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!
Helloooooo, my lovely folks! While I vanquish the mountain of term papers and attempt to discover new territory in Camp NaNoWriMo,I want to treat you all to a month of interviews with amazing indie authors. As April is also Poetry Month, it is only fitting to begin with the one, the only, Master Mike Steeden. x
First, Mike, why not tell us a little about yourself?
As to imparting ‘a little about myself’ it is probably for the best that such information remains left untold. Were I to continue there is a very real risk of your readers becoming consumed with the urgent desire to open a vein and end it all out of sheer tedium.All I will say is that aside from being a time-traveller…and frankly that’s not all it’s made out to be…and having shared a few beers with both Joan of Arc, a lovely gal, although lacking that certain panache on the coiffure front, and the much maligned yet a decent sort when you get to know him, Vlad the Impaler, there is little of interest to divulge.
What first inspired you to create with words?
I know many ‘words’ yet cannot spell for toffee, hence the day I discovered that Word had a ‘spellcheck’ I was inspired to have a stab at writing. To my addled mind, although irrelevant in the global plan of things, that event became my metamorphosis moment. Notwithstanding the spelling issues, possibly I should also extend my thanks to the inventers of the keyboard for I am incapable of reading my own handwriting.
You create a lush mix of poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, and novel fiction. When does that form take shape? That is, does a story always begin a story, or does the scene you begin later transform into a poem? Your piece “The Shop that Sells Kisses” feels like it could have been a bit of flash fiction, but the rhythm of language clearly demands its rightful place among your poetry. 🙂
When fate affords me a decent ‘first line’ or a ‘title’ I’m straight on the case. Hardly ever do I know in which direction or sub-genre the words might take me. I simply leave it up to them. Some words beg to rhyme others seem to not care less what happens next. I tend to work to my disorganized version of organized and without a blind clue as to the content of what I’ve written until it feels like the finished article. Only then do I read it back. At that stage some finished pieces face the firing squad, others live to see another day. ‘Words’ are anarchistic creatures…free roaming is their way of life. Were it the case they ended up confined within the cages of Manuscript Zoo they would commit hara-kiri. In life I cannot, as the old London saying goes, ‘Organize a piss up at a brewery’ and likewise when writing I’ve never been capable of successfully structuring a coherent plan. Quite the opposite as I live in constant fear of preordained rules. Free-thinking never submits to precedent’s ineptitude.
Something I’ve always wanted to ask a poet pertains to line breaks. “The Longest Night” has both fluid lines, long and winding, as well as stark lines of extreme brevity. How do you decide where lines should be broken?
As I alluded to previously, the words make decisions for me. I have no say in the matter. It is akin to being in a maze wearing just a blindfold and socks. I’ve never claimed to be a poet. ‘Almost poetry’ is the name I coined for my genre. The words decide the line breaks amongst themselves. Rarely do they argue with one another. A democracy of syllables? Possibly. Some words are shy and want to hold hands together, others prefer the hustle and bustle of the cityscape on a summers night. Given that rules bore me rigid I am grateful to the wantonly pliable words for making life easy. In terms of ‘The Longest Night’, albeit written in what feels like a lifetime lost I do remember being sat outside a café watching the day go by when a group of now aging Gurkha ex-soldiers strolled by. For whatever reason the chalk on the blackboard inside my head came out with the obscure first line, ‘Forgotten tribes and luminaries outwear handicaps’. It hit me smack in the face Tysonesque punch style. I suspect that the pattern the words took was due to the quantum leaps of shifting back and forth across two time zones. Sorrowfully, the event I wrote of was concerning the stupidity of WW1. The word collective demanded the whole picture be seen even if the subject matter was in cameo; a convoluted fiction of respect.
What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?
By far and away the hardest thing is when, over an evening’s glass or two of something French and red I’ve welcomed in the multi-coloured immigrant words and ensured the poor things are safe and sound in the sanctuary of my laptop only to find come the morn they have mutated into a gang of shaven headed, tattooed archetypical plain white indigenous thugs. Sadly, I have to evict the unwanted and await for new arrivals.
Do you pen down revelations and ideas as you get them, right then and there?
Yes. Words are delicate things. Give them a home at the drop of a hat in the knowledge that should they not be cared for they will die young.
You’ve clearly tapped an endless vein of inspiration from WWII and the Cold War, as poems like the “The Sunshine Girl” and “She is the Ghost of Generations” show. What is it about these particular years that hold your imaginative curiosity above all others?
Twixt the end of one evil, namely WW1 and the commencement of
another…morally far, far worse than its predecessor…a new dawn would trade
peace’s bright sun-shiny new dawn for darkest storms clouds that would
hurriedly mature into the tempest that was the unremitting thunder and
lightning of WW2. Within the traditional
European battlefield a Lilliputian era of unrefined, unadulterated passion for
passion’s sake. A ‘passion’ initially
for simply ‘living life to the full’; a thing lost in the death and destruction
of what had gone before. Then, in passion’s adolescence; new artforms; adapted
old artforms; polar opposite political doctrines; deliciously sullied ‘encounters’
of any and every shape and form; writers taking bold risks like never before.
Nothing was taboo. At its centre was Paris, ‘The City of Love’, although Weimar
Berlin ran it a close second. How could
I not be drawn into such an array of talent revealed; sometimes wasted in this
Bohemian, Parisian wonderland? Oh, to be
a fly on the wall. I have said before,
even in the knowledge that by 1939 the world would once again be in conflict, I
would give my right arm to, as the poet Max Jacob said when taking up residence
in Montparnasse district of the city, “I have come to sin disgracefully.”
One must not overlook that during those years at various times
within this small quarter was home to Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray,
Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Dali, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Lee Miller and a whole
host of others from abroad. In the case of the many young, talented American’s
arriving, they came because they believed their ‘native land was a cultural
sink.’ Perhaps all ‘native’ lands had earned such a dull tag when compared to
Paris back then? Whatever, Ms Lee that is the reasoning behind my constant
My risqué ‘romance come espionage’ book, ‘Notoriously Naked Flames’ is themed around the events of that short-lived libertine era. Writing that book was pure joy. I think I fell in love with the albino Goddess who was my lead character and a diamond gal, to boot.
Another element of poetry that fascinates me is word choice. When you write poems like “The Passing of a Myth,” do you first concentrate on creating the visuals within the poem, or are you first dedicated to building the music of the line? Both are gorgeous in this poem, but I can’t fathom trying to work on both at once, so I’m assuming there’s a process. 🙂
There’s no process, I promise.
In truth I’d forgotten I ever wrote that one. Having just read it once again I recall that at the time a dark depression had consumed me. I’m particularly good at those. In their own clinging way they have a creative spark unique to their species. The addictive perk depression offers is that it spawns words of own volition. They may have come alive in my head yet I never feel ‘ownership’ of them. What and how I write is, as ever, at their discretion. If there is a benefit in chance visits from my old nemesis, Monsieur Chien Noir, then it is that, by way of compensation for outstaying his welcome, I often find he settles his account by way a currency born of milk and honey words that flow like there’s no tomorrow.
What advice would you like to pass on to young writers of today that is unconventional but true?
Well, this is my personal take on the subject. I’m sure many will justifiably
see it differently. I would firstly advise that nothing is sacred. You can get
away with murder when your only weapon is the written word. Never pull a punch.
It took me an age to realize that words beg to be out of their comfort zone. Let
them run feral. Also, never run ahead of yourself and believe you’re a poet or
a novelist. You’re not. I’m not. Most aren’t. To me only the greats who have
earned their stripes in that regard can lay claim to those tags. Mostly they
never find that out, as accolades tend to chase only the great and grateful dead.
Importantly, grab hold of self-doubt and make her your new best friend. She’ll never let you down. While a smidgen of self-believe is a harmless thing, never believe you’re capable of walking on the inky waters of Lake Egocentric for you will lose all respect from your peer group as well as potential readers.
If you’re writing about a city/country/culture you haven’t physically visited, how much research do you conduct before you start writing?
Albeit a contradiction given what I’ve said vis a vis ‘words’, yes I
do research. I find it chivvies the lazy words amongst the contingent along. In
many ways it’s the most enjoyable aspect. I learn shed loads of things I never
knew previously. Even with my ‘Jonny Catapult the Plumber the Artist’s All
Trust’ lunatic skits…as per my new book, ‘Fanny,
I Think of You Often’…I had to research pretty much all angles of
plumbing believe it or not…not that I shall actually or actively ‘plumb’ now
or at any time in the future unless there is a revolver fixed firmly at my
temple. Plainly, it is essential to share my research with the tribe curious ‘words’
thus giving them an idea as to where I live in hope they will travel.
‘Notoriously Naked Flames’ demanded a whole mass of painstaking research. I had to discover exactly how life was and how it looked during those years building up to WW2 in countries and cities across Europe, from Amsterdam, Mother Russia…including the Ukraine, Istanbul and Berlin, none of which I was that familiar with, although when it came to Paris and the coastal areas of Belgium I was very much on home territory. History, architecture, politics and the ways of life of both the good and the bad became key to creating a canvas upon which words could paint their picture.
Thank you so, so much for taking time to chat, Master Steeden! Let’s wrap-up with a rundown of your latest works available now on Amazon.
I’ve have already made mention of the new book, full title, ‘Fanny, I Think of You Often & Other Tales of Abject Lunacy’. It is the first of two books both of which are a deranged collection of skits, such as ‘Audrey Hepburn’s Bout of Gout’; ‘Marilyn Monroe’s Distressing Flatulence’; ‘The fate of the old grannie from Lowestoft who once upon a time inadvertently stepped upon Elvis’s blue suede shoes’ and much, much more. The sister to this tome, ‘The Elastic Snapped,’ is also available.
Another addition to the shelves at Amazon/Kindle is co-authored with Shirley Blamey. It’s name is ‘Whatever Happened To Eve?’ Eighteen months previous I commenced collecting ever willing words for this story. A third of the book complete, the new words arriving were a motley crew who failed abysmally to direct my tale toward a conclusion.
Then a stroke of good fortune. It was in September last year, having
suffered an irksome eye injury some months previous that had slowed my progress
when coaxing words, that Shirl and I took a short break in France and it was
there a story imagined over cold bière blonde in a clandestine darkest corner
of a once voguish bar in ‘Paris par la mer’ took on a new shape. Twixt the pair
of us, in concert we found ourselves acting and reacting to the seductive pulse
of mutual, sometimes deliciously wicked thoughts. No ‘what if’s’, ‘but’s’ or ‘maybe’s’ when a
dark fantasy drops out the night sky for it must, for rationalities’ sake, be
put to the written word before it is lost forever to the merciless ether. An
excited cluster of unshackled ‘words’ agreed. We were on a roll.
I have to say, come breakfast, I questioned Shirl on a number of potentially
controversial topics and storylines we had come up with that night in France.
“Can we really get away with that? Seriously?” I asked. “Molly Parkin got away
with it time and time again. Why not?,” her pokerfaced riposte. Soon after wily
‘words’ found they had two craniums to take up residence in. I tend to think
mine was just their holiday home.
130,000 or so words later we have a book we shall shortly make known
to others. Having said that…and you
are the first to know, the lovely Ms. Lee…
‘Whatever Happened To Eve?’ is, in truth, already available in both
paperback and Kindle at Amazon sites far and wide.
Lastly Ms Lee, my
thanks for the invitation, your time and patience.
Gentlemen Prefer a Pulse: Poetry with a Hint of Lunacy: Gentlemen Prefer a Pulse is Mike Steeden’s first published collection of poetry and features over a hundred poems that are sometimes humourous, serious, satirical, surreal, thought provoking and brilliant! Mike says his inspiration is drawn from his self proclaimed love of the fairer sex, his passion for ‘people watching’ (a trait born of his time as a private investigator), social justice and compassion.
Notoriously Naked Flames: Part espionage thriller, part romance, part fantasy, part adventure, ‘Notoriously Naked Flames’ is Mike Steeden’s first novel. Spanning the lead up to World War II, the war itself, and into the early 1950s, the unnamed heroine of the piece, a bewitching albino of Bohemian bent, masquerades in all manner of risqué guises dishing out her own version of clandestine justice to those evil souls spawned of conflict’s disregard for compassion, law, and order.
Fanny, I Think of You Often… Nothing is sacred. If permitted, the mind wanders free in the knowledge that anything and everything is possible. Season such a mind with a pinch of satire plus a hint of Pythonesque surrealism and the dish of ‘fusion lunacy’ is ready to be served. Within the pages of this deranged collection of skits you will discover how Audrey Hepburn dealt with a bout of gout; similarly what became of Marilyn Monroe’s false teeth; the fate of the old grannie from Lowestoft who once upon a time inadvertently stepped upon Elvis’s blue suede shoes and much, much more.
The Elastic Snapped: WARNING: This book may contain traces of nuts (not of the edible kind) and may also cause drowsiness amongst those unfamiliar with the English language. Bibliophobia sufferers may experience severe panic attacks. Additionally, it is strongly recommended that you do not drive whilst reading.INGREDIENTS: Lunacy, stupidity, silliness, idiocy, absurdity, aberration, eccentricity and fragments of appallingly bad taste.
Whatever Happened to Eve? No writer can help what he or she writes. Whether they be scandalous or sweet, dull or bright, words arrive as and when the fancy takes and evolve into whatever fable suits. With that in mind this collective of untamed words, of their own volition, chose not to be pitched at the easily offended or fainthearted, instead they opted for a captivating darkness.
To celebrate March Magics–and because I’ve final projects to grade and two novels to crack down upon–I’m sharing a previously unposted essay I wrote a couple years back when I was compiling all my Diana Wynne Jones posts into the collection Lessons Learned. Enjoy!
In “The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey,”Diana Wynne Jones discusses the place of the mythic hero in contemporary story-telling, especially her own. This particular essay in Reflections on the Magic of Writing struck me on epiphanical proportions. (Yes, new word. Doesn’t the fantasy genre allow for some language leniency?) In all the writing classes I had taken over the years, no one had ever broken down the echoes and inspirations between the modern and ultra-classic like that before. Jones details connections between her work and Chaucer, Spenser, and Homer, to name a few. Sure, that may sound like she’s tooting her own horn, but I don’t think so. Fire and Hemlock, one of her most critically revered novels, is so subtle with the fantastic you can literally blink and miss it. For instance, the first chapter is all about the protagonist Polly trying to remember something. Sounds dull, doesn’t it? Yet as we go further into the story, we learn Polly is fighting through the memories be-spelled upon her by the villain. The first chapter shares Polly’s initial success in remembering the true past.
Tempting as it is to go in depth on Fire and Hemlock yet again, “The Heroic Ideal” contains Jones’ discussion of mythology’s inspiration F&H with far more depth and humor. Besides, she wrote two other novels that serve as marvelous examples. The first, Eight Days of Luke, is a touch more obvious than Fire and Hemlock if one knows a bit about Norse mythology. I’ll admit that I didn’t, at least not until the movie Thor came out and my father was as giddy as an eight-year-old. (It is a decent movie, for the record–and directed by Kenneth Branagh of all people!)
Granted, Marvel’s interpretation of Norse mythology is, um, loose, but you get some basics in there: the home of the gods, Thor and his dad being at odds, Loki the mischief maker, etc. Diana Wynne Jones has her own fun with these myths, and from her fun Eight Days of Luke is born.
David is stuck at home on school
holiday with his horrible relations. After being reminded how he’s a wretched,
ungrateful little orphan they don’t deserve to put up with, David skulks out
into the garden and starts pacing back and forth, muttering what he feels are
some really good curses—only, he doesn’t really know what he’s saying. The
garden wall cracks and out come some nasty snakes and a boy just David’s size.
His name is Luke.
By this point I’m sure you know who the title character Luke is—that’s right, Loki. David has somehow freed Luke from his prison (only Diana Wynne Jones would put a Norse god’s prison beneath a marrow garden in Ashbury) and Luke’s relations are coming down to get him: Mr. Chew (war god Tiu), the Frys (fertility gods Freyja and Freyr), and Mr. Wedding (Odin, chief of the gods). Thor comes along eventually when we learn why Luke’s in so much trouble, and what David can do to help him. (Thor’s rather the giveaway, so no fancy modern alias for him.)
One of the cool things about a quest story is that they are indeed timeless. David must outwit gods and mortals alike for the sake of his friend, just like any great hero of the distant past. Sure, folks like Perseus and Beowulf may not have had pinball or cricket, but they always had someone or something worth fighting for.
Jones’ The Game puts a girl at odds with horrible relations, too, only this novella is a bit more…hmm…nonlinear, would be the best way to say it. Hayley is sent to live with a bunch of aunts and cousins she’s never met before, and she quickly learns why her grandmother never liked them. She also learns just how much her grandfather bears on his shoulders—literally. Among many worldly matters, Haley’s grandfather takes great care of the mythosphere, a place where Hayley’s cousins secretly play The Game. Once Hayley begins playing The Game with them, reality and the mythosphere are both irrevocably changed. She discovers her grandfather’s true identity: Atlas the titan. The uncle who controls them all is none other than Jupiter. And she must…well. Needless to say, I learned some more mythology thanks to this book.
Bringing past gods into the present isn’t a unique idea; Rick Riordan’s made a mint off of his various “modern kids vs. ancient gods” series, Percy Jackson and the Olympiansbeing the first and, I believe, the most popular. (It’s the one I read, anyway.) And I give Riordan and Jones both credit for inspiring curiosity in young readers for the olden tales of heroes and gods, of the odysseys through time and beyond.
I know we all like to make that Ecclesiastic complaint that there is nothing new under the sun. Well, it’s one thing to copy, or plagiarize, but it’s another to truly reimagine. Jones proves time and again that one can look to the classics for inspiration. Even the most worn of roads will take you somewhere, if you let it.
Thanks so much for reading! If you have other grand (or not-so-grand) examples of reimaginings you’d like to discuss, please share them in the comments below.
Purity tests are the tools of fanatics, and the quest for purity ultimately becomes indistinguishable from the quest for power.
Jennifer Senior, “Teen Fiction and the Perils of Cancel Culture”
There is a darkness creeping along the edges of Twitter. Like the Nothing from Neverending Story, it haunts authors with hushed whispers until it moves in swiftly with a power unmatched by any other.
It is the Cancel Culture.
I had not heard of cancel culture until last month, when debut YA author Kosoko Jackson pulled his book from publication because he was accused of being insensitive to the Muslim community. You can read the account here. Like article writer Jennifer Senior says, there’s a strong sense of irony that this YA author pulls his book after he and others demanded YA author Amélie Wen Zhao pull her book due to evoking “an offensive analogy to American slavery.” Click here for that article. (Oh, and here’s another article I found while editing this post that mentions yet another YA book mobbed by cancel culture.) This issue’s grown to such a point that PENAmerica recently held a panel featuring a diverse array of writers and critics to discuss the matter–click here for that, as it’s a thought-provoking read.
Whether you wade through all the articles or not, I really want you to see the quote from Jackson that speaks to this stormy state of YA Literature:
What Jackson’s case really demonstrates is just how narrow and untenable the rules for writing Y.A. literature are. In a tweet last May, Jackson himself more or less articulated them: “Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by black people. Stories of suffrage should be written by women. Ergo, stories about boys during life-changing times, like the AIDS epidemic, should be written by gay men. Why is this so hard to get?”
On the one hand, I LOVE the idea of bringing all the voices from all the walks of life onto the page. No one’s voice is worth less than another.
But while the cancel culture and purists may say they are fighting for diversity, their words come off more as calls for segregation.
Case in point: American Heart by Laura Moriarity. Initially her book was awarded a starred review from Kirkus…until cancel culture called for otherwise. Not only did Kirkus pull its star, it completely altered the review.Click here for a comparison of the two reviews.The New Yorker even did an editorial on “problematic” book reviews, (click here for that) and I think writer Ian Nolan’s conclusion on criticism is worth noting here:
…criticism exists in different flavors, but its defining feature is an individualism of response. That response can be wise or unwise, popular or unpopular. A reviewer can squander authority by seeming too often at odds with good judgment. But, without critical autonomy, the enterprise falls apart. The only reason to hire a critic, instead of giving a megaphone to the crowd, is that creative work—books most of all—isn’t processed as a collective. People make sense of art as individuals, and their experiences of the work differ individually, too. A reviewer speaks for somebody, even if he or she doesn’t speak for you.
Ian Nolan, “Kirkus Reviews and the Plight of the “Problematic” Book Review
I am a white woman born of two white parents in the Midwest. My parents both worked for protestant churches, and together barely made enough to make ends meet. Frugality was the name of the game no matter where we lived, be it a small farming town up north, or deep in Milwaukee’s North Side.
My father was born and raised in Milwaukee in a tumultuous time. White flight, housing discrimination, police brutality, and the Civil Rights movement all boiled over to overwhelm the inner city and scald it with the Milwaukee Riots. I can’t imagine how this affected my dad, seeing the death, the pain, the hundreds upon hundreds arrested in a war for equality. Maybe taking that Call to serve his childhood church in Milwaukee is answer enough.
I think Dad saw this and remembered the prejudice and anger that had poisoned his town so deeply in the 1960s. It would explain what he did next.
Juneteenth Day comes every 19th of June to celebrate the emancipation of slaves in 1865 in the last “holdout” state (Texas) after the Civil War. Dad reorganized the church’s annual outdoor picnic to be held in June as close to the 19th as he could get. He invited a gospel choir directed by a friend of his in a church from Milwaukee’s East Side, another struggling area. Then he reached out to the congregation’s few young members to form groups for canvassing the neighborhood, leaving flyers of invitation to the church’s outdoor service. With a mixture of words from the Bible and Civil Rights activists, Dad preached a message of Love, Equality, Justice, and Hope.
If I am to take this cancel culture to heart, then my father should not have worked to heal the old neighborhood. He was a middle-aged white man; therefore, he cannot possibly connect with those of a different color. He should have kept with his own kind. We should all only keep to our own kinds.
Have we forgotten what it means to look beyond ourselves?
Have we forgotten what it means to have empathy?
em·pa·thy [ˈempəTHē] NOUN the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Why must my body define my voice?
Stories have a power completely, utterly unique: they can take a person born in one body, and transplant them into another. That body could be living three hundred years ago on the other side of the world, or three hundred years into the future buried deep beneath the earth, or even three thousand universes away. When we take the age-old writing lesson of “write what you know” and give it the Orwellian twist of “write only what you know,” we limit that power severely, dangerously.
When we limit that power, we limit our ability to empathize with one another. We lose our ability to connect with those beyond ourselves. We begin to turn away from the wealth of a diverse world, and huddle with our own kind.
Do not let others take your power away. There are countless worlds inside of you, filled with people of all cultures and creeds. You have every right to bring those people to the page.
No voice should be fettered by the body it’s born in.
I’m still pretty wound up about this, so if you feel like talking, add your comments below! If you’re new to my site, welcome! You are welcome to sign up for my newsletter, check out my freeshort stories, or pick up my first novel, which is free on Kindle Unlimited. Thanks for coming by!
I’m going to pause before I even begin in order to say how amazingly patient you all have been for enduring this 30-day blog-o-thon. I’ve been doing my damndest to catch up on reading your sites, but I have a feeling it’s going to take a month of NOT writing just to see all that you lovely folks have done during this cold, snowy month.
During one pre-dawn hour set aside for morning coffee and blog reading, I came across an old book review by the amazing Chris Lovegrove. His closing nails the very topic I wish to discuss today:
I felt a little cheated by the end. The lack of resolution for one character felt manipulative. Increasingly, fantasies these days are clearly labelled Book One of a spellbinding new series or The first volume of such-and-such saga; it wasn’t till near the end that I realised that this wasn’t a standalone novel but that I would have to invest time and maybe more money in the sequel.
Indeed, what has happened to the standalone story? We are an audience of franchises and serieseseses to the point where filmmakers will divvy up a book and spread its material so thinly that a single story is transformed into a film trilogy. (cough cough HOBBIT cough cough)
When I study Diana Wynne Jones’ library (as every good and proper fantasy fan should do), I see 25 stand-alone stories. 2 duologies, 1 trilogy, 1 quartet (quartology?), and the octology of Chrestomanci. (I’m just making up number words at this point.) We won’t even get into the short fiction stuff here, or plays, or whatever else. Strictly novels. (If I missed any, let me know!)
If you go through all these novels, not one ends with a cliffhanger. Correct me if I’m wrong, but DWJ was one to practice what she preached:
My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped.
As far as DWJ was concerned, the story she needed to tell began and ended in one volume. Even the DWJ stories considered sequels or parts of a series are only considered such because they’re in the same universe, NOT because they’re picking up where the previous plot left off. Look at the Howl trilogy: Howl and Sophie go from primary characters in the first book to making cameo appearances in the second. In the third book they appear halfway through the novel with some importance, but still, they are not the primary protagonists. One of the primary characters of Deep Secret returns in The Merlin Conspiracy, but again, he is not the main character. DWJ utilized the same universe for multiple stories, not necessarily the same characters. Heck, Chrestomanci’s rarely a main character in his own series! (But I already wrote about that.)
I started paging through other Young Adult Fantasy stories read from my bookshelf or local library to see which stories end on a cliffhanger, and which are capable of standing alone.
Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne:She was travelling at a good pace, though, and it was not long before she disappeared up the winding path, to be swallowed into the treacherous depths of the bandit-laden forest and the company of wolves.
Cliffhanger. The protagonist’s clearly beginning another journey. Not only is the primary antagonist of the story is still in power, but we learn our protagonist is entering yet another enemy’s territory.
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. “One more time? For the audience?” he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.
I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.
Both. This one’s a bit grey to me. On the one hand, the protagonist has survived the Hunger Games. The primary conflict of the story has come to a close. However, we read here that the protagonist’s personal journey is not over, so there is, in a sense, a cliffhanger, just not like the life-or-death situation the protagonist’s been in for much of the book.
Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight:I touched his face. “Look,” I said. “I love you more than everything else in the world combined. Isn’t that enough?”
“Yes, it is enough,” he answered, smiling. “Enough for forever.”
And he leaned down to press his cold lips once more to my throat.
Standalone. You read right. Yes, I’ve read the whole series, so yes, I know there are more books after this. But I’ll give Meyers credit for giving this novel an ending that feels like an ending. As far as everyone knows, the last of the bad vampires has left the region and the girl’s got the guy. All’s right with the world.
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone(hush, I’m an American, THAT’S the title here): Harry hung back for a last word with Ron and Hermione.
“See you over summer, then.”
“Hope you have–er–a good holiday,” said Hermione, looking uncertainly after Uncle Vernon, shocked that anyone could be so unpleasant.
“Oh, I will,” said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face. “They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer…”
Standalone. When you consider the primary conflict (protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone from Voldemort) that conflict officially ends in this book. Yes, Voldemort gets away, but his plot’s been thwarted. Even the other school-friendly subplots of making friends, succeeding in a wizarding school with a muggle’s childhood, and so on are wrapped up. The Voldemort conflict does not start creating cliffhangers until the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban.
Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel:Magnus reached behind himself and locked the parlor door. “Very well,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is?”
Cliffhanger. Any time a story ends with a question, it’s an automatic cliffhanger–especially when that question pertains to a protagonist’s “problem.”
Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call:Early in the new year, she tells her parents that she has to leave again.
“The Nation must survive,” she says. “I can help with that.”
She sits alone on the bus, her suitcase propped up on the seat beside her so she can pretend it’s Megan sitting there instead. And off she goes through the snowy roads, Agnes and Ferg waving her away, hugging each other, their pride so fierce it burns.
Standalone. The protagonist has survived her three minutes. The fight goes on, and so will she, determined to leave her parents and teach other children how to survive the dark land of the Sidhe. By this story’s rules, she cannot be summoned back into the Sidhe realm for another hunt, so again, by this story’s rules, our protagonist is officially free. Of course, Peadar totally subverts these expectations in The Invasion, but I appreciate how he made this novel self-contained. Had this remained a standalone, it’d still be awesome.
Off the top of my head…
Other good examples of what I feel could be considered standalone novels whether or not they’re in a series: Court of Thorns and Roses, Uprooted, Neverwhere, Chronicles of Narnia
Know any others? Let me know!
Other good examples of what I feel are cliffhanger novels:Cruel Prince, Mortal Instruments, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen
Ibid on the knowing and the letting of me knowing
Hey, what’s my own book doing there?
Yes, I must plead guilty. I was in a similar situation as JRR Tolkien; as you know, LOTR is one HUGE tome broken into three books for readability’s sake. The same thing happened with Stolen–my publisher kindly pointed out that people aren’t necessarily going to be drawn to a debut novel 650 pages long. Two novels, though, would split that length into readable installments. The result?
Her head nestles against Liam’s knee. The Voice in her heart sighs, too exhausted to notice a pounding, a drumming rising from deep, deep in the Pits.
So what makes a cliffhanger tolerable and not infuriating?
Somewhere along the way, SOMEthing must be resolved.
A series is bound to have many plot threads, and that’s fine. But if a few hundred pages cannot tie off a single thread, readers are going to get pissed.
Rightfully so, too. In a way it comes back to those expectations and payoffs: the patience of a reader lasts for only so long. The more you build, and build, and build, yet never follow through, the more readers will feel lost, disengaged, or both. Why spend time in a world that’s constantly tangled with characters never decently understood?
So sure, maybe the antagonist is still free at the end of Book 1. Maybe the hero’s journey has only just begun. Was a battle fought and one? Was an internal conflict resolved? Did a relationship come to fruition or destruction? So long as SOMEthing has been brought to a close, a cliffhanger ending will still bring some satisfaction to the reader.
Resolve nothing in that first book, and readers will resolve not to invest time in the second.
Tie a thread or two, and hold your world–your series–together.
Let’s talk first about reading awesome stuff. What is your favorite childhood book? C’mon, say Voyage of the Dawn Treader, you know you want to!
Haha, is that your favorite Narnia book? If I was to go with something from C.S. Lewis I’d say Out of the Silent Planet. I’m a big fan of Roald Dahl, it’s hard to pick one, maybe James and the Giant Peach. Also, I’ve been reading Calvin & Hobbes to my kids at night, and I’m always impressed by how much insight Bill Waterson has into the fundamental nature of childhood. Do other people identify that much with Calvin or is it just me?
OH MY GOSH YES! We found all our old Calvin & Hobbes collections when the basement flooded. The kids LOVE reading them, which is awesome…until one starts using some of Calvin’s vocabulary at school and winds up seeing the principal as a result. That’s not so awesome.
Anyway, what authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I think that The Catcher in the Rye is one of those books where there’s a small window in your life where it really hits you like a punch in the face. I think high schools do it a disservice by teaching it in Sophomore years. I think you need to approach it a bit later. Sooner or later you’ll feel what Holden was feeling, and Catcher is magical if you pick it up at that moment. However, if you’re reading it against your will it becomes absolutely miserable…which is unfortunate.
I know just what you mean. I recall being forced to readThe Count of Monte Cristoin college and absolutely loathed it, but when I tried it again a few years ago, I was completely enraptured. It’s like there needs to be a shedding of expectations, an allowance to read for reading’s sake, and allow the story to dictate the pace rather than the reader.
I remember being pretty upset at the end of The Elfstones of Shannara. I also found the first 6 minutes of Transformers: The Movie completely devastating. I know it was just a big advertisement to get us to buy toy robots…but it meant something to me dang it!
Oh yeah, I made the mistake of showing this “kid’s movie” to my sons. Watch the opening if you dare, folks. This movie opens with an entire planet of living robots BEING EATEN. Kids love death on a planetary scale!
(Gotta say, though, that the theme song is totally metal.)
Bash sobbed for ages after it was done, and I don’t blame him–you’re watching beloved Robots in Disguise MELT TO DEATH throughout this movie! Biff thought it all amusing and wanted to watch it again. (Yes, we are watching him.)
I’m sure you get a lot of authors and/or stories recommended to you that you just don’t dig—a reader’s block, as it were. Do you fight your way through to finish the story, or do you shelve the story, never to be finished?
The main reason I don’t finish a book these days is just a lack of time. Endings don’t surprise me anymore so the main craft of a book is in the beginning I believe. If an astute reader hasn’t guessed the ending of a book then there are problems with the build up. It’s pretty rare to encounter a book so terrible I have to put it down. Whether a book is published by a small press, a major publisher, or independently, there is almost always a memorable line or scene. Everybody has a worthwhile story to tell.
Excellent point. In all my years I can’t think of more than a few books that I just couldn’t bring myself to finish. Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I like the onomatopoeic words that show interjections of simultaneous action during a dialogue, and the present tense portions create a sense of urgency. Janet Morris does something similar in her Beyondseries, although she slips out of it into a more traditional narrative voice. I might try doing a short story in your style just to see how it feels.
That’d be cool! It’s important to test different styles. Yeah, they might not work, but some other excellent character or plot idea may arise in that attempt, and that makes the experiment worth it.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I think you gain more confidence in the process as you go. Usually there’s a theme or an idea that I want to work through, and I come up with a lot of stories that surround that idea. Once you have a hundred pages of stories, you start to see how they connect in a storyline. I imagine that The Hobbit came as a result of Tolkien saying, “I’d like to daydream about a place called Middle-Earth for a while.” Writing a book is very much taking a journey. You take the journey because you’re curious what the scenery looks like.
You’re currently a member of the St. Croix Writers, a writing group based in the beautiful North Woods of Wisconsin. Can you share a bit about this group and its awesomeness?
I just met those folks as a result of a concerted effort I’m making in 2019 to be more active in writing groups. I found a web page that listed all the writing groups in the state of Wisconsin and I wrote all of them a message. Thomas Wayne King sent me his phone number and encouraged me to call for a chat which I thought was very nice. I plan on attending their next meeting. I think a lot of writing groups could come into the 20th century a little more. There are a lot of ways that writers can support each other and I think that needs to be encouraged.
Yes, indeed! Especially because it’s easy to feel a bit cut off where we are, the “backwaters” that “real writers” don’t live in.
So of course I have to ask about Wisconsin, too, being a “Cheesehead” myself (yet not a Packer fan. I know, I know, I’m lucky not to be banished to Illinois for that.) Do you feel there’s something about Wisconsin’s land, people, or culture that inspires your storytelling? How so?
I think a lot of stories from rural Wisconsin are overlooked or dismissed. There’s quite a bit of arrogance in the writing community, and an impulse to disregard certain stories, which is unfortunate. Everyone has a story to tell, and all of those stories are very important and deserve attention. Actually, if you want to read more about my thoughts on this matter, check out my article “Not Worthy of Study: The Catastrophic Arrogance of the Literary Community.” Go Packers!
Ugh, don’t even TALK to me about the Packers after this lousy excuse of a season!
It can be a huge struggle balancing the writing side of life with that of family. Does your family inspire your stories, or support you in your writing endeavors? In what way(s)?
I’ll often read my stories to my girls at night before they go to sleep. If they pay attention all the way to the end, I know I have something good. If they drift off, I know I have to rewrite. They’re very honest and that’s vital.
Aw, that’s so awesome! I haven’t dared share my writing with my kids. When I see them, the fear of disappointing them digs too deep.
You regularly travel between the United States and Peru to visit family. How amazing to be immersed in such different cultures! What kinds of inspiration do you draw from the Peruvian landscape, culture, and people?
I went to Peru when I was 26 and it was super helpful to me because it was so inexpensive to live there. As a writer, you need a lot of time, not just for writing, but for reflection. Also, you can go a lot time between pay days writing, so it’s nice not to have a lot of financial pressure. Being in a foreign country is great for anyone because it shows that whole societies are built on radically different ideas. This is useful to see in person if you’re one of those people who walks around thinking, “So many things in our society seem wrong to me.” People will tell you that you’re crazy if you point out an error. “That’s the way it’s always been,” they say. It’s a massive existential boost to see that, no, it HASN’T always been that way in other parts of the world.
As much as I love my kids, they can be my writing Kryptonite: nothing zaps the creative drive like a call from the principal or a kid waking waaaay too early for his own good. What is your writing Kryptonite?
I’m the first to admit I “Google as I go” as far as researching is concerned. How long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I think research is more important to a tech type writer, somebody like Tom Clancy where historical items are far more important to the plot. I’m a character type writer, so research doesn’t play that big a role. However, my most recent release, Paperclip, required some research. We did it on the fly, and we found exactly what we were looking for. It turns out there were some documents that were supposed to be shredded by the government but got misfiled instead—you can’t make stuff like that up!
Oh, what a lucky find!
You and I are both published via small presses, which are different than self-publishing programs or the “traditional” publishing houses, so we see things a bit differently in the publishing industry. What do you think is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can be done to change it?
There are a lot of things I’d like to change in the publishing industry. One of the things I really dislike is that people seem to be afraid to express their own opinions. A narrative gets created about a book, and people fall in step with what the narrative states. I’ve been fortunate where I’ve felt the tidal effect of a positive narrative, but it still is a disquieting feeling. I used to get in trouble in college classes a lot because I like to offer nuanced opinions, but the mass of people want to reassign you to a larger, dumbed down narrative. “Well it sounds like you’re saying this…” they say, when you aren’t saying anything of the sort.
Oh yes, I’ve noticed that, these “narratives.” There’s hype that will lump the book into a certain group, and if you disagree than you’re an awful person. There’s no nuance anymore, no “I liked Element A in the book but not B, and here’s why.” It’s all or nothing.
Mostly, I’d like to see new authors get more of a fair shake, but part of advertising is to take customers away from the competition. The thing I’m doing to change it is to read and engage with as many new authors as I can. I’ve become pretty bored with major Hollywood releases, there are some fascinating works out there in small-press and independent publishing.
Kudos to you, Sir! There’s such a wealth of amazing tales out there that the mainstream media never touches. It’s up to us to dig them up!
Lastly, what are common traps for aspiring writers, and how can they avoid them?
A lot of the general beliefs about what it means to be a writer are just flat out wrong, and there are a lot of people giving bad advice. The big thing to remember is that the money is supposed to flow TO the writer, not FROM the writer. Even if it’s not a lot of money, it needs to be going TO you. The other thing to keep in mind is that your work will often be rejected without being read. There are some agents and publishers who send out really snooty form letters, and you’ll get these even from an email query that doesn’t even include an attachment of your work. It’s pretty much a rigged game with no chance of success, but play it anyway. Maybe we should all be thankful for that because I think too much attention is just as destructive to your ability to do important work as too little. Every story is important, and every story has an audience. Thanks for having me!
And thank you for taking the time to chat! Lord willing I can drive up to Chippewa Falls sometime for a chat. 🙂
If you’re in northern Midwest, Rhein and co-author Dan Woll are having a talk about writing and marketing thrillers.
I connected with P.J. Lazos online as a fellow indie writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her discussions on environmental issues, writing, human virtue, and family are so compelling that I just had to introduce her to all of you.
First, let’s talk about you. Your biography reflects many passions: a passion for truth as a journalist, a passion to fight for what can’t as an environmental lawyer, and a passion for words as a writer. Which of these passions shown itself in you first, and how did it influence your other passions?
I think my strong sense of justice started in childhood. My mother had a baby who died at three months old. I was three years old at the time and remember thinking how unfair it was for our family, but especially for my mother who was devastated by the loss. I think I tried so hard to make it right for her, but of course, what could I do. Maybe the words grew out of that experience — definitely the emotion. I remember journaling when I was a kid although then it was called “keeping a diary” an no where near as in vogue as it is now so clearly the name change helped. As for my bit with the environment, well, my mom used to wrap me in a blanket and tuck me under the big oak tree in the backyard and I would lie there and have a conversation with the tree, or at least that’s what it looked like in the video, so I think that started then, too.
Your Six Sisters series delves into the nuances of family life and all its beautiful imperfections. Now I’m not going to strictly ask if this is autobiographical, but were any characters inspired by family or friends in your life? What drew you to share their stories?
That’s funny. My brother-in-law from my first marriage — I still maintain a solid relationship with my ex-husband and former in-laws — asked me the same question about List of 55. The answer is complicated. No, in that the over-the-top behaviors of the characters in that story were definitely not us, but yes in that the underlying emotion behind a break-up was definitely there. You don’t have to have a specific experience to write about it convincingly as long as you can access the emotion behind it. For example, I remarried and my now husband’s first wife died when their two kids were very young. Hearing that story from his POV allowed me to access his unbearable loss and I created a character — David Hartos in Oil and Water — loosely based on my husband who was also a commercial diver. He provided me with insight into how a heart completely busted open by grief struggled to raise two kids as well as how the world of commercial diving worked. I think that as writers, a piece of you lands in every story you ever write, but some are just more autobiographical than others. The part of List of 55 where the central character has a miscarriage — that precise situation did not happen to me, but I did have a miscarriage in a bathroom stall at 30th St. Station in Philadelphia and I think it may have been the saddest, most horrific moment of my life. I tried to write about it before, but it never came out with the gravity I wanted to convey so I put all that angst into Belinda’s character and that’s what I got. Sometimes it’s easier to process your own pain through a made up character. Isn’t that a staple of psychological counseling for kids, and aren’t we all just kids walking around in adult bodies, still harboring all the crap and still relishing all the joys we experienced in childhood?
Now, your most recent novel, Oil and Water,is an environmental thriller. Considering your legal expertise, I imagine you didn’t have to do a ton of research for this novel…or is that being presumptuous?
Yeah, I wish it worked that way for me, but it doesn’t. I started with doing some initial research about converting trash into oil and about the Marsh Arabs and the wetlands in the Fertile Crescent (which you would remember from studying Egypt or Mesopotamia), but a lot of the rest, like you, I googled as I went. I have enough information in my head to get me started, but my memory isn’t always a straight arrow so I need to fact check. My favorite kind of fiction is where you learn something so I wanted to be sure I was passing on real time information.
As the premise of Oil and Water brings readers to difficult questions about our dependence on fossil fuels, your website Green Life Blue Wateralso informs readers of some amazing environmental initiatives that are doing their communities some good. Are there any current programs you’d like to highlight right now?
Rain gardens and aquaponics! I’m a member of the Junior League of Lancaster, a group that’s been operating in Lancaster since 1923. This is my 8th year in the League and I love being part of a volunteer women’s organization. We are doing some really cutting edge stuff like building rain gardens which are basically bowl-like depressions planted with hydrophytic plants that hold stormwater and rain water in high flow times as a way to divert it out of combined sewer system.
This year we’re adding aquaponics to the mix which is basically a fish tank with food growing on top — veggies, herbs, whatever you want (well, maybe not pumpkins). The fish poop fertilizes the plants so it’s a self-contained system. We’re doing a pilot project at an elementary school here in Lancaster, installing four tanks in four second grade classrooms and putting together some curriculum to go with it. We want to make a “pizza garden” with basil, oregano, cherries tomatoes, and a few other things so when the kids harvest the food in the tank we can throw them a pizza party. So lots happening: how ecosystems interact, close up look tan water and nutrients, nutrition, and more, I’m sure. Hands on learning is really the best way to get those kind of lessons across. I just learned that the Aztecs were the first to do aquaponics. The called it Chinampas. So you see, I’m learning something, too.
You are also a member of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, correct? Can you tell us a little about this program and how writers can join?
I actually don’t do that anymore. It was quite fun, but a friend of mine asked me what I had to be insecure about since she loved my writing. That started me thinking about The Law of Attraction and how what you think about all day long is what manifests in your life so I stopped participating in IWSG and started participating in WATWB, We Are the World Blogfest, which had just started. WATWB happens on the last Friday of every month and it showcases positive news stories as a way to counteract all the negativity in the world, an “accentuate the positive” approach to news and life. I also found this group to be more “my people”, writers all, but focused on social justice, environmental issues, a better life for all people. Plus you get a real lift from reading the stories people post.
Lastly, what advice would you like to share with those who are unsure how to explore their family or other passions with writing?
Journaling is always a great way to get started. I always kept a kind-of notebook, but when my daughter was born, a friend gave me a beautiful black sketch book with lovely, creamy paper. I had four months off from work, plus another four on a very part-time basis, I wrote a journal in earnest, a love letter to my kid that I intend to give her one of these days when she’s ready to read it. Her dad and I split before she was born and I wanted to get everything I was feeling down on paper. We joke now that she came out screaming because I was so angry when I was pregnant. Unless I’m reading her wrong, today, like me, she laughs readily and sees both the irony and the gifts in most situations. I don’t write in a journal as much as I used to, but I have a blog and much of what I would write in the journal goes in the blog. One thing I would suggest and that I myself need to get back to is morning pages, something Julia Cameron suggested in “the Artist’s way.” A brain dump every morning to get the gook out and start fresh — something that both reaps and sows benefits. Your mind is clearer, and you’re not as much of a jerk to the the person behind the counter who gets your order wrong or the one who cuts you off in traffic. It helps you to be more chill, in addition to generating ideas, and we all could use more of that.
My deepest thanks to P.J. for taking time to time to talk to us! You can find her Amazon page here and her Twitter page here.
Would you like to be interviewed on Jean Lee’s World, or plug your creative work in my newsletter? Contact meand let me know!
Oh, and I just gotta say how cool it is that four of my Tales of the River Vineare STILL in the Top 10 Free YA Fantasy Monster Fiction.
That’s two months now, and going strong! Thank you thank you THANK YOU!
I do hope you’ll leave a review on my novel letting me know which characters you dig–and which you want to see more of! I’m brainstorming up some more Tales. xxxxxx
The kind that makes you go, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” because a beloved and/or cool character is about to die.
Every time. Seriously, every time I see Predator, I say, “Nooo, Billy!” at the screen. As a member of the audience, I’m invested in seeing the characters’ survival against the Predator. I want to see the characters’ skill sets aid them in overcoming the conflicts and obstacles that await them before the journey’s end.
This can be said as a reader of any high-stakes story, really. Look at a few big SFF series for examples. We want Captain Kirk and his crew to survive. We want Harry Potter and all his friends to survive. We want the Fellowship of the Ring to survive. We want Katniss Everdeen and her loved ones to survive. We want Luke Skywalker and his friends to survive.
We know these people are fictional, but there are facets of these characters that connect within us. This makes us care about them, so of course we go “NOOOOO!” when Dumbledore is struck down by Snape, when Prim and dozens of others are bombed by a device made by the Katniss’ oldest friend, Gabe.
…and then there are the deaths that just don’t feel necessary.
Now I just want to pause here that I’m talking about this as both a reader and a writer. I get that pain and consequence have to occur in a high-stakes story. You can’t threaten death without delivering at least a little bit of death or you risk hollowing out the stakes.
What bothers me as a reader and worries me as a writer are those unnecessary character deaths. You know you’ve encountered stories with this problem. That’s why I showed the aforementioned Predator clip of Billy. Billy, the biggest and buffest bad-ass of Dutch’s team, stops on the tree-bridge to face the Predator. Why?
On screen, we’re not given a reason apart from MANLINESS. Just look at him, stripping down and cutting his own chest. It’s the ultimate bad-ass standoff!
Only in the story, it’s not the ultimate bad-ass standoff. That’s for Dutch (also stripped down) and the Predator.
So why did Billy have to die?
As a “reader,” I could shrug to “noble sacrifice,” except no other death has bought the survivors time or advantage. Billy would know that. I could also shrug to “acceptance,” since earlier in the film Billy says, “We’re all going to die.”
But as a writer, I think I really know why.
It’s because you can’t have an ultimate bad-ass standoff between TWO good guys and a bad guy. Plus, in terms of physique, Billy and Dutch are an equal match. Heck, I think Billy could have beaten Dutch in arm wrestling.
So Billy had to die.
It feels like when there has to be a bit of death in the story, writers sometimes choose the character most similar to the protagonist. Take Finnick Odair from the Hunger Games trilogy: he’s strong, knowledgeable, another survivor of the Hunger Games (also: pretty). We meet him in Catching Fire, grow connected to his personality and backstory, root for him when he gets married….aaaaand watch him die on the assault on the Capital. Now it can be argued his arc’s complete, so the audience knows who he is. SOMEone’s got to die in a war; his death will have the strongest emotional impact while primary heroine Katniss can continue on.
Fine. Fair enough. At least Finnick got to die on page/screen, UNLIKE BILLY.
Notice how after all his bad-ass preparation, we never get to see Billy fight the Predator. We just hear his anguished scream, and know he’s dead. Such off-screen deaths drive me nuts. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is guilty of this, too, both in book and on film, when it comes to characters like Professor Lupin and the Auror Tonks. They die during the battle at Hogwarts while Harry’s elsewhere, so we never see their final moments. They’re just dead.
Wow, I went off longer on this than planned. Dammit, Billy, you got me all wound up!
I get that I have to accept beloved characters dying. I just want those deaths to MATTER. You bet your ass I cry when Beth dies in Little Women. I bawl when Clint Eastwood’s character Walt is shot in Gran Torino. I refused to believe Hercule Poirot was really dead in Curtain until I went online for evidence to prove otherwise…and couldn’t find it. Even Dobby, that goofy little house-elf Dobby, had me sobbing both while reading and watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I hated that these characters had to die.
But their deaths help spur the protagonists–and the narrative–forward. Without their deaths, there is less at stake; therefore, there is less concern for the characters.
Now I have waaaaaay more to say about character death, but Bo’s up and given me the giggles by saying, “Billy will always be in the chopper of your heart.” Yes, yes he will!
So let’s pause to talk. Is there a story with a character death that really frustrates you? Should I kill more characters in my own books?
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