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Sep 28, 2012

When Should You Read Literary Novels?

Puddlepaws, the Gratuitously Adorable Kitten, from The Initiate

None of this post will apply if you regularly read (or write) in the literary genre.

I love literary small dribbles. There are are certain gorgeous books, with such exquisite sentences and turns of phrase that they seduce my inner logophile into rapturous sighs of bliss. I can usually make it half-way through such a book before I realize I'm...bored.

The rest of the journey is a slog. Often, I'll find that the true power of the story doesn't hit until the end. So it's worth it to push through that boring part. It's not like the boring part of a badly written story, which you'd be better off without. It's drawing you in to the character's world or mind, making you love this person against all logic and expectation.

Literary novels revolve around people who aren't admirable doing things that aren't interesting. The literary writer's job is to write so beautifully that you don't notice. Also this brings us to the rule of thumb: You can write about dull things in an exciting way and you can write about exciting things in a dull way, and some bastards can even write about exciting things in an exciting way, but if you write about dull things in a dull way, no one will read your book.

I have found, however, the perfect time to read a literary novel, or short story collection, is when I am editing.

Plot pushes my stories around, piling up activities for the characters, the way a mom in a supermarket grabs boxed cereals for the next month of breakfasts. My characters engage in all sorts of angst and drama, but sometimes my dialogue is too "on the nose," as they say in screenwriting, rather than subtle and realistic.

Reading some exquisite crown of word-jewels during the editing reminds me that sentences can be beautiful, they can be complex, they can be unexpected. This helps me polish my prose, dial back the obvious where it was slamming the reader in the face, put on a shirt and shoes to go eat in the restaurant and not stomp around like a barbarian.

The time I try to avoid reading literary works is while I am brainstorming, outlining and drafting the manuscript (i.e. most of the time). What I read inspires what I write, so if I read literary novels while brainstorming a new book, I start to delude myself this time I'll write a literary book. Mustn't have that! Also, I start trying to Me Rite Purty too soon.

Trying to write beautiful sentences before I have the plot and the character arcs worked out would be deadly for the kind of story I want to write. It would risk it becoming...boring.

Have you noticed what an offensive post this is? I've managed to insult both literary and genre writing. This is what happens when I'm in Editing Mindset.

Sep 26, 2012

Countdown to the Release of Wing, Book 5 of The Unfinished Song

You've been waiting.

You've been asking.

You deserve to know...

When is Wing coming out?!

And the answer is: Oct 12, Friday, 2012.

If you aren't on the list to receive a free copy, go sign up now and I'll squeeze you in!

Sep 25, 2012

The Hobbit And the Lego Hobbit Trailer

And at last you can build your own Lego hobbit habitats... I know you've been waiting for that as long as I have!

You can also play Lego Lord of the Rings. Lego games, by the way, are awesome. I don't have this one yet, but I've played Lego Raiders of the Last Ark and Lego Star Wars, and they were really fun. It's strange that watching videos of toys should be that enjoyable...really strange, now that I think about it...but it is.

That Dread Brought On By The Middle Of A Book

Over at Six Words for a Hat, Scott, who writes both fast and well (damn him) is in the middle of a manuscript:
Thirty-thousand words puts me somewhere in the middle of the novel, or somewhere toward the sixty percent mark if I stick with the plan of making it a 50,000-word novella. In either case, I’m now in the middle of the middle. I discovered this project middleness not by figuring the word count of the draft, but rather by noticing that I have been feeling a powerful sense of disquiet about writing. The feeling that this novel is an empty, pointless thing and that indeed every novel I’ve written is an empty, pointless and likely embarrassing book is a sure sign that I’ve arrived at that stage in the drafting process where I’ve got to just brass my way forward through the writing and work toward the final act, which I recall once thinking was a good idea to write. This feeling is so familiar and so predictable that I am almost bored by it. Yes of course, I say. Right on schedule. The temptation is to abandon the novel, to spend more time reading or exercising, to think about other things. But of course I won’t, because I’ve been here before and I know how it works.
Apparently Scott is writing this novel without an outline "in the shape of leaves blown off a tree in an autumn windstorm." That's exactly the shape I'm trying to avoid at the moment--it's too much like what my house looks like, thanks very much--but the Middle Dread I'm feeling is the same.

I have a draft of Book 6, but I'm suddenly confronted with the fact that despite my careful outlining, there's a huge lopesideness about the story, which must be corrected. My first two corrective attempts were insufficient.

Last night, my 2 year old son crawled into my bed while I was asleep. Usually I wake up, but I was particularly tired and didn't.

 Not, that is, until a huge THUMP, as of something precious and expensive breaking, woke me up. I'm ashamed to say that my first fearful thought was that my laptop had (somehow) fallen off the bed. I hope that doesn't secretly reveal my priorities!

Because the second thought through my head was the fear that it was a child, and then a wail confirmed this.

 Lights on! Leap from the bed! Check the wailing child for life-threatening injuries!

 There were none, but now that I'd had more adrenaline shot into my system than coke in a junkie, it was impossible for me to get to sleep. Instead, I lay awake, fretting over my book.

This is exactly what writing the middle of a book is like, lying awake at night, fearing that you've forgotten something important which is going to roll off the bed and get hurt.

Sep 24, 2012

Introducing New Assistant

Hey everyone! My name is Katie Earley and I’m Tara’s shiny new assistant. I’m here to help launch Book 5 of The Unfinished Song series and take some other pesky tasks off of Tara’s plate so she can focus on what she does best: writing.

A little about me…
I live in Louisville, KY with a sweet husband, cutest 1-year-old ever, anxious mutt, fluffy cat, and quiet fish. I have a BA in English from Centre College and a Creative Writing minor. I lovelovelove Jane Austen, Harry Potter, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation and When Harry Met Sally. The Big Bang Theory is about the only sitcom my husband will watch me. (Would you count The Guild as a sitcom? We like that too.) In the free time I fantasize about having, I would sew more and maintain a full cookie jar.

If you have any great ideas for us, including but not limited to guest posts, fan art, or cupcake recipes, please email them to me at Be sure you’re following Tara on Twitter and Facebook (and subscribe to the blog if you haven’t already!) because we’re about to have a lot of great content coming your way as we get ready to release Book 5 into the wild. It’s coming SOON!

Sep 23, 2012

How To Write A Series - 01 - Introduction

The most successful books -- and movies -- are part of a larger whole. A series.

I'm writing one myself, twelve volumes long. (Secretly, I'm hoping you knew that.) I happen to be right in the middle of the series, which is a tough place to be.

For one thing, it means I'm working on more than one book at a time. Book 5 is in revisions, being "polished"; I've completed the rich outline for Book 6; and I'm blocking out the outline for books further out... all at the same time. My heart is with the book I'm writing, and it's hard to make myself return to the previous work for editing. When I do get into it, there's a danger I'll re-write too much. The purpose of polish is just to polish the gemstone, not change from a square cut to an oval. The lure of outlining future books is dangerous too; there's a temptation to jump ahead and start writing those scenes instead of keeping my focus on the book in front of me.

Then there are the plotting problems inherent in writing a series. You have to juggle an outsized cast of characters, story lines and backstory, and you have to have your eye on a horizon that ends past the book you're working on.

I'm a reader, so whenever I scratch my head over something, I look for ...a book about it. I love How To Write books -- even after turning professional with my writing, I buy and read nonfiction books and blog posts about writing to improve my skills. I find it rather inspiring too, as it new ideas or ways of looking at things gets me excited about trying them out, excited about writing again.

What I've found is that there aren't many books or writing tips dedicated to sequels and series.

I'm a writer, so whenever I find a lacuna in a bookshelf -- a book I'd like to read that no one's written yet -- my reaction is, "Fine, I guess, I'll write it."

So I've decided to start a series of posts about the particular joys and challenges and tricks of writing a series. I'm going to scour the web for other writers' best practices and secret techniques, and discuss them. I'm going to be re-reading some of my favorite series (and maybe start some new ones) to see what works.

Invitation to other writers...

As NaNoWriMo season comes upon us, I'm also determined to do something I've never been able to pull off before -- enter  NaNo AND work on what I NEED to work on, which is the next sequel in my Unfinished Song series. So it finally occurred to me, why not just set up a group dedicated to just that? If you're a writer working on a sequel or a later book in a series and you want to be writing buddies, let me know.

I should warn you, I plan to cheat.

But more about that later....

Sep 21, 2012

Putting the 'Epic' in Epic of Gilgamesh

Tolkien is usually credited with kicking off the fantasy genre, but if Ancient Summaria had had a higher literacy rate than 0.000001% back in the 18th Century (we're talkin' BC here), it might have been the Epic of Gilgamesh.

This epic has all the qualities we now consider epic fantasy. Behold and marvel:

1. The mighty hero.

You can't deny Gilgamesh is a badass. He's not a perfect man, which makes him a perfect hero. Like many a fantasy hero, he's a king but one who, inexplicably, leaves the boring work of debating about health care tax reforms to his minions and spends his time traveling the world in search of adventure and immortality.

He's also an antihero. What--you thought that was a recent development? When we first meet Gilgamesh, he's a brutal tyrant and a womanizer, sleeping with all the new brides on their wedding nights. Shame on you, Gil. 

2. The mighty sidekick.

A hero is only as good as his sidekick. Gilgamesh has this in Enkidu. The epic of Gilgamesh is the original Buddy Movie (tablet, whatever), the first Bromance.

Yeah, okay, Enkidu does get knocked out fairly early on--if the nameless Summarian priest who scratched this epic onto clay tablets in a language based on chicken ballet positions had had an editor, maybe someone could have pushed back on this plot line. You see the problem with self-publishing?

But first, Enkidu fights Gilgamesh in defense of the fair virgins of the realm. Gilgamesh whoops him, but learns a valuable life lesson along the way. Actually, the original epic is a little unclear on that point. But what Enkidu does do is lure Gilgamesh away from womanizing and terrorizing his own subjects to go on a quest to bash the skull of some ogre.

Just imagine how much easier everything in Syria would be if instead of all the fighting, some dude in a fur tunic could have simply said to Assad, "Hey, want to ditch this joint and go kill monsters with me?"

And Assad would have been, "Dude, yeah. I just realized what an ass I've been this whole time. Let me use my powers for good and not evil from this day forward."

Fiction is so much better than real life.

3. A Girl in A Chainmail Bikini.

Every epic fantasy needs a princess. Or a temple prostitute. Whatever. Some chick in a chainmail bikini.

Enter Shambat the She-Warrior. (Ok, I made up that title.) She's the one who teaches Enkidu table manners and also Makes Him A Man in other ways, if you know what I mean.

4. A quest.

Epic fantasy needs a quest of epic proportions--in this case to find the secret of immortality. Now, modern readers might prefer Gilgamesh was less intent on his own prolonged existence and more interested in saving the world from a nasty scheme of Ereshkigal to conquer the Earth with zombies, but you can't expect the Summarians to think of EVERYTHING.

5. Travels to distant lands.

Gilgamesh  and Enkidu travel about, as good heroes should. I'm not sure the author remembered to include a map however.

6. Proper Scope and Backstory

What really makes the epic of Gilgamesh work as a proper epic is the scope. Remember the Hero vs. Everyman spectrum? If Gilgamesh were just an ordinary guy, or even just an ordinary king, he'd be too dull to waste clay on.

On the other hand, unlike creation stories, which are all about the gods, Gilgamesh is human enough we can relate to him. Who among us wouldn't be tempted to have all the hotties brought to our beds if we were tyrants of an ancient Mesopotamian kingdom? (Be honest.) He's failable, he can learn and change and grow.

The scope of the story is right too. The deeds of Gilgamesh are important. They change the destiny of the world. But there's already a huge backstory before his quest even begins. There are other heros who have gone before him, like Utnapishtim, the man who survived the Flood, and the only other mortal to have earned immortality.

7. A Menagerie of Monsters and Pantheon of Gods

Every epic fantasy needs a plethora of dangerous, magical monsters to fight and gods, both good and evil, to screw things up.


8. Characters Die Then Magically Come Back To Life If The Plot Calls For It

The author apparently realized that the story was boring without Enkidu, and brought him back in Tablet Twelve without explanation. Just kidding. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation.


9. Multi-volumes.

Would the Wheel of Time be epic if it were the length of Old Man and the Sea?


Epic of Gilgimesh has twelve, count 'em, TWELVE, tablets. How's that for sequel heaven?

It wouldn't be an epic fantasy if there weren't multiple volumes, probably published with long intervals in between during which the restless fans stormed the Sacred Temples, demanding the sequels. Also, just think how long the fans had to wait between the hardcover and the ebook. About 3,000 years.

10. A Twist Ending

Gilgamesh goes on this big quest for immortality, and at the end of it all...

Well, I wouldn't want to post any spoilers.

Sep 20, 2012

Hero vs Everyman

Let's say you have a character, Jane, who is having some problems in her marriage. You might have Jane sitting at a cafe, sipping her latte and ruminating over her divorce. At the next table, she overhears a bickering couple. What happens next?

Jane's reaction to the bickering couple will depend on where her character stands on the Hero/Everyman spectrum. Orson Scott Card discusses this in his book on Characters. As readers, we want to identify with a protagonist. The protagonist has to be human enough, ordinary enough, that we can relate to him and his hurdles. At the same time, we want the protagonist to be someone whom we admire, and to whom we can aspire: someone like us but a little bit better than us. A hero.

If Jane is living in a literary novel, she's likely to be as "ordinary" and "real" as possible, which means she probably won't even remark on the couple's conversation. The author will slyly allow the reader to make the connection and comparison to Jane's situation, but Jane herself will be oblivious. It's called subtly or something. (I know this only by rumor, never having tried it myself.)

If Jane is a tad more Hero than Everyman, she will not just overhear the bickering couple, but take action. Possibly, their conflict gives her insight into her own troubles. She'll have an epiphany about her relationship with her late father and make a decision about the divorce. This could still leave her safely in literary territory, but it means she'll have to be a more observant and insightful person, by nature, than our first, rather more self-obsorbed, Jane.

If Jane is a little further on the Hero side of the scale, she won't just listen to the couple. She'll turn to them and say something, something brilliant and insightful, that somehow helps them have an epiphany about their relationship. A true hero helps others.

And if Jane is even more of a Hero, she'll stand up, pull a gun out of her back jeans and start shooting the disgruntled employee who just came in to shoot the couple and everyone else in the cafe. That's right. She may or may not solve their marital disputes--or her own--but she'll SAVE THEIR EFFIN' LIVES.

That's a hero's Hero.

Traditionally, fantasy used to be the bastion of the hero's Hero. That's all changed, though, with the rise of postmodern and literary fantasy. (There's also a whole plethora of anti-heroes, who avoid helping others, just on principle.) Postmodern fantasy prides itself on "realistic" characters, which is usually code for behaving like an ass. Ursula Le Guin's new fantasy series, supposedly Young Adult (because these days even Ursula Le Guin is told to write more like Harry Potter), is not at all heroic. Her characters, though not buttheads, are Everymans to the core.

To determine where a character is on the non-heroic/heroic scale, look for hints and clues:

Mona Gray in An Invisible Sign of My Own? Not heroic.

Hint: She is so frightened of human interaction, she eats soap to avoid dates.

Katness Everdeen in Hunger Games? Heroic.

Hint: She uses a crossbow. On people.

Yeah, yeah. That wasn't even challenging.

Both the Hero and the Everyman are hard to do well. But I'll be honest. It's easier to write a shoddy heroic tale and still get away with it than it is to write a shoddy Everyman tale. That's because when an Everyman is written poorly, all you're left with is a despicable and/or boring character. A Hero might come across as shallow, yet if he is good and brave and blows up a lot of crap, we will forgive him and go along with the story anyway.

There are three reasons for that.

One, we all think we are slightly better than we are. So we have little patience for characters as weak and fearful as ourselves, unless the author can overwhelm our reluctance with exquisite compassion of vision. Only a gifted author can trick us to empathizing with a character who is as deeply flawed as the average human being.

Two, even if, deep down, we suspect we aren't all that heroic personally, we crave heroes. Fiction is not just an exercise of our imaginations, but of our aspirations. Studies have found that pessimistic versus optimistic fiction influences our ability to take control of our own futures. So, all you folks out tempted to write unhappy endings to your novels (you know who you are), just be aware you could cause the downfall of civilization. No pressure.

Three, the authors of successful Everyman characters CHEAT. They build up a world where going on a date and not eating soap act of courage. So you end up rooting for the heroine to look at that bar of soap and not stick it in her mouth! And when she finds the ability to do this for herself, you know she's overcome a greater challenge for her, than a yacht full of machine-armed bikini babes would be for James Bond. In a sense, then, you respect her even more than Bond, in this context, because what is easy is not awe-inspiring. If Bond doesn't break a sweat, it really doesn't matter how many bad guys he kills. It can't compare to overcoming your own phobias.

An everyman is who we usually are; an hero is who we aspire to be. Write either one. Just watch out for these pitfalls:

If you are writing a character closer to the Everyman side, remember to build up the everyday obstacles to your character's existence until overcoming them becomes a heroic act. Just don't write an everyman and expect people to aspire to it.

If you are writing a character closwer to the hero's Hero, just remember, even Superman needs his kryptonite. If everything is easy for your Hero, he's not brave anymore, no matter what he does. This is why every Superhero needs a Supervillain Nemesis,

And remember. Heroes are real.

Sep 19, 2012

WiP Wednesday and Call for Beta Readers for Wing

Wing, Book 5 of the Unfinished Song, is finished. I'll be announcing the release date next week.

The manuscript is with the editor and the alpha readers. It's about 90,000 words.

If anyone would like to be a Beta reader to proofread and help us hunt down typos, email me and let me know. Ideally, you'd receive a copy sometime be able to read it and get it back to me within a week.  I might not be able to take everyone who asks, but it's worth a try if you are interested. I already have a few people on the list.

I can't post too long an excerpt from Blood, The Unfinished Song, Book 6, without giving away spoilers for both Wing and Blood, but here's a scene from the Prologue in which we see Vessia back in the days when she was War Leader of the Aelfae. For the first time, we meet some Aelfae and see things from their point of view during the last stages of the generations-long War with humans.

Remember, there is still time to sign up for the Newsletter to receive a free copy of Wing.

Some people have worried they aren't the first hundred to sign up, and they aren't. But I've extended the number of copies I'll be giving away, due to popular demand (how awesome is that -- I've always wanted to say that!) so go ahead and sign up, no worries!

Vessia (Generations Ago - During the War)

Vessia smelled humans and it wasn’t pretty.

Mud crawlers, her people called them. An insult to good, clean mud. The human stench was closer to offal—a whiff of bad blood on top of damp fur and rancid corn. It soiled the wind even from here.

She stood on a rocky outcrop overlooking the grassy fields of the canyon floor, her wings camouflaged like a moth, to blend with the mottled grays and browns. Human warriors filled the valley on both sides of the river with their campfires. This was no innocent sheep drover clan, wandering too far north. It was an army up from the Rainbow Labyrinth, sent to hunt Aelfae. Spells guarded the only pass into the canyon, yet the human Tavaedies had known the dance to remove the boulders in the path.

Vessia crept back from the edge and rejoined the other seven Aelfae scouts. They camped inside a natural circle of huge stones, surrounded by trees that leaned over the stones to touch crowns, forming a canopy of branches. No trees grew inside the circle itself, but the ground was thick with wet, fallen leaves.

“The humans are here,” she said. “I suggest no one take wing anytime soon.”

“They can’t hit anything past their own noses with those spears,” scoffed Gwidan. He worked the string into his bow, testing the knots and the tautness with a few plucks. “If they ever figure out how to use my sweet device, then I’ll worry.”

“I won’t worry even then,” said Xerpen. He stretched out on a log with his legs crossed at the ankle. Like all of them, he wore little over his splendid physique besides a dabbling of paint and leaves that would enable him to blend into the forest.

“If you were the last Aelfae in Faearth, you still wouldn’t worry,” said Gwidan.

“No, and why should I? One look at my handsome face, and they’d probably make me their chief.”

“Go on then, show them your face. I’m eager to see an Aelfae become chief of the humans.”

“Later maybe,” said Xerpen. “Right now I’m busy with a new song. I can’t seem to get the ending right.”

He warbled a bit on his reed flute.

A dark-haired beauty, Mrigana, sat near Gwidan, whittling arrows for him. Never much for chatter, Mrigana inclined her head, acknowledging the human threat and Vessia’s command. In contrast, Lothlo and Yastara nuzzled by the fire, so lost in mutual appreciation that Vessia wasn’t even sure they’d heard her.

Hest tended a boar on a spit over the fire. “What if I fly in the other direction?”

“It’s not worth the risk,” Vessia said. “I’m sure they have scouts, same as we do. There are probably humans combing these mountains as we speak.”

“I really need some rosemary, and we have none.”

“Seriously, Hest? Rosemary?”

“This boar isn’t going to season itself, Vessia.”

“I shall season it with song,” Xerpen said grandly. He began to sing, “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…”

“Really not the same, Xerpen,” said Hest. “And, by the way, that is the dumbest song I’ve ever heard.”

“I’m hurt.”

“One of your worst. And that’s saying something.”

Vessia said firmly, “No flying.”

Hest sighed. “No rosemary.”

One person was not seated around the campfire, but Vessia had only to follow Gwidan’s disapproving glance to find the last member of their band. Xerpen touched him on the arm. “Play your bow, Gwidan, and I’ll sing.”

Gwidan nodded. He added strings to his bow so he could pluck them. The beautiful, eerie sound echoed a fall of water over round stones. In his voice as rich and deep and sweet as cream, Xerpen began to sing an old song:

To get over a mountain,
go through it.
To destroy your fear,
go to it.
To escape your worst enemy--
keep him near.
You can only find peace
at the point of a spear.
What was lost will be found
in what remains.
What is unwoven shall
be regained.
To receive the greatest gift,
become the giver.
To swim, keep your eye on the land
beyond this river.

Kia sat by herself with her back to one of the big rocks, almost out of sight of the others. She didn’t acknowledge Vessia’s approach until Vessia touched her shoulder.

“I hate you,” said Kia.

“Still having trouble?”

“You can turn into anything you want,” said Kia. “A bird, a butterfly, a wolf, a cat. Why can’t I become anything? What’s wrong with me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you, Kia.”

Kia kicked a bare foot at the wet leaf carpet. “It’s not just shapeshifting. What kind of Aelfae has no wings?” She lowered her voice to a whisper hoarse with pain. “I know what the others call me behind my back. ‘Kia the Human.’”

Vessia had heard the cruel nickname. She squeezed Kia’s shoulder. “Nobody thinks you’re a human.”

“Have you ever thought…what if I am?” Kia clutched Vessia’s hand as a drowning woman would grab a rope. “What if I were switched at birth or something? It happens.”

“Kia, you’re being ridiculous. Lothlo is your father and Yastara is your mother. I was there on the day of your birth, and even now, I see the light of your parents’ auras flowing in you.”

“I can’t see those threads.”

“I do.”

“I don’t even have six Chromas. All Aelfae have six Chromas. Only humans have less. Except me. The freak.”

“You’re not a freak.”

“The footprints all lead that direction.”

“And I’ve told you before, you do have six Chromas. Some of your colors are just…weak. It happens, even to Aelfae.”

“Never to you. You’re the perfect Aelfae. Did I mention I hate you?”

Vessia kissed her forehead. “Keep trying. Don’t force it.”

“You do realize those two bits of advice are mutually incompatible, right?”

Vessia laughed and would have retorted, but she saw a shadowy figure move among the rocks on the opposite side of the circle. Swiftly, bone blade already in her hand, she moved to intercept the silhouette.

It was only Mrigana. A complex asymmetrical braid, sleek and black, cascaded down her right shoulder, decorated with purple Nightshade blossoms. Like Gwidan, she wore a bow across her back.

“A word?” Mrigana asked. She glanced back over her shoulder at the others gathered around the fire. 

Vessia moved closer and kept her voice low, as Mrigana had. “Share your worry, we’ll eat it together.”

“This is not the first time the humans have found us.”

Vessia had hunted down the same fear. Three times in as many decades, the humans had sent warriors to scour the Aelfae from their supposedly secret settlements.

“Their hunters are good,” said Vessia.

“Against our magic? Not that good,” said Mrigana. “And they showed no hesitation, no scouts, no testing party. They simply threw their whole army at us, all at once. As if they were sure we were here. They even knew the dance to part the rocks across the pass.”

“You think there is a traitor.”

Sep 18, 2012

How To Raise The Stakes In Your Novel

In an earlier post, I mentioned that to improve a scene or entire novel, one question to ask is, Can I raise the stakes?

Maybe the answer is Yes.

Great! How?

The principle is simple--any activity that differentiates a living being from a rock raises the stakes.

Yes, yes, rocks don't have midlife crisis about whether their spouse is leaving them or whether their Art is Truly Great, but that's not what I'm talking about. High stakes have to touch a basic need of living things.

Put yourself in the shoes of your main character and imagine one of these needs is at risk:

1. Your life.

The most obvious thing to put at risk is the character's life. Escape a predator, a hired killer, a band of orcs. Don't crash the plane, survive on the island, be the winner in the televised fight to the death against other human contestants.

2. The life of someone you love.

Humans are social so there may be goals even more important than our own lives. The lives of our loved ones obviously top that list.

3. The life of an innocent.

It's sad but we don't react to saving strangers with the same urgency as saving our own kin and comrades. Doctors and firefighters and police and soldiers fight to save strangers all the time--but in stories, the person they are trying to save is usually closer. Hence the cliche, "This time it's personal."

However, the battle to save a stranger can be just as poignant if the stranger is an obvious innocent: a child, an animal, a young person or someone who is a symbol for a larger ideal. A princess or a president or  a pope or ambassador represents not just themselves but a whole nation or group.

4. The life of a threat.

There's an inverse version of the above three motives, and that is the need to kill someone who is an explicit or implicit threat. The tyrant or serial killer or evil alien general or monster has to be stopped or destroyed or assassinated before... the implication must always be before he gets you or someone you love or someone innocent first. 

5. Your love.
The other single most important thing every living thing must do besides survive is reproduce. That's why winning the love of someone is so important. If you have story about a really, really dry and esoteric topic, you can always raise the stakes by adding a romance. This is true whether your intended readership is male or female. If you don't want your book to be all about the romance, that's fine, but include winning, losing, proving or keeping a love as a goal to keep the stakes high.

All other goals, such as money, power, prestige, respect, honor, even truth or freedom are valuable because without them, one of the five items above are put at risk. This is not just true in stories. It's true in real life.

I've included the funny poster comparing Twilight and Hunger Games. Of course, even if it were true, finding love is just as high a stake, sometimes higher, as your life, so there's nothing wrong with a story that is "only" a romance.

But notice that in the case of Twilight, the poster is not even correct. Without the love triangle, Twilight is about a woman who must decide whether to be immortal herself or to have a child. That's why the series is a quartet rather than a trilogy. It doesn't end with her marriage, as a pure romance would. It's as much about Risk #1 and Risk #2 as about Risk # 5.

Sep 17, 2012

Is Harper Voyager's Deal Worth Taking?

I think we'll be seeing a lot more of this:
Harper Voyager has launched an international talent search, with aspiring writers invited to submit their un-agented manuscripts directly to the publisher. The HarperCollins sci-fi and fantasy imprint will be opening a two week window in October where writers can submit their novels, with plans to publish selected titles digitally.
Writers are wondering if this is a good deal. Obviously before the digital revolution and the possibility of cutting out an extra layer of middlemen, this would have been a great opportunity. But is it now?
I have a couple of thoughts:

1. The only possible reason to go with a traditional publisher at this point would be to get your books into a bookstore, hopefully in hardcover. So why on earth would you sell ebook rights only?

2. There's no such thing as "free" editing, cover, proofreading and promotion. You are paying for these services by forking over a huge percentage of your royalties for the rest of the life of the book. This is not a good deal.

If an author wants professional editing, hire a professional. Pretty simple. Keep your rights, and keep a decent percent of the royalties. Do not let yourself be exploited by "traditional" publishers who are behaving no better than vanity presses of yore.

3. The digital revolution is only going in one direction. More people tomorrow are going to have ereaders. Now, eventually, big companies may make it impossible for indies to operate profitably. That tends to happen. But that moment isn't here yet--so why sell your soul to the megacorps before you have to? And furthermore, the big companies of the future are unlikely to be the same ones operating now, so prematurely selling your soul could really go sour for you.

Ask yourself why publishers are becoming more and more desperate to lure in authors. These are the same publishers who are used to beating writers back with umbrellas. What has changed?

Obviously, what has changed is that authors don't need them.

It is now up to publishers to prove that they can add value to what the writer and distributer already bring to the table.

In other words, in my opinion...This is a superbly bad deal for authors.

Sep 16, 2012

Seven Questions To Ask To Improve a Scene (or an Entire Novel)

Or you could just add Taylor Kinney.

There are seven questions you can ask your about your book before you begin to write it, which will make it a stronger book. Those questions work best if you ask them before you actually sit down to write.

Now, if you're like me, and sitting in front of a computer with a finished or progressing manuscript, these questions might frustrate you--it's a little too late to change the stakes of your entire novel.

It's not too late to help strengthen the novel scene by scene, however. As you know, I'm a strong proponent of the idea that strong scenes make a stronger book. I've blogged on this before. (I label each draft of my novel with a letter of the alphabet, and I usually get to those squiggly ones near the end. This is undoubtedly excessive. But as you can see, I obsess over making my scenes awesome.) So look at each scene individually and ask yourself these seven questions:

1. How can I raise the stakes?

There are basically two kinds of scenes: critical scenes, which Holly Lisle calls "candybar" scenes, and I call "juicy" scenes, which both the author and the readers (hopefully) love, love, love. These are the scenes which would be shown in the teaser clips for next week's episode if your book were a tv show. When the heroine tells a lie to the hero and the villain, or when the lie is revealed. When a confrontation, a revelation or a declaration of love occurs. These the linchpins of the novel.
The other kind of scene are the ligaments of the novel. In epic fantasy, these are often the "traveling scenes." Between the time the heroine lies to the villain and the time she is caught, maybe they travel together. (Um, in fact, this is EXACTLY what happens in Wing.) This scene needs to be there. And it needs to be a scene, not a one-liner about "three weeks of hard travel." You need some on-stage story space between the action and the consequence, or the story arc won't flow right. So this is not a scene you can just skip... but you don't want it to be boring, dragging down the rest of the book with its oozing Blah.
The solution is to raise the stakes. Not TOO high--you don't want to overshadow the later show-down when the villain finds out the lie--but something more exciting than plodding alone. The stakes could be physical, emotional, moral or what have you. But make the outcome matter.

2. How can I deepen the emotion?

In a way, this point and ever other on the list follow from the first, Raise the Stakes. Deepening the emotion in the scene also raises the stakes.
Look at the characters in your scene, especially the two main characters as ask what is each one feeling? What is the main feeling--and what is the undercurrent? Two characters who are antagonists, each trying to achieve a mutually exclusive objective, might be hostile to one another at one level, yet admiring on another level.
And, of course, never underestimate the possibilities for romantic tension.
Emotion becomes deeper in the scene if you keep in mind that the characters are feeling something, feeling more than one contradictory emotion, may be lying to themselves or the other characters about what it is, and is probably misunderstood by the other character.

3. How can I force a choice?

Gandalf and the hobbits are trudging along--pretty dull, right?
No, because there's a snow storm which could kill them all. (Raise the Stakes) And that means that they now have to make a choice.
And Gandalf is going to make Frodo do it. He's the Ringbearer after all. No pressure, Frodo. It's not like this moment, when you decided to take the path that would GET GANDALF KILLED is going to haunt you for the rest of your life or anything.
See how that works? Force your character to make a choice. Just remember, the choice has to have real consequences latter on in the novel.

4. How can a character pass a test, fail a test, or prove a point?

Often one of the reasons that you can't just skip from one candybar scene to the next is that your hero has some growing and changing to do first. Neo has to learn Kung Fu. Even though he just downloads it, we still get to see that happen and drool jealously. And think, never mind kung fu, that tech would have saved my butt during high school geometry. "I know proofs!"
Ahem. Moving on.
Double up your scenes so that your hero is impressing some people--maybe winning over the heroine who was contemptuous of him at first--but antagonizing others, like the heroine's present boyfriend. Or the opposite happens -- he cheats on a test to pass, and can advance to the next level of the competition, but he knows that he's not ready. He's actually more of a fake than ever.
As always, this has to fit the novel's overall story arc. Don't insert random episodes to make it exciting if they are irrelevant. Just look for the natural tests, choices and proving grounds your hero would logically pass through on the way to the final climax of the story.

5. How can I delay gratification?

You may think that simply sprinkling in more sex and violence will add excitement to any story. It won't. But adding the anticipation of sex and violence will. (And here you thought I was going to be above gratuitous sex and violence? Nah!) Anticipation is more addictive than consummation. You can get to the smooching and punching and monster attacks in due time, but don't skip the foreplay! So wherever possible:
Replace or precede consummation with seduction.
Replace or precede wrongdoing with temptation.
Replace or precede horror with suspense.
Replace or precede shock with mystery.

6. How can I draw out a theme?

I discussed this quite a bit in my last post. Quiet scenes are often good places to toss in a symbol or sentence that will reinforce your theme. One of the most important scenes in Never Let Me go is a simple scene where the character is hugging a pillow. The author connects that one scene, that one action, to the romance, to the mystery of the children, and ultimately, to the deepest theme of the book itself

These don't have to be quiet scenes either
In Book 6 of The Unfinished Song, my character, a hunter named Finnadro, asks himself the same question over and over: what makes a man a monster? In several successive scenes, as he uncovers new evidence and also grows more desperate, he keeps reaching different conclusions--but the real question is if he will find out what he really needs to know before the deadline.

7. How can I replace a cliché with a twist? Or deepen a cliché with an archetype?

Eliminate cliches. There are two easy ways and one hard way. The hard way is to be utterly and brilliantly original. Good luck with that. If you pull it off, I'll hate and admire you (see Point 2).
The two easy ways are to set up a cliche and then twist it in an unexpected way. You're playing off the reader's expectations things will end one way, but they don't.
The second way is to deepen the cliche into an archetype. And the way to do this, ironically, is to add more individuating and unique details to your version of this trope or character. So you want the wise old teacher who teaches the hero. Make him a small, green thief with a silly laugh who steals your lunch. (I bet you forgot that when Yoda was first introduced, he was the very last person Luke expected to be a Jedi Master.)
With either of these, be careful. Now we all take Yoda for granted, and he no longer surprises us. If you're trying to twist a cliche, make sure you haven't just twisted it into a new, even more tiresome cliche. If you are presenting an archetypal character, really make it your own and make sure it fits deeply into the worldbuilding of your story.

Finally, here's one more free tip: 

When in doubt, get one or more character into less clothes. It makes scarier scenes scarier, and sexy scenes sexier and it increases the chances your book will be optioned by Hollywood.  ;)

(And here you thought I was kidding about Taylor Kinney!)

Sep 13, 2012

Three Tips On How To Show Theme in Your Novel

I discuss my series The Unfinished Song, though I have tried to avoid details or reveals, I do discuss themes, characters and events in the books which might be spoilers. If you haven't read it yet, you can start the series here for free: The Unfinished Song: Initiate (kindle or kindle app). Or, if you want a different format, email me here:

Every story which is true and beautiful and worthwhile coalesces around a solid core. It's like the compact iron ball at the core of the earth. All the other geological layers of story rest on top of it. Without a solid core, the story is hollow, 2-dimensional, and readers can sense that. The story will be boring and forgettable.

What constitutes that core may be differ from author to author, and story to story. For me, I have found that the best core is theme. I  know the theme of my story before I even begin it. Other writers may have a different style; they let the theme emerge organically from the writing and surprise them after the fact. Probably those writers have more natural talent than I do. I have to sweat for my themes.

In The Unfinished Song, I have nested themes. There is the theme for the overall series, which is about what price we are willing to pay for creativity (in all its forms). Each trilogy has a theme, and then each book has a theme.

I was discussing this with another writer the other day, and she asked, "But you write fantasy, not great fiction, so how could your books have themes?"

Setting aside the unintended dig at an entire genre--as one must if one is a genre writer, since it happens all the time--yes, fantasy books certainly have themes. Lord of the Rings? Could you get more themalicious?

But what is a theme? Too often, it's something vague, like "Love conquers all" or "War is hell." Trying to stick flavorless mumble-mumble like that in the center of your story, and it slips away, like a goldfish flopping out of your palm.

So I have some tricks.


I like to hook my theme on a metaphor. It might be a private metaphor that I use to guide my writing without putting it (directly) in the story, or it might be a living metaphor that appears as a character, scene or object in the book. Usually, I do both.

For instance, in the second trilogy of The Unfinished Song (Root, Wing and Blood), I have a character called Mayara. She is an Aelfae whose family, whose entire clan, was slaughtered by humans. Her own mother tore off her wings and buried them to disguise her as a human. The trick works; a human family finds her and, mistaking her for a human child, takes her in. Mayara is safe for the moment, but her goal is to dig up her wings and fly away as soon as she can.

On one level, Mayara's story is of safety (roots) vying with freedom (wings), the importance of being true to yourself vs. the living by the rules of others. (Her adopted mother constantly tells her, "Don't, don't, don't," and this, too, contrasts with the freedom she longs for.) The situation is complicated when a human man falls in love with Mayara. He tells her that his love is like a tree, with deep roots. And her own past is buried, her wings are subterranean, as roots of a tree are, so in flying away is she trying to be free of her past or to connect with her lost kin?

When I was a child, we used to sing a song in my fellowship, which inspired the images I chose for this part of the story:

Spirit of Life,
Come unto me,
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion,
Roots hold me close,
Wings set me free,
Spirit of Life,
Come to me, come to me.

This is the delightful thing of grounding themes in some gritty metaphor, a simple but strong image like buried wings. The mind loves these semi-conscious metaphors and wrestles with them, under the surface of the story. I have numerous characters, and they each have their subplots, but underlying metaphors link them together, sometimes in ways that are obvious and sometimes in ways that are meant to be ironic. For instance, although the image of flight is associated with freedom and independence in Mayara's story, in the main storyline, the enemy are Raptor Riders who ride enslaved avian shapeshifters. The link between freedom and flight is reversed. It is the great circle of living trees who protect the freedom of the Green Woods tribesfolk against their avian enemies, and when the trees are uprooted, it is a terrible loss.


One time is an incident. Twice is an accident. Three times is a pattern.

Your book will have many descriptions, physical objects, song lyrics, colors, tastes and scenes. The reader won't necessarily assume any of these have special importance unless you repeat an image in a new context.

The Hunger Games Trilogy makes use of several recurring images. One is the image of Katniss as the Girl On Fire. The other is the Mockingjay. She doesn't bury these symbols or try to hide them. The characters themselves are well aware of the symbols. Each of the characters consciously tries to manipulate the symbols for their own purposes.

For instance, Katniss' designers choose to dress her as the Girl On Fire to re-enforce one of the traditions of the Games, which is to show the contestants from District 12 as having something to do with coal. There's nothing subversive in this--at first. Just an innocent attempt to be showy, which is in keeping with the exploitive and sensationalized nature of the Games.

However, with ever repetition of the Girl On Fire symbol, the interpretation of it changes.The tyrannical President Snow fears the symbols will rouse the people to rebellion. The rebels are counting on it.

The Mockingjay symbol evolves throughout the trilogy in the same way.


Have you ever read one of those Astrology Birthsigns descriptions of yourself that tell you, "You enjoy a good time with your friends, but sometimes you just like to be on your own." And you think: "Wow, it's like the astrologer knows me!" Of course, all that's happened is that the description has stated two opposite possibilities--and it usually fits, because most of us are not always one way or another.

Now, you don't want your novel to be as bland as a three line Daily Astrology reading for Gemini, but you can learn something important from this technique. Every yin has a little yang. Your theme will come across as deeper, more realistic and less preachy if you also consider the opposite.

Ask yourself, first of all what would constitute the opposite of your theme? If your theme is "loyalty to your friends is important" you might think that "betrayal is the way to get ahead" is the opposite. You might have a villain who believes in backstabbing his way to the top and a hero who is loyal to his friends.

But that's a bit shallow. It's more interesting to pit one great theme against another: "Loyalty to your friends is important" against, "sometimes you have to think for yourself." How do you balance those?

I'm entering the "middle muddle" of my twelve book series. This is a dangerous point for a long story-arc. It would be easy to "lose the plot." When I do find myself floundering, I return to the core: What are the important questions I want this story to ask? Not answer, so much; I don't know the answers. But ask. Every scene in the book, every one, relates to the overarching theme for the series, which is how can we live a creative life that is also a responsible life? How can we sacrifice ourselves for others yet be true to ourselves? This is the problem that Dindi faces, and it is also, in different way, the problem that Kavio faces, and the tragedy is that they have found different answers to a question to which there is no one right answer.

Sep 11, 2012

9-11 Will Be Forgotten

It will be forgotten. One day. We all will be, as the universe grinds on to its slow heat death over trillions and trillions of unimaginable years.

It will be forgotten, as other human tragedies have been forgotten. And denied. And belittled. And shrugged away. Because we are human. Because we have to go on living. Because new generations are born who weren't there and don't know or don't care; or can bring themselves to care only if they stretch their empathy and their imagination and compassion--as we must stretch ourselves to remember and learn from and feel for the tragedies of the generations before us.

It will be forgotten.

But not by me.

* * *

You can see photos of the day here.

You can also read my 9-11 ruminations from a previous year.

Sep 10, 2012

What Are The Genres In Children's Literature? - Kid's Corner


Once a week, I'm going to do a Kid's Corner post, devoted to children's literature. Today's question is about how to define genre in Children's Literature. Some people would place Young Adult lit here too, but I think it makes more sense to discuss that with adult fiction, since the crossover in readership and material is profound. When I discuss Children's Lit, I'm talking about books for young children up to Middle Grade. 

Children's Lit encompasses the full range of genres that you find in Young Adult and Adult fiction. But the books are shelved by age, not the type of story. That makes sense. These are books for kids at widely divergent stages of reading ability, and catering to the vocabulary and sophistication of the reader is far more important than narrowing selection by interest. Kids are also more open to different genres than older readers. They aren't as quickly bored as teens and aren't as hardened in their tastes as adults. 

Unsurprisingly, the division in Children's Literature follows the academic divisions of children's education: Preschool, Elementary and Middle Grade. 

Within each of these categories are sub-categories, of course. 

Preschool books are usually called Picture Books. They include Baby Board books fashioned from hard cardboard or cloth, so babies can gnaw on them, as well as gorgeously illustrated stories, which might be quite long, with complex vocabulary, that are meant for parents or teachers to read to children. There are also Early Readers, like the Bob Books, First Little Readers or Starfall books, which teach phonics and site words to preschool, kindergarden and first grade children learning to read for themselves. 

I'll be rolling out some picture books in this category, the Nearly Naughty Early Readers. They are for kids reading on their own, or parents who want to read to toddlers. In fact, a few are already available, for just $.99 in ebook form and $9.99 in print. Here's one that expands the story behind a favorite swimming lesson song, I Had A Little Turtle, I Named Him Tiny Tim. My six year old is proud he can read this himself, and my two year old loves it because "tiny"Tim keeps getting bigger and bigger... He holds his fingers together, in the "tiny" motion and says, "Tiny!" on the first page. Then, when the turtle is so big the boy is standing on his back, my toddler laughs and says, "Not tiny! Big!" and spreads his hands wide.

Elementary books are also called Chapter Books. My kids favorite series is the Magic Treehouse. I have a series planned for this age range too, because this is the level my oldest son is moving into. The first book is already done and with the illustrator. I'll talk about those more when they are closer to publication. 

Finally, we come to the Middle Grade books. These are short novels. If they were adult books, we'd call them novellas, and like novellas, they usually have simpler plots than adult books. But not always. Technically, the Harry Potter series is Middle Grade. I think it's more fair to say that it began Middle Grade and ended as Young Adult. Just compare the complexity, characterization, themes and length of the first book with the seventh. Most authors could not pull that off! Part of J.K. Rowling's magic is that she could.

Kristin Nelson has a great vlog post about the three levels of Middle Grade Literature. You'll notice that she lists the Magic Treehouse books, and Beginning Reader Chapter Books, as the first level of Middle Grade, while I would generally consider those separate. However, it goes to show the crossover between these categories. So much depends on the book...and on the reader.

To recap, she divides Middle Grade into three levels. She's vague about the word counts, but I've added approximations to my summary:

1. Level One: Chapter Books

- These books are for kids just learning to read
- Get kids excited about reading
- Teach "fundamentals"
- Grades K-2
- Word Count, 4,000-10,000

2. Level Two: Mid-Level Chapter Books

- Novella length and complexity
- More rounded characters, less obvious "lessons"
- Grades 3-6
- Word Count 10,000-40,000

3. Level 3: Upper Level Middle Grade

- Developed characters
- More sophisticated plots and sub-plots
- Well developed characters, and a larger cast
- Grades 6-8
- Word Count 40,000-70,000