Monday, April 28, 2014

The Future is Now

by PJ Regnier

For a sci-fi fan, it’s a great time to be alive. At least for those who can appreciate the quantum leap technology has taken over the last couple decades.

Not that long ago, wireless tablets could only be found on episodes of Star Trek. Now they almost seem commonplace. When you think about it, is the typical smart phone all that different from the classic communicator found in most sci-fi stories? And don’t even get me started on 3D printers.

I know I’m not the only one that geeks out on all the gadgetry coming to fruition in the here and now. Countless years of sci-fi stories from the past conjured up futuristic devices that seemed almost magical in their day. But now, a brief look at the latest announcements from Wired Magazine and suddenly those devices don’t seem so far fetched. If it seems like I’m overstating, just look up something called graphine and prepare to be amazed.

I know what you’re thinking, until there’s light sabers and teleportation you refuse to be impressed. Well, to be honest, I’m a little sad about the lack of progress on those fronts as well. After all, Back to the Future 2 promised me that by 2015 we’d have hoverboards and flying De Loreans. But perhaps we’re just being too greedy. All I can say is that when I turn on my smart phone, hit the Shazam app and within a few seconds I know detailed information about whatever song happens to be playing, it’s hard to believe there's no magic involved.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Fiction Friday: Finding God in Popular Fiction

By Jane Wells
While Bird on Fire isn't technically fiction - it does have a very strong tie to someone else's fictional work. One of the most popular works of fiction in recent years in fact!
If the title of my book doesn't give you a big enough clue, the subtitle is a dead giveaway. Bird on Fire: A Bible study for understanding The Hunger Games arena, Catching Fire flame and Mockingjay bird.
Yeah. I totally rode Suzanne Collins wave, and for good reason. As a Christian, the books read like a parable of Christian compassion in a world rife with sin and selfishness. Like many best sellers, the Mockingjay trilogy resonated with a society terrified of the social injustices rising around it.
Here is the finale (and my favorite) chapter of Bird on Fire.

In Mockingjay, Katniss must make a difficult choice. Will she accept the role she’s stepped into – that of the Mockingjay leading the people of Panem in revolt against the capitol – or will she sit back, and let things unfold without her?
An ancient queen from the bible has a remarkably similar dilemma. There are only two books in the Bible named for women, and one of them is Esther.
But before we get to Esther, we have to start with Xerxes. Xerxes the Great ruled the Medo-Persian Empire – which stretched from modern day India east to the Mediterranean and then as far south into Africa as Somalia. This is the same Xerxes portrayed in the (slanderously incorrect) movie The 300. But before Xerxes marched against the Spartans – and won, btw – there was some palace intrigue, starting with a queen who refused to cooperate.
I can understand Queen Vashti’s point of view. Xerxes was hosting a banquet for all his buddies and decided they all needed to see just how beautiful his wife was – so he demanded she come out and strike a pose. But she was busy hosting a party of her own and really didn’t want to be subjected to the critical gaze of all her husband’s cronies. As a result of her refusal she lost the crown, demoted to just another member of his harem. After a while Xerxes regretted his decision, but not enough to rescind his order.
So, he orders a reaping.
Beautiful young women were gathered from all over the Persian nation. Esther, “lovely in form and feature”, was among them. As a Jew, she was a member of a minority already subject to discrimination, so her cousin Mordecai (Like Gale, maybe? Or Haymitch?) told her to keep her ethnicity a secret. Hegai, (Esther’s Cinna, Perhaps?) the man in charge of the queen-recruits, placed all his bets on her making sure she had everything she needed to win the king’s favor.  When Esther entered the arena – otherwise known as the king’s chambers – she won the crown.
So, Esther won her first Hunger Games – without drawing a single arrow. But like Katniss, this only seemed to make the stakes in the game even higher.
A little later Haman, an Agagite, is promoted to a position second only to Xerxes. Agagites were ancient enemies of the Jews, and Haman was especially sensitive to the fact that Mordecai the Jew would not bow to him. Seeing a chance to wipe out all of his ancient enemies (including Mordecai, of course), Haman hatches a plot to have every Jew in Persia killed in one swift attack. Withholding only a few key details, Haman presents his plan to Xerxes as a chance to rid his nation of a bunch of troublemaking dissenters. Xerxes apparently trusted Haman implicitly, because he signed the declaration without bothering to find out just exactly “who” these dissenters were. The residents of Persia were baffled by the decree, because Jews as a whole were good neighbors and citizens.
Inside the palace bubble, Esther is clueless until she hears of Mordecai’s public display. He is dressed in rags and at the palace gate, wailing loudly for himself, his people and his cousin. She had no idea what was going on until Mordecai tells her the complete story of Haman’s plot, providing a copy of the edict for their annihilation. Mordecai begs Esther to plead her people’s case to the king.
The problem with this otherwise foolproof plan is that one does not simply walk into the king’s presence without being summoned, unless you want to be killed. And in Esther’s case, she hadn’t been summoned in a month. She is pretty sure the honeymoon has ended.
Mordecai asks just one question in response to Esther’s fear, ”Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther agrees to try. She asks Mordecai to fast and pray along with her and her maids for three days. “When this is done,” she says, “I will go into the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
But, she doesn’t perish. Xerxes is pleased to see her and agrees to have dinner with her the following evening - and agrees to bring Haman along. Esther promises then she will reveal to the king the question that is on her mind. When the night of the dinner arrives, Esther reveals all: her ancestry, her relationship to Mordecai whom Haman hates, and the threat to her life that Haman has brought about through his personal vendetta and deceit.
Xerxes is furious and storms out of the room. Seeing a chance to sway Esther’s mind, Haman collapses at her feet and onto the couch where she sat. At that moment Xerxes re-enters the room.
“Will he assault the queen while she is with me in the house?” Xerxes exclaims.
Haman is carried away and executed that night. The Jews are given permission to not only protect themselves from anyone that would harm them, but even plunder and attack their enemies in return.
On the day Haman had set for the destruction of the Jews, they instead destroy their enemies, all because Esther was willing to stand up.
Like Esther, Katniss has to answer a question: Has she become the favorite of the nation for a time like this? When she alone can be the symbol uniting a divided nation? Esther made up her mind when it became clear she was the only one who could make a difference. Katniss becomes the Mockingjay when she realizes the same thing – only she can lead the rebellion, and only she can insure Peeta survives.
You may not be a queen, like Esther, or a leader of a rebellion, like Katniss, but we all have power to change things around us (even when it’s risky).
What do you have the power to change for good, because of who you are and where you are?
What moves you to action?
What can you do today to begin making a change in your world?
From another point of view, where do have influence that you might be overlooking?

What changes are you trying to avoid taking responsibility for?
Bird on Fire is available on Amazon (both hard copy and Kindle), Nook and iBook.

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.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Are Author Web Sites Worth It?

By Randy Ingermanson

My author friends are buzzing this week about an article that recently appeared on DigitalBookWorld about whether author web sites are worth it.  

The rather curious conclusion reached by some of the experts quoted was that most author web sites have very little value and therefore authors should spend their marketing efforts on social media.

The article quoted other experts who took exactly the opposite viewpoint—author web sites are more valuable than social media.

My own opinion is that it’s more complicated than that.

It’s true that most author web sites have very little value. But it doesn’t follow that authors should be spending their time on social media instead.

Based on my conversations with many authors, it’s clear that most of them believe they’re incompetent marketers.  

Ask them. Most authors will tell you they don’t really know what they’re doing with their marketing. Most authors will tell you they can’t prove that any of their marketing actually works.

Assume they’re correct. Assume most authors are as incompetent at marketing as they think they are. 

Then it follows that most of them have incompetent web sites. 

But the same logic implies that most of them are incompetent at Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, and any other marketing method you can name. 

The problem here is that you can’t judge the value of a marketing tool by asking how well it’s used by incompetent marketers. 

The better question is how good a marketing tool is in the hands of a competent marketer.

But the best question is what an author’s marketing goals should be in the first place. Until you know that, any questions of goodness or badness don’t have any meaning. 

A little analogy might be helpful here.

Dogs are incompetent drivers. Therefore, a Ferrari is useless to a dog. 

But it doesn’t follow that a dog should forego the Ferrari and drive a Jeep instead. 

A Jeep is also useless to a dog. So is a minivan, a Yugo, and a bicycle.

The question isn’t whether any of these vehicles is useful to a dog. Dogs have no business driving any of them.

The question is which of them is most useful to you as a trained driver.

Before you can answer that, you first have to define what you mean by “useful.”

If you’re trying for raw speed, then the Ferrari is the most useful.

If you’re trying to travel over rough roads in winter, the Jeep is probably your best bet.

If you’re trying to take a bunch of kids to soccer practice, go with the minivan.

If you wanted some fun and exercise, try the bike.

Avoid the Yugo at all costs because it does nothing well.

Now how does all this apply to you as an author who wants to market your work?

That depends on your level of marketing skill. Are you a competent marketer or are you incompetent? (Your first reaction to this question is probably correct.)

If you’re an incompetent marketer, then you’re not going to do a good job with anything—a web site, Facebook, Twitter, or anything else. None of these will do you much good, so first get some training in marketing. 

What if you’re a competent marketer? What’s the right marketing vehicle for you? That will depend on what your marketing goals are. 

Here are my thoughts on that, and you can take them or leave them.

Generally, your customers go through three distinct phases in becoming your fan. Initially, they don’t know who you are. First, they have to become aware you exist. Second, you have to get them interested in you or your writing. Third, you have to make the sale.

Your three main marketing goals are therefore these:
  1. Attract people who don’t know you.
  2. Engage their interest so they do know you.
  3. Convert them to paying customers.
Any marketing strategy that focuses on only one or two of these phases is doomed to fail. 

A competent marketer is somebody who can execute all three phases well.

Social media tools focus on the Attract and Engage phases. But they don’t do that well at the Convert phase.

The evidence I’ve seen tells me that there are two things that Convert very well:
  • E-mail announcements of new products. 
  • Sales pages on web sites.
So if you’re going to be a competent marketer, you need at least a web site that collects e-mail addresses of your fans and that shows sales pages for all your books. If you’ve got that, you’ve done most of your effort for the Convert phase.

You will also need something to help you Attract and Engage your fans. You can do that with social media or with your web site or with paid ads. Your choice. 

There’s one issue that you need to always keep in mind. That’s the issue of permanence.

Your author web site is the only piece of real estate on the web that you control. It’s the only one you can guarantee will always be there.

Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, and Pinterest all own the land that they let you use. They can take it away. They can change the rules. (Facebook seems to change every few weeks.) They can go out of fashion. (Have you been on MySpace lately?)

Every year, there’ll be some new social media gizmo that everybody says you should be using. Every year, there’ll be some old social media gizmo that quietly fades away. Some of these may be useful to you for a few years. Pursue them if they are. Abandon them when they lose their glitter.

But your first goal is to control your own land on the web and use it to build your tribe. That would be your web site. With a good professional e-mail list service provider. 

Everything else is optional. The web site and e-mail list are not.


This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 6,200 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

Monday, April 21, 2014

Research... but, how?

So there’s been this story rattling around in my brain for a couple years now, but I haven’t known how to even begin. I've wavered between casting it as a proper historical drama or a more fanciful steampunk tale – the problem with starting is that either way I had no idea where to begin all the research this particular story requires.

Until I read this lovely post by Michelle Ule and her extremely helpful step-by-step research process on the Books & Such Literary Management blog.

In summary, Michelle recommends:
  1. Start with the synopsis. How else will you know what to research?
  2. Read everything!
  3. Google, Google, Google. Fact check, fact check, fact check.
  4. Join online interest groups.
  5. Save interesting documents. She emails interesting documents to herself and stores them in a labeled email folder for easy future reference.
  6. Yay! Pinterest!
  7. Yay! Movies!
  8. Yay! Travel!
  9. Talk to everyone, you never know who will have fascinating input.
Now the story in my head has moved from rattling to clamoring, the characters moving from mere shadows to almost substantial ghosts.

I’m excited to learn who they are, what they wear, how they speak - and whether or not they'll submit to the indignities of dirigible travel over Lake Erie.

What are your favorite research techniques? Do you write first, research later? What are your favorite go-to sources?

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 Fire are 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.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Fiction Friday: Winterland

My ebook novella (27,000 words) Winterland has been described as "The Wizard of Oz meets Dante’s Inferno." I simply think of it as a "dark fairy tale." It's about a recovering meth addict, Eunice, who is summoned into her dying mother’s coma, where she must traverse a surreal, apocalyptic dreamscape in search of three generational spirits who have imprisoned her mother’s soul.Together with Joseph, a crippled drifter who serves as her guide, Eunice treks an abandoned highway strewn with debris from her mother’s “emotional” wars.

The following excerpt occurs early in Eunice's adventures along the highway where she encounters a pestilent generational tree and the pitiful creature who cultivates it.

* * *

“A tree!” she exclaimed. “It’s a tree.”

“That’s it,” Joseph shouted over his shoulder. “A tree! That’s always the first thing.”

But this was unlike any tree she had ever seen. It lay across the highway like a dying sea serpent, mangled limbs sagging earthward, cancerous digits spread in appeal to a waterless sky. Oily sores marred the tree’s flesh and withered translucent sacks dangled from its leafless branches like foul ornaments. Its roots had caused a great upheaval, leaving the highway cloven with gaps and buckled concrete. The earth was charred and blasted there, as if nuked into infertility. And the stench— 

She hurried to Joseph's side, unable to look away from the decrepit thing. “What kind of tree is this?” 

“Not a healthy one, that's for sure.” 

“Can’t we go around?” 

“You can never get around it. Not in a hundred years. You’d just keep goin’ in circles. Besides, there’s someone waiting.” 

“A person?! Here?” 

But Joseph kept slogging forward. 

The odor became more oppressive as they went, a gaseous haze rising from the earth and blanketing the area in a thin veil. Eunice gagged. “Joseph, please!” 

“If you stop, you'll lose her. I’m telling you—you will never wanna come back. No one does. When they see the truth of it, no one ever wants to come back.” 

She pulled her shirt up over her nose and, afraid to get too near the pestilent tree, angled her way toward the periphery of its branches. Splattered fruit had stained the ground under its umbrella, leaving a demented abstraction on the blackened earth. The spilled juices had flowed together in spots and turned to tributaries forming a single black stream that sludged its way into the distant basin. Only then, under that baneful canopy, did Eunice realize the aura of death that clung to that place. Something malignant grew there, something so diseased that the very earth was tainted by its sickness. 

Joseph and Eunice navigated knuckles of roots and crumbling concrete until the tree’s branches became a tangle atop them, a skeletal frame weighted with the wretched pods. She began to worry that one of the poisonous fruits would drop on them and, as they picked their way across the terrain, she kept glancing anxiously overhead. 

“C’mon!” Joseph stood on the opposite side of a gnarled root. “Don’t slow down.” Then he added, “And don’t think about it!” 

She glowered at him. 

Suddenly a commotion sounded above and brittle limbs exploded, showering the area. Eunice threw her arms over her head to protect herself, but not before glimpsing strange forms—humanoid, winged creatures with tiny round heads and long legs, skating into the eventide. Twigs clattered to the ground around her. Yet at the moment, Eunice was not worried about getting clubbed by an errant limb. There were others here—things not human. 

Up to that point, her journey had been more like a fantastical experiment or a test of wills. Heck, if she was free to go back whenever she pleased, what real risk was involved? Yet under the shadow of this death tree, it seemed like the stakes were changing. This adventure was no longer about catharsis or subconscious play-acting. It was about survival. 

“Hey!” she shouted to Joseph. “You said I can go back. Right?” 

He poked his head from behind a moldering fallen branch. “We just started.” 

“Yeah, but—” She stared up through the branches and the haze, trying to locate the winged creatures. “You didn’t say there were flying monkeys here.” 

“Monkeys?” He followed her gaze upwards. “Those aren’t monkeys. They’re sentries.” 

She squinted into the sky and saw the creatures in a tight-knit formation, making a beeline toward the raging sunset. Eunice scrabbled over a block of asphalt and joined Joseph. “What does my mother need sentries for?” 

“They’re not your mother’s.” 

Eunice peered at Joseph. 

He replied, “Someone else is worried about you, Eunice. They don’t want you here.” 

For a moment, she stood stunned. Someone else is worried about you. What was that supposed to mean? Who else could be that worried about her? And what were they doing in her mother's world? The raging sun. The tree of death. The winged sentries. And now, an angry watcher bent on sending her packing. She wasn’t a genius, but it didn’t take one to know that this trip would only get worse. 

As Eunice struggled to suppress a rising dread, something moved ahead of them—something squat and nervous and completely inhuman. Her breath caught in her throat. For underneath the rancid tree scurried a creature that looked, for the life of her, like the largest grub the world had ever seen. Wearing overalls. 

* * *

Winterland is currently available for Kindle for 99 cents.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Part Time Writer

by PJ Regnier

Trying to write and balance a full time job is tricky business. After a full day at work and spending time with family and friends, the day is usually spent. Making the extra effort to squeeze in writing time can drive you a little crazy. I usually end up talking to myself. Not out loud of course. I keep the psychosis under wraps. The responsible guy in me knows I need sleep for work the next day. The writer guy in me is more of a dreamer. He doesn’t like to think in practical terms.

Responsible guy and writer guy generally don’t get along. Their conversations go something like this:

Responsible guy: All right, it’s ten thirty. Time for bed.
Writer guy: What? It’s early. C’mon, we haven’t written all day.
Responsible guy: Maybe tomorrow. I’m tired.
Writer guy: What if Shakespeare said that? Look at the classics we would’ve missed out on.
Responsible guy: You haven’t read Shakespeare since high school. Plus, he actually made money with his writing. What did you make last year? Like forty five dollars, wasn’t it?
Writer guy: That’s because you keep going to bed when I could be writing. We just need to be more dedicated.
Responsible guy: My dedication is what keeps food on the table. You’d be writing on napkins in the alley if it wasn’t for me.
Writer guy: We have this conversation a lot, don’t we?
Responsible guy: Yes, now let’s go to sleep.
Writer guy: Wait. Let’s just write one page. That’s all I ask.
Responsible guy: You can’t stop at one. You’ll get in a groove and stay up until two.
Writer guy: No, I promise. Just one?
Responsible guy: And we’re in bed by eleven?
Writer guy: Done writing by eleven.
Responsible guy: Okay, deal.

Type, type, type. Tick, tock, tick, tock…

Responsible guy: Is that clock right? Twelve thirty five?
Writer guy: Don’t stop now. I’m totally in the zone.
Responsible guy: I have a big meeting tomorrow. I need sleep.
Writer guy: Just ten more minutes.
Responsible guy: Forget it.
Writer guy: We’ll take a nap at lunchtime.
Responsible guy: You always say that but it never happens.
Writer guy: Okay, five minutes and that’s it.
Responsible guy: Promise?
Writer guy: Of course.

Type, type, type. Tick, tock, tick, tock…

Responsible guy: Holy crud, it’s one thirty. I’m screwed.
Writer guy: Dude, totally worth it. That scene came out killer.
Responsible guy: I hate you. I’m going to bed.
Writer guy: Okay, okay. Good work.
Responsible guy: Yeah, yeah.

Snore, snore, snore. Alarm! Alarm! Alarm!

Responsible guy: Oh, man. It’s seven already. I am soooooo tired.
Writer guy: Just hit snooze.
Responsible guy: Forget it. You’ve ruined my day enough.
Writer guy: Just ten more minutes of sleep.
Responsible guy: I’m never listening to you again. I’m getting up.
Writer guy: Coffee. Must have coffee.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why do some people like to read scary stories?

By Merrie Destefano

The sun goes down, the sounds of the city grow quiet, and the rest of the family nestles, safe and sound in a world of incandescent light. Meanwhile, one person huddles alone in a darkened room, face turned toward a screen, eerie blue light carving shadows on her face while her fingers slowly tap out a message, letter by letter. 

A writer is writing.

October winds blow outside her window, leaves gather in shadowed corners of the yard and nearby trees sway, branches creaking.

The writer is writing a scary story.

Why do some writers always return to the dark side of literature, spinning out tales that make readers sit on the edge of their seat? Perhaps an even better question, and one that I’d like to discuss here, is why do some people love to read scary stories? 

While, I can’t answer this question definitively, I can offer some suggestions.

1. ADRENALINE RUSH: This is my favorite answer, although many of the others are just as good. We read scary stories so we can experience artificial situations of “fight or flight.” These scenarios, whether real or imagined, get your body ready for action by giving you an extra dose of adrenaline. Your heart beat speeds up, your breathing increases and your blood pressure increases—in other words, it’s like an instant dose of caffeine combined with heavy exercise. You’re ready to leap over tall buildings in a single bound, although you may be screaming “Mommy!” all the way.

2. FAMILIARITY: You’ve been here before and you liked it. You’ve been reading scary stories for years, you have a list of favorite authors and you’re waiting in line, with sweaty palms, when his/her next book releases. You stay up late (reading these stories is always better at midnight, right?), turning pages while everyone else is asleep. But the truth of the matter is you can’t sleep, can you? Not until you know what happens next…

3. A VISCERAL REACTION: The desire to feel something strongly—no matter what the emotion is—can drive readers to these books. Detailed descriptions of eviscerated body parts in zombie stories may not get you excited, but there are plenty of readers out there who live for this stuff.

4. TO FEEL ALIVE: Similar to the answer above, books that put you on the edge remind you that you are alive. You’re not watching some soap opera at lunch time; you’re hunched over a novel wondering if the heroine is really strong and smart enough to survive that demon horde that’s been chasing her for the last twenty pages.

5. TO CONQUER THE DEMONS: We all have our demons, things we’re afraid of but don’t want to admit. Things like clowns (It), menacing dolls (Chucky), the end of the world (The Stand), rampant pestilence (Contagion), rabid dogs (Cujo), vampires (Interview with a Vampire) and serial killers (Darkly Dreaming Dexter). By vicariously facing your fears in a novel, you’re able to tame them, or at least, imagine that you’ve tamed them. Until they show up the next night, waiting for you in the closet.

6. TO EXPLORE THE UNKNOWN: There are boundless supernatural realms, where wonder and horror walk side by side—realms where people rise from the dead or where someone learns the future in their dreams or where someone is giving an extraordinary power. There’s just enough enchantment and mystery to make you want to know more, and just enough danger to make you glad this is fiction.

7. TO FEEL STRONG EMOTIONS: Anger—hatred—fear—love—surprise—terror—repulsion—empathy…Scary stories have all these emotions and more trapped between the pages, just waiting for an innocent reader to come along and release them. Before you know it, you’re experiencing the same emotions. Again, this is similar to Number Three, but I felt that it needed to stated again. (It is my list, no?)

8. TO PROVE WE CAN SURVIVE: Isn’t that what it’s all about? You’re secretly taking notes, so if X, Y or Z ever really happens, you’re ready. Doesn’t everyone know what to do in a zombie/alien apocalypse by now? And if so, why? Because you’ve all been making a list and checking it twice while watching The Walking Dead or Falling Skies.

9. SATISFACTION WHEN TERROR IS OVERCOME:There’s an unbelievably sweet moment when the heroine finally plunges a stake through the heart of the last vampire—almost instantly, your muscles relax, you slump backward in your chair and then breathe a well-deserved long sigh because, without realizing it, you’ve been holding your breath and sitting on the edge of your seat, ready to run.

10. TO PROVE THAT DRAGONS NOT ONLY EXIST, BUT THAT THEY CAN BE DEFEATED: What? Scary stories can give you hope? To quote someone more knowledgeable on this subject than me: “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”―G.K. Chesterton. Watching a character deal with the monster in the closet can give you the courage to face up to your own monsters. Yes, tales of terror can actually be uplifting, when written with that purpose in mind.

Which of these categories do you think you fall into? And what book did read recently that made you feel this way?

Merrie Destefano is represented by Natalie Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency. Merrie’s published work includes Afterlife and Feast (both with HarperVoyager), FathomThe 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, April 11, 2014

Fiction Friday: Outerlands

The story of Outerlands was based on a video game concept friends and I created. Early in the creation process, we reached a point where all the big picture pieces were in place. It was time to nail down the specifics of the fantasy world.
Outerlands book cover
I wanted to see the world through the eyes of a “local.” I began writing a story set in the fantasy world to get a feel for what day to day life might be like. Admittedly, it was far more fun than work.
Through the characters eyes I was able to interact with the peoples and creatures of the land. Creating the details inside the bigger picture allowed me to experience the adventures, dangers and the thrills of living in an uncharted world.
One of the locations that really came alive for me in the writing process was the thorn forest. The sprawling, seemingly inescapable thorn filled vines almost felt like a character to me. It was alive and moving. The vines writhed and twisted, opening and closing pathways to lead explorers where it wished.
Taken from Chapter 13, in the scene below, Jaret and Kedge, the two main characters of the story, happen upon a clearing in the thorns…

Thorn branches formed a dome-shaped clearing that appeared as if it was fashioned by some gifted craftsman rather than a natural occurrence. A green orb of light hung high overhead, casting a faint green glow over the area.
Jaret stood, his eyes fastened on a lone figure in the center of the clearing. A hunched figure, lost in the shadows of a hooded robe, leaned on a twisted, wooden cane. The figure stood motionless, as if waiting for their next move.
Kedge stood up slowly, moving closer to Jaret. “What now?” he whispered.
Jaret shrugged. Kedge drew a sword and struck several times against the thorns that had closed behind them. The blade left only surface marks in the solid vines. Jaret scanned the dense walls of the clearing. There was no way out.
“Looks like we’re stuck in here,” Jaret said.
“I wonder what that thing is.” Kedge tightened his grip on his sword.
Jaret shook his head. The cloaked figure remained frozen in place.
“We mean you no harm,” Kedge called out.
There was no response or movement of any kind from the figure.
“Maybe he’s dead. Got trapped in here like us long ago,” Kedge said.
Jaret started forward and Kedge grabbed his arm.
“What are you doing?” Kedge asked.
“Getting a closer look.”
“You don’t know what’s under that hood. He could be dangerous.”
“Well, we can’t just stand here all day.”
Kedge looked around as if considering the idea.
Jaret frowned. “You’re supposed to be the adventurous one, remember?”
Kedge cast a scornful look at the surrounding thorns then drew his other sword. “Okay but let’s keep our distance.”
They headed forward, coming within a few yards of the figure. The robe hid the figure in shadow, even the cane disappeared into the sleeve of the garment.
“Greetings, friend. Are you all right?” Jaret asked.
The figure remained motionless.
Kedge leaned over to Jaret. “Ready yourself,” he whispered.
Jaret nodded, his hand sliding behind his back and lighting with a small flame.
“Can you hear us, old friend?” Kedge asked.
The figure’s head lifted toward Kedge, making a slithering noise.
Jaret took a step back, startled by the sudden movement. Kedge shot him a nervous glance. The figure raised its cloaked arm toward Kedge and more slithering sounds proceeded from within the robe.
“Oh, our apologies.” Kedge backed away, his eyes widening. “W-we didn’t mean to intrude.”
Vines burst from the sleeve and wrapped around Kedge’s right arm. Kedge screamed, struggling to back away from the figure, and struck at the vines with his free sword.
The shadowy hood looked toward Jaret and vines shot forward, grasping at his limbs. Jaret shot streams of fire at the vines, but they weaved and twisted away, coming at him from all sides. Jaret backed away, raising up walls of earth to stop their advance. The vines merely slid around them and within moments were wrapped around his arms and legs, holding him still.
Kedge hacked at the vines, freeing himself from the figure. He stumbled backward as vines continued to pour out of the robe. He regained his footing and slashed wildly as they advanced but was soon overwhelmed. Within seconds he was suspended just above the ground, held tightly in place by the vines.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Hooks Readers Can't Resist

I conducted an informal study at my editing site to discover what elements in the
opening of a novel grabbed readers' attention and why.
            From a small sampling of published novels, those who wished to participate voted for the opening that most hooked them into the story. Here are the top two, separated by only one vote.

First place:

I never believed in ghosts. Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep me away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze. (Fathom by Merrie Destefano)

Second place:
Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch's skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.
She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?
Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne. (Prophet by R. J. Larson)

            From this informal survey, I draw several conclusions about openings that engage readers and hook them into the story.
            The ones that attracted the most readers contained surprise or the unexpected — e.g. warm snow, seeing a ghost.
            They also created tension. From Fathom, for example, the tension is palpable when in the middle of a summer night, wind scratching tree branches against the window, the protagonist starts awake. Perhaps less so in The Prophet but still present is the tension created by the smeared ash "like menacing shadows."
            The openings that captured the attention of most readers also generated a question, whether spoken or unspoken. Why would a ghost visit a twelve-year-old? What was burning?
            Another element that these openings share is evocative language. In Fathom: "... the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away." And "some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze." In Prophet: "Tarnished snow," "smear across her brown flesh," and "mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square."
            The final element I notice in the top attention-getting entries is that they connect the reader with a character. Fathom does this in part because of the first person point of view. The reader is right with the character from the beginning, feeling what she feels, experiencing the same startling event she experienced.
            Prophet creates a connection with the character through description and her actions. She's observant, curious, unnerved, concerned. Her questioning draws the reader in to question with her.
            In truth, there is no sure-fire formula for an intriguing opening that will hook readers, but writers won't go wrong by surprising their audience, creating tension and questions, using evocative language, and connecting them with an interesting character.
Writing Exercise
            Read the opening one hundred to two hundred words of your manuscript. Have you presented anything surprising or unexpected? Did you create tension? Did you use any evocative language? Have you connected readers to an interesting character?
            Now give your manuscript to a reader (preferably someone to whom you are not related) and ask them these same questions.

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Excerpted from Power Elements Of Story Structure, available as an ebook on Amazon.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What we lose when the fairy tales are no longer Grimm

Remember fairy tales? You know, the Grimm ones, where people died violent deaths – often at the hands of children?
Guess J.R.R. Tolkien was more prescient than we give him credit for.
In 1939 Tolkien gave the lecture “Fairy Stories”, later published as the essay “On Fairy-Stories” in which he railed against the fate of fairy tales as they became increasingly relegated to the realm of children’s literature. (Read more here...)
“Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused,” Tolkien said. “Children as a class …neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things.”
The problem he foresaw was that just as anything left in the hands of children will eventually be destroyed, so would the value of a well-conceived and written fantasy. Especially the caliber of fantasy that reveals to us deeper truths often hidden in “real life”.
So, what has happened in the past 70 years to the fairy tales we feed our children? I have an almost complete set of The Junior Classics: The Young Folk’s Shelf of Books, copyright 1938, 1948 and 1949. I started reading Volume 1: Fairy Tales and Fables to my sons before bed. I had to quit because some of the stories were too scary.
Take, for example, the story Mollie Whuppie, by Joseph Jacobs.
Little Mollie and two of her older sisters are dropped off in the woods by their parents who have too many other mouths to feed. The hapless girls wander through the woods until they come to a house. Of course a giant lives there. The girls are fed and allowed to share beds with his three normal-sized daughters. Before bed, though, the daughters are given gold chains to wear while the homeless girls are given straw ropes to wear around their necks.
Mollie, apparently the cleverest of the girls, suspects something, and switches the ropes and necklaces once the other girls are all asleep, and the giant bludgeons his own daughters to death. The visitors escape to a nearby kingdom.
Which is where Disney would probably end, with Mollie and her sisters living Happily Ever After… but that’s not how this story goes.
The king of the kingdom gives Mary a kind of negative compliment for her quick thinking, “Mollie, you are a clever girl and you have managed well; but, if you would manage better, go back and steal the giant’s sword than hangs on the back of his bed, I would give your eldest sister my eldest son to marry.”
She succeeds, but not before the grieving giant nearly catches her and threatens her life. The king sends her back again, this time for a bag of gold from under the giant’s pillow, on the promise that the second sister will marry his second son. Again she succeeds, but only just, escaping across a narrow rope bridge that will not support the giant’s weight.
The king, again (seriously, what kind of a jerk is this that keeps sending a child into harm’s way?), asks Mollie to take from the giant the gold ring on his finger. For this Mollie will get to marry the youngest prince.
This time Mollie gets caught and is stuffed into a bag with a dog and a cat while the giant goes out to find a stick to beat her to death with. She escapes by tricking the giant’s wife into switching places. The giant beats his wife to death while Mollie once again escapes over the “Bridge of One Hair”.
After reading “The End” to my sons I thought, “wow. I’ll never complain about Loony Tunes violence ever again!”
As I think about it, though, there’s no “damsel in distress” here. Mollie is resourceful, loyal to her sisters, selfless and insanely brave. She is Tris in a genre dominated by Bella. And those are lessons I want my kids to learn.

Those are lessons I need to internalize myself.

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. 
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.