Pantheons and Pantsers

Lucienne DiverLucienne Diver

The absolutely fabulous Faith Hunter offered to let me step in today, so I typed up my post over the weekend, hoping my stream of consciousness screed would actually form a coherent posting come today.  Well, you’ll all have to be the judge of that.  But it’s so funny coming on the heels of Christina Henry’s wonderful blog yesterday, which I read thinking, “Yes.  Yes!  Oh, thank goodness I’m not alone.”  It’s no wonder I adore her too!  Anyway, without further ado, here are my thoughts about:

Pantheons and Pantsers

You’d think a bunch of ancient gods talking in your head would have a lot more decorum than Donkey from Shrek jumping up and down yelling, “Pick me! Oh, pick me!”

You’d be wrong.

The toughest thing about writing a series is knowing where to start and winnowing down all the many ideas flying around in your head to what will make it into the first book and what you’ll save for later on, building enough of a base so that you can go all the myriad ways come later books and not have them come out of left field. This is a particular challenge for a pantser—you know, a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants (or the wings on your ancient sandals) kind of gal who makes it up as she goes along.

The best part of writing a mythology-based series is that it provides me some structure. Some basis. Need a sun god? Oh look, I’ve got one right in my back pocket. Need a trickster? Done! Ancient rivalries? Pick a card, any card!

Sounds like cheating you say? I’ve got a secret for you…it feels a little like cheating. I’ve got all of this rich, wonderful heritage of myth and legend to draw from, complete with dangers beyond imagining. And those dangers aren’t safely lost in the mists of time. It’s so easy to get sucked into the shifting sands of research. No two references are alike in the telling of the ancient tales. There’s no such thing as a “definitive” origin story or an “agreed-upon” retelling. I could easily get lost down Alice’s rabbit hole or, because we’re talking about the Greek gods, become frozen like Orpheus in the underworld for looking back instead of moving forward. Because researching is WAY easier than writing.

But I’ll tell you another secret—writing is more fun. Writing has some of the greatest highs, like when you’re all euphoric because you’ve just come to an epiphany about your storyline or you’re chuckling over your own cleverness at that terrible thing you’ve just done to your characters (which will, of course, make them better, stronger, faster, more self-actualized—because yeah, anthropology and psychology are my copilots).  Sadly, it also has some of the lowest lows, like when you’ve arrayed your heroes against such impossible odds even you’re not sure how they’re going to get out.

Ahem, but I was talking about research and starting from a base and then making it your own. Yes, in the Latter-Day Olympians series I started with a Greek mythology base. However, I have my gods running around contemporary times. Having lost their believers and supporters, they’ve lost much of their power. They’ve had to get (perish the thought) DAY JOBS! None of which is where I start. My heroine, Tori Karacis, comes from circus folk. Her family has enough aberrations to make her almost believe the family tales that the line started when the god Pan beer-goggled one of the gorgons. (For those of you who are only familiar with Medusa, in many versions there were three gorgons, but only two of them immortal, oddly enough.) Her grandmother is the bearded lady in the circus. Her parents and brother literally fly through the air with the greatest of ease in a high wire acrobatic act. But Tori… she’s afraid of heights. And if she’s got one overwhelming attribute, it’s her unfailing ability to get into trouble, spurred on by her curiosity. She’s left the circus to join her uncle’s P.I. firm in L.A., which is where she witnesses a murder by something she can’t explain.   Gah, I so want to go on and synopsize but you can buy the first book right now at the amazingly low price of $.99 and see for yourself.

The point is that even though I’ve got the mythology to draw from, I had to modernize for contemporary times. The sun no longer rises and sets with Apollo, if indeed it ever did. He’s now a former adult film star who’s transitioned into regular film and hopes to make the leap to management. Zeus is a performer, headlining a pyrotechnic extravaganza in Vegas. Hephaestus is the new wunderkind for a Hollywood production studio… And while I couldn’t bring in all the other pantheons out there, at least not right away, I wanted to acknowledge them and also my fascination with comparative religion by mentioning some of the corollaries. Trickster gods like Hermes, for example, exist in every religion—Coyote, Iemisch, Iktomi, Loki… I wanted to build in the fact that these “gods” had been many things to many different people, which allowed me in book four, BATTLE FOR THE BLOOD, to bring in a bit of Norse mythology and will allow me to bring Egyptian mythos in the fifth book I’m writing, BLOOD HUNT.

On two different sides of the spectrum, one dark and one light, some of my favorite books have been Mary Renault’s retellings of ancient stories (for example, THE KING MUST DIE, her story of Theseus) and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, which like the Latter-Day Olympians series thoroughly modernize myth.   I wish I could claim one tenth of their abilities, but at least I’ve experienced, I think, a full measure of their fun.

I hope that if you join the Latter-Day Olympians you’ll feel the same way. (Series titles, BTW, are BAD BLOOD, CRAZY IN THE BLOOD, RISE OF THE BLOOD and BATTLE FOR THE BLOOD.)

Christina Henry–Plot and the Protag


BLACK SPRING(1)I’ve written seven books in the BLACK WINGS series and one stand-alone novel (the forthcoming ALICE, August 2015) and I’m pretty sure I can’t tell you a single useful thing about how I plotted any of them.  I know, this sounds a lot like what I said about writing character last week. The trouble is that I just don’t spend that much time thinking in a concrete way about the plots of my books.  I don’t have a nice neat formal method.

This is what I do: I start writing the book.  And then I see what happens next.

All my books begin with the protagonist, and I tend to let the protagonist dictate the action that follows.  I don’t write an outline, summary or synopsis of any kind.   I just let the book unfold as I write it chronologically.

I do have a general idea of where the book ought to end up, but I’m never married to that general idea. I’m always happy to toss it out in favor of something better if something better presents itself.

The interesting thing about writing this way is that the book becomes a process of discovery. I’m often just as surprised as the reader is by the outcome of the story. The story works itself out in my subconscious and emerges as I’m writing,

Recently, while I was writing ALICE, I fell asleep thinking about what I’d written that day. I also had The Tubes “She’s a Beauty” stuck in my head. When I woke up the next morning the most important scene in the book was there, practically already written, thanks to these two completely unrelated things stewing away in my brain while I slept. This is a pretty typical example of my novel plotting.

I write about 4-8 pages a day. I always write the book by hand in a notebook and then I slowly transfer the manuscript to a word document, editing as I type the book. This is a good process for me because I don’t like to re-read what I’ve already written and it forces me to re-read the whole manuscript once. I might refine a scene but I almost never make major plot changes while editing.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I never have made a major plot change once I’ve written the story down. I think that’s because, for me, the experience of writing the book is a lot like reading something written by someone else. I try not to analyze it too much and just let the story flow free.

CHRISTINA HENRY is the author of the BLACK WINGS series (Ace/Roc) featuring Madeline Black, an Agent of Death, and her popcorn-loving gargoyle sidekick Beezle: BLACK WINGS, BLACK NIGHT, BLACK HOWL, BLACK LAMENT, BLACK CITY, BLACK HEART and BLACK SPRING. She is also the author of the forthcoming dark fantasy ALICE (summer 2015).


Bio pic (1)Christina was born in New York and now lives on the North Side of Chicago with her husband and son. She sees no conflict in rooting for both the Yankees and the Cubs.

She also enjoys running long distances, eating large quantities of cinnamon rolls, reading anything she can get her hands on and watching movies with zombies, samurai and/or subtitles.

Beth Bernobich: The Time Roads


BethBernobichOnce upon a time, I had an idea for a story. It was tentative, as ideas sometimes are. All I had was an image of a young woman reciting prime numbers as her brother listened. The seed for that image was easy to identify—Oliver Sacks’s essay “The Twins,” which describes twin brothers, autistic savants, who recited prime numbers to each other. I chose to make my twins a brother and sister name Síomón and Gwen Madóc, both mathematical geniuses.

That initial scene came to me complete with setting and emotions and full-color video, but I wasn’t sure how the story would unfold. So I wrote as much as I knew, following the brother from the visitation room of the sanitarium (because Gwen is mad, suddenly and mysteriously mad from too many numbers), down to the lobby where a police detective introduces himself and…

…and all of a sudden, I had a murder mystery as well, set in an alternate Ireland in the early 20th century, in a world where the map of the world looked very different. German and Italy never united. Europe never invaded the western continent. And England failed to annex its neighbors, becoming instead a restless and rebellious dependency.

And as I followed my characters to the river where the first victim was discovered, I realized the police detective was much more than simply a local investigator. He was Commander Aidrean Ó Deághaidh, a member of the Queen’s Constabulary, sent by the queen to investigate these murders. He had his own story, one that overlapped the murder mystery. Then there was the queen herself, Áine Lasairíona Devereaux. Why had she ordered Ó Deághaidh to oversee that investigation?

TheTimeRoads.CoverWas this a novel? I wondered.

No, these were most definitely three separate stories.

But they were also closely linked stories. All three dealt with the problems and possibilities of time. Time travel. Time fracturing and healing and leaving behind alternate pasts. And the same characters moved through a much larger story, and in doing so moved from supporting character to main character, or retreating into the background.

Eventually those first three stories sold, but I knew I needed one last installment to complete the larger story. Over the years, more and more details for that last installment became clear. It would be from the queen’s point of view, I decided. It would take place ten years after Aidrean Ó Deághaidh’s installment, with Éire standing on the brink of the modern age. Síomón and Gwen Madóc would make a reappearance. There would be politics and time travel and at last a direct confrontation with the matter of the Anglians. And the queen will discover she needs to exorcise the ghosts from the past, before she and her kingdom can face the future.

And so last year, I sat down one last time with my Éireann characters. I edited those first three stories, expanding this section, or adding new and necessary details to that one. Then, I opened up a new document and called it The Time Roads.


BIO: Beth Bernobich is a writer, reader, mother, and geek. Her short stories have appeared in, Asimov’s, Interzone, and Strange Horizons, among other places. Her first novel, PASSION PLAY, won the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Epic Fantasy in 2011. Her newest release, THE TIME ROADS, is available from Tor Books October 14, 2014.

Faith Hunter — New Book and Wounded Warriors

Faith HunterFaith Hunter

BrokenSoulLoRezCoverLast Tuesday was release day for BROKEN SOUL. I am supposed to be wildly promoting the book, but other things are getting the attention. So before I go on — Have you bought your copy yet? :)

Today I finished delivering and crating the last 3K books collected for the Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed. To what purpose, you may ask?

My friend and fellow author Sarah Spieth, who has spent considerable time in and out of hospitals in past months, realized how little there is for patients to take their minds off of where they are, and what they’re suffering from. Rather than just think about it, she decided to do something about it, and to make that “something” dedicated to the Wounded Warriors at Walter Reed near where she lives.

To her author friends, she put out a call for books for the Wounded Warriors to read to fill the long hours between PT and other sessions, and for their families when they come to visit. She asked several authors to donate books, and many responded.

I sent that call for donations to my fans — who are the BEST fans in the world, by the way.

The outpouring was amazing. Besides what other authors and I collected and shipped personally, people in my area donated nearly 3K books, games, videos, and audio books. The outpouring was astounding, with the entire ROTC program of Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, South Carolina sending 15 boxes of books and games alone. Cards and posters to Any Wounded Warrior came in from 6th, 7th and 8th graders at Dutchman Creek School.

One woman’s estate donated 350 books. One man went through his library and donated 10 boxes of books. The grass roots program grew so fast that Sarah, back in the DC area, had to come up with a name for burgeoning organization, start paperwork to trademark the name of it, do a website, and start paperwork to become a 501.3 charity organization.

Then the USO heard about the organization, and asked for any books that the warriors didn’t use, for active duty personnel overseas. And the Red Cross asked for anything left over.

The editors and staff from publisher Penguin/Roc donated a huge box of books!

My assistant, Lee Watts, and I were suddenly looking for ways to ship several thousand pounds of books to Walter Reed. Comer Industries offered to store the books, crate the books, and ship the books at their best, discounted cost (about 70% of standard rates) and they donated the crates. Duwayne, Gary, and Randy at Comer offered their help to package the boxes for shipping.

Larry Pendleton, who owns Old Line Fine Wine, Spirits and Bistro in Beltsville, MD agreed to receive the books so they can be processed before delivery to Walter Reed. And I am taking the last 6 boxes when I go talk to the Wounded Warriors on Friday the 17th of October.

Volunteers. All these wonderful volunteers.

This grass roots organization is growing and spreading other towns and cities. HOWEVER! The donation of books has already exceeded the space available. Which is totally cool! I’ll update as I can.


Christina Henry — Talking to Characters


BLACK SPRING(1)I wish I had some really interesting, profound statement to make about the process of creating characters in fiction.  I’ve read lots of well-written and well-considered pieces about finding out who your characters are and their motivations and how all those things can make your story better and more interesting.

I’d genuinely like to write one of those pieces for you. I’d like to tell you that I did this writing exercise or that I carefully craft each character and have background histories for all them even if all of that information doesn’t make it into the story.

Unfortunately, my writing process might kindly be termed “intuitive” and less kindly be called “half-assed”.

Take Madeline Black. The heroine of my BLACK WINGS series just appeared in my head one day. Well, I probably shouldn’t say “appeared”. That implies that I saw her, and I didn’t see her. I heard her. More specifically, I heard her talking to Beezle, her popcorn-eating home guardian.

Up until that point I’d had some vague idea about writing an urban fantasy about a grim reaper, but when I was considering the book the main character was always male. Then I heard Maddy’s voice, and suddenly all those vague ideas went away. I knew Maddy was an Agent of Death, which means she collects the souls of the dead for an entity known as the Agency. The Agency is a huge paper-pushing bureaucracy that drives Maddy insane, and she inherited this much-less-than-fun job when her mother died. She also inherited Beezle, a gargoyle who is supposed to watch over Maddy and the house but mostly watches daytime TV and filches snacks from the kitchen.

I think you can tell a lot about a person by the way they talk. You can gather superficial information  – like where that person is from, based on things like accent and word choice. You can also learn a lot about the way they think and their attitude toward the world in general. When Maddy talks you can hear that she’s smart, but she’s also got what’s known as a “smart mouth”, and a smart mouth tends to run when it isn’t always the smartest thing to do. That told me a lot about who Maddy was, and why she might make certain (potentially not-so-wise) choices in a crisis situation – like, say, when a giant monster is rampaging through a north side Chicago neighborhood.

In fact, the more Maddy talked, the more I learned about her – that she desperately wanted to be strong, but that she was terribly vulnerable. That she felt like her life was a box of obligations and she was stuck inside it. That when things change she thinks with her heart and not her head. And once I knew all these things about her the story just seemed to grow organically from Maddy and her personality. I didn’t have to think about a plot; it just unfurled before me like a lovely yellow brick road, and all I had to do was follow it along.


Bio pic (1)CHRISTINA HENRY is the author of the BLACK WINGS series (Ace/Roc) featuring Madeline Black, an Agent of Death, and her popcorn-loving gargoyle sidekick Beezle: BLACK WINGS, BLACK NIGHT, BLACK HOWL, BLACK LAMENT, BLACK CITY, BLACK HEART and BLACK SPRING. She is also the author of the forthcoming dark fantasy ALICE (summer 2015).

Christina was born in New York and now lives on the North Side of Chicago with her husband and son. She sees no conflict in rooting for both the Yankees and the Cubs.

She also enjoys running long distances, eating large quantities of cinnamon rolls, reading anything she can get her hands on and watching movies with zombies, samurai and/or subtitles.

Beth Bernobich: Hello, Story


BethBernobichAs I said in my last post, not all writing advice works for all writers. We each find the approach that works best for us, and for the project at hand.  But! I do believe it’s useful to share our approaches with each other. Maybe we add a new technique to our writer toolkit. Maybe we try out this other technique and learn it doesn’t work for us.

So in the spirit of sharing, here is how I turn my ideas into stories.

Ideas. Those wispy scraps of “what if” that float through our brains. Most of my ideas are fragile things that never survive discovery. That death of the story can be quick, as quick as me noticing the idea, only to have it fade into nothing. Or I might jot down a few notes about a possible story, to find the story feels dead in my imagination. But that’s okay. Ideas are like gnats on a pond. Lots and lots of them buzz around.

Idea plus people. I call this phase the “what if this person did this” phase. This, for me, is the true seed for a story, when the idea makes the leap from the abstract into characters moving through their world. Stories can still die at this point, but less often. So. I wait and let the ideas and images build until…

Full-color video in surround sound. By this point I’m getting snippets of scenes and dialog, all colored by emotion, invading my brainspace. Here is where I take the first tentative step in putting those images into words.

Step one is to write as much as comes easily to me. That might be a single scene, or it might be three chapters. I pour the words into my document without stopping to think about prose or worldbuilding. Research, edits, plotting can all take place later. Here I’m trying to capture that first sense of story and character that fell into my brain.

TheTimeRoads.CoverSometimes, the story dies here. I write a chapter or two and find that the inspiration dies out. Or sometimes the story lives, but I discover I don’t have the skills to do it justice. In the first case, I delete the document. In the second, I file the document under “future ideas” and leave it to simmer. (So far, I’ve never regretted deleting a half-born story. Either it comes back later, better and stronger, or I never think about it again.)

But other times, this initial burst of writing calls up all kinds of new details about my characters, their world, and their personal history. Here is when I know if the opening is the right one. Here is when I find out the ending.

Up to this point, my approach is what writers call pantsing—figuring out the story by the seat of your pants. And if that works, go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you that outlining is required.

But I have discovered through experience that pantsing the entire novel seldom works for me, so here is where I take a step back from and work out the story’s overall shape. I save my existing scenes and chapters in one document, then open up a new one and start jotting down a very rough outline.

I know the opening, so I write a brief summary of what I’ve written so far.

I know the ending, so I write a page, or sometimes a couple pages, about what I think happens there.

Then I write anywhere from six to ten milestone markers to connect the opening to the ending. Each “marker” might be as short as a single sentence, or long as a page, with dialog and other bits of real prose.

Then I stare at those paragraphs. Frown at the cats. Chew my fingernails. Walk around the office. Research some plot points and tweak the outline. Shut down the document and go re-read one of my favorite books. Meanwhile, more details about the characters and their story are flooding my brain, so I add them to my notes document as well.

At some point, I start writing again. I check the so-called outline from time to time, but mostly I let the words spill out. The outline is just my launch point. It can change. It will change. And that’s okay. The important thing is getting words onto the page.

This approach has worked for me for the past five books. Will it always work? Maybe, maybe not. I no longer worry about that. I used to write my books in sequential order, only revising once I had a complete draft. Then I realized it was fine to stop partway through and revisit the outline. Then I realized that it was fine to write the scenes out of order.

So I write. Here and there.  A patchwork of scenes that get stitched together until I have a story that runs from end to end.

What works for me might not work for you. And that’s okay, too.

What matters is finishing that first draft.


BIO: Beth Bernobich is a writer, reader, mother, and geek. Her short stories have appeared in, Asimov’s, Interzone, and Strange Horizons, among other places. Her first novel, PASSION PLAY, won the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Epic Fantasy in 2011. Her newest release, THE TIME ROADS, is available from Tor Books October 14, 2014.

The Insanity of a Writer

Faith HunterFaith Hunter

BrokenSoulFBcover Good morning All.

I want to share my feelings with you this morning. And yes, I waited until this morning, Tuesday, Oct 7th,  to post this, because of course — no Internet all night until now. Because this is book release day, and it’s also “if it can go wrong, it will, day”. It’s make or break time in a writer’s career. It’s a day of excitement, after weeks of building up to a book release. It’s a day of … nothingness because although the book went out, nothing has happened. I am still waiting to see how many sold, how well my readers liked it, who will excoriate me personally on a review because they wanted my character’s love life to go another direction, or they hate complex plots, or they wanted a more complex plot, or they wanted a particular character to reappear, or they wanted fewer character to be in the book, or they wanted … something … and I didn’t deliver. Or they loved the book. Loved, loved, loved the book! Are screaming from the rooftop about how much they loved the book! It’s an either-or kinda day. A waiting day.

And I’ll keep on waiting because the book just went out in large quantities, and now the readers need to read it before they can react to it. And only now can I see reviews. Which I don’t read because I get depressed, no matter how great or horrid they are. Because I’m a writer and all writers are kinda nuts in case you haven’t noticed.

It’s a bittersweet day. Exciting. Scary. I didn’t sleep last night, even though I tried to monitor my diet yesterday to hold off my body’s normal reaction to stress or impending stress. But. My body knew what was about to happen, what did happen at midnight. Broken Soul went out. Yeah. It did. And I was up all night with indigestion, that problem caused by stress and poor diet and “writer’s nerves”. Because this week is when the numbers count the most. When I either move up the charts and Jane Yellowrock is a success, or I don’t make the charts and *I* am a failure. Stupid, I know. My character gets the kudos and I take on the failures. I did tell you that writers are kinda nuts. Yup. I am, today.

So, if you see a sleep deprived, harried writer out there today, give him or her a pat on the back or a hug because it might be release day and they probably need it. (Note – if you don’t know the writer well, then keep the physical contact to a minimum or you can get arrested, Just sayin’.)

Have great 7th, Y’all.