Cruel to be Kind: Killing Off a Major Character

Occasionally, because I'm not really that smart, I'll put out a call for blog ideas. And sometimes I get one that's so original there's just no way to ignore it. So thanks to Claudia Tucker for asking: "Have you ever been tempted to 'kill' your main characters off and start with a new Hero who might be a an offspring Read more

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

Cruel to be Kind: Killing Off a Major Character

Posted on by Alex in creativity, fantasy literature, Firefly Witch, heroes, Pagan, series, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Occasionally, because I’m not really that smart, I’ll put out a call for blog ideas. And sometimes I get one that’s so original there’s just no way to ignore it. So thanks to Claudia Tucker for asking:

“Have you ever been tempted to ‘kill’ your main characters off and start with a new Hero who might be a an offspring of the said hero, carying on where his/her parent left off?”

That has actually happened, but only once. And I’m telling you about it because ultimately, the idea went nowhere.

My first continuing character was Tanna Tully, “The Firefly Witch.” She was the protagonist of the first short story I wrote after deciding to make writing a priority back in 1995; that story, “The Chill in the Air Wakes the Ghosts Off the Ground,” was also the firsts short story I sold after that decision. Recently I’ve dug out those stories and spruced up some of them, and they’re available as three-story ebook chapbooks on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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Anytime you write about the same characters for a long time, you run into the problem of repetition. If you’ve followed a literary series that runs for more than ten books, you know what I’m talking about. The same mind, working in the same milieu, simply has a finite number of stories to tell. Repetition, and worse, boredom, are inevitable, and if the creator is bored, then the reader will be, too.

So in an attempt to liven up the stories, I made Ry and Tanna parents. This, however, turned out to be a mere cosmetic change, and didn’t solve the immediate problem, which was that I’d simply run out of ideas for Tanna. Anything I came up with was just a retread of something I’d already done. So I wrote what I intended to be the final story, in which she nobly sacrificed herself.*

Then I had what I thought was a great idea: the adventures of Tanna’s daughter as a teen, struggling with her mother’s absence and her own heritage. The first story I attempted came out rather well, so I wrote more. But soon I realized there wasn’t enough originality in the idea to differentiate them from the original stories. I’d simply, to borrow a “Bewitched” reference, swapped Darrens.

So those stories went into the trunk, and the Firefly Witch went into hiatus. It wasn’t until many years later that, at my agent’s suggestion, I dug out the original stories for a new audience. And with the passage of time, and my own progress as a writer, I found I now had no shortage of new ideas for the character. So I’m glad I never “officially” killed her off, and the stories of her wayward daughter are consigned to the same alternate universe as X-Men: The Last Stand and that season of “Dallas” before Bobby reappeared in the shower.

Thanks for the great question, Claudia!

*These stories have never published, and so cannot be considered “canon.”  Ry and Tanna are still alive, happy, and happily childless.

Guest Blog: Melissa Olson on Multiple First-Person Voices

Posted on by Alex in writers, writing | 1 Comment

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.

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I’d like to thank Alex for hosting me today, especially considering my topic is inspired by a blog that he wrote back in September called “Hearing Voices.” When I first read that post, I was already a published author with two urban fantasy books under my belt, both starring the same main character, Scarlett Bernard. Since then, however, I’ve written a new urban fantasy with a new protagonist, and I’ve also re-written a detective novel called The Big Keep (which, like many of Alex’s books, was heavily influenced by hardboiled authors like Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler).

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Each one of these series is written in first person, which means that there was a point this year when I was writing one protagonist, editing another protagonist, and promoting a third protagonist – all from inside their heads. Talk about hearing voices. I credit Alex’s blog as helping me think hard about how I wanted these characters to be alike and different. Since he already explained things so well – and since I’m a big fan of Entertainment Weekly’s often-hilarious use of graphics to explain things – I thought it’d be fun to make a little chart to show you how that comparison breaks down.

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If any of this sounds interesting, please check out the appropriate series (or hey, all of them – my kids want to go to college, too), and don’t forget to join me, Alex, and a whole bunch of other fantastic authors tonight at my Big Keep Facebook Release Party.

 

 

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.

Writing on demand for MY BLOODY VALENTINE

Posted on by Alex in anthology, eBook sale, Firefly Witch, short stories, writers, writing | 2 Comments

Every writer has at least one weakness, something they don’t do as well as they’d like. They know it, and their readers know it. Raymond Chandler knew he didn’t do plots well, which is why the structures of his novels a) don’t bear up to scrutiny, and b) are often cribbed from his previous short stories. Of course, what he did do well, he did so well that no one minded what he couldn’t do. As critic Robin Wood famously said, “who cares who killed Owen Taylor?”*

My problem has always been writing on demand.

By that, I mean responding when someone says, “Write a story about dogs,” or, “Write a story set in Montana.” My own skills don’t work that way; I need time to puzzle over ideas and let them develop organically. I have no problem writing about dogs, or Montana, or even dogs in Montana. But I need time to work my way into it on my own.

Which is why, whenever I get asked to contribute to an anthology, I try to do it. Because the only way over these sticking points is through them.

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When the editors of My Bloody Valentine said they needed a story a) of about 15,000 words, b) about love, and c) with the opening words, “Love hurts,” I was intrigued, and a little intimidated. When they told me how quickly they needed it, I was a lot intimidated.

Beyond the problems I mentioned above, there was a third issue: I’d never written anything that clocked in at 15,000 words. My short stories average between 3-7K words, and my novels at around 90K. 50K is novella territory, new ground for me. As Stephen King says, the novella is “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.”

But the folks doing the anthology were the same one who publish my “Firefly Witch” stories, so I felt I owed them an honest shot. And I decided that I’d make this a Firefly Witch story as well, so that at least I’d be working with characters I knew.

I thought about the stories I’d written about these characters, and what aspects of them I hadn’t explored so far. I realized I’d often mentioned that Tanna taught college, but hadn’t really shown her functioning as a teacher. With that as a starting point, I wrote about an investigation into a haunting that doesn’t go as planned, and as I wrote, the rest of the characters filled out the plot and gave me plenty of material to work with. It was a near thing–I think I hit the deadline on the day, and my word count was just…barely…15K, but it worked. The editors liked it and picked it for the anthology.

And you can read that story, “Tantrabobus,” along with seven other stories from a variety of writers and genres, in the ebook anthology My Bloody Valentine, available now from Story Vault. You can get it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. for only $2.99 for a limited time. And if you do pick it up, please leave an honest review at the site of your choice!

*for the record, it’s a plot point from The Big Sleep, and it’s never really clear.  The only explanation that even works is that Taylor committed suicide, which makes about as much sense in context as it does right here.

Help fund Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae

Posted on by Alex in faeries, folk music, fundraiser, Hum and the Shiver, music, tennessee, Tufa, Wisp of a Thing, writers | 1 Comment

One of the best perks about being a writer is that you get to meet other artists. Most of them are fellow writers, but I’m lucky enough to also count visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians among my friends. I’ve connected with many of them through art, either theirs or mine, as well as through social gatherings like conventions and workshops.

And sometimes, these connections turn into something you never expected.

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In May of 2013, I first met the members of the band Tuatha Dea. Having written two novels about the Tufa, a race of musicians descended from Old World faeries and currently living in Appalachia, you can imagine my surprise at finding a band named after the fae (known in some circles as the “Tuatha De Danaan,” a.k.a. the “Children of Dana”), based in Appalachia (Gatlinburg, TN, to be precise), who perform the kind of Celtic-influenced music I always imagined my Tufa might play. There’s luck, then there’s serendipity, then there’s just plain astounding coincidence. I think meeting this band was a little bit of all three.

But that’s not the best thing. After reading my books, they came to me with an astounding proposition: they wanted to do an EP of original songs based on my Tufa series, titled Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae.

I couldn’t turn down a chance to hear what this band–and they’re a great band–might do with this idea. So I gave the project my blessing. And I have no stake in this; the band is doing it entirely independently. I’m like everyone else, just waiting to hear what they come up with.

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And this is where you can help. To finance the CD, they’re running an IndieGoGo campaign. As with all such crowd funding, any amount is helpful. So if you like my novels, and you ever wondered what a modern Tufa band might sound like, then please consider helping Tuatha Dea get this project off the ground.

You can find out more about the project here. Watch the video, learn about the band, and consider helping out.

Oh, and you should definitely go to ReverbNation and check out their music. In fact, the song “Hypocritical Mass,” that you can stream from this site, might just turn up in a future Tufa novel….

And here’s a rough live version of their song, “The Hum and the Shiver,” that will be on the CD.

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.

Guest blog: Melissa Banigan on new anthology

Posted on by Alex in fundraiser, guest blog, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Author and friend Melissa Banigan is creating an amazing anthology called Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self. I’ve invited her to talk about it here, and at the end is information about how you can contribute.–A.B.

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For many months, I’ve veered away from writing adult and middle grade fiction dystopian and fantasy novels to focus on editing an anthology of non-fiction advice letters for teen girls called Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self. Written by fifty women of different cultures living in countries around the world, the collection of letters, once completed and published, will serve as a guidebook for young women entering womanhood.

Fellow writers have been asking: why edit a non-fiction anthology by women for girls? Why not stick to fiction? The answer is simple: I see a lot of parallels between the poverty, suffering and inequality found in dystopian fiction and the real-life stories of women living right here in our world.

Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, tells of a future North America in which women have been stripped of their rights by a totalitarian Christian theocracy. After a revolution in which a movement called the “Sons of Jacob” takes power, the novel’s main protagonist, a woman named Offred, is forbidden to read, no longer allowed governance of her own finances, and is taken from her family to be given as a concubine (“handmaid”) for reproductive purposes to a commander of the movement.

Unfortunately, real-life North America, despite making long, feminist strides, also allows woman to be oppressed. Economically, women still make much less than men, and are discriminated against daily in both their professional and personal lives. Women and family health is not supported by all government health programs and insurance companies, the media sexualizes rather than empowers females, rapists and sexual offenders are often punished less than criminals who harm animals, and beauty has become so wrapped up with many girls’ notions of self-worth that diseases such as anorexia have become almost normalized.

Gender inequality isn’t just a North American problem, but global. In many nations, females are subjected to genital mutilation, are forced to marry while still young girls, and are sold in the sex trade. Poverty disproportionally affects women and children, and war and genocide, while equally affecting men, women and children, leaves more women than men to pick up the pieces, often with no governmental or societal support.

Melissa Banigan and her daughter.

Melissa Banigan and her daughter.

Fortunately, where there are victims, there are heroes. I’m finding more and more women who are showing society how true heroes are formed. In both fiction and real life, the formula is this: heroes don’t singlehandedly save the world by welding weapons and winning wars, but on their keen empathetic abilities and willingness to nurture as they collaborate with others.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, a totally badass, bow and arrow-toting teenage girl, gets thrown into a horrific, bloody game, but survives because rather than only looking out for her own interests, she forms alliances with other young people. Indeed, because of the partnership she forms with one of these people, she is later shown mercy by a boy who, inspired by her compassion, saves her life. The lesson? Compassion and empathy are contagious. People who embody these ideals, even when faced with adversity, can, and will, change the world. Recently, through my work on the Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self anthology, I’ve met many such individuals.

Ponheary Ly, for example, a Cambodian woman who survived the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, submitted a letter to Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self about how she’s since created a foundation that helps thousands of Cambodian children return to school. And Terri O’Connell, a woman born with gender identity disorder who, even while facing discrimination, has become a motorcar racing champion with over 500 races and NASCAR experience under her belt, has done tremendous work in leading the charge against bullying, domestic and gender violence. Jennifer Tress, an author who was told by her husband that the reason he cheated on her was because she “wasn’t pretty enough,” started an entire movement questioning what it means to be beautiful. None of these women did it alone: they shared their vision with others.

My vision for the Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self anthology is that by having teen girls and young women around the world learn how fifty women have overcome adversity, that they will then be inspired to fight the good fight – not with steel, but with words and by forming strong, empathetic relationships.

Help support Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self! Read more about the project and contribute to a time-sensitive crowdsourcing campaign that will enable the anthology to be finished by April. Even a dollar helps!

Announcing Linda Fontana and T.S. Bunch

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

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First, a little personal history. My late brother hated hunting.

In the early 70s, after he returned from serving in Vietnam, he wrote an op-ed piece for the Springfield, MO newspaper criticizing hunting, specifically deer hunting. This caused some friction with my dad, who was a dedicated hunter, although of much smaller things (mostly squirrels, rabbits and geese). I’m not sure they ever worked it out, because it would’ve required honest communication, something at which my family did not excel.

I never became a real hunter. I went a few times as a boy, but much like fishing and driving, my father was terrible at teaching me things, and we usually ended up enraged at each other. For a long time I hated the sport, not from any moral perspective, but because I thought I was terrible at it.

Then, much later, I saw how hunting could be used as a great framework for stories. My favorite is H. Rider Haggard, particularly the classic King Solomon’s Mines. And yes, I enjoy Hemingway, especially The Snows of Kilimanjaro, but his posturing (which, once you become aware of it, is impossible to ignore) gets in the way for me. And in non-fiction, John Henry Patterson’s book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, made into the movie The Ghost and the Darkness, showed just how dramatic and novelistic a true story of hunting could be. These were stories, in fact, not about the act of hunting, but about people who happened to be hunters, much in the same way Rocky isn’t about boxing, but about a guy who happens to be a boxer.

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Peter Hathaway Capstick.

The late Peter Hathaway Capstick wrote several wonderful non-fiction books about his experiences hunting all over the world. In Death in the Silent Places, he explains the rationale behind big-game hunting thus:

“The difference between shooting an elephant at one hundred yards through the chest and stalking a big tusker to within ten or so yards is the difference between simple animal assassination and real sport hunting. When you are within ten yards of a bull elephant, you, my friend, are in harm’s way. With the long shot, one kills an elephant in a sterile, riskless and, in my opinion, cowardly manner. At halitosis range, you enter into the most ancient nonbiological passion of humanity: self-testing. And on purpose, which is the most important aspect of the implied morality of the act.”

And that, really, is why I started writing about Linda Fontana and T.S. Bunch: I wanted to write about people who self-test, on purpose.

Linda is six feet tall, has the thickest Southern accent imaginable, and is known (behind her back) as “the Babe in the Woods.” Bunch is skinny, long-haired and possesses the greatest streak of luck anyone’s ever seen. They’ve been platonic friends since grade school, and travel the world hunting and guiding other hunters, in the tradition of Haggard and Hemingway, with a dollop of Capstick.

The first two stories, “Next-to-Last of the Tiger Men” and “Mack’s Last Rhino,” will be available from Amazon as part of their StoryFront imprint on December 18, and you can pre-order them here for 99 cents. I hope people like them, so I’ll be able to do more. Because I like Fontana and Bunch, and want to hang out with them for a long time.

New novel: Sword Sisters

Posted on by Alex in fantasy literature, Red Reaper, writers, writing | 5 Comments

So my latest novel, Sword Sisters, is about to be released.

Art by Xing Xin

Art by Xing Xin

If you’ve been following me, you’ve seen me post about co-writing a prequel to the film The Legend of the Red Reaper with that movie’s writer/director/star, Tara Cardinal. You can read about my motivation for doing so here.

And now, it’s done. Sword Sisters: A Red Reaper Novel is about to be published by Rogue Blades Entertainment, who also published Writing Fantasy Heroes, which included an essay by me. So they know the genre pretty well.

The main character is a half-human, half-Demon teenage girl named Aella, who struggles with the same things most adolescents do: family, school, boys, and friends. It’s told in her voice, which means I had to write it from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl. As you can imagine, that’s not exactly my default inner voice, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy. The trick, if you can call it that, is simply to surrender to the logic of the character. It’s either something Aella would say/do/feel, or it’s not; gender is really irrelevant, as is age.

My co-writer Tara Cardinal in character as Aella, from Legend of the Red Reaper.

My co-writer Tara Cardinal in character as Aella, from Legend of the Red Reaper.

This is also my first time working in someone else’s mythology, unless you count my flirtation with Charles Dickens in “A Ghost, and a Chance,” one of the stories in my Time of the Season ebook collection. Tara created a whole world for her film, with its own mythology, theology and history. Before I started, I assumed my ideas would butt up against hers constantly, but actually the opposite happened. Much like writing the character, writing the world was simply a matter of surrendering to its logic.

So how did we actually collaborate? Tara wrote a big chunk of the beginning, from which I extended an outline that we both signed off on. I picked up from the end of what she wrote, continuing the story in similar big chunks, which she would then revise. Again, I was worried that we would end up screaming at each other; after all, who was she to be changing what I wrote, I imagined myself thinking? But that never happened; any of the few things we disagreed on we hashed out with no acrimony. We each sort of accepted the other’s area of expertise: I was the full-time writer, and she was the world-builder, franchise supervisor and embodiment of the main character. If she said something wasn’t true to Aella, I had to accept it; after all, she is Aella.

Our working title was The Cave of Acherode, subsequently The Cave of Lurida Lumo (following a character’s name change). This was fine as a file name on our computers, but it didn’t really capture what the book was about, or jump out at you from a bookshelf. After the manuscript was completed and edited, we–me, Tara and the publisher–brainstormed and came up with something much punchier, and more true to the story: Sword Sisters.

So what is the book about? It’s about two young women who don’t fight over a boy, don’t sabotage each other, and work together to fight not just for themselves, but for others. It has monsters, action, touches of romance, and hopefully some good jokes.

And it’ll be available December 11, 2013.

Happy birthday, Joseph Conrad!

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized, writers, writing | 4 Comments

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Today, one hundred and fifty-six years ago, Joseph Conrad was born in Russia. He was Polish, but became a nationalized British subject in 1886. In 1899, his masterpiece Heart of Darkness first appeared in print, serialized in a British magazine.

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The edition of HoD I first read.

There’s a simple, almost unbelievable fact hidden in the above paragraph. Conrad was Polish, did not learn English until he was in his twenties, and always spoke with a marked Polish accent. Yet he wrote in English. He didn’t write in his native language and then have it translated, he wrote some of the greatest prose in English, in English. Writing in a second language is hard enough; but to produce masterpieces in it (he also wrote Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, among other classics) is almost too extraordinary for words.

I came to Heart of Darkness via Apocalypse Now, which I saw on my sixteenth birthday during its original theatrical run. While I loved movies, I never realized until I saw this one that movies could be both art and entertainment. My previous experiences with “art” films were that they were long, boring, hard to understand, sometimes (given the video technology of the time) literally hard to see. I assumed there was a dichotomy between entertaining films like (inevitably) Star Wars and more “artistic” faire such as The Seventh Seal. But Apocalypse Now showed me that a movie could be both.

And the movie led me to Conrad’s novella. Briefly, it’s about a steamship captain, Marlowe, going up a river in Africa to find Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader who has set himself up as a god to the natives. I’ve read it countless times, and like every great book, I find something new to like each time.

I’ve also listened to it on audio, back when I had a job with a commute. It’s been read by many different people, including some (Richard “John-Boy” Thomas) who really should’ve know better. But Anthony Quayle’s version remains my favorite, even though it’s abridged, because he brings it to life in such a dynamic way, as if he were actually telling the story to the people gathered on the deck of the Nellie.

So what’s so great about Heart of Darkness? First, it’s about the nature, and the uses, of truth. It’s also a compelling description of colonialism, written by someone who had been there. Mr. Kurtz is one of the great shadow-figures of literature: like Dracula, he’s talked about much more than he’s seen, and when he does appear, it’s riveting. The structure is interesting as well, a nesting story told in first-person by someone relating Marlowe’s first-person tale to the rest of those on the Nellie.

My favorite line, perhaps because of the way Quayle reads it, remains, “I had immense plans!” and that’s a huge part of the appeal. Kurtz does aim incredibly high, which makes his fall that much more dramatic; when he says, “The horror! The horror!” he’s not kidding. Marlowe’s own position as observer changes with one line at the climax, forcing the reader to suddenly re-evaluate everything s/he thought s/he knew about the character.

But ultimately, what speaks to me (and to a lot of other people for the last century or so) can’t be broken down into simple elements. Heart of Darkness either speaks to you, or it doesn’t. If it does, you know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve never read it, I encourage you to give it a shot. You can read it for free online here.