Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Write what you know

This is an old adage: write what you know. As far as possible I try to apply it to my writing but sometimes this does require that I go out and do stuff I wouldn’t ordinarily do. Like this past weekend, for instance. I climbed a mountain in my area to specifically visit a cave I’d heard a lot about while I was growing up.

I’ve a scene in my current work in progress, an urban fantasy novel entitled Incarna, where my main character climbs the same route late at night during a storm to go hide an artefact.

When I wrote the initial scene, I’d envisioned the route, based on a vague knowledge of the area and a contour map I downloaded off the internet. Not happy with the results, I decided some practical experience was necessary so, on Sunday, myself and my long-suffering husband put on our walking shoes and embarked on our little jaunt.

While my idea of timing was pretty spot-on, the route wasn’t. I’d chosen the wrong route in my novel because the quicker route proved to be the one I’d considered more difficult by looking at the map.

More importantly, while I’ve explored caves in the Table Mountain range before, I’d not gone as deep into a cave in this region before. I’d imagined the floor to be sandy, the rocks dry. In real life they weren’t. They were quite damp and, inside the mountain it was cold, and almost frigid, with the constant drip of moisture in some areas.

When my hands came in contact with the stone, my skin came away with a layer of sludge. There was no convenient sandy floor but uneven rocks. Footing was quite treacherous.

The only happy coincidence was that in my story, I’d written in a small chamber with a narrow lateral passage where my main character squeezes in to hide his artefact. Imagine my surprise when I encountered almost the exact same kind of passage in real life.

Most of what I write is based on some sort of practical experience. I feel this gives a nice ring of authenticity to my stories. While the internet may provide a good starting point, I encourage authors to go out there and try things for themselves.

Are you writing about a mortician? Approach a funeral home in your area and talk to an actual mortician. If you’re not squeamish, go and shadow them for a day or two. Are you writing about someone who’s into fashion design? Do the same. Go out, talk them, see what their day-to-day work is like.

Authors are, by their very natures, Jacks of all trades. We know a little about everything. Make it your mission to engage in novelty at least once a month. Do something out of your usual routine. You’ll be surprised at what you may discover and how this can enrich your writing.

* * * *

My next urban fantasy tale, The Namaqualand Book of the Dead, releases on March 21. Read an excerpt here: http://www.lyricalpress.com/store/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1_22&products_id=313

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Is there such a thing as a good bad guy?

Well, yeah. Kinda. Since I write mysteries, I look at the villain a little differently. In my fictional world, the villains usually do some seriously nasty things—murder, kidnapping, theft, whatever.

I was told once, and I don't remember exactly where, that the antagonist is the hero of his or her own story.

My villains think they're doing the right thing. They usually aren't, but they think they are. Sometimes it's a case of doing the wrong things for the right reasons. At least in their minds.

That's what makes a good villain. Very few people in the non-fiction world are pure good or pure evil. A variety of factors make us who we are: our environment growing up, our friends, our families, even our eduction. None of us live in a bubble. Everything effects us, even if we don't realize it at the time.

One of the things about fiction is that we—as authors—can manipulate the lives of our characters in ways we can't do with the real people of the world.

So what makes a good villain? Being multi-demtional. Knowing that they think they're doing something right. Them having a reason for it (even if the reason isn't logical to the rest of the world).

What I want to know, though, is this: who is your favorite villain and why?


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Team Brat

One of the topics that Nerine suggested for me last week is this: how does your environment inspire your writing? I didn't think I'd be able to discuss this topic because I didn't think I felt a strong enough connection to my environment for it to inspire my writing. For the first half of my life I was raised on military installations in various parts of the US, as well as Japan and Germany. The longest we ever lived in one place was two and a half years, and frequently we stayed for less time than that. I had very little stability growing up and never had the chance to be anything but an outsider. I thought that would change as an adult and I tried to adapt to living in a small town. I could not have been more wrong. Despite all the years I've lived here, it still doesn't feel like home. I don't think any "place" will ever feel like home. My home is a person instead of a place - my husband.

So if I don't have the standard place or environment that most people think of as home, is it possible that has had some influence over my writing? A brief exchange with a friend on Facebook got me thinking about that. Okay, yes, it was either figure this out or switch to another topic. The  more I thought about this question, the more I wanted an answer, even if it was one I didn't want to publish in a blog post. My friend asked me about other writers that grew up as military brats and I couldn't think of any at that moment, but I did a Google search later. Turns out I'd forgotten all about Pat Conroy, mostly because I've never been brave enough to read The Great Santini. My search also led me to this fascinating Wiki page about military brat subculture. I found myself nodding in agreement with quite a bit of it, recognizing some of both the positive and negative patterns in myself and my life. This passage especially struck a chord:  a pattern (for those military brats who do not choose military service) of work that is more independent (self-employment / avoidance of direct subservience to authority figures) and along those lines also favoring creative and artistic professions that offer more independence. That made me think of Kris Kristofferson because he is my favorite famous brat, and then surprisingly, my own characters.

So far my main characters have had certain things in common. They are all outsiders to some extent, usually a great extent. They are all independent, and if they answer to any authority figure it's out of personal loyalty and not some kind of corporate loyalty. They are all either other themselves or unusually accepting of anyone other. (See the anti-racism section of the Wiki article. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, makes my blood boil more than the small-minded cowardice of bigotry.)

Let me break this down a little more with specific characters. Both Jessie of Bring on the Night and Roxanne of Mojo Queen believe in using their supernatural gifts to help people. I grew up around people in uniform who believed in something greater than themselves, and I believe that is a huge part of why I love hero stories. Putting yourself on the line for someone else's benefit is an amazing thing to do. Jessie has a boss but is mostly autonomous. Roxie runs her own business as a paranormal investigator and root worker. Aislinn, the main character of my Paranormal Beat series, has an editor in chief but she's her own managing editor and pretty much does as she pleases. And I recognized very early on in the writing of the first Paranormal Beat novella that standing up against bigotry and for treating all people with kindness and basic decency was a deep underlying theme. I think that's a pretty common theme in a lot of paranormal fiction, though. Right on the first page of the first Sookie Stackhouse novel vampires are referred to as having come out of the coffin, and there is nothing subtle about the "God Hates Fangs" sign briefly glimpsed in the opening credits of True Blood. Having grown up with people of different backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, it is so hard for me to understand the deliberate demonization of people who are just, well, people. The monster metaphors help me to write about this without dissolving into tears and rage at what feels like a betrayal by some of everything good I was raised to believe. They also help me to accept my status as an outsider. That's something I thought would surely eventually change, but it hasn't and I guess it never will. So I write about outsiders, and they do the best they can with what they've got to help people, to stand up for what's right, and to keep their souls and their integrity intact.

I guess that was some pretty powerful inspiration after all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Good writing habits

It's heartening to know I can do it: bettering my previous score for NaNo. I got to 30 000 words for the 2009 NaNoWriMo then ground to a halt when my day-job bit me on my posterior. And yes... that unfinished epic is languishing on my hard drive somewhere. I suspect it's also another one of my "lost" novels.

I started writing Incarna on December 28 and I'm now just shy of 60 000 words. How do I do it, you may ask? I've been writing almost 3 000 words every day, though I don't beat myself over the head if I don't quite make it, for whatever reason. This is on top of my day-job and editing obligations for my publisher.

To be quite honest, I don't know how, save that I'm very disciplined in my approach to working. While I do spend a bit of time involved in social networking (reading blogs, Facebooking and Twitter), when I work, I unplug myself from cyberspace and go hide either in the lounge, sprawled on the couch, or in my bedroom.

I work in bursts, which means I'll start by reading 10 pages of a submission, edit 10 pages of a novel then reward myself by writing a page of my own work. This kind of round usually takes about 3/4 of an hour. Then I get up, fold some laundry, water plants or feed the animals, check my mail, and go back to the couch.

Granted, this works when I'm home all day. But on an ordinary work day? I get up at 5.30am, feed animals, have coffee, check mail for 15 minutes, get ready and catch the 7.20am train to town. I then work for 3/4 on the train, usually handling 10 pages of edits for my publisher then treating myself to my own writing until we arrive in the CBD. During lunch I usually do the same kind of editing cycle as I would on the train. The only time I have to read for pleasure is an hour on the train going home during the afternoon. This is my chill-out time, because when I get home, I wash dishes, feed the animals (including the husband), allow myself half an hour to reply to emails... and start with an hour or three of reading subs, editing and writing.

I don't watch TV anymore. Personally, it bores me to death. I have what I fondly refer to as a YouTube attention span. Anything over six minutes and I lose interest.

Also, another thing, I divide my writing time into two phases: writing and revising. I don't write new words while I'm revising. I simply can't give my revisions the kind of attention they deserve if I'm emotionally invested in laying down a first draft.

I guess what I'm trying to say is you too can write a novel in a month or two. Do so by giving yourself a deadline, and make it your goal to write the required word count every day. Identify times of the day you can use for this, even if it means getting up an hour earlier every day. If you really want to do this thing, you can. Then get your butt on the chair and write. You'll find it becomes easier the more you get used to the routine. But do remember to allow yourself to do some of the fun things between, without them becoming distractions.

Environmental factors

Since Sonya so wonderfully asked for topics and Nerine so graciously gave some ideas, I'm going to use them!

Nerine's first question was "How does your environment inspire your writing?" Well, let me tell you mine does. In just about every way.

In Ghost Mountain, the murder occurs at Devils Tower, just 100 miles from my home. In the sequel, the murder takes place at Bear Butte, 40 miles from home. Obviously, my location is important to my work. Anyone who has ever visited the Black Hills of South Dakota can attest to the beauty of the area.

But writing doesn't happen there. Yes, I may get inspired by the beauty which surrounds me, but I don't write outside. Especially not in South Dakota's winters. It was -15 F last week! I didn't want to walk out to start the car, let alone sit out there an write!

My inside writing environment isn't always the most conducive to work, however. There are days my house is more like a zoo than a house. Well, I do have four cats. And three dogs. And two kids. And a husband. So one of the kids has "flown the coup" but she still lives in town (hooray!). The other is a senior in high school and looking forward to leaving for college in the fall. But I take my mom duties very seriously and have been known to stop what I'm doing if either of them need something—even if it's just to talk. Hubby is in a class by himself as far as time commitments. You'd think that since we are both home all day, every day, it would be easier to have him wait, but I find that I drop my projects when he asks. Oh! And don't forget my other job. Yes, I may work from home, but it's still a job.

With all these distractions, I often find myself...well, distracted.

So what do I do? For starters, I have been known to give the "Evil Mom Death Glare" to anyone brave enough to enter my office when they know I'm working. It's the same glare that tells them not to bother me on the phone unless they are bleeding or dead. Doesn't always work, however. I've also been guilty of the phrase "just give me a minute" before doing something as mundane as starting dinner. Often this will cause them to cook, or at least fend for themselves. Not always the best solution, but it works. And no one in the house has starved while I finish a scene.

My environment provides both positives and negatives. But doesn't everyone's?


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Help a blogger out

Here I am once again without a blog topic. So I'm going to ask you, Dear Reader, what would you like to see here on Wednesdays? What sort of topics are you interested in, what questions would you like answered? Because at this point about all I've got is live-blogging my Great Buffy/Angel Rewatch of 2011 Event. Once I actually start doing that, which I haven't yet.

Any ideas?



Pretty please, with sugar on top. ;-)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Back in the Saltmines, again...

I'm quite surprised I've lasted this long. By the middle of 2011, I will have worked for the same company, a national South African newspaper publisher, for six years. Before that I'd never lasted more than two years before terminal boredom set in.

Granted, my day-job isn't the most inspiring, but it has opened doors for me to write lifestyle and travel-orientated editorial, which is published nationally. I've turned what could have been a very boring day-job into something fun and challenging, but it does require going beyond the call of duty and putting in a lot of extra hard work I don't get paid for.

What I realised this past week or so while I was on leave, is that I really enjoy my freelance work as a content editor. I've also realised that if this job were to ever pay the right kind of money, I possess the discipline to turn this into a full-time profession.

And I've really revelled in a fortnight of hiding in my Treehaus in the far south of the Cape Peninsula. After the year I've had, this time of isolation was so necessary, just to catch my breath and establish fresh current for 2011. I'm cautiously optimistic about what this year will bring and have managed to get some quiet time.

What struck me as well during my leave was that I really enjoyed working from home, on my content editing. Not only do I have the satisfaction of seeing an author's work go out into the world, but there's the quiet joy of giving authors that toehold in the publishing industry.

When I see how authors bloom and gain confidence, it's a source of joy and wonder. With each first contract offered, I recapture some of the excitement when a letter that said, "Dear author, thank you for querying, but..." reads "Dear author, we are pleased to offer you a contract..."

And when those first good reviews come in, I recall the hours of hard work and I feel that warm fuzzy glow knowing I was partially responsible for shaping these words that have pleased readers.

There's something subtle and satisfying in seeing new cover art for the first time, remembering the sometimes hesitant query letters I read when I reviewed a submission of a previously unpublished author, how a manuscript has gone from a MS Word document to a final .pdf with lush cover art.

And, while some of my charges are going on to bigger, more ambitious projects, this gives me a sense of accomplishment for having been there to give them that much-needed boost so they can go out there and realise their dreams.

Yes, I'm a facilitator of dreams, and I love it. And, while it sometimes stings that I can't do this full-time, I'm doing it because it's something that adds quality not only to my own creativity, but to those of others who are also prone to dreaming.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Precious

Sometimes I don't feel like writing. Sometimes all I want to do is read. Like the past week, while I am enjoying having a brand new Kindle. Right now it is far more enchanting to me than the idea of working on my own manuscripts. This is especially true today, now that I am home from the dentist and my mouth hurts from getting a shot and a filling. All I want to do is curl up on the couch with my puppy and my Kindle and read.

My husband commented last night that I seemed to be reading more now that I have a Kindle. That's true, and I wonder if it's because it's a shiny new toy or will the device really change my reading habits. I can tell you it's easier to hold than a paperback, certainly easier than a hardback, and much easier than reading on my laptop. Once the new wears off and I've burned through all these books I bought, I'll have to pay attention to what happens with my reading habits and see how having an ereader changes them.

Not only am I curious about the amount I'll be reading, I'm curious if this will change what I read. There are a lot of classics in the public domain available for free - will having a Kindle finally be the thing that gets me to read Pride and Prejudice? I would like to read more classics, but I so love a good trashy genre novel, so I'm not going to hold myself to any lofty expectations. We'll see how it goes.

I have not yet named my Kindle but I keep thinking I should. I thought of calling it Giles, after my favorite fictional librarian. Or maybe just The Precious. Let's pretend for a moment I have the skill to photoshop a picture of Gollum holding a Kindle. Sadly I don't, which is too bad because that would be an awesome picture. I do have this, though:

My Kindle, with my book!
Anyone else get a new ereader this holiday season? What do you think of it, and do you think it will change your reading habits?

Here's links where you can get Bring on the Night for your Kindle or Nook. It's quite the action-packed little story with a great kick-ass girl vampire, and I guarantee 100% of my royalties from your purchase will go toward more books for The Precious Giles!*

*Let's just blame any goofiness evident in this post on that trip to the dentist, shall we? My mouth hurts. :(

Monday, January 3, 2011

Once upon a time...

Last week I blogged about my goals for 2011. This week I thought I'd look back a little.

I didn't always want to be a novelist. When I was really little, I wanted to be a police officer just like my dad and my grandmother. That didn't last too long, however. You see, I really dislike exercise. And police officers need to be fit.

My sense of justice didn't disappear with my change in career plans. After police work, I being a lawyer would be great fun. Oh, I didn't want to be just any lawyer—I wanted to be Perry Mason. I wanted to end every cross examination with a brilliant declaration of "who dun-it" because of course, my client would always be innocent.

I don't remember who convinced me that becoming a lawyer was a bad idea. It could have been my dad, who probably wondered how he would afford to send me to college and law school on a cop's salary. Whoever opened my eyes to the reality of a lawyer did so fairly quickly and my law school dreams were short lived.

I've said before that I was first published at the age of 7 in Daisy Magazine, the official Girl Scout magazine at the time. I always wrote, but it wasn't until a high school journalism class that the writing bug defined my life. That's when I decided to be a reporter.

Law enforcement and the media seem to have a mutual distrust of each other, so Dad wasn't all that excited about his oldest pursuing a career in that field. But he's always been supportive of his daughter's goals, so he "sucked it up."

It wasn't until I graduated college and couldn't find a job as a reporter (I did, however, work as a production tech for a local television station for a bit) that I opted to seriously work on fiction.

So what does this have to do with my novels now? I think it's one of the reasons I write mysteries. Obviously I've always wanted the "good guys" to win and justice to prevail. We all know that doesn't happen in the "real world" but in fiction we expect things to end that way. My protagonist is a free lance writer, which helps me use my own experiences and eduction for Cerri's benefit. And I've been able to use my dad as a great "expert" for my law enforcement characters.

I believe that people learn from every experience and every thought. What you learn, what you take away, is partially up to the individual. People just need to open their eyes, their ears, their minds, and their hearts to learn. As a novelist, I've been able to use my previous wants and desires in my fiction. Those same wants and desires allowed me to grow into the person I am today.

Am I were I thought I would be career-wise? Nope.

But I am where I'm supposed to be.