Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Moment of Quiet Inspiration

By Jo Zebedee

I had the fortune of “meeting” Jo through Tickety Boo Press (TBP).  I felt an affinity for her immediately since we are about the same age and have been writing genre fiction since we were children.  I’ve heard good things through the grapevine about her first novel with TBP.  Jo and I are cross-pollinating our Web sites this month, so stop by her site and read That’s What Editors Are For.

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Abendau’s Child is available for preorder on Tickety Boo Press.

I’m just starting to get asked interesting questions about being a writer. I’ve had the “Oh, I hope you aren’t intending to put me in your novel” (nope, and even if I did by page three you’d have changed sex, creed, colour, and become an alien life-form, given my thinking processes), the “That sounds exciting” (it’s really not), and the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas?”

That one’s a pig to answer. Partly because I write quite diverse things: I’ve had people with removable souls in their arms; tricksy AIs; aliens invading Belfast; a sexy love affair on Callisto (not seen the light of day, that one); a huge space opera world. Somehow, they’ve all resided in my head and popped out. I worry I have a great pit at the back of my mind where I should have some useful knowledge. Like algebra.

However, since I hope to write lots, lots more (just need to work out the ‘time/income-eating’ thing), I thought it was about time I answered that question and figured out what sort of themes drive me. It seems like what a Proper Writer should do.

My first world came  into being  in the mid-eighties when I was sixteen. It’s changed a lot since then but, in essence, it is that world. Some of the big sci-fi influences on it are clear: Blake’s 7 was my favourite show in the seventies (but I loved the quirky, twisted character of course, so Avon got a nod in the main character’s name), and a certain amount of Servalan’s style transferred to my Empress, although my so-and-so’s much nastier.

So, too, are the Star Wars elements—psi powers are important in my trilogy (although they lack the mysticism of the Force and are Properly Scientific), and the  level of technology in Abendau is properly equatable to Star Wars, although I have no droids or aliens.

Dune had a later influence when I was shaping my central planet, and it turned out to be a desert world—one without giant worms and spice, albeit, and with its own history and culture, but I’d still give a sage nod if anyone wants to mention Dune as an influence (and there could be much worse influences).

But it isn’t just this mish-mash of story influences that became uniquely Abendau, my sense of place and my background are central to the things that inspire me.  Working in a medieval castle near Belfast had its own inspiration—my torture chambers are housed in an ancient part of a futuristic palace, for instance.

What’s harder to work out is where the themes that I now recognise after writing several books come from. Themes around edge of madness come up a lot—people struggling on that edge, hiding it under normal lives; people where madness is an ill-defined but deep-seated part of who they are. I have no deep hidden secrets in that arena, no reason to explore it. Perhaps it is simply that the conflict it creates in a character is so central, close to their core, that I find it fascinating.

Perhaps some of my inspiration is rooted in the needs of a sixteen year old girl.  Kare is a protector, a complex person with a core that is untouchable. A person with more demons than would fit in the average crypt. When I found out about existentialism as a concept, it rooted in him.  Kare became a person who followed his own path, living by his own morals, having been left to find them for himself. He makes decisions based on personal beliefs, rather than something religious or spiritual. Thus I found inspiration in a philosophy, perhaps, or just one of those alchemical moments of writing where the missing conundrum reveals itself. That’s how elusive inspiration is; a narrow coil of visuals, beliefs, knowledge, memories, and ideals needing to be unwound and dissected. I’m not sure I’m able to do that for myself—I’m not sure anyone is.

Which is where I was when it occurred to me around a year or two ago that I’d have to keep getting new ideas. That worried me. I sat with a notebook with the words “What if…?” written in bold and tried to come up with scenarios. I think I managed one. The wall of panic was considerable—I wanted to write, I was getting better at it, but the ideas well was empty.

Since then, I’ve realised a blank piece of paper and some forced words are not where I gain inspiration. I find flash fiction useful, especially when inspired by something visual. Three of my novels have come from a 75- or 300-word piece.

“What if?” may not work for me on the harsh white page, but ask it out in the magic of some primal forest or by the roar of the sea  and results are a lot different.   Last summer, on my holidays—no writing, or thinking about writing, of course—I looked around the woodland up into some trees and knew there was a story waiting in that forest. That new little baby book is about 20,000 words now, and whatever is in those woods wants into my character’s  head.  And now we’re at that edge between the normal and unbalanced again.

I’m not sure any of this helps another writer. Inspiration is so hard to explain, that moment of magic where you realise you have a story. I think it’s an individual thing that comes with time, when you realise what sparks your imagination. Inspiration needs a chance to catch and burn, a way of getting out; that is something that can be managed. You can make time for the your story, for the growth of the spark.  Don’t be ashamed to revel in what if?—that defines science fiction. Staring into space?—that’s part of the writing process just as much as typing and editing and promoting is. Even on holiday…

CONTEST!   Leave a comment and email in the month of January and be eligible to win a Kindle version of The Dead Man’s Deal by Jax Daniels.  Emails will be used only for contacting the winner.

Why join a Writer’s Group?

Our writers group has been having discussions on how to structure critiques to best suite everyones needs. The article, The Art and Necessity of Critique by Hilari Bell, got passed around.  Some of us agree whole heartedly while others of us disagree. Author Jax Daniels shares her thoughts.   Tell us yours this month in the comments below and be eligible to win a Kindle version of The Dead Man’s Deal.

UntitledI’ve been a member of a Leasspell for over 15 years now. Way back then, it was a small threesome, and we gathered around my dining room table, swapping chapters, eating, chatting, and brainstorming. It was a very “tactile” approach to bettering your works. The commenters sat across from you. You could look them in the eye, you could ask for clarification, and you could argue your point!

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Nowadays, we’ve expanded, and have members all over the world. So sitting in the same room means using Google Hangout and a moderator, so everyone has equal air time.

Needless to say, we don’t do that very often. We typically use Google Drive: someone uploads a couple of chapters, and the rest of us take two weeks to read and comment. Yes, it’s more sterile, and yes, it’s a slow process. But so is diamond mining—worthwhile doing for the occasional gem you get.

I have gone on record attributing any success I’ve had as a writer to my group. But it’s not for everyone. I was told once that there is no such thing as “constructive criticism”; only feedback. That’s what you’ll get, and lots of it. How you use it is up to you.

A writer’s group isn’t a cheer leading squad, routing for your every word, and whooping for your unique ideas. It’s a tool. Nothing more.

You wrote a book. You want someone to read it. You want someone to tell you the idea is sound. That’s not what the writer’s group is for. That’s what a husband/wife is for (okay, some call them beta-readers, but we know the truth).

targetThe real problem with writer’s groups is they are people. People have ideas. And these ideas aren’t always the same as yours, or even each other’s. Some people think you should use more onomatopoeia, and some people hate that. Some people like alliteration, and some people hate that. Consider then if you write, “Sally sickeningly smiled at the blade as it hit its mark with a satisfying thwack,” you’re liable to get two people hating it, for completely different reasons. It’s your work; it’s your decision. Maybe you hadn’t realized that you used too much alliteration and this was a good reminder. Or maybe you really like the sentence as it stands. That’s your choice.

Writer’s group are sounding boards. They are readers. And if you’re in a good one, odds are few people on the planet want you to succeed more than them.

You’ll get a few “I hate whatevers” in the group, and you know that and ignore it. But if everyone in the group told you, “it’s too wordy, and you need to get to the point,” then odds are it’s too wordy, and you need to get to the point.

“But,” I hear you ask, “fixing that sentence isn’t fixing my world. That’s what I need! I need to know if this is working.”

Are you sure? You’ve read many stories that failed to have a beginning, or a middle, or an end, and it didn’t matter to you. The writing is what kept you going, kept you turning the page. If there were typos, if there were terrible, flat characters, or if it was hard to read, it could be the most engaging quest imaginable, and you wouldn’t care. You’d set it aside and wait for the movie.Hair

Writer’s groups aren’t supposed to help your creative process. They’re supposed to help you iron out the rough patches and preen your point of view. They are combs to help you untangle your words and ideas.

“I don’t have that kind of time,” I hear you say. “I need immediate feedback.” This is a tool. Like any tool, rushing its use will yield shoddy and sloppy work. Your fellow writers would like that too, having everyone read the entire book. There’s only so much time we all can spend writing and reading and commenting and re-writing.

It’s hard to hear criticism, especially regarding something you love. Writer’s groups are a way to hone the writing skill. They aren’t supposed to simply read your work, they’re supposed to make you a better writer.

And I firmly believe, there is always room for improvement.

DMDDON’T FORGET: Leave a comment this month on any blog on Leasspell and win The Dead Man’s Deal for your Kindle.

When Winki Witherspoon lost her husband, she inherited his New Orleans mansion and his magical “talent.” Can she master it and discover her husband’s traitor before she, too, is destroyed?


My Path to Self-Publishing

By J. L. Doty

Sword series

Coming soon—The exciting conclusion to the Gods Within series: The Name of the Sword. Haven’t read them yet? Go to Amazon and get The Child of the Sword, The SteelMaster of Indwallin, and The Heart of the Sands.

When Jennifer Carson asked me to write a guest blog about my path to self-publishing, I was thrilled.  I started writing about thirty years ago with no training or experience in fiction.  I had concocted all these stories, and I wanted to write, so I just sat down and started writing, pencil on paper.  The first thing I wrote was a 250,000-word SF novel that was so bad it never saw the light of day—and never will, but I learned a lot.

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After that dismal failure, I wrote Child of the Sword.  In the 80s, I submitted it to Del Rey, and an editor there showed interest.  We corresponded back and forth for several months making changes, and then Judy-Lynn del Rey died.  The correspondence dried up at that point, and I got a rejection letter. I’ve always suspected that the uncertainties at Del Rey following her death had something to do with it.  I had no idea how lucky I was to get the attention of an editor at one of the major SF houses.

I had a demanding day job, but I continued writing, submitting, and being rejected.  In early 2012, I had four completed books, plus a couple more about half done, along with a stack of rejection slips. I remember wallowing in self-pity and thinking, Someday I’ll die, and no one will have ever read anything I wrote.

At that point I decided, What the f*$#@*@$k and started self-publishing.  I lined up my books one by one, about one every quarter, got a cover made, formatting done, and published them for 99¢ on Amazon and Smashwords.

I had this day-job that required me to fly to Europe and Asia ten to fifteen times a year, plus about ten coast-to-coast trips in the U.S.  I was basically living on Mars-Central-Standard time and had no time to do any of the savvy marketing stuff that self-published writers are supposed to do.  I just threw the eBooks out there and ignored them.

The first three books trickled along, sold a couple of copies every month, and it was really gratifying to get the occasional nice review from a reader.  Then in late 2012, I published Child of the Sword, and—what the heck—raised the prices on all my books to $2.99.  I threw Child out there and ignored it like the other books, then got on a plane and flew somewhere.  About two weeks later, I checked its sales, hoping it had sold a copy or two.  When I logged onto Amazon, I learned it had sold 85 copies—and was climbing; within four weeks it was selling 150–200 copies a day.  Needless to say I was stunned, and I truly did believe I’d get a call from Amazon: “Mr. Doty, we’re really sorry, but there’s been an accounting error.  It was J. L. Duty who sold all those books, not you.  We’re taking the money back.”

When it finally sank in that it was real, I had some money saved up, and I was making a decent living as a writer, so I quit my demanding day job.  No longer a running dog lackey for the Bourgeois capitalist establishment, I was now a full-time egalitarian writer.  Wah whoo!

I had dozens of questions about what was happening, what to expect, what should I do, etc.  The good news is, by searching through blogs and online forums, I quickly got answers to all my questions.  The bad news is, I got ten different answers to every question.  Even worse, more often than not, all ten were wrong.

Other self-published writers told me, “. . . you can’t sell books without a lot of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.”  So I rushed home to set up Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Right after I set them up, I was sitting at my computer and checked my sales figures: I had sold somewhere around 15,000 books, and still no Facebook friends or Twitter followers.  Hmmm!

I went to LosCon in late 2012, right about the time Child had sold 10,000 copies. BTW, an excellent Con that I will attend every year.  Everyone there agreed that, with the book’s track record, I’d have no problem signing up with a traditional publisher—there are plenty of reasons for a successful self-published writer to do so, but that’s fodder for another blog.  Boy, were they wrong.

A well-known small press publisher said his biggest press run was less than half what I’d already sold, so I’d be disappointed with him—he’s wrong, but that’s what he believes.  One agent, said, “I’m not interested in anyone who’s self-published, especially someone who’s sold a lot of eBooks.”  He used a certain romance writer as an example.  She had sold about 100,000 eBooks and because of that got a traditional contract.  He said, “She trained all her readers to buy cheap books.  That’s why she bombed with traditional publishing.”

Two years ago when I approached traditional publishers and agents, I’d get this nonanswer response, and I’m almost certain I saw fear in their eyes.  I think they were honestly concerned that people like me would put them out of business.  A year later the fear was gone; I think they realized they weren’t going out of business, though there would be a new paradigm for the publishing industry.  Today, it sounds like they all got together in a room, and carefully chose the wording they would use to reject successful self-published writers.  We don’t want to see something that you’ve successfully sold, but show us something new and unsullied by self-publishing.  I suppose, in many ways, that is reasonable.

As of this writing (December 2014) SFWA is going to vote in January on the criteria for admitting successful self-published writers.  Apparently, admitting self-published writers is a foregone conclusion, the only issue being the criteria for successful.  From what I’ve heard, the criteria they’ve chosen is reasonable, and there’s no double standard for self-pub vs. traditional-pub.

To date, I’m close to about 50,000 books sold.  What’s going to happen in the future?  When I try to predict the future I usually lose money in the stock market.  The best thing any of us can do to promote our books is sit down and write the next one.

Interested in more authors’ Paths to Publishing?  This month, Melissa Snark is hosting a series of guest blogs on that subject. See my story about how I got into the editing and publishing world.  Jennifer L. Carson’s Path to Publishing.

Writing Fight Scenes If You Don’t Have a Live Stunt Crew

Action scenes are hard to write. If you’re anything like me, and not very athletic, fantasy is where we dream about things we could never do in real life. My plots make my characters run great distances, hike up snowy mountains, gallop on war horses, and engage in hand-to-hand combat. Me? I’ve never done any of those things. I have a day job where I sit at a desk and do paperwork. It’s an adventure to walk to the car.

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When writing fantasy novels, I combine my imagination with first-hand accounts of explorers and athletes. But research can only take you so far. Unless you have years of fight training yourself, it’s not easy to create a believable action scene. Also, don’t impose on experts you may find at the SCA, the ren faire, or your local boxing gym. Pro fighters mean well but they shouldn’t choreograph your scenes for you. They are not writing your book. Ultimately, it is your story. If action is not clear in your mind, then it won’t be clear on the page no matter how thoroughly you discuss “what if…” with your source.

Over the years, I have come up with a unique method for staging a fight scene. Drawing stick figures and football-play type diagrams did not give me enough information. Then, I was inspired by those old war movies where generals use model battleships on a tabletop. I decided to make a 3-D storyboard by using figurines as a stand-in stunt crew.

My model figurines of choice?  Barbie dolls.

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Don’t laugh. I have a big box full of Barbie and Ken dolls from my own childhood and from my daughters. If you don’t have a Barbie collection, then scrounge your local thrift shops and garage sales. The newer dolls have jointed limbs and can be posed in realistic ways. They are 11 to 12 inches tall, which scales to 2 inches per foot in the real world.

In a fight scene involving multiple characters, dolls help me keep track of all the moving parts during the days or weeks that it takes to churn out a first draft.  It reminds me not to neglect people in the background. Like a stage or film director, you can study the positioning of figures from all angles. It reveals obvious problems in your choreography and suggests movements that would not occur to you simply by sitting at your keyboard.

Some Tips

Mark out the dimensions of your scene with string or painter’s tape. Or, you could invest in a cardboard cutting board from your local fabric/craft store that has graph lines printed on it. At 2 inches per foot, a 60 foot span (such as the distance from a baseball pitcher’s mound to home base) converts to 120 inches and could be staged on a driveway, a patio, or an empty garage. How far can your hero throw that battle-axe?

Keep track of distances between characters as they move about the scene. How close are two characters standing before one makes a lunge? An average 10×12-foot room would be represented in miniature with a 20×24-inch cardboard box. Where is the window, and is the villain blocking the hero’s escape? Does he have enough room to swing his sword or would he knock over a candle and start a fire?

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Use props like cardboard for walls, books for furniture, rolled up bath towels for landscaping, canned foods for rock and trees, stuffed animals for fantasy monsters, and so on. How many heroic fighters are needed to surround a troll? Popsicle sticks make good swords, and BBQ skewers can be used for spears. Masking tape can easily attach “weapons” to the dolls’ hands. A lamp or flashlight can simulate the sunshine—would it be glaring in your hero’s eyes as the villain attacks?

DSCF8770-fork standTo make the dolls stand up, you could either invest in actual doll supplies or DIY something at home. My quickest, easy method is to wrap a sturdy rubber band tightly around the doll’s waist. Then, stick the handle of a stainless steel dinner fork in the rubber band with the prongs facing downward. The fork’s prongs should be level with the “ground” surface and be curving away from the doll’s heels. You can experiment with various sizes of utensils to see what works best.

Use a digital camera to take snapshots and quickly create a storyboard of your scene for future reference.