance of naming characters, I thought I’d share some points of discussion with you, too, you lucky devils. 🙂 I’ve also been reveling in some fantastic adventure music which is bound to get your own characters racing to victory, so don’t stray far! We’re too close to Hell to back down now…
Hello hello, fellow creatives! I hope you are well and safe where you are. As a friend of mine said on Facebook, Wisconsin seems to be stuck in a snow globe that some cosmic child keeps shaking.
Winter may be magical, but I think we’re all up for a different kind of magic, wouldn’t you say? Let’s add some fantastic wonder to our writing and reading lives with the help of the ever-magical dark fantasy author Ronel Janse van Vuuren.
Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts, Ronel, as well as your stories. I see you’ve got a stunning free ebook available for those who sign up for your newsletter.You describe Unseenas a trio of stories that dive into folklore about the mistress of the veil. I love how deep you dig into folklore and mythology to craft unique stories for modern readers. What kinds of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Thank you. I get an idea for a story. Then I flip through one of my folklore books (whichever one catches my eye that day) and I’ll read through the entries until something clicks. Then I’ll go and research whatever I found on sacredtexts.com where all the books about folklore and mythology that have lapsed copyright live online. To keep everything organised and backed up, I’ll create a blog post about it (even if it’s something that has to be scheduled for two years from now) and look at how the thing was used recently in books, movies or games. It takes about two days to do all the research for a blog post and to write it. So, for example, for “Once and Future Queen” there’s the background of the Rift, Faerie, Seelie and Unseelie Courts, Solitary Fae and magic (all which already have their place in previous books and are all fully researched with blog posts written). But the Season Courts and the Elementals were only vague ideas when I planned this book. So four days for the folklore.
But I also used acid attacks, pottery, police procedure, and gardening in the book. I didn’t have to do much research on gardening – only the meaning of flowers – or any research on police procedure (know enough from personal experience). Which left acid attacks and pottery. Both subjects can pull you down the Pinterest rabbit hole. For the acid attacks, though, I just stick to following @stopacidattacks on Instagram because there are so many resources – and heart-breaking photos.
So for “Once and Future Queen”, I took a week to research everything I needed to know before writing. Plotting is a whole other beast!
Noooo kidding. I was just working on a synopsis for a new trilogy, and worldbuilding the hazy bits is EXHAUSTING.Do you consider plotting to be the toughest part of your artistic process, or would it be something else?
To stop dreaming and to start doing. I create all these stories in my head, talking to characters for hours – and then I remember that I can’t plug a USB cable into my head and download the story to my computer, I actually have to type it. And my head works a lot faster than my fingers (despite typing at a crazy speed that means replacing my keyboard three times a year).
Heavens, that’s a lot of keyboards! I wish I could type that fast, but I get distracted by kids learning from home…or a phone call from the principal when they’re at school. (Sigh) That just does my creativity in. What is your writing Kryptonite?
Shiny new ideas. And stationary! Weird, but these can keep me distracted from what I’m actually working on. I shouldn’t be left alone anywhere that notebooks, pens or anything else deemed “stationary” can be found. I even have a Pinterest board about stationary… https://za.pinterest.com/miladyronel/got-to-love-stationary/
Ha! This is why I can’t hang out in used bookstores or at library sales. I’m always distracted by the possibilities! You mention another big struggle with focus, though, regarding your ADHD, especially after you published your first book. How did publication change your process of writing?
Yes! First, I had to rein in my ADHD. It meant that I had to change the set-up of my writing cave (desk faced away from windows, drapes drawn during the day, internet access hidden until nightfall, phone set to aeroplane mode, etc.) to optimise focus. Then I had to work out an editorial and a writing calendar. It took some time, but I finally have one that is flexible enough to be changed if I have sick days (I hate getting flu because someone two streets away sneezed) or if I get the chance to join an online writing summit (the Women in Publishing Summit the first week of March every year is well-worth attending). I’m usually six months ahead with my work. Before I made this shift, I would jump from project-to-project never finishing anything – I still have folders full of half-finished ideas that I’m turning into amazing stories.
I have quite the list of half-finished ideas, too. Heck, some of them are even on this site, if one wishes to check outWhat Happened when Grandmother Failed to Die. 🙂 Would you say writing energizes you, or does it exhaust you?
Planning, plotting and researching are energising phases, mainly because it’s all new and shiny – and I can do it in any order which suits my ADHD quite nicely. Writing, on the other hand, is exhausting. Not only does it require me to slip into the mind and skin of the character, feeling what the character is feeling, experiencing what the character is experiencing, and going through time at hyperspeed, it also takes a lot out of me mentally, emotionally and physically to be in that mental space for hours at a time (and it’s painful on my carpal tunnel, leaving me with swollen hands at the end of the writing day). For example: after writing one complete story line in one sitting in “Once and Future Queen”, I was in tears à la Joan Wilder in the opening scene of “Romancing the Stone”. Yeah. Hopefully readers will have the same reaction.
I think we all hope our books pull at something deep within our readers, just as other books have done to us. What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel and why?
“Ushig” by Annemarie Allan is my favourite novel that seems to be invisible on Goodreads. I bought it a decade ago on an online store (as a paperback – I love paperbacks!) and it was so dark and thrilling I just had to read it again to figure out whether I liked or hated it. It introduced me to the Celtic water horse, the ushig, and made me want to learn more about the different types of water horses across cultures.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Unfortunately, yes. For a long time, almost a year, I struggled to read. I pretended that it was because of bad grammar or something silly story-wise that pulled me from the book, but it was as if I just couldn’t read. Then I found this amazing series about faeries by another South African author and it was like coming up for air. Maybe the books are better in my head than they actually are, but after reading three (there are nine primary works and three companion books) I felt like I loved reading again. So I space reading the books out in case reading becomes dull again (it took me two years doing it like that to read the entire series).
Thank you for the recommendation! Such books really motivate us to find the settings that inspire their authors. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I’ve done virtual pilgrimages to New Orleans (vampires, am I right?), several locations in France (the Bastille, anyone?), and Bath (Jane Austen knew her stuff). My first literary pilgrimage happened by chance when I was a tween: I read this amazing book I had borrowed from the school library (can’t remember the title, though it had something about running in it) and it mentioned a local stadium. A few weeks later, my primary school had a sporting event there and I could see the characters from the book competing in their final sprint. It was absolutely amazing. One day I’d like to do those virtual tours in person so I can experience the physical and imaginary spaces meet as I did that day when I was twelve.
YES–I’d love to visit the lands that inspire my favorite stories. Folks, if there is a place you would love to visit on a literary pilgrimage, please share it in the comments below! Now, back to writing. You write a good deal of fantasy, both in series form and as standalone stories. Series writing is often the “hot” thing to do from a marketing perspective, but let’s face it–a lot of stories can be told in one book! Can you describe your process for choosing whether a story requires one book or more?
With my current on-going series, the decision was made to do several short books as it isn’t conforming to any publishing norms: the first book (for free on most online retailers) has a couple of flash fiction pieces (defined as a story shorter than a thousand words) followed by the folklore from original (very old!) sources. It serves as an introduction to the series. The second book, exclusive to newsletter subscribers, contains three connected short stories followed by a bit of folklore. Books three and four are flash fiction collections, books five, six and seven are short story collections, books eight, nine and ten are novellas, and the last five will be even longer as they connect storylines from all the books before them.
Readers will either love or hate this way of telling the story. But with so many storylines and characters that tell the bigger story, it was the best way for me to tell it and for readers to consume it (in bite-size pieces). I’ll probably release a box-set when all the books are done (hopefully by the end of this year!).
But for other stories, I stick with one escalating problem per book. In “Magic at Midnight”, Amy saving her pegasi no matter the cost was the core problem, everything else just sort of happened and anything that would have dragged the story beyond one book was cut. There might be more books set in that universe at a future date, but then the series will be connected through a shared universe, not because Amy’s story was dragged out.
Personally, I like to look at TV series to see when they’re dragging a thing out too long. For example: “The Vampire Diaries” ends perfectly at the end of season four when Damon and Elena end up together. The point of the series was to get her to choose her true love between the Salvatore boys, and when she chose the Salvatore I liked, it should have ended. Torturing Damon in season five, Elena being removed from the series in season six, mama Salvatore coming to town in season seven, and the Sirens in season eight were all filler until Damon and Elena end up together anyway. The point? Know what your story is about and cut anything that doesn’t belong.
Excellent advice! There are many traps for writers aspiring and established alike, and we all fall into them at some point. What are the worst you’ve seen?
Most traps are set in “everyone knows” or strongly believing something because it is “what everyone says.” As you move deeper into the writing world and especially the dark side, as Mark Dawson calls indie publishing (he’s a big-name indie author, FYI), you learn that you have to forge your own path and do things your own way. But here are the biggies that is especially prevalent among South African aspiring writers and I believe everywhere else:
Believing that being published through a big publishing house is the only right way to be published.
Believing that having an online presence as an author shouldn’t be done until a publisher tells you to do so.
Being so desperate to have that publishing deal, that they’ll sign their rights away without thinking twice.
These are definitely major assumptions we’ve got to work on changing. Considering your experience in writing and publishing, what would you say is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
Two I would warn about, though, as they aren’t talked about enough.
Reviewers asking for money. It happens. It’s even acceptable in some places. Even on BookSirens (the best place to find reviewers in one spot) has good reviewers asking for a fee. But here’s the thing: Amazon doesn’t like paid reviews. And if a reviewer contacts you because “they love the blurb and the cover is so gorgeous” you shouldn’t feel flattered: just delete the email. This was a costly lesson. Not only didn’t the reviewer deliver on her end (despite shining testimonials and seeing all the proof that it is money well spent), she got my surname wrong. Building your own review team organically is the best way to get honest, proper reviews for your books.
Sponsors of competitions offering more services for your book. Look, at first I didn’t think twice about it. I knew nothing about indie publishing and thought the amount the “self-publishing with support” company was asking to convert my book into an ebook was reasonable (the prize of printed books I’d won was worth more than twice that). The promises of promotion and all the other things that sound good (getting your book into a brick-and-mortar store) didn’t happen. And despite telling them what the price for the ebook should be, I found it for five times the price on the (only) store they’d published it to. With Amazon, you can easily convert your own ebooks (with Kindle Create) and your paperbacks (either with Kindle Create or with their templates) for free, you can hire freelancers on Upwork to do it for you, and you can format your ebooks easily on Draft2Digital for free. It doesn’t have to cost as much as the printing of a couple dozen books – for an epub “that you can load to Amazon” (tip: Amazon prefers mobi or Kindle Create (kpf) files).
Thanks you SO much for taking time to chat with me, Ronel! Let’s wrap up with a little marketing advice that helps fellow indie authors avoid those unethical practices and helps them connect their stories to readers. What have you found to work with marketing your own books?
Being authentic. Readers want to connect with the person behind the words. It’s not always easy. I mean, going through the process of your furbaby dying is excruciating enough without sharing it on Instagram, but sharing those real moments in your life help readers to feel like they really know you. The same with sharing a new haircut. Some things are off-limits, like the parts of my life connected to others who don’t want to be on the internet, but I share enough without over-sharing. It works a lot better than doing cover reveals, blog tours and all the other “must-do” marketing things put together. (Though I still love doing cover reveals and blog tours.)
Happy December, one and all! I think we would all love to enjoy some stories with our morning dish of treats, wouldn’t you say?
Luckily I have just the thing.
As I was researching the murky world of network marketing (aka, multi-level marketing) for my short story “The Hungry Mother,” I came across an indie author who spreads awareness of networking marketing’s scams while also writing YA novels and books dedicated to rescue dogs and funding rescue shelters. My friends, please welcome Savy Leiser!
Let’s jump first into how hard you help promote other writers and voices. I was deeply moved by your June video on OwnVoices and Diversity in fiction. You emphasize the vital role sensitivity readers play in bringing a story to bookshelves—and how publishing companies need to pay more attention to them. Have you noticed any shifts in the publishing world to be more inclusive, or no?
Thank you! I’m glad you liked that video. From my perspective, I’d say yes, there has been a shift to be more inclusive. However, I’m always cynical regarding big corporations. A lot of the pushes for diversity by larger publishing houses seem to be performative. I recently posted a video called “Books I’m Reading for Bisexual Visibility Day,” and after reading A LOT OF BOOKS, I noticed a consistent pattern: the books that were self-published or published by small presses had way better representation. I think a lot of times, big publishers study and adapt to market trends (which is reasonable from a business perspective) but a lot of the push for inclusion comes from indie authors writing what they want to write and putting it out there, not taking no for an answer. I’ve talked about this in other videos too; sometimes I worry that publishing houses are scared to publish m/f romances with bisexual characters because it’s easier to box something into the market as a “LGBTQ+ romance” or a “straight romance” — but indie authors are doing a great job with that already.
It definitely seems to make a big difference when indie authors have that extra creative control. I remember you saying something about a neat new way readers can get a hold of awesome indie reads. What was it, again?
Yes! Another YouTuber, Amara Franklin, just launched an indie books subscription box! It’s called the Indie Bookworm. Here’s the website: https://theindiebookworm.com/
Ah, that was it–thank you! Let’s peruse your own books for a bit. You first published The Making of a Small Town Beauty King back in 2016. This coming-of-age novel brings to life many family struggles in a small-town setting many of us can relate to. What inspired the seed of this story to take root in you, and how did publishing Beauty King change your process of writing?
My original inspiration for this novel was the town where I went to high school. Most people know I’m from Chicago (and still live here!) but when I was younger, my family moved to rural Pennsylvania for a few years, and I went to high school in a Philadelphia suburb with a town fair. Our fair had a beauty pageant, where a few of my friends won awards over the years. I always considered entering but I was never good at adapting to traditional beauty standards. As a teenager, I had that constant conflict of what empowerment for women meant; did it mean a lack of pressure to adhere to beauty standards, or freedom to adhere to those if you choose? (This is a theme I explore in Sculpt Yourself as well.) When I was in college, I decided to explore these feelings in a screenplay for a class, and after I graduated I decided to turn it into a novella.
As one who helped care for her grandmother during her last years suffering dementia, the premise of your novel One Final Vinyl really struck a cord with me. Does this story have roots in your own life? What inspired the road trip your protagonists (a teen and a ninety-year-old woman) take?
Yes! This book has two main inspirations: my own grandmother and another 86-year-old woman I met and never saw again. My grandmother, Kasia (my parents recently adopted a new dog that they named after her! And I’m planning out a big tattoo of her name to get on my arm soon) was one of my primary guardians during my early years. When my mom was working 4 shifts, I spent most of my time at my grandma’s house, so she and I were really close. She started showing signs of dementia when I was in high school and she passed away when I was 19, which took a huge toll on me. A couple years later, an 86-year-old woman appeared at my front door in the middle of the night. She had driven away from her retirement home and gotten lost, and she also seemed to show signs of dementia. While we waited for her daughter to come get her, she and I spent the evening having Christmas cookies and tea while she told me about her childhood in the Great Depression. I’ve never seen her since then, and I’m not sure if she’s still alive, but that kind of interaction, where two people randomly cross paths like that, hit me really hard emotionally, especially since she reminded me of my grandma whom I’d lost recently. Sometimes I’d ponder, what would happen if I’d spent more time with her? What would’ve happened if someone randomly met another person like this and ended up on a road trip? Eventually, the pieces for the story came together for me.
You work damn hard taking readers into places they may not have been ready to go on their own, but through your characters they can tackle issues like self-worth and body image. Sculpt Yourself is a powerful example of this. As a writer, how do you balance telling a good story while also sharing an important message with readers?
I like to think of writing as my way to normalize a more equal world. We all have specialties and our own strengths we can use to make the world better. I’m not going to change laws; I’m not a politician or a lawyer. But I AM a writer, so I can use my storytelling abilities to get someone to think about an issue through a new perspective or to portray a world where those ideologies would be possible. To strike that balance, I focus on the characters and their relationships to one another first. In Sculpt Yourself, the focus is much more on Amber’s relationship with her sister and with her new girlfriend than it is with the sci-fi elements of Lipamorph’s development. I tried to create well rounded characters with a variety of viewpoints that could discuss these topics in an authentic context; that way, it feels like a story, not like I’m hitting the reader over the head with a message.
And thank you for that! I’m all for having an important message in a story, but not at the cost of telling the story well.Would you say writing energizes or exhausts you?
HA! Fair enough. I know I’ve gone through those same spells where I can get a rush from a flurry of writing only to want a nap a few hours later. (Not that my kids would ever allow that, but I digress.) Establishing a creative atmosphere has been a HUGE challenge with the twins remote learning this year. What would you say is the most difficult part of your own artistic process?
Being lonely. I’m a hardcore extrovert. I used to do my work in public, at coffee shops, or at random places throughout Chicago. But now there’s a pandemic going on. I also used to sell books primarily at events, like conventions and art fairs. But now there’s a pandemic going on! The pandemic has been REALLY rough on my business and my creative process and I’ve had to adapt a lot.
I could loan you my kids for a week if you’d like to re-create the hum of social noise, lol! Even reading can be a struggle sometimes. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Definitely! I go through periods where I’ll read like 12 books on my Kindle in one day, and then go months without reading anything. My reading habits definitely aren’t consistent.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I read the book Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan for Pride Month in 2018. That book uses POV in one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever seen: a combination of plural first-person POV through a Greek-chorus style setup, combined with an omniscient third-person POV of all the main characters. That book sticks with me because of how much it made me reflect on how authors can use character points of view to their advantage in storytelling.
What is your favorite childhood book?
I loved the American Girl books, and that company was actually a huge inspiration for the model I followed with Furever Home Friends. (Books and toys combined to help kids learn!) I loved the series about Molly from World War II. I have my doll of her displayed on top of my bookshelf.
Oh my gosh! I looooved the American Girl books, and I still have my Kirsten and Addy dolls. I learned so much about life in the 1800s and the struggle to build a new life after traumatic experiences.I’ve dabbled with writing historical fiction with my own novella Night’s Tooth, but I threw enough fantasy into it that the history’s a bit, um, loosey-goosey. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
That depends a lot on the book. For the 4th Furever Home Friends book, Kringle’s Christmas, the research was completed in one afternoon when I interviewed the owner of the shelter where he was living all about his story. For #SavvyBusinessOwner, I talked mostly about my own personal experiences, so I just launched into that book without a whole lot of research. It depends a lot on the project.
What would you say are common traps for aspiring writers?
Darn tootin’. I have to set a timer for myself so I don’t fall down the social media rabbit hole. It’s so tempting when we tell ourselves “but that’s where the small presses are! I could query!” Then here we are, two hours later, still reading reaction tweets about DC comics or something. As an indie author who has launched her own books as well as recently signed on with an indie press, what do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
That’s hard to say. The industry is vast and includes a lot of different types of companies, writers, creators, and readers. I don’t want to publicly trash talk any specific publications right now, but I do have a problem with the barriers put up to keep small businesses from achieving success on the level of the established big 5 publishing corporations. For example, if your book gets published with a big press, you’re more likely to get reviews in established periodicals that schools and libraries receive in the mail and use to make their purchasing decisions. Some reviewers will only accept books sent to them by publishing companies rather than individual authors.
I suppose that’s partly why you do a LOT as an indie writer when it comes to maintaining and building your platform. Could you share at least one method of marketing that, after three books and your awesome new #SavvyBusinessOwner: A Book for Small Business Owners!, you’ve found to be effective?
Thank you! Honestly, my YouTube channel has been the most effective form of marketing for me. With the internet being such a prevalent force in people’s lives (especially during the pandemic!) people are more likely to become fans of content they can receive for free. I think of all the webcomics I read for free online, and then went on to buy that creator’s book when they released one, or the YouTubers who created entertaining videos, who I eventually bought merch from or joined their Patreon. My YouTube channel is at almost 10,000 subscribers, which happens because I gave people video content for free. As a result, 10,000 people now know who I am and are AWARE that I have books out, even if they’re not interested in them. The hardest part of marketing is making people aware you exist. I talk about this process a lot in the “Screaming into the Void” chapter of #SavvyBusinessOwner.
Now I may be going out on a limb here, but if I were to guess your writing mascot, it would be your dog. One of the reasons I wanted to interview you was I LOVED the drive behind your book series Furever Home Friends. Please share what this wonderful series is about—and how there are matching comfy dogs and accessories that would make perfect presents for the dog-lovers in our lives!
Thank you! Furever Home Friends is my biggest, longest-running project, and I’m really proud to see this business growing.
For some background, Furever Home Friends is a series of picture books, stuffed animals, toys, and accessories based on real rescue dogs. Each book tells the story of a dog’s journey to adoption and includes a photo of the real-life dog in the back.
For each of our main book characters, we have a plushie friend of that dog that you can “adopt” on our website (that’s just a cute way of saying you’re buying the plushie, LOL) and accessorize with little dog-sized accessories that I created on a 3D printer. We donate 10% of our profits to animal shelters.
Thank you so much for sharing your incredible stories, Savy! I can’t wait to see what your imagination creates next. For those excited to check out Savy’s work, visit her YouTube Channel for a hub of her social media links as well as her Furever Home Friends series.
I’m determined to visit with you all before December ends because by golly, Christmas is my favorite holiday and I MISS YOU ALL. I want to talk about music and holiday storytelling, AND I’ve almost won Bo over to the idea of baking a Christmas Pudding. We shall see!
In these weeks where light bleeds to night bleeds to light–
–I lose my creative fire to static.
Not the static of radios or televisions. I speak of life’s static, day in, day out. After celebrating the release of my novel Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, I knew I had to brace for the impact of a full-time grading load, something I’d not known since before Blondie was born. The music of writing gave way to podcasts and commentaries upon YouTube as I worked, a low hum of wordy noise I would hear without really listening.
After a few weeks inside a classroom, Biff and Bash’s school closed back down and returned to virtual. While not nearly as chaotic as the spring, the boys are bored by the diet of worksheets and videos. Even the extra aid for Bash is now going to be yet another face on yet another screen for yet another period of the day. It is difficult seeing my sons and thousands of other children lumped into this remote learning landscape where so little learning is done at all. (For some excellent insight into the matter, please check out this article from ProPublica.)
But as I must remind myself: this is something over which I have no control.
So we build our little forts of sanity, we three, as Bo goes to work and Blondie attends her school in-person in the next county just a few miles away (which, wouldn’t you know, has not had to shut any school district down thanks to careful quarantining and safety measures.) Biff gathers up the sofa cushions and blankets and hides away with his BBF (Best Bear Friend) to work or read. Bash burrows into his bedroom with his rabbit and robots to tell stories and craft a world of folded paper. I remain in my room with my computer to teach, to grade, eternally typing. The sounds of teachers, educational videos, commentaries, Transformers episodes, Mario games–all of it culminates into this white noise that propels one forward on the outside while restraining one on the inside.
Until some thing–some curious, unexpected thing–cuts through the static with kinetic dissonance.
What was this? Something vicious is lurking, its jaws snapping…I was preparing to teach, had no time to listen…yet I listened.
Paws drummed the ground. Wildness was coming, coming out of the frontier to scratch, to eviscerate–
But they couldn’t, not when class had to begin.
After class, I opened YouTube to see what music had slipped into the cracks of all those commentaries. It was a soundtrack–for of course it was–to a film I had only seen once.
Another surprise: the score had been saved to my computer long ago. No need to search for the individual tracks. It was time to travel beyond the static down a road unknown.
The solo violin guides me, too awestruck not to follow. Piano trickles as a river nearby. I feel like a Lost Girl yearning to remember her Neverland, hands open at my sides, fingers outstretched on which a tire fairy may perch.
Then the dissonant flutes remind me danger is afoot, and someone has blocked the piano’s river. A single note tap tap taps, and I must return to teaching, to parenting.
But not with the static. That, I leave in tatters upon the ground.
Re-discovering The Village‘s score by James Newton Howard has been a magical addition to this topsy-turvy autumn. Hillary Hahn’s craft as a violinist is nothing short of stellar (she even discusses recording for the score here!), and I look forward to finding more of her work to add to my recordings of Mari Samuelsen. Hahn’s violin is the perfect protagonist in this sound-story, the musical shadow of Bryce Dallas Howard’s character in the film, and Howard’s score captures the spirit of this isolated little world surrounded by forbidden wilderness.
No matter what howls from the winds, the strings dance at forest’s edge. They dare one another to move a step too far.
It is up to us, the storytellers, to decide who steps first.
We all lose our Neverlands every now and then. We just need the right voice to guide us, be it a story, a friend, a star, or a song. As your friendship keeps my creative sparks alight, may this story’s song ignite your own imaginations with adventure and hope.
I’m really excited to share an indie author who writes some amazing children’s literature for a furry important cause. 🙂 We will also need to dive into a few holiday-ish things before 2020 ends, because it’s me so of course we must. xxxxx
And to all who have read and helped promote my novel–THANK YOU! These words feel too small for the feelings that match them, but they are all I can write now that the kids are fighting. Sigh.