Guest Post: Which Comes First—Character or World?

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by Gail Z. Martin

Ask three writers how they do their worldbuilding, and you’ll get four opinions. Maybe more, if our characters get to give their own answers.

That is to say, there’s no wrong way to worldbuild as long as the final product ends up satisfactory to readers. The trick is to come up with an approach that works for you, that creates a realistically detailed and nuanced setting, and—most importantly–seamlessly and believably supports your plot and characters.

How detailed should your worldbuilding be? That reminds me of the old joke about how long a man’s legs should be—long enough to reach the ground. You want your world to have age and depth and weight to it. It should feel like it’s been thoroughly lived in and hard used, not like one of those false-front fake Wild West villages at amusement parks. Your characters and plot should feel as if they rise organically from your world, as if they couldn’t possibly happen anywhere else or be the same in any other setting.

If you’ve ever traveled somewhere unfamiliar, whether it’s across the state or across the world, it’s the little things that made you aware that you were someplace far from home. The menu choices were unfamiliar. The brands of soda were different. The money looked odd and came in strange colors and sizes. People went about their daily routines a bit differently than back home. Signs are not what you’re used to seeing. All those little details aren’t important by themselves, but collectively they are the stuff of authenticity, and to the extent that you have thoroughly thought these things out, your readers will have a richer, more immersive experience.

I believe that immersion was part of the genius of the Harry Potter books. In a million different little details, J.K. Rowling signaled that we weren’t in our own mundane world but someplace wondrous and frighteningly different. The best books give us enough of these nuanced details that we don’t feel infodumped or overwhelmed but we do grasp that we’ve been whisked away to somewhere new.

As for which comes first, character or world, that’s like the chicken/egg dilemma. If you think hard about the circumstances and experiences that shaped your character, you’ll know a lot about the world he/she came from. And if you build out your world convincingly, you’ll know what kinds of characters arise from its climate, history, culture and society. Start wherever you please; you’ll end up in the same place.

How do you drill down to those details? Some writers like to ‘interview’ their characters, sitting down and having a mental chat with their creations who proceed to spill their guts. I’ve used that successfully. Sometimes, either the world or the character just comes to you full-blown, and you have to figure out the rest around the edges. I’ve also built series that way as well. For me, I want my world to be a character in its own way. For example, in my Deadly Curiosities urban fantasy series, things happen that are quintessentially Charleston, SC so that if the action were to happen somewhere else, it would have to be different. The city of Charleston is woven into the fabric of the story in a way that can’t be undone.

If you’re still struggling with worldbuilding, think about the places you’ve been (or go on a day trip somewhere new) and note the details. Jot them down and pay attention to everything you notice that differs from back home. Now think about how you might pull that kind of nuance into your fictional worldbuilding. It could be easier than you think!

My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for my stories and for books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat!  Get all the details about my Days of the Dead blog tour here: http://bit.ly/2eC2pxP

holdontothelight-fb-bannerLet me give a shout-out for #HoldOnToTheLight–100+ Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors blogging about their personal struggles with depression, PTSD, anxiety, suicide and self-harm, candid posts by some of your favorite authors on how mental health issues have impacted their lives and books. Read the stories, share the stories, change a life. Find out more at www.HoldOnToTheLight.com

Book swag is the new Trick-or-Treat! All of my guest blog posts have links to free excerpts—grab them all!

Trick Or Treat with an excerpt from my Deadly Curiosities Adventures short story Buttons http://bit.ly/1v5t9Zf

A free excerpt from my Deadly Curiosities Adventures short story Coffin Box Deadly Curiosities short story http://bit.ly/SDCIjx

Trick Or Treat w excerpt from The Big Bad II anthology http://www.darkoakpress.com/bigbad2.html

Use your free Audible trial to get my books! Ice Forged Audible https://amzn.com/B00EP1C1HK

Trick Or Treat excerpt from Espec Books https://especbooks.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/winner-war-machines/

Try a free excerpt from my m Reign of Ash http://bit.ly/1oCEa5j


About the Author

Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications
Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications

Gail Z. Martin is the author of Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Solaris Books); Shadow and Flame the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books); The Shadowed Path (Solaris Books) and Iron and Blood a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin. A brand new epic fantasy series debuts from Solaris Books in 2017.

Guest Post: The Prize in your Serial by Gail Z. Martin

Please welcome to my blog today on her latest blog tour, the talented Gail Z. Martin.

by Gail Z. Martin

Shadowed path cover MartinWhen I was a kid, I picked my breakfast cereal by the toy surprise in the bottom of the bag. That hidden treasure mattered to me a whole lot more than the flavor of the corn flakes.

So I find it interesting that in fiction, readers are discovering the allure of a new type of ‘serial’–serialized fiction.  Of course, serials aren’t new. Charles Dickens made his living writing for magazines, stretching his stories out in installments for a breathless reading public. Magazines in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ran a lot of serialized fiction, with readers awaiting the next installment in the forthcoming issue. And for a while, ‘penny dreadful’ writers cranked out lurid pulp fiction at a brisk rate, much like episodic TV does nowadays. Back in the day, radio shows also serialized stories, so that listeners would ‘tune in again next week’ for the next thrilling segment.

With the demise of many magazines, it took the internet and digital publishing to breathe new life into serialized fiction. Podcasters were quick to embrace the idea, with folks like Scott Sigler and JC Hutchins doing very well with the concept, and others like Christiana Ellis, Tee Morris, Rich Sigfrit and PG Holyfield bringing back the dramatic multi-actor radio drama format for serialized stories.

I took the leap into doing serialized novels with my Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures ebook short stories and novellas a few years ago. The series focuses on the backstory for a favorite character in my Chronicles of the Necromancer/Fallen Kings series, someone with a dark past whom readers wanted to know more about. I began writing sequential short stories that will add up, eventually, to three full novels about Jonmarc.

The Shadowed Path, my new book from Solaris Books, is a collection of the first ten of those short stories (plus an exclusive eleventh story) that comprise the first third of Jonmarc’s story. Taken together, they form a novel with a full story arc. I’ve had a lot of fun writing the stories, and having the chance to share Jonmarc’s  background, since he’s a favorite of mine, too. There are eight additional stories available in ebook beyond those collected in The Shadowed Path, with three more novellas coming later this year.

Serializing a story requires a slightly different approach from writing a regular novel, because each individual ‘episode’ has to have its own internal arc to a greater degree than do chapters in a book. The stories need to be able to stand on their own, but also link together to build a greater whole. It’s an interesting writing challenge, and I’ve been enjoying working with it.

Readers and authors get some wins with a serialized story that are also different from a regular novel, or stand-alone short fiction. Readers don’t have to wait as long for the story to unfold, but still have the anticipation of the upcoming installment, which is familiar to people who watch episodic TV. For those who prefer to binge read like they binge watch, the sequential short stories will eventually be collected into a larger, cohesive whole.

For the author, it’s nice to get feedback throughout the process instead of only at the conclusion of a full novel. Bringing out episodic work on a regular basis maintains a relationship and an ongoing connection with readers, preserving that link between books. And it’s a great way for authors who may have contractual obstacles that restrict bringing out new ‘novels’ (due to publisher right of first refusal, etc.) to be able to still create larger, cohesive works. Personally, I’m a fan of bringing out additional, sequential stories that tie into my novels because there are a lot of smaller adventures I enjoy sharing with readers that involve the characters and setting and which happen outside the full novels and which introduce secondary characters or expand on the world building.

Modern Magic cover MartinMy Deadly Curiosities Adventures short stories expand on the novels in my dark urban fantasy series with additional episodes featuring more cursed and haunted objects and supernatural threats. Readers get a chance to know the main and secondary characters better and spend more time in the modern-day Charleston, SC atmosphere. The first 10 of those stories with Cassidy, Teag and Sorren, are collected for the first time ever in Trifles and Folly, currently part of the Modern Magic ebook boxed set with 12 full-length books by 13 bestselling dark fantasy authors, just $1.99, only on Kindle for a limited time.

The Storm and Fury Adventures continue the Steampunk world of Iron & Blood, with Department of Supernatural Investigation agents Mitch Storm and Jacob Drangosavich fighting clockwork monsters and supernatural evil in 1898 alternate history Pittsburgh. And my Blaine McFadden Adventures will eventually provide six sequential, serialized novellas that fill a six-year gap in my novel Ice Forged. Three of those novellas are currently available, either individually or collected in King’s Convicts.

For me, the prize in the serial is the chance to tell more stories, explore more adventures, and keep readers on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next installment. So dig in!

From June 21-June 30 I’ll be doing my annual Hawthorn Moon Sneak Peek Event blog tour, and I hope readers will stop over to my website, find out what all is going on and where to find the posts, giveaways, contests and fun events. And of course, please look for The Shadowed Path at your favorite bookseller!

The Hawthorn Moon Sneak Peek Event includes book giveaways, free excerpts, all-new guest blog posts and author Q&A on 22 awesome partner sites around the globe. I’ll also be hosting many of my Modern Magic co-authors guest posting on my DisquietingVisions.com blog during the tour.  For a full list of where to go to get the goodies, visit www.AscendantKingdoms.com.

An Excerpt from Raider’s Curse, part of The Shadowed Path:

Jonmarc took off running. At fifteen, he was tall, just a bit over six feet. Years of working

alongside his father in the forge had given him a strong back and muscular arms. A mop of

chestnut-brown hair hung in his brown eyes, and he pushed it out of the way as he ran.

A worn path led to the open shed that was his father’s forge. Jonmarc could hear the steady

pounding of his father’s hammer on the anvil. The sound echoed from the hills, steady as a

heartbeat. He skidded to a stop just outside the doors.

 

Anselm Vahanian swung a heavy hammer in his right hand while his gloved left hand turned

the piece of metal on the anvil. Sparks flew around him, landing on the long sleeves of his rough-

woven shirt, his gloves, and his leather apron. The forge smelled of coal, iron, and sweat. To one

side lay two swords Anselm had completed for a client in the village. On a table lay a variety of

farm tools—iron pots and pans, and hoops for the cooper’s barrels. Jonmarc had helped to forge

several of the pieces, though he longed to work on swords, like his father.

 

“Mother said to tell you to wash up for dinner,” Jonmarc shouted above the clanging.

Anselm stopped and looked at him. “I’ll eat supper later. You know I can’t stop in the middle

of something when the iron is hot.”

 

Jonmarc nodded. “I know. I’ll tell her to put a plate aside for you.” He paused, and Anselm

looked at him quizzically, waiting for the unspoken question.

 

“Have you talked to any of the fishermen lately?” Jonmarc tried to make the question sound

off-handed, but Anselm frowned as if he caught the undercurrent of concern.

 

“You mean the talk about raiders,” Anselm replied, and struck the iron he was working.

“Do you think it’s more than just talk?”

 

Anselm didn’t answer until he put the iron bar back into the furnace to heat up. He was

Jonmarc’s height, with a head of wiry dark hair and brown eyes that glinted with intelligence. A

lifetime in the forge had given him broad shoulders and a powerful physique. His profession also

showed in the small white burns that marked his hands and arms, scars too numerous to count.

Jonmarc had gained a few of those burn scars too, but not nearly as many as his father. Not yet.

 

“Maybe,” Anselm replied. “The real people to talk to are the traders. Their ships go up and

down the Northern Sea coast, stopping at all the villages. I always get news when I trade iron

with them.”

 

“Have you heard anything?”

 

Anselm turned the iron rod in the furnace. “Some. One of the villages on the other side of the

bay burned. Everyone was gone when the traders came. No way to know why or how. Eiderford,

down the coast, did have a run-in with raiders a few months ago.” He eyed the iron, and turned it

one more time.

 

“So there are raiders,” Jonmarc replied.

 

Anselm shrugged. “There are always raiders. But there’s less to attract them here in

Lunsbetter than in Eiderford. We’re not a proper city, and we’re as like to barter as deal in coin,

so there’s less to steal.”

 

Unless they want food, livestock, or women, Jonmarc thought. And there are enough people

who trade with the ships that there’s probably more coin here than anyone wants to admit.

“There’s a garrison of the king’s soldiers beyond Ebbetshire,” Jonmarc replied. “Can’t they

stop the raiders?”

 

Anselm shrugged. “They can’t guard every village along the coast,” he said. “And they’d

have to know for certain when a raid was planned.” He shook his head. “No, we’re on our own.”

He paused.

 

“Don’t worry yourself about it,” Anselm said, drawing the rod out of the furnace and placing

it on the anvil. “We’ve doubled the patrols, and the fishermen are on alert.” He grinned. “And

tomorrow, those swords are going down to the constable and the sheriff. We’ll be fine. Pump the

bellows for me. The fire’s grown cold.”

 

Anselm stood in front of a large open furnace filled with glowing coals. Jonmarc pumped the

bellows that were attached to the back of the furnace, and the coals flared brighter, flames licking

across their surface. Anselm lifted his hammer to strike the iron. “Now get back up to the house.

Your mother’s waiting. Just save some for me.”

 

“I’ll make sure of it,” Jonmarc replied. The clatter of the hammer drowned out anything else

he might have asked. He stepped out into the cool night, and started back up the path to the

house. His stomach rumbled and he fancied that he could smell the stew. But the worry he felt

when he went to the forge had not lifted; if anything, his father’s comments increased Jonmarc’s

concern than the warnings about raiders were not mere tales.

 

If father says the men are keeping their eye out for trouble, then that’s the end of it, he

thought. Naught I can do. But he remembered his comment to Neil about keeping the axe

sharpened, and on the way back to the house, he detoured into the barn. Thanks to his father’s

craft, they were well-stocked with farm implements.

 

He walked over to the space his father used to butcher meat. Butchering wasn’t a pleasant

job, but it was necessary, and a task with which Jonmarc was well acquainted. He had learned

the craft from his father, practiced enough that it no longer made him lose his dinner to be awash

in blood and entrails. His father had taught him to strike swiftly and cleanly, to block out the

death cries of the terrified livestock, to go to a cold place inside himself until the job was done.

He had even learned a few tricks of the trade, like how to hamstring a panicked animal that was

likely to kick or buck. But nothing about how to fight men.

 

On the wall hung an impressive variety of knives. He selected a large butcher knife with a

wicked blade as well as a smaller boning knife, and made his way around to the back door,

hiding the knives among his mother’s herbs before going in for supper. Tonight, when everyone

was in bed, he would come back for them—one for him, and one for Neil. Just in case the men

were wrong.

 

If you want to see more stories about Jonmarc Vahanian, check out The Chronicles of the

Necromancer series and The Fallen Kings Cycle books, as well as the Jonmarc Vahanian

Adventures on ebook.

©2016 Gail Z. Martin all rights reserved. No duplication or reprint without written permission.

 

About the Author

Gail Z Martin headshotGail Z. Martin is the author of The Shadowed Path (Solaris Books), Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Solaris Books); Shadow and Flame the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books); and Iron and Blood a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin.

She is also author of Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen); The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities.  Gail writes three ebook series: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures and The Blaine McFadden Adventures. The Storm and Fury Adventures, steampunk stories set in the Iron & Blood world, are co-authored with Larry N. Martin.

Her work has appeared in over 30 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: Robots, The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Heroes, Space, Contact Light, With Great Power, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Cinched: Imagination Unbound, Realms of Imagination, Gaslight and Grimm, Baker Street Irregulars, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens.

Find her at www.AscendantKingdoms.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com, on Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/GailZMartin and  free excerpts on Wattpad http://wattpad.com/GailZMartin

 

 

Guest Post: Lawrence M. Schoen, author of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, talks about writing anthropomorphic animals

Barsk cover

My friend Lawrence Schoen’s latest novel and big publisher debut, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, from TOR Books had sold out its first printing before it even released. It is about sentient animals who have survived the self-destruction of human beings and now rule the galaxy. I asked him to talk on the blog about how to write animals as main characters of a novel.

How do you approach writing animals as characters? Do you anthropomorphize or avoid it?

I treat animal characters much like I treat alien characters, which is to say, I write them as characters first, and then add in the other bits (animal, alien, or both).

I start by asking myself a few basic questions like, “Who is this character? How does he see the world? How does he see himself? What does he want?” and then as these basics start to sketch out, I drop the character into the setting that further shapes those answers.

With the anthropomorphic animal (or as I like to call them, “raised mammals”) characters in Barsk, there were additional factors. The easiest of these was to build on the physiological differences from the source animals, and play with how that then affects the more basic characteristics and questions. This is particularly important for the reader, because she’s looking for something familiar to glom onto, something that can be assessed at a glance, be it an elephant’s trunk or the graceful gait of a cheetah or the relative lethargy of a sloth. These are signals to a reader that say, “oh, okay, it’s like a human being, only not, because it’s also like X.”

After the broad strokes of an animal character is done, the real fun begins. The bits that act as Easter eggs for more savvy readers. Little pieces from research into what ethologists and other scientists have learned about these species which when dropped into sapient characters inform their culture and worldview. As one example, we know that among elephants, after a certain age, the males all go off on their own solitary way and only return to mate, leaving the females behind to form groups of adults and children of both sexes. Take this one datum and apply it a planet of uplifted elephants and you get a society where you have households of adult females — mothers and sisters aunts and cousins, like something out of H.M.S. Pinafore — taking responsibility for all child rearing, and males who spend their adult lives as peripatetic bachelors — never settling down for long, always moving on. And from there you get to ask how this all manifests in routine things that you probably won’t actually look at in the book, but which has to exist in the back of your mind because it all influences the way the characters walk through their own world. Questions like, “What does this do to the housing market? What’s the impact on job security? What happens to individuals who don’t fit smoothly into the society’s normative roles?”

The characters in an anthropomorphic novel need to have the same quality of breadth and depth and variety that ordinary human characters enjoy and/or endure; it’s all just filtered through the specialized animal traits that is their due as well. Because at the end of the day, you’re using them to tell human stories, and while they may be furry or horned or bat-winged or something else, they must also project a basic humanity, one to which the reader can relate. In the end, the thing we always remember about the best alien or anthropomorphic characters isn’t how much they differ from us, but how human they were.


Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia. You can find him online at LawrenceMSchoen.com and @KlingonGuy.

 

GUEST POST: Why Authors Love Research – Days Of The Dead Blog Tour

Today, my friend Gail Martin stops by on her Days Of The Dead blog tour for a talk about writers and research. – BTS

By Gail Z. Martin

Print

I love research. In fact, sometimes I almost think the book is an excuse to do the research. Almost.

Okay, I was a history major, so I came into this predisposed to be nosy about other people’s business. History is the best reality show. Forget the structure artificially imposed on history by textbook authors. History—the rise and fall of kingdoms, the great explorers, the conquest and colonization—was done by people who, on closer inspection, make the Kardashians look well-adjusted and the Mafia seem morally upright.

It’s really the story of grifters, grabbers, con men, connivers, liars, manipulators, opportunists and truly dysfunctional people who clawed their way to notoriety less from noble purpose than from unresolved psychological issues. And those are often the good guys.

Seriously, when you delve into real history—the letters and diaries by historic figures and the people who knew them and the contemporary records—you get a juicy, scandal-laden, slugfest that rivals any Jerry Springer episode. We like to make our historical figures into cleanly-delineated heroes and villains, but they weren’t—they were real people, no different from us today, no more noble or evil. A few people were in pursuit of a higher cause, but don’t cha know it, that cause usually included some benefit to them and theirs. People lied, cheated, stole, played politics, rigged the game, and had hissy fits. They also loved, grieved, wanted revenge, sought forgiveness, pondered the meaning of life, wondered if it was all worth the cost, tried to do the right thing, and occasionally rose above human nature to do something really heroic and awesome.

I write epic fantasy, urban fantasy and steampunk, so there’s a lot of research involved. Some of it is tactical, like double-checking just how far a trebuchet can throw something, or when an invention was patented, or when a word came into usage. But along the way, you stumble down more rabbit holes than Alice, finding unexpected and wondrous tidbits you can use in your story, historical oddities that add realism and interest, quirky or intriguing facts about people and situations that you can borrow and twist for your fictional universe. That’s when research is the coolest, most fun thing in the world.

DEADLY CURIOSITIES-VENDETTAWhenever I get stuck on what needs to happen in a story to get from where I am to where it needs to go, I research. Every time, I’ll find something either by design or serendipity that provides exactly the imagination fodder to get me around where I’m blocked. Often, this means poking around on the internet, following links from one site to another until the right bit of information appears. Sometimes, I go to my library and see what I can find in my books, where my memory can be jogged about a cool detail I’ve forgotten about that is perfect for the situation. Or I’ll go watch something on the History Channel, usually on military tactics or equipment. Maybe I’ll watch a movie with good fight scenes and pay attention to what happens for ideas. Research is better than WD-40 for getting you unstuck.

Research is also how you ground a story in its time and place. My urban fantasy series, Deadly Curiosities, is set in modern-day Charleston, SC. The steampunk series I co-author with my husband, Larry N. Martin, is set in an alternative history Pittsburgh, PA. A lot of the research we do—both online and by visiting the cities—helps to impart a sense of place and make the setting one of the characters. When you set a story in a specific place, ideally it becomes so much an outgrowth of its location that you (and readers) couldn’t imagine it being anywhere else. Even if you’ve lived in a city or region, you don’t know everything about it. In fact, sometimes we know less about places we’ve lived because we never even take a tourist’s view and do the landmarks, let alone a scholar’s view. Once you start digging, you’ll find tidbits of history, important historical figures, old controversies and buried incidents that provide great mental fodder.

One of the most valuable things research does for me is to take historic figures out of their wax-museum frozenness and the myths that have been built up around them and reveal their humanness, good and bad. (Read the bitter campaign feuding between Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson if you don’t believe me.) While many of these figures were well-known in their own time, they had achieved nothing near the mythic stature we’ve given them since then. Some were actually dismissed or overlooked in their own time because the ramifications and importance of what they did was not yet clear.

I&B final coverBy returning historic figures to human scale, I gain perspective as an author on how to create fictional characters who change the world. One thing I learned is that aside from a few megalomaniacs like Napoleon, most of these larger-than-life historical figures were pursuing their own personal agendas, not obsessing over their historic legacy. They were trying to solve a problem or gain an objective, beat a rival or win a prize. That their actions would leave ripple effects throughout the rest of history wasn’t on their minds. They were—as we frequently are now—oblivious to the fallout from their actions, at least in the grand scheme of things. So a general might want to win a battle, and have no clue that by doing so, the stage is set for a disastrous insurrection fifty years later that will topple the very empire he represents. A person in a position of power won’t countenance a new idea because it threatens his ego, and the ultimate advantage goes to his rival, changing the course of history.

Research makes the writing world go ‘round. It’s not only the font of ideas, it’s also entertaining in a guilty pleasures sort of way, like reading tabloid headlines in the grocery line. Just remember to bring popcorn!

My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for my stories and for books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Details here: www.AscendantKingdoms.com

Book swag is the new Trick-or-Treat! Grab your envelope of book swag awesomeness from me & 10 authors http://on.fb.me/1h4rIIe before 11/1!

Trick or Treat! Excerpt from my new urban fantasy novel Vendetta set in my Deadly Curiosities world here http://bit.ly/1ZXCPVS Launches Dec. 29

More Treats! Enter to win a copy of Deadly Curiosities! https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/160181-deadly-curiosities

Treats! Enter to win a copy of Iron & Blood! https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/160182-iron-blood

Treats not Tricks! An excerpt from Girl In The Hourglass https://especbooks.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/espec-excerpts-the-girl-in-the-hourglass-by-drew-bittner/

Halloween goodies! Here’s an excerpt from What Really Happened At Little Big Horn https://especbooks.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/winner-what-really-happened-at-the-battle-of-little-big-horn/

More Halloween loot! Read an excerpt from “Coffin Box,” one of my Deadly Curiosities short stories http://bit.ly/SDCIjx

 


About the Author

Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications
Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications

Gail Z. Martin is the author of the upcoming novel Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Dec. 2015, Solaris Books) as well as the epic fantasy novel Shadow and Flame (March, 2016 Orbit Books) which is the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga. Shadowed Path, an anthology of Jonmarc Vahanian short stories set in the world of The Summoner, debuts from Solaris books in June, 2016.

Other books include The Jake Desmet Adventures a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin as well as Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) from Orbit Books and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities from Solaris Books.

Gail writes four series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures, The King’s Convicts series, and together with Larry N. Martin, The Storm and Fury Adventures. Her work has appeared in over 20 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Realms of Imagination, Heroes, With Great Power, and (co-authored with Larry N. Martin) Space, Contact Light, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens.

 

 

GUEST POST: Howard Andrew Jones on How I Write

 

Today, my friend, Howard Andrew Jones, one of my favorite writers, shares with us about his writing process.  His latest Pathfinder Tales novel, Beyong The Pool of Stars, is out now from TOR and Paizo. But I’ve enjoyed his previous Pathfinder and original novels very much as well. Check them out and enjoy his wise words.

9780765374530_FCA writing career is a work in progress. I’m always striving to better my writing process.

I suppose I still live in hope that I’ll produce 5k or more of workable prose every day like some of my friends do. And it happens for me, sometimes. More often, though, I’m a 2k to 3k guy. And I’ve decided that might just be the way it works for me, so more and more I’m trying to make sure that the 2 or 3 thousand words I produce are useful ones.

Bit by bit, tweak by tweak, I’ve come to my current method, and it’s served me well for Beyond the Pool of Stars as well as for the book that immediately preceded it and the two books currently on my hard drive. I’ll detail it for you in the hopes you’ll find it useful.

First, three steps I have to take once I have the germ of the novel’s idea:

  1. It probably goes without saying that you have to know your characters. Develop principal characters – and keep that number small – that fascinate you. If you don’t find them interesting no one else will.
  2. Find out what their goals are, then find a way to keep them away in an entertaining way.
  3. Know your villain and what she wants. And make her interesting as well, or you’ll be just as bored as your readers whenever your characters interact with her.

Once I have those pieces I set to work on the outline. I block it out loosely, imagining important scenes. I try to take my characters to fascinating places. Why not create backdrops of wonder with a few lines of description it would take a film company millions to create?

Once I have a basic feel for beginning, middle, and end, I get to plotting chapter by chapter and scene by scene, and my current favorite trick is to block it out like a play.

I write entire scenes with just dialogue and occasional stage direction. It might be that I can perfectly picture the tone of voice or even a moment of description, and if I do, I go ahead and drop it in even during this rough “stage draft.” There aren’t any hard and fast rules for what I can or can’t do at any stage, after all, and if I picture something I really like I try to get it down, even if it’s just a few quick notes.

Once I get the scene working I can either move on to the next section, or punch away at it, getting the dialogue just right. If the scene’s working properly then the more I work on dialogue, the better I can picture it… and the more solid the scene or chapter becomes as I polish. I add detail as I work until that dialogue is surrounded by useful prose and the stage descriptions of what characters are doing transforms into fluid actions.

A stage draft enables me to experiment with the dialogue and flow without investing a whole lot of energy into finessing metaphor and getting into a character’s internal thoughts. If something doesn’t work and the scene goes off the rails, I haven’t wasted hours polishing fool’s gold. And believe me, I’ve done that before.

Neither this method nor any other can work for every writer. If a method worked perfectly for everyone, there wouldn’t be so many writer self-help books out there.

I think it’s been successful for me because I’ve always found that dialogue comes easily. You should always be aware of your weaknesses and work to overcome them. But during the initial composition stages, whatever methods you, try to play to your strengths.

 


Howard Andrew Jones is the critically acclaimed author of The Desert of Souls, The Bones of the Old Ones, and Pathfinder novels Plague of Shadows, Stalking the Beast and the hot off the presses Beyond the Pool of Stars. A former Black Gate Editor, he also assembled and edited 8 collections 31020477of historical fiction writer Harold Lamb’s work for the University of Nebraska Press. He can be found lurking at www.howardandrewjones.com. Follow him on Twitter @howardandrewjon

Guest Post: Music As Magic by Peter Orullian

By Peter Orullian

 

It’s not new. This music as magic thing. Many fantasy writers have done it. So, the thing is how. And that’s where I’m hoping folks will dig my approach.

Peter OrullionSee, I’m a musician. I’ve no idea if my fellow fantasy writers who’ve attempted music magic systems are also musicians, but there’s no doubt it’s influenced how I write about music. I’m not casual about it. Whether I’m writing a scene that deals with the intricacies of how I built my music magic system, or just describing the experience a character has of listening to music, I’m all in. I’m just built that way.

Now, as for the music magic, itself, I need to tell you about Resonance. I spent time in my worldbuilding to develop the notion of what I call a “governing dynamic”—Resonance. It underlies multiple magic systems in my world. In some, it’s quite obvious. In others, much less so. But it started first with music, and the notion that all things have a resonant signature that may be resonated with.

I grow past this, of course. Past the simple notion of acoustical resonance. I built out an idea I call Absolute Sound, which I actually wrote about in my novella for the Unfettered anthology that released a bit ago. That story, entitled “The Sound of Broken Absolutes,” goes into this idea I have about resonance taking place at a distance, out of earshot. It’s an advance technique for practitioners of the music magic in my Vault of Heaven series.

For those who haven’t read my first book, or anything else by me, never fear. I’ve written book two, Trial of Intentions, as an entry point to the series. I mention it, because Trial of Intentions is where I go much deeper into the music magic. You get a close look at how it works, and how it affects people. Those scenes are some of my favorites of the entire series so far.

And different from the idea of sweet, soaring sopranos and the like. Or even soft, intimate truth-sounding songs. Some of the music magic you’ll experience—dare I say, “Hear”—in my world is assertive, rough, combative. It’s often loud, bold, and meant to disquiet. It’s rhythmic. It’s filled with great passion. Great sorrow, sometimes. And when done right, it’s filled with “intention.” I put that last word in quotes because intention is very much at the heart of my music magic system. It’s a close cousin to Resonance. It matters what you mean when you sing. And that might have nothing to do with lyrics. In fact, often, they’re unrelated. Lyrics can even be dispensed with.

 

Trial of Intentions cover OrullianFind the bottom of pain. Therefrom will come powerful music. And when given voice from someone who understands the right technique, the power of the music is undeniable, unrelenting.

 

And all of this is brought to bear in a great song, in my world, knows as “Suffering.” It’s sung in nine movements, taking nearly seven hours to complete. It’s a song of power. It keeps a barrier strong that separates the races of the east from creatures who’ve lost empathy. Not beasties. These are reasoning creatures. With intentions of their own.

 

And music is the thing the gods left the world to protect itself. Music premised on a governing dynamic I call Resonance.

 

The UnrememberedOf course, beyond all this, I care, as a writer, about the beauty and flow of words themselves. Writing can be lyrical, musical. And my favorite writers possess this quality. The fiction experience is very nearly song-like. That’s a huge bonus, for a guy like me.

 

Anyway, in the effort not to do spoilers, you have here a bit of the feeling and high-level mechanics of my world and music magic system. And even if you never read my work, if you’re a music lover, we’re kin. Maudlin that, but I’m leaving it in.

 

Cheers,

Peter

Guest Post: Genre Mashups by Michael J. Martinez

Daedalus Incident coverI love a good genre mashup. Elves in the 1940s? Awesome. Cybernetic werewolves? Bring it. Steampunk dragons? You bet. Horatio Hornblower in space?

…actually, I wrote that, more or less. Crashed a frigate into Mars and everything. Anyway.

Take your favorite sci-fi and fantasy subgenres, critters and tropes, write them on 3×5 cards and shuffle the deck. Chances are, when you draw two, you’ll end up with a whiz-bang clash of genre goodness. Unfortunately, turning that pairing into a setting, let alone a piece of fiction, isn’t quite so easy.

When you combine different genres, you have as much potential for an unholy mess as you do for greatness. It may sound good (“Dude…cybernetic werewolves!”) but I would suggest that it’s harder in some ways to create a mashup than to stick to one particular genre and make it your own.

Readers, I’ve found, are exceptionally and, at times, annoyingly perceptive. When something doesn’t make sense, their antennae twitch. Some can’t keep suspending their disbelief and have to put down the book. Others will keep reading, but look for more errors along the way, and may even take issue with stuff you’ve meant to put there. Two (or more) disparate genre elements can create a lot of potential for twitchy antennae.

Thus, genre mashups may start with an “ah-ha” moment and an aura of geeky awesomeness, but getting them to stand on their own requires discipline and diligence. This is where traditional world-building techniques come into play, but with special attention to the mashup elements. So you have cybernetic werewolves…OK, awesome. What happens to the hardware when they change? Do they have the mental capacity to use advance tech in their wolf-man state? Who, exactly, had the insane notion of rigging up a werewolf (a ’ware-wolf?) in the first place?

When I created the settings for The Daedalus Incident, I asked a ton of questions like those, often with answers leading to multiple additional questions. And as I wrote, I was careful to note other problems and disconnects as they arose, so they could be dealt with all together, at the same time, so that there’s a continuity of setting.

Now, I would say perhaps only 50% of that fully fleshed-out setting is in the book…but I’ve plenty of fodder for the next ones.

And of course, setting is only part of it. One of the mistakes I see in some genre mashups is that it’s enough to have a very cool mashup setting…sometimes at the expense of plot and character. Of course, any good book needs to have strong characters and a well-developed, well-executed plot. The mashup can’t serve as a crutch to prop up the other two.

Likewise, the plot and characters need to interact with the setting organically. You can certainly overlay a noir detective plot over an urban fantasy setting, but that’s not entirely original, now is it? How do the particulars of your mean-street faeries and vampires feed into that noir plot?

The point is, you have to stand strong against the geeky aura and do the hard work. People will expect a lot from a genre mashup – either because they love the idea, or because they think it’s a gimmick and it’s up to you to prove them wrong. The intensity and depth of your world-building after your ah-ha moment – and your plot and characters – will determine whether or not it turns into something great.


MJ MartinezMichael J. Martinez is the author of The Daedalus Incident, coming this summer from Night Shade Books, and is serializing his novella, The Gravity of the Affair, on his blog at michaeljmartinez.net

 

Guest Post: The Importance Of World-building by Mary Sutton

purpleToday, I have the pleasure of hosting Mary Sutton, whose YA fantasy debut chapter book I edited for Delabarre Publishing. As a software technical writer, Mary has been making her living with words for over almost 20 years. Power Play is her first published fiction work. She is a member of Pennwriters and is the incoming secretary for her local chapter of Sisters in Crime. Find her online at marysuttonauthor.com. Here are her thoughts on world-building:

The Importance of World-building

by Mary Sutton

One of the most important things in fiction is that activity known as “world-building.” Most people associate this with fantasy fiction, but you have to do it no matter what kind of fiction you write. “World-building” is where you draw the world in which your characters live. This world can be completely fictional or set in the “real world.”

World-building is a tricky exercise. If you use the real world, as in your story is set in New York, you have to get the details right. This is anything from the names of any famous streets or buildings, to basic geography and history of the locale, to the “feel” of the world. For example, New York is a busy place. People talk fast, walk fast, and drive fast (well, when they aren’t stuck in traffic). It would not be believable if you wrote a story where the “city that never sleeps,” slept.

Fantasy worlds have their own challenges. A lot of people think fantasy and science fiction give the author free rein to make up whatever she wants. Well, that’s sort of true. Your world still has to make “sense,” it has to have a certain degree of believability. You may decide to create a science fiction world that is devoid of gravity, but you better spend some time thinking through things as simple as “how do objects stay in one place” or “how do people go to the bathroom” or your readers, who do have certain expectations of basic physics, aren’t going to find your story “believable make-believe.”

For Hero’s Sword, I had to create two worlds. First, I had to create the “real-life” world of middle school. Fortunately, a lot of things haven’t changed since I was in eighth grade, some thirty-odd years ago. There are still cliques; still the kids on the “outside,” and kids still have those seemingly impossible crushes. I was also fortunate in that I have a first-hand view into today’s middle school through my kids. So it wasn’t hard to build Jaycee’s school world. Between memories and observation I got a very good feel for what I was trying to do.

Slightly more challenging was making sure my characters felt like they belonged to this world. The vocabulary and speech of the characters that inhabited that middle-school world had to be right. It’s been a long time since I thought or spoke like a thirteen-year old, but again I was fortunate enough to be able to observe my kids and their friends.

For the fictional world of Hero’s Sword and Mallory, I had a bit more freedom. After all, this was the world of a video game, so I had lots of options. I could have gone all out with magic, dragons, elves, and wizards – all the trappings of high fantasy. But that’s not really where I wanted to go.

Instead, I wanted more of a medieval “real world” feel. Sure, there’s a certain amount of fantasy. After all, Jaycee is transported into a video game and that’s pretty fantastic.

But I didn’t want to get involved with inventing a new set of rules – or explaining them. It would be far easier to simply base the world of the game on some basic tenets of history, including feudalism, over lords (the “Empire”), petty wars between feudal lords (barons, or in my case, estate owners).

This freed me of the need to develop my own complex set of “standard operating procedures” for my world. Anybody who has ever played a game based on feudal principles would understand the rules of the road. But since my game world is fictional, I was able to build the relationships between Empire, estates, lords, and commoners pretty much how I wanted to – such as simultaneously allowing a woman to rule and having her people not completely approve of that because of a long history of male rulers.

Once I got into the groove, I really enjoyed my fictional world. Since so much of what I write is crime fiction that is very much based on fact (face it, there are certain things a police officer just cannot do), this was an extremely fun and liberating exercise.

I really enjoyed the world of Mallory and I hope I get to spend a lot more time there. And I hope you did to.

So tell me – what is the one thing you need in a fictional world to make it believable?

 

Power Play coverPOWER PLAY

by Mary Sutton

All Jaycee Hiller wants to do is survive eighth grade. Mostly that means hanging with her friend, Stu, avoiding the cheerleading squad, secretly crushing on Nate Fletcher, and playing her favorite video game, Hero’s Sword. When she receives a new video game controller, Jaycee finds herself magically transported into the Hero’s Sword video game world. Survival takes on a whole new meaning. No longer battling with a plastic joystick, Jaycee picks up a real sword and bow & arrow and readies herself for battle. Can she save Lady Starla’s rule in Mallory, keep herself in one piece, and maybe even learn something about surviving middle school?

Buy your copy today at Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00AAN4GCU/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=wwwbryanthoma-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B00AAN4GCU

Guest Post – PERILOUS MISSION: The Challenges Of Writing Science Fiction

by Anne E. Johnson

I’ve been a fan of science fiction since I was in high school, but Green Light Delivery was my first attempt to write a novel-length work in this genre. Of course, any type of fiction is a challenge to do well. But I found that writing science fiction offers special hurdles I had not run into before.

Part of the over-arching challenge of science fiction is what a broad genre it is. When The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Gods Themselves are both placed under the same heading, you know you’re dealing with something bigger than any one definition can cover.

Green Light Delivery is humorous. It is also set in an alternative universe, meaning that there are no humans, and never have been. These decisions about its setting brought up even more specific issues I hadn’t considered before I began. And I find, now that I’m well into drafting the sequel, that these were not simply beginner’s stumbles. I’m facing all these hurdles again. Good thing it’s so much fun!

The differently-abled alien. When you create an alternative universe, you need to people it with somebody. Even if you decide there are nothing but robots on your planet, you still need to know what they look like and what they can do. I chose to make the Raralt Planetary Circle (a set of four planets) be the home for many different species. Nice, I thought. So very Star Wars, I thought. But once I got rolling, I realized that inventing a creature and using it in fiction are two very different things. As I wrote scenes, I found that I couldn’t remember what all the different characters were shaped like. I wanted one to shake hands—or does he have flippers? Or neither? I wanted one to sit down—but how tall is she, and does she bend down into the chair or climb up into it? I wanted one to talk—how many mouths does it have, and where on its body are they situated?

It wasn’t such a big deal to keep track of the main characters’ physical attributes, but the secondary folks drove me crazy. The only answer was to keep a list.

What was his name, again? A list was also essential for naming. Most experienced authors have mixed up their characters’ names at some point. They call Amy by her best friend Sue’s name for three pages in the middle of Chapter Six, and their beta reader spots it. No biggie. With an alternative universe, I wanted the names to sound other-worldly. I love making up names by gluing phonemes together. I can do that all day. But five paragraphs later, I can’t remember the new guy’s name. I mean, not a clue. And forget about asking beta readers to keep track of this stuff. These people have jobs.

Moniker confusion was a problem not only for characters, but also for places, brands, holidays, and any other element of society that might be labeled with a proper noun. I made a very big, complex list. And now that I’m writing the sequel, I keep having to refer to the Green Light Delivery list so the details are consistent.

Just how humanoid? If there are no humans, how can the reader relate to the characters?

Of course, the characters must be driven by human desires and needs, or you won’t have a story. Even if the species are extremely different from humans in both their physiognomy and psychology, they must know happiness, sadness, fear, jealously, wrath, love, lust…and I would add humor, too. It doesn’t matter if the specifics are unfamiliar to the reader, as long as the motivation makes sense.

A closely related issue is that of human-language (in my case, English) and human-concept terms for various measurements. Do you have days and weeks, or make up some other delineation of time? Do you have hours and minutes? Miles and feet? Pounds and tons? In Green Light Delivery I found myself avoiding mention of specific measurements whenever possible rather than embellish the invented culture to that degree. Asimov and Roddenberry might not approve, but I needed to complete the manuscript.


Drawing on an eclectic background that includes degrees in classical languages and musicology, Anne E. Johnson has published in a wide variety of topics and genres. She’s written feature articles about music in serials such as The New York Times and Stagebill Magazine, and seven non-fiction books for kids with the Rosen Group.  Nearly thirty of her short stories, in various genres and for both children and adults, can be found in Underneath the Juniper Tree, Spaceports & Spidersilk , Shelter of Daylight, and elsewhere. The humorous, noir-inspired Green Light Delivery (Candlemark & Gleam) is her first science fiction novel. She is also a children’s author. Ebenezer’s Locker, a tween paranormal mystery novel, was recently published by MuseItUp. Her tween medieval mystery, Trouble at the Scriptorium will be released by Royal Fireworks Press in August. Anne lives in Brooklyn with her husband, playwright Ken Munch. Her website is http://AnneEJohnson.com.

 

Guest Post: Writetip-Writing Suspense In Science Fiction and Fantasy by Linda Rodriguez

Today’s guest is one of my favorite people, a local friend who’s talented and writes both mystery and speculative fiction as well as poetry. Her debut mystery novel Every Last Secret was published this Spring by Thomas Dunne and tells the story of a college police chief and Cherokee Indian investigating a murder on a college campus. Linda agreed to join us today to talk about writing suspense in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Recently I did a guest post for www.sfsignal.com identifying 15 Science Fiction and Fantasy Thrillers That Are Worth SFF Fans’ Time and mentioned that my second novel,The Returning, book 2 in my space opera epic The Saga Of Davi Rhii, is written like a Ludlum thriller in pacing and surprise plotting,  so her topic seems particularly appropriate.

Writing Suspense in Fantasy and Science Fiction

 by Linda Rodriguez

Suspense is not only the province of thriller writers, and some of our techniques can be useful to science fiction and fantasy writers. Every novel needs suspense elements to keep the reader turning the page. At its simplest, suspense consists of making the reader want to know what happens next. At its best, suspense is making the reader worry that his beloved protagonist will never reach his overpowering need or goal and what on earth is going to happen next! You will find this kind of suspense in all kinds of good novels. Will Atticus Finch be able to save innocent Tom Robinson’s life in To Kill a Mockingbird? Will Scarlett O’Hara save Tara in Gone with the Wind? Will Paul Atreides be able to become the Kwisatz Haderach to defeat the evil Harkonnens and the Emperor in Dune? There are a number of ways to provide suspense in a story. I say “provide” rather than “insert” because the suspense needs to be integral to the story and not just something added on.

One of the most important ways to increase suspense is to make it clear to the reader at the beginning of the story just what is at stake. It must be something that threatens to devastate the protagonist’s self-image, life or world, and he must be willing to make any sacrifice and go to any lengths to keep this from happening. However, another fine way to keep the reader wanting to know what happens next is to open your story or book deep in the action and explain it later. Although these strategies seem contradictory, they can be combined to add powerful elements of tension and apprehension to the reader’s experience of the book. If you start in the middle of some strong action scene, and then in the next scene or chapter, establish the background of your characters and the situation, you can delineate the high stakes that are involved for your protagonist here. These combined strategies can be used in almost any kind of story.

An alternative to this kind of two-part opening can be a first scene or chapter that establishes the protagonist within her everyday world but buries hints of impending change or danger within these ordinary moments. This is foreshadowing, and it has been misused often, but when the hints are subtle enough (while still being apparent to the attentive reader), foreshadowing can build excellent suspense. Movies have it easier here because they can use the background music to warn the audience that something wicked this way comes. Writers must try to create that same kind of atmosphere with sharp dissonant details and atmosphere.

One of the key ways to ensure that your book has the kind of suspense that keeps the reader saying, “Just one more page,” is to offer the reader the viewpoints of both the protagonist and the antagonist. This way the reader can see the problems the antagonist is planning for the protagonist long before the protagonist is aware of them. The reader can see what the protagonist cannot—that he’s on a collision course with disaster. This is a very powerful tool for suspense in all genres of novels, but is unavailable to those of you with a first-person protagonist-only viewpoint.

In the case of the first-person protagonist viewpoint, you can avail yourself of some of that reader foresight of disaster by stealing a trick of the traditional mystery writer. In the traditional mystery, as opposed to the suspense novel or thriller, the reader is in the dark and trying to figure out what happened and who the villain is at the same time as the protagonist does. Write in details that plant questions in the reader’s mind about the various characters, about what really happened in the past, and about what might happen in the future. Mystery writers call these “clues” and “red herrings.” Clues are actual evidence of what has happened or might happen, while red herrings are false harbingers, leading the protagonist and the reader in the wrong direction. Either of these can increase the reader’s need to know what’s going to happen. All characters have some secrets, even from themselves. Something that reveals one of these secrets, perhaps one that someone has lied about, will build suspense. When using clues and red herrings to increase suspense, keep the ratio of clues to red herrings high in the favor of real clues to keep from annoying the reader.

Another way to use clues is to plant some detail that brings uneasiness but is made to seem innocuous at the time. Later, this detail will turn out to be an important harbinger of some violence or problem. This stems from Chekhov’s gun on the wall which must go off before the play is over, or Brian Garfield’s famous dictum—“Plant it early. Pay it off later.”

A great technique to ratchet up tension in a book or story is to use a deadline. Time becomes the enemy and is working for the villain in this technique. The bomb is ticking and our heroine must find it and disarm it while that clock on it is inexorably ticking down to explosion and other obstacles are thrown in her way inevitably slowing her down. It needn’t be an actual clock or bomb, and it needn’t be minutes counting down to disaster. It could be years if we’ve been given a large enough view and long enough timeline at the beginning of the book, perhaps with a genetic time bomb ticking away.

Suspense is always present when the reader knows the protagonist is fighting seemingly overwhelming odds. The reader wants to see him stretched to the breaking point as he tries to prevent the feared disaster (remembering that this is a disaster in the protagonist’s eyes, not necessarily a “blow-up-the-world” disaster). Your character must learn new skills, access new abilities, overcome old flaws in ways he never thought he could in order to save the day. This kind of determination will keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens to him next.

We’ve seen how important the protagonist’s character is to reader suspense. He or she has to be earning the reader’s backing. But the antagonist’s character is just as important for true suspense. The antagonist must be worthy of the hero and capable of providing clever and devilish problems for the hero that will really stretch the protagonist. Unless you’re doing first-person narration by the protagonist, allow the reader to know the antagonist’s motivation and make it strong, so the reader will believe that he’s dedicated to what he’s doing to undermine or destroy the protagonist. If your story is a first-person protagonist narrative, once again you can attempt to let the reader know the villain’s motivation through dialogue overheard or another character telling the protagonist or some other bit of news that will tell the reader why the antagonist is determined and just how very determined he is.

An important but often overlooked way to ratchet up tension and suspense is to allow daily life to throw extra obstacles in the protagonist’s way. She’s trying to get to the old house where her child’s been left by the bad guy before the flood waters drown the kid, but it’s rush hour and there’s a huge accident and traffic jam, or she runs out of gas on the deserted creepy road to the house, or the flood waters have brought out alligators or poisonous snakes, or the street she needs to take has been blocked off for road repairs, or her ratty old car that she can’t afford to replace refuses to start, or… None of these are things the antagonist did, but they impede her nonetheless. This technique also has the positive effect of increasing reader identification with the hero. The reader knows what it is to be in a hurry to get somewhere important and encounter a traffic jam or blocked-off road. It also helps with the writer’s most important goal—verisimilitude. We all want to make our story-world become so real to the reader that he will never wake from the story-dream.

Suspense is a technique every writer can use. It’s a matter of creating a steam engine with no whistle, so that the steam builds in pressure, and at any time there could be an explosion. As a writer, in a thousand ways, great and small, your job is to keep turning up the heat under that engine.

In my own mystery-suspense novel, Every Last Secret, I can show some of these techniques right in the jacket copy. I’ll bold them. Marquitta “Skeet” Bannion fled a big-city police force and painful family entanglements for the peace of a small Missouri college town and a job as chief of campus police. Now, the on-campus murder of the student newspaper editor who traded in secrets puts Skeet on the trail of a killer who will do anything to keep a dangerous secret from being exposed. While Skeet struggles to catch a murderer and prevent more deaths, a vulnerable boy and ailing father tangle family responsibilities around her once again. Time is running out and college administrators demand she sweep all college involvement under the rug, but Skeet won’t stop until she’s unraveled every last secret. Secrets, high stakes, motivated and strong antagonist, overwhelming obstacles, everyday difficulties, a deadline, and dedicated protagonist.

You might take your book’s synopsis/summary and try bolding or underlining all the various techniques of suspense you find in yours. If you only find one or two, perhaps you’ll want to rethink your story so it will include more elements of suspense to keep your readers turning the page.

Thanks, Bryan for having me here today. I’ll be happy to answer any questions anyone might have. Suspense is one of those fundamentals with lots and lots of different applications.


Linda Rodriguez’s novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was a Barnes & Noble Mystery Must-Read, and was a selection of Las Comadres National Book Club. Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times bestselling author, said, “Every Last Secret is a triple crown winner; superb writing, hell for leather plotting and terrific characters.” Criminal Element said, “Every Last Secret by Linda Rodriguez is a dark, twisty, turny tale of love, lies, loss, and murder on a quiet college campus.” Publishers Weekly said, “Fans of tough female detectives like V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone will be pleased.” As a poet, she has won the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Excellence, the Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, and the Midwest Voices and Visions Award. She blogs about books and writers at www.LindaRodriguezWrites.blogspot.com, reads and writes everything, including science fiction and fantasy, and she spends too much time on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda. Every Last Secret can be obtained at http://www.amazon.com/Every-Last-Secret-A-Mystery/dp/1250005450.

Guest Post: Your Punctuation Personality Type by Leah Petersen

Since I am doing a guest Write Tip at Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Mystery Writing Is Murder Blog today, I didn’t want to post another Write Tip here. I’ll have a new one Thursday instead. But I did invite Leah Petersen to guest with a funny post on Punctuations and Personality!  Her follow up post to this on Grammatical Error Personality Types can be found at her blog here.

Your Punctuation Personality Type

 by Leah Petersen

A recent (totally made up) scientific study analyzed what your favorite punctuation mark means about you. Every writer, every person, over-uses and abuses at least one punctuation mark. Here’s what your particular weakness means about you:

Period (.): Type A personality. You are decisive and clear. You have no difficulty with setting limits. Often a stodgy person that no one else thinks is any fun to hang out with. You tend to be good with technology and have the latest gadgets.

Comma (,): The peacemaker. You like to help others, and you get along with everyone. You like to make sure people understand each other. You like clarity as much as the Period type, but, unlike him, you don’t subscribe to the “less is more” theory. You believe more information is better than not enough. For this reason you sometimes confuse others and can become tiresome. But, in general, you’re fun, or at least tolerable, to be around. If not, you can make people think you are.

Exclamation point (!): You are excitable and anxious. You don’t self-censor well and think that your opinion always matters. You use italics a lot in written communication. You get nervous easily and are often too loud. You’re either an overly-affectionate or a mean drunk. You’re fun at parties.

Question mark (?): Indecisive and uncertain. You over-analyze. You may be shy and have low self-esteem. People usually have no idea you’re there.

Colon (:): You like things to be well-delineated. Much like the Period type, you like order. You make lists. People always know where they stand with you. You usually get asked to organize the office parties and school functions.

Semi-colon (;): You’re well-read and urbane. You knew where this was on the keyboard before it became part of the winky emoticon. You’re more easy-going than Colon or Period types, but you’re still put together and usually organized. People are comfortable around you and tend to like you, though they may not be able to say exactly why.

Hyphen (-): You like having fun. You are often creative and are very social. You like throwing parties, though you may call on your Colon type friends to organize them. You’re more likely to be impulsive and throw unlikely things together. No one would be surprised that your decor is shabby-modern or artsy-classic.

En-dash (–): If you knew this was a different mark than the hyphen, you are way too into punctuation. You’re either an editor or a schoolteacher, or else no one likes you. At all.

Em-dash (—): You’re stuck up and pretentious. You correct people’s grammar and complain about how stupid kids are these days. You like to show off. You made good grades in school and perform well at work. Your boss loves you, even if your co-workers don’t.

Parentheses ( () ): You’re scatterbrained. You throw things together at the last minute. You’re often hopping back and forth between different tasks and think you’re multi-tasking. You tend to bore people with your stories because you think every detail is important and you repeat yourself. You are often sarcastic but are good at making other people laugh, often at someone’s expense. (Including your own.)

Ellipses (…): An indecisive and flighty person. You lose your train of thought easily. You are a follower and like to let other people take the risks. You often misplace your keys or spend ten minutes looking for the glasses you’re already wearing.

Apostrophe (‘): You’re casual and carefree. You’re always the one who has random things in your purse or glove compartment that no one else would think to carry around but somehow you end up in situations where it’s a good thing you had that thumb-tack on you. You have lots of friends, usually without really trying. People just like you.

Quotation Mark (“): You aren’t very original. You tweet famous quotes a lot. You are nosy and like to gossip; mostly because you don’t have anything of substance to add of your own. People like to hang out with you for a coffee break but don’t really consider you a friend.

Slash (/): You’re a complicated and complex person. You can be secretive and have a hard time trusting people. You like to keep your options open. You’re the respectable housewife your friends will be shocked to see coming out of the S&M club.

Brackets ([ ]): You are snobbish and self-important. You are likely to use these to add “[sic]” to other people’s comments. You have no friends and probably have a “kick me” post-it on your back right now.

Asterisk (*): Nothing is ever final with you. You can justify anything and have an excuse for everything. You would make a good lawyer. People either find you entertaining, or really boring, because you know lots of random trivia.

Ampersand (&): You like stuff. You collect things and are a packrat. You’re friends with everyone, whether they know it or not.

At symbol (@): You’re very social, sometimes overly. You’re the one who always takes a phone call in the middle of a conversation. You also spend way too much time online. Go get some fresh air. Taking your iPhone out on the porch doesn’t count.

Hash/pound (#): Much like the @ type, you’re online too much, but, unlike @ types, in real life you have few friends and are reclusive. Before the internet, you called customer service lines just to have someone to talk to.

Bullets (•): You have OCD.


Leah Petersen lives in North Carolina. She does the day-job, wife, and mother thing, much like everyone else. She prides herself on being able to hold a book with her feet so she can knit while reading. She’s still working on knitting while writing. Her first novel, Fighting Gravity, a science fiction romance with same sex themes is available now from Dragon Moon Press.  The story of Jacob Dawes and his relocation from the ghetto to the Imperial Intellectual Complex, where he is expected to benefit the Empire with his genius, the book examines social structure and personal improvement as much as the unpredictable human heart. You can read the YA Report review at SFWRTCHT here and an SFFWRTCT interview with Leah here. She’ll be the live chat guest at SFFWRTCHT on 6/27/12. She can be found on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LeahPetersen, via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/LeahPetersenAuthor, on Goodreads at http://www.goodreads.com/leahpetersen, via Google+ at http://profiles.google.com/leahpetersen or at www.leahpetersen.com.

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Guest Post: Historical Research & Science Fiction by Robert L. Collins

One of the benefits of Cons, without a doubt, is networking. You visit with old friends, discover new ones, and have a lot of fun along the way. One of those new friends from two cons this year, ConStellation Nebraska and ConQuesT, is fellow author Robert Collins. Robert’s published books include Stories Of Feminine Strength, Lisa’s Way, and True Friends. His short stories have appeared in venues like Aiofe’s Kiss from Sams Dot, Golden Visions, Pulp Empire and Tales Of The Talisman. But in addition to his speculative fiction, Robert also writes nonfiction. His works include the books: Ghost Railroads Of Kansas, Pieces of Kansas History, and Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan. So since research can be an area with which we writers struggle–how much to do, how to do it, etc.–I asked Robert if he had any thoughts he could share about research. Here’s what he sent me:

Historical Research & Science Fiction

by Robert Collins

Many Science Fiction authors know the value of researching history for their genre work. Usually they do so because they’re writing a time travel story and need to learn more about the era their characters are visiting. Occasionally, they do the research because they have the idea of,  say, “the battle of Trafalgar in space” and want to make certain the plot follows the real event. However, most Science Fiction authors don’t think much about researching local history to get story ideas.

I write Kansas history as well as SF/F. I’ve done a great deal of research into the history of my home state. I’ve used that material to jump-start several of my fictional works.

One example is my biography of the “Bleeding Kansas” leader Senator Jim Lane. I found a newspaper story that claimed that Lane, in the run- up to the reelection for his Senate seat in 1865, had promised a federal post to 17 men. He made these promises to secure their support for him in the Kansas legislature come election time. Sure enough, the men came to Washington demanding Lane keep his promise to them. Lane gathered the men together one night. This is what he said, quoting from my book:

“What I did last winter, I did with the purest motives,” he asserted boldly.  “I thought the state of Kansas needed me in the senate, and it was with that idea that I made those promises which I cannot now fulfill.  If I have deceived you gentlemen, I believe that heaven will forgive me.  But you, gentlemen, who should have voted for me from the purest and highest impulses–you were actuated only by sordid motives.  You voted for me for a price and I do not think you are worthy in the sight of heaven of any recognition or consideration.” Lane lowered the boom.  “I renounce all of you, and in the interest of the state of Kansas I will select an entirely new man for the position that you all covet, and have him appointed marshal.”  With that Lane dismissed the men for the night.

Great, huh? But how to turn that into a story?

I chose to set my fictional version in the universe of my Frigate Victory stories. I’d already established that colony worlds are governed in a similar way to how United States territories were governed during the frontier period. All that I had to do was adjust the anecdote so that it fit into the established background. My research not only led to a story that sold, but helped me fill in details about that universe. Finding such useful material will take some effort, but you’ll can control how much. Start by checking state histories. Look for events or personalities that appear interesting yet aren’t well-known. From there you can either take what you have and build, or dig deeper. If you’re willing to look, and send out inter-library loan (ILL) requests, you should be able to locate biographies on important state figures and histories of state events, periods, and trends.

Statewide sources aren’t the only places where story and character ideas might be hiding. Most towns and counties have histories published. A local library will have their town or county history. Books on other communities can be obtained through ILL. Some states, like Kansas, have a State Library that handles ILL requests. If so that State Library will probably have a searchable website as well.

If you want to go as far as possible, consider historical newspapers. The Library of Congress has a handful of newspapers from each state digitized at their website. A few states like Colorado are doing the same with newspapers in their states. However, for most local papers you’ll have to look at microfilm. Libraries and historical museums are the first places to look for local newspapers on microfilm; state historical societies typically have all that state’s existing newspapers on microfilm.

Keep in mind that this is research for fiction ideas, not nonfiction books. Don’t get bogged down with accuracy or verification. Also remember that, when it comes to local history, there may only be one source.

One last point: there’s always a need for more books on local historical subjects. POD now makes it possible to publish a book without requiring a large print run. If an event, person, or trend interests you, writing a book could allow you to make use of your research, earn back what you spend, and maybe get you a few more readers.

Thanks, Robert, for those helpful tips. For what it’s worth…

Guest Post: Writer Confidence—Too Much or Too Little?

by Patty Jansen

Let’s presume for a moment, that there is a writer called Leon. Leon doesn’t exist, of course, and I picked the name because I don’t actually know anyone by that name. Leon, however, embodies a number of characteristics I’ve seen in workshops and on writer sites.

Leon has written a novel, has self-published it ‘because so much crap gets published by mainstream publishers’, and is now frequently, and loudly, complaining about the lack of reviews, about the idiocy of ‘legacy’ publishing and about how everybody else should be self-publishing, too. But, you know, it is the first novel he’s ever written and to be honest it’s–uhm–not very good.

Let’s presume there is another writer called Frederica. Same deal as Leon–I don’t know anyone by that name. Frederica has dwelled in writer workshops for yonks, and enjoys ‘helping absolute n00bs out’. She has had some minor short stories published, and has submitted to publishers and agents. She’s had a few requests for the manuscript, but she hasn’t submitted anything for a while now. Which is a pity, because she writes quite well and has some lovely ideas.

Now consider that horrible thing: writer confidence. It’s that little voice in your head that says ‘This is total rubbish’ when you’re writing something. It is the insidious feeling that makes you cringe when reading your own manuscript, and makes you think twice about submitting to anywhere that pays top rates because ‘it’s not good enough’ and will never be so.

Leon clearly has too much confidence, and Frederica too little. Both are crippling. Leon would benefit from spending more time learning his craft and listening to people who have read his work. Frederica would benefit if she didn’t consider any criticism as euphemism for ‘I’m no good’ and if she could be made to submit her stories. At the root of their problems, both are probably afraid of rejection. Leon takes rejection as an insult and becomes defensive. Frederica takes rejection as a rejection of her person and feels hurt.

It would of course be ridiculous to suggest that writers aren’t–and shouldn’t be–affected by rejection, but neither defensiveness or crawling in one’s shell are productive reactions. We need to learn to write to a standard that publishers will buy, and the only way we’ll know that is to submit to markets. It does not help a new writer to withdraw from this market-testing for whatever reason, even if you intend to self-publish.

Note that in the above paragraph, I never said ‘we need to learn to write well’. What constitutes publishable writing is a fluid concept. The parameters of what is good writing are ill-defined and subject to taste, namely, that of the editor where you send your submission. Contrary to popular belief, an editor is a human being, with preferences and likes and dislikes, and with the style of a magazine or publishing house to consider. An editor is not the same person as the next editor. Therefore, if an editor says no, that doesn’t mean that the next editor will also say no. Similarly, if an editor says no, it doesn’t mean that the editor is an idiot. It means that the editor had no need for the material, nothing else.

A writer with too much confidence gets hung up about rejection. A writer with too little confidence gets hung about rejection. A writer with the right amount of confidence may feel down for a bit, but will send the submission somewhere else. This writer will think ‘I’ll show ’em’. And you know what? Sooner or later, you will indeed.


Patty Jansen lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. She publishes in both traditional and indie venues. Her story This Peaceful State of War placed first in the second quarter of the Writers of the Future contest and was published in their 27th anthology. Her story Survival in Shades of Orange will be published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Her novels (available at ebook venues) include Watcher’s Web (soft SF), The Far Horizon (middle grade SF), Charlotte’s Army (military SF http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005OOFFPC ) and books 1 and 2 of the Icefire Trilogy Fire & Ice and Dust & Rain (post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy).

Patty is on Twitter (@pattyjansen), Facebook, LinkedIn, goodreads, LibraryThing, google+ and blogs at: http://pattyjansen.com/

 

Guest Post: Defining Sword & Sorcery

Although it isn’t original to this site, I can’t resist reposting this article from www.howardandrewjones.com last December. Howard, one of the editors of Black Gate, is a talented author and somewhat of an authority on historical fantasy. His insights are well worth reading.
by Howard Andrew Jones
Some years back I decided that if I was serious about writing fantasy I’d best understand the roots of the genre, and I threw myself into reading work by its founding fathers and mothers. I came away with a deep appreciation of a number of authors I’d never explored in much detail before (Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, Clark Asthon Smith, Poul Anderson, C.L. Moore, and others) and a better understanding of the kind of fantasy I most enjoyed. Some call it heroic fiction, and others have tried other labels, but the one that seems to have stuck the most is sword-and-sorcery, a term coined by Fritz Leiber. While I think I know it when I see it, a lot of different people have attempted to define it. Back when I helmed the Flashing Swords e-zine I had to tell the readers exactly what kind of fiction I most wanted to print, and so I set out to describe what I thougth sword-and-sorcery was all about. That’s been a few years ago, and the definitions have since been improved upon with some suggestions from John Hocking, William King, Robert Rhodes, and John “The Gneech” Robey.
  • The Environment: Sword-and-sorcery fiction takes place in lands different from our own, where technology is relatively primitive, allowing the protagonists to overcome their martial obstacles face-to-face. Magic works, but seldom at the behest of the heroes. More often sorcery is just one more obstacle used against them and is usually wielded by villains or monsters. The landscape is exotic; either a different world, or far corners of our own.
  • The Protagonists: The heroes live by their cunning or brawn, frequently both. They are usually strangers or outcasts, rebels imposing their own justice on the wilds or the strange and decadent civilizations which they encounter. They are usually commoners or barbarians; should they hail from the higher ranks of society then they are discredited, disinherited, or come from the lower ranks of nobility (the lowest of the high).
  • Obstacles: Sword-and-sorcery’s protagonists must best fantastic dangers, monstrous horrors, and dark sorcery to earn riches, astonishing treasure, the love of dazzling members of the opposite sex, or the right to live another day.
  • Structure: Sword-and-sorcery is usually crafted with traditional structure. Stream-of-consciousness, slice-of-life, or any sort of experimental narrative effects, when they appear, are methods used to advance the plot, rather than ends in themselves. A tale of sword-and-sorcery has a beginning, middle, and end; a problem and solution; a climax and resolution. Most important of all, sword-and-sorcery moves at a headlong pace and overflows with action and thrilling adventure.
The protagonists in sword-and-sorcery fiction are most often thieves, mercenaries, or barbarians struggling not for worlds or kingdoms, but for their own gain or mere survival. They are rebels against authority, skeptical of civilization and its rulers and adherents. While the strengths and skills of sword-and-sorcery heroes are romanticized, their exploits take place on a very different stage from one where lovely princesses, dashing nobles, and prophesied saviors are cast as the leads. Sword-and-sorcery heroes face more immediate problems than those of questing kings. They are cousins of the lone gunslingers of American westerns and the wandering samurai of Japanese folklore, traveling through the wilderness to right wrongs or simply to earn food, shelter, and coin. Unknown or hazardous lands are an essential ingredient of the genre, and if its protagonists should chance upon inhabited lands, they are often strangers to either the culture or civilization itself.
Sword-and-sorcery distances itself further from high or epic fantasy by adopting a gritty, realistic tone that creates an intense, often grim, sense of realism seemingly at odds with a fantasy setting.  This vein of hardboiled realism casts the genre’s fantastic elements in an entirely new light, while rendering characters and conflict in a much more immediate fashion.  Sword-and-sorcery at times veers into dark, fatalistic territory reminiscent of the grimmer examples of noir-crime fiction.  This takes the fantasy genre, the most popular examples of which might be characterized as bucolic fairy tales with pre-ordained happy endings, and transposes a bleak, essentially urban style upon it with often startling effect.
While sword-and-sorcery is a relative to high fantasy, it is a different animal. High fantasy, mostly invented by William Morris as an echo of Sir Thomas Mallory and then popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien, moves for the most part at a slow, stately, pace, meandering gently from plot point to plot point, or, as is often the case, from location to location. Movie critic Roger Ebert has some astute observations on The Lord of the Rings, which I will quote here.
 While exotic landscape is present, even common, in sword-and-sorcery, it is displayed differently and toward a different effect.  Sword-and-sorcery was birthed in an entirely different tradition. Robert E. Howard, its creator, wrote for the pulps. The pulp magazines, the television of their day, were fueled by quick moving action. The stories needed to grab you within the first few sentences so that if you were browsing the magazine at the news stand you’d feel compelled to purchase it to finish. The pulp stories were meant to seize your attention from the opening lines and never let go. 
 This difference in pacing is crucial  and there are hidden difficulties attendant in trying to create it on the page.  My friend, the mighty John Chris Hocking, added this to the discussion: “Some sword-and-sorcery authors seem to believe that swift pacing must equal Action.  And that Action must equal Violence.  Neither of these things are true.  All the fighting and running and frenzy you create will grow tiresome unless it is moving the story forward.  Sure, Action is great unto itself, but it is the unfolding of the plot that truly captivates.”
The best way to acquaint oneself with this style of pacing is to READ  the writers who did it. Certainly this is a far from exhaustive list, but this is a good start to the process. Read for enjoyment (if you’re not reading for enjoyment you probably shouldn’t bother trying to write in the style) but read critically as well. There are other fabulous works and fabulous authors, but this small selection cited here gives you a basic primer on sword-and-sorcery focusing mostly on shorter stories, short novels, and novellas. It is meant as an immersive introduction that will not take two or three years of study. Once you have the material in hand it would not take long to familiarize yourself with it.
Robert E. Howard: There’s a recent set of Howard books from Del Rey that collect all the Conan tales. Find a copy of The Coming of Conan and dip into the collection. At the least, read “Tower of the Elephant,” “Queen of the Black Coast,” and “Rogues in the House.” 
Fritz Leiber: Leiber’s famed Lankhmar stories have been reprinted so many times that it’s hard to suggest any particular volume because the contents vary. Instead here are specific stories. Read three or four of any of these: “Thieves’ House,” “The Jewels in the Forest,” “The Sunken Land,” “The Howling Tower,” “The Seven Black Priests,” “Claws from the Night,” “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” “The Lords of Quarmall.”
 Jack VanceThe Dying Earth – sword-and-sorcery, science fiction, planetary romance—whatever it is exactly that Vance wrote when he bent so many genres (long before that was in vogue) he wrote it well, with amazing world building and vivid imagination. Don’t feel compelled to read the entire series, just the first short little novel.
Michael Moorcock: The first Elric novel or the first Hawkmoon novel.
Leigh Brackett: Beg, borrow, or steal the Sea Kings of Mars aka The Sword of Rhiannon. Sure, it’s really sword-and-planet, but sword-and-planet is really just sword-and-sorcery with a science fiction veneer. And Leigh Brackett was one of the very, very best sword-and-planet writers.
M.John HarrisonThe Pastel City.
What to look for when you’re reading?
  • First and foremost notice the pacing.
  • Notice the tone in Howard, the somber, headlong drive.
  • Notice how  dialogue is used to reveal the character rather than to reveal plot points and backstory. Pay attention to how the characters sparkle this way particularly in Leiber and Harrison. Notice Howard’s skill with Conan. He is far more than the stereotype suggested by his detractors, and more complex than barbarians crafted by most of his imitators.
  • Notice how atmosphere permeates everything in Brackett and Harrison and Vance—study their world building, and the sense of wonder they constantly evoke.
 One thing you should note is that none of these authors worked from templates. The character classes as typified by role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were designed based on the works of these authors so that players might create characters like those from their favorite fantasy stories. Now many of those templates and settings have become rigid and unchanging. Castle, wizard with spell book, dragon, orc, halfing, thieves’ guild (from Leiber), chaos, law (from Moorcock). Too many of us have forgotten the source material. Those templates need to be set aside. If you’re writing for a game company by all means use elves, hobbits, ogres and the like, but otherwise leave them in their castles and invent something of your own. If you do want to write of elves or ogres, then you’ll need to do something unique with them.

Space Opera: The Junction Between Worlds

Guest Post by John H. Ginsberg-Stevens

“But there was little sense, in criticism and reviewing of the fifties, of ‘space opera’ meaning anything other then ‘hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn’ SF stories of any kind” – Kathryn Cramer & David G. Hartwell, The Space Opera Renaissance (pp.11-12).
“Space Opera” always sounds so majestic when you first hear the term used. It conjures up a Wagnerian aesthetic, a vast, significant drama about to unfold. It evokes a grand canvas of interstellar wonders, of great empires and uncountable fleets clashing for the greatest prize: the galaxy itself! And then, you go to WIkipedia:
“Space opera is a subgenre of speculative fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities. The name has no relation to music; it is analogous to soap operas . . . . “- Wikipedia entry for “Space Opera.”
Well, heck. Space opera, while sometimes a magnificent, even ostentatious form of SF, is not the literary equivalent of “an extended, dramatic composition”(as dictionary.com puts it); in fact, its name signifies a past of pulpish adventures, base entertainments, and corny characters and ideas. 
But this is as much of a stereotype as the former idea. As Kramer and Hartwell also make clear, there is no widely-accepted idea of space opera. Like a lot of genres, it is something that we recognize, rather than delimit. Space operas may be “space fantasy,” but there can also have rigorous science behind them. Of course, even when grounded in science, space operas are rather fantastical. Even the most logical novum is overwhelmed by the combination of high and low drama that the stories contain. And, for me, the key element of space opera is drama, in space, of course. It is the transposition of two very human sorts of story, the epic and the romance (in the classical sense) into the vastness beyond our humble little planet.
The first SF book I ever read was space opera. When I was about 5 years old I was looking through some books at a yard sale, bored to death of Little Golden Books, Dick & Jane, and even Classics Illustrated comics (I had started reading when I was 3). I saw some paperbacks but they had pictures of swooning women, frowning men in suits, or bucolic scenes that were about as thrilling as watching a tree grow. But then, I found something that I had not seen before: a book with a rocket ship on the cover! It was expensive ($2!) but I convinced my father to buy it, and I brought it home and read it over the weekend, twice.
I have only two clear memories of the book: Jerry’s constant need to overcome a string of obstacles, and the small rock hitting their ship. But it inspired me to find more books like it. The adventure was a draw, but so was the combination of drama and different worlds. It was not just the future that was compelling, it was the place, the venturing out to unearthly realms. The aliens may not have been terribly alien, but the otherness of the setting made the adventures more consequential to me.
I eventually abandoned westerns and dove into SF. I soon found that I liked certain types of books: I favored Heinlein over Asimov, Burroughs over Smith, Reynolds over Clarke. The big ideas were cool, but what made the stories compelling to me were the effects on regular people. Heinlein’s juveniles were as much about coming-of-age and finding your way as they were about technology and galactic wonders. Burroughs’ books, while more planetary romance, and Reynolds more socially-oriented works wedded high and low drama together. That fusion was what drew me to space opera, the mixture of (sometimes bombastic) epicness and (sometimes melodramatic) prosaic in the stories. My heroes were Bill Lermer, Podkayne, Rex Bader, and Tars Tarkas.
A few years after discovering SF I was pulled away from it by my family. When I started high school years later I picked right up back and read more Heinlein, Niven, Cherryh, Poul Anderson. I exhausted my tiny school library’s resources, which turned out to be a good thing, because it pushed me out of my comfort zone and, with the assistance of an SF-loving teacher, I branched out and discovered the scope of not only SF, but all sorts of fantastika. But I still sought out stories like those I had looked for in space opera, what we nowadays call “character-driven” tales. I credit my early discovery of space opera with inculcating that proclivity in my reading habits, of the need to know how even the most cosmic,massive events affected regular folks.
That to me is the value of good space opera: thrusting average people into extraordinary situations in a world that might be possible someday. That fusion of spectacle and a good yarn was an excellent basis for becoming a good reader, and eventually a writer. Space opera taught me a few things about life, but more than that, it taught about how to look at life, to appreciate the great and the mundane and how they interacted with each other. Despite the roots of the word, space opera not only entertained me, but got me to appreciate the juncture between the marvels that could be and the people we are.
John H. Ginsberg-Stevens blogs at http://eruditeogre.blogspot.com/ is my writing blog. A frequent columnist for Apex, SF Signal and other sites, he’s a writer, husband, Da, ponderer, anthropologist, geek, bibliophile, bookmonger, anarchist, and generally cranky malcontent.


Can you really tell within a few paragraphs if something is good?

Guest post by Patty Jansen
Many people are surprised when agents and editors say that they often don’t need to read an entire story to know that they’ll reject it. Some writers are even insulted. But if you read five to ten story submissions a day, and you keep this up for a few years, you tend to develop an eye for picking the 10% or so of submissions that show reasonable promise to pass onto editors. How do you do it? Here is a quick checklist I use to weed out the stories that I’ll reject immediately from the ones I’ll continue reading—in the first few paragraphs (I usually do read a bit more, or skip to a different part of the story to see if the story redeems itself). I want to stress that this is my list, and that other people may well have different criteria. That said, the issues below will raise their ugly heads at some point in the selection process.
A decent magazine gets hundreds, or even thousands of submissions each year. They typically have a number of first-line slush readers. Those people will see hundreds of submissions. They don’t need to read an entire submission to know that they’re not going to pass it to the next level. Sometimes they don’t need more than the first sentence.
Why?
There is a myth in aspiring writer-land that grammar and style don’t matter all that much. That it’s the story’s content which determines its publishability, and that beautiful prose alone won’t sell your work.
Yes, yes, and yes.
That said, what sinks a lot of stories is a lack of what I’ll call natural flow in the text. It comes both from not listening to writing advice to taking it way too seriously. It comes from trying too hard to sound interesting and from lack of cohesion in the writing. It comes from tics every writer picks up somewhere along the line.
The most important reason a story gets rejected after a paragraph or two is that there are issues with the writing style and occasionally the grammar.
What do I mean by this, and what sets red flags?
Apart from the obvious (is the text grammatically correct and are there spelling mistakes?), an experienced slush reader will see:
If first few the sentences are unwieldy and trying too desperately to fit in too much ‘stuff’. Chances are that the rest of the story follows this pattern. Sure, this is fixable, but a lot of work for the editors, and a lot of communication with a writer who may not be ready for quite this much red ink. Too much effort. Reject.
The first few sentences contains odd word choices. The writer may be hanging onto the ‘no passive language’ or ‘use interesting verbs’ mantras too much. Again, this takes a lot of effort to fix because it will be insidious throughout the piece. Too much work. Reject.
The first sentence and the second sentence don’t follow one another. There needs to be a flow of logic in the text. If the first few sentences jump around like crickets in zero-gravity, chances are that the author has a problem expressing logic in a format readers can follow. This takes a huge amount of time to fix. Reject.
The first three sentences all start with the same word, usually a pronoun. A quick scan reveals that this continues through the text. Or the sentences start with some other repetitive pattern, like a participial clause (a clause containing the –ing form of a verb) or a prepositional clause, like: In the kitchen, there was…, or, After he did this, he… Writers often use these and participial clauses to avoid some other structure (never start a sentence with ‘There was…’ says the bogeyman), but the end result can become a repetitive mush of too-complicated sentences and death by ten thousand commas.
The story starts with an unnamed character and a quick scan reveals that there is no reason for the name of the character to be mentioned for the first time only on the third page. That by itself is not a great sin, but often, the lack of a character’s name will signal POV problems that may be more confusing.
The first few paragraphs contain words that are repeated several times, for example a four-sentence paragraph in which the word ‘door’ is used five times. Again, this is fixable, but if the writer hasn’t pick this up him or herself, it will likely occur throughout the story.
And an experienced slush reader will see these things even before he or she has started to take notice of the story’s plot or its central premise. The easiest way to make it past a first slush reader is to polish your style, and the best way to do that is by writing more and reading what you want to write. Meanwhile, try to volunteer as a slush reader some time. It’s a crash course in what works in fiction.
Besides a writer of crazy fantasy and hard Science Fiction, Patty Jansen is slush reader and editor at Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. She blogs at http://pattyjansen.wordpress.com/, about writing, about science and about editing and slush piles. Patty is a winner of the second 2010 quarter of the Writers of the Future Contest and has published in the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette and has a story forthcoming with Redstone SF.

Guest Post From Laura Kreitzer: Human Trafficking & Phantom Universe

Because she’s awesome, and because she’s my good friend, I have invited Laura Kreitzer to be my first guest blogger here. Please read this very important post on the crime of human trafficking
— Bryan
Hello Literary-Folk!
My name is Laura Kreitzer, and I’m the author of the Timeless Series and the Summer Chronicles. This week I would like to alert everyone on a colossal crisis that’s gone unnoticed in the world: human trafficking. That’s why I’ve asked hundreds of blogs to be involved with spreading the word on this issue that’s become close to my heart.

As an author, and someone whose life is put in the spotlight, I keep most people at a distance. Only a handful of my friends know the whole me and the events from my past. But this week I’d like to share with you a part of myself that the outside world doesn’t see (and a part of me I don’t like to share). I was emotionally abused for five years by someone I thought loved me, my mind beaten into submission. Though the turmoil I went through doesn’t penetrate as deep as someone forced into slavery on the worldwide market for human trafficking, I can sadly relate in some ways: imprisoned, my life dictated down to what I wore, ate, where I went, whom I spoke to, where I worked, when I slept, bending to his every whim. He did not sway, even when I cried through some of the more traumatic things he had me do. I was a slave in my own home. In my desperation for freedom, I held out a gun and asked him to just end my suffering. I was desperate. I can’t even imagine how many women (and men) in the world are in a similar situation. What’s even worse, I had it mild compared to the children that are sold for labor or sex. Surprisingly, the good ol’ U.S.A. is reported to be the host to two million slaves. Did you know this? Because I certainly did not; not until I was preparing to write my newest novel: Phantom Universe. The main character, Summer Waverly, was stolen as a child and sold as a slave to the captain of a modern-day pirate ship. From a loved child who only knew “time-out” as punishment, to being whipped into silence was something I knew nothing about. So I researched deeply into human trafficking and the psychological effects of torture of various types that one would endure in these circumstances. I felt shaken at my findings and knew I had to tell Summer’s story. (Read a sneak peek here.)

A storm began to brew in my mind; transforming, morphing, twisting, and expanding into this massive, black cloud. I had to bring this tragic atrocity to the forefront. My own emotional experiences, mixed with the research I did on human trafficking, made me feel an intense connection with Summer, and to all women who’ve been through this kind of brutality. The cloud ruptured and rained all over my computer one day. It took one month to write Phantom Universe, the first in the Summer Chronicles. I was so consumed by the story that I wrote nearly nonstop, only breaking for necessary tasks like eating, showering, and occasionally—very occasionally—sleeping.

Though the book I’ve written would be classified as Science Fiction, or as I’d like to call it, Dystopian, the emotions and psychological aspects are not Science Fiction—they’re real. Reviewers have said many amazing things about Summer, this character who is so real in my mind and who I cried along with as the words poured from my soul onto my screen.

“I admired Summer’s strength and ability to adapt,” says CiCi’s Theories. “I felt tied to her emotions,” Jennifer Murgia, author or Angel Star admits. And Tahlia Newland, author of Lethal Inheritance, remarks, “Summer is strong and smart in mind [. . .]”

Through her overwhelmingly horrendous past, Summer goes on more than just a physical journey in Phantom Universe, she goes on a psychological one as well; growing beyond her mute state to persevere and survive in a new world beyond the whip she’s so frightened of.

Now that the release date is here, I’m excited and terrified to share this story with everyone. I’m emotionally tied in every way to the words I’ve written, because they’re more than words. More than just a story on a page. Beyond the fictional aspects, there’s a real issue that needs to be addressed: human trafficking must be stopped. We shouldn’t sit idly by while this continues to plague us. Our world’s children—our nation’s children—are being affected. It’s time we take action!

Earlier this month Phantom Universe hit Barnes and Noble’s top 100 Best Selling list. I’ve decided to donate 10% of my sales from Phantom Universe, until the end of February, to the DNA Foundation.

“DNA hopes to help abolish modern day slavery, deter perpetrators, and free the many innocent and exploited victims. We are committed to forcing sex slavery out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Freedom is a basic human right and slavery is one of the greatest threats to that freedom. No one has the right to enslave another person.”
—From DNA Foundation’s Website

I ask that you spread the word to everyone you know. Look around on the DNA Foundation website and find a way to get involved in ending human trafficking. Take action today. Everyone has a voice—you have a voice. Will you have the courage to use it?
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Phantom Universe is an amazing read and the character of Summer is very captivating. I hope you will help us with our mission by spreading the word and purchasing Phantom Universe during the month of February.