Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Guest Author Mia Marlowe: The Naked Truth about Pirates (or Why Research is So Desperately Important!)

Mia Marlowe writes historical romance for Kensington and Sourcebooks. Her work has been featured in People magazine and one of her novels is on display at the Museum of London Docklands next to Johnny Depp memorabilia. Her books have been translated into 8 different languages. Publishers Weekly has named her Touch of a Rogue one of the Top Ten Romances for Spring 2012! Mia loves to connect with other writers and readers and invites you to visit her cyber-home, ! 

Pirates? Arrg! There’s just something about a man who takes what he wants and makes us like it! When the Pirates of the Caribbean movies came out, with the charmingly spacey Captain Jack and devastatingly attractive Will Turner, I was moved to write a swashbuckling hero with a saucy heroine to match.

In order to make my pirate believable, I had to do more than watch Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom (though I’ll confess to doing a little of that, too!). Getting the facts right is important, so I researched the pirate era and the fascinating characters that sailed the seas in search of plunder. So here’s the naked truth about those Caribbean bad boys.

1. They weren’t all in the Caribbean. Piracy was common to every sea on earth. Barbary corsairs plied the coast of Africa. Malaccan pirates preyed on pilgrims bound for Mecca. Chinese junks join together to form massive pirate navies. Where ever you sailed, there were those with a cavalier attitude toward property ownership.

2. They weren’t all boys. While it was generally considered bad luck to bring a woman on board (and the penalty for sneaking one on could be death or marooning!), there were a few notable female pirates. Both Anne Bonney and Mary Read sailed with Calico Jack and were reputedly fierce fighters. When his ship was finally taken by the British navy, the two women were the only ones who put up any resistance. The rest of the crew was too drunk to fight. But when Anne and Mary were convicted of piracy, they “pleaded their bellies” and escaped the noose because they were pregnant. Calico Jack wasn’t so lucky. When Anne Bonney visited him while he waited for the hangman, she comforted him with, “if you’d fought like a man, you needn’t be hanged like a dog.” Talk about being an “I told you so!”

3. They weren’t all bad. Or at least, they didn’t start out that way. Like Gabriel Drake in How to Please a Pirate, some honest seamen turned to piracy because they had no choice. Black Bart Roberts began his career as a naval navigator, but was pressed into piracy when his ship was taken. He went on to become one of the most successful pirate captains in history.

4. They weren’t all naked. Though pirates went barefoot at sea, they enjoyed dressing well on land. Since they often took prizes of silk bales or rich brocade, pirates delighted in devising flamboyant costumes to wear once they hit port. Buccaneers had plenty of free time during long days at sea to sew. Since women were not welcome aboard ships, what else did they have to do?

5. They held to their own code of conduct. Pirate crews practiced a rough form of democracy, electing their captains and signing articles defining their goals and expected behavior. In How to Please a Pirate, Gabriel Drake’s first mate reminds him that according to the articles he drew up himself, ‘meddling’ with a woman of prudence is strictly forbidden. Good thing my heroine isn’t the prudent type.

6. They took care of their own. Pirates were often maimed in the course of spreading mayhem. As part of the articles they signed, payment for loss of an eye or a limb was agreed upon ahead of time. What a way to fund your retirement!

7. They were only deemed pirates if they stole from the wrong people. A privateer—one bearing a Letter of Marque—might commit the very same acts as a pirate, seizing goods and ships, with the blessing of his Sovereign so long as he shared the booty with the Crown. However, if he made the mistake of attacking the wrong ship, even a Letter of Marque couldn’t save him. Captain Kidd mistakenly attacked a British vessel and though he possessed a Letter, it wasn’t enough to save him from the noose and the gibbet.

8. They didn’t just hang a convicted pirate. They made an example of him. First, he was hung with a short rope, so his neck wouldn’t break. Death for a pirate was a protracted public strangulation. His body was left to be covered by three tides, then tarred and put on display in a gibbet as a warning to other seafaring men who might be tempted to piracy. Pirate hangings were treated as holidays by the public. When Gabriel Drake is led to the gallows in How to Please a Pirate, there’s much jostling to secure the best place from which to view the spectacle. These people seriously needed cable TV.

9. They didn’t all fly the Jolly-Roger. Each pirate captain devised his own version of the skull and cross-bones in an effort to appear as fearsome as possible. But if he really wanted to scare the living lights out of his prey, he’d run up a solid red flag. It was a signal that he’d neither give nor accept quarter. He intended to kill every soul on board.

10. Pirates didn’t bury their treasure. A few pirates might cache their goods from time to time (and in How to Please a Pirate, a treasure is rumored to be hidden somewhere in Dragon Caern, Gabriel Drake’s castle). But pirates would never leave a map to indicate where their treasure lies, lest it fall into the wrong hands. Besides, they were more likely to spend their ill-gotten gains in riotous living than to salt it away for their unlikely retirement. There were very few old pirates. “A merry life and a short one” was their motto.

Which just goes to prove what I suspected all along. Pirates just wanna have fun! And as a writer, my way to have fun is uncovering all these facts. Do I use everything I learn in my stories? No. What reader wants an info-dump? But a thorough research of the period lends a flavor of authenticity to a historical romance that readers are looking for. Disappoint them at your peril.

I'd like to offer a chance to win a How to Please a Pirate in the winner's choice of either Kindle or Nook format. All you have to do is leave a comment or question for me to be entered in a random drawing.

Blurb: After earning a royal pardon for his wicked ways, Gabriel Drake decides to play the prodigal and come home to the life of a gentleman. But a change of station doesn’t change his pirate’s heart. And what a pirate wants, a pirate takes.

Mia loves to connect with readers and other writers. Find her at, Facebook & Twitter!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The spiral staircase

It is an age-old challenge to ask someone to describe a spiral staircase while sitting on their hands. This should be a piece of cake for an author of worth (give it a try in the comments). We face much more problematic descriptions in our daily writing.

It has been said that description is one of the three pillars of a good story, the other two being exposition and narrative. Good description draws the reader into the story so that they can picture themselves in the setting, experiencing not only the sights, but the smells and sounds of the environment in which the characters exist.

Good description need not be flowery. In fact, language that is too complex may have the undesired effect of interrupting the reader's descent into the world of your story. They should not have to think about the words but just feel their impact.

Good description need not be long. I vaguely recall making several attempts to read "Tom Bronwn's School Days" in my childhood days. It is a classic, if you can get through what feels like a chapter long description of every inch of the flora along the path that Tom took to school.

As I write these notes, I sit with two books in my lap. One is on descriptive writing and one on writing picture books. Contrary to everything that I said above, to do the latter, one must actually refrain from the former and allow the picture to talk while the text provides poetic lyrics that enhance the image. It almost feels like the author is secondary and I question whether a successful picture book can be created without the visual artist being a part of the vision that created the story.

Neither player (author or illustrator) is secondary in the process of creating a picture book, of course, both compelling images and creative words work together to draw a child in and keep them saying "Mommy, read it again!"

See you on the June 12th! (The year is really flying by.)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Attila in Love

When my archaeological mystery American Caliphate was published in April, I was thrilled.  That was a hard book to write, partly because I set the entire second chapter in sixteenth-century Spain.  Having never been to sixteenth-century Spain, I had to do some careful research to avoid costly and embarrassing anachronisms. 

For example, in one section, a wealthy Moor named Tomas Ibanez is horrified when his son tells him he plans to sail to Peru:

“Do you know who these Spaniards are?”  Tomas asked.  “These men who board ships to seek fortune in the Americas?  They are the ninth and tenth and eleventh sons of every dimwitted turnip farmer from here to Aragon, and half the purse snatchers in Iberia who never mastered their trade.  And those are just the priests.”

It came out nice, but only after many languid days reading old tomes in the bathtub.  Here’s what the original version looked like:

“Holy crap, do you even have an updated resume on craigslist?” Tomas asked.  “Do you even have an H1B visa?  Have you thought this through?  Tech stocks trading through the roof, and you want to take a cruise?  Sure, spend your days on Facebook,and texting away on that Smartphone.  But hey, why listen to me?  I’m the guy who told you not to buy the Escalade, not with gas prices what they are.”

Clearly the research proved worthwhile.  So this week, as I put the finishing touches on my short story Attila in Love, set in fifth century Eurasia, I had to kick myself once again into research mode.

Attila in Love (prior to research)

“Honoria,” Atilla called out, slamming the door.  “Where are you, my significant other? It is I, the great Hun.   I have returned home famished.”

“Be right down,” Honoria called out.  She set her romance novel at the edge of the couch and shook her head wistfully.  “Why can’t men be men, anymore?” she mumbled under her breath.

“There you are.  What, you have nothing prepared for my lunch?  All morning I am out with the pillaging and the sacking, and this is the thanks I get?  The most feared enemy of the Roman Empire, and I can’t even look forward to some Lunchables?”

Honoria kissed him on the cheek.  “Hi, Hun.  I was going to make burritos, remember.  Did you stop by the tortilla place?”
“Do’h.” Atilla smacked his forhead.  “I did, but only to burn it to the ground.  I can remember nothing these days without my Palm Pilot.  Now we shall perish of hunger like common Canadians.”
“Not to worry.”  Honoria swung open the heavy doors of the Sub-Zero and peered inside.  “How about I nuke us up some fondue?”
Atilla softened.  “With Ruffles?”
Honoria got out a family size bag.  “Cool Ranch.  Anything for my baby daddy.”
“Then after lunch I must leave you,” Atilla said, loosening his belt.  “I must meet with my consigliere.  Some of the southern Jersey capos are starting to get jumpy, and I must still cross the Danube before winter or the horses begin to stink.”
“But what about us?”
He took her in his arms.  “We’ll always have Paris.”

Obviously there was work to be done.  So I filled the bathtub with Calgon, got out my encyclopedias and my history books, and set to work.  I think you’ll agree that the following version is much better:

Attila in Love (after research)

“Honoria,” Atilla bellowed, punching through the fetid goat pelt that served as the door of his private quarters.  “Where are you, my concubine?  It is me, the great powerful Hun of Huns.  I have returned home famished.”
“Be right down,” Honoria called out.  She set her romance pamphlet at the edge of the yak and shook her head wistfully.  “Why can’t women be taught to read?” she said under her breath.

“There you are.  What, you have nothing prepared for my lunch?  All morning I am out with the pillaging and the sacking, and this is the thanks I get?  The most feared enemy of the Roman Empire, and I can’t even look forward to some fermented sheep’s bladder and a bowl of spiced mead?”
Honoria kissed him on the cheek.  “Hi, Hun.*  I was going to make steak tartar, remember.  Did you stop by the tartar place?”
“Aaargh,” Atilla smacked his forhead.  “I did, but only to burn it to the ground.  I can remember nothing these days without my scribe slave.  Now we shall perish of hunger like common Visigoths.”
“Not to worry.”  Honoria opened her dowry chest.  “We still have some leftover mutton lung.  Some yak’s butter, a pinch or two of connective tissue, and we’ll have a nice stew.”
Atilla softened.  “With jellied goat jowls?”
Honoria got out a family size bag.  “Cool Ranch jelly.  Anything for my scourge of civilization, and enemy of all that is holy.”
“Then after lunch I must leave you,” Atilla said, loosening his tunic.  “I must meet with my eunuchs.  Some of the southern Goths are starting to get jumpy, and I must still cross the Danube before winter.  Not that I care if the horses begin to stink.”
“But what about us?”
He took her in his arms.  “We’ll always have Paris.  At least until I raze every last standing brick, send her citizens screaming into the river, and ensure that neither grass nor grain will ever again grow where I have trod.  But at least until then, we’ll have Paris.”

In sum, if you want to save yourself from some really dismal cocktail party conversations wherein your friends and neighbors delight in pointing out that the gladiators in your story probably didn’t wear Rolexes, you’d be wise to remember the importance of research.

Note:  I’m not sure if they actually said ‘Hi hun,’ but they should have.

If you get a chance, stop by my blog:  This week I’ll be talking about midcentury footstools.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Power of Free

I am not a big patron of McDonalds, but a few days ago I received a coupon book in the mail that included two coupons for the new Cherry Berry Chiller.  Well I love fruity drinks and I love free stuff, so of course, after months of never gracing the drive thru of a McDonalds, I was stopping by for my free Cherry Berry Chiller.  It did not disappoint.  But in addition to the free drink, I left with a four dollar happy meal for my kids.  Yes, that free drink cost me four dollars.  But guess what?  I was back again a few days later with the second coupon, and again, they earned my patronage.  And now that I know how nice that Cherry Berry Chiller tastes, I’ll be back again, this time probably paying full price for the drink.
Isn’t that the aim of offering free stuff?  Many writers have adopted that method of promotion: offer free books in the hopes that the reader is hooked enough to pay for future products.  It’s a great marketing strategy.  But there is also the flip side. 
For a year I received a monthly coupon from Victoria Secret for one free underwear and ten dollars discount on any bra.  I know their aim was to get me into the store and shopping.  But instead, just got my free panty and left without purchasing anything.  From my myopic standpoint, I would say they invested more than they got in return.  But it could have been worst.
There was a running joke about the Washington Red Skins some time back.  They had been(and probably still is) having a bad decade.  A man holding Red Skins tickets parked his unlocked car in a high crime area and placed two Red Skins tickets on the dash board with the hopes of being robbed.  When he returned to the car, there were two more Red Skins tickets sitting on the dashboard.  The moral of the joke: some things are so bad, they wouldn’t even sell for free.
That is unfortunately the reality for some writers (not all) who offer their short stories free as ebooks.  Not that these books are not downloaded, but they are simply not read past the first page.  Unfortunately for those authors, their names become associated with a bad product.  And then there are those whose free books are read, but they still see no increase in sales. So how can we make offering freebies work for us? 
I’m gonna give a few tips.  But there are people following this blog who have much more experience in that arena than I do, so I’m inviting you to add your two cents.
1.      Generate interest:  Make sure the book title, cover, and first few pages can grab the readers’ interest
2.      Use the free book offer approach for the first book of a series and ensure the characters are interesting enough for readers to salivate for more of their actions
3.      Instead of the whole book free, 1st chapters preview is an excellent mechanism for getting readers hooked.  I’ve bought several books after reading the free Ist chapter preview because I just wanted to find out what happened next.  Some did not disappoint, others are still shelved, unread past those first chapters.
4.      Have a mechanism in place for readers to give you honest open feedback on the free books/book chapters you offer
5.      Never underestimate the power of contests.
Now I haven’t exhausted the list of tips, and I know there are much more ways to make offering freebies work for you.  I know I can speak for many of the Novelspaces authors when I say this, “Please share your ideas on how to make offering freebies work for you.”

Monday, May 21, 2012


What activities count as part of writing a story or novel?

It's not such a silly question. I often spent all day, every day, in my office and not get any actual writing done that week. But not anymore. I recently decided to reserve 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. four days a week to actual writing.

After only a couple of days, I realized I needed to define "writing." Does revising a draft count? (Yes, I decided.) Does reading a general writing book not specifically related to any current works? (No.) What about everything in-between, which I named "parawriting" because it's related to current projects but doesn't involve doing something with an actual manuscript?

To keep myself honest and make sure I put in at least 20 hours of  working on a manuscript, I defined the following as "writing" when keeping track of my 20+ writing hours per week:
  • writing, rewriting, revising, or polishing a manuscript
  • submitting stories to markets
  • researching subjects directly related to a manuscript
  • blogging at the book-related blog "Meal Times"
  • designing book covers, bookmarks, and postcards
  • brainstorming
  • preparing manuscripts for self-publication
  • uploading manuscripts for publication

The following, however, got defined as "parawriting" and don't count toward my minimum of 20 hours a week:
  • booksignings
  • nagging magazines that published my stories but didn't pay me for them
  • critiquing other people
  • attending critique groups
  • attending professional conferences
  • reading background for a actual or potential book or story
  • reading books about becoming a better writer
  • blogging at my personal blog, "For Love of Words," or here at "Novel Spaces"
  • preparing a schedule for my writing week and writing month
  • updating my account book
  • writing reviews at GoodReads or
  • all marketing and promotion (except for designing bookmarks and postcards)
  • straightening my office

Now I'm moving my drafts forward, and I'm getting new words down. Best of all, I'm no longer baffled by not knowing where the time I spend in my office goes. I was devoting too much time to parawriting and not enough to writing.

Parawriting tasks are essential and they are legitimate to do during working hours. But they shouldn't squeeze out actual writing. And now they no longer are for me. Goodbye, frustration! Hello, high productivity!

What is your relationship with parawriting? Are you able to balance parawriting and writing? Or does one squeeze out the other, leaving you unable to proceed?

In my next "Novel Spaces" post, I'll tell you about Conquest, the science fiction and fantasy convention held yearly in Kansas City, which I'm attending this week and weekend. See you on June 6!

—Shauna Roberts

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dishonesty is the second best policy (video games and writing, again)

As I reported in February of last year, my son got me playing video games while recovering from an injury. To a certain extent my interest is legit – I do write for games – but there's no reason for me to actually play any of them. My son, the statistical analyst preparing for a career in game design, has a reason to play all of them; first as a player for the experience, then as a clinician dissecting it to discover how they were put together. My gateway game, the one my son used to lure me into the dark world of X-Box 360, was Borderlands – a first-person shooter/adventure game. (This means the player sees the game world through the eyes of the character; must complete a quest involving many side-journeys or tests, and there's a gun.) It remains my favorite and I'm anticipating the release of Borderlands 2 with more excitement than a wizened elder should. Another favorite of mine is Dark Souls (a third-person sword & sorcery adventure game), but it runs a distant third behind the endlessly amusing Portals series, which jockeys with Borderlands for first in my affections. (You know you've played too much Portals when you think a "There is no cake!" T-shirt is funny.) Portals is non-violent, or at least non-fatal, while the others involve killing enemies of many sorts. But the killing is not the point. Sure, gunning, bowing, swording, etc., are all important skills, but the satisfaction in adventure games is applying strategic and tactical thinking, along with a good bit of puzzle/problem solving, to outthink the game. (Or figuring out what the game's creators were up to.)

What I cannot abide are video role-playing games (RPGs); I have no interest in the Fallout series, the endless Final Fantasies, scrolling Elders, or Mass Effect. These are games in which the player's choices and responses to dialog not only determine the story's path but shape her own character and the artificial characters around her. The plots are complex, with many variables, and the player must direct the actions of her companions in addition to her own. While this may sound like a writer's meat, it is not, at least not for me; the choices are limited, with no outside-the-box options. I dislike playing video RPGs for the same reason I dislike playing dice – I have no real control over outcomes. On the other hand, I really enjoy discussing and dissecting these games with my son. His heart belongs to adventure/role-playing games, and that's where he's planning to stake his future. We spend hours going over the stories and decisions trees of various games; weighing what works, what doesn't, and why.

Which is how I've come to know so much about BioWare's Mass Effect series and the controversy surrounding the final conclusion of the three-game saga. The ending of Mass Effect 3 (ME3) so upset players there were protests to the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau. (Do I need to warn folks the rest of this column is hip-deep in ME3 spoilers?) I don't know if the FTC responded, but the BBB ruled that the game's developers "falsely advertised about their claims regarding the player's control over the game's outcome.". (If you follow that link and scroll to the bottom of the page, you'll find a video explaining the outrage, complete with scenes from the game to illustrate. Don't be thrown off by the gender-flipping hero in the clips – players choose whether Shepherd, their alter ego in the game, is male or female.)

I have spent way too many hours trying to trim the Mass Effect saga down to something less than 5000 words, but I can't do it. Plus anything over 1000 would bore everyone not interested in the game to tears. Suffice it to say that in order to reach the end of the third game, a player has invested 180 to 240 hours in front of the screen making choices and solving mysteries that lead up to the final moment: As Shepherd (the player) is dying s/he is given three options, three imperfect choices - each with both benefits and consequences - to end the galaxy-wide war that is destroying all civilizations. You can bet many players paused the game and considered all potential consequences before deciding. But, no doubt with some trepidation, they made their final, climactic choice and…
It made no difference.
No matter which of the three options the player chooses, everything goes boom (with galaxy map showing booms everywhere), followed by a short movie (aka "cut scene") of all Shepherd's friends surviving a spaceship crash-landing in a verdant jungle, then stumbling out of the wreckage to survey their new world. Roll credits. After the credits there's a short film of an old man, ostensibly a great grandchild of the crash survivors (and voiced by real astronaut Buzz Aldrin), standing with his grandson in a field looking up at a starry sky. They discuss the legend of "the Shepherd" and then vow that someday humanity would return to the stars.

This ending is something of a cliché in science fiction, an overworked trope that can be done well – and as such endings go, the boy and grandfather considering the stars is acceptable. BUT. Shepherd's mission through three epic games has been to unite disparate races, convince life-long enemies to overcome their hatred, lead xenophobes to embrace that which they fear, and unite the races in forming a galaxy-wide alliance to face a common foe. Every event in the game is dependant on choices the player makes; and to reach the final, climactic decision the player has made thousands of choices. After the equivalent of ten days in front of the screen, she is heavily invested in how the saga ends. And when the saga does end, it's a 10-minute movie revealing everything she'd done had been pointless, nothing could change the final outcome.

What has that got to do with writing? Everything. Every ending must proceed from the story – no matter how tragic or triumphant, the ending must complete the story and satisfy the reader. Even a surprise ending (especially a surprise ending) must be prefigured, with evidence clearly in place. Even if the reader does not like the ending of your story, she must be able to see why and how the tale reached that resolution. Because when the reader knows you respect her enough to treat her fairly and respect your craft enough to tell a story honestly, even if she'd prefer a different ending to this story, she'll be willing to take a chance on your next. And that's how you build a relationship.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I Love the Smell of A Deadline In the Morning!

Okay, not really, but I do love the way that headline sounded.

However, the sentiment’s actually not too far off my true feelings when it comes to deadlines. As a writer, I’ve found over the years that I tend to thrive on them. A deadline, after all, is the finish line in the race you run every time you accept a commissioned writing project, or write something with an eye toward making the due date for a submissions call. I know that other people hate deadlines or due dates of any sort, but I welcome them. They’re a stake in the ground; a target over which I may have little or no control beyond my responsibility for hitting it. Heck, they’re a dare, aren't they?

“Catch me if you can,” they taunt.

I’ve mentioned before that if I’m left to my own devices and with no external concerns driving my writing output, I tend to meander along. On the other hand, if I’m working to meet someone’s delivery date or other expectations? That sort of thing never fails to get my juices flowing. When it comes to paid writing, I love the structure of working to set due dates. For one thing, it allows me to budget and schedule my writing time in conjunction with other commitments (day job, family, household chores, other appointments, and so on).

Further, as I absolutely loathe missing any deadline, that only amps up the “competitive nature” of the whole process. To hear a lot of editors talk, the writer who consistently hits their deadlines—while providing clean writing, too boot—is a rarity; something to be treasured and nurtured. I like being one of those writers, so a deadline better watch out when it gets tagged to one of my projects. So long as I have anything to say about it, that sucker is going down, in flames which will be visible from space.

Even without the formal agreement of a contract and payment in place, I still dig deadlines. Take this website, for instance. Aside from the obvious answer that I liked what I was reading here, I accepted the offer to join the Novel Spaces team because I was intrigued by the idea of having to produce what I hope is an entertaining, informative article each month, while adhering to a regular schedule. As much as my intention is provide something interesting (I hope) for you to read, it’s also an exercise and even a challenge for me. Some months, the topic comes with no effort, whereas other times I’m scrambling for something about which to write mere hours before it’s supposed to be posted. This month, it was just such a dilemma that prompted this topic. “You like deadlines so much,” I told myself, “tell people about that. Some folks will think you’re out of your frappin’ mind. In other words, it’s Wednesday.”

Elsewhere, I supply a segment to a weekly internet radio show. The premise is fairly basic: The hosts send me a question from one of the show’s listeners during the days leading up to each week’s broadcast, and I supply an answer to be read on air. The questions run the gamut from serious to silly, reflective to ridiculous, wonderful to wacky. Other than truly offensive topics, nothing is off limits. Most of the time, I wait until the night before the answer is due before I even set to writing it. If I’m feeling particularly daring, I won’t even read the question before then. Why? For reasons surpassing understanding and perhaps even sanity, I love the rush of trying to be creative and—and in this case—funny on a deadline.

Ah, pressure, you saucy thing: How I love you so.

How about you? Do you thrive on the pressure of a deadline, or fear it? If it’s the latter, how do you cope? If you’re one of the crazy types like me, how do you go about beating those due dates into submission?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Guest author Gary William Murning: Visiting an Old Friend

 Gary William Murning lives in the north-east of England and has published three novels to date. His third novel, The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, has been described as "a complex supernatural thriller […] to be savoured" and is available here and from all good bookstores. 

My first real introduction to the world of books, the one that made me want to write, occurred in the late 1970s, early 1980s when I first stumbled across horror writers like Stephen King, Peter Straub, William Peter Blatty and the lesser-known but extremely imaginative Ray Russell. These, among others, were the gentleman who fired my imagination, took me into worlds that seemed real beyond belief (in spite of their vampires and daemons), and who helped me see that writing was not something reserved for the intelligentsia—for college graduates, gentlemen with bifocals and pipes or well-read but very plain ladies in twinsets. Through their entertaining and, yes, sometimes very thought-provoking work, I discovered the compulsion to write—the driving force that hasn't left me since and which has, on the whole, taken me far beyond the horror genre into territories then unimagined.

Wherever our writing might take us, however, those initial formative encounters can't be ignored for too long. Following my early efforts at writing horror fiction—dire attempts, extremely derivative and often rejected with phrases like "you have a lot to learn about the narrative form"—I found as my ability developed a love for other forms of fiction, trying my hand at tragicomedy and realising that I was (at that time, at least) better suited to writing in other genres. Nonetheless, it was horror fiction that paved the way—and as I was recently compelled to revisit my old, much maligned friend with my latest novel The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, I thought I'd today like to talk about the value of horror/dark fiction and, briefly, why we need it.

The most idyllic childhood is often a very dark place. During daylight hours, all is often ostensibly well. The sun shines (I'm from the UK, so I use the phrase in its loosest possible sense), the world and the people around you generally do what they're supposed to and the rules seem very much well set. And then night-time comes along with its darkness and witch-finger shadows and its seemingly unending opportunity to dream …

In the imagination, not only of the child, but of adults, many daemons lurk and cackle. I'm quite sure I don't need to explore the specific natures of such forces. If we haven't experienced them ourselves, we most surely know someone who has—and perhaps the one thing that makes so many of these real-life horrors so terrifying is the struggle faced in finding some kind of resolution.

Whilst working on The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts it seems fair to say that this was my most important discovery (or rediscovery—because I was only articulating ideas grasped intuitively all those years ago); horror fiction often takes us into the most shocking and disturbing of places but, at its best, it offers something that in one form or another provides a kind of understanding, an order from the chaos that so often reassures. At times almost biblical in its good versus evil battle, the genre allows the reader to explore—in a safe, controlled environment—that which he or she might otherwise hide away in some dusty, repressive corner of his or her mind.

Cathartic? Maybe not—not in any obvious, clinical sense. Nevertheless, horror serves a purpose. Its heritage, with the likes of Matthew Gregory Lewis, Mary Shelley, Henry James and others all trying their hands at it at one time or another, is a fine and, I would argue, respectable one. So often tainted by its image of a genre purely associated with unthinking violence and limitless gore, it is in fact—in many cases—a creative arena of exploration and cultural analysis.

Horror is a mirror held up to the face of the societies we inhabit. The reflections may often be distorted and misty but I for one considered myself fortunate to see myself in its images, and to return—however briefly—to its analytical gaze whilst writing The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My New World

Hi novelnauts,

I am back from my trip to South Africa. It was my last big trip in Africa for now and the completion of my wish to taste a bit of different aspects of the continent, Francophone Africa (Togo and Benin), the North (Egypt), the West (Ghana), the East (Tanzania) and then the South. The only thing that I had heard about South Africa growing up is Apartheid, so I was truly amazed at the beauty and charm of the country. It was a fulfilling trip.

Exploring the history of apartheid was, of course, a big part of our agenda in Johannesburg and one stop was the incredibly well laid out Apartheid Museum. It was extremely informative, but one item that captured my attention, or the attention of the author in me was Timeliners, a series of Apartheid comics books that were being distributed for free. There are two in the series so far, and they are about a boy who found a time-travel machine, traveled into various points in the past and experienced first-hand some of the major events in South African apartheid history. The books are well-written and you quickly forget that they are actually trying to teach you some history. My children and I were hooked and my whole trip to South Africa was justified from a writing perspective.

I have been working on an idea for two years now, a particular theme that I would like to discuss with children through books and it finally hit me (sorry, I can be a bit dense at times) that comic books, well-crafted, are the answer. A few days after returning to Ghana, I met an interesting woman lovingly called "Mama Loo" (yes, as in the bathroom), who helped some children design a comic book that clearly shows some key and basic aspects of proper hygiene. I felt as if my fate was sealed.

Writing for a comic book is more like writing a screen play than writing a book. In a way, the artist will be the key, my words - supporting players. I have lots of work and research to do, and it will be years before I can fulfill this new dream but I am excited and ready for the journey.

See you all again on May 27th!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Naked & The Damned

With the advent of print-on-demand technology, self-publishing, and e-publishing, it’s never been easier to publish a book.  And it’s never been harder to sell one. 

Nearly gone are the days when you could hope to see your book on a bookstore shelf.  In fact, if your book is on a bookstore shelf, you’re either already a famous author, or you trundled your own copies to your local bookstore to sell on spec.  The new reality is online.  Online is where books sell, but unless you have a great title, your book won’t be among them.

Write whatever you want, and write it well.  Figure out your online presence, your platform (that’s actually a whole topic unto itself), but central to any successful publication endeavor are a good cover and a good title. 

A good cover is harder than you think, and that’s where most self-publishers understandably get hung up.  Art is hard.  Art is what artists work hard to get good at.  A stock photo of two people holding hands on a beach with a 24-point Comic Sans title isn’t a good cover, and it isn’t going to generate any sales for Beach Lovin.’  And you shouldn’t have called it Beach Lovin’ in the first place, because it’s a dumb title. 

You’ll need to drop some money or some talent up front to get a good cover.  Otherwise, you’ll pay later in the form of lackluster sales and soul-crushing disillusionment.  Good covers might be hard, but good titles are not.  The problem is that we spent so much time working on the story, we neglect to put in the work to come up with a good title. 

Case in point:  Disney Movies, the folks who created Monsters, Inc, The Little Mermaid, and Toy Story, suffered a collective corporate embolism recently.  How do you take a story about a civil war soldier who gets teleported to Mars, and call it John Carter

Sorry, I just fell asleep there for a second.  Seriously, even calling it “The Guy who Got Teleported to Mars” would have been a step up.  If you ever write anything about Mars, rule number one is that the title must contain the word “Mars.”  Rules number two and three: the title must not contain the words “John” or “Carter.”

So the trick is to figure out what your story is about, and then take whatever time you need to develop a title that will grab a reader’s attention.  In today’s competitive publishing world, unless you can hook a reader with your title, it isn’t going to matter what you wrote because nobody will read it. 

That also means that you can indulge any obscure interest you like, and people will read your story if it has a great title.  For example, I’ve always wanted to write about two great passions of mine: semi-aquatic riparian zone rodents, and naturism.  My working title was “Semi-Aquatic Riparian Zone Rodents, and Naturism,” or SARZRN for short.

SARZRN - Chapter 1

Gary stepped softly, the rocks cool to his bare feet.  Rounding the next bend, he spotted the first beaver of the day.  He crouched down behind a boulder, chafing his backside against another boulder.  The beaver was huge, fifty pounds at least, its hair matted with mud and sticks.  Gary focused his camera and snapped his first shot.  Hearing the shutter click, the beaver threw its head back, startled.  “Easy,” Gary whispered.  “Easy.”

If you’re like me, not only do you love writing about riparian-zone rodents, you love reading about them too.  What’s going to happen to Gary next?  You want to know, don’t you?  But if you’re still like me, you should already be thinking about a better title.

SARZRN - Chapter 2

Pausing to apply yet another layer of sunscreen to his stomach, Gary watched the beaver swim out to the middle of the stream where two others made quick work of a pile of saplings, building their dam.  Suddenly, they stopped and turned toward the far bank.  “What’s this?”  Gary whispered to himself as a hiker came down the trail to the edge of the stream.  She was gorgeous. 

“Good morning, beavers,” she shouted, her voice piercing the morning silence, shattering his calm and sending the animals scurrying in every direction.

Gary watched in panic as she stomped across the stream, splashing his beloved beavers.  “Please,” he begged.  “Can you not make so much noise?”

She drew back, startled.  “Who are you?”


“Hi, Gary.”  She extended her hand.  “I’m Flo.  Why are you naked?”

You’re thinking love interest, aren’t you?  And let’s face facts, this is already the most fascinating story about beavers you’ve read in weeks.

SARZRN - Conclusion

“I’m a nudist,” Gary said, moving in for a hug, “or a naturist as we prefer to be called.  What about you?  What are you doing out here in the riparian zone, which means ‘by the stream?’  Are you lost?”

“No,” she said, holding up her book.  “I just came out to find a quiet place to read.”

Gary leaned in to read the title.  “Beach Lovin.’  Is it any good?”

“It is, but few people have heard of it, and sales are dismal.  What are you doing out here?”

“I study beavers in their natural habitat.  It really excites me.”

“I can see that.” 

Gary smiled and held her hand.


The moral of the story is as follows:  you can write whatever you like, but nobody is going to read it unless you hook them with a good title.  My beaver story is better than most, but you’d probably never give it a second glance unless I gave it a better title, something like “The Naked and the Damned.”

And if you get a chance, stop by my blog - it’s all about 18th century Dutch tax law.  You can find it at 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Name that Book

Have I ever mentioned how terrible I am with titles?  I can come up with plots, scenes, characters… but naming a story continues to be the bane of my writing existence.  In fact, even naming pets and children have proven difficult.

 My first cat was simply called “Pussy.”  My gold fish was called, you guessed it, “Fishy.”  I recall going into labor at thirty-three weeks with my first child and my husband and I going through names while I’m being prepped for an emergency C-section.  By the time the baby was born, we only had girl names.  Thank God it turned out to be a girl.  For my second child, I had the guests at my baby shower play “Name that baby”.  Up to her birth we still did not have a name and settled on one that we'd previously considered during the mad rush to name our first child five years earlier.  With my last child, we actually left the hospital without naming him.  Thank God in our city we have up to a year to submit the name of a child to the birth registry.
Now I’m at that point again.  I’ve almost completed my WIP and I don’t have a name for it.  I’ve done all kinds of permutations and can’t think of a suitable catchy name that will tell what the story is about.  So I’m going to do something that hasn’t been done on Novelspaces before.  We’re going to play, “Name that book.”  I will give a very brief synopsis of my WIP and you will suggest a name that is both catchy and tells something about the book.  Whoever chooses the winning name will win their choice of, “A Marriage of Convenience” or “Holiday Brides.”  Here goes...

Kyle, a hard-partying young American and, Alia, an ambitious indigenous Caribbean beauty queen despise each other.  But as fate would have it, they are thrown together during a devastating hurricane. During the hardship following the hurricane they both make incredible selfless sacrifices that bring out the best in them. Not only do they gain respect for each other, but they find themselves falling in love.  Unfortunately, they know their love has no future once Kyle leaves the island.  Kyle invites her to America with him, but Alia is reluctant.  Despite losing her home and her job, Alia knows her place is with her people helping to rebuild her country.  After a magical whirlwind romance, Kyle finally convinces Alia to return the States with him.  That’s when the real difficulties begin. Kyle’s family and friends are uncomfortable with the new, more mature Kyle.   Convinced that Alia is an opportunist, they make every effort to tear them apart. Kyle and Alia must decide whether their love that withstood the terrible aftermath of the hurricane, could withstand the pressures of Kyle’s family and friends.
I’m depending on you to help me find a name for this nameless story.  Let the name game begin!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Indie Publishing: The New Author - Doing It All

It used to be so simple. Excruciating, depressing, and usually doomed to failure - but simple.

The writer wrote a book then tried to find a literary agent to sell it. IF s/he found one and IF the book sold to a traditional publisher, all was well; being published brought its own trials, but s/he had crossed over onto hallowed 'published' ground. For the ones who did not succeed in selling to a traditional publisher, there were options: stop writing, write on in the hope that one day a publisher would be interested in something, or go the self-publishing route, often referred to as vanity publishing.

Publishing oneself, just a few years ago, was the mark of 'failed writer'. Reviewers wouldn't touch the books. Bookstores wouldn't buy them. Few readers knew they existed and many regarded them as poorly written, unedited 'slush pile' rejects. These blighted books piled up in boxes in authors' garages and slowly mouldered along with the dreams of their creators while the owners of vanity presses laughed all the way to the bank.

Much has changed in the space of a few years, fuelled by digital technology, the print-on-demand model, Amazon, e-readers, Smashwords, tablets, smart phones, social media - revolutionizing the way books are marketed and read. Bestselling, traditionally published authors are 'going indie', the new label that attempts to circumvent the pejorative connotations of the term 'self-publishing'. Indie authors are appearing on bestseller lists, even brand new indie authors.

When my agent sold my first book in 2007 I believed I'd follow the same pattern for every book I ever wrote: submit to agent, who would submit to publishers, who would take control of the works from there on out. I never thought I'd publish a book myself; that meant 'failed author', remember? I never thought I'd become a New Author.

What is a New Author? He or she:

  • Has been traditionally published at some point, or
  • Has never been traditionally published, or
  • Is both traditionally and indie published, or
  • Is an established writer who indie publishes only his or her backlist.
  • Makes all crucial decisions regarding his or her books, from cover designs to release dates, pricing to promotion.
  • Is often a writer, publisher, cover designer, editor and publicist, among other  things.
  • Is savvy enough to hire experts to do the jobs he or she can't do effectively such as cover design and formatting for various digital platforms.
  • Knows the value of professional editing and never puts a self-edited, sub-standard book peppered with errors on the market.
  • Earns royalties of 35-85 percent of sales compared to the 2-15 percent that obtained previously.

Are you a New Author? Are you doing it all? How is this working for you? Please share your stories with us.

Liane Spicer is the author of two contemporary romance novels, Café au Lait (Dorchester 2008) and Café Noir (May 2012). She also writes mainstream, literary and speculative fiction under a variety of pen names. Find her on Facebook and Twitter (@Wordtryst Press).

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why I Probably Won't Buy Your Self-Published Book

I have nothing against independent publishing. In fact, my two Kindles probably contain hundreds of books between them, I have many friends who self-publish, and I intend to self-publish an e-book later this year. I like saving money. I like not having to buy more bookcases.

But most of the intriguing-sounding independently published e-books I take a look at on  I don't buy...even when they're free. I don't want to waste my time downloading or starting to read a bad book. So I take a careful look at the e-book's page first. And I often find warning signs that a book is poorly written, poorly edited (and thus unreadable for me, although I know people who don't notice poor editing), or both.

These are the clues I use to decide whether a book is badly written or edited:
  • The title contains a misspelling or a grammar error.
  • The title is stupid or a cliché. (Word play on a cliché is okay.)
  • The descriptive paragraph contains more than two misspellings or grammar errors.
  • Most or all of the sentences in the descriptive paragraph are confusing or awkward.
  • The descriptive paragraph contains so many vague words I have no idea what the book is about.
  • The descriptive paragraph makes the book sound just like 2,000 other Tolkien take-offs.
  • The described plot contains standard-issue vampires, werewolves, fairies, or other stock fantasy characters with no apparent original twist.
  • Most of the good reviews read as if they were written by people who don't usually read books or who have never written a review before. (Family member alert!)
  • Most of the reviews are full of grammar errors, bad sentences, and misspellings, making me skeptical of the reviewers' ability to recognize a good book if they saw one.
  • The bad reviews mention poor editing or formatting.
  • The bad reviews discuss at length the lack of plot, poor plotting, paper-thin characters, unbelievable actions, or other evidence of poor writing.
Unfortunately, 80% or 90% of the e-books I'm tempted by have at least one of these flaws, and I move on.
Do you care about poor editing or formatting in the e-books you read? If a book is free, are you willing to read it even if the story bores or irritates you? Or are you fussy, like me, in what books you choose to purchase, download, and read?

I'm glad you stopped by my post today. I'll be blogging again on May 21. Hope to see you then!

—Shauna Roberts

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Books vs Movies

LynnE Header
As an author I sometimes go missing - from the virtual world. So please don’t be offended because I haven’t commented on articles here at NS. It’s nothing personal, nor is it a commentary on your post. I was finishing a book. Need I say more?

Now that I’m coming up for air, I’m doing what I normally do when celebrating another book finished. Feeding my addiction for movies and great television. Sadly the only series that has me scheduling my writing and social life around it is Fringe. The last time I was this hooked, I was watching Torchwood. I've also been bingeing on Netflix movies. And all that got to me thinking about the movies that lived up to or were better than the books, and those that fell flat with me.

Here is my list and score card (not by any means a complete list of all I’ve seen):
  • The Godfather – I couldn’t put the book down . I was delighted that movie was just as riveting. (The movie sequels were hit and miss).
  • The Exorcist – I was up all night reading this book. Seriously, I would not go to bed. Then I was scared out of my mind for a week. The movie was awful. I laughed like it was a comedy. Please don’t judge this book based on the movie. Please.
  • A Gathering of Old Men – How I loved this book. The movie wasn’t bad, but it definitely wasn’t as good as the book in terms of pacing, sly humor and compelling characters.
  • The Women of Brewster’s Place – Okay, so this was a television series but the same holds. The book is fabulous. The series episodes no less. Each episode left me wanting more.
  • Waiting To Exhale – movie was just “okay”, not a keeper by any means. The book caused me to hurt myself howling with laughter and screaming, “Girl, yes! I’ve thought that, too!”
  • The Green Mile – The books blew me away. I waited until they were all published as one big compilation. The movie was stunningly good. I had a pile of soggy tissues in my lap at the end.
  • There Eyes Were Watching God – Put the book down at the end and went, “Wow.” I disagree with a lot of critics. Halle was stunning, the movie was fab.u.lous.
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – I read all three books in a week. Need I say more? I just watched the movie finally. If I hadn’t read the book, the movie would have confused the heck out of me. Overall it was “okay”. But the actress that played Lisbeth was scary good. Daniel Craig just has to show up and I’m happy. Okay, call me superficial.
The challenge of turning a book into a movie is that books have such an advantage. So much more can go into the book that has to be left out of movies (unless they do a miniseries, but even then they have to cut). So I empathize when a movie just doesn’t pack the same punch. I’m even more loud in my praise when it does, because that takes wonderful writing and directing (and acting of course). I learn so much watching shows like Lost Girl, Fringe, Torchwood and great movies. I think it has improved my writing. Some of those scriptwriters/directors create episodes that leave me speechless, and while the credits rolls I bow and say, “Your Highness!” LOL

So what books-to-movies have blown you away? Which have made you say, “You should have left it alone, dude!”? Do you think your writing has been changed after seeing a good, or bad, movie/series?

(P.S. I didn’t mention After All, my book made into a movie of the same name. I thought the movie was okay, but I thought of all kinds of ways it could have been done with more “oomph”. But hey, it has 4 1/2 stars on Amazon!)