How to begin a book (or not)


January 16, 2019  •  No Comments

How to begin a book? Book beginnings tend to go two ways with me: either out of the gate like a shot or in a dithery fashion that means I begin chapter one about twenty times, erase it, make it chapter three, erase it, then go back to whatever it was I wrote the first time.

Some people would say that the latter method results from a failure to plot and/or I didn’t understand the story well enough. This might be true. Most of storytelling is a mysterious process and though people throw theories at it, I doubt it will ever become an exact science. The story might be stalled because my tea was the wrong temperature and/or one sock was inside out. More likely is that I used up my allotted number of story beginnings early on in my writing career, since I started ten stories for every one that I finished.

Half the theorists say the story should begin in the regular, everyday world of the protagonist. The other half advocate for a major explosion. One wonders about the protagonist’s propensity for bomb-making.

The best way to connect these dots (at least some of the time) is to consider that there is exterior action (incendiary vampires, or whatever action you are proposing) and interior action (whatever character growth the protagonist will undergo). What we’re looking for to launch the story is conflict. It could be the start of the action plot (kaboom!) or it could be a high point of conflict for the interior plot (or both, if you can make them realistically coincide).

I’ll throw my advice into the mix: If in doubt, start with the interior plot, but make it a big moment. Show the character sweating so we like that person but understand how he or she desperately needs to change.

Examples of a high-conflict interior plot opening could be a fight, the character getting fired, or the character doing something else high-risk. Whatever flaw they have, demonstrate it to the max. This makes a nice bookend with the end of the novel, where you can show them reacting a different way to the same situation. That’s a straightforward demonstration that they aren’t the same person they were at the start.

Chapter one: Billy gets in a bar fight

Chapter thirty-one: Having developed people skills, Billy de-escalates a similar situation.

This is a stupid-simple example, but you get the point. There is a difference between flashy and important. Billy might win NASCAR and that might make up the bulk of the exterior plot, but it’s important on a personal level that he is a functional human being so that he stays out of jail and weds Mary-Lou.

Put another way, remember that HIGH STAKES are important to open the story, but the HIGHEST stakes are those the protagonist carries inside them. If in doubt, start your story there.


Frostbound: The Dark Forgotten coming up

Sharon Ashwood
January 1, 2019  •  No Comments

Last year, my goal was to re-release my Dark Forgotten series (Ravenous, Scorched, Unchained, and Frostbound). I had three purposes in mind:

  • To get the books in the hands of new readers at a sensible price
  • To give myself the chance to revisit the world and build on it if I so choose
  • To get some indie books into the world so that I can build my sales

Check, check and check. I’m just about to release Frostbound, the fourth in the original series, which gets me up to date. I was slow on this one in order to get Gifted out the door in time Frostbound: the Dark Forgottenfor Christmas but, hey, I really wanted to do a holiday-themed novella. I hope you enjoyed it!

Doing an edit pass of these books was educational. I can see improvements from book to book and also how much I’ve learned about writing since. This is completely natural and healthy.  However, at times I’m troubled by errors that got past the previous professional editing team, but I have to let that go. It’s history. Probably much of what’s bugging me are only things I’d notice but, as a professional, I want to put out the best possible product. In any event, the books are better now than before, and that’s what counts.

Case in point—today I added a new final chapter to Frostbound. After a reread, I thought a more fulsome wrap-up would improve it. Poor Talia needed a bit more time to adjust to the new hellhound in her life—not to mention the rest of the pack—and we were all waiting for election results. Now there’s a few more questions answered. Not everything, of course, because Joe and Darak and the rest still have stories in the future.

Release date will be mid January, 2019. For more on this book, look here.

 

 

 


Blood, Sweat and Words Podcast

Sharon Ashwood
November 26, 2018  •  No Comments

I was asked to do a spot on Blood, Sweat and Words, so I chatted about writing about a paranormal Christmas–check it out here.


I am such a geek – social media scheduling software


November 25, 2018  •  No Comments

I like order. One glance at my desk would make you think otherwise, but I geek out on diaries, lists, schedules, planners, and post-it notes. It is no surprise that the Black Friday sale I fell prey to was for social media scheduling software.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest…I suck at them all. It’s not that I don’t like spouting off in public. I just forget, get busy, chase squirrels and a week goes by in radio silence. Hence, I need an internet butler. He keeps things running while madam chases virtual butterflies. I still have to check up on things throughout the day, but my odds of success improve when I get to do the fun bits and the software does the heavy lifting.

We’ll see how this goes. It’s all part of my author business refit, which started with a new website and newsletter platform. Every improvement I’ve made has seemed a little overwhelming at first but ultimately made outreach to readers easier. Here’s hoping this works just as well!

 


A free excerpt from Gifted: the Dark Forgotten

Sharon Ashwood
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Here’s an early holiday treat for readers: the first chapter of Gifted: the Dark Forgotten.

Gifted is available in KU and paperback, and here is the link that should take you to shopping bliss wherever you are in the world. Happy reading!

Chapter One

 

Good evening, listeners, this is your night hostess and favorite pussycat, Errata Jones, coming to you from CSUP, the radio station that puts the super in supernatural. It’s frosty tonight on the glorious University of Fairview campus with only four more shopping days until Santa Claws stuffs your stockings.

Four days and four nights until the moment of truth? That hardly seems enough time to wallow in all the gift-giving, party-going, eggnog-drinking mayhem, much less to watch all those sentimental holiday specials. But don’t fret, my pets, the Yuletide season is an endurance event, not a sprint. Pace yourselves. There’s still New Year’s Eve to get through.

 

Alessandro Caravelli, vampire, closed the door before the damp December wind chilled him straight through to his bones. There were things he liked about winter—more darkness, less suntan envy—but none of his kind appreciated the cold.

As sheriff of Fairview, he’d been out keeping order among the town’s supernatural citizens. He’d taken the early shift, leaving a contingent of hellhounds to finish out the night. It was almost midnight now, still early enough to enjoy some family time in his largely nocturnal household. Hanging his sword on a hook by the door—it was old school but still the most efficient weapon against things that went bump in the night—he dropped his car keys in the tray on the hall table. A stack of mail waited there—junk, bills, a few seasonal cards. Nobody sent actual letters anymore unless they were—like him—from a time that thought the printing press would never catch on.

Instinctively, he drifted toward the warm, sweetly scented kitchen, mail in hand. There, his partner stood icing festive fangs on a tiny gingerbread bat.

“Hello, sweetheart.” He kissed her, tasting sugar and spice on her lips.

“Hi,” she said, leaning against him. For a moment, they simply drank each other in.

Holly Carver was a witch, part-time student, professional ghost buster, and the center of Alessandro’s universe. She was also, via an exceptional bit of magic he barely understood, the mother of their daughter. Currently, little Robin—wearing flannel pajamas covered with tiny pink werewolves—was wrapped around Holly’s knee like a squid. She was just over a year old and toddling, if lurching from one handhold to another qualified as such. Alessandro dropped the mail on the wooden table in the corner and picked up his child, tucking her into the crook of his arm. Squeaking in delight, Robin grabbed a handful of his hair and gave it a sharp tug.

He sat, shifting to balance Robin on his knee. She had her mother’s green eyes and dimpled smile, not to mention her formidable will. Pulling his daughter close, he rested his chin on top of her soft hair and watched Holly baking. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her elfin features flushed from the heat of the oven behind her. There was a smear of icing on her cheekbone.

It was the perfect domestic scene, despite the strangeness of it—a vampire and a witch playing house in a neighborhood largely populated by supernatural beings. The university town of Fairview had seen more strange things than even conspiracy theorists could dream up.

“How was your evening?” Holly asked, icing the last of the gingerbread bats.

Alessandro made a noncommittal noise. Having remained still for exactly two seconds, Robin was squirming again. He tried to straighten the bow in her wispy blond hair, which seemed to delight her. No sooner had he tied the ribbon than she pulled it free again. It was becoming a fabulous game—at least to her—and he was reconsidering the ethics of hypnotizing his own child into a submissive trance.

“I ran into Ashe today,” Holly said, picking up the conversational burden. “She was asking whether we’d heard from Darak or his friends.”

“Should I be nervous when your vampire-slaying sister asks after a pack of rogue vampires?” he asked dryly.

“I don’t know. I think they had a few things in common.” She shuffled the cookie trays, turning her attention to the next decorating job. There were freshly baked ghosts and broomsticks and little werewolves in mid-howl. She began putting tiny silver balls at the tip of each of the wolves’ Santa hats.

“They are both members of Homicidal Mercenaries Anonymous?”

Holly gave him a withering look. “Ashe is retired.”

“And I’m a vegetarian.”

Alessandro gave up on tidying his child and retrieved the stack of mail. He shuffled through it, pausing when he got to a large red envelope labeled in an elegant script. When he tore it open, he expected a fancy Christmas card. Instead, he found a formal invitation edged in gold and green. “Joe’s throwing a Christmas Eve party at his hotel and we’re on the guest list.”

He held up the invitation to show Holly, just out of reach of Robin’s grasping hands.

Holly pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “I knew he was up to something.”

Before he could ask how she knew, his phone buzzed, making Robin giggle. He pulled the device from his pocket and accepted the call without pausing to see who it was.

“Caravelli,” he said in his stern sheriff voice.

“It’s Perry,” said the caller.

Perry Baker was the son of the local Alpha werewolf. Pack Silvertail was filled with strong males, but Perry was the smart one. He taught computer science and knew his way around most spell books, which amounted to more or less the same thing in Alessandro’s mind. “What’s up?” he asked.

“You know how I volunteer to drive the bus for Aunt Margaret’s seniors’ home?” It was a casual question, but there was strain in the young werewolf’s voice.

In the background, Alessandro could hear a crash, shouts, and someone swearing. Over it all, Christmas carols warbled from a sound system. “Where are you? It sounds like a bikers’ holiday party.”

“I’m at the community center. I drove the Silvertail seniors out here for bingo night and some eggnog,” Perry said. “Unfortunately, things went sideways. I think we have your kind of problem.”

Which meant supernatural trouble. Alessandro rose from his chair, setting Robin down once more. Holly shot him a questioning glance, so he put the phone on speaker. “Go on.”

“I’m not sure, but I think it might be a minor demon. Or a possessed cartoon unicorn. One that really hates Christmas.”

“Say that again?”

“Don’t ask. Just come.”

By now, Alessandro was in the front hall. He put on his coat and retrieved his sword from the wall. Holly had followed, scooping Robin up on the way and setting the toddler on her hip.

“Do you need my help, too?” Holly asked the werewolf on the phone.

“I think I can take care of this one,” Perry said. “Besides, I know babysitters are hard to find at this hour. I just need someone to get these people out of here, so I can banish this thing.”

“Do you need supplies?” Holly asked. Worry flooded her expression.

“The center has an emergency kit with some basics, but I could use henbane and St. John’s wort. I’ve been consulting with Grandma Carver.”

A picture of Holly’s grandmother, feisty but frail enough to need two canes, made Alessandro grip the phone hard enough the plastic creaked. “She’s there?” he asked.

“Yup.”

Holly stifled a groan, meeting his eyes. Of course the old witch—the term meant literally—would be at bingo night. The community center was only a block over from her apartment building, and Grandma liked to gamble.

“I’ll be right there.” Alessandro ended the call.

Holly went in search of the herbs Perry needed, working one-handed because Robin fussed every time her mom tried to set her down. “I should be there,” Holly said with a frown. “Perry’s good at what he does, but I have the most experience with demons.”

“Let me check out the situation,” Alessandro said. “Once the site is clear of civilians, you and I can always trade places if Perry can’t handle it.”

Holly nodded. She cuddled Robin, whose heavy eyelids were drooping. “Call me as soon as you can. I need to know you’re okay. Grandma, too.”

He smiled then, amused and still amazed that someone cared if he came home. He was the luckiest vampire on the planet, and he never took that for granted. He kissed Holly hard, his daughter gently, and left the house at a run.

His Thunderbird sat at the curb, a 1960s red two-door with custom chrome and smoked windows. It got him to the center in ten minutes. Alessandro parked behind a converted school bus with the logo of Pack Silvertail’s retirement home stenciled on the side. He got out of the car, retrieved his sword from the trunk, and paused to take stock of the scene before he ventured inside.

The community center was a single-story building made from sand-colored brick that looked gray in the dark. It housed a gymnasium, several recreation rooms, a small theater, and a cafeteria that faced the busy street. Both humans and non-humans used the facility, but only the nocturnal clients would be out this late. Christmas lights glowed along the roofline, reflecting in the puddles of rainwater on the street.

Although the cafeteria was dark, the lights were on in the activity room to the right of the front door, turning the foil banner across the window that said “Happy Holidays” into a wavering silhouette. His vampire hearing caught the carols piping through the building’s PA system. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” floated in an otherwise-silent night. For an instant, he wondered if the crisis had resolved.

Then a metal chair flew through the window, spilling glass, light, and screams into the street. The chair bounced, soaring several yards into the air before crashing to the ground and skidding across the road. Bolting toward the center, he sprang up the steps and yanked open the door—only to recoil. The stink of a moldering grave rolled over him, mixed with the cloying sweetness of cakes and candy. He bared his teeth and slid inside, his footfalls silent.

The double doors to the activity room stood open to his right. Alessandro stopped to one side of the entrance, pressed close to the wall, and then peered inside. He’d learned long ago not to leap into a danger zone without looking first, even though he itched to barge in, sword flashing.

His first glimpse was of rows of folding tables with stacking chairs lined up behind them. A few of the tables had toppled over. Bingo cards and daubers littered the floor. At the front of the room, a machine tumbled balls inside a glass globe, but the caller was cowering on the floor, arms folded over his balding head. Alessandro recognized him as an employee of the center, but couldn’t remember his name. No one was speaking—the babble he’d heard over the phone was gone. Even the screams audible from the street had fallen silent.

The Silvertail seniors huddled at the far end next to an artificial tree, Perry’s aunt Margaret guarding them like the Alpha she’d once been. Most were the wolves who had come on the bus—easy to spot since a few were furrier than normal, no doubt due to stress. There were also a handful of hellhounds, a scowling demi-fae, and a few elderly witches. He searched until he found Holly’s grandmother. He’d known Hazel Carver since she’d been Holly’s age, and needed her to be safe. He finally found her at the edge of the group, and she seemed unhurt. A knot inside him released.

But where was the enemy? An eerie stillness froze the scene like the tableau inside a snow globe, silent except for the bland music. He scanned again, this time noticing a table with coffee and cookies along the far wall, the treats as yet untouched. And then the metal coffee urn began to shudder and float upward, the cord straining a moment before it pulled free of the wall plug. A spatter of coffee slopped onto the floor as it rose. Alessandro slipped inside the doorway to watch as it drifted to the ceiling like an iron filing to a magnet.

And there, circling around the overhead light fixture, was a cloud of rainbow mist. It swirled like a miniature cyclone, swatches of pink, blue, and mauve sparkling like a toy from Robin’s closet. Around the edges of the cloud, slime trickled down the walls, leaving streaks of glitter on the worn industrial paint. He suddenly understood Perry’s reference to unicorns, but the playfulness of the entity ended there. This was the source of the unholy stink, and the coffee urn wasn’t the only metal object caught in its spinning current. Two more stacking chairs and a floor lamp spun around the ceiling as well, whirling so fast he could barely see them. The sight explained the chair that had broken the window—it had probably spun out of control like a crazy comet.

Time for action. Perry was nowhere in sight, but Alessandro wasn’t about to wait any longer. He got two strides into the room before he sensed the entity take notice of him. It was like a brush of cold fingers as foul as its stink—as if something had reached from Alessandro’s own abandoned grave to drag him back. He spun with a snarl, baring fangs, but there was no face, no form to confront.

All the same, the thing hurled the coffee urn. Alessandro ducked, his reflexes saving him. The urn smashed against the wall, punching a hole in the drywall and spraying scalding coffee throughout the room. The man on the floor howled in pain.

“Get up,” Alessandro ordered.

“I can’t,” the man replied, his voice ragged with terror.

Wasting no more words, Alessandro grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to his feet, half-tossing him toward the relative safety of the others. Then he drew his sword, not because it would do him any good against whatever this was, but because it showed he meant business.

“What do you want?” he demanded of the mass of stinking sparkles.

“A white Christmas,” it rasped with the withered whisper of the dead.

 

 


NaNoNot


  •  No Comments

November is National Novel Writing Month aka NaNoWriMo. I signed up for it, but seem to be having a NaNoNot. Yes, I started out strong on my 50K word count but then I had to get on a plane and …

Of course I have excuses. I’ve been busy at work and getting home late. I’ve been doing research. I have a number of projects on the go. I’ve been learning new software. I had a book release. I’ve been out of town for the job.

Sadly, the page only cares whether there are words on it or not. That’s the bitter truth of being an author. No words, no cookie. I’m doing my best to make up for lost time, but I must be honest. The 50K goal is out of reach.

Disappointments occur when we’re juggling too many things. I get mad at myself for not rising above circumstances. Perhaps I’m lazy? I’ve lost the magic? I don’t have the right stuff? Ah, the Drama Queen moment!  That’s the kind of self-destructive wallowing that leads to actual writer’s block. My only real fault here is biting off more than I could chew.

What can I salvage from this month of chaos? I wasn’t lounging on the couch watching TV. I did do all those other things, many of which were necessary if I wished to continue being employed. Since I like regular paychecks, oh well. Plus, the book I’m working on is calling me in a way that only comes from NOT getting to a project (perverse but true). There’s a delicate balance of approach and denial that whets my imagination during the first few chapters, and maybe it’s working. What I have written to date hints that this book is going to be my best. Of course every new book is an author’s current darling, so make of that what you will.

I’m mad and sad, but whining won’t change anything. I’ll have to save the lace-edged hankies for another time.

 


All my favorite things


November 18, 2018  •  No Comments

I was recently listening to a podcast by the fabulous Joanna Penn, who mentioned that authors should embrace their idiosyncratic pleasures.  That is, those elements one loves and uses in art or writing again and again. These might be story elements such as secret babies or serial killers (hopefully not at the same time). They might also just be images or ideas that make us happy. I love her recommendation to use these gems as one pleases, and to be unapologetic while doing so!

 

What’s my list? It will probably take me a while to collect everything, but here’s a start:

  • Seaside towns/cities – I believe the sea adds untold romance and mystery, not to mention delicious fogs
  • Funky older neighborhoods
  • Cathedrals & bell towers
  • Catacombs and ossuaries
  • Tea and all the rituals that go with it
  • Fireplaces
  • Graveyards, the older the better (that’s Highgate in the picture above)
  • Trees, especially twisty ones
  • Magic of all sorts
  • Strong-willed grandmothers
  • Baroque and early music. The Brandenburg Concerti are my go-to mood tonic
  • Clocks
  • Velvet
  • Walled gardens and glass houses
  • Exotic strangers
  • Underground spaces, with or without dragons
  • Castles and ancient manors, complete with appropriate drafts
  • Moors and heaths
  • Fancy ankle boots
  • Standing stones
  • Talking animals
  • Swirling cloaks
  • Carnelian jewelry
  • Mad scientists
  • Possession by spirits
  • Snow, mostly in theory and not waiting to be shoveled

I don’t think you need to be a writer to have a list like this–and when to dip into it on a day when you need to lift your spirits! Yes, sometimes I do take a walk in the cemetery to cheer myself up. It’s the nicest green space imaginable on a bright fall day.


Coming or going?


July 9, 2018  •  No Comments

Do you love starting a project, with all the fresh, hopeful energy that entails? Or are you one of those who enjoys putting a bow on your efforts and sitting back in satisfaction?

There are different stages to any project, and books are no exception. And, while it’s true that most writers seem to have several things on the go at the same time, starts and finishes are still red-letter occasions.

This weekend, the Corsair’s Cove Orchard Series is reaching an important milestone—the editing phase is nearing completion. The vague “what ifs” we tossed around in the spring are finished stories now, with a new cast of characters (plus some favorites), new predicaments, and brand new romances.

While I enjoy the buoyant energy of beginning (and wow do we brainstorm!), right now I’m doing a happy dance and savoring the finished product like a fine vintage. And that, readers, is a very appropriate metaphor that will linger sweetly—until next time.


Will-o-the-wisps


May 22, 2018  •  No Comments

We all know the past has a pull on us. We write about literal ghosts, but there are plenty of metaphorical ones as well. Some are even more powerful and/or frightening than a chain-rattling specter. These haunts are the echoes of past selves that—for good or ill—we’ve somehow left behind. Memories, emotions, past selves we’ve given up for a higher good or a harder road—nothing is ever truly gone when it’s a part of our soul. Sometimes that’s a relief, or an ache, or both.

Dreams delayed are the strangest of these shades. This weekend was full of open-air concerts and sunshine and the first flush of the festival season. I took time away from my desk to bask in the warmth and watch one of my favorite bands. As a creative, I had two loves—writing and music, and I had to make a choice between the two. I could only nurture one properly and still hold down a full-time job. I chose storytelling, in part because it was an easier fit with a workaday schedule, and I still believe it was the sensible choice. I can’t say that music is a road not taken, because I took that path as far as I could go at the time. I think of it as a road with a bridge temporary closed for maintenance. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the ache every time the ghost of my musical soul stirs.

I’m not alone, of course. The demands we face as creative entrepreneurs aren’t easy, especially when responsibilities tie us to corporate jobs and all that reality entails. Creativity in that context is an extraordinary quest—one that takes us through feats of time-bending, identity-shifting, and fiscal sleight-of-hand. We transform in metaphorical phone booths, unleashing our true selves in the privacy of hidden spaces. We might not conquer literal armies, but we defend our kingdoms all the same. There are precious things inside us, and creatives fight to keep them alive.

We live in hope for eventual freedom, of a victory before it’s too late. Only then can we be whole again, returning all those lost ghosts to the hearth of our souls.

It’s a dream, but we have to believe it.

 

 


Planning in Corsair’s Cove


March 5, 2018  •  No Comments

This past weekend the authors of the Corsair’s Cove Collective met for our semi-annual retreat. This involved food, some wine, a lot of note-taking, planning, dreaming, food, and a mild sense of panic as we turned our wild ideas into actionCoffee cupable to-do lists. Did I mention food? Suffice to say that readers will hear more from the Cove in coming months.

As well as storytelling goals, there are many challenges relating to business and technology. This is one of the ways that I truly value this collaboration: I learn stuff. So much stuff about writing, working together, and my own strengths and areas of improvement. I’ve also learning that if I resist something, that’s usually a signal that I need to double down on whatever is making me twitchy. Therefore, I’m setting myself a task: getting conversant with advertising platforms like AMS, Bookbub and others. This is something I’ve deferred “for later” but it’s time to buckle down. I look at this as taking my author journey to the next level. It’s just another way to take control of what happens to my work in the wide universe and I’ve learned my lesson about leaving that up to outside forces.

And, we have many fabulous ideas about things to do with our shared blog, so look for a TON of value coming to our outreach channels. Corsair’s Cove has developed amazing new depths in the last 72 hours. However, if I go into all that here this will be a very long blog.

I can best summarize this whole experience by saying Rachel and I went directly from our meeting site to the stationery store and bought wall-sized erasable calendars to keep track of all our due dates. Then I heard from Shelley, who bought a new journal for just that purpose. Yup, we have plans!