Your Musical Community Is Where You Find It

Music as a communal event is difficult for someone like me, who doesn't play any instrument and doesn't (or shouldn't) sing. I've attended concerts where the sense of community was created by the shared music we all knew, or by the intense efforts of the performer to make sure that connection happened. But for the most part, I've always Read more

Help Plot My 2015 Reading Tour

Would you like to hear me read Long Black Curl to you this summer? Maybe ask me some questions in person? If so, here's what you need to do.  Go to your local bookstore, ask if they'd be interested, and if they are, send me the contact info, including the name of the person in charge of author events. Don't Read more

Why I Haven't Blogged Lately

I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta. Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You'd think it would be done by now, wouldn't you?  Alas, 'tis not the case. Read more

Win an advance reader copy of Long Black Curl

The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn't come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn't matter). I'll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Read more

Win a copy of Mythica!

Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.  You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here. Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Read more

Steam from manure: working with details

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing, writing advice | 4 Comments

Recently on Facebook, fan Claudia Tucker asked me, “How do you decide what bits are superfluous even if it sets the ambience of the scene?”

Every writer’s approach, methods and habits are different, so keep that in mind when I describe mine. We all deal with the same issues, but ultimately there’s no right or wrong way to achieve these goals. The only thing that counts is what ends up on the page.

DSCF4742

My first drafts tend to be very short. For example, the first complete draft of my fourth Eddie LaCrosse novel, Wake of the Bloody Angel, was right at 200 double-spaced pages, whereas the final draft was 420. That first draft consisted of scenes that conveyed only the essential plot information and basic characterizations. Description was minimal, transitions were abrupt, atmosphere and ambience was pretty much nonexistent. The point was to create the narrative spine of the whole story.

BloodyAngel_comp1To continue with that skeletal metaphor, once the spine is complete, it’s time to add the ribs. Those are the secondary and supporting characters whose stories accent and echo those of the main characters. For example, in Wake, the hero Eddie LaCrosse is looking for another Eddie, the pirate Black Edward Tew; the more he discovers about his quarry, the more he finds parallels with himself (which was reflected in the book’s working title, The Two Eddies). He also works with another sword jockey (my term for a fantasy-world private detective), whose approach to the job makes Eddie think about his own career assumptions.

Each of these characters must also contribute something significant to the main plot, otherwise they don’t have a pressing reason to be in the story. And you, as the writer, need to hide all this careful construction so that the reader isn’t aware of it.

Once you’ve got the skeleton in place, it’s time to put on the muscle. In the case of my stories, the muscles are the emotional motivations and responses of the characters, based on what they’ve experienced in the past; in simpler terms, it’s the why. It’s very easy to have a hero* be brave when s/he faces the villain, but to make it resonate with the reader, you have to demonstrate not just how s/he’s brave, but why. Has s/he already lost everything, and feels s/he has nothing left to lose? Has s/he come to a new self-realization during the course of the story? Has s/he decided that the villain just has to be stopped, even at the cost of his/her life? Each of those potential sources of bravery makes the hero significantly different, and will also make readers experience him differently.

With that done, it’s time for the skin. Those are the things that bring the story to life in a mundane way. “Realism” is another term, and it’s incredibly important in science fiction, fantasy and horror. If you want people to accept your vampires, robots or elves, you have to establish their reality within the story by creating the kind of details that will support it.

The best example of this is a story I recall about either Norman Rockwell or Frederic Remington; I’m paraphrasing from memory, because I’ve been unable to track down a source. He was a young artist showing his teacher a painting he’d done of horses outside a saloon on a winter’s night. The teacher said, “How long have those horses been out there?”

“I don’t know. A while, I guess.”

“What do horses do when they’ve been standing outside for a while?”

So the artist added manure to the painting. When he showed it to his teacher, he was asked, “It’s cold outside, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, it’s winter.”

“Fresh manure is warm, isn’t it?”

So he went back and added steam rising from the manure.

And that’s essentially what this “skin pass” is for: adding not just the manure, but the steam, and since we’re not just painting a picture, we have to add the smell and texture as well.

Of course, we’ve all read books where the author goes overboard on this, giving us not just the presence, smell and texture of the manure, but also the type of corn found in it, where that corn was grown, what the farmer was like and how he got along with his wife. The author has to know when enough is enough. Practice is the best way to learn this, and also keeping in mind one of Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing:

“Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

Thanks for the question, Claudia!

*****

*I don’t like the word “heroine.” A character is either the hero, or not; gender is irrelevant.

First Official Tufa Swag

Posted on by Alex in Hum and the Shiver, Tufa, Wisp of a Thing | 1 Comment

Fans of Wisp of a Thing and The Hum and the Shiver can now sip their morning Joe in a genuine replica of the coffee cups provided by Ms. Peggy Goins at her fine establishment, the Catamount Corner Motel, in Needsville, TN.  Being a stylish Southern woman of a certain age, she’d never accuse a guest of stealing a coffee cup, so if one ends up missing, it must be a mistake, bless their hearts.

photo-2

 

Order from Zazzle at this link.

One more day until WISP OF A THING

Posted on by Alex in Tor Books, Tufa, video trailer, Wisp of a Thing | 1 Comment

One more day until the official release (in stores, online, on eBook platforms and on unabridged audio) of the second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing. Here’s a brand new trailer featuring new music, this time by James Travis, that focuses on a completely different aspect of the story. Hope you enjoy!

Guest blog: Melissa Olson, author of Trail of Dead

Posted on by Alex in conventions, fantasy literature, giveaway, guest blog, writers, writing, writing advice | 5 Comments

Longtime readers of this blog will remember Melissa Olson from our Indy Challenge blog swap. She’s visiting again to talk about her new novel, Trail of Dead, the follow-up to her debut, Dead Spots. At the end of the post, find out how to win a signed copy of Trail of Dead.

*****

ToD_Cover

Hello, and welcome to my Trail of Dead blog tour! A big thank you to Alex for letting me commandeer his blog for the day to do this. Trail of Dead arrives in stores and on Amazon TODAY, and it is the sequel to my first novel, Dead Spots. Both books fall into the urban fantasy subgenre, and they both follow a young woman with an unusual ability: Scarlett Bernard is a null, a rare human who cancels out any and all magic in a given area around her. As you can imagine, Scarlett has a complicated relationship with the supernatural community.

Author Melissa Olson

Author Melissa Olson

If you’re interested in reading more about me and my work, please visit my website. You can also find links to the other blogs I’m putting out this week in honor of Trail of Dead’s release. There are going to be exclusive excerpts, book giveaways, and much more. Each blog will be different, except for these first two paragraphs, which you’ll see in all of them.

Since I’m stepping in to Alex’s blog today, however, I’d like to talk about something he and I have in common: access to a pretty great town. My books are set in Los Angeles, because I needed a biggish city as my backdrop, and because the main character’s lost, hollowed-out psyche is right at home in the City of Angels. But I make my own home in the city of Madison, just down the highway from Alex’s own habitat, Mount Horeb. We don’t have any trolls here, but we do have a lot of great qualities that make Madison a fantastic city for writers. Here are a few:

1. Coffee shops and then also more coffee shops
Some writers work best in dark and dead silence, others need special music and an ergonomic chair. Me, I prefer having the steady background noise of one of Madison’s many fine coffee shops. State Street, of course, has an abundance of locations, from Starbucks to Michelangelo’s (literally – Starbucks is at the campus end of State Street, and Michelangelo’s is near Capitol Square), but I’m also a fan of Einstein Bros Bagels, Manna Café, and when I can get to Monona, Java Cat. Any coffee shop that also features gelato gets Melissa’s stamp of approval.

2. School of Continuing Education
UW-Madison is famous for its top-notch degree programs, but I’m more of a fan of the School of Continuing Education, which has a bunch of very cool writing events that feature classes, workshops, panel discussions, meet-and-greets, and even agent pitch sessions. I sometimes think I learned more about writing here than I did getting my masters degree. If you’ve never written anything but would like to dip a toe in, or if you’re just starting to really hone your craft, I highly recommend checking out the programs.

3. The Con Family: WisCon, OddCon, and GeekCon
If you write, read, or play in any of the science fiction or fantasy subgenres, Madison has some fabulous conventions and conferences where you can interact with the like-minded. The activities at these events range from serious panel discussions on feminist influences on modern science fiction, to madcap attempts to beat each other with foam swords. Seriously. It’s that fun.

4. Frugal Muse & Company
I don’t have anything personal against big booksellers, but it makes me happy that I live in one of the few places that still has those elusive, increasingly rare creations: independent bookstores. Frugal Muse and A Room of One’s Own are particular favorites of mine, but there is also the Rainbow Book Cooperative, the University Bookstore (yep, they’re an indie, too), and coming later this month, Mystery to Me on Monroe Street. And of course, The Prairie Bookshop is just down the road in Mount Horeb. These places often promote local authors with reading and signing events, and they interact with the community in ways that you just can’t get anywhere else.

5. Library much?
I don’t know how other mid-sized cities run their libraries, but I can tell you from much personal experience that Madison’s library system is excellent. I love how you can reserve books from any of the many satellite libraries and have them delivered straight to the one closest to you. Each branch also provides a number of quiet places to work on your writing, flip through some writing magazines, or research your next project. I’ve been a library nerd my whole life, of course, but our libraries also make me proud to be a writer.

*****

Thanks to Melissa for stopping by.  Leave a comment below (on, say, why your home town is a great place for writers) to be entered for a chance to win a signed copy of Trail of Dead.

A Giveaway in honor of National Bubba Day!

Posted on by Alex in Buford Pusser, contest, Girls with Games of Blood, giveaway, Walking Tall, Wisp of a Thing | 22 Comments

The “Bubba” is a creature of the American South, often misunderstood by those not from the region. I’ve known a half-dozen people whose preferred name was “Bubba,” and it’s been used as a term of endearment for older brothers since time immemorial. It’s fitting, then, that there’s a National Bubba Day to commemorate this.

cooter

The classic Bubba is best embodied by Cooter from The Dukes of Hazzard. He’s loyal, friendly, and handy with a car engine. He wears a baseball cap at all times, doesn’t shave on a regular basis and yet never fully commits to growing a beard. Do NOT, however, confuse him with:

larry-the-cable-guy
Larry the Cable Guy is not a Bubba, in the same way Keanu Reeves is not an actor and anything Kardashian is not a human being. Larry is a faux Bubba: he takes the image and accoutrements of this noble Southern archetype and uses them for his own money-grubbing ends. He even had the temerity to replace the late Jim Varney, a man with true Bubba in his soul, in Cars 2. [NOTE: as K.C. points out in the comments below, LtCG voiced Mater in both Cars films; Jim Varney voiced Slinky the Dog in Toy Story 1 and 2, and was replaced by Blake Clark for Toy Story 3. Apparently I got my Pixars crossed.  Still, I stand by my opinion of LtCG’s cultural legitimacy.] So avoid this pandering phony (he’s from Nebraska, after all) at all costs.

However, this is a real Bubba:

Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser

 

In fact, this is a Bubba on multiple levels.  Buford Pusser was a real man, one of my Giants of West Tennessee, and he’s portrayed here by Joe Don Baker, a Texan who definitely has a full quota of Bubba in him.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate National Bubba Day than with a trilogy of films about this quintessential Bubba. So I’m giving away my DVD copies of Walking Tall, Part 2 Walking Tall and Walking Tall: The Final Chapter, along with signed copies of my novels The Girls with Games of Blood, which features a Pusser-esque Bubba character, and Wisp of a Thing, my latest Tufa story.

bubba

Just leave a comment here on my blog about your favorite Bubba (you know you have one) sometime before midnight on Sunday, June 9, to be entered for a chance to win.

And happy Bubba day to all the Bubbas!

Nurturing creativity and doing a job of work

Posted on by Alex in creativity, music, writers, writing, writing advice | 3 Comments

Last week, stuck for ideas for upcoming blog posts, I put out the call for questions from fans. I got this one from poet Eileen Sullivan:

“In what ways do you think you nurtured your creativity as a child, wittingly or not? What remains of that life in your and your work? And in what ways do you seek to encourage and nurture creativity in your kids? How does this link with that open mind of play and childhood inform your writing and life today?”

Thanks, Eileen. I love simple questions.

I grew up in a town of 300 people, 200 of whom were related to me. That limits your dating options, if nothing else (or it certainly should). The street we lived on was finally paved when I was in junior high school. When I turned fourteen, some kids up the street burned down the school, which in hindsight was the death knell for a town that had literally nothing else going for it. So it wasn’t exactly a hotbed of the arts.

As a kid in this town who wore glasses (the big, thick plastic kind that were all the rage in the Seventies), liked to read, saw no particular reason to kill small animals and (lest I slight the importance of this) liked to read, I never really fit in with the good ol’ boy culture around me. But I was always, for lack of a better term, “creative.” I loved to draw. I loved listening to music (learning to play was never a real option). And for some inexplicable reason, reading led me to attempt writing.

Was I nurtured in this? Technically yes, I suppose. I wasn’t actively discouraged, at least. But there was nothing like the communities you can find online now, so I worked in isolation, encouraged by a couple of teachers and benignly tolerated by my family. I have no idea why I felt so driven to create, and to this day the origin of it confuses me as much as it did my parents. But I did get one thing out of it that’s stuck with me to this day: I’m self-motivated. I don’t need encouragement, although it’s certainly appreciated. But either way, I’ll write.

DSCF1874

See? Either way. Like I said.

Now that I’m a father, particularly of boys, I’m aware of the danger of both not encouraging them, and over-encouraging. As I said above, I used to love to draw, and can still sketch a mean T-Rex. But I had a relative who, when she saw my interest, took it upon herself to turn me into an “artist.” What actually happened was that she killed any fun I’d gotten from art, and made it so that I never wanted to draw again.

DSCF1674

This is someone drawing because it’s fun.

So I’m very careful not to impose my desires on the boys. My oldest takes martial arts and theatrical acting classes; my youngest likes to build his own elaborate Lego spaceships. When they ask for my help, I try to do it in a way that lets them learn how to help themselves next time.

DSCF0922

Mellowin’ like Hendrix (see, he’s playing left-handed).

I suppose I am still tapped into that childhood well of creativity. Then again, who says creativity is a child-like quality? Our culture thinks of it that way, but I look at it as a job: I punch an unofficial clock every day, and management expects me to be creative. So I have to bring my “A” game, except it’s not a game. As John Ford said, it’s a job of work.

Hope that answers your question, Eileen.  Thanks for asking!

Interview: filmmaker Lisa Stock

Posted on by Alex in creativity, faeries, filmmaking, interview, Lisa Stock, movies, pop culture, SyFy, Titania film, writers, writing, writing advice | 3 Comments

When it was announced a few years ago that Joss Whedon would be doing the new Wonder Woman movie, I was of the unpopular opinion that he was dead wrong for it. My main reason was that, in all the shows he’s produced and scripts he’s written, he has yet to show he can write about anything other than boys and girls. Wonder Woman, as her name implies, is a woman: an adult. Whedon’s female characters, from Buffy to River to anyone you care to name, are girls. In my opinion.

Whedon’s take on Wonder Woman didn’t pan out. But ever since, when I’ve watched movies (especially genre ones), I’ve tried to notice if their female characters are actually adults, or stuck in wish-fulfillment girlhood (often those doing the “wishing” are male, but that’s another topic).

Recently my friend artist/filmmaker Lisa Stock (she did the epic trailer to my vampire novel Blood Groove) commented this topic. About her upcoming project Titania, she wrote, “The heroine in Hollywood movies often becomes a warrior, while still maintaining her purity and innocence. It’s unrealistic of course, but a hard balance when movies want their females characters to go all ‘Buffy’ during the big battle at the end of the story. I’m avoiding this in Titania for a number of reasons – first and foremost my heroine is a Woman and not a Girl.”

Filmmaker Lisa Stock

Filmmaker Lisa Stock

Me: So what, in your view, is the difference between a woman and a girl, character-wise? And why is this important?

Lisa: A woman doesn’t need to prove anything.  She’s not figuring things out for the first time, she’s probably tackling them for the 20th time, so not as much surprises her, and she comes to the game with more knowledge of who she is. That doesn’t mean she has nothing to learn, but perhaps she draws more from past lessons and applies them with more focus and confidence.

In genre film and TV, there are few female characters who truly seem like adult women. In fact, only two come quickly to mind: Ripley from Aliens and Alison from Eureka. Who would you hold up as an example of a truly adult (in terms other than chronologically) female genre character?

On TV – I just started watching Continuum on SyFy.  I like Kira.  She’s a woman, seasoned in her career, and not impressed by the young punks. She’s smart, thinks things through and has patience. In film – I think that Vianne (Juliet Binoche) in Chocolat is my favorite character.  She remains true to herself despite being shunned by the townsfolk, and blamed for catering to all their sins. Ultimately, she wins people over by her honesty – a good trait to have.  Though that is more magic realism than high fantasy – my work tends to be more magic realism.  Michelle Pfieffer has created some memorable fantasy characters, Isabeau from Ladyhawke comes to mind – a true lesson in patience and endurance.  And she’s still my favorite Catwoman.  ;)  I love anything Angelica Houston touches, including Vivianne in The Mists of Avalon - which is a very women-centric story. Morgaine (Julianna Marguiles) is also a true woman to me, not so bothered by the small things, but tackling her larger journey.  Particularly, in the end, when she holds on to and recognizes her own beliefs in the “new religion.”  It’s their ability to adapt and at the same time stay true to themselves – rather than force change or boast of victory – that defines these characters as women for me.

How will Titania’s adulthood manifest in your film?

She’s already an adult.  Like some of the characters I’ve mentioned above, she has a journey to complete.  It’s not necessarily going to change who she is, but she’ll call upon all her resources from past experiences and mistakes to overcome her wounds – both physically and emotionally.  She’s more in control of her emotions, she’s more introspective, she also has a good laugh at her own expense occasionally.  Much like Vianne, she’s a fish out of water, and never sees a situation in which she needs to compromise her own beliefs or be swayed by someone else’s.  Not that all girl characters do this – but I find more often than not, that girl’s are up against someone else.  In Titania, she’s pretty much up against herself.  Perhaps that’s the ultimate obstacle we all face, ourselves.  If you figured that out before you were 40, you’re way ahead of me!  LOL! 

What advice do you have for creators, in all forms, about being aware of the difference between a woman and a girl?

Who is your character, not what age demographic is she?  How would you speak to her if you were to meet on the street and start talking? Don’t generalize about either a woman or a girl. The best characters are the ones who are unpredictable and (even in fantasy) facing challenges we can relate to or want to see them succeed in.  That has to come internally even if action is involved. Make them honest and they’ll live forever.

Thanks to Lisa for taking the time to answer my questions. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her website at InByTheEye.

The grubby heirs of Excalibur: swords in the world of Eddie LaCrosse

Posted on by Alex in Dark Jenny, Eddie LaCrosse, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare, Sword-Edged Blonde, swordfight, writers, writing | 4 Comments

My friend Teresa Frohock, author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale (my review is here), asked me how the idea for naming Eddie LaCrosse’s swords came about. I thought this might be interesting to others as well.

First came the idea of writing the initial novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, as if it were a 40s detective novel. This was after years–well, actually decades–of trying to tell the story as a traditional epic fantasy, and having it just not work. So, once I’d committed to this new voice, I looked for other aspects of the story that could reflect this.

Swords in fantasy are crucial. They’re not just weapons, they’re symbols of divine right, of kingship, of power itself. Look at Excalibur, the most famous mythical sword: not only does it confer kingship on whoever draws it, but only the right person can retrieve it from the stone (I riffed on this in Eddie’s Arthurian adventure, Dark Jenny, where the analogous weapon is called Belacrux).

5239872

Nigel Terry plundering the silverware in “Excalibur.”

 

There are plenty of others. Terry Brooks initiated his fantasy career with The Sword of Shannara. Bilbo Baggins (and later Frodo) wield a sword called Sting (originally part of a larger arsenal, but it went off on a solo career). And although none of the Jedi weapons have names, each one is an individual, crafted by its creator as a unique weapon specifically for them. (For even more examples, Wikipedia has a helpful list of fictional swords.)

The point is, swords stand large in fantasy, and I knew I had to acknowledge this. But if I was overlaying fantasy tropes with detective ones, I also knew I couldn’t treat my hero’s swords as legendary weapons. Philip Marlowe didn’t have a gun with a name; Lew Archer didn’t retrieve his pistol from a stone. Hell, even Sledge Hammer, whose love for his gun was far from platonic, didn’t call it by name.

Yet the obvious didn’t strike me until I found a clue in the most unlikely of places: a Leonardo DiCaprio film. Specifically, Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet.

In Act I, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play, to stop a brawl Benvolio says, “Put up your swords; you know not what you do.” In the film, as he says this, there’s a cut to a close-up of the weapons.

benvolio2

And there was my answer. Swords were analogous to guns in Eddie’s world, therefore Eddie would probably have more than one, of different makes and models, each suited for a particular situation.

(Sure, the obvious analogy would’ve been guns=crossbows, but if you’ve seen First Knight, you know how goofy that actually looks.)

So in The Sword-Edged Blonde, I wrote this:

I opened the sword cabinet and took out my old Fireblade Warrior three-footer, the one with the narrow dagger hidden in the hilt. I had bigger swords, but this one wouldn’t attract attention and, since I’d filed the distinctive Fireblade monogram off the blade, it looked a lot more fragile and decrepit than it really was.

And in the upcoming He Drank, and Saw the Spider, I wrote this:

Ajax shook his head, then indicated my sword. “Is that a real Cillian Skirmisher?”

“The hilt is,” I said, and slowly drew it. “The blade’s from a Kingkiller Mark IV.”

“Really? I’ve never seen one, only the Mark III. Even a king’s bodyguard can’t afford the Mark IV.”

I handed it to him across the fire, hilt first. “See what you think.”

Ajax took it and felt the balance. “Nice. But why’d you combine them? If I had a Mark IV, I’d be showing it off.”

“What’s the worst thing about a Skirmisher?”

“The way the blade snaps if it’s parried by anything heavier.” Then he grinned. “And when they see that hilt….”

“Makes people overconfident,” I said. “I like it when my opponents are that way.”

So that’s where the idea came from, and a couple of examples of how I use it. Hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of insight, and if there’s anything else you’d like to know about this or the worlds of any of my other books, feel free to drop me a line or leave a comment here or elsewhere.

Writer’s Day #9: C2E2 report

Posted on by Alex in conventions, writers, writing, writing advice | Leave a comment

writer's day graphic

 

In my latest Writer’s Day video, I share some of my experiences at C2E2 in Chicago, by far the biggest convention I’ve ever attended.

 

 

The Hum and the Shiver eBook sale!

Posted on by Alex in eBook sale, Hum and the Shiver, Tufa, Wisp of a Thing | Leave a comment

As the release day for the second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing, approaches, you can now get the eBook of the first, The Hum and the Shiver, for only $2.99.  It’s a limited-time offer, so hurry before supplies…oh, wait, it’s an eBook, they’ve got plenty.  But the sale ends June 7, 2013!

Click here to order from Amazon for the Kindle, here to order from Barnes and Noble for the Nook!

THE HUM AND THE SHIVER