Interview with Lee Karr, author of The Making of Day of the Dead

In 1986, George A. Romero--one of my heroes--released the third film in his original "Living Dead" trilogy, Day of the Dead (following Night and Dawn). The previous two films were both classics, and popular successes. They were also about as different from each other as two films could be. So I, like every other horror fan, was eager to see Read more

Guest Blog: Melissa Olson on Multiple First-Person Voices

Today my friend, author Melissa Olson, stops by to talk about her new book and the issues of writing more than one first-person series. You can also find Melissa (and me) at her online release party for The Big Keep later today, starting at 5:30 CT. I’d like to thank Alex for hosting me today, especially considering my topic is Read more

7 Questions About My Most Recent Novel

Okay, I was supposed to do this on Monday, but it got away from me. Thanks to Lucy Jane Bledsoe for tagging me in this, and to Melissa Olson and Deborah Blake for agreeing to be tagged for next Monday. Here are seven questions about my most recent book:   1. What is the name of your character? Eddie LaCrosse. 2. When and where Read more

Hans Up, Hans Down: the Villain of Frozen

Warning: SPOILERS pretty much throughout. If you're a parent, particularly of a daughter, then you--like me--have probably seen/heard/experienced Frozen more than you ever thought possible. But this is not a post about the ubiquitous "Let It Go" song, which now even Pearl Jam have referenced. No, this is about the one element of the movie that I just can't make up Read more

Alice Vs Selene: Blank Slate Against Vivid Character

Recently I binge-watched all five (so far) Resident Evil films. I saw the first film back on its theatrical run in 2002, and wasn’t that impressed, so I didn’t keep up with the series. But after stumbling across the first three for $2 each at Frugal Muse, I thought I’d give it a shot. You see, every time I read Read more

7 Questions About My Most Recent Novel

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, fantasy literature, He Drank and Saw the Spider, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Okay, I was supposed to do this on Monday, but it got away from me. Thanks to Lucy Jane Bledsoe for tagging me in this, and to Melissa Olson and Deborah Blake for agreeing to be tagged for next Monday. Here are seven questions about my most recent book:

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1. What is the name of your character?

Eddie LaCrosse.

2. When and where is the story set?

In two bordering kingdoms, Altura and Mahnoma.

3. What should we know about him/her?

He’s a sword jockey, which is the equivalent of a private eye in his medieval-ish world. As a young man he did some terrible things, and now he tries very hard to make up for them by doing what’s right. He has a girlfriend, Liz, who is equally tough and smart.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Sixteen years prior to the main action, he rescued a baby girl from danger and left her with a kindly farm family. Now, fate brings him back into her life, and once again she needs his help, with the danger now coming from a possibly insane king, a mysterious sorceress and a giant, semi-human monster.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

To live up to his word to protect Isadora.

6. What is the title of this novel, and can we read more about it?

He Drank, and Saw the Spider. You can find out about it at my website, alexbledsoe.com. You can also check out the Goodreads reviews here.

7. When was the book published?

January 2014, from Tor/Macmillan. Also available in unabridged audio from Blackstone.

The Secrets of Writing Action Scenes

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, writers, writing | 8 Comments

200px-HeirToTheEmpireBack in 1991, Timothy Zahn rejuvenated the Star Wars franchise with Heir to the Empire, the first new, non-comic Star Wars tale since the end of the first trilogy. Like every SW fan, I devoured it, but I remember thinking that although Zahn nailed the characters, he totally blew the battle scenes. The reason was simple: what takes seconds to show in film can take pages to describe in prose. By trying to replicate the action of the movies, he created those vast blocks of gray text that readers skim, violating one of Elmore Leonard’s prime rules: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

When I began to write the Eddie LaCrosse novels, I remembered how I’d felt about Zahn’s action scenes, and so thought about how I wanted to do mine. It took a while, but I finally realized the obvious thing about action scenes in prose: they have the same job as everything else. They have to advance the plot, and reveal character. If they don’t do at least one of these things, then they’re extraneous at best, boring at worst. And readers will skip them.

There’s a lot of action–fights, chases, even occasionally battles–in the Eddie LaCrosse novels. The point of view helps a lot: everything is in first-person, so there’s no question of what perspective to emphasize. If Eddie doesn’t experience it, it doesn’t get mentioned.

But Eddie is also a very specific character. He’s experienced, but he’s a bit past his prime, and he tends to either win his fights very quickly, or choose not to fight at all if he thinks he’s overmatched. Because he’s seen so much, he often compares his current fight with something from his past, often employing techniques that worked before. When I write an action scene, I have to keep all this in mind.

Further, there are the physical sensations of the fight. The muscles used to swing a sword, or to parry a blow, are specific and, to most of us, a bit unusual. I’ve taken fencing and sword-fighting classes to get an idea of how it feels, and yes, at times I act out what I’m about to write to see if there’s some interesting detail I might have overlooked. Luckily my office is on the third floor, so the neighbors don’t have to see me jumping around.

Dark Jenny cover

It’s also important to remember that things we might see in TV and the movies don’t always go that way in real life. For example, in Dark Jenny, Eddie punches somebody in anger, and it messes up his hand for the rest of the book. This was inspired by the incident of director Howard Hawks punching Ernest Hemingway: “I hit Hemingway, and I broke the whole back of my hand.” (Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks, p. 37.)  My own experience with punches is thankfully limited to adolescence, but I do remember that it hurt, something that you don’t see or read about in most fight scenes.*

A personal peeve of mine is the idea that someone can be harmlessly “knocked out,” often more than once, with no long-term consequences. A quick pop to the head and that’s it; you wake up later, perhaps with a bit of a headache but otherwise none the worse for wear. That is, frankly, bullshit. As the recent NFL controversy has shown, repeated blows to the head accrue damage over time; just look at Muhammed Ali these days, for another example. If your hero gets clocked more than once, you need to think about what that means beyond a simple plot point. As an example, in Burn Me Deadly, Eddie is beaten up and knocked out at the start of the book, and spends a fair bit of time recovering.

So those are some aspects of my approach to writing action scenes. What action scenes do you like, and which ones ring false? And thanks to @INCspotlight for suggesting this topic on Twitter.

*the only other time I recall seeing this in a movie was in the original M*A*S*H, when Trapper John (Elliot Gould) hits Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and clearly hurts his hand.

How Long Should a Series Run?

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, series, writers, writing | 5 Comments

My friend (and fan) Richard Garrison asked me, “Kevin Smith of Clerks fame has stopped making movies, claiming the ‘tank was empty.’ A lot of writers continue a series well past it’s arc in some cases to meet reader demands, in some cases to pay the bills. When you start a series, do you see the end of the arc, or do you continue as long as you feel the material is entertaining and relevant?”

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We’ve all read those series that continued past their sell-by dates, and we’ve all understood the motivation for them: money. In my lifetime, I saw one of my favorite series, the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker, start to stutter and miss as he tried to meet the one-book-a-year deadline up until he passed away. On the other hand, another of my favorites, Andrew Vachss’ Burke series, came to a definite conclusion after 18 books, a feat of will and artistic courage I still admire.

To answer your question, though, we have to break down the concept of “series” into its two incarnations. One is the linked, continuing series, in which each book is part of a larger story. The other is the series of individual books, each of which can be read on its own, but often provides a larger picture when the whole series is read.

As a reader, and apparently a cranky old one at that, I don’t really enjoy the former. Too many times a series that should have run for three or four books at the most, instead runs to ten, twelve, twenty books. I hear many readers complaining that this or that volume doesn’t really advance the story, but simply eats up time and page count. And nothing is more annoying that seeing a book that looks interesting, only to read on the cover that it’s Vol. III of Hfuhruhurr Continuum, and virtually impossible to follow if you haven’t read the first two books (I call this the “Babylon 5 Effect”).

When I first planned the Eddie LaCrosse series, I knew that’s what I wanted to avoid. So from the conception, the idea was that each book could be picked up and enjoyed by anyone, new reader or old. If you’re a loyal reader, of course, you get little rewards that a first-timer would miss by seeing characters change, settings alter and so forth. But it’s important to me that any of my books be open to that first-time reader who thinks, “That looks interesting.”

Now, did I plan an overall arc for the series? Er…sort of. I want each book to differ in setting and tone, and to show us something about Eddie we haven’t seen before. As long as I can do that to my satisfaction, I’ll keep writing them as long as people want to read them. That said, I do know what the final book will be. I even know what the final line of the final book will be. But it’s up to the reading public to decide when, or if, I ever get to write that one.

Thanks for the question, Richard, and I hope you enjoyed the answer!

Hearing Voices

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, Firefly Witch, writers, writing | Leave a comment

A while back, Facebook friend Diana May-Waldman asked me, “When you write, do you ever get stuck in character for a little while?” My initial response was an instantaneous, “no,” but then I got to thinking about it.

I write two series in first person: my Eddie LaCrosse novels, and the Firefly Witch short stories. When you write in first person, you’re telling the story in a particular character’s voice, not your own. It may be similar–I’m not sure how you could avoid that, especially if you’re writing a series–but even if it’s identical to the way you speak to yourself in your head, to the reader is becomes the inner voice of your character, and you have to be aware of that.

Tom Skerritt. the ideal image of Eddie LaCrosse

Tom Skerritt. the ideal image of Eddie LaCrosse

After five novels and a handful of short stories, it’s now incredibly easy for me to slip into Eddie LaCrosse’s voice. And it’s a fun voice: he’s cynical, which means he’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s seen everything, so it takes a lot to impress him. Part of the enjoyment of writing the series is thinking of new things just to see how he’ll react. And because he’s the viewpoint character, it also means that I never have to worry about how to present something: everything comes through his perceptions. If he doesn’t experience it, it must not be too important to the story.

Nancy Travis, my original idea of Tanna Tully.

Nancy Travis, my original idea of Tanna Tully.

Ry Tully, my other first-person character, is different in a lot of crucial ways. First, he’s not the main character of his stories: his wife Tanna is. In the same way Watson chronicles Sherlock Holmes, Ry gives us Tanna’s adventures from an outsider’s perspective. He’s a down-to-earth small-town newspaper editor, while she’s witch, a psychic and a college professor. And the reasons for this are probably the same ones that led Conan Doyle to his approach:  Tanna often knows things that would kill the suspense if we were inside her head. Far more importantly, Ry represents the reader in a way Tanna never could. He’s amazed, astounded, and terrified by what they encounter, while Tanna seldom is; and when she is, it amazes/astounds/terrifies Ry even more.

(Another interesting thing about Ry: I have no “ideal” image of him in my head. I’ve always envisioned Alien-era Tom Skerritt as Eddie, and Nancy Travis as Tanna, but when I thought about who best visually represented Ry, I came up blank. Perhaps it’s because I originally wrote about Eddie in third-person, and saw him objectively, before deciding to shift to his perspective, whereas Ry has always been written in first person, so I’ve always looked out from his eyes.)

I’ve been writing about Ry Tully almost as long as I have Eddie LaCrosse, and both reflect the hard-boiled influences of Hammett, Chandler and Parker, all of whom wrote stories with cynical, tough, first-person narrators. And there are undeniable similarities between these two characters. But in my head, they’re never the same, and only occasionally do I find myself saying, “Whoops, that’s something Ry would say, not Eddie,” or vice versa.

So I’ll have to modify my original answer to, “Rarely.” But thanks, Diana, for making me think about it in ways I never have. It’s always good to pick apart your inner process and make sure you’re not sabotaging yourself.

Another ARC of He Drank, and Saw the Spider

Posted on by Alex in ARCs, contest, Eddie LaCrosse, He Drank and Saw the Spider, writing | 14 Comments

So it’s time for another visual clue to some of the things you’ll find in He Drank, and Saw the Spider, the upcoming fifth Eddie LaCrosse novel.  Since I gave away two ARCs last time (due to a tie), for this caption contest I’ll give away two more.  Leave your comment by midnight Sunday, September 22 for a chance to win.

Caption contest two

Second hint, and a chance to win an ARC

Posted on by Alex in ARCs, contest, Eddie LaCrosse, He Drank and Saw the Spider, writing | 21 Comments

As I said last week, the advance reader copies (ARCs) of He Drank, and Saw the Spider are available, and they do me no good sitting in the box in my study. So below you’ll find another photographic hint about the book. And here’s the contest: the best caption (as determined by me) wins a signed ARC! So leave a caption in the comments below before midnight on September 8. (International entries are eligible, too.)

hint2

First hint for the new Eddie LaCrosse

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse | 2 Comments

Since the next Eddie LaCrosse novel, He Drank, and Saw the Spider, doesn’t come out until this winter, I thought I’d start dropping some little visual hints about it.  This picture contains a pretty obvious one: there is a sixteen-year-jump in the story. But if you can place the rest of the picture, you might also discern a few more things the book has in store….

16 years later

No More Heroines

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, Hum and the Shiver, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing, writing advice | 11 Comments

red-sonjaI don’t like heroines.

If you’re familiar with my work, you should immediately know I mean the word heroine, not the concept of the female protagonist. I’ve written one fantasy novel (The Hum and the Shiver) and a series of short stories (The Firefly Witch) with strong, tough female main characters, and I try to make the women in my Eddie LaCrosse series the equal of that hero; in fact, I hope to take Eddie’s sidekick from Wake of the Bloody Angel, Jane Argo, and make her the hero of her own novel one day.

And that’s the word I like to use. “Hero” should be a genderless term.

If the story has a main character, that’s the protagonist. He or she can be weak, sniveling, backstabbing or dishonest, and still remain the protagonist. But to be a story’s hero, you need to be more. S/he strives to make him/herself and the world better; s/he faces his/her darkest fears and pushes past them. S/he can still fail–look at both To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch and Morgan from The Mists of Avalon–because it’s the striving that makes a character heroic.

Fantasy lends itself to heroes; in fact, there’s a subgenre called “heroic fantasy,” in which I proudly place Eddie LaCrosse (and I was tickled to have an Eddie story in volume 2 of the anthology series, The New Hero). But there’s nothing that requires that hero to be male, despite the cliche images associated with it. Sure, Conan is the first name that comes to mind when someone says “heroic fantasy,” but the Conan stories were written nearly a century ago. When he was adapted by Marvel Comics in the seventies, the creators knew that times had changed, took a minor character from an unrelated Robert E. Howard story, and created his female opposite, Red Sonja (whose latest comic incarnation will be written by Gail Simone).

And today, female heroes are everywhere. I’m part of the Facebook group The Heroic Fiction League, and female heroes are thick on the ground there, whether written by women (Violette Malan, who has her own take on this issue here) or men (Nathan Long even has his own Jane, Jane Carver of Waar).

jane-carver-of-waar

And yes, these are heroes, not “heroines.” They don’t need their own, gender-specific term, because their gender is irrelevant. What matters is their strength of character, not their strength of their (literal or metaphorical) sword arm. As Jodie Foster says in the DVD commentary track on The Silence of the Lambs, ”I think there’s something very important about having a woman hero, who’s a true woman hero in the most archetypal sense of the word, and yet doesn’t have to clothe herself in men’s clothing. She doesn’t kill the dragon by being mightier, she actually does it because of her instincts, because of her brain, and because somehow she’s seen something, some detail, that other people have missed.”

So I vote we abandon the term “heroine” and start calling everyone who deserves it, male or female, a “hero.” Who’s with me?

Three Questions on Writing

Posted on by Alex in Burn Me Deadly, Eddie LaCrosse, Hum and the Shiver, writers, writing | 2 Comments

Recently my friend Talis Kimberley, an amazing songwriter and musician, asked me a couple of questions I thought might be of more general interest. So I thought I’d answer them here.

1: What are you proudest of having written?

That’s got a couple of answers.

new in paperback!Every writer has, in his or her head, an ideal version of their book. It’s graceful, powerful, and affects the reader unlike any book written before or since. Unfortunately, what we put on paper is often far below these lofty goals. We have bad word choices, poor characterizations, awkward prose and other similar but unavoidable discrepancies. Simply, we never get it right. As Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” and so we abandon our works when it seems we can do no more, or when deadlines arrive.

However, one time I almost got it right. I remember reading the page proofs for the second Eddie LaCrosse novel, Burn Me Deadly, and realizing about halfway through that this was exactly the book I had in my head. Now I’m not saying it’s a great, or terrible book; that’s for readers to decide. But I can say that it was the closest to that “ideal” version that I’ve ever gotten. And I’m proud of that.

THE HUM AND THE SHIVERThe second thing I’m proudest of is The Hum and the Shiver, because it was a first for me in several ways. It was my first fully contemporary novel that was not only set in the modern world, but dealt with modern issues. It was my first female protagonist. I used more of my own experiences in it than I’d ever done before. And I remain delighted and humbled by the response it continues to get from readers, two years after its release.

2. What have you read recently that made you think, “I wish I’d written that”?

dappermencvr1The most amazing thing a reader can experience–and it’s magnified if that reader is also a writer–is the realization that someone you know, a person you might’ve interacted with on a daily basis, has created something awe-inspiring. The most recent example of that was the graphic novel Return of the Dapper Men, drawn by Janet Lee and written by Jim McCann. Jim and I used to work together, and while I knew he was a writer, I had no idea he was capable of the delicacy, heart and imagination of this book. Not only do I wish I’d written it, I wish I knew Jim better back in the day so I could’ve learned some of his secrets.

3. Which parts of the process do you agonize over and which do you fly through?

That one’s easy, actually, because I deal with it every day. The hard part for me is always plotting. I generally don’t work from outlines: I just start writing and see where the characters take me. I’ll have a vague story structure in my head, but it’s malleable and often changes significantly through the process. Yet I admire writers who can concoct intricate plots that fall together with perfect precision by the end; they’re often not given much critical respect, but heck, even Raymond Chandler had to teach himself to plot by rewriting Erle Stanley Gardner.

Alas, his cat was no help.

Alas, his cat was no help.

The easiest thing is dialogue. I don’t claim any great talent, but for some reason I usually have no problem hearing my characters talk. Often my first drafts are simply page after page of dialogue that I go back and polish with attributions and description to make the scenes work. I don’t have the confidence to become another Elmore Leonard, who can write whole chapters with nothing but unattributed dialogue, yet he’s so good at it you’re never unclear about who’s speaking or where they are in relation to the other characters. But I do love writing characters talking to (or among) each other.

Thanks to Talis Kimberley for the prompt. If you have any other questions you’d like me to answer, leave a comment below and I’ll get to it as soon as I can!

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.

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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.