Author #Interview: Let’s Chat with #IndieAuthor @cs_ratliff!

Featured

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! I’m thrilled to continue sharing some lovely indie authors I’ve met in our community. This month, please welcome the thunderously fantastic C.S. Ratliff!

Let’s begin with your adventures as a reader. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I think I’ve always known language had power as a fan of history. Respectively, I believe written and spoken languages have their own power in different ways.

Oh yes, every language has a sense of beauty that makes it unique compared to others. Even when a story is transformed, that new adaptation of an old tale can hold something special. (Seamus Heaney’s telling of Beowulf comes to mind.) Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

I think with each book I read, my understanding of literature and fiction in general changes. There are these “rules” of writing that seem to change drastically between different authors. It has opened my eyes to what’s possible and changed my prose certainly.

How about your favorite under-appreciated novel? I’m always looking for reading recommendations. 🙂

I think the entire Embers of Illenial series by Michael G Manning is amazing and not talked about nearly enough.

Awesome, thank you! Have you been venturing out on any other literary pilgrimages?

I have always loved fantasy but over the past couple years I wanted to do my toes into other genres. I’ve participated in fictional blogs, which also helped me with scene management and short stories. I also recently wrote a sci-fi novella for an anthology submission.

Kudos to you for completing a such a project! I’ve often pondered submitting for an anthology, as they seem like a lovely opportunity for connecting with other writers as well as reaching new readers. What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

I think the issue with royalties and the stigma that authors make lots of money is unethical and profoundly wrong on different levels. For authors to pour their heart into these original stories, and have little to nothing to show, isn’t the best feeling.

Oof, do I know that feeling, too. Writing fantasy for any age is no easy undertaking, to be sure. When it comes to the fantasy genre, we writers are often tempted to explain every little detail of the world and its workings. If we explain too little, readers may grow confused and frustrated with our story. If we explain too much, we lose the story’s pacing—and, once again, our readers. How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?

I learned early on about info dumps. I love creating new worlds but the way I go about revealing anything is through characters, whether it’s through dialogue or discovery. In doing this, I don’t throw too much at once. I think that is the key. The story and characters’ journeys need to take precedence. So if the world is revealed subtly, I believe it feels more tangible in comparison to dumping too much.

Yes, Sir, exactly that! Nothing irritates me as a reader like the info dump, especially when it happens before the story. Of course, apart from characters’ learning, you give readers a little visual boost through your maps. Your skills are most impressive! 🙂

Do you always draw your world before you write it, or does the visual art come after the written word? I’d love to hear more about your process.

Thank you! I’ve only recently gotten into map making. With each new map, I get a little better. With my newest book I’m writing, I did make the map first, but as I’ve written about 65,000 words, I have remade it five times. And it will probably change as the world grows until I’m finished with the book. With that said, I created a map for my first series, but only after writing it.

Do you do any other kinds of research before beginning a book?

My research, both in depth and time, varies with each book or series. For my first series, I researched a little in terms of lightning; the MC has control over that power. I didn’t research much going into my new dragon mage series. I have another project, a weird west series, that I’ve invested a significant amount of time researching as it’s set in the late 1800s western America.

I bet other threads of your life have been woven into your writing, too. For instance, on your author’s site, you mention you’ve undergone martial arts training. That’s so cool! My brothers both have black belts in Tae Kwon Do, so I just have to ask what form you’ve studied and if that form has influenced your fiction in any way.

That is awesome! I trained in Shorei Goju Ryu karate for about a decade total. Martial arts and The military have definitely influenced my action scenes. I find many people struggle with action, but I find choreography and descriptions both easy and fun. It seems to be a positive point in my reviews thus far, so that pleases me to know!

Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

There are a few secrets, mostly parallel arcs to my own life, that I think only a handful of people would ever put together as a mirror of my experiences.

Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me here! Let’s close things out with your first book, Shadow and Lightning. What inspired this story, and where can we find it?

Shadow and Lightning is a coming-of-age story about a boy who becomes endowed with an ancient elemental power after spending his life believing the secret that magic is a myth. It had many themes from adventure and romance, to war and violence. There is a bit of mystery, political intrigue and betrayal. Though it follows a teen, the themes fall into adult much more. It’s a bit gritty and darker especially as the series progresses. It is available on Amazon!

~STAY TUNED!~

‘Tis time to return to the garden….for murder and mayhem! Mwa ha ha ha ha!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#WriterProblems: Finding that Balance Between #Worldbuilding and #Character Development

Happy May to you, my fell creatives!

As I mentioned last month, I got something of a stick in my craw, a monkeywrench in my gears, a fly in my ointment, and other such little irritants over some story series two friends recommended to me. These irritants led me to create this rant/debate/discussion/whatever you want to call it that we’ll be getting into today, so buckle up, my friends–this one’s going to be a bit raw (in a good way (I hope)).

First, a little context.

My podcast You’ve Got Five Pages…To Tell Me It’s Good has me constantly asking the questions about what as readers, hooks us into a story and what, as writers, helps us create that hook. By looking at first chapters only, I am expecting a book to somehow get my attention in those opening pages. Usually, one of two things will do the trick: either a fascinating setup for the story, or fascinating characters I want to hear more about. Ideally, we would get both, but I know this will not always be the case. The lovely P.J. Lazos recently reminded me that there will always be stories that take their time building up interest and intrigue (Outlander was her example). She’s certainly not wrong! How often have we come across stories where “the good stuff” showed up later on? So I won’t knock a book for that approach. Yet I do think something in those opening pages encourages a reader to keep going. When that something peters out…well, that’s why we’re here today.

So, the books in question: one was all about epic battles with fire and ice and lightning–

–while the other was a trip down Pride and Prejudice Lane, only from Mr. Darcy’s point of view:

Both series sounded promising to me from the outset. One’s providing insight into the silent character whose heart is a mystery to the characters around him, while the other alludes to a mysterious Ascension, the physical lifting of six gigantic islands the size of Australia into the air in order to save humanity from drowning in the now Endless Ocean.

So, on the one hand, you have a character-centric story; on the other, a plot-driven story.

Is it necessarily bad to have one or the other? No, not…not necessarily. But it’s certainly tougher to appeal to readers. Jeff Gerke is pretty blunt about this matter in Plot versus Character: A Balance Approach to Writing Great Fiction:

The problem is that each kind of novelist is usually as awful at the one thing as she is terrific at the other thing. The plot-first novelist tends to create characters who are flat, unrealistic stereotypes: cardboard cutouts who, despite different moods, agendas, genders, and occupations, seem eerily similar to one another–and the author’s personality. The character-first novelist produces wonderfully vibrant characters–but often has no idea what to make these interesting people do.

This point came home as I read each series. Here’s the blurb for Skyborn, which is both succinct and totally encompassing of the story at the same time:

Six islands float high above the Endless Ocean, where humanity’s final remnants are locked in brutal civil war.

Their parents slain in battle, twins Kael and Brenna Skyborn are training to be Seraphim, elite soldiers of aerial combat who wield elements of ice, fire, stone and lightning.

When the invasion comes, they will take to the skies, and claim their vengeance.

Aaaand that’s what they do. So there’s no false advertising, at least.

Now again, I want to be clear: this series, to me, had a really cool premise. After all, SOMEthing like an apocalypse must have happened to lead to this Ascension that allows SIX continent-sized land masses to remain perched atop giant beams of water high above an endless ocean. How could such an event affect these different lands? What kinds of people would live on each land, what kinds of wildlife? Would they have different habitats, like deserts and rainforests and such? Plus, these islands had strange prisms that could help power metal wings one could strap on–where did those come from? How do they shoot fire and stuff? Does that mean they have advanced technology, too? Where and how does all that history affect this world’s present?

I had so many questions about this epic place filled with epic war. And oh yes, there’s lots of fighting with ice and fire and lightning and such. This author knows how to write a battle, and there are a LOT of battles across the trilogy. Plus, he included some very interesting themes at work involving God and free will, the needs of the many over the few, and so on. Such themes fit very well in a world where people flew like angels.

And yet, I was bored. Why?

Because I didn’t care about the characters. There wasn’t enough about them to make them feel like actual people.

Readers meet these twins just as they are watching their parents battle in the sky and die. And the next thing you know these twins are now going to school to be Seraphim. We don’t really explore how such a traumatic event affects these two. They were growing up to be Seraphim, and they’re still going to be Seraphim. The first book almost immediately takes us away from whatever sort of everyday setting there could have been for the twins to process their grief so we could instead see “underdog kids in school” situations while they train to be Seraphim. Grief? What grief?

On school grounds, the twins are surrounded by cutouts like “snob boy,” “quiet girl,” “smart librarian,” “deceitful politician,” “kindly teacher.” And what really got me is that the very protagonists themselves never really grew out of such descriptions either: the girl Bree was eternally “out to prove herself,” and the boy Kael was eternally “thoughtful and supportive.” Even when the twins’ father who was thought dead in the first two books shows up in Book 3, there’s hardly any interaction between him and his children–and as a result, there’s hardly any emotional resonance. (spoiler alert) And since he also dies in Book 3, the aftershock of his loss amounts to…nothing.

In all of their epic battles, the characters never really transform. Even when the boy twin literally grows wings at one point, it never seems to matter because the girl twin’s got to prove herself again, so off she goes with his support to keep fighting and on and on.

Now for the record, we’ve all enjoyed plenty of stories where the characters don’t really change–heavens, I don’t read any given Poirot or Marple mystery by Agatha Christie for the character transformations. I read for the murder, mystery, and mayhem. The characters are just a part of that plot-puzzle. So, I tried to treat the Skyborn books that way as well–the characters were just pieces to lead me to the puzzle that was this world.

But I also feel like this was part of the problem: I wanted to care about these characters and this world. But since, outside of battles, this world interacted so little with the characters and vice versa, we never really got to see much beyond destruction. And considering the obvious care put into creating this world, this felt like a missed opportunity.

~*~

Now let’s flip to the character-centric.

Who is Fitzwilliam Darcy?

In An Assembly Such as This, Pamela Aidan finally answers that long-standing question. In this first book of her Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy, she reintroduces us to Darcy during his visit to Hertfordshire with his friend Charles Bingley and reveals Darcy’s hidden perspective on the events of Pride and Prejudice. As Darcy spends more time at Netherfield supervising Bingley and fending off Miss Bingley’s persistent advances, his unwilling attraction to Elizabeth grows—as does his concern about her relationship with his nemesis, George Wickham.

Setting the story vividly against the colorful historical and political background of the Regency, Aidan writes in a style comfortably at home with Austen but with a wit and humor very much her own. Aidan adds her own cast of fascinating characters to those in Austen’s original, weaving a rich tapestry from Darcy’s past and present. Austen fans and newcomers alike will love this new chapter of the most famous romance of all time.

I found it fascinating to see Pride and Prejudice from a different set of eyes and it was particularly fun because, for those who may not remember, Darcy spends the first half of the book more or less skulking about and staring at Elizabeth. What on earth Darcy was thinking in all of that time? Through this retelling, we know it’s not just his observations of Elizabeth Bennet, but also his concerns as a big brother for his little sister Georgiana. Reading from Austen’s original narrator, we as readers do not learn until Darcy’s letter (halfway through the story) of the cad Mr. Wickham’s attempt to whisk Georgiana Darcy away with elopement. So in this retelling, it makes perfect sense that Darcy’s very worried about his sister from Chapter 1 onward, and the very sight of Wickham drives him to fear and anger. In the original Pride and Prejudice, we as readers just don’t understand that concern’s effect on Darcy’s actions in Meryton until later. In An Assembly Such as This, we see the motivations plain as day, and it helps us better understand why Darcy is as he is.

But then, there’s the second book.

The first book ends with the Netherfield ball, and the third book takes readers to Rosings Park and Darcy’s first–and disastrous–proposal to Elizabeth Bennet. So what the heck was going on in the second book?

Darcy goes to a rundown castle for what amounts to a bizarre gothic mystery. Darcy’s determined to find a woman of his own class to marry so he can forget about Elizabeth, so he visits a castle to hang out with a bunch of rich people. Only they are all being snobs, and then there’s some sort of haunting, and some sort of ritual sacrifice and kidnapping of children and just all sorts of mysterious whatnots that should be interesting.

Yet it wasn’t. Why?

The plot of this overall story arc has already been set. We know that this retelling can’t divert from the eventual coming together of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Since it takes Elizabeth’s refusal for Darcy to finally reflect and grow as a character, his character does not really change during this second book, either. So we as readers are simply plowing through this gothic mystery to, essentially, “get back on track.”

And considering how this whole second book could have explored more of Regency England’s concepts of marriage and how such pressures can impact characters and transform them, this installment felt like a missed opportunity.

~*~

Perhaps THAT is my problem in all this. I’m a writer grumbling about the “missed opportunities” I see in other writers’ work when all along those stories aren’t mine to dictate. Perhaps all that author wanted to do was make lots of epic battles featuring angel-like people, or perhaps that other author just wanted to get a gothic mystery on paper and this was her moment. We all have a right to tell the stories we want to tell, so please, PLEASE, feel free to love those stories and approach your own tales your way.

For let’s face it–some readers just want those epic battles, or those dramatic interactions. And others still want to see what happens when vastly different genre elements get tossed together. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?

Gosh, this post is LONG.

Know what? We’ll break it off here and finish this off June 1st (I’ve an author interview planned for later this month–stay tuned for that!). In exploring books for my podcast, I did find a book that balances character and worldbuilding without sacrificing either, so we’ll cover that next time.

Plus, I will hold myself under this critical lens. Since I’m revamping Middler’s Pride for a novel release instead of its previous serial release, I need to make sure I’m also balancing the worldbuilding and character development to propel the story forward. Stay tuned!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

A Fun #Fantasy #ReadingRecommendation on this #Podcast: In the Land of the Penny Gnomes by Wesley Allen

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! We’ll continue tasting the wares of fellow indie authors I have gotten to know in this beautiful community through the years.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is blue-and-white-modern-corporate-travel-youtube-thumbnail-1.png

We’ll continue with the fantasy undertones, but some bright, humorous flavors are in store for us In the Land of the Penny Gnomes by Wesley T. Allen.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

If you’re ever curious about helpful writing/worldbuilding software, fun RPG, matters of family’n’ faith and more, please do check out Wez’s amazing website Painfully Hopeful.

Be on the look out for more sweet indie goodness in the autumn podcasts to come! 

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Start #PrideMonth with #Magic and #Mayhem on this #Podcast: #Spellhacker by #MKEngland

Happy Wednesday, one and all! I’ve continued exploring unique fantasy reads, this time in the spirit of Pride Month. Let’s begin June with Spellhacker by M.K. England.

Let’s take a sip together to taste this urban world where magic is not…well it’s not your typical magical world.

 If the embedded link recording is not showing up, you can click here to access the podcast site.

If you’d like to recommend a read for the podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d welcome reading any indie authors’ stories as well. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

A #Classic #Fantasy for this #Podcast: #TheHobbit by #JRRTolkien

Happy Wednesday, everyone! The Fantasy fiction celebration Wyrd and Wonder continues, and so shall we, this time with a timeless joy: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Everyone has their opinions on this story, sure, but I’d love to share a sip with you to discover what it is about the voice of this novel that brings readers and writers back time and again.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

I have written about The Hobbit’s worldbuilding before. If you’d like to read about that, click here.

If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories. I keep discovering more and more fantasy books I’d like to try, so perhaps we’ll stick with fantasy? Or perhaps not! I’m enjoying the promise of possibility far too much. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#IndiePublisher #Interview: @WyldbloodPress Discusses #ShortFiction #WritingTips, #FavoriteAuthors, and #Submissions

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! As my children’s school year comes to an end–and my students bombard me with finals to grade–the online celebration of fantasy fiction continues with Wyrd and Wonder.

This month’s interview is unique. Rather than interviewing an indie author, I have interviewed an indie publisher. My friends, welcome to the world of Wyldblood Press!

Let’s start with the niceties. Introduce yourself, please!

I’m Mark Bilsborough, publisher and main editor at Wyldblood Press. We publish short and long fiction on our website, in our bi-monthly speculative fiction magazine and novels. We publish digitally and in print.

Before we dive into the Wyldblood, let’s first here about your journey as a reader. What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

Tough question. I can think of a few I liked when I was younger but dislike now – Tolkein, for instance (and I know this might sound sacrilegious). I loved Lord of the Rings when I was twelve but when I tried to reread it a few years ago I found myself bogged by the meandering narrative, irritated by the burst into song and puzzled by the lack of female characters. Plus I hold him responsible for the glut of high fantasy names and by-the-numbers epic fantasy plotlines that make many doorstop-sized fantasy books so inaccessible. But without Tolkein would we have had Game of Thrones? So I’m still in awe of his influence and legacy even though I won’t be digging into The Silmarillion any time soon.

Tolkein aside, I’ve grown into fantasy more generally and I can appreciate the flexibility of the form more now. And I like poetry now. I’d always hated it (thanks, education, for making me read it), but Simon Armitage, Carol Anne Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Percy Shelley and John Keats (and a whole bunch of others) are definitely on my reading list now.

I took a while to come around to Becky Chambers and Emily St John Mandell but I’m glad I did.

What inspired you to found Wyldblood Press? Did you see something unethical in the publishing industry that you felt could be righted with Wyldblood?

I launched Wyldblood Press deep in lockdown last year. I’d just self-published a collection of my own short stories through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service and I thought “well, that was easy!” I then thought, “wouldn’t it be better to publish through an imprint?” So I set up Wyldblood and invited submissions.

But then I thought (and this is where the ethics come in) that it would be wrong to publish my own stories if I’m publishing other people – why should I get a free pass to publication when other people have to go through a rigorous and competitive selection process? So I send my own stories to other places and keep my fingers crossed.

I’m not new to editing though: I used to run a sword and sorcery fanzine called ‘Crom’ and for many years I’ve been producing journals for British Mensa – first on creative writing and latterly on speculative fiction.

Sounds like experience abounds in your writing life! Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Both!

TRUTH. I love to write, but finding time to do so is an eternal battle. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Planting my behind on the seat. I’m easily distracted – I guess most writers are – so firm discipline is important. And it would help if Twitter could close down for a few house every day too.

In writing short fiction, you have to hook readers to care about characters, ground them in your story’s setting, and leave them pondering about your story’s end all within a few hundred to a thousand words. Can you walk us through the process of crafting your fiction’s pacing and language to accomplish so much so quickly?

I’ve got a big whiteboard and a multicolored clutch of marker pens. I then plan it out in big, sweeping curves making sure the story beats are all there and in the right place. Seeing the whole thing visually makes it easier to see whether the story is paced well – this works better for novels, because there’s more to think about – but it works for short fiction too.

Language is important. With flash fiction there’s no meat on the bones and every word must count. So draft revise, draft, revise, draft, revise is my advice, always asking ‘does the story need me to say that, in that way?

Many writers, and not just beginning writers, fall in love with their own words (I know I do) and sometimes it’s hard to cut out those perfect metaphors – but it’s not about the author – it’s about the story.

Oh, I fall in love with my own words far, far too often, lol. What would you say are common traps for aspiring writers?

Thinking they know how to write when they don’t. Thinking it’s easy to get published. Thinking their great original idea hasn’t been seen before, many times. Thinking they don’t need to get critiqued and seek out the opinions of others. Feeling down when they get rejected (we all get rejected – dust off and resubmit!).

How did publishing your first story change your process of writing?

My first published story was a competition win in a UK print magazine: Writing Magazine. They paid me a nice professional fee and all my friends and family could pick it up in their local supermarket. I thought “hey, this is easy.” How wrong I was! I think I learned more from the subsequent rejections, kind editor comments and networking.. The competition win gave me confidence and probably an impetus to push my writing – but the process? Trial and error, and a willingness to take and work on feedback.

How long on average does it take you to write a short story? I’d love to hear more about your process, as I’m always working on that balance of writing, teaching, and parenting.

I’m pretty quick and I tend to write my first drafts in long sprints. I learned that on Odyssey, where we had to produce a new short story every week. We had a 6,000 word upper limit and I always like to get my money’s worth. I’m also a deadline-chaser – if you give me months to do something I’ll start writing a day before it’s due and deliver it at five to midnight. So I had to write fast.

I write best late at night after everyone’s gone to bed. But that’s just me.

Redrafting (and you have to redraft) takes longer and I set time aside for that. I’ll usually show the first draft around other writers for feedback then, if I agree, I might make some changes. Then I do a proofing edit. Sometimes that’s enough, but more often than not it’s rinse and repeat.

Marketing is often the bane of many indie authors. Do you have any tips on marketing and/or platform building that you’ve found effective with your own writing or publications?

Get social. Twitter etc don’t come naturally to me but they’re really important. Network. Go to places (real or virtual). Be seen. Be noisy (put pleasant). Build a website, a brand, a reputation. Sell to places. Network. And advertise  there’s a way to do this profitably – but it takes patience, perseverance and a steep learning curve).

The most important thing, though is clarity. Knowing what the objective is (sales? Profit? Exposure?) then being clear about the methods and the message.

Wyldblood’s first anthology (published February 2021) features stories about werewolves. What was your process for selecting this theme, and what themes do you see being featured in future anthologies?

The werewolf anthology was pretty much unplanned. We emphasised wolves in our early marketing and branding because Wyldblood seemed to suggest wolves. And so, without specifically asking, people were sending a lot of werewolf stories our way. So many, that we had enough good ones for an anthology. So we did one.

It’s obvious in hindsight that calling our press Wyldblood and using a wolf head as a logo would have that effect. But at the time all I thought was that my grandfather’s middle name – Wydblood – would make a great name for a publisher.

Your announcement for your werewolf anthology Call of the Wyld got me thinking of those iconic pieces of folklore that haunt us through the centuries. One of my favorite fantasy authors, Diana Wynne Jones, had this to say about writing:

If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you can imagine.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this quote.

Great quote. Most folklore is metaphor and speaks to our hopes and (usually) our fears. Werewolves – loss of control, release into savagery. Vampires – identity crisis (coming of age, embracing sexuality, the lure of danger). Fairy tales are usually about innocence lost (Hansel and Gretel. The Pied Piper. Pinocchio). Myths and legends are about making sense of a confusing world (thunder and lightning? Must be the gods fighting).  The myths shift and adapt because we shift and adapt – we don’t (I hope) believe in the thunder god now but we’re happy to buy into the Marvel reimaging of, say, Thor. The image still speaks of power, and of beings more might than us, of hard choices and titanic struggles.

And Vampires have come a long way since Bram Stoker (and before – vampire folklore stretches back through time). Today’s vampires have their affliction under control and are presented as attractive love interests (Twilight, The Vampire Diaries), or are footsolders in the war against the Lycan (Twilight). Or are substitute zombies, laying waste to humanity (The Passage). But in all iterations they represent a dark and sensuous alternative to the mundanity of our own lives. They’re attractive immortal, seductive – our forbidden fruit. Just one sip…

Are there particular authors you friends with, or authors that have inspired you to become a better writer?

I’m in a writer’s group with Jaine Fenn, who’s been published many times by Gollancz and Angry Robot, and I hang out from time to time with Tiffani Angus (who’s just been shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award for best novel – Threading the Labyrinth) and Jacey Bedford, who’s probably lost count of the number of her books DAW has published. Vaughan Stanger’s a good friend (and one of our first readers) and dozens of his short stories have appeared seemingly everywhere, often multiple times.

I’m part of the Milford Writer’s network – a loose collection of writers who have attended the annual Milford writing workshop in Wales. That’s a networking and critiquing group – that keeps me sane and grounded. They push me, gently point out my writing’s flaws and praise its good points.

I came across a lot of famous ‘name’ writers both on my Creative Writing Master’s course and Jeanne Cavelos’ excellent Odyssey writing workshop. I tried to learn from them all. My biggest early influence, though, was Hugo-winner Kij Johnson. I went on one of her novel writing workshops at the University of Kansas and she was inspiring, guiding with enthusiasm, openness and insight. She’s also one of the best writers I’ve ever come across.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Yes – usually when I have to read something. As an English major at University endless great works were required reading – in my defence I read some of them, but I kept being distracted by all the great science fiction books in the library.

I also get intimidated by our massive submissions pile. I love seeing great stories, but sometimes I don’t have the head space (or time) to work through them. Thank God for first readers (I’d be lost without them).

I review books for an SF newssite ( www.concatenation.org ) and I get real reader’s block if I come across something I can’t get into. The normal way round that would be to read something else but if I’m reviewing I feel obliged to finish – and that can block me for weeks.

I get writer’s block too – I have it now. I’m putting off edits for some short fiction because I hate the redrafting process. The first draft is a massive creativity burst but after that the process becomes more mundane and I worry that it sucks the joy out. But I have a deadline and deadlines are a great motivator.

A massive submissions pile sounds like writers love submitting for Wyldblood! You published the first edition of Wyldblood Magazine this past January—congratulations! Are you currently accepting submissions? What does it take for a piece of writing to be featured in your magazine?

We’re usually open in some submission category or other so it’s always worth checking out the website. At the moment (mid April) we’re open for flash fiction (we publish a story once a week on the website and we’re always hungry for material), open for novel pitches (synopsis and first 10,000 words) and open for steampunk stories (up to 10,000 words for an upcoming anthology: Runs like Clockwork. We’ll reopen for short stories on July 14th.

To get published means beating off some very fine competition. The stories we take have strong, clear narratives, are cleverly written and have engaging characters. It goes without saying they need to have got the basics right – structure, theme, conflict, resolution – and give us confidence in the author’s writing ability (there are only so many comma splices I can overlook).

Thank you so much for your time and tips, Mark! I look forward to seeing the new worlds gathered for Runs like Clockwork. Folks, I hope you check out Wyldblood Press soon…and perhaps my new podcast when you have a few quiet minutes, hint hint. 🙂

~STAY TUNED!~

I think we’re about ready to talk about names…or the power of familial storytelling. One of these University projects will come up, to be sure, lol. I’ll continue reading fantasy fiction for my podcast, and Blondie is working on ANOTHER story to share with you! Be still, my writing heart! xxxxxxx

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Another Wednesday, Another #Podcast for my Fellow #Readers and #Writers: #TheMidnightBargain by #CLPolk

Happy Wednesday, one and all! We’ll continue to celebrate Wyrd and Wonder with another fantasy read on Story Cuppings: The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out together.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

I hope you enjoy this sip from The Midnight Bargain with me! Here’s awesome indie author S.J. Higbee’s review of the book for a more complete take on it. 🙂

If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories. Let’s all enjoy different genres and styles of storytelling throughout the year, shall we? xxxxxx

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#WriterProblems: Finding #Worldbuilding #Inspiration in #SmallTownLife

Hullo hullo, fellow creative souls! It’s lovely to have you back in this, Wisconsin’s Fake-Out Spring. (Never let the first thaw fool you. We’re bound to be snowed under for Easter.)

Once upon a time I shared some posts about the hidden pieces of historical inspiration as well as the peculiar locations in one’s small town that feel like a piece of fiction come to life.

I’d like to continue on this path today, as this pandemic has kept many in their homes. Some homes are in the midst of a bustling city, others out in the middle of nowhere. I’m not in one, but not quite the other, either. My town has neighborhoods (including one on the other side of the tracks), two gas stations, two bars, a library, and a post office. (We shan’t discuss the curious carnival or rock shop today…or the RV campground someone thought would be great to build between a cornfield and old industrial area. Yup, that’s scenic, all right.)

My town, you could say, is small. Built around a river mill and railroad, like so many other rural towns in this country. Just one of thousands, right? The kind teens are so determined to escape to “find themselves” elsewhere.

Well in all my travels through all the small towns as a kid, two towns always struck me as a little weird. Oh, they looked fine from the car: post offices, gas stations, bars, maybe a little general store, or a mechanic operating out of a shoddy barn. Bait and/or feed supplies. Houses of old siding and older brick with uneven sidewalks and prim gardens. The park playgrounds have lost their happy colors, the benches more often used for sharing crude notes than motherly conversations. I didn’t understand those notes as a kid, thinking them a sort of secret code. I bet such notes could be a secret code in a future story, couldn’t they? We’re so quick to dismiss such scrawlings as adults. We complain that the benches should be replaced, or at least painted. Then we remember that small towns often can’t afford such frivolities, and we let it all pass out of mind, just as we let the small towns we drive by pass from our minds.

Except, for me, the Ashippuns.

Let me explain.

First, there would be Old Ashippun.

Then, barely a few miles later, there would be…Ashippun.

Why on earth are there two Ashippuns, and why are they so close to one another? Was there some vicious family feud? Did someone lose land in a legendary poker game? I bet if you look at your state, province, county, parish, etc., you may just find your own version of the Ashippuns, too. Perhaps their origin stories tell the tales of escaped convicts, smuggled ales, or buried treasure. Or, perhaps their origins are blandly pleasant, full of nothing but nice people nicely settling down to build a nice town just a little ways up from the other nice town.

Or not.

Come on, I just HAD to share a bit of Hot Fuzz in a post like this. And if you haven’t seen Hot Fuzz, do. (Not with little kids, for the record.) It’s a masterpiece.

Are the Wisconsin Ashippuns rooted in seedy beginnings? Sadly, Wikipedia says we can blame the railroad for not coming close enough to the original settlement, founded a few years before Wisconsin achieved statehood. Still…the whole town didn’t move, just a portion. And the portion left behind was left to the past, to decay into posterity among the grassy hills and broken county roads. It reminds me of the small farming town where I grew up, a tiny gathering of homes around a railroad station hardly used, held at the mercy of a river that can irrigate plenty of cattle and corn farms one season or simply flood over all of them the next. No one stops at such a place, not when all the highways bypass it. Who would care about strange goings-on in a nothing sort of town with nothing sort of people?

I wondered about that as a kid. I wondered about that a lot as an adult. I wondered so hard I had to make up my own versions of the Ashippuns and put them in a story.

Old Sanctuary had never bothered with paved roads, let alone road signs. Who needed them in this dirt hole of a so-called town?

It would take a certain kind of soul to visit such the old, forgotten town, let alone live there. That certain kind of soul wouldn’t visit on a whim, either. There’d have to be a purpose, a special purpose, to come to a “so-called town” like this one. I was reminded of the Autumn Carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, its Autumn People eager to harvest desperate souls from small towns along its travels. Stephen King had a similar approach with the nefarious demon LeLand Gaunt selling people the one thing they desired most in Needful Things. Then another book came to mind: Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker.

And I knew what I needed to write.

See, The Boneshaker is a fascinating story. You’ve a young girl named Natalie coming into her own but still fiercely protective of her sick mother as they make ends meet in a small town. Many have their own little problems in a small town, problems that surely can be solved by the miracle cures advertised by the stranger Jake Limberleg and his traveling medicine show. But those cures come at a price. They always do.

We still see people paying that price in the real world, don’t we? Just replace “tonic” with “essential oil.” “Mixture” for “shake.” “Sure thing” for “time freedom.”

You’ve probably seen the ads on your social media, or gotten the messages from a person you went to school with ages ago. Social media has blessed those in every small town with the ability to reach out and connect with anyone anywhere, so they gather up the school year books and find the names online, and ding! The messages pour in. They say they want to catch up…and then invite you to a “business opportunity.”

All too often, people drink the dream. All too often, people drink nothing but poison.

Herbalife. Younique. Avon. LuLaRoe. Amway. Beachbody. Mary Kay. Scentsy. Shaklee. It Works. La Vel. Monat. DoTerra. Young Living. Optavia. Norwex. Color Street. There are dozens more, rising and collapsing every few years. They promise you the world by “social selling.” You can “change the world” by working in “pockets of your time” on your phone selling cosmetics. Insurance. Vitamins. Kids’ books. Weight Loss. Shampoo. Cleaning products. They have oils that can cure Autism and cancer. They have silver cloths that can be used to clean a toilet and your face in one go. They have wax melts to calm animals and plastic wraps to eliminate your fat.

They have everything the evil doctors and big corporations don’t want you to have. Capitalist society is such a crime. You can escape it and come to the real people who care about you and want you to succeed in the true way. You can be a part of the multi-level marketing family…for a start-up fee. For a monthly renewal fee. And be sure to get your inventory updated. Be sure to try the products for yourself. Be sure to sell the life to your family, your friends, your neighbors. And if your loved ones don’t support you? They’re toxic. Cut them out of your life. You don’t need them, you have your new family…

Nicole points to her Suzy Ray! bag with her drink straw and smiles extra-wide. “Suzy Ray! Living is, well, it’s not just body care. It’s really a way of life.” Nicole leans back and closes her eyes as usual, emphasizing her one-ness with the sunlight. “Suzy Ray! can heal your hair or skin, your gut, your muscles, your spine. Their specialized formulas that no other doctor’s been able to match bring vital nutrients to your marrow. They even,” Nicole opens her eyes slowly and looks upon the water pump and those sitting by it, “can bring function back to muscles that haven’t worked before.”

There are many YouTube creators warning people of these multi-level marketing (MLM) scams, and plenty of news outlets continue to show just how many people who cannot afford to lose money are giving hundreds and even thousands to these companies in the hopes of “financial freedom.” The creator Munecat’s deep dive into the company Arbonne is an excellent one, I think, as it shows how this company not only scams people, but grips them tight with cult tactics. Click here if you’d like to see it. I’m still working out how I can talk to my own family members and friends involved with the companies like Norwex and Optavia. They’re spending hundreds to have the right nutrition powders and latest cleaning cloths on the off-chance someone on their Facebook pages will buy them. There are women in my church who swear by Shaklee vitamins to the point they won’t take their own kids to the doctor because “those are just pills. These vitamins are made from plants, from God’s earth.” Heck, I have a friend who keeps changing MLMs, always changing her “business” to whatever sounds good at the time and insisting that “this time” it will work. Right now? Board games. Yes, there’s an MLM for frickin’ board games.

I suppose “The Hungry Mother” is born out of that frustrated confusion, that desire to show my loved ones they are not in any sort of family with those companies. To an MLM, they are nothing but dollar signs.

Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of tall shrubs is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes to snag the rest, and that yes is due any minute.

When I queried journals about “The Hungry Mother,” I emphasized the current double-pandemic of our country: the grip of COVID, and the grip of MLMs taking advantage of frightened, unemployed people. I’d like to think this is why a Wisconsin e-zine accepted “The Hungry Mother” for its Spring 2021 issue available March 1st.

I hope you’ll check the story out, and please, PLEASE do what you can to encourage loved ones to leave these MLMs. Such “business opportunities” promise nothing but loss: loss of money, loss of friends, loss of family, and loss of one’s own integrity.

~*~

Admittedly, I get weary of the small town life at times. The kids, too. It’s just the same library, the same playground, the same streets day after day. I’m very blessed the three little Bs enjoy taking off into their own imaginations, using whatever space ship, robot, or dragon will carry them into any Elsewhere they can think up.

Thank goodness they enjoy drawing! I wish I could say the same. When Aionios Books asked me to make a map for my first book Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, I cringed the whoooole time. It makes sense in MY head, I wanted to say. Who needs a map?

But after studying Tolkien’s The Art of The Lord of the Rings at our small town library, I better understand why such maps can be so important.

The book is a lovely collection of Tolkien’s brainstorming in art form. From sketches on scraps to detailed drawings with color and scale, the book reflects on just how immersed Tolkien was in Middle Earth. As the magazine Wired‘s review of the book explains:

HOW DID J.R.R. Tolkien create The Lord of the Rings? The simple answer is that he wrote it….The more complicated answer is that in addition to writing the story, he drew it. The many maps and sketches he made while drafting The Lord of the Rings informed his storytelling, allowing him to test narrative ideas and illustrate scenes he needed to capture in words. For Tolkien, the art of writing and the art of drawing were inextricably intertwined.

This is such a vital point, one that I need to remember as I dive into series writing with multiple lands and locations. Though these places only reveal themselves to me as I write them, I must still map their locations and details so they are not simply forgotten like the small towns of the real world. Readers need the guide, and frankly, so do writers. We can’t afford to switch locations around or forget where the mountains are. Even if the mystery of borders is a part of the story, the writer needs to know them. And if you’re a writer like me who doesn’t really know them until the story’s done, then you better map them as you go so that when the time comes to revise, you can walk the same road without losing a step.

I suppose the biggest obstacle I face with drawing is, well, my pride. I am NOT an artist. I am fine with that. But to be required to look at my own drawings, even for reference, just makes me squirm as one may squirm with having to dissect a dead frog. Blech. And Tolkien makes it look so bloody easy!

But The Art of the Lord of the Rings is an important reminder that Tolkien wasn’t aiming for perfection every time. Just look at that drawing of Helm’s Deep. He did that on a student’s examination paper! He didn’t care. It came to mind, and he drew it. How much detail and how “good” it was didn’t matter. He just had to get it down so he wouldn’t forget it when he did have the chance to write.

The world [Tolkien] built extended into his art. His art breathed life into the corners of that world he would never find the time to write about. At the same time, those drawings, maps, and doodles also helped readers immerse themselves in his never-before-seen invented realm, “a world,” Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis once noted, “that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it.”

From Wired

THAT is the lesson to be learned here. What one draws and how one draws it shouldn’t prevent a writer from exploring a story-world, especially when one is building anew. Besides, technology allows writers new options if they don’t wish to draw their own. My fellow indie fantasy authors Wesley Allen and Michael Dellert both have extensive maps for their stories, but they didn’t publish their own sketches. Wes loves using special map-making software, and I confess–it looks pretty sweet! Michael commissioned a designer online to craft a polished map, and it’s a perfect reference to include with any of his stories.

So, it’s time I “Suck it up, Buttercup” and get mapping. After all, Charlotte’s not the only one who must explore the unknown. Two brothers must win a race through worlds to beat the crying sky, and Meredydd and her comrades must find where the Cat Man hides before he poisons the gods of their land.

Time for these teens to leave their small towns behind and discover what they are truly capable of.

~STAY TUNED!~

More interviews on the way, of course! I’ve also got to do a school presentation on names, and considering the importance of naming characters, I thought I’d share some points of discussion with you, too, you lucky devils. 🙂 I’ve also been reveling in some fantastic adventure music which is bound to get your own characters racing to victory, so don’t stray far! We’re too close to Hell to back down now…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

At Last, the Time Has Come! #FallenPrinceborn: Chosen is Here. Add some #Indie #DarkFantasy to your #FallReads today!

Once upon a time, I made this banner.

When plans changed, I wasn’t sure I could follow through on that banner, if this book would be “coming” at all.

But it has come. Thanks to the support of amazing souls like you, I was able to bring this book together and put it on the virtual bookshelf.

You wouldn’t let me give up. You saw something in me worth saving. You gave me hope.

You are the community that keeps me reading, writing, sharing, exploring. Your friendship is a blessing I thank God for each and every day.

You’ve even been sharing your reviews on Booksprout, Goodreads, and Amazon!

Already captivated by Jean Lee’s first book in the ‘Fallen Princeborn’ series, I was excited to get my hands on the ARC of ‘Fallen Princeborn: Chosen’. And I was not disappointed at all; what a richly told tale this continues to be.

The reader is launched straight back to where we left Charlotte and Liam at the close of ‘Fallen Princeborn: Stolen’. The action is intense and the wonderful world-building welcomes the reader back to this highly original, magical fantasy world.

The story continues and the action ramps up another notch. We are in familiar, yet unfamiliar territory of shape-shifting creatures, dark magic, old friends and even older and more frightening foes. Real page-turning excitement (and dread). How will Charlotte, and the magical folk, who are now her surrogate family, survive?

Not only is the story immersive, the principle characters are complex and the author’s depth of description provide a camera-roll of powerful images for the reader. From the Stellaqui sea creatures to the celestial Celestine and the House, we have a spellbinding array of classy cast members. Battles are fought and guts are ripped out; dark and dreadful scenes of sexual abuse and violence are played out too. These scenes are not for the faint-hearted, but not one of them is gratuitous.

Some ‘middle’ novels don’t quite cut it, but this one certainly does. So much more of this rich series plays out and the reader is left breathless for more.
“Nothing smells as amazing as hope,” says one of the characters. It’s my hope that book three will not be too long in coming.

I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout and am voluntarily leaving a review.

You rock, Chris Hall! She’s got her own awesome series of stories, too–please click here to check them out. I’m looking forward to sharing more of your reviews over the next couple of months.

In the meantime, there’s school work to tend to, so allow me to leave you with the first chapter. If you like what you see here, I hope you’ll give this series a go!

~*~*~*~*~

Cold Dawn, Colder Drums

Ashes. Paper. Tea. Pie.

Charlotte blinks once, twice, to living color dancing about the library.

The library?

Yes, she’s sitting at Liam’s feet, having fallen asleep with her head resting on his knee. Liam’s fingers have wound themselves into her hair.

The hearth is cold, and the stale food… unsettling. Shouldn’t Arlen be in the kitchen by now, scolding Dorjan for raiding the fridge? Shouldn’t there be a kettle whistling for the velifol tea? How in brewin’ blazes are they going to defend Rose House against Campion and the Lady?

Charlotte slowly slips her hand beneath Liam’s to free his fingers from her hair. Still too many cuts and burns for her liking on his calloused skin. The Lady’s claws must have struck near his neck, where angry red inflammation peeks out from under Liam’s white tunic. The leather brace for his blood dagger seems to restrict the rise and fall of Liam’s chest, so Charlotte holds her hand up to Liam’s mouth and nose, and feels fitful breaths. Dreaming, maybe.

The teeniest, teeniest bit of space buffers her palm and his lips. She could close that space. Not, not too much: Charlotte’s thumb caresses Liam’s upper lip. Just once. It’d be nice to know his lips feel… oh yes, they feel so very different when not covered by musty facial hair. A dull violet glow emanates from just beneath Liam’s chair: the stone from Orna’s ring. Charlotte bends forward, chin on the floor, eyes almost crossing as she gazes deep into such a simple little thing, like marble, opaque with an inner shine. That shine’s got a power even Arlen doesn’t wanna touch. We better hide this, House, before a nasty Incomplete snatches it from Liam. She poises her thumb behind the stone, sticks out her tongue as she aims, and with a flick, the stone rolls into a little hole in the wall beneath the stained glass window. One eyeblink later, and the hole’s gone. Eight ball in the corner pocket. Thanks, House.

Time to find Arlen.

Charlotte hugs herself against the chilly summer morning as her feet pad softly down the corridor into the kitchen. No Arlen, no Dorjan.

Morning air clings to the Rose House’s walls, wary. Scared.

“House, where are they?”

A moment of silence. Then voices and distant footfalls: the third floor. But not Arlen or Dorjan: the gravelly voice booming orders has got to be Devyn, leading the other scouts to harvest the velifol flowers.

So Charlotte checks the patio. It did sound like the uncle and nephew went outside last night. Maybe they’re harvesting mint, or parsley, or whatever it is they use for pies—Charlotte never really paid attention to the cooking stuff. “Arlen?” She cups her hands to yell, “Dorjan!” Frost glitters upon the flowers beneath Rose House’s shadow, but under Charlotte’s feet the frost feels different.

It’s not melting.

And there is a rhythm.

A drumming.

Squeaks run through the silent halls and out into the kitchen: Poppy as her mouse self, scared.

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asks as Poppy changes before her. Though I think I can guess.

“Danger, Miss Charlotte, Danger!” Poppy says before her whiskers have the chance to vanish. “Terrible, terrible things below. Campion and the Lady, they got all juiced up and stronger than before and they’re just totally super angry, and they wanna get the Incomplete meanies up here, and they wanna just, they wanna, oh, they wanna—”

“Retaliate.” The human version of Ember lands on a patio chair, feathers not fully transformed into orange patchwork fabric. Her skin reflects the early morning sun from the hall window, turning her white with the frost. “Something’s helped the Lady regain her strength. Eating an Incomplete, perhaps, heart’s fire knows, but she’s moving through the tunnels, and Campion’s at her side,” she says, her voice cracking under her former friend’s name.

 “So Devyn’s getting the scouts to take the velifol?”

Distant thunder rumbles under a blue sky. Then Charlotte realizes the thunder’s not from above. Oh. Shit. “Arlen and Dorjan, where are they?”

Ember’s voice remains smooth, but biting her lip doesn’t hide the trembling of her chin. “Not in Rose House, we’ve looked. The wolf kin can protect Arlen, I’m sure.”

Charlotte nods, but this idea of the Lady of the Pits somehow getting out again and acquiring new power despite Liam slicing her face off and taking that magic violet stone from her ring…. How the hell does she find more power inside a bunch of tunnelsAnd Campion’s bones were broken to bits. Something is wrong, way too damn wrong. “Okay. You’re right. They can take care of themselves.” Because to say it out loud makes it feel more possible, more true. She will not allow her body to shake as Poppy’s does, even  And Poppy’s shaking only makes it worse with the thunder rippling through the ground again, this time upsetting the patio stones. She will not let the fear freeze her as frost does a flower.

Ember nods curtly. “We must hope Master Liam’s tree withstands the attack. Come, Poppy, we need to carry what we can.”

Poppy grabs Charlotte’s arm. “But we can’t leave Miss Charlotte! She’s my bestest friend, and she’s so nice, and she could come with us and be super helpful and—”

But Charlotte shoves Poppy towards Ember. “No, stay together. I’ll get out with Liam.”

“But Miss—”

“She is right, Poppy.” Feathers tuft through Ember’s neck and hands. “Upstairs.”

“But—”

“NOW.”

Another rumble. A patio chair topples.

Poppy gulps a breath, then two, then takes off, changing as she goes.

Ember takes a steadying breath. “You will hide,” she turns to Charlotte, “won’t you?”

Well what do you know. She kinda actually cares about the human in these here parts. A little. Maybe.

The frost thickens, latching onto Charlotte’s toes. “Long enough to see what that snake bitch’s hatched, yeah.” Another rumble bumps them both up and down. “You go, the House’n’I will buy you some time.”

Ember’s exhale mingles with the cloud of ash and feather already taking shape round her body. “We’re going to the far side of Lake Aranina. It is hopefully too far for the misshapen limbs of the Incomplete to run.”

“Far side, got it.”

Arms are wings, legs are shrinking. “Let us hope your luck carries us all through this day.” The orange bird soars up, plucks something from the rooftop, and darts south for the lake and beyond.

~*~

Ashes touch the air.

And a cackle.

A shriek, far and away.

Two entrances out of the Pits, both unlocked. One out in the woods.

And one inside Rose House.

“Liam!” Charlotte slams the patio door, locks it—idiot, it’s fucking glass—and bolts for the library.

Liam has yet to move, eyes closed, breath still slow.

“Liam you have to wake up!” Charlotte shakes him, cups his cheeks, brings her face close—dammit, this isn’t time for that, so she slaps his cheek. “Liam!” She yells in his ear.

Pounding, pounding below her feet.

They are coming.

~*~*~*~*~

Click here to scope out Fallen Princeborn: Chosen‘s Amazon, Booksprout, and Goodreads pages. If you read the ARC already, I can’t wait to see your review appear. Again, thank you all for your support! Stay safe, stay sane, and be the reason someone smiles today–you’ve already blessed me with a happy creative heart. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#IndieAuthor #Interview: @SJHigbee shares #bookjoy with #reading and #writing delightfully #adventurous #sciencefiction and #fantasy

Welcome, Friends, to yet another splendid interview with a beautiful indie author soul! I am thrilled to pause all this chaos of teaching, parenting, and preparing my own novel for publication so I may introduce you to the cosmic dreamer and eternal adventurer, S.J. Higbee.

To call you an “avid reader” feels like a huuuuge understatement. Can you share a little of your reader’s journey with us? That is, can you tell us what inspired you to take on book reviewing with such gusto, and your process for choosing the books you do for reviewing?

Visit her at @sjhigbee & her website sjhigbee.wordpress.com.

I’ve always been an avid reader. Once I got to school and realised the power of words and how stories could take me away from where I was and to different worlds – that was it. I was away…

I originally started reviewing for SFReader.com, a forum for science fiction and fantasy readers and writers from 2006-09. However, I soon had a hefty backlog of reviews stacking up, as I thoroughly enjoyed the process of writing down my thoughts after reading a book. So once I started my own blog back in 2009, it made sense to mostly review books on it. I stumbled across other book reviewers, almost by accident.

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

The late, great Terry Pratchett. There aren’t many authors whose complete output we own, but we have all his books, including Where’s My Cow? We also own all Lois McMaster Bujold’s books and I’ve read nearly all of Jo Walton’s output. I am the ultimate mood reader, however. While I do get a steady stream of books from Netgalley, I take care never to overdo it, so I’m forced to sit down and read something that I really, really don’t want to.

Hmmm, I bet those moods can put a damper on the book joy at times. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Yes. When I’ve forced myself to trudge through a book that isn’t speaking to me on any level. So I don’t do it, anymore. If I don’t like a book, I DNF it – and that includes Netgalley arcs. I generally don’t mention DNFs on my blog, because I have strong opinions and specific tastes and while I cut loose when discussing book covers and in my private notes about books I’ve disliked sufficiently to stop reading, I don’t think it’s fair to share those views with a wider audience.

I know you’ve recently moved out of the classroom, but as a fellow teacher, reader, writer, and parent (well, I know you’re also a grandparent, but I’m not there *yet*, thank Heaven!), I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can spread literacy awareness among children today.

I’ve taught children with specific learning difficulties and the secret is always to find what motivates them – be it rulebooks for computer games, cookery recipes and in one case building suppliers’ lists, and use those to spark their interest in reading. Above all MAKE IT FUN! Words games… silly voices… reading a word each… And always stop before the child becomes fed up, so they are left wanting more. Little and often is far more effective than longer stints twice a week, which is why so many children don’t learn to read effectively at school.

Amen to that! When we turn reading into a treat, we know they will ALWAYS be ready for that treat. Rather like cookies, don’t you think? I wonder now if the publishing industry could be doing more to promote literacy.

Children’s writers do a fantastic job in promoting literacy by visiting schools and talking about their characters. But I would LOVE to see more serious imagination with regard to interactive programs to aid literacy. In fairness, I don’t think the publishing industry should be responsible for promoting literacy skills – but governments certainly should. What about a game like Fortnite actually using wordgames, punning, jokes and literacy games, in addition to all the cool graphics, driving music and action scenes, as part of a national reading scheme? It shouldn’t be the only way to reach children, of course. But certainly ought to be part of a range of resources to target children who spend a lot of time on their screens.

Now, let’s talk about your writing. You’ve written a number of slick Sci-Fi novels, including the YA Sunblinded trilogy, the Arcadian Chronicles, and the standalone Netted. What draws you to science fiction more than other genres?

I love the fact that when I open the cover, I never know exactly what I’m getting. To ensure that’s the case, I very rarely bother reading the blurb in advance, either. Sometimes, it’s a bit of a struggle to make sense of what is going on – especially if I’ve crashed midway into a series, but as long as the worldbuilding and characterisation are sound, I’ll generally make sense of what is going on. It’s the genre I love reading the most – and when it goes well, the tingle factor is off the charts… Fantasy is right up there, too.

I never get tired of that tingle! I must admit, though, I cannot crash into the middle of a series as you often do. 🙂 In an age where publishers are eager for stories that smack of potential franchise, what do you consider to be the strengths of a standalone novel?

Sometimes, there is a story I want to tell that is only the length of a single book. If that’s the case, then I don’t want to elongate it into something more drawn-out. I think most stories have a natural arc length – and part of the skill of the author is figuring out exactly what that length is. Some of my best reads, ever, have been standalone books.

You have certainly written your share of both series and standalones as well! Does writing energize or exhaust you?

It depends. If it’s going well, I find a high that I don’t get anywhere else. If it isn’t, then it’s both exhausting and depressing.

I love how you don’t peg yourself into writing a specific kind of character. Running out of Space’s Lizzy and Mantivore’s Kyrillia are both adventurous heroines, while Netted’s Kris is very reticent to take on the responsibilities the story quickly demands of her. Would you say each story helps you shape the characters, or the characters come to you and the story shapes around them?

Oh, it always starts with the character and an initial scene. Often I have dreamt that starting scene. However, the characters don’t leap onto the page fully formed and it is often a question of trial and error as to how they react to events around them that help me figure out exactly who they are. Up to now, I’ve been a pantser, but I’ve just started planning out my stories – and the main success has been in nailing the narrative arcs of all the main characters – it has made such a difference to the writing process.

World-building is HUGE for my writing process. If a story-world’s rules aren’t clear, then it’s a lot harder for readers to fully appreciate the plot’s stakes, let alone care about the characters. Science Fiction is no “easy” genre to write for—not only do you have to create a realistic place, but it also has to feel possible to reach in our future. Can you share a step or three in your world-building process?

I think anyone who writes SFF with any measure of success has to care about worldbuilding. The first rule has to be that it makes sense. I studied History at college, for which I’m constantly grateful. That perspective on how humans behaved in the past is really useful for extrapolating as to how they’d behave in the future. And if they doing something completely different from anything that has happened before, there has to be a solid reason for it.

However, all of that has also to be balanced against my personal loathing for pages of long-winded explanation in some nebulous authorial viewpoint. So readers often don’t get to know exactly what is going on all the time in all the corners of my worlds, because my characters don’t. I’m quite comfortable with that – though I’m aware it bothers some readers. It’s one reason why I use language as one of my main tools for worldbuilding – the slang and swearwords also denote issues like being overrun with pests, or melting icecaps without my even mentioning them.

Blech, I am not a fan of long-winded explanations, either. They exhaust me to read, let alone write…not that my kids give me oodles of time to write, anyway. Their moods are something of a writing Kryptonite for me. What would you consider to be your writing Kryptonite?

Becoming too tired. My instinct is to try and sprint, which is a problem as writing a novel is a marathon. I’m also one of those people who tends to hurl themselves, body and soul, into whatever they are doing. It has many rewards, but the cost is that I can get exhausted. And when that happens, I become ill. I have quite a lot of different calls on my time, which again, I really enjoy. I am lucky to have a lovely family and a range of wonderful friends, but there are times when it would be awesome to also have a writing clone I could shut up in an attic with a computer and never let out until she’s finished the book…

Let’s end on some help for aspiring writers. What’s a common trap you see them falling into time and again, and how can they avoid it?

Dialogue is often a surefire way of working out how experienced a writer is. Don’t use someone’s name if there are only two characters, unless one character is being hostile or arguing. When there are two people, they generally don’t call the other by name unless they are making a point. Don’t have your characters talking for too long – we generally bat a conversation back and forth between us if the power dynamic is equal. And rather than have a dominant character drone on for ages (as they often do in real life) have them, instead, constantly interrupt the subordinate character. Remember to include the thoughts and feelings of your viewpoint character, as they are on one end of a conversation.

YES! Thank you so much for sharing your reading and writing journey with us, Sarah, and for helping us find ways to better our own writing. This issue with dialogue is something I still struggle with, even as an editor when I was tidying up Fallen Princeborn: Chosen.

Arlen sets the bear cub running towards the thicket. “Come along, all of you. Dorjan and the others are waiting.”

But She-Bear does not move. “Why do you wear his weapon?”

Liam remains still on the shore where Charlotte and Arlen placed him, his speckled curls limp, his bruises painting what must be an abridged story of the pain he felt in the nets. So Charlotte answers, “The dagger worked for me in Dissecto-Library-Horrorland .” Charlotte grips one of Liam’s arms and hoists him to his feet.

The She-Bear bares her teeth, but Arlen’s hand upon her head silences her. “You…you worked land magic underwater?” he asks.

“How do you think that one mer-dude’s face got melted?”

Liam’s hand, as mottled as the rest of him, opens and closes as Charlotte wills. Her fingers press his own tightly about his own weapon.

Leather, iron, blood. Then comes the touch of Charlotte—sparks rip through his frame. No more the beaten boy.

“Try it now, Liam. C’mon, get some heartburn goin’. Blood firin’. You know. Flame on. Ppppffffooow.”

Liam closes his eyes and feels his inner wings stretch to blot out the past, if only for a few moments. He wraps his other hand around the base of the blade. The dagger takes its blood, as always.

This time, it pays back.

The blade crackles as it lengthens, its feathers smoldering. The blood sword shines as it did in the forge so long ago, when Liam’s ambitions burned their brightest. He brings the blade close to his face to taste old victories in its heat. He sees the world in melting waves, as he did so often after striking the earth, commanding it to swallow armies and villages whole.

There are no armies now. No villages. Only Charlotte dripping like a botched painting. Arlen halved on one side of the dagger; the beast halved on the other.

The beast, whom he was meant to kill. A mother and her child so…cared for…by…

“Who is this, Arlen?” Liam’s question rumbles slowly out of his lips.

No more evasion.

~STAY TUNED!~

While Autumn creeps its way slowly through Wisconsin’s forests and farmlands, I will continue to share more and more of my coming sequel with you. I’ve also got some interviews waiting in the wings as well as music and analyses to share. Thank you all once more for traveling with me through these unknown lands of indie publishing. You are each and every one of you a blessing to be thankful for.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!