Monday, March 31, 2014

Narrator vs. Character

By P.J. Regnier

Charles took a careful step toward the old, wooden door in the basement. A door he’d never seen until today. He couldn’t believe that all those years it was hidden behind the antique dresser. He reached for the ornate brass handle. An irrational fear gripped him of what lay beyond and started his hand trembling.

Hm, needs more tension. Maybe I should layer in some back story here. Charles needs motivation for his fear.

“Hello?” Charles looked around the shadowy basement. “Who’s there? And what’s that nonsense about giving me motivation?”

Oh, um, it’s the narrator. Sorry, I didn’t know you could hear me.

“Well, it’s very unnerving whoever you are,” Charles said. “Please go away.”

That’s impossible. You need me to advance your story. I was about to add a creepy little memory at age twelve when you opened an old cellar filled with snakes. Hence, your increased apprehension about opening this mystery door in your basement.

“What? That’s ridiculous. I never…Oh no, I can see it now.” Charles grimaced at the thought. “So many snakes writhing and hissing. That’s awful. Why’d you put that in my head? That’s just mean.”

Quit whining. The scene needed more tension. Do you want people to read about you or not?

“I don’t give a fig.” Charles put his hands on his hips and gave a look of defiance. “Maybe I won’t open that door at all. Maybe I’ll just sell this house and move back to London.”

Oh, that’s another thing, you’re not British anymore.

“That’s preposterous.” Charles stamped his foot. “I grew up in jolly old England.”

Sorry, not buying it. I thought after all those Harry Potter books I’d be able to master the dialogue but it’s just not flowing.


There, you see?  It sounds forced.

“Can I at least keep the accent?” Charles said. “It’s a chick magnet.”

A series of scratches came from behind the wooden door followed by a low moan.

“Whoa.” Charles took a step back. “Did you hear that?”

Of course. I added it to the story. We need to move things along. Increase the tension.

“What’s all this about tension? Like I have to be stressed out all the time or I’m not interesting? Maybe I just want to go upstairs and have some afternoon tea.”

Boring. Plus, you’re not British anymore.

“Well, I’m tired of this story.” Charles turned and marched toward the basement stairs. As he placed his foot on the bottom step, the entire staircase collapsed.

He gave an exasperated look skyward. “Oh, come on.”

Sorry, we need to move things along, create a sense of urgency. Now get back to that door. Act like you can’t resist the curiosity of what’s behind it.

“No way, I heard moaning. What kind of story is this?”

Relax, it’s a thriller not horror. I won’t dissect you.


Yes, now get on with it.

Charles frowned and walked back to the door. The old wood was split and darkened with age but the brass handle remained perfectly polished.

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Charles said.

Quiet, it’s part of the mystery. I’ll explain later.

“Is it magic? Will I be taken to another world?”

Look, it’s a long story. I have to pepper the explanation throughout the next fifty pages or it’ll be an insufferable information dump.

“But it won’t kill me, right?”

Of course not. I need you for the sequel in case I get a series out of this.

Charles nodded in hearty agreement. He was starting to feel better about this whole mystery door thing. He moved closer and rested his fingers on the brass knob. A warm sensation flowed up his arms.

Charles looked up. “Whoa, that’s the magic, right?”

Shh, I can’t say.

“Oh, right, right.” Charles took a deep breath and prepared to turn the knob. “And there’s no snakes behind this? Because I’m kinda freaked out by them now.”

Right, no snakes…yet.


Look, do you want to be in the sequel or not?

“Okay, okay.” Charles exhaled slowly, gave a confident turn of the brass knob and opened the door...

Friday, March 28, 2014

Fiction Friday: Hunted, Book 1, The Lore of Efrathah

By Rebecca Luella Miller


The Lore of Efrathah in an unpublished epic fantasy. Below is an introduction to and excerpt from Book One, HUNTED:

Jim Thompson can’t accept his new status as a washed up professional basketball player. Failure is for guys who break under pressure, not for California Ice, as reporters dubbed Jim during his college days. He is confident he’ll figure out a way to rehabilitate his career—he has to.

But before he can explore all his options, he falls into a parallel world, finds an antiquated sword along the way, and teams up with exiles plotting to retake their land from the usurper ravaging it.

Their leadership council wants Jim to consult with a Lore Master about the sword they think is powerful. When Jim tries to give the weapon away, it shoots uncontrollable fire, but in his hand it’s a lot like California Ice.

Jim wants to go home. Some believe the Lore Master might help him find the way, so Jim agrees to meet with him.

All too soon, however, he discovers that getting back to his world won’t mean he’s home and that success isn’t about resurrecting his basketball career but about staying a step ahead of the Vacant Ones hunting him. He must figure out how to use the sword, or he’ll jeopardize himself and the people he’s beginning to care for—the girl he can’t stop thinking about.
- – - – -


Part 1

Epoch of Lord Abador – 19 Cida to 6 Fenad, 4702

While most Efrathites suppose the old tales point to the Other Worlder as our nation's preeminent defender, is it not just as possible that he will be its greatest foe?

- from Rutad Jardan's Summations

Chapter I—The Fall

On the basketball court, Jim Thompson expected trash talk. Here in his parents' beach-side condo, not so much.

The jet-setting owner of the place next door crossed his arms over his puffed-out chest. "It's better you got cut, Jim. Now you can settle down and get a real job. Only exceptional athletes make it big in the NBA."

Jim waggled his head back and forth the way his favorite wide receiver used to do after taking a ferocious hit. His parents’ neighbor was nothing but a pompous cretin, and his comment a cheap shot, but it stung. Mostly because he might be right—what if Jim wasn’t good enough for the pros any more? But no. He’d dealt with this question already and settled it. He couldn’t let this guy goad him into doubting himself again.

The burble of conversation from the other guests swirled around them, peaking with an explosion of laughter from a bunch of college kids nearby. His sister's friends, no doubt—oblivious to the real world of "produce or get cut loose."

When their voices died down, Jim parroted what he’d been telling his fans since his surgery. "I appreciate your concern, but this is only a temporary setback. I'm not done with basketball yet."

Mr. Pompous Cretin smirked. "Trust me on this, kiddo, you don't want to be one of those players bouncing around the D league, earning next to nothing. There's no future in it."

"I’ll keep that in mind." Jim flashed his photo-op smile, the best way to slam the door on the discussion. He couldn't listen to any more dreary predictions about his career. No matter what this jerk or anybody else said, he wasn't washed up. All he needed was a chance to prove it.

As the guy moved off, Jim checked the entryway for new arrivals. Thankfully no media, at least not yet. If the local sports reporters overheard talk about him leaving basketball, they would drop-kick him into the has-been pile before the eleven o'clock news. No telling if his career could survive that kind of bad press.

Jim stretched his tender knee. His best hope would be to give the reporters something positive to write, and for that he needed his brother's help. Eddie might be pigheaded about most things, but he was still family. Maybe Jim could corral him and wrangle a commitment about the golf tournament in time to make an announcement before the reception ended.

His older brother stood beside the food table dishing hors d'oeuvres onto a paper plate. Sidestepping through the afternoon crowd to minimize his limp, Jim made his way into the dining area. One guest after another patted him on the back and told him to hang in there. He thanked each, assuring them he'd be back on the basketball court in no time.

Confidence. That's what fans needed to see. That's what Eddie needed to see.

When he reached his brother, Jim bent toward him to keep from raising his voice. "Hey, Eddie, you have a minute?"

"It's your reception, bro. Here, have some food." Eddie pushed his plate into Jim's hand and gave him a paper cup. "There's punch with a little kick, ice tea, or coffee. Take your pick."

"I just wanted to talk to you for a sec."

"Talk away." His brother picked up another plate, piled it with a variety of stuffed pastries, a handful of baby carrots, and a couple cauliflower clumps, then spooned dip into the center.

"Maybe someplace a little more private." Jim edged toward the patio.

"If this is about the golf tournament, my hands are tied."

As his brother added more food to his plate, Jim turned his back on the crowd and lowered his voice another notch. "Somebody in your office must have made a mistake. I confirmed with the steering committee months ago."

"Months ago you were the perfect fit for a celebrity golf tournament." His brother popped a stuffed mushroom into his mouth.

"I'll find another team."

"How many players get picked up midseason?"

"Iverson did, and Terry."

"Ancient history." Eddie bit into a cracker slathered with cheese.

Jim set his plate of uneaten hors d'oeuvres on the table. "If I'm scheduled to play in your tournament, people will know my knee is okay and—"

"But it's not."

"It will be." It had to be. Jim needed basketball. Whatever it took to get back in the game, he’d do it—hire a personal trainer, work out twenty-four/seven, anything.

Eddie swiped a napkin over his mouth. "I hope your knee will heal, little brother, I really do. But the committee can't wait. They want a star they can promote now. You know, somebody who's actually playing."

Jim took a strangle-hold on his paper cup. How could Eddie of all people talk about him not playing? This was the guy who had failed every attempt to make it to the pros, and now he wanted to pass judgment on Jim? If he didn't need his help …

But the truth was, he did need Eddie’s help. The situation required a little diplomacy, maybe a little begging. "You could use your influence to convince them—"

His brother held up a hand. "Only high-profile celebs bring in the kind of donations we need."

"All I'm looking for is some positive publicity." Jim crumpled his empty cup.

"Have you thought about doing something else? Maybe coaching?"

"I'm a player, Eddie, a basketball player." Jim slammed his wadded cup into the trash. Maybe event managers could switch jobs to advertising or PR, but basketball players—the gym-rat kind like he was—stuck with the game they lived for.

"Lighten up, little brother, I'm just trying to help."

"Great, then you can get me into the tournament."

"No chance."
"Yeah, okay. Thanks for all that help." Jim headed for the door before his sarcasm turned to something uglier. His parents had gone to a lot of trouble putting this reception together, and he wasn't going to spoil it for them by creating a scene.

As he hobbled past his sister, she caught his arm. "Can I borrow your cell phone, Jimmy-Jim? Mom wants me to find out when Kyle is coming, and I left mine"—grinning, Karen glanced around the crowded room and shrugged—"somewhere."

He drew his phone from a pocket of his blue jeans.

Staring up at him, she accepted it with her free hand but maintained her grip on his arm. "Where are you going in such a hurry?"

"I need some air." He gently lifted her hand away.

"You and Eddie again?"

"Just Eddie. Tell Mom and Dad I'll be back before dinner." Jim snatched up his navy blue hoodie and limped out the door, leaving the rising tide of conversation behind.

He slid behind the wheel of his Porsche, backed from the driveway, and accelerated onto the road heading south. Away from Laguna Beach, from Eddie, from the tatters of his career.

Briny air, February-cold, blew against his face, and he breathed deeply. If he had his choice, he'd head for a basketball court to shoot hoops until his insides stopped seething. Since his bad knee eliminated that possibility, he'd settle for option two. He'd visit his favorite spot overlooking the ocean, center himself, then figure out how to repair his public image.

After driving a mile along the deserted coast, he pulled into the familiar make-shift turnout. He climbed from the car, tossed his keys under the seat, then hobbled toward the nearby bluff. Ignoring the keep-out sign rattling against its rusty pole, as he had so many times before, he clambered over the deteriorating restraining cable and onto the protrusion of land where he could see the Pacific lash the cliffs.

A frothy wave some hundred feet below thundered against the rocks, spewing foam high. A sudden hush followed, then another crash. Wind plastered Jim's hair back. He sucked in a salty breath and inched closer to the edge. This was what he needed—a dose of the ocean's uncontrollable power. Nature had a way of putting things in perspective.

Another wave churned the water. In the following stillness, something behind Jim cracked, louder than the thwack of a splintering baseball bat. He spun toward the sound.

A thin fissure zigzagged from the keep-out sign to the opposite edge of the protrusion.
The ground quivered.

Jim's heart leapfrogged into his throat. He limped toward the restraining cable, but before he reached it, the finger of land under him broke from the cliff. He slammed face down. An avalanche of rock and dirt slid beside him and over him and under him.

He flailed for something to grab. His left hand caught a jag of shale that sliced his palm as it splintered from the cliff.

Flexing his knees, he dug the toe of his good leg into the ground to anchor himself. His ankle popped. Pain exploded up his leg, and still he was falling.

He twisted in search of something else to grab.

A cluster of shrubs, coming up fast. Could he catch hold?

Not at this speed.

Dragging his palms against the rocky ground, he slowed.

His body slammed against the first shrub and caromed to a second. He wrapped his legs and arms around its branches. The bush bowed under his weight, then sprang upward. It bent again, recoiled, and still held.

Loose earth splashed into the water, then quiet. Bobbing in place, Jim clung to the prickly shrub. Below him a wave exploded against the cliff. He spat dusty grime from his mouth. "Help! Anybody! Help!"

Another wave thundered against the rocks, drowning out his words before rumbling away. Yelling was a waste. His ankle throbbed. His hands burned. He rested his head against his bicep. Everything had happened so fast …

His pecs contracted. Pain radiated into his chest, and he arched his back to reduce the tightness. His breathing came in shorter and shorter gasps. How much longer could he hold on? Not long enough for somebody to stumble on him and mount a rescue. He'd have to coach himself out of this mess.

His first choice was to climb back up. Tipping his head as far back as possible, he strained to see through the lingering dust. All he could make out was loose dirt directly above. He'd never get enough traction to hike up to safety.

That left choice number two. He scanned the bluff below the shrubs. Fifty feet of steep—all but that ledge no wider than a locker room bench just a few yards beneath him. Who knew if it would be strong enough to hold him, but he couldn't hang onto this bush much longer.

Ignoring the spines and rough-barked branches that slapped at his face, he lowered himself hand over hand through the shrubs until he dangled inches above the ledge. His body taut, Jim dropped.

The shelf accepted his weight, but his throbbing ankle buckled. Cursing, he collapsed to his side. As if having a bum knee wasn’t bad enough!

When the pain receded, he squirmed into a sitting position and peered down. White spray drifted up from another wave pounding the rocks. OK, so a messed up ankle wasn’t his biggest worry right now. He needed help.

Ignoring the stinging from his scraped and bleeding hands, he reached for his cell phone. Except it wasn't in his pocket. Of course! He'd lent it to Karen. He thumped his head against the cliff, once, twice, a third time. Now what? With no way of telling anyone where he was, he might be stuck on this ledge for an unhealthy long time. Besides whatever he'd done to his ankle, he had all these cuts and bruises, especially on his hands.

If he was going to survive this ordeal, he'd need to start with a little first aid.

As best he could, he elevated his injured ankle, then turned his hands face up. Blood seeped from under the dirt and bark slivers matting his palms. First priority, stop the bleeding.

Gingerly he tugged off his hoodie and set it next to him. As he wriggled out of his tee shirt, a pelican swooped past, diving toward the vacant ocean. Just beyond, a bank of dense clouds bulldozed toward shore. A blast of cold air off the water sent a shiver through him, goosing his tan arms and bare chest. He replaced the sweatshirt and pulled the warm hood over his head.

Using his teeth, he made three small tears in his tee shirt, then ripped the cloth into long strips. He tack¬led his left hand first, wrapping it as tight as he could and knotting the end of the bandage around his wrist, just below his watchband. When he finished, he repeated the procedure on his right hand.

With the bleeding under control, he pulled off his shoe. Already his ankle was puffy and thick. He flexed his toes. Pain exploded through his leg.

Breathe. He needed to breathe. The knives would stop digging into his flesh in a minute or two. He just had to get past this first wave of mind-numbing torture. At least he knew now what way not to bend his foot. When the pain was manageable, he imitated the count¬less train¬ers who had taped him up before games and wrapped his ankle to give it as much support as possible.

After finishing, he squeezed his foot back into his Nike, then leaned his head against the cliff. Okay, now he could cross "see to injuries" off his priority list. He'd done the best he could. From here on he'd have to forget the pain in his ankle and hands and figure out how to get down.

To his right the bluff was rocky and steep. In the opposite direction, the ledge he sat on stretched toward a spur that blocked his view of the beach. But where the two came together, the ledge widened as if it extended under the cliff and formed ... a cave. Tension seeped from his rigid back. He hadn't wanted to admit what a bad spot he was in, but seeing the cave felt like being handed the keys to a mansion. Away from danger and out of the cold, he'd have a chance to form a real plan.

With his back to the bluff, Jim climbed to his feet and shuffled toward the cleft in the rock. At last he reached the opening, steadied himself with a hand, and poked his head inside. Darkness engulfed him as though light had disappeared into a vacuum.

The clear sound of trickling water came from somewhere straight ahead. Maybe a cool stream. He ran his tongue over his crusty lips and swallowed. His throat felt as if he'd been drinking sand.

He hobbled forward, straining to see.

Without warning, the ground dissolved beneath him. His stomach flipped upward. He didn't hear rocks break away, and he didn't slide over the edge of a cliff. It was more like being pulled from shore by a riptide but downward, and not through water. Not through dirt either. More like he was drifting through air the way he would if he dangled at the end of a parachute. But how could that be? Maybe he was losing touch with reality. He'd heard that near-death trauma could have that effect on people.

His momentum slowed, and he jarred to a stop. As pain shot through his ankle, he stifled the groan that escaped him. He had bigger problems than the momentary agony of a bad joint. If he was going to make it out alive, he had to figure out where he was. Darkness enshrouded him. He stretched out an arm, and his fingers brushed a clammy wall, slippery as if coated with algae. He backed up a step, but nothing was under him.

He grabbed for whatever he'd been standing on, and his hand closed over a cylinder, like a pipe, but it pulled free. Once more he floated downward, this time like a stone drifting toward the bottom of the ocean. But did this ocean have a bottom? The journey seemed to last for hours. Or maybe only a few minutes. He wasn’t thinking straight. His perceptions had become scrambled, confused. Trauma induced, probably. Had he gone into shock?

Unexpectedly he banged onto a rough surface. Pain jagged his ankle as if shards of glass ripped at his ligaments and tendons. Catching his weight on the long object still in his hand, he swore. This time the pain was too much. He couldn’t take another one of these jolts. But at least the agony proved he hadn't lost complete touch with reality. "I hurt, therefore I am. Isn't that how the saying goes?" he muttered. "I hurt, I hear, I think, so whatever this is, it has to be real."

The throbbing in his ankle subsided to a dull ache, and he limped for¬ward, leaning on the metal object as a makeshift crutch. If anything, the darkness around him deepened. For all he knew, he might be inches from another pit. He stopped. Cocking his head, he listened for any tiny sound, any clue to where he was. Nothing, except his own rapid breathing.

"I can't stand here forever." His voice echoed around him, sounding out of place and far too loud. But wait a sec. If the sound was bouncing back at him, that had to mean there was something solid up ahead.

"Hello!" His cry reverberated against a barrier. He shouted again. Once more his voice rebounded. He let himself picture what he was hearing—a wall, most likely rock, not more than twenty-five feet ahead of him. Clanging the pipe thing back and forth like a blind man's cane, he inched forward.
At last the metal banged against the barrier. With a wavering hand, he reached out, the tips of his fingers bumping against a stone wall, not as clammy as the one he'd touched above.

He bent to investigate the ground. Dry bedrock. Not an ideal place to rest, but it could be worse. After easing into a sitting position, he leaned back. The cool dampness of the wall hinted that water was nearby, but he still hadn't found any. Well, a search for water would have to wait. He was too spent to explore another square inch of this … whatever he was in.

Jim closed his eyes to hide from the darkness. Maybe he'd fallen through some old mining shaft, though he didn't remember ever hearing about one around Laguna.

Without light, he had no visual reference point, which might explain the drifting sensation that seemed to go on and on …

His head nodded forward, then snapped up with a reflexive jerk. He must have dozed off. A short nap wasn't a bad idea. Getting this far had used up the little stamina he’d built since his latest knee surgery. He pulled his hoodie tight to his body, wrapped his arm around the mysterious object he still held, and curled up on the ground.

* * *

The sharp glare of a white light shining in his eyes startled Jim awake. He pushed to his elbows. His hands and ankle throbbed. The muscles in his arms, back, and legs had stiffened into tight knots. Moaning, he sank back against the rocky floor. He blinked at the whiteness, trying to look past it, trying to remember why he was so sore. "Where am I? What's happening?" The words came out as whispers.

From behind the glare someone gave a surprised exclamation. "An above-grounder speaking in Familiar. And he's hurt."

"Help." Jim worked to make his plea urgent, but his voice was no more than a croak.

"Be careful," said a second speaker. "This may be a servant of Vildoth-sadín."

At the sound of the strange name, a death-like cold ran through Jim's legs and arms, spread into his body, and filled his chest. He couldn't move, couldn't breath. What was happening to him? He strained to yell for help, but his lips would only form the word. A tremor ran through him, then uncontrollable shaking. His teeth clattered together.

"We must take him with us," the first voice said.

As strong hands lifted Jim onto a rough litter, he pulled in a breath of musty air. Someone threw a thick blanket over him, and the extra weight jolted him as if he'd taken a shot to the body. Every inch of his six-foot-five frame felt broken, but at least he could move and breathe again.

Shadowy figures bent to raise the stretcher. Good. Whoever these strangers were, they’d get him help, right? If not, they would have left him where they found him. Or worse. But what was worse? This long tunnel, twisting and turning as they followed the bright light; or sleeping in darkness, growing darkness, from now until forever. Jim’s eyes drooped shut. He wandered in and out of consciousness, too weary, too wounded, to care who these people were or where they were taking him.

At last they stopped. A vague scent of wood smoke drifted to him, and he opened his eyes. More strangers surged forward until a crowd of people, some speaking an unrecognizable language, encircled him. So these people were some different ethnic group he wasn’t familiar with, but still, they’d help him, wouldn't he? Get him to a doctor maybe. Or call his family at least. Again a bright light shone in his face. Instinctively he squinted and turned his head.

In a commanding voice, someone behind the glare hurled a staccato of questions at him. "Who are you? Where did you come from? Why are you here? How did you find us?"

Ironic that they thought Jim had answers. He cleared his throat and forced words past his thick tongue. "My name is Jim Thompson. I was standing at the edge of the cliff and fell. I don't know how I ended up in your tunnels." He waited for a response, but the conversations around him dwindled to silence. Apparently no one was going to volunteer to tell him where he'd ended up. "Is this some kind of mining operation? Where am I?"

No one spoke, and his own labored breathing rebounded against the stillness. What if he'd stumbled into some kind of illegal operation—drug smuggling or human trafficking? Why else would they be so tight-lipped? The intense beam shining in his eyes burst into brilliance, then just as suddenly, diminished to a softer light, allowing him a better look at his surroundings. His stretcher was on the ground near a campfire. The fading ray came from a crystal sphere the size of a softball. The burly man who held it passed a hand over top, and the glare sub¬sided to a dull glow. Faint silhouettes hovered in the shadows of the darkened chamber just outside the firelight.

"Where am I?" Jim repeated, glancing from one dark shape to the next. Were these people responsible for whatever happened to him in the cave? Had he just been kidnapped? "Who are you? What do you want?"

After an interminable pause, a large person, maybe a foot taller than Jim and weighing at least three hundred pounds, stepped forward.

The imposing figure pulled back the hood of a long, flowing bronze cloak and bent toward Jim, his black eyes glowering. "Tre-vene de Vildoth-sadín?"

Jim stared into an angular face covered in thick, dark hair. He brushed cold sweat from his eyes with his trembling arm. Was he hallucinating? His heart pounded against his chest like the reverberation of an amped-up car stereo. He propped himself on his elbows, ignoring the blackness that swirled behind his eyes and dimmed his vision. "Who … what are you?"

"Silence." The cloaked being lowered a long, tapered nose within inches of Jim's face and bared pointed incisors. "We will ask the questions."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Writing Believably About the Unbelievable

I was recently watching an episode of Fringe with my daughter, and she scoffed at a particular sci-fi premise. She is a big Harry Potter fan, so I countered, “And Harry Potter is believable?” To which she responded, “Dad, that’s different?” Apparently, believing in sorcerers, centaurs, and flying broomsticks is easier than believing in soldiers from a parallel world.


All fiction is make-believe. Whether you’re reading a legal thriller or supernatural romance, suspending disbelief is a requirement. Often, the only real difference between fiction readers is how much disbelief they will suspend. And the only real difference between genres is how much suspension of disbelief is required.

As such, one of the challenges of writing speculative fiction is the actual speculation. Whether it’s ghosts, mutants, or magic formulas, at some point you require a concession from your readers. Fans of the speculative approach the genre with a unique tolerance for the unbelievable. But even they have their limits.

So how do you write about the unbelievable, believably? Here’s five ways you can help your readers suspend their disbelief:

  • Invest in the believable. Readers are more likely to believe that your protagonist’s garden gnome can come to life if your protag, rather than his garden gnome, is believable. Our readers identify first with what they know to be factually and emotionally true. Therefore, investing in the “known” is the first step in building a bridge to the “unknown.”
  • Address the “unbelievable” as logically as possible. In Dean Koontz’s interview at Novel Rocket, the prolific novelist was asked how he pulled off his typically wild premises. He said, “If you give yourself entirely to intuition but then bring hard intellectual analysis to what the intuition produces, you’ll be okay. Take the far-out element and consider it in the same spirit that St. Thomas Aquinas used clear cold reason to prove the existence of God.” Subjecting the “far-out” elements of your story to “clear cold reason” helps our readers suspend potential disbelief. If you want me to believe that your hero can tame dragons, logic is the last thing you can afford to sacrifice.
  • Show appropriate incredulity in your characters. I once attended a workshop by Jeff Gerke on writing speculative fiction and he noted that one of the ways we create a believable story world is by showing our characters astonishment when appropriate. In other words, if a contemporary woman stumbles into the 16th century, she should not “get over it” any time soon. A character who is not utterly floored by a dimensional portal in her office cubical, will likely NOT be followed by readers through it.
  • Obey the law of your land. Even quidditch has rules, gravity being one of them. Whether it’s Oz, Atlantis, or Middle Earth, each story world contains its own set of laws. The writer is free to create a world where anything can happen, as long as what happens is consistent with the laws of that world. We help our readers suspend disbelief, not just by creating a set of consistent laws, but by not breaking them.
  • Damn the torpedoes. However far-out the elements of your story are, the worst thing you could do is second-guess them or treat them with kid gloves. If your story involves goblins, superheroes, or talking teapots, then follow it through. Where would Frodo be if Tolkien was reluctant about magic? Rather, the epic works because, in it, trees CAN talk and rings CAN make one invisible. If your story world involves magic (or romance, teleportation, and anti-gravity boots), then full steam ahead.

Readers come to fiction for different reasons. But most come with a willingness to believe the unbelievable. Whether it’s a nuclear holocaust or a lost Eden, we can help our readers suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy those non-existent worlds.


 * * *

Mike Duran is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, March 24, 2014

My First Book Deal—or How the Road To Being Published Isn't Always A Straight Line

Afterlife: The ResurrectionChronicles hit bookstore shelves in June, 2010. Published by HarperVoyager, it was my first science fiction novel. It was also my first published book.
But it wasn't my first book deal.

My first book deal was with Thomas Nelson publishers, almost 20 years prior. At that time, I was a graphic designer and illustrator, and had just completed a class at the Art Center in Pasadena. My final project was a handmade book called So Far From Eden and, as part of my final grade, I presented the book to the class as if they were the marketing committee of a publishing class. I got an A on the project and in the class.

I didn't have an agent, but I had done my research on Thomas Nelson and knew that they would be the perfect company to publish my little gift book. So, I packaged my little book in a handmade box, filled with handmade paper leaves—which tied in with the theme of the book—and sent it to an editor.

I didn't realize at the time that I was breaking all the rules. I only knew that I had a strong feeling about this project.
Three months later I got a call from the editor. She loved the book. In fact, she loved it so much she wanted me to make it into a series of four books. Ecstatic, I said, yes.

I signed the contract, then set off to write, design and illustrate all four books. They were turned in on time, I was paid (very handsomely). Then I waited. And I waited.

What I didn't know was that unexpected things were going on behind the scenes. Thomas Nelson Publishing was in the process of merging with Word Publishing. Right about the time that my little gift books should have been shown to book store managers so they could order them, I learned that my books would never be made.

The reason?

Apparently, I was a mid-list author and Thomas Nelson was dropping all of its mid-list authors.

It took me awhile to understand it all. Meanwhile, an agent came to me, asking if I wanted representation. Again, that never happens, right? Well, it did. I worried that I would have to return the money Thomas Nelson paid me, but my new agent assured me I wouldn't.

Surprisingly, she was right—my gift books never did get published, but I got to keep the money. In fact, I used to it stay home for two years and write. (You can see two of the projects I worked on during that time period, to the left, an illustrated novella written like it was Queen Esther's journal and, below, an illustrated children's book, told from the perspective of the unusual fish in the story of Jonah.)

This time was like an intensive creative writing program—over the following two years, I wrote a novel, an illustrated children's book, an illustrated novella and a baby book. Unfortunately, none of my other projects sold.

That was when I made the segue from graphic design to editing. I had worked in publishing for many years, but up until then, it had always been in the art department. My next job would be as the publisher for The Word For Today.

It may seem like a big leap, but I was surprisingly prepared for it. Since then I've worked as the editor for several national magazines including Victorian Homes, Vintage Gardens, Cottages & Bungalows, Zombies (yes, I love fantasy and science fiction as much as I love old homes!), Bedrooms & Baths, and Kitchens magazines. I've also co-authored a number of how-to draw books like How To Draw Zombies, How To Draw Vampires and How To Draw Grimm's Dark Tales....

But, for me, the best part of it all was when two of my novelsAfterlife and Feastwere published by HarperVoyager. That had been a dream of mine since I was a teenager. Later, I went on to self-publish my first YA fantasy, Fathom.

For me, it hasn’t been a straight line from book contract to published book and it definitely hasn’t been a short journey. But I've come to believe that the journey is really about the joy of writing. If I focus too much on the publishing aspect or the marketing aspect, or even the financial aspect, I can get discouraged.

If I stay focused on the pure joy of making something out of nothing—inventing people, building worlds, developing conflict and instilling hope—then I am satisfied.

How about you? What part of writing (or reading) do you find most worthwhile?

Merrie Destefano is represented by Natalie Lakosil of the Bradford Literary AgencyMerrie’s published work includes Afterlife and Feast (both with HarperVoyager), Fathom, The Plague Carrier and Waiting For Midnight (with Ruby Slippers Press), and How To Draw Zombies (Walter Foster). She’s also the editor of Victorian Homes magazine and founding editor of Cottages and Bungalows magazine. She is the founder and owner of Ruby Slippers Media and Ruby Slippers Press, and her website is here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Glittering in the sun - it's not just for vampires anymore

Since you were so kind to read my ramble about how my first book came to be, I thought you might want to read a little bit of it. So, here is the introductory chapter of Glitter in the Sun: A Bible study Searching for Truth in the Twilight Saga. Without any further ado, I give you -

Major Jasper Whitlock, Ma'am

The Cullen family was an oddity among oddities: vampires who did not drink human blood. But it wasn’t until Jasper told Bella his personal history that she realized just how different his background was from those of the rest of the family.
Jasper was a warrior, a Confederate soldier, before being changed into a vampire. After that he was the trusted captain of a ruthless vampire queen. For Jasper, human life had about the same value as livestock; he was guilty of destroying thousands of lives. He fought other vampires for dominance and killed those who outlived their usefulness to his master.
Eventually, the ruthlessness of those crimes began to weigh on his conscience. He left the only life he knew - one of violence and self-gratification - to find another way. Finally, he found hope and peace when he stumbled upon Alice and became a member of the Cullen family.
What led Jasper to seek another way of life? What motivates you to change? Have you ever sensed circumstances nudging you in a different direction? Has it ever occurred to you that sometimes there might be intention behind them?
In many ways, I had it easy. From a time before I can remember, I knew both of my parents loved me and each other without reservation or qualification. I knew God loved me, too: I heard it every day from my parents and every week at church. That is not true for everyone. So when I turned away from God to “try out” what the world had to offer, I knew what I was missing. It did not take long to realize exactly Who I needed to seek; Who could fill the aching void.
I simply needed to go home. That is exactly what it felt like—going home to a family that had missed me madly and only wanted to heal my wounds and restore me to health.
The God Who had created me, much like my own father and mother, held open the door the whole time.
What if I hadn’t known how to get home? What if I had never experienced a family that longed for me? What if, like Jasper, I had no idea that any other way of life was possible? What would I have done with that hungry black hole? The thought makes me shudder.
Prevenient grace is a term I learned in church school that means “God stacks the deck in favor of you finding The Way.” Prevenient literally means “anticipatory, something that goes before.” Before you are even aware of it, the Spirit of God is at work in the world and through others to lead you home.
God’s desire is that all souls return to their creator, but He anticipates that you might need some help getting there. To that end God plants clues, hints and pictures of grace and love everywhere: the glory of a sunrise or sunset, the cool breeze on a hot day, the perfect timing of “coincidence” or the generosity and kindness of others. Even a novel that stirs up lurking emptiness and sends you seeking something more can become a “means of prevenient grace.” Maybe prevenient grace brought this book into your hands at this particular
point in time. The question is: What are you going to do about it?
Like the Cullen men, God is a complete gentleman. While He will hold open doors for you, God will not force you through. Love never forces its way. Free will results from perfect love. It gives you a choice. So God waits while you decide how to answer the gentle question: “Will you come home to Me?"
Jane Wells has always gravitated toward reading material that pushed other people’s buttons. In 2nd grade it was a dinosaur book that upset her teacher at a Baptist school. Now it’s vampires and dystopias that catch her imagination. In them she finds parables and allegories illustrating God’s ancient plan in a language that is uniquely modern – and easily understood by people who may have never set foot inside a church. Glitter in the Sun and Bird on Fireare the results.
Always a writer, Jane’s “real jobs” have included newspaper journalism, youth ministry, sewing machine sales and marketing for a publishing house. Currently she is back to “just a writer” again, while juggling all the typical domestic duties of wife and mother, homeschooling two boys, managing two needy Golden Retrievers and answering to one very demanding cat.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How do you take your coffee?

Know what happens when a bunch of women get together? Especially a group that is getting to know each other?
Birth and delivery stories.
It doesn't take long. Last week, barely half an hour after "Hi, I'm Jane," I found myself elbow deep in C-section sagas and doula details. 
Of course I participated with enthusiasm, as proof of my two deliveries ran around like caffeinated monkeys in the next room.
It's not much different than when authors meet. Before long we're swapping stories about agents (or lack thereof), publishing contracts (or lack thereof), and that amazing and terrifying feeling of seeing our work in print - set free to make a mark (or lack thereof) on the world.
So, I'll start. Here's my story, I'll try not to Reader's Digest the life out of it.
My first book was written one chapter a week, a Bible study that used the Twilight novels to illustrate God's eternal love. (It works. Really. Eternal love, it's Meyer's secret sauce.) I thought it was just going to be something for my friends to enjoy. But I couldn't leave it alone. It refused to stay quiet on my hard drive.
I queried agents and received rejections - when I wasn't ignored entirely.
So I tried again to ignore it.
It wouldn't be left alone.
I read up on self-publishing and decided to put it out through Lulu. I sold 80 copies. Give or take...
I thought I was done.
Ever have a thing keep pushing itself back into your consciousness? Some authors talk about characters that won't get out of their heads, or a plot twist that has to be explored. I had a book that insisted on being.
One day, when the youngest offspring was in preschool and I had 2 1/2 hours all to myself, I decided to spend the time with my laptop at the coffee shop exploring crowd funding.
Yes. I was that desperate.
Instead, a small house publisher was sitting at the table next to me, who took the last copy of my self-published book to the editor, who called me the next week and offered a contract.
Just like that I was published.
Crazy, right?!?
Your turn!
Was your experience an easy natural birth? An emergency C-section? Something in between? Pour some coffee and share your story below!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Online Publishing News

By Merrie Destefano

Here’s a quick list of some stuff going on in publishing, plus some online sites you can troll for the latest news:

Publisher’s Weekly:

Very interesting article about a possible competitor for Amazon's Kindle: UK launch for Nook's self-publishing platform

Self-publishing news:

And if you’re a scifi-fantasy geek, like me, check out io9on regular basis here.

Meanwhile, keep writing and reading!

Friday, March 14, 2014

What happens when the imaginary people in your story take over?

By Merrie Destefano

Imaginary people shouldn’t influence your life. But if you’re a writer or reader, they definitely do. Case in point: Me. I was working on my second novel, Feast, when this character appeared out of nowhere. She wasn’t in my current novel, she wasn’t in anything I’d ever written before. I tried to ignore her but I just couldn’t, because oh my gosh, did she ever have a voice and a story to tell.

She haunted me. Until I stopped working on my current work-in-progress long enough to write down her first chapter. Ten pages later, I’d fallen in love.

She was Kira Callahan, the main character in Fathom, my debut YA paranormal novel coming out on October 1. And that first chapter is almost exactly the same as the day I wrote it. If you’re curious, you can read it here.

Oddly enough, the appearance of this new character not only temporarily stalled my second novel—it changed my writing career. Up until then, I’d been the author of adult novels only. While Afterlife and Feast can certainly be read by teenagers—there’s nothing in there they can’t handle—those books are definitely intended for mature audiences, with themes and plots that deal with some heavy issues.

But now I was suddenly an author who was writing young adult stories.

And I was loving it.

I had already discovered that I loved reading YA. My shelves were lined with tomes like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Forests of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, Tithe by Holly Black and The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting. I just never expected that this fascination with young adult literature would lead to me writing it.

While it may seem like YA is a simpler genre, and that it’s both easier to read and to write, that’s not necessarily true. I soon learned that YA contains deep themes, just like adult books. At the same time, YA often has a literary edge not often found in adult books. I think it was this combination of beautiful writing and powerful coming-of-age stories that hooked me. There’s a universal appeal found in a tale written about first love, for it both embraces and transcends the teenage market.

But I wasn’t thinking about markets or universal appeal when I started writing Kira’s story. I was traveling back through time, walking through the halls of high school again, reliving that feeling of never quite fitting in, of never being pretty enough or smart enough, of feeling awkward and insignificant. It was a painful journey—all writing is, if done well. Without even realizing it, I chose a play list that I listened to when I was 16, a fact that surprised me when I discovered what I’d been subconsciously doing. I’d been allowing the music to take me back to my raw teenage self. Some of those songs I’d never been able to listen to as an adult—they brought back too many unpleasant memories.

So, apparently, this imaginary person—who appeared out of nowhere—changed my writing career and then led me down a path likened to deep therapy. I walked over glass-embedded ground toward a hazy future. Following after someone who wasn’t real.

In the process, I came to know myself better. I discovered that teenage me was stronger than I’ve given her credit. Like Kira, I survived some difficult situations and came out of them determined. And just like Kira, one of the things that helped me along the way was writing poetry.

I stopped working on one book to write down the story of an imaginary character who was haunting me.

Perhaps, if you read her story, she will haunt you too.   

Merrie Destefano is represented by Natalie Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency. Merrie’s published work includes Afterlife and Feast (both with HarperVoyager), Fathom, The Plague Carrier and Waiting For Midnight (with Ruby Slippers Press), and How To Draw Zombies (Walter Foster). She’s also the editor of Victorian Homes magazine and founding editor of Cottages and Bungalows magazine. She is the founder and owner of Ruby Slippers Media and Ruby Slippers Press, and her website is here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Writing Groups

Writing groups are invaluable. They may provide critiques, encouragement, inspiration, friendship, brainstorming, and beta readers. Maybe all of these.

Some people may not live in a place with easy access to a physical writing group, but in this day and age, the computer solves that problem. There are online critique groups, Yahoo! groups, forums, Facebook pages, team blogs, editor blogs (like this one), writer blogs, agent blogs. There's even an author, Donita Paul, who holds weekly chats on Mondays (and I just learned that she's presently discussing Power Elements of Story Structure!) If a writer wants to find a community, one is out there waiting to be found.

Some writers may think they don't need a writing group because they have lots of support and encouragement from their family and friends. Which is great! The problem is, our family and friends may not be as hard on us as we need. And they also may not be as educated in writing techniques as we need.

Why should they be?

Most lawyers don't ask their sister or cousin to critique their brief, do they? Not unless those relatives are also lawyers who have studied the law and know what they're talking about. So why should writers expect their friends and relatives to know fiction techniques?

Yet we do. We act as if anyone is able to give knowledgeable feedback.

Of course readers can tell writers what they like, and that's always helpful. But to learn what needs to improve--how to make an argument flow logically, how to structure a story for maximum impact, how to correct passive voice, what point of view is strongest, and a hundred other particulars--other writers who have and are studying the craft will give what non-writers cannot.

Writers are essentially on a continuum, some just starting out and some working on the crowning project of their epic career. Wherever we are in between those extremes, there's someone we can help and encourage, and there's someone from whom we can learn and find inspiration. Consequently no one should shy away from a writing group because they think they have nothing to offer or nothing to learn.

I remember years ago attending a local writing workshop. I had considerable insecurity about being there--until I started talking to the people at my table. As it turned out, I was the only person who had been to a writing conference before. I'd talked to agents before and to editors. I knew some things about formatting manuscripts and following guidelines. In other words, I had things to offer those who were just starting out. Of course, as the day wore on, I learned a great deal too, from others more experienced than myself who had signed book contracts and had agents.

That's the way writing groups work.

Mind you, I'm not saying a writer can't work in isolation. For years, that's what many writers were forced to do. But even before the Internet, writers sought each other out. See for example, English writers such as Byron, Keats, and Shelley during the Romantic Period or the Inklings in the twentieth century or Americans Emerson and Thoreau during the early 1800s.

Today, with so much information available, and with self-publication on the rise, it seems more necessary to me, not less, that writers take advantage of the opportunities writing groups afford. After all, traditional publication "gatekeepers" aren't there to tell writers that their work isn't ready. And honestly, many of us think our work is ready to be in print much sooner than it actually is. That's because we don't know what we don't know.

Other writers, however, might know what we don't know. And they just might have the unbiased guts to tell us. That's what you hope to find in a writing group, though it may hurt at times. But honest feedback is the road to better writing, and better writing is the best road to publication, whether via traditional means or through self-publishing.

Originally posted February 2014 at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.