Writing a Labyrinth of Souls Novel

By Lisa Alber

You may have noticed that every once in awhile one of us ShadowSpinners will mention “Labyrinth of Souls” (LoS), which is a Tarot-inspired solitaire card game with a role-playing aspect to it, created by our own Matthew Lowes. “Labyrinth of Souls” also refers to the companion novels that most of us are writing or have written already. I signed on during the summer, and I’m nearing the end of my first draft—it’s been a blast. And highly educational for me to step out of my usual genre.

I chose a bad-ass beauty, the Queen of Wands, as my inspiration/theme. My novel will be called “The Bog Queen,” and is also inspired by Celtic/Irish lore–and bog bodies!

I write crime fiction. Dark fantasy is new, new, new to me. I find it liberating to write in a world that doesn’t need to be grounded in reality, a world that includes mythological creatures and adventures that can defy the basic laws of nature. The sky can be permanently reddish. My hero can accidentally pollute a stream because of his very humanity. Ravens can turn into a triad goddess. My imagination crackles along in the most fun fashion.

Recently, a bunch of us LoS-ers spent a writer’s retreat weekend on the Oregon coast. For me, part of the purpose was also to ground myself in fantasy—i.e. to ask for advice. I was reminded that in terms of storytelling, these stories are pretty straightforward. I don’t have to worry about planting clues and red herrings, as I would with a mystery. My hero’s on a journey, and the outer journey through the labyrinth reflects his inner journey toward some kind of change. This isn’t so different from any story, but with mystery you have an extra-added whodunnit? puzzle layer.

Instead of the mystery layer, I’m wrestling with the world-building layer. Wow. Just wow. I’ve always admired the imagination that fantasy writers wield, but now I truly get it. Halfway through writing my first draft, I realized that I’d have compartmentalize the world-building writing aspect since I’m coming at this skill as a newbie. So the first draft is all about figuring out the world and the challenges it poses to the hero along the way. This is the plot, essentially.

I normally start with character, so starting with the plot is an interesting twist in my usual writing process all by itself. For my second draft, I’ll return to character and deepen the internal plot line, add more description in some places, and so on.

Questing Beast makes an appearance in “The Bog Queen.”

It feels strange not to have mystery elements to fall back on as the scaffold for the story. Instead, I have the equivalent of a ticking clock. My hero will be annihilated if he doesn’t figure out his shit and defeat the challenges the labyrinth places in his way. It’s a thriller, basically, another type of story I’ve never written before.

I’ve now read the LoS novels that have already been published, and what I love about the project is how different our versions of the labyrinth are and how different our stories are. Check out the other Labyrinth of Souls novels here.

A Creative Career Path

by Matthew Lowes

I was recently asked to speak to a high school freshman careers class about my work as a writer and independent game designer. This was at the school where I work, so many student were surprised that I had this other life writing fiction and games. I talked a little about my creative work, about The Labyrinth of Souls tarot card game, and about my novel, The End of All Things, which just came out. Then I answered a series of questions they had put together, which I’ll reproduce here. If there are any young people out there interested in pursuing creative work, here’s an inside look at how that’s unfolded for me … and few tidbits of advice.

1. How did you discover your love/passion for this activity or line of work? Is your career different than what you wanted to do when you were in high school?

I played with writing stories at a pretty young age, so that was there from early on. I read a lot of comic books when I was little. I also tried to tackle things way beyond me at the time. Actually my failure to read and comprehend The Iliad at around the age of ten may have turned me off from reading for a while. Nevertheless, at some point, everybody who loves books finds a book that really resonates with them at that moment in their life, and for me that was The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, which I read in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.

My junior and senior year high school English teacher really helped solidify my interest in writing and literature. He was very demanding and a hard grader. He would never accept work even so much as an hour late and had the expectation that we would produce publishable quality writing. This really impressed upon me the importance of editing and always meeting your deadlines, which is incredibly important for a professional writer. But it was his love for literature and writing that helped me realize my own passion for the work I do now.

As far as games, that goes back a long ways too. When I was around nine years old my brother and I started playing Dungeon & Dragons, and I played a lot of roleplaying games right up until around middle school. A few years ago I got interested in games again, and since I spent the last twenty years or so working on writing, it wasn’t long before I was writing my own games. Games combine everything I love about fiction and narratives with math and logic. It’s a wonderful balance between creative and the analytical elements of thought.

2. How long did you consider turning your passion into an income before you went for it?

I wanted to be a writer, and really started writing with that in mind, when I was a freshman in college. I tried submitting a few stories almost right away, but got more serious about it a few years after I graduated from college.

3. What kind of schooling/training/qualifications is required in order to do your job?

There are no official requirements, but the unofficial requirements are vast. One must have passion, determination, and perhaps most importantly, vision. What I mean by vision is you have to have something to say, not in the sense that you have an opinion or a belief or a point of view, but more like you have an image of something you want to create.

I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master degree in teaching, but school is only a starting place for learning. A formal education and teacher can take you only so far. If you wish to excel, you must take it upon yourself to educate yourself about every aspect of what you’re doing. You must take complete responsibility for your knowledge and skills.

4. How long did it take to go through the training to do your job?

My whole life.

5. Is this career what you expected it to be?

Nothing is ever what you expect it to be. That’s what makes life so interesting. Everything you think you know about life and living now comes from a particular point of view that is shaped by the situations you find yourself in. Those situations and that point of view will change continuously throughout your life. Perhaps one day you will come to a place where you have no point of view whatsoever. But that is another conversation.

6. What do you enjoy most about your career? What is the best part of your job?

I enjoy pursuing my creative impulses. I enjoy taking an idea or vision and turning it into something concrete that others might find enjoyable, interesting, or inspiring.

7. What adventures/memorable moments have you had?

There is a wonderful satisfaction in finishing a large project you have invested a lot of time and energy into. I spent some twelve years writing a trilogy of fantasy novels, with a total of around 300,000 words, or some 1000 pages. When I finally got to the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book, there was an indescribable feeling of triumph. I hope everybody can experience something like that in their life. Those books are actually not yet published yet, but when they are that will be another memorable moment. Every project I complete, whether a short story, a game, or a novel, is like that to some degree.

8. What is the most challenging part of your career? If you could change one thing about your job what would it be?

One must be prepared to work long hours, months, and years, potentially without any encouragement, validation, praise, or income. That has been a challenge. There was a long period in my life where I would have given anything to have the time and resources to devote myself full time to my creative work. But eventually you see that every aspect of your life is part of your creative work, is fueling it, and so there is no point in changing anything. In any case, things are constantly changing anyway. So one day I may yet have that luxury.

9. Are there any dangers in your job?

The biggest dangers for people doing creative work are psychological. We don’t live in a society that makes pursuing any kind of art particularly easy. So there is a danger of becoming frustrated, jealous, depressed, self-loathing, or bitter. I suppose there is also the danger of simply not being able to pay your bills, but that’s a part of the whole package.

10. How much stress is connected to your career?

Stress is all in the mind. Some situations are typically more stress inducing than others, but it is our response that creates the stress, not the situation itself. Whatever you do in life, you will encounter stress, but if you keep this in mind, it will be a lot easier to deal with.

11. What are your typical weekly hours?

I work four days a week at the school. For my creative projects, often I will work about two hours at night, and twelve to twenty hours or so over the weekend. It varies depending what projects I’m working on and where they’re at.

12. Is family time restricted due to job duties?

Yes. Because I essential work two jobs, a lot of my would-be free time or social time is taken up working on creative projects.

13. What is the expected income for an entry level position? How often do you get paid?

For someone doing independent creative work there is no expected entry-level income. It all depends on what you do and if people buy it.

14. Salary or hourly position? Do you make enough money to be comfortable?

I support myself through my job at the school. As an independent writer/game-designer, my income has increased over the years, but I don’t make enough money to support myself doing only that. That job has no salary and no hourly wage. I make something, and if people buy it I get a percentage royalty after production and distribution costs.

15. What benefits are offered with your job?

My job at the school has good benefits, like health care, holidays, sick leave, and so on. My job as a writer and game designer has no such benefits. If you take a path like this, you have to find a way to sort out life’s logistical details, so you can continue to do your creative work.

16. What is retirement age?

What is retirement? What is age? There’s plenty of time to think about these things later in life. Focus on what’s happening now and you can never go wrong. For someone in a creative field, there is no end to creative possibilities.

17. Is there possibility for promotion/movement within the career?

There are always possibilities. Opportunities are abundant, to take good actions, to better yourself, to learn and expand your sphere of influence. These opportunities appear every day for everyone. You need only notice and embrace them.

18. Are you happy with your career choice?

I am very happy with the course my life and my career has taken. Sometimes things in life choose you, but if you embrace whatever happens, you will find happiness.

19. What advice would you give this class as they start their career search and preparation?

Here’s some strange advice, but it might work well for the right person.

Pick something obscure and learn absolutely everything about it, become the best at it. For example, if you want to play in an orchestra, don’t become a violin player, unless you can’t help it because that’s what you love or you just have extraordinary talent for that. Instead, if you become the best bassoon player in the world and you will always have an interesting job.

A while ago, I was doing some research on mummies for a story I was writing. It turned out there was one guy who was the world’s most renown expert on mummies. He knew everything there was to know about it. He had a mummy-related job and whenever something mummy related came up, he would be consulted. That’s the kind of possibility I’m talking about.

Beyond this interesting idea, I would say take responsibility for your own education. Read widely. Learn everything. Follow your interests, but don’t forget to take care of practical matters.

Finally, stop complaining, and simply take good actions.

20. What would you have done differently in high school?

This is a strange question, since I could not have done anything differently than I did. I was who I was at the time, and I am who I am now. But if you’re asking me what I think you should do while you’re in high school, I would say you should take advantage of the great opportunity to learn and better yourself and your situation. Study hard, learn as much as possible, but don’t worry too much about the future, other than to consider it and make some appropriate plans for what you will do after high school.

If you feel overwhelmed or depressed, ask for help. You’re not alone and people care about your well-being. Finally, don’t do anything foolish, like taking up drugs or drinking alcohol. Your brain and your body are still developing. Don’t risk messing yourself up for life. Maybe some of you are already doing these things and are thinking that it won’t mess you up, but you could be terribly wrong. You don’t even really know what messed up is, because you don’t really know where you’re at or what your true potential is.

Try to find out what your true potential is. It’s way bigger than you can even imagine.

From Games to Fiction

by Matthew Lowes

The history of fiction inspired by games goes back at least to the 1970s when the first Dungeons & Dragons inspired novels were released. If we count gladiatorial games we might push this back to the Roman era. And if we count the “game of life” we can push it back to dawn of humanity and the very origins of story telling. In any case, there are enough examples, both good and bad, to discuss some of the issues involved with writing a story inspired by a game.

When I first designed the first Dungeon Solitaire card game, I couldn’t have foreseen the success we would have with the expanded Labyrinth of Souls game. And when that game launched, I couldn’t have foreseen that there would soon be a series of Labyrinth of Souls novels. When that opportunity arose, thanks largely to writer Elizabeth Engstrom and writer & publisher Christina Lay, I felt strongly that there were some game-inspired fiction pitfalls that we should avoid.

Games with a narrative element, like Dungeon Solitaire, lend themselves to fiction because the game itself is designed to generate narratives. Once involved with the game, the mind is already spinning stories. However, game narratives and fiction narratives have some key differences. And as a writer of fiction engaging with game-related material, one should be clear about this.

Game narratives are generated through game-play. They are generally open ended, often meandering, and sometimes surprisingly random or short. Dungeon Solitaire is a good example. The game is a kind of hero’s journey, and can generate some classically structured narratives. But it is also possible to die on the first turn, or to lose the dragon-battle or get lost forever, right where the classic story would end in victory. In a game, that’s all part of the fun. What’s going to happen is really unknown, and like life, there is an element of randomness to the outcomes.

Good fiction, on the other hand, is always a kind of optimized or archetypal narrative. Take thousands of games played, or thousands of lives lived, and artfully choose from them the most satisfying and illuminating narrative structures and elements. That’s what fiction does. It is a kind of distillation of the game or life narrative into its most essential and moving forms. No book randomly ends after the first chapter. And no good book sets up one ending and then delivers a completely different one. The archetypal narrative forms, like the gods, must somehow be appeased for the beauty of fiction to flourish.

   

With all this in mind, I wanted the Labyrinth of Souls novels to be good fiction first and foremost. We had a lineup of incredibly talented fiction writers and they had to be free to do what they do best. The idea of the Labyrinth was broad enough to encompass a broad range of stories, without limiting authors to any predetermined setting or time period. And that’s one of the things I find so exciting about the novels so far. Although they all involve a journey into an underworld labyrinth of some sort, each one is entirely unique.

In creating something inspired by something else, we are still creating something new. So when writing fiction inspired by a game, it is primarily important to fulfill all the requirements of good fiction. Evoking the game in some way is necessary, of course, but only of secondary importance. Any constraining requirements should be kept to a minimum. For inspiration reaches its greatest potential when it happens with the greatest liberty to explore one’s own ideas.


You can learn more about Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls and download the free PDF of Dungeon Solitaire: Tomb of Four Kings at matthewlowes.com. Discover Labyrinth of Souls fiction titles and follow new releases at shadowspinnerspress.com.

Which Snow Queen Character Are You?

by Christina Lay

We all want to be the Queen, but let’s face it; sometimes we’re the crow, the witch, or the hobgoblin.

I’ve been thinking lately about how a fairy tale penned in 1844 remains relevant in our culture today. Mind you, my thoughts never stray far from the realm of folklore and fairy, and working for the Eugene Ballet Company, listening to the brand new score for the brand new Snow Queen Ballet drift up from the studio below my office, I’ve been finding it harder than ever to concentrate on bookkeeping and easier and easier to drift into the realm of story.

Principal Dancer Danielle Tolmie as The Snow Queen – Photo Courtesy of The Eugene Ballet

The Snow Queen has always been one of those tales that didn’t sit quite comfortably with me. I remember watching a version of it on TV when I was kid. I was both fascinated and disturbed. I wish I could remember which of the many adaptations it was (I’m guessing this was around 1970) but as with other non-Disney, weirdly and honestly portrayed tales, it left me not knowing what to think or feel. That sense of unease stayed with me until I recently re-read the original tale and rediscovered a treasure trove of fascinating characters and stunning images mined from the archival memory of folklore.

Yes, it is weird as only a 173 year-old fairy tale can be, but Gerda, the very good girl, rescues her dear friend Kay and all is well in the end. I think what disturbed me was the lack of resolution regarding the Queen herself. The focal point of anticipation and wonder conveniently leaves on vacation when Gerda shows up at her palace of ice. (Hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone). Maybe she was bored with Kay and was glad to get him off her hands.

I can only guess the movie version I saw didn’t send the queen away with no resolution, but who knows. The Queen remains a literary enigma, a mystery ensconced in a palace of ice who occasionally abducts little boys in order to have them move pieces of ice around on her frozen “lake of reason”.

Disney’s recent Frozen, very loosely based on The Snow Queen, is a sort of origin tale for the queen, exploring how a person might come to choose to live alone in a palace of ice. Obviously, zillions of movie-goers related to the concept of a person “frozen” due to the denial of their individuality; be it their artistic leanings, their sexuality, their personality, their natural talents. The story examines the damage inflicted when an essential part of oneself is rejected by those closest to you (in Frozen, Elsa’s own parents force her to suppress her astounding magical abilities out of fear). Many of us have experienced this on some level, and understand the urge to withdraw and hide our true selves to avoid further pain. In this case, we are the queen.

But there are many more characters in The Snow Queen and not all are so regal or impressively outfitted.

There’s Gerda, the lovely little girl who even the angels want to help. Gerda represents unconditional love and innocence. Something we can all relate to, right? Although she’s rejected by Kay, and even believes him dead, she won’t give up on him until she’s sure. She’s not terribly bright; her best idea to find out where Kay has gone is to throw her shoes into the river as a payment for knowledge, even after the river insists it doesn’t know anything. She does manage to get stuck on a boat and in the way of fairy tales, is carried toward her ultimate goal. Gerda also represents blind faith, and it works for her. Maybe we are Gerda when we throw common sense to the winds in order to pursue our dreams, loves, impossible wishes. Don’t the gurus always claim that when you follow your heart, the universe will aid you?

In contrast to Gerda is the robber girl, who is a psychopath with a heart of gold. She’s been raised by thieves to be violent, selfish and impulsive and yet she does help Gerda in the end. It’s not clear why, other than it amuses her more to see Gerda continue on her adventure than to murder her. I’m afraid I’ve been the robber girl on occasion. Not that I’ve every threatened to slit anyone’s throat, but the self-absorbed obsession with my own impulses isn’t entirely unfamiliar. I would venture to guess that in most people there exists an equal balance between Gerda’s unselfish goodness on one extreme and the robber girl’s amoral wildness on the other. Neither melds well to my sense of self, but I’ve been in both places.

What about the crow? Good natured, helpful, engaged but willing to risk his betrothed’s position at court in order to help out a stranger? And the crow loves to eat. The crow is about the most normal person in this entire fairy tale. Naturally he must die.

The old witch who lives on the river? She so enjoys Gerda’s company she attempts to erase Gerda’s memories of Kay in order to keep the girl by her side. The witch kills her many rose bushes so that the sight of them won’t trigger Gerda’s memories. In an absolutely lovely image, Gerda’s tears awaken the roses that have been buried beneath the earth and cause them to once again grow above into the sunlight. Then Gerda in her less than stable way runs around for a long while trying to get the roses to tell her where Kay has gone. The flowers have other things on their minds.

Flowers Return to Life – Photo Courtesy of The Eugene Ballet

I find the old witch more disturbing than the Snow Queen or the robber girl. Her manipulation is subtle, possibly even well-intentioned, and she could represent the authority figure who suppresses dreams, talents and nature in order to cleave someone to their side; depending on your perspective, this could be an entirely selfish quest to clip someone else’s wings or a rational desire to keep someone safe. Doesn’t every parent or lover have a little bit of this impulse inside them? Stay near, dear one, don’t venture out where you might get hurt, or lost, or worse, fall in love with someone else and leave me.

And then there are the hobgoblins, or trolls, if you prefer, who start the whole thing. The trolls have a mirror which when gazed upon, distorts whatever beauty there is into ugliness. They have great fun tormenting everyone with it and decide to take it to heaven to mess with the angels. Well, the mirror falls and shatters into a million pieces, but the shards still have their evil effect. Only now, the shards get into people’s eyes and hearts and make them see everything as twisted, bad and ugly. Obviously fragments of the troll mirror are still at work today, with hate and bigotry so prevalent in our politics and media. There’s no shortage of trolls at work eager to warp and twist reality into something monstrous that can conjure hatred. “Fearmongering” is word that is sadly useful here. Have you ever used gossip or lies in order to punish, manipulate or control? Yeah, me neither.

Kay, the little boy whose heart turns into a block of ice, represents the human side of the troll equation. It is certainly not uncommon to be infected with an attitude that turns everything grey, or threatening. Depression is like this, but so is prejudice; fear of the other. I hate to admit I’ve been under the influence of troll thinking more than a few times in my life. If we are exceptionally lucky, we have a Gerda in our lives who will stand by us now matter how big a prick we become, someone whose love might save us from our own worst impulses.

The Snow Queen clearly still touches our hearts and our imaginations. I’ve read the theory that Hans Christen Anderson’s character of the Snow Queen, a heartless figure sitting on her throne of ice in the middle of the lake of reason, was a reaction against criticism he’d received for writing fanciful fairy tales. Writers of fantasy today still have to defend the relevance of their “fairy tales”, despite the fact the genre has become hugely popular. People who don’t “get” fantasy fail to see the truth behind the tall tales. Perhaps they have a bit of glass in their eye. Fantasy is to literature as poetry is to language, it gives us the magical ability to say things in words that can’t be said in words. And now, in the wonderful way of human creativity, the poem is being translated into dance. No matter the medium, fantasy and fairy tales let us see beyond the clouded mirrors to deep within our souls and into the souls of others, connecting us in the dreams we share.

***

If you happen to be in Eugene this weekend, don’t miss the chance to check out The Snow Queen, an original ballet choreographed by Toni Pimble, original score by Kenji Bunch.

 

 

 

When Furry Fiction Meets Dark Fiction

By Mary E. Lowd

I like animals, and so I write about them.  Early on, I tried to keep the animals under control, off to the side, with plenty of human characters for readers to identify with at the center of my stories.  Eventually, I discovered that there’s a whole genre of fiction for people like me who want to read and write about animals — it’s called furry fiction, and it changed my life.  I stopped trying to shoehorn humans into my stories and fully embraced my desire to write animal characters.

There are a lot of advantages to writing furry fiction.  In 2005, I started writing a NaNoWriMo novel about a down and out tabby cat and the dog goon who’s hired to get rid of her but turns out to have a heart of gold.  It was inspired by watching my dog Patrick bark at my cat Heidi.  It was supposed to be a quick and dirty novel to get the pump primed, and then once I had the animal characters out of my system, I’d move on to writing some serious science-fiction.  Ten years later though, I’m still exploring the world of that novel because it turned out to be so rich.  My fourth novel in that setting, Otters In Space 3: Octopus Uprising, should come out some time in the next year.

When you write about animal species, they’re fun and easy to picture, so a story is almost automatically colorful and compelling on a shallow level.  This is why so many cartoons and animated films feature animal characters.  Animals are fun to look at; animal characters are fun to think about.  But more than that, each different animal species comes with its own quirks — some are predators, some are prey; some live in desserts, some are aquatic; they can have bushy fur, scales, feathers, or even skin that changes color.  Antlers, wings, giant ears, long tails?  So many options.  And all these differences lead to different needs and different priorities.  So, if you take your animal characters seriously, you can end up with a really rich world really fast.  If you’ve seen the movie Zootopia, then you know what I mean.

But ShadowSpinners is a blog about dark fiction, so I want to steer this toward the intersection between dark fiction and furry fiction, because something really interesting happens when those two flavors combine.

Furry characters give the reader a feeling of safe distance — “That couldn’t happen to me; it’s happening to a cartoon character.”  Wile E. Coyote can blow himself up, fall off cliffs, and be crushed by anvils all day every day, and it’s funny.  George Orwell’s 1984 is terrifying, but Animal Farm is cute.  The Netflix show BoJack Horseman delves deeply into the truth of depression.  And Art Spiegelman’s Maus stares unflinchingly at the reality of Auschwitz.  This is a powerful tool.  But there’s a flip side, a double standard if you will.

People will cry over animals like they’ll never cry over other humans.  I have a series of short stories about a tabby cat who constantly runs afoul of his owner’s household appliances — these are lightweight, fun, adventure romps with a supernatural twist.  Yet, I’ve had these stories rejected (once by a YA market that lists The Hunger Games as the type of fiction they like) on the grounds that a cat killing a mouse is too dark.

Is there any way to twist the knife in a story more powerful than killing the dog?  Sure, you can “kill the dog” without writing furry fiction.  But furry fiction gives you a lot more dogs to kill.

If you want to write something truly, deeply dark, imagine combining both halves of that double standard.

I’ll let that idea sit for a moment.

It’s like the salty, nutty taste of peanut butter, undercut by the intense, bittersweet flavor of chocolate.  Complex on the tongue and totally addictive.  Lure the reader in with happy animal characters and make them feel safe — twitching noses, fluffy cottontails, and long ears.  Then leave the poor bunny with its hind foot caught in a snare, twisted and bleeding to death on the floor — hitting the reader harder than they’ve ever been hit before.

The magical blend of furry fiction and dark fiction lends a unique opportunity to dark fiction writers.  If you want to explore the possibilities for fitting furry characters into your own fiction, check out my essay “Writing Furry Speculative Fiction” on Jester Harley’s Manuscript Page where I break down all the standard tropes of furry world-building.  For more information about furry fiction in general, check out the Furry Writers’ Guild website — among other things, the FWG keeps a listing of furry markets and hosts a forum and Slack group with a very active community of writers.

Furry fiction is an exciting and growing genre.  We’d love to welcome more dark fiction writers into our ranks!

* * * *

Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had three novels and more than eighty short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com, or read much of her short fiction at www.deepskyanchor.com.

The Magic of Everyday Life

by Matthew Lowes

ice

Well, my post is a little late here but there are reasons. Right? I mean, first of all, I got sick. Then there was the ice storm. Then the power went out for some twenty hours or so and it got pretty darn chilly. Then we headed up to the Belknap Hot Springs lodge for the night. Wait a minute, you say, you were soaking in the hot springs with a past due deadline? Okay, the truth is although all this happened, I just forgot about the post. But because of this whole turn of events, I now have something to say about magic.

Friday morning we woke to snowfall up in the mountains. We hiked through the woods, had another soak in the hot springs, and on our way back into Eugene we saw the most amazing sights. All the trees were still covered in ice, and the sun had just broken through the clouds, making everything glitter like jewels. The whole city looked like it was built among the trees of a crystal forest. It looked like something straight out of a high fantasy novel. And all this got me to thinking both about the sheer magic of everyday life, and about the magic of contrast.

Why is it that the first snowfall of winter always seems so magical? Why does the ice storm delight us so much, in spite of the destruction it causes? Everything in life is noticed through contrast. Without contrast, nothing could be discerned. We would not even feel alive. That we are, and that there is beauty and wonder and awe is a function of this contrast. The first snow contrasts with summer and fall, and we so rarely see the beauty of the crystal forest that when we come upon it we are enchanted. Contrast creates all this magic.

So what does this have to do with writing? Just this: if you’re going to put a crystal forest in your novel, don’t make it the place your heroes visit just after the crystal meadow. To create a sense of magic, or to make a place, or a character, or an event stand out in the reader’s mind, you must create contrast. If characters are always arguing, their argument won’t have much impact. If they usually agree but finally have a blow up, there’s more contrast, and more impact. The storm is all the more impressive because of the calm before it.

But magic does not always have to be so dramatic as a crystal forest in the middle of your novel, although that can be fun. When you really notice, there is nothing mundane in this whole world. Everything is sheer magic. The flow of water, the rising of steam off a cup of tea, the drop of a leaf, a stranger’s voice, the play of light and shadow across the land … it’s all magic! And in your writing this magic is conveyed with the magic of a well chosen word, the magic of an original phrase, and the magic of a beautiful sentence. That is the wind in the trees. That is the face of the ever-changing sky. That is real magic.

How Do I Pitch MY Genre? by Eric Witchey

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How Do I Pitch My Genre? by Eric Witchey

After teaching a class, volunteering to help Timberline Review sell subscriptions, and signing my newly launched novel at this year’s Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was walking along a hallway minding my own business and wondering if I could get back to my room to take a nap before I had to face another room full of 100 people. A personable guy said hi and caught my attention. He was a volunteer gate keeper outside the pitch and critique room where aspirants bring their hearts and souls for fine tuning before presenting them in ten minute chunks to agents and editors looking for commodities from which to make a living. Making eye contact, I became aware of my surroundings and realized that the room was understaffed and several people were waiting for a chance to get what might be critical advice. So, I volunteered to take a few pitches and help hone them.

Mind you, there’s actually plenty of help for this kind of thing. The conference ran pitch practice sessions before the conference. They ran pitch practice sessions at the conference. Most of the people pitching had practiced with friends, family, and crit groups. And, as a last chance for final revision and preparation, the conference had a pitch practice room, into which I walked.

I sat down, and the kind people at the conference showed four nervous writers my way—one at a time. I had fifteen minutes to help each.

The four writers had been coached to provide half-page synoptic summaries of their books, and each showed up with pages that did that. The idea, as I understood it, was to give a sense of genre, of character, of content, and of market potential.

Well, that list seems pretty obvious to most people. After all, a science fiction adventure isn’t the same as a historical romance, right?

Wrong.

What was not so obvious is that these people were terrified and clinging to every bit of advice they had ever been given in the hope that it would touch the hearts of jaded professionals and give up a result that would change the writers’ lives and let them connect their hearts through their words to the world.

Can you say, “TERRIFIED?”

One had a fantasy romance. One had a historical novel. One had a non-fiction book on how to talk to kids about sex. One had a cryptobiography. All had decent concepts that could fly in the market. Mind you, I hadn’t read the stories themselves. I only had access to a few pages of pitches and the problems the writers had encountered in trying to sell their stories.

So, we got to work.

In three of the four cases, I realized I didn’t have much to add to the long-form pitches the writers had honed. However, I did have the communication consultant skills and personal experience of 25 years of freelance work. So, I gave all three exactly the same thing.

Emotion.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I pitched my first novel—a novel that later sold in Poland, but that’s another story. While practicing with my good friend Gail McNally (no, not the actress), I was proud of what I had done and of the fact that I had memorized my pitches cold. Gail listened kindly—eyes closed, nodding, pinching her nose. When I was done, she said, “That might work if you put the emotion in.”

Huh? Obviously, she had missed something because I knew it was a brilliant pitch. After all, I had read about pitching. I had talked to other people. I had carefully crafted my pitch. I had a 30 second pitch, a three-minute pitch, a full page pitch, a five-page synoptic outline, and a full synoptic outline. I was freaking loaded for literary bear.

What the hell does emotion have to do with selling the product?

So, long story short, I lost the argument and rewrote it all with an emphasis on character emotional change.

My first time pitch nailed an editor and let me choose between several interested agents.

Why? I now know it was because stories are not about things or events. Stories are about how people change emotionally and psychologically. Things and events only facilitate the changes.

Yes…. The things and events have to be “interesting and unique,” but they are only truly interesting in that they are connected to emotional change.

So, I helped each one of my three fiction charges fashion a one- or two-line pitch that captured the three Cs:

Character, Conflict, and Change.

You could say it is really only two Cs because Character is really made up of an emotional/psychological state, and Change is really just the character as they appear after they change because of the conflict. So, really, it’s just Character, Conflict, and Character, but that’s a bit confusing and doesn’t really sound right in a culture that likes to think in threes.

Essentially, we put our heads together and came up with statements like:

Soul and psyche torn down to nothing by the murder of her family, outcast 1940’s gay homemaker Millicent Monroe faces insurgent Nazis in the Iowa farmlands and consequently discovers deep connection to the community, land, and country that persecuted her.

Okay, that’s not really one of them, but maybe I’ll write that book. We’ll see.

Anyway, three of the four walked away with a similar statement and some communication consulting advice about how to speak, how to make eye contact, when to pause, and how to manage the transition to their larger already prepared pitch.

One, however, didn’t. That one makes the other three all the more interesting. The fourth person had career as a sex education lecturer, consultant, and therapist. She had a values-neutral book about how to talk to kids about sex. Her problem was also emotion, but it wasn’t the emotion of the book and characters. Her problem was that every time she pitched the book, people’s “sex stuff” came up and interfered with their ability to see the product she offered. Her problem was that she needed to disarm her audience’s emotions in order to allow them to look at her work.

That was interesting, so we worked the same problem from the opposite direction and provided her with language that identified her platform and established a context in which the content created result for the readers who bought the book. We brainstormed keywords that would frame the conversation in terms of platform, product, and market. I also recommended that she add an additional agent I knew to her pitch list.

Results?

Over the following couple of days, one-by-one, each of the four sought me out to share their excitement and success. Each one hit—and not just once. They all got requests from every agent and editor they pitched. All of them.

Why?

Here’s the bit that isn’t as obvious. These writers had been prepared by professionals to walk in and deliver fairly lengthy pitches that made use of the time available—ten minutes. Those pitches might have done fine by themselves without my help. However, agents and editors don’t take pitches in order to hear the story that takes a book-length manuscript to tell. The take pitches to filter the masses through sieve in order to find the writers who control character and story. If a writer truly controls the craft of presenting character and story, then the writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly.

Conversely, if a writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly, it is likely that they control craft well enough to deliver story. When a writer succinctly states the emotional core of character, the conflict that changes them, and the new emotional makeup of the character, agents and editors hear much more than is stated. The result is that they sit up, quite literally, and start to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the manuscript. So, the pitch creates a conversation that leads to a request for pages.

In the unique case of the non-fiction writer, the emotionally charged material wasn’t the problem. The problem was to help people see the product rather than let their emotional response to product become the primary experience of their encounter. It is really a mirror image of the same problem.

But it’s different for different genres, right?

Nope. Genre doesn’t matter on the heart and story level. Never has. Never will. Genre is marketing category. Yes, you don’t pitch space opera to a commercial woman’s fiction editor. Don’t be entirely daft. However, genre isn’t story. Genre is only a taxonomic label for expectations concerning things and events. Sometimes, genre influences the mix of techniques used for telling a story, but genre has nothing to do with heart and soul and hopes and dreams. The story comes from the writer’s heart and seeks to touch the reader’s heart. Pitching is about letting a potential buyer know that the writer understands heart and controls story craft well enough to deliver emotion to the reader.

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