Fluttering by

Sharon Ashwood
June 2, 2010  •  No Comments

The fun and the pain in building the world of the Dark Forgotten is that I had a wide-open slate to bring various species onstage. Some, like vampires, would be more like us (after all, they started out human) and others, like the fey, might sometimes look human but have completely different value systems. How these various creatures viewed the world, interacted, built their economies and belief systems, rapidly became a fascinating playground.

And that didn’t cover all the fun things like looking into the various pursuits my human(ish) characters had: police detectives, radio announcers, and eighteenth century cavalry officers. Who doesn’t want to spend an afternoon sitting in the booth during a talk show, or scour the Internet for engravings that showed the proper uniform the hero wore in his misspent youth?


Yup, my weakness is remembering which story I want to write. A fascinating something flutters by, and my natural instinct is to chase it.

It doesn’t just happen with world building, either. I’ll be writing along and think, “Whoa! Wouldn’t THAT plot twist be cool??” and I’m off. The trick is knowing which of these winged messengers are actually memos from the muse and which are demons in disguise—because every time a new layer of complexity is introduced, each and every character will be impacted. Sometimes that opens up a fruitful vein of characterization, and sometimes it’s just a big old can o’worms.


Put another way, one can end up with a book badly in need of pruning and shaping. Annette’s post yesterday about editing is very true. What makes a book is the ability to see the book under the butterflies (by now no more than splotches on the plot development windshield), weird outgrowths, and scraggly patches. What I love is seeing the finished product and seeing how the unexpected bits of inspiration that I keep have changed the original concept into something new and surprising.

Of course that same butterfly-chasing urge can strike in other ways, too. I’m always fascinated by what I carry out of the bookstore. I always go in to buy JUST ONE book . . .

Home, sweet crypt

Sharon Ashwood
May 24, 2010  •  No Comments

cryptThe best non-writing thing I do that helps me write is really quite boring. Eat well, sleep well, and exercise. If the body’s not working, the rest of me can’t, either.

Of course, here in the Castle of The Dark Forgotten, common activities take a slightly different turn. Warm up with a little hellfire, get some cardio swordplay with the trolls, lift a few boulders, and after that, a little stretching on the rack. Ninety minutes of that, and I’m ready to hit the showers.

Yes, it’s easy to live the simple life here. A simple mattress in a stone cell offers few distractions. One can drift off to sleep to the gentle howling of the hellhounds, and then wake to the morning screech of the gargoyles. In between, eight solid hours of tomb-like silence. If that appeals to you, it is possible to upgrade to the mausoleum suite, which offers a luxury coffin plus a small sitting area with genuine Victorian stonework decor.

Dining opportunities are varied. Given the wide range of species resident in the Castle, food services here are necessarily talented and, dare I say it, athletic. Fast food still has to be caught—and let me assure you everything is absolutely fresh. If you prefer to dine out, there are a variety of fine restaurants and bars mere steps away from the Castle door. My personal favourite is the Empire Hotel, where the lounge is run by the so-friendly bartender, Joe. Just don’t go during a full moon as some of the customers prefer take-out.

Yes, as I say, it’s important to take care of your personal health while doing anything creative. Health equals energy equals the kind of spirit capable of seizing on inspiration. It’s true that writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, but without that 10% leavening the rest, anything you do will come out reading like an instruction manual.

And you really don’t want the instruction manuals from the Castle.

I just wonder what they might be???

The Sekrit

Sharon Ashwood
May 12, 2010  •  No Comments

chihuahuaSecrets can be good or bad.

The secrets of the post-published life are plentiful in good AND bad ways. I’ve talked before about the shock of discovering how much self promotion was involved in authorhood. I’m not going to cover that ground again, even though it’s a topic I can whine about ad nauseum. Instead, the Big Sekrit I’m going to talk about is one I learned long before I was published. It was one of those bits of information I picked and filed away without knowing its value until I really needed it.

Here it is:

Survival is the name of the game. Be prepared to adapt as a writer. Don’t be afraid to try new things.

Reasons for this abound. One is that tastes change. People like historical yesterday, paranormal today, and kink with tribbles tomorrow. It doesn’t always pay to chase trends, but a certain amount of mobility is essential. Otherwise, we’d all still be in helmet hair and shoulder pads—and that would just be scary.

Another reason is the constant roller coaster of the publishing industry itself. Lines fail. Editors leave. What fit for one may not work for the next that you approach. They may have all the kink with tribbles they need, but require pirates in lacy underwear. Or maybe you’re competing against the queen of tribble sex, and just can’t seem to get any traction with readers. Instead, you know there’s an unfilled market for Wild West sagas featuring the hairless Chihuahua porn hero, Alpha Romero. It might be something new to you, but it’s an untouched gold mine. Give it a shot, and you’ll not only land a contract, but perhaps discover your métier.

Footnote: Sometimes trying a new genre is very revealing. Every writer needs to discover the voice they have, not the one they think they should have. Working against self-assumptions can be healthy.

The third, and most important, reason to experiment is that writers are primarily artists. They need room to grow, stay fresh, and push their limits. Staying in the safe zone is the kiss of death. This is one reason why authors constantly rebrand themselves and launch their careers over and over again. Many have two different careers at the same time working on very different lines. It’s not just money issues. Versatility keeps a writer on the right side of editorial and artistic Darwinism.

My question is, in the interests of cross-genre experimentation, should we introduce Romero to the tribbles?


Sharon Ashwood
May 8, 2010  •  No Comments

So this was annoying.

I’ve had some internet frustrations of late, but last night my email stopped working altogether. I grumbled, but forgot about it, thinking it would clear up overnight. It didn’t. When I finally had a chance to phone and get the scoop today, I couldn’t believe what I was told.

I’ve been with a small local internet provider since I first got email–I’m guessing since about 1992-ish back when dial-up was the big new deal. When highspeed came along, the company piggybacked their service onto Big Conglomerate’s equipment, but still provided their individual, personal service. I supported them because they’re local and good to me.

Unfortunately, Big Conglomerate, without explanation or consultation, changed their billing policy, wanting Small Independent to pay several months in advance. Small Independent bills people like me monthly. I sense a cash flow problem here.

So last night Big Conglomerate pulled the plug on Small Independent’s customers, including me. The only recourse my trusty provider had was to throw in the towel and tell their customers to go sign up with Conglomerate. Which, unfortunately, I had to do if I wanted my email messages anytime soon.

I had to hold on the phone for forty-five minutes to get assistance from Big Conglomerate. This is why I never used them.

This whole thing feels like a highjacking, and I’m peeved.

The push and pull of book assembly

Sharon Ashwood
May 5, 2010  •  1 Comment

I always have more ideas than I can use in a book. Part of my process isn’t so much pulling things together as weeding things out, and it’s an emotional process. There’s nothing worse than characters looking at you with big, sad eyes when you tell them it’s not their turn to come out on stage. Next book. Maybe. They trudge away, dragging their feet, heads bowed, mumbling something about contracts.

The problem is that I never know exactly what goes or stays until draft 1 is complete. A lot comes to light when there’s a chance to step away and think about the book as a whole. Given deadlines, that usually lasts about ten minutes, but a period of several weeks is best.

What emerges for me is theme. One writes a series of events, but one also writes what the book is about. That “about” is key and constitutes much of what they call the writer’s voice. What issues to you address through the actions of your characters? Family? Self-actualization? Fate? Atonement? The iniquity of shoulder pads?

Sometimes I start out thinking my book is about X only to discover it’s about Y. The theme that sneaks into my text is usually smarter, more sophisticated and altogether better. My next step—part one of the pulling together process—is then reshaping what I’ve done to show it to best advantage and the pretending that’s what I meant to write all along.

My biggest flaw is dropped threads. As I head into draft 2, I’m constantly tripping over plot ideas that fit some other version of the story but have nada to do with the end product. A lot of this has to do with the breathless rush that happens when characters are telling me their scenes. I just record the stuff as it comes along, figuring I’ll go back and fix it later. I keep a notebook by the computer where I can jot notes down. Right now as I write ICED I have:
• What did Perry know? Why did he ask Baines to go to the University?
• Why did they kill St. Hiliare?
• Who was the gunman?
Don’t ask me. I have to figure it out like everyone else.
Eventually, though, the questions have to be answered, and that’s the other big “pulling together” that happens. Nothing bugs me worse than sloppy plotting, so I can’t exactly let myself off the hook. Some threads will get snipped off. Others will be properly woven into the story. If I do a good job, the effect will be seamless.

Someday I’m going to keep a log of how much time I spend writing a book versus editing it. By the time page proofs are done, I’m willing to bet the ratio is 2:1 or even 3:1 in favour of editing. Anyone want to place bets?

Getting it down

Sharon Ashwood
April 28, 2010  •  No Comments

Words on paper. It’s harder to get them there than you think. Slow and steady might win the race, but sometimes that consistent slog is difficult to maintain. Make no mistake – in the middle of any book, the worst TV shows start looking mighty fine.

I’m not a fast writer. I clock about 500 words in an hour. On a work day, there are about 2.5 usable writing hours in a day if I ignore meals, fitness, social niceties, and personal hygiene. It’s a bad idea to have too many such days in one week, or people start to avoid me.

On the other hand, there are those occasions when I burn up the screen, writing a hot streak that won’t quit. My largest day’s page count ever was 30 pages. Unfortunately, that level of output breaks my brain and I can’t write for days afterward. Counting on a blitz when I get behind is chancy.

An example of my accelerated writing style—I’m nearing a deadline—was this past weekend. I took Thurs/Friday so I had four days full to work with.

• Thursday I worked from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. with three breaks of about an hour. Product: approx. 4,000 words. Pretty good, considering I was also doing some editing.
• Friday – got a late start (around 11:00). Product: about 2,500 words. Not so great.
• Saturday – Call me writer girl. 6,000 words. Time out for one grocery run.
• Sunday – 2,000 words at best. Too many obligations nibbling away at time.
• Monday night – 2,000 words written after dinner from 7:15 to 11:30. I don’t usually work this long on a week night, but the muse was happy so I just stayed with it.

Five days, approximately 16,500 words. There are writers who could have blazed through half a book in that time. I’m not one of them.

I think that’s one of the big lessons in becoming a writer—finding your working style and how fast you can comfortably produce in a day. You do what you do. There’s no good or bad. Some authors push to write as many books as possible in a year, but too much haste produces brain sprain and burnout, not to mention crappy books. Respect your process.

My happiest writing time is the after-dinner session. I have my laptop on the couch, feet up, CD player on shuffle, and the Demon Lord of Kitty Badness flopped over my feet. My brain works best in the evening for new material, and I can motor on like this for hours. If I’m editing, it’s the kitchen table with the coffee pot and I’m best during the daytime. I’ve risen from bed at 3:00 a.m. to put in a few hundred words and then gone back to sleep, but I’ve never been a crack-of-dawn person. If I’m up at five, I’m wrecked for the rest of the day.

Why would new material be a night thing for me and editing a day thing? Different halves of the brain? Probably there’s a psych paper in there someplace.

Men are from Mars, hellhounds from Pluto

Sharon Ashwood
April 23, 2010  •  No Comments

One of the rules I live by when writing paranormal fiction is not to think too hard, at least when it comes to practical matters. I mean, consider the problems of actually achieving a HEA with the heroes in question. Right now I’m working on a story where the strapping hero is a hellhound. Yes, he really is nothing but a hound dog.

Hellhounds, like werewolves, are meant to be beastly but hunky bundles of primal instinct. They’re protective, loyal Alphas always in tip-top sexual overdrive. They apparently don’t own shirts and wander about displaying serrated abdominal muscles, completely unconscious of their lusty charms.

Sounds yummy, but what would they actually be like on a day to day basis? How does one deal with a part-time canine? Does the city charge him with assault if he chases the mailman? When does he get to lie on the furniture? If he sheds on the furniture, will he clean it up, or does it just become another top-off-the-toothpaste issue? Couples therapy could start to smack of obedience training.

I live with cats, and shudder to think what they’d be like if bestowed with the power to operate credit cards and motor vehicles.

And then there are vampires. They come complete with an array of mechanisms for sidestepping all those difficult couples’ conversations. If the girlfriend starts winding up to a talk about “us,” he could turn into a bat and flap away. Turn into a mist. Turn sideways and slip through a crack in the floor. If all else fails, he’ll keel over dead when the sun comes up. Hate pillow talk? Just die. It works every time.

The supernatural guy belongs in the pages of fiction. His mystique is safe there, the curtain politely drawn across those awkward moments in the grocery aisle, when Fido heads for the extra-large package of chew sticks.

Yep, never pays to think too much.

You mean I was supposed to plan?

Sharon Ashwood
April 21, 2010  •  No Comments

montgolfier_balloon I’ve never been one for prewriting per se. I mean, I have an idea, and some characters, and I’ll crank out an outline of sorts. I sort of throw them in the blender and see what happens. After about six chapters, I’ll look at the results and see if it resembles what I had in mind. Often at that point I’ll go back to the beginning and do a rewrite to bring the vision and the actual closer together.

Research? I usually do a fair amount, and half the time end up not needing it. I’m a bad one for running off on tangents. However, if you need to know anything about hot air balloons in the eighteenth century, I have file folders full of information.

And, for the record, I plot. I do it on butcher paper pinned to the wall, so I can stand back and see it all at once. I don’t force myself to stick to the road map, but I like to have one.

The best part of my pre-writing is spent looking for the right mood for the story. Images, smells, sounds, the weather, and a billion other things converge into the right atmosphere. Some people collect pictures and collage. That’s not my thing, although a single picture can stir something up in my mind. It’s more music that works for me. I’m prone to finding an album and playing it 6,000 times while writing a book.( I’m sure my neighbours bless the advent of the iPod.) For Unchained, I found a particular red wine that worked well to get me in the storytelling mood—appropriately named Bête Noir. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those folks who can drink and write at the same time and it had to become a post-writing treat.

Where I go into preparation mode is before my daily writing sessions. I try and make notes in advance. If I don’t plan out a chapter, I end up rewriting it several times to get it functioning properly. What purpose does it serve? Where is the conflict? Scene goals? A tiny bit of thought ahead of time will make my 2.5 hours a day count.

I also believe in pre-session ritual to focus myself on the task. It doesn’t have to be particularly elaborate, just enough so that I know it’s time to settle down and work. For me it’s doing dishes. When the kitchen is cleaned up, I can use the kitchen table. Simple, useful, and it keeps me from succumbing to the temptation of the TV. I honestly think that’s the key to finishing a book—just put the bum in the chair and get to work.

The story herd

Sharon Ashwood
April 14, 2010  •  No Comments

There are two models of creators: those who get great mileage, and those who seem to have eternal fuel cells. Beethoven wasn’t a big tune writer. When he got a good tidbit, he’d use it a lot, either in the same composition or recycled elsewhere. No waste there, and he was so clever about how he repackaged, no one minded. Others—Mozart and Dvorak come to mind—seem to be bottomless wells for tunes.

Authors are much the same way. Some seem endlessly inventive. Others work with a few themes, but keep coming up with new ways of looking at them.

For me, getting ideas is not a problem. I have herds of them. They don’t come from any place in particular—no catalogue, warehouse, wellspring, or oracle. Just stampedes of unruly thoughts, most of which are entirely useless, repetitive, or weird. Alas, shall we ever see my tale of the gypsy phrenologist and the missish Victorian bookkeeper who discover a frozen corpse buried at the crossroads?

The trick is figuring out which ideas are keepers. I tend to store them away, checking periodically to see which still interest me. Notably, they seem to form loose subject groups. I am apparently obsessed with a) social injustice and b) problem parental figures. You show me a guy with an absent father and a revolutionary streak, and I’ll show you a protagonist.

IMO, a viable idea must have the seeds of character growth. In my favorite books, a hero or heroine’s viewpoint radically changes over the course of the story. Plus, I need emotion and reversal. Emotion, because the reader, author and character all have to feel deeply about whatever problem the protagonist faces. Reversal, because the only way the character can solve the unsolvable dilemma is by changing his/her own vision. They have to learn, sacrifice, and earn their HEA. If this isn’t present in a story idea, I tend to pass it by.

Can you think of a story where the solution came from outside the character, and was it a satisfying ending?

Literary, or just likeable?

Sharon Ashwood
April 13, 2010  •  No Comments

I participated in the essay anthology Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series, which was released by Smart Pop on April 6. I was flattered to be asked to participate, and it forced me to dust off critical skills I hadn’t used since university. Not that harkening back to my school days was always a help. The editor of the collection demanded not only an insightful, well-reasoned contribution, but also an entertaining one. In other words, she put me through my paces with just as much discipline (and, I sometimes imagined, unholy glee) as any of my profs. I polished that sucker until I was blue in the face.

Collections like this one are cropping up more and more frequently. I certainly see no reason not to apply the academic toolkit to movies, TV, and books on the mass market list. For one thing, some creators (J. Michael Straczynski comes to mind) write such excellent stuff that it begs for a closer look. The world of Buffy can, and has been, dissected without damaging the original one bit. But sometimes brain candy is just that, with no hidden profundities or depths to plumb. These stories and shows were never meant to be analyzed, and it wouldn’t be fair to do so.

But acknowledging that some popular entertainment is robust enough to support criticism and some is not raises some interesting questions—and I’ll say up front that I don’t pretend to have answers. One essay does not a theorist make.

As I said, this “literary criticism of the non-literary” seems to be increasingly popular. More and more of it is getting published, so someone’s buying it. What appetite is it filling? And what does it say about the shows and books these essays are about? Are popular genres developing their own sub-strata of smarter, meatier works, or is this just a belated recognition of the fact?