Author Gail Z Martin joins SciFiChick.com today along her Days of the Dead Blog Tour!
Raising the Stakes By Gail Z. Martin
One of the things I love about writing series is the space for characters to grow and for the challenges they face to also become more difficult. This is true whether the story is structured to be consecutive novels that tie up a story line in each book (but also build on each other), or are the more traditional multi-part story spread across several volumes.
I tend toward having each book in a series address a particular threat/villain while other threads continue from book to book. So in my Assassins of Landria series, the continued existence of the Witch Lord poses an ongoing threat, while each individual book deals with a specific plot/conspiracy to be dealt with.
Part of showing that growth in the characters lies in facing more formidable dangers so that the characters are required to utilize the skills and knowledge that they have acquired over the course of the story. They should be able to do things several books into the series that they couldn’t have done at the beginning, and should have a better understanding both of their opponent and of themselves.
As an author that means looking for ways to raise the stakes. Maybe the threat at first is more limited in scope or power, but as the books progress, the bad guy reveals new abilities or the plots grow bolder in the damage they could cause. The hero has to ‘level up’ and acquire new allies, gain new skills, and take a broader view of the problem, growing more strategic and less reactive. Along the way, we want the characters to begin to understand themselves in a new way, gaining wisdom and perception as well as the street smarts necessary to survive.
That story progression is one of my favorite things about writing (and reading) a series, and why I usually feel unsatisfied with stand-alone books. If I fall in love with the world and the characters, I want more than just one taste. I want to follow them and watch them grow and change, see them fail and redeem themselves. And likewise, if I read a series where the characters never grow and remain unchanged from book to book, I get impatient, because even if the stories are set in a fairly short span of time, what’s happened should change the characters in some kind of meaningful way. I want them to be as real to me as possible!
Author J.T. Nicholas joins SciFiChick.com today as part of his blog tour to promote his latest release – Re-Coil!
Writing any book is a long, arduous, difficult process. To paraphrase Wesley from The Princess Bride, “Writing is pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” Okay… that may be a bit too drastic… after all, most of us would write whether or not we were getting paid for it. Hell, most of us do write without ever getting paid for it. So, it can’t be all that bad. But there is a special kind of pain associated with science fiction (or speculative fiction if you prefer) that I thought I’d ramble on a bit about here.
In short, it’s bloody hard to keep up with the actual “science” when it comes to writing science fiction.
One of the “big ideas” in Re-Coil is asking the question of what it would mean to society if we were immortal. Seems far-fetched and totally science-fiction-y, right? As the one writing it, you have to come up with your reason why, the “science” behind how immortality works in your particular world. That sort of thing is important for internal consistency in the manuscript, helping with the reader’s suspension of disbelief and all that technical jazz. Of course, back in 2018 (like 2 years ago!) scientists in Germany discovered a particular protein chain that (to really simplify for brevity) controls aging. We can’t really do anything about it yet, but with that one discovery, one aspect of science fiction starts to lose the “fiction” part pretty darn quick. And once something like that makes it into the public consciousness, some of the ideas around how immortality might become reality (the flavor of your fictional world) seem much more far-fetched.
Another example. A common trope in cyberpunk is the idea of remotely controlling drones (or even people) from thousands of miles away. We’ve all heard about drone strikes ad nauseum, but that’s a brute force approach to the concept. But just last year, Chinese scientists performed literal brain surgery on a patient 2,000 miles / 3200 kilometers away using 5G wireless technology and robots. I’m not sure I could have imagined a world where a surgeon can cut open your brain from several countries away using the same tech that’s powering your cell phone, but here we are.
So, what’s a burgeoning writer of all things science fiction to do when the world of science outpaces the world of fiction?
Fortunately, there are a few things to keep in mind. It’s always a good idea to do a little research on the key scientific bits in your sci-fi. You don’t have to be an expert but finding out what’s out there already can inform your story and even provide you with inspiration. Also, remember that the cutting edge of scientific thought takes a long, long time to become common knowledge in the public mind. So long as you’re not directly contradicting it, the easiest path is to just not worry too much about it. Some readers may roll their eyes at the “unrealistic” nature of your world, but hey, there’s also that whole “fiction” part of science fiction. Not everything hast to be totally realistic, and that’s a good thing. And finally, as with all good writing, the focus should be on the characters. All the sci-fi elements exist as a framework for the characters to begin with, and with a few very specific exceptions, the focus should always be on the characters themselves. Well-written, three dimensional characters will stand out and any mistakes you make on the science front will fade into the background.
If you want to see how well (or poorly) I lived up to my own advice, be sure to check out Re-Coil (releases March 3rd).
Epic Vs. Urban—Writing Both Sides of Fantasy By Gail Z. Martin
Swords or shotguns? Grenade launchers or catapults?
How about both? (Though not, usually, in the same story.)
I write epic fantasy and urban fantasy—along with alternate history and comedic horror—in time periods ranging from medieval to Victorian to modern. Sometimes people ask if it’s difficult, jumping around time. For me, it’s all part of the fun.
This year, we had a bumper crop of books coming out on both sides of the genre. Vengeance is the second book in my Darkhurst series about three undertaker brothers who become outlaw monster hunters and discover there is a much bigger conspiracy than they ever expected. The Dark Road is the second in the Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, tracing the story of the brigand lord through his time as a mercenary, fight slave and smuggler. Assassin’s Honor is the first in the new Assassins of Landria series, as King’s Shadows Joel Breckenridge and Garrett Kennard go rogue to save the kingdom from a shadowy itinerant holy man who has ensnared the aristocracy with treasonous whispers.
Plot and characters aside, the books are all very different. Vengeance is ‘big fat fantasy’, with multiple point of view characters, several braided story arcs, a big cast of characters, and a truly epic scale. The Dark Road is a serialized novel from Jonmarc’s point of view, told in an interconnected collection of short stories and novellas. Assassin’s Honor is buddy flick epic fantasy, under 300 pages, and rocks the ‘Butch and Sundance as medieval assassins’ vibe with humor, action and intrigue. I really like switching up how the story is put together, even though all three are technically epic fantasy due to their scope and the medieval setting.
The same is true for the urban fantasy side of the writing. Tangled Web is the third novel in the Deadly Curiosities series, set in Charleston, SC. When a malicious weaver-witch awakens the spirit of an ancient Norse warlock and calls to the Wild Hunt, Cassidy, Teag, and Sorren—and all their supernatural allies—will need magic, cunning, and the help of a Viking demi-goddess to survive the battle and keep Charleston—and the whole East Coast—from becoming the prey of the Master of the Hunt. Close Encounters, the fourth novella in the Spells, Salt and Steel series (co-written with Larry N. Martin), takes a snarky-scary approach to monster hunting in the wilds of Northwestern Pennsylvania with mechanic Mark Wojcik. And the upcoming Sons of Darkness (launching in November) has ex-priest Travis Dominick teaming up with former FBI-agent Brent Lawson to tackle demonic threats in and around Pittsburgh.
Once again, the series are all different not just in their locations, but in the novels’ structure. Tangled Web is told from Cassidy’s first person point of view and often straddles the line between urban fantasy and horror. Close Encounters is also first person, and decidedly snark-filled, in between supernatural chills. Sons of Darkness is told from both Travis’s and Brent’s viewpoints, and also blurs the line between horror and urban fantasy. The tone of the writing and the character voices, as well as the setting, distinguish the series from one another.
M.C. Planck joins SciFiChick.com today in honor of his latest release, Black Harvest (out tomorrow), and to offer a tribute to author Dave Duncan.
AN UNDER-APPRECIATED AUTHOR
Dave Duncan recently passed away, at the ripe old age of 85 and just days after he’d finished his last manuscript. This was a loss to the SF&F literary world, and also to me personally. Dave gave me a very nice quote for my first novel, The Kassa Gambit, after having declined to give me a quote on an early version of my fantasy epic Sword of the Bright Lady. He had complained that Sword of the Bright Lady was much too slow, and of course, as a veteran and talented author, he was completely correct. I cut out a third of the novel and promptly sold the series to Pyr. His one sentence of advice was worth more than gold to an unknown and beginning writer who had emailed him out of the blue, and yet still less cherished than his praise.
So I’d like to spend this space talking about my favourite books of his and why you should read them even though you’ve probably never heard of them. I think they deserve a lot more exposure than they’ve received, and I think you’ll like them if you give them a try.
This SF novel exhibits Duncan’s fantastic talent for convention-wrecking at its best. He takes every standard trope of “young hero saves the world from space invaders” stories and flips them so hard they shatter. I can’t even describe the plot without spoiling it a dozen times (except to say I borrowed a few parts for The Kassa Gambit – it’s okay, Dave had so much going on in this book no one will even notice). Along the way he creates a completely believable futuristic society, hard-science beam weapons, intensely sympathetic characters, and powerful moral dilemmas.
Reaver Road & The Hunter’s Haunt
These two short fantasy novels are framed by Omar, trader of tales, perhaps a god or perhaps just a wandering orator, sticking his nose into terribly interesting situations. They also almost made me give up writing, as Dave’s command of voice is so accomplished that I worried I could never reach such a bar. The Hunter’s Haunt alternates chapters as stories told by different characters, and each one is distinct and compelling. It’s one thing to get a line of dialogue right and sell a scene; Dave does it for whole chapters at a time, for half a dozen different voices, while carrying off a plot so tight it’s water-proof.
The Seventh Sword
A story about a modern engineer who goes to a fantasy world at the behest of a god and winds up changing the world at sword-point. This is literally the plot of Sword of the Bright Lady, and yet Dave’s book couldn’t be more different than mine (and everyone else who has written this genre). For one thing, he put his engineer on the other side – against the guys making gunpowder. It is also a world with distinct ranks – a common feature of fantasy games though very rare in fantasy novels – and yet again completely different than how I handled it. I will always be amazed that we could both write a fantasy series whose plot and most unique feature could be described in exactly the same words and yet create such totally different stories. But I suspect a lot of authors feel the same way, especially after reading Hero!
A Man of his Word & A Handful of Men
Stable-boy falls in love with princess. A story we’ve all heard before, but again Dave sets it in a world that looks like a fantasy game but feels like a real place, with characters that are living people instead of archetypes. The best thing about this series is there are eight thick book’s worth, so you don’t have to come up for air for a good long time. The magic system is also unique, fascinating, and deeper than expected.
The King’s Blades & The King’s Daggers
These are a series of short fantasy novels set in the same world. Again Dave has taken a classic trope – knights sworn to serve their king – and turned it over to discover the often horrifying moving parts underneath, like flipping a shiny beetle on its back only to be faced with a multitude of hairy clawed legs. I think The King’s Daggers stories are supposed to be YA, but Dave was simply incapable of writing without addressing adult responsibilities and concerns. My nephews loved them anyway.
Dave wrote sixty novels before the end (doubly impressive considering he only started when he was 50). These are my favourites; I hope you find some of your own. __________________________________________________________
About the Author: M.C. Planck is the author of the science fiction novel The Kassa Gambit, and the World of Prime fantasy series of novels.
After a nearly-transient childhood, Mike hitchhiked across the country and ran out of money in Arizona. So he stayed there for thirty years, raising dogs, getting a degree in philosophy, and founding a scientific instrument company. Having read virtually everything by the old masters of SF&F, he decided he was ready to write. A decade later, he was actually ready and relieved to find that writing novels is easier than writing software, as a single punctuation error won’t cause your audience to explode and die. When he ran out of dogs, he moved to Australia to raise his daughter with kangaroos.
Author Amber Royer joins SciFiChick.com today to talk about researching for her Chocoverse books. Her latest novel, Pure Chocolate, book 2 in The Chocoverse series, is available now!
“Research and Empathy”
At a recent science fiction convention, someone asked me what was the craziest thing I’d done in the name of research for my Chocoverse books.
A few images popped into my head.
One was me with a hairdryer and an extension cord attempting to winnow cacao beans on my apartment patio. (Cacao has a papery hull that must be removed if you want to achieve a smooth texture when you process it into chocolate.). But many a would-be craft chocolate maker has done the same thing. Because commercially-purchased chocolate processing equipment is expensive.
The second was me in the passenger seat of a jeep, trying to take pictures of the many cows tethered along the side of a road. While we were moving at speed. I wound up with a ton of pictures of blurry foliage — and of cow butts. We had visited Samana, Dominican Republic, to take a tour of a cacao plantation, and someone gave us a whole pod, directly off a tree. Everyone we were traveling with seemed to think we were crazy for eating raw fruit in a foreign country. But we didn’t care as we were sucking tart-pineapple flavored pulp off the cacao beans. And we suffered no ill effects, so that wasn’t really crazy either.
Third, there was me watching the World Cup, trying to get into it the way a true fan would. Which probably doesn’t sound crazy at all, until you realize that prior to designing Brill (my story’s male lead) and Bo’s brother Mario (who is a HUGE soccer fan) I’d never really watched sports. What IS crazy is that I lied about this fact back when I was in high school to get a job as a sports intern for the local paper.
I learned fast and hard that you can’t fake fandom, of any sort. The first time you go looking for Arnold Palmer in the football photos file, everyone is going to know you have no idea what you’re doing.
There are a ton of geek references in the Chocoverse books, and I come by them honestly, from a lifetime of consuming science fiction films and books, starting with The Flight of the Navigator and Space Camp when I was a kid. So I didn’t have to actively research that at all.
The soccer thing isn’t huge to the plot, and I still couldn’t tell you the names of all the real-world players, but I learned enough to understand the rules of the game and WHY my characters enjoy watching it. I understand them better now. (And I enjoy watching soccer sometimes now too.)
Different aspects of a book are going to require different levels of research, depending on how much of the plot centers around them, and how detailed you will need to be in your explanations, and how much you already know. (Even if you think you know facts, though, you should probably still look them up to verify you remember things correctly.
There’s a lot more detail in the series about chocolate production and botany, so I needed to do more hands-on work to get it right, so that the reader would feel like they’d actually traveled with Bo inside that rainforest to obtain a forbidden cacao pod. This book also involved a lot of YouTube time, from trying to get a feel of what an arial approach to Rio would look like from inside a helicopter to seeing how it really looks when a corgi tries to sit with those impossibly short legs. (The answer is they don’t— they just sort of sploot backwards from standing to lying down in one motion — and sploot is an actual term corgi lovers use, so better get it right. And yes, now I want a corgi, but no, I haven’t gotten one. Yet.)
I once heard writing described as a sustained act of empathy, and several people have permitted the advice to write what you know to instead writings what you would like to know. Put those two ideas together and you can begin to understand how much each project changes a writer, if you let yourself be true to the details.
Author Brian D Anderson joins SciFiChick.com today to talk about his transition from Independent to Traditional publishing! His novel The Bard’s Blade will be released in January 2020.
Making the Change (An Indie’s Transition into the Traditional World) by Brian D Anderson
So you’ve written a few books, had them edited, paid for a cool cover, learned how to market, and as a result, had a great deal of success selling them online. You’ve even quit your day job. Maybe bought a house or a car…or both. Life’s coming up roses. You’ve achieved something special. Something spectacular. You are a professional novelist! Moreover, you’re an experienced indie, well qualified to pass on your wisdom to the never-ending river of up-and-comers dreaming of emulating your accomplishments.
That’s more or less how I felt a few months ago. For seven years, I have enjoyed a degree of professional success in indie fantasy. Not to say I was at the top of the heap. But I sure wasn’t at the bottom. I had an agent, had made a few significant audiobook deals, and been nominated for an award or two. But that’s where it stopped. I’d reached the limit of where I could go on my own. If I wanted to continue up the ladder, I had to find a way to break into traditional publishing My agent had submitted several times to the Big Five, without success. I was perfectly satisfied with my achievements as an indie, but the game was changing, and I was rapidly facing the possibility of fading away into obscurity. New indie talent was emerging, and they were hungry, energetic, and motivated. I’d been working at a feverish pace for seven years, and I’m not ashamed to say I was running low on steam. This new class of indies half my age could produce at a rate I simply could not keep up with. And their facility with social networking made me a horse and carriage to their self-driven car.
I decided that perhaps it was time to try something new with my stories, so I wrote The Vale, which is based on the tropes, plotting, and pace of RPG’s like Final Fantasy and Tales Of. I was aware of GameLit and LitRPG, but this was different in the sense that it read like a novelization of a game – no stats, no being sucked into the game world, no other criteria placed on the genre by its fans. I landed a substantial audio deal for the series, which basically crushed my chances to sell it to the Big Five. Still, my agent thought it was worth a shot.
As expected, they weren’t interested. However, an editor over at Tor (Macmillan) read it and liked it very much. And while unable to make an offer, asked that they be given first look at my next project. That alone sent me over the moon. By the way, I saw the lunar lander while I was up there. Take that, conspiracy theorists! I had a mountain of work to do, but I didn’t want to waste the opportunity. I had a new series in the beginning stages saved in a file, so I banged out the first few chapters along with a synopsis. Tor took a quick look and replied by saying that the complexity of the world was too much to make a decision without a complete manuscript.
So, defeated, I went back to my indie work and plodded on, forgetting all about Tor, the book, and transitioning to traditional publishing. Yeah, right! This is Tor we’re talking about. As a kid, most of the books I read came from Ballentine, Del Rey, or Tor. Becoming a Tor author would be the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy. So I shoved everything else aside and worked like my life depended on it.
After about eight weeks, The Bard’s Blade was finished. BEA (BookExpo America) was about a month away, and my agent contacted Tor, offering an exclusive look before shopping it to other publishers while she was in New York. Now, here’s where it gets weird…in a good way.
For anyone who has been through the submission process, you know how mind-numbingly, soul-suckingly, nail-bitingly long an ordeal it is. Aspiring writers can spend years finding an agent just to spend years more submitting to publishers. Tor seemed excited to read it and told us that they would have an answer ahead of the convention. While I wanted to believe this, I fully expected to hear back from them saying they couldn’t make a decision within the allotted time frame. I had mentally prepared for this likelihood so as not to drive myself nuts checking my inbox every five minutes. Not only to my disbelief but to that of every traditionally published writer I know, this isn’t what happened. Tor received the manuscript on a Friday; on Monday they emailed my agent, stating they were interested and intended to make an offer. That alone had me grinning from ear to ear. I had three numbers in mind. What I would take; what I wanted; and the imaginary number that would not happen. There was, of course, the chance they would come back with a lowball figure that I would be forced to reject. That was the nightmare scenario. To turn down an offer from Tor would haunt me for the rest of my life.
But my astonishment increased when Wednesday arrived and my agent received a deal memo. It was to the dollar what I wanted. Sure, there was some tweaking pertaining to rights, but overall, I could not have expected better. It took a full day for me to absorb what had happened.
Once the contracts were signed, it was time for me to come to the realization that experienced as I was in the indie world, I had a lot to learn about working on a Big Five publication. To her credit as both a person and a professional, Lindsey Hall, Senior Editor at Tor, was understanding, and she bent over backwards to help me acclimate to new procedures and expectations. She was always available to talk and responded to my questions, no matter how silly.
After seven years of indie work, I’d ironed out a method of production that worked well for me. There is the first draft, of course, where I give little consideration to prose. This is for getting down the plot and fleshing out the characters. The second draft smooths out some of the rough edges. Then, depending on deadline constraints, one of two things happens. One: If pressed for time, the manuscript goes to my editor, with whom I’ve been working for five years. He knows my style intimately and can make additions and adjustment so close to the way I would write I can’t even pick them out. Or two: A third pass where I give it polish and pay close attention to detail. From there, I send it to my first editor.
Once I have it back, I give it a read through, then send it to my copy/line editor and proofreader. She’s fast, and has it back to me in a few days or a week at most. After another final read, I format it and then upload the manuscript to the online platforms.
During this period, I’m working with cover artists and interior designers for the paperback edition. I’m also busy on my social networking sites, getting the word out and prepping fans for the release. The details are many, and would take a book unto itself to explain. But from writing the first page to publication, I can produce a full length 100,000 word novel in roughly 4-5 months.
On the traditional front, though, things move at a different pace. The Bard’s Blade is not slated for release until January 2020. So the first thing I had to learn was patience. An indie making the transition must understand that this is not just a business – it’s a BIG business, with entire departments dedicated to aspects of publishing that an indie manages alone. Where I was the shot caller, now there were committees. Where I could make a choice and then act on it instantly, now even the discussions about making the decisions were scheduled months in advance. But this was not what had me screaming at my computer.
Switching to traditional publishing meant I was giving up the total dominion I’ve enjoyed over the content of my work. I was not the only one invested in the story and concerned about how it would be received by fans. There are good reasons editors pick some books and pass on others. They are there to pick winners. The books with which they are associated are closely watched by their superiors and the industry at large. How long will an editor keep their job after too many flops? In other words, my success is in a real way tied to my editor’s.
Knowing this did not make it any easier when I received the first round of revisions. Holy moly! I sat at my desk in a stupor for…I’m not sure how long. From my perspective, the entire book needed to be rewritten. Whole chapters – gone. New chapters needed. Even my beloved pointy-eared elf-like people were to be eliminated. It…it was…genocide! It was also as close as I came to refusing to go along with it.
But in the end, I set aside my ego and made the changes. And that’s really what it takes. When you make a success out of any endeavor, like I had with indie publishing, you begin to think you possess insights that you do not. You’re surrounded by people looking to you for answers on how they too can sell thousands of books and quit their day job. It makes you feel important; wise. Your association with other authors and the conversations you have can trick you into thinking it’s given you even greater perspective. But until you have experienced the pride-killing blow of being wrong about your own work; yelled at the comment box only to lose the imaginary argument; then looked at the end result of what you did (were forced to do) and grudgingly admitted how much better it turned out, you really can’t know what it’s like.
That’s not to say my skill sets learned as an indie were wasted. I work fast as a necessity. When given a month, I’d only need a few days. When plot issues arose, I was three steps ahead with solutions. And it wasn’t as if Lindsey took over the book and changed what it was about. It felt a bit like that in the beginning, granted, but that was just a visceral reaction, like when an only child has to share a toy for the first time with a new sibling. I was still the one creating the plot points, shaping the characters, building the world. But now I had someone helping me stay on track who could see what I was too close to notice.
I’m still putting out indie books, and will be for some time. Tor, surprisingly, has encouraged this. But I intend to slow my pace considerably. Three novels a year for seven years has taken a toll. Now, thanks to Tor, I’m carrying more tools in the bag, and it’s making it easier for me to move forward. There’s still so much to learn; curtains to be pulled back. And for the first time in a while, I’m eager to find out what’s next.