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

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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!

#StayHome and Escape #SelfQuarantine with #FREE #YA, #Scifi, and #Fantasy #Fiction from @AioniosBooks…and a quick #BetaRead of my #microfiction would be awesome!

Hello, everyone! Yes, I’m still alive, and so are my kids.

The past few days have been quite the learning experience for the three Bs and myself regarding patience, kindness, listening…maybe some science in there too, but honestly, at this stage it’s all about learning to live with one another every waking hour of the day. Hopefully some of the school stuff is sinking in, but as I say whenever I sub in a classroom: So long as no one hurts themselves or each other, it’s a good day. 🙂

On top of learning to learn together, I still need to find time to teach my online university students. I’m going to try something Thursday and Friday to see if it’ll help bring a little balance to my teaching load…and hopefully free up time to write, too.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a few freebies with you. Aionios Books, publisher of my first novel Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, has made a number of their ebooks free through the end of April!

Click here to visit Aionios Books!

Be sure to visit them for books of Young Adult, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. Because these downloads are through them and not Amazon, I do hope you’ll make a separate trip to my Amazon Author page and leave a book review when possible. Those reviews make a HUGE difference for indie authors such as m’self.

Click here to visit my Amazon Author Page!

I did manage to sneak in a quick couple of hours this past weekend to write. It wasn’t enough time for my short story, but it was enough time to answer the prompt for my university journal’s microfiction contest: create a story of 300 words or less featuring a famous woman from literature. This rough draft is a few words shy of 300, but I feel like there might need to be a little trimming done to make room for other details, depending on your feedback. I hope my choice in fictional character counts, too!

Title? Not sure yet. I’ll take any ideas you have!

Sally blew a perky blond curl out of her eyes. Every stitch had to be perfect.

“You sure you didn’t send it off with Marbles?” He called. “I know it’s all torn up, but it’s still mine.”

“Of course not, darling,” Sally cooed. The sewing machine needle pulsed up and down with the rhythm of their high school’s favorite slow song. She hummed as she shifted the pieces of delicate blue cotton beneath the point, her thread blending in perfectly.

“You don’t think someone walked off with it during the party, do you?”

 Sally bit her lip to keep from laughing. “Maybe.”

“Look, I know it’s dumb, but I am not going on vacation without it.”

“Oh, I know, darling, I know.” Dim sunlight fell through the glass blocks near the ceiling and washed out a picture Sally had taped to the wall of a Christmas pageant from their childhood. The moment he held her hand to go out on stage, she swore she’d never let him go.

“Lucy probably snitched it. Damn, I knew she was pissed about the new realty job.”

There. Sally’s chair made a nasty scraping sound against the concrete as she stood to hold up her work: a sport coat. He could wear it every day without any stupid dog or sister or anyone else stealing it away.

Sally lay the coat over her chair and glanced over at the computers. There he was, pacing with his phone while that slut Violet packed lingerie.

Sally had a bag, too, only it contained plastic sheets, duct tape, and a hammer. She took it with her up the stairs and out her cottage door. Pumpkin vines roped the entire yard, their yellow flowers filling the air with sincerity.

Nobody takes Sally’s Sweet Baboo.

It’s not much, but it’s fiction, and it’s storytelling, and with all the staying at home and teaching 7 to 57-year-olds, it’s nice to create a little mayhem. 🙂

~STAY TUNED!~

More homeschooling tips, writing, and music are on the way!

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

#AprilShowers Bring #Indie #AuthorInterviews! @JIRogers_Author discusses #worldbuilding in #scifi and #writing the #sixwordstory. #IndieApril #WritingCommunity

Thank heaven for this month of fantastic interviews! I’m still trudging my way through grading finals, pricing all the little Bs’ toddler clothing to sell, preparing for two rounds of family visits for Easter…oh and maybe writing in there somewhere. Whew!

So let’s continue on with our amazing Indie April and chat with sci-fi wonder, J.I. Rogers.

First, let’s get the niceties…well not out of the way, as it were, but if you’d like to introduce yourself—who you are and what you write, etc etc etc.

Hi. I’m J. I. Rogers, and I write a fusion of dystopian science fiction and space opera. My bio aptly states that when I’m not acting as a conduit for the voices in my head, I’m a poster child for Gen X and the Queen of most boondoggles that lead to eye-strain and tinnitus. Simply put, I’m a green-eyed, ginger-haired, caffeine addict who currently spends most days (and nights) creating bits to go into ‘The Korpes File Series,’ art, or convincing to my family and friends that I’m not dead.

What would you say was the first book (or author) you read that inspired you to become a writer?

The graphic novel series “Love & Rockets” by Los Bros Hernandez is what truly set me on this path. I’ve been an artist for far longer than I’ve been an author, and Jaime’s work, in particular, sparked the Muse to create my own world. It’s taken close to thirty years to get the ball rolling. In the meantime I’d have to say that every book I’ve ever read has pushed me toward committing text to screen; even the ones I didn’t like. Authors such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Barbara Hambly, George Orwell, R. A. MacAvoy, Anne McCaffery, G. R. R. Martin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett have also added their influence. I wrote a few short, fantasy stories based in Mercedes Lackey’s world in the 90s, but my APA, “Northwest Passages,” was sidelined by other projects.

Now according to your “About” page on your site https://jirogers-author.com/, you started working on the sci-fi series The Korpes File back in 2012. This series is set on a different planet, Tamyrh. I’ve never imagined creating an entire PLANET, let alone its various histories and cultures! Can you describe your world-building process for us?

I have a bit of experience in building worlds stemming from my time playing fantasy and sci-fi based role-playing games… Yes, I was one of those dice-rolling, graph-paper toting geeks that played in and ran campaigns through the 80s and 90s. My process could be best described as ‘organized chaos.’

Character Development:
Usually, I’ll start with the character, loosely identify their physical and personality characteristics, and then I’ll interview them to learn more. After a couple of paragraphs, I have more of an idea of who they are and how they fit in the world. I’ve found that the characters themselves reveal a fragment of ‘foundation’ information or a core element fairly early on. Things like ‘bullied,’ ‘has integrity,’ and ‘chronic tease’ are just a few of the things that have emerged. From there, I let them flesh themselves out as I write. I’m still learning things about Nash and the other inhabitants of my world.
I have found a few photographs that are close to how I visualize the different racial groups of Tamyrh, but none that define the characters. I’m planning to release a sketchbook in 2020 with my vision of what everyone looks like.

World Development:
I’m continually finding visual inspirations in our world that I can shape to place in mine, as my Pinterest account can attest. Other aspects, the alien ones, have lurked in my subconscious for decades.

The protagonist in The Korpes File, Nash Korpes, sounds like a fascinating character, burdened with history he didn’t ask for and facing an entire society down in his own “private war,” as you put it. Would you say Nash first appeared to you as a complete person or did you piece his character together over time?

Nash’s ‘Sarcastic voice’ revealed itself first, the rest followed. To be completely honest I’m still learning things about him, and I’m almost done the draft of book three.

You have a little disclaimer on your Korpes series’ web page that the stories contain some serious themes, such as genocide and racism. Were these themes you felt compelled to address via your story, or did your characters seem to guide you into these topics and address them their own way?

All the themes addressed were things that happened organically. There are six distinct humanoid groups on Tamyrh, and one uniquely alien. I had a vague idea of the physical and racial characteristics involved, and as I created the environments (cities, countries, and cultures), they suggested other, human-relatable traits and issues. An excellent example of this subconscious creation would be I knew the Korlo were xenophobes. It wasn’t until I discovered they had never fought a major war on their own soil, they had a small population, and their culture was highly class oriented that I understood why they responded negatively to the Diasporan (refugee) influx. Another example: I didn’t know one of the main characters was gay until he started hitting on another character in a bar scene. Some of the storyline has been on the loom for over thirty years, and the Muse is good at picking up stray threads.

As a fellow series writer, I have to admit that fatigue does occasionally set in—my brain keeps thinking on other projects, and if I don’t let my fingers at least get a few things down my creativity goes haywire. The timeline for your series looks pretty extensive, so I can’t help but ask how you stay dedicated to a single series for so long without going nuts.

HA! I am nuts, just ask anyone who knows me.
It helps that as I’m writing, I’ll write scenes or chapters in the future or past (other books). I have at least four or five projects going at once, so if I tire of one, I can keep momentum and interest going by working on another… or stepping out of the office and down to the studio and doing some art. There are also movie nights. When my hubby and I merged households, our book and movie collections threatened to form a singularity. To appease the various gods of chaos, we watch a movie every couple of days.

On the flip side of building an entire world, you also do the “Six-Word Story Challenge,” telling scenes not only with six words but with a unique image in the background. Now I know you’ve been doing this for at least a year, even creating these six-word stories with alphabetized theme words. I believe you’ve had an exhibit for these pieces of storytelling art, correct? How on Tamyrh did you get into this unique vein, and how would you say it powers your creativity?

“Six-Word Story Challenges” are great little warm-up exercises. Sometimes they’ll lead to a much longer scene, and other times, they’re the perfect summation (I’ve even hidden a few in the books).
The art exhibition was more of a happy coincidence. A friend and I were going to do a joint exhibit and then she had to withdraw due to poor health. The show was scaled back (I had to omit pieces that were designed for a larger space) and come up with something that could fill the void. I opted to have my show become interactive by encouraging people to look at the art (paintings, sculpture, and prints), then write a six-word story about their experience. I had about forty responses, half of which were genuine attempts. The other half were by someone who liked noodles.

I think it’s safe to say all writers have their own writing Kryptonite. Mine’s that dreaded phone call from the school principal—kills my creativity in a heartbeat. What’s your writing Kryptonite?

I lived in East Africa when I was growing up. A Cheetah has to eat its kill soon after it’s brought down; they don’t eat carrion unless the situation is dire. In the past, tour buses would come in close so the tourii could get better shots, the noise would scare the kitty off, and the poor thing would have to go and find another gazelle to run down. This was a problem because of the enormous amount of energy they expend in the chase. After being run off a third time, some were too weak to make another try and actually died.
Laws were passed to prevent the tour companies from harassing the wildlife.
When my hubby closes the door to his office, he’s busy. When I close the door to my office, it means I’m writing. If I’m pulled out of my groove to do something that didn’t really need me to do it I’ll get peevish and make snarly noises. If it happens three times in a row, I’ll try to eat the tourist.

You are an AMAZING supporter of fellow indie authors in the blogging community as well as on social media. What advice would you give newbie writers as they work on building their own author platforms?

Why thank you! 😀
My advice is to share posts, create engaging content, leave reviews, be positive without looking for immediate evidence of karmic return. In other words, treat people the way you’d like to be treated.
Ultimately, it might even lead to Jean Lee inviting you to appear as an interviewee on her awesome blog.

Aaaaw, shucks. 🙂

What would you say are common traps for aspiring writers, and how would you suggest avoiding them?

1. Don’t edit as you write, only edit after you have the first draft done.
2. Schedule your time on social media like it’s a job. Have a reason to be there and a time when you log off.
3. Take breaks, stretch, and remember to go outside and play with your friends.
4. Drink more water.
5. Remember to sleep.

Do I do all of these things? No, but I’m aspiring.

What would you consider to be the most problematic practice in the publishing industry, and how would you try to change it?

I’ve never been a fan of politics, and it seems to be a constant in any field, creative or not. I would love to win something like a Hugo or a Nebula Award at some point before I die, but the former has become highly political from all accounts, and I’m not traditionally published in the case of the latter. I’m not holding out much hope.
How would I change that? It’s out of my power. However, if you can’t bring about big changes, change something in your own neighborhood, right? There are a lot of indie publishers who embody positive energy and support their fellow authors; actions like theirs make everyone stronger. Model the behavior you wish to see, be the person you want to encounter and boost the worthy folks you meet. Pay it forward.

Oh! Tell us about your current project(s), please!

I’m currently working on books three through six of “The Korpes File Series,” painting the cowling on my Vino scooter before I put it back on the road, finishing up some WAY overdue art commissions, and creating a character sketchbook for my patrons (that’s due out in 2020).

Many, many thanks, my friend! I hope you’ll check out J.I. Rogers’ amazing stories on her Amazon Author page as well as subscribe to her newsletter. You can also find her on Twitter and on her website.

Stay tuned for yet another lovely indie author interview next week–in fact, I’ve actually gotten requested by more authors to interview them, soooooo this interview-a-thon may very well spill into May. We shall see!

In the meantime, here are links to my novel and FREE fiction, juuuuuuust in case you haven’t checked them out yet, wink wink nudge nudge say no more. 😉

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


#writerproblems: #characterdeath in #storytelling (Part 1: Noooo, Billy!)

You know the scene.

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 PredatorI 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…

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…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?

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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.

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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?

Lastly, be sure to stay tuned to my monthly newsletter. Big changes are coming, and I don’t want you to miss out!

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

#lessons Learned in #worldbuilding for #writing #fiction: #Annihilation by @jeffvandermeer

You know how last week I insisted that writers have to make themselves take a break? 24 hours after posting that, I ended up in the hospital. A month of not really sleeping mixed with flu culminated in an inability to breathe or see while driving my kids from school. Nothing like a trip in an ambulance to get one thinking about one’s priorities.

So, after a weekend of Bo telling me to sit still, Bash snuggles, Blondie stories, and Biff reading ad nauseum about trucks, I’m…still kinda sick, but not, you know, idiot-sick.

Seriously, people: take breaks.

This year, I wanted to dedicate a chunk of my “Lessons Learned” posts to an element of writing dear to my heart, one that can make or break a story set in a land not our own: world-building.

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In a way, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy takes place on our humdrum Earth (or does it? Dunh dunh DUUUUUNH). Something has come to Earth and transformed a stretch of coastal landscape in the United States. It has created a border. It does not let what is inside return…unless it wishes to. And those that return are never the same.

Annihilationthe first book of the series, strictly focuses upon the twelfth expedition into beyond the border into the place now labeled Area X. Here is where the world-building plays to Vandermeer’s favor. He needs to make Earth unearthly. He needs to engage and invest the readers into exploring this place.

He accomplishes this with the first paragraph:

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Let’s dissect this a little. Look at that first line: “The tower, which was not supposed to be there.” Already, our narrator has come upon something unexpected. “Plunges into the earth“: I love that word choice of “plunges.” A strong action, driven action, and yet not violent, as opposed to “pierces” or “penetrates.” The terms for the landscape fit our narrator, whom we learn in the next paragraph is a biologist.  The paragraph itself ends on two contradictions: “untroubled landscape” is certainly not what one would think of when it comes to an otherworldly invasion on our planet. “Could yet see the threat” counters the “untroubled” while also agreeing with the first line of a tower not meant to be there.

One paragraph in, and we already have a sense of what is both familiar–“black pine forest,” “marsh flats,” etc–and what is foreign–“the tower.” VanderMeer utilizes natural details readers can easily visualize while “plunging” a singular uniqueness into the scene, an entity guaranteed to taint all the “normalcy” around it, therefore turning the entire scene into something abnormal.

I’d like to share two other paragraphs, both from the first chapter, that further build on this natural/unnatural mix of detail.

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge directions, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning.

The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

So many sensory details are given here. The middle of the paragraph provides the pretty visuals with the moss and the trees, but the water detail unsettles you, doesn’t it? Because “normal” water isn’t still like that. VanderMeer also pulls a smooth move on readers with the moaning line. He begins the paragraph with it, but then spends time on other details before returning to the moaning, as if to show us the “normal” touches that are once again infected by the singular foreign element. The last line of this paragraph is a killer-subtle bit of foreshadowing, as you’ll see in the next paragraph from later in the chapter.

The biologist and another member have ventured into the tower, where they find words written on the wall. Those words are made of living organisms. Here VanderMeer makes use of his narrator’s skill set to build a world inside a word:

So I stepped closer, peered at Where lies the strangling fruit. I saw that the letters, connected by their cursive script, were made from what would have looked to the layperson like rich green fernlike moss but in fact was probably a type of fungi or other eukaryotic organism. The curling filaments were all packed very close together and rising out from the wall. A loamy smell came from the words along with an underlying hint of rotting honey….I leaned in closer, like a fool…someone tricked into thinking words should be read…Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out.

I think you know where this is going: something gets into the biologist, something she does her damndest to hide from the others.

In this paragraph you get a taste for the level of natural detail our narrator takes in, one who has the experience to see and understand what is natural to Earth’s ecology, and what is not. As readers, we are gripped by the mystery of Area X–as Vandermeer planned, I’m sure. Even though I haven’t given you the whole chapter, the fact that “fernlike moss” is growing to create not only words, but cursive words in English, should be enough to send a shudder through you. Something foreign is here, and yet knows enough to communicate with our own language. It has taken what we thought unique to humanity, and transformed it into something new, just as it has with everything previous expeditions have left behind…including the expeditions themselves.

You’ll have to read the book to appreciate that last point.

VanderMeer’s balance between the relatable and the alien sensory details is spot-on throughout the trilogy. In the first chapter of the first book, where this balance is at its most precarious, Vandermeer takes the greatest care in luring readers to follow him, lulling them with the familiar, until the subtle strange beneath the black glass water floods the way back and we have no choice but to enter the tower, and descend further into his world.

Your own world need not be built from scratch. Dig your fingers deep into the earth and build the trench to set your land apart. Claw out the flora and fauna. Now, with all set before you upon this table, what shall fill your world? What will your readers know, and what will they look upon with a stranger’s eyes, wide and watchful?

#Writing #Music: Vangelis

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According to Bo, one of the queer bits of my sci-fi/fantasy upbringing was its lack of Blade Runner. “You watched Dr. Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Highlander, Dune, but NOT Blade Runner?

I admit, it seems strange Dad wouldn’t have watched it at some point. Maybe the cut available at the time really stunk–last I checked, there’ve been five different versions released. But this isn’t about all the various tellings of one story. A brief Internet search reveals that topic’s been talked to death and beyond. My focus turns to that which begins and ends the story, that which has not been altered: the music.

Vangelis (Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou) is a figurehead in the world of electronic music. Sure, everyone loves his song from Chariots of Firebut truly, it’s his work on Blade Runner that proves to the world just how beautiful, captivating, and overwhelmingly powerful synthetic music can be.

So often synthesizers are used as a cheap alternative to an orchestra, but when it comes to Vangelis’ score, I think the massive variety of sounds and sound-textures would dilute the power of his music. There is unity in the synthetic, how all stems from the same source, yet branches out into so many different pitches, rhythms, and tones, that one still experiences an orchestra without the orchestra. And really, what other approach could better fit a movie about replicants hiding as real, living creatures?

You don’t know any of this in the beginning of the film, of course. In the beginning you have but a world: a city-scape that spills over the horizon, rusted and littered with fire-flares and lights more numerous than the stars. The opening zither-like run pulls us over the threshold. Rhythm isn’t as important here; we’re not rushed through the world, but rather allowed to float in awe. Harmonies move slowly as another synthesizer dances about like windchimes. The music does not intimidate, but it does not necessarily welcome, either. Reverence is the unspoken price to pay.

But for all the wonder in the beginning, the ending is where I set the repeat button. There’s no sense of wonder, no eye-opening as we experience with the opening track. No, here we are running, forever running with the rhythms slowly building, a new sound added every time. A timpani-like sound pounds, and the snare drum, a rare bit of “real” instrument in all the synthetic, has a peculiar tap at the end of each arc, almost like it’s clicking in reset to start anew. It’s not a melody of hope, nor of despair. There’s no certainty here. This is survival’s song.

Don’t let your characters gawk at their setting for long, for all is not well beneath the glittering surface. Press them onward, through the grime and fire, to that which all creations desire more than anything: the chance to live.

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Extra versions, in case my chosen links don’t work outside the U.S.: