Jim C. Hines: Inventing Nicola Pallas


Codex-Born-Full-185x300-Jim-C-HinesNicola Pallas is not one of the main characters in the Libriomancer series, but to me, she’s one of the most important.

In the world of the books, Nicola lives outside of Chicago, where she serves as the Regional Master for the Porters, a magical organization founded by Johannes Gutenberg. She manipulates magic through song, and is powerful enough to knock you on your ass just by calling you on your cellphone and singing a little tune. She raises chupacabras, which she’s been trying—with some success—to cross-breed with poodles.

She’s also autistic.

I began writing this series shortly after one of my children was diagnosed as autistic. This is one of the reasons I decided to write Nicola the way I did, and one of the reasons I was so invested in getting her right.

What does that mean? For starters, it means I wanted her to be a real, fully-developed character. Autism is a part of her, but I didn’t want it to define her or her story. How many times have we seen a series bring in a character who’s “different,” specifically to tell a story about that difference. Whether it’s the wheelchair-bound teenager who teaches An Important Lesson about disability or the black woman who teaches An Important Lesson about racism or the autistic character who teaches—you guessed it—An Important Lesson about autism.

Nicola has her own story in these books. She has to oversee a bunch of stubborn, overly bright magic-users, including my protagonist, librarian Isaac Vainio. She also has to deal with sparkling vampires attacking Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, werewolves in pickup trucks, and her least favorite thing ever: magical politics.

I had absolutely no interest in trying to show how she does all of this “despite” being autistic. Screw that. Autism, like just about anything else, can certainly present challenges, but Nicola is at a point where she understands and is pretty comfortable with how her brain works. That wasn’t something I wanted to focus on.

But there had to be a little focus, some sort of acknowledgement within the text. Readers tend to assume the default. Don’t specify a character’s race? Many/most will assume them to be white. (Heck, look at The Hunger Games, which did specify Rue’s race. You still had people freaking out that they chose a black actress to portray Rue in the movie.)

So I added a scene where Isaac’s friend Lena, a dryad who’s in a relationship with a psychiatrist, comments on Nicola’s autism. She picked up on some of the stimming behaviors and a few other clues Isaac missed.

Those behaviors are a part of Nicola’s character. Some of them, I’ve modeled after my own child, and other people I’ve known with autism. Some of it comes through reading. There are details like her wardrobe choices, or the way she rarely stops moving, because she feels calmer that way. In Unbound (which comes out in January), we see a bit more of Nicola having to cope with overstimulation in unfamiliar environments.

When Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein invited me to write a YA short story for Kaleidoscope, I knew at once that I wanted to write about a younger Nicola Pallas, to show her struggling more to come to terms with her magic. With Nicola taking center stage as my protagonist, I knew I needed to get even deeper into her mind. And I knew I’d need help.

I ended up doing an open call on my blog, asking for readers with autism who would be willing to read the story and give feedback. It was an awkward and uncomfortable thing to ask for, but it was the right thing to do. I had several volunteers, all of whom provided me with insights and pointed out problems I wouldn’t have found on my own. They helped me to make Nicola a truer and—I hope—a more respectful portrayal.

It definitely would have been easier to write Nicola as another neurotypical character. But “easy” has brought us so many books and stories with bland, narrow casts of characters. I want everyone to be able to find themselves in stories. I want my son to be able to read my book and recognize a character who is, in certain important ways, like him.

I love this character. She has absolutely no interest in political power—she had to be persuaded to accept a position as Regional Master—but she’s also smart, competent, and more than capable of holding her own against whatever the author throws her way. I’ve worked hard to make her a genuine and honest character.

To my son, when he gets old enough to read these books, all I can say is that I hope I got it right.

Jim-C-Hines-photoJim C. Hines’ first novel was Goblin Quest, the humorous tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. Actor and author Wil Wheaton described the book as “too f***ing cool for words,” which is pretty much the Best Blurb Ever. After finishing the goblin trilogy, he went on to write the Princess series of fairy tale retellings, and is currently working on the Magic ex Libris books, a modern-day fantasy series about a magic-wielding librarian, a dryad, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg, a flaming spider, and an enchanted convertible. His short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies.

Jim is an active blogger about topics ranging from sexism and harassment to zombie-themed Christmas carols, and won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2012. He has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in English, and lives with his wife and two children in mid-Michigan. You can find him online at www.jimchines.com.

Other Links
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jimchines
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jimhines

Carol Berg: Blowing up the Dam


CarolBerg-smallerI would love to say my stories blossom fully formed, and the words always flow like water from a faucet, ready to fill the empty vessels of scenes and characters, ever easy to turn on and off. But, alas, not so. Sometimes, I just can’t get that word count to budge.

The world-at-large calls this condition Writers’ Block and expects that a writer who suffers this debilitating condition might be sitting around for an indeterminate time waiting for it to ease, like toughing out a bout of spring allergies. But a working writer can’t just say oops and blow off a day, a week or a month. Working writers have deadlines.

Does this occasional incapacity mean I’m a bad writer? No. My books are by no means perfect, but I am very happy with them.

Does it mean I have a bad process? No. My creative process works very well for me. And this happens to writers who use all kinds of processes, from rigorous outlines to purest develop-as-you-go. It happens to people who are much better writers, more organized, and more experienced than I am. (Whew!)

Does it have one particular cause? Heck no. Maybe we shouldn’t call it Writers’ Block at all, as if it is a single disease or something outside of ourselves. Blockages stem from our own particular circumstances, and identifying the cause is the first step to getting past it. In my case, the inability to move forward on a writing project usually has one of two causes: fragmentation or wrong turns.

First Cause: Fragmentation

Point one. Like an old dog with a bone, my brain wants to be occupied with only one story idea (or work project or remodeling job, or whatever I’m doing) at a time, and finish it before starting something else.

Point two. I write complicated stories. They focus on one or two principal characters, but deal with multiple plot lines and the characters’ shifting understanding of the events, mysteries, and other characters that surround them. My stories are set against the background of great events in worlds that are not this one. Worlds I have to invent.

Point three. I use what many people call an organic writing process. (I hate the word pantser). I begin with some very specific ideas about characters, situations, and world, and I know where I want to go, but I develop detailed plot, settings, and characterization as I write.

The combination of these three points means that I need extended periods of concentration to hold myriad ideas in my head and produce new ideas for scenes. When my days are chopped up by visitors, unusual business demands (eg. send cover copy ideas or develop a point-of-view workshop for a writers’ conference), traveling, home projects, or even the best kinds of distractions like holidays or vacations, it limits my “clear space” for work. That’s when I can find myself unable to get moving again, even when life calms down.

Sometimes I just have to keep inching forward for a while, but when I’ve been really fragmented and progress has ground to a halt, there are two drastic things that help me dynamite the snag.

Immersion: I do a complete reread of the story-so-far and all my pages of notes and ideas. Often that’s enough to propel me forward.

Displacement: I get out of my usual home work space. The most effective displacement is a retreat to my favorite little hotel in the Rockies with some writer friends where I have nothing to do but focus on the story. (And there are eyes to notice and voices to scoff if I sit there playing spider solitaire.) Second best, a visit to a coffee shop with bottomless tea cups, bringing only pen and paper.

In either case, words happen.

Second Cause: Wrong Turns

The way I develop my stories means I start out writing a scene – or a set of scenes – with a particular expectation of where they’re going. This is the scene where Lucian meets his new contract master. Or this is the one where he sneaks into the Tower to see the doctored portraits. I bring in details of action and emotion, conversation, twists and turns as I write. But sometimes, I hit a wall. It could be in page three or chapter eighteen. but I just cannot push on, no matter how many hours I sit at the computer. Yes, I deny it, and continue to allow distractions like solitaire or email or facebook to hide the problem. But once I admit that I’m stuck, I have a few tried and true strategies. I pull out the analytical side of my brain and:

Look at structure. Where was I last happy with the way the story was going? Where was the last DustandLight_middecision point? The last plot twist? Did the developing story veer off into the weeds?

Make lists. Sometimes it’s simple confusion that gets in my way. For the Collegia Magica books, the mingling of a double-agent mystery with fantasy, I had to write out parallel lists of what my investigators knew and when, and what my villains knew and when, and what my renegade sorcerer knew and when, and such like. Following the threads allowed me to figure out what was missing. Sometimes I need to work on a timeline. Sometimes I need to trace through a character’s actions and dialog from the beginning so I can clarify goals and motivations.

Ask questions. Hard thinking is usually the answer to any story development problem. If I can’t figure out where to take the story next, I try to ferret out fundamental questions of goals and motivations. What does he want? Why did she do that cool thing I just invented? Why shouldn’t she have done it? What could she have done instead? Whose portraits have been altered? Have I made the wrong person the villain? Is this guy too obvious? If not the one I chose, who else might it be? Even if you are a strict outliner, you might come to realize that the choices you made are the wrong ones.

Call for help. Every writer should have someone – spouse, writer friend, first reader, muse – to bounce ideas off of. I am fortunate to have a most excellent friend who allows me to bombard her with the current state of my WIP, including the circumstances of the current snag. Often it is the very act of explaining with my voice instead of my fingers on keyboard that allows me to see the problem. Sometimes it is a simple question she asks that illuminate the dilemma. “But what if it wasn’t?”

Not only do these things get me moving, I very often find that the answers and insights I gain from this hard thinking are exactly what I need to take the story to a higher level.

Right now, I’m working on the second half of Lucian de Remeni’s story. Here’s hoping I can forge ahead to the end by October despite any snags along the way.

Good luck with your own snags!


Though a devoted reader, Carol Berg majored in mathematics at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado, so she wouldn’t have to write papers. Somewhere in the middle of a software engineering career, she started writing for fun, and the habit ate her life. Carol’s fourteen epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. They’ve been read, so readers tell her, on five continents, on a submarine under the Mediterranean, in the war zone of Iraq, and on the slopes of Denali. Her newest, Dust and Light, is the first in a new fantasy/mystery duology about a sorcerer who draws portraits of the dead. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls Dust and Light “captivating and satisfying” and RT Book Reviews names it “outstanding.” Carol camps, hikes, and bikes in Colorado and lives on the internet at http://www.carolberg.com.

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/carolberg
Blog: http://textcrumbs.blogspot.com

Delilah Dawson: Paying It Forward


servantsThere are many rewards to being a writer, although most of them aren’t the six figure deals and Tom Hiddleston movies we all dream about. I didn’t write my first book until I was 32, and one of the first things I did was hop on Twitter and start meeting other people treading the same path. I found agents, editors, bloggers, famous novelists, and other people following their literary aspirations, people just like me. Little did I know that I had stumbled into one of the most thoughtful, generous, supportive communities on the internet.

The best writers, to me, are not only amazing storytellers but also relatable and generous teachers. They understand that wherever you are, there’s someone else who wants to be there, and you’re uniquely qualified to help them get there. From big-name authors who blurb debuts (thanks, Nancy Holder and Cherie Priest!) or offer blog space to up-and-comers (thanks, John Scalzi!) to penmonkey gurus who toss crumbs of knowledge into the ether (thanks, Chuck Wendig!) and convention organizers who create amazing panels (thanks, Lee Whiteside and Carol Malcolm and Chris Horne!), I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for the kindness of strangers.

Of course, they’re not strangers anymore. They’re my friends now.

And I’m not a big name author. Yet. I don’t have much power, but I do have a career that I love in traditional publishing that I think many other people would be glad to have. That’s why, from time to time, I take questions on Twitter and spend a day expounding on them and answering queries from anyone who @s me. Then, once I’ve got a stream of easily digestible publishing advice, I use Storify to compile it by topic and put it up on my blog.

Some past topics include:

Just to name a few. Scroll through my blog for more. They’re there, they’re free, and if you ask me nicely on Twitter, you can have one on whatever writing topic is causing you problems.

Thing is, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. I have an art degree, no writing credentials, no “ins” in the publishing business, and no prior connections to New York, outside of a love of Asiago bagels. I got published from my couch in Atlanta while nursing a baby in one arm and typing with the other. The only things you absolutely must have to get published are writing skills, storytelling obsession, thick skin, tenacity, and a computer with an internet connection. Everything you need to know to get published traditionally can be found online, FOR FREE, most of it on this page of my blog linking the Resources I used to do just that. You’re born with talent, you develop skill through time on task, you continue to learn by reading widely, and you continually up your game while finessing your process. For me, that’s been the formula for success.

But it’s a helluva lot easier to digest in 140 character soundbites, so that’s what I do.

And , yeah, my writing dreams are coming true. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room left on the bookshelf for you, and that’s why I’m doing what I can to pay it forward, just as all those people listed above (and dozens more!) did for me. If I can help someone on Twitter or a blog take their writing to the next level or just believe that they can write a book, then I hope I’ve done half my job as a writer. Although I believe that you should always check your sources and consider carefully before accepting writing advice, and although every writer’s journey and process are different, the world is a much better place when we’re helping each other succeed and cheering each other on.

Note: If you find my advice sound and would like to work on writing with me one-on-one, be sure to check out my Worldbuilding 101: Become a God class with LitReactor this September or the Paradise Lost V Writing Retreat  in San Antonio next spring, where I’ll be on staff with Chuck Wendig and Robert J. Bennett.  (Editor’s note – Robert Jackson Bennett will be our guest in September!)


delilahauthorpicDelilah S. Dawson’s next release is her YA debut, SERVANTS OF THE STORM, a Southern Gothic Horror about hurricanes and demons in Savannah, GA. She’s also the author of the steampunk fantasy Blud series for Pocket, including Wicked as They Come, Wicked After Midnight, and Wicked as She Wants, which recently won the Steampunk Book of the Year award and the May Seal of Excellence from RT Book Reviews. Spring 2015 brings her next YA, HIT, a pre-dystopian about teen assassins in a bank-owned America. Delilah loves sassy boots, eating weird animals, painting, having adventures, and cupcakes and lives in the North Georgia mountains with her husband, children, a Tennessee Walking Horse, and a floppy mutt named Merle. If you want her to blush, read her geekrotica e-novellas, The Lumberfox and The Superfox, written under the pseudonym Ava Lovelace.

It’s a boy thing…

Lucienne DiverLucienne Diver

There was a minor kerfluffle on Twitter, blogs (like here on The Mary Sue), and elsewhere yesterday because a children’s shirt of The Guardians of the Galaxy included every major character but the female, Gamora. The explanation given by the company, “It’s a boy’s shirt.” As usual when something gets me all worked up, I have so many initial responses that they sort of bottle-neck up and I have trouble getting the words out.

But let me try.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no! (*sung operatically as Queen might do*)

It’s a boy’s shirt. Really?

Now, I know that I’m here to talk about writing. Or maybe my new release—actually two of them in a series featuring a kick-ass female who can, literally, stop men in their tracks. Or stop women. Her power isn’t particular. AND HERE’S MY THING—there are people who will never pick up these books because it’s got a female protagonist. I’ve had a friend of mine ask when I’ll write something other than a first person female POV so that he can relate. There are legions of boys (who grow into men) who won’t read anything written by a woman or in which there’s female protagonist. I know of people who wouldn’t read Kim Stanley Robinson for ages because the “Kim” threw them off, only finding it acceptable once they realized he was a man. The reasoning I heard: women can’t write hard science fiction. (I kid you not.)

I think of all the people who would have missed out on great novels like THE HUNGER GAMES for these “reasons”…until they’d heard it was violent and cool and peer pressure forced them to give it a try. And while I’m on this, there are people who will rant that adults shouldn’t read young adult fiction, but something more erudite and, presumably, more impressing to your friends.

To all of those people, I say GET OVER IT.

I have a problem with all kinds of cultural snobbery…and that’s what it is. Why do we have to have “women’s fiction”? Why are thrillers considered “men’s books,” especially when so many women read them. True story: when I started in the business, I had male editors reluctantly do lunch with me, only to tell me that they were sure our tastes didn’t align because they acquired men’s fiction. When I reeled off names of people I read: Eric Van Lustbader, Ken Follett, John le Carré, John Sandford, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, etc., they were surprised. I’d like to say that it was a hop, skip and a jump from there to being taken seriously, but I’d be lying.

It’s a boy’s shirt? Have we come no further than the Little Rascals’ He-Man,Woman Haters club, no girls allowed? Are girls uncool? Not allowed to be superheroes? Urban fantasy would suggest otherwise, and you know what, urban fantasy hasn’t gotten the respect that it should in many of the trade journals (you know who you are), which feature reviews like, “Good, if you like that sort of thing.” They write off the genre even as it’s grudgingly acknowledged.

I’m tired of it. Here’s what I think: there should be no “women’s fiction” or “men’s fiction”. Things shouldn’t be divided into LBGT fiction or multicultural fiction. There should just be fiction. We shouldn’t segregate our fiction like in the past we segregated schools and buses. There is no such thing as separate but equal. There never was.


Lucienne Diver is a literary agent with The Knight Agency with over twenty-one years experience, as well as the author of the Vamped young adult series and the Latter-Day Olympians series of urban fantasies, which includes BAD BLOOD, CRAZY IN THE BLOOD, RISE OF THE BLOOD (now in digital, coming in print Sept. 2) and BATTLE FOR THE BLOOD (digital September 16, print in 2015).

In addition, she’s written short stories and essays that have appeared in the Strip-Mauled and Fangs for the Mammaries anthologies edited by Esther Friesner (Baen Books), in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories (HarperTeen) and in Kicking It edited by Faith Hunter and Kalayna Price (Roc Books).

This thing called a writing life

Diana Pharaoh FrancisDiana Pharaoh Francis

I’m actually not going to talk about the writing life. I’m going to talk about life instead. Writing is a job. Writing is a tremendously fun job, but a job nonetheless. Writers always write. We always observe, always collect bits of cool ideas, we always think about our characters, our plots, our plans for torture . . . .

This is not good. This, in fact, is bad.

Writers have to get away fTrace of Magic - 600x900x300rom the writing. We need vacations; we need time to relax, to not be working. But writing is so wonderful. so amazing, so awful, so terrifying, so stressful, and horrifying,  that we can’t ever leave it. When we try, it follows us. It traps us in the shower and on the toilet. It hunts us in traffic and at the grocery store. Go get on a rollercoaster? Just try riding it without writing wrapped around your neck, claws dug deep into your flesh.

So there you go. You need to get away, but you can’t. What do you do?

They best you can do is to try to take a break. Stake out some time. Define the beginning and the ending. Then start doing something else. Go read. Go walk on the beach or take a hike. Go swimming. Do something you also enjoy and feel passionate about. You can’t escape writing, but notice when you’re thinking writerly thoughts and let them go. Let them spin off into your mind. They’ll come back or maybe they won’t, but that’s not the point. Your brain and creativity need rest in order to fill the well. You need some time each day and each week, to let that happen. No just during sleep, but during waking time, as well.Diana Pharaoh Francis

This is essential to writing.

Now, you might ask me just how well I succeed in this. The answer right now is, not as well as I’d like. As I’ve mentioned previously, my son’s been sick for some time. Because of that, my writing schedule has become erratic. Because I’m having to do kid stuff, errand stuff, doctor stuff, and you name it, all during my writing times, I’m having to steal writing time from whenever I can get it–nights, weekends, and anywhere in between. That leaves precious little down time to replenish the creative stores.

That’s a mistake, and it can turn into a negative feedback loop, or downward spiral, really. You’ve heard it before. You need to protect the work. That means protect the creativity and the time you need to make words happen.

Now that’s where you point at me and say, well? What are you doing about it?

I’m going back to making schedules for myself, from writing time, to errands, to fun time. I’m trying to protect the work by making sure that I am writing when I’m scheduled to be, and by making sure I’m feeding the creativity. I am also doing my damnedest to prioritize and ask for the help I need from my family and I’m also trying to say no to things that steal from the writing–which means that also steals from the not-writing time I need to replenish.

My point is just this: we say protect the work, but that doesn’t always mean the writing. It also means the healthiness of your mind, soul, and body, and that means protecting the time you don’t write so that you can fill the creative well. Figure out what wastes your time and your life and cut it out. Figure out what doesn’t make you happy and drop it like a bad habit. Sleep. Don’t carve time from rest and exercise.

And the usual wicked self promo: You can preorder Trace of Magic now on Kindle. More formats will follow, including Nook, but it’s not posted up there yet. The book releases on August 29th.


The Biography of Me: I didn’t start out to be a writer. I was a storyteller from as far back as I can remember, and a daydreamer of epic stories, but it never occurred to me to write anything down. I read voraciously, but I wasn’t one of those people who said–hey! I could do this! Or even, this is so awful I could do better. I marveled at writers and thought of writing as something other people did. I did try my hand at some really horrible poetry in my senior year of high school. It was dramatic and bleak and world-tiltingly awful. When I got to college, I did poorly in my freshman comp class. I wrote in purple prose and use twenty words for what I could say in two. I loved language, but I didn’t really have much control over it. Then I took a creative writing class. It was awful. Total slaughter. I had caught the bug, though, and from there on out, I wrote. Eventually I wrote a really bad romance and finished it. I finished it! I could do that! And then I went to graduate school and another graduate school, got married, had dogs, had kids, went to work professing, and kept writing. Finally I had my first book accepted and I’ve been writing ever since.

As far as the prosaic stuff goes, I like to crochet, bake bread, spoil corgis, eat chocolate, sing to the radio, pretend to play tennis, geocache, crochet, and garden. Though I really hate weeding. I also like to make my hair purple with some frequency. You can find me on twitter as @dianapfrancis and my website at www.dianapfrancis.com or on facebook.


Lara Morgan: Plot Wrangling and Highlighter Love . . .


lara mogan 1One of the hardest things, for me, when writing a book is keeping the plot straight; by which I mean keeping track of it and making sure it makes sense.  Which is probably why I always, and I mean always, wonder why I persist in writing series.  And series with lots of characters with intersecting plot lines.  The book I’ve got coming out now, Betrayal, is the second in my epic fantasy series, The Twins of Saranthium.  It’s set in a world of deserts and jungles, and has a vast cast of characters, including ancient resurrected gods seeking to enslave an entire people, warring desert clans and serpent riders who have lost control of the beasts that once protected them.  Plus of course the main characters, the twins, who must find a way to stop  it all.  It is also the middle book in the trilogy and gave me more headaches than the first (or the third, which I’m currently slogging through).

When I started writing Betrayal I was determined that it would not suffer from mid-series lag and would have a plot that zipped, that sang, that was not just a marker before the more exciting climax of the story arc in book 3.  This of course demanded that I develop a plot that worked, that connected with the first book and made sense.

Hopes are all fine but reality is a different matter and my biggest mistake was thinking I could keep most of it in my head. That I would just remember what I wanted to write and where all the characters were headed.  So I only made a loose plot plan then started writing.  Characters went off at tangents, I lost track of the timeline, I followed some of my characters down plot holes that led to dead ends or great big chasms of oh-my-god-I-have-no-idea-what–to-do-next walls.  And I ended up with a big unwieldy manuscript of close to 200,000 words, which made my head explode just to look at it.

I had become completely lost along the way.  Now I am more of a pantser than a planner, but this was ridiculous.  After crying to my editor and being too afraid to share what a big mess it was, I forced myself to sit down and make a plan. I printed out the entire book (which the local ink selling store was very happy about because I think I funded their Christmas party on my ink sales alone), then set to work. 0714 Betrayal_Final200

This is what I did.

First, I re-read each chapter and on a big A3 artblock pad wrote a synopsis of it including:

  1. POV character
  2. ACTION that happened (ie. What thread of the plot it dealt with)
  3. EMOTIONAL impact on the character and their personal journey
  4. WHEN it happened in the timeline of the book.

And I colour-coded it with highlighters.  Those pens may just be little fluoro bundles of chemicals but I do believe they saved my sanity.

I chose different colours for different characters, action, emotion and time.  And I kept it succinct, not including anything that might be extraneous.  So at the end I had a chart which I could use to create some kind of order from the chaos.

Doing this proved invaluable to me as I could now trace the line of the plot, see what chapters and scenes didn’t move it forward, which ones held it back, which needed work and which ones just needed to go.  It also meant I could re-order chapters and fill in glaring gaps that I hadn’t seen because of so much wood crowding my trees!

This process did take me a long time but it was the only way I could make sense of it all and the book improved so much from doing it.  It may seem obvious now, but at the time if felt like I’d found the Holy Grail of the editing process.  Now, that was before I started working with Scrivener which allows you to do a lot of that sort of process as you go, but I still often use the hard copy approach.  I find it works much better for me to have a physical chart on the wall, and bits of paper I can move around rather than just doing it digitally.  And of course I can use highlighters. Nothing is quite so satisfying as drawing a fluoro blob over  something.  It feels like I’m achieving something, even if it’s just the creation of a massive editing project and months of work.  At least it gives me somewhere to start.  And it’s a technique I plan to use on this third book as well.  When I finish the chaotic part of course (apply head to desk).


BIO:  Lara Morgan’s career started with a bang after she won a national short story competition.  She was invited to contribute a story to an anthology, taken to a writers festival and was interviewed like a real author.  She even had business cards made. Then her novel manuscript was rejected, several times, and she lapsed into obscurity for years.  Until, finally, an agent took pity on her, signed her up and got her a book deal.  Which didn’t last, but still she was getting there!  She has written two series; The Twins of Saranthium for adults, and The Rosie Black Chronicles for YA readers.  She is published in Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Turkey and lives in Western Australia with her husband and son.

Betrayal, book two in The Twins of Saranthium, is available now in ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other ebook outlets.




Carol Berg: Making It Personal, Making It Real


CarolBerg-smallerHi all!

Epic fantasies are big stories, not just in the number of books it takes to tell the whole thing, but in the complexity, scope, and scale of events. They are grand adventures that dabble about those fascinating borderlines between nature, magic, myth, and the divine. But if the adventure gets too grand, the events too large scale, the cast too large, readers can get left back on the ground and feel detached from the story. The reading experience can become more like reading mythology than reading a human story. As a reader I like to experience epic events through the very personal lens of vivid, compelling characters. It keeps me connected. It makes it feel real.

What do I mean by a personal lens? In all my stories I use an intimate point of view, that is, we experience the events of the story through one or more characters’ perspective, seeing, smelling, hearing only those things that they see, smell, or hear, and knowing only what they know. Dust and Light and its follow-on, Ash and Silver, are told from the single point of view of Lucian de Remeni, age twenty-six – rich, privileged, well educated, and talented, born with magical bents for portraiture and history.

So what makes a compelling hero? Epic fantasy heroes and heroines get involved in larger-than-life difficulties, and it usually takes some combination of larger-than-life strength, endurance, or power, whether magical, spiritual, or intellectual to get them through. But that doesn’t mean a hero has to be godlike. Perfection is boring. Nor does it mean that a heroine has to be a chick in chainmail. Strength and power come in all kinds of guises.

Flawed, human people, with likes and dislikes, prejudices, vulnerabilities, doubts, fears, vices, and every other trait that we see in real life, are much more fun than perfection. Heroes who question, who vacillate, who get irritated or do stupid things from time to time, and, most importantly, who grow and change, are much more interesting than all-powerful players who are always angry, always cynical, or always embarked on a mission of vengeance.

Lucian de Remeni, the protagonist of Dust and Light, doesn’t know what’s happening to him. He’s grown DustandLight_midup in a very restrictive, but very wealthy, privileged subculture, and he has exceptional talents in two magical disciplines – art and history. He is intelligent and talented and believes in the rules he lives by. OK, he made one small mistake when he was twenty, violating his society’s rules when it comes to fraternization with the opposite sex – and she was an ordinary (ie. non-magical person) to boot. But ever since, even though he’s done his very best to restore his reputation and his family’s honor, it seems the universe itself is determined to wreak havoc with his life.

His beloved grandsire ripped out half his magic and then contracted him to the most boring kind of work in a place where his superiors were constantly looking over his shoulder. (He draws identity portraits of fellow purebloods.) And then his entire family was savagely murdered by rampaging fanatics, leaving him with no family treasury, estates in ruins, and a fifteen-year-old sister who resents him. It seems the final straw when he loses his job and is contracted to a city coroner – an ordinary – to draw identity portraits of the dead. Humiliating doesn’t even begin to describe it. And when he learns that the stipend for his services won’t even maintain the lifestyle he is required to live, he is angry and confused to say the least. And that’s where the story begins.

We don’t know near everything about Lucian at this point (it’s only Chapter One, after all!) I don’t have any list of characteristics that I dump on readers from the beginning of a book. I’m an organic story developer, and I have a general idea about my point-of-view characters, but the specifics will show up as I write. How do I do it? I throw stuff at them, and figure out how this person would react. I want them to feel real.

Save for that one indiscretion, Lucian has always held to the rules and discipline laid out for him. They have been the structure of his life thus far. So does he have a meltdown when all this stuff happens? Or does he run off the rails? Or run away? Or charge into the Pureblood Registry and say what the heck is going on? It would be nice if he could talk things over with family or friends, but purebloods are not encouraged to have friends. They have extended families. But Lucian’s family is dead, except for one sister – and if you’ve had to deal with a smart, grieving, rebellious teenager, you might imagine how helpful she is.

Of course the difficulties keep on coming – because that is the story part of the story!

Another way I get to know my protagonists is by introducing them to secondary characters who will challenge, irritate, and otherwise expose all those flaws and weaknesses and vulnerabilities that can make a hero interesting. Enter Bastien the Coroner, Lucian’s new contract master, for example. An ordinary. But interesting and complex in his own right. If the story is going to feel real, the hero can’t be the only real person in it! Bastien has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to purebloods or aristocrats. (Relationships between people who have every reason to resent and dislike each other are such fun to write!) But business is business, and there is money in knowing who is who among the dead. And portraits that show unmistakable truth can be useful not only in figuring out who the dead people are, but also whether or why that person might have been murdered. When the coroner and his pureblood artist get caught up in a series of child murders, we start to expose the true colors of sorcerer, coroner, and some very important citizens of Navronne.

I’m not going to tell who are the wicked folk in Dust and Light. Be sure there are several…we’re dealing with murder and politics, after all! But I certainly want my villains to be just as complex and real as my heroic characters. Sometimes villains are written to be so unremittingly vile, one believes they get up every morning thinking, “What can I do to be evil today?” Well, ok, sociopaths can be interesting, but I prefer the villains who come outfitted in gray, and who bring more complex motivations to the table. And if I do it right, sometimes a reader just can’t tell whether the person is the Major Perp or an angel in disguise.

I can’t ignore minor characters, either. I like to think of every minor character as an individual who had a life before walking into the frame of the story and who will have a life when he or she walks out again. Which doesn’t mean every gravedigger or coffinmaker must be fully fitted out with dysfunctional family, political secrets, and interesting hobbies, but only that he or she shouldn’t devolve into a cliche. Minor characters certainly don’t have to be elves, dwarves, or hobbits, and they don’t have to come in threes.

Big events. A personal lens. Interesting companions on the story journey. And a hero I hope you’ll find compelling!

Though a devoted reader, Carol Berg majored in mathematics at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado, so she wouldn’t have to write papers. Somewhere in the middle of a software engineering career, she started writing for fun, and the habit ate her life. Carol’s fourteen epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. They’ve been read, so readers tell her, on five continents, on a submarine under the Mediterranean, in the war zone of Iraq, and on the slopes of Denali. Her newest, Dust and Light, is the first in a new fantasy/mystery duology about a sorcerer who draws portraits of the dead. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls Dust and Light “captivating and satisfying” and RT Book Reviews names it “outstanding.” Carol camps, hikes, and bikes in Colorado and lives on the internet at http://www.carolberg.com.
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