Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more

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?

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.

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.

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.

The Next Big Thing blog tour

Posted on by Alex in authors, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, dragon, Eddie LaCrosse, fantasy literature, fiction, film noir, King Arthur, movies, novel, release date, Robert B. Parker, Shakespeare, Tor Books, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing | 3 Comments

My friend from the Heroic Fiction League on Facebook, Violette Malan, graciously invited me to participate in The Next Big Thing blog series. Each author answers the same set of questions, and passes them on to five more authors, who post their answers the following week and pass them on to five more authors, and so forth.

You’ll find Violette’s answers here, and my list of invited contributors at the bottom of this post. My answers begin right here.

What is your working title of your book?

It’s currently called He Drank, and Saw the Spider. I’m batting .500 in my initial titles making it to print (for example, Wake of the Bloody Angel was originally called The Two Eddies), so we’ll see how this one does. This time, my title is both a line from the book, and also a shout-out to the source material.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It was inspired by The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s last and most complex plays. It’s a genre-bending story of betrayal and reconciliation, and a real head-scratcher the first time you read or watch it. It’s best known for one of its stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

My initial idea was, “What if Eddie was dropped into the Autolycus role in the plot?” The final book is considerably different, but that was the inspiration.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s sword-and-sorcery, but crossed with a healthy dollop of pulp detective fiction; “sword noir,” I guess. One reviewer called it, “Sam Spade with a sword.”

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’ve said elsewhere on this blog that the ideal casting for Eddie LaCrosse is Alien-era Tom Skerritt.

But otherwise, I prefer not to lock down the images of the characters. Each reader will have his or her own ideas, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. I’ll worry about it when an actual movie deal happens.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

As a young mercenary, Eddie LaCrosse saves an abandoned baby from a bear; sixteen years later, now a private sword jockey, he has to save her again, this time from a complex plot involving magic, murder and an insane king.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be published by Tor in 2014.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About eight months. A lot of that was research, reading up on Shakespeare, rereading his plays and internalizing a lot of Shakespearean scholarship. It may seem simple to take a plot or character from Shakespeare, but to do it justice you also have to understand what that character means, and how he or she functions in the play. For example, there’s a character loosely based on Caliban from The Tempest; Caliban has been used to represent everything from Irish bog people to a half-human fish monster to the plight of third-world citizens under Western occupation. If you’re going to put someone like him in your book, you have to decide what he represents for you, and how that affects the story and the other characters.

This is the same approach I’ve used for my other Eddie LaCrosse novels. Burn Me Deadly, for example, is about dragons, so I researched what people thought of them back when it was believed they really existed. Dragons were never simply animals, they were embodiments of beliefs and supernatural powers. If I wanted my dragons to carry that same weight of “believability,” I had to decide what they embodied in the world of my characters.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

My Eddie LaCrosse novels are always compared to Glenn Cook’s “Garrett, P.I.” novels and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. The influences I’m most conscious of are two Bobs: Robert E. Howard and Robert B. Parker.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

One of the consistencies of my Eddie LaCrosse series is that each book embraces a set of existing tropes; Dark Jenny, for example, is Arthurian at heart. In this one, I wanted to put Eddie into a Shakespearean story, so I looked for the best one to drop him into. I chose The Winter’s Tale because there’s a mystery at its heart.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s a fun and funny story. Eddie’s girlfriend Liz once again plays a major role, the first time since Burn Me Deadly. There’s action, suspense, magic and romance. There’s a mad king, a sorceress, and sheep. Lots of sheep.

Thanks to Violette for including me in this blog trail.  Now, here are my five awesome and talented writer friends who will be posting their answers next week.

Teresa Frohock, author of Miserere.

Kelly Barnhill, author of Iron Hearted Violet

Jen K. Blom, author of Possum Summer

Matt Forbeck, author of Amortals and Carpathia

Kelly McCullough (pending), author of Bared Blade and WebMage

Writer’s Day #6

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, pirates, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing | 1 Comment

 

The is the sixth in a series of videos showing how a typical writer (i.e., me) spends his day.  But this one is a special edition, shot on location in…well, you’ll have to watch and see.

The apocryphal soundtracks to some of my books

Posted on by Alex in Blood Groove, Burn Me Deadly, Firefly Witch, Memphis, music, novel, pirates, Uncategorized, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writing | Leave a comment

It’s no secret that music is a big part of many of my novels, from inspiring the titles to influencing the plots to being part of the story itself. I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. Recently my friends at Facebook’s Heroic Fiction League, Nathan Long and John R. Fultz, posted “playlists” of YouTube videos, songs that either their heroes would like, or that captured the mood of their books.

My playlist is a little different.  This is the music I wish would play when a reader first opens some of my books.

For my most recent novel, the Eddie LaCrosse pirate tale Wake of the Bloody Angel, I’d love it if readers were blasted with this upon cracking the covers:

 

 

For another Eddie LaCrosse tale, Burn Me Deadly, if you consider chapter one as a “teaser,” this would the perfect music to play between chapters one and two:

 

 

For Blood Groove, my tale of an Old World vampire unleashed in the Seventies, I’d begin with this under chapter one:

 

 

Then, at the moment you finished chapter one:

 

 

And finally, the theme for my Firefly Witch e-book chapbooks, the tune the main characters Ry and Tanna would call “their song” and that, in a perfect world, would play whenever you called it up on your e-reader of choice:

 

 

(I know, it’s the Atlanta Rhythm Section version and not the original Classics IV, but technically this is the first version I ever heard, and about half the Atlanta Rhythm Section was made up of former members of the Classics IV, so it’s not as heretical as it might seem.)

Any suggestions for some of my other books?

 

The Girl on the Cover

Posted on by Alex in cover art, Eddie LaCrosse, pirates, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing, writing advice | 8 Comments

This post is about cover art, and specifically the way characters are portrayed in it.

I want to say up front, I’m not being critical of my own covers. A cover is designed to make potential readers check out the book; once they do, it becomes the writer’s responsibility to keep them interested. It goes without saying that often the covers don’t depict the characters as the author sees them, and over time, even the publisher’s idea of what a character looks like can dramatically change:

The original rather slap-happy Conan…

…and the grim Conan we know now.

When I was writing Wake of the Bloody Angel, I introduced a new, major character, Jane Argo. She’s a sword jockey like Eddie, but she’s also a former pirate hunter, and before that, a pirate herself. Here’s how I describe her, in Eddie’s voice:

She was my height, busty and wide-hipped but with a wasp-narrow waist. Her broad shoulders were as muscular as a galley slave’s, and she wore a large ring on every finger. Her hair fell past her shoulders, and only the faint streaks of gray and slightly deeper smile lines indicated she was older than she sounded.

One day I stumbled across this picture of musician Ginger Doss,* and realized this was pretty much exactly how I saw Jane in my head.

The publisher, or rather artist Larry Rostant, who’s done my last three covers, saw her this way.

 

To be fair, Mr. Rostant may never have never read the book, which is not an essential part of his job description. And again, it’s a great cover illustration as far as its function goes, which is to induce someone to pick up the book: it has atmosphere, sexiness and style. On its own, it’s a beautiful image. But I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide what this dichotomy represents. In professional publishing, the author has virtually no say-so in the cover. It’s decided by marketers, whose job it is to create an image that will attract attention. And certainly the slender redhead with the no-nonsense scowl does that (as several male readers have informed me).

But here’s the thing: one reason I wrote Jane as a physically big woman, with visible muscles and a hint of grey in her hair, was to break away from the idea of the “butt-kicking waif,” a trope that really annoys me. Much like the whole movie Sucker Punch, the BKW is a way to disguise male fantasy objects behind the mask of alleged female empowerment. Buffy is the prime example, maybe even the originator, but it’s become the default setting for SF and fantasy heroines by creators who want to court the Buffy demographic (and who miss the point behind Buffy entirely). So I wanted to react against that, to show a woman who is both as intelligent as the hero, but also maybe a little stronger, physically. And to have none of that make her any less attractive.

The reviews, thankfully, have noticed that. Almost all of them mention Jane, and my favorite comment so far is this one :

Jane’s an unusual character in that she’s the muscle of the operation. Bledsoe lets her be tough without ever questioning her ability to be so. There’s never a comment by another character that suggests she’s strong for a girl [emphasis in the original].

I have a hard time seeing the woman on the cover fitting that description. She’s beautiful, certainly. She’s got a great expression, too. She fully fits into the overall image. But as with Eddie, I wonder if a more visually accurate presentation would make any difference in sales. And if so…in which direction?

*Ms. Doss knows that she was my image of Jane Argo. Thankfully, she’s delighted.

Of eddies, witches and titles

Posted on by Alex in Burn Me Deadly, Eddie LaCrosse, fantasy literature, film noir, Hammer Studios, marketing, movies, novel, series, titles, Tor Books, trivia, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writing | 2 Comments

The very manly paperback cover.

It’s no secret that the Eddie LaCrosse novels owe as much to mystery as they do fantasy, especially the hardboiled pulps and films noir of the 30s and 40s. So when I wrote Wake of the Bloody Angel, I knew its title would have to be a play on a title from the mystery genre, much as Burn Me Deadly echoes Kiss Me Deadly.

With that in mind, I turned in the manuscript under the title The Two Eddies, a play on the (unfairly, IMO) much-maligned sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes. Not only were there two characters named Eddie (my hero, and the pirate Black Edward Tew), but I liked that the term “eddy” also meant a current of water. My publisher, however, felt the title was too low-key, and that we needed something that would better jump out at a potential reader. I’m no elitist: I understand the purpose of marketing, and I’m generally sympathetic to it. Further, my publisher didn’t say, “We’re changing the title,” they asked me for another title, which is mutually respectful. And, luckily, I had one ready.

There aren’t that many nautical noirs. In film there’s The Phantom Ship, the first film from Britain’s legendary Hammer Studios, based on the Marie Celeste and starring a fading Bela Lugosi. There’s Wreck of the Mary Deare, with a young Charlton Heston and an old Gary Cooper. And there’s The Ghost Ship, part of Val Lewton’s extraordinary series at RKO that also included Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. 

Then there’s Wake of the Red Witch.

John Wayne as Captain Ralls.

Based on a novel by Garland Roark, it was made into a 1949 film starring John Wayne before he became codified as a Western star. He plays a captain who scuttles the titular Red Witch for reasons that go back years, and involve a girl (although she’s not a femme fatale; more of a naif fatale, if that’s a legitimate term). Its flashback structure resembles that of Out of the Past. And it has one of Wayne’s best introductions, when he’s discovered lashed to a piece of wood, drifting among circling sharks, and the film’s villain Sydney rescues him.

SYDNEY: What’s your name?
WAYNE: Ralls.
SYDNEY: Your full name?
WAYNE: Captain Ralls.

There’s nothing in the plot of Wake of the Red Witch that really influenced Wake of the Bloody Angel, but the concept of a wake, like that of an eddy, has a double meaning: both the waves left by a ship’s passage, and a memorial service for someone who’s died. And so, relatively painlessly, The Two Eddies became Wake of the Bloody Angel.

(Trivia: the mechanical octopus used in the film was “borrowed” [i.e., stolen] by Ed Wood’s crew for Bride of the Monster, as depicted in Tim Burton’s exquisite ode to perseverance, Ed Wood.)

The face of the Firefly Witch

Posted on by Alex in fantasy literature, Firefly Witch, giveaway, Hum and the Shiver, movies, Pagan, Wake of the Bloody Angel, witchcraft | 2 Comments

When a writer creates a character, he or she generally has a very clear image in his or her mind’s eye. Sometimes it can be of a well-known, specific actor: it’s no secret that Alien-era Tom Skerritt inspired Eddie LaCrosse, hero of my latest novel Wake of the Bloody Angel. Conversely, there is no actress who completely matches my idea of Bronwyn Hyatt, heroine of The Hum and the Shiver.

That’s what makes Tanna Tully, aka Lady Firefly, heroine of the Firefly Witch series, so interesting. When I first started writing about her, I had a very clear image of her in my head, although no actress entirely matched up. Then, sometime in the late 90s, I discovered So I Married an Axe Murderer, and Nancy Travis.

Nancy Travis, my original idea of Tanna Tully.

She became my image of an ideal Tanna. And if someone had made a film of the stories fifteen years ago, I would have loved to see her in the part.

But now that I’m bringing back the character, updating her and writing new stories, I find Ms. Travis no longer quite fits what I have in mind. So, for those of you who’ve read the Firefly Witch stories, I have a question: what contemporary actress can you see as Tanna Tully? Leave a comment below, and you’ll get a chance at a signed novel of your choice.