Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Guest author Genella deGrey: What I did on my summer vacation

Last August, I boldly went where I hadn't gone before:  To Hawaii. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I knew I was up for a feast of the senses, which of course was the most exciting part. The least exciting part was that I knew I was going to be alone. Now don’t get me wrong, I'm not a scaredy-cat, I can drive great distances alone, go to downtown LA by myself, I can even navigate my way through Hollywood at night to go clubbing... I just wanted to have someone to share it all with, ya know? I can’t help it; I judge the monumental experiences of my life by how romantic they were. I totally understand that this could be considered a personality flaw to which I would shrug my shoulders and utter, “Deal with it, if ye be a man.” ;)

Now, the universe doesn’t always give us what we want, but it’s really good at giving us what we need . . . and someday it will become clear to me why I spent four glorious days in my own company. *eye roll*

Anyway, today I’d like to explore a couple of non-romantic reasons to “vacate” - especially geared toward writers - the position we normally stay in for long periods of time.

So, why step away from work/the computer?
Well, one reason could be to encounter views like these:

Now, that’s not to say that you NEED to head to an exotic locale where the landscape alone causes your spine to turn to jelly. Even a trip to a local park can be a refreshing break.

Go ahead, try some alone time. Don’t get me wrong, I love my 7 year-old as if he were my right arm, but sometimes I need my “me” time. And even though it seems I crave romance at every turn, there are times I need to get away from it all (keeping in mind that I live in a city with about eight million other people.)

Even when I was a little kid, I used to climb up onto the back wall, sit and stare at the sky and just ... think. In my high school years I would climb up the fire escape of our condo to the roof and do the same. Was I taking a breather, did I need the quiet time or my own personal space? Whatever the reason, this alone time served to sooth my soul.

These days as an adult, sunset is my favorite time of day. There is something inherently calming to me about a beautiful sky on the verge of night. Here are a few pix I took in Hawaii as evening fell:

Ah, just looking at those shots makes me feel a chill.

A change of routine for writers in and of itself once in a while can turn into an essay of sorts – certainly something you can tuck away to use at another date.  This sort of exercise is essential for those of us who create sometimes entire worlds out of nothing. We need new or different sights, smells and various other uncommon-to-us stimuli so that our writing doesn’t become stale or over-used. Try this: take a blanket, a snack and just chill for an hour or two. You will be surprised at the sundry new perceptions you pick up on. Just be sure to escape with the intention of bringing something new to your awareness. Whether you head to the park or sit in the middle of a shopping mall or even the local coffee shop, take a note book or journal and jot down what you are feeling, seeing, smelling, etc. Then do it with your eyes closed and things will shift a bit, making you more aware – you may even find something you didn’t when your eyes were open. You might be inspired with a new story line or character, but whatever the case, I guarantee you will find a place in one of your WIPs to place bits of this particular sensory exercise.

Venture out, do something different, surround yourself with things and people under normal circumstances unknown to yourself – and don’t forget to take notes. You might find something in the process that will surprise you. You might even find  . . . YOU!

Remember when attempting this exercise – no, you don’t have to check with your doctor – LOL, but where ever you go, whatever you do, even if it’s to gain a sense of clarity, do it with a specific intention in mind. This will put you into the mind-set of achieving that which you wish to accomplish.

Happy reading, happy writing and happy holidays everyone!
Genella deGrey's website 
Her Facebook fan page

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dial D for Dialogue

As a longtime writer, I have always believed that the heart of a story is crisp, right to the point dialogue.

I am all for strong narrative, description, scenery, thoughts, and other elements that make for a great novel. However, what comes out of the mouths of characters can make or break the book.

For instance, if your protagonist just goes on and on while saying little of substance, it can definitely weigh down the novel and cause the plot to drag.
On the other hand, if a character has something worth saying, that can be said in as few words as possible while still moving the story along, then that will hold the attention of the reader and give the writer something to build on.

Beyond that, I enjoy hearing what people have to say in fiction, as opposed to telling us what they are doing and thinking. I believe this breathes life into any plot and make the characters seem real. The latter is especially true when the dialogue comes from the heart or soul of character and is spoken in real language rather than scripted words as is often found in screenplays and teleplays.

Do you prefer more or less dialogue as a writer or reader?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Writer's Crossroads

Three children had fallen into the crater of a volcano and I had no way to help them get out.

To make matters worse, they were my children, or they had been for the last few weeks and four chapters of my WIP, the fourth book in the Caribbean Adventure Series.

I was as stuck as they were, unable to move the adventure forward. I was suffering from the much discussed writer's block. Finally, after staring at the page for many more days, (dare I say weeks?) than I care to mention, I remembered a bit of advice about overcoming a block. That writer suggested that one solution to writer's block was to rewrite the scene, come at it from a different angle.

So, I, very reluctantly, took the kids back the way they came out of the volcano and took a second shot. It worked. This time they found a solution to that issue and moved forward to the next.

What techniques do you use to kick start your writing if it stalls?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Suspense Part Two

In my last post, I talked about “quick” and “slow” suspense. Quick suspense is fast off the page by calling the reader’s attention immediately to a threat, like a ticking bomb. However, quick suspense depends more on universal threats than character specific ones, and will always be weaker than “slow” suspense, which develops when characters the reader cares about are threatened. Below are some ways that, I think, writers can create the slower and superior type of suspense. These are techniques I used in my thriller, Cold in the Light.

Characters need to be vulnerable for slow suspense to develop, and they need to be sympathetic. This is why many thriller and horror writers use children as characters, and why women are often victims in such stories. These types of characters are at least perceived as being more vulnerable, and therefore evoke sympathy in the reader. A threat against a character the reader cares about is far more effective than one against a character the reader doesn’t.

Most thrillers and horror novels have some characters whose sole purpose is to get killed to show how dangerous the villain is. While the loss of such characters does help establish the villain persona, they do little to increase slow suspense. What does increase slow suspense is the loss of a character who the reader already cares about. If one such character is lost, the ante is raised for all the characters, and the reader perceives the threats as more serious for everyone. The more genuine the risks appear to the reader, the more slow suspense increases.

The environment in which characters move is, in many cases, at least as important as the characters and action. In Cold in the Light, for example, much of the action takes place at night and in the woods. The villains are at home in both. The heroes are not. Harsh environments put another strain on the character; they make his or her life harder, and if the reader cares about them, this ups the ante for the reader.

Since the days of matinee serials, and before, writers have known the value of a cliffhanger for creating tension and suspense. Page turners are page turners because the page the reader just finished generates a “need to know” feeling for what happens next--on the following page. But cliffhangers work best if they come out of goal directed behavior for the characters.
For heroes, cliffhangers occur when they meet an obstacle on their way to a goal. It seems like they are about to reach safety and, “boom,” something gets in the way. The reader is left wondering what the characters are going to do to get around this new problem.

In contrast, cliffhangers happen with villains when obstacles are removed from their path. Since the reader’s hopes lie with the heroes, when the villain acquires a new weapon, or some knowledge, or some advantage, this rackets up the reader’s suspense. The reader wonders: “What is he/she/it going to do with their new information or new weapon?”

When seen from the point of view of a character, the details they focus on can do much to increase suspense. Imagine a mall. Not unusual at all. But this mall has no people in it. It’s empty, totally empty. Silent. You pass the food court and see food sitting on the tables. Coffee still steams. Food looks half eaten. But no one is around. Then comes a sound, a boom boom, boom boom. You try to place it. It seems familiar. And you realize, it sounds like a giant beating heart. Choosing the right details guides the reader’s perceptions, and their mood. It sets them up to wonder, “what comes next?” And that is the “heart” of suspense.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Procrastination is the thief of time

For the second (or is it third?) year in a row my post falls on Thanksgiving Day. I originally was going to post on things I am thankful for, traditions and holidays in general. However, Liane’s post, Carpe Diem - Again, struck a note with me. Why? Because I recently missed a great opportunity.

My mother is an excellent storyteller. I spent years sitting at her feet listening to her tell old folk stories animatedly. And though the stories were repetitive, I could listen to them over and over again. I had always dreamed of writing and publishing some of those old stories. Indeed I have written a few. But one of my other dreams was to preserve those stories as told by my mother in her dramatic fashion so that my kids could hear them.

For years I procrastinated. I blamed it on the distance. I haven’t lived in the same area as my mother since 1993. I waited to get a video recorder. I waited for when we were without the distraction of a million family members talking all at once. I waited…

Well my mother is now eighty-one years old and has survived a stroke and a heart attack. I decided it was time to get those stories. So for two weeks when she visited me, I got my video and audio recorder and I tried to get her to tell those old favorite stories with all the gusto that she used to when I was little. But there was a problem: my mother can no longer remember the stories. I had to prompt her and remind her of the stories. I knew there were many more than the few I remembered, but my mother was unable to recall them. I had waited much too long.

I can think of a few cliché’s to sum it up. Chief among them is “procrastination is the thief of time.” I am thankful that I got a few stories out of her, but disappointed that many of the stories are lost forever since the culture of oral storytelling is quickly disappearing.

So I’ll join Liane in saying, “Carpe Diem.”

And well, since it is Thanksgiving, enjoy family, friends, feasts, and turkey. Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Carpe diem - again

Raymond on the peak of 
El Tucuche, Nov. 2010   
My first piano teacher was a short, rotund, elderly nun. Sister Lucy was so ravaged with what I now believe to be osteoporosis that her upper back was U-shaped and her chin rested on her chest. She could barely manage to show me the proper placement of fingers on keys, but her keystrokes as she demonstrated the movements were strong and sure. She had clear grey eyes magnified by her glasses and was a gentle soul. I think she came from Ireland like the other foreign nuns at St. Joseph's Convent and it was under her tutelage, in one of the tiny music rooms that barely managed to fit a piano, two stools and a metronome, that I discovered the joy of playing something that at least approximated music. I distinguished myself under her guidance - far more so than under her successor, a chain-smoking, gentlemanly English lady who terrified me.

I graduated from high school and went out into the not-so-wide world of work in the same town where I had gone to school, and every once in awhile I'd remember sweet Sister Lucy and resolve to go and visit her. I never got around to it, and when I heard that she had died, along with remorse at my procrastination, I began to understand that for most young people, the reality and inevitability of death is not a concept that can readily be grasped. I realized then that putting off a visit to an elderly person means that when you're ready to make the effort, the person might be gone - forever.

Which brings me to November 2010 and an e-mail I received from an elderly gentleman here in Trinidad. I had written a blog post about hiking my favourite mountain, El Tucuche. He told me he had discovered the post and enjoyed it tremendously because that was also his favourite hike and he had scaled the peak more than 100 times in his ninety years. In fact, he had celebrated his ninetieth birthday just weeks before by climbing El Tucuche once again, a feat that attracted quite a bit of media coverage.

When I finally wrapped my head around what my new friend, Raymond, had achieved, I told him he had become my inspiration: I could think of nothing I'd love more than to be able to repeat his feat if I lived to his age. We began corresponding, found each other on Facebook, and he invited me to join him on his next hike in early 2011. This one would be to Paria Waterfall, a lovely trek along the north coast and into the forest that I had undertaken several times in my earlier hiking years. I decided to work on improving my fitness so that when Raymond and his group next hiked El Tucuche I'd be ready.

The hike to Paria was postponed four times. We had an unseasonably rainy dry season and the weather simply refused to cooperate with our plans. When the hike finally came off I didn't go; Raymond had probably tired of having to call and tell me about postponements and didn't want to disappoint me again. The next time we communicated was in July when my niece graduated and he left a gracious comment on her photo on my Facebook page. By this time the true rainy season was in full pour and hiking was out of the question. The months flew by imperceptibly.

Three weeks ago Raymond contacted me on Facebook and told me he had suffered a heart attack three months before, but was on the mend and spending several days a week in his store. I was assailed by a sense of urgency; I told my friend I'd visit him at his store that week. He said he was looking forward to finally meeting me face to face. I asked if he would be at the store on Thursday or Friday. When two days passed and I did not hear from him I felt a deep foreboding. That Friday night I left a message on his page: "Well, maybe another week. Thinking of you and hoping you're okay, Raymond." The next time I visited his Facebook page I learned he had died on November 10, three days after his ninety-first birthday.

It felt like Sister Lucy all over again. I will never be able to hike and not think of Raymond pounding those trails in his nineties. He is indeed my inspiration to seize the day and to understand that living fully has no correlation with the number of birthdays accumulated.

Write that book. Sail that ocean. Climb those mountains; Raymond climbed them at 90.

In memory of Raymond "Don Ramos" Banfield, hiker, former Spanish teacher and vice-principal of Presentation College, mentor of many, practitioner of healthy living. I will climb El Tucuche again, and I know he'll be walking right there beside me.

Monday, November 21, 2011

World Fantasy Con: Can You Mix Science into Fantasy"

I went to World Fantasy Convention (WFC) 2011 in San Diego at the end of October, and the second panel I attended was on mixing science into fantasy.

The panelists were Greg Benford, Yves Meynard, Brent Weeks, L.E. Modisett, Darryl Murphy, and Edward Willett.

I did not stay for the whole panel because I wanted to get a good seat at the animal show. (Yes! The San Diego Zoo brought exotic animals to WFC, and for an hour talked about their adaptations. Very cool.) But even in what I attended, I learned several interesting things I'd like to share with you.

Edward Willett says that he likes to write fantasy in which the magic does not break physical laws of nature. However, after his steampunk fantasy was published, he received criticism that by having coal- and gas-based inventions that could be built and work in real life, he had taken all the magic out of the story.

Most or all of the panelists agreed that magic in fantasy should have rules (at least in the author's mind; it's okay if the characters themselves do not understand the rules) and that the rules should make sense. One panelist pointed out that if magic is not given rules, explicit or implied, then tension and drama are reduced because anything can happen (similar to the tension-draning effects of deus ex machina solutions in literature in general). That is such a great observation that I will repeat it again:
If magic is not given rules, explicit or implied, then tension and drama are reduced because anything can happen.
The panelists agreed, though, that some authors and readers particularly like figuring out rule-based magic, while for other readers, the wonder of the magical world is what they read for. Harry Potter's world may not make sense, but who wouldn't want to attend Hogwart's Academy?

Willett said that George R.R. Martin says that magic stands in for all the things in our real universe that we can't control. I searched today for the quote and didn't find it. However, I did find a recent interview with GRRM in which he says that for magic to work in fiction, it has to be mysterious. He does not believe in creating elaborate rules. (Full interview here.)

Modisett thinks also that magic especially appeals to people who wish things were other than they are. (Shauna's note: Perhaps this partly explain fantasy's appeal to children, who are loaded with so many unwanted rules and restrictions physically and socially.)

Personally, I prefer rule-based magic. It usually takes me out of a story if, for example, Michelle Pfeifer transforms into a twelve-pound hawk with nothing left over, breaking the law of the conservation of mass-energy. But if a story is good, I am willing to suspend belief. I loved Ladyhawke despite the unbelievable magic and many anachronisms.

What about you? Which type of fantastical story do you prefer? And why?

Los Angeles Appearance

I will be at the Los Angeles Science Fiction Convention (LOScon) this Friday, November 25. I speak on the panel "10 Beginning Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them" from noon to 2 pm; I sign copies of Like Mayflies in a Stream from 3:00 pm to whenever the next scheduled author shows up; and I will be on the panel "Short, Short Stories" (about ultraflash fiction) from 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm. I hope to see you there.

Until next time (December 6)!

—Shauna Roberts

Sunday, November 20, 2011

4 Literary Agents Looking for Novels

Writer's Market made note of these four agencies who are actively seeking submissions, so I decided to share the info. Make sure you check out the specific agency guidelines on each website. Good luck!

VICTORIA SANDERS & ASSOCIATES accepts novel submissions via e-mail (both query and first three chapters—or about 25 pages in the body of the message). Currently looking for action, adventure, ethnic, feminist, gay, lesbian, literary, and thriller novels.
241 Avenue of the Americas
Suite 11 H
New York NY 10014
Phone: (212)633-8811
Fax: (212)633-0525

LEVINE GREENBERG LITERARY AGENCY, INC. allows prospective novelists to make submissions via an electronic submission form on their website. They represent a wide range of fiction projects—good stories are what they want.
307 Seventh Ave.
Suite 2407
New York NY 10001
Phone: (212)337-0934
Fax: (212)337-0948

SANDRA DIJKSTRA LITERARY AGENCY has a need for novel submissions, but there's a catch: Sandra Dijkstra herself is not accepting unsolicited submissions. However, four of the other agents in the agency are accepting submissions via e-mail.
1155 Camino del Mar
PMB 515
Del Mar CA 92014
Phone: (858)755-3115
Fax: (858)794-2822

BARER LITERARY, LLC accepts queries via traditional mail and e-mail (no phone or fax queries). This agency is looking for about any fiction genre that is not romance, thrillers and suspense.
270 Lafayette St.
Suite 1504
New York NY 10012
Phone: (212)691-3513

Friday, November 18, 2011

Researching what is, was, and might have been

Smith Creek loops and twists its serpentine way to the river through a basin of bog and marsh at Wilmington's northern border, its black water rising and falling with the tides. I have no idea whether the original inhabitants of this area or the first Europeans to build a colony here enjoyed Smith Creek as much as I do, but I doubt it. I admire it from thirty feet above, driving along an elevated parkway four times each day as I take my wife to and from work, a perspective no historical resident shared.
If I were to set a story even fifty years in Wilmington's past I'd have to describe a pestilent and impassible barrier known to only a few fishermen or smugglers.

I grew up in Maitland, Florida, adjacent to Eatonville, the hometown Zora Neal Hurston made famous in her stories. She passed away when I was eight, and I didn't read her works until I was in college, but I lived for a time on River Road and bought sodas and nabs at the corner store she wrote about twenty years before I was born. I could say I know the area, but to know it as she did would require much research to approximate with any authenticity.

My love of Hurtson led to a fascination with the Harlem Renaissance. I had books of Van Vetchten photographs, read works by and biographies of Hughes and Cullen and a dozen others. I knew the geography of neighborhoods like Strivers' Row and Sugar Hill and knew the histories of communities within the neighborhood -- the rising professionals, the intelligentsia, the musicians, the artists, the writers. During our first visit to my wife's extended family in New York thirty years ago, I wanted to go see the places I'd been reading about for years; particularly the 124th street library, as I recall. The family was adamant in preventing my field trip. They felt my white skin and southern accent would put me at risk wandering around an area they were afraid to visit with my camera and notebook. I could say I know Harlem of the 1920s, but I've never set foot on one of its streets.

I have always been attracted to "What if....?" It's a question that leads to discovery, invention, speculation, and creativity. It's the heart of science fiction, my first love as a writer. And it sparked my interest in alternate (or alternative) history. I grew up on "golden age" science fiction, most of which assumed a USA-centric, predominantly white, and almost exclusively male future. Prior to WWII nuclear fission and fusion were seen as free energy, not weapons, and colonization of space and the planets was a given. My father drove a tank in Company B, the 80th Tank Battalion, 8th Armored Division in WWII. When the war in Europe ended, the 80th Tank became the 80th Amphibious, the "Beach Busters," and began training in new amphibious tanks. Though they did not know it then, plans were for the Beach Busters to take the beaches of Honshu, spearheading Operation Coronet and the capture of Tokyo. America's use of the atom bomb obviated the need for invasion.

In bits and pieces over the last few years I've been constructing an alternate history, one that branches from our own with FDR's decision not to seek a third term. No nuclear weapons; no Truman to integrate the military; Japan subdued after months of bloody ground war; the Civil Rights Movement delayed by thirty years; safe, free fusion energy; colonies in space. So far only one short story, Living on Dirt, has come out of this effort but it remains a labor of love. Researching what did happen, the words and actions of the people involved, then extrapolating from that what those people would say and do if conditions were different.

The internet makes research easy. But I still collect old guide books, out of date street maps for cities I've never seen, histories, reference books, magazines. Because just as I never know when I'm going to need to know a fact, I never know when the juxtaposition of street names in Minsk or an illustration that doesn't quite match the text, or an unexpected word choice sixty years ago might spark an idea or a story or an insight.

Research can become an addiction, a time sink that costs the writer momentum and hurts productivity. But it can also lead to inspiration and understanding. It's up to the writer to have the self-discipline to control the one and the wisdom to spot the other.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

They're Young, They Write...and They Inspire!

Last month, I faced a situation which until that point in my career as a writer I had never before encountered. Because of this, I was very nervous as I carried out my preparations. What kind of first impression would I make? Would I know what to say? How would I react when faced with an unexpected development? What if I hesitated at some crucial moment? Would I sweat so badly that it soaked through my shirt?

These questions, and so many others, echoed in my mind as I stepped into the room and confronted a class of fifth grade creative writing students.

What the heck was I doing there? Well, it’s like this: my wife has a friend who is a fifth grade teacher at one of the nearby elementary schools. She and a few other teachers head up a creative writing program that’s part of the curriculum, and from time to time they invite authors to come and speak to the students about writing. According to what I was told, previous attempts had worked out well enough, but they wanted someone who would be more willing (or even comfortable?) to come in and answer questions posed by the students, rather than simply holding a lecture or a reading. Now, my preferred modus operandi at conventions and other gatherings where people come to meet authors is very much slanted toward the Q&A side of things, rather than simply talking at a group for an hour. With that in mind, I quickly said “Sure!”

Only after making the commitment did I pause, and begin to consider what I’d done.

Now, I’ve talked to plenty of adults about writing. Convention panels, book signings, my blog, and so on. This was very different for me. After all, it’s one thing to talk to my own kids. I mean, our kids are supposed to hang on our every word, listening in awe as we deliver unto them our hard-won knowledge, wisdom and experience, right? That is, at least until they become teenagers and end up knowing everything.

But here? I was worried about how I might be perceived, not just by the kids, but also their teachers and parents (Egads!). For all I knew, they’d be looking me up on the internet after hearing about me from their little darlings, gathering dirt and evidence against me before banding together to run me out of town with torches and pitchforks.

In a bid to make things at least a little easier, the teacher who invited me sent me a series of questions for which I might prepare answers to kick-start the discussion—a brief introduction, what I like to write, my “process” and inspirations, and so on. With that accomplished, I’d offer up a few choice nuggets of sage advice aimed at those looking to become professional writers when they grow up. Armed with my “talking points,” I entered the lion’s den, also known as “the school library,” and soon found myself facing fifty or so pairs of wide, curious eyes.

I need not have worried.

This was a fantastic bunch of kids. While my introductory remarks served me well for the opening five minutes or so, the students helped carry the next forty-five minutes, and it passed like a blur. It was all I could do just to keep up and maybe take a breath as I answered a question and pointed to the next student. The questions were fast and furious, covering a variety of topics in rapid-fire fashion, but never so fast that I felt like any kid’s question was getting short-changed. Though the talk lasted just short of an hour, I was told that the kids continued to discuss various topics we had broached well after they returned to their classrooms. Their teachers are even preparing lists of follow-up questions, which I promised I would answer and return to them so that they might share the responses with the students and perhaps prompt more queries.

It was actually one of the most rousing discussions I’ve ever had with a group about writing. The energy and passion exhibited by these kids was palpable. Given the old adage that you have to be a reader in order to be a writer, I asked for a show of hands for those who liked to read purely for their own pleasure. I don’t think every single kid held up a hand, but the vast majority of them did. That alone made me smile. As for their writing, a couple of kids even volunteered the information that they were working together on stories outside the assignments of the class, and asked whether I might be willing to read some of their work at some point. I actually didn’t get to read stories written by any of the students, but one of the things I discussed with the teacher was figuring out how to do something in that vein that doesn’t take an undue amount of time and perhaps acts as a motivator for the kids.

On top of all of that, an added bonus for me came from one of the questions I fielded that dealt with whether I’d written any stories for kids their age. I haven’t yet done that, but it’s actually been something I’ve been pondering for quite some time, if for no other reason than I think it’d be awesome to write something my own kids could read. Indeed, one idea in particular that I’ve been considering is some kind of adventure with characters based on my girls. I even have this crazy notion of writing an ongoing series, with the characters growing older more or less alongside my kids. The idea has languished for a while as I’ve turned my attention to other, more pressing projects, but this one afternoon spent in the company of these young writers has inspired me to revisit it. Hopefully, I’ll have something interesting to report in the near future.

Kids. They can be pretty awesome.

Anybody else ever talk to younger writers like these? What were your experiences and thoughts, particularly when compared to similar discussions you’ve had with adults?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Guest author Leslie Ann Moore: You Gotta Give ‘Em a Free Taste

Leslie Ann Moore, a native of Los Angeles, received her doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from the University Of California and continues to practice veterinary medicine in the L.A. area. In addition to fiction writing, Leslie Ann enjoys travel, reading, and attending science fiction/fantasy conventions. She also practices the beautiful and ancient art of belly dance.

Griffin's Daughter, the first in her romantic fantasy trilogy, was named the 2008 Ben Franklin Award Winner for Best First Fiction by the Independent Book Publishers Association.

You Gotta Give ‘Em a Free Taste

Those of us who’ve achieved the difficult task of getting our words into print, whether it be through traditional publishing or the brave new world of e-publishing, know that just because you have a book out there doesn’t mean people will read it. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to market a book and almost all of that work is now expected to be done by the author.

My first novel Griffin’s Daughter was originally published in 2007.  It won a prestigious award and garnered favorable reviews from a well-known industry journal. To help market the book, I did everything recommended to build an effective platform. I had a website, a Facebook page, I submitted review requests to all the well-known fantasy review sites, I joined my local writers group to gain access to venues where I could sell my book. What I couldn’t do was hire a publicist or commission a book trailer, both of which were beyond my finances.

Despite all my efforts, the great reviews and the award, I simply couldn’t get any traction. No major review site would read the book and I couldn’t get it into Barnes and Noble and the now defunct Borders; in short, it and the two sequels languished in obscurity, and my dream of supporting myself with my writing seemed unachievable.

My current publisher, who picked up all three books when my original publisher went belly up in 2009, tried several strategies to get people interested. Nothing worked, until, out of desperation, they offered the first book in the series for free.

It seems that human nature is such that we all want to sample something for nothing. A little taste, as it were, before committing to the entire dish. It’s a time-honored marketing strategy and, like it or not, it works. The first two months Griffin’s Daughter was offered for free, over 40,000 people downloaded it. A significant number of those people have since downloaded the other two books, and paid for them! The series is now a success, but my satisfaction is, to be honest, a little bittersweet. I can’t help but think of all the royalties I’ve lost by giving away my first book, but on the other hand, I wasn’t making anything to speak of on any of the series before.

The saying ‘You have to give some to get some’ couldn’t have proven more true in the case of my books. A lot of authors have had to do the same in order to get traction. Giving away one’s work is not the ideal strategy, however, and if the book you are considering giving away is your sole title, then it only makes sense to do so as part of a long-term plan to build a fan base. The N.Y. Times bestselling science fiction author Scott Sigler is a perfect example. He gave away his books for several years, but it garnered him a sizable audience, which in turn brought him to the attention of a major publisher. When his books were released by this big house, he had a fan base in place ready and willing to pay for his works. I’ll bet Mr. Sigler feels all those giveaways were worth far more than any lost royalties.

When my next novel is published, it will be the first of a new series. I sincerely hope all those readers who were coaxed by the gift of a free book to give my work a chance will be ready and willing to part with their hard-earned money to read this new effort. Maybe then I can finally achieve my goal of becoming a full-time writer.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Most Wonderful Time of Year

I must admit that I just love this time of year when the festive mood is in the air with a string of holidays to get through.

I think it goes without saying, but will say anyway, that this has been a tough year in the United States (and elsewhere in world) for many people with high unemployment, foreclosures, civil unrest, repeated threats of domestic and international terrorism, and general despair.

But, in the season of cheers, giving, turkey dinners, Santa Claus, and the promise that every New Year's brings, there is always reason to be optimistic at this time of year as we look ahead.

As a writer, I have had a mostly positive year with various books published in print, eBook, audio, hardcover, and paperback. I have also been fortunate enough to make a living at what I do, though still waiting for my ship stocked with gold to roll into port.

But with the wind at my back and 2012 over the horizon, I am pushing full steam ahead and looking forward to tacking whatever the New Year brings my way. I believe most others fill the same way. Especially at this time of year when hope truly does spring eternal and there's laughter and song in the air; and snowflakes and colored lights dotting and decorating our homes and neighborhoods; and lots of food and gifts to tend to.

Indeed, if one looks hard enough, soon you just might see some reindeers up in the sky, peppered with bright stars, streaking across and reminding us that is really is the most wonderful time of the year...

Are you in the holiday spirit?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A thought of my own

One night this summer I had a strange dream. It involved a young boy who had a strange and life altering adventure. When I woke up I quickly noted the gist of the dream and later that day I wrote about half of a short story. Then life intervened. This week I picked it up again and ran it past my in-house experts.

"I like it Mommy," my ten year old son commented. "Actually," he said, furrowing his brow in thought, "I saw a movie just like that."

I searched online and he was right. The details were different but the underlying premise was the same. I had never seen the movie and I was crushed. A hypothesis which I have denied for 20 years pushed itself into my mind.

Are all the truly original ideas taken?

When I read of the incident with Q. R. Markham whose newly published spy novel contains passages that appear to have been intentionally plagiarized from novels by Ian Fleming and other well known writers, I had to look at this question again.

In this information age where our senses are constantly assaulted by other people's ideas, is it even possible to have a completely independent idea?

Hmmm, sounds like the seeds of a new movie. Hope it has not been done already?

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Suspense is an emotion and is a critical element in all fiction. Suspense is what keeps readers reading, keeps them turning the pages. In its simplest form, suspense is wanting to know what happens next.

Suspense must always end. It can end happily, say with two lovers getting together, or sadly, as with the death of a character or when two lovers decide to go their separate ways. But it must end, and when it ends the story is really over.

“Dark” suspense is what I’m most interested in as a writer. This kind is based on threat and fear, either of the unknown, or-—sometimes—-of that which is known only too well. Unfortunately, because we are all constantly bombarded with dark suspense in entertainment, as in movies from the current crop all the way to old favorites like Jaws, Alien, and Die Hard, it has become increasingly hard to induce suspense in both movies and writing. If you as a reader are feeling a little jaded, a little like you’ve seen it all before, maybe it’s because you have.

The ante is raised for today’s readers. And for writers. The need for suspense is greater than ever, and it’s harder than ever to achieve. A first step in creating good suspense is recognizing that there are two kinds: quick and slow.

Quick suspense is how a lot of books and movies start out. The opening scene shows a ticking time bomb, or an assassin sighting in his target through a sniper scope, or a brake line being cut. It gives us a splash of blood, or a scream. It provides an in-your-face introduction of a threat. It’s also the least effective of the two.

Slow suspense is slow developing, and fully involves the reader (or viewer) in the process. It grows out of characters that the reader cares about, and it can’t be achieved on page one because no one really knows the character yet. When readers care about characters, you don’t need the threat of a bomb blowing up or a president being killed to create “nail-biting” suspense.

For example, I just don’t care for baseball. For me, it moves too slowly and lacks anything in the way of suspense. However, when my son was playing Little League Baseball I found his games incredibly suspenseful. He was a pitcher and always seemed to get sent in when another pitcher had already loaded the bases. I chewed a lot of fingernails and sat on the edge of a lot of seats when Josh was playing baseball. It’s because I cared about him that I suddenly found baseball suspenseful.

If you can create characters readers care about, those readers will feel suspense no matter what kind of event the character is expecting, whether big or small. In my next post, on November 26, I’ll talk about some of the things that writers do to create these kinds of characters.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Research By Happenstance

A little over two weeks ago I mentioned I was going to Dominica for a family function and to conduct research for my current WIP set in the Nature Isle. I also promised to tell you how it went next time I blogged. Well here goes....

A lot of my research was centered on being in the right place at the right time.
1. The time was ideal for experiencing the culture of the country
October to November is the height of Dominica’s cultural celebration. October is Creole month and November is their independence celebration. Quite a bit of history is recapped at this time and the people wear their national dress and eat their local and traditional foods at this time. I attended cultural pageants, ate a whole lot of breadfruit, green fig, and dasheen, calalloo, and Titiwi Accra

2. I spent a lot of time at the local library
Because my 8 year old missed almost three weeks of school I had to do a little home schooling to keep her on track. I found it best to go to the local library and let her do her lessons. While I was at the library I was able to look up books written about the history and lives of the indigenous people, the Kalinago people or the Caribs. One book in particular, written in 1971, was written from the perspective of a young, preteen Carib. He spoke about their daily lives, their lost language and religion, their interactions with the rest of the island and most importantly the cultural changes as the push to educate the local population increased.

3. Through family gatherings and outings I was able to scout out areas where I would like my romantic settings
When people think of romance in the Caribbean, they think of a sunset on a white sand beach with coconut trees. Well when a book is set in the Nature Isle, white sand beaches is not an option. But of their many rivers, streams, crater lakes, hidden waterfalls, and beautiful mountain vistas, I was able to find way more romantic settings than I ever would need for my book.

4. I got to experience the island like a local
I was able to visit the Carib Territories, see the crafts made there and enjoy the cassava bread. I spent time in the quiet countryside in the mountains where banana, coffee and cocoa are farmed. I engaged people in discussion about the changing culture, new ethnic diversity. Most of all I was able to see the development and compare the island now, to the island I visited first in 1993 and every few or so years since.

5. I got to relive some romance of my own
I was able to visit the beautiful Peninsular at Scotts Head, that separated the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean Sea. Why is this area sentimental to me? It was on this peninsular that my husband proposed to me over a decade and a half ago. I was able to share this with my three children.

Overall, it was a successful research trip and an even better family vacation. And in all this how much actual writing did I get done? Exactly two pages.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

World Fantasy Con: Why Do Teens Read Dystopian Fiction?

Dystopian fiction has so overtaken science fiction and fantasy (sf/f) that only a small percentage of newly published books catch my interest.

I went to World Fantasy Con (WFC) 2011 in San Diego last week, and the first panel I attended was on why so much young adult (YA)  sf/f is dystopian. At last, I hoped, I would understand the appeal of the seamy side of life shown in so much sf/f today.

The panelists were Marissa Lingen, John Pitts, Lissa Price, and Chandra Rooney. Below are the main points I came away with.  Some are statements that panelists or audience members made, while some are conclusions I drew or my amplifications of the points.

Reasons why there's so much dystopian fiction for teens
  • Writers who got hooked on sf/f in the 1970s, when dystopias were common, are now writing what they read in their formative years.
  • Baby boomer authors, who grew up in the 1960s  with high hopes for a brighter future with regular travel to the moon and the end of bigotry and war, are disappointed in what happened instead. Their writing reflects their sense of hopelessness about society.
  • 9/11 influenced the mood of the country and made the future seem bleak.
  • A novel needs a conflict. A novel about a dystopia has a built-in conflict. Some conflicts in the past arose from social divisions based on class, wealth, race, ethnicity, or sex. These conflicts admit easier solutions than in the past.
  • Teens are under much more surveillance now. Schools have metal detectors. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Parents can keep constant tabs on their kids through cell phones and social media. The "Big Brother is Watching You" aspect of some dystopian fiction rings true to teens because they are living that reality.
  • Helicopter parents have disempowered teens by trying to control what they read—a librarian in the audience said that parents come into the library with their teens to choose the books they will check out!—and making other decisions for them they should be making on their own. So the oppressive governments in dystopian fiction also ring true.
  • Teens today are less concerned about privacy and more concerned with assertion of independence. So they are attracted to the trope of a young person acting against authority to change the world for the better. Books based on that trope give teens a sense of empowerment.
Oddly enough, no one in the panel or the audience brought up the poor economy or the dysfunctional U.S. Congress. American teens do not remember a time in which young people got good jobs (or at least a job of some sort) or had a functioning national government. I don't view the United States as a dystopia because I have a long-range view; teens who have only been aware of the greater society for a few years may view the United States and other Western countries as dystopias, making traditional fantasy seem unbelievably utopian.

Other random comments made by panelists about dystopian fiction
  • Some people disapprove of dystopian teen fiction because they think it glamorizes a dark view of the world.
  • Publishers are getting away from the word "dystopia." One panelist's new book was labeled "futuristic thriller" instead.
  • Adults and teens may take away different messages from the same books. Teens of different ages may also take away different messages.
  • Old dystopian speculative fiction gets assigned as reading in high schools. (The panelist gave several examples; I got down only 1984 and Flowers for Algernon.) This gives dystopian fiction the status of literature. (She drew no conclusion, but if parents nowadays are choosing the books their teens read, I can see that parents might be drawn to sf/f that they think is "literature" and "less trashy.")
  • Most dystopias have a happy ending. (This surprised me.)
I thought the panelists' and audience comments made a lot of sense. I won't be increasing the amount of dystopian fiction I read, but at least I have a better grasp of its appeal for teens.

What do you like and dislike about dystopian fiction in sf/f, romance, or other genres? If you are a teen who reads dystopian fiction, do you agree with what the adults at the panel said? If you are a parent of a teen, why do you think teens are drawn to bleak books?

Thanks for stopping by today. I'll be blogging here at Novel Spaces again on November 21, when I likely will discuss one of the other great panels I attended at World Fantasy Con.

—Shauna Roberts

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Book In 30-Days

A lot of writers have taken classes and read up on writing a book in 30-days. Some attempt it as a way of meeting a deadline so they can turn in a book that's due in a month, and others see it as a challenge, taking on the concept just to see if they can do it at all.

I have author friends who have done it successfully, and I don't knock the process, as I have also put myself to the test of finishing a book in a short amount of time. I carefully charted out the number of words per day, pages per week, chapters for the month, layers, phases, etc., examining my plan on paper, almost convincing myself that I, too, could do it. But I couldn't. Not in 30-days anyway.

For me, it takes way more than a month to get to know my characters on paper, even if they've been in my head and my heart for a long time. I don't really get to know them until I begin to take them through the friction of the chapters. And by the end of the novel, the story is sometimes so far from the original outline that the only similarities are the character's names. And even those can change.

What are your thoughts about writing a book in a month. Have you ever tried it?

Write on!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Being In Control

"The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business." John Steinbeck

This month the theme is "Guide to Publishing for the First Time". I keep hearing Sade singing, "Never As Good As The First Time" for some reason. That's because remembering the first everything connected to Night Magic still makes me smile. There was the first time I listened to the voice of an editor from NYC on my answering machine saying a publisher wanted to buy my book. Then there was the first time I told someone "I sold my novel". The first time I saw a copy of what would become my first cover. Ah, memories can be lovely.

Writers who have just sold a book have a different world from the one I stepped into back then. For one thing publishing can mean selling to a traditional publisher or being an indie author. Two very different sets of advice I think. There are some similarities. Like knowing that you should do some promotion of your own, and having a well designed website is essential. Indie authors don't really need an agent I think, but once they get an offer from a traditional publisher a good IP attorney would be smart. Traditional authors can decide whether they want an agent based on a variety of factors. There is so much more, but all of that stuff you can find on the web with a search. So I'm going to go all psycho on you instead, psychological that is. Being a clinical social worker I tend to think about such things.

My biggest advice is this: don't put someone else in charge of your happiness. What does that mean? Develop your career goals based on what you can control, and be realistic about you control. For example, you can set a goal to sell 100 books at your next book signing. I hate to tell you this, but you can't control how many books sell. The weather might turn nasty and no one shows. People might not be interested for a variety of reasons. The manager might decide to only order twenty of your books because in his view you're not "famous". Yeah, this happened to me. Sold all of the books in the first forty minutes of my two hour signing. The manager apologized, and was horribly embarrassed. The day before your signing a store employee might accidentally strip half the books ordered  for the event before the assistant manager goes in the back and screams, "Stop!" Yeah, this also happened to me.

The same thing goes for selling X number of books on the Kindle store, etc. Readers decide if they're going to buy. Now you can do things to make your book more attractive, or put in the effort to locate your target audience and get the word out to them. Those things increase your chances of selling. But if anyone knows of even one action you can take that guarantees a certain number of books will sell please tell me. Other than buying the books yourself that is. I will pay good money for that info!

You don't control what kind of reviews you might get. Sure, you should write the best book you can every time. But reading is subjective. I have yet to meet a writer who set out to write a bad book. So we all have stories of a nasty reviewer, or a reader who took time to tell us we need serious writing lessons.  

If you pin your happiness on these kinds of things you might as well expect to check into the Heartbreak Hotel on a regular basis. Instead set your goals on things you can control: how many books you will finish; making your website up-to-date and visitor friendly; reading more non-fiction writing books to work on your weak spots like description or dialog; join a professional writers group for networking and even more learning opportunities; perform at least two marketing activities per day to spread the word, etc. Notice these things are all dependent on what YOU do.

Finally, love what you do, and do what you love. Write the stories that seduce you so much you have no choice but to write them. Make designing and updating your website a fun exercise. Promote in ways that you enjoy. Life is too short to do things with your teeth clenched, not to mention that's bad for your poor teeth.

I had to learn the hard way. You'll hear lots of "musts", you must write this way. You must do this promotion activity. Be wary any time you hear advice that insists there is only one way to write, promote, etc. I can probably easily come up with a half dozen examples of authors who didn't follow that "rule" and did just fine.

Okay, I'll finish with a funny story. I learned the hard way that book signings are definitely in the "results may vary" category. Once I took part in a multi author book signing at this large store in the New Orleans area. Being a new author the other more veteran authors invited me as a wonderful gesture. I smiled a lot, but didn't sell many books. The more established author sitting next to me felt bad, so she tried to help me out. One woman approached and picked up Night Magic from the stack in front of me. Looking at the cover she asked what it was about. I said it was a romance novel set in Louisiana. The lady didn't look impressed so my fellow author  enthused, "Her book is a romantic suspense novel, and it has voodoo!" The woman dropped Night Magic like it was a snake and backed away from me. Her eyes were big as saucers as she said, "I don't fool with that stuff!" I thought she was going to whip out a crucifix and and shove it at me like I was Countess Dracula.

If we ever meet at a writers conference, and you buy me a drink or two I might tell more stories.  Yeah, I can be bribed. :) 

Lynn Emery