Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for Zowie!

One of my fellow MFA students told us this month she just got a book deal with Berkley!
Zowie! Congratulations, Nancy!
As a great wrap-up to the month, I asked her if she has any tips for the rest of us. It turns out she does:

Tip 1: Try new things

I was writing romance when I investigated the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction MFA Program. Doctor Wendland suggested that I study a different genre to learn new things. So I signed up to write a thriller/mystery for my thesis. This led to my thesis manuscript, Mind Games, a mystery/ thriller which caught the eye of an agent at Folio Lit and they signed me to shop the thesis around.

Wait~ I’m not graduated- how did I get my thesis looked at by an agent?

Tip 2: Keep writing and rewriting and listen for the ideas and critiques that ring true.

I write between two and twenty pages a day. I also spent a couple days every month rewriting and revising the pages my mentor and CP’s critiqued while continuing to write the book. I wrote between semesters. I wrote. I listened. I revised. I wrote.

By the time I got the last critiques on the thesis from my mentor, I was able to make corrections and send the work in full to Folio- who signed me and…sent me revisions. After working with them to create the book they thought would sell best, the thesis was set to go out to editors in January.

It usually takes time for a book to sell, I’ve had editors hold a work for up to 3 years. So …

Tip 3: Once you finish one book, write another. Oh, and write what you know. (I know this seems contrary to try new things.)

A friend of mine noticed that I bake- a lot- and that I eat gluten-free foods due to Celiac Disease. She said, “You know, you should write a Gluten-free bakery mystery.” At the same time my Aunt was looking at knee replacement surgery in January and complaining about being laid up for 6 weeks, and did I have anything she could read? Add to the mix the mystery modules I’d taken at school such as Vicki Thompson’s Building a Mystery World etc. and I thought-okay, I’ll write a cozy mystery about a woman trying to make a go of a gluten-free bakery in the middle of wheat country – small town Kansas. I had a deadline- my aunt’s surgery- so I started writing the day after Thanksgiving- finished the first draft the day after Christmas and revised twice in time to print it out and get it mailed to my aunt for her surgery and off I went to January Residency.

Tip 4: Don’t believe everything you hear. Don’t let fear hold you back. Seek out the person who can help you sell.

At Residency this January, our guest speaker gave an interesting talk about the book market where he said something like this, “The Cozy Mystery market is dead, buried, molding in its grave.” To which I thought, “Of course it is, I just wrote one.” FYI- the first romance novel I sold was a western historical romance when the historical market was dead, buried, molding in its grave.

After hearing this I almost didn’t show the Gluten-Free Cozy to anyone but my aunt. I certainly didn’t tell my mentor about it. I thought the thriller/mystery was enough. But a friend of mine thought I should just see if maybe there might be interest. So I e-mailed an editor at Berkley and asked what she thought of the idea. She said, send me a partial. Except I had an agent who was shopping my thriller- so long story short, Folio has multiple agents and said send them the full. Two days later Paige Wheeler called and said she’d love to shop the cozy and gave me some thoughtful revisions. I spent a couple weeks revising. March 7th I sent in the final revised version. March 20th the book went out to editors. April 5th I got the call that there was a three book deal on the table. After some negotiation, it was a done deal and “Gluten For Punishment” is the working title of the first in a cozy mystery series.

Tip 5: Keep writing

The first cozy won’t be released until late 2012 or early 2013. The thriller/mystery market is much slower to reply so I’m still waiting to hear on the thesis manuscript. Can you guess what the next words out of my agent’s mouth were?

“What else are you writing?”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve got this Steampunk Middle-grade book for boys…”

Nancy's Bio:
Nancy J. Parra is always writing something and happy to discover people like to read what she writes. An award-winning author of sweet western historical romances, and contemporary romantic suspense, she recently sold her first mystery series to Berkley Prime Crime. Nancy is currently at work on her next novel and loves to hear from readers. She lives in the Midwest with her little dog, "Boo Boo." Nancy's blog.
Released June 2011:Counterfeit Bride

Pre-order from Amazon

Friday, April 29, 2011

Y is for Young Adult

Earlier in the month, we discussed J is for Juvenile, but I think Young Adult (YA) is so huge it deserves it's own post, don't you? Of course, YA is fiction written for young adults, approximately 12-year-olds to 21-year-olds--although definitions do vary. Like juvenile fiction, YA is very difficult to do well. YA readers look for realistic empathetic young adult characters, dramatic plots, and interesting settings.

Historically, there have been a few popular YA series, such as C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series (more than 120 million sold). But YA has taken off like a super-sonic rocket in the last few years. Most notably, we have J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (more than 400 million sold), Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series (more than 100 million sold), and more recently, Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. What can we learn from this? All of these are multi-book series. All have memorable characters, conflict-laden plots, and intriguing settings. I think the biggest take-away is: young adults like to read if given the chance. Some say YA novels have saved the book industry. I say, Hurray!

Let's look a little more closely at the characteristics of YA:

  • unique YA character and voice. Both characters and voice must be memorable and empathetic and seem like young adults. It is crucial that readers identify with/via them.
  • authentic dialogue. The characters need to speak like young adults. This does include slang, jargon, and the latest cultural references and gadgets.
  • simple language. YA readers don't want to trip over a lot of poetry or similes. Tell the story in a clear writing style. And speaking of story...
  • original and dramatic ideas--including dramatic openings and closings.
    Look at the four examples above, they involve an alternate world, magic on earth, vampires on earth, and a dystopian future.
  • often YA involves humor--but not always!
  • Finally, YA protagonists need to solve their own problems without their parents' or other adult's help. Authors need to be careful not to 'talk down' to YA readers, or minimize or devalue them in any way.
Like I said, it's tricky!

As writers, I don't think it works to 'chase the ambulence'. But, of course, if the muse is sending you a YA book, by all means accomodate him/her/it. :)

Good luck!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for X-Rated

Another subgenre that's booming is X-Rated erotica. Today, we have a special treat as I interview erotica author Betsy Dornbush, aka Ainsley.

What's erotica?

Erotica is romance, basically, with more graphic sex scenes and using specific and slang terminology rather than, or addition to, euphemisms. Scenes range from basic to elaborate, from conventional to fetish.

How does it differ from romance?  Is homosexuality allowed, for example?

Homosexuality precludes romance? Sorry, I’m being facetious (and teasing you, since I know that’s not what you meant). There is a lot of homosexual erotica out there, and by and large they are romances.

I think erotica differs from regular romance in a couple of notable ways. Romance is pretty formulaic. There’s little formula to erotica, though using such a structure isn’t frowned upon. I think good erotica is very much story-based, and more open to exploration of that story in a lot of ways. Also, the sex in erotica isn’t always between the primary love interests.

I find writing within the genre very freeing. The market is wide open to all sorts of stories. I’ve always wanted to write a space opera, which would be a tough sell on the regular SF markets. But my publisher picked it up immediately and my editor loved it. They’re even asking for a series.

How does it differ from pornography?

Hmm, good question. First to define pornography, because everyone might have a little bit different opinion on exactly what it is. I think the US in particular is so prudish about sex that a lot of people lump erotica and pornography together. To me there’s just as much entertainment value in a finely worded sex scene as in a finely worded fight scene. Content means less to me than good story and good writing.

So I might not have the same bias against pornography as your regular reader. I’ve never really thought of pornography as bad, per se, just another form of storytelling. But to me a workable definition of pornography means it is story-less. Turn on the TV and there’s two (or more) unnamed characters going at it. That feels like sex for sex’s sake.

Erotica always has a story and a lot more words are often dedicated to that story rather than the sex scenes.

But, even just a sex scene without the standard framework of plot around it, which I’ve both read and seen, still seems to contain some inkling of story. So it begs the question: can sex alone stand as story? I think it can. Without being too graphic here, think about how we as human beings think of story structure and compare it to the sex act, from first kiss to intercourse, and you might see what I mean. There’s a very similar cadence and pattern. It’s occurred to me that our sexual nature is the foundation of universal dramatic structure, first acknowledged by Aristotle in Poetics.

How has the explosion in electronic publishing affected erotica and why?

Erotica was at the forefront of electronic publishing, and they still are. By and large, most erotica is electronic only. I think the erotica genre publishers might be slipping in that slightly because they don’t take prompt advantage of newer electronic formats like Kindle and Nook. But they are still lightyears ahead of mainstream publishing when it comes to eBooks. As an aside: my editor for my erotica is every bit as rigorous as I’ve heard other mainstream authors describe. I think erotica and eBooks have a crap reputation for editing, which may have been true in the past and still true to a degree. It was something I definitely looked for in a publisher. I’m actually going through the process with my forthcoming book right now and hardly a page goes by without something to fix or rework.

Tell us about your work.

I write erotica about half time. I anticipate writing the second book of my space opera series this summer. Right now I’m working primarily on the second book of my urban fantasy series, SENTINEL, featuring demidemons rebelling against the demon king Asmodai. Plus, I’m polishing a futuristic fantasy entitled THE SILVER SCAR.

I also write short fiction, though less than I like with so many books stacked up to write. When people ask, I tell them I’m a science fiction and fantasy writer. Even my newer erotica has more of a SF/space opera flavor than romance or erotica.

Where can we find your work?

Last year Whiskey Creek Torrid released two of my erotic romances featuring vampires under the penname Ainsley: QUENCHED by Ainsley & E. C. Stacy, QUENCHER by E. Cameron Stacy & Ainsley. My erotic SF romance, LOST PRINCE, SALT ROAD SAGA Book 1, will be released in July 2011, also from Torrid.

I’m also anticipating the release of my urban fantasy, SENTINEL: ARCHIVE OF FIRE, this year, from Whiskey Creek’s mainstream imprint. Also, I just had a story released in a crime anthology entitled DEADLY BY THE DOZEN. You can learn more about my work at

Betsy's Bio:In 2010 Whiskey Creek Torrid published two of Betsy Dornbusch's erotic romances under the pseudonym Ainsley. The first installment of her erotic space opera series, The Salt Road Saga, will be released July of 2011, also from Torrid. SENTINEL: ARCHIVE OF FIRE, the first book of her urban fantasy series featuring demons rebelling against Asmodai, King of Hell, will also be released in 2011 from Whiskey Creek Press, under her own name. Her short fiction has appeared in print and online venues such as Thuglit, Sinister Tales, Big Pulp, Spinetingler, and the anthology DEADLY BY THE DOZEN. She's been an editor with the ezine Electric Spec for five years. She regularly speaks at local fan conventions and writers’ conferences. She’s the sole proprietor of Sex Scenes at Starbucks ( where you can believe most of what she writes. In her free time, she snowboards and sees punk rock concerts.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for Write

This year we've focused on writing several times here.

There was Writing Affirmations which included A writer is someone who writes..

And we discussed some myths of writing that get in the way, such as good writers compose nearly perfect drafts often at a single sitting.

And don't forget BICHOK, also known as butt in chair hands on keyboard.

Another good one was: Writing Facilitates Thinking with Writing is a tool for thinking: When writers actually write, they think of things that they did not have in mind before they began writing. The act of writing generates ideas.

Also, recall, the blank page which includes You must flex your writing muscles regularly to make them strong.

All of this points to one conclusion: If you're a writer or want to be a writer,

the most important thing is to write.

So, I'm going to go take my own advice right now, and write the very last chapter of my current WIP.
Wish me luck!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Voice

One of the trickiest things to get a handle on as a writer is literary or writer's voice. It's also one of the most crucial because readers and editors love distinctive voices. Writer's voice is the literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author. Voice can be considered to be a combination of a writer's use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc. Of course, technically, every author has a voice.

All my favorite authors have very strong and distinctive voices, how about yours? Let's look at some specific examples to help us get a handle on this topic. From Blackout by Connie Willis:

       I knew I didn't like Eddritch, Colin thought.

       "He did, however, mention your repeated absences. And the failing mark you got on your last essay."

       "That's because Beson made me write it on this book, The Impending Threat of Time Travel, and it was total rubbish. It said time travel theory's rot, and historians do affect events, that they've been affecting them all along, but we haven't been able to see it yet because the space-tiem continuum's been able to cancel out the changes. But it won't be able to forever, so we need to stop sending historians to the past immediately and--"

       "I am fully acquinted with Dr. Ishiwaka's theories."

I can identify Willis' writing with only a few sentences because her voice is so distictive. It's very in media res, almost stream-of-consciousness, with lots of gerunds.

From One for the Money by Janet Evanovich:

       ...Joe Morelli came into the bakery where I worked every day after school, Tasty Pastry, on Hamilton. He bought a chocolate-chip cannoli, told me he'd joined the navy, and charmed the pants off me four minutes after closing, on the floor of Tasty Pastry, behind the case filled with chocolate eclairs.

       The next time I saw him, I was three years older. I was on my way to mall, driving my father's Buick when I spotted Morelli standing in front of Giovichinni's Meat Market. I gunned the big V-8 engine, jumped the curb, and clipped Morelli from behind, bouncing him off the front right fender. I stopped the car and got out to assess the damage. 'Anything broken?'

       He was sprawled on the pavement, looking up my skirt. 'My leg.'

       'Good,' I said. Then I turned on my heel, got into the Buick, and drove to the mall."

Evanovich is also easy to identify. In her case, she uses simple language, specific details, funny names e.g. Tasty Pastry, and lots of humor. Note, too, even with such short excerpts we can differentiate these voices from one another.

For another example, a while back I discussed Kelly Link's distinctive voice: Spec Fic Tools II: Voice.

So, the question is: how do we cultivate our literary voice? I think free-writing is effective. Try writing without your internal editor and see what comes out. :) Good luck!

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for Urban Fantasy

A while back we blogged F is for Fantasy. I think with the amazing explosion in popularity, Urban Fantasy (UF) deserves its own post, don't you? :) And we've got some popular UF authors to help us out.

Tempest's Legacy
Nicole Peeler, author of the Jane True series says, Urban Fantasy is fantasy set in "our" world. I put quotations around the "our," because they invoke some of the problems with the name. We don't all live in urban environments, for example, and some of our books are set in rural settings, or suburban settings.
She also says, UF is popular, because there's no one urban fantasy. Because it's a mesh of genres, different authors can emphasize different genres of their choice. So my books have a lot of romance and mystery, but others can be more traditionally fantasy, or be steampunk, or be very hard-boiled mystery with little romance, etc. There's tremendous choice within the genre, which means we bring in other readers than just traditional SF/F fans.

Jeanne Stein, author of the Anna Strong series says, Urban Fantasy is a tag assigned to a particular type of book mainly to distinguish it from paranormal romance. UF books are edgy, contemporary, set in an urban (or suburban or rural) setting generally written in the first person with a kick-ass heroine who does not depend on a male partner or lover for protection or to save her when the going gets tough. She may have a lover, may even find herself in a committed relationship, but in urban fantasy, that relationship will be constantly challenged and will not define who our heroine is or how she lives her life. The romance, if it’s there at all, will play a minor role in the story.

Chosen (Amazon)
Chosen (Barnes & Nobel)
Chosen (Mysterious Galaxy).

And she says, UF appeals to a wide audience. UF crosses genre boundaries by combining mystery, romance and fantasy in a unique way. It’s our world with a twist. Supernatural beings operating right here, walking among us, hiding in plain sight. I personally love the tag. If tells readers immediately that there is no happily ever after for our heroine. UF is not meant to replace paranormal romance, but to be enjoyed in addition to it.

Hexed (Amazon)
Hexed (Barnes & Noble)
Hexed (Mysterious Galaxy)

Werewolf Smackdown
Mario Acevedo, author of the Felix Gomez series says, UF is fantasy and fantasy creatures in a contemporary setting.
And he says, UF is so popular because it lets writers and readers play with myths and legends. And who wouldn't like sex with a hot vampire? I'm surprised by all the new and inventive twists in the genre. Meaning: sex with vampires, selkies, and demons (angels on Sunday and religious holidays).
Killing the Cobra: Chinatown Trollop

Thanks, guys! This has been fun.
Readers, be sure to check out their books. :)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for Theme

Once, we get the basics down in our writing, it's time to start thinking about bigger picture ideas such as theme. The theme is the main idea or message of a piece. Most pieces end up with themes, whether we plan them or not. I do think it can be a bad idea to have a specific theme in mind when you start writing. Soap box rants rarely translate into an entertaining story. (But of course, everyone has their own method.) Thus, in fiction, you should preach or teach your readers. The reader extracts the theme from the setting, action, and characters that make up the piece. Some readers won't extract a theme--and that's fine, too. That's part of the beauty of fiction, right? It's a partnership between reader and writer. :)

I realize I'm being pretty vague, so let's look at some specific examples.

1984 by George Orwell several themes (which is prefectly acceptable!). One (unrealistic!) theme is sexual repression; the Anti-Sex League and other influences basically eliminate sexual expression. Another theme is nationalism; those Party folks go way past reason to shore up loyalty, even obsession, to/for Oceania and its trappings such as Big Brother. Speaking of Big Brother, members of this society have no liberty, because they are under constant surveillance. In today, this theme is particularly chilling. Ultimately, though, readers find out it's all about power; the Inner Party members want total power over everyone else--including power over others' thoughts. Yikes!

Turning to a more modern novel, Robert J. Sawyer's WWW:Wonder has a lot of intriguing themes. Two of the most obvious are the nature of consciousness and the issue of right and wrong. Can a machine become conscious? Could an animal? What is consciousness anyway?
Do humans really understand right from wrong? How do increasing surveillance and technology affect what we do? Will we ever consistently do the right thing? Is there a moral arrow through time? This book is a very entertaining read and such themes just make it richer.

Okay, how do you include a theme or themes in your work? What works for me is the following: When I finish a piece, I reread it; I try to clear my mind of what I thought I was going to say, and try to read what it really says. Usually there is a theme buried in there somewhere. Then, in revisions I tweak it to clarify the theme.

Good luck with your themes!

Monday, we have a fun post scheduled "U is for Urban Fantasy", so come back and check it out! :)

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for Setting

Setting is one of the elements of fiction. Setting includes the temporal and physical location of the story. In genre fiction, as you can imagine, more than the sky is the limit. Stories can take place in the past, present, or future. Stories can take place underground, in any country on earth, in outer space, on other planets. Basically, if you can imagine it, you can use it.

If setting is particularly important or unusual, it can play a key plot role, e.g. post-apocalytic or alternate history stories. This is common in (wo)man versus nature and (wo)man versus society stories.

It is important to be clear and specific with your settings. It's through setting that authors build their world. Make your world as unique and fascinating as possible! Authors never want readers to be confused--because that takes the reader out of the story. Don't give readers any extra excuse to put down your book. An unclear setting often gets comments like "Set the scene" from critique partners. I must admit, I've gotten my fair share of those. :)
Readers need to know where geographically and temporally the characters are at the beginning of each new scene. They also need to know which characters are in the scene.

Closely related to settings are descriptions... Usually, you must use some kind of description to give your setting. Interestingly, literary fiction tends to use many more similes and metaphors in its descriptions than genre fiction does. Recall, a simile is when something is "like" or "as" something else, and a metaphor is when something is described via analogy.
So, if you want to "lit-up" your genre fiction, consider adding more similes and metaphors.

In recent years, I've noticed physical descriptions of characters are rarely given any more; definitely do NOT describe your character with a laundry list of characteristics, e.g. brown hair, brown eyes, brown skin. If you do describe your characters, make sure to do it in the context of the point-of-view character, e.g. 'her chocolate skin made him want to lick her all over.' :)
Generally, laundry list descriptions of anything are the mark of a beginning writer. Don't do it!

Good luck with your settings and descriptions.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Romance

Of course, Romance is one of the leading literary genres. According to Romance Writers of America (RWA) (which I'll come back to in a minute), Romance Literature Statistics remain strong:
  • Romance fiction generated $1.36 billion in sales in 2009.
  • 9,089 new romance titles were released in 2009.
  • In 2009, romance was the second top-performing category on the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly best-seller lists, beat only by the movie tie-in category.
  • Romance fiction sales are estimated at $1.358 billion for 2010.

In fact, there's a very interesting article by Jessica DiVisconte "The Recession and Its Effect on the Romance Genre" over at digital commons. Suffice to say, "The immense, ever-changing romance genre ... has not faltered..." and in fact, "In tough times, people [are] looking to be stimulated by something else: tall tales of lusty love. Even as the markets ares suffering, the market for romance is growing..."

I could give some common misconceptions about romance, but I think the sales figures trump those!

What does a romance need? The same things as any other novel:

  • a unified and interesting plot
  • strong characters a reader can feel for and relate to
  • a well-realized setting
  • a competent story-telling style
  • a strong beginning that hooks the reader

Romance novels do have some special needs as well:
  • a central love story
  • a sympathetic heroine
  • a sexy hero
  • emotion, emotion, emotion
  • morality
  • An Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending
Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction. Check out the specific subgenres over at RWA.

Speaking of RWA, its mission is to advance the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy. And unlike some of the other professional genre writing organizations, anyone can join RWA! They also have an awesome Annual Conference. This year it will be in New York from June 28 - July 1. Check it out!

Good luck with your Romance! :)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for Query

Let's say you've written a novel. (Congratulations! W00t!) What do you do next? Well, next, you start querying. You can query agents or editors, the process is the same and, frankly, the query letter is the same. I'll give you the specifics in a minute.

What if you want to self-publish your novel in electronic and/or print-on-demand (POD) format? Go for it! In that case, you get to skip the querying process. W00t! :)

Before you begin the query process, you have to decide if you're looking for an agent or an editor. Do you want a literary agent? Or do you want to go straight to the publisher yourself? There are important genre considerations here. Traditionally, for example, many romance publishers enjoyed working directly with authors. Like the rest of the economy, however, publishers have been under pressure, so go agent-less at your own risk. Certainly, agents claim they bring a lot to the table. Former agent, Nathan Bransford, has a lot of info, e.g. "What Do Literary Agents Do?", on the subject on his blog.

The first step in finding an agent or editor is research. There are a ton of resources on the web. For agents, for example, there's, Query Tracker, AAR, and Absolute Write--all free. You need to find an agent or editor who deals with your specific genre and who will accept your query. Always double-check their website to find out what their submission requirements are. You should never pay money up front (unelss you're self-publishing). You should check Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors for scams.

The second step in the query process is The Letter. I strongly recommend you utilize the following concepts in your three paragraph letter:

  1. Opening with specific agent/editor name
  2. Paragraph 1:
    • something specifically relating your work to the agent or editor
    • the title, genre, and word-count of your novel (notice your novel must be finished to have a word-count!)
    • something unique about your work, how your work is special

  3. Paragraph 2: a one paragraph synopsis of your novel, including the ending. This should be in present verb tense and should illstrate the voice or tone of your novel, e.g. funny, quirky, scary, serious,etc.
  4. Paragraph 3:
    • a short bio of the author, this should include previous publishing credits (if any), memberships in national writing organizations, national awards, writing degrees and things relevant to the novel. For example, if you are a psychic waitress living in Louisiana and your protag is a psychic waitress living in Lousiana, include this info. On the other hand, if you've been divorced three times and there's no divorce in your novel, don't include this info.
    • Info about any enclosures or attachments
    • Thanks

  5. Closing, including contact information

Paragraph 2 is by far the trickiest part. I would give it a try and let your critique partners pick it apart. Dr. Nicole Peeler posted the evolution of her selling query letter: Dr. Peeler Does Querying!. IMHO, her letter isn't perfect (e.g. she mentioned it was her first novel) But this is good! It means your letter doesn't have to be perfect. :) Phew.

The final step is, of course, sending off your query letter...

Good luck!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Protagonist

The protagonist is the main character of your literary work.
Some people prefer the term hero--but if you're writing an anti-hero protagonist, that can get kind of confusing!

The events of the plot revolve around the protagonist. Readers should have empathy for the protagonist (recall E is for Empathy), and I'd even go so far as to say an author must have empathy for his/her protagonist.

Probably the most important thing in fiction is the protagonist. If you're thinking, 'Hey, wait a minute. What about the plot?' you're right: plot's very important, too. :) In fact, protagonist and plot are inexorably linked; you really cannot, and should not, have one without the other. The plot/subplots need to come from the very nature of the protagonist. Or, put another way, you should chose your protagonist so that he/she is the most affected and affecting person in the plot. In critique group, this sentiment tends to be conveyed by 'Your protag needs to act!' When wearing my editing hat over at ElectricSpec, I often see this problem in our submissions. If your protag isn't doing anything, you may not have chosen the correct protag.

In literary fiction in particular, the protagonist is primary; sometimes there is no external plot arc in literary fiction. Therefore, you can have a novel without plot, but you cannot have a novel without a protagonist. (I welcome examples to the contrary.)

The protagonist is the "who?" of your story. Some of this writing jargon can get a bit confusing. Recall, the "what?" and the "why?" of your story were covered in M is for Motivation, and, if you like, "why not?" was covered in C is for Conflict. "How" you implement your protagonist is point-of-view, covered in I is for I.

Don't get who your protagonist is confused with how you implement your protagonist. You may have more than one protagonist, and in this case it may be clearer to refer to them as pov characters, rather than protagonists.

Of course, you may also have one or more antagonists... An antagonist is just a protagonist that creates obstacles for the other character(s).

But, since the essence of story is conflict, really, every character should have some antagonistic qualities. I think the idea of the good hero fighting the evil villain/antagonist is pretty old-fashioned--unless you're working on a graphic novel or a blockbuster movie. :)

A more modern take on fiction is to make all your characters as well-rounded as possible, and then they will naturally have opposing interests and desires.

Good luck!

Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for Opera

O is for Opera, space opera, that is. ;) A space opera is an adventure set in outer space or on distance planets and has an emphasis on action. Star Wars might be considered space opera, for example. When most people think about science fiction (SF), they think of space opera.

Not to say that opera itself isn't interesting. In fact, one of my fellow SHU WPF students is writing a novel set in the opera world ("Hi, Julie!").

What can I say? I love space opera and all the other sub-categories of SF.

Unfortunately, SF can be a bit difficult to categorize. What exactly is it? I've heard several experts say "I know it when I see it." (Also known as the pornography defense.)

Wikipedia says, "Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with the impact of imagined innovations in science or technology, often in a futuristic setting." Hhm... I bet we can all think of exceptions to this definition.

Orson Scott Card’s rule of thumb is “If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it’s science fiction. If it’s set in a universe that doesn’t follow our rules, it’s fantasy.”

SFWA Grand Master James E Gunn, said, "Science fiction is the literature of the human condition experiencing meaningful change." in my 2007 Interview. Very nice, Professor Gunn! Let's go with this. :)

SF encompasses many subgenres. Besides space opera, there's hard SF (more on this below), and soft/social SF--works based on social sciences, e.g. fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. There's Cyberpunk, near-future very technological SF, often with an anti-hero--William Gibson's Neuromancer defines the subgenre. There's Time travel, of which H.G. Wells The Time Machine is the most famous example and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is a buzzier example.

There's Alternate History (stories based on the premise that historical events might have turned out differently) and the closely-related Steampunk, in which advanced steam-engine-level technology existed in the past. A classic example of Alternate History would be The Man in the High Castle by Philip D. Dick. And there's Military SF, such as Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and John Scalzi's Old Man's War.

There's also Dystopian SF, stories set in a usually futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state; the most famous dystopian novels are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. According to the-powers-that-be, the hottest subgenre right now is Dystopian SF, because of run-away hits such as The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. If the upcoming movie(s) is successful, this will only increase the buzz. Dystopian SF should not be confused with Apocalyptic or Post-Apocalyptic SF. In the former the repressive society is imposed by the state or society, in apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novels, the state and society have broken down and essentially no longer exist. Buzzy examples of post-apocalyptic novels are The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

A while ago, I blogged about Hard SF according to the experts, Stanley Schmidt, David G. Harwell and Kathryn Cramer. They had a lot of very interesting stuff to say, so check that out.

I guess what I'm trying to say with this overview of SF is, there's something for everyone! Authors can basically write about anything they like under the SF umbrella. In fact, Doris Lessing, 2007 Nobel Laureate in Literature said, in response to critics, "What they didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time" ("Doris Lessing: Hot Dawns"). Science fiction enables us to study and enjoy the human condition with no restraints whatsoever.

And, finally, we can't leave a discussion of SF without mentioning the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), pronounced "siff-wah" by those in the know--which I found out the hard way at WorldCon one year.

SFWA is the premiere professional organization for authors of science fiction, fantasy and related genres and informs, supports, promotes, defends and advocates for its members. They host the prestigious Nebula Awards, assist members in legal disputes with publishers, and administer benevolent funds for authors facing medical or legal expenses. Check them out!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Networking

N is for Networking. Writers should help each other out. :)

Today, we're pleased to have an excerpt from Michael Arnzen's "Genre Unleashed" from Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction:

I think it was 8th grade when I first learned that "genre" is French for "type." Genres are kinds of stories, that share conventions (or similar traits) between them. Seems simple enough. And there's a reason for these things called genre, beyond that 8th grade exam. Genres helpfully function to index books in a way that people in our trade can manage and organize texts: from teachers working on their syllabi to publishing houses building their catalogs to bookstores and libraries sorting out their shelves. Genres drive the market and help readers find our books. Communities start to form around them. Genres become a common ground for people with shared interests. They're a culture unto themselves.

We are lucky to have genres, because they give writers an avenue toward finding an audience -- and they point readers in our direction, as well. But they can be dangerous roads, too, because once we start identifying things by their type, we begin to categorize and label them, separating one kind from another, often based on superficial judgments. If a reader doesn't like a genre, they'll pre-judge your book without even looking at the cover. This feels unfair, so some writers avoid genre altogether, hoping to maximize a potential audience and avoid the constraints of their conventions…avoiding the pigeonholes of genre, but never finding a place to roost, and fading into obscurity. Others make the opposite mistake, getting too hung up on trying to control their fate, and play it safe, follow the "rules" of their genre so closely that their work becomes indistinguishable from any other book on the shelf. Uncertain about how to "fit in," they err on the side of imitation, and produce work too derivate to excite an editor who is looking for a unique sales hook for next year's catalog.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that genres are reductive. They reduce an entire body of literature down to one word in order to "index" it -- but in the process they oversimplify it, too. Because genres are labels, they fool us into thinking that genres are less meaningful, less creative, and less complicated than they really are. This is also why they get a bad rap by the literati, who categorically judge them as lowbrow pap. The real truth -- one which successful genre writers and devoted genre fans only know -- is that genres liberate writers, giving them a focus, relieving them of some burdens, and allowing them to play to their strengths and interests. A genre can unleash your creativity, once you get a clear sense of how it empowers you.

Michael A. Arnzen ( is a college teacher by day and a horror writer by night. He has been educating novelists since 1999 as faculty in the Writing Popular Fiction graduate program at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA, where he is currently Chair of the Humanities. Arnzen's energetic workshops on genre fiction writing have been popular at Odyssey, Alpha, World Horror Convention, Context, Pennwriters and the Horror Writers Association's annual Stoker Weekend event. His often funny, always disturbing horror stories have won four Bram Stoker Awards, an International Horror Guild award, and several "Year's Best" accolades.

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Motivation

Those of you who think M should be for Mystery, see my post from Wednesday: K is for Killer.

Motivation, along with Conflict and Goal are the building blocks of fiction. We already addressed conflict earlier in the month. Let's look at the other two...

Every major character should have a goal, a result or achievement toward which effort is directed. You could say, the goal is the reward or prize the character seeks. Generally, characters should want, no need, something they don't have yet, e.g. getting more money isn't a very interesting goal but getting some money when they have none is more interesting. In fact, the more desperate the character is to achieve the goal, the better. Thus, the goal should be important.

Note, too, that the characters need to act to achieve this goal. Action is very important. Action creates plot.

It is perfectly acceptable for the goals of characters to change during the course of a novel. As a matter of fact, things should get worse for your characters during your novel; in that case, the characters' goals should change. It's usually a good idea for characters to have multiple goals, some small and some large. It's okay if characters do not achieve all their goals as long as they act and something happens as a result. (Sequel, anyone?)

Readers like goals because they want to know what the characters are rooting for; readers want to understand characters. The goal is the "what" of your book.

Motivation is the "why" of your book. Why does the character want to achieve the goals? A motive incites or impels a character to act. Motivations and goals must go hand in hand. Motivations are explained (at least in the author's head) with "because". For example, my character, let's call her Isabella, wants to get off the street because she's cold and hungry. Not bad, but it's better to make the motivations as dramatic as you can. Isabella wants to get off the street because ...a serial killer is targeting homeless girls and she saw him murder her best friend. Much better! So, motivations should be desperate and important, too.

Readers also like motivations because they want to understand the characters. Recall, the ultimate goal is for the reader to have Empathy for the characters.

Authors can step it up a notch by writing both external and internal goals and motivations. For example, Isabella wants to get off the street so she's not brutally murdered by a serial killer (external) AND she wants to reunite with her long-lost dad and earn his respect (internal). In the best books, external and internal goals and motivations are inexorably linked. For example, Isabella wants to get off the street so she's not brutally murdered and she wants to earn the respect of her long-lost dad (a former cop) BY helping the police catch the killer.

Obviously, the final piece of the puzzle is the conflict, the opposition to the characters' goals. Something or someone has to try to stop the character from reaching the goal.

Therein lies the story.

Good luck!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Laugh

L is for Laugh or "How to Write Funny".

I must admit I have a soft spot for writing that makes me laugh.

The basis for humor is surprise, the unexpected. We laugh in surprise at the union of two things that don't fit together. Comedian Steven Wright is famous for this: "All those who believe in psychokinesis raise my hand."
So is author Janet Evanovich. In One for the Money, "Food is important in the burg. The moon revolves around the earth, the earth revolves around the sun, and the burg revolves around pot roast."

A key point is: humor depends on expectations, so is subjective.

Comic elements include:

  • Repetition: For example, a little later in One for the Money, "Two years ago, when Grandpa Mazur's fat-clogged arteries sent him to the big pot roast in the sky, Grandma Mazur had moved in with my parents and had never moved out." Notice the pot-roast again? :)

    Or, how about this, also from Evanovich, "I was saving myself for marriage, or at least for college. 'I'm a virgin,' I said, as if this were news. 'I'm sure he doesn't mess with virgins.'

    'He specializes in virgins! The brush of his fingertips turns virgins into slobbering mush.'"

  • Switches/Reversals: This refers back to the surprise angle, e.g. Mark Twain said, "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
    Humor often utilizes expectations to achieve reversal. As an example, when Dorothy Parker was challenged to say something funny about horticulture, she replied, "You can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think."
  • Exaggeration/Extremes: In William Shakespeare's King Henry IV Part I, Falstaff tells Bardolph his red nose is "…an everlasting bonfire-light! Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern."

    Regarding exaggeration Connie Willis says in "The More and Less of Writing Humorous Fiction" exaggeration and understatement are two of the most important techniques of humorous writing. "To exaggerate is to enlarge or overstate the truth... Stretching the truth makes it funny." As an example, Ms. Willis quotes Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome in which three men in a boat attempt to open a can of pineapple but they've forgotten the can opener: "Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocketknife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the think with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup."

    Regarding the opposite extreme, understatement, Connie Willis says, "Understatement is less—much less. Instead of stretching or coloring the truth, understatement downplays it, describes it with restraint." For example, how does the pineapple episode end? Jerome uses understatement: "Harris got off with merely a flesh wound."

  • Indecision: This is particularly effective when used with exaggeration or repetition.
  • Convention Suspension: For example, in Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment: "A woman always has half an onion left over, no matter what the size of the onion, the dish, or the woman." is an example of convention suspension.
  • Wordplay: e.g. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is the premiere example of literary nonsense and contains a number of nonsensical poems and songs, for example: Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! / How I wonder what you're at! / Up above the world you fly, /Like a tea tray in the sky. / Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! / How I wonder what you're at! Note this is also an example of parody. Malapropisms are a perfect example of wordplay (pun intended!) as well.

Historically, literary humor has been satire and parody, think George Orwelll's Animal Farm or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Modern fiction has seen an explosion of humor with Chick Lit, Urban Fantasy and other genre fiction. Readers love humorous fiction. Many of the most popular authors are humorous, e.g. Jennifer Crusie, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, P.G. Wodehouse, etc. Janet Evanovich has sold millions and millions of books. Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mystery series featuring Sookie Stackhouse is quite humorous (see below).

Literary humor often comes from characterization, from characters' reactions. In Jennifer Crusie's Fast Women: "The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she'd been going to hell for a year and a half anyway."

According to David Bouchier "A Funny Character is a Caricature. Funny characters are unusual, strange, odd, perhaps obnoxious and always extreme."

Voice is very important. Jennifer Crusie says, "Humor in fiction is based in voice, which is why humor is so different from writer to writer and why a strong voice is essential in writing comic fiction."

There are also special genre considerations. In "Take my Wizard…Please! The Serious Business of Writing Funny Fantasy and Science Fiction" Ester M. Friesner suggests writers be aware of the easily recognizable types in their genre and then set readers' expectations on their ears. For example, how would we expect the gum-shoe detective, the naive ingenue, the bitter divorcee, the wizard, the elf, the robot, the pirate, etc. to behave? Have them do the opposite.
For example, in Montrous Regiment Terry Pratchett has a scene in which soldiers conclude the serious military Borogravian National Anthem with "The new day is a great big fish!"

Does anyone have any favorite funny writers to recommend?

Have fun making your readers laugh! :)

Bonus quote from Charlaine Harris's Dead Until Dark:
A handsome vampire with thick black hair combed into an improbable wavy style strolled up out of the woods… The newcomer was husky, taller than Bill, and he wore old jeans and an 'I Visited Graceland' T-shirt. …the more I looked at the vampire, the more familiar he seemed. I tried mentally warming up his skin tone, adding a few lines, making him stand straighter and investing his face with some liveliness.
Oh my God.

It was the man from Memphis.

… 'Sookie,' Bill said warningly, 'this is Bubba.'

'Bubba,' I repeated, not quite trusting my ears.

'Yep, Bubba,' the vampire said cheerfully, goodwill radiating from his fearsome smile. 'That's me. Pleased to meetcha.'

…I said, 'Is that who I think it is?'

'Yes. So now you know at least some of the sighting stories are true. But don't call him by his name. Call him Bubba! Something went wrong when he came over—from human to vampire—maybe it was all the chemicals in his blood.'

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Killer

Today, we're going to discuss genre fiction that includes or features one or more killers. Yes, you guessed it: the mystery genre. The mystery genre is a far-reaching category that includes classic whodunits, crime stories, thrillers, police procedurals, private eye novels, and tales of amateur sleuths. This genre is VERY popular, and includes such blockbusters as Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series and Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series. Thus, notice the mystery genre can encompass comedy and/or fantasy elements! Combining mysteries with other elements such as comedy, fantasy, science fiction or insert-your-idea-here is considered h-o-t. Pretty much anything goes with a few very important caveats...

Although thrillers and crime fiction may be classified as mystery, they each have their own specific requirements. Thrillers--sometimes called suspense--utilize tension and excitement as their main elements. Often they involve time-deadlines, spies, heists, conspiracies, cover-ups, fights and/or chase scenes. The most important point about thrillers is the characters act to stop a crime before it happens. Notice, the protagonist(s) and the reader know what this impending crime is and it is very large in scope. Thus, climax of a thriller is when the protagonist(s) defeats the antagonist(s) to stop the impending crime. Thrillers often utilize multiple 3rd person pov characters and can include the pov of the villain/antagonist. Crime fiction is typically centered on criminal enterprises and is told from the point of view of the perpetrators.

In mystery fiction proper there must be a serious crime--usually one or more murders--in chapter one and the characters try to discover 'whodunit'. Typically, a vital piece of information is kept mysterious until the climax when the investigator solves the crime. Of course, there must also be an investigator who can be a professional detective, a hard-boiled private eye, a forensic anthropologist, a klutzy bounty hunter, a psychic waitress or whatever. :) In recent years, so-called cozy mysteries have abounded, filled with recipes, talking cats, knitting, white-water rafting or you-name-it; these involve amatuer sleuths who have to solve the crimes because of circumstances, they find a body in their garden, for example. Often, mysteries have one first-person pov character (the sleuth). According to the-powers-that-be, the market for straight-up cozies is supposed to be waning.

For historical reasons, it's important for mystery writers to give the reader the chance to solve the mystery. Make sure the reader has the chance, by being given all the necessary info, to beat the sleuth to the finish line. If you don't, readers will be upset! :(

Notice, too, mysteries are very moral. In the end, the bad guy is caught and is, or will be, punished, and the bodies are buried with respect.

A third component of mystery fiction is social commentary. With a signicant crime and a well-characterized investigator, however, a socially-relevant examination of humanity should easily follow.

The Mystery Writers of America is the premier organization for mystery and crime writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field, aspiring crime writers, and folks who just love to read crime fiction. Check it out!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

J is for Juvenile

Juvenile Fiction, also called Children's Books are another important literary genre. Children’s books are written for children and meant to be read to and read by children of all ages. Juvenile fiction is a broad and diverse field including board books, picture books, easy to read books, “middle-age” chapter books and novels for young adults. The length of a children’s book can range from one word per page or less for a board or picture book to 50,000 words.

In general, a well written book for young people includes a protagonist around the age of the intended reader or a year or two older, a subtle theme, main idea or human truth and it should inspire hope or some positive attitude by the end of the story although this is not a strict rule. A good children’s book is a book that appeals to children of various ages. It is written by a writer who respects his or her audience and who most often is deeply connected to children, childhood and the child within.

Unfortunately, this genre is also rife with misconceptions:
  • Writing for children is a way to practice so one can eventually write "real" books.
  • Anyone can write a children's book.
  • Writing for children is easier and takes less time than writing for adults.
  • Someone who writes for children is not a real writer and books for children are not really literature.
Ugh. As anyone who's seriously tried to write for children knows, this can be more difficult than other writing!

Thanks to the amazing success of Young Adult Fiction (which I'll discuss later in the month), supposedly one of the hot-hotter-hottest subgenres today is Middle Grade Fiction. This is fiction for third to sixth grade boys and girls, and runs between 20,000 and 40,000 words. In particular, publishers are supposed to be looking for books for boys...

The professional organization here is The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI),the only professional organization specifically for those individuals writing and illustrating for children and young adults in the fields of children’s literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I is for I

With that cryptic title, I will be talking about narrative point-of-view (pov), which determines through whose perspective a story is viewed. By far, the most common points-of-view in literary use today are first-person (I) and third-person (he/she), but there's also second-person (you). Note these povs are all related to WHO is telling the story.

In a first-person pov, the story is relayed by a narrator who is also a character within the story. First-person can be extremely effective because readers easily identify with it. Some genres utilize first-person extensively, such as Young Adult, Urban Fantasy, and Mystery. A drawback to first-person is you can't hide information from the reader if the character knows it. Usually the first-person character is the one who acts and is the most crucial in the story; also called the major character. This doesn't always have to be the case, we can have minor character narrators, for example, the 2005 novel Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, has an every-man narrator, Tyler Dupree, and has the major character die. A famous example of an unimportant first-person narrator is found in which F. Scott Fitzgerald novel? Hint: It rhymes with Trait Tatsby. :)

In a second-person pov, the narrator refers to one of the characters as 'you', therefore making the reader feel as if he/she is a character in the story. An example is If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. The only benefit to second-person is it's unusal. This is also its drawback. Don't do it. (Notice the implied 'you'. Clearly second-person pov is often utilized in blogs. :) )

In a third-person pov characters are referred to as 'he' or 'she'. Notice in this case the narrator is not a character in the story. This pov is the most common and so is the most accepted by readers. It enables authors to withhold facts from readers, makes comments and flashbacks easier to write, gives the author more scope for characterization, and other benefits. Examples include: look on your bookshelf. ;)

There's also the issue of how many pov characters there are, known as singular or plural pov. This can be utilized with any of first, second, and third. (This is not to be confused with multiple povs, e.g. the author could have more than one 3rd person povs.) For example, first-person plural pov would use 'we'. Can you think of any examples of this? Supposedly I, Robot by Isaac Asimov did this. (I'm going to have to check my copy!)

Another significant issue to consider is how close the perspective is to the character(s). An author can utilize an omniscient, a limited/exterior, or an interior/close pov. This is the cinematography of the novel, if you will, WHERE the camera is. The important consideration here is does the reader get to know the character's thoughts and feelings? Is the camera inside the character's brain, so to speak? Or outside, showing a 'just the facts' perspective?
Again, different genres have different conventions here. For example, Young Adult is commonly a very close interior pov; the reader gets to know all the angst-ridden thoughts and feelings of the narrator.

We're starting to get a bit bogged down in possibilities, but I'll add one more: reliability versus unreliability. The unreliable narrative voice involves the use of a non-credible or untrustworthy narrator. Examples? How about Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye?

These povs can all be mixed and matched in multiple povs! For example, I recently read WWW:WATCH by Robert J. Sawyer and he has multiple third person povs with one first-person pov. The first-person is the artificial intelligence and it does help the reader to identify with him.
So, in summary, I don't know if you've noticed, but we have dozens, if not more, of pov possibilities. I summarize them in a table:

1st singular1st plural2nd singular2nd plural3rd singular3rd plural
Authors can utilize this multiple times within a work.
Have fun with it!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for Horror

As everyone knows, horror is a huge genre. Horror is emotional, it tries to provoke a response in the audience. It's the genre of fear; it seeks to shock, scare and thrill audiences with 'the unknown', grotesque images, frightening imaginary creature. Sometimes a horror story is a cautionary tale, involving the audience in fight or flight.

Horror is probably the least understood genre. Common misconceptions include:
  • It's all psycho killers.
  • It's kid stuff or only for teenagers.
  • It's too gross.
  • It's too scary for me.
  • Horror writers (or fans) are creepy/scary/sicko/etc.
  • If I write horror, I can be the next Stephen King.
    Good luck with that one!:)

All this is really only part of the story. Horror also operates on a deeper level; it explores the taboos of culture and humanity's repressed desires, and it is these explorations that generate both thrills and dread.

Academic and horror author Michael Arnzen says, "...horror is more like a game of peek-a-boo than a gore film. Good dark fiction is a form of seduction--it plays with the desire to both see and not see--tapping into that curious desire we have, to peer between our fingers while covering our eyes. It plays off the ambivalent desire to simultaneously censor and bear witness."

In addition to this strange push-pull dichotomy, "When horror tales explore and speculate about the unknown, they often also teach us about what we do know, even if only to point out the limits of cultural knowledge." and "By staging failures of intellectual mastery, challenging norms, and transgressing social boundaries, horror has the potential to revise and the potency to reshape the way its readers think." according to Arnzen. Wow!

Horror stories have probably been around as long as humans have been. As Arnzen says, "Horror stories document and illuminate the human condition across history and culture as much as any work of fiction." I'm convinced! :)

Horror writers, check out the Horror Writers Association which exists to promote and protect the careers of professional horror writers and host seeking to enter their ranks, while at the same time using its best endeavors to raise the profile of the horror genre in the publishing industry and among readers in general.

Friday, April 8, 2011

G is for Genre

Today, we're pleased to have a guest post by Jason Jack Miller on GENRE RESPECT.

Does genre fiction receive more respect now than it ever has?

Genre fiction has certainly become more daring in the way it deals with its own tropes.  Crossovers and blurred lines between the genres allow readers to dip a toe into new reading waters without fear of having it bitten off.  Consider Max Brooks' World War Z--is it horror or SF?  Or literature, maybe?  And what about the Twilight series?  Horror or romance?  Are there readers who loved Twilight that would never in a thousand years consider picking up an Anne Rice novel?  Certainly.  Both have vampires and romance, but only one had the benefit of a rabid fan base accustomed to using social media to take their passions viral.

There have been multitudes of novels that have straddled genre throughout written history, but they have never received the type of marketing attention that books get today.  I believe our perceptions of genre are manipulated by the publisher's marketing departments and big budgets.  With the right, well-targeted fan base a genre novel can fly or flounder.  'Don't judge a book by its cover' is an old adage that may not apply to 2011 when covers are usually tied to ginormous marketing campaigns and interactive media blitzes. Just look at the evolution of the SF/Fantasy reader stereotype over the last twenty years.  From the 1990s it's the Dune/Lord of the Rings/Star Wars fan living in his mom's basement on a diet of Doritos and Cherry Coke.  The 2010s stereotype is a tween who wants to know 'Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob?'

Stories evolve and styles come and go, but readers always love what they love.  Now publishers can target readers more specifically than they ever have, and book clubs are global institutions no longer confined to library and church basements.  So while I'm not certain genre fiction receives more or less respect than it ever has, I know that fans and publishers are changing, and now more than ever fans are able to find, and talk about what they love.

Jason Jack Miller is a writer, photographer and musician who has been hassled by cops in Canada, Mexico and the Czech Republic. An outdoor travel guide he co-authored with his wife in 2006 jumpstarted his freelancing career; his work has since appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, online, and as part of a travel guide app for mobile phones. Several of his articles are in the writing guide Many Genres, One Craft.

He received a Master’s in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill where he is adjunct creative writing faculty and he is an Authors Guild member. He's been a whitewater raft guide, played guitar in a garage band and served as a concierge at a five star resort hotel in Florida. When he isn't writing, he's on his mountain bike or looking for his next favorite guitar. He is currently writing and recording the soundtrack to his novel, The Devil and Preston Black. Find him at

Thursday, April 7, 2011

F is for Fantasy

Since Seton Hill University has one of the only Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction programs in the world, we thought we'd talk about genre a bit this month.

One of the most popular genres these days is fantasy, as indicated by the massive success of the Harry Potter and Twilight novels and movies. Academic Richard Mathews says that fantasy "is a type of fiction that evokes wonder, mystery, or magic--a sense of possibility beyond the ordinary, material, rationally predictable world in which we live. . . . [It is] a fiction that elicits wonder through elements of the supernatural or impossible. It consciously breaks free from mundane reality." in his Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination.

Of course, J.R.R. Tolkien is largely credited with bringing fantasy to the masses with his very popular Lord of the Rings books, starting with The Hobbit in 1937. (I'm looking forward to the new movie, how about you?)

Academic Farah Mendlesohn outlines a classification system which is about "the way in which a text becomes fantasy, or alternatively, the way the fantastic enters the text and the reader's relationship to this." in her Rhetorics of Fantasy. Very briefly, the four major types of fantasy are:
  • Portal-Quest Fantasy in which a character leaves his/her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown (usually magical) place. A classic example would be an epic fantasy like The Lord of the Rings
  • Immersive Fantasy in which the reader and pov character take for granted the fantastic elements with which they are surrounded. Science fiction would be a kind of immersive fantasy.
  • Intrusive Fantasy in which the fantastic intrudes on the characters and the reader, with a sense of threat, of waiting, and of repulsion. Much of horror would be considered intrusive fantasy.
  • Liminal Fantasy, or the fantasy of the possible, in which the fantasy elements are uncertain or hesitant. Magical Realism is an example of this.

Interestingly, fantasy began way back in the eighteenth century and "took shape through a dialectic with this new literature of realism. The ...modern authors who crafted fantasy as an alternative literary form ...understood that they could create a complex and appealing counterpoint to popular imbuing their writing with ancient human impulses toward myth..." as Mathews says.

So, there you have it, readers in the twenty-first century enjoy some of the same things as those in the eighteenth century! The more things change, the more they stay the same. ;)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

E is for Empathy

The goal for authors is: empathy for characters, especially for the protagonist.
Why? Because we want the reader to BECOME the character. The wonder and beauty of written fiction is it is the only medium in which a human being can become someone else. But it can't happen without empathy. Empathy is the identification, understanding and often sharing of, someone else's feelings and/or motives. I would even go so far as to say readers should have empathy for 99% of characters--that's what keeps us reading. The one exception is a particularly fascinating antagonist/villain, such as a Hannibal Lecter.

Of course, authors have many tools at their disposal to tell their stories and engender empathy. These include dialogue, character's thoughts, description of setting and action and narrative. There are some special writerly mechanisms to make characters empathetic:
  • make the character an underdog or experience some kind of trauma
    Note: it's important the character not feel sorry for him/herself
  • show the character caring about other people
  • show other people caring about the character
  • have the character protect or help someone less powerful than themselves.
As examples, Harry Potter was a huge underdog at the beginning of his adventures, and Katniss Everdeen took her little sister's place in The Hunger Games, and we liked them immediately! Character's thoughts and backstory can be particularly effective in making characters empathetic. And don't forget to give you character some flaws! :)

It has been said that the ability to create fiction and other artistic works is a fundamental aspect of human culture and one of the defining characteristics of humanity. So, why not use all the tools at your disposal to create fiction that engenders empathy and hence insights into the human condition?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

D is for Dialogue

Dialogue is crucial in many kinds of writing. What I see sometimes in my critique partners' writing (and mine, if I'm honest) is dialogue that doesn't go anywhere. For example, "Hi, how's it going?" "Good, how's it going with you?" "Good. Thanks. So, what'cha up to?" "Oh, you know..."
Ugh. Don't do this. Dialogue needs to serve a purpose like all other writing; it should further the plot or build character or similar. Dialogue needs to sound like real people talking--but better.

As an example of good dialogue, here's an excerpt from Aaron Sorkin's Academy Award-winning script for "The Social Network":

--I have to study.

You don't have to study. You don't have to study. Let's just talk.

I can't.


Because it's exhausting. Dating you is like dating a stairmaster.

It's difficult to get the full flavor of the movie (and dialogue) in just a few lines, but I think you get the idea.
For the rest of us mere mortals, how can we track down dialogue that's not working? Reading it aloud can really help.

One of my writer friends wrote a good blog entry on dialogue a while back: Make or Break Dialogue. Ooh, I see he has another: Great Dialogue. And there's one from me, too: on inconsistent dialogue. Check 'em out!

Good luck with your dialogue!

Monday, April 4, 2011

C is for Conflict

The heart of every story is conflict. In fact, without conflict there isn't a story/plot. I'd even go so far as to say conflict is key in a story or novel.

To be clear, conflict does not have to be a physical battle. Conflict does not even have to involve an antagonist. I had a critique partner who sometimes seemed to lose sight of this.

Recall, there are really very few kinds of stories:
  • (wo)man versus (wo)man
  • (wo)man versus nature
  • (wo)man versus self

What do all these plots have in common? Versus, i.e. conflict. (Okay, they also have (wo)man but I'll come back to that later in the month.) So, go ahead, torture your darlings! Make your characters suffer. Give your writing conflict.

Les Edgerton has a very nice blog post on this subject: Creating Tension

I should also mention C is for contest. My colleagues over at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers have opened up their annual contest for entries of fiction novels. There are six categories: Action/Thriller, Mainstream, Mystery, Romance, and Speculative Fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror) and YA (all subgenres). This is a good contest, run by good writerly folks, and has led to some book contracts.

Good luck!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

B is for Book

My first "B" thought was buzz, as in buzz or publicity or excitement that's created about books, but I already blogged about that in Book Buzz, so let's talk about books... (And, yes, blog, is too on-the-nose.)

There has been a lot of, well, buzz, in the blogosphere about e-books and self-publishing. The biggest stories last month were Barry Eisler turning down a $500,000 traditional publishing deal and self-e-published Amanda Hocking getting a $2,000,000 traditional publishing deal. They gave an interview together here. Clearly things are in a state of flux. What this all means for books, I don't know.

But, what can I say? I love physical books. I'm never going to embrace e-books like p-books. :) Perhaps that's because you can't teach an old dog new tricks (And, yes, I'm the old dog in this metaphor). Perhaps it's because I worked at the public library during my teenaged years. Maybe it's because I write speculative fiction and my imagination is too active. (What's going to happen to all those e-books when civilization collapses?) Whatever, the reason, I hope physical books are here to stay.

What do you think?

Friday, April 1, 2011

A is for Author

Perhaps the most obvious thing related to writing is author. There can be no writing without authors! (At least not until they really perfect that writing software. :) ) Right now, I'm pondering what to teach my fellow aspiring authors for my MFA teaching practicum requirement. I think the best piece of advice for an aspiring author is: write! I know it's obvious, but you have to write in order to be an author. Also, as the years slog by for me as an aspiring author, another good piece of advice seems to be: don't give up.

A also seems to be for advice. What do you think? What advice would you give an aspiring author?

Since we're talking about authors, I really should acknowledge the debt of gratitude I owe many authors. Thanks go out to the many authors whose work I've loved over the years and who made me love books. Thanks go out to my fellow aspiring authors, my fellow students, my critique partners. I sincerely appreciate your words of commiseration, support and encouragement! You rock! And thanks go out to the authors who I've had the pleasure to meet or know in person and who have encouraged my work. You rock, too! And, yes, I will consider some vocabulary-building exercises. :)

Happy April Fool's Day, everyone!