I love writing with the Fictorians!

The Fictorians blog was formed by Superstars Writing Seminar alumni who represent all genres, long fiction and short fiction. Some are independently published and others are traditionally published. But mostly, we’re writers who want to give back to the writing community by sharing what we’ve learned. You can find hundreds of marvelous blogs on topics including craft, business, the writing life, and movies and stories.

Here are excerpts from some of my posts. I’ve written many so I’ll be changing this list from time to time. To see the entire article, click on title. To read more posts by me or other authors, visit the Fictorians at: http://www.fictorians.com/.

Enjoy! And if there’s something you’d like me to write about, please let me know.

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Two Great Examples of How to Lie

Lying well is a great art – a con artist will agree, but so will the great writers. It is a much used device and character trait and if done well, the reader is drawn into the drama. Lying has many uses: to further the plot, to plant clues, create mystery and tension in a cat and mouse game of truth finding, to introduce information without being forthright about it, to pace the story and timing of reveals, to change direction in the plot, and to misdirect readers to increase the shock and thrill of a reveal.

All these uses make the lie a very powerful, multi-purpose tool.

Lying is more than the art of misdirection, although in a good mystery there’ll be plenty of red herrings and misdirection which increases the thrill of the reveals. Lying is about the relationships characters have with each other and with themselves. Who lies to whom?

In its simplest form, a character can either lie to herself or to someone else. Whether it’s about a personal flaw, a false belief which forms her worldview, or a moral justification which conflicts with an authority such as the law, a religious or ethical code, or it may be avoidance to face the consequences of a truth.

The art of a good lie is that the reader will begin to believe those lies, despite clues to the contrary. This increases the shock value of reveals. That’s what makes the cat and mouse game of truth versus lie so scintillating.

The danger of the lie is that it can alienate the reader. If your protagonist lies to characters, it had better be for a good reason because it will affect how your reader feels about the character. Every protagonist has a moral code and readers expect her to act within that code. The code may include lying all the time or only in certain circumstances such as to protect others or oneself, for personal gain, to hurt, to entrap, to avoid a truth. Depending on how this is done, reader emotion can range from sympathy to horror, and your protagonist can be seen as either heroic or villainous. We all lie, even our favorite heroes do, that’s part of what makes each of us human and our characters relatable. So, lying must be part of the writer’s toolkit.

Recently, I read two books which employed lies in very different ways. Both authors intrigued me with their choices and their consistent, believable execution of the lie. In both stories, lying was central to how each mystery was created and solved. However, the lies weren’t merely fibbing or speaking a falsehood, although that played into the dramas as well. In Death by a Honey Bee by Abigail Keam, most lies were justified because of a moral and ethical code which doesn’t fully conform to law enforcement’s rules which means adjusting the truth and meeting out justice from the amateur sleuth’s personal moral code. In The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena primarily used omission, the withholding of information, by each character.

Thes two ways of using lies in these novels couldn’t have been more different, but the effect was the same – a mystery was created, a puzzle needed to be solved and the sleuth (one a detective and the other an amateur) had to uncover the truth. Keam’s use of the lie, however, created a cat and mouse game filled with red herrings. Josiah Reynolds, a middle aged beekeeper has her own brand of lying and justice based on her personal Southern Kentucky code of justice. She lies to the police, lies to herself, and lies to others. Despite the lies the protagonist tells, or perhaps because of them, Keam manages to create a believable and likeable protagonist. Josiah’s lies to others sometimes comes in the form of pranks, like when she lies about her young and gay lawyer friend Matt being her lover.

By contrast, Lapina’s characters, except for the detective, withheld major information which was slowly meted out to create a suspenseful novel which was hard to put down. Her trick, I think, was not to let the reader know immediately what information was withheld, or who was lying about what and only to use the reveals to move the plot forward. She used other forms of lying such as omission, secrets, lying to the police, lying to oneself. Lying to oneself was one of the most cunning devices, however. Without spoiling the plot, the mother, Anna suffers from post partum depression and her needing to face some hard facts about herself, lying to herself and to others about her condition, is excruciating and the tension builds as we want to know what really happened.

In this novel, everyone is hiding something, and no one is telling until and only if they absolutely have to. Masterfully done- a setting of every parent’s nightmare, a child has been kidnapped from Anna and Marco’s home while they were next door at the neighbour’s for a dinner party. Anna and Marco love their little girl and the torture of her being gone, of time passing and her not being found are excruciating. Detective Rasbach pulls out their secrets, one by one and slowly reveals the omissions.

The Couple Next Door is a must read for Lapena is not just a writer, she’s one of the Fates, weaving in a thread of omission, a thread of an incomplete truth, then gently pulling it, leaving it for a while only to come back to tug at it and then having it unravel. Keam’s Josiah Reynolds series is also a must read on not only how to make a lying protagonist likeable but also because Josiah has a refreshing worldview, albeit a little quirky.

The best way to learn to lie is to study the lie and the techniques used by Keam and Lapina are great studies (and reads), indeed.

The One Friendship Writers Must Not Forget

This month, we’ve read posts about how friends in a story can serve to illuminate plot and the protagonist. We’ve also heard about how critique groups can be inspiring and help us to become better writers. Our friendships, whether with writers or others can help us to overcome personal and health concerns which affect our writing life. But there is one other friendship we must salute – and that’s the reader’s friendship with a book.

Books entertain us, engross us in their characters and worlds. They teach us a little about ourselves, our world, and our relationship to and with each other. Every well-crafted book, as every author knows, requires research and thought not only about character, but about philosophy, technology, politics, clothing, food, and all things most dear and valued.

The first time I read an excellent book, it is to me just as if I had gained a new friend. When I read over a book I have perused before, it resembles the meeting with an old one.
– Oliver Goldsmith

A characters’ hardships become our hardships, and their triumphs, disappointments, loves and hates also become ours. We cheer them, we jeer them. We bite our nails with worry and lose sleep over them. We want to visit their worlds, to chat with them, and often we don’t want our journey with them to end. How many people do we know who allow us to know them so intimately?

Through books, we can safely travel into the past without fear about being stomped on or eaten by dinosaurs. We can live on a space station without zero gravity affecting our bodies. We can visit the what-ifs of alternate history or live with hobbits and faeries. Or, we can visit the tender, the romantic, the grieving, the dying parts of our hearts, the very soul of human existence.

Books are our lovers, our mentors, our guides and philosophers. They are our heart break, our inspiration, our voyage into the fantastic, the scary, the parts of ourselves we both desire and dread. They are also the place where we can learn about ourselves, our world, hard science, speculative science, about religions, foods and customs of places we can never visit, or we can learn to cook or fix the plumbing.

Comfort, salvation, or escape from our daily realities can be found in books. Some books help us through our hardest moments when they help us face the hard truths. From this we go forward a little wiser, and a little humbler.

A book, too, can be a star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.
– Madeleine L’Engle

For all these reasons, every writer makes a pact with the reader when giving a gift of a new friend. That pact is a promise of a lasting friendship borne of captivating characters; a world wherein the reader is so immersed that friendship is undeniable.

And yet, books are odd friends. You can’t yell, at them, I mean, yes you can but they won’t respond or yell back. You can burn them or spill tea on them and they won’t complain or file a complaint of book abuse. They are a one-way friendship, of sorts, whose ideas and words can niggle and torment for days or even years even after the covers have been closed. These hauntings of sorts, can be either the most pleasant or the most tormenting, creating a duelling conversation of voices in our heads.

No matter what his rank or position may be, the lover of books is the richest and the happiest of the children of men.
– J.A. Langford

The reason some books can haunt and invade our psyches is because they’ve struck cords of doubt, or love, or longing, or thought and reflection deeply within our own hearts. Thus, every book becomes a special friend to every person who reads it. Every reader brings their own unique world view to the story, their values, understanding of relationships and what is normal, even their own meaning for specific words. No matter the author’s intent, no matter what the author conceived, felt or saw in her imaginings, the reader’s unique perspective changes and twists the author’s world ever so slightly, thus making that book a unique friend.

The book has an unusual power, not only to become one’s best friend, but to also create friendships between people. These friendships occur when readers enjoy and embrace the same book. Irving Stone said it best when he wrote: “There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.”

For all these reasons, there are books we must forever keep on our shelves, despite yellowing pages or dust bunnies proliferating – these books are friends forever.

I have an odd collection of forever-friends-books: a dictionary I used to read when in grade school (that’s my nerdy friend), a biochemistry book from university (the science geek I love); Captain Underpants (need I say more?}, a translated series of books Women’s Voices in Ukrainian Literature (this is everyday history at it’s best); How to do Psychic Readings Through Touch; and the list goes on! The point is, is that these books not only inform, they each play their part in satisfying a need of the heart, a curiosity of the mind and spirit. To ask any one human to be this kind of friend would be an impossible achievement for anyone.

Books are the one freindship writers should never overlook. For many reasons, our words affect how people not only see and interact with their world, but also how they feel. We have a duty, a sacred trust, to be as engrossing, as engaging as we can be in creating spell binding worlds with characters who will stay with the reader long after the covers are closed.

Sometimes you never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.
Dr. Seuss
 

Creating Tension in Mysteries

Mysteries are puzzles to be solved. Inherent in that puzzle is the expectation of tension created by the anticipation of a sympathetic sleuth’s ordeal and the promises made by the writer. There are a few points to be kept in mind to create tension in a mystery.

A good mystery writer incites anxiety, stress, dread, worry, speculation, fretting, and curiosity. Experiencing those emotions is what makes a story a page turner. How is this done? By creating sympathetic characters, characters to cheer for, and then throwing in mini-conflicts, obstacles, failures, and reminding us what’s at stake for the protagonist. It can be as simple as personal pride, a need not to be a failure, or as grand as a family member held as hostage. Or, if they know the plan such as a schedule, or if characters reveal an agenda or secrets and the clock is ticking on those, the reader thinks they know what to expect but something gets screwed up, or the plans happen in a manner which propels the story and tension is created.

Characters who are care and can be cared about hook the reader emotionally. When readers care, they perceive tension when information is with held because they are empathizing and sympathizing. They want answers as much as the sleuth does. They worry knowing that the murderer lurks around the corner and the protagonist is headed right for him. Or, it’s about the presumed impact, abstract consequences in which the reader’s anticipation of what could happen escalates. Danger approaches, the sleuth is in peril and tension builds as the reader worries for the sleuth. Tension , however, isn’t all about action scenes. It can also be about the promise of danger.

The promise of danger is equally if not more effective than action itself. The moments between promises, the waiting, not knowing creates tension in mysteries. The false hopes of an answer – that red herring – an answer to a promise which bore no fruit, all of these create tension. As a writer you must ask yourself what you can promise that will go wrong? The rule about promises and action is this: anticipation creates tension while action is payoff and deflates tension and reader attention. Have you ever watched a movie, a television show or read a book where the sexual tension between two characters is high? Create a situation where they consummate that tension and poof! it is gone for the reader too. That is also true of answering the big questions, solving the big pieces of the puzzle too soon.

Red herrings in mystery work because they don’t answer the big questions – they create more. The reader anticipates the conflict, the reasons for a the red herring’s actions, and the tension mounts because we really don’t know the truth, just that so much is implied. Then, we learn that the herring is red, the criminal is on the loose, the clock still ticks, and the mystery still is unresolved. It’s all part of a mystery’s story structure: creating clues that indicate one or more suspects, include red herring clues and suspects, lead the sleuth down specific paths in the maze of the investigation and eventually redirect the sleuth to the criminal. This structure is a framework for creating tension.

Tension in a mystery isn’t created by merely mentioning the crime or the criminal in the beginning, or by asking the great unresolved question in the beginning and then forgetting about it. The reader needs to be reminded, forced back to that unresolved question – what if the criminal isn’t captured? What if the lost jewels aren’t returned? What if? What if? How upsetting will it be if the sleuth loses?

Not answering questions immediately creates tension and in a mystery there are many opportunities for this. Sometimes a question needs to be answered quickly to propel a story forward. The path of the red herring was a dead and in the maze of the puzzle, so we must explore another path. Remember this rule though: If a question is answered immediately, it’s a small surprise with a small payoff. If it’s stretch out over several pages or chapters, it must have a big surprise with a big payoff. Put another way – each time a question is asked, a promise is made. Each time the stakes are raised a promise is made. Readers need you to deliver on those promises. If it’s the biggest crime of the century, then the payoff for the sleuth must be big. And, it can’t be predictable. Readers think they know what will happen, but they want to be surprised by the answer. Knowing that you will deliver on the surprise also creates tension because it leaves readers wondering what will happen next.

An effective, yet seldom talked about tool to create tension, is for the writer to know the antagonist intimately. In a mystery, the antagonist creates the inciting incident, the sleuth reacts, and then they escalate their reactions and actions. Toss in additional obstacles created by others, family, bosses, coworkers, the justice system, and we’re left wondering if our sleuth will succeed or fail.

Tension is also created when a protagonist cares about something other than just the mystery at hand – the son with the unsuitable fiancé, a homeless person, a pet, or a friend’s crisis. Any of these can conflict with and impact the sleuth’s ability to solve the greater mystery. Multiple conflicts lend themselves to a protagonist’s personal theme – we all know that patterns exist in our lives, we’re attracted to the same messes, we have a limited set of skills to approach them – choices must be made and through those decisions and actions, characters reveal themselves. More importantly, multiple conflicts lead to subplot which affects the sleuth and impacts the sleuth’s ability to solve the crime.

Sympathetic characters, a myriad of suspects, conflict both personal and professional, an antagonist who raises the stakes, promises and payoffs, and unresolved questions, these are the staples of creating tension in mysteries.

How to Start Your Story to Hook Your Readers

We all know that to hook readers a story’s beginning must have impact. But how do we do that? There are books on how to write a great first line, how to make those first scenes powerful, how to make the reader want to turn the page. Yet, despite all that information, sometimes it still doesn’t work. When writing the first draft, remember that your only task is to record the story in your head and not to give yourself writers block by trying to write or start it perfectly. Write it, then focus on specific elements. The starting point for your story may change, scenes either thrown out or rewritten. All that said, if you know where to start, you may have less work to do later.

Stories have patterns. These patterns are specific to genre. Every genre has conventions and consciously or subconsciously, readers expect them to be met. The first scenes signal genre and they tell the reader what kind of story to expect. Is it a romance? A thriller? A crime drama? Fantasy or science fiction? Or some combination? Even with a combination, genre expectations must be met in the story and more importantly, they must be signaled at the start. For example, in a science fiction crime drama, the crime genre has conventions which need to be met: a dead body, a sleuth (amateur or detective), a discovery of the body scene, an investigation with false clues, the sleuth confronting the murderer, and a resolution (justice, injustice or irony where the sleuth loses something in the process). Science fiction explores the consequences of scientific innovation in settings which can range from near future Earth, to outer space, other planets, all of which may have realistic or fantastic settings.

How does one do this? Here’s an excerpt from the opening of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel RED PLANET BLUES:
The door to my office slid open. “Hello,” I said, rising from my chair. “You must be my nine o’clock.” I said it as if I had a ten o’clock and an eleven o’clock, but I didn’t. The whole Martian economy was in a slump and even though I was the only private detective on Mars this was the first new case I’d had in weeks.
“Yes,” said a high feminine voice. “I’m Cassandra Wilkins.”
I let my eyes rove up and down her body. It was very good work; I wondered if she’d had quite so perfect a figure before transferring.

Immediately, we know we’re reading a detective story set in a science fiction world.

Opening scenes don’t always have to be about the plot itself. For example, thrillers establish the genre, characters and promises to the reader about the type of story it is by opening with action scenes unrelated to the core plot, but with action scenes showing the protagonist as a person of action and a hero of the situation. Think James Bond movies for this example. They start with action, not the quieter bits with him going to get his orders to save the world – those appear later. Thriller writers such as Clive Cussler, employ prologues filled with action adventure set in the past. Cussler’s prologues not only set the importance of the book’s quest for a relic or item, but the action sequences and the drama signal the type of story the reader can expect.

Writing to establish the genre helps avoid the dreaded ‘info dump’ wherein the world’s or protagonist’s backstory are explained to the reader. Readers don’t want a biography or a lesson in the geo-politico-socio-economic issues of the world. They don’t care about the why of the character or the world until they know what’s at stake for the protagonist. Only then does the why become part of the how will it be done? and what happens next?

It’s a strong confident opening readers want in which they trust that you will reveal information when it’s pertinent, that you as a writer trust them to help solve the puzzle you’ve created for your protagonist. The confident opening makes us ask questions – who is this person? What is he going to do? What happens next? Actions speak louder than words, so if the social cues say she’s a talented mage, for example, why is she shackled and drowning in a well? As long as every new scene raises questions they will remain e

They Want to Kill Me …

 … because I know their plan to kill the pregnant queen.

GR (931)Standing on the ruins of a Minoan Palace, I heard that young voice begging for help. From that moment on, those stones, which had been set over 4,000 years ago, were symbols for the stories of an ancient civilization. This was a place where people had lived, loved, and died. Where they sought refuge from natural disasters and storms. Where politics ruled and religion tried to rationalize and explain the unknowable. Where engineering feats and hard work created structures and infrastructure that still exist today. It was where I found a novel-worthy story.

That’s the beauty of stepping away from the keyboard, away from the office, and most importantly, the familiar. When I do that, I clear my mind enough to ask the all important what-if questions. That’s what works for me. If I’m ever stuck for ideas (which I rarely am) I go see or do something new.

But I don’t need to go somewhere exotic or ancient to be inspired. For me, it can be as simple as a break in the routine.

I live near a wildlife park which is a protected park in the city. It’s got deer, coyotes, and the occasional wild cat or bear wandering through – a five minute walk 20150920_133208and I’m in the wilderness. A creek which is a raging torrent when the snow melts off the mountains becomes a docile meander in the summer. It’s here where I can leave the familiar, and rest my brain. There, in the quiet, I imagine people foraging and hunting. I see wizards and knights in great adventures. Then there are dragons, faces in rocks, the Green People in the trees and entire kingdoms where life and death struggles occur. This is where I can watch a beetle crawl and wonder what it’d be like to mine precious minerals on Mars or hear a woodpecker tapping and wonder what message he brings.

229I may or may not decide to use these imaginings in new or existing stories. This distraction is simply fun for my brain – it gives it a rest and if I’m lucky, it inspires story worthy ideas. When go back to writing, I feel creatively rested and sometimes if I’m lucky, a story problem has been subconsciously resolved.

In new situations, I stop thinking and just let myself feel, smell, hear, and observe from different perspectives. My imagination relaxes and has fun free-associating, and it rises to the challenge of answering the what-if questions.

I can’t explain how I can see political intrigue, religious zealotry, and murders 4,000 years ago in a rock. Or, how a wild life park can inspire a trilogy which addresses coming of age themes. Or how an aerial view from an airplane threw me into an alternate universe. Or how that beetle ended up on Mars…

What I do know is that when I suspend my everyday headspace, stop my mental machinations and give my imagination the freedom to play – strange and wonderful things happen.

DSCN6411For example, this winter I was in Colima Mexico, at the Platform ruins. While there, Mexico’s most active volcano sent plumes of smoke into the sky. I stood near a boulder which had been shot from the volcano 3,000 years ago. That boulder and others had been thrown over 30 miles and they landed in a heavily populated settlement. I wondered how people interpreted this powerful natural event. Their ability to engineer places to live was quite advanced but they didn’t understand the science behind the volcano’s dangerous fickleness. So as I watched the volcanic plumes, I imagined how they’d react to it and what their lives would have been like. Then, I was an archeologist a thousand years from now, digging through the remains of both our modern world and the ancient world. What if?

These experiences all have one thing in common – I experienced different sensory inputs than I normally do at home, in my office. An airplane, a log by a creek, ancient ruins – these places all have different sensory experiences. I touched a rock and saw a civilization. The breeze caressed my skin and it carried the smell of the ocean – was it a calming fragrance or the scent of a coming storm? The volcano’s plume was astounding but was it the gentle breath of the fiery god or his sulfurous wrath? I saw the relief of a continent and wondered about its fantastic and mythological societies. Leaves rustling, parched greens of summer, hot sand scorching my feet, the foraging of foods grown wild, the rich flavors of local spices, sitting on the deck, watching a lady bug traverse the whorl on the wooden deck board ….

The imagination is so filled with possibilities and stories. Changing my headspace, getting away from the everyday familiar to experience different sensory inputs, all give my imagination room to play. This is how I let my life experiences shape my writing.

Detective Science Fiction

I love mysteries and crime stories especially when they’re set in the future or on other worlds because they not only solve crimes, the good ones also explore the relationship between humans and technology and maybe even with other races. That combination makes Detective Science Fiction is the perfect genre mish-mash!

What are detective science fiction stories?
They’re detective stories set in the future, on earth, other worlds or somewhere in outer space. The detectives need to be observant, to investigate, to question suspects, work within the laws (or sometimes outside them), report to superiors, interact with segments of society. While the detective does his job, the reader experiences a future society through the detective’s eyes. It’s a very up close and personal view of the world.

Why does this mash-up make for great crime fiction?
Technology changes but human nature doesn’t. Despite our technological advances, crime is still part of our world. Theft, murder, white collar, blue collar crimes, crimes against humanity, deviant crimes, commercial crimes, drugs, crimes in international law (slavery, genocide, war crimes, piracy, for example), and the list is endless. In writing about the future, it forces us to consider our lives in the present. What if technology changes and we can read the brain or the psyche to predict if people will commit crimes? What are the ramifications? What happens when we break the laws of alien cultures? What are frontier crime and justice like on a newly colonized world? What happens when an android commits murder? Android or robot detectives, even if they’re good at their job, what perils do they face? What constitutes crime in the future? How are murder mysteries solved in the future – great sleuthing or with advanced technology?

Why do they work? Isn’t science fiction supposed to be about the science?
Detective science fiction works because detectives are like scientists in that they question, they need to know how things work, they explore, they follow clues. But detectives need to find the truth, and to do that they must dig into the corners of society, personalities, and political structures. They need to know a little about everything just enough to ask the next question or suffer the consequences if they don’t. In short, detectives in science fiction are the best tour guide to both future technologies and the resulting human condition. Technology usually has a huge role to play in a detective sci fi and for that reason I greatly admire the authors who go that extra step to know their worlds well.

What are key features of this genre?
For me, it’s a toss-up between technology and characterization. Both are essential and both are the reason I keep reading detective science fiction. The best ones have great plot twists and turns, and are sprinkled with red herrings. As a reader, it’s easy to immerse myself into a society with this combination of plot, technology and characterization. However, just as with commercial crime and mystery stories, there’s a wide range of styles or sub genres within this genre mish mask.

There are cyberpunk detective stories where the element of human/computer relationship plays more of a role than characterization and plot. Then there’s hard boiled noir detective science fiction where in a dark, futuristic society, a detective (usually a gun-slinging male) must solve a crime written in the style of American noir of the 1930 and 40s. There are some cozy mysteries in that the crime is committed off scene and there is little violence but it’s heavy on the setting, the detective’s character, but the detective isn’t usually laid back citizen, like Miss Marple although there may be lots of deduction and little violence.

But the general feature of a good detective science fiction, no matter the subgenre, is the world building, the protagonist’s interaction in that world and the morality tale that crime stories evoke.

Book recommendations:
If you haven’t read any detective science fiction, beware – there’s been a lot written but not all of it has been categorized as detective science fiction, it’s still in the larger science fiction category. And, it’s not brand new either! Here’s the classic story from Isaac Asimov himself of why he wrote his first detective science fiction. This led to him pioneering the human-robot buddy cop genre.

“[John] Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated. I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and that would not cheat the reader — and yet would be a true science-fiction story. The result was The Caves Of Steel.”

The Caves of Steel is a must read.

To date, Good Reads has over 100 books listed in its Science Fiction Detective category. BestScienceFictionBooks.com contains a stellar list. It’s worth checking these lists. So for this reason, I won’t be listing the popular and classic books like the “Gil Hamilton” stories by Larry Niven. Instead, I’ve got 5 authors and novels you may not be familiar with but are worth reading:

Hydrogen SteelHydrogen Steel by K.A. Bedford
When top homicide inspector Zette McGee is called out of her mysterious retirement to help Kell Fallow, a desperate former android accused unjustly of murdering his wife and children, she knows she has to help him. (This is powerfully written, with lots of great world building and much intrigue with sabotage, spies and nasty infections. The consequences of and ramifications of artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness are dealt with superbly.)

Ultra Thin ManThe Ultra Thin Man by Patrick Swenson
In the twenty-second century, a future in which mortaline wire controls the weather on the settled planets and entire refugee camps drowse in drug induced slumber, no one –alive or dead, human or alien—is quite what they seem. When terrorists crash the moon Coral into its home planet, it is up to Dave Crowell and Alan Brindos, contract detectives, to solve an interstellar conspiracy or face interplanetary consequences. (Clever title. Clever concept. To say anymore would be to spoil it. Sorry.)

transient cityTransient City by Al Onia
On a distant mining colony at the far reaches of outer space, vast cities crawl across the surface of a desolate planet looking for valuable minerals while their citizens struggle to survive. Victor Stromboli, a professional crime scene witness, is nearly crippled by the brutal memories he can neither control nor forget. Now he has to solve the mystery of a missing corporate executive who happens to be married to the one love of Victor’s life. (Crawling cities! What a cool concept especially on frontier planets where the characters are strong and quirky and come with really unique idiosyncrasies!)

Red PlanetRed Planet Blues by Rob Sawyer
P.I. Alex Lomax works the mean streets of New Klondike, the domed Martian city that sprang to life in the wake of the booming fossil market. He plies his trade among the failed prospectors, corrupt cops, and ‘transfers’—folks wealthy enough to upload their consciousness into near immortal android bodies. Then, he lands a cold case—a decades old murder of Weingarten and O’Reilly, the men who first discovered evidence of life on Mars. (This was a delightful gumshoe romp which dealt with the implications of transferring human consciousness into android bodies, thus making humans, albeit wealthy ones, nearly immortal.)

Defining Diana 2Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm
Found naked and alone in a locked room, the beautiful woman was in perfect health, except she was dead. It’s 2043 and much has changed: nuclear war, biotechnology and all-powerful corporations have transformed the world. Now science is taking DNA manipulation to new levels. Superintendent Frank Steel is an old-fashioned cop who handles the bizarre and baffling cases no one else can solve. He knows the money, murders, missing persons and gruesome body shops are connected and it starts with the girl. (This novel creeped me out partly because it’s set in a village not far from where I live but also because of the nature of the crime. What would a cyborg future look like, not only with cyborgs and what they’re capable of doing, but what crimes come with that kind of existence?)

Two Must-Knows About Your Inner Muse

 Your inner muse is the voice of your experiences – both real and desired.

I think my muse went this way....
I think my muse went this way….

That inner muse can be elusive. It is who we blame for our writer’s block.

But there is a secret to keeping that muse away from the straight jacket of silence. That secret is understanding the two truths of the inner muse which no one talks about.

Those two truths, once realized, will forever unfetter your inner muse. This month’s theme is about how life’s experiences shape what we write. We know that our experiences shape our perception and hence what we write. Experience also shapes what our inner muse reveals. But, did you know that there is a way to tap into those experiences while letting the muse do its sorting and compiling to create those aha! moments?

Tapping into our experiences happens when we’re aware of the two truths about the inner muse that no one talks about:

1) Inspiration isn’t always obvious; and
2) You may not realize what you know.

It seems that I’m stating the obvious. But without conscious awareness of these two truths, your inner muse doesn’t have permission to stay away from the straight jacket of silence.

What these two truths mean is that what inspires you to create a world and to write the story can be hidden somewhere deep inside and you don’t even know it.

Can you dig it out? Find it? Use it? Of course you can. The best way to do that is to not go looking for it. Sometimes, you’ve just got to let it happen. Sometimes you just have to be literal about being inspired. Here’s what I mean:

To be inspired means to be in spirit. That means giving your muse permission to access all that information in your head, all those observations and the situations you’ve experienced. It means letting your muse make the associations it needs to and to draw from the library of your inner knowing.

All you have to do to succeed is to trust it. Yes, trust your muse, trust what you know even if you’re not aware of it. Why? Because:

1) Inspiration isn’t always obvious
Sometimes we have an aha! moment which inspires a scene, a story even or a moment in the book. More often it comes from somewhere deep within. How often have you read what you’ve written and wondered how you knew to write that, or to word it that way, or your character has surprised you? Those are the moments when inspiration isn’t obvious and you may never figure out what inspired you to write what you did, but aren’t you glad your inner muse was working for you?

Our brain likes to make associations, find familiar in the unfamiliar, and find patterns. It sees shapes in clouds, a face in a whorl of wood, that phone number is all primes and if I add the first two numbers together…

The trick is to trust the inner muse and to trust that it’s working for you. Forcing the writing, forcing a scene, rarely works. It has to come from the characters and the situations we created and from the inner muse which understands those creations at a much more profound level than what we are sometimes aware of.

2) You may not realize what you know
I’m a kid from the farm. It took a little while for me to realize that most of my stories happen in rural settings in whichever genre I’m writing. I have detail which I take for granted and other people have to research. I understand the relationship people have with the land and animals. I have planted, harvested and marketed, I have prepared and stored food for the winter and have experienced limited access to store bought foods,.

It’s the same thing with the characters we create. We tend toward the familiar, especially when it comes to relationships. That’s when patterns in our writing occur. Strong female, weak male characters or vice versa. Female characters who hate their fathers. Male characters who are emotionally deprived heroes. There are countless patterns and stereotypes we fall into because it’s subconsciously familiar in some way. It’s the material the muse has to work with.

Whether it’s settings or characters, relationships or values and ethics, our inner muse has the information of who and what we are and uses it, even if we don’t realize that’s what is happening.

So we don’t always realize what we know and even what we don’t know. But when we consciously let the muse do its work, when we become consciously aware of the work it is doing, then we can form a relationship with it that changes what we write. We can give the muse permission to explore new situations, characters and relationships. This awareness allows us to ask for help to change the pool of information the muse has to work with. In a critique group I’m in, a well published author informed us that she had become aware that she always wrote a specific father-daughter relationship into her stories and she understood why. Now she wanted to change it up.

The two truths contradict each other:

“Trust inspiration” versus “Don’t trust what it’s telling you”.

Or, so it seems at first glance. But the real axiom is:

Trust Inspiration. Understand what it’s telling you so that you can change it up – if you wish.

We found our muse!
We found our muse!

We, and our inner muse, are the sum total of our experiences. As writers, we’re not always aware of what we know and what we don’t know. The more we write, the more opportunity we have to understand what informs our writing and to change and expand upon that.

You know that the writing myth that says you’ve got to write a million words before you’ve got a chance to be successful? It’s not about the word count, it’s about understanding your inner muse and developing a comfortable, trustworthy relationship with it. Sometimes, it takes a million words before you realize you’re basically writing the same story, the same themes albeit in different settings and milieus. Once you realize that, you’ve hear your inner muse. Now, you can give it new fodder, inform it with new information and experiences. You can give it permission to shake it up a bit.

Will you need a million words to do this? Maybe yes. Maybe no. And remember, I used the word ‘myth’ for a reason.

Inspiration isn’t always obvious and you may not realize what you know – once these two unspoken truths are understood, your life experiences will shape your writing in ways you never imagined it could! So, trust Inspiration and understand what it’s telling you so that you can change it up – if you wish.

Divining Character with Tarot

You’ve written several stories and the characters are all beginning to sound the same.
How do you mix it up without using the same characteristics that are embedded I your subconscious?tarot spread
Try Tarot. It’s fun and easy.
Although the exact origin of Tarot cards isn’t known, we do know that during the renaissance the cards were designed to explore archetypal and psychological patterns. For example, death is an archetypal event because it exists in all cultures and a psychological event because of the changes in a phase of life, changing events or people in our lives ,or because of personal emotional changes. Tarot cards are meant to be read on all these levels…

 Write a short story? I’d Rather Floss Chicken Teeth!

Flossing a chickens teeth would be much easier than writing a short story. Or, that’s what I chicken3-240x240thought.

I found myself facing this problem after writing six novels. I couldn’t wrap my head around a shorter piece of work. Everything I tried read like an outline for a novel.

Books on outlining didn’t help. Workshops provided little insight. Critique groups, well, I could help someone to better tell their story. Heck, I’d even edited an acclaimed anthology, but I couldn’t write a good short story to save myself.

How could I overcome this block?

I really wanted to know what eluded me about this form. After many attempts, I found a formula that helped in all aspects of short story writing. This four step process taught me how to write short stories…

Valuing Your Characters or Maslow for Writers

A great plot and fantastic world building mean nothing without solid characters. Solid characters? Aren’t protagonists supposed to have weaknesses, flaws, desires which make them easier to relate to? And aren’t antagonists supposed to have soft spots to make them less stereotypical? True enough. But how do we determine those qualities?
Solid, well rounded characters, above all else, need value systems. What is the character’s core philosophy? What does he/she value above all else? What is most important? Family? Survival? Pursuit of knowledge? Loyalty? Money? Control? Love? Revenge? Adherence to rules? Fully realized characters have values which are challenged as they try to achieve their goals or live up to them. For example, an heiress, loyal to her father and his values which made him wealthy, searches for love and finds it in someone who hates everything her family stands for.

Value systems create opportunity for conflict and give characters depth. Once we’ve discovered those values, the plot comes alive as characters struggle to be true to themselves. For example, in The Hunger Games, despite all contestants valuing survival, they each value other things which motivate them: Katniss wants to save her sister and to avoid loving people but finds herself falling in love with Peeta who she’ll have to kill to win the competition; and Peeta wants to save Katniss but to do so, he must overcome his pacifist nature and kill others.

Ask – What three things does your character value the most?
The most important thing for X is: survival ….. adhering to the rules ….. scientific discovery …. family ….. avoiding love … finding love …. and so on.

We can use Maslow’s Hierarchy to explore the range of values to determine which ones will create the most conflict for our character and our story. Maslow’s Hierarchy orders our human needs from the most basic to self-actualization. Remember, fulfilling our needs determines what our values are at any given point in our lives. That means we can be on level 1 while trying to achieve level 5 because conflicts are never tidy packages – they are individual to the person and even to the culture.

MaslowMaslow’s Hierarchy
Level 1 – Survival: basics such as food, shelter, water, clothing, health – what the human body requires to function
Level 2 – Safety and security: personal (violence, natural disaster), financial, health and well being
Level 3 – Love/belonging: friendship, intimacy, family, this is our tribal nature of needing to belong in a group to enhance safety and survival needs
Level 4 – Esteem: being respected by others, needing status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. self-respect, mastery, independence and freedom. Respect = greater power
Level 5 – Self-actualization: concerns personal growth and fulfillment …

Creating Your Own Mythology

Creating your own mythology – how cool! And loads of fun! We write in an era where readers embrace modern and new myth. When Bram Stoker penned Dracula, he took an obscure legend, gave it its own rules and a new mythology was born. Today, we understand the social action and values for vampires, werewolves and zombies. This is newly created mythology has been embraced by generations of readers. In Tolkien’s books, the fantasy world received a new mythology Middle Earth and that lore, that mythology, is still embraced by people today.

There are those who argue that because myth is defined as being of the distant past, that it has its own cultural criteria Zeusand that it requires organic growth in a culture, that it can’t be instantly created. Humbug! Myth is a way for people to reconcile the paradoxes of life – the things that don’t make sense to us. How was life created? How do the gods and people interact? What are the rules for interaction? Apply it to everyday life and we can call it religion. Apply it to books and we call it world building.

And perhaps that is the difference – scholars will argue that because what writers create isn’t part of the everyday, ordinary belief systems for people, then it isn’t legitimate myth. But who draws that line? Who determines when an idea crosses that line? And does it matter? Is it any less compelling? I think not. We no longer believe in the Greek Pantheon of gods yet they’re as popular as ever in literature like in Rick Riordon’s Percy Jackson and the Olympian’s series. Do we have to believe in those specific gods for the mythology to be relevant, to explain creation, our relationship with the world, our struggle with life’s paradoxes and our need to have legitimate heroes to inspire us? Not at all. When we delve into other people’s belief systems, we challenge and enrich our own. We discover new ways to escape and to solve problems.

Bone Wars – Why the Dinosaurs of Your Childhood May Not be Real

150px-Dino_from__The_Flintstones_I love Dino. He’s the best dinosaur-dog ever. When Fred Flintstone comes home to Dino’s puppy-dog greeting of jumping into his arms, knocking him down and licking Fred’s face, well, that’s man’s best friend at his best. We’d all love to have a Dino like that except that Dino is a fictional Snorkasaurus which was apparently modeled on a generic Sauropod/Prosauropod type although another Wikipedia site credits Dino as being inspired from the dinosaur Europasaurus which is also a Sauropod.

Sauropoda

sauropoda

The Sauropod was given it’s name by Marsh in 1878, while the Prosauropod (Plateosauridae) was named, also by Marsh, in 1895. Why is this important? Because Marsh was a principle character in the Bone Wars.

prosauropod

prosauropod

The issue of whether the dinosaurs we learned about as children is not just about the liberties taken in the creation of fictional works . The issue is about whether early paleontologists got it right at all…

 

 

Memorable Characters – Who Do You Like?

No matter the genre or the plot, every story needs memorable characters. Characters areThe Martian the reason readers keep coming back to a particular story or a series. Characters sell books and movies. A current example is The Martian. In this story, Andrew Watney struggles to survive (man versus nature) after he is presumed dead while others struggle to save him. He is quintessentially smart, stubborn, witty, yet emotional. We like him, we cheer for him.

What traits do characters need to be memorable?

We’ve all been schooled in what makes a character great, and numerous books and blogs have been written on how to develop character. Character development includes backstory, key external qualities (appearance, clothing, etc), value systems and life philosophy, habits, opinions, and flaws. Once all this work is done, the question remains: Is the character you’ve created memorable?

What makes a character memorable?

Is it a quintessential trait? I’ve read many thriller series and cozy mysteries where I felt Agathathat the characters weren’t very deep or complex. Some are very Stuart Woodssuperficial. Yet, they are exceedingly popular. Why? Because the author focused on quintessential traits. Every time I pick up one of those books, I know who to expect and what to expect. Sometimes these character are endearing, sometimes frustrating but always, they are consistent in their quirks, their approach to life, their heroics, their dedication, and in their flaws.

Perhaps it’s the world that makes a character memorable.

That world maybe the present. People coping with hardships that we can relate to or Tanya Huffunderstand in our society makes it easy for readers to engage with. Here, characters find themselves in worlds which blend the fantastic with the present, like in the superhero and urban fantasy genres. Other readers need to have those dramas played out on other worlds in fantastic settings. In Harry Potterthese science fiction or fantasy worlds, readers become explorers and how key characters function in these worlds grabs the imagination and makes the entire milieu memorable. The Martian, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings, and Tanya Huff’s latest series Peacekeeper, are examples of this.

Or, are characters made memorable because of who we are at the time we experience a character in book, theatre, or film?

Which character we resonate with may be determined by: our life stage (child, teen or parent, senior), our personal fears about the present or future, current world politics, 220px-Silence3personal hardships, or our fascination with the future or imagined worlds. Thus, our personal psychology and needs determine what we engage with and what satisfies our entertainment need at any given time. There are times when I want a comedy, mystery, or fantasy world to escape into and not a horror story where people are hurting others, no matter how engaging or memorable that story and its characters may be. There are adults who refuse to read a young adult or middle grade book, no matter how popular the characters are. Others will read only literary genre dramas because they can’t fathom the characters created in any fantasy.

Nancy DrewFor some of us, the greatest impact a character can have is when we experience him in our childhood and teen years. Harry Potter is the quintessential wizard for many, while Merlin is for others. For me, Nancy Drew and her ability to solve mysteries grabbed my imagination when I was eleven and I’ve loved mysteries ever since. It is debatable if she’s a well-written character or not, but for an eleven year old, she is certainly memorable for her sleuthing and heroics.

Because of all these factors, different characters resonate with us. Memorable characters aren’t necessarily the protagonist, for they can also be a secondary character, a villain, or a minor character,

This month, join us and our guests as we explore memorable characters from movies, books, and comics. Many of these characters have inspired us to create our own memorable characters and hopefully, our inspirations will inspire you.