Interview: the writers of Carmilla

  Carmilla, J. Sheridan LeFanu's 1871 novella that predates Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a seminal work of genre fiction.  It introduces the idea of the lesbian vampire, something that later writers would expand into its own genre (check out Hammer's The Vampire Lovers for a fairly faithful, if overtly sexed-up, version).  It's also surprisingly contemporary in its writing style.  So Read more

Movie Review: Mythica, A Quest for Heroes

Back in 2011, I stumbled on Arrowstorm Entertainment's Dawn of the Dragonslayer, a low-budget fantasy epic that had the look of a much more expensive film. But what really got my attention was the care given to the performances: leads Richard McWilliams and Nicola Posener really dug into their characters, and director Anne Black gave them the time to Read more

Dramatics Interreptus

My younger son turns seven in about a month, and the other day I realized that I was about that age when I realized just how important stories were to me. My parents left me to stay with friends of the family for an afternoon; I have no memory why. But while I was there, I started watching the TV Read more

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

The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Posted on by Alex in children, children's books, pop culture, reviews, storytelling, writing, zooey deschanel | 1 Comment

Since I now have another two-year-old, I’m back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I’m here to talk about the New York Times bestseller (it says so right there on the cover) The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, and especially what it’s like to read this book to a daughter.

 

Pout Pout 1

 

So, here’s our hero, featured on the cover: the Pout-Pout fish. The plot, such as it is, has various sea creatures essentially telling the pathologically depressed Pout-Pout Fish to cheer the hell up, to which he repeatedly replies:

Pout Pout 2

 

I admire a fish who sticks to his…fins, I guess.

Anyway, with no warning, a female fish shows up.  She says nothing, but simply swims up to our hero and plants a smooch on him.

 

Pout Pout 3

 

This kiss totally turns him around.  One kiss from a total stranger, without reason or explanation, causes him to exclaim:

Pout Pout 4

 

The last page shows him kissing the nameless girl-fish again, but it’s unclear if it’s real, a fantasy, or simply a memory of the first kiss. But that wasn’t what bugged me. It was the idea that somewhere I’d seen this plot before…

Oh, yeah!

Garden State…

Elizabethtown…

Sweet November…

And Autumn in New York, and (500) Days of Summer, and Almost Famous*, and The Girl Next Door, and…

This other fish–unnamed, unidentified, with no function other than to cheer up the protagonist–is…

A Manic Pixie Dream Fish!

(NOTE: if you’re unfamiliar with the term, “manic pixie dream girl,” check here.)

Okay, on the one hand, I’m sort of kidding. This is a kid’s board book after all, not the place to look for psychological depth or meaningful social interaction. It has funny animals and it rhymes, and I’m certain author Deborah Diesen had no ulterior motives.

Except on the other hand, I’m not kidding at all. The female fish exists for no other reason than to kiss the main character. She’s not identified as his mother, or his sister, or his girlfriend, or any other sort of character who might legitimately have a reason to kiss him. And while some of the other characters who complain to the Pout-Pout fish about his attitude are female, she’s the only one who takes any sort of action in the story, and the only one who gets to dominate a two-page spread. Is this, then, icthy-objectification?  And further, if the genders were reversed–if a strange male fish swam up and kissed the female main character–would we accept it as the wonderful thing this book presents? Isn’t it a kind of harassment?

I’ll keep reading the book to my daughter, because at her age, it’s a) essentially harmless, and b) counteracted by the things she sees around her, such as her dynamic and empowered mother. But when she’s older, I plan to show it to her again, and ask her what she thinks. If she’s the girl I think she is, she’ll be as amused/appalled then as I am right now.

The Omai Gods: the story behind the story

Posted on by Alex in writers, writing | 1 Comment

One of my favorite and oft-quoted bits of writerly advice comes from novelist/filmmaker Nicholas Meyer: “Art thrives on restriction.” Meaning that if you don’t have enough of something–usually money and/or time–you’re forced to compensate by being creative.

steampunk world

Here’s a story that shows how that works, at least for me.

I’ve never written steampunk. I honestly don’t even know if it’s a literary genre; it seems more like a fashion statement. Still, it’s certainly prominent right now, and there are even subgenres like diesel punk, atomic punk and so forth. Whenever I’m asked to contribute to a steampunk anthology, though, I usually demur. It’s a genre for which I have no affinity.

That is, until editor Sarah Hans approached me with the concept for the anthology Steampunk World. The conceit: steampunk with no connection to Western civilization. No Victorian England, no post-Civil War America. In other words, none of the stuff that steampunk seemed (to me) to be founded upon.

That sounded like a challenge. So I said yes.

Then the panic set in. What was I going to write about? And in the time I had? I began thinking about the rest of the world in pre-twentieth century times, and how strange technology might manifest there. I kept coming back to one image.

Illustration by James Ng

Story illustration by James Ng

I’d always been loosely fascinated with Easter Island and its statues, so I had the idea that those statues might be something else, something technological…like robots. Robots left behind by…who? And what would prompt them to rise from their slumber? That was the genesis of my story, “The Omai Gods.”

Except I didn’t have time to properly research Easter Island, and also no time to look into the world around it, to find out who would likely show up on its shores to precipitate the events of my story. So I did something else.

I made it all up.

I made up the island. I made up the nature of the statues, although their description is pretty clear. I made up the cultures of the two groups without getting too specific and bogging down in detail. This island and its people exist only in my mind. The advantage to this, of course, is that I could have anything happen that I wanted to without worrying about historical accuracy.

So “The Omai Gods” is not about any real world island or any particular statues. And to me, the restrictions of time and knowledge made the story better.

It also meant I was able to hit my deadline, which I know Sarah appreciates.

Guest post: Charlie Holmberg on Aqua Notes

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

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

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***

There are millions of places a writer can go to get an idea: museums, national parks, Wikipedia, even other writers’ books. The “what ifs” and crazy combinations of stuff in this world are endless. (Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon, for example, came from shoving Pokemon and a lost Roman legion into the same story.) Ultimately, the question of, “Where do you get your ideas?”, is relatively moot, because ideas are everywhere. Though, alternatively, I’ve recently discovered that sometimes the best place to get an idea is inside my own head.

The human brain processes thousands of stimulants and chunks of information daily. All of these—news articles, your strange new neighbor, that weird pear tree that smells like a corpse*, the story of your best friend’s cousin’s most recent breakup—leaves involuntary dregs inside your mind, much like a snail trail. Whether you’re actively thinking about the information or not, it’s all sitting inside your skull, forming piles of puzzle pieces that don’t seem to fit together. It’s surprising how many ideas I can come with when I’m forced to stand in a locked white room with my own brain, staring at said puzzle pieces until I see a bigger picture.

Ever heard of Aqua Notes?

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This product is ingenious. I can’t think of how many times I’ve gotten a great idea in the shower and have had to repeat it to myself over and over so I could remember it by the time I got out. We’ve all been there. But why do great ideas come in such a strange place? Because [usually] we’re alone. Just us and the ceramic. Just me and my brain.

Road trips are even better. Instead of twenty minutes alone with your thoughts, you have hours. Long, boring hours of dry southern Idaho countryside. After you’ve played the alphabet game and forty rounds of 20 Questions, it’s either white-room-brain-time or jumping onto the pavement whizzing by at eighty miles per hour.

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Charlie N. Holmberg

I’ve “discovered” so many story ideas just by letting my thoughts drift until I reach one that’s especially unique or bizarre. It was during the long, twelve-hour trip from Moscow, ID to Salt Lake City that I came up with the idea for The Paper Magician: the idea of using man-made materials to cast spells. The idea of making the setting of the story an internal organ. The idea of giving a man a paper heart.

An idea is like good wine (or so I’ve heard, I’ve never actually had wine). The longer it ages, the better it tastes. And sometimes, when writers step away from the world and stare at the bottle long enough, they discover a blend of flavors that makes their writing excel.

Go ahead, try it. This drink’s on me.

*These are all over BYU campus.

*****

Thanks to Charlie for stopping by my blog, and be sure to look for The Paper Magician.

Talk like a pirate, win a book

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, writing | 39 Comments

So this Friday, September 19th, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Now that’s something I can really get behind.

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow

I love pirates. From The Black Swan to The Sea Hawk, from Raphael Sabatini to William Goldman, from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp, I dig them all. And not just the fictional ones: I’ve seen Blackbeard’s cannon and Black Sam Bellamy’s bell (that sounds vaguely homoerotic, doesn’t it?).

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In 2012, I wrote my own pirate novel, Wake of Bloody Angel, part of my Eddie LaCrosse series. I put as much awesome pirate stuff in it as I could: a tough lady pirate who could’ve been played by Maureen O’Hara, a pirate hunter based on Woodes Rogers, a mysterious captain every bit as scary as Blackbeard, and of course sword battles at sea, treasure hunts on desert islands, ghost ships, and even a sea monster. I wanted to jam the story full of everything that, to me, makes pirates cool.

So in honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, I’m giving away a signed copy of Wake of the Bloody Angel, along with The Mammoth Book of Men O’War: 18 Stories from the Age of Fighting Sail.

Men O'War cover

In the comments below, tell me your favorite pirate*, or your favorite bit of pirate trivia**, or your favorite pirate joke***, and you’ll automatically be entered to win. Deadline is midnight on Sunday, September 21.

Against All Flags

*for me, it’s Long John Silver. I love reading Treasure Island aloud to my kids.

**pirates kept barrels of urine on their ships to help get out bloodstains. I put that in the novel.

***A pirate applies for a job as a tanker captain. He has a peg leg, a hook for a hand, and an eye patch. “A shark took me leg,” he tells the interviewer.  ”And a crocodile took me hand.”
“What happened to your eye?” asks the interviewer.
“Seagull. It flew over and pooped right in me eye.”
“And that blinded you?”
“No, but it happened on me first day with me hook.”

A Tale of Two Curls

Posted on by Alex in Jennifer Goree, music, Tufa, video trailer, writing | 1 Comment

Sometimes a song inspires a book. Sometimes a book inspires a song.

And sometimes–okay, this is the only time I’m aware of this happening–a song inspires a book which inspires a song.

There are two wonderful songs out there that share a title with my upcoming novel. Don’t ask me to pick a favorite, because I can’t. But I can tell you the story.

First, if you go here, you can read about my introduction to the music of Jennifer Goree. She’s an amazing songwriter and singer, currently part of the group Trembling and Vine. She has been kind enough to approve the use of her song titles and lyrics for my Tufa novels, including “Long Black Curl,” from her 1998 CD Don’t Be a Stranger. My novel Long Black Curl will be out next spring.

Don't be a stranger cover

This album cover, although it predates my novels, could easily be an illustration from a Tufa story.

Recently she was also kind enough to produce a brand-new video of that song, with a beautifully minimalist setting that perfectly complements her haunting performance.

Now we jump forward to 2014. The band Tuatha Dea has produced a wonderful CD called Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae, based on the world of my Tufa novels. The first three tracks share titles with my first three books: “The Hum and the Shiver,” “Wisp of a Thing,” and “Long Black Curl.”

Tufa tales cover

Their “Long Black Curl” is a totally different song, with nothing in common with Jennifer Goree’s except the title. But it’s just as haunting, and it’s the first time anyone has recreated the world of the Tufa for a video (you can even see the books’ recurring characters Rockhouse and Mandalay).

I can’t tell you how proud I am to be associated, however tangentially, with both these songs. Since almost everything I write has some relation to music that I love, to have this book series feed back and inspire such great music is a real honor. I hope you also enjoy both these songs, for their very different but equally magical qualities.

And if you should happen to read my novel Long Black Curl when it comes out next year, I hope you enjoy it, too.

You can buy Tufa Tales here. And you can get Don’t Be a Stranger by contacting Jennifer through Trembling and Vine.

Out today: Wickedly Dangerous by Deborah Blake

Posted on by Alex in writers, writing | 1 Comment

One of the perks of my job is that I get asked to give blurbs to upcoming books, which means I also get to read them long before they come out. Usually such requests come from editors, or agents, or writers I’ve met at conferences, but occasionally they come from good friends who also happen to be good writers. That’s how I was lucky enough to read Wickedly Dangerous, the first in the Baba Yaga series by Deborah Blake, out today.

Wickedly Dangerous
The Baba Yaga in Russian folklore is not exactly…sexy. Here’s a quick overview. But what Deborah has done is imagine how this figure, with the same goals and tasks, might function in a modern American world. Her chicken-footed shack becomes an Airstream trailer, her dragon disguises himself as a pit bull, and her three companions ride motorcycles.  It’s the kind of myth tweaking after my own heart, and I loved it.
Here’s the blurb I sent to Deborah:
“Wickedly Dangerous translates a terrifying figure from folklore , the Baba Yaga, into the smart, resourceful, motorcycle-riding Barbara Yager, who travels with her dragon-disguised-as-a-dog best friend, righting wrongs and helping those in need. But when she stumbles into a town whose children are vanishing, and meets the haunted young sheriff trying to save them, what was a job becomes very personal. This is urban fantasy at its best, with all the magic and mayhem tied together with very human emotions, even when the characters aren’t quite human.”
The pre-release reviews have backed up my enthusiasm:
“Wickedly Dangerous is innovative and fun, introducing some lesser known mythological characters and giving them a 21st century makeover.”–Romantic Times four-star-review.
“Wickedly Dangerous is a fast-paced book with an entertaining chemistry between Barbara and Liam and some really cool secondary characters.”–The Blogger Girls
Some may gripe that this is a paranormal romance, a genre not noted for getting a lot of respect. To them I say, yes, but it’s a good story.  When the story’s good, genre doesn’t matter. Genre snobbery hurts no one but the snob, so don’t be one.
Starting tomorrow, you can get Wickedly Dangerous at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local indie bookstore.

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.

FW front cover

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 | 2 Comments

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.

Melissa3

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).

TheBigKeep_1200

 

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.

Stats

 

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.

Hans Up, Hans Down: the Villain of Frozen

Posted on by Alex in movies, reviews, writing | 6 Comments

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 my mind about.

Hans.

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Hans is the villain, but you don’t know it until just before the end. Up until the big reveal, he not only seems like a decent guy, he seems like a great guy. He steps up and holds down the fort in Arendelle while Anna goes off to find Elsa, and that includes keeping the population safe and calm. He even saves Elsa from assassins, which ultimately seems counter-productive. In fact, although the movie goes to great pains to remind Anna that it’s a bit insane to plan to marry someone you’ve just met, we’re led to think that Anna might be right after all. Hans is awesome.

Until, of course, the big reveal that he’s not. And his moment of Blofelding, where he explains his evil plan.

Frozen5-updated

“Oh Anna, if only there was someone out there who loved you.”

Now, I (and every writer I know, and a huge number of fellow bloggers) have wondered about this moment ever since. Was this on purpose, and part of the deliberate design, or did the decision to make Hans the villain come so late in the game that there wasn’t time to drop clues earlier in the film?

I’ve done extensive (i.e., half an hour while the kids were eating breakfast) online research into this, and it does seem that the change in Hans was intrinsic. From Wikipedia:

“…according to Hyrum Osmond, one of the supervising animators for Hans, Hans is this handsome, dashing character. The crew wanted the audience to fall in love with him and the relationship he could have with Anna. Then they’d get to turn him around towards the climax and make it a big shock. According to Lino Di Salvo, Hans is a chameleon who adapts to any environment to make the other characters comfortable.”

Okay, fair enough. So why didn’t the filmmakers tip their hand earlier? Why not give us hints that Hans is secretly the bad guy?

Perhaps Stanley Kubrick has the answer.

In this interview on his film Barry Lyndon, Kubrick says:

“You could have had Barry give signals to the audience, through his performance, indicating that he is really insincere and opportunistic, but this would be unreal. When we try to deceive we are as convincing as we can be, aren’t we?”

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Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon. The template for Prince Hans?

 

This was actually the very first thing I thought of when reflecting on Hans’ betrayal. And the whole Hans plot is so refreshingly anti-Disney that I hope I’m right, that it was a deliberate choice from the git-go, and not a last-minute tweak to provide a villain.

And if so, perhaps that inspiration goes back to Shakespeare:

“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

(Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5)