However, as book reviewer and author S.J. Higbeehas often noted, many authors and/or publishers feel compelled to stick waaaaaaaaaaaay too much information into the book blurb. (Click here for just one of MANY reviews where Sarah touches on the problem of chatty blurbs.) Where is the line between too much information and too little? We want to give readers a taste of the story inside, but we don’t want to ruin their appetites. We want to engage readers without killing all the story’s surprises or subverting all the expectations.
Which got me to thinking about M*A*S*H. Yes, the TV show.
I never watched M*A*S*H as a kid, nor did I know about the original book on which the film and television series are based. I only knew that whenever the theme song started playing on the TV, I went off and did something else.
Just listen to that mellow song played alongside these doctors and nurses treating soldiers near enemy lines. The show’s opener had the look and feel of some medical drama, the last sort of show Little Me would want to watch.
Then I learned after marrying Bo that this show was a comedy. A COMEDY?! How the heck is someone supposed to catch the comedy vibes from that opener? The melody’s a sad one; heck, the original song’s called “Suicide is Painless.” We see no happy or positive expressions on people’s faces, only the urgency of aiding the wounded. There is absolutely nothing present in this theme to tell one that they’re about to watch a comedy. Imagine if a book tried to pull this same stunt with their cover art and blurb. How do you think the ever-watchful Goodreads community would respond?
As writers, we need that blurb to give readers a genuine sense of the story-world they’re about to enter. Usually just a few elements of the genre are enough to tell readers, this is what you’re in for. If you dig X, then you’ll love this.
Since television themes are always held to a similar degree of requirement (unless it’s M*A*S*H, apparently), let’s use a few more for examples: Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and Dragnet.
Not one of these theme songs is all that long, but we get enough out of the music to know the genre of each show: the twang of the western guitar, the dissonance of an eerie suspense-filled horror, the stalwart drums of justice. With just a few seconds, these themes accurately and concisely provide the audience a sense of the stories that will accompany the themes.
Now I’m not saying that chattiness is always bad. Heavens, Rod Serling’s speech for Twilight Zone’s theme is iconic. Then you have shows like Dukes of Hazzard and A-Team, which just so happen to be Bo’s and my favorite TV shows from childhood. Both are spot-on with their carefree guitar and military snare, and both directly address the audience with the premise of the show (only the A-Team don’t need no Waylon Jennings to sing because they got Mr. T, fool!). These themes are slightly over a minute long, but they don’t overwhelm the audience with information. We only get what we need: Protagonists and Problems. It’s up to us to stay tuned for more.
So what happens when that blurb of a theme does give us more?
This is where I think we enter the “chatty” territory, the “too much” territory. Allow me to force more of my 80s upbringing on you for examples.
Okay, I’ll let the monotonous “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sung over and over in the background slide because it’s like a companion to the drums. But do we really need to hear the traits of every main character in the opening of EVERY episode? She-Ra and Masters of the Universe did that, too, always breaking down every damn character so you would know just who the good guys and bad guys are, and who knows the secret identity stuff and who doesn’t, because apparently you, you snot-faced lump of Cheetos-dusted child, are too dumb to catch on to any of this when watching the show.
And I think this is what really gets to me about those chatty blurbs on books today. It’s like the publisher/writer thinks they have to talk down to the reader to ensure they understand the story’s premise and conflict. Sure, no one wants the reader to feel confused, but the consequence of over-talking is that we make the reader feel inferior.
Yes, there are some that like having all the dots connected for them, but not this gal, not this gal’s kids, and I have a feeling that you don’t dig being babied, either. Plus, it says something about us as writers when we don’t trust our own storytelling skills to adequately show readers who’s who and what’s what inside the story itself.
There simply comes a time when all we can–all we should–give readers are duct tape, a lemon, and a broken magnifying glass. If they’re intrigued with the few pieces you leave for them to find, then you can bet your MacGyver-lovin’ boots they’re comin’ into the book for more.
Anyone else have a favorite television theme to share? I was trying to figure out how to squeeze in Hawaii Five-0, but I just couldn’t make it work, dammit.
Greetings, lovely readers! An unexpected flood of school work’s swamped my desk, and there’s a threat of storms severe enough to send animals hunting for an Ark. While I float upon the course prep and stare at our sump pump for the next 36 hours, please welcome the amazing indie author and filmmaker Mansu Edwards!
You are a creator in many forms: I love seeing how you weave in and out of genres like science fiction, young adult, and suspense. Do you feel the genre definitions in today’s market limit writers or help them?
Thank you Jean. I never focused on genre definitions. I use my instincts. I think Writers should create their own definitions. Genre definitions can limit Writers because it can prevent the Creator from producing a unique story. Readers don’t care about definitions. They care about good storytelling. Then again, not having a specific genre definition can hurt Author sales. People want to know what their reading and won’t spend money on surprises. However, there have been many instances where my story didn’t fit a specific genre or the genre didn’t reveal itself until midway in the story.
Your bio also mentions you recently created a short film, Texting in New York City. What challenges did you face as a storytelling in a visual medium? Does your experience as a filmmaker help inform your craft choices as a writer?
Texting In New York City is based on my book under the same name. The book consisted of random text conversations between New Yorkers. When creating the short film, I developed an idea and wrote a script. I understood the significance of brevity and pacing in film due to my Screenwriting background. I showed the 1st draft to an Exhibitor at a Trade Show. She explained the parts of the story that were unclear. I rewrote it and began hiring actors, actresses and a production team. The cinematographer, John Morgan pitched a couple of ideas; I watched a ton of short films and a popular webseries: Money And Violence to improve pacing and storytelling. The series made me retool the script. I eliminated and shortened certain scenes. It was a huge mental shift working on the visual version of Texting In New York City because I normally work alone when writing a book. Of course, I outsource certain parts of the process. Since, I have a Screenwriter’s mindset, I do my best to get to the point as quickly as possible. I don’t want to lose my audience.
You’ve been publishing works since 2009. With ten years of experience as an author, what would you say is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and how can we as the writing community overcome it?
Unscrupulous companies charging writers exorbitant fees to produce a book. I think its unnecessary and a terrible experience for novice authors. We can overcome it by offering writers a discount or providing advertisement for a reduced cost.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Yes, I read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. It interweaves the present and the past between two lovers. How their personal strengths and weaknesses affect their relationship. Also, the importance of making the correct decisions in life.
Let’s talk about your YA series, Emojis vs. Punctuation Marks. What a great concept of a story to share with young adult readers—especially those who forget punctuation even exists! (I teach writing, so I notice this problem. A LOT.) What first inspired you to write this series?
Thank you Jean. The Most High (God) inspired me. I’m sitting at the counter and an idea flashes in my mind. I hear the title Emojis Vs. Punctuation Marks: Battle Of The Keyboard . I’m thinking this is a cool and unusual concept. Also, I noticed the change in online communication over the years. Senders and receivers using Emoticons to express feelings and emotions. And the story sounded fun, so I knew I had to write it.
Book 2 of the series, Land of Refrigeration, expands the universe of these wee characters to include insects and produce. I would love to hear you breakdown the worldbuilding process you went through to create this new level of the EPM universe!
I had an incomplete version of Emojis Vs. Punctuation Marks: Land Of Refrigeration. I decided to have the Emojis battle the fruits and vegetables for territorial positioning while trying to find a way back to their unique world. I rewrote the story a few times. I wanted to show the survivors of Emojis Vs. Punctuation Marks: Battle Of The Keyboard attempting to adjust on Planet Earth. But, their ultimate goal is to return to their digital world. Also, I provided a backstory on the relationship between the Punctuation Marks and Danna’s father, Menelik which began during his adolescent years. Then, I began reread another story I wrote, but didn’t quite finish. It was completely different concept. The story didn’t have a title. I decided to incorporate it with the Emojis story. The tale takes place in Outer Space. So, I thought why not have the Insect, Centipede McGhee design a portal for the Emojis and Punctuation Marks to travel to a exciting, unfamiliar, digital world.
Where do you see the third entry of this series taking you—and readers? Any other projects you’d like to highlight for us?
Very good question. The third entry is a work in progress. I may change the story’s trajectory. I haven’t decided yet. Nevertheless, I have a new Ebook entitled Plush Couches. It’s about a young man who has a serious gas attack on his way to a job interview. I’m currently working on an untitled piece about a Superhero.
Lastly, please expand upon the age-old storyteller conundrum: Does writing energize or exhaust you, and why?
Writing is both energizing and exhausting. It uses mental, emotional and spiritual faculties. It’s a relationship that has its ups and downs. You never know what to expect. Sometimes your pen is sailing on calm seas and other times it’s swimming in turbulent waters. It’s a gift from God. People’s positive responses to my story energizes me. Of course, all the responses aren’t positive, but, I can’t let it demotivate me. I write the story. Finish it. Then work on the next book.
Thank you so much for your time and thoughts, Mansu! Godspeed to you on your upcoming writing adventures.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
Would you believe there’s an important lesson to be learned in TV theme songs? Yes, I’m serious. Then we’re going to ponder the structure of the fairy tale and how it can help add a darkly magical chapter to a story-world’s history.
No, he didn’t get this book for me; he bought it for his parents, my grandparents, whom I’m pretty sure never cracked the cover. You can bet your boots my brothers and I did, though. I was fascinated by these bizarre animals and people with 1950s glasses and beehive hairdos. The puns were atrocious, the wordplay crazy. My favorite running series in all the collections, however, had little to do with language and aaaaaaall to do with the situation.
How did Gary Larson come up with these combos? Every pairing seemed so outlandish, and yet I always laughed, even when I was small, because Little Me knew:
That’s a baaaad idea.
Even if you’re not a fan of forcefully brewing trouble, there’s no denying that we as writers thrive on trouble–aka, conflict. There’s got to be a struggle between person and nature, person and person, person and self. There’s a quest, an escape, a threat to overcome. Somewhere, whether in our world or in our imaginations, there must be something happening, ingredients to brew the trouble that make for a delicious story.
A recipe for disaster, if you will.
Recipes with ingredients only Gary Larson seems to come up with: poodles and falcons, sky divers and alligators, marching bands and migraine doctors. These are all common, everyday things in our world, but when mixed together the story–the conflict–is anything but ordinary.
Lord knows that as a parent of two Calvins and a Hobbes, my shelves are stacked with cookbooks of mayhem.
If you’ve never heard of Calvin and Hobbes, you MUST read them. Today.
Calvin’s best friend is a tiger named Hobbes. To all the world, Hobbes is a stuffed animal, but to Calvin, he is the ultimate friend and ally in a boring world.
When Bo found his collections of Calvin and Hobbes comics, Blondie and the boys snatched them up and still haven’t let go. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see the kids so engaged with a character. Calvin deals with a lot of kid issues like bullies and school woes, but he also gets into some very grown-up topics like environmentalism and death.
On the other hand, Calvin is, well, something of a troublemaker.
This comic feels like some hilarious yet horrendous portent of days to come with Biff and Bash. (No, Blondie doesn’t get off the hook. Hobbes instigates just as often as he cautions.) Calvin can be rude, foolish, and downright diabolical, but I cannot stop loving him for one simple reason:
Calvin can take any thing, any place, any one, and create a universe of adventure.
He inspires Bash to be his own Stupendous Man, complete with sidekick (Bash’s wee Bumble, Captain Ice Cube).
He inspires Biff to find magic on the snowy slopes, even after losing two teeth in a sledding accident.
Calvin’s dad even inspires Bo’s parenting style.
Yeah, I didn’t get to do much writing this summer, but I still consider the past few months well spent because I got to be a reader–no, that’s not the right word. A listener. I was blessed to listen and watch Biff, Bash, and Blondie work together to create hilarious adventures featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, Wall-E the trash bot, Optimus Prime, Lego Batman, the USS Enterprise, and more. Every plot point was preceded with a “How About ___?” and a “Yeah, and then ___!”. No villain’s ever truly villainous, and no hero’s ever truly perfect. Settings switch from Sodor to Cybertron to Gotham City and back again without characters ever missing a beat. I marvel at how their voices run through the story together, pulling each other along…and yes, sometimes one voice knocks another down, and I must end the story with a cliffhanger. They get so frustrated when their stories diverge with the same characters, and one wants the others to follow. I wish I had perfect motherly advice to give them, but considering my own experiences with collaborative writing went up in flames, all I can manage is a welp, kiddos, maybe you should just tell separate stories for a while.
And they do. Less excitedly, but they do.
Creative teamwork is a delicate thing, and I’m still very clumsy at helping it stay together. But after this summer I’m determined to keep trying because when together, my children imagined stories as magical as dandelion seeds flying through a northern wood.
I’ve got an indie author interview on the way, as well as a fun exploration into theme music. We also need to do some serious pondering of the fairy tale, and how two storytellers of film and page came together to build a country’s history out of…fairy tales?
We drive, kid-free, through the silent Wisconsin countryside. Clouds hang silver and heavy over the corn and soy fields. The occasional tractor turns earth, the sporadic cow chews cud, the episodic cyclist scowls.
Yeah, sorry about my use of the thesaurus here, but I couldn’t help myself, not when I saw “odd” is a synonym for “occasional.” For amongst the normal, humdrum sights in rural Wisconsin, Bo and I are going to a truly odd place. One of the oddest in all the States, in fact.
Bo finds just the right music for our mission.
“What I want to know,” Bo ponders as we park, “is why no Bond villain ever stationed himself here.”
I nod. Christopher Lee’s funhouse set-up in The Man with the Golden Gun has nothing on this house.
Like Dylan Thuras (in the above video), I also grew up hearing the tale that world-famous architect–and Wisconsin’s own!–Frank Lloyd Wrighthad spurned Alex Jordan’s own architectural designs, motivating son Alex Jordan Jr. to build The House atop a natural tower called Deer Shelter Rock…an area less than ten miles away from Taliesin. The tale is likely a crock, and yet…you know, why else would you build so flippin’ close to each other?
I’d only visited The House on the Rock once in my teen years. It’s the sort of place that sticks with you no matter who you are or where you’re from; one visit affected Neil Gaiman so deeply he set a piece of American Godsat The House on the Rock–and yes, they even filmed an episode of the television series there.
Sadly, my phone’s camera cannot do this place justice at ALL, but I do have a few snaps I can share mixed among the far better photos on the Internet.
One of the major architectural highlights is the Infinity Room.
It ain’t exactly a place you want to walk in when lots of people are there–it heats quickly, and, um, wobbles a bit. Still, I managed to get a shot with Bo while the natural light was good.
Once you exit the Original House and Gate House, things start to get really weird.
Ah, the vicious Lake Superior Squid duals with the tempestuous Duluth Whale of Doom.
(Them’s the jokes, folks. For legit humor writing, talk to Bo.)
Would it surprise you to know that tiny children sobbed as their parents dragged them by the whale’s teeth? I sure couldn’t blame’em–I was freaked out when I first saw all this, and I was old enough to drive a car. Bo, bless him, humors me as I grip his arm tight enough to leave a mark as we descend…yes, we not only have to climb up and around this mouth–we have to do it aaaaall again to get out.
Anyway, here we transition with a big ol’ organ into room, after room, after room, of these giant orchestral mechanics.
You get me.
This place just goes on….and on…and on…you move from room to room, warehouse to warehouse. You walk on yet another street of yesterday dedicated to cars, hot air balloons, airplanes. You pass hundreds of trinkets and trunkets of store displays, guns, circuses, dollhouses, DOOOOOOLLS, pipes, ivory carvings, costume jewelry, armor. Battle scenes complete with armored elephants and dogs.
Did I mention the dolls? Like the giant carousel FILLED with dolls?
And then there’s the room with the world’s largest indoor carousel.
In case you’re wondering what’s hanging from the ceiling, those are mannequin angels. Dozens, upon dozens, of mannequin angels.
Probably to fend off Satan from eating people.
I walked down Satan’s gullet, stumped.
“What’s wrong?” Bo asks as we step out onto Inspiration point.
The sudden exit from hours among electric candelabras and mannequins makes my head hurt a little, but the foliage and peace of the forest around us more than make up for it. We’re at Inspiration Point, or Deer Shelter Rock. You can just see the Infinity Room behind the trees.
We must have missed something, I say, staring at a lone red barn on the far hillside (that I failed to get a picture of–sorry!). Wonder what that farmer thought, watching AJ Jr. haul materials and build his crazy concocted collection year after year after year. Did that farmer pay to take a tour like so many others in the 60s? Or did he just wave it off as so many ol’ Wisconsinites do and get back to the plow?
“How?” Bo takes a swig of apple juice as we sit on a bench. It’s our first break in three hours of walking, as our bodies are quick to tell us. “There’s only one way through this whole thing. The staff haven’t let us go off-course. What could we have missed?”
I grimace at the glass wall behind us. “We didn’t see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Bo rolls his eyes. He doesn’t remember the Horsemen from his childhood visits, and has been skeptical of their existence. “Well we’re not done yet.”
But how much left can there be? I ask for my curiosity…and my legs.
“We gotta double-back for another level and…yeah, the map here shows we’ve got a whole ‘nother room yet.”
But I promptly told my leg cramps to shut up once we got there.
This is, by far, my favoritist place at The House on the Rock.
Pillars–no, trees of drums and lights with delicate, narrow stairwells that wound and wound like vines. It was an other-worldly realm, a land of machine and music bathed in softly lit scarlet. It was a sort of room where you knew, you knew, magic awakens when the right song is played.
But alas, we had to move on. There was but one more pathway to the exit out, a pathway that went around the top of the carousel…
…and there they were.
Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah that walkway is so close to these guys Bo could literally reach out and touched Death–
–not that he does, thank goodness.
At last, we find ourselves back by the Japanese Garden and the exit from this one-of-a-kind place.
If Life’s Road ever brings you into Wisconsin, you must find a detour, any kind of detour to bring you to this place. It’s a day you’ll not soon forget, I promise you.
Fangirl Quest and Web Urbanisthave amazing photo collections on The House on the Rock I only partly pillaged for this post. Check them out!
I think every land’s got to have a place like this–not something like The House on the Rock per say, but that unique oddity, that portal where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are frayed, and you can feel magic hum in the air you breathe. What would you say is your land’s portal to an Other-Where? Let’s chat in the comments below!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
The House on the Rock isn’t the onlyplace to inspire a story. I utilized a bit of history from the Mississippi River Valley to help me write my upcoming release, the novella Night’s Tooth. You can read about it here, and pre-order it for just 99 cents here!The novella officially launches next Thursday the 29th, when I share my study of Charlaine Harris’ own fantasy western, An Easy Death. Don’t miss it!
Now like many preteens, I was initially ecstatic to have something on a television screen during the school day. But also like many preteens, I was not what one would call appreciative of this thorough analysis of the Civil War. In fact, to keep myself from falling asleep, I’d count how many times “Ashokan Farewell” would play. (I distinctly remember reaching seven times in one episode.)
This was, you could say, my introduction to western period music.
To be clear, I’m not trying to denigrate Jay Ungar in any fashion. This is a beautiful string piece full of love and mourning. At one point I even learned how to play it on the violin. But in the early 90s I was a bratty kid who didn’t care and just wanted the stupid show to be over so we could get some lunch.
Yet even my bratty self could never deny the epic score of those old-school westerns. Elmer Bernstein lassos you in with those opening staccato trills, brass galloping on as percussion rushes underfoot, strings sweeping across the open skies over this land of boundless possibility.
Fast-forward a decade or two, and my movie fanatic husband Bo is educating me on all sorts of cinema wonders. One viewing of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and I was hooked on the spaghetti western. I mean, that final showdown with the guitar, the trumpet, choir, bells, the literal hanging on the edge of the seat as the men’s eyes flash and fingers twitch and MY GOD WHO’S GOING TO DIE, WHOOOO?!?!
I’ve already gushed quite a bit about Ennio Morricone as well as where I spot his influence in recent soundtracks. Il Maestro is a storyteller with sound, make no mistake. His orchestras can speak for characters, tension, and setting without any help from a screen. Once Upon a Time in the West is a powerful example of this. Here the guitar strings hum with impending danger, the repeating triplet by other strings a feeling time’s relentless press onward into certain death. The dissonant harmonica not only speaks for one of the protagonists, but plays an intrinsic role in the story itself.
The guitar does seem to be one of the voices of the Wild West, isn’t it? Even in westerns with a genre twist to them, the guitar sings for the defiant free spirit of our lone hero. I love Harry Gregson-Williams’ use of the guitar to introduce us to a man without a past or name–just a wrist laser he uses to shoot down alien spacecraft.
Some epic tales of guts and determination inspire us so deeply that Hollywood’s keen to retell these stories as many times as consumer wallets will allow. A composer, however, doesn’t have to repeat what’s come before. Take James Horner–he died while developing his score for the remake of The Magnificent Seven. Thankfully, Horner’s friend Simon Franglen finished what Horner started, and we’re given a beautiful mix of indigenous and traditional instruments with a touch of a choir to take listeners back through the mists of time to find themselves cut off from civilization, lost to the raw landscape where power is brutal, and heroes the thing of dreams.
Not all stories are epic, however. Sometimes stories are just about a man and a woman trying to figure out life in a bitter, harsh land. Leonard Cohen’s music that speaks to this in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Not gonna lie–this is not an uplifting film, nor does Cohen’s music lighten its weight. His songs inspire hope for a connection, however brief, before the return of isolation and loneliness.
And then there are those rare, rare moments where Writer and Bratty Kid come together, where the frayed edges of past and present bind and wrap round the soul, warm and loving.
That moment came for me with the remake of True Grit.
Carter Burwell took “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a hymn I’ve known since childhood, and unraveled it, carefully threading its elements into various moments of his score. From beginning to end, this hymn never quite leaves the characters or the land…or us.
Thank you for joining me on this sojourn through the music of magnificent grit seen only once upon a time. If you feel another score is worth mentioning, please let me know! Maybe I can squeeze it in before the release of my novella later this month.
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
Bo and I visited one of the strangest–or should I say, “most creative”–places in Wisconsin. I’m keen to share my photos! (Well, and what photos I can find on the Internet that aren’t blurry.) Plus, there’s a world-building study of another western-fantasy, the official launch of my novella, some more author interviews, fun with kids, and more!
I wish I could tell you just when it started, this love for the western. It should have been decades ago, when my brothers and I watched our old recorded VHS on the making of Star Wars yet again while Mom just wanted to sit and watch John Wayne in a classic like Stagecoach or The Searchers. But I had no patience for the kind of western where women clutch their aprons while Native Americans gallop by with villainous intentions and only John Wayne with his swaggering cadence can talk a coward into being a brave man just long enough to shoot the savage and save this little refuge of civilization.
Oh no. Iiiii had to sit and watch a rogue with a laser gun help out wizened old man and a snot-nosed kid who thinks he’s smart in the saddle hold out from attacks by corrupt powers….heeey…sounds, um…
Sounds kinda like a western. (More on that later.)
But aren’t westerns just glorified propaganda for western civilization uprooting native cultures? Don’t all their shoot-outs result in a lot of powder in the air, women swooning, and men clutching their chests going, “Aaaurgh!”?
What is it about this period spanning thirty years (or sixty, depending on whom you ask) that draws us back again and again?
I can’t speak for others, but dammit, I’ll speak for me.
A Hero uncivilized and unrestrained.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the antihero, and how this individual for good or ill lives by his own code to meet his own ends. In the western this character certainly exists, but there are plenty of heroes, too, who are out to right a wrong and carry out some justice…only, their means ain’t exactly pretty (see High Plains Drifter for the ugliest justice there is). Plus, these folks are by no means super-heroes or ramped up by crazy technology (unless, of course, you’re in Wild Wild West).
The hero–or antihero–of the western is often one of minimal means caught up in a conflict where the other side has more bullets, more men, more high ground. Jack Shaefer, a writer of westerns, elaborates on this point:
The western story, in its most usual forms, represents the American version of the ever appealing oldest of man’s legends about himself, that of the sun-god hero, the all-conquering valiant who strides through dangers undaunted, righting wrongs, defeating villains, rescuing the fair and the weak and the helpless — and the western story does this in terms of the common man, in simple symbols close to natural experience . . . depicting ordinary everyday men, not armored knights or plumed fancy-sword gentlemen, the products of aristocratic systems, but ordinary men who might be you and me or our next-door neighbors gone a-pioneering, doing with shovel or axe or gun in hand their feats of courage and hardihood.
This is why I love Clint Eastwood in so many of his westerns. He’s shot, beaten, left to die in the desert, and God knows what else. We see him lose as much blood as he draws. He, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Jeff Bridges, and loads others show their struggle for a better self in a world that rewards the greedy and vicious. The price to be paid when doing the right thing can be pretty damn high, and the heroes are willing to sacrifice it all, including their own goodness, to pay it.
Which brings me to my next point. (And to one of the happiness quotes I was challenged by the lovely Lady Shey to hunt down and share.)
Action! Bang bang, punch kick kapow, boom blam CRASH!
In case you didn’t know from other posts, I’m something of an action junkie. (The fact that 1987’s Predator is another one of my all-time favorite movies should tell you a lot about me.) Westerns promise action. There may be tons of gun fights, or only a few. There may be a total blood bath such as in Django Unchained, or a drawn….out….showdown…years…in…the making….
That’s part of the western’s beauty. The climax can be a chess game of men, where pawns are removed one by one until all that remains are the kings of the board…and, perhaps, a rook. We have to watch their necks sweat, fingers twitch, eyes narrow, and wait, wait, wait for the moment where Hell will break loose–
Or, bullets fly and characters die in epic battle fashion, such as in The Magnificent Seven; we’re not sure who will survive the climactic battle, and because we know these heroes experience the broken bone and spirit of mortality, we cannot be certain any of them will make it at all.
(Unless, of course, you’re the townspeople of Blazing Saddles’ Rock Ridge, who all wind up breaking onto the set of another film and then the studio’s commissary for a huge food fight.)
Speaking of settings…
A landscape beautiful, terrifying, and untameable.
Western civilization may have crossed into the territories, but it is by no means in control of the land.
Communities are rarely large, and their ties with “proper” society–towns and cities east of the Mississippi–are tenuous at best. The first transcontinental railroad wasn’t completed until 1869, the first transcontinental telegraph only a few years before that. If someone travels west, they travel a lonely road, or a railroad often unguarded. They enter territories that never belonged to them, and yet are determined to keep them.
I figured this riverside town would be the perfect place to set my western fantasy novella Night’s Tooth. Wisconsin earned its statehood in the 1840s, sure, but it’s not like all of it was paved with pristine society by the end of the Civil War, right?
Well…the first settlers established the community of La Crosse in the 1840s a few years before that statehood, so yeah, Wisconsin still had a bit of wildness to it as far as governance goes, but by the end of the Civil War the log cabins had been replaced by a full-on city with one of the country’s first swing bridges for the Southern Minnesota Railroad.
No longer did rail cars have to be ferried across the great river to journey west. The White Man had brought his roads and buildings and built them all square and orderly to the Mississippi River Valley. Man had conquered Nature.
As far as Wisconsin was concerned, the Wild of its West was lost.
I can’t write a story where the West ISN’T Wild!!!
The idea of La Crosse being so damned orderly and efficient at growing really galled me. It galled me so much I figured my main character, a bounty hunter named Sumac, would be galled too, and call it a damn shame.
Then it hit me.
Use the city’s history in the story. Show how this final bastion of “civilization” before the territories had its own moments of dark dealings. Perhaps, if I am very careful, sew some patches of magic goings-on onto time’s quilt of history, and in their threads tell a new tale of hunters who hide among us…
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
Intrigued? I sure hope so! 🙂 I’ll be posting an excerpt from the story in this month’s Exclusive Free Fiction from the Wilds. Once I’m done mucking through the formatting business, I’ll publish Night’s Tooth as an e-book and set its price for 99 cents. If all goes well with children and teaching, Night’s Tooth will be available near the end of this month.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite westerns in the comments below! You may also enjoy watching Cinefix’s very interesting breakdown of favorite westerns from across the decades, including the changes of tone and theme created by different directors in countries. (If you’re wondering when Star Wars was supposed to come up again in this post, watch the video.)
~Stay Tuned Next Week~
I’m super-stoked about next week’s interview! He’s a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as a fellow fan of Diana Wynne Jones. After that we’ll study a new and unique Wild West set in an alternate America, then take a tour through some amazing composers for westerns before finally (fingers crossed and turning thrice widdershins) launching Night’s Tooth into the publishing wild!
Happy Thursday, everyone! I’m please to introduce you to J.D. Stanley. He’s an award-winning fantasy writer of novel and script as well as a Bardic Druid of the OBOD. It’s an honor to share his thoughts with you today on this, the writing life.
First, let’s talk a little about your background. I see you’ve done some work on radio and studio engineering. That’s so neat! It reminds me of Celine Kiernan, who spent years as an animator for Don Bluth before beginning her own writing career. How would you say your time with language-aloud influences your language-written?
It really was a neat experience. What a blast for a day job! Studio engineering and writing were the reasons I went into radio broadcasting in 1986. For a creative, nerdy introvert, all the behind-the-scenes stuff was super appealing. Audio engineering is a singular, unique avenue of creation – all you have are the sounds to build a world. I still love it. Without solid writing, though, no matter how good the production, it won’t sound realistic. Writing for that still makes me hyper-critical of my dialogue and narration today.
When I studied Radio in college, there was
a great deal of focus on learning to write words meant to be spoken – so
commercial copy, radio plays and show scripts. And the flip-side, how to speak
that writing, too. The point was, to craft something that didn’t sound scripted
even when it was. I was lucky enough to get picked up by a program director who
heard some of my freelance work and jobbed-out halfway through. Getting thrown into
the deep end like that really hammered it home. Knowing listeners would hear my
writing live shortly after I put the words down or a sponsor would pay more
than tens of thousands of dollars as soon as I produced or voiced a spot was…
terrifying. Nothing like having your feet to the fire to hone skills. Those lessons
will never leave me and my continued voiceover work as well as coaching written
and spoken communication keeps it fresh in my head.
I would say, all that time with language-aloud
makes me remember to read my writing outloud to check with my ears for
believability. The human ear is extremely sensitive to the naturalness of
speech, the nuance of humans speaking, and it strikes you when it’s fake. In my
opinion, it’s the best gauge a writer can use to check not only the flow, but
human believability of what’s written. I think it can help us make better
connections with our readers. If we can reach them as another human, be
accepted as a companion on a journey with them, we can connect. And when we can
connect, then what we write can mean something to them. But if we sound like
their Lit teacher? Dude, that’s just not gonna happen.
I once attempted a bit of screenplay writing some time ago, and…okay, not going to lie. I stunk at it. What challenges do you feel are unique to screenwriting as opposed to novel writing? What advantages? Do you have a preference between the two?
I really don’t have a burning desire to write screenplays daily and do prefer novel writing. I actually prefer fixing other people’s work, being a script doctor, over writing them if I’m being totally honest. I enjoy helping other people’s words work better. A script doctor gets no credit and most people don’t even know that’s a job.
There’s a specific pattern to the storytelling
in screenplays aspiring screenwriters need to learn. If you want to be a rebel
and not do it that way, that’s cool. But understand, that may be the reason
you’re not selling anything. It may be an interesting concept, for instance, so
someone takes a peak. And then they’re judged on a single page where there’s
supposed to be a predictable beat and it’s missing, so their work gets
round-filed. Or they don’t know the first thing about proper format and think
their story is so extraordinary everyone will look past that and give them gobs
of money anyway. Or they can’t write a logline to save their life, so no one ever
goes past the logline to read the script. Or they’re actually bad writers operating
under the delusion it doesn’t take good writing skills to write a screenplay.
I’d tell anyone thinking that screenwriting
is a cool career choice… First? Understand the chances of selling one are slim
to none. Once you get over that, you can move on. Practice the shit out of your
writing and, especially, educate yourself from film industry professionals. Study
books like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, read their blogs and absorb a
crap-tonne of successfully produced screenplays – there’s a million available
online – so you can see what it takes. And forget all those no-name Internet
screenwriting contests held by genre enthusiasts who aren’t writers and don’t
know what goes into a decent script. Sure, you’ll get something to put in your
credits. But winning a contest not hosted by industry professionals isn’t
validation of your talent as a screenwriter. If you thought it was? That’s
probably why you aren’t selling any scripts after the contest is over. Pick
contests held by actual screenwriters, directors and producers. They know what
they’re looking at. And a lot of them include feedback in reply for free even
if you don’t place. They’ll be harsh, you’ll hate everything they tell you and will
probably make you cry, BUT they’ll tell you exactly what to do to your script
to turn it into a saleable product. Use them as your university.
You’ve quite a rich variety of favorite authors shared on your website. Do you think you can pinpoint which author and story first sparked the passion for storytelling inside you, and why you think it was that story more than any other?
No, I can’t say there was any single author or story that sparked it for me. I could read and write before I started kindergarten, so was a bit ahead in that area and when I started writing my stories down consistently from when I was about nine, I hadn’t read any of those authors yet. My first love was sci-fi and that’s where I started writing, so maybe Gene Roddenberry was probably my earliest influence? I grew up on Star Trek in the ’60s, though didn’t know him as a writer at the time.
When I was about twelve, I’d read
everything I was allowed by that point and got special permission from the
local library to have an adult library card, so I could read more books. Real
books. Normally, you had to be eighteen to have one of those puppies. Then I
read everything in the adult fiction section. And all the poetry books. And
then went through all the reference books. You want to know the depths of my
nerdiness? I do, in fact, still relish the secret thrill of reading
encyclopaedias and the dictionary for fun. Not even kidding. Back then, I read
so fast, I started at one end of the adult section and used to take out thirty
books at a time. Just clear them off the shelf all in a row, any genre, any
author, and bring them home. I read one a day, sometimes two, and read every book
from one end of the library to the other. Hence the massive list of authors.
Sad as it is, I couldn’t even tell you who the rest of those fiction authors were, but I remember the stories. When I was thirteen, I read the John Jakes saga The Kent Family Chronicles and I think I can say around there was when I realised I had an affinity for historical stories. And then after ingesting more books, I fine-tuned that down to historical fantasy for what I most often prefer to write. Reading for pleasure, though? Just about every genre as long as the story is good. I wish there were more gunslinger books. What an under-represented genre.
Out of that ocean of stories, three will resonate with me until I’m dead – Robin Hood, The ThreeMusketeers and Don Quixote. And overarching all of them is The Crystal Caveby Mary Stewart and all Arthurian legend. I’m a total junky. And, of course, Lord of the Rings. Definitely a common theme. I’d like to think that says something about my character, but probably more what I would hope to aspire to and will never achieve. I think I was born in the wrong century. New things, like technology and science, fascinate the hell out of me and I continue to love sci-fi. But old things and old centuries make me feel at home.
If I understand your writing process correctly, I get the impression you’re something of a “pantser”—one who doesn’t plan out a story, but runs with the story as it comes. How on earth do you balance the madcap writing this method requires while also having kids? I got three, and there’s no way in Hades I can focus on my own story when they’re crashing Transformers and Enterprises into the land of Care-A-Lot.
Well, nowadays, my four kids aren’t little, so I’m at a different stage. Though every stage comes with its own unique challenges. I also no longer drive due to my cataract, so have built-in writing time while commuting everywhere which I use to my advantage.
The ability of life to persistently work to steal our focus never ends, though. I just got the kids all self-sufficient and almost out of the house (two down, two to go!), but now have different roadblocks. My dad has declining dementia from a brain injury sustained from a fall, so now? Two of the kids still need me for some things, and alternating between being with my dad at long term care after work until about midnight, and travelling an hour-and-a-half across the city to look after my mom and helping maintain their house. I’m basically writing long-hand wherever I can get it in and it’s weeks before I get to sit down to transcribe it. Or I’m doing everything on my phone and tablet on the go. It’s not the way I prefer to work and it’s slow, but it still lets me get it in there. Because I have to do it or my brain will explode!
When the kids were small, though? Honestly,
if I was a different person and they were different kids, it probably wouldn’t
have worked. I’m a super analytical control freak with troop movement-level organisation
skills, so there’s that. Okay, and a life-long insomniac, so have more awake
hours at my disposal than normal people. My most productive writing time is midnight onward, so it actually worked in my favour when
they were little. I used to go to bed at 7:30
or 8:00pm when they did and woke up at 12:30 or 1:00am to write.
I also got the laundry and cleaning done then to leave me free time to focus on
the kids in the day – every time I got up to make a coffee, I did one task. Once
a month I planned all the meals and snacks on a chart that I made shopping
lists from so I wouldn’t waste time or money. Sundays I cooked five full
dinners and parcelled them up in the fridge with labels on them to save time in
the week. I wrote a lot long-hand sitting on benches waiting for them to finish
swimming lessons or martial arts or whatever else I had them signed up for. Somewhere
in there, I cranked out five full first draft novels. I didn’t go on trips. I
didn’t go out. My entire life was kids and writing or consignment art. And I
was totally okay with that. Someone else? Maybe wouldn’t be.
I have very clear priorities. I’m also very
clear on what I’m willing to sacrifice. My mother wasn’t ever a well person, so
I learned early how to squeeze in things I really wanted to do between looking
after her, raising my two sisters and working part-time to help my dad. I
already had the experience when I found myself in the position of being the only
parent of my own four kids.
Okay, so the “pantster” thing… I can say,
with all honesty, I’ve never “pantsted” anything in my life. Being this
consistently, incredibly busy, most times? There’s no opportunity to write plans
down. But let’s be honest, a lot of the kid stuff wasn’t rocket science and it
left my brain free. So I trained myself to do it in my head. All of it. All the
figuring out, all the plotting. By the time I had a block of time to sit down
in front of a keyboard or with a pen and paper, I could just write my ass off.
All my “outlines” start the same way – with a super-descriptive hinging scene,
usually the story conflict or premise, with an important exposition of the main
character. It’s my brain shorthand for the whole story, a memory trick. Then I
start telling myself the story – the who, what, where, when, why – and it
morphs into the opening lines and I just keep going. The story is already done
in my head and I’m basically transcribing by that point. I do it that way now,
because that’s how it needed to happen then or it wasn’t getting done. And it
not getting done is unacceptable to me. Since I still don’t have a lot of time,
I’m still outlining in my head. At least when I have stolen moments, I can write
like a demon and not have to waste time plotting.
Wisconsin’s landscape has a been a HUGE source of inspiration for my fantasy fiction. Your first novel, Blood Runner, is set in Canada—just like you! Do you find yourself utilizing special places from your life for settings in your stories, or is the landscape itself a muse?
I’d say it’s more the landscape that’s the muse. There’s a few countries I have a huge affinity for, for no particular reason, though more in the historical sense – ancient Ireland, Britain, Rome, Egypt, Sumer, Japan. I’ve studied a lot about them over time, so have a lot of fodder in my head for inspiration. I can’t go to those places, because the ancient versions I want to visit no longer exist. So instead, I use them to write from. Being immersed in one of those places is like taking a visit back in time to me. It’s cool, like owning your own time machine, y’know?
In the grand scheme of things, Canada isn’t that old and doesn’t fit in with the
affinity I have for some of those other ancient places. But the forests here are
old and I do love that. The trees and rocks have been around a very long while.
There’s forest here with trees hundreds of years old and the Canadian
Shield is right underneath us and that’s been there since the last
ice age. How cool is that? I’ve spent a lot of time in the forests, so love to
write about them. Thinking about them is uplifting to me. I’m big on nature overall
and love to write longhand outdoors when that’s possible. I find that very
inspirational, sitting outside under a tree scratching words out.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Well, I’m a research junkie, so I’m doing research all the time, often not even toward a purpose, but because I love it. I have so much useless information in my head. So, the length of time I study is moot. With that much constant input, my subconscious has a tendency to make connections between seemingly unrelated things while I’m busy with life. When one of those connected circumstances bubbles up, that’s when I sometimes do extra research to fill in the holes. I can’t write about anything until I can speak about it with authority and I need to have it all in my head before I start. It’s what we do as writers, isn’t it? Become forty-eight hour experts on anything from rocket science to earth worms. When I know enough, then I write. To get to that point could be a few weeks, but could also be years. Since I don’t work on only one story at once, it’s always in rotation.
I do a lot of book studying, but depending
on what I need, also do practical study. Fight scenes or any hand combat, for
instance, I do, in fact, act out to make sure they’re plausible. I’m lucky, because
my eldest son does stunt work and is a multi-disciplined martial artist,
swordsman, archer and edge weapon aficionado. He helps me physically block out
my fight scenes for authenticity. I’ve done an extreme conditions survival
course where they drop you in the forest in the middle of winter and you need
to build a shelter, fire, find food and the like. I love camping and living off
the land and know how to fish and clean animals and find edible forage. I had
an organic garden when the kids were growing up, but it wasn’t only that – it
was major practical study. I read up on everything about crop rotation, pioneer
techniques for vegetable gardening, organic pest control and composting,
practiced it everyday, became a Master Composter, and tracked the results and
weather patterns complete with sketches in a large binder over all the years I
had it and still have that research data for reference. I also study, make and
use herbal remedies myself, so that’s ongoing, and have a great interest in
living off the grid, so currently practicing those behaviours as I work in that
direction. Over time, anything I needed to know about, I taught myself and
picked up that skill from jewellery-making to calligraphy to hand quilting to
home renovation to ceramics to building a hydro generator in a stream.
When the zombie apocalypse happens and it’s
end of times? You can come with. I plan on building a town. Only people I like
get to live there. 😉
I also find it interesting that you created a fresh take on vampires. How much research did you do on vampires before choosing the path you took for Blood Runner?
I’ve been a big Anne Rice fan for a long time and loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but actual vampire research for that story? Zero. Is that bad? I had actually been stuffing my head full of Ancient history and mythology from Egypt and Babylon for another story. And me being me, kept going backward in time, because for whatever reason, it became important I got to the root mythology and first organisation of city-states and society. That history fascinated the holy crap out of me and still does. When I studied the bits of translated mythology available at the time (there’s more now), I couldn’t stop. For whatever reason, I couldn’t leave it alone.
There’s a myth about a man who cannot eat or drink. And in their mythology, a dead body can be reanimated by the Water of Life – blood. To me, that sounded like some kind of proto-vampire. I stitched elements of a few myths together to create the premise. Gave him a nemesis, a real historical figure in the invading Akkadian king Naram-Sin who was painted in myth as pure evil and cursed by the head of the pantheon. The Great God Enlil’s disdain for humanity was so well-documented as was a whole soap opera of inter-family pantheon conflict, the story told itself. It turned into a tale of mistaken vampire identity.
I still have so much story left that never
made it into Blood Runner, a whole universe. I think once I’m done getting it
out, it’ll lose its association with vampires and people will see what it
really is. Vampires are cool and I love them, but that’s not the story focus,
so I really didn’t need the depth of research in that area I might have
otherwise. It was only a device.
Your latest book, The Seer, is about a Druid named Bronan, and I see you yourself are a Bardic Druid. I would love to hear how your spiritual nature influences your writing; or, would you consider your storytelling to be its own “faith,” as it were? I can’t help but ask because I myself am a Christian, but I rarely include elements related to faith in my fiction. Severed Selves, you could say.
I don’t think I can separate those things, because it’s both – inspiration as well as the storytelling being its own brand of sacredness, since words come from the soul. I’m lucky, from the fantasy writer side of things, because Druids and magic are popular story topics with readers. I know a lot about modern Druids and history and mythology, so can speak with some authority in that space. Besides, people love that stuff. And why not? I’m just like everyone else – the ancient Druids are just as mysterious and fascinating to me, because there’s really so little known about them. And magic is, well, magical!
I write foremost to amuse myself and being
immersed in those magical worlds is escapism. Right up there with dreaming of
flying and imagining we’re superheroes when we’re kids, right? I mean, it’s a
sad fact that the more life imposes arbitrary boundaries and traps us in expectations
and responsibilities, we lose those dreams. It’s limiting. I think we need to escape
into times of unfettered brainspace to balance off all the other crap. Druidry
is the continuous responsibility to keep balance on a cosmic level and this is
exactly the same thing to me. When we can immerse ourselves in a world where
those boundaries aren’t grinding us down, even for only the length of time it
takes to finish reading a story, we can regain some inner balance and
perspective. As a reader, I love that. And as an author? I consider it a public
Words are my medium as a Bardic Druid, my
divination, and how I connect with universal consciousness. I walk the path of
knowledge, so seek out universal truths, those things that are real and true for
everyone. That’s where we all connect, so goes hand-in-hand with taking a
reader on a journey. A lot of my writing to amuse myself is speculative, where
I’m figuring these things out and pushing down my own thought barriers. As a
Druid, I embrace the responsibility to maintain balance, speak the truth and especially
to oppose injustice and be an agent of fairness for everyone around me. I’ve
been told that makes me some kind of throwback, dying on a hill of my own moral
code, and they may be right. But to me, treating people right and standing up
against wrong is simply the right thing to do and not because of a prize at the
end. I know all this stuff influences my writing and you can see it leaking out.
In the sense of all that, being a writer is more than a job to me. It’s rolled
into my spiritual path and there’s no way to tell where one ends and one
I think the biggest influence on my writing
is probably hyper-awareness about what I’m capturing in words. To me, words are
so much more than only letters arranged on a page. The writing should be real
and true, should be honest, and should allow us, as human beings, to meet there
on common ground. We can laugh together, get riled-up together, cry together, I
can lift people up and that’s all about keeping balance. Speaking about
injustice within the confines of a fictional story is giving voice to it, but
in a way less uncomfortable to explore. I can write about universal truth. Or
that, in fact, we’re all the reluctant hero, working through our own
myriad life crap and evolving as we go while learning to step up about bad
things even when we don’t want to. It’s easy to relate to, because we’re all on
that same journey. In that way, we can connect with people we’ll never know on
a very deep, emotional level. That’s so powerful, y’know?
Magic is simply intention charged with our own energy and that’s carried into writing for a writer. From our perspective, there’s an element of sacredness to it, because we do, in fact, tear those words out of our soul to get them on the page. Whether we know it consciously or not, that ability through writing is the greatest magic there is. If you want to get super existential about it… From that perspective?
Lastly, do you have any tips or encouragement for your fellow writers?
Wait, yes. If you’re not already lost down
that road, take an ice cream scoop and dig out that part of your brain telling
you it’s a good idea and go get a real job. You’ll thank me later.
Seriously, though, remember you’re playing
a long game. If you’re doing it to become rich next week and can’t understand
why you’re not famous after your first six months? Take your ball and go home.
While that would be lovely, that’s not the reality for most writers. You really
do have to do it, because you get something out of it, out of the creation. You
have to do it, because it makes you sacrifice for it and you don’t care about
that. You have to do it, because you can’t think about not doing it or
you’ll go insane or die. If that’s not where you live? Adjust your sails and
get that ship on course. And newsflash, you have to actually love writing or
you won’t stick with it through the length of time it takes. I’ve seen some
“writers” who apparently woke up one day and thought they’d become famous and
make millions of dollars at writing after having never written a day in their
life previous to that. They thought it looked like an easy gig. *Cue massive
I’ve been a working writer, writing every
day, mostly for others and getting paid for it, for over thirty-five years. Did
it make me famous? Nope. It kept the lights on and bought groceries and clothes
for the kids. And yet? It’s fantastic to me, because I made money doing the
thing I love the most. How many people can say that? With the kids now grown, recently
I shifted to focus on only my writing and that new reality takes time to build.
No matter how much previous experience I have, it doesn’t matter. I’m fully
prepared for the length of time that comes with creating a new reality. You’re
no different coming in thirty-five-odd years behind me. Creating any new
reality takes time and that’s where you have to live in your head every day. My
goal now is the same as when I started back in college – do the thing I love every
day and aspire to make that my entire supporting income. If you don’t, you’re
going to have a lot of heartache and frustration. I think that’s a solid,
realistic and attainable goal adjustment for new writers to make.
Ask yourself if you want to be famous or successful – they’re two very different things. Thinking about becoming famous is setting yourself up for disappointment. Think about becoming successful instead. Don’t waste energy on whether anyone else is getting famous or rich before you and put all your focus and energy into honing your craft. Other writers aren’t your competition, dude, they’re your compatriots. Stop worrying about their pay check and worry about your own. Good writing means you can get paid, so never think you’re a good enough writer. That self-doubt can be your continued catalyst – it makes you extra careful about what you’re putting down there on the page and prevents you wasting time churning out garbage no one’s ever going to give you money for. I live in a constant state of terror myself. LOL If you keep your head down that way, you’ll end up becoming a polished, hard-working, consistent producer which is exactly where you want to be even if that magical fame unicorn never makes a stop at your house. Plain and simple, success takes hard work and hard work produces better writing.
It does indeed, JD. Thanks so much for chatting with me!
I’ve not known James Cudney IV as long as Blondie, but he is without a doubt one of the most avid book bloggers I know, and a fellow mystery lover, to boot! I just had to have him for an interview to help celebrate the upcoming release of his latest installment in the Braxton Campus Mystery series.
Let’s have some niceties first! Tell us a bit about yourself, please.
It’s always the general questions which stump me; where does one begin? I’ll be brave and take a chance here. I’m 42 and live in NYC. I worked in technology and project management for ~15 years before leaving my job and writing my first book two-and-a-half years ago. I’d always wanted to do it but never had the time, until I found myself starting over again. I absolutely do not regret the decision, as I was a walking ball of stress before this new career. I’m still open to going back to an office job, but it will be something very different, if I ever do. That said, I am a homebody and more of an introvert. I tend to follow a routine, but every once in a while, I surprise people with my choices. I spend a lot of time thinking about things before I ever tell others what’s going on inside my head, so when I do… it often seems to others like a quick decision. I’m a much happier person now that I’m writing and being creative. I still get stressed over editing and marketing, but it’s a very different type of monster. With no ‘real’ boss (okay, every reader IS my boss), I have more freedom to take chances on things. Luckily, my other half and our puppy keep me sane!
It says on your bio that you’ve done an extensive study of your family history. That is so fascinating! I’ve a distant cousin doing that very thing, and he’s so far discovered that our great-grandparents (or great-great? I get lost in all the great’s) were put in an internment camp in Wisconsin during World War 1 because they had German names. Is there a surprising story from your own family research you’d like to share?
Genealogy is my favorite hobby! I am an only child, so I often spent time with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents rather than siblings. It developed a curiosity about the past, and since I am an introvert, I research everything. When a grandfather passed away, I connected with a long-lost cousin who attended his funeral and shared family history. I began researching it on my own, and now almost 25 years later, I’ve gone back to the 1700s for several branches. Don’t worry, I still get confused on second cousin and first cousin once removed, et al. I know the rules, but I’m less of a stickler for those details as I am finding the exact locations of an ancestor’s birth and death. It’s amazing and scary what you can discover about the past. Interment camps? That’s awful, and fortunately, I don’t know of anything like that in my family. I do have a German great-grandfather who had to change his last name. From what I understand, he had been caught up with the mob and gambling debts while he was a boxer. He disappeared and divorced a wife and three children (in the 1910s) only to resurface two years later with a new wife, name, job (beers / bars), and kids (one of which was my grandmother). I wish I knew the whole story, but the little that’s been retained is fascinating.-
Oh wow…now THAT is the stuff of story, to be sure! I bet you could create a whole wold around your great-grandfather–your own sort of literary journey into your family past. What other literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Interesting question! Do you mean as a writer or a reader? And literally or figuratively! 🙂 Wait, who’s asking the questions here… I should be a better interviewee, huh?
Ha! Behave yourself, Sir, or I’ll force you to babysit my sons. Mwa ha ha!
Ahem. Anyway, you were saying…
I’ve never traveled to research a setting for a book or to visit a place I’ve read about. I have traveled a lot in the past, but when I go away, I tend not to read or write. I immerse myself in culture and relaxation. That said… a pilgrimage is like taking a risk toward something you believe strongly in. For me, that would be mysteries and cozy little towns. When I find a series and author I like, I tend to read everything all at once. I did that with the ‘Cat Who’ books by Lilian Jackson Braun; they were one of my first addictions in the sub-genre. 2019 is the year of catching up for me, so I’m saying ‘no’ to most new books and series, allowing enough time to get fully caught up on my TBR before adding to it again.
I don’t blame you for focusing on your TBR list. You have read a lot of books. Like, a TON of books. 500 reviews?! That’s AMAZING! So of course, I have to ask: Have you ever gotten reader’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?
When I was working full-time, I barely read a book every two weeks. Now, I’m able to read a few each week. In 2017, I began using Goodreads much more. I wrote a book review for everything I could remember from the past. I also wrote one as soon as I finished reading a new book. As of today, I’m at about 850, but I’m definitely forgetting hundreds from the past. I have gotten reader’s block a few times in the last 2+ years since I set my Goodreads Challenge in the 150+ books range. It often happens when I am writing my own book, then try to step away for a break. I find myself reading the book to find styles I like or ways to improve my editing, as opposed to just relaxing to enjoy a good book. In that way, writing books has ruined reading books for me. Sometimes, I also find myself just too tired to read, or in need of something vastly different so that I can escape. I won’t ever DNR (Did Not Read) a book. I try a few times, then put it aside and try again a month later. If it’s still not working, I’ll skim it and write a brief review, explaining why it didn’t work for me. If it’s a book an author specifically asked me to read, I won’t review it; I’ll share with them why I struggled and let them decide how to handle it. I don’t ever want to hurt another author if for some reason I’m just not in the right place to read that book.
That’s perfectly understandable, James. I like reading for escape from my genre, too; I love writing fantasy, but it’s so lovely to read mysteries for a little break. And indie authors do NOT have it easy out there in the virtual bookstore, so it’s wonderful that you focus on helping fellow writers rather than put them down.
All this reading and writing must mean you’re keeping a pretty sharp eye on the publishing industry. What do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can we as writers do about it?
Excellent question! I do pay attention, but at the same time, I’ve always believed in doing what you feel is best and ignoring the status quo. For better or worse, the market is super flooded now. Anyone can write a book, which is good and bad. Reading is cheaper, given sites like NetGalley and electronic books; however, the quality of a book is much more questionable when it hasn’t gone through a rugged process to ensure it’s top notch. All I mean by that is that it’s a lot harder to choose books to read nowadays. Some indie books are WAY better than traditionally published books, and some traditionally published books have awful editing processes. For me, it really comes down to the book’s genre, summary, and themes. I don’t read reviews other people write anymore. Let me clarify that… I read reviews my friends write because I support them, but I don’t read reviews before deciding whether to read a book or not. Other people’s opinions have such a range… after reading over 1000 books, I trust my own judgment when choosing what to read. That said, I think the most unethical practice is probably paying for reviews when the book hasn’t actually been read. I’m totally in support of paying someone to read your book and write an honest review; however, if you pay sites to post bunches of positive reviews when the book wasn’t read, it’s not very honest and fair. I understand the desire to do it — you need positive reviews when you first get started, so that part makes sense. But there are better ways to accomplish it, in my opinion. My best suggestion to counter it is find friendly reviewers and ask for their help before paying for fake reviews.
Excellent advice! We have to keep in mind that readers can be very particular with their tastes; what could be a beautiful story to one could be a mangled mess to another.Plus, you know who can/will appreciate your own shift in writing tastes.Your first two novels, Watching Glass Shatter and Father Figure, are both pretty dark dramas when compared to the lighter tone of your Braxton Campus mysteries. What inspired this shift? Do you think you’ll ever shift away from cozies and into the darker realm once more?
I actually have the answer to these questions, phew! I have ZERO clue why I started with a dark family drama before a cozy mystery. I read cozies so much, how on earth did I not go with what I knew! The easy explanation is that Watching Glass Shatter stemmed from a dream I HAD to develop. It took me a year to finish the book and find a publisher. At the same time, I had been building my blog and decided to let my followers choose the scope of my second book. I published a post with 5 or 6 story ideas, then let votes decide. They picked Father Figure, another dark drama. I finished writing and publishing it in April 2018, then decided it was time to write a cozy. I’d published that I was planning to write a sequel to Watching Glass Shatter in late 2018 / early 2019, but I got sidetracked and wrote 4 books in the cozy mystery series because I saw the power of marketing behind a series, and the ideas kept flowing. At the same time, I fleshed out the plot for the Watching Glass sequel and began drafting the outline. I’m happy to report that I’ve begun writing it already. My plan is to publish the fifth cozy in the Braxton series in October 2019, as it will be a Halloween-themed mystery. Then, I will focus on the Watching Glass sequel with a mid 2020 target release. At the same time, I’m working on another mystery series, but it will not be considered cozy. I intend to write a book in all major genres if I can motivate myself even more this year!
Yowza, what a goal! But clearly, mysteries have pride of place in your heart. Was it a mystery novel that first sparked the storytelling passion inside you? If so, which story and why?
It began with Poe and Christie. I love solving puzzles, and being part of the story by playing detective is an amazing way to connect with the author. I also like secrets, at least in terms of trying to discover what someone else is keeping from me. I am not a secretive person myself, probably the opposite – I say too much! It’s definitely my go-to genre, so when I wrote my first book, it was about a family full of secrets. It wasn’t a typical mystery, e.g. in terms of “let’s solve who killed someone.” It was also an analysis of the impact of an emotional explosion on a family with real people we might know around us. My favorite mystery is Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” I recall reading and watching it in school when I was about 10 years old, then guessing the killer before (s)he was revealed. I had a inkling about the way the story was being written, and my intuition paid off… that pretty much clarified for me what type of reader I am.
To me, mysteries are a genre that do not allow for pantsing, but planning, planning, and MORE planning. Can you take us through your writing process for building strong mysteries?
I am definitely a planner. Once an idea formulates, I jot notes down on my phone, since it often happens when I’m out and about (which I dislike, since I said I was a homebody) or waking up from a dream. Once it’s strong enough to organize into a summary, I’ll prepare a 150-word overview. Then, I’ll write an larger outline. I begin with a bullet list of key plot points, then descriptions of characters. Once I know the details of the victim, I create the suspect list, including red herrings and real clues. From there, I create the 10 to 15 key scenes that will help readers solve the crime. I organize the timeline for all the events, then I break the detail into chapter by chapter summaries. Each chapter has 2 or 3 scenes. Each scene lists the characters and settings, as well as what info needs to be discovered and what open questions must arise. From there, it turns into a ~30-page outline that I read several times. This process takes about a week at most. Then I write 2 chapters per day, ignoring the desire to edit. After the first draft is written, I read it and rewrite a new outline without looking at the old one. I do this to see how much has changed, as this helps me figure out areas that are weak and strong. It’s back and forth at that point. I have a weird memory: I forget tons of things from the past, but I’ll remember every arc, red herring, or clue that need to be followed up on. It’s rare I leave anything open-ended in a first draft, but sometimes there are a few unresolved issues. I merge the two outlines, decide what new scenes need to occur and finish my second draft. At that point, editing takes over, then early alpha and beta readers help me identify when I need more suspense or stronger alibis and motives.
Thank goodness for trusted readers–and for this wonderful chat! Would you like to wrap this up with some encouragement for your fellow writers?
I was an English major in college. I’ll say right from the start, I know 90% of the grammar rules but have forgotten a few. I majored in English not because I wanted to be a walking grammar expert but because I enjoy reading and connecting with authors. I LOVE when a reader writes a review on a book and only talks about a grammar issue. I’ve had two where the reviewer only wrote “This books needed to go through more editing.” I laughed because that’s such a ‘useful’ review. I’m all for negative or constructive feedback and criticism, but what a reviewer writes is often a bigger characteristic of them as a person rather than the writer. An author takes 1000+ hours to write a book, not including all the other people that help her or him. A reader takes 30 seconds to write a review and chooses to be mean. There will always be people like that. They are the same people who bullied others. They are the same people who hide behind the Internet and couldn’t actually say it to your face. They are the same people who are probably miserable at home or like to hurt others because they can’t solve their own problems. That’s something I’d like to share with the rest of the writing community — People can be mean, but you need to ignore them when they are hurtful.
If there’s nothing valuable in their review, let it go and write your next book.
On the positive side, as I want to end the interview that way, writers have the best job in the world. They can do anything they want. They can use it for good to promote awareness or provide entertainment. They can use it to help themselves process through pain or emotions. They can use it to make an income. They can use it to express creativity and ideas inside their head that yearn to be released. Aren’t we lucky? I also love how we all support one another and promote each other’s work rather than think of it is as a competition. That’s the best kind of world to live in. So thank YOU!
And thank YOU, James, for all that you do! You’re a wonderful fellow writer and supporter in these crazy publishing waters. I’m sure your latest mystery, Mistaken Identity Crisis, is going to be awesome!
BLURB: A clever thief with a sinister calling card has invaded Braxton campus. A string of jewelry thefts continues to puzzle the sheriff given they’re remarkably similar to an unsolved eight-year-old case from shortly before Gabriel vanished one stormy night. When a missing ruby is discovered near an electrified dead body during the campus cable car redesign project, Kellan must investigate the real killer in order to protect his brother. Amidst sorority hazing practices and the victim’s connections to several prominent Wharton County citizens, a malicious motive becomes more obvious and trickier to prove. As if the latest murder isn’t enough to keep him busy, Kellan partners with April to end the Castigliano and Vargas crime family feud. What really happened to Francesca while all those postcards showed up in Braxton? The mafia world is more calculating than Kellan realized, and if he wants to move forward, he’ll have to make a few ruthless sacrifices. Election Day is over, and the new mayor takes office. Nana D celebrates her 75th birthday with an adventure. A double wedding occurs at Crilly Lake on Independence Day. And Kellan receives a few more surprises as the summer heat begins to settle in Wharton County.
Perhaps it’s the video of boys that connected me so quickly and so completely to this song. I see the parents desperately saving their son at the end, and my mind races to when I came so close to losing my own, each in different ways.
I had to learn more about this creator of narrative music.
Ludovico Einaudi is Italian born and bred; like me, his love of music is rooted down and in with his love of family. A scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Festival exposed him to the blossoming movement of American minimalism (a style developed in part by another favorite of mine, Philip Glass). He’s been composing music for stage and screen since the 1980s, but has also produced solo albums, the first–le Onde—being inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short stories.
How curious to listen to a man inspired by fiction to compose music while his music inspires me to compose fiction!
Here’s a lovely example of the minimalism present in one of his more recent albums, Elements.
I’m so happy to have found a live version of this song for the visual of this minimalism. No orchestra here–just a piano, a violin, a cello, a guitar, and a percussionist. Yet with these few instruments, you feel the world about you fill with sound, trickle-slow, like water moving through a child’s crafted wall of river stones. This steady build fits beautifully with the rise of tension in a scene, or of a character’s resolve to face the darkness.
Like young Lucy opening a wardrobe door to another world, Einaudi’s “Primavera” welcomes us into another world of magic created by trills and arpeggios–fitting touches in a melody for a song entitled “Spring.” And because spring is not always a delicate season, Einaudi makes the wise choice of building the strings up at the 2:00 minute mark to send them cascading like a downpour upon us. They run up like lighting, the bass notes rumble as thunder, and we are left standing in the deluge until the harp arrives to soften the rainfall and crack the clouds.
Einaudi’s talent for building darker worlds can be found in another album, In a Time Lapse.
It is another song that builds, yes, but there’s a menace this time. The relentless snare drum forces us forward on whether we wish to or not. At roughly 2:00 a violin cries out, a plea for…for what? A plea to listen, to change, to stop. There’s tragedy in that relentless march, and if we don’t escape, we will lose our hope. The lone piano that ends the song tells me…well. What it tells me and what it tells you may be two different things.
That’s one of the great beauties of narrative music: interpretation.
Music is a life-force. It moves our hearts to beat, our souls to breathe. May Einaudi’s compositions beat in your characters’ hearts and breathe across the fantasy-scapes of your worlds with all the magic of a thunderstorm on a summer’s eve.
Stay tuned for author interviews galore! We’re going to learn more about some beautiful historical fiction set in World War II, a cracking cozy mystery, and a series of Young Adult novels set in the cut-throat world of horse-racing.
In my January post about character death, we discussed the traumatic moment of a beloved character’s death. I loved reading your comments on how character deaths can be utilized to help strengthen stories. The ever-lovely author Shehanne Moore nailed it when she said:
A threat is a threat. End of. People can’t go up against the big guns and come out unscathed, or be labelled ruthless warriors and then be pussy cats. On another level life doesn’t always end happily with rose tinted sunsets.
These past few months, I’ve been struggling with the Act 1s of stories littered with murder and mayhem–mainly mayhem. It hit me, then, or at least while describing a corpse, that the Unknown’s Death can do wonders in making a story compelling to readers.
Now I’m not just talking typical Red Shirt Deaths. The lovely Cath Humphris referred to this kind of death back in January:
Which deaths irritate me? Well, it’s not so much in books, as on screen, and hopefully these days less usual to see. I mean those dramas when you can pick out who who will be ‘knocked-off’, pretty much from their introduction, because of their race or gender. A lot of the old ‘B’ movies and detective series were extremely lazy about the introduction of ‘canon fodder’ characters. It’s such a shame, because some of these stories were otherwise entertaining.
I and many others label these “Red Shirt Deaths” in honor of the original Star Trek show. Whenever the Enterprise crew explores an alien planet, some random security officer dies.
The Red Shirt Death is meant to make the “life or death” stakes clear to both the characters and the audience of that given episode. The audience, however, knows full well that Shatner and Company aren’t going to get killed, so there’s not exactly much tension when a Red Shirt dies.
But the Unknown Character Death done right can burn into your reader’s psyche and leave a scar for years, and years, and years.
I mean, you know that scene.
The kind that traumatized you as a child. The kind that glued you to the story even though your little brain’s utterly horrified and wants your body to flee to the safety of your mother’s lap, your father’s desk.
Who Framed Roger Rabbitcame out when PG meant “Pare down the Gore.” So long as characters didn’t have sex, drop F-bombs, or remove each other’s intestines on screen, the movie was considered family friendly.
I still. Remember. That screaming.
A shoe, screaming.
You only saw the shoe in that one scene.
You sure as hell didn’t forget it.
And just look at the reactions of Detective Valiant and the other officer. They are horrified. When grown men who carry guns are horrified of a toon dying, you bet your boots a kid in the audience is cowering behind her dad while he talks about Star Trek V (Dad talked A LOT during movies.)
In this one moment, we get:
The judge’s disregard for toon life
That toons, previously thought impervious to death, can actually die
That the protagonist humans regard toon life with at least some respect
That the protagonists would rather protect a toon wanted for murder than hand him over to this judge
The stakes have officially been raised because we now have visual evidence of the consequences that will be met if Roger Rabbit is captured. We now know the lengths to which the villainous judge will go in order to have his way. Detective Valiant now knows what he’s up against.
We the audience now know what the good guys are up against, and we’re scared to death for them because we’ve seen what will happen if the bad guys get them.
Another ’80s example comes in Jim Henson’s fantasy epic Dark Crystal. The scene’s so terrifying that YouTube won’t even let me share the scene, so I’ve got to link you to the moment where an evil Skeksi is draining the life essence from a podling and traumatize you that way.
Does the podling die? No.
Then it’s not character death, Jean!
Hush, yes it is. This creature’s life has been drained. We’ve witnessed a living being undergo a damning transformation into a zombie.
This may as well be death.
Once again, this is a moment that
establishes the power of the evil Skeksis
displays the evil Skeksi’s disregard for innocent life
That’s what makes these deaths so horrifying:
We’re watching the innocent and vulnerable be rendered lifeless.
These aren’t armed podlings. The shoe wasn’t trying to kick the judge and take him down. These are innocent, unarmed creatures completely unable to fight against the threat.
When we see them die, we realize the villains are without mercy or conscience. We must watch on to see the heroes take the villains down because those villains must be held accountable for their actions.
How to swing this in a book?
Let’s return to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I wrote a post on this book some time ago as a great study in world-building; this time, let’s see how they handle a character death in the first two chapters.
On page one, we meet the expedition team into the mysterious Area X, and the narrator of this novel is the biologist. The others are the psychologist, the surveyor, and the anthropologist. Why no names?
I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. (9)
The stakes feel raised at this point. We know something goes wrong with the surveyor and psychologist, but we don’t know what. We follow the biologist and her team investigate a peculiar structure near the base camp of abandoned by previous expeditions, and wonder when things will go wrong.
We don’t have to wait long.
The anthropologist was gone, her tent empty of her personal effects. Worse, in my view, the psychologist seemed shaken, as if she hadn’t slept. … “Where is the anthropologist?” the surveyor demanded, while I hung back, trying to make my own sense of it. What have you done with the anthropologist? was my unspoken question… (38-29)
The surveyor and biologist go into the structure and walk the seemingly eternal stairs downward to discover new footprints, and beyond them, they discover:
It was the body of the anthropologist, slumped against the left-hand wall, her hands in her lap, her head down as if in prayer, something green spilling out from her mouth. Her clothing seemed oddly fuzzy, indistinct. A faint golden glow arose from her body. … Something clicked into place, and I could see it all in my head. In the middle of the night, the psychologist had woken the anthropologist, put her under hypnosis, and together they had come to the [structure] and climbed down this far. (60,63)
We’re only in Chapter 2, and one character–one of the only four characters in this novel–is already dead.
It’s not like we knew the anthropologist. The biologist seemed to barely know her, let alone care about her as a human being. But by killing a character this early in the story, we know the stakes are raised. Not only do we see what Area X can do to a human being, but we realize one of the human beings in this expedition is willing to kill to achieve her ends. We readers need to see that psychologist be held accountable. We need to see the biologist escape Area X, so we read on.
There’s a power in the sacrifice of the innocent life to the villain’s ambition.
Use it wisely.
How about you? Have you ever seen/read the Unknown Character Death used effectively? I’d love to know!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
Things are going to get personal here about family, friends, and the future of Jean Lee’s World.