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.
Hello, everyone! At long, long, loooooong last, my novella “Night’s Tooth” is alive and kicking on Amazon!
Once Biff, Bash, and Blondie are all in school, I hope to get “Night’s Tooth” on Draft 2 Digital so it’ll be available on other markets. Click here for an excerpt of the novella. The whole thing’s just 99 cents–easy on the wallet. 😉 Don’t forget to leave a review, too!
Like “Night’s Tooth,” Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death is a mix of fantasy and western, but while my novella takes place during the “official” time period of the Wild West, Harris’ story is set in an altered, no-longer-United States. I picked up An Easy Death after reading SJ Higbee’s glowing recommendation, and after reading it I can see why Time magazine lists An Easy Death as one of its top 10 fantasy novels of 2018.
Let’s take a walk through the first two chapters and see how Harris builds this broken world.
In the morning I got Chrissie to cut off all my hair. Tarken and Martin would be tinkering with the truck, which was our livelihood….My neighbor Chrissie was not too bright, but I’d watched her trim her husband’s hair and beard as he sat on a stool outside their cabin. She’d done a good job. She sang as she worked, in her sweet, high voice, and she told me about her youngest one’s adventures with a frog in the creek.
I see a few key words in here that can make the imagination fill in some mighty big blanks. “Cabin,” for instance, isn’t a term for a home in an urban setting; therefore, we picture the two characters someplace rustic. A child playing with a frog in a nearby creek emphasizes the country-type of location here.
A truck tying to livelihood tells us we’re dealing with transporters of a sort–a cross-country kind of job. We should expect to see a lot of the story’s landscape with this narrator.
Chrissie and the narrator, Lizbeth, have a conversation on the second page. I’ve copied nearly the whole page here because, like Agatha Christie, Harris packs a lot of information in dialogue that only takes a few minutes to read. (Still, it’s a long passage to blog, so I’ll break it up a bit.)
“You heading out soon? I saw them farmers at Martin’s place, when I was coming back from the store.” Chrissie’s trousers had long tendrils of dark hair all over’em now. She’d have to brush’em.
“Yeah, we’re leaving as soon as it’s near dark.”
“Ain’t you scared?”
Sure, I was. “Of course not, the only ones should be scared are anyone who tries to get in our way.” I smiled.
“You’ll kill’em dead, bang, bang,” Chrissie said in a singsong voice.
“Yep. Bang, bang,” I agreed.
What have we learned? Lizbeth is leaving with some farmers, who must be riding in that truck, her livelihood. It’s Lizbeth’s job to kill anyone who tries to hinder them. Considering Chrissie’s innocent tone in describing this, killing people has become a mainstream profession, and by Lizbeth’s tone, we get the sense she knows what she’s doing…even if the job still scares her.
“Why are they going to New America?”
“The farmers? The part of Texas they live in got swallowed up by Mexico a few years ago. You remember?”
Chrissie looked dim. She shook her head.
“Anyway, the government down there has been telling the Texans that they’re not real Mexicans, and their land is forfeit.”
Chrissie looked even dimmer.
Their land is getting taken. So if they’ve got kin up north or anywhere, even in Dixie, they got to leave Mexico to have a chance.”
Dixie was so poor and so dangerous you’d have to be desperate to flee there.
What have we learned? America is weak enough that other countries like Mexico have taken control of its land. Notice Lizbeth doesn’t say “North America” or “United States,” but “New America” and “Dixie.” This isn’t the traditional 50 states of our reality.
Chrissie ran her fingers through the short hair on the left side of my head, and shook her head. “Anyone ever go to the HRE?” she asked.
“Chrissie,” I said. She bent around to meet my eyes.
“Oh, sorry, Lizbeth.” She began to work on the right side, following her own whim. I tried to remember if I’d ever seen her cut anyone’s hair besides Norton’s. “I forgot you don’t like them grigoris.”
No. I did not like magicians.
What have we learned? The HRE is not someplace you want to find yourself because–and this is the part that hooked me to the story–there’s magic in this world. Magicians are part of the normal fabric of society; not liked, maybe, but still, they are as normal as killing people to protect others fleeing the country.
So, over the course of two pages, we have a sense of narrator Lizbeth’s no-nonsense attitude thanks to her clipped prose and dialogue. We know her profession. We know she has some prejudices, and some inner conflicts. We know something of the world, though we don’t know why it is the way it is. All we know is that it’s dangerous, and people are desperate to flee from that danger. Harris successfully builds the world just enough that we can move forward without tripping on any exposition dumps.
A couple pages later we learn the term for Lizbeth’s profession.
I passed Rex Santino. “Easy death,” he said in his gruff way.
That’s what people wished gunnies. It made me feel good. I nodded back at him.
Not quite “gunslinger,” but it’s close enough to familiar terminology that readers get what Harris is going for. On this version of the North American continent, hired guns are a must for safe passage from one country to another. Connections like roads and rails, amenities like electricity and plumbing, they’re all as fickle as the law one finds from town to town.
We were on a good part of the road, one that hadn’t been broken. There were still stretches around like that. My mother had told me that once almost all the roads were smooth, and that when they cracked, they got repaired. It sounded like a fancy dream. ….
If the New America patrols stopped us, we’d be fine. People were legal cargo, and respectable people like this were even welcome in New America. But if bandits caught us, well, that was why Galilee and I were on duty. That was why the oldest brother had hired us to get the two families through the lawless land along the border between Texoma and New America.
What have we learned? When we consider how the roads were built to help unite a country, is it any surprise the roads are among the first things to rot in this fractured land? It’s also clear that the new countries don’t much care for watching each other’s borders, but will instead keep to their own; hence, the “lawless land.”
Chapter 1 ends with an ambush. All the gunnies but Lizbeth are killed, the truck destroyed. In Chapter 2, an injured Lizbeth tracks the bandits and farmers. She discovers the body of a teen girl along the way.
There must have been more gunfire after I’d been hit. She’d tried to run. Lots of families taught their girls to run, figuring that a bullet in the back was quicker than what waited for them after capture. My opinion, sometimes they were right.
What have we learned? The violence of the bandits tells us just how much human life is worth between the countries: absolutely nothing.
Lizbeth kills the bandits, rescues the remaining family members, and successfully escorts them to New America on foot. During this trek the farmers get to talking, which allows Lizbeth to think about historical context for the reader’s sake. (Last excerpt, promise)
“Since the president died, the world has gone to hell. God help us all,” Jeremiah said, and his brother nodded.
When people said “the president,” they meant the last elected president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt. When he’d been assassinated in some city in Florida, before he could be sworn into office, the government had started down a slope that had gotten slicker and slicker…..After the white government had collapsed, the Indian tribes who could muster up a group of warriors had taken back the land that had been theirs….And bandits were everywhere, especially in Texoma, New America, and Dixie. I had heard that in Britannia, the area that had knelt to England, there was so much law that bandits were caught and hung quickly. The same for Canada, which had expanded to take in a lot of northern America. Canada had its horseback police, who were supposed to be crackerjack at their jobs. The Holy Russian Empire had a squad of grigoris and militia whose job it was to track highway robbers and kill them on the spot.
But in Texoma and New America, formal justice was scarce on the ground.
What have we learned? Ah, now we get the mother-load, for now we have a time frame to work with. FDR was indeed fired upon by Giuseppe Zangara in 1933. For those who don’t know, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the helm of the United States during The Great Depression and remained in the presidency through much of World War Two. He’s the only president to have served more than two terms; in fact, the man had been voted to serve a fourth term when he died in 1945.
All the world was in flux in the 1930s. The aftermath of World War I, the rise of fascism and communism, the transformation of media and transportation….Life. Was. Changing. Just as a single assassination tipped Europe’s political scales into warfare in 1914, Harris shows us how the United States could have been broken by assassination in 1933. And when one considers the political climate of that time, are we really so surprised?
Now Harris doesn’t clearly state how much time has passed since FDR’s assassination, but when Lizbeth does meet two grigoris who want to hire her for a job, we learn a bit more about the Russian monarchy that escaped the communist uprising as well as magic’s role in this new world.
But that’s for you to discover in An Easy Death.
When a writer sets out to cut history’s timeline and paste it somewhere new, she has the advantage of using some common history to give the reader context before guiding the reader into unfamiliar territory. It’s a tried and true method used by many to their advantage, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t, either. It all comes down to pacing–rather like helping a rambunctious kindergartner glue string on top of his fish picture. Sure, you can just squirt a HUGE glop of glue on the page and just slather it everywhere; it gets the job done, but then all you both see is the glue smears over his nice fish. If you carefully squirt teeny dots all along the string, the string will remain in its place, and the fish is no longer smeary.
…sorry, that’s quite a mom-metaphor there. Point is, you don’t want readers to see nothing but the exposition. You want it to blend into the story, right? So don’t slather that world-building everywhere, blurring what could be an amazing story. Bead it along, letting it glue together scenes of conversation, conflict, and discovery.
Thanks so much for reading! I do hope you enjoy “Night’s Tooth.”
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
The kids will be in school!
The kids will be in school.
(Honestly, it’s a mix of both.)
Anyway, September and the fall season await with more delightful author interviews, some studies of scary tales, a hunt for fun’n’freaky music, and hopefully some updates on my current WIPS–both novellas, both dark fantasy, and both spooooooookily inspired by Wisconsin’s North Woods.
In short, Tchaikovsky is an amazing creative soul that we should all get to know a bit better. 🙂 How would you describe what you do, Sir?
So basically I mostly write books about spiders. Also dogs, AI, shapechangers, insect-people and anything else that lets me get out of a human skull. There’s not much more to me than that, in all honesty.
Considering the depth and breadth of your work, your imagination must have been nurtured with rich inspiration from little on. Are there any folks or favorite authors from your childhood that helped spark your passion for storytelling?
Absolutely – my great storytelling guru from teenage onwards was Diane Wynne Jones.
Oh yes, she vastly expanded my frame of reference as to what you can do with a story, how you can play with reader expectations, that sort of thing. The Homeward Bounders and Power of Three, especially. Jones pulls a number of switches on the reader in Power of Three, with regard to precisely what the setting is, who are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, all that, which really opened my eyes. Before that, as well as cutting my teeth on Dr Who novelisations, I loved Tove Jansson, because she built such a wonderful world with her stories.
My home state of Wisconsin is a curious patchwork of farms and wild places. I love exploring this landscape in my mind, creating stories to give shapes to the shadows hiding just out of sight. Would you say the landscape around you inspires your writing, or has been utilized in some way to help build a story’s setting? That swamp you describe at the beginning of Guns of the Dawnfeels like this horrible place I knew near my summer camp…
So… actually no. I don’t tend to relate much to places I’ve been, per se. No more than places I’ve read about or seen pictures of. It all just feeds into the general melting pot in my head that I draw new creations from. I’ve never been in a swamp like that, but I seem to be able to imagine these places and put them on a page well enough to make them real to my readers.
All the more impressive, then, Sir, that you can stimulate the reader’s imagine to build such a real place known only in your own mind!
Now, let’s stick with Guns of the Dawn just a touch longer because it has an amaaaazing opener:
I killed my first man today…
The air was hot,muggy with moisture, filled with flies. Emily had not known hot before she came to these swamps. Hot had once been pleasant summer days with the corn ripening gold in the fields. Hot had been the good sun and the rich earth, and the labourers scaring crows or bringing a harvest in; a picnic on the Wolds, with a blue, blue sky cloudless above. Hot was a fierce fire burning in the study when the world outside was chill. There must be another word for this all-encompassing heat.
I’ve already told my husband I’m treating myself to this book after I complete my pedagogical training this summer.
So after a first line that provides the point of view, time, and controversial action, you launch us into a paragraph filled with extremely vivid sensory details further enriched by memories of the past. Thanks to these memories, readers get the impression of a narrator who cares more about the quiet life in the farm land–a stark contrast to one who’s said she’s killed a man. You strike a delicate balance of grounding readers in the present moment of the story while also flashing back into the narrator’s past and how the world once was. Can you describe your process of finding this balance?
This is going to sound very zen, which frankly I am not in any way, but there is a big subconscious element to that level of my writing. I was never formally taught about writing technique, I just read a whole hell of a lot, and then I wrote a whole hell of a lot, and my writing got better with each book I tried. Although there is a definite conscious input, and as I’ve got better I’ve become more aware of things I can do deliberately to create an effect, a great deal of it just comes out of the way the words spill onto the page in their raw form.
Well paint me green with storytellin’ envy, Sir, because your opening lines are as consistently effective as those created by Diana Wynne Jones. A wee survey of your stories uncovers hooks both big and small.
There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility—rotation meant that ‘outside’ was always ‘down’, underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away. Earth had been green, in her day, though her colours had faded since. Perhaps never as green as this beautifully crafted world though, where even the oceans glittered emerald with the phytoplankton maintaining the oxygen balance within its atmosphere. How delicate and many-sided was the task of building a living monument that would remain stable for geological ages to come.
From this paragraph we learn the story’s location, the time frame, and the narrator’s love of this created home. We are also left asking: “What happened to earth?” And we are driven to read on.
It went wrong for me when they made Sethr an outcast.
From this sentence we learn the story’s point of view, that there is some powerful “they” capable of ruining someone’s life, and because one person’s ruined, so is our narrator. We are also left asking: “Who is this mighty ‘they’? Why should Sethr’s fate mess up life for the narrator?” And we are driven to read on.
Writing compelling openers is surely one of the most important challenges any writer faces. Do you have any advice for writers who struggle crafting their hook?
I am going to raise a hand and say that good lord I’ve had books where the opener has been a problem, and it is super important. Often it’s a matter of where in the story you start – easy to start things too soon and have too much lead-in. And there’s a huge pressure to start with everything on fire, meaning that certain types of storytelling are virtually extinct in the genre right about now. Sometimes I’d like to feel people would just amble with me a bit at the start…
I love the idea of ambling…and with over thirty titles to your name, there’s lots of ambling to do! Some of your titles are stand-alones, like The Expert System’s Brother; some are in trilogies, such as Echoes of the Fall; and then you have your TEN-book series Shadows of the Apt. I tip my hat to you for building worlds unique and complete time, and time, and time again, just like Jones. What thrills you about building a new world? How do you avoid the temptation of re-using elements? No writer wants readers to get déjà vu and think they’re just reading the same story over again.
Building worlds *is* the thing that thrills me, and I have a whole host of ideas yet to come. So far repeating worlds hasn’t been the issue (outside of sequels obviously). I’m more worried about repeating themes, because obviously there are certain things you come back to, each writer to their own, and there’s a real danger that you end up telling the same snippets of story over and over if you don’t remember to give them a different spin.
Another common problem for many writers–as well as movie-makers, I’d say–is crafting an action sequence that moves quickly and fiercely without confusing readers as to what’s going on. I know this was one of the toughest elements to hammer out in my own novel, which contains battles involving several key players duking it out all over the place. Your novels contain intense action on both an epic scale as well as an intimate one. How do you keep the language quick-footed without losing readers along the way?
Action sequences are very much an art of their own. Having a good grasp of the shape of the sequence is important I think – I plan a great deal anyway, and action sequences get thought through in the same way. A chase or a fight has a mini-narrative of its own, including opportunities to bring out character, to foreshadow, and to have their own emotional beats. A particularly big action scene can almost be a book in miniature.
Another resource that’s always helped me write action scenes as well as stay focused on the feeling of any given moment is music. For every author that tells me he/she loves having music to help set the mood for writing a scene, I hear from another author that he/she needs silence in order to write. Which camp do you call home and why?
I tend to listen to music when I write and have a series of playlists for different moods, to help me focus and blot out distraction. I generally listen to instrumental music from film soundtracks, computer games, and music written specifically for trailers (a good source of consistently hammery action music), Some composers you might not know who have some interesting stuff include Kyle Gabler, Lorne Balfe, and Bear McCreary.
(Gasps) GODZILLA?! Hell to the yes! Sign me up for some new composers to study later this year!
One reason I depend so heavily on music is because it helped me write when my children were small and at home all day. Now that my kids are old enough to attend school, I can usually find an hour of peace to write. Still, it’s extremely tough some days to balance parenthood and writer…hood. Authorhood. You get me.Do you have any tips for balancing writing and parenting?
Honestly my son’s 11 now so he’s more self-sufficient. I write in the mornings and very late evenings, though, which is a convenient way of working around family commitments.
Lastly, let’s talk about the ever dreaded Kryptonite. Writing Kryptonite, to be precise. There’s always something that can sap all creative power away in a heartbeat. For me, it’s a phone call from my sons’ school principal. It takes a good long while of watching my sons lose themselves in their own adventures with droids, transformers, and wild animals before my own creativity sparks back to life. What would you call your Writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
Arguments with my son will do it, but as a sort of contributor to a general cycle of depressive ups and downs that are quite capable of just doing their own thing with me, without any actual outside stimulus. Writing is a big drive for me, though. If I’m not writing, it has a serious negative effect on my mental state all its own. So although a downswing can make it hard to get going, once I’m actually writing I can generally retreat into it from my problems.
My deepest thanks again to Adrian Tchaikovsky for taking the time to talk to us today! You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and his website, too.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
We’re going to meander through some gorgeous western scores in anticipation of my upcoming Night’s Tooth.
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
We’ll also do some adventuring about Wisconsin and do a wee worldbuilding study of a recent western fantasy,Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death.More author interviews are on the way, too. I hope you’ll join me!
Happy Thursday, everyone! Summer school is winding down for the kids, which means August will be a month of Blondie, Biff, Bash, and I driving each other crazy–I mean, being creative together. 🙂 No matter what, though, I hope to keep writing here, finishing up my latest release (more on that at the end of this post!), and connecting with more of you beautiful souls! x
It’s been such an honor to connect with so many different authors from across the world. Today I am pleased to introduce you to Australian poet Frank Prem. Take it away, Frank!
Hi Jean, thanks
for the opportunity to chat today.
I’m a writer of free verse poetry, for the most part, resident in a small town in Victoria (Australia). I’ve been writing and developing my approach to poetry for over forty years, now, and have recently become the Indie published author of two collections. The first – Small Town Kid – came out in December 2018, while the next – Devil in the Wind – was released in May 2019.
When I’m not
actively pursuing writing and other authorly pursuits I work as a psychiatric
nurse, here in the town, in a small long-term rehabilitation unit.
The town I live in – Beechworth – is a pretty little place of around 3,000 residents. We have a gold mining history dating back to the 1860s, and the township itself is very well preserved, with a lot of stone buildings hewn from the local honey granite (a warm, pinkish colour in the rock).
We have become a tourist town, with thousands of visitors passing through each year, and most of them making a beeline for the well known Beechworth Bakery (https://www.beechworthbakery.com.au/).
It’s mostly a
quiet life, but very pleasant, all in all.
You may have noticed how much I love to share the music that inspires my writing. Do you also enjoy music to write, or do you require silence? If the former, would you like to recommend any favorites?
Yes, music is such a gift to us, Jean, and it has influenced my writing immesurable. In case you’re wondering, my personal taste always leads to me to find a wonderful voice – regardless of genre. The voice I have gravitated to most is that of Emmy Lou Harris, who is mostly known as a Country singer, but actually able to sing anything.
I generally write
in silence, but the music in language is quite critical to my work. My usual
approach is to create a melody of some sort in my head and to sing my work
(silently) line by line to try to imbue it with a sense of song. My often
repeated mantra is that ‘rhyme should be invisible, while free verse should be
Beautifully said, Sir.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block with another poet or prose writer? How did you overcome it?
Yes I have, Jean.
I’m a very poor reader of the work of other poets. I worry very much that I
will get other work in my head and inadvertently plagiarise or otherwise stray
from my own track.
With prose, I tend
to return over and over to a few favourite writers as my mainstay, with a
greater willingness to branch out and experiment with reading speculative
fiction. In recent times, particularly space opera fiction. Bang-bang
shoot-em-ups in the stars are a wonderful freedom for me, that is far enough
from any realities down here on earth to be completely enjoyable.
I think with my general reading I am looking for inspiration in my own work. Recently I read the entire translated work of a French Philosopher named Gaston Bachelard, who died back in the 1960s.
He explored the phenomenology of poetry and poetics and used imagery in such a way that my imagination was fired and I could hardly read more than a couple of lines without having to put the book down and write a poem that his thoughts had triggered in mine. I ended up with around 800 new poems out of that experience.
That’s a hard act
to follow, but I think I’m constantly looking for a similar experience when I
800 poems just from the course of studying one philosopher. That…wow. That, Sir, is an impressive exploration of language. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I think I’ve
always known it, Jean. As long as I can remember I have played with words, in
my head and in my speech. Twisting and contorting words and finding their
nuance and inflection and emphasis has always held pleasure for me.
An example comes
from my secondary schooling when I didn’t want to complete a pretty boring
essay that required a certain number of pages of work to be presented. Instead
of completing the task in the usual way I, for some reason, submitted a poem.
Correct number of pages, but very few words. I received a high mark (because
poetry hadn’t been seen in my school since the previous century, I suspect),
and have been writing poetry ever since.
Since you say you live with a fellow creative who’s a puppeteer, I just have to ask: do you write anything for the puppets to perform? This is a totally selfish question, I know, but when I was younger I used to write puppet plays and then perform them for the kindergartners at my elementary school. Loved every second of it.
That’s a lovely
story of your own, Jean. Thanks for sharing it.
Leanne my wife has
been performing puppet shows in pre-schools and kindergarten centres for many
years, on and off. We have spoken often of a show that would be aimed at older
students or adults, using my voice to read the poetry of the show, while Leanne
performed with the puppets.
That may be
creeping closer as an option with my transition into the authoring field.
collaborated in other ways in the past however.
Leanne designed my first attempted foray into book production some years ago, and from time to time has put poems I’ve written into music.
If you (or
readers) care to listen and read, this link will take you to the poem ‘Time
Comes’, on my poetry blog. I recently resurrected the piece to commemorate my 3
year anniversary as a blogger.
You are very, very concise with your word choices in your poetry, so much so that when you have a line longer than four words I sit up and take notice. (an observation made with “#Somme (8): two pennies up (for the ambulance)”). When would you say you discovered this concise style within yourself, and how do you nurture it today?
An excellent question
that touches on an aspect of writing that I think about a lot.
My discovery has
been gradual. When I look at early work, I have used long lines, almost
paragraph, in style. I think I started to seriously challenge myself with this
when I started reading poetry at the various open mic venues in Melbourne that
were available to me for a few years when I was starting out. I found that long
lines and blocks of text were difficult to read under the lights and in front
of a microphone.
I began experimenting
then with writing to mimic speech – nuance and inflection, pause and
enjambment. SO much so that it is now my writing style and unique to me, as far
as I know.
More, though. I believe this approach of using line breaks to emphasize small pauses and inflections, and stanza breaks for breathing are a way to assist young folk to read more fluently. I won’t take up space here to expound my thesis but I have written on the subject over at my author page. I’ll be interested in your thoughts.
Oooo, thank you kindly! I look forward to reading it.
Now,You’ve re-issued one collection of poems—Small Town Kid. It’s a journey through your childhood, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle. Do you find this period of life to be a common ground between poets and readers, and if so, why do you think we never tire of walking such grounds?
The first attempt to publish Small Town Kid was a wonderful adventure in book design and creativity between Leanne and myself. Unfortunately, it was back in the dark ages of printing, and to achieve cost efficiency it was necessary to purchase hundreds of copies of the book. I wasn’t ready to market myself or my books in that way, so the attempt was put to sleep until Print On Demand presented itself as an option.
I have been quite amazed by the strength of positive reaction to Small Town Kid. It certainly seems to resonate with readers.
I wonder if the
reason for this connection is not akin to my reasons for writing the collection
in the first place.
When I had small
children of my own, I would routinely talk about what I and my friends had done
when we were young – the freedom to roam, unsupervised is the chief
characteristic of those times, in my mind. My kids, however, didn’t believe my
stories. They seemed to be simply too far-fetched to be true.
I realised that a
whole era of childhood (the 1960s and 70s) had disappeared by the mid-1990s. We
had begun to supervise our children. To deliver them to friends and to school,
and to collect them afterwards. Television and hand-held devices had begun to
stories down seemed to make them more legitimate, in some way.
What I find with readers is that if I read, for example, the long poem ‘Crackers’ about bonfire night preparation and execution, I will have a line of people, mainly men, who have a bonfire lit in their eyes as they want to share with me their own experience and memories.
I think it is the
imagery combined with the voice-song of telling or reading that allows the
reader to enter their own best memories of childhood, and I believe it is the
recollection of childhood freedom that makes these stories so attractive.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Not to be in a
hurry for fame and success. I’ve always been a person who wanted things to
happen immediately. If I was pursuing my career, I should get the next
promotion. If was writing a poem, surely it was a most worthy creation and
should be published immediately.
Learning to let go
of that kind of pressure, placed on myself by myself, has been a great lesson
I’ve found that
the gift of time has allowed me to mature and become a better person, a better
worker, a better poet.
I completely understand. Not only do I see it whenever I look at an old draft–heck, the first draft of my novel was written in 2010–but I can feel the change in my own perspective thanks to the growing creative expressions of my children.They tire me out, my little B’s, but I wouldn’t want them any other way. Writing helps my soul breathe and my passion to stay alight; does writing energize or exhaust you, and why?
For me, writing is
like breathing, so there is no real question of growing tired from it. I can
take a day or two off from writing, but I don’t really like to. I enjoy this
part of myself very much.
What is tiring is attempting
to master the ancillary roles – being an Author. Mastering the myriad details
of properly publishing paperback and e-book formats. Marketing (oh lord, how
tiring marketing can be!)
All part of the
deal, though, so no point in wailing.
energizing, though, and what I know has a direct and beneficial effect on the
quality if my writing, is reader feedback.
A comment or
conversation with a reader is stimulating. A positive review is absolutely
exhilarating, and I want, immediately, to sit down and write the next thing.
Bigger, better, more astounding . . .
You get the drift, I’m sure. I love my readers and reviewers and the effect they have on me as a writer.
You and me both, Sir. You and me both.
My deepest thanks to Frank for taking the time to talk to me! Here are his vitals so you can find more information on Frank Prem and his work.
But now it’s time to define the, well, indefinable. The hero who’s beyond all redemption.
Billy Butcher is the leader of The Boys, a government-backed group created to keep the corporate-backed super-heroes from taking over the world. Butcher meets all the marks of a tragic hero. His wife Becky was raped by Homelander, the most powerful of all the superheroes (aka “supes”), and died when his unborn baby tore its way out of her stomach. The baby nearly killed Butcher with laser vision, forcing Butcher to beat this baby to death while his wife bleeds out in front of him.
Tragic backstory doesn’t get much darker than that.
From a writer’s standpoint, it’s shocking that we learn this much about Butcher by the sixth issue of the series–six out of seventy-two.
Why do we get this monumental information so early? Isn’t this the sort of thing that’s dropped further on down the plot, when reader engagement is high and they want to know more about where the characters come from? After all, we don’t get the backstories of M.M., Frenchie, or The Female until Issue 35.
First, Butcher’s using the information to motivate Hughie, the protagonist readers follow through this series, to join The Boys. Hughie himself lost his girlfriend when the hero A-Train crushed her against a wall during his fight with a villain. Mutual loss bonds the two characters.
Loss isn’t all that drives Butcher. There’s a reasoning–a philosophy, if you will, or a code. It takes me back back to the stories of the “lawless” West, or even the classic Robin Hood; just because a man is lawless doesn’t mean he’s rule-less. It only means his rules and society’s laws don’t sync up. Now whether his rules benefit others outside himself could be up for debate, I’d say–Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name comes to mind. He’s clearly out for personal gain in For a Fistful of Dollars. Sure, he helps a kidnapped woman and her family escape, but that’s only to screw around with two warring families whom he’s scamming for all they’re worth.
Butcher, too, has his own set of rules, and he doesn’t care if they jive with anyone else. He tells the CIA director in Issue 1:
Superpower’s the most dangerous power on Earth. There’s more an’more of’em all the time, an’ sooner or later they’re gonna wise up. If you can dodge bullets or outrun tachyons or swim across the sun, you’ve better things to do with your life than save the world for the two hundredth time. One day, you might twig what you’re really invulnerable to is your humanity. An’ then God help us all.
Butcher to Dir. Rayner, “The Name of the Game” Part 1
A lot happens to prove Butcher right. The Boys fight a huge number of supes who rape and kill for fun, their atrocities almost always covered up by the Vought Corporation. The public goes right on devouring the stories told in Vought’s comic books like they’re the truth of the world. One by one, Butcher marks The Boys’ targets and plans how to take that team of supes down.
Everything he does or says serves whatever it is he got planned. He don’t waste nothing’–not time, not words, not effort. Not even a goddamn smile, Hughie.
Mother’s Milk to Hughie, “Get Some” Part 2
The Boys maim and kill a number of supes, be they street teams or a Nazi disguised as a Norse god. So long as they’re just killing bad guys justice won’t touch, then everything’s okay, right?
This is what we tell ourselves. As readers, we escape into stories to see comeuppance served because so often the justice served in reality is unsatisfactory. In fiction, the detectives catch the bad guy. The villain’s plot to take over the world is thwarted. The bad guys, the really bad guys, pay for the crimes.
Characters can be antiheroes who do horrible things because they’re still heroes, if only just. We’re sure there’s something good in them, and we’re willing to wait out the horrible things in order to see that goodness come to light.
And we see Butcher with that goodness, if only just. The miniseries Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker takes readers into Billy Butcher’s past. We meet Becky. We see her and Billy Butcher fall in love, get married. We see the charming side of this antihero, and his heart.
We see Becky die, and the aftermath.
Loss rarely breeds good things. Strange, how often we look for tragedy in our heroes–the loss that drives them to fight for justice, for making things right. We forget that revenge and ambition do not always lead to bettering the world. Clint Eastwood comes to mind again, this time as Dirty Harry in the film Dirty Harry: Magnum Force. There’s a crew of cops out to take justice into their own hands, and they want Harry to join them.
It’s the Point of No Return. Harry is invited to cross it, but he refuses.
Butcher, on the other hand…well. He crossed it long, long ago.
Readers get a preview of Butcher’s true nature in Issue 14, when he sets off a genetic detonation device that kills 150 supes who did took money to help start a coup in Russia. In Issue 28 (The G-Men series I’ve written about before) Butcher is fine killing a supe team of teen boys; later, if not for Hughie, Butcher would have killed a team of mentally challenged superheroes simply for cussing in front of him. These two teams weren’t trying to overthrow any government. Heck, some were genuinely trying to help the citizens of their town.
Where is this antihero’s rules, his personal code? Butcher gives one version of his code to Hughie after the G-Men slaughter:
But we ain’t here to make things better, are we, Hughie? We’re here to stop’em from gettin’ worse.
Butcher to Hughie, “We Gotta Go Now” Conclusion
Okay, that sounds somewhat justifiable. There are many problems in the world that can’t be eradicated. Sometimes containment’s the best one can hope for.
But a flashback with Butcher’s mentor Col. Mallory sheds a brighter, nastier light on the true rule Butcher lives by no matter what the rest of the world says. When Butcher and Mallory discover a convention of supe children have all been gassed to death, Butcher doesn’t care. To Butcher, the only good supe is a dead supe.
I’ll tell you how you neutralize the potential threats: you f***in’ drop the lot o’ them. Every single arsehole in tights, you do’em…No one should be allowed to walk around with what they’ve got, it’s just too much of a risk.
Butcher to Mallory, Issue 55
As far as Butcher’s concerned, any super-human of any kind must die. It doesn’t matter what he/she did or didn’t do. It doesn’t matter who that person is, if they were born with the powers, or if Vought injected them with the DNA-altering chemical Compound V to create those powers. If a person has powers, they deserve to die. Mallory even warns Hughie to watch his back around Butcher, because for Butcher, this personal war with the supes is never going to end.
There is no one on earth who hates like that man does.
Mallory to Hughie, Issue 55
I’m not going to tell you how far Butcher will go in his personal war–I’ll let you find out via the comic series or the upcoming TV show.
(Warning: the trailer’s pretty true to form with the comic, so carnage and cussing abound. Only watch if you can handle that sort of thing.)
Antiheroes are compelling because we really, honestly, truly do not know what they’re willing to do in order to fulfill their code. There’s a level of wretchedness we expect heroes will not sink to; there’s a level of goodness we expect villains will not aspire to.
But antiheroes don’t give a shit about reader expectations or presumptions. They will do whatever it takes to reach their goal.
And readers cannot help but follow, compelled to discover what goal could be worth such a path taken through the shattered demarcation between good and evil. With every step taken readers’ feet will bleed upon the shards, and like the antihero, readers will complete the journey…but will never be the same.
~Stay Tuned Next Week!~
More interviews with authors both indie and award-winning are lined up for your enjoyment, as well as a journey with Bo and me into the mysterious North Woods where a ghost stands, lonely and waiting. On top of all that, I’ll be taking you into the Wild West for some fantasy adventure. Bullets and magic will fly…just not to the Will Smith song. Pleeeease not to the Will Smith song…
Oh, and just to toot my own horn for a second, I’ve written my own batch of flawed characters with their own Points of No Return to cross…or not.
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!
Despite all the amassed resources and ideas all around, there seems to be an insurmountable physical obstacle. For Plankton, it’s his size. For me, it’s being a mom during the summer months in the United States, when kids are home nearly all day. Oh, I plan on getting them to read and write as much as possible (Bash is reading to me from the Owl Diaries as I type this very post). But there’s no denying the time crunch to cram whatever writing AND school work I can into the few morning hours they spend at the school. (More on their accomplishments in a future post, including a sample of Blondie’s photography!)
So this month’s world-building post is going to cheat, just a smidge. I’d like to compare how a classic novel and a more recent film each utilized words and/or visuals they felt the audience would understand to help engage them in the story’s world. One accomplishes this brilliantly.
The other, not so much. (To me, anyway. I get this is all subjective. Moving on!)
Let’s start with the beloved first paragraph of The Hobbit, including one of the best first lines in literature.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Consider that phrase “hole in the ground.” Lots of us know holes: rabbit holes, construction holes, water holes, badger holes, snake holes, buried treasure holes, etc etc etc.
But a “hobbit”? What the heck’s a hobbit? Considering what we know about holes, we imagine it to be some sort of digging creature, maybe a mole or some such beast. Certainly not one to wear clothes and enjoy afternoon tea.
(Unless, of course, you’re Mole from Wind in the Willows.)
The rest of the paragraph continues to lead readers away from their presumptions about holes and establishes that a hobbit hole is nothing like they we know as far as holes go. Once given the line “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort,” readers immediately begin associating other things they know, this time the focus on familiar comfortable things, and building them into the hole.
Tolkien, of course, helps readers accomplish this with the second paragraph. No flying into adventure or action here; readers take their time entering the hobbit-hole and peering about.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors….No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage…
Readers, especially young readers, understand what halls are. They understand what kitchens are, bathrooms, all the rest. By providing the hobbit with rooms and possessions readers know from their own lives, readers can quickly and easily build the The Hobbit‘s setting in their own imaginations.
Another tactic Tolkien often utilizes in telling The Hobbit is directly addressing the readers.
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins has an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained–well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
Readers have not even met this Baggins yet, but once again they can put their own knowledge to use: the humdrum uncle, for instance, that always plays life safe, or the old man down the street that goes through the same routine every gosh darn day.
In other words: boring. Kids know what boring looks like, and they’ll paint this Baggins fellow up with all the shades of boring they know. Tolkien starts readers on common ground so that when he’s ready to share the details of what they don’t know–like what a hobbit looks like–the readers can more easily integrate these details into their personal visualizations of the story.
Yet using common ground to engage the audience at story’s beginning can go wrong. Very wrong.
Enter 2018’s Robin Hood.
It’s an adventurous tale of heroes and villains, justice and evil. We all know the plot’s rhythm, the characters’ harmonies.
This film begins with a CGI book titled Robin Hood. The book opens to a stark black and white illustration of a town (and their artsy credits) an unseen narrator tells us: “So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen. What I can tell you is this is the story of a thief. But it doesn’t begin with the thief you know.”
So like The Hobbit, Robin Hood starts with a direct address to the audience. Unlike Tolkien’s narrator, who walks hand in hand with readers into the story, helping them find their footing in its fantasy world, the film’s narrator treats its audience with a bit of condescension–I’d explain things, but it’s not like you’d really listen, right? You think you know this story? Well you don’t! Ha!
The opening scene shows a lady in a buxom dress, sheer veil, and dolled-up face sneaking into a barn to steal a horse from the “toff” (ugh, the American accent takes all the fun out of that word) who lives there. The “toff” who catches her is–ta da! Rob. He gives her the horse for her name. Ta da! Marian.
In comes the narrator again, showing Marian and Robin being all cute and playful. “Seasons passed. They were young, in love, and that was all that mattered. Until the cold hand of fate reached out for them.”
The audience watches hands sign some curious paper, hands coming out some super-smooth grey leather sleeves.
The narrator continues to speak while a messenger takes all these ominous letters from Grey Sleeves and enters the town. Grey Sleeves stands up and whirls his giant Matrix-ish long coat around as he walks towards a balcony. The messenger continues into town; the town reminds me of something from a Renaissance Faire, a mix of periods for color, stone, and wood.
“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He became a bedtime story. But listen. Forget history. Forget what you’ve seen before. Forget what you think you know. This is no bedtime story.”
At long last, we are shown a huge metropolis that we can only presume is Nottingham, which is later called “the Bank of the Church, the beating heart of the Crusades“.
Not that viewers ever feel this depth of city, as they only experience one, maybe two streets the entire film.
All the curious papers are draft notices for the Crusades. So the audience is shuttled ahead four years to a stealthy unit of soldiers all dressed in sand-colored armor. It’s all sniper fire with arrows, complete with several repeating crossbows that act more like machine guns–yes, sound effects included.
The filmmakers have told viewers to “forget all you know,” removing the medieval style of warfare they’ve seen before so it can be replaced with scenes strongly eliciting scenes of modern-day conflict in the Middle East.
When Rob returns to Nottingham and finds Tuck, who’s ecstatic he’s alive even though viewers have never seen these two together before and therefore have no clue how deep or strong this friendship is, they learn ANOTHER two years have passed. Tuck dumps a bunch of exposition about the war tax and how the Sheriff has forced many townspeople to work in the mines.
You know, the mines that look like something out of Bladerunner, what with the towering exhausts of flames built into the endless frame of the mountain.
And at this point, I just had to give up trying to figure out this world.
The opening narration told me to forget what I knew. Yet the opening scenes of the film insisted on showing me characters in modernized dress and modern cosmetics. For all the exposition about war tax driving people into poverty, they show plenty of clean streets. Sure, the people are all sooty from the mines. Mining for what? How do John and Rob jury rig so many ropes and pulleys into a frickin’ firing range in the old manor? Where the heck does food come from around here? How is a Sheriff living in a frickin’ palace that makes the castle in Prince of Thieves look like a rat hole?
If Robin Hood really wanted its audience to “forget all they knew,” then MAKE THEM FORGET. You want all the modern flair in an olden time? Go all out in a sub-genre like steam punk. How awesome would it be to see Robin with an array of amazing crossbows, Little John with a clockwork arm, or the Sheriff’s stronghold as some air-fortress circling Nottingham?
But the filmmakers didn’t want viewers to forget, not really. They wanted people engaged in the story, but today’s audiences don’t understand the medieval period, right? So throw some modern music in, make even the poor commoners capable of dolling themselves up in velvet and smooth fitted leather. Sure, the coins can be old, and people can ride horses. The font on their draft notices can be printed in medieval font so they look old (seriously, those things look like they’re printed from a computer). But nothing in this world feels old. I kept waiting for the Sheriff to check his phone for a text from the Cardinal. Jeez, DC’s Green Arrow is more medieval than this Robin Hood.
Don’t even get me started on how Muslim John can move around Nottingham with ease even after the Sheriff’s fear-mongering speech. He is the ONLY man of color in the city, and nooooobody ever pays him any mind.
Of course writers shouldn’t just go and do what’s already been done. How boring that would be! But there’s a difference between building world-bridges and burning them. Tolkien took elements of modern life that the audience would know and used them to help readers connect to The Hobbit‘s world of fantasy. The crew behind Robin Hood wanted everything to look cool, but that’s all it could do–“look” cool. There’s no age to the sets, no life beyond what the camera shows us. Audiences are left wondering how these peasants can dress so elegantly, why the Crusades look more like the Iraq war, why NO CIVILIANS seem to actually LIVE anywhere (again, just…Loxley’s manor and the Middle Eastern town, apparently, are tooooooooooooooooootally uninhabited). They told us to forget what we know, yet took exactly what we know from the here and now and did their damndest to stuff the Robin Hood story into it.
Gah, now I’m just rambling.
I love the story of The Hobbit. I love the story of Robin Hood. As a reader, I’m always ready to run headlong into these fantastic adventures because I want that escape from the humdrum everyday of the here and now. I don’t want to see the here and now used as some sort of tape to patch the fantasy together. No audience wants to see the tape hanging over the edges, blurring what’s underneath.
Only the beautiful fantasy world built with love, with time, and with care.
Thanks for following me through this meandering post! Next month’s posts shall be a bit more whimsical, as I’ve got interviews, marshes, creativity, and point of view ponderings to share.
Oh! And hopefully I’ll have everything set with the free fiction of the month and a newsletter, too. Have anything you’d like to share and/or plug? Let me know!
Happy Thursday, lovely creatives! I’m so, so excited to introduce you to Anne Clare. Not only is she one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve been blessed to meet, but she is a deeply supportive reader, writer, and artist. Well, I should probably let her introduce herself first. Take it, Anne!
Hi, all! I’m Anne. I live in the green, drizzly, Pacific Northwest of the U.S., but I spend a fair amount of time travelling the world via history books. I’m on the verge of celebrating the publication of my first WWII historical fiction novel. I write about writing and the real events of the tumultuous 1940s on my blog, thenaptimeauthor.wordpress.com.
I’m also a wife, mother of three, organist and choir director, part-time teacher, and coffee addict.
Like all marvelous writers, our love of storytelling is forged in the reading of our younger days. My favorite genre of choice was the cozy murder mystery: justice sought and earned while mayhem abounded in one British village after another. What kinds of stories did you enjoy during your formative years?
When I wasn’t trying to solve the mysteries of math class or painting play sets I enjoyed my fair share of Agatha Christie and other sleuth stories, too. I’ve always loved fantasy stories- Tolkein, Lewis and Terry Brooks were some of my first loves. I think it was in highschool when I first discovered Gail Carson Levine’s retold fairy tales and Harry Potter. Honestly, though, I just love a good story regardless of genre.
How true! It’s amazing how many cool stories we discover when we don’t limit ourselves to just a few authors. (Of course, it took college and those accursed required reading lists to help me learn that lesson, but I did learn it…mostly…) What’s the first book you read that sparked the fire of storytelling inside you?
Fairy tales played a big part of course- the earliest stories I “wrote” (i.e. dictated to my older cousin who knew HOW to write, and was kind enough to humor me)–
That’s the bestest kind of cousin, in my book. (ba dum CH!)
I know, right? So those stories were on thrilling topics like fairies, a city populated by talking dogs, and princesses. My first “novel,” started when I was twelve in spiral bound notebooks, was a portal fantasy with BIG nods to Lord of the Rings!
Aw, that’s just like Polly in Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock! I don’t recall liking Tolkien much as a kid, but I blame my sixth grade teacher’s reading of The Hobbit for that–ugh, what a horror. Are there any authors you disliked reading at first but have since grown into?
We read My Antonia in eighth grade- I didn’t like it at all. It was tedious and (spoiler!) the boy didn’t even get the girl in the end! Rereading it as an adult, I love it, in an emotionally teary sort of way. (Since having kids I’m such a sap…😊)
Ha! Heavens, don’t I know it. I bawled reading the end of DWJ’s Dogsbody. Any time something precious is lost, I’m in tears. Music has that power over my emotions too, when the mood is right. Plus, music can be a wonderful guide in the storytelling process. Do you have any favorite artists/composers you’d like to recommend? How do these folks inspire your writing?
I didn’t realize how heavily I depended on music for writing until our kitten, Mr. Meowgi, ate my headphones. I always have something playing in the background as I write.
As I write in the 1940s, I would have thought period music would be my go-to. While I enjoy Glenn Miller and others from the era, while writing I gravitate more toward modern music that fits my mood. The first novel required songs like Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die and the Decemberists “Crane Wife” album- I don’t know why, they just worked! For some reason, the second book seems to go better with Brandie Carlisle and Johnny Cash.
SECOND NOVEL?! Wooooah woah, slow down, Me. Anne’s here to talk about her FIRST novel. One book at a time, right?
Eeeeee, I’m so excited!
Whom Shall I Fear? is set in World War II on two fronts: the battlefront as well as the home front. What first inspired you to create characters in this time?
I’ve always been fascinated by history, but hadn’t pursued much study of it- between teaching and momming, I was just too busy! Then, I had a dream set during World War II, which became the climax of my novel. I blame the fact that I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie, while reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to my kids, and watching James Bond with my husband. All three had some WWII references which must have leaked into my subconscious.
So, lots of World War II floating in your subconscious while you’re also reading and storing info in your consciousness. Oh, research…. I’m very much a “Google as I go” kind of gal, but you’ve been researching this period for quite some time. Can you share your process for researching as well as how you selected what information should be incorporated into the story and what information should stay on the notecards?
When I began this project, I was naiive enough to think that “Google as I go” would be all I needed. After all, I’d studied WWII, I knew the main events!
It didn’t take long to realize I knew nothing- or at least nothing close to the detail I’d need to do to pull off a convincing story.
I started by searching my library. One of the first books that popped up was Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War. I snagged it, figuring that he ought to know what he was talking about. It was the abridged version, so only 1700 pages and change. I hadn’t read a serious history book since college, and it was an undertaking, but I’ll say this for Mr. Churchill- his grand, sweeping style of prose made the history very readable.
Of course, the challenge with researching history is that there’s always a filter between you and the events. The individual perspective of the recorder, no matter how unbiased they try to be, is going to effect their narrative. Reading Churchill’s book first gave me a great start, because I had an outline of the major events, how and when they happened, and one perspective on them.
From there, I looked for as many sources from the era as I could. The BBC website has this wonderful archive called “The People’s War” where they invited people to send in their recollections of their life during the war.
Reading first-hand accounts was fascinating, and helpful in shaping my setting. As one of my main characters was in the British infantry, I found books by infantrymen. When I needed broader books for troop movements so that my fellas got where they were supposed to when they were supposed to, I sought books that used original sources like divisional histories etc, and tried to compare more than one source.
Culling information- well, that was another challenge. It was hard to know where to cut, but sometimes it was unavoidable. For instance, I initially wanted to send my infantryman, James, to North Africa. It sounded like a fascinating place to include- the struggles over Tobruk, fighting against Rommel’s tanks, the battle of El Alamein… I researched military groups in the area and decided he could be part of the 8th Army, and then after Africa I could send him to Sicily and Italy and learn about even more unfamiliar places!
I kept on reading and discovered that none of this would fit with the rest of the timeline for the story. Also, the 8th Army that fought across North Africa was almost completely different from the 8th Army that went to Italy. Sigh.
It was hard to eliminate fascinating pieces of history, but in the end, the research had to serve the story. If the history doesn’t forward the characters or plot, it isn’t going to do what good historical fiction should- make history come alive to the reader.
Now writing inside a well-known–hang on. By your very account here, there is still so much we never get a chance to learn about World War II, so I shouldn’t be calling it a “well-known period.” Let me back-track a wee bit and approach my question this way: in fantasy writing, storytellers create characters as well as the worlds they live in. In historical fiction, you’re creating characters that may or may not live alongside people who actually lived in your chosen period. What would you consider to be the ethics of writing about historical figures?
Ah, that’s tricky! I tried to avoid the issue as much as I could, particularly if the reflection on the historical person’s character might be…uncomplimentary. After all, it hardly seems fair to take a dig at someone who isn’t around to defend themselves, and, as I said before, there’s always the bias present of the person who’s recording their history.
For the few historical figures who did make it into the final novel, I tried to deal with them as my characters would have in real life.
The only real person who makes it “onstage” is Lord Woolton, for a brief cameo, since one of my characters works for the Ministry of Food (responsible for rationing etc) of which Lord Woolton was the Minister until sometime in 1943. The history books described his oversized suit and his friendly voice over the wireless- these made it into the book. Otherwise I tried to keep him neutral- he was just present to help reveal something about one of MY characters.
On the negative end, I did feel the need to mention Lady Astor. The first female MP, she gained notoriety with the troops in Italy by calling them the “D-Day Dodgers.” (i.e. they were somehow shirking by fighting in Italy, rather than in France.) Naturally, the men were furious, and composed a catchy and uncomplimentary song about the incident. In the years since, there’s been some question of whether she acutally made the comment or whether it was a misunderstanding, but my protagonist in Italy wouldn’t have known that, so he reacts accordingly.
I also hesitated to mention larger groups specifically. For instance, I mentioned the whole confusion over the make up of the 8th army above. To make sure that my group of infantrymen I follow in the story COULD have ended up where I sent them, I had to find a smaller group to “shadow” through the histories. I decided on the 2nd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers- they were at the battle of Monte Cassino, and other notable places. However, I don’t specifically mention them in the book- it felt presumptuous to tack my fictional men onto a group that really served in such dangerous places.
In the end, one of my major goals in writing about this era is in homage to those who sacrificed and served. Anything that would detract from that or turn into me editorializing on a time I didn’t live through, I took out.
An excellent plan to go by, I think.
Now, you used three different points of view to tell your story: your two protagonists as well as your antagonist. What were some challenges from writing with the villain and heroes’ points of view? What were some benefits?
As I mentioned, I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie when I started this book. She uses multiple points of view in her mysteries- sometimes to reveal, sometimes to misdirect. While my novel isn’t really a mystery, there are some of the same elements- mysterious strangers, tangled motivations, crimes of the past. I liked the flavor of the multiple points of view- how I could reveal clues to the questions from different perspectives and how I could have one character reveal information to the reader while keeping other characters in the dark.
The challenge is to create enough distinction between the perspectives so that the reader can “feel” the difference when they’re in a different character’s head. Also, I found myself tempted to head hop- to reveal information that the POV I was writing from couldn’t have known. I had to resist the temptation, and place my “reveals” carefully.
A temptation that we all struggle with!
You and I both have kids who haven’t taken our sanity from us (yet). You know how I’m always on the look-out for tips on finding some sense of balance between writing and parenting. Care to share your advice?
I discovered that I can’t hold myself to someone else’s expectations for the amount of time or words I write. Every day is a new day- some will be productive author days. Others will be “clean up kid vomit and read stories to them” days. There’s no guilt in either one!
And one final question…
Many thanks to you, Anne, and congratulations once more! Whom Shall I Fear will be available June 28th on Amazon.
All that Sergeant James Milburn wants is to heal. Sent to finish his convalescence in a lonely village in the north of England, the friends he’s lost haunt his dreams. If he can only be declared fit for active service again, perhaps he can rejoin his surviving mates in the fight across Sicily and either protect them or die alongside them.
All that Evie Worther wants is purpose. War has reduced her family to an elderly matriarch and Charles, her controlling cousin, both determined to keep her safely tucked away in their family home. If she can somehow balance her sense of obligation to family with her desperate need to be of use, perhaps she can discover how she fits into her tumultuous world.
All that Charles Heatherington wants is his due. Since his brother’s death, he is positioned to be the family’s heir with only one step left to make his future secure. If only he can keep the family matriarch happy, he can finally start living the easy life he is certain he deserves.
However, when James’s, Evie’s and Charles’s paths collide, a dark secret of the past is forced into the light, and everything that they have hoped and striven for is thrown into doubt.
Weaving in historical detail from World War II in Britain, Italy and Egypt, Whom Shall I Fear? follows their individual struggles with guilt and faith, love and family, and forces them to ask if the greatest threat they face is really from the enemy abroad.
Happy Saturday, Friends! While Bo and Blondie attend a baseball game and I take the twins to a swimming pool (PRAY FOR ME), please welcome fellow Young Adult author Ann Hunter!
First things first! Tell us a little about yourself, please.
I like to say I’m a Mom first, a writer second, and all around ninja. I’m a dyed and true Hufflepuff #badgerfierce, love dark chocolate and red velvet cake. And I love YA literature. I love mentoring other writers, too, and teens as well. I’m assistant teacher at the Taekwondo Dojang I train at with my daughters, and I’m so grateful for my epic husband– he really is too patient with me.
Oh my g.o.s.h., you serious? My brother is a teacher in Taekwondo! Both of them have black belts. I, however, was enrolled in dance class for a summer.
(Don’t ask how that went.)
Anyway, my own three wee hooligans keep me inspired, not to mention on my toes. One phone call from the principal, though, and my creativity’s shot for the day. What would you call your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
My biggest Kryptonite is my ADD (clinically diagnosed in college). I have a hard time getting started and staying focused unless I have my ritual/routine down. I use noise canceling headphones and http://brain.fm.
I also sprint with other writers in a dedicated chat room on slack. It helps a lot to have friends and support.
I struggle with energy, too. My best-selling series, North Oak, is so emotional that it’s very taxing physically and mentally.
I’m currently developing a class that I’ll be presenting at Fyrecon later this month on how to be a word warrior without burning out.
Uffdah, burnout is right. I’m in the midst of overhauling my platform while also grading finals while also having Biff, Bash, and Blondie home for summer break. How on EARTH do you balance writing and parenthood, anyway? I’m always hunting for tips.
Not just a writer and mom, but a ninja too! I also do Taekwondo and I’m working toward my black belt in 2021. I plan on competing at the World Taekwondo Federation National Championships this July. My daughters do Taekwondo with me, so when they’re in class I’m often in the Dojang office working on book stuff.
I’m really blessed that my husband is very supportive of my writing. He’s even my business partner in our publishing LLC. He’s happy to take care of the kids whenever I need to get writing done, usually in the evenings and on weekends. In turn I’m supportive of him and try to let him sleep in and nap on said weekends before I’m working.
That’s so lovely to hear your husband’s been with you throughout the entire writing of your North Oak series!
Now, these novels feature a young protagonist and her relationship with amazing horses. The blurb for Book 1, Born to Run, mentions Walter Farley’s Black Stallion. Is that a favorite book of yours, a source of inspiration, or both?
I had a hard time getting into Black Stallion as a book series when I read them as a kid. My big inspiration is the Thoroughbred Series by Joanna Campbell (and later Mary Newhall Anderson). I liked Dick Francis, as well, and I’m a sucker for the Black Stallion movies and Phar Lap.
My biggest inspiration, however, was my parents breeding Arabians when I was little. I gained a sense of horsemanship by running around half-naked and barefoot with our herd on the Wasatch Front.
Woah! You’ve such a love for horses bred and nurtured in you. I can’t help but wonder, then, if stories had that same kind of connection with you when you were small. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I remember being in first grade and writing a story about a rabbit pulling a carrot out of the ground. I drew a little action “kapow” around the word POP, and my teacher really liked that. I also remember my aunt giving me this gorgeous book on Shakespeare’s works when I was, like, 4, and I desperately wanted to know what the words said. Needless to say, I was reading Shakespeare by age 6.
But it wasn’t until I was ten that I truly realized the power of words, when I had to write my first official story. The words poured out of me as though they came from somewhere else. They weren’t mine. My hand couldn’t keep up with my brain. I spent the next 6 years writing 20 novels in the same fashion.
TWENTY NOVELS?! That. Is. AWESOME! So writing a long-running series like North Oak must be easy peasy, what with Book 7 coming out in July.
Well, I shouldn’t say “must” be easy-peasy, because I imagine every writer has his/her challenges with series writing. What challenges do you face, and how do you overcome them?
I started writing this series 25 years ago at the age of 12 (July 24th– Happy Anniversary!). So I’ve known the whole story for a long time. It’s gone through several incarnations until I finally knew its purpose and what I needed to do with it for today’s youth. My biggest challenge is keeping everyone the right age and not fudging timelines. I’m going to have to make up a chart or something one of these days as I plan to take the series well into book 20 and onward.
What would you say has been the most difficult scene to write in the North Oak series, and why?
Every book has its most challenging scene. I want the books to MEAN something to the reader. I’m writing them so today’s youth have a heroine to look up to who is going through many of the same scary issues they face daily.
North Oak #6: Dark Horse forced me to look at my own demons though, and was very hard to write. I didn’t want to deal with my own depression that Alex, my main character, had to face. A lot of the books in the series have multiple points of view, but Dark Horse only had Alex. I wanted the reader to feel alone, because that’s a big part of depression. You can be in a room full of people who are crazy about you and still feel alone.
In North Oak #5: Far Turn, I made myself cry. I won’t give spoilers, but it was a funeral scene and I chose the song “I Can Only Imagine” as they played the life video of the departed. That was tough.
Oh, character deaths and their memorials are always so painful to write. You dive into some other tough youth issues in your series, too—bullying, suicide, and sexuality, for a start. Are these things you wanted to discuss through your stories, or did the themes just appear because of what the characters were going through?
A little of both I think. I knew today’s youth were facing some scary stuff, and I wanted to give them someone to look up to. I want them to find me someday and say “You wrote this for me.” And I’ll hug them and say “I know.”
Especially the LGBTQ+ community. There’s nothing else like North Oak on the market. I pray every night before I write that I’ll be a vassal for what the Lord wants His youth to hear. And it’s love. Everyone deserves love.
This has been such an awesome chat, Ann! Any closing words of inspiration and encouragement for your fellow writers?
Failure isn’t the opposite of success. It’s part of it.