Thursday, April 28, 2011

Surviving Collaborative Writing

Writing isn't always alone...

Today we have Josh, one half of the Josh Langston and Barbara Galler-Smith writing combo for "Druids" and its sequel, "Captives." Josh will be talking about the ups and downs of writing in a pair. 

Why did we choose to join forces?
It seemed like a good idea at the time. We discovered, in the process of writing a dreadful short story and a mildly entertaining novella, that we had complimentary strengths. Barb is a wiz at setting; I have a flair for dialog. Barb has an excellent knowledge of Celtic history; writing plots comes easily to me. 

Together, we had most of the ingredients needed to put together a novel worthy of one's time out by the pool or under an umbrella at the beach. We started with the back story for the novella we'd just finished. A few years later we had four complete manuscripts. (One of which has nothing to do with Druids.)

What is the key to our success?

Aside from anything Oprah might provide, a successful novel requires at least three things:

1) A good story.
2) A good publisher.
3) Fabulous distribution.

(and the Oprah folks have completely ignored my calls).

How do we break up the work?

All four of our books began with a discussion of the story in its most general terms. We then developed an outline which laid out all the basics. We then expanded the basic outline into a detailed and quite specific plan which listed, by scene, what was to be accomplished, what the reader needed to learn, whose point of view is used, and why the scene was essential.

Roadmap in hand, we took turns writing the first drafts of each scene. Drafts were sent back and forth for corrections, improvements, and/or clarifications. Sometimes we sent them back and forth just for spite, but over time we learned that didn't accomplish much. Eventually we reached a point where we were too exhausted to argue any more and then deemed the work "done."

(Bio thoughts: My nickname is "Josh." My wife, my family, and the IRS know my given name. I'm okay with keeping it at that. I have committed several different professions in my life, among them: public speaking, fund raising, power tool repair, computer programming, business analysis, and cab driving -- though not necessarily in that order. I am married to a beautiful and imminently patient woman who loves me anyway. We have two great children, two uber-great grandchildren, and two mutts who think they're children. We spoil whomever and wherever it's apropos.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Write Better Epic Fantasy Now

I was once a slush reader for a SFF magazine and also for a small Canadian press. I saw a lot of epic fantasy. There were the 350k tomes and the cheesy sword and sorcery short stories. Epic fantasy can be a hard sell these days. Many readers are tired of the same ol' that's out there. They want something fresh.

Where is your epic fantasy set? A large amount of epic fantasy is written in a quasi-medieval European or Britain. If your book is in this setting, what distinguishes it from all of the others on the market today? Likewise, some writers are moving their fantasy to an Asian setting. Again, what is setting yours apart?

If you have a made-up setting, does your culture logically evolve from the setting? How about the religion? Clothing choices?

Is your story sexist? There are two parts to this question. First, your story may be sexist on purpose. You might want to create a world were women aren't able to fight in wars or hold positions of authority. That's fine. The question is how do you address this issue. Do you have women exercising great power from within their own spheres? Do you have women pushing the boundaries whenever possible? Do you have women supporting the status quo? Or, is the only rebel against the system the lone female archer mercenary who drinks and swears and sleeps around?

Second, look at your cast. Are all of your female characters in positions of minor importance to the plot? Do you have any major female characters? Do you force your women into arranged marriages, even though this isn't a standard cultural action for your world? Do women always have to be rescued by men? Do your women know nothing about midwifery, including abortion? Are women raped because they were objects of lust and the men couldn't control themselves?

Do you have Stuff People Skip? Tolkien may have written pages of description but that does not mean today's writers have that luxury. Literature is fluid, ever changing. Many of today's readers aren't interested in pages of description where every single item in a room is described. It becomes "stuff people skip." Many epic fantasy tomes that I saw in the slush were that way because of the unnecessary description.

Are you trying to write another Lord of the Rings? Tolkien already wrote it, sorry. Same goes for anything by Terry Brooks or Robert Jordan.

Does everyone believe in the same faith in your book? One world religion? How does that work? Likewise, is everyone atheist? So, no one believes in something other? Again, how did that come about?

Does your magic system have consequences? Do you even have a set system? What prevents people from using magic all of the time? Can your plot pass the "cell phone" test? (cell phone test is "can this be prevented if the main character carried a cell phone." In fantasy, it's "can this be prevented if the main character uses their magic?")

These are just a few tips to help you look at your manuscript objectively. Please share some other things that people should be on the watch for in fantasy!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Successful Cross-Genre Writing

I'm happy to have Lorina Stephens visiting with us today to discuss cross-genre writing. She is an author, editor, and publisher. Her publishing house, Five Rivers Chapmanry, is an independent micro-publisher of fiction and non-fiction, giving voice to new and established Canadian authors. Five Rivers is committed to bringing publishing back to uncompromising personal editors where it belongs, rather than focus-group marketing. 

In the previous century, as publishers gained control of sales and marketing, greater restrictions were placed upon the creative freedom of a writer. If your last hit was an historical naval fiction, your next work had better closely follow that subject. Or if you wrote hard science fiction, don’t blur the borders by writing an epic high fantasy. And worse, don’t, under any circumstances, write a book that might further muddy the waters by being a bit historical and a bit fantasy. Retailers have to know exactly where to shelve those books.

Introduce to that established publishing model the evolution of the past decade. It’s now ridiculously easy for any writer to create, publish, distribute and market their work. And because much of that independently published work rarely occupies shelf space beside the latest releases from the Big Six, the restrictions of how to categorize that work fall away.

And thus the growth of cross-genre writing.

As a writer, the concept of blurring the lines of categorization isn’t something new; first and foremost I want to tell a good story. Both of my novels, Shadow Song, and From Mountains of Ice, cross the boundaries of categories, both sitting between historical and fantasy fiction.

As a publisher, I look to cross-genre writing favourably, as it’s often from such creative minds that a new, fresh lens appears on a familiar topic.

But how to write cross-genre successfully? I’m not for a moment going to propose a ‘how-to’ lesson, partly because I don’t subscribe to formulae for good writing, and one of the reasons I personally abhor how-to books, whether they be on painting or finding your inner goddess.

What I look for, as a publisher, in a cross-genre novel is a seamless transition between the credible and incredible, and as a result an easy flow that shuts off a reader’s disbelief. I am particularly keen about blurring the lines between cultural, historical and fantasy fiction.

If you’re writing about a pseudo-historical place or era, getting your details accurate is vitally important. If your character is in period dress, be sure you understand all the restrictions and ramifications of that dress, from a man’s footed hose and points, to a woman’s chemise and corset. Domestic technologies, forms of currency, pre-existing economic and political groups and alignments – all of these factors require research in order for your story to have the ring of truth. Do that, and then when you introduce some sort of time-travel or psychic ability, there will be a richness and veracity to what you’ve created that will render your reader helpless to your story-telling ability, and turn that cynical and tired acquisition editor into a believer and business partner.

Of course, while infusing your work with this minute detail, it’s important to remember your characters are the vehicle and voice for your story, and so stopping the action to give an inventory of goods isn’t wise. Whatever you’re describing should be part of the tight focus of your character and necessary to the advancement of the plot, a fact true not just of cross-genre writing, but any good writing.

Recommended reading for excellent cross-genre writing:
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay
The Winter King, Bernard Cornwell

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I Write Weird Fiction

I'm happy to have Canadian author Claude Lalumière. He's the author of Objects of Worship and The Door to Lost Pages. Also, he's the co-creator of Lost Myths. On a personal note, Claude has a glorious sense of humour. I once reviewed his story in Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead and commented that it was a mistake reading it before supper. He laughed, which was exactly the response I had hoped for. 

I write weird fiction.

What does that mean?

Do I write within the genre sometimes called "weird fiction"? What is that, anyway? Trying to define a genre is the stuff of bar fights. I don't want to get into fisticuffs here, so let's just say that my publisher, ChiZine Publications, where my work certainly feels very much at home, describes its books as "weird, surreal, subtle, and disturbing." That could also describe my love life, but let's stick with the writing. Much less messy.

Or does it mean that my fiction is strange? A Goodreads review of my first book said, "Objects of Worship is a collection of 12 short stories. Describing them as strange would be an understatement ... Oddly, the strangeness is somewhat intensified by not being strange to the characters." That last comment ("not being strange to the characters") is important.

What most people consider normal is, to me, profoundly strange, alienating, and disturbing.

Normal is suffering some of kind of bizarre neurosis that causes a belief in a god or gods and, worse, a willingness to kill and/or die in the name of that neurosis. Normal is sexually mutilating children and celebrating it. Normal is ignoring and being complicit in the suffering of animals in factory farms. Normal is continuing to love one's blood kin, regardless of psychological or physical abuse. Normal is limiting someone's rights, even maybe hating them, because of their sexual preferences, gender, language, or ethnicity. Normal is ignoring the systematic destruction of the planet that gives us life in order to perpetuate the obsolete dreams of capitalism. I could go on for pages and pages about what normal is.

All those things that are considered normal? For me, that's the stuff of nightmares. Waking up in the middle of the night and screaming your head off -- those kinds of nightmares.

People often remark that my fiction can be dark and macabre, but I don't see it that way. The way I see it, I'm striving for utopia. I'm shining a beacon that there's hope. That beyond all that numbing, nightmarish normality, there's a potential world of beautiful strangeness where even the most oddball weirdo can feel at home.

But the journey ... yeah, the journey can be dark. The obstacles are macabre and merciless, cruel and relentless. And I don't shy away from portraying the obstacles.

One of the ways I counter the hegemonic oppression of normative society is by presenting strangeness -- the strangeness of my characters, of their worldview, of their environment, of their emotions -- as commonplace, by presenting that strangeness without acknowledging that the way my characters behave, who they are, how they live in the world are anything but normal -- just not the normal most people are used to. Other normals. Different normals. Weirder normals. Non-normative normals.

I fear that, for me, consensus normal will never cease being strange, estranging, and even terrifying. So I make up my own normals.

I write weird fiction, because the various subgenres of the fantastic encourage taking a step back from consensus reality, allow me, as a writer, more so than any other genre, to question every aspect of what is considered normal.

I write weird fiction because I'm trying to reconcile the world with my utopian dreams, and the disconnect between those perspectives is where the weirdness happens.

I write weird fiction because it beats waking up in the middle of the night screaming my head off.

Also, and this is not to be undervalued, I write weird fiction because it's fun.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Five Things to Remember When Writing Romance

Only five? I better make it the five things I need to remember when writing a romance. Maybe I need to start with – what is a romance?  The story of two (or more) people (or vampires, shifters, angels, faeries, bookends etc) who meet, fall apart and then come back together for the happy ever after – or the happy for now at the very least.

1. The first meeting of the hero and heroine has to be something that resonates with the reader. It has to grip by the heart, by the lungs, by the--every bit of them you can get at. It has to make them gasp or laugh or sigh.  If they don’t see that the characters are meant to be together  from the start– even if you later drive them apart moments later-- then they won’t fall in love with them and carry on reading. One of my books starts with the hero pulling a splinter out of the heroine’s backside. Another has a werewolf falling down a hole and landing on a starving vampire. One of my favorite starts is in a book by Susan Elizabeth Phillips where the bride is getting married and forgets the groom’s name.

2. Make the hero and the heroine flawed. We all love bad boys and most heroes have a dark side but I like my heroines to have faults too. I’m sorry – but I just don’t get the kickass, I’m better than you heroines who waltz through stories with their sassy attitude and perfect everything. I probably make my characters too flawed but I like my heroine to NEED the hero. Doesn’t mean she has to be subservient, just that she’s someone the reader will identify with. And the guys? They have to be larger than life, good-looking (even with that odd scar or too), strong alpha males.  The head turning sort, the ones that we all go – yum – to. I don’t mind if they’re nasty tempered, sulky, silent or sarcastic, so long as there is something about them that makes them vulnerable and capable of love with the right woman. I know a lot of writers plot out the characters carefully before starting to write. I don’t. I let the characters develop with the story. It works better for me that way  but its just personal preference.

3. Plot matters too! Since I outlined above the basics of a romance as-- two meet, fall in love, fall apart and then come back together – what plot is needed other than that, you might cry. There’s not much that hasn’t been done in romance so you have to make your characters interesting enough and different enough to carry the basic plot.  Which is why having them flawed helps. Conflict comes into this. I absolutely believe you have to create a strong reason for them to be kept apart – either through their own mistakes or failings, or through the actions of others. Strong conflict keeps readers turning pages and drives the story forward.

4. Humor. I want to read it and I want to write it. I love snappy dialogue. I love men who’re funny and women who give back as good as they get. I want readers to want the hero for themselves and to see themselves as the heroine.  I hope readers laugh out loud at some parts of my books. This links to the desire to be entertaining. The whole point of reading anything fictional, let alone romance, is that it takes you away from your ordinary life. It lets you forget for a while that dishes need to be washed, ironing needs to be done, dog needs to be let out – excuse me a minute…so the stories and characters have to transport the reader to another world where everything will – see the next point…..

5. end Happy Ever After. All my stories are HEA. Not for me, the happy for now. I want my hero and heroine together and looking forward to what life is going to bring them. I want their lives to be happy because I want readers to believe that can happen for them too.  I know plenty of great love stories end with hero or heroine or both dead – not mine. Ever.

6. Yes, I know I said five but how can I miss out –SEX. The level of sex in a romance can vary from sweet to full on erotic.  I’ve noticed a tendency for ALL romances to have more detailed sex in them these days, just less than in an erotic romance and not so varied. Even thrillers and suspense novels seem to insert the obligatory scene or two.  It’s hard to please all tastes over the amount of sex in a book. Too much for some, not enough for others. But the golden rule for me is that the story must stand without the sex, that the plot is complex enough, the characters interesting enough to carry the story and make people sigh when it ends.