Worldbuilding and the Orc Sworn Series

It takes a huge amount of imagination to envision a setting utterly different from our own, and a huge amount of talent to convey this world in detail after detail. Finley Fenn has both in spades.

Following on my reblog of Louise Hallett’s post on the mind-expanding qualities of speculative fiction yesterday, I thought this would be a good time to talk about world building. This is also going to be a fan-girl post. I’ve been reading Finley Fenn’s “Orc Sworn” series for over a year. The series is going from strength to strength: increasingly complex characters and relationships, higher stakes in the battle between the venal humans and the Orcs. The series is extremely steamy and that’s what gets a lot of focus in reviews and reader discussions.

But I want to talk about Fenn’s amazing world building.

What is world building and why is it important in speculative fiction?

World building is the creation of a cohesive setting for the story. I’ve talked about world building before and the importance of doing research, much of which never ends up anywhere near the page, to inform the narrative. But in this post, I want to talk about cohesiveness. Where an author is asking a reader to believe in things outside the normal frame–be it magic or faster-than-light travel or brutally hot but surprisingly caring Orcs–if the setting doesn’t hang together, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is ruptured and the pleasure of reading the story can be lost. All the pieces have to fit, or the whole structure falls apart.

Without wishing to ding masters like Herbert and Asimov, the old “trick” for creating a cohesive, but otherworldly, setting was a rather clunky framing method. Either with a long prologue to the story, or huge chunks of exposition in the first few chapters about what makes this setting different from our daily reality, the author dumps an alternative history on the reader. This alternate history can make enjoyable reading on its own (folks who love Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion,” I’m looking at you), but this framing method can also kill the pace of the story and make the first few chapters a long slog that the reader pushes through to get to the good stuff.

I’d argue that this framing method is one of the things that makes speculative fiction impenetrable to some readers. Not everyone wants to read (or write) chapters of backstory just to understand the rules of magic, or the three centuries of conflict between the Orcs and the elves, or the history of the galactic empire. When I engage with readers about my own speculative fiction, one of the things I hear over and over is that they read to escape and don’t want to have to think too hard about the story’s setting. They want to be immersed in it. They want to setting to be invisible while they enjoy the characters and conflict.

The rise of urban fantasy in the late 1990s and early naughties shook up traditional speculative fiction story structure by plunging readers right into the action. Urban fantasy writers “drip” in backstory to explain the rules of their world. There are few prologues and no “info dumps” of backstory. The world building is invisible to the reader because it’s parcelled out in a wealth of tiny, unnoticeable details. The husband/wife writing team of Illona Andrews in their Kate Daniels series are absolute masters of this form of storytelling. Over several chapters they drop in detail after detail of “the shift” and how waves of magic are now erupting over our once-familiar world. In this setting, there’s nothing unbelievable about lion shape-shifters and ancient Babylonian gods trying to take over the world.

Although the “drip” technique can be initially frustrating to readers trying to find their feet in the “new world” of the story, I’d argue it’s more rewarding in the long-run because the world built by the “drip” technique is more fully-fleshed, more completely realised. The “drip” method mirrors our experience of the real world. We don’t know everything about a new place when we arrive in it. We discover it, detail by detail, until we’re familiar with the place and immersed in a new reality.

The “drip” technique is not an easy path for a writer. It takes a huge amount of imagination to envision a setting utterly different from our own, and a huge amount of talent to convey this world in detail after detail. Finley Fenn has both in spades. When I read the Orc Sworn series, there’s never a moment where I don’t believe I’m inside Orc Mountain. From the emphasis on smells and textures in the descriptions–because it’s dark underground, so characters wouldn’t rely on sight–to the complex culture she’s built around the constant tensions of living together in small, enclosed spaces, Fenn’s world is richly, beautifully, masterfully realised. The setting permeates every part of her narrative. The Orcs are paranoid, isolationist, dominant (and sometimes domineering) exactly because they’ve been squirrelled away inside Orc Mountain, defending themselves against the hostilities of men. Where many stories spin outward from the characters to the setting, Finley Fenn’s stories spin inward from the setting to the characters. That gives Fenn’s stories a depth and realism that’s not always found in speculative fiction and why I’m an absolute devotee of the Orc Sworn series.

The Politics of Rage

Lure and Stars Avail(Image used under Creative Commons Licence.)

I’ve been offline for a while. My family was affected by the Manchester Arena bombing, and it’s taken me a while to emerge from the pall that cast over our lives. I’m not ready to talk about that yet, and I’m not up to writing a political post. But I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation and rage, really since the UK vote to leave the European Union. Some of that thinking has coalesced into this post, which is actually about fictional worldbuilding.

For me, worldbuilding starts with geography. I draw maps, name places, and then work my way into the economics and politics of those locales. Settings are characters in themselves for me. I want them to have a life and vibrancy of their own. I also want them to feel realistic, whether it’s the fae Court of the Oak King in Burning Bones or a distant planet colonized by cyborgs in The Stars Avail. Realism starts with historical precedents, which makes me a student of history by necessity.

I don’t know how other students of history will view Brexit and the recent US Presidential Election, but my, perhaps simplistic, read of them is that both were driven by rage. Particularly after Brexit, I spent a lot of time listening to people who voted to leave the EU explain their vote. Some of this was on the mainstream media, but a lot of it was just speaking with business associates, neighbors and folks down the pub. With rare exception, “leavers” admitted that they didn’t really understand what leaving the EU would mean, on a national, or personal, level. The PM resigning, the pound plummeting, the loss of EU funding for agricultural and industrial interests – they hadn’t understood any of it. They’d voted to leave because they were angry. The phrase I heard most often was that they’d “had enough.” Had enough of what? I asked. I got a wide variety of answers – immigrants, austerity, government corruption. But very little had to do with the UK’s membership in the EU. What the leavers were really saying (and what I think the American people have said in electing Donald Trump), is that they have “had enough” of the loss of prosperity and stability that they considered their birthright as Britons and Americans.

This was more than nostalgia for the “American Dream.” It was more than fear of “the Other.” It was fury at deprivation and loss.

I didn’t understand that fury (and neither did the pollsters). Not until I spent some time listening to the “leavers.” Sitting across from the fellow in the pub, watching his face turn purple as he talked about having to wait for two months for a doctor’s appointment because “those immigrants” are monopolizing the NHS’s resources, I began to understand. Watching the YouTube footage of a man frothing at the mouth as he confronts a woman in a burka, telling her to “go home,” even after she explains she was born in the UK, brought the point home a little more. This is not rational. This rage defies analysis. I have to feel it, before I can appreciate why these groups of people acted against their own self-interest.

I have always known that the oppressed will revolt eventually. The sheep look up. What I didn’t understand is that oppression is a matter of degree. The relatively well-off can still feel oppressed if they are deprived of those things to which they feel entitled. That sense of oppression, of loss, of helpless anger, drives people to do things that are not logical. They’re not even intuitive. They make no sense, because they’re driven by pure emotion. The emotions of despair and loss and rage.

I still feel very uncomfortable listening the to the angry “Leaver” down the pub, or watching that YouTube video. But turning my eyes aside is the wrong reaction. In order to appreciate this emotion – and how it might feed into my worldbuilding – I have to let myself feel it. It’s not comfortable. It’s not safe. But it is the sign of our times. The politics of rage.

Tied Up With A Bow

The Problem of Overly Pat Endings

I find great pleasure in “rediscovering” books I read years ago. I rarely get rid of books I’ve enjoyed and keep many boxes of books in my attic. This weekend, while putting away luggage from a recent trip, I dug through one of those boxes and “rediscovered” several paperbacks I haven’t read in decades.

One of them was a historical romance (I’m not going to name it because I’m going to tank on it). I remember enjoying the atypical heroine and the realistic depictions of life on the American frontier. So it was with relish that I cracked it open, and I enjoyed it just as much as I remembered.

Until I reached the end.

When I closed the book, I felt unsatisfied, and a little disgruntled. The ending was a let-down. It was a typical HEA (“happily ever after”) ending, but it fell flat. There was no emotional punch. I’d shed some tears in the middle of the book, as the heroine realizes her own self-worth, but nothing towards the end. Why?

I re-read the ending several times, trying to figure out what went wrong. What was missing? I was invested in the main characters. I wanted them to have their HEA. Why wasn’t I satisfied when they got it?

Part of the problem, I’ve decided, is that, in the final scenes, the characters act in ways contrary to their characterization throughout the novel. The heroine, who has been extremely steadfast, runs away from an emotional confrontation. The hero, who has spent the entire novel doing the “right thing,” commits a small betrayal to test his feelings for the heroine. I appreciate that love makes people do crazy things, but these actions were not consistent with the characters developed through the previous 200+ pages. That left a sour taste in my mouth.

But the bigger problem was that the ending was too pat. It wasn’t just happy-happy for the heroine and hero, every conflict was resolved. Even minor subplots were tied up with a bow. Maybe I’ve gotten used to modern series where each book contains some unresolved threads that carry on into the next book, but I found such a pat resolution unconvincing and unsatisfying. Life doesn’t work that way. I understand the difference between reality and literature, but where the novel has worked hard to build a realistic and convincing world, to have everything resolved so neatly, so tightly, undermined that realism. It broke my willing suspension of disbelief.

Literary trends change over time. This book was published nearly twenty years ago; it was never intended to be part of a series. So maybe the author was following convention and fulfilling reader expectation with such a tightly-tied ending. But reading it two decades later, I find it flawed. Keeping the lessons I’ve learned from this book in mind as I re-write Throwing Fire, I need to stay true to my characters, but I also need to stay true to the realism of the world I’ve built, and not try to tie everything up too neatly in a bow.

A Relationship of Equals

Why does the heroicizing of Ron’s character come at the cost of Hermione’s?

Or, What Happened to Hermione?

I love the Harry Potter series, both the books and the movies. I don’t quibble with those who criticize J.K. Rowling’s writing style, or the unevenness of the movies. I enjoy them for what they are: magical.

There is something I don’t enjoy about them, however, and that’s the sissifying of Hermione through the two “Deathly Hallows” movies.

By “sissifying,” I mean the undermining of Hermione’s strong-willed, brave, intelligent character. Her strength is so evident in the first Deathly Hallows movie. The movie opens with her casting a charm on her parents so that they will forget her. She does it to protect her parents from the Death Eaters, but in doing so, she makes herself an orphan. Much is made in the series about Harry’s loss of his family, but Hermione’s loss is silent – reflected only on Emma Watson’s wonderfully expressive face when she has to cast the same spell later on a Death Eater. Hermione’s just that strong.

She’s also brave in the first Deathly Hallows movie. Not fearless, but brave. She’s frequently scared, but she doesn’t back down. Not from the Death Eaters, not from the Horcruxes, not even from Harry himself. In some ways, I think that’s more admirable than Harry’s courage, which has a thoughtless, reckless quality. Hermione is smart enough to know what is stacked against the trio, and it scares her, but she still faces it.

Hermione has always been the “smart” one of the trio. She’s a great reader and characterized as something of a “know-it-all” earlier in the series, but by the first Deathly Hallows movie, she’s come into her own. What she knows saves the trio over and over. She plans ahead and brings the implements that allow the trio to set off in search of the Horcruxes. She figures out the reasons behind Dumbledore’s strange bequests which lead her and Harry on in their quest, even after Ron abandons them.

But after Ron rejoins the trio, Hermione increasingly becomes an adjunct. She has a bright moment where she figures out a way for them to escape from Gringotts, but after that, she faces nothing on her own. She solves nothing. She’s not even particularly instrumental in the Battle for Hogwarts. Her big moment in the latter half of the second movie is sharing a passionate kiss with Ron. What happened to Hermione the strong, brave and intelligent?

Without going off on too much of a feminist rant, I’d argue that Hermione’s relegation to irrelevancy is directly related to the culmination of her and Ron’s romance. Ron becomes a heroic character after he rejoins Harry and Hermione. He faces his fears when he destroys the locket Horcrux. He’s the one who figures out how to destroy the cup Horcrux after the trio loses the Sword of Griffindor (Hermione does the deed but in a particularly strange moment of characterization, only after Ron coaxes her to do it – WTF? – she’s confronted and attacked Horcruxes before). During the final battle, Ron fires curses at Nagini while Hermione runs and cowers. Everything Hermione does in the second Deathly Hallows movie showcases Ron’s heroism. While I have no quibble with the heroicizing of Ron’s character, it is incredibly disappointing that it comes at the cost of Hermione’s.

I haven’t read the books recently enough to remember if this characterization of Hermione in the movie is consistent with the book, but either way, why would anyone feel that a warrior-witch has to be reduced so the warrior-wizard can rise? Hermione’s heroism never threatens or reduces Harry’s. Why would it threaten or reduce Ron’s? Is it only because they’re romantically involved? Why can’t they have a relationship of equals? Both strong, both brave, both intelligent?

I love the Harry Potter series, don’t get me wrong, but the Deathly Hallows movies, particularly the second one, always left a bad taste in my mouth and after recently rewatching the whole series during Sky’s “Harry Potter” marathon, I think I’ve finally identified why. It’s because Hermione gets so short-changed, and because Ron and Hermione’s romance reduces and marginalizes my (second) favorite witch.

Something to keep in mind as I turn back to Blood Yellow.

Dealing With Mid Story Writer’s Block With Cynthia Sax

The number one reason why words stop flowing for me is because I’ve made a wrong decision for a character somewhere in the story.

I’m delighted to welcome the wonderful Cynthia Sax to my blog today!

***

I found EJ’s post on techniques she’s using to finish Throwing Fire so interesting. I thought I’d share my own tricks for defeating mid story writer’s block.

This is a common problem for ALL writers. If we’re fortunate to have long writing careers, we will all experience what I like to call word constipation. It’s always great to have a toolbox full of techniques to try when this affliction strikes. I usually keep trying techniques until there’s a break-through and the words flow once again.

The number one reason why words stop flowing for me is because I’ve made a wrong decision for a character somewhere in the story. I’ve forced a character to do something he or she wouldn’t do. When this happens, I move backwards in the story, reviewing every key decision from the point of blockage to, if I have to, the start of the story. Often changing one wrong (for the character) decision is the solution.

If the blockage isn’t a story issue but rather a “my brain is dead and I can’t revive it” issue, I’ll change things until my muse is kick-started. I might write long hand in a notebook for a few pages. If that doesn’t work, I’ll change the ink colors of my pens (colors stimulate different parts of the brain).

I might change the music I listen to (again, different types of music stimulate different parts of the brain) or not listen to music at all. I might change the physical location of where I’m writing. Sometimes my muse is waiting at a bus stop bench. (I think this has to do with my brain associating the bench with change, with travel, with leaving.)

Flash fiction also helps, especially with an issue like “Oh lord. I’m washed up as a writer. I’ll never finish a story again.” I will pick a photo at random and write a 100 word ‘story’ based on that prompt. This proves to my brain that I CAN finish stories. I have the ability.

Usually one of these techniques will work for me.

What techniques work for you?

***

Want to see Cynthia’s techniques in practice? Take a look at Releasing Rage!

Releasing Rage_Compressed

Half Man. Half Machine. All Hers.

 Rage, the Humanoid Alliance’s most primitive cyborg, has two goals–kill all of the humans on his battle station and escape to the Homeland. The warrior has seen the darkness in others and in himself. He believes that’s all he’s been programmed to experience.

 Until he meets Joan.

 Joan, the battle station’s first female engineer, has one goal–survive long enough to help the big sexy cyborg plotting to kill her. Rage might not trust her but he wants her. She sees the passion in his eyes, the caring in his battle-worn hands, the gruff emotion in his voice.

 When Joan survives the unthinkable, Rage’s priorities are tested. Is there enough room in this cyborg’s heart for both love and revenge?

Releasing Rage is available now!

On Amazon US

On Amazon UK

On ARe

On B&N

About Cynthia Sax
USA Today bestselling author Cynthia Sax writes contemporary, SciFi and paranormal erotic romances. Her stories have been featured in Star Magazine, Real Time With Bill Maher, and numerous best of erotic romance top ten lists.
Sign up for her dirty-joke-filled release day newsletter and visit her on the web at http://www.CynthiaSax.com.

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Superheroes, Small Cuts and The Pain Diary

I’ve written before about my adoration of C. J. Sansom’s writing and how I particularly appreciate the realism he injects into his medieval detective stories. Sansom’s narrator, Matthew Shardlake, is a middle-aged hunchback, and he battles fatigue and pain from his deformity as often as he battles the bad-guys. When the battles become external, Shardlake gets injured, and has to keep pushing on despite injury and loss. That makes Shardlake an extremely sympathetic character to me as a reader. I’m much more interested in reading about an everyman who rises to the heroic, despite adversity, than a superhero who just does what I expect him to do.

I’ve tried to carry the lessons I’ve learned from Sansom into my own writing. My characters get hurt, fatigued, and stressed. Their struggle to overcome adversity, internal and external, is what makes the story interesting to me to write.

I’ve thought a lot about this struggle, particularly in relation to injury, over the last week. I cut my hand a few days ago (while slicing avocados – never underestimate the perils of Mexican food). It was a pretty bad cut and the NHS solution of “gluing” it (and please don’t try to convince me that’s not superglue they’re using) didn’t take. I decided to let it heal on its own, and to keep a little diary for the next time I have to write about a character’s injury (which my husband dubbed “The Pain Diary”). This is unedited and a little graphic, so if you’re squeamish, stop reading now.

Day 1

Cut the fuck out of my left hand. Note to self: do not sharpen the good knife before de-stoning avocados. 2nd note to self: wounds are kind of interesting once they stop bleeding. Lots of “stuff” in there – pin-points of capillaries, pinky-white bubbles of fat, and a white stringy thing that might be a nerve. Cut flesh looks like underdone steak. Blood is redder than in movies. Antiseptic wipes sting worse than a hornet. Also, shock? Extremely light-headed and weak at the knees within a minute or two of cut. Child says my lips went white. Took about 20 minutes lying down on couch for feeling to pass. 3rd note to self: avoid the NHS. 45 minute wait so they could spray it with more antiseptic (OUCH) and pour superglue on it. I should have stayed home.

Day 2

Hand throbbed unmercifully all night, despite 1,000 mg of paracetamol before bed. When I finally fell asleep, banged my hand against the bed frame. Superglue split and cut started bleeding again. Took an hour of holding it elevated above my heart with firm pressure on it to stop. Felt feverish and light-headed while lying down. This morning, hand is swollen and sore. More paracetamol. Started bleeding again when I got hand wet in shower. Stopped after a few minutes with pressure. Getting dressed was a trial. No shoelaces in my immediate future. Typing is out today. Also, I’ve banged it on EVERY available surface. Surely I don’t bang my hand this often when it’s not injured?! Driving one-handed was interesting. Bunnies don’t like smell of blood/bandage and thumped at me when I tried to pet them. Fell asleep on couch before dinner. Got take-out for dinner – no way I’m cooking with one hand and I swear that knife is leering at me from the butcher block. Changed bandage before bed. Cut Day 2 much less interesting: dark red scab and pissed-off flesh. No sign of infection, so maybe the antiseptic wipes that stung so fucking much did their job.

Day 3

Slept much better but Hub rolled over on hand in middle of night. Pain so sharp I actually screamed. Agreed to swap sides of bed tonight. Feverish again in night – pillow and sheet damp. Ears ringing this morning – probably OD-ing on painkillers. Needed help getting dressed again. Deodorant proved a challenge. Hub had to tie shoelaces. Right hand, arm and shoulder aching. Overcompensating? Took a long walk in the afternoon. Hand swelled and began throbbing. Came home and elevated it until throbbing stopped. Whoever said that big pains prevent you from feeling small pains is a liar. Cut hurts, but I feel the aches on the right side just fine. Hub still feeding rabbits but Boy Bunny let me pet him today. Changed bandage before bed. Cut still oozing blood and clear fluid (lymph?). Crusty. Skin around cut looks bruised – too much pressure? Some of bandage has gotten stuck in scab. Ick. Cut around stuck bit and put fresh bandage over it. No sign of infection.

Day 4

Slept better but woke several times feeling out of place (wrong side of bed). Going back to own side of bed tonight. Pillow and sheet dry. Pain today much duller – only noticeable when I flex fingers or bang it against something (am I really this clumsy?!). Going to try to go without painkillers today. Dressed myself and tried shoelaces, but gave up after first knot. Able to type a little today. Also faced down evil knife. Noticed several people staring at bandage while doing grocery shopping – have they never seen a bandage before? Took shower before bed and let bandage get thoroughly soaked before changing. No sign of bleeding/oozing but it could have been washed away in shower. Most of bandage came out of scab once wet. No sign of infection.

Day 5

Slept through. Feel awake and fresh for first time since cut. Smaller bandage put on last night is letting me flex fingers. Still no shoelaces but dressed myself without trouble. Typing and driving without pain. Thinking about avocados for dinner. No sign of bleeding/oozing when changed bandage. Bruise fading to yellow-green. No painkillers today.

Day 6

Slept through. Cut feels like it’s really healing. Using hand normally. Went for short run and cut throbbed a little, but stopped as soon as I cooled down. Managed own shoelaces (ta-da!).

So, six days before I felt the cut was really healing and I had normal use of my hand again. This was, let me say, not a serious wound as wounds go. It was a long, deep cut, across the side of my hand, over the knuckle and up my index finger, but the NHS didn’t even feel it warranted stitches (do they do stitches anymore or do they just throw superglue at everything?). It was in a place that I use a lot so it probably bothered me more than a similar wound on a less mobile part of my body. I was surprised at how much it hampered my every day activities, and how much the pain disrupted my sleep.

While I wouldn’t advocate injury as a writing tool, cutting myself like this has been really instructive. In creating everyman characters who are thrust into situations where they get hurt, fatigued and stressed, I need to think through every way those factors would effect their lives. It’s not enough to describe the pain – I have to follow the ripples. What does the injury prevent them from doing? What do they need help with and who provides that help? What impact does the injury have on their sleeping and eating patterns? How do other characters react to the injury? The answers to these questions provide richness and realism to my fiction which, following the example of the mighty Sansom, is what I aspire to.

That Creeping, Skin-Crawling Sensation

I’m probably the last person on the Internet to have seen the creepy short film “Lights Out.”  It made my skin crawl, and had me jumping at every creaking floorboard.

It also reminded me of my favorite demon.

I haven’t been writing much in Neon Blue’s sequel(s) of late. Tsara and her demon are seasonal characters for me. I don’t tend to write them in the lighter months. Summer is for scifi and the sun-blasted world of Hale and Kez. It’s when the days get shorter and I begin seeing werewolves, ghost dogs and demons in the shadows that I feel the urge to write about them again.

It was dark before 7 p.m. last night, and I spent the evening writing nightmares.

So here’s an excerpt from Blood Yellow, the next book in the Neon Blue series. I can’t hope to match the sheer creepiness of “Lights Out,” but I hope I’ll give my readers a little of that skin-crawling sensation.

Harvard Square is crowded. In addition to the weekend shoppers and tourists, there are clots of students wearing worn hoodies and baggy shorts – which it’s not quite warm enough for – on every street corner. Before we reach the madness of the Cambridge Street intersection, Shirri directs us into the commons. We wind our way across the green – which is already quite green, even though there might be three more months of winter ahead – around students lounging in the grass and a shirts verses skins game of Frisbee that I have to literally drag Mel away from. At the Garden Street end of the commons, Shirri spots Will. We join him in watching a couple who are playing ball with a slender silver shadow of a dog.

Shirri unlinks from Mel and tucks herself under Will’s arm. He gives her a tender kiss that carries the promise of heat, and I feel my cheeks warm, remembering the demon’s kisses.

Mel leans into me. “Gimme a smooch, I’m all jealous.”

“Get real.”

After Shirri comes up for air, she looks around and points at the couple playing with the dog. “That’s my brother Tomas and his girlfriend, Holle.”

I could have guessed who Tomas was without Shirri telling me. He looks very like his twin – taller, his dark curls cropped to the back of his neck, but recognizably related. His girlfriend looks like a model. She’s an inch or two taller than Tomas, even in her canvas flats, close to six feet. As whipcord-slender as the dog she’s playing with. Her hair’s pulled back into a long, chestnut-brown braid, which glitters in the sunlight like it’s dusted with gold.

As she twists to throw the ball the dog’s brought her, the air around her shimmers. A furnace blast of heat, like August sun on asphalt. Her body shreds away and I see the bones beneath, blackened like they’ve been burned. Her skull grins at me, the fanged jaw unhinging. A torrent of dark wings spills out, darkening the sky. They break over me in a wave of nightmares.

“Hey, you okay?” Mel shakes my arm.

I blink. The wings are gone. I’ve turned away from our small group and thrown my arm over my head. I’m shaking all over and my brunch is an inch away from making a dramatic reappearance. I lower my arm and take several deep breaths. Push my sunglasses back up on my nose and hope that everyone’s too blinded by the bright day to see the sparks jumping from my fingertips.

“Tsara, are you okay?” Mel’s peering at me a little too closely, and there’s something in her blue eyes that I don’t like at all. Other than her relationship with Click, Mel is totally normal as far as I know and I’ve loved having a ‘straight’ friend who doesn’t treat me like a freak.

“Too much sunshine,” I say.

Mel wraps her arm around my shoulders. “Makes me sneeze. C’mon, let’s get that coffee.”

Hope you enjoyed, or at least got a little shiver!

(Image courtesy of Unsplash. Used under License.)

Writing Yourself Off the Cliff

Why use cliffhangers? They build suspense and tension.

cliffhanger-sylvester-stallone-opening-scene

This post isn’t, thankfully, about that movie.

I picked up a novel in the airport last week. I’m not going to name that novel because I’m going to tank on it, and because I suspect that the author was coerced into the stylistic egregiousness I’m going to tank on him for, but it’s an eco-thriller of the type I usually enjoy.

What I didn’t enjoy were the cliffhangers. The author would stick the characters in a position of unresolved peril and then say:

Someone had to find the solution, and they had to find it fast.

They weren’t at the end of every chapter, but they were tossed in often enough (and in almost the exact same phrasing by at least two different characters) that by a hundred and fifty pages in, I’d counted half-a-dozen and they bothered me enough to put down the book.

Probably not what the author intended.

Why use cliffhangers? They build suspense and tension. They’re used in serials to get the audience to read or watch the next installment. Fair enough, if you’re putting out an eight episode TV series like True Detective. But using them over and over in a 500+ page novel is a red flag. If the story isn’t pulling the reader along into the next chapter, then there is a problem with plot and pacing. A cliffhanger is not going to salvage those shortcomings. Rework the plot and pacing. Let the story speak for itself.

Sadly, that novel did. The cliffhangers were unnecessary. I was engaged by two of the point-of-view characters and concerned enough about their peril that I would have read the whole novel to find out what happened to them. I didn’t need the author to put up a neon sign at the end of every other chapter that said “Characters in Danger! Can they be Saved? Read on to See What Happens.”

Having read other novels by this author, which did not contain this stylistic sleight-of-hand, but were shorter, I have to wonder if the author was coerced into throwing the cliffhangers in there due to editorial concerns about the novel’s length. They were glaring. They’re a departure from the author’s normal style. And they felt tacked on. They also frequently occurred at the end of chapters written from the two female character points-of-view. Without going into a feminist rant, I found myself wondering if either the author or the editor perceived those perspectives as weak? Undermining your own point-of-view characters is never a good idea.

So as a learning point for me, in the long uphill climb that is figuring out the craft of novel-writing, this novel was instructive. Use cliffhangers sparingly. Avoid repetitive cliffhangers – they quickly catch the reader’s eye (not in a good way). Particularly avoid associating cliffhangers with chapters or characters that feel weak – rework the plot or pacing instead.

And, above all, avoid any cliffhanger that involves Sylvester Stallone.

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Shake It Off

Like her or hate her, Taylor Swift has some good advice for writers. Bad review? Flame attack? Shake it off.

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(Image: screencap from ITunes video.)

I’ve been lucky so far in putting my creative endeavors out there for public consumption. Readers have been unfailingly generous and overwhelmingly positive. But I know that a one-star Amazon review is inevitable, and I’ve already had a few experiences with flame attacks and cyber-trolling. I’ve watched friends get drawn in, both in my defense and defending their own work. My mantra is and always should be “Shake It Off.”

The temptation to engage is strong, no question. I desperately want to defend my baby (and the brain-babies of others). Don’t these one-star reviewers and trolls get it? Maybe if I explain my brilliance, I’ll change their minds.

Engagement with negativity is always a losing proposition, though. I know this in life. I avoid negativity in other areas of my life, so why should my creative life be any different? I think it’s because writing is so intensely personal and writers get so invested in their work (or maybe that’s just me).

No matter who wins the public battle, the writer always loses. Even if the reviewer or troll eventually slinks away in defeat, the writer’s been dragged down into the mire. More importantly, the writer’s lost precious creative time and energy.

As the song goes, “haters gonna hate.” Let ‘em. By engaging, we validate their negativity. Shake them off. Be positive instead: write something new, and kill a character or two in their honor.

“Balance is Everything”

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(Screen cap courtesy of http://www.underthegunreview.net)

The Chronicles of Riddick is not my favorite movie, but pretty much anything Judi Dench says is memorable and that line has stuck with me.

I do believe in balance, and I’m happiest when things in my life are in balance. There hasn’t been a ton of balance this year, and I’ve not been very happy. My mission for fall is to rebalance my shit.

Starting with my writing.

Publishing Snowburn focused me on that work. Even though I was no longer writing it, I was still thinking about it all the time. Promoting it. Reading reviews of it. Thinking about more ways to promote it. Although I declared it “done” more than six months ago, it’s still been on my mind every day since then. I usually have several projects on the go at any one time, but not this year. Snowburn has been all-consuming. No balance.

Promoting Snowburn has kept me tied tightly to the social media outlets through which I’m pushing the book. Twitter. Goodreads. Facebook (to a lesser extent). These have felt all-consuming, too. Because my market is primarily in the US (so far), with the time change, I’ve spent most of the evening hours I’d usually spend writing on social media. For me, social media is, well, social. It’s a concerted effort to engage with potential readers. That’s a very different activity than writing. Maybe it’s an introvert thing, but I find social media draining, while I find writing energizing. So instead of recharging during the evenings, I’m exhausted by the time I go to bed. No balance.

While my “vacation” this year was not really a vacation, it was a complete change of pace and gave me a chance to assess why I’ve been unusually unhappy this year and what I can do to rebalance my life.

The first thing is to get several projects on the go again. I re-read both Throwing Fire and Neon Blue while I was away and Throwing Fire has stalled for me. The story and characters are not calling to me. I’ve got nothing new to say. But Tsara and her demon have lots to say. So I’m going to shuffle my publishing schedule (wee, the joys of being indie!), push Neon Blue to the front and finish it, and keep Throwing Fire simmering on the back burner while I do. Rebalanced.

Next is to change my social media behavior. Reading some of Nat Russo’s blog posts about getting the most out of Twitter and recognizing that, as an introvert, social media leaves me drained instead of energized has informed this thinking. So, thoughts on how to rebalance:

1. Instead of staying on the internet all night (and all weekend), I’ll set aside ten minutes every hour to do social media stuff. The rest of the hour, the internet is off.

2. I’ll take my iPad to work with me and do social media responses through the day (in the same sort of 5-10 minute bites), so there’s not a backlog to deal with at night.

3. I’ll compose blog posts and promotional tweets offline and in advance, instead of staring in terror at an empty “Compose New Tweet” box.

4. I’ll write blog posts in particular at times when I feel creative (during “writing time”), so that I generate interesting, new content rather than reactive crap.

5. On weekends, instead of lurking around the house (and on the internet), I’ll get out and write in places I find stimulating. Cafes (avoiding internet cafes), movie theatres, the ice rink. Places where I’m surrounded by people but do not have to interact with them. Places which do not have internet access.

I’ve been implementing these ideas this week, and I already feel better. I’ve written more new material this week than I have in months, and I’m enthusiastic about it. Interestingly, engagement on Twitter is at an all-time high this week, so maybe being better balanced also makes me more interesting to engage with, and isn’t that the goal of all of this in the end?

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