It’s finally here – the release of the final book in the BLACK WINGS series, BLACK SPRING.
In the autumn of 2008 I had a vague idea about writing a book about a grim reaper. I’d assumed the protagonist would be male, but other than those two facts I knew nothing about the story. Then I heard Maddy and Beezle talking in my head, and suddenly the plot just unfolded organically. There was a whole world – the Agency, Maddy’s job as an Agent of Death, her missing fallen angel father, her other dark family ties, and Beezle’s identity as a gargoyle, home guardian, and lover of all things fried and crunchy.
I wrote the first book just hoping I would be able to sell it. I never thought I would have the opportunity to write seven books in the series. I’m so grateful to everyone who has read and loved these stories and these characters along the way.
In honor of the release of the last book, I’ve chosen one of my favorite Beezle quotes from each book to share. I hope you enjoy Maddy’s final adventure.
“You’re going to feel like your head is being squeezed between two cast-iron pans wielded by a sumo wrestler.”
-Beezle, BLACK WINGS
““Good work, Maddy. You came, you saw, you burned everything to the ground.”
-Beezle, BLACK NIGHT
“I don’t think splitting up is a good idea. That usually leads to certain death.”
-Beezle, BLACK HOWL
“That’s not guarding the house. That’s guarding some guy who knows two thousand ways to kill me with a toothpick.”
-Beezle, BLACK LAMENT
“Once you see viscous liquid, it’s time to turn around before you get put inside a cocoon and eaten at a later date.”
-Beezle, BLACK CITY
“Well, now I’m back so the rightful order of things can be restored. I’ll do the thinking; you do the smashing.”
-Beezle, BLACK HEART
“Was diplomacy even an option? I just thought you would do what you usually do – insult everyone present, break the furniture, set the building on fire.”
-Beezle, “Red Isn’t Really My Color”, KICKING IT
“She’s still upset about the s’mores incident.”
-Beezle, BLACK SPRING
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.
My youngest son has a longstanding problem with nightmares. So he has learned to avoid things that might spark them. He will not walk through a modern bookstore, unless either he’s mapped out a safe route to the kids section that passes through language tutorials and books on auto repair, or I am there to cover his eyes. He knows I am also not a huge fan of horror and gore, and nowadays, many Halloween displays are quite horrific.
So it has been quite a challenge to make it clear to him why I love Halloween so much. I tried to explain:
Me: “I love the parts of Halloween that are creepy and spooky, but not scary or horrific. There are a lot of movies like that.”
Son: “Like what?”
Me, thinking: “Well, Arsenic and Old Lace.”
Son: “What’s that about?”
Inexplicably, I totally failed to convey the humor of old women poisoning lonely men. You should have seen his face.
Maybe I should have started with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Before I continue, a bit of family history. Halloween happens to be my brother’s birthday. So, it was always a huge deal in my family. We had birthday parties, elaborate costumes Mom spent weeks constructing. My very first memory is of sitting next to my mother’s rocking chair at the age of two, while she sewed, turning my red pajamas into a devil costume. I remember this moment because that’s when she went into labor with my brother.
So…big fan of Halloween. Way back.
But my son’s questions intrigued me. If I love Halloween, and I don’t like horror, what is it that I love?
The question seemed topical, because I just happen to have reached the part in my current series where Halloween is celebrated. So, I was in the midst of deciding how to portray the gathering of ghosts and spooks and other denizens hunting the Hudson Highlands that I intended to have my characters encounter.
(I must have done something right in the eyes of the Divine Fates, because ordinarily, when I have to write about a holiday, I don’t have the pleasure of doing it at the right time of year. I find myself writing about Halloween in May or, worse, Christmas in late January, when nobody in their right mind wants to think about Christmas anymore. But then, it could be argued that, for authors, being in your right mind is a luxury we can seldom afford.)
But what was it that I liked about Halloween and ghosts and graveyards. And how did these things differ from Friday the 13th or Saw? And, most important, how could I put that difference across to my readers?
When I was a young writer, I didn’t worry about “putting things across to my readers.” I thought that all I had to do is mention something that made me feel happy, sad, frightened, romantic, etc., and the work was done. The reader would know what I meant.
For instance, if I described a giant spider, everyone would cringe, right?
The giant spider climbed over the wall. Eight enormous eyes glinted in the moonlight.
Who could fail to be terrified?
I soon learned this was not the case. It was not the object, the description that evoked the reader’s emotion, but the follow through. In particular, the reaction of the characters in the story perceiving the thing or event.
1) The giant spider climbed over the wall. Eight enormous eyes glinted in the moonlight.
Filbo’s heart grew cold in his chest. He pressed a hand against his throat. If Perry and Mippin had not been waiting, trapped, on the far side, relying upon him, he would have turned back then and there.
2) The giant spider climbed over the wall. Eight enormous eyes glinted in the moonlight.
“This’ll be a cinch!” Indiana Dundee laughed in his charming accent. His grin widened as he felt that heady rush of adrenaline that accompanied the hunt. “For Arachne Gigantua, we recommend a size seven net.”
3) The giant spider climbed over the wall. Eight enormous eyes glinted in the moonlight.
Tears welled up in Sasha’s eye. She pressed her hands against her chest. “Oh Arachne! You’re all right! You lived!”
So, what about Halloween. Ghosts were ghosts, right?
1) The ghost rose up above the gravestone.
He drew back in terror. The phantom’s face was a ghoulish and skull-like but dripping with gore. Its mouth opened so wide that its bottom jaw hung down where its knees should be. A bone-chilling shriek came from its enormous gullet, as it rushed toward him, arms outstretched, bloody claws closing upon his throat.
2) The ghost rose up above the gravestone.
“Howdy, Casper!” cried the little boy, swinging his bucket of candy. “Has your Halloween been a happy one?”
3) The ghost rose up above the gravestone.
It looked as it had when she had encountered it in the library, a young man in the dark garments of an earlier age. His pale eyes were imploring, as if some terrible burden weighed upon his shoulders, keeping him from leaving the house where he had once been a living boy.
This third example hints at what I love about Halloween. It is not the gore or even the thrill that comes with a scary story. It is the beauty, the eeriness, the unexpectedness of something out of its proper place. It is the heartfelt sorrow of a Willie who has danced herself to death, the eerie loneliness of a solitary ghost upon the windswept moors, the poignancy of the shade of a young bride still searching out her window for a bridegroom lost at sea, or even the charm of the cheerful shade of a flapper who haunts an querulous old man until he helps catch her murder.
As a child, I loved Casper the Friendly Ghost. (His friend Wendy even wore the same red pajamas my mother had sewn into that devil costume for me.) But my favorite story of all with ghosts was Children of Green Knowe. In these books a young orphan named Tolly is sent to live with his great-grandmother at an estate in England called Green Knowe.
The house at Green Knowe is full of ghosts, but they are not creepy ghouls. They are the shades of children who once lived there long ago. These ghosts are almost treated like elves or fairies, as Tolly occasionally encounters them in ways that allow him to glimpse what their lives had been like or even, on one enchanted snowy morning, to play with them.
There was no scariness to these ghosts, but there was a sense of enchantment that made the story memorable to me.
Recently I reread another favorite ghost story, The Wyndcliffe by Louise Lawrence. It concerns a young woman who moves to the lonely moors of England and is befriended by a ghost of a young man who once owned her house. What makes this story good is that her older siblings believe she is going mad or that, if the ghost is real, that it intends her harm. The juxtaposition of the blooming friendship between the living girl and the dead young poet, and the suspicion of the older siblings who could not step into the world of the supernatural made the story quite interesting.
These kinds of ghost stories were occasionally spooky—there were moments when the hairs would rise upon the back of my neck. But they were never horrific, never filled with gore or blood or gruesome images. There was a gentleness to them, a sense of eerie wonder, of secrets to be discovered.
And maybe that is what I have been trying to put my finger on.
In the scene I am currently writing, my main character is asked why she wants to crash the Dead Men’s Ball—where the restless dead drowned in the Hudson River gather once a year on All-Hallows-Eve. I believe her response sums up what I have been searching for.
“Why?” The question caught her off guard. She had to think about it for a time. “I guess it’s part of wanting to know things. I’ve realized that I say ‘I want to know everything,’ but what I really want to know is secrets. Forbidden things. Forgotten things. Especially forgotten things. I feel so sorry for the things that no one remembers.
“ And that’s what ghosts represent, isn’t it? All ghosts have a forgotten thing—something no one knows that is holding them to the mortal world. If we could find it, we might be able to help them pass on to…wherever it is that they are supposed to go. It is as if each ghost is its own mystery.
And that, I believe, is what I love so much about Halloween – the mystery it represents, the promise of secrets yet untold.
Perhaps, that is what I will say to my son.
Everyone always says, “write what you know.” But how many of us are actually heroic men and women, ready to charge into danger to save others? How many of us are dashing swashbucklers, as quick with a quip as with a rapier? How many are hyper-observant detectives, able to notice the most minute details and instantly analyze everyone we meet?
In short, how are we supposed to write what we know and still write engaging, interesting characters?
Then there’s the other side the coin. If every character we write is shy, reclusive, uncomfortable around new situations or strangers, allergic to shellfish, irrationally afraid of green cars and striped umbrellas, and whatever odd little quirks we ourselves have, that’s going to get awfully repetitious—and awfully boring—after the second or third character. But if we’re supposed to write what we know, how can we convincingly write any character who isn’t exactly like us?
The answer, of course, is twofold.
First, you aren’t constrained to only writing things that you yourself know intimately. It helps, of course, to know something about what you’re writing—if you’re setting a story in New Orleans, for example, it’s a good idea to either be from there, have visited there recently, or at least done some research about the city so you know that they have street cars rather than trolleys, beignets instead of doughnuts or bagels, muffulettas instead of hoagies or subs, etc. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a native, it just means you have to know enough to write about the place convincingly. And that’s what we do as writers, after all, is write about places, people, situations, and things as if we really knew them ourselves.
This is just as true when writing characters. Do you know an obsessive megalomaniac who genuinely believes that he or she can manage the world better than anyone else? Probably—hopefully!—not. But do you know anyone with obsessive tendencies? Almost certainly. And do you know anyone who thinks they’re better than everyone else, smarter, more talented, more capable, etc.? Someone who’s convinced they can do no wrong, and that everyone should just let them take control of everything? Most of us know somebody who’s at least a little like that. In which case, with just a little tweaking of details, you have your megalomaniac. Do you know what the real-life person thinks inside and out? Maybe not. But do you know enough about him or her to create a template for your character, from which you can extrapolate ideas, beliefs, and behavior? Probably.
Think about the way profilers work. They consider what they know about the person they’re profiling, and build a comprehensive list of those details. From there they can fill in some blanks, connect some dots, and try to draw a complete study of that person’s psyche. A lot of it is guesswork, sure, but it’s educated guesswork, based on study not only of the particular person in question but of people in general. And as writers we’re also expert observers and experts at studying people. It’s a large part of our job. So even if you aren’t like your character, and don’t know anyone who is exactly, you know enough people that you can find someone with similar traits and use them to get you started, then use your imagination to build from there.
The second part of the answer is that, even if your character isn’t exactly like you, he or she may still be something like you. You may have certain traits in common, like your sense of humor or your love of classic Greek drama or your interest in pottery and wine. Those traits not only give the character depth, they also help you flesh out the rest of his or her personality, because those shared details are the ones you’ve got down cold. Okay, maybe you don’t know exactly what an accountant does every day, but you do know old movies, and your character is an old movie buff just like you are, so you can pepper his thoughts and conversations with references to Bogart, Gable, Harlow, etc. You have to fudge a bit when it comes to medical knowledge, since your character’s a thoracic surgeon and you faint at the first sight of blood, but she’s also a wine connoisseur and so are you, so you can comfortably have her talk about Grenache and super Tuscans and nose and so on. That doesn’t mean you can neglect the medical details, but the wine knowledge gives you part of your initial framework, and on that you can build the rest of the character, using your real knowledge to give your character depth and life.
I’ve been asked many times, “Is DuckBob [the lead character in my Adventures of DuckBob Spinowitz series, of course] based on you?” He isn’t. Not exactly, anyway. For one thing, I don’t have the head of a duck (as far as anybody knows). In some ways, DuckBob is based on one of my best friends, because although we have a very similar sense of humor my friend is a lot more outspoken, a lot more willing to just come right out and say what he’s thinking. Fortunately, even if I don’t say it I’m often thinking the same thing, so it’s not that hard to write DuckBob as if it were me or my friend, just without any filter at all. On the other hand, DuckBob has a prodigious knowledge of pop culture and so do I—I don’t have to look up any of his references because they’re things I already know, and so it feels very natural to drop those into his thoughts and his dialogue.
I think that’s the key, really. Find something about the character that you can identify with, something that resonates with you, whether it’s a personality trait or a hobby or a similar life experience. That gives you a way into the character’s head. Once you’re in there, it’s a lot easier to figure out where everything else fits and to bring it all together and breathe life into it.
Aaron Rosenberg is the author of the best-selling DuckBob series (consisting of No Small Bills, Too Small for Tall, and Three Small Coinkydinks), the Dread Remora space-opera series and, with David Niall Wilson, the O.C.L.T. occult thriller series. His tie-in work contains novels for Star Trek, Warhammer, WarCraft, and Eureka. He has written children’s books (including the original series Pete and Penny’s Pizza Puzzles, the award-winning Bandslam: The Junior Novel, and the #1 best-selling 42: The Jackie Robinson Story), educational books on a variety of topics, and over seventy roleplaying games (such as the original games Asylum, Spookshow, and Chosen, work for White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight, Pinnacle, and many others, and both the Origins Award-winning Gamemastering Secrets and the Gold ENnie-winning Lure of the Lich Lord). He is the co-creator of the ReDeus series, and one of the founders of Crazy 8 Press. Aaron lives in New York with his family. You can follow him online at gryphonrose.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/gryphonrose, and on Twitter @gryphonrose.
I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t run I wouldn’t be a professional writer. Strike that. I’m 100% sure that if I didn’t run I wouldn’t be a professional writer.
See, when I was 12 years I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time and I decided then and there that I would be a writer when I grew up. My dad gave me a notebook and I wrote my first “novel” in that notebook. As you might imagine, the story was just a teeny-weeny bit like The Lord of the Rings, except that it had a 12-year-old girl as the protagonist (surprising, no?).
I continued to write for fun, for myself, all through high school, although at that time I took up poetry instead of fiction because I was going through puberty and I had FEELINGS and I needed to FEEL my FEELINGS.
I went to college. I enrolled in a writing program. I did a lot of writing. I enrolled in a master’s program to avoid entry into the real world for two years. I did a lot more writing. I enrolled in a second master’s program to avoid the real world for a further two years. There was writing.
I finished chapters. I finished short stories. I finished two master’s theses. But I never finished a novel.
I kept thinking I didn’t have the time. Then I had a baby.
I realized that before my son I had lots of time. Oodles of time. I had so much time that I don’t know what I was doing with myself for all those years with all that time. I could have written a million novels with all that time. All I really remember is that my husband and I seemed to go out for sushi a lot, and see movies without scheduling them months in advance.
For the first two years after my son was born there was no writing. There was only the frazzled how-do-I-take-care-of-this-squalling-baby-and-not-mess-up and the desperate desire for more sleep that categorizes early parenthood.
Then I decided to run a marathon. Because, you know, I didn’t have enough to do.
I’d run since high school. I’d worked my way up to a half-marathon distance and suddenly decided I needed to run 26.2 miles. I really needed to. I needed to prove that I could it.
And I did. Very slowly. Very, very slowly. I’m pretty sure your average snail ran that first marathon faster than I did.
But something interesting happened once I ran that marathon. I crossed that finish line after months of training and thought to myself, “If I can run a marathon I can write a book.”
Writing a book isn’t really that different from running a marathon. When you train for a long race you do it incrementally, building up from a few miles of running to 20 miles in your longest run. When you actually run the race you never think, “One mile down, 25 to go.” Instead you think, “One more mile. One more mile.” And slowly but surely you get to the finish line. Fast or slow, as long as you keep moving forward you will get there.
When I write a book I never think, “5 pages down, 345 to go”. I just concentrate on the five pages I am trying to write that day. Sooner or later there are 100 pages, 200 pages, 300 pages and then suddenly it’s over. Just like a marathon (and I feel the same desire for a glass of wine and a large pizza).
I’ve run 3 more marathons since then, and written 7 more books. And I’ve finished all of them – running or writing – by taking one step, and then another, and another. As long as I move forward I know I can finish.
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.
The moment you finish your first draft, you are filled with delight. (And often, exhaustion.)
But let’s focus on the delight. You did it! You finished this most amazing and wonderful novel and you hope everyone loves it as much as you do, which is lots and lots and lots and…
Eventually you stop squeeing and climb down from the clouds. Maybe you spend a week or so retrieving your house from chaos. You catch up on life and family and everything else you neglected, including sleep.
Finally, a week or a month later, you open up the document for your amazing, sparkling draft and…
And here, the reactions vary. Some writers revise as they go along. They end up with a first draft that’s really a final draft. But others (like me) stare at the screen with dismay.
How am I ever going to fix this? I wonder.
Same as we do every other time, Pinky.
The first time you confront a messy first draft, revision might look like a horrible monster that will eat you alive. Once you’ve gone through the process–whatever that particular process is–a few times, you start to recognize the phases. You might still go through that first rush of panic, but you start to trust yourself.
It’s a mess, I think. But I can fix it.
Again, this is just my own approach, but here is how I tackle revisions.
First I save a copy of the original draft and make backups of everything.
Then I print the whole document and lock myself in my office to read the manuscript in batches. I don’t stop to make corrections. My goal here is to capture a picture of the book as a reader might see it. The pacing and flow. The rhythm of the prose. The parts where information is missing, or where it’s presented in confusing or contradictory ways. If a section makes no sense, I draw a question mark in the margin. If the prose is clunky, I draw a line next to those paragraphs. But I don’t stop to figure out how to fix the problem.
Once I’ve made this first pass, I make a general assessment of the manuscript’s main problems. Was I too soft on my characters? Did the ending seem rushed? Did any part of the story seem too simplistic? Is anything missing?
At this point, I remember Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. My book is a flock of birds, so I tackle them one by one, chapter by chapter. I figure out how to answer those question marks. I iron out the wrinkles of the prose. I cut and trim and compress the slow parts, and add the information, or sometimes entire chapters, that I missed the first time around.
This takes a while.
When I’m done, I have a version that is ready for wider feedback. And I need to have fresh eyes look at this story. I need those impressions and suggestions, because by this time, I’m so immersed in the world and the characters, it’s often hard to see what works and what doesn’t.
When I’ve collected everyone’s feedback, I read their comments all at once, then each one again. This gives me the group picture as well as the individual reactions. Maybe they all tell me the middle section needs more work. Or maybe they all loved the part where the main characters meet for the first time.
I let this all simmer and percolate for a while, then I tackle the third draft. I fix and spackle and cut and add. Then I print the whole thing again and read it through out loud. Here is where I catch any last missing pieces, or the prose that is almost, but not quite right. Just as I did before, I don’t stop to figure out how to rewrite any section. I just draw a line in the margin.
Pause. Another backup. One last pass to call it done.
And that’s how I conquer the revision monster.
BIO: Beth Bernobich is a writer, reader, mother, and geek. Her short stories have appeared in Tor.com, 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.
BAD BLOOD, the first book in my Latter-Day Olympians series, is on sale right now for 99 cents in digital. I wanted to do a fun promotional blog, one that would convince you all to run out and buy the book, but the blog begging to be written this morning is about self-doubt and the importance of perspective. (Incidentally, if you want to read a fun promotional blog, two of my recent favorites are Character’s Court: Tori Karacis vs. Lucienne Diver and If I Ruled the World by Hermes.)
Self doubt. Here it is—for years and years lack of faith in my creative abilities kept me from even submitting my work. I’m a literary agent, after all. I have to deal with editors on a daily basis. I didn’t want any of them to lose respect for me because I was a talentless hack—not original enough or strong enough or… Well, the list of potential flaws goes on and on. Maybe this was a good thing. For certain my work wasn’t ready early on to be seen by any but encouraging English teachers way back in my school days. (I can’t even imagine where I’d be without them!)
But I realized recently how much my inner voice that chants not good enough has guided, hindered and hampered my decisions. This weekend I emceed the Lake County Library’s Trash to Fashion event, as I have every year but one since it started. Inspired by the kids and their amazing ingenuity, I decided to make my own recycled fashion for the event out of an old advance reading copy (Chloe Neill’s WILD THINGS for those curious), zebra-print duct tape and magazine covers.
I was thrilled at the way it turned out, even if I couldn’t sit down. But on Facebook when someone commented positively on my design, my response came out as, “Thanks so much! I did take fashion design in high school (it was a home ec elective), but I knew I wasn’t original enough to pursue it.” This is absolutely true. I loved fashion design. I didn’t go on with it because I wasn’t bursting with new and unique design ideas that would set the world on fire. With hindsight, I can cut myself some slack. I was in high school, for goodness sake. I hadn’t been exposed to the world or high fashion or much beyond boys, parachute pants and jelly bracelets, but at the time I let the concerns do me in.
The same went for my singing. I have a theatre background. I love to perform, which will come as no shock to those who know me. What does come as a shock is when I tell people about my stage fright, particularly when it comes to singing. (And as anyone who did school and local theatre knows, non-musical opportunities are severely limited.) I don’t know if this comes from the fact that my great grandmother was an opera singer and I felt that if I didn’t have her voice, there was no point in pursuing. (Why I thought I should have that voice as a kid with no training, I have no idea.) Or whether it comes from my sister repeatedly telling me to shut up (as sisters do), that my singing was bothering her, that there weren’t even any words in this portion of the song… Or whether my own demons of self-doubt were having a field day… The long and short of it is that back in junior high and high school, whenever I went to try out for a musical, I broke out with a psychosomatic illness—respiratory infection type symptoms, no voice. The day after auditions, the malady would mysteriously clear up. After two or three incidents of this, I figured it out. I stopped auditioning. I’d still sing in the shower or when I was alone in the car, but whenever anyone else was around, my voice would go flat. Or strangled. Or so quiet no one could hear me. It lasted for years. It’s something I’m still trying to overcome.
Writing has always been the most important thing in the world to me, as you might guess by the fact that despite everything, I haven’t let the self-doubt totally stop me…much. I’ve always been compelled to write. I don’t think there’s ever a reason for a writing compulsion. It just is. But if I had to come up with reasons why writing has always been so important to me, I’d say there were issues in my own life which made escaping into the lives of others very, very attractive. (I read like a fiend for this very reason.) Also, while the voices of my characters were talking to me, I couldn’t hear my own inner voice beating me down.
Still, as mentioned, the self-doubt worked its wiles. It kept me from submitting, yes, but even after I did and I was published, it made it difficult for me to promote, to say, “Buy my book” and bear the responsibility that someone would shell out money and be disappointed in the work. In me.
I can promote the work of others all day long—and I do. As an agent, I’m completely confident. My authors are amazing. It’s the easiest thing in the world to shout it from the rooftops and to fight for them.
But for me, I still struggle.
Which is where I come to the matter of perspective. Right now the demented little DJ in my head is playing, “People. People who need people…”
If I let self-doubt rule the day, I would never finish a single book I start. There comes at least one point in every novel where I decide it sucks, that I’ve wasted my time and there’s no point wasting more. That I can’t do it. There are too many insurmountable flaws that a better writer would never have let in to begin with. (Oh, the voice goes on and on, but I won’t bore you with the entire screed.) This is where people come in. I have amazing people that I can tap for perspective, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be anywhere without them. My Vamped series, for example, wouldn’t exist without my friend Beth Dunne, who read each at my crisis point and practically beat me up for more pages. My awesome editor at Samhain, Tera Cuskaden, keeps me going on the Latter-Day Olympians series.
On the new works I’m writing, young adult thrillers, which are a huge departure for me, my fears have hit an all-time high. I’ve had to tap some amazing, awesome, incredible (yeah, I know, overuse of adjectives, but in this case I really can’t have too many) people who I have to acknowledge: Amy Christine Parker, Heather Burch, Faith Hunter and Deborah Blake. Brilliant people and writers all. They’ve provided feedback, perspective and encouragement. They, along with my long-suffering husband, are my sounding boards, without which…nothing. They give me the strength to go on.
I was out in Australia in August for the Romance Writers of Australia Conference, and one of the things I got to do while visiting was see the stage production of STRICTLY BALLROOM, where I bought a souvenir T-shirt (because I’m like that), which says, “A Life Lived in Fear is a Life Half Lived.” I’m working to make this my new mantra. I’m a work in progress.
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.)