Summertime, and the grass is greener

Sharon Ashwood
June 16, 2010  •  1 Comment

Summertime can be when I get my best writing done. I think this is a hangover from being in school—I expect to have more time and energy to spare, so I associate warm nights and hanging out in the garden with creative thought and, more specifically, experimental writing.


When I was in university, my focus was on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century English poets, aka the Byronic crowd. One of their buddies was a novelist named Matthew “Monk” Lewis, who wrote what we’d now call horror fiction. One summer I applied myself to his works. Mostly I was fascinated by the claim that he had locked himself up for a long weekend with a case of wine and deli take-out and written the first draft of The Monk. It’s a substantial pile o’ prose (and not a bad read, if you like gothic). Me, I would take a long weekend to write a synopsis, and only if I were stone cold sober.

Nonetheless, the result of my Monk-ish fascination resulted in a complete manuscript written that summer. Rereading it now, I wish I had the excuse of alcohol abuse for the sword-waving histrionics contained therein. One takes things far too seriously at that age.

Now, since what I write is mostly about brooding monster guys (thanks so much, Mr. Lewis), my summer escapes tend to be light and fluffy adventure stories. I actually started writing one, just to clear the dust and spiderwebs of the Castle out of my soul for a bit. I’ll bet you a quarter that if all I ever wrote was light and fluffy, I’d be looking for something dark and broody. That’s just the way holidays work—we want the opposite of our normal lives so that we can go back and appreciate what we have day to day.

On a parallel note, I’m leaving the chilly northern rainforest (okay, it’s sunny and gorgeous out, but go with me here) for the tropical steam of Orlando in July. If that’s not a reversal of my typical habitat, well, vampires don’t have coffin hair in the morning.

Okay, all you paranormal readers—what bookshelf do you visit to change things up?

Don’t step on my potato head

Sharon Ashwood
June 9, 2010  •  No Comments

At the moment, one has to be skilful to avoid the news that a Mr. Potato Head Elvis will soon be gracing toy shelves, first in a white jumpsuit version in August and then in a black leather version come Christmas.

Yikes. Should I ever become famous, I don’t wish to become THAT famous.

Clever me. Or not.

Sharon Ashwood
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“Clever” is a relative term, especially when it comes to the creative arts. From a purely practical standpoint, my most clever writing moment was probably whatever got me published. But then someone else might think that exact same passage was drek, because they would have preferred reading about naked space aliens doing the Macarena and spraying each other with Antarean massage oil. You just never know.

I used to review books for a local paper. Most of it was what is fondly referred to here as Canlit—Canadian literature often produced by a small press, usually serious, often filled with despair, weighty allusions, and landscapes that devour people via snow, bears, an excess of wheat, or the CBC. I enjoyed some of it, was puzzled by some of it, and sincerely disliked the balance. While we do have some brilliant humorists in the Canlit field, none of them sent their books to me (either that or my arts page editor kept all the good stuff).

But just because I didn’t like those stories, that didn’t make them bad. A lot of them set out to achieve their story goal and, while they might have depressed the bejeezes out of me, I had to give them credit for doing a good job. A lot of them were, in a word, clever—just not very warm and fuzzy.

In fact, I think the very cleverness of some of them put me off. I like to be surprised, and I don’t even mind knowing that the author is trying to surprise me. I just don’t like to be aware of it all the time, because then the whole act of reading becomes a strictly intellectual exercise with me trying to anticipate the author. I can’t relax into the story world but kind of skulk around in it jumping at shadows. (Example: The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. By Robert Coover. I forgive this book because it really is a genius piece of fiction.)


What I like is a book that sucks me in so completely that I forget I’m reading and leaves me ready to stake anyone who interrupts the trance. This requires a combination of intellectual pleasure and emotional pull. Clever, but with the gears and cogs hidden well enough that I don’t see them from chapters away.

So, do I ever write that well? I like to think I manage it once in a while—but everything is so subjective, I’ll never have a cut and dried answer. When I hear from a reader that I hit the right chord for them, I’ve received the best external validation possible.

What’s the cleverest thing I ever wrote? Whatever it was that made someone buy the next book.

Fresh Perspectives

Sharon Ashwood
June 3, 2010  •  No Comments

I moved offices at work this week and now I’m on the west facing side of the building. I think it’s going to be extra-hot in the summer, should we ever have summer here (I’m still in winter clothes) but right now the added light is a boost to the spirits. Plus the office is a little larger which means there is enough oxygen for at least five minutes if one shuts the door.

A change in perspective is everything. I know when I’m writing, if I get stuck sometimes just moving where I’m working can make a huge difference.

But, for those who like where they are, here is a new invention. The body of this car is “elastically adjustable” to reform itself into a bedroom, office, or gym.

This is the part I think is extra-cool:
“The SheLL will also connect seamlessly to buildings and public facilities by way of what is expected to become a standard interface for vehicles – a docking station so it can supplement the home or office with another working or living space.”

You don’t have to park the car, you just stick it to the side of your building. It should make that rush to work so much easier when the commute is actually done by driving your bedroom.

Risk and reward

Sharon Ashwood
June 2, 2010  •  No Comments

The late fall is when many of the published author contests open for entries, and every time the season rolls around I wonder whether I should go contest-happy or not. The expense, the paperwork, the mailing hassles, and the fact that it’s also the holiday season all spell a must-miss experience. But you mustn’t miss it.

You see, there are excellent Machiavellian reasons to enter. Contest judges are an enforced audience. They have to read, or pretend to read, your book. Maybe some will like it enough to buy the next one. There’s also the tantalizing promise of finalling or even winning your category. And, of course, there are contests that will forward the feedback forms to peruse. In my experience, most judges who write comments are honestly trying to be helpful, and I usually learn something. Yes, occasionally there’s one that’s snarky or just strange, but those are fortunately rare.

And, finally, entering contests feels like one is doing something positive. As authors, there’s a fairly limited amount we can do once the book is “out there.” Filling out entry forms gives us an illusory sense of control.

In a manic fit, this year I entered both my 2009 books in quite a few contests, which gave me a scoring data pool. Breaking with my personal traditions of apathy and sloth, for once I actually kept track of the results. I discovered something fairly interesting.

The book that colored outside the lines received either very high or very low scores and finalled or won in many of the contests. The one I wrote as a crowd-pleaser scored more consistently and with a higher average, but received fewer nominations in the end.

What does this actually mean? I’m not sure my test sample was large enough for rash generalizations, but I’ll make one anyway: To be exceptional, you have to accept the fact that some people will hate your work. Just go for what floats your boat. It’ll probably work out better in the end.

Oh, and fill out the entry forms, because you might win. The thing with contests—besides being great fundraisers for the chapters that sponsor them—is that they are low-risk with great reward if you do succeed. For the price of an entrance fee, you can put “award winning author” beside your name.

Cheap thrills. We get ‘em where we can.

Fluttering by

Sharon Ashwood
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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?