The Advantages of a Long Life

by Elizabeth Engstrom

 

I’ve been around for a while. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great career as a writer, teacher, editor, professional speaker, and publisher.

One of the nicest things about a long career is that royalty checks show up about every six months from a variety of sources.

Another nice thing about having had a long career is that what was old becomes new again.

Valancourt Books is reissuing my first book, When Darkness Loves Us as part of their Paperbacks from Hell series.

WhenDarknessLovesUs_PFH_Small - F

Grady Hendrix wrote a book called Paperbacks from Hell, and it included both my first book When Darkness Loves Us and my second book, Black Ambrosia in a two-page spread.

PBHspread

Now, Valancourt is reissuing these books (and has a book club you can join to receive them all!). Grady is also working on a television series that includes these books, and voila! A new generation of readers for my work.

In addition, there are always new ways for our work to be released into the world. My current publisher, IFD Publishing, is set to release my books in ePub editions. That would be in addition to paperback and audio.

And now and then, Hollywood comes knocking. I should be used to that by now, but it’s a thrill every time I sell an option, or even get a query.

So to all of you writing in your quiet office, focused solely on the work at hand, remember that your work lives on, will likely have many iterations, and you will remain as relevant as you wish to be.

Designing the Novel

by Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve read many a bad book in my day. One day, while moaning about a good writer gone bad in my opinion, my friend Susan Palmer admonished me that “It’s just as difficult to write a bad book as it is to write a good one.” She’s right. Believe me, I know.

In the past couple of months, however, I’ve been asked to read three bad novels. These were not written by anyone I know (y’all can relax). I was asked on behalf of the author either by a friend, or the author’s publisher to review, comment, edit (!) or provide whatever rewrite information I could to help the author along.

Normally, I don’t do this. Not anymore. But for some odd reason, those requests came when I had perfectly-sized time slots to devote to them.

Design fail

One of the three was passable. Two were unreadable. Each of these books suffered from the author’s failure to plan. Failure to take the time to design the book.

Here are some of the notes I made:

  1. There is no conflict in this book. When she comes home from work, there are six pages of lovey-dovey “I love you so much,” with her husband. Boring. One sentence of this will get the message across, and then get into the conflict of the scene, although, ultimately, there was no conflict in that scene. Or any other scene, really.
  2. What conflict eventually arises in the book is clearly petty and contrived so that there would be some conflict. One woman says a thoughtless thing to another, and then is forgiven. Hmmm… My life in a nutshell.
  3. The big conflict at the end comes out of nowhere, affecting each character in different ways. This is good, but it’s all in the last chapter. Couldn’t some of that Big Conflict show up earlier to provide a little ongoing tension?
  4. Way too much internal dialogue put in quotation marks.
  5. Crazy point of view shifts without rhyme or reason. Point of view is part of the book’s design.
  6. Writing the way to the story. The story starts when the conflict starts. And when the conflict is over, the story is over. Don’t start three months before the conflict, and don’t end three years afterward. There are ways to insert essential back story information into an ongoing work.
  7. All the characters sound the same. There are situational differences, but no personality or speech differences.

A novel must be designed. You can get a good idea and a wild hair and sit down to write, but if you don’t have at least a blueprint to follow, there will come a time when that novel goes into the drawer.

There is value in taking a flyer at a story idea, for certain. But at some point the author has to sit back and re-evaluate certain aspects.

  • Whose story is this? In other words, who is the protagonist (just one, please), who changes over the course of the story? Introduce this character first.
  • Who is the antagonist? A story is only as strong as its antagonist.
  • Who is telling this story (POV)? How are they telling it?
  • What is the time frame for this story? One week, one year, multi-generational? Tighten it up if you can.
  • What is the point where the protagonist accepts the quest? (Research 3-act structure)
  • What is the darkest moment?
  • Will the protagonist triumph over his/her fatal flaw at the end, or succumb to it?

These are the very basics. When the answers to these questions have jelled, the author will have a framework within which to play.

 

Labyrinth of Souls

by Elizabeth Engstrom

It’s Christmas, so what could be better than a little self-promotion?

If the self-promotion includes the genius of others, that’s what could be better.

If the self-promotion also includes the ease of Christmas shopping for loved ones, that’s better yet.

Several years ago, Matthew Lowes wrote quite a brilliant solitaire card game called Dungeon Solitaire—The Labyrinth of Souls.

rule book

After reading the rule book, and looking at the amazing art that had been done by Josephe Vandel for not only the book, but the Tarot cards to accompany it, I was inspired to write a novel set in this fictional universe.

cards

Matt and I talked with other authors, many alumni of the infamous Ghost Story Weekends, about writing similar books. Christina Lay signed on to publish, her feet already solidly planted by publishing the successful anthology Shadow Spinners: A Collection of Dark Tales, and voila! a series was born.

current books

The basic rules of the solitaire card game (and you can watch Matt play a few games on YouTube), is that the hero delves into the underground, where he encounters a labyrinth. The cards the player turns over dictate what the character encounters down there. Monsters. Treasure. Light. Food. Deity. Some things he must have, other things he must vanquish, or avoid. At some point he must turn around and have enough resources to return above ground. Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn’t.

Each of these novels is set within this realm.  Each one is completely different from the other. There is only one requirement: the hero must delve underground at some point in his quest.

These novels by Matthew Lowes, Eric Witchey, Stephen T. Vessels, Christina Lay, Mary E. Lowd, L.A. Alber, and me (your obedient self-promoting servant), are really good reads. Littlest Death by Eric Witchey has won awards. They’re fun, they’re daring, they’re exciting, and they’re like nothing else you’ve ever read before. Fantasy with a twist, always with a twist. And there are more in the publishing pipeline by Cheryl Owen-Wilson, John Reed, Pamela Jean Herber, Cynthia Coate Ray, and others.

Treat yourself. Treat your loved ones.

What’s better than receiving a good book for Christmas?

Nothing. Seriously. There’s nothing better.

Adventures in Research

by Elizabeth Engstrom

 

I’m writing a book wherein a murder takes place on a cruise ship.

Last month, my sweets and I took a cruise. Perfect time to do a little research.

This is how it went:

First, I asked the Cruise Director if I could speak to someone in Security, as I was writing a murder mystery set aboard a cruise ship and I wanted to get a couple of details correct.

He sent me to Guest Services.

questions

The guy at Guest Services, when I gave him my card to show I was legit–a real writer– and told him that I wanted five minutes with someone from Security, said he’d call me when someone was available.

No sooner had I gone back to my stateroom than the Guest Services guy called and asked what questions I had for Security.

I quickly had to think, and pare down my questions. Mostly, I wanted just to chat with the guy and find out a few of their procedures, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen. So, off the top of my head, these were my questions:

  1. If there is a murder aboard, who on board is in charge of the investigation?
  2. If it is during an ocean crossing, whose jurisdiction is it (the originating port or the destination port)?
  3. If the crime takes place in a very public place (in the middle of the night), how do they secure the scene of the crime?
  4. If the victim is a member of a cruising group, will the head of security be willing to let the group leader help with the investigation? (My sleuth, of course, will have to solve the mystery.)

Those were my questions. The nice guy from Guest Services wrote them down and said he’d call me back.

Thirty seconds later, he called me back and told me to get in touch with the cruise line via the Media Relations button on their website.

Zero help.

I was very surprised by this, although after thinking about it a while, I guess I wasn’t that surprised. They have to be very careful with their image, and there have been some very high profile murders/deaths aboard cruise ships.

The unfortunate thing about this particular situation is that I’ll have to write the book as I imagine it and then find someone to read it who can tell me if I’m completely off the mark. I’ll then rewrite the scenes that aren’t right, and hope that my assumptions don’t derail the entire plot. All I was asking for was a little information for the sake of accuracy.

This, however, was the first time I have ever been stonewalled when asking for help with research. From policemen to doctors, nurses to lawyers, priests to politicians, everybody is eager to help with their knowledge of things. I’m careful not to waste their time; I’m careful to let them know that I am serious, and also that sometimes getting a book published is a crap shoot. So I do my homework before I engage. Case in point: I knew what I wanted to ask Shipboard Security.

When people ask me about things in which I have vast or intimate experience, I am only happy to oblige. I believe that is true for most people. So ask away. Be bold. Be brave. But be considerate of someone’s time and sensitive to whether or not they want to go on record.

Research is one of the fun parts of writing fiction.

The Book that Wouldn’t Die

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Years ago I wrote a book called Guys Named Bob. I loved this book. My agent hated the ending, but at my insistence, he sent it out anyway. It got attention from two major publishers, but they all wanted me to change the ending. I, in my ridiculous “artiste” attitude, politely declined. So the book sat on the shelf for a decade.

This is the book that made me research how to write erotica. This is the book that spawned my (infamous) weekend workshops and conference talks on how to write sizzling sex scenes. I had two unconventional people falling for each other in an unconventional setting amidst much turmoil and emotional upheaval. I discovered that I like my sex scenes with a light, significant touch. And so they are, in this book.

GNB Cover image

Recently, I took a fresh look at Guys Named Bob again. I saw what the agent/editors objections were to the ending, and decided that I could “alter” the ending, and in fact, I needed to.  I saw what they saw, given the time that had passed and the accompanying difference in perspective. Not to mention the difference in my attitudes about my career.

The ending didn’t exactly change, but in its alteration, I see better results for every character. I am very happy with the new ending. I brought it up to date, edited it, and my publisher just released the paperback and Kindle versions of Guys Named Bob.

You can read the first chapter here. You can buy a copy here.

I hope you do, and if you like it, please leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads.

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.

Write What You Know

By Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve been fortunate to have a career writing and teaching fiction. I love fiction. I love reading it, I love writing it (sometimes), and most of all, I love watching a new writing student’s fire ignite with the passion for his or her own fiction.

This is why I am annoyed by one of the biggest truths and biggest lies that circulate and recirculate around the writing world—academic and otherwise—which is “write what you know.” I am annoyed because it is misunderstood.

writer

If I took this advice on its face value, I would write about a middle-aged, middle-class woman, married with children, average income, average height, average experiences. I make dinner, I keep house, I do the laundry, I go into my home office and write. I can’t imagine anything more boring to write about than my life.

This is not to say that my life is boring; far from it. But it would not make good fiction.

There are other things that I know about, and they require a broader, deeper investigation of the advice to “write what you know.” I know about love. I know about the first blush of a crush, I know the deep and abiding knowledge of another person for whom I would gladly give my life. I know about loss. I know the chest-crushing experience of grief and the periodic waves of it that have rendered me unable to move. I know joy, and anger, and frustration to the breaking point. I know anxiety, stress, and responsibility far beyond my ability to be the adult-in-charge. I know about betrayal and infidelity. I know paralyzing fear. I know soaring, thrilling triumph and how to put it all into perspective.

This is what I know, and this is what I write about. And because I write about these things, I can write from the point of view of a man, or an alien, or in a place I’ve never lived, in a time far before or after my limited lifespan. That is the imaginative, tale-telling aspect of fiction.

While many people would resonate with trying to figure out what to cook for dinner, my readers deeply resonate with my portrayal and reaction to a cancer diagnosis. Or the face-slap of a dear friend’s betrayal. These are the things I know that you know. These are the things that you can and should write about, because fiction is about adding your voice to the chorus.

Writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. Your voice is important, and you must speak your truth. Not about choosing where to buy your produce, but how you reacted to the major upheavals in your life. Your voice is unique. It adds depth to the choir.

Write boldly. Write courageously. Write what you know.