This week’s inspiration is longer than past editions because there were more stories I found of interest this week including ancient nuclear fusion, a Concorde successor, a scientific mystery may be solved, a very cool look at the point of view of different pets, and some historical flashbacks involving atomic bombs falling on North Carolina and others falling into Mexico. Hopefully this gets the creative juices flowing for some of you as it did for me.
Some of you know I’ve been working on a new project with friends called Boralis Books. Boralis Books arose out of my frustration with New York publishing rejecting strong, well written page turners because they “didn’t know how to market them.” It’s happened to me several times and I know other authors have experienced the same frustration. So I decided to publish some novels myself, and to me, the best way to do it is to create a press and recruit staff—editors, proofers, designers—and try and put out quality product that rivals New York quality books.
Eventually, Boralis Books will release titles by multiple authors: novels, anthologies, collections, maybe a few novellas too. But for now, it is starting with three near future procedural thrillers by me. Every project will depend upon the success of prior projects for funding, so the initial plan is to release three books a year, one every four months, and see how it goes. Books will be released in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebooks—with audio to come as available. All books will be distributed via Ingram Sparks so bookstores anywhere can stock them if they desire, with ebooks initially exclusive to Kindle and then expanding from time to time to other mediums. We will, of course, also set up a Boralis Books store for selling the other formats as soon as we can.
For information on what we have so far, please check out Boralis Books at www.boralisbooks.com, a work in progress for sure. As more authors and projects are chosen, we will post information there. We will not be doing open submissions at least initially. I don’t have the time or resources to review them adequately and keep up with other plans. But we leave open that option for down the road.
Meanwhile, we plan to publish both speculative fiction and mystery/thriller with a few others possibly mixed in. We hope you’ll check out what we’re doing. Our first release will be Simon Says, the firs in my John Simon thrillers, which is Bosch meets Lethal Weapon with robots. It’s filled with action, strong memorable characters and humor and set in 2029 Kansas City, with a tough Luddite cop teaming with an android witness to solve a nanotech crime and his partner’s kidnapping. Future books will follow.
As always, launching a small press is a challenging endeavor, but having edited numerous novels and short stories, I hope I am up to the task with a lot of friends for support. Our editorial staff includes Guy Anthony Demarco, an MFA in Creative Writing, who also does our interior design. A.R. Crebs will be our book trailer and cover designer and artist, though we may employ others as time goes on. I also have some proofers and a few others as well.
Be sure and check us out. Simon Says is up for preorder now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold!
In 2009 when I started writing The Worker Prince, my debut science fiction novel, I had no idea what urban fantasy was. Of course, as I got into the industry and reading I heard bits and pieces. True Blood showed up and I met and became friends with Kat Richardson and John A. Pitts whose novels fell in that category. One of the advantages of hosting Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat is that I get sent tons of books to read and deliberately book and ask for a variety of genres. So I finally managed to read John and Kat’s books and I loved them. I have never been that into paranormal. Poltergeist was amusing but silliness. I do believe in spirits but I’m don’t think about ghosts a lot, and vampires and zombies to me are about the most tired things out there. It takes a lot to get me interested in them. I loved Anne Rice’s series and that did it for me on vamps. Zombies have just never interested me. Let dead people stay in the ground. Just a body. Meh. On the other hand, urban fantasy is huge with tons of bestselling authors, including Charlaine Harris, Jim Butcher, Kat Richardson…need I go on? So of course SFFWRTCHT needs to cover it and I need to be aware.
Now, I simply love it! One of my favorite genres and someday I will write some. I have ideas in development now, in fact. I read 52 books a year just for chat plus extras for blogging on SFSignal, etc. and blurbs, which I get asked for now. Usually 70 books at least is around the number, so it may take me a while to get through a lot of stuff (no Hamilton or Butcher yet). But these 9 are the Urban fantasy I’ve read so far. And I loved all of them for different reasons. They’re quite distinctive from each other.
1) Greywalker by Kat Richardson – Harper Blaine is a P.I. who died after an attack for two minutes then came back with the ability to see spirits. Yep, she’s a Greywalker now, and this series has gotten deserved high praise. [See Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Paul Goat Allen raving about them here. ]These are bestsellers for a reason and the seventh book, Seawitch, just arrived this month. Mysteries with Harper investigating and dealing with all kinds of spooky creatures from vampires to ghosts, etc., they are well paced with a great noir feel and make good use of their Pacific Northwest settings. From the cover description, although I like Kat as a person a lot, I was not at all sure I’d enjoy her books. Never have I been so wrong. I’ve read two so far and own all but the latest. Cannot wait to find time to read them!
2) Sarah Beauhall by John A. Pitts – Another where I love the writer as a person but the description didn’t enthrall me. And again, I was soooo wrong. (Are you noticing a pattern?) Pitts has taken the old tropes and made them new with this one. Also set in the Pacific Northwest, Sarah Beauhall is a blacksmith apprentice and movie props maven whose prop sword turns out to be a magical dragon killing sword. The magical dragon killing sword. And she finds this out, of course, by encountering someone looking for the sword to kill dragons. But these are not the green, scaly dragons of legend and lore just yet. They are men and women who work on Wall Street and various places. And when their schemes begin to threaten Sarah and her world, she puts her sword to good use. Great fight sequences, a fun play with an SCA-like reenactment group, nice humor, and a touch of romance with Sarah struggling to open up to her girlfriend. Packing enough testosterone-laced action to satisfy male readers and enough romantic emotional moments to please female readers, this series is for everyone and books 2 and 3 are out too. Fantastic!
3) Jane Yellowrock by Faith Hunter – A member of the illustrious Magical Words blog team with David B. Coe, amongst others, Hunter has been inspired by Anne Rice but made vampire tales set in New Orlean’s her own. If you read my introduction, you already know I would not have picked me up if her publicist hadn’t scheduled her for SFFWRTCHT. I’m so glad she did. The last of her kind, a part Cherokee vampire hunter and skinwalker capable of shapeshifting into any creature she wants, Jane’s been hired by Katherine Fontaneau, one of the oldest vampires in New Orleans and the madam of Katie’s Ladies, to hunt a powerful rogue vampire who’s killing other vamps. In the process, she gets more than she bargained for when her employer is murdered and Jane winds up working for Leo, the head vampire of the entire region. In subsequent books, she works with Leo to investigate incidents involving other vampires, even heading off to North Carolina at one point as a mediator. Jane is not the dainty heroine but an ass kicking, motorcycle riding, take no prisoners badass, but yet Hunter manages to write the books with no gratuitous sex, violence or language, keeping it PG despite the violence. And I doubt you’d have noticed if I hadn’t said that. Great writing, inventive worldbuilding and pure fun. Highly recommended.
4) Hallie Michaels by Deborah Coates– Brand new, the first book having just arrived a few months back, this series surprised me too. A new author sent to me by Alexis Nixon, publicist at TOR, Coates’ stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Fantasy and Science Fiction and Best American Fantasy, amongst other places. Hallie Michaels is a soldier fighting a war in Afghanistan when she’s called home for her sister’s funeral. The police and townsfolk say “suicide,” but Hallie can’t believe it and her investigation into it uncovers a startling plot that endangers the entire town. Something magical or supernatural is going on and a trail of bodies are associated with it. She soon discovers someone she used to know is responsible and winds up fighting for her life. I don’t know where book 2 will take us when it comes out, but Coates used the rural South Dakota setting masterfully in Wide Open and I can’t wait to read more!
5) Sookie Stackhouse by Charlaine Harris – I came to this series late, after already watching the TV show, because I was invited to interview Harris. (Confession: yes, I watch True Blood despite my lack of interest in vampires. It hooked me early on and I can’t look away, okay? Is that so wrong? Plus, I have a crush on Anna Paquin…) The books are better than the series and filled with great humor, southern charm and fun. I really enjoyed these. Told solely from Sookie’s quirky point of view, these are fast, can’t put them down reads. I can’t wait to read more.
6) Control Point by Myke Cole – Not your typical urban fantasy, Cole, a veteran of the Gulf War, has envisioned a contemporary world with various types of magic. The military even has a special unit assigned to hunt down rogue users. A few with the approved classes of magic actually work for the military, but then Oscar Britton finds out he’s a portomancer–ah oh, verbotten–and he’s forced to run, leaving everything behind. Caught and interned for training by the military he’s sworn to serve, he discovers the gift is the least of his worries. An evil magical force is on the rise and this Army officer must save the world or else. Packed with action and intrigue and great characters, Cole takes you inside military life in an intimate way and still makes you believe its a world where magic could happen. Gritty and powerful, this book opened my eyes to possibilities for creativity I hadn’t imagined and it’ll open yours too.
7) Grigori Legacy by Linda Poitevin – Ah, angels, the tired 80s trope are back. I booked Linda for chat and expected to be bored. Instead, I found myself reading two detective thrillers that just happened to have angels in them. Heaven and hell are at war and humans are caught in between, including homicide detective Alexandra Jarvis whose investigation of a serial killer points to a surprising and unusual suspect. Yes there’s angels and a romance between an angel and a human. Yes, there’s God and the Devil and some Catholic theological worldbuilding used here, but Poitevin used it to enhance worldbuilding not to sell an ideology or religion. Gritty, intense, fast-paced and engaging. Another set of books you won’t want to put down until you reach the end.
8 ) Low Town by Daniel Polansky – Another departure and one that’s hard to classify but I’m putting it here. Unlike the others, it’s not set in our contemporary world but a fictional medieval -type world and the protagonist is a disgraced intelligence agent and forgotten war hero turned independent drug dealer. Yes, that’s right. Known as the Warden, he leads a life of crime, addicted to cheap violence and expensive drugs as he constantly hustles for customers and protecting his turf from competition. Then he discovers a murdered child and feels compelled to discover who’s responsible. The mission finds him caught up in a dangerous game of deception between underworld bosses and the psychotic head of Black House intelligence bureau that once employed him. What he finds is far more sinister and dark than he’d ever imagined. Noir and action packed, Polansky has invented a genre almost. He mixes epic/adventure fantasy and urban fantasy with detective noir seamlessly and it’s a compelling debut. Book 2 arrives this Fall.
9) Magic Ex Libris by Jim C. Hines – Hines switches from Goblins and fairy tale princesses to an urban fantasy about Libriomancers, basically people who can pull magic from books and use it in the contemporary world. Hines is a smartass in real life and it extends to his writing, but that’s okay, because the book is laugh out loud funny as a result and endears you tot he characters. This is a voice you’ll be willing to spend time with for a while, and it won’t be long because Libriomancer is a fast, compelling read. Isaac Vainio, a member of the secret order of Libriomancers founded by Johannes Gutenberg himself (yes, that Gutenberg), Isaac is attacked by vampires that leaked from the pages of books into our world and barely manages to escape. Then he discovers his mentor has been killed and Gutenberg himself kidnapped and a hot, motorcyle-riding dryad shows up asking him to help track down her former lover, leading to their discovery of a dark power that’s manipulating both vampires and humans and causing major havoc. Hines cleverly incorporates the mythos of every vampire world you’ve encountered, creating a world of vampire types and layers, and throws in books by famous authors real and imagined as well. Fun, fast-paced, with plenty of action and good coming of age and romantic arcs, this book was a delightful way to while away hours. I can’t wait for the second one, coming from Daw next year.
So there you have 9 Urban Fantasy series that I think you’ll really like. Great weekend, summer or Fall reads to keep you entertained and remind you why you love books. I’m looking for more to read now. So what are some of your favorite Urban Fantasies? I’d love to hear about them in comments. Oh, and click here to buy any of these books,too. For what it’s worth… To the writers, I love you guys!
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. A freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction and also hosts Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
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 Rodriguezis 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.