2019 – what was that about?


December 31, 2019  •  2 Comments

Some authors are posting dazzling lists of publications, and I heartily salute their accomplishments. I thought I would have a bumper crop of books, too, when this year started. Somehow, though, things changed along the way and the year didn’t end the way I thought. 2019 was a dumpster fire for a lot of people and, while I count myself lucky, I didn’t entirely escape the smoke. 2020 will be better.

What did I actually get in front of readers this year?
  • In January, did a re-release of an older book that rounded out my 2018 goals.
  • Released two books in box sets, hit the USA Today bestseller list for both, and then put them in the vault for later.
  • Published an essay in an academic work.
  • Wrote a short story that’s now a lead magnet.
  • Got my extended print distribution onto Ingram Spark.
  • By the end of this week, I’ll have finished a draft of a new, full length, first-in series.

I also investigated a lot of marketing courses, played with various ad platforms, and listened to many podcasts. That’s all hard to quantify as achievement, but it will serve me well in future.

Where did that get me?

I think it’s safe to say all authors want enthusiastic fans and financial freedom. It’s not an impossible dream, but it’s not an easy road. It requires groundwork such as intelligent branding, scheduling, and development of infrastructure like engaged newsletter lists, reader funnels, and social media. There are a thousand choices to consider, and dozens of platforms to learn. It’s all behind-the-scenes stuff readers don’t consciously notice and most authors despise unless they have an aptitude for business. However, it’s like gas for a car. It stinks, but you don’t go anywhere without it.

2019 was my trip to the gas station. I’m not done putting everything together, but I’m well on the way. Part of the process has been discovering what mix of marketing makes sense to me, given my time, money, and introvert tendencies. I’ll probably blog more. I’ll review craft resources. I’m also very interested in sharing some of the ingredients that go into world building, especially with the fantasy stuff. I think it’s going to be fun.

And 2020? I haven’t scheduled it all yet, but I’ll have a nice list of the year’s releases by next New Year’s Eve. I’ve put in the work to be ready.


The Weekend Writer


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.

 

 

 

 

 


Fun with Airships

Emma Jane Holloway
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.

 

Hope floats

 

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?

 


Five editing tips to save a sinking story


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 Coffee cupfeelings 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.

The Ubiquitous Plot Bunny

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

High points need to come in the right place

(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.

Good luck!

 


Creating Unforgettable Characters


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 


Superior Procrastination Techniques


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!

 


Character portrait: Cormac from Shatter

Sharon Ashwood
August 8, 2019  •  No Comments


Character portrait: Stokes from Shatter

Sharon Ashwood
July 31, 2019  •  No Comments


Character portrait: Tessa from Shatter

Sharon Ashwood
July 30, 2019  •  No Comments


Scorpion Dawn – Cover Copy

Emma Jane Holloway
July 1, 2019  •  No Comments

I’m still tweaking this slightly, but here is the first glimpse of Scorpion Dawn. It’s in the upcoming Rogue Skies box set and is the prequel novella to the Hellion House series.

 

When the prey becomes the hunter

Miranda Fletcher lives in a glittering world of aeronauts and artists, dance cards and dandies, but terror lurks outside the city walls. The countryside is infested with hungry abominations called the Unseen, and a single crack in the capital’s magical defenses invites disaster and death.

When Miranda witnesses a murder, she learns the gates aren’t as secure as the Conclave—the city’s protectors—claim. Despite the danger, it’s a secret the mages fiercely guard. When Miranda and her brother learn too much, the price of the family’s survival is silence.

 No one is foolhardy enough to defy the Conclave, much less battle the Unseen. But when tragedy shatters her home, breaking apart bonds of blood and affection, Miranda refuses to turn the other cheek.

Sometimes the smallest creature carries the deadliest sting.