October 10, 2019 • No Comments
Unfortunately, the income of most authors is not enough to sustain a mouse, much less a modern household in a large urban city. Without a doubt, this is the most common reason for the rise of the weekend warrior writer, who toils for pay five days a week and pounds on the keyboard during weekend hours. The disadvantages of this state are obvious—who doesn’t want to be a full-time writer rather than drudging for someone else? Plus, if one is serious about a writing career, the time commitment is equivalent to a second full-time job.
But there are also advantages to a double life.
- Some of us actually like our day jobs (or at least the benefits package)
- Part-time writers might have fewer titles under their belt, but they may have gained other useful busness skills.
- It’s far easier to let the imagination frolic when there’s less pressure to succeed.
- If writing to a niche market is your thing, financial security allows you the luxury of taking a creative risk. So, go ahead and write that book of your heart about vampire sheep conquering distant galaxies!
Whatever the trade-offs, we do what’s necessary to get words on the page. So here are some survival tips for writing around the edges of your day:
Organization is obviously important for any home business, whatever its nature. For us, this means breaking down writing, marketing, and production tasks into manageable bites and fitting them into our schedules. There are people who can squeeze in writing time in uncanny circumstances, but others get more mileage by blocking off set times for creation. The important point is to manage time in an intentional way. If I go with the flow my day is soon circling the drain.
I’ve experimented with an endless series of calendars and apps like Things 3 to corral my to-dos. I need something that offers repeating reminders (daily, weekly, or monthly) and groups tasks by project and type (writing, personal, household, etc.). The combo of ideal tools will vary with every person, but the basic goal is to avoid reinventing the to-list every morning. Ideally, your app fairies have that figured out before you roll out of bed. The less time spent puzzling over the day’s tasks, the more time can be devoted to actually crossing items off the list.
Know your peak productivity times. Some people can knock off a thousand words before breakfast. Others (like me) are night owls. Put your creative time where (and when) it counts. I might be able to schedule Tweets in the morning, but don’t ask me to make complete sentences, recognize faces, or handle anything sharp. Once, I actually put cat kibble in the coffee maker.
Be professional. Show up fully wherever you are. In other words, leave writing at home and work at work. Keep your deadlines and commitments, whatever hat you’re wearing. Bottom line: avoid emailing your manuscript to your boss by mistake.
Respect your muse. Writing can a hard business, with a ton of expectation placed on our creative selves. In particular, there is a lot of pressure to produce material quickly, which is especially hard when writing time is hard to get.
Deep breath! It is possible to get faster with practice. Solid plotting skills and a regular writing routine naturally increase the pace of book production. Drafting by dictation speeds things up for me, but it took months to produce something beyond stream of consciousness babble. Sadly, there is no magic software that makes you write a bestselling novel in two weeks. Believe me, I’ve tried them all!
Most of all, be patient with yourself. Weekend writers aren’t on a learning curve, we’re on a mandala, looping in and out and around everything else to pursue our path. We’re proof positive that there are plenty of ways to find success, even if it’s by the scenic route.
October 9, 2019 • No Comments
The Hellion House series (the first installment, Scorpion Dawn was introduced in the Rogue Skies box set) involves a great many floating objects. The plot centers around the Fletcher family, who own one of the largest and wealthiest airship fleets in the city. Besides being nifty, the airships serve an important purpose in their adventure.
Don’t leave home without one
Haunted by hungry creatures, the wilderness is extremely dangerous. Humanity has been driven into walled enclaves. No one dares to travel outside the city on horseback, much less on foot. The only options are by water—which is extremely risky—or by airship.
How does humanity retake the countryside from lethal foe? The only way to find allies and solutions is to look outside the city, and the only way reach new friends is through the clouds.
There’s money in the sky
The patriarch of the family, Norton Fletcher, wields considerable social influence. Fletcher Industries has made the family rich and respected even though the founder is a commoner who came from nothing. But every success comes at a cost. Who will pay it?
October 8, 2019 • No Comments
Break out your saucepans, drill bits, and knitting needles—the latest trend is to do-it-yourself like our grandparents did. With so much information online, it’s easier than ever to find instructions on everything from dollmaking to drywall. Or for those seeking to connect with actual humans, knitting circles and crafting afternoons are trending. Still others may not dive into fray themselves, but appreciate the individual craftspeople and small businesses in their local community. And then there are those—like Ren Faire and Steampunk enthusiasts—who take the entire business to extraordinary lengths. The reasons for embracing DIY vary, but there are common themes: environmental concerns, stretching a dollar, and personal creative expression.
Ever heard of a repair café? This is a growing trend where, for a few hours, the public can bring everything from wonky toasters to ripped shirts to a room full of volunteers. There, crafters will teach the skills needed to make their wounded possessions whole again. Besides providing a boost in confidence, learning basic repair skills is good for the pocketbook and the landfill.
The DIY philosophy doesn’t stop with repairing zippers. These days, “artisan” or “craft” products are in vogue, along with farmer’s markets, pottery shows, and fancy micro-brews. As with all trends, results vary from delightful to silly, but the movement speaks to a need. Consumers want options beside the anonymous experience offered by the big box store.
Why? For some, the pull is purely emotional. With the move toward mass production, we lost the experience of having a unique item made just for us. There’s a world of difference in a custom-knit sweater versus something bought at a warehouse store. On the flip side, there’s the creative experience of making something for another person—every stitch or stroke of the brush is an expression of pride, affection, and the personality of the giver and receiver. Family recipes and workshop war stories are made of this.
For others, DIY is a simple way to protect the environment. Our throw-away culture has generated mountains of waste, so whatever can be repaired, reused, or created without tons of packaging is better for the planet. Along the same lines, whatever food we grow or make from scratch is tastier and more nutritious than a frozen meal shipped across the planet in a plastic tray.
And while DIY saves money by extending the life of a toaster, that’s not the only economic impact. Buying from other local independent crafters means supporting the economy close to home. We can stretch our dollars by learning to do things ourselves, but when we do shop, we can vote for quality, creativity, and our home community—so go ahead and buy the delicious cinnamon rolls at the farmer’s market. You’re preserving someone’s job.
Then there’s independence. It’s one thing to opt for convenience, and quite another to be helpless because we don’t know how to sew on a button or hang a picture. Surprisingly—or maybe not—there have been a number of recent reports about a loss of manual dexterity in young people who don’t grow up measuring ingredients, sewing, or building things in their dad’s workshop. This is causing problems for those entering the trades or even medical school.
So call up Grandpa and ask about learning to tie flies, or get some bread-baking lessons at the local community center. We don’t just want to learn how to DIY—apparently, it’s good for us.
October 7, 2019 • No Comments
Editing advice is depressingly easy to come by, especially when our work in progress is circling the drain. That’s when the armchair editors come out to play, usually with a sympathetic shrug and sad eyes. Then they gingerly toe our story as if it were a roadkill raccoon.
Once we get past the impulse to bash those know-it-alls over the head, we are at the point of autopsy. That’s when we survey the wreckage with an ache in our chests, wondering whether to draw the sheet over our darling, or make one last heroic attempt at rescue.
I’ve had my fair share of emergency room moments. Deciding whether or not a book is salvageable is tough, but I’ve come up with a diagnostic test I use when I get to about the five-chapter mark, then half way, and then again at the end. This doesn’t cover every possible scenario (I’m always finding new ways to make a mess) but it does hit the probable pitfalls.
Consider these issues before you pronounce time of deletion. Everything here can be fixed in a thorough edit.
One: Are your characters acting like real people?
I’ve read books where characters seem to experience a story in isolated episodes, as if they’ve had a brain wipe between page turns. It’s hard for the reader to engage with a protagonist in this detached state. Characters should come across as individuals with complete interior lives.
Take a moment and think about what it would be like to be your protagonist, an ordinary person, shoved into an exciting adventure. Imagine going through events as the chapter progresses as if it were happening to you. What does your character feel? Where in your body does that emotion show up? A clenched jaw? An aching stomach? How does your protagonist continue to function despite those emotions? Now put those feelings on top of the feelings from the last chapter, and the one before that. A writer needs the cumulative impact of all those layers to make character change realistic. It’s okay (and probably useful) for your protagonist to cope badly from time to time.
This is one of many reasons that it’s useful to construct a plot timeline. If your character’s parent is hit by a truck on Monday, they will still be reacting to the incident on Tuesday. It doesn’t hurt, when starting a fresh chapter, to make a few notes about the character’s state of mind going in. This is especially helpful if there are breaks between writing sessions and the material isn’t fresh in your mind.
Two: Are you keeping secrets?
This is related to the point above. I have occasionally questioned one writer or another about why a character does XYZ and been given a long monologue about the character’s thoughts, feelings, family dynamics, ambitions, grade school experience, etc. Note to author: it doesn’t count if I can’t read it on the page.
Check when you are revealing information, especially where it reinforces motivation. I know we’re all afraid of the infodump, but being coy is just as harmful. It annoys and confuses readers and frequently makes the characters appear to require strong psychiatric medication.
Three: Do you have the right amount of story for the length of your work?
A well-written story can come in any length, but sometimes that short story we think we’re writing turns out to be a surprise novel. That’s okay, as long as we don’t try to squish it back into a short story-sized container.
To figure out if your story is too short or too long for your chosen format, here are some questions to ask:
- Does every section (chapter, scene, or whatever unit you’re using) relate to the main conflict in terms of action, character, or theme?
- Does every section contain enough of its own conflict to be interesting?
- If you left the section out, would it matter to the overall story?
- Are any important events happening off stage? Does the event take more than two sentences to explain? If so, cut it out or …
- Would it raise the tension in the story to show those events on stage in real time?
- Can any other exposition be turned into action or at least a conversation?
- Is there enough rising action and setbacks to make us doubt the outcome of the story?
- Are all important character traits/relationships demonstrated on screen?
Four: Is your climax in the right place? Are the right people participating in it?
Go ahead, think about the sexual double entendre. It fits.
We all know the big finale should happen close to the end of the book. Romance has a climax for the exterior action (the villain is stopped) and then one for the interior conflict
(the romance receives its final test). I would argue that most character-driven work has this double climax in which the action resolves and then the protagonist(s) gain final insight. It’s the best way to iron in a satisfying character arc. Although there are always exceptions, to put these peaks too soon or in the wrong order can make for a less than satisfying end.
Also, please ensure the main character is a participant in the climax. Not an observer. Not hearing about it from a friend. Not using a peephole. They need to personally impact the outcome of events or the reader feels cheated for spending so much time with someone who clearly doesn’t matter.
Five: Do you have too much beginning?
This tends to be an issue with bigger books or series, but it can happen with short ones as well. This is a good moment to consider whether the overall work is the right size (see above) because the beginning sets the expectation of how the whole story will be paced. If you whitter on at a leisurely trot and then sprint through the last half, the book feels lopsided.
If you’re already at novel length but need five chapters of exposition to get out of the gate, the best advice I can give is to start with a corner of your universe and build out as you go. Give us ONLY what we need to make it through the first scene. Show us the mud, the castle, the village cow. We don’t actually need the name of the town to know what kind of place we’re in. If you need to add a little something for scene number two, then dribble it in when we get there, and so on. Consider that your character doesn’t think about his or her environment all at once. They’re dealing with what’s in front of them, just like we do when we walk out the front door.
Think about the reader experience like vacation travel. Once we’ve checked our luggage, seen the hotel room, and had something to eat, we’re ready to see the sights. That’s when it’s okay to start giving more detail, because the reader has some way to relate it to what they already know.
September 30, 2019 • No Comments
A good book is filled with people we feel we’ve met. We imagine meeting them on the street, or that their name might show up in our inbox. They exist both inside the book and in an extended version of our own reality because they’ve become part of our consciousness. They think, talk, and act in unique ways that aren’t exactly predictable, but they are knowable.
As a reader, we know these unforgettable characters when we meet them. As a writer, it’s not always that simple.
How Do We Create a Character?
There are plenty of books on the topic and they’re all probably right for some author somewhere. Psychological profiling, archetypes, questionnaires—whatever it takes to get the job started is fine if it works. In truth, I don’t use any of the above until much later in the characterization process. My cast tends to walk into my head and start telling me a story. This is simply my flavor of madness.
Once the story is populated, the real work begins. A hero is fine—a hero who is a puzzle to be solved is so much more enticing. Put another way, the worst-written characters are the ones who fulfill all our expectations. The best ones take us by surprise.
Character is conflict
What makes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde interesting? Spike and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Mr. Darcy? Ebenezer Scrooge? They fulfill obvious expectations, but deeper down, they have impulses that are the precise opposite of what they seem. Mr. Darcy appears cold and proud, but he’s really loving and thoughtful. Scrooge is a horrible miser, but he has the capacity for generosity. And our darling vampires are nothing if not contrary.
Putting characters into conflict with each other is necessary to build a plot. Putting them in conflict with themselves makes them infinitely more interesting. Those mentioned above are memorable enough they almost exist outside the stories that spawned them. We may or may not remember the specifics of Jekyll and Hyde, but Stevenson’s character has become an icon for a double life.
Let’s build on this idea some more:
One arc or two or three?
How-to books mumble on about how a story needs a plot with rising action, a climax, and conclusion. Essentially, this is like the clothes hanger for the story—we need a plot structure to provide shape so the book is not one big stream-of-consciousness word barf. There are also character arcs, in which a protagonist grows through internal struggle. If your characters don’t cross the finish line with more self-awareness then when they started, we wonder why we spent 300 pages cheering them on. That’s why authors use both an external and internal story arc to accommodate a character’s conflict with the world plus their conflict with themselves.
Let’s use The Lord of the Rings as an example:
- There is a plot arc, which is the external conflict of a story—the rock ’em, sock ’em action component. The hobbits & friends need to chuck the One Ring into Mount Doom. It’s a physical journey with sword fights, drinking, and talking trees.
- Then there’s the internal character arc (arc, not orc) which is Frodo’s private war with the ring and his role in the quest. Is he worthy? Can he resist the pull of the dark side? We know he’s brave and true, but the struggle is real. He can’t resist the darkness altogether and Sam has his hands full keeping Frodo together through that long, long trek through the wasteland.
- In some cases—and they tend to be truly excellent pieces of writing—there is a second, or thematic character arc that intersects the other two.
The Third Arc
I’ll keep using Frodo as an example. What Tolkien does is interesting. Yes, there’s a good versus evil fight for Frodo’s soul, but the conflict has another significant aspect. Throughout the trilogy, there’s a theme around the survival of community. The elves are dwindling. Mines are abandoned. The industrial revolution rampages through the Shire. Even the Fellowship gets sundered early on. Community and cohesion are difficult to maintain in a fading world.
Frodo—the bookish heir of a rebel uncle—becomes the poster child for this thread. He’s an orphan among a people defined by its blood ties. He’s got friends, but generally speaking he’s outside the norm because of his association with Bilbo, a respected figure but a definite misfit. From there, Frodo becomes increasingly separated from the herd. He loses Bilbo to Rivendell, has to leave his home, and is eventually singled out because of the ring. There is no question he loves the Shire and all it represents, but his ties to it gradually fall away until he leaves Middle Earth altogether.
While this progression of isolation overlaps Frodo’s battle with the ring’s power (good versus evil), it’s also a microcosm of the land’s changing nature and forms a secondary dynamic arc (community versus abandonment/withdrawal). This secondary arc adds a melancholy depth to Frodo’s story. Imagine the change of tone if Frodo went home at the end, had a pack of kids, and drank beer with Sam for the next forty years.
Adding a third arc—one intimately tied to the overarching theme of a story—supercharges the character by creating a resonance that extends beyond their individual circumstances. They become larger than life because they mirror the bigger landscape. The trick is to manage this secondary arc with a light hand—too much and it becomes a ponderous sledgehammer.
To summarize, there is no right or wrong method of writing characters, but inner conflict—especially with contrary impulses—will make your protagonist interesting. Adding multiple arcs to the character will further boost their complexity. After all, real people have many issues in their lives. It stands to reason a realistic character will, too.
September 29, 2019 • No Comments
Food is as much part of popular culture as movies, games, and fashion trends. We wax nostalgic (or not) about black licorice bubble gum and Frankenberry cereal. We identify with gumbo or Nanaimo bars or kale. We are, in terms of identity, what we eat. So, it’s hardly a surprise that trend-watchers predict upcoming menu choices. A scan of culinary blogs reveals an interesting split—diners seem to be galloping toward (sometimes very odd) healthy choices or are in an equal and opposite rush to a heart attack.
The Good – or at least good for you
Kale was one thing. Broccoli coffee, in my opinion, is just wrong. Invented in Australia, this brew involves adding dried broccoli powder to latté-type beverages. While I cheerfully eat the green stuff raw, steamed, and hopefully smothered in cheese, I can’t see the flavor blending with my fave mocha java. Others apparently thought so as well, since this concoction doesn’t seem to have gained any traction—but watch for beverages made from moringa, coming soon to a barista near you.
Another big trend is meat that isn’t. While veggie burgers have traditionally been patties made of vegetables, period, those days are done. The past year has seen an uprising of plant-based proteins masquerading as something else. Check out Good Catch’s seafood substitutes, including faux tuna and don’t forget Beyond Meat and its burgers, a surprisingly successful contender in the beef-happy fast food arena.
The Bad – but your tastebuds are in heaven
Fries, fries and more fries—anything remotely starchy, from yucca to snap peas, is trending as long as it’s drowned in grease. Traditional potato, however, is still king of the fryer. Better still if said tots are smothered in bacony goodness. While we might have reached peak poutine, pork and carbs are a combo that’s still going strong.
For added variety, find a way to add a donut. We all know how delectable sweet/salty combinations can be, so how about a donut burger? If you’re inspired to try one, check out this video. I think my cholesterol went up just watching:
The Ugly – and thankfully on its way out
Describing something as poop–even unicorn poop–doesn’t make me want to eat it. But I think I’m in the minority, because multi-colored (aka unicorn-styled) food has been invading everywhere from lifestyle magazines to fast-food joints these last few years. The trend reached a notable moment when the Starbucks Unicorn Frappucino galloped past (and was thankfully turned out to pasture!).
The trend was brilliant parodied in this video for Squatty Potty. And that’s my final word on the rainbow trend.
September 26, 2019 • No Comments
We think of clothing as a means of self-expression—fleeting or classic, occasionally silly, and frequently entertaining. Rarely do we think of adornment as dangerous, but history is filled with literal fashion victims.
Rewind to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Clothing was dyed by natural sources, so unless one’s wardrobe was exotic and very expensive, color choices were dull compared to what we have today. Then when the whale oil used in domestic lighting was slowly replaced by coal gas, the gas industry produced coal tar, and industrialists began experimenting to find a use for this by-product. The result was gorgeous aniline dyes, which created an explosion of bright, clear hues of every description that were affordable to everyone. Predictably, the fashion pages became giddy rainbows of choice.
There was only one hiccup—there were no rules about testing these new products for consumer safety. With chromium, mercury and arsenic in the mix, this rapidly became an issue. While the solutions in some fabrics were relatively harmless—perhaps because they were not worn next to the skin—others, like the gaily striped stockings in vague during the 1860s, were activated by heat and perspiration. Consuming alcohol could also speed the action of these toxins. Blisters, rashes, and even death followed, particularly among the factory workers who handled these materials without protective gear.
These new shades were also used in home décor, candy manufacture, and artificial flowers. Green had a particularly nasty reputation, since its key ingredient was arsenic. The pigment Sheele’s Green was a particular favorite of Napoleon Bonaparte. There is some suggestion the arsenical paint on his walls was a contributor to his eventual death.
There is a saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Be careful what you’re getting into! If you were in old Venice, those shoes might be chopines. These platform shoes proved disco had nothing on the Renaissance. Originally arriving from Turkey in the 1400s, they were invented to lift the wearer out of the mud of the streets. The style lasted in Europe until the mid-1600s. The height of the heel also became linked to the status of the wearer, and both noblewomen and concubines wanting to make a statement had them. While many examples of chopines are around seven or eight inches high, other examples reach twenty inches. Women requires canes and servants to move around, and there is more than one story about women falling to their death. Laws were passed to limit the height of the shoes, but to little effect.Cosmetics were another pretty way to die. Queen Elizabeth I was reported to use Venetian Ceruse as a skin whitener. The paste was a mix of vinegar and white lead and was apparently applied quite thickly. A popular companion to this white base was cinnabar or vermilion rouge, derived from mercury and Sulphur. This duo, while the height of Tudor fashion, caused skin eruptions, hair loss, and bleeding gums.
To complete the look, women used Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade) to enhance their eyes. Bella donna means beautiful woman, and a drop or two dilated the pupils to enhance a dark, enticing gaze—right up until increased heart rate, visual distortion, and eventual blindness took over.
The list of potentially fatal fashions goes on and on, from combustible crinolines to young girls removing ribs so their corsets could be cinched that much tighter. Lest one think women alone were subject to dangerous dress, the mercury used in felting men’s hats was well-known to produce “mad” or at least very sick hat makers. Even setting aside the hazards of sweat shops, it was a dangerous time to be in the clothing trade.
Have we escaped such madness in the twenty-first century? I’m not so sure—we have our own version of fashion madness, though hopefully nothing quite so drastic. All the same, if someone tells me they’ve discovered a trend to die for, I’m running the other way!
September 23, 2019 • No Comments
Most of us experience procrastination at some point in our lives. I’m guilty of some very late night submissions, study blitzes, and (ahem) blog posts that barely slide under the wire. But rather than focus on the less attractive aspects of dilly-dallying, why not embrace the creative potential? Don’t settle for any old delay—go for the procrastination gold!
September 5, 2019 • No Comments
The members of the Rogue Skies box set were asked to provide a dream cast for their books. This is always tricky because actors are by nature chameleons and they may match the character in one role but not in the next. I therefore put a disclaimer on this assembly–these folks match the characters in this photo. That being said, here we go for Scorpion Dawn and the series that follows:
Clockwise from top left:
- Emily Blunt as Miranda Fletcher – a rebel just finding her feet
- Natalie Dormer as Sidonie Fletcher – pretty but with a generous helping of mischief
- Jude Law as Detective Palmer (because Jude Law appears in every movie ever)
- Aidan Turner as Gideon Fletcher. It was the disgruntled eyebrows that sold me.
September 2, 2019 • No Comments
It’s that time of year again! The pressure is on for parents to outfit their kids for success. For first-timers, it’s a bewildering season, and for non-humans there are extra considerations most parenting columns ignore. So, because we care, here are 5 tips for sending your monster back to school.
New clothes are part of the back-to-school ritual. Advertisers remind us of this emergency approximately thirty minutes after the last bell of the previous school year.
For non-human students who wear their fur or scales to the first day of classes, missing out on new stuff will seem unfair. Few clothing manufacturers make rompers for a first-grade dragon. And who can blame werewolf moms from shopping at second-hand stores when junior will trash his new duds on the first full moon? As always, parents will have to do their best. A little nail polish on the claws or temporary color in the fur might do to make your little monster feel special. And what could be
more fetching than a baby Cthulhu in a sparkly tutu?
Thankfully, school supplies are far more species-agnostic, assuming your progeny has opposable thumbs. But if your offspring are heading to a specialized school, it might be wise to
consult with other parents who have young ones a grade or two ahead. Magical academies are all the rage these days, but no one talks about the cost of spell ingredients or rare grimoires. Consider sharing some items, such as rare enchanted skulls, among students in the same class. Moreover, be sure your student has a sturdy locker equipped with appropriate wards.
Werewolf, witch, or troll, kids are kids and homework is drudgery. Set scheduled times for after-school study and stay in touch with your child’s teacher. It’s easier to catch poor study habits and correct them early in the year. If your student hangs out with friends after school, consider a summoning circle for the home. It’s a no-fuss method to ensure junior returns in time for dinner.
Meet the teacher
Parent-teacher interviews are an important ritual for all concerned. At the same time, the first meeting with your child’s instructors is never completely comfortable, especially if your student is struggling. Be open-minded if your child describes his or her teacher as an absolute demon. You never know.
School isn’t just about academics. Band, sports, and debate club are time honored ways for children to socialize and broaden their horizons. So is Brownies (please check the rules before giving them new uniforms), candy-stripers, and all manner of volunteer activities. Given new digital technology, vampires are now able to appear in the yearbook, so that might be of interest to your baby fangster. Unfortunately, due to complaints from parents and organizers, the 4-H Club still withholds membership from most predatory shifters.