Musings on Breathing Life into a Heartless Villain, by Pamela Jean Herber

 

What makes for a memorable antagonist?

I’ve been having trouble with the antagonist in my current novel-in-progress. She’s boring. I have a decent handle on how she operates in her world, and the role she plays in the story, but she feels more like a mathematical formula than a human being. What to do?… Go out in search of a villain I’m excited about who has similar traits to my antagonist.

An intriguing historical villain

In my travels through books, the Internet, and my own memory, I found a deliciously evil woman from the early 1800s who grew up in Bauzelles, France. Her name was Thérèse Humbert.

As a girl, Thérèse was betrayed by her own father. He had raised her to believe she and her family were wealthy aristocrats. When the truth came out upon her father’s death that she was not of nobility, and wouldn’t be inheriting great wealth, Thérèse was robbed of a station in society she believed she was entitled to. Without legitimate means to claim her place, she resorted to her father’s game. Fraud.

She continued to tell the tale of her family’s aristocratic standing. She was able to obtain credit based on soon-to-be received wealth, piling up huge debt buying a lifestyle that gave the appearance of wealth. Along the way, Thérèse’s husband, and her father-in-law covered her debts as best they could, perhaps to protect their own reputations. She convinced bankers to allow debts to go unpaid for long after they were due by weaving story after story of an impending inheritance and a favorable marriage by her sister.

Eventually, Thérèse was arrested, tried, and imprisoned, but not until after she had wreaked havoc on the hopes, reputations, and livelihoods of numerous family members, friends, and business associates. These unsustainable ways lead Thérèse to betray her younger sister in the very way her father had betrayed her.

With only a brief sketch of Thérèse’s life, I’m hooked.

What makes Thérèse Humbert such an interesting character?

  • The fact that Thérèse’s father betrayed her makes her need for money and status believable and heartbreaking. Her actions were still unconscionable, but I sympathize with how she became capable of them.
  • She betrayed her sister in the same way she was betrayed. Wow. Just wow. This makes me worry for not just the family, but for all the descendants, and especially the sister. Will it be possible for her to break the cycle?
  • The younger sister could not have been deceived without the support of family members who knew the truth. Thérèse could not have successfully defrauded so many people without the support of her very victims: family, friends, and business associates.

In light of what I’ve found, what can I try out on my antagonist?

  • Provide a single and traumatic event that drives her need for money and status.
  • Show that her daughter is at risk of falling into the same patterns of behavior.
  • Populate the story with a network of people that support the antagonist.

The villain in the story doesn’t breathe on their own. The person the villain was before the damage, and the people in the villains’s life who have retained their compassion, they are the ones who bring the villain to life.

Interview Series: Interview with author Mary E. Lowd

By Cynthia Ray

The creative process has always fascinated me, and especially how it works for individual artists and writers.  I’ll be delving into this in a series of interviews with authors near and far.   In the first of this series, we meet Mary E. Lowd.  I met Mary in a writing group in Oregon, and I was immediately drawn to her quirky humor, and her warm, insightful stories.   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.

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Mary, what can you tell us about your work, and yourself as an author?
I write science-fiction and furry fiction.  That means spaceships and talking animals.  I have been known to write the occasional piece of contemporary science-fiction, and some of the animals I write about can’t talk.  But mostly, I like to write stories that have spaceships and talking animals.  So, it should come as no surprise that the novel series I’ve been working on for the last decade is called Otters In Space.

I self-published the first Otters In Space novel in 2010.  Then I discovered the furry fandom, and I spent the next year tirelessly trying to sell my self-published novel to an actual furry publisher.  In 2012, Otters In Space was re-released by FurPlanet, and I could not have been prouder of that swirly emblem with two paw-prints emblazoned on the back cover of my book, pronouncing it a FurPlanet book.  Since then, I’ve had two more novels published by FurPlanet, a collection of short stories, and I’ve become the editor for their annual anthology ROAR.  The third Otters In Space novel is in the final editing phases now and will hopefully come out later this year or early next year.

OiS1-FurPlanet-front-cover

That’s good to hear.  I’ve been waiting for that book to come out.  It’s themes are very relevant to the environment that we find ourselves in today.  So, why do you write?
I write because I have to.  It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.  Even before I could read, my mom encouraged me to tell stories, and she’d write them down for me.  Two of my earliest works were “Sally Cat and the Six Magic Balls” and “Salamander.”  One was a fantasy story about a cat (so, the kind of thing that I still write) and the other was a personal narrative of the day that I caught a salamander.

Once I could actually write the words down myself, writing became my escape.  Why would you spend a day in middle school when you could use the notebook paper in front of you to escape to the Serengeti where a poodle is trying to steal the throne from a blind lion?  (I believe that story was heavily influenced by Gary Larson’s The Far Side.)  I spent most of middle school surrounded by the cheerful woodland creatures of Great Oak Abbey, a place which bore a striking resemblance to Brian Jacques’ Redwall Abbey.  Then after reading C.J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur, I moved to outer space with a crew of tiger-like aliens and spent all of high school on their spaceship with them.

These days, why would I live in a country that failed to elect its first woman president this fall when I could instead hang out in deep space with all kinds of animal-like aliens?  At this point, I’ve spent so much of my life writing that I get twitchy if I go very long without doing it.  Writing is something that I have to do, so I may as well make use of it.

I like your idea of hanging out in deep space.  I’ve heard they have a woman president on Mars.  But seriously, what does Creative Process mean to you?  What is yours?
There are a lot of ways to go about writing, and a strategy that works for you at one time may be a complete dead-end later.  So, I guess I believe that creative processes are always evolving.  As such, I’ll tell you about a strategy that’s worked out really well for me this year.

Last summer, I’d been stuck trying to finish Otters In Space 3 for so long — tying up loose threads and managing continuity with three previously published novels in the same world — that I was sick to death of writing a long work.  I wanted the freedom of writing something much shorter.  So I started playing something I call The Flash Fiction Game.

I got three decks of cards — two story-telling decks from a toy store (one fairy tale themed, the other robot themed) and a deck of animal guide cards.  In the morning, I’d draw a card from each deck, and by the end of the day, I had to finish a complete piece of flash fiction inspired by those three cards.  Animal + robot element + fairy tale element added up to furry space opera for me, so I wrote several dozen pieces of flash fiction set in my Crossroads Station universe by the end of the fall.  Some days, the cards clicked with each other, and it was easy.  Other days, I’d stare at those cards at a complete loss, and every word was a struggle.  But I’d still finish something resembling a complete piece of flash fiction, and finishing a complete story is a huge rush.

So, overall, I ended up with a bunch of stories — some mediocre, but some surprisingly excellent (five of them have been accepted by Daily Science Fiction) — and a huge boost to my confidence.  If you find yourself feeling lost or stuck, it’s a strategy I’d highly recommend giving a try.  Though, it won’t work for everybody.  That’s the thing about creative processes — they’re unique to each person, and even for a single person they’re always evolving.

Yes, the process is unique for each person; thats what makes it so interesting, but there are similarities, aren’t there?   Let me ask you another question.  What is the hardest thing you have worked through?
I nearly died when my daughter was born — if I’d lived in Jane Austen times, I’m sure I would have.  The recovery was brutal — both physically for myself and emotionally for my family, as my husband was deeply scarred by almost losing me.  Human reproduction is a cruel joke.  Of course, I’ve used those feelings to inspire stories.  One of my most successful stories — “Foreknowledge” (http://www.apex-magazine.com/foreknowledge/) — remixed many of my actual feelings into a fictional scenario.  It’s the story I’ve been most often told is my best; it also makes a lot of people cry.  I couldn’t have given it the same immediacy and power without mining my own experiences for kernels of truth.

Thank you for sharing that experience.  What a positive way to work through it.  What is the most revealing thing you have learned about yourself by writing?

I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.  Or an otter.  I actually didn’t realize this directly from my writing; although, it was right there on the page, staring at me.  Even so, it took a fan coming up to me at a furry convention and telling me that he loved my novel because he’s a cat who wishes he were an otter too.  The main character in each of my novels so far is a cat who wishes she were a dog or otter.  If you don’t speak the language of animal archetypes, this means that I’m particular and persnickety, but I aspire to be care-free and fun-loving.  Though, I think it’s much more elegant and carries far greater nuance in the language of furries:  I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.

And finally, if you were going to tell aspiring authors one thing, what would it be?
It will be hard.  It will get easier.   Write about animals — they’re fun to write, and people like to read about them.

Learn more at www.marylowd.com, or read much of her short fiction at www.deepskyanchor.com.

https://www.amazon.com/Otters-In-Space-Search-Havana/dp/1614500436
https://www.amazon.com/Otters-Space-Jupiter-Deadly-Volume/dp/1614501181
https://www.amazon.com/Dogs-World-Mary-E-Lowd/dp/1614502374
https://www.amazon.com/Necromouser-Other-Magical-Cats/dp/1614502838/

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Alive!

This week’s post is a little different than usual, because I finally get to announce the release of ShadowSpinners: A Collection of Dark Tales.  What started out as a flickering idea in this writer’s fevered imagination is now an actual physical thing! (We’ll save arguments regarding wether or not an ebook is an actual thing for later.)  For yes, we do have a print version, and it is truly a lovely thing to hold and fondle.  With the invaluable aid of ebook wizard Pamela Herber and print formatting genius Matt Lowes, ShadowSpinners can now offer up some of the fiction we’ve been ranting about for the past two years.  Thank you also to Cheryl Owen-Wilson for the gorgeous artwork.

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I am profoundly grateful to be part of such an amazing group of writers.This has most definitely been a labor of love and I hope our enthusiasm for the project will warm your soul even as our stories chill your spine.

And now, so you’ll know what I’m raving about, here’s my introduction to the collection:

The tag line for the ShadowSpinners blog is “when nice people write bad things.” The writers whose works are included in this collection are nice people, mostly, in the daylight. But get us alone with our characters and bad things tend to happen. We’ve all written stories that have scared the wits out of friends and have earned us the question, often asked with a nervous chuckle, “Where on earth do you get these ideas?”

That is indeed an excellent question. Several of us have addressed it on the blog, (here, here and here) but while pondering how to introduce this rather eclectic collection, it came to me once again. Why do nice people write bad things? And what exactly makes a tale dark, anyway?

Within this volume you’ll find a broad compendium of styles, ranging from humorous to thoughtful to outright horrific. Yet there is a common thread, a dark undertow that explores the mysterious depths of the human psyche. The description “dark” can mean so many things, but in this volume the sense of something obscured, veiled by shadow, underlies each story, whether we are hearing the whispers of ghosts over the phone line, pondering the weight of a hollow existence, saving young souls from Satan or battling terrifying alien forces in the void of space.

Often, the darkness, the ghost, resides in our own minds. And when faced with an outside force of evil, an equal and opposing force may arise from within. Whether our characters will meet evil with evil or with an overcoming, triumphant strength is the question at the heart of many of these stories.

If you’re the sort of reader who likes to know what to expect, this might not be the volume for you. However, if you enjoy a rousing good yarn populated by fascinating characters in challenging situations, prepare to enjoy yourself.

The print version on Amazon

The eBook on Amazon

Fish Every Cast, by Eric M. Witchey

Fish Every Cast

by Eric M. Witchey

My father was an avid sport fisherman, so my head is full of little gems of parental wisdom couched in angling metaphors.

More on that in a minute. First, a joke.

Have you heard the one about the aspiring writer who asked the editor, “What is the difference between a manuscript you accept and one you reject?” The editor smiled, sipped her wine, and quipped, “Lunch.”

In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge suggests to Marley that the ghost might be the result of a bit of underdone potato. We are all glad Marley wasn’t, but he might have been. Scrooge’s experience and the editor’s quip share very significant characteristics. Marley really is a ghost, and Scrooge embraces the possibility that human perception is influenced by environmental factors. The editor’s response assumes that the manuscript is a story, and she also embraces the knowledge that her perceptions might be influenced by blood sugar or general attitude in the moment.

Where Marley is actually a ghost, the editor’s assumption that the manuscript is a story is a huge and kind assumption. She is really only speaking to the selection between two stories from equally skilled writers. She has, in her mind, automatically dismissed the other 99% of her slush pile. Given her obscene workload, we have to allow for that.

Keep our hypothetical editor in mind for a moment while I return to my father. We used to go bass fishing on a pond in the woods at the back end of a Catholic Seminary in Ohio. That pond is where I learned to use a spin-caster. I can still hear my father saying, “If you want to learn to cast well, cast more.” I have fond memories of that place.

Now, having travelled the world and fished in many places, I can say that the little pond of my childhood was a bit of a shithole. It was choked in weeds. It was surrounded by a wall of cattails ten feet thick in places, which made water access difficult. Additionally, that pond wasn’t more than fifty yards from a landfill where we used to shoot rats, but that’s another story. Luckily, the shithole pond was full of nasty, hungry bass.

Learning to cast was an exercise in managing mind, body, equipment, and environment. Little-by-little, under the patient tutelage of my father, I got the hang of finding access, seeing where the bass might hang out, flipping the bail on my reel, letting out a little line, locking the line with a finger, swinging the rod to load the fiberglass and establish the throwing arc, and releasing the line by pointing my finger at the spot where I wanted my bass lure to land. Then, I learned to work my lures in the water in order to attract bass.

I caught bass.

However, and I actually started keeping track because that’s how my sad little OCD brain works, I only caught a bass about every 50 casts. Now, it turned out that in 50 casts, a fair number of them went astray of my intentions—especially early on while learning to cast by casting a lot.

One day, while trying hard to impress my father with my casting (and catching), I sent a hoola-popper (bass lure) out into the lily pads and tangled vines of elodea (weeds). That was not what I wanted. It was embarrassing because my father was standing next to me watching, so I quickly started to real the lure in to try again.

My father put a hand on my frantically cranking arm to still it. In his quiet, fishing voice, he said, “Fish every cast. You never know what might happen.”

Frustration at my failure battled with my desire to appear as though I believed my father. That day, the desire to please won out over my frustration. I slowed down. I worked the lure, and I caught a bass in the middle of the weedy, mucky, lily pad-laden shallows.

What has all this to do with writing, Scrooge, and jokes?

Well, in case you don’t already see it coming, it has everything to do with them. Sometime in the last few years, and I won’t say exactly when, I won an award for a story that had been rejected 65 times. That’s not an exaggeration, and I won’t name the story here for the same reasons I won’t pin down the timeframe more specifically. No organization wants to believe they gave an award to a story that other editors had rejected 65 times, but that prejudice is a human foible to explore another time.

The point here is that the story didn’t change over the almost 15 years it took before an editor had the right things at lunch to set their mood and allow them to embrace it. The manuscript was always a story, and it was always a “good enough” story. I put it out on the pond over and over and over because you have to cast 50 times to catch a bass. I put it in the lily pads. I put it in the elodea. I put in open water. I hit the bank. I got it tangled in the trees. Then, one day, it magically became the right story in the right place with the right editor, who, incidentally, had had the right things for lunch. In short, I caught a fish in the weedy, mucky, lily pad-laden shallows.

If, as writers, we are sure the manuscript is a well-crafted story, then it is important for us to remember that my father was a wise man. When he said, “If you want to learn to cast, cast more,” and, “fish every cast,” he wasn’t talking about fishing. Fishing was just the tool he used to slip his wisdom past my anti-parental advice defenses.

Every story is a lure. Every submission is a cast. You can never be completely sure which lure and which cast will bring a trophy bass up out of the muck and weeds. So, cast more and fish every cast.

I have to say one more very important thing. Editors are not bass. I never said that they are bass. Don’t ever tell them that they are a bass. That’s a very bad thing. Editors are people who have nothing whatsoever in common with bass. It also helps to buy them good lunches. Never let an editor eat a bad lunch.

PS: I’m adding this post script about thirty minutes before this blog entry is scheduled to go live because I just found out that the one and only science fiction story I have written about a boy and his father teaching one another to fish just sold to Daily Science Fiction. The story is titled, “Vincent’s First Bass.” I love it when the universe throws these tiny convergence parties.