A Whole New World

by Amy Braun

I think it’s pretty safe to say that these days, most of us wish we were somewhere else. It’s hard to get up in the morning and realize you live in a world where absolutely absurd, cruel, and wretched things happen, and that when you do donate or speak out, it can be hard to feel like you’re contributing. I’m not saying to give up (never, ever, do that because your contributions and donations truly do matter and truly do help), but every once in a while we just want to escape this world and dive into another one.

The solution is actually quite easy and pretty cheap: Books.

As a reader, I’m a sucker for a book with an amazing setting. Red Rising, Nevernight, and LifeL1K3 are just some of the books that have drawn me in with their exquisite and visceral worlds. As a writer, creating them is something I’m addicted to.

Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres to both write and read, and the moment I decided to write Storm of the Gods, I knew it could only be urban fantasy. But I didn’t want my setting to be like most urban fantasy worlds, where the buildings haven’t changed, the people haven’t changed, and my imagination can’t really stretch. No, I wanted to twist in new elements. I had to—You can’t exactly write a book about reawakened Greek gods and expect them to share your idea of architecture and décor.

Greek mythology is one of my oldest love affairs. I won’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve read enough to understand what would appeal to each deity. Since the gods in the Storm universe have only returned to our world thirty years ago after a two thousand year slumber that saw them reduced to fairytales, their powers are not as strong as they had been. While creating the history of this world, I knew that the gods would be divisive but need to work together to build their New Kingdom.

So I took the setting—a reimagined version of California—and broke it up into pieces for each of them and their scions, the humans who are descended from the Olympian’s lusty escapades.

From there, I changed each region to match its Olympian. Dionysus got all the vineyards. Artemis has all the forests and hunting grounds. Poseidon owns Santa Monica and most of the beaches and ocean. Aphrodite’s region is one big romantic getaway on one half, and the other is a literal red light district.

Doing this was a long, tiring process, because each region needed its own security, temples, distinct personalities and types of residents, but it was ultimately worth it. I love the world I created, and it ends up feeling like an entirely different place rather a slight deviation from normality that happens in most urban fantasy novels.

World building is one of the longest and most taxing processes in writing, but it’s one of my favorites. Whenever I do it, I feel not only a connection to the characters I’m creating, but I understand the mechanics of my story and the rules of society. I also understand how my characters can––and often will––break them.

At the time of posting, there are only certain sections that will be explored in the first Areios Brothers novel. But I have at least four more books planned as well as three novellas, so it’s safe to say that there will be more worlds and adventures for anyone who enjoys this New Kingdom as much as I do.

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Amy is a Canadian fantasy, steampunk, YA, and horror author. Her work revolves around monsters, magic, mythology, and mayhem. She started writing in her early teens, and never stopped. She loves building unique worlds filled with fun characters and intense action. She is an active member of the Weekend Writing Warrior community, and has even had a spotlight on the website of international best-selling author Michael J. Sullivan (The Riyra Chronicles, Legends of the First Empire).

When she isn’t writing, she’s reading, watching movies, taking photos, gaming, struggling with chocoholism and ice cream addiction, and diving headfirst into danger in Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Amy can be found online on Facebook (www.facebook.com/amybraunauthor/) Twitter (@amybraunauthor) and Instagram (@amybraunauthor)

amybraunauthor.com

 

State of the Art

State of the Art

by Eric Witchey

Packing up to head off to the Willamette Writers Conference to teach a Masters Class and generally engage in the literary debauchery that goes along with a conference, I am struck by the fact that I’ve been doing conferences for a very long time. Some of the beginning writers I met at conferences a quarter of a century ago have become New York Times best selling authors. Some of the writers I met so long ago are dead. Teenage students I first met at speaking gigs twenty years ago now have families and solid careers. Others have left the world in search of brighter days in Elysian Fields.

In short, things change. They also stay the same.

Since I first realized I was a writer, I have known that the only sustainable motivation for writing is love. Writers have to love sitting in the chair and arranging the little black squiggles in rows until they feel right. If they don’t love that process and all the little puzzle-solving moments that go with it, eventually they will become frustrated, angry, and resentful of lost time and life.

Fiction writers have to love stories. I mean that on a profound level. Arranging the squiggles is enough for most non-fiction work; however, it is not enough for fiction writers. A fiction writer has to be deeply, obsessively in love with the idea of creating the illusion of life in the mind and heart of another person. They have to love to experience the illusion created by other writers, and they have to love creating that illusion.

Now, at this point it would be very easy to drop into a diatribe about how many aspiring writers I meet who don’t actually read. I won’t bother. They are self-limiting creatures, and my righteous indignation will neither help them nor stop them from making their mistakes. Some might even learn that they need to read, and that might lead to love of reading and better creations. It does happen.

I could also drop into a riff on the limitations of the desire for fame or money, but I’d only be presenting a straw man. If you want a riff on artistic purity of heart and mind as necessary to creative health of artist and culture, I recommend looking up and reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s take on the damage of commodity thinking in the arts. Once again, the people who focus on money and fame will either limit themselves or succeed and discover a level of unhappiness the universal heart of all things has created just for them.

Instead, I want to focus on a moment in time.

Way back when, I had a degree in English and an MA that included Theoretical Linguistics, Computer Science, Literature, and training as a writing teacher. I’d been working in high-tech for a while, and I had sold my first short story to a national market. The world was a bright and shiny place filled with potential, but the mail brought rejection after rejection. It was depressing. Hadn’t I studied for years? Hadn’t I gone into debt learning everything I could about stories and writing and language?

Shouldn’t there be money? Shouldn’t there be fame?

Instead, there was only time in the seat arranging the squiggles and drinking lots of coffee.

Eventually, I had to admit that I knew Jack Shit. In fact, Jack and I were way too close. I took him to parties with me and presented him to others with pride as if just knowing him should launch me into social circles where international celebrities of letters chatted casually about the death of existential literature and the advent of post-modern, hysterical Jungian fantasy literature.

Me and Jack! Oh, the places we went.

As with all co-dependent relationships, the day came when I looked at Jack and my dreams of fame and fortune and realized they were tools I used to avoid facing my own fear—my own deep heart. As long as I had Jack and my fame and fortune fantasies, I could go anywhere and pretend I was full of knowledge and potential.

Well, let me tell you something. Combine Jack with potential, and you’ve got a recipe for spiritual, emotional, and literary bankruptcy.

So, I sought out a teacher I had heard good things about. I went to a week-long seminar. For two days, I hated him. He was a no bullshit, blue-collar work ethic, nuts-and-bolts writer who had no tolerance for the mysticism of talent.

Oh, I hated him.

I hated him because he didn’t see how much Jack had taught me and how much potential I had. What an asshole!

Patiently, I explained that I had degrees and had sold a story.

He laughed.

I fumed, but I did the exercises to prove Jack and potential were alive and well and living in me.

By the third day, I knew Jack was dead.

By the fourth day, I understood that potential was pointless.

That was the day I stopped being an aspiring writer and became an actual writer.

Writer is the agentive form of the infinitive to write. It is a verb manifest as person. Writer is a doing and being, and it only happens in the moment between heartbeats and breaths. Right now, I am a writer. Right now, I am solving the puzzle of this essay. Right now, I am arranging the little black squiggles. Right now, I am learning and moving toward new tools of craft that allow me to create compelling illusions in the hearts and minds of readers.

What is the point of being in the writing? Of being a writer?

Yesterday, I got an Amazon review that embodies the point. It isn’t fame. It isn’t fortune. It is a parent who left five stars and said that their 12 year-old boy loved my book and said he wanted to read more stories set in that world.

No award I have won for my fiction has ever validated the million moments of creation as much as that one review.

I still know Jack. I might still have potential. Sometimes, I even think about fame and fortune.

The interesting thing a quarter century after meeting that teacher and as I approach the conference Masters Class I’ll be teaching is that I know beyond doubt that in the moments between heartbeats and breaths when I am a truly a writer, Jack is dead, there is no such thing as potential, and the only validation of my skill that matters is one 12 year-old boy.

That is the state of art.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2DT873QY1F7OU/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B0763B3JVQ

Just a Few Words

typewriter-closeup

By Cheryl Owen Wilson

Knowing the rules of a particular trade, and having applied them long enough to be confident in breaking them, seems to be of benefit mainly in the artistic realms of life. In the writing realm, I’m certain we can all come up with a best selling author who broke basic rules taught to us by our many English teachers. Cormac McCarthy and E.E. Cummings are the first two to come to my mind. One day I may be in a position to break rules, but first I must learn them.

I’m in the process, of what I hope are the final edits on my first novella. So rules, or tips on how to strengthen a story, are forefront in my mind these days. I’ve discovered books filled with rules so numerous a writer might never write a word if they took the time to read and apply them all. Thus, for the purpose of this blog I will touch on just a few I found helpful.

1st Rule— Did I need to use the word just in my last sentence? No. I discovered I use the word just along with its friend only way too often. My writing mentor Liz Engstrom, would say never to use the word just. She would also add the following to the banned list of words: very, causing, here, this, now, and today.

I write short stories. The idea of writing anything lengthier seemed absurd to me. I almost, nearly, didn’t write the book.

2nd Rule—Did my last sentence make you cringe just (I told you I really like this word) reading it? Yes. Investigate, or take out: almost, kind of, nearly, and sort of.

I recently had the pleasure of spending three days with my tribe, my writing pals. What did I do at this valuable retreat? I found the 641 times I used the word was, and reduced it to 226! A simple word, yet when removed, it transforms the sentence.

“She was crying uncontrollably.” vs “She cried uncontrollably.”

3rd Rule—Investigate every use of: is, was, are, be, being, am, and were.

I am currently searching out the simple, humble word—it.

4th Rule—There is generally a better word for it. Investigate your use of, it.

I celebrated finding my last was, and then explained to my pals it was now my quest. This elicited a most interesting discussion on the infamous often mocked and parodied phrase written in the novel Paul Clifford, by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I’ve never read the book, but know the phrase from my favorite cartoon beagle: “It was a dark and stormy night.” It—the phrase—is a classic. It breaks all the rules, but sometimes rules are there to be broken. Just make certain you have a very good reason for doing it.

What rules do you break and why?

 

FROZEN

By Cynthia Ray

Cory Doctorow, author and journalist, said that “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way”.  But what if the headlights go out?

For me, writing is visceral, organic, profound, easy, difficult and sometimes impossible. I started a novella, as part of the Labyrinth of Souls novel series.  For those that are unfamiliar with the series, Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls is a fantasy game for tarot cards, written by Matthew Lowes and Illustrated by Josephe Vandel. In the game you defeat monsters, disarm traps, open doors, and explore mazes as you delve the depths of a dangerous dungeon. Along the way you collect treasure and magic items, gain skills, and gather companions. ShadowSpinners Press is publishing novels inspired by the game. Each Labyrinth of Souls novel features a journey into a unique vision of the underworld. You can find more here.

My story turned too dark, too sad, and too difficult, so I abandoned it and started a new one. Because I want my stories to have feeling, and meaning, I tap deep into my inner depths. But once again, I wrote myself into a dark corner with no way out.  After spending a great deal of time in the labyrinth I created, in the dark, I simply quit writing.  My protagonist is still trapped, always there in the back of my mind.  I don’t want to leave my poor heroine in an impossible situation, and yet I have no desire to return to free her.  I considered starting a new story, but in my bones, I knew that it too, would end up in the same place-that place.

shadow

You have heard the phrase, frozen in terror, but have you ever actually experienced terror so profound that your body was paralyzed, unable to move, teeth chattering, in a cold sweat?  Perhaps in a dream, or you woke from a nightmare and could not move?  I have, and it leaves a place in you that needs a light.

Last week, I spoke to a friend about the dilemma, and about the feeling of terror that seemed to emanate from wherever I was going in the story.  She said that there is no escape, only acceptance.  That night I dreamed.

Cynthia’s dream
My companion and I are being pursued by evil beings.  We run but my companion is captured.  Later, I am captured too, and taken to my friend. They have operated on her and altered her appearance with a beastly mask.  They have also pierced her chest with holes to drag her around with chains.

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Toko-Pa Turner, author of Belonging, Remembering Ourselves Home, says, “What I’ve learned again and again, is that we must love the dream we’re given.  We must cradle it and trust that it contains the first step. The step from here to where we want to be is always to welcome it, to be curious about it, even (and especially) when it contains painful or threatening imagery.

When you drop your judgement against the not-beauty of your dream, it is allowed under the roof of your belonging. And so often it becomes beautiful there, unexpectedly, in the nurturing glow of your attention.”

Of course, everyone in a dream is just a part of ourselves, and I asked the evil pursuers what message they had for me.  They just looked at me, and I became aware that the terror I had experienced was over, and the causes of it were gone, but I had taken on the role of terrorizer and continued to terrorize myself,

The chains of the past could drag me around, or I could choose to remove the mask that had been artificially placed on me, and the false view of myself, and make friends with the “evil” ones.  They were not bad at all, but trying to assist me in confronting the false nature of the outer-imposed mask.  I removed the chains, the ugly mask and exposed the gentle, lovely being that had been hidden under those suffocating layers of imposed concepts.  The dream was a gift.

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Art by Took-Pa Turner

Transformation works both ways as we creatively change ourselves based on our experiences, our thoughts and our dreams.    The transformation of the beautiful into the ugly and false is accomplished by terror and fear.  The transformation of the ugly to the beautiful is accomplished through love and acceptance.  My friend’s wisdom made sense.

Perhaps one cannot write what they have not yet processed internally, or perhaps writing is one way of processing.  Whether or not the story is ever finished, it is a part of a personal journey through the labyrinth.  I will let you know how it goes.

Creativity in General (and in Particular)

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Many of my writer friends engage in a variety of creative endeavors. Some are painters of exquisite artworks. Some sing. Some dance. Some quilt, or do stained glass. I knit and dabble in this and that. But mostly, we write.

Anyone who writes knows the exasperation of the inadequacies of language. With every sentence we write, with every idea we speak, we invite misunderstanding.

It occurs to me that if we had perfect mind-to-mind communications, if we could communicate our thoughts thoroughly—including all history, nuance, and emotion—in a sublime little info packet upload, there would be no need for language.

creativity

If we had no need for language, would our need for a creative outlet vanish?  We would no longer strive to explain, to clarify, to enlighten. We would no longer need to defend, to support, to go to the enormously great lengths we go to in order to express ourselves.

We as a species, would be much the poorer.

Who would we be without the inspirational art, the moving music, the inestimable beauty, the revealing literature that has come from the anguished soul?

We would be bereft.

We might actually discover that we really have nothing to say to one another.

I often say that writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. But we are much more than that. We are the ones who wrestle with language, endeavoring to explain that which has no explanation, to describe the indescribable, to put motive to that which is inexplicable.

Writers reach deep within themselves to comprehend their inner truth, and then grapple with the insufficient words of language, so that we might express it well enough to touch another’s inner truth. I have been touched many times by the brilliant writings of fearless authors, and have been changed by that interaction. That is my goal as a writer: to touch another. To make a difference.

Clearly, artists of every type spend time in anguish. A friend once told me that it is just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good book, and I believe that to be true. In either case, the author suffered to express.

As we go through our days, we might take a moment to appreciate the things that adorn our homes, offices, lives. Every single thing that we see was crafted by someone who put some part of their heart and soul into their work. We take it all for granted, but we should not, lest our work be dismissed as easily.

Showing Up On The Page

By Lisa Alber

Exactly two months ago I wrote a ShadowSpinners post while sitting vigil for my dying mother. In that post, I wondered about my writing—whether I’d ever feel like writing fiction again, whether it mattered.

And now, here I sit again, clacking away. The past few months have been a blur of grief, dealing with trustee drudgery related to Mom’s living trust, and skimming the surface of the “have tos” of life. Last weekend I spent three hours scouring the bathrooms. At long last I cared enough to spend energy on that task. I thought, Well, maybe I’m doing better because I cleaned the bathrooms.

A Sikh friend recently commented that Americans don’t do grief. We allow ourselves a few days and then get on with it, as if that’s all that’s required. As if compartmentalization as a life strategy works when it comes to sorrow. I’m trying to do grief better this time than I did when my dad died in 2001. Feel the feelings, acknowledge them, and try not to squash what burbles to the surface.

One way I pay attention is by journaling—A LOT. It had been years since I’d journaled regularly because fiction took priority. Not these days. You’d be correct if you guessed that I haven’t written much fiction in the past few months.

This is going to sound contradictory, but I forbade pressuring myself to write fiction at the same time that I promised myself I’d show up on the fiction page each day. Showing up means opening up the manuscript—that’s it. Read a few pages—that’s it. Sometimes I’ll noodle with a chapter and take some notes. If this occurs, great. My only goal is to show up each day.

Somewhere within me, I must have faith that showing up will get me back into my writing routines. Hopefully this is true, but the other day it occurred to me that since I’m naturally lazy, I might be using the grieving process as an excuse not to write. We can use any excuse to procrastinate, right? Grief seems like as good an excuse as any …

All that is to say that there’s a slippery slope between taking it easy on myself and milking grief for procrastinatory reasons. The fact that I’m aware of this is probably a good sign, eh?

Murder With Sprinkles On Top

by Christina Lay

I’ve always loved reading and watching cozy mysteries, but not until recently have I tried my hand at writing them. As with many things, you don’t really understand the complexity of a task until you try to do it yourself.

As well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the genre as any avid fan, I dove in quickly and with relish. But soon, one important and fairly obvious question occurred to me: how, exactly, does one make murder, the most heinous of crimes, cozy? How do you create a world in which murder happens (and maybe regularly, if you’re writing a series) that the reader or viewer nevertheless finds comforting? A place where half the population ends up dead but still seems like a very nice place to visit?

Clearly one of the anchors of the cozy mystery is a cozy setting. A majority of these stories take place in small towns, and not just your run of the mill small town, but one that is quaint, meaning it’s preserved its historic charm. These towns have lovely architecture, lots of twisting alleys, probably a waterfront of some sort, nearby woods for the disposing of bodies, and a VERY PROMINENT CHURCH.  Quaint shops abound, and our sleuth might even be the sole proprietor of one (maybe the bakery, which is a very popular setting for cozy book series, with cute names like Til Death do Us Tart and Survival of the Fritters. Baking fancy cakes and crime solving seem to complement each other. Here’s a link to a list of them http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/bakery-dessert-list.

Any cozy worth its imported sea salt will feature a tea shop and an antique store—bare minimum. Sometimes the town is larger, like Oxford, but within the larger town are cozy communities, like an elite college, in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, which always proves to be a very important element in helping our sleuth solve the crime.

Which brings us to the other most important key to a cozy, the sleuth. Mostly this will be an amateur, but private detectives like Hercule Poirot and rumpled Detective Inspectors like Tom Barnaby also qualify. The more professional the sleuth however, the less cozy the murders tend to become. The sleuth is nearly always an outsider, no matter what their profession. Even a detective inside the police department will be the odd one out, the one who uses brain over brawn, who always doubts the obvious first clues and champions whatever poor soul is arrested first. Often the amateur sleuth/slash pastry chef is conveniently married to, dating, best friends with or otherwise connected to a professional in the biz, like a police detective, coroner or forensic expert, which is quite handy. But in the end, the sleuth relies on their powers of observation, keen intuition and wits to solve the crime. Which they always do.

The likability and relatability of the sleuth are key to creating a memorable and enduring cozy mystery series. They must, like all good protagonists, be flawed, but in a lovable way. And usually, whatever their deep wound is, it helps them understand the criminal mind and have compassion for the underdogs. First and foremost, they must be unusually smart, even if not everyone thinks so.

Other factors to ensure your murder is entertaining rather than disturbing include:

A victim who was a no good so-and-so. Lots of people wanted them dead, and no one is overly sorry to have them gone. Anyone who is, probably did it.  Also, their death, though possibly elaborate, is swift and unseen. Usually, the murder happens before the book even starts, or off-the-page. It might happen after the world famous detective arrives and the murderer foolishly decides to go through with their plan anyway. Or after all the guests are assembled at the manor house, or when the train leaves the station. Isolating the group of suspects is a great trick for upping the tension. There’s a murderer amongst us!

Limit the bloodshed. This is an element that seems to be ignored more and more in the television version of mysteries, usually the result of what I call “the slaughter of the innocents”.  This is when, once the murderer commits the initial crime, they then feel compelled to kill off several innocent bystanders to cover it up, which of course is what usually tips their hand. I have to admit to being disappointed when what is touted as a cozy mystery ends up with a high body count, among them unfortunate girl guides and birdwatching old ladies who were in the wrong place at the worst time. Besides being depressing, these acts of senseless violence are usually stupid, which diminishes the fun of solving the crime. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but NEVER KILL THE DOG.

No sex. Wait, what? Well, I’ve wondered about this, but it appears to be true. While amateur sleuths are often romantically pining over the local detective, or visa versa, the most they will ever do is share a pint at the quaint local pub and match wits.  I believe this is because sex is really just a distraction from what readers of cozies care about most, which is solving a mystery. No one wants to see rumpled whosit and the dowdy baker get down. It’s just not where the appeal lies. Romance, a hint of it, is just fine, as long as it doesn’t pull our heroine/hero away from what they’re there to do. And naturally, the suspects will be fornicating up a storm, only not on the page.

Cats are king.  Throw in a smart cat, or perhaps a reasonably intelligent dog. Readers of cozies love sleuths who love pets. If the cat helps solve the crime, well, that’s a subgenre unto itself. http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/cat-list  If you can combine cooking and cats, all the better.

Provide a wide array of colorful, likable characters to consult, kill or arrest. Sometimes even the murderer is likable. The sleuth will have an extensive network of interesting acquaintances to contact regarding the case. If, for example, a body is washed up near the quaint lighthouse, the sleuth’s uncle will be the local captain of the coast guard. There will always be busybodies, town gossips, town drunks, and loose but large-hearted women who know the town’s secrets and our sleuth will be friends with them, or have some way of convincing these people to talk. Think tea and cookies instead of truth serum and truncheons.

Comeuppance will be got. In a cozy, the murderer is always flushed out. They might escape the long arm of the law, but they will lose everything they were willing to kill for. If you can think of an exception in the cozy mystery field, feel free to enlighten me.  One exception might be the Serial Adversary, a Moriarty of sorts, but since those chaps tend to be serial killers, their evil antics don’t qualify as cozy.

To sum up, the key to a cozy murder is the fun of watching a character we love solve a baffling riddle by their wits (and possibly their cat’s) alone. So naturally, you’ll need a riddle worthy of their and the reader’s attention. Anything over the top, like graphic violence, graphic sex, grit, torture, profanity, end of the world scenarios or gratuitous explosions, you can pretty much leave at the door. Raymond Chandler claimed that readers of cozies, especially the English variety, “like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty”.  For some, I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think readers are drawn to mysteries just so they can ignore the murder at the heart of it; rather, they prefer to focus on the solving, rather than the commission, of the crime. And just because a setting is cozy, or the sleuth an old English spinster, doesn’t mean we can relax. As Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple says “One does see so much evil in a village”.