Good morning, you wonderful folks, you! (Or afternoon. It’s coffee time, no matter where you are. xxxxx)
Sorry for the quick informal post, but I just got my approval for pre-order and can’t wait until next week to share it with you.
I picked the official launch day for Thursday, August 29th. We’ll still do our weird Wisconsin tour and study of Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death, never fear. 🙂 In the meantime, please spread the word to kith and kin my latest tale’s just 99 cents and will be available in two weeks!
Oh, and before my kids’ latest skirmish over Lego spills into my work space, let me say that if you’d like to contribute some early reviews for this story, please let me know, for that would be awesome. 🙂
In short, Tchaikovsky is an amazing creative soul that we should all get to know a bit better. 🙂 How would you describe what you do, Sir?
So basically I mostly write books about spiders. Also dogs, AI, shapechangers, insect-people and anything else that lets me get out of a human skull. There’s not much more to me than that, in all honesty.
Considering the depth and breadth of your work, your imagination must have been nurtured with rich inspiration from little on. Are there any folks or favorite authors from your childhood that helped spark your passion for storytelling?
Absolutely – my great storytelling guru from teenage onwards was Diane Wynne Jones.
Oh yes, she vastly expanded my frame of reference as to what you can do with a story, how you can play with reader expectations, that sort of thing. The Homeward Bounders and Power of Three, especially. Jones pulls a number of switches on the reader in Power of Three, with regard to precisely what the setting is, who are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, all that, which really opened my eyes. Before that, as well as cutting my teeth on Dr Who novelisations, I loved Tove Jansson, because she built such a wonderful world with her stories.
My home state of Wisconsin is a curious patchwork of farms and wild places. I love exploring this landscape in my mind, creating stories to give shapes to the shadows hiding just out of sight. Would you say the landscape around you inspires your writing, or has been utilized in some way to help build a story’s setting? That swamp you describe at the beginning of Guns of the Dawnfeels like this horrible place I knew near my summer camp…
So… actually no. I don’t tend to relate much to places I’ve been, per se. No more than places I’ve read about or seen pictures of. It all just feeds into the general melting pot in my head that I draw new creations from. I’ve never been in a swamp like that, but I seem to be able to imagine these places and put them on a page well enough to make them real to my readers.
All the more impressive, then, Sir, that you can stimulate the reader’s imagine to build such a real place known only in your own mind!
Now, let’s stick with Guns of the Dawn just a touch longer because it has an amaaaazing opener:
I killed my first man today…
The air was hot,muggy with moisture, filled with flies. Emily had not known hot before she came to these swamps. Hot had once been pleasant summer days with the corn ripening gold in the fields. Hot had been the good sun and the rich earth, and the labourers scaring crows or bringing a harvest in; a picnic on the Wolds, with a blue, blue sky cloudless above. Hot was a fierce fire burning in the study when the world outside was chill. There must be another word for this all-encompassing heat.
I’ve already told my husband I’m treating myself to this book after I complete my pedagogical training this summer.
So after a first line that provides the point of view, time, and controversial action, you launch us into a paragraph filled with extremely vivid sensory details further enriched by memories of the past. Thanks to these memories, readers get the impression of a narrator who cares more about the quiet life in the farm land–a stark contrast to one who’s said she’s killed a man. You strike a delicate balance of grounding readers in the present moment of the story while also flashing back into the narrator’s past and how the world once was. Can you describe your process of finding this balance?
This is going to sound very zen, which frankly I am not in any way, but there is a big subconscious element to that level of my writing. I was never formally taught about writing technique, I just read a whole hell of a lot, and then I wrote a whole hell of a lot, and my writing got better with each book I tried. Although there is a definite conscious input, and as I’ve got better I’ve become more aware of things I can do deliberately to create an effect, a great deal of it just comes out of the way the words spill onto the page in their raw form.
Well paint me green with storytellin’ envy, Sir, because your opening lines are as consistently effective as those created by Diana Wynne Jones. A wee survey of your stories uncovers hooks both big and small.
There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility—rotation meant that ‘outside’ was always ‘down’, underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away. Earth had been green, in her day, though her colours had faded since. Perhaps never as green as this beautifully crafted world though, where even the oceans glittered emerald with the phytoplankton maintaining the oxygen balance within its atmosphere. How delicate and many-sided was the task of building a living monument that would remain stable for geological ages to come.
From this paragraph we learn the story’s location, the time frame, and the narrator’s love of this created home. We are also left asking: “What happened to earth?” And we are driven to read on.
It went wrong for me when they made Sethr an outcast.
From this sentence we learn the story’s point of view, that there is some powerful “they” capable of ruining someone’s life, and because one person’s ruined, so is our narrator. We are also left asking: “Who is this mighty ‘they’? Why should Sethr’s fate mess up life for the narrator?” And we are driven to read on.
Writing compelling openers is surely one of the most important challenges any writer faces. Do you have any advice for writers who struggle crafting their hook?
I am going to raise a hand and say that good lord I’ve had books where the opener has been a problem, and it is super important. Often it’s a matter of where in the story you start – easy to start things too soon and have too much lead-in. And there’s a huge pressure to start with everything on fire, meaning that certain types of storytelling are virtually extinct in the genre right about now. Sometimes I’d like to feel people would just amble with me a bit at the start…
I love the idea of ambling…and with over thirty titles to your name, there’s lots of ambling to do! Some of your titles are stand-alones, like The Expert System’s Brother; some are in trilogies, such as Echoes of the Fall; and then you have your TEN-book series Shadows of the Apt. I tip my hat to you for building worlds unique and complete time, and time, and time again, just like Jones. What thrills you about building a new world? How do you avoid the temptation of re-using elements? No writer wants readers to get déjà vu and think they’re just reading the same story over again.
Building worlds *is* the thing that thrills me, and I have a whole host of ideas yet to come. So far repeating worlds hasn’t been the issue (outside of sequels obviously). I’m more worried about repeating themes, because obviously there are certain things you come back to, each writer to their own, and there’s a real danger that you end up telling the same snippets of story over and over if you don’t remember to give them a different spin.
Another common problem for many writers–as well as movie-makers, I’d say–is crafting an action sequence that moves quickly and fiercely without confusing readers as to what’s going on. I know this was one of the toughest elements to hammer out in my own novel, which contains battles involving several key players duking it out all over the place. Your novels contain intense action on both an epic scale as well as an intimate one. How do you keep the language quick-footed without losing readers along the way?
Action sequences are very much an art of their own. Having a good grasp of the shape of the sequence is important I think – I plan a great deal anyway, and action sequences get thought through in the same way. A chase or a fight has a mini-narrative of its own, including opportunities to bring out character, to foreshadow, and to have their own emotional beats. A particularly big action scene can almost be a book in miniature.
Another resource that’s always helped me write action scenes as well as stay focused on the feeling of any given moment is music. For every author that tells me he/she loves having music to help set the mood for writing a scene, I hear from another author that he/she needs silence in order to write. Which camp do you call home and why?
I tend to listen to music when I write and have a series of playlists for different moods, to help me focus and blot out distraction. I generally listen to instrumental music from film soundtracks, computer games, and music written specifically for trailers (a good source of consistently hammery action music), Some composers you might not know who have some interesting stuff include Kyle Gabler, Lorne Balfe, and Bear McCreary.
(Gasps) GODZILLA?! Hell to the yes! Sign me up for some new composers to study later this year!
One reason I depend so heavily on music is because it helped me write when my children were small and at home all day. Now that my kids are old enough to attend school, I can usually find an hour of peace to write. Still, it’s extremely tough some days to balance parenthood and writer…hood. Authorhood. You get me.Do you have any tips for balancing writing and parenting?
Honestly my son’s 11 now so he’s more self-sufficient. I write in the mornings and very late evenings, though, which is a convenient way of working around family commitments.
Lastly, let’s talk about the ever dreaded Kryptonite. Writing Kryptonite, to be precise. There’s always something that can sap all creative power away in a heartbeat. For me, it’s a phone call from my sons’ school principal. It takes a good long while of watching my sons lose themselves in their own adventures with droids, transformers, and wild animals before my own creativity sparks back to life. What would you call your Writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
Arguments with my son will do it, but as a sort of contributor to a general cycle of depressive ups and downs that are quite capable of just doing their own thing with me, without any actual outside stimulus. Writing is a big drive for me, though. If I’m not writing, it has a serious negative effect on my mental state all its own. So although a downswing can make it hard to get going, once I’m actually writing I can generally retreat into it from my problems.
My deepest thanks again to Adrian Tchaikovsky for taking the time to talk to us today! You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and his website, too.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
We’re going to meander through some gorgeous western scores in anticipation of my upcoming Night’s Tooth.
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
We’ll also do some adventuring about Wisconsin and do a wee worldbuilding study of a recent western fantasy,Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death.More author interviews are on the way, too. I hope you’ll join me!
I wish I could tell you just when it started, this love for the western. It should have been decades ago, when my brothers and I watched our old recorded VHS on the making of Star Wars yet again while Mom just wanted to sit and watch John Wayne in a classic like Stagecoach or The Searchers. But I had no patience for the kind of western where women clutch their aprons while Native Americans gallop by with villainous intentions and only John Wayne with his swaggering cadence can talk a coward into being a brave man just long enough to shoot the savage and save this little refuge of civilization.
Oh no. Iiiii had to sit and watch a rogue with a laser gun help out wizened old man and a snot-nosed kid who thinks he’s smart in the saddle hold out from attacks by corrupt powers….heeey…sounds, um…
Sounds kinda like a western. (More on that later.)
But aren’t westerns just glorified propaganda for western civilization uprooting native cultures? Don’t all their shoot-outs result in a lot of powder in the air, women swooning, and men clutching their chests going, “Aaaurgh!”?
What is it about this period spanning thirty years (or sixty, depending on whom you ask) that draws us back again and again?
I can’t speak for others, but dammit, I’ll speak for me.
A Hero uncivilized and unrestrained.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the antihero, and how this individual for good or ill lives by his own code to meet his own ends. In the western this character certainly exists, but there are plenty of heroes, too, who are out to right a wrong and carry out some justice…only, their means ain’t exactly pretty (see High Plains Drifter for the ugliest justice there is). Plus, these folks are by no means super-heroes or ramped up by crazy technology (unless, of course, you’re in Wild Wild West).
The hero–or antihero–of the western is often one of minimal means caught up in a conflict where the other side has more bullets, more men, more high ground. Jack Shaefer, a writer of westerns, elaborates on this point:
The western story, in its most usual forms, represents the American version of the ever appealing oldest of man’s legends about himself, that of the sun-god hero, the all-conquering valiant who strides through dangers undaunted, righting wrongs, defeating villains, rescuing the fair and the weak and the helpless — and the western story does this in terms of the common man, in simple symbols close to natural experience . . . depicting ordinary everyday men, not armored knights or plumed fancy-sword gentlemen, the products of aristocratic systems, but ordinary men who might be you and me or our next-door neighbors gone a-pioneering, doing with shovel or axe or gun in hand their feats of courage and hardihood.
This is why I love Clint Eastwood in so many of his westerns. He’s shot, beaten, left to die in the desert, and God knows what else. We see him lose as much blood as he draws. He, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Jeff Bridges, and loads others show their struggle for a better self in a world that rewards the greedy and vicious. The price to be paid when doing the right thing can be pretty damn high, and the heroes are willing to sacrifice it all, including their own goodness, to pay it.
Which brings me to my next point. (And to one of the happiness quotes I was challenged by the lovely Lady Shey to hunt down and share.)
Action! Bang bang, punch kick kapow, boom blam CRASH!
In case you didn’t know from other posts, I’m something of an action junkie. (The fact that 1987’s Predator is another one of my all-time favorite movies should tell you a lot about me.) Westerns promise action. There may be tons of gun fights, or only a few. There may be a total blood bath such as in Django Unchained, or a drawn….out….showdown…years…in…the making….
That’s part of the western’s beauty. The climax can be a chess game of men, where pawns are removed one by one until all that remains are the kings of the board…and, perhaps, a rook. We have to watch their necks sweat, fingers twitch, eyes narrow, and wait, wait, wait for the moment where Hell will break loose–
Or, bullets fly and characters die in epic battle fashion, such as in The Magnificent Seven; we’re not sure who will survive the climactic battle, and because we know these heroes experience the broken bone and spirit of mortality, we cannot be certain any of them will make it at all.
(Unless, of course, you’re the townspeople of Blazing Saddles’ Rock Ridge, who all wind up breaking onto the set of another film and then the studio’s commissary for a huge food fight.)
Speaking of settings…
A landscape beautiful, terrifying, and untameable.
Western civilization may have crossed into the territories, but it is by no means in control of the land.
Communities are rarely large, and their ties with “proper” society–towns and cities east of the Mississippi–are tenuous at best. The first transcontinental railroad wasn’t completed until 1869, the first transcontinental telegraph only a few years before that. If someone travels west, they travel a lonely road, or a railroad often unguarded. They enter territories that never belonged to them, and yet are determined to keep them.
I figured this riverside town would be the perfect place to set my western fantasy novella Night’s Tooth. Wisconsin earned its statehood in the 1840s, sure, but it’s not like all of it was paved with pristine society by the end of the Civil War, right?
Well…the first settlers established the community of La Crosse in the 1840s a few years before that statehood, so yeah, Wisconsin still had a bit of wildness to it as far as governance goes, but by the end of the Civil War the log cabins had been replaced by a full-on city with one of the country’s first swing bridges for the Southern Minnesota Railroad.
No longer did rail cars have to be ferried across the great river to journey west. The White Man had brought his roads and buildings and built them all square and orderly to the Mississippi River Valley. Man had conquered Nature.
As far as Wisconsin was concerned, the Wild of its West was lost.
I can’t write a story where the West ISN’T Wild!!!
The idea of La Crosse being so damned orderly and efficient at growing really galled me. It galled me so much I figured my main character, a bounty hunter named Sumac, would be galled too, and call it a damn shame.
Then it hit me.
Use the city’s history in the story. Show how this final bastion of “civilization” before the territories had its own moments of dark dealings. Perhaps, if I am very careful, sew some patches of magic goings-on onto time’s quilt of history, and in their threads tell a new tale of hunters who hide among us…
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
Intrigued? I sure hope so! 🙂 I’ll be posting an excerpt from the story in this month’s Exclusive Free Fiction from the Wilds. Once I’m done mucking through the formatting business, I’ll publish Night’s Tooth as an e-book and set its price for 99 cents. If all goes well with children and teaching, Night’s Tooth will be available near the end of this month.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite westerns in the comments below! You may also enjoy watching Cinefix’s very interesting breakdown of favorite westerns from across the decades, including the changes of tone and theme created by different directors in countries. (If you’re wondering when Star Wars was supposed to come up again in this post, watch the video.)
~Stay Tuned Next Week~
I’m super-stoked about next week’s interview! He’s a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as a fellow fan of Diana Wynne Jones. After that we’ll study a new and unique Wild West set in an alternate America, then take a tour through some amazing composers for westerns before finally (fingers crossed and turning thrice widdershins) launching Night’s Tooth into the publishing wild!
Happy Thursday, everyone! Summer school is winding down for the kids, which means August will be a month of Blondie, Biff, Bash, and I driving each other crazy–I mean, being creative together. 🙂 No matter what, though, I hope to keep writing here, finishing up my latest release (more on that at the end of this post!), and connecting with more of you beautiful souls! x
It’s been such an honor to connect with so many different authors from across the world. Today I am pleased to introduce you to Australian poet Frank Prem. Take it away, Frank!
Hi Jean, thanks
for the opportunity to chat today.
I’m a writer of free verse poetry, for the most part, resident in a small town in Victoria (Australia). I’ve been writing and developing my approach to poetry for over forty years, now, and have recently become the Indie published author of two collections. The first – Small Town Kid – came out in December 2018, while the next – Devil in the Wind – was released in May 2019.
When I’m not
actively pursuing writing and other authorly pursuits I work as a psychiatric
nurse, here in the town, in a small long-term rehabilitation unit.
The town I live in – Beechworth – is a pretty little place of around 3,000 residents. We have a gold mining history dating back to the 1860s, and the township itself is very well preserved, with a lot of stone buildings hewn from the local honey granite (a warm, pinkish colour in the rock).
We have become a tourist town, with thousands of visitors passing through each year, and most of them making a beeline for the well known Beechworth Bakery (https://www.beechworthbakery.com.au/).
It’s mostly a
quiet life, but very pleasant, all in all.
You may have noticed how much I love to share the music that inspires my writing. Do you also enjoy music to write, or do you require silence? If the former, would you like to recommend any favorites?
Yes, music is such a gift to us, Jean, and it has influenced my writing immesurable. In case you’re wondering, my personal taste always leads to me to find a wonderful voice – regardless of genre. The voice I have gravitated to most is that of Emmy Lou Harris, who is mostly known as a Country singer, but actually able to sing anything.
I generally write
in silence, but the music in language is quite critical to my work. My usual
approach is to create a melody of some sort in my head and to sing my work
(silently) line by line to try to imbue it with a sense of song. My often
repeated mantra is that ‘rhyme should be invisible, while free verse should be
Beautifully said, Sir.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block with another poet or prose writer? How did you overcome it?
Yes I have, Jean.
I’m a very poor reader of the work of other poets. I worry very much that I
will get other work in my head and inadvertently plagiarise or otherwise stray
from my own track.
With prose, I tend
to return over and over to a few favourite writers as my mainstay, with a
greater willingness to branch out and experiment with reading speculative
fiction. In recent times, particularly space opera fiction. Bang-bang
shoot-em-ups in the stars are a wonderful freedom for me, that is far enough
from any realities down here on earth to be completely enjoyable.
I think with my general reading I am looking for inspiration in my own work. Recently I read the entire translated work of a French Philosopher named Gaston Bachelard, who died back in the 1960s.
He explored the phenomenology of poetry and poetics and used imagery in such a way that my imagination was fired and I could hardly read more than a couple of lines without having to put the book down and write a poem that his thoughts had triggered in mine. I ended up with around 800 new poems out of that experience.
That’s a hard act
to follow, but I think I’m constantly looking for a similar experience when I
800 poems just from the course of studying one philosopher. That…wow. That, Sir, is an impressive exploration of language. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I think I’ve
always known it, Jean. As long as I can remember I have played with words, in
my head and in my speech. Twisting and contorting words and finding their
nuance and inflection and emphasis has always held pleasure for me.
An example comes
from my secondary schooling when I didn’t want to complete a pretty boring
essay that required a certain number of pages of work to be presented. Instead
of completing the task in the usual way I, for some reason, submitted a poem.
Correct number of pages, but very few words. I received a high mark (because
poetry hadn’t been seen in my school since the previous century, I suspect),
and have been writing poetry ever since.
Since you say you live with a fellow creative who’s a puppeteer, I just have to ask: do you write anything for the puppets to perform? This is a totally selfish question, I know, but when I was younger I used to write puppet plays and then perform them for the kindergartners at my elementary school. Loved every second of it.
That’s a lovely
story of your own, Jean. Thanks for sharing it.
Leanne my wife has
been performing puppet shows in pre-schools and kindergarten centres for many
years, on and off. We have spoken often of a show that would be aimed at older
students or adults, using my voice to read the poetry of the show, while Leanne
performed with the puppets.
That may be
creeping closer as an option with my transition into the authoring field.
collaborated in other ways in the past however.
Leanne designed my first attempted foray into book production some years ago, and from time to time has put poems I’ve written into music.
If you (or
readers) care to listen and read, this link will take you to the poem ‘Time
Comes’, on my poetry blog. I recently resurrected the piece to commemorate my 3
year anniversary as a blogger.
You are very, very concise with your word choices in your poetry, so much so that when you have a line longer than four words I sit up and take notice. (an observation made with “#Somme (8): two pennies up (for the ambulance)”). When would you say you discovered this concise style within yourself, and how do you nurture it today?
An excellent question
that touches on an aspect of writing that I think about a lot.
My discovery has
been gradual. When I look at early work, I have used long lines, almost
paragraph, in style. I think I started to seriously challenge myself with this
when I started reading poetry at the various open mic venues in Melbourne that
were available to me for a few years when I was starting out. I found that long
lines and blocks of text were difficult to read under the lights and in front
of a microphone.
I began experimenting
then with writing to mimic speech – nuance and inflection, pause and
enjambment. SO much so that it is now my writing style and unique to me, as far
as I know.
More, though. I believe this approach of using line breaks to emphasize small pauses and inflections, and stanza breaks for breathing are a way to assist young folk to read more fluently. I won’t take up space here to expound my thesis but I have written on the subject over at my author page. I’ll be interested in your thoughts.
Oooo, thank you kindly! I look forward to reading it.
Now,You’ve re-issued one collection of poems—Small Town Kid. It’s a journey through your childhood, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle. Do you find this period of life to be a common ground between poets and readers, and if so, why do you think we never tire of walking such grounds?
The first attempt to publish Small Town Kid was a wonderful adventure in book design and creativity between Leanne and myself. Unfortunately, it was back in the dark ages of printing, and to achieve cost efficiency it was necessary to purchase hundreds of copies of the book. I wasn’t ready to market myself or my books in that way, so the attempt was put to sleep until Print On Demand presented itself as an option.
I have been quite amazed by the strength of positive reaction to Small Town Kid. It certainly seems to resonate with readers.
I wonder if the
reason for this connection is not akin to my reasons for writing the collection
in the first place.
When I had small
children of my own, I would routinely talk about what I and my friends had done
when we were young – the freedom to roam, unsupervised is the chief
characteristic of those times, in my mind. My kids, however, didn’t believe my
stories. They seemed to be simply too far-fetched to be true.
I realised that a
whole era of childhood (the 1960s and 70s) had disappeared by the mid-1990s. We
had begun to supervise our children. To deliver them to friends and to school,
and to collect them afterwards. Television and hand-held devices had begun to
stories down seemed to make them more legitimate, in some way.
What I find with readers is that if I read, for example, the long poem ‘Crackers’ about bonfire night preparation and execution, I will have a line of people, mainly men, who have a bonfire lit in their eyes as they want to share with me their own experience and memories.
I think it is the
imagery combined with the voice-song of telling or reading that allows the
reader to enter their own best memories of childhood, and I believe it is the
recollection of childhood freedom that makes these stories so attractive.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Not to be in a
hurry for fame and success. I’ve always been a person who wanted things to
happen immediately. If I was pursuing my career, I should get the next
promotion. If was writing a poem, surely it was a most worthy creation and
should be published immediately.
Learning to let go
of that kind of pressure, placed on myself by myself, has been a great lesson
I’ve found that
the gift of time has allowed me to mature and become a better person, a better
worker, a better poet.
I completely understand. Not only do I see it whenever I look at an old draft–heck, the first draft of my novel was written in 2010–but I can feel the change in my own perspective thanks to the growing creative expressions of my children.They tire me out, my little B’s, but I wouldn’t want them any other way. Writing helps my soul breathe and my passion to stay alight; does writing energize or exhaust you, and why?
For me, writing is
like breathing, so there is no real question of growing tired from it. I can
take a day or two off from writing, but I don’t really like to. I enjoy this
part of myself very much.
What is tiring is attempting
to master the ancillary roles – being an Author. Mastering the myriad details
of properly publishing paperback and e-book formats. Marketing (oh lord, how
tiring marketing can be!)
All part of the
deal, though, so no point in wailing.
energizing, though, and what I know has a direct and beneficial effect on the
quality if my writing, is reader feedback.
A comment or
conversation with a reader is stimulating. A positive review is absolutely
exhilarating, and I want, immediately, to sit down and write the next thing.
Bigger, better, more astounding . . .
You get the drift, I’m sure. I love my readers and reviewers and the effect they have on me as a writer.
You and me both, Sir. You and me both.
My deepest thanks to Frank for taking the time to talk to me! Here are his vitals so you can find more information on Frank Prem and his work.
Happy Thursday, everyone! I’m please to introduce you to J.D. Stanley. He’s an award-winning fantasy writer of novel and script as well as a Bardic Druid of the OBOD. It’s an honor to share his thoughts with you today on this, the writing life.
First, let’s talk a little about your background. I see you’ve done some work on radio and studio engineering. That’s so neat! It reminds me of Celine Kiernan, who spent years as an animator for Don Bluth before beginning her own writing career. How would you say your time with language-aloud influences your language-written?
It really was a neat experience. What a blast for a day job! Studio engineering and writing were the reasons I went into radio broadcasting in 1986. For a creative, nerdy introvert, all the behind-the-scenes stuff was super appealing. Audio engineering is a singular, unique avenue of creation – all you have are the sounds to build a world. I still love it. Without solid writing, though, no matter how good the production, it won’t sound realistic. Writing for that still makes me hyper-critical of my dialogue and narration today.
When I studied Radio in college, there was
a great deal of focus on learning to write words meant to be spoken – so
commercial copy, radio plays and show scripts. And the flip-side, how to speak
that writing, too. The point was, to craft something that didn’t sound scripted
even when it was. I was lucky enough to get picked up by a program director who
heard some of my freelance work and jobbed-out halfway through. Getting thrown into
the deep end like that really hammered it home. Knowing listeners would hear my
writing live shortly after I put the words down or a sponsor would pay more
than tens of thousands of dollars as soon as I produced or voiced a spot was…
terrifying. Nothing like having your feet to the fire to hone skills. Those lessons
will never leave me and my continued voiceover work as well as coaching written
and spoken communication keeps it fresh in my head.
I would say, all that time with language-aloud
makes me remember to read my writing outloud to check with my ears for
believability. The human ear is extremely sensitive to the naturalness of
speech, the nuance of humans speaking, and it strikes you when it’s fake. In my
opinion, it’s the best gauge a writer can use to check not only the flow, but
human believability of what’s written. I think it can help us make better
connections with our readers. If we can reach them as another human, be
accepted as a companion on a journey with them, we can connect. And when we can
connect, then what we write can mean something to them. But if we sound like
their Lit teacher? Dude, that’s just not gonna happen.
I once attempted a bit of screenplay writing some time ago, and…okay, not going to lie. I stunk at it. What challenges do you feel are unique to screenwriting as opposed to novel writing? What advantages? Do you have a preference between the two?
I really don’t have a burning desire to write screenplays daily and do prefer novel writing. I actually prefer fixing other people’s work, being a script doctor, over writing them if I’m being totally honest. I enjoy helping other people’s words work better. A script doctor gets no credit and most people don’t even know that’s a job.
There’s a specific pattern to the storytelling
in screenplays aspiring screenwriters need to learn. If you want to be a rebel
and not do it that way, that’s cool. But understand, that may be the reason
you’re not selling anything. It may be an interesting concept, for instance, so
someone takes a peak. And then they’re judged on a single page where there’s
supposed to be a predictable beat and it’s missing, so their work gets
round-filed. Or they don’t know the first thing about proper format and think
their story is so extraordinary everyone will look past that and give them gobs
of money anyway. Or they can’t write a logline to save their life, so no one ever
goes past the logline to read the script. Or they’re actually bad writers operating
under the delusion it doesn’t take good writing skills to write a screenplay.
I’d tell anyone thinking that screenwriting
is a cool career choice… First? Understand the chances of selling one are slim
to none. Once you get over that, you can move on. Practice the shit out of your
writing and, especially, educate yourself from film industry professionals. Study
books like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, read their blogs and absorb a
crap-tonne of successfully produced screenplays – there’s a million available
online – so you can see what it takes. And forget all those no-name Internet
screenwriting contests held by genre enthusiasts who aren’t writers and don’t
know what goes into a decent script. Sure, you’ll get something to put in your
credits. But winning a contest not hosted by industry professionals isn’t
validation of your talent as a screenwriter. If you thought it was? That’s
probably why you aren’t selling any scripts after the contest is over. Pick
contests held by actual screenwriters, directors and producers. They know what
they’re looking at. And a lot of them include feedback in reply for free even
if you don’t place. They’ll be harsh, you’ll hate everything they tell you and will
probably make you cry, BUT they’ll tell you exactly what to do to your script
to turn it into a saleable product. Use them as your university.
You’ve quite a rich variety of favorite authors shared on your website. Do you think you can pinpoint which author and story first sparked the passion for storytelling inside you, and why you think it was that story more than any other?
No, I can’t say there was any single author or story that sparked it for me. I could read and write before I started kindergarten, so was a bit ahead in that area and when I started writing my stories down consistently from when I was about nine, I hadn’t read any of those authors yet. My first love was sci-fi and that’s where I started writing, so maybe Gene Roddenberry was probably my earliest influence? I grew up on Star Trek in the ’60s, though didn’t know him as a writer at the time.
When I was about twelve, I’d read
everything I was allowed by that point and got special permission from the
local library to have an adult library card, so I could read more books. Real
books. Normally, you had to be eighteen to have one of those puppies. Then I
read everything in the adult fiction section. And all the poetry books. And
then went through all the reference books. You want to know the depths of my
nerdiness? I do, in fact, still relish the secret thrill of reading
encyclopaedias and the dictionary for fun. Not even kidding. Back then, I read
so fast, I started at one end of the adult section and used to take out thirty
books at a time. Just clear them off the shelf all in a row, any genre, any
author, and bring them home. I read one a day, sometimes two, and read every book
from one end of the library to the other. Hence the massive list of authors.
Sad as it is, I couldn’t even tell you who the rest of those fiction authors were, but I remember the stories. When I was thirteen, I read the John Jakes saga The Kent Family Chronicles and I think I can say around there was when I realised I had an affinity for historical stories. And then after ingesting more books, I fine-tuned that down to historical fantasy for what I most often prefer to write. Reading for pleasure, though? Just about every genre as long as the story is good. I wish there were more gunslinger books. What an under-represented genre.
Out of that ocean of stories, three will resonate with me until I’m dead – Robin Hood, The ThreeMusketeers and Don Quixote. And overarching all of them is The Crystal Caveby Mary Stewart and all Arthurian legend. I’m a total junky. And, of course, Lord of the Rings. Definitely a common theme. I’d like to think that says something about my character, but probably more what I would hope to aspire to and will never achieve. I think I was born in the wrong century. New things, like technology and science, fascinate the hell out of me and I continue to love sci-fi. But old things and old centuries make me feel at home.
If I understand your writing process correctly, I get the impression you’re something of a “pantser”—one who doesn’t plan out a story, but runs with the story as it comes. How on earth do you balance the madcap writing this method requires while also having kids? I got three, and there’s no way in Hades I can focus on my own story when they’re crashing Transformers and Enterprises into the land of Care-A-Lot.
Well, nowadays, my four kids aren’t little, so I’m at a different stage. Though every stage comes with its own unique challenges. I also no longer drive due to my cataract, so have built-in writing time while commuting everywhere which I use to my advantage.
The ability of life to persistently work to steal our focus never ends, though. I just got the kids all self-sufficient and almost out of the house (two down, two to go!), but now have different roadblocks. My dad has declining dementia from a brain injury sustained from a fall, so now? Two of the kids still need me for some things, and alternating between being with my dad at long term care after work until about midnight, and travelling an hour-and-a-half across the city to look after my mom and helping maintain their house. I’m basically writing long-hand wherever I can get it in and it’s weeks before I get to sit down to transcribe it. Or I’m doing everything on my phone and tablet on the go. It’s not the way I prefer to work and it’s slow, but it still lets me get it in there. Because I have to do it or my brain will explode!
When the kids were small, though? Honestly,
if I was a different person and they were different kids, it probably wouldn’t
have worked. I’m a super analytical control freak with troop movement-level organisation
skills, so there’s that. Okay, and a life-long insomniac, so have more awake
hours at my disposal than normal people. My most productive writing time is midnight onward, so it actually worked in my favour when
they were little. I used to go to bed at 7:30
or 8:00pm when they did and woke up at 12:30 or 1:00am to write.
I also got the laundry and cleaning done then to leave me free time to focus on
the kids in the day – every time I got up to make a coffee, I did one task. Once
a month I planned all the meals and snacks on a chart that I made shopping
lists from so I wouldn’t waste time or money. Sundays I cooked five full
dinners and parcelled them up in the fridge with labels on them to save time in
the week. I wrote a lot long-hand sitting on benches waiting for them to finish
swimming lessons or martial arts or whatever else I had them signed up for. Somewhere
in there, I cranked out five full first draft novels. I didn’t go on trips. I
didn’t go out. My entire life was kids and writing or consignment art. And I
was totally okay with that. Someone else? Maybe wouldn’t be.
I have very clear priorities. I’m also very
clear on what I’m willing to sacrifice. My mother wasn’t ever a well person, so
I learned early how to squeeze in things I really wanted to do between looking
after her, raising my two sisters and working part-time to help my dad. I
already had the experience when I found myself in the position of being the only
parent of my own four kids.
Okay, so the “pantster” thing… I can say,
with all honesty, I’ve never “pantsted” anything in my life. Being this
consistently, incredibly busy, most times? There’s no opportunity to write plans
down. But let’s be honest, a lot of the kid stuff wasn’t rocket science and it
left my brain free. So I trained myself to do it in my head. All of it. All the
figuring out, all the plotting. By the time I had a block of time to sit down
in front of a keyboard or with a pen and paper, I could just write my ass off.
All my “outlines” start the same way – with a super-descriptive hinging scene,
usually the story conflict or premise, with an important exposition of the main
character. It’s my brain shorthand for the whole story, a memory trick. Then I
start telling myself the story – the who, what, where, when, why – and it
morphs into the opening lines and I just keep going. The story is already done
in my head and I’m basically transcribing by that point. I do it that way now,
because that’s how it needed to happen then or it wasn’t getting done. And it
not getting done is unacceptable to me. Since I still don’t have a lot of time,
I’m still outlining in my head. At least when I have stolen moments, I can write
like a demon and not have to waste time plotting.
Wisconsin’s landscape has a been a HUGE source of inspiration for my fantasy fiction. Your first novel, Blood Runner, is set in Canada—just like you! Do you find yourself utilizing special places from your life for settings in your stories, or is the landscape itself a muse?
I’d say it’s more the landscape that’s the muse. There’s a few countries I have a huge affinity for, for no particular reason, though more in the historical sense – ancient Ireland, Britain, Rome, Egypt, Sumer, Japan. I’ve studied a lot about them over time, so have a lot of fodder in my head for inspiration. I can’t go to those places, because the ancient versions I want to visit no longer exist. So instead, I use them to write from. Being immersed in one of those places is like taking a visit back in time to me. It’s cool, like owning your own time machine, y’know?
In the grand scheme of things, Canada isn’t that old and doesn’t fit in with the
affinity I have for some of those other ancient places. But the forests here are
old and I do love that. The trees and rocks have been around a very long while.
There’s forest here with trees hundreds of years old and the Canadian
Shield is right underneath us and that’s been there since the last
ice age. How cool is that? I’ve spent a lot of time in the forests, so love to
write about them. Thinking about them is uplifting to me. I’m big on nature overall
and love to write longhand outdoors when that’s possible. I find that very
inspirational, sitting outside under a tree scratching words out.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Well, I’m a research junkie, so I’m doing research all the time, often not even toward a purpose, but because I love it. I have so much useless information in my head. So, the length of time I study is moot. With that much constant input, my subconscious has a tendency to make connections between seemingly unrelated things while I’m busy with life. When one of those connected circumstances bubbles up, that’s when I sometimes do extra research to fill in the holes. I can’t write about anything until I can speak about it with authority and I need to have it all in my head before I start. It’s what we do as writers, isn’t it? Become forty-eight hour experts on anything from rocket science to earth worms. When I know enough, then I write. To get to that point could be a few weeks, but could also be years. Since I don’t work on only one story at once, it’s always in rotation.
I do a lot of book studying, but depending
on what I need, also do practical study. Fight scenes or any hand combat, for
instance, I do, in fact, act out to make sure they’re plausible. I’m lucky, because
my eldest son does stunt work and is a multi-disciplined martial artist,
swordsman, archer and edge weapon aficionado. He helps me physically block out
my fight scenes for authenticity. I’ve done an extreme conditions survival
course where they drop you in the forest in the middle of winter and you need
to build a shelter, fire, find food and the like. I love camping and living off
the land and know how to fish and clean animals and find edible forage. I had
an organic garden when the kids were growing up, but it wasn’t only that – it
was major practical study. I read up on everything about crop rotation, pioneer
techniques for vegetable gardening, organic pest control and composting,
practiced it everyday, became a Master Composter, and tracked the results and
weather patterns complete with sketches in a large binder over all the years I
had it and still have that research data for reference. I also study, make and
use herbal remedies myself, so that’s ongoing, and have a great interest in
living off the grid, so currently practicing those behaviours as I work in that
direction. Over time, anything I needed to know about, I taught myself and
picked up that skill from jewellery-making to calligraphy to hand quilting to
home renovation to ceramics to building a hydro generator in a stream.
When the zombie apocalypse happens and it’s
end of times? You can come with. I plan on building a town. Only people I like
get to live there. 😉
I also find it interesting that you created a fresh take on vampires. How much research did you do on vampires before choosing the path you took for Blood Runner?
I’ve been a big Anne Rice fan for a long time and loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but actual vampire research for that story? Zero. Is that bad? I had actually been stuffing my head full of Ancient history and mythology from Egypt and Babylon for another story. And me being me, kept going backward in time, because for whatever reason, it became important I got to the root mythology and first organisation of city-states and society. That history fascinated the holy crap out of me and still does. When I studied the bits of translated mythology available at the time (there’s more now), I couldn’t stop. For whatever reason, I couldn’t leave it alone.
There’s a myth about a man who cannot eat or drink. And in their mythology, a dead body can be reanimated by the Water of Life – blood. To me, that sounded like some kind of proto-vampire. I stitched elements of a few myths together to create the premise. Gave him a nemesis, a real historical figure in the invading Akkadian king Naram-Sin who was painted in myth as pure evil and cursed by the head of the pantheon. The Great God Enlil’s disdain for humanity was so well-documented as was a whole soap opera of inter-family pantheon conflict, the story told itself. It turned into a tale of mistaken vampire identity.
I still have so much story left that never
made it into Blood Runner, a whole universe. I think once I’m done getting it
out, it’ll lose its association with vampires and people will see what it
really is. Vampires are cool and I love them, but that’s not the story focus,
so I really didn’t need the depth of research in that area I might have
otherwise. It was only a device.
Your latest book, The Seer, is about a Druid named Bronan, and I see you yourself are a Bardic Druid. I would love to hear how your spiritual nature influences your writing; or, would you consider your storytelling to be its own “faith,” as it were? I can’t help but ask because I myself am a Christian, but I rarely include elements related to faith in my fiction. Severed Selves, you could say.
I don’t think I can separate those things, because it’s both – inspiration as well as the storytelling being its own brand of sacredness, since words come from the soul. I’m lucky, from the fantasy writer side of things, because Druids and magic are popular story topics with readers. I know a lot about modern Druids and history and mythology, so can speak with some authority in that space. Besides, people love that stuff. And why not? I’m just like everyone else – the ancient Druids are just as mysterious and fascinating to me, because there’s really so little known about them. And magic is, well, magical!
I write foremost to amuse myself and being
immersed in those magical worlds is escapism. Right up there with dreaming of
flying and imagining we’re superheroes when we’re kids, right? I mean, it’s a
sad fact that the more life imposes arbitrary boundaries and traps us in expectations
and responsibilities, we lose those dreams. It’s limiting. I think we need to escape
into times of unfettered brainspace to balance off all the other crap. Druidry
is the continuous responsibility to keep balance on a cosmic level and this is
exactly the same thing to me. When we can immerse ourselves in a world where
those boundaries aren’t grinding us down, even for only the length of time it
takes to finish reading a story, we can regain some inner balance and
perspective. As a reader, I love that. And as an author? I consider it a public
Words are my medium as a Bardic Druid, my
divination, and how I connect with universal consciousness. I walk the path of
knowledge, so seek out universal truths, those things that are real and true for
everyone. That’s where we all connect, so goes hand-in-hand with taking a
reader on a journey. A lot of my writing to amuse myself is speculative, where
I’m figuring these things out and pushing down my own thought barriers. As a
Druid, I embrace the responsibility to maintain balance, speak the truth and especially
to oppose injustice and be an agent of fairness for everyone around me. I’ve
been told that makes me some kind of throwback, dying on a hill of my own moral
code, and they may be right. But to me, treating people right and standing up
against wrong is simply the right thing to do and not because of a prize at the
end. I know all this stuff influences my writing and you can see it leaking out.
In the sense of all that, being a writer is more than a job to me. It’s rolled
into my spiritual path and there’s no way to tell where one ends and one
I think the biggest influence on my writing
is probably hyper-awareness about what I’m capturing in words. To me, words are
so much more than only letters arranged on a page. The writing should be real
and true, should be honest, and should allow us, as human beings, to meet there
on common ground. We can laugh together, get riled-up together, cry together, I
can lift people up and that’s all about keeping balance. Speaking about
injustice within the confines of a fictional story is giving voice to it, but
in a way less uncomfortable to explore. I can write about universal truth. Or
that, in fact, we’re all the reluctant hero, working through our own
myriad life crap and evolving as we go while learning to step up about bad
things even when we don’t want to. It’s easy to relate to, because we’re all on
that same journey. In that way, we can connect with people we’ll never know on
a very deep, emotional level. That’s so powerful, y’know?
Magic is simply intention charged with our own energy and that’s carried into writing for a writer. From our perspective, there’s an element of sacredness to it, because we do, in fact, tear those words out of our soul to get them on the page. Whether we know it consciously or not, that ability through writing is the greatest magic there is. If you want to get super existential about it… From that perspective?
Lastly, do you have any tips or encouragement for your fellow writers?
Wait, yes. If you’re not already lost down
that road, take an ice cream scoop and dig out that part of your brain telling
you it’s a good idea and go get a real job. You’ll thank me later.
Seriously, though, remember you’re playing
a long game. If you’re doing it to become rich next week and can’t understand
why you’re not famous after your first six months? Take your ball and go home.
While that would be lovely, that’s not the reality for most writers. You really
do have to do it, because you get something out of it, out of the creation. You
have to do it, because it makes you sacrifice for it and you don’t care about
that. You have to do it, because you can’t think about not doing it or
you’ll go insane or die. If that’s not where you live? Adjust your sails and
get that ship on course. And newsflash, you have to actually love writing or
you won’t stick with it through the length of time it takes. I’ve seen some
“writers” who apparently woke up one day and thought they’d become famous and
make millions of dollars at writing after having never written a day in their
life previous to that. They thought it looked like an easy gig. *Cue massive
I’ve been a working writer, writing every
day, mostly for others and getting paid for it, for over thirty-five years. Did
it make me famous? Nope. It kept the lights on and bought groceries and clothes
for the kids. And yet? It’s fantastic to me, because I made money doing the
thing I love the most. How many people can say that? With the kids now grown, recently
I shifted to focus on only my writing and that new reality takes time to build.
No matter how much previous experience I have, it doesn’t matter. I’m fully
prepared for the length of time that comes with creating a new reality. You’re
no different coming in thirty-five-odd years behind me. Creating any new
reality takes time and that’s where you have to live in your head every day. My
goal now is the same as when I started back in college – do the thing I love every
day and aspire to make that my entire supporting income. If you don’t, you’re
going to have a lot of heartache and frustration. I think that’s a solid,
realistic and attainable goal adjustment for new writers to make.
Ask yourself if you want to be famous or successful – they’re two very different things. Thinking about becoming famous is setting yourself up for disappointment. Think about becoming successful instead. Don’t waste energy on whether anyone else is getting famous or rich before you and put all your focus and energy into honing your craft. Other writers aren’t your competition, dude, they’re your compatriots. Stop worrying about their pay check and worry about your own. Good writing means you can get paid, so never think you’re a good enough writer. That self-doubt can be your continued catalyst – it makes you extra careful about what you’re putting down there on the page and prevents you wasting time churning out garbage no one’s ever going to give you money for. I live in a constant state of terror myself. LOL If you keep your head down that way, you’ll end up becoming a polished, hard-working, consistent producer which is exactly where you want to be even if that magical fame unicorn never makes a stop at your house. Plain and simple, success takes hard work and hard work produces better writing.
It does indeed, JD. Thanks so much for chatting with me!
Happy Thursday, lovely creatives! I’m so, so excited to introduce you to Anne Clare. Not only is she one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve been blessed to meet, but she is a deeply supportive reader, writer, and artist. Well, I should probably let her introduce herself first. Take it, Anne!
Hi, all! I’m Anne. I live in the green, drizzly, Pacific Northwest of the U.S., but I spend a fair amount of time travelling the world via history books. I’m on the verge of celebrating the publication of my first WWII historical fiction novel. I write about writing and the real events of the tumultuous 1940s on my blog, thenaptimeauthor.wordpress.com.
I’m also a wife, mother of three, organist and choir director, part-time teacher, and coffee addict.
Like all marvelous writers, our love of storytelling is forged in the reading of our younger days. My favorite genre of choice was the cozy murder mystery: justice sought and earned while mayhem abounded in one British village after another. What kinds of stories did you enjoy during your formative years?
When I wasn’t trying to solve the mysteries of math class or painting play sets I enjoyed my fair share of Agatha Christie and other sleuth stories, too. I’ve always loved fantasy stories- Tolkein, Lewis and Terry Brooks were some of my first loves. I think it was in highschool when I first discovered Gail Carson Levine’s retold fairy tales and Harry Potter. Honestly, though, I just love a good story regardless of genre.
How true! It’s amazing how many cool stories we discover when we don’t limit ourselves to just a few authors. (Of course, it took college and those accursed required reading lists to help me learn that lesson, but I did learn it…mostly…) What’s the first book you read that sparked the fire of storytelling inside you?
Fairy tales played a big part of course- the earliest stories I “wrote” (i.e. dictated to my older cousin who knew HOW to write, and was kind enough to humor me)–
That’s the bestest kind of cousin, in my book. (ba dum CH!)
I know, right? So those stories were on thrilling topics like fairies, a city populated by talking dogs, and princesses. My first “novel,” started when I was twelve in spiral bound notebooks, was a portal fantasy with BIG nods to Lord of the Rings!
Aw, that’s just like Polly in Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock! I don’t recall liking Tolkien much as a kid, but I blame my sixth grade teacher’s reading of The Hobbit for that–ugh, what a horror. Are there any authors you disliked reading at first but have since grown into?
We read My Antonia in eighth grade- I didn’t like it at all. It was tedious and (spoiler!) the boy didn’t even get the girl in the end! Rereading it as an adult, I love it, in an emotionally teary sort of way. (Since having kids I’m such a sap…😊)
Ha! Heavens, don’t I know it. I bawled reading the end of DWJ’s Dogsbody. Any time something precious is lost, I’m in tears. Music has that power over my emotions too, when the mood is right. Plus, music can be a wonderful guide in the storytelling process. Do you have any favorite artists/composers you’d like to recommend? How do these folks inspire your writing?
I didn’t realize how heavily I depended on music for writing until our kitten, Mr. Meowgi, ate my headphones. I always have something playing in the background as I write.
As I write in the 1940s, I would have thought period music would be my go-to. While I enjoy Glenn Miller and others from the era, while writing I gravitate more toward modern music that fits my mood. The first novel required songs like Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die and the Decemberists “Crane Wife” album- I don’t know why, they just worked! For some reason, the second book seems to go better with Brandie Carlisle and Johnny Cash.
SECOND NOVEL?! Wooooah woah, slow down, Me. Anne’s here to talk about her FIRST novel. One book at a time, right?
Eeeeee, I’m so excited!
Whom Shall I Fear? is set in World War II on two fronts: the battlefront as well as the home front. What first inspired you to create characters in this time?
I’ve always been fascinated by history, but hadn’t pursued much study of it- between teaching and momming, I was just too busy! Then, I had a dream set during World War II, which became the climax of my novel. I blame the fact that I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie, while reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to my kids, and watching James Bond with my husband. All three had some WWII references which must have leaked into my subconscious.
So, lots of World War II floating in your subconscious while you’re also reading and storing info in your consciousness. Oh, research…. I’m very much a “Google as I go” kind of gal, but you’ve been researching this period for quite some time. Can you share your process for researching as well as how you selected what information should be incorporated into the story and what information should stay on the notecards?
When I began this project, I was naiive enough to think that “Google as I go” would be all I needed. After all, I’d studied WWII, I knew the main events!
It didn’t take long to realize I knew nothing- or at least nothing close to the detail I’d need to do to pull off a convincing story.
I started by searching my library. One of the first books that popped up was Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War. I snagged it, figuring that he ought to know what he was talking about. It was the abridged version, so only 1700 pages and change. I hadn’t read a serious history book since college, and it was an undertaking, but I’ll say this for Mr. Churchill- his grand, sweeping style of prose made the history very readable.
Of course, the challenge with researching history is that there’s always a filter between you and the events. The individual perspective of the recorder, no matter how unbiased they try to be, is going to effect their narrative. Reading Churchill’s book first gave me a great start, because I had an outline of the major events, how and when they happened, and one perspective on them.
From there, I looked for as many sources from the era as I could. The BBC website has this wonderful archive called “The People’s War” where they invited people to send in their recollections of their life during the war.
Reading first-hand accounts was fascinating, and helpful in shaping my setting. As one of my main characters was in the British infantry, I found books by infantrymen. When I needed broader books for troop movements so that my fellas got where they were supposed to when they were supposed to, I sought books that used original sources like divisional histories etc, and tried to compare more than one source.
Culling information- well, that was another challenge. It was hard to know where to cut, but sometimes it was unavoidable. For instance, I initially wanted to send my infantryman, James, to North Africa. It sounded like a fascinating place to include- the struggles over Tobruk, fighting against Rommel’s tanks, the battle of El Alamein… I researched military groups in the area and decided he could be part of the 8th Army, and then after Africa I could send him to Sicily and Italy and learn about even more unfamiliar places!
I kept on reading and discovered that none of this would fit with the rest of the timeline for the story. Also, the 8th Army that fought across North Africa was almost completely different from the 8th Army that went to Italy. Sigh.
It was hard to eliminate fascinating pieces of history, but in the end, the research had to serve the story. If the history doesn’t forward the characters or plot, it isn’t going to do what good historical fiction should- make history come alive to the reader.
Now writing inside a well-known–hang on. By your very account here, there is still so much we never get a chance to learn about World War II, so I shouldn’t be calling it a “well-known period.” Let me back-track a wee bit and approach my question this way: in fantasy writing, storytellers create characters as well as the worlds they live in. In historical fiction, you’re creating characters that may or may not live alongside people who actually lived in your chosen period. What would you consider to be the ethics of writing about historical figures?
Ah, that’s tricky! I tried to avoid the issue as much as I could, particularly if the reflection on the historical person’s character might be…uncomplimentary. After all, it hardly seems fair to take a dig at someone who isn’t around to defend themselves, and, as I said before, there’s always the bias present of the person who’s recording their history.
For the few historical figures who did make it into the final novel, I tried to deal with them as my characters would have in real life.
The only real person who makes it “onstage” is Lord Woolton, for a brief cameo, since one of my characters works for the Ministry of Food (responsible for rationing etc) of which Lord Woolton was the Minister until sometime in 1943. The history books described his oversized suit and his friendly voice over the wireless- these made it into the book. Otherwise I tried to keep him neutral- he was just present to help reveal something about one of MY characters.
On the negative end, I did feel the need to mention Lady Astor. The first female MP, she gained notoriety with the troops in Italy by calling them the “D-Day Dodgers.” (i.e. they were somehow shirking by fighting in Italy, rather than in France.) Naturally, the men were furious, and composed a catchy and uncomplimentary song about the incident. In the years since, there’s been some question of whether she acutally made the comment or whether it was a misunderstanding, but my protagonist in Italy wouldn’t have known that, so he reacts accordingly.
I also hesitated to mention larger groups specifically. For instance, I mentioned the whole confusion over the make up of the 8th army above. To make sure that my group of infantrymen I follow in the story COULD have ended up where I sent them, I had to find a smaller group to “shadow” through the histories. I decided on the 2nd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers- they were at the battle of Monte Cassino, and other notable places. However, I don’t specifically mention them in the book- it felt presumptuous to tack my fictional men onto a group that really served in such dangerous places.
In the end, one of my major goals in writing about this era is in homage to those who sacrificed and served. Anything that would detract from that or turn into me editorializing on a time I didn’t live through, I took out.
An excellent plan to go by, I think.
Now, you used three different points of view to tell your story: your two protagonists as well as your antagonist. What were some challenges from writing with the villain and heroes’ points of view? What were some benefits?
As I mentioned, I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie when I started this book. She uses multiple points of view in her mysteries- sometimes to reveal, sometimes to misdirect. While my novel isn’t really a mystery, there are some of the same elements- mysterious strangers, tangled motivations, crimes of the past. I liked the flavor of the multiple points of view- how I could reveal clues to the questions from different perspectives and how I could have one character reveal information to the reader while keeping other characters in the dark.
The challenge is to create enough distinction between the perspectives so that the reader can “feel” the difference when they’re in a different character’s head. Also, I found myself tempted to head hop- to reveal information that the POV I was writing from couldn’t have known. I had to resist the temptation, and place my “reveals” carefully.
A temptation that we all struggle with!
You and I both have kids who haven’t taken our sanity from us (yet). You know how I’m always on the look-out for tips on finding some sense of balance between writing and parenting. Care to share your advice?
I discovered that I can’t hold myself to someone else’s expectations for the amount of time or words I write. Every day is a new day- some will be productive author days. Others will be “clean up kid vomit and read stories to them” days. There’s no guilt in either one!
And one final question…
Many thanks to you, Anne, and congratulations once more! Whom Shall I Fear will be available June 28th on Amazon.
All that Sergeant James Milburn wants is to heal. Sent to finish his convalescence in a lonely village in the north of England, the friends he’s lost haunt his dreams. If he can only be declared fit for active service again, perhaps he can rejoin his surviving mates in the fight across Sicily and either protect them or die alongside them.
All that Evie Worther wants is purpose. War has reduced her family to an elderly matriarch and Charles, her controlling cousin, both determined to keep her safely tucked away in their family home. If she can somehow balance her sense of obligation to family with her desperate need to be of use, perhaps she can discover how she fits into her tumultuous world.
All that Charles Heatherington wants is his due. Since his brother’s death, he is positioned to be the family’s heir with only one step left to make his future secure. If only he can keep the family matriarch happy, he can finally start living the easy life he is certain he deserves.
However, when James’s, Evie’s and Charles’s paths collide, a dark secret of the past is forced into the light, and everything that they have hoped and striven for is thrown into doubt.
Weaving in historical detail from World War II in Britain, Italy and Egypt, Whom Shall I Fear? follows their individual struggles with guilt and faith, love and family, and forces them to ask if the greatest threat they face is really from the enemy abroad.
I’ve not known James Cudney IV as long as Blondie, but he is without a doubt one of the most avid book bloggers I know, and a fellow mystery lover, to boot! I just had to have him for an interview to help celebrate the upcoming release of his latest installment in the Braxton Campus Mystery series.
Let’s have some niceties first! Tell us a bit about yourself, please.
It’s always the general questions which stump me; where does one begin? I’ll be brave and take a chance here. I’m 42 and live in NYC. I worked in technology and project management for ~15 years before leaving my job and writing my first book two-and-a-half years ago. I’d always wanted to do it but never had the time, until I found myself starting over again. I absolutely do not regret the decision, as I was a walking ball of stress before this new career. I’m still open to going back to an office job, but it will be something very different, if I ever do. That said, I am a homebody and more of an introvert. I tend to follow a routine, but every once in a while, I surprise people with my choices. I spend a lot of time thinking about things before I ever tell others what’s going on inside my head, so when I do… it often seems to others like a quick decision. I’m a much happier person now that I’m writing and being creative. I still get stressed over editing and marketing, but it’s a very different type of monster. With no ‘real’ boss (okay, every reader IS my boss), I have more freedom to take chances on things. Luckily, my other half and our puppy keep me sane!
It says on your bio that you’ve done an extensive study of your family history. That is so fascinating! I’ve a distant cousin doing that very thing, and he’s so far discovered that our great-grandparents (or great-great? I get lost in all the great’s) were put in an internment camp in Wisconsin during World War 1 because they had German names. Is there a surprising story from your own family research you’d like to share?
Genealogy is my favorite hobby! I am an only child, so I often spent time with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents rather than siblings. It developed a curiosity about the past, and since I am an introvert, I research everything. When a grandfather passed away, I connected with a long-lost cousin who attended his funeral and shared family history. I began researching it on my own, and now almost 25 years later, I’ve gone back to the 1700s for several branches. Don’t worry, I still get confused on second cousin and first cousin once removed, et al. I know the rules, but I’m less of a stickler for those details as I am finding the exact locations of an ancestor’s birth and death. It’s amazing and scary what you can discover about the past. Interment camps? That’s awful, and fortunately, I don’t know of anything like that in my family. I do have a German great-grandfather who had to change his last name. From what I understand, he had been caught up with the mob and gambling debts while he was a boxer. He disappeared and divorced a wife and three children (in the 1910s) only to resurface two years later with a new wife, name, job (beers / bars), and kids (one of which was my grandmother). I wish I knew the whole story, but the little that’s been retained is fascinating.-
Oh wow…now THAT is the stuff of story, to be sure! I bet you could create a whole wold around your great-grandfather–your own sort of literary journey into your family past. What other literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Interesting question! Do you mean as a writer or a reader? And literally or figuratively! 🙂 Wait, who’s asking the questions here… I should be a better interviewee, huh?
Ha! Behave yourself, Sir, or I’ll force you to babysit my sons. Mwa ha ha!
Ahem. Anyway, you were saying…
I’ve never traveled to research a setting for a book or to visit a place I’ve read about. I have traveled a lot in the past, but when I go away, I tend not to read or write. I immerse myself in culture and relaxation. That said… a pilgrimage is like taking a risk toward something you believe strongly in. For me, that would be mysteries and cozy little towns. When I find a series and author I like, I tend to read everything all at once. I did that with the ‘Cat Who’ books by Lilian Jackson Braun; they were one of my first addictions in the sub-genre. 2019 is the year of catching up for me, so I’m saying ‘no’ to most new books and series, allowing enough time to get fully caught up on my TBR before adding to it again.
I don’t blame you for focusing on your TBR list. You have read a lot of books. Like, a TON of books. 500 reviews?! That’s AMAZING! So of course, I have to ask: Have you ever gotten reader’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?
When I was working full-time, I barely read a book every two weeks. Now, I’m able to read a few each week. In 2017, I began using Goodreads much more. I wrote a book review for everything I could remember from the past. I also wrote one as soon as I finished reading a new book. As of today, I’m at about 850, but I’m definitely forgetting hundreds from the past. I have gotten reader’s block a few times in the last 2+ years since I set my Goodreads Challenge in the 150+ books range. It often happens when I am writing my own book, then try to step away for a break. I find myself reading the book to find styles I like or ways to improve my editing, as opposed to just relaxing to enjoy a good book. In that way, writing books has ruined reading books for me. Sometimes, I also find myself just too tired to read, or in need of something vastly different so that I can escape. I won’t ever DNR (Did Not Read) a book. I try a few times, then put it aside and try again a month later. If it’s still not working, I’ll skim it and write a brief review, explaining why it didn’t work for me. If it’s a book an author specifically asked me to read, I won’t review it; I’ll share with them why I struggled and let them decide how to handle it. I don’t ever want to hurt another author if for some reason I’m just not in the right place to read that book.
That’s perfectly understandable, James. I like reading for escape from my genre, too; I love writing fantasy, but it’s so lovely to read mysteries for a little break. And indie authors do NOT have it easy out there in the virtual bookstore, so it’s wonderful that you focus on helping fellow writers rather than put them down.
All this reading and writing must mean you’re keeping a pretty sharp eye on the publishing industry. What do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can we as writers do about it?
Excellent question! I do pay attention, but at the same time, I’ve always believed in doing what you feel is best and ignoring the status quo. For better or worse, the market is super flooded now. Anyone can write a book, which is good and bad. Reading is cheaper, given sites like NetGalley and electronic books; however, the quality of a book is much more questionable when it hasn’t gone through a rugged process to ensure it’s top notch. All I mean by that is that it’s a lot harder to choose books to read nowadays. Some indie books are WAY better than traditionally published books, and some traditionally published books have awful editing processes. For me, it really comes down to the book’s genre, summary, and themes. I don’t read reviews other people write anymore. Let me clarify that… I read reviews my friends write because I support them, but I don’t read reviews before deciding whether to read a book or not. Other people’s opinions have such a range… after reading over 1000 books, I trust my own judgment when choosing what to read. That said, I think the most unethical practice is probably paying for reviews when the book hasn’t actually been read. I’m totally in support of paying someone to read your book and write an honest review; however, if you pay sites to post bunches of positive reviews when the book wasn’t read, it’s not very honest and fair. I understand the desire to do it — you need positive reviews when you first get started, so that part makes sense. But there are better ways to accomplish it, in my opinion. My best suggestion to counter it is find friendly reviewers and ask for their help before paying for fake reviews.
Excellent advice! We have to keep in mind that readers can be very particular with their tastes; what could be a beautiful story to one could be a mangled mess to another.Plus, you know who can/will appreciate your own shift in writing tastes.Your first two novels, Watching Glass Shatter and Father Figure, are both pretty dark dramas when compared to the lighter tone of your Braxton Campus mysteries. What inspired this shift? Do you think you’ll ever shift away from cozies and into the darker realm once more?
I actually have the answer to these questions, phew! I have ZERO clue why I started with a dark family drama before a cozy mystery. I read cozies so much, how on earth did I not go with what I knew! The easy explanation is that Watching Glass Shatter stemmed from a dream I HAD to develop. It took me a year to finish the book and find a publisher. At the same time, I had been building my blog and decided to let my followers choose the scope of my second book. I published a post with 5 or 6 story ideas, then let votes decide. They picked Father Figure, another dark drama. I finished writing and publishing it in April 2018, then decided it was time to write a cozy. I’d published that I was planning to write a sequel to Watching Glass Shatter in late 2018 / early 2019, but I got sidetracked and wrote 4 books in the cozy mystery series because I saw the power of marketing behind a series, and the ideas kept flowing. At the same time, I fleshed out the plot for the Watching Glass sequel and began drafting the outline. I’m happy to report that I’ve begun writing it already. My plan is to publish the fifth cozy in the Braxton series in October 2019, as it will be a Halloween-themed mystery. Then, I will focus on the Watching Glass sequel with a mid 2020 target release. At the same time, I’m working on another mystery series, but it will not be considered cozy. I intend to write a book in all major genres if I can motivate myself even more this year!
Yowza, what a goal! But clearly, mysteries have pride of place in your heart. Was it a mystery novel that first sparked the storytelling passion inside you? If so, which story and why?
It began with Poe and Christie. I love solving puzzles, and being part of the story by playing detective is an amazing way to connect with the author. I also like secrets, at least in terms of trying to discover what someone else is keeping from me. I am not a secretive person myself, probably the opposite – I say too much! It’s definitely my go-to genre, so when I wrote my first book, it was about a family full of secrets. It wasn’t a typical mystery, e.g. in terms of “let’s solve who killed someone.” It was also an analysis of the impact of an emotional explosion on a family with real people we might know around us. My favorite mystery is Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” I recall reading and watching it in school when I was about 10 years old, then guessing the killer before (s)he was revealed. I had a inkling about the way the story was being written, and my intuition paid off… that pretty much clarified for me what type of reader I am.
To me, mysteries are a genre that do not allow for pantsing, but planning, planning, and MORE planning. Can you take us through your writing process for building strong mysteries?
I am definitely a planner. Once an idea formulates, I jot notes down on my phone, since it often happens when I’m out and about (which I dislike, since I said I was a homebody) or waking up from a dream. Once it’s strong enough to organize into a summary, I’ll prepare a 150-word overview. Then, I’ll write an larger outline. I begin with a bullet list of key plot points, then descriptions of characters. Once I know the details of the victim, I create the suspect list, including red herrings and real clues. From there, I create the 10 to 15 key scenes that will help readers solve the crime. I organize the timeline for all the events, then I break the detail into chapter by chapter summaries. Each chapter has 2 or 3 scenes. Each scene lists the characters and settings, as well as what info needs to be discovered and what open questions must arise. From there, it turns into a ~30-page outline that I read several times. This process takes about a week at most. Then I write 2 chapters per day, ignoring the desire to edit. After the first draft is written, I read it and rewrite a new outline without looking at the old one. I do this to see how much has changed, as this helps me figure out areas that are weak and strong. It’s back and forth at that point. I have a weird memory: I forget tons of things from the past, but I’ll remember every arc, red herring, or clue that need to be followed up on. It’s rare I leave anything open-ended in a first draft, but sometimes there are a few unresolved issues. I merge the two outlines, decide what new scenes need to occur and finish my second draft. At that point, editing takes over, then early alpha and beta readers help me identify when I need more suspense or stronger alibis and motives.
Thank goodness for trusted readers–and for this wonderful chat! Would you like to wrap this up with some encouragement for your fellow writers?
I was an English major in college. I’ll say right from the start, I know 90% of the grammar rules but have forgotten a few. I majored in English not because I wanted to be a walking grammar expert but because I enjoy reading and connecting with authors. I LOVE when a reader writes a review on a book and only talks about a grammar issue. I’ve had two where the reviewer only wrote “This books needed to go through more editing.” I laughed because that’s such a ‘useful’ review. I’m all for negative or constructive feedback and criticism, but what a reviewer writes is often a bigger characteristic of them as a person rather than the writer. An author takes 1000+ hours to write a book, not including all the other people that help her or him. A reader takes 30 seconds to write a review and chooses to be mean. There will always be people like that. They are the same people who bullied others. They are the same people who hide behind the Internet and couldn’t actually say it to your face. They are the same people who are probably miserable at home or like to hurt others because they can’t solve their own problems. That’s something I’d like to share with the rest of the writing community — People can be mean, but you need to ignore them when they are hurtful.
If there’s nothing valuable in their review, let it go and write your next book.
On the positive side, as I want to end the interview that way, writers have the best job in the world. They can do anything they want. They can use it for good to promote awareness or provide entertainment. They can use it to help themselves process through pain or emotions. They can use it to make an income. They can use it to express creativity and ideas inside their head that yearn to be released. Aren’t we lucky? I also love how we all support one another and promote each other’s work rather than think of it is as a competition. That’s the best kind of world to live in. So thank YOU!
And thank YOU, James, for all that you do! You’re a wonderful fellow writer and supporter in these crazy publishing waters. I’m sure your latest mystery, Mistaken Identity Crisis, is going to be awesome!
BLURB: A clever thief with a sinister calling card has invaded Braxton campus. A string of jewelry thefts continues to puzzle the sheriff given they’re remarkably similar to an unsolved eight-year-old case from shortly before Gabriel vanished one stormy night. When a missing ruby is discovered near an electrified dead body during the campus cable car redesign project, Kellan must investigate the real killer in order to protect his brother. Amidst sorority hazing practices and the victim’s connections to several prominent Wharton County citizens, a malicious motive becomes more obvious and trickier to prove. As if the latest murder isn’t enough to keep him busy, Kellan partners with April to end the Castigliano and Vargas crime family feud. What really happened to Francesca while all those postcards showed up in Braxton? The mafia world is more calculating than Kellan realized, and if he wants to move forward, he’ll have to make a few ruthless sacrifices. Election Day is over, and the new mayor takes office. Nana D celebrates her 75th birthday with an adventure. A double wedding occurs at Crilly Lake on Independence Day. And Kellan receives a few more surprises as the summer heat begins to settle in Wharton County.
Happy Saturday, Friends! While Bo and Blondie attend a baseball game and I take the twins to a swimming pool (PRAY FOR ME), please welcome fellow Young Adult author Ann Hunter!
First things first! Tell us a little about yourself, please.
I like to say I’m a Mom first, a writer second, and all around ninja. I’m a dyed and true Hufflepuff #badgerfierce, love dark chocolate and red velvet cake. And I love YA literature. I love mentoring other writers, too, and teens as well. I’m assistant teacher at the Taekwondo Dojang I train at with my daughters, and I’m so grateful for my epic husband– he really is too patient with me.
Oh my g.o.s.h., you serious? My brother is a teacher in Taekwondo! Both of them have black belts. I, however, was enrolled in dance class for a summer.
(Don’t ask how that went.)
Anyway, my own three wee hooligans keep me inspired, not to mention on my toes. One phone call from the principal, though, and my creativity’s shot for the day. What would you call your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
My biggest Kryptonite is my ADD (clinically diagnosed in college). I have a hard time getting started and staying focused unless I have my ritual/routine down. I use noise canceling headphones and http://brain.fm.
I also sprint with other writers in a dedicated chat room on slack. It helps a lot to have friends and support.
I struggle with energy, too. My best-selling series, North Oak, is so emotional that it’s very taxing physically and mentally.
I’m currently developing a class that I’ll be presenting at Fyrecon later this month on how to be a word warrior without burning out.
Uffdah, burnout is right. I’m in the midst of overhauling my platform while also grading finals while also having Biff, Bash, and Blondie home for summer break. How on EARTH do you balance writing and parenthood, anyway? I’m always hunting for tips.
Not just a writer and mom, but a ninja too! I also do Taekwondo and I’m working toward my black belt in 2021. I plan on competing at the World Taekwondo Federation National Championships this July. My daughters do Taekwondo with me, so when they’re in class I’m often in the Dojang office working on book stuff.
I’m really blessed that my husband is very supportive of my writing. He’s even my business partner in our publishing LLC. He’s happy to take care of the kids whenever I need to get writing done, usually in the evenings and on weekends. In turn I’m supportive of him and try to let him sleep in and nap on said weekends before I’m working.
That’s so lovely to hear your husband’s been with you throughout the entire writing of your North Oak series!
Now, these novels feature a young protagonist and her relationship with amazing horses. The blurb for Book 1, Born to Run, mentions Walter Farley’s Black Stallion. Is that a favorite book of yours, a source of inspiration, or both?
I had a hard time getting into Black Stallion as a book series when I read them as a kid. My big inspiration is the Thoroughbred Series by Joanna Campbell (and later Mary Newhall Anderson). I liked Dick Francis, as well, and I’m a sucker for the Black Stallion movies and Phar Lap.
My biggest inspiration, however, was my parents breeding Arabians when I was little. I gained a sense of horsemanship by running around half-naked and barefoot with our herd on the Wasatch Front.
Woah! You’ve such a love for horses bred and nurtured in you. I can’t help but wonder, then, if stories had that same kind of connection with you when you were small. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I remember being in first grade and writing a story about a rabbit pulling a carrot out of the ground. I drew a little action “kapow” around the word POP, and my teacher really liked that. I also remember my aunt giving me this gorgeous book on Shakespeare’s works when I was, like, 4, and I desperately wanted to know what the words said. Needless to say, I was reading Shakespeare by age 6.
But it wasn’t until I was ten that I truly realized the power of words, when I had to write my first official story. The words poured out of me as though they came from somewhere else. They weren’t mine. My hand couldn’t keep up with my brain. I spent the next 6 years writing 20 novels in the same fashion.
TWENTY NOVELS?! That. Is. AWESOME! So writing a long-running series like North Oak must be easy peasy, what with Book 7 coming out in July.
Well, I shouldn’t say “must” be easy-peasy, because I imagine every writer has his/her challenges with series writing. What challenges do you face, and how do you overcome them?
I started writing this series 25 years ago at the age of 12 (July 24th– Happy Anniversary!). So I’ve known the whole story for a long time. It’s gone through several incarnations until I finally knew its purpose and what I needed to do with it for today’s youth. My biggest challenge is keeping everyone the right age and not fudging timelines. I’m going to have to make up a chart or something one of these days as I plan to take the series well into book 20 and onward.
What would you say has been the most difficult scene to write in the North Oak series, and why?
Every book has its most challenging scene. I want the books to MEAN something to the reader. I’m writing them so today’s youth have a heroine to look up to who is going through many of the same scary issues they face daily.
North Oak #6: Dark Horse forced me to look at my own demons though, and was very hard to write. I didn’t want to deal with my own depression that Alex, my main character, had to face. A lot of the books in the series have multiple points of view, but Dark Horse only had Alex. I wanted the reader to feel alone, because that’s a big part of depression. You can be in a room full of people who are crazy about you and still feel alone.
In North Oak #5: Far Turn, I made myself cry. I won’t give spoilers, but it was a funeral scene and I chose the song “I Can Only Imagine” as they played the life video of the departed. That was tough.
Oh, character deaths and their memorials are always so painful to write. You dive into some other tough youth issues in your series, too—bullying, suicide, and sexuality, for a start. Are these things you wanted to discuss through your stories, or did the themes just appear because of what the characters were going through?
A little of both I think. I knew today’s youth were facing some scary stuff, and I wanted to give them someone to look up to. I want them to find me someday and say “You wrote this for me.” And I’ll hug them and say “I know.”
Especially the LGBTQ+ community. There’s nothing else like North Oak on the market. I pray every night before I write that I’ll be a vassal for what the Lord wants His youth to hear. And it’s love. Everyone deserves love.
This has been such an awesome chat, Ann! Any closing words of inspiration and encouragement for your fellow writers?
Failure isn’t the opposite of success. It’s part of it.
In my January post about character death, we discussed the traumatic moment of a beloved character’s death. I loved reading your comments on how character deaths can be utilized to help strengthen stories. The ever-lovely author Shehanne Moore nailed it when she said:
A threat is a threat. End of. People can’t go up against the big guns and come out unscathed, or be labelled ruthless warriors and then be pussy cats. On another level life doesn’t always end happily with rose tinted sunsets.
These past few months, I’ve been struggling with the Act 1s of stories littered with murder and mayhem–mainly mayhem. It hit me, then, or at least while describing a corpse, that the Unknown’s Death can do wonders in making a story compelling to readers.
Now I’m not just talking typical Red Shirt Deaths. The lovely Cath Humphris referred to this kind of death back in January:
Which deaths irritate me? Well, it’s not so much in books, as on screen, and hopefully these days less usual to see. I mean those dramas when you can pick out who who will be ‘knocked-off’, pretty much from their introduction, because of their race or gender. A lot of the old ‘B’ movies and detective series were extremely lazy about the introduction of ‘canon fodder’ characters. It’s such a shame, because some of these stories were otherwise entertaining.
I and many others label these “Red Shirt Deaths” in honor of the original Star Trek show. Whenever the Enterprise crew explores an alien planet, some random security officer dies.
The Red Shirt Death is meant to make the “life or death” stakes clear to both the characters and the audience of that given episode. The audience, however, knows full well that Shatner and Company aren’t going to get killed, so there’s not exactly much tension when a Red Shirt dies.
But the Unknown Character Death done right can burn into your reader’s psyche and leave a scar for years, and years, and years.
I mean, you know that scene.
The kind that traumatized you as a child. The kind that glued you to the story even though your little brain’s utterly horrified and wants your body to flee to the safety of your mother’s lap, your father’s desk.
Who Framed Roger Rabbitcame out when PG meant “Pare down the Gore.” So long as characters didn’t have sex, drop F-bombs, or remove each other’s intestines on screen, the movie was considered family friendly.
I still. Remember. That screaming.
A shoe, screaming.
You only saw the shoe in that one scene.
You sure as hell didn’t forget it.
And just look at the reactions of Detective Valiant and the other officer. They are horrified. When grown men who carry guns are horrified of a toon dying, you bet your boots a kid in the audience is cowering behind her dad while he talks about Star Trek V (Dad talked A LOT during movies.)
In this one moment, we get:
The judge’s disregard for toon life
That toons, previously thought impervious to death, can actually die
That the protagonist humans regard toon life with at least some respect
That the protagonists would rather protect a toon wanted for murder than hand him over to this judge
The stakes have officially been raised because we now have visual evidence of the consequences that will be met if Roger Rabbit is captured. We now know the lengths to which the villainous judge will go in order to have his way. Detective Valiant now knows what he’s up against.
We the audience now know what the good guys are up against, and we’re scared to death for them because we’ve seen what will happen if the bad guys get them.
Another ’80s example comes in Jim Henson’s fantasy epic Dark Crystal. The scene’s so terrifying that YouTube won’t even let me share the scene, so I’ve got to link you to the moment where an evil Skeksi is draining the life essence from a podling and traumatize you that way.
Does the podling die? No.
Then it’s not character death, Jean!
Hush, yes it is. This creature’s life has been drained. We’ve witnessed a living being undergo a damning transformation into a zombie.
This may as well be death.
Once again, this is a moment that
establishes the power of the evil Skeksis
displays the evil Skeksi’s disregard for innocent life
That’s what makes these deaths so horrifying:
We’re watching the innocent and vulnerable be rendered lifeless.
These aren’t armed podlings. The shoe wasn’t trying to kick the judge and take him down. These are innocent, unarmed creatures completely unable to fight against the threat.
When we see them die, we realize the villains are without mercy or conscience. We must watch on to see the heroes take the villains down because those villains must be held accountable for their actions.
How to swing this in a book?
Let’s return to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I wrote a post on this book some time ago as a great study in world-building; this time, let’s see how they handle a character death in the first two chapters.
On page one, we meet the expedition team into the mysterious Area X, and the narrator of this novel is the biologist. The others are the psychologist, the surveyor, and the anthropologist. Why no names?
I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. (9)
The stakes feel raised at this point. We know something goes wrong with the surveyor and psychologist, but we don’t know what. We follow the biologist and her team investigate a peculiar structure near the base camp of abandoned by previous expeditions, and wonder when things will go wrong.
We don’t have to wait long.
The anthropologist was gone, her tent empty of her personal effects. Worse, in my view, the psychologist seemed shaken, as if she hadn’t slept. … “Where is the anthropologist?” the surveyor demanded, while I hung back, trying to make my own sense of it. What have you done with the anthropologist? was my unspoken question… (38-29)
The surveyor and biologist go into the structure and walk the seemingly eternal stairs downward to discover new footprints, and beyond them, they discover:
It was the body of the anthropologist, slumped against the left-hand wall, her hands in her lap, her head down as if in prayer, something green spilling out from her mouth. Her clothing seemed oddly fuzzy, indistinct. A faint golden glow arose from her body. … Something clicked into place, and I could see it all in my head. In the middle of the night, the psychologist had woken the anthropologist, put her under hypnosis, and together they had come to the [structure] and climbed down this far. (60,63)
We’re only in Chapter 2, and one character–one of the only four characters in this novel–is already dead.
It’s not like we knew the anthropologist. The biologist seemed to barely know her, let alone care about her as a human being. But by killing a character this early in the story, we know the stakes are raised. Not only do we see what Area X can do to a human being, but we realize one of the human beings in this expedition is willing to kill to achieve her ends. We readers need to see that psychologist be held accountable. We need to see the biologist escape Area X, so we read on.
There’s a power in the sacrifice of the innocent life to the villain’s ambition.
Use it wisely.
How about you? Have you ever seen/read the Unknown Character Death used effectively? I’d love to know!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
Things are going to get personal here about family, friends, and the future of Jean Lee’s World.
My name is Christopher Lee and I am the author of Westward, a Channillo exclusive serial release occult fantasy that blends X-Files and the Magnificent Seven.
What made you choose publishing your work as a serial as opposed to a collection/novel?
DAN: I have collections with my publisher GenZ, Lapping Water, Humbled Wise Men Christmas Haikus, and Home other places I’ve yet to see. Channillo has been a good place for projects of mine that I view as smaller endeavors.
CHRIS: For one I love to write as if my story were being presented as a TV show, each chapter I write feels like an episode of a show to me, so it made sense to present it this way. The format of serial publication allows me to work on my story at the same time as I get feedback from readers on previous chapters, etc which in turn helps make the story better down the road.
What benefits have arisen with plot, character development, and/or voice as you write a serial?
DAN: It’s fun to write these poem-letters in “Weathergirl.” I call it soap opera poetry.
CHRIS: It takes a huge load off of the authorś shoulder to know that they don’t have to crank out a huge manuscript in order for readers to access their work. There is a flexibility that I mentioned before that allows the writer to breath, take a step back, and then return to the keyboard recharged and excited to write the next chapter of the story, not to mention it keeps the readers hungry for more.
I concur about that load being shirked off! However, I know one problem I have when posting my own Young Adult Fantasy MIDDLER’S PRIDE is publishing on time.
What challenges have you faced writing serials?
CHRIS: Honestly, I have not faced any, save that classic HIT THE DEADLINE. When I began to write Westward, I had a fully developed story arc with complete show/chapter ideas. This allows me to simply sit down and write the next installment, whereas had I not done so I might have run into an issue of keeping the story straight, so to speak. Ultimately it is all about consistency when running a serial. You need to market it consistently and produce the content on time so that your readers know they can count on you. After all, there is nothing worse than investing time as a reader in a story that dead ends.
DAN: Letters to the Weathergirl is about a man writing to a news anchor and the reader doesn’t know if he is a deranged fan, or a fan, or her actual lover and I haven’t had any problems developing that. I’m very fortunate.
Now while I myself have never published any poetry, I find it a pleasure to read! It seems to fit well with the serial form. Because I’ve written Middler with the serial publishing platform in mind, I find myself constantly looking for little arcs or episodes to write within the larger novel-arc. How do you feel your writing and/or genre’s been affected by publishing it in a serialized form?
DAN: Letters to the Weathergirl is weekly so when holidays turn up I like writing themed segments. The arrows on the clock are pointing at me was like a fun dumping ground for unpublished poems and I hope to maybe start another series like that. Venus Fly Trap kept my haiku skills sharp and Little Silver Microphone explores recordings both home and live.
CHRIS: I primarily write in the fantasy genre, which I believe is aided by the format. Fantasy in some ways suffers from the drudgery of 600+ page novels that remain inaccessible to the general public at large. Many consumers of media want smaller bites that they can digest while they ride the bus, an Uber, or just before bed, etc. Just look at Netflix and the advent of binge watching or in this case binge reading.
What do you think draws readers to read serial (non)fiction?
CHRIS: Accessibility and consistent content creation are the two major things for me. One that readers can have an a la carte or buffet experience with different genres, authors, and styles. Two is that there isn’t a huge delay between content dumps from the authors, its the exact opposite of the George R.R. Martin effect, for example waiting for years for a conclusion to the story you as the reader have invested time in.
Do you receive any reader feedback on your writing as it’s posted? What do you do with those reader comments? DAN: Yes, I do. I’ve gotten great feedback that has meant a lot to me. Sometimes I post quotes about my series on the work’s homepage.
CHRIS: If I am being honest, I have not received much in the way of comments via the Channillo platform, but I have been contacted via Twitter, Facebook, and email from readers who have given me some of the most constructive feedback I have gotten to date. It is a really cool experience to have that level of connection with the reader. Usually what I do with said commentary is to implement whatever makes the most sense to the story, all while keeping the core message of the reader close to heart.
What advice do you have for fellow writers who want to give serialization a go?
CHRIS: First and foremost you need to have a fully developed story before you kick the thing off. If you don’t have that, then you run the risk of hitting a dead end that could cause you massive problems. Ultimately a plan will save your booty if you get in a pinch.
DAN: Make sure you do your installments on time with interesting material to help build an audience.
I found this quote published inThe Washington Postback in 2015, and I’d like you to comment on it:
Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works. … Yet it requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum — a value that needn’t come at the expense of integrity. –Hillary Kelly, “Bring Back the Serialized Novel”
CHRIS: Kelly makes a great point, though the critics of serialization see it as low art or cheap in quality, I find the process to be far more rigorous. You can simply slap crap together and throw it at the wall and hope that it sticks. In fact, you have to take even more time to craft a tight narrative, then you would in the case of a novel. To run a successful serial you have to keep your readers hooked. In the traditional method, example a fully fledged novel, once they buy your book, the transaction is largely done, you have the readers money, whether or not they come back for subsequent books is altogether another animal. With a serial, you have the flexibility that you don´t have in the traditional sense, and that is the true strength of serialization.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, guys, and good luck building those Channillo stories! You’re reminding me I need to update what’s going on with Meredydd…
In the meantime, check out these authors and other amazing folks at Channillo. You can scope out their amazing store of stories FREE for thirty days. Who knows? Maybe you’d like to write for them, too!