Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Five Basic Questions

I received a note from a student recently that led to some pretty serious thinking about what I do and I thought I'd share my response. Here's her email:

My name is Dominique and I'm a student at Northern Virginia Community College. I have an assignment I'm working on and I have to ask a writer a couple of questions. What is the most interesting part of your work? The least interesting? If I wanted to pursue this area, what advice would you give? What skills should I be working on in school? How can I get more information?

Well, before I even began to respond to these questions I had to let her know that I am a genre fiction novelist. A short story writer, a literary writer, an essayist, a poet, a journalist or a nonfiction author might answer very differently. We all come to our calling for different reasons and approach it from different angles. That having been said…

What is the most interesting part of your work?

I write mystery novels so the great fun for me is in crafting the puzzle, building the mystery people will try to solve along with my detective. More than anything else this requires an understanding of human motivations – why people do the things they do – and that is certainly the most interesting aspect of my craft.

The least interesting?

Well, that would be the necessary mechanics. You can’t be a good writer of any kind unless you can communicate clearly, and that means mastering grammar and punctuation. Knowing the difference between being eager and being anxious. Learning where a paragraph should end. And knowing what constitutes a sentence, so you won’t fill your work with fragments like the 3 I just wrote.

If I wanted to pursue this area, what advice would you give?

My most important advice is to read. Read the kind of work you’d like to write, but also read a variety so you can borrow techniques from different places and have more colors on our writing pallet. Whenever you have an emotional reaction to something someone wrote, go back and look at the word choices and the technique used. Figure out how they got that reaction out of you so you can learn to do it to others.

The second most important advice is to write. Write every day. Don’t wait for inspiration or your muse to speak to you. Get in the habit of creating. The writing muscle is like any other, you need to exercise it to make it stronger. We get better at just about anything through practice.

What skills should I be working on in school?

In good literature courses you can learn the basic plots and why they are so often repeated. You should always seek out the theme of a story, not just the plot.

Study history and dig into the biographies of the movers and shakers of our past. These can be the foundation of your own great characters. Learn about other cultures. Expand your vocabulary. Perhaps most important, ask your professors to be hard on you, critiquing every paper sternly, raising the bar for your written communications.

How can I get more information?

There are hundreds of good books on writing, but I don’t think anything takes the place of the fellowship of other writers. So I recommend you join writer organizations. There’s the Virginia Writers Club, the Maryland Writers Association and the American Independent Writers right in this area. Plus, there are organizations for every genre of author. I belong to the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers Inc. Surround yourself with writers and you will be able to learn things you didn’t know you needed to know.

Would anyone else out there like to share THEIR answers to these five basic questions? If so, send them on and I'll post them here. Frankly, I'm curious about what other authors will say.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

From Self-Pub to Success

Larger publishers like to think of themselves as the gatekeepers of the literary world, so when I see a clear example to the contrary I get a kick out of pointing it out. Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann is an excellent example.

This semiautobiographical coming-of-age novel follows Eveline Auerbach from her high school days in the ’70s to her early adulthood in New York during the ’80s.

The cool part is that this oversized volume was originally self-published. Hamann created an imprint - Vernacular Press – to launch her novel in 2003. After seven years of hard- won and well-earned success the book is getting re-released by Spiegel & Grau, which is a division of Random House.

Hamann actually closed Vernacular Press three years ago, probably for the same reason most small presses die – way more work and money out than recognition or money in. But the book remained an underground success. And now that it’s on a “legitimate” label, reviewers are reading it. Publishers Weekly said “if publishers could figure out a way to turn crack into a book, it'd read a lot like this.”

I imagine that editors at Spiegel & Grau are hoping that this book will have a real impact on the literary world. I think it may have already had an impact on the publishing industry.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Werewolves & Wolves - Fiction and Facts

Have you considered writing an historical or urban fantasy? Today's guest blogger, T.L. Mitchell, writes the ferocious "Dark of kNight" series and is therefore an expert on the victims of lycanthopy. Here she serves up a primer on real wolves and their fictional human subset.

Over the years there have been many paranormal romances and thrillers written containing werewolves. In past years, the term werewolves struck fear into the heart of anyone who heard the term. However, lately werewolves are used in another form as friendly and loveable. So how do we term the evil creatures from the good creatures? What is the difference?

In our discovery, let’s start with understanding some facts about wolves. Wolves have been very badly misunderstood animals over the last decade. They are important creatures to our eco system. Many farmers and live stock owners disagree, claiming they are a nuisance and should be destroyed. Truth is wolves are just as important to our world as the air we breathe.

Wolves are the largest member of the canine family, with a height from 26-32 inches. They weight from 55-130 lbs and have a life span of approximately 7-8 years. Some wolves have been known to live 10 years or more. The diet of wolves consists of large hoofed mammals, such as dear, elk, moose and caribou. I think you see why live stock owners would consider wolves a problem. In Alaska, there are an estimated 7000 to 11,200 wolves and more than 5,000 in the lower 48 states. In earlier times, there were estimated populations of up to 2 million wolves, where now there are only estimated 200,000 in 57 countries.

In the mid 1930s, wolves were once common creatures in North America and killed in most areas. Today their range has been reduced to minimal areas throughout the US and Canada.

The behaviors of wolves are mainly pack-like. They live, travel and hunt in packs of 4-7 animals. The packs include the mother and father, their pups and several other young wolves. The alpha female and male are the pack leaders that track and hunt prey. These leaders choose den sites and establish the pack’s territory. Wolves develop close relationships with one another and strong social bonds. They demonstrate deep affection for their family and may even sacrifice themselves to protect the family unit.

Werewolves are considered wolf-shape shifters by many. The name werewolf comes from the “wer” Old English term for man. Man-wolf. Legends around the world speak of men and women who could turn into wolves and back into human form. In their animal form, the werewolves were bloodthirsty creatures that devoured humans.

The werewolf legends occur in all parts of the world. Some scholars have suggested that these transformation legends are no more than echoes of ancient ceremonies where people wore animal skins.

An interesting note, European werewolf tales date back from ancient times. A Greek king named Lycaon was turned into a wolf as punishment for serving human flesh to the gods. The Greek word lukos(wolf) and anthropos(man) comes the term lycanthropy.

Now let’s discuss the difference between werewolves and Lycans. We know they pretty much mean the same thing- a man (or woman) who can turn into a wolf. Truthfully, they do not need the light of the full moon to change. They can change at will. So where do we form the opinions of bad and good werewolves? In Europe, the werewolf folklore is not just a simple myth or legend. There was a time where werewolf legends were rich and varied in stories. These stories were interesting as we begin to see tales about hero werewolves and a variety of species. So in fact, the werewolves in the older, darker days were considered blood-thirsty beasts. Which is probably where we come up with the evil looking, more scary creatures in the movies.

Another folklore, I would not want to pass up is the one I use in my Dark of kNight Series. My wolf- shape shifters are termed Lycans and they hunt evil werewolves. The background history on their characters is from the Native Indian’s folklore. Some facts about where the Native Indians came up with their legends were said to be based on early settlers. The early settlers brought with them their European beliefs and either retold old tales or created new ones. This statement or fact, I disagree with. The Native Indians are rich in their folklore, legends and beliefs. It is my belief that the Native Indians already had stories about wolf spirits, eagle spirits and shape-shifting long before the European settlers arrived.

If we would take the true nature of a wolf as a Lycan, then we would see a family who has a strong relationship, loving and would die for one another. The parents would be the forefront leaders of the pack and the children would learn from examples and discipline. Does this sound like an evil creature? Not really. This sounds more or less what we find in our paranormal romances or shape shifter novels. I think any woman who reads a story about a strong male, determined and confident, would swoon in his arms…werewolf or not.