Guest post: Charlie Holmberg on Aqua Notes

Homegrown in Salt Lake City, Charlie Holmberg was raised a Trekkie with three sisters who also have boy names. She writes fantasy novels and does freelance editing on the side. She's a proud BYU alumna, plays the ukelele, and owns too many pairs of glasses. Her first novel, The Paper Magician, is now available. Follow her on Twitter for Read more

Talk like a pirate, win a book

So this Friday, September 19th, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Now that's something I can really get behind. I love pirates. From The Black Swan to The Sea Hawk, from Raphael Sabatini to William Goldman, from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp, I dig them all. And not just the fictional ones: I've seen Blackbeard's cannon and Black Sam Read more

A Tale of Two Curls

Sometimes a song inspires a book. Sometimes a book inspires a song. And sometimes--okay, this is the only time I'm aware of this happening--a song inspires a book which inspires a song. There are two wonderful songs out there that share a title with my upcoming novel. Don't ask me to pick a favorite, because I can't. But I can tell Read more

A Radical Notion on Internet Misogyny

My friend, director Lexi Alexander (Punisher: War Zone and Green Street Hooligans, among others) has recently come under fire for her pro-file-sharing stance. You can read her argument, which is more nuanced than my simple summary (she's mainly against the criminalization of file-sharing), at this link. Needless to say, there's been some controversy. So much, in fact, that she's Read more

Out today: Wickedly Dangerous by Deborah Blake

One of the perks of my job is that I get asked to give blurbs to upcoming books, which means I also get to read them long before they come out. Usually such requests come from editors, or agents, or writers I've met at conferences, but occasionally they come from good friends who also happen to be good writers. Read more

Rant: Back Cover Text Peeves

Posted on by Alex in cover art, Horror Films, writers, writing | Leave a comment

 

I think it’s important for a writer to read outside his or her own genre, so that their work doesn’t sound like everyone else’s. So I’m always on the lookout for something, which means I read a lot of back cover text, searching for that elusive spark of interest. I understand the purpose of those descriptive blurbs: to tell potential readers what they’re getting, and to intrigue them into dropping their (on average) twenty bucks. But sometimes, in my opinion, they play too tightly to their genre.

On a recent trip, I was scoping out books in an airport and came across Dream Lake by Lisa Kleypas. She’s a best-selling author, but I wasn’t familiar with her work; still, the title and cover illustration got me to pick up the book and peruse the back cover. Here’s what it said:

They say that opposites attract. But what happens when one has been devastated by betrayal and the other is so jaded that his heart is made of stone? Enter the world of Friday Harbor, an enchanting town in the Pacific Northwest where things are not quite as they seem and where true love might just have a ghost of a chance….

Okay, so far, so good. Call me a wuss, but I enjoy Alice Hoffman-esque magical realism. I understand that love is often at the heart of a magical-realist story, and that’s okay, too. So I read on:

Alex Nolan is as bitter and cynical as they come. One of the three Nolan brothers who call Friday Harbor home, he’s nothing like Sam or Mark. They actually believe in love; they think the risk of pain is worth the chance of happiness. But Alex battles his demons with the help of a whiskey bottle, and he lives in his own private hell. And then a ghost shows up. Only Alex can see him. Has Alex finally crossed over the threshold to insanity?

Again, so far, so good. Better than good, in fact. I like the idea of a troubled hero with a ghost only he can see; one of my favorite TV shows, Slings and Arrows, played with exactly that conceit. And one of my favorite tropes is the idea of the cynical, bitter hero reclaiming his idealism (if you don’t believe me, check out any of my own Eddie LaCrosse novels). Again, I read on:

Zoë Hoffman is as gentle and romantic as they come. When she meets the startlingly gorgeous Alex Nolan–

And that’s where it lost me. Because honestly, I have no interest in the stories of people who are startlingly gorgeous. It’s so far outside my experience that I just can’t identify with it. In our society, gorgeous people are a breed apart, treated like royalty and held to different standards. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the book’s target audience probably eats that up with a spoon, and it may in fact be a terrific novel. But I’ll never know. (Addendum: in the interests of fairness, I’ve decided to read this book, and put it on hold at the library. 27 people are ahead of me, which says that my problems with it are far from universal.)

This got me thinking about other things that immediately put me off. For example, I love horror movies, but if I see the words, “a group of teenagers,” “a group of college friends,” “a dozen young people,” or anything similar, I move on. Experience (and the SyFy Channel, and the Chiller channel) have taught me that this is short-hand for “there will be lots of meaningless victims,” and (depending on the rating), “there may be breasts.”

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How common is this trope? Here’s the results of just fifteen minutes of scanning the horror new releases on Netflix:

“Six young travelers check into a shabby hotel…” The Child’s Eye, 2010
“Six friends venture into a forbidden part of town…” The Hunters, 2011
“Miriam and four college friends run afoul of….” Evil Things, 2009
“A fun-filled weekend getaway turns into a nightmare…” Don’t Let Him In, 2011
“College kids travel to a small mountain town…” Madison County, 2011
“When a tour guide and her friends investigate…” The Haunting of Whaley House, 2012
“A weekend of beach house debauchery turns into a nightmare for a group of friends…” Shark Night, 2011
“A group of kids takes an illegal tour…” Chernobyl Diaries, 2012
“Four London art students living as squatters…” Spiderhole, 2010
“A group of indie rockers seek solace…” Don’t Go in the Woods, 2010

 

So what back-cover copy turns you away from a book, movie, or TV show?

Guest Blog: Jennifer Thomas on Balancing Art and Parenting

Posted on by Alex in guest blog, music, Parenting, writing | 1 Comment
Jennifer Thomas is an award-winning pianist, composer and performer. In 2012 alone, she was nominated for thirteen various award, winning five.
Jennifer Thomas at the office.

Jennifer Thomas at the office.

She is also, like me, the parent of two small boys. She was kind enough to share her thoughts on balancing an artistic career with the demands of parenthood.

***

When I was a little girl, I had dreams of becoming many things when I grew up. One of them was becoming a concert pianist:  I would be on stage, dressed in all sorts of beautiful dresses, playing the piano for thousands of people.

I started playing the piano in real life when I was five years old and became quite good at a young age. It was my release into a secret world all my own. But the words of my mother throughout my teenage years always came to mind.  “How are you going to be a concert pianist and a wife and mother? You won’t, so I think you should think of something else to do.”

 

But here I am in my thirties, married with two young children at home, and I am living my dream.  And not only have I released three successful albums, but I’ve been able to perform onstage in beautiful dresses for thousands of people, walk the red carpet in Hollywood, and win some pretty neat accolades. And through it all, I still take my kids to the park, make them sandwiches for lunch, love them and tuck them into bed at night.

I sometimes look at other professional musician moms and wonder how they do it and keep it all together (because it seems they do a much better job than I do), and then I realize that they are just as human as I am and I feel much better.  I have come to accept the fact that I don’t have to be good at every little thing.  There was a time when I thought I had to be the perfect pianist, the perfect housewife, as well as the supermom who handcrafted activities every day and made perfect cookies, all the while getting in my hours of practice time, while looking amazing.

I would get so down on myself for not being all of these things! And then a very wise friend told me, “You can be a great mom, and you can be a great musician, but you can’t be great at both 100% of the time.”

She was right.

A more accurate depiction of my life would be that on some days, I am a really excellent mom. I take my kids to the park, we go on picnics, play games, engage in meaningful conversations and are extremely happy. My four-year-old will be up to speed on his alphabet and numbers, and my two-year-old will get lots of snuggles and books read to him. But I probably didn’t do an ounce of music on that day.

On other days, I will get my practicing in, emails done, projects started or mapped out, and my kids probably got to watch way too many movies on Netflix while I tried to get a good solid block of time to compose and orchestrate.  I will get caught up on some music projects, be on my computer editing quite a lot, or at the piano. And on days like that, I would say I was probably not the best mom.  But I got a lot of music done.

How do I do it?

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Well, I have learned to excel at the things I am good at, and not stress over the things at which I’m not perfect.

I have learned to accept that it takes me longer to write music and finish projects now than it did before I had children – and I’m okay with that.

I have learned I can be a good example of hard work to my children, and I try to include them in my practice time and in my concerts as much as I can.

I have learned methods and ways to do things that work for our family.  For example, I can practice and compose with my children around (sometimes even sitting at the piano bench with me), but I can’t record or orchestrate with them there (they tend to push buttons they shouldn’t).  So my husband and I have formulated our schedules to accommodate uninterrupted “music time” for me each week. I have also learned that sometimes I may need to lose sleep in order to fit in that music time.

I have learned not take on too many projects where my family will suffer, and so I am much more choosy.

I am always making adjustments and learning as I go and yes, there are days when I feel I may go crazy, but this I do know: Music careers come and go, but my family is constant and I always try to put them first priority in my life. And I would say I am a better musician because of them, not in spite of them.

Thanks to Jennifer for sharing her thoughts with us.  Be sure and check out her music at her website.

Revealing a New Project: the Red Reaper

Posted on by Alex in authors, conventions, creativity, criticism, Eddie LaCrosse, fantasy literature, fiction, gender roles, heroes, Kate Beckinsale, movies, novel, Red Reaper, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Back in November of 2009, I stumbled across a teaser trailer for the fantasy film, The Legend of the Red Reaper. It promised to be an action-adventure fantasy, and starred an actress I’d never heard of at the time, Tara Cardinal. As I watched the trailer, I realized that whatever the standard fantasy tropes on display, this was also something new and compelling. Here’s part of what I wrote to Tara back then:

“One of the things that bothers me most about fantasy films is the persistent notion that wispy, willowy girls can stand up to large, large men in a physical confrontation. I’m all for strong women characters, but at some point you have to acknowledge the laws of biology and physics…In the trailer, you look like you can stand up to the male warriors. You’re not the size of a pipe cleaner, your arms aren’t sticks, and you’re not dressed like an S&M show refugee (not that there’s anything wrong with that). You’re depicted as a warrior, and from what the trailer shows, you behave like one.”

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If you’ve read this blog for very long (or endured one of my rants at a convention), you’ll know that one of my pet peeves is fantasy’s version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, namely the Ass-Kicking Waif. Buffy is probably the best known, but there’s also Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element, Summer Glau in Serenity, Scarlett Johansen in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, Kate Beckinsale in Underworld, and so forth: all tiny, busty, girl-women who appear to have just graduated from high school. Individually these characters are valid within their worlds, and there are always justifications for them (supernatural power, science gone amok, etc.). Cumulatively, it seems like this is an excuse for male creators to have their feminist cake and eat it, too. So to speak.

For my own fantasy writing, I’ve been careful to avoid that. In my Eddie LaCrosse novels, I’ve featured women who are actual adults, and if they’re depicted as warriors, they have the physique for it: they’re tall, they’re visibly muscular, and they don’t need excuses like supernatural power. And to me, that doesn’t make them any less attractive. Check out Jane Argo in Wake of the Bloody Angel and decide for yourself if I did it well.

This is the long way around to my announcment that I’m writing a prequel novel to The Legend of the Red Reaper with its creator/star Tara Cardinal.

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Tentatively it’s titled, The Cave of Archerode: A Red Reaper Novel, but as always, that can change. This is a spec adventure simply because I like the material and admire its creator’s vision. It’s also new territory for me, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about our progress.

Keep an eye out for more updates as we go. You can read an earlier interview I did with Red Reaper’s director here. And watch for the release of The Legend of the Red Reaper later this year.

When to Plan and When to Pants

Posted on by Alex in Jack Kerouac, writers, writing, writing advice | 1 Comment

In the commentary on her video collection, Stevie Nicks says that the vocal on her hit “I Can’t Wait” is the first take, and that she knew she nailed it as soon as she finished. Bob Seger was called in at the last minute to record “Shakedown” when Glenn Frey got laryngitis; he also rewrote the lyrics, and got his only Number One hit out of it. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in essentially one long session, on a roll of paper so he wouldn’t have to stop and change sheets, with no punctuation or paragraph breaks.

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What got me thinking about these three instances is a comment by British author DG Walker on her Twitter feed that said, “Planning is essential to the success of any undertaking and writing is no different.” Because I don’t neccesarily believe that.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying you should never plan. If you’re a professional (or aspire to be), you have to be able to impose structure on your creativity. But writers use the term “pantsing,” as in “by the seat of your pants,” to describe writing without an outline, and with no predetermined goal or end. It’s something that, usually, can only be done with manuscripts that aren’t contracted for, deadlined or otherwise due in a set amount of time, situations in which you pretty much have to plan. After all, pantsing can lead you far astray from what ultimately becomes your story, and revisions can be a madhouse of slicing and dicing. But it also leads you to some of your best ideas.

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There’s another element involved that isn’t mentioned in these examples, although it should be self-evident in the first two. At the time they recorded their songs, both Stevie Nicks and Bob Seger were long-time, successful musicians and songwriters. They had spent years honing the skills that brought them success and critical acclaim. And although he’d had no commercial success, Kerouac, at the time he wrote On the Road, had been working diligently to develop a unique narrative voice, something that had never existed before in American literature.

What does that mean for the rest of us, then?

When I teach writing seminars or classes, I use this example: a world-class athlete practices every day, so that s/he will be ready for the Big Game, which may only come once a year.  Similarly, a writer should write every day, so that s/he is ready for the Big Idea. A lot of that writing will be pantsing, chasing an idea that may or may not go anywhere. But that time is not wasted, because the writer is perfecting the technical skills and critical judgment that only come from practice.

Stevie Nicks could nail that song in one take because she’d been singing for years. Bob Seger could step in at the last minute, rewrite and record a song that became his only number-one hit, because he’d been a singer and songwriter for over a decade prior to that. Jack Kerouac had been practicing a new form of writing, a prose version of what was happening in jazz music, for years prior to writing On the Road.  All of these people, and pretty much every successful artist in any field, spends a lot of time pursuing ideas that, in themselves, go nowhere.  But they lead to other ideas that do.

Planning is important: writing every day, having a good physical space in which to write, and so forth. When you have a deadline, you may have to plan how many words or pages you need to finish a day in order to make it. But never abandon the luxury of unplanned creativity, of literally chasing the dream to see where it goes.

Or, to quote Stevie Nicks, “I sang it only once, and have never sung it since in the studio. Some vocals are magic and simply not able to beat. So I let go of it, as new to me as it was; but you know, now when I hear it on the radio, this incredible feeling comes over me, like something really incredible is about to happen.”

And you don’t want to deny yourself that sort of feeling.

Available now: Hurricane Sandy benefit anthology

Posted on by Alex in anthology, short stories, writing | Leave a comment

 

The Hurricane Sandy benefit anthology Triumph Over Tragedy is now available.  It includes 41 stories for $6.99  (one of which, “Wrap,” is by me), so it’s basically only 18 cents a story.  And all the proceeds go to the Red Cross for Hurricane Sandy relief.

It’s available for the Kindle here, and the Nook here.

You write like a girl (or boy)

Posted on by Alex in gender roles, Teresa Frohock, writers, writing | Leave a comment

 

Today, instead of my own blog post, I want to redirect you to my friend Teresa Frohock.  For the last two weeks she’s been conducting an interesting experiment in which I and several other authors submitted short pieces of original fiction under a genderless pseudonym (i.e., mine was T.J. Breckenridge) to test readers’ ability to identify a writer’s gender based solely on their words.  Nearly 80% of the ones who read my piece guessed wrong.

You can see the other results for yourself here.

Film Review: Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County

Posted on by Alex in filmmaking, folk music, Hum and the Shiver, isolation, music, reviews, storytelling, Tufa | 5 Comments

Way back in the early years of this century (being able to say that makes me smile), the spark of the idea that would become the Tufa struck me at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Also at that festival, I first heard Sheila Kay Adams at one of the midnight sessions, in a huge tent on a warm summer night. So her stories and music, and my fictional Tufa, have always been spiritually, if not literally, entwined.

Sheila Kay Adams

Sheila Kay is a traditional ballad singer, a woman who has dedicated her life to making sure that these old songs survive into the next generation. Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County is a documentary that takes us into her life, and shows how she’s passing on her traditions to the YouTube and iTunes generation. I first mentioned it here, when I interviewed director Kim Dryden during the film’s post-production.

The poster for “Over Home,” designed by Saro, who appears in the film.

You can watch the trailer:

 

and additional clips can be found here.

Sheila Kay learned these songs the old way, “knee to knee” on front porches from relatives who still gathered to share songs and stories when other more urban families were beginning to turn away from each other, to television, radio and other forms of passive mass communication. “They did not call them ballads,” she says in the film. “They called them love songs. And the gorier they were, the more I liked them. And if they mentioned cutting off heads and kicking them against the wall, I was all over it.” These were songs that came originally from Ireland, Scotland and other Celtic countries, brought with the first settlers and maintained intact among the isolated hills and hollows of Appalachia.

This is old stuff, literally and figuratively, if you’re a fan of my novel The Hum and the Shiver. But unlike my fictional Cloud County, the Madison County of this film is a real place, and the people you see in the film are genuine. Most compelling of the newcomers is sixteen-year-old Sarah Tucker, who bridges the traditional and the modern in a way that gives you real hope for the future of this music (and music in general). The scenery is expansive and beautiful, as are the Smoky Mountains themselves, but the most fascinating landscape of all is Sheila Kay Adams’s face as she talks about how music helped her persevere through personal tragedy.

Over Home is currently making the rounds of film festivals, and hopefully will soon be available on DVD and streaming. If it comes to a festival near you, definitely check it out (and if you have any pull in festival scheduling, I heartily recommend scheduling it).

Response to the NYT: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Posted on by Alex in criticism, fantasy literature, fiction, Hamlet, pop culture, tennessee, Teresa Frohock, Tufa, writers, writing | 7 Comments

Recently in the New York Times, writer and editor Paul Elie bemoaned the lack of depictions of Christian faith in modern fiction. He trotted out numerous examples of past masters (Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Burgess, etc.) and then mentions how current literary novelists simply don’t, apparently, have faith in Christianity. They don’t depict it because they don’t believe it.

In part, he said:

Now I am writing a novel with matters of belief at its core. Now I have skin in the game. Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?

Well, to be blunt, it’s gone to those genres you look down upon. You know, the books people actually read: fantasy, science fiction, horror and romance.

Elie adds, The most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction is the Rev. John Ames, who in Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead” [published in 2004, and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize--AB] writes, in old age, to his young son as he prepares for death in 1957.

Illustration from Paul Elie’s NYT essay.

Really? I mean, I can instantly think of two other examples of Christian faith depicted, rather emphatically, in recent fantasy novels that meet all Elie’s vague criteria. One is by me: in The Hum and the Shiver, from 2011, I have Craig Chess, a young Methodist minister new to his post and faced with the task of reaching out to a group of people who don’t believe in the same things he does (they have beliefs, but that’s another topic). Craig’s Christianity is genuine and heartfelt; further, he uses it as the touchstone for all his actions. He is content to let his Christianity show by example, not by proselytizing or haranguing. And this gets results: the novel’s protagonist, a young woman known for her past sexual exploits, is willing to honor his beliefs in their courtship. He neither demands nor expects her to change, and because of that, she both loves and respects him (and importantly, doesn’t change just to please him).

The other example is Miserere: An Autumn Tale, by Teresa Frohock. In this novel, she creates a cosmology that incorporates all the world’s religions, and more, shows them working together. The only place they don’t get along, in fact, is on Earth. In this universe, prayer functions as a real power that gets real results, and the strength of a prayer is measurable and crucial. Hell is a real place, and so is Heaven; and free will, the ultimate gift from God, has consequences. But there’s also redemption, God’s other ultimate gift, available to those who want it bad enough to truly change themselves and embrace the standards they have sworn to uphold.

I asked Teresa her thoughts on her approach to religion. She said, in part:

“I had to abandon the group-think mentality in order to write Miserere. I also want to be very clear: when I see or use the phrase “Christian belief,” I think of the teachings of the Christ and I automatically eliminate from my mind the trappings of doctrine and dogma, which were essentially organized and formulated long after the Christ’s death. Christian belief—as in love being the one rule of the law, protect the weak and those who stand outside the mainstream—those were the essential teachings of the Christ, and those beliefs heavily influenced Miserere.”

So, Mr. Elie, perhaps you should not bemoan quite so loudly. “Emphatically Christian” characters are all around you, just not in your myopic view of literature. Or, to paraphrase: there are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Elie,* than are dreamed of in your limited literary philosophy.

*I was unable to find any website or contact information for Mr. Elie. I would love to include his response, if any.

The Blurring of Lines

Posted on by Alex in anthology, biography, children, family, gender roles, Parenting, politics, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Recently, while reading the Janet Sternburg-edited collection The Writer on Her Work, I had an unexpected epiphany (I know, epiphanies are always unexpected, but work with me). It was the realization that my life in 2012 is almost exactly Anne Tyler’s in 1980.

 

Tyler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist, contributed the book’s first essay, “Still Just Writing.” It begins with a list of all the real-world mundane events and responsibilities that keep her from writing when she wants to.  The parallels with my own life right now–I’m the stay-at-home parent (or is the term “primary caregiver”? I can never remember) for two small children, and I write between events such as school, martial arts practice, acting class, various playdates and so forth–are pretty strong.* And I’m not the only one of my male writer friends in this situation.

The C-in-C back when we were full-time co-workers.

In all the essays in the book, the role of women in society forms a strong undercurrent. Comments from famous male authors explaining why women can’t be great writers (imagine hearing that in a college classroom now) are related, and examples from the past (Honor Moore’s tale of her grandmother who gave up painting because it was “too intense” is really fascinating) show how creative women struggled against both society and their own sense of isolation. In 1980 these struggles continued, but all the writers in the book have reached a point where they understand their desire to write is both irresistible and entirely acceptable, society be damned.

Now, the big difference with the life Tyler describes is crucial: thirty years ago, her life was the norm. It was what society expected women to do. It’s neither normal now, nor unheard-of, for the man to be the primary caregiver while the woman works out of the home.  It is, in fact, a time when all the old roles described in Sternburg’s book are starting to twist and mutate.  And sadly but perhaps inevitably, it’s being driven by economics, not social justice.

In fact, particularly within the so-called “creative community” of contemporary (and internet-linked) writers, artists and musicians, the traditional roles that Sternburg’s book discusses have certainly lost their edges, if not broken down entirely. Men can no longer find jobs lucrative enough to support their families; two incomes are the standard. In my case, my last full-time non-writing job did not pay enough to cover putting my youngest son in day care when he was a newborn. So I gratefully took the chance to become a full-time stay-at-home father, as well as a full-time writer. Both, for me at least, have paid off more than ever anticipated.

But are these changes permanent? Unless there’s a total collapse, eventually the economic system will recover, and jobs will become both better and easier to get. What happens to all these nontraditional families then? When the soldiers came back from World War II, women didn’t necessarily want to leave the work force to give the men back their jobs. And from that, eventually (it’s a hugely simplified explanation, I know) came the first modern feminist movement. So when jobs are again available, will men want to give up raising their kids to return to the traditional workplace?

I don’t know. We’ll see. But in the meantime, The Writer on Her Work has me looking at myself and my family with a whole new appreciation.

*Of course I don’t have her talent. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Writer’s Day #7: A walk through the world of pirates

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, pirates, video trailer, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing | Leave a comment

 

For this edition of The Writer’s Day, I share this summer’s visit to the Whydah exhibit, featuring artifacts from the only confirmed pirate ship so far recovered.