Wednesday, 25 April 2012

V is for...

I’m sure quite a few people are doing Villainy today, so I thought I’d start with a few rules for beginning villains, taken from The Big Red Eye’s Book of Villainous Etiquette:

1. Black goes with everything, except on dark nights when all of your horde have weapons in their hands. Then, it just ends up red anyway.
2. Remember that henchmen are the ones who lick your boots, caper, and say “yeth marrrster!” If they’re wearing a morning suit and quoting the classics, you have the wrong sort.
3. When unwanted guests call round, it is impolite to keep them waiting. Except in the big pit with spikes.
4. Remember that while minions are easy to replace (most theatrical agents can help here) High Priests of Generic Evil, Lord Viziers and other higher grade staff require at least one week’s notice before beheading.
5. When imprisoning heroes, it is considered good form to ensure that the keys are in the possession of your stupidest hench-creature. After all, you won’t be able to battle them again tomorrow, otherwise.
6. When invading foreign nations of mindless goody-two-shoes-ness, please check with other adjoining evil overlords so that the place isn’t double booked. We don’t want a repeat of the ‘twenty hordes’ fiasco, do we?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

U is for...

Underground, which is where so many fantasy adventures seem to take place. Which is why I have come up with a list of essential things for adventures looking to do a bit of delving into old cave systems:

1. Let’s get it out of the way. Ten foot poles are obligatory, even though I’m still not sure what they’re for.
2. So is a map, because cave systems can be complicated. For best effects, try one stapled to the wall of an in with a dagger, because everyone knows those are the most accurate.
3. Some means of seeing. Though don’t get too complicated about this. There will undoubtedly be some luminous fungi down there.
4. Farrell’s Complete Guide to Luminous Fungi, so you know which ones might be safe to eat, which ones might try to eat you, and which ones simply glow for no good reason.
5. Assorted shorter companions, who might or might not have a facility for riddles. It’s traditional.
6. Helmets. Ordinarily just a place to store any spare horns you have to hand, they become a little more useful when the ceilings are low. In fact this might explain all the tiny friends in the previous entry.
7. Lard, for when your friend the giant gets stuck in a tunnel.
8. Giant boulder repelling cream. Guaranteed to work. Your money back if you’re squashed.
9. The Eye-Spy book of Thousand-Eyed Things.
10. The inevitable chap from English Heritage, there to see that you don’t go beyond the terms of your excavation license in the process of slaughtering hordes of goblins. You have to protect these sites of natural beauty, you know.

Monday, 23 April 2012

T is for...

Throws, Trips and Takedowns in Tai-Chi. A bit of a break today from the various writing related subjects to look at martial arts, and specifically the more traditional martial arts. They’re sometimes characterised as less than useful these days compared with more modern systems, but there can be some very interesting ideas there if you look closely and are prepared to experiment.

As an example, I’d like to make the point that every style of kung fu theoretically has a full range of trips, sweeps and other takedowns to go with the more usual trapping, kicking and striking. This is even true of tai chi. Getting it is just a matter of looking at the forms you do in more open minded ways, and then actually using these things in genuinely interactive ways.

With forms, two of my most traditional former teachers (one in Okinawan karate, the other in bagua/tai chi/hsing yi) stressed the same thing, which is that each movement in a martial arts form is just a movement. You can use that movement any way you like. In fact, both of them had me taking simple movements (such as karate’s downward ‘block’) and using them in as many different ways as possible.

For trips and throws, think about what you’re doing with your legs. With any step, you could be stepping on someone else’s leg, or sweeping it away. With any extended ‘stance’, it could in fact be there so that it goes behind a leg in a trip. Turning body movements could pull someone over your hip, shoulder or leg. Downward forces could be pressing an off balance opponent to the ground. There are too many possibilities to list, and in any case, I don’t think it’s about listing individual options.

What it is about is taking whatever you find and trying to apply it against an intelligently resisting opponent. That is the most important thing, and one that far too many tai chi people neglect, which is a real pity.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

S is for...

Swordplay. I did a brief series on this a while back, but if you didn’t catch that, here’s a brief summary. Swordplay of various types is so common in fantasy and historical fiction that you absolutely have to be able to write it well, which means you need to take into account various basic considerations:

What kind of sword is the character using? This is mostly something to reflect a character’s type, origins and role in the story, but it should also be appropriate for the way they’re going to use it. Anyone using one of the two handed Scots claymores like a small German messer in a story is obviously a lot stronger than me.

One hand or two? One sword or two? Does your character hold the sword with a single hand or put both on for more power (with many swords, from the Japanese katana to the hand and a half sword, there is a choice)? Do they use a second matched or shorter blade in their off hand? Do they use a shield? Remember that a single sword used alone in one hand is actually at a disadvantage against many other options, but offers more mobility than the two handed option if nothing else is available. Your fantasy sword master will know that.

How do they fight? Do they fight with neat parries and ripostes? Devastating counter cuts with the angle just right? Fluid motion to avoid the blade? A solid, unyielding defence using a shield? Do they use lots of sneaky feints or batter their way through defences? Do they kill quickly or cut at the extremities to wear an opponent down?

It might sound like all this is about demanding an intricate knowledge of the blade, but it isn’t. It’s about knowing your characters, and getting that character across even in action oriented scenes. Conan would never fight like the Grey Mouser, for example.

Friday, 20 April 2012

R is for...

Revisiting, Rewriting, Reusing. One of the biggest parts of writing isn’t getting ideas down on paper in the first place. It’s all the times you have to come back to them, and there are lots of ways that can happen.

Rewriting and editing are two of the commonest, and indeed, something most writers will find themselves doing repeatedly before a book is quite right. Actually, I’m more of the school that only rewrites fundamentally flawed sections, but it’s still a major chore. A useful one though, because you can produce serious improvements in your writing. I particularly like coming back to things after a break from them, because then I’m less caught up in the piece and I can do more to rework it.

Revisiting an idea is what I do after one of those bouts of deletion that plague my writing. I know there’s a school of thought that says you should keep everything in case it turns out to be great, but for me, that has always been the mind-set of the hoarder. You wouldn’t do it with clothes you didn’t like, so why do it with ideas that are awful? It can take me two or three runs at an idea before I hit on a version of it that’s sufficiently close to the way I want it to be worth finishing.

Then there are the ideas that will just never be full stories but which contain little gems. They might be great characters, or jokes, or just sequences that work. You can always reuse those, taking them away and putting them in places where they might do better. You can even have recurring ideas if you like, such as Robert Rankin’s time travelling sprouts, or David Gemmell’s interchangeably archetypal heroes. There’s one I’m meaning to put into a few things just to see if it works.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Q is for...

A quick quiz, taken from Villains’ Monthly (sorry, I forgot about today).

Someone drops their ring. Do you:

A- Return it.
B- Take it to the cleansing fire to end their reign of evil.
C- Claim it and use its power to rule them all.

Someone has just broken into your home, do you:

A- Call the police.
B- Rush downstairs with a battle axe ready to slay the incoming horde
C- Roll over, secure in the knowledge that the big pit with spikes in will deal with things.

Your idea of a perfect day out involves:

A- A nice trip out to the beach with your loved ones.
B- A hike across a blasted heath to find a hidden object at the bottom of a dangerous hole.
C- Several thousand minions following you, looting and pillaging as they go.

An elderly gentleman appears to have wandered into the street in his dressing gown. Do you:

A- Ask if he is all right.
B- Ask why all his recruiting policies are so discriminatory against anyone over four feet tall and demand a place in his next party.
C- Run for your secret redoubt of evil, dodging spells as best you can.

The finest things in life are:

A- I don’t know, jammy dodgers?
B- The death of your enemies, the lamentation of their women, and the ability to remember all of the quote when the barbarian chief next asks.
C- Those bred by Phil’s House of Things. Especially the tentacled ones.

Your idea of a good dress code for an evening out is:

A- Anything the bouncers will let you into the club with.
B- Anything including a club, and also furry underwear
C- Black, with spikes.

So, how did you score?

Mostly As- Sorry, you appear to be depressingly normal, weak, and irrationally moral. Seek help at once.
Mostly Bs- You seem to be a hero. Are you sure you’re reading the right magazine?
Mostly Cs- Congratulations, you are a perfectly well adjusted villain. Keep it up.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

P is for...

Plot. Structuring a plot is, according to a wide variety of people, a simple matter of following their particular methodology (and of course buying their book to find out about it). That’s always something that annoys me, even though stories probably do follow certain recognisable patterns. I’m not even a fan of being told that there must be a beginning, middle and end, because for me, that always feels like the bit in the middle is something separate from the other two bits, when it shouldn’t be.

So let’s try asking some other questions. First, what is plot? Plot is all the events of your novel. Everything that happens does something within your novel, and so you can’t ignore any of it. Nor can you just put things in at random, because for me (unless you’re deliberately doing something with a very weak sense of plot, which is possible) plot needs to have a single main strand and direction, around which everything else can gather. I also feel that if you want your plots to seem logical and natural, you have to ask yourself why an event is happening. The answer should never be ‘because it’s the way it has to happen if plot point x is going to happen’ or even ‘because my book on it said so’.

Look at me though, making exactly the usual kind of mistake. Here’s a thought for you. If, as these plot structure people claim, structures such as theirs are inherent in all stories, why do we need them to explain them in detail? We know stories. Usually hundreds of them. We know how they go. So next time, just try writing out your plot instead and ask yourself a much simpler question than ‘is my second act reversal in the right spot’. Ask yourself ‘does this look like a story?’ You’ll almost certainly know the answer.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

O is for...

Oppositions are at the heart of most fiction. Whether it’s light and dark, good and evil, fish and chips (all right, maybe not that last one), it’s the conflict created by intrinsic oppositions that makes most stories interesting.

That’s why, as an author, it’s important to decide what those oppositions are going to be. One easy way to do it is to ask yourself what your novel is about, when you get right down to it. Please don’t just go into the whole ‘well, it’s about vampires who…’ routine at this point though, because that’s surface stuff. What is it really, deeply about? If you’re not sure, ask yourself what it could come to be about, or what you care about deeply. Court of Dreams, for all the jokes, is about notions of responsibility, duty and family, with the characters reflecting different takes on those themes.

Once you know what your novel is about, it’s easy to build up characters to show the oppositions inherent in your ideas. The danger here is that you think either that the opposition can only be shown by a villain, or that building up ‘opponents’ for your main character means putting in monsters. Neither is true. For the first point, remember that often it is the closest characters to the main one who should reflect different views most strongly, as in the average romance novel, where the major opposition is between the protagonist and his or her eventual intended. Without that conflict between the two over fundamental issues (and it has to go deeper than just ‘I don’t like you that much’) it’s not nearly so much fun.

With the second point, monsters don’t show us much (though see under M, below) they aren’t clever or human in the sense of having a real personality. They aren’t characters forming part of the argument of the novel, they’re just something to hack apart.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

N is for...

Saying no to things, which is often quite hard for us to do. Whether it’s that extra cake, the boss’ demands that we do more work, or simply the suggestion that we should spend our time doing things we really don’t like, there are often good reasons for saying no to things that we might occasionally find ourselves saying yes to instead. Some writerly things you might want to say no to:

1. The notion of writing in a garrett. You are not a blues musician. You do not have to feel pain to write well.
2. The automatic rewrite with every criticism. Take the time to think through all feedback on your work as a whole before you make any decisions, and don’t lose your voice in an effort to please everyone.
3. Working for free. It might be tempting to just give away your work, but if you have put time and effort into it, isn’t it worth something?
4. That seventeenth round of revisions. Your manuscript will never be quite perfect. There is a point where you have to send it out.
5. Overdoing your online presence. Yes, I’m in the middle of this A-Z, but when your blogging cuts into your writing, rethink it.
6. Chasing the latest trend. Your heart won’t be in it, so it won’t be a very good version anyway, and you’ll have missed the trend by the time it finally comes out.
7. The notion of having to write. If most of us didn’t feel like building small origami frogs or crocheting tea cosies on a particular day, we wouldn’t, so why do we have to write a thousand words a day?
8. Giving up your writing time. Conversely, it’s easy to let things sneak into the time where we want to write. It isn’t unreasonable to say no to those distractions and recognise that your writing time is important to you.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

M is for...

Monsters. Fantasy is full of them, and most of the earliest stories and myths seem to feature them in some form. Whether it’s the creatures of the Greek myths, Beowulf fighting Grendel, or the folk tales of the Guytrash on the Yorkshire Moors (a fairly generic large dog type spirit), non-human creatures seem to give us a sense of adventure, as well as a metaphor for the struggle against our own more bestial elements.

For me, the danger comes when monsters are overused and become over familiar. Hands up, who isn’t scared of the daleks anymore? They’ve been in so many episodes of Doctor Who that we almost know them too well. If you’re doing the same monsters as everyone else, then there’s a danger that people will just go ‘Oh, another vampire. Ho hum.’ Or they would if people spoke like that (Hmm, did anyone else have the thought ‘Bertie Wooster: Vampire Slayer’ then? No?)

The other danger comes when the monsters don’t really mean anything. Most of the Greek monsters seem to have been metaphors for one thing or another, while vampires have famously been used to represent all kinds of things by different authors and werewolves are an obvious image for our own more violent impulses. The problem comes when you start using them just because you think they look cool, at which point they cease to represent anything, and rob your story of a whole layer of meaning.

Take the Figments who show up in my novel Court of Dreams. They’re basically a plot device to allow me to put in anything I want, because they can be anything, but actually, they also work to let me put in a few thoughts on existence and identity that I couldn’t have put in otherwise. Also jokes about bartenders, but that’s not the point.

Friday, 13 April 2012

L is for...

Leg spin, obviously. What, it’s not obvious? Actually, the part where it isn’t obvious is one of leg spin’s attractions as part of the game of cricket. Leg spin, for those who don’t know, is when a relatively slow, right handed bowler puts spin on a cricket ball so that when it bounces, it will move away from a right handed batter. A leg spin bowler is one who does that most of the time, as their ‘stock’ delivery. They will usually have others, such as a top spinner (which will dip in the air and go straight on after pitching), a googly (a delivery that looks like the leg spinner but in fact involves turning the wrist right over so that the ball goes the other way) and the flipper (which is a faster, back spinning delivery).

One of the things I love so much about cricket is that it is a sport with room for players like specialist leg spinners. Yes, there are plenty of bowlers who run up and bowl at ninety miles an hour, bouncing the ball into people’s ribcages, but there is also room for someone who ambles in off a few paces and bowls the ball slowly, looking to deceive the batter. And it works. Of the three highest test wicket takers of all time, two are leg spinners, while the third is an off spinner (mostly moving the ball into the right hander, though with Murali, a big part of his arsenal was that he also had the ability to move the ball away without being picked)

When I occasionally try to persuade people of the virtues of the game, that’s what I like to emphasise. If I just try to point out the big hits and the fast bowling… well, baseball is bigger and faster. Cricket, however, is varied, and I hope it will always continue to be so, if only because I occasionally bowl this stuff, and I’d like to think that there’s a place for me.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

K is for...

Kung fu, Karate, Kali, Kendo, and a whole host of other martial arts. One hard thing to do when you’re writing is to convey the idea that a character has practiced a specific fighting system, or to create an adequate distinction between two characters using different ones. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter, but sometimes it is more important. Any time that you mention them having practiced something specific, then ideally that should come out in any fight that shows up with them.

So how do you do it? One thing is to get a reasonable knowledge of whatever martial art you’re portraying, or at least of the core flavour. Bruce Lee made the point that there aren’t really any different ways of fighting, because we have two arms and two legs, the ability to throw the same moves. Yet there is often a difference in feel, and it is that quality of movement than is often the easiest thing to write.

You’d also want to stick to the core of the art. In theory, most martial arts contain most things to some degree, but the things people think about are the things at the heart of them. When people think about Taekwondo, for example, they think of fancy high kicks, or they think of throws when describing Jujitsu. Yet Taekwondo has throws and Jujitsu kicks. The point is that when conveying flavour, you can’t focus on that.

If you were writing, for example, a swordfight between a kali practitioner and a kendo one, then of course the kendoka would use a two handed grip rather than using two blades, and the kali fighter would have a sword and dagger. The kendo fighter would probably move in fast, controlled, focussed movements with a lot of precise power. The kali fighter would probably move in at close range with lots of rapid striking, triangular footwork and trapping. It’s not about portraying the whole of an art, but just one more way to give a distinct feel to a character.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

J is for...

Jousting. That most medieval and knightly of activities, if we’re inclined to believe renaissance faires and the like. Yet what was jousting really like for knights in the middle ages? Did they do it? Where on earth did they get all those curtains to go around their horses?

One point to bear in mind is that for quite a lot of what we think of as the middle ages, the Tournament did not consist of knights jousting neatly at the lists. It consisted of what amounted to general battles, sprawling over often miles between set villages. It didn’t just involve knights, although they were the main participants, because sometimes people would bring in footmen too. The main objective was to capture opposing knights for ransom, thus earning a great deal if it went well.

It was not originally considered a noble, or even particularly desirable, pursuit. Popes repeatedly banned it, and so did more than one king of England, mostly to little effect. Because it was popular. Knights travelled all over Europe on a kind of ‘pro tour’ of tournaments, with knights like William Marshall earning a good living from it.

Gradually, nobles came to be involved, putting together ‘teams’ of knights to fight alongside them. Henry the Younger was fond of the tournament, as was the Duke of Flanders. It wasn’t just about having fun though. It was a serious business, and sharp practices like waiting until everyone was worn out before joining in, sneaking away from the defined pens that signified capture or even deploying units of infantry all occurred.

As for the jousting in the lists, that’s more of a late medieval thing, or even a Renaissance thing masquerading as a recreation of the past. It’s a controlled and at least partly sanitised version of a much more dangerous pastime.

Monday, 9 April 2012

I is for...

Illumination. One thought for fantasy writing types: how bright is it when your heroes are wandering around in that dungeon? Yes, yes, they all have flaming torches (not to mention flaming swords, flaming rings of power and ‘I know I put the flaming thing here somewhere’ cloaks of invisibility. This is an Australian joke, I’ve just borrowed it.) How far though, can you really see by such things? Not to mention by all that suspiciously glowing moss in all the caves, or the moonlight by which they’re making their raid on the fortress of moderate annoyance.

The point is that our world is so brightly lit we can often forget that it doesn’t have to be. It’s darker in the country at night than in a city. It’s darker in a cave than outside. And just a little bit of darkness can have a profound effect on people’s lives. Castles in medieval times tended to have their own chandlers, while there were officials at most important institutions who were given the solemn job of making sure the place was lit. Because they couldn’t function as well, or as long, without that light.

Pre-modern rural societies ran essentially according to the hours of daylight in many cases. Yes, there were candles and lamps and so on, but those were resources to be controlled and not squandered. The ability to light a room cheaply, efficiently and continuously meant social changes too.

So it’s worth paying attention to the light in your stories. How far could people reasonably see? What happens when it’s dark?

Sunday, 8 April 2012

H is for...

Historical Theory. If you’re writing historical fiction, researching history for pleasure, doing some kind of historical study or anything else related to the past, you need to understand at least the basics of some of the arguments that have done the rounds when it comes to history. There isn’t time to cover all of them, but here are some of the key questions with very brief answers, at least.

1. Can we actually know anything about the past? Assuming we can know anything for certain about anything, possibly. We have evidence about the past. That evidence points to things happening or not happening.
2. Is what we write as history an accurate representation of the past? Can we tell? We’ll never know for sure, because we don’t have access to the past. We can tell if an explanation is consistent with the evidence, though.
3. What did event A mean? Facts are facts, but meaning is a layer of interpretation inserted afterwards by historians. Or made up, if you prefer.
4. Is it possible to be objective? Are you a robot? Then no, regardless of what certain nineteenth century historians may have felt.
5. What about metanarratives? Metanarratives are large stories about the sweep of history (such as the inevitable rise of Marxism, the Whig view of the inevitability of British Parliamentary Democracy, or the general notion of progress) like all meanings, they’re added afterwards. They’re generally something to avoid.
6. Which bits of history are worth researching? Which bits do you feel like? The point is that you’ll automatically make selections based on what you feel is important/interesting, which is part of why you can’t really be objective.
7. Do we just tell stories when we write history? Quite possibly. The narrativist school certainly thinks so. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
8. Can I apply my theory/technique to historical research? Maybe, and if it lets us genuinely interpret history in a new way, it might be useful. Or it might be made up nonsense, like the psycho-analytical approach to history.
9. What is history for? Since I’m largely a narrativist, I’m going to go with ‘all the things that stories are for’ and leave it at that.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

G is for...

… both Grave and the Glass. One is one of the major components of my novel Court of Dreams, despite being technically a minor character, while the other is my name for the slightly unusual evil creatures in the novel I’m very slowly putting together at the moment. I’ve gone with them both here because they both represent the same kind of thing: a moment where I took a fairly straightforward idea as a writer and just added in a little flash of something else that somehow made the whole thing better. I’d like to go through how they developed to show how that process works.

Grave, for those who don’t know, is an eight foot tall, fairly forgetful fairy assassin with a coat that seems to have far too many pockets, and who has a rather put upon approach to his job. He started life as an unnamed minion in the very first incarnation of Court of Dreams. After several more, I realised that I needed some kind of hunter or hunters, and I put him in almost as a bad guy parody of figures in other novels (Hagrid, assorted David Gemmell heroes, Santa). The part where he came into his own was when I realised the novel was still quite short, and so I gave him his own plot line centred on the idea of what it would be like with someone who had done the same rather unpleasant job for a thousand years.

The Glass are a more recent thing. They’re essentially creatures who live on the other side of the mirror, and they exist because I didn’t want to do a straight angels and demons thing in the novel I’m working on, even though those are present. So I had to ask myself what else there could be, and that’s kind of my point here today. Whether it’s Grave, the Glass, or anything else, don’t just settle for the obvious story told with stock parts. Look for those unique elements that are yours and no one else’s. They’re what make the thing you’re writing special. And much funnier, in Grave’s case.

Friday, 6 April 2012

F is for...

Funny fantasy, and indeed funniness in general. As a writer of humorous fantasy fiction (see the side bar), one of my major goals as a writer is to make people laugh, yet how exactly does one go about doing so?

Well, one think I’ve learned is that you can’t please all of the people all of the time (especially not by trotting out clichés like that). I write in a way that is very ‘English’ and I know that can put some people off even though others love it. When writing for laughs, you have to accept that a certain percentage of the audience won’t like your jokes.

The second thing to ask is where the humour is, and what form it’s going to take. Are you going for a shameless parody of a particular form (as Pratchett did to a certain extent in the Colour of Magic)? Are you satirising society? Are you just making some rather crude jokes about bodily functions? Does your humour come through in the dialogue or the situations, the characters or the setting? Often, my (major) characters aren’t inherently funny, because they’re fairly normal. They just end up doing and saying funny things in combination with one another. Robert Rankin or Toby Frost, on the other hand, will probably prefer characters who are inherently laughable (or at least parodies of specific things in the case of Frost. Read his Space Captain Smith stuff).

Then there’s the trickier matter of timing. That comes down to balancing the rate at which people will read it, using phrasing to slow down or speed up the reader’s attention until the punch-line. It’s hard to do, but not as hard as the most important thing in comedy, which is to be more than funny. A real plot is vital. A real story is vital. It can be silly, but it has to be there to do more than be silly. I tried to do this with Court of Dreams. I’ve tried even harder with the book I’m working on at the moment, to the extent that I’ve even toned down some of the jokes. Story comes first. If it can be funny too, that’s a bonus.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Ash Krafton: Bleeding Hearts

This does sort of fit nicely with the A to Z, because fellow  Pink Narcissus author Ash Krafton features lots of nice Egyptian twists on the usual vampire lore in her debut novel. We're lucky enough to have her here for an interview today, so please welcome her and put any questions you have for her or general expressions of delight in the comments. You can find the novel through the publishers, as a paperback on Amazon, in the kindle edition, and probably in a great many other places too. Here's Ash:

Since this is a day for E generally, lets start with research into Egyptology. How much did you do?

Okay. First, let's clear things up—I'm a hobby Egyptologist. The only reason why I call any of it "research" is because I hope to claim my museum tickets as work expenses. I've more or less prowled museums since I was a kid. I love dusty old things. (Explains why my ceiling fans look the way they do.) I am a firm believer that if something is old and dusty, it's either an antiquity or a career politician.

Was it fun?

Yes, absolutely. I have had a huge crush on Tutankamun's burial mask since high school, even though I prefer to wear silver, myself. Recently my husband took me to see the treasures of King Tut when they toured through the Franklin Institute, a large science and discovery museum in Philadelphia, PA. I was enthralled by every tiny piece, every hair comb, every crazy head rest. I don't know why I've always been drawn to this particular culture; it seems that, all my life, it's been a part of me. Kind of strange since the only sand I've ever touched is on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Did you end up with the inevitable British Museum Publications book on reading hieroglyphics?

The WHAT? OMG. I just Googled it. I love pocket guides! Big wisdom in tiny packages! My Amazon wish list thanks you, sir. I have read other books and even own a nifty hieroglyphics stamp set. However, my knowledge of reading the glyphs is limited to knowing that you read in the direction of the way the figures are facing.

Paranormal, particularly with vampires, is such a popular field. Were there ways that was a good thing (finding places to promote, having support, that sort of thing perhaps) but also ways that it made things more difficult (maybe having to hit genre markers, or finding a way to stand out)?

You know, writing in this field is bittersweet. On one hand, I get to write the type of story I most like to read…but on the other hand, it's a beast to market. In the beginning, I was writing the story for me—Bleeding Hearts is my first novel-length work—so marketing wasn't even a consideration. As the story grew, it took on its own form. When plans for publication formed, I knew the story would have to be wrangled into submitable submission.

It took YEARS of researching genres just to label it—and there are still days when I want to add tags to it because it has so many cross-genre qualities.

Unfortunately, it's tough to get a book like this on the market. I had a lot of agents pass because, while they liked the book, they knew it would be tough sell with so many similar books in print. One agent even contacted me twice with her rejection, to couple it with a sincere apology because she already repped a writer in the same genre and didn't want to compete with her own client.

However, I don't regret all the effort that went into getting this book out because there are a lot of readers who feel the same as I do, who are really enjoying the story and are glad I wrote it. I suppose that's the secret—facing a tough market is bearable when you love the book you wrote.

I’ve noticed a few quite dark moments in the novel, but also quite a light tone overall. Is that a deliberate balancing act? Does one necessarily exclude the other, or does it perhaps allow it?

We all face dark moments in our lives. We all face grief and terror—perhaps not on the level of paranormal fiction, but some of us face horrors even writers won't touch. Just remember…We are human and resilient and capable of survival. I like to think that the take-away message of the story is "hope": hope for a requited love, hope for survival, hope for a better tomorrow. Sophie's light tone should reflect that she's able to rise above the dark and murky depths because she represents that hope.

You'd never notice the light if there were no shadows. It's a necessary balance, one that gives each of our actions true meaning.

When you’ve got hold of quite a big, interesting world, is it hard to discipline yourself to focus on just the core dynamic of the story, the relationship? For example, you compress a certain amount of stuff in the relationship where Sophie is learning about Marek’s world, but presumably that’s because you realised that it would take the focus off them as a couple?
Ah, see? This is one of those quirky cross-genre issues that makes the book hard to shelve. If the story were a paranormal romance, the focus would be on the development of the relationship. It would also require the almighty HEA—the "happily ever after" which just isn't necessarily part of this story. I think the story is more about the development of Sophie's character as she adapts to a changing world. She definitely isn't the same person at the end of the story—she's stronger and more courageous. That aspect makes it sound like paranormal women's lit—and even that isn't entirely true, since Sophie's tone and her struggles as a single woman give the story a chick-lit voice. However, one can argue that the story is definitely plot-driven, in which case the paranormal elements would classify it as urban fantasy.

Sorry…what was the question again?

Did you find your relationship with your book changing post acceptance, in the lead up and preparation period to publication? Is that maybe a different challenge for an author?

It is an entirely new world because, when I signed on with Pink Narcissus, I then had partners. My editor, Stacy Giufre, got to know my book almost as well as I do and I honestly feel she claims an ownership, of sorts. It's an odd feeling considering I wrote most of it in secret. Revising was an editorial challenge at first because I wasn't sure what this stranger would do to my story. This challenge quickly became my HEA because Stacy is a wonderful person and sincere friend with whom I knew I could share my book. In fact, everyone at PN are my champions—I never felt my story was at risk. Everything we've done together made the story and the book stronger and prettier and totally deserving of love.

In short, it all came down to my editorial team. I was lucky to have found my champions. I never had a moment of regret or doubt and I can't say we had any challenges at all after all was said and done. If everyone could work with their ideal editors, writers would be the happiest people alive.

With the inevitable question about lead character identification, do you find that you’re the one in your friendships who is always there with advice?

Unfortunately, yes. Even in high school, I was the one to sort my friend's problems. I always attributed that aspect of my personality to the fact that I listened to a lot of Rush and devoured Neil Peart's lyrics.

Eventually, I became a pharmacist so my day job pretty much revolves around two things: counting pills and giving advice. I'm pretty bossy these days and I get miffed when people don't follow my advice. I've scolded more than one customer and even gave one guy a time-out (to be enforced by his seven-year-old who listened to my tirade against her daddy with a look of absolute glee upon her face.)

Joking aside, I care deeply for my friends and family and hope that, if they trust me with their problems, I can help them get to a happier place. I'm not an advice columnist, but I'm sure I can play one on TV.

And an even more inevitable question about process. Are you mostly a character based author? By which I suppose I mean, when you get ideas, are they ideas about characters? Are they the things your attention is drawn to while you build up a sense of what is happening in the story? How much do you feel you need to know about your characters when you write?

Sophie started out as a doppleganger in a series of shorts but, when an actual novel became apparent, I had to make Sophie her own girl. My decision to make her an empath changed how she'd act and react in her world. I'm not an empath. I'm always the last one to figure out when people are joking about me and I trust people to a fault. With Sophie's sixth sense, those things would become entirely her own. I had to get into her and wear her skin for a while.

I suppose I am a character-based author when it comes to this story. The plot is a necessary element, of course, but I carry the characters in my head all the time, deciding their fates as individuals. I'm always trying to grow as a person, to be a better person, to be the change I wish to see in the world. I guess that's what I want for my characters, too, so I'm more concerned what happens to them at the end of the day.

So, what’s next for you, the series and life in general?

The series is in progress! So far, there are two more books planned; Sophie will be exposed to new elements of the paranormal world and will face emotional challenges when she agrees to "nanny" Marek's neice, who is experiencing developmental challenges with regards to her Demivampire powers. She also gets an oracular mentor who isn't her idea of a positive role model. And then there's Marek, who needs her more than ever but is just too stubborn to admit it. She's going to encounter real human situations with a paranormal twist.

There is also an increased focus on the Were population as well as a more in-depth look at the significance of the Horus Bird phenomenon.

As for life in general, I soldier on with the day job and continue to tell people what to do and how to do it. I soldier on with my family and continue to tell my children what to do and how to do it (although they rarely listen). I'll go back to writing the series when my book tour is over, I'll attend conventions so I can show off my ridiculously awesome heels (also business expenses), and I'll wake up every day with a single grateful thought towards Heaven because I live a blessed life. Who could ask for more?

Besides, I'm a writer. If something in life doesn't go my way, I'll just rewrite the ending.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

D is for...

Death, which sounds quite morbid, but I suspect that may end up being my point. Back in his book The Hour of Our Death (1991) Phillipe Aries made the suggestion that there were four distinct phases Western societies had gone through with their attitudes to death, with an initially almost blasé approach to it, then the notion of a ‘good death’, then the ‘beautiful death’ of the romantics, and finally our modern approach of treating it almost as taboo. It don’t entirely agree with him, or with the way he argues it, but he may have a point about some of our current attitudes.

I find it coming out in books. We’re in the weird situation where the simple words ‘die’ and ‘dead’ seem to be somehow off limits, with numerous euphemisms taking their place. People ‘pass on’ or simply ‘pass’ (which makes it sound like they’re playing rugby rather than dropping dead).

In current fiction, you’d think there would be lots of death, because frankly it’s full of the un-dead, but often it isn’t the case. If it does happen, it seems to happen ‘off screen’ so to speak, or to characters who don’t really matter so much. We might occasionally get the news of a death, or see some level of physical violence, but even there, we are protected from the emotional impact of it.

One quirk of this, and possible exception to it, is of course the inevitable dead parents. Those who don’t read (or in my case occasionally ghostwrite) the genre won’t recognise this cliché, but it has become rather traditional for a main character’s parents to be dead in the genre, for an assortment of reasons that are partly to do with the amusing idea that all characters should have something horrible in their pasts, and probably rather more to do with the technical and logical issues it solves for the writer.

I’m not going to claim to be immune to this. In my novel Court of Dreams, I’m surprisingly reticent when it comes to killing off major characters. I have some substitutes for it, but mostly I prefer the villains of the piece to get theirs in slightly more poetic ways. Hmm… maybe that’s something worth thinking about for next time.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

C is for...

Characterisation. We’ve all heard about the importance of character in our fiction. We all know it’s important to establish it, but how exactly do we do that? Mostly, it’s down to a few core elements:

The initial description- the way you first describe a character is important, because first impressions matter as much on the page as in the real world. It isn’t just the features you describe, but the tone you choose for it.

Their actions throughout- readers don’t know that an action is out of character unless you go to a lot of trouble to show that, so they tend to take every action as contributing to an overall picture of the character. Actions are more important than words here, because if you describe a character as nice and then have him/her killing people, no one’s convinced.

Small actions/quirks- don’t overdo these. Bad fiction is full of trombone playing, unicycling bosses (all right, maybe not), but part of fiction is always about picking the right details to focus on.

Symbols- small things can be symbolic. Items they consistently carry or use can come to represent them, serving as a kind of shorthand for them.

Dialogue- People go on about characters having a unique voice, and maybe that’s true as far as it go. Quirks of dialogue can help to identify them, and possibly should, but I find that it’s a lot less pronounced than people think. Often, it’s you. It’s all you, and attempting to get a totally distinct voice can just come across as someone putting on a silly accent.

Above all, try to have a clear idea of the essence of your characters. For me, it’s not about page after page of detail. It’s about knowing who, at their heart, they are. The rest flows from that.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

B is for...

Bangs, Booms, Brawls and other short lived but generally brutish events in our writing. I would call them moments of action, but that’s entirely the wrong letter. I suppose my question to you is what you do with events that are, in real life, generally not nicely spaced out the way a narrative demands?

Think about it. An explosion, blast or other sudden event is often over in a fraction of a second. Far less time than it takes to read. Certainly far less than it takes to write. Even the average bar fight is not going to last for minutes, but for a matter of seconds. If you don’t believe me, watch one of those ‘world’s …iest’ programmes on TV. There might be a lot of talking before and after, but the actual violence lasts seconds at most.

So how do we spin that out for half a chapter? The old ‘it seemed to last forever’ trick is part of it, but even that is just a part of a wider point, which is that it is often what is going on in the characters’ heads that is more important than anything. If time seems to be slowing down for them, or if they are noticing an abnormal amount of detail (by which I mean that you’ve gone into an abnormal amount of detail) then that tells us something about them, rather than just what’s happening.

The other point that this demonstrates is that writing is not real life. Yes, I know, it’s fiction, but even in non-fiction, it’s not real life. It’s a representation, through which you’ll show all kinds of things and make all kinds of points. Mine (I think, this has rather got away from me) is that the next time you write a blast, a brawl, or any other brief moment that nevertheless runs to several paragraphs, ask yourself why you’re doing it, and exactly what effect you’re trying to achieve by doing so.