November 6, 2015

Interview with Author Philip Overby

Recently I've had the great pleasure of reading some works by an extremely talented Fantasy writer named Philip Overby. His works take place in the intensely weird and wonderful world of Splatter Elf. The first piece in the series is The Unicorn Eater which tells the tale of the foul mouthed half-elf Katzia who happens to be a bounty hunter teaming up with the mystical starseer Bathbrady in search of the monster that's been brutally slaying unicorns. The Unicorn Eater perfectly balances drama, violence, and comedy. In fact, this whole series is a fresh take on Fantasy which took me completely by surprise.

The second piece in the series is River of Blades, which once again centers around Katzia and her quests. She's accompanied by a new companion whose masochism and constant self deprecation were far more entertaining than I thought possible. I stayed up all night to read The Unicorn Eater so I thought I was being clever by choosing to read the next piece on a beautiful afternoon with my butt glued to a park bench. River of Blades had me literally laughing out loud and resulted in MANY people staring. I live in a pretty small town so I usually try not to look like a complete idiot in public but I was so absorbed by the story I really didn't care.   

The third installation was recently released. The Bog Wyvern follows the lovable Bathbrady once more. The fourth piece is currently underway. The Weird Tales of Splatter Elf are unlike any other Fantasy I've ever read. Overby has a created a wildly unique world that I found to be thoroughly engaging so I thought it would be fitting to ask him a few things about it. Here's what he had to say.

Where did you get the inspiration for the Splatter Elf world?
I think I had my "Fuck it" moment in 2013. I had a pretty awful year in general and my writing was treading water as it had been for a while. I was getting stuff written, but it just didn't seem right for whatever reason. I wanted to write the kind of fiction that embraced the chaotic craziness I love in some of the more adult cartoons out there--South Park, Metalocalypse, Korgoth of Barbaria, Fist of the North Star. I also wanted it to have that playfulness and splattery gore that came with many of my Dungeons and Dragons sessions I've had throughout the years. Combine that with my affinity for the weird, surreal, and even absurd and it made the perfect stew of insanity. The name "Splatter Elf" originated from  a joke blog post I did, but the more I thought about this idea of a dark weird fantasy comedy stuck with me. So I said, "Fuck it," I want to write this off-the-wall fantasy. I was inspired by indie writer Robert Bevan, author of the Caverns and Creatures series, to put my work up on Amazon so I gave it the old college try. Now I'm releasing titles once a month or every other month. 
Other influences have been Monty Python, Mel Brooks, the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and other weird and funny shit. 
I also decided last year I don't want to write epic fantasy anymore. Splatter Elf is as close to that as I'll get. I'm shifting more towards urban fantasy or just doing the kind of weird fantasy I enjoy. I don't feel like I can write "serious fantasy" if that makes sense. I have a lot more fun with the Splatter Elf stuff.
Without giving too much away, what are your plans for your next project? Have I heard correctly that it might feature cats?
Well, a cat, but yes. For Wattpad I'm releasing a free episodic serial called Gutslinger the Grim Cat. To me it's kind of like Splatter Elf's version of Courage the Cowardly Dog. This cat has been blessed by a sword goddess and can summon a giant ass sword once a day. He protects his master, Malwick, a retired mercenary who can't seem to keep her weapons stashed away forever. So they live on this fucked-up farm and have to deal with all sorts of crazy shit. In the first couple of episodes, they're dealing with a corn dragon. So yeah, some dumb shit like that with the usual Splatter Elf bloody charm. 
The next couple of main projects I'm doing are Witch Pickle, a collection of witch and witch hunter stories I've been wanting to do for ages, which will then lead in to my first Splatter Elf novella, Feast of the Pyromancer. I imagine it like Clue, Battle Royale, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre had an insane baby. 
Then later comes my super hush-hush first Splatter Elf novel that I've only briefly mentioned to some people: Berserker Maid. A maid that goes berserk, kills people, and then cleans up their body parts after. It's still a while off, so I'm not talking about it much, but I'm sure it will be the usual splattery fun insanity.

If I had to describe your writing style to others, I would say it has a unique voice that is Joss Whedon meets Chuck Wendig, is this a far assessment?
That's a flattering comparison so I'll take it. I think both Whedon and Wendig are known for having witty banter, sharp dialogue and the like, so I like to think that is what keeps people reading the Splatter Elf series. I don't feel like it's traditional fantasy in any facet. It has some of the trappings, sure, but if I feel like putting giant mechs in my stories, I do. If I feel like having ten thousand random gods and goddesses, I do. I don't ascribe to this idea that fantasy has to be this way or that way. I always go on and on about how fantasy should take cues from erotica. I saw that in that erotica writers give zero fucks. They write whatever they want. Fantasy should be outdoing every other genre in that there is so much that can be done. "Cracking the genre open" is a phrase I use a lot. I think there are a lot of writers doing that these days as well: China Mieville, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, Robert Jackson Bennett, Peter Newman, etc. etc. I hope to see more and more of these kind of writers emerging.

What are the easiest and hardest parts of writing? 
The easiest part is writing dialogue for me. I just naturally enjoy projecting characters that way. I can just start writing a bit of dialogue and go for a while. Now that I've gotten in the habit of writing at least something every day (planning, drafting, editing) I find the "sit your ass in a chair" part to be easy. I know that's hard for a lot of writers, especially when first starting out. I've figured out what works for me and I don't want to fuck it up.
The hardest part for me is always editing. I find editing to be a slough sometimes, especially when I'm tinkering and trying to get everything just right. However, I've become a lot less critical of myself. That's one reason I think I'm able to release my work now and not feel like I'm putting shit out in the world. I've had some awesome people help with feedback and cleaning up my writing as well, so they've helped a ton. I believe writers should turn down their "Give a Fuck Meter" now and again. Balance it out anyway. You're only so good a writer as you currently are. I've become less and less interested in "hiding my art until it's ready." I'm more interested in "write until you're pretty good, publish, write and get better, publish, write and get better, publish" rinse and repeat. I was told recently that "The Bog Wyvern" was the best of the three I've released so far, so that's a good feeling to know the stories are getting better in readers' minds. I got the same feedback for "River of Blades" after it was released. I'll take anything I can get!

How long was the process of producing each piece (including betas, proofing, cover art etc.)?
I'd say from inception to completion the process for each piece has taken a little over a month. "The Unicorn-Eater," the first story I released, probably took the longest because I was figuring out formatting and all that happy shit we all have to do. Depending on critiques and such, some pieces take longer than others. My latest, "The Bog Wyvern," was my longest so far, so it took a bit more time to hammer down.

The cover art is done by the lead singer of the band I'm in. He usually does each piece over the course of a month. We used to do manga together a while back and I always liked his art style. He brings the kind of weird, almost cute, almost trashy look I enjoy. I know having cover art that stands out is a big deal and I believe my stands out for sure. I know it's not stock art with some dude holding a sword or some sweaty torso, but I dig it for sure.

What are your favorite books? (Why?)
There's a shitload of them. I'm a huge fan of Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, best known for writing the Witcher series. The Last Wish, his first short story collection, is one of my favorite books ever. He takes a pretty standard fantasy world but just makes it still feel so different by making it darker, even more modern in some aspects. I can't think of any other writer out there that takes the risks he does. Joe Abercrombie's another big one for me and of course Papa George (GRRM) with his A Song of Ice and Fire. Others I've loved recently are Richard K. Morgan, R. Scott Bakker, Kameron Hurley, Anthony Ryan, China Mieville, Michael R. Fletcher, and Steven Erikson.

When I was younger, R.A. Salvatore, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman really kickstarted my love of fantasy via Dungeons and Dragons worlds, so I owe a lot to them.

Where can we learn more about your Fantasy world and writing?
The big places are my blog Philip Overby's Fantasy Free-for-All and my Splatter Elf Facebook page. I update pretty regularly on the Facebook page and I share links to the blog, art concepts, random fantasy shit, and progress reports on what I'm working on. I always have something going on with the Facebook page. My blog tends to focus more on aesthetics I enjoy and getting to know me more as a person and my tastes. Of course I add Splatter Elf stuff there as well when I can. I had a plan to publish exclusive flash fiction there, but haven't gotten around to it much. 

October 7, 2015

Developing Deeper Characters : Fear

It's October so I figured it would be a good time of the year to talk about the darker side of human nature and using fear to develop your fictional characters. 

Fear can be a powerful motivator for characters. It can prevent them from taking new opportunities, going to new places, meeting new people, or even just getting to know themselves better.

Fear can pull people in a million different directions, making them doubt not only themselves but also others. On top of that, it is an excellent method for increasing tension and inner turmoil. Whether you just want to increase drama or portray them as vulnerable, giving your characters fears is an excellent place to start.  

In order to develop a deeper character you should consider the following:

What is this character afraid of? And why?

Of course you can go with easy answers like spiders or, in the case of Indiana Jones, snakes. But this is really just scratching the surface when it comes to character development. If you dig a little deeper you'll hit abstract fears which can stir up your reader's emotions and maybe even help them sympathize with the character. This includes anything from fears of being forgotten, death, pain, losing a job,  

As a character, how often does this affect them? 

Obviously a fear of snakes affects the character on special occasions. But a character's fears don't have to be reserved for plot devices or humor ("Why does it always have to be snakes?!?") they can affect the character in their daily life. You can use your character's fears either way depending on the kind of fear you choose to give them and the situations in which you place them. For instance, one of my sisters has a fear of chickens. On most days this doesn't affect her. But, if for some reason, she was forced to spend more time outside or if she decided to take up gardening, she would have to pass by our chickens everyday in order to get to the other side of the yard. This would make for a really boring story on its own but it might change things if we found out the chickens were mutants and by eating their alien chicken eggs the rest of us were losing our autonomy at the hands of the mutant-chicken alien overlord. Then, walking by the chicken coop takes on a whole new meaning and having to do it in order to collect some vegetables everyday amplifies story's potential for tension.

How do they respond?

When a character is faced with adversity, whether it be mutant-chicken aliens or snakes, they must decide how to react either by facing them or giving in to their natural responses (Fight, Flight, Freeze, or [for women:] Tend and Befriend). Depending on how you use fear, natural responses might very well be the case early in the character arc however, as the character becomes more developed (assuming your story follows a conventional character arc), we might expect them to start being more active. 

To use our Indiana Jones example again, he doesn't see the snakes and just give up. He's scared of them but he pushes through to complete whatever task is necessary to move the story along. In contrast, Left Ear,a character in the film The Italian Job, is actively hindered by his fear for dogs because he "had a bad experience". This is just one of many unforeseen hiccups in the character's plan but here we see the character neither give up nor face his fear (the dogs). Instead, the characters must alter their plans to account for his refusal to work with dogs. In this context, a secondary character overcoming a lifelong fear of dogs really is not necessary but if it was the protagonist we might expect a different reaction.  

The writer must ultimately decide what response and reaction is right for each character in each story. As I noted earlier in the mutant-chicken alien example, shifting a few elements in the story can drastically change the tension. the same is true of the characters' responses and reactions to their fears. If a woman was abused as a child, she might fear her parents and by extension, all authority figures. How would she react to a police interrogation or being questioned before the king? If a man has a fear of being alone, will he choose to settle down and marry a girlfriend he is otherwise indifferent towards?   

If a child has a fear of failing and displeasing their parents, will they be willing to try new things or put themselves on the line? If a young man is afraid of rejection, will he still ask out the girl he likes or will he resort to self-imposed isolation? A character with a fear of death might lead to paranoia. The list could go on and on. 

Does it affect the plot? 

The last thing to consider is whether the fears you have given your characters affect the plot or if they are just cute little quirks and personality traits that go nowhere. When you flesh out your characters some aspects are benign. (Is it crucial to the story that the MC has green rather than blue eyes? In most cases, probably not) However, giving your characters fear can be an incredibly effective tool to not only humanize them but to provide them with an opportunity and reason for stumbling as they move along through the plot and story arc.

A character's fear for her own well-being or that of her family or friends might push her to do things that she wouldn't even consider under ordinary circumstances. Again it comes down to choice. How will she react? That will, of course, depend on the character you have created and where you want to take your story. That is, if you aren't afraid to write it. 

August 10, 2015

Author of Death: Chapter 1 and 2 (Noir Crime/Thriller Fiction)

It has been quite awhile since I have posted anything that I have written so I thought it might be a nice time to do so. This comes from my Noir-inspired Crime/Thriller entitled Author of Death. I have talked a bit before about the cover but I've been wanting to post an excerpt. It's somewhere between a third and fourth draft and I'm finally feeling more confident about it.  

Chapter 1 : The Last Interview 

     My reflection stares back at me in the lens of the reporter’s spectacles. It’s been years since I’ve really seen myself and even in the glare from the top of his glasses, I barely recognize what I see. My once dark hair now has silver streaks. My pallid complexion is washed out by my powder blue collared shirt— standard issue of course.  
            As I watch the reporter unbutton his jacket and loosen his tie, I realize how much I miss my scuffed brown shoes and old gray suits. For a brief moment, I consider asking if I can wear them when they slaughter me.  
            The reporter fidgets with his glasses. “Yes, Mr. Marlowe, um, can I call you Roger?” he asks. “I’m glad that you asked to see me. For something like this they said we’re allowed an hour or two but it really is up to you, um, I think I can request more time, that is, if you are interested.” He sits in the steel chair opposite me and, with a nervous grin, glances at his wrist watch. 
            The man looks at me eagerly, anxious to begin the interview that will launch his career as a “credible journalist” — as if that’s a real thing. 
            “I have some questions but they can wait until the end if you’d like. Don’t worry, sir, I’m not like the others” he says. I can’t decide if he’s trying to convince me or himself. He chatters endlessly, refusing to shut his damn mouth. My mind wanders… 
            His hair is too long and his shirt is barely pressed. He’s wearing black shoes with an ill-fitting navy blue suit. 
            I can already tell he’s one of the passionate liberals who has taken an interest in my case in order to make his own. The only question was what spin he’d put on this. Would I be the new face of Capital Punishment or would I be the “Evil” brought on by greed and compromising art for profit? Dear God, was I this kid’s hero? …  
            I realize he’s still blabbering.
            “I want to give you a voice. I want to tell the world your side of the story,” he says.   
            I fight the urge to punch him in the face. I wonder if I made the wrong choice until I see it laying there in his bag — the recorder.  
            “So, Mr. Marlowe, you can begin whenever you would like.” He says this as if he’s giving me permission to speak, though I can see the intimidation in his eyes. We both know that I can easily send him away. It’s not my career on the line. Really, at this point, what would I have to lose? The answer is nothing. I would lose absolutely nothing. 
            I wait a moment, allowing the tension to rise. “Did your boss tell you to say that? To try to make me comfortable, to present yourself as a friend? Let me make things clear – I don’t intend to lie to you, I’ll tell you everything exactly how I remember it. You’re not here to be friends so please don’t insult me by implying that you actually give a shit about me.” I pull in close, an unexpected action that makes him jump back. 
            I catch another glimpse of my reflection as the reporter pushes his wide framed glasses up the bridge of his nose. With a handkerchief, he dabs at the beads of sweat dripping down forehead.
            The reporter notices me staring at the tape recorder in his bag and, as if on cue, pulls it out and places it on the table. He gestures toward the object between us and politely inquires, “is it okay if I record this?”
            I nod. 
            His hands tremble as he fidgets with the machine for a bit. Clicking it ON and OFF without success. “Shit!” he mutters. Click-click-click-click.  PAUSE. PLAY. RECORD. RECORD. RECORD. RECORD.  He taps the light that’s supposed to be red but the machine won’t record.
            I begin to get annoyed. I asked for a professional and they sent a child who couldn’t work his own damn tape recorder.
            I meet his gaze and don’t even look as I reach over and click the machine ON. I press RECORD and the red light blinks. The tape turns inside recording the sound of my deep voice as I state “You have my permission to tape this. You’re lucky too. Otherwise I’d have to sue you.” I laugh at my own joke and the sound of it fills the room, reverberating off the whitewashed walls and echoing a little. It grows quiet and he breaks the silence too soon.  
            “Is it true what they say, sir? Did you really do it?” 
            How rude, I think, just freaking rude.
            I decide to take control of the scheduled interview. I ignore his question and continue. “A few hours should be enough. Be patient. Before we get to that, I would like to tell you a little story. You see, I think it would probably be easier for us both if you just sit and listen. No questions and don’t interrupt me.”
            The guy nods. 
            An interview without questions. Weird. I know. But the warden wouldn’t let me near a pen or a typewriter. I had thought about it for months and decided this was the only way. My last opportunity to set the record straight. To tell the world what really happened. I didn’t need the punk in the clearance rack suit; I just needed the tape recorder that came with him.  
            I take a deep breath and sit back in the chair. 
            “Where I do I begin … ?”

Chapter 2: Inspiration
 It was 1954.
            The office was saturated with the din of clicking heels, clattering typewriters, telephone chatter and the like. I sat in the midst of it, outside of Mr. Scavo’s office, in the ugly moss colored chairs, beside Lily. Lily Ann Marie. A woman so magnificent she had three names. I once teased her it was because she was three times the woman. I was trying to flirt but I only managed to make her uncomfortable. She never seemed to be amused by my jokes. 
            To tell the truth, most of the time Lily seemed confused anyone noticed she was there behind the desk at all. But I noticed her. How the hell could I not? She was a gorgeous woman with an olive complexion and a celestial face hidden behind a raging ocean of chocolate colored hair that grazed the top of her slender shoulders. 
            I alternated between watching her and my cheap gold watch as I waited for my fat Italian boss to bombard me with criticism.
            Charles London leaned over Lily’s desk, adjusting the frames of his Buddy Holly glasses which swallowed his face. He was a tall child and obnoxiously innocent too. His jokes weren’t that funny but they were sure to get a rise out of Lily. Charles was nothing special with his long ashy blond hair, annoying laugh and exhausting optimism. 
            I wanted to like him. Sometimes it was almost like we were friends. Almost. The grace he lacked in person was manifest in his work which flowed so effortlessly from his fingertips as he brought them down upon his Royal, the lucky punk, always inspired. And Lily loved his work. It figured.
            With most everyone she was guarded, even anxious, but when Charles was around she seemed at ease. Her dark eyes searched the lines of his face as he scanned the latest sales report. It should have been me making the most sales and winning Lily’s admiration. Instead, I was waiting for my gluttonous boss to finish screaming into his telephone at whichever unlucky soul on the other side had provoked him. Nobody stood a chance when he got that angry, except perhaps his golden employee, Charles. 
            Mr. Scavo scheduled the meeting. He didn’t even need to tell me what it concerned. I saw the quarterly sales report on my desk. I already knew. Unlike the esteemed Mr. Charles London, my latest piece wasn’t noteworthy and what’s worse, it wasn’t being purchased either.
            I wrote the piece with bottle in hand. Sure, it was no classic. But honestly, what did people expect with the pay I got?  It was just another formula piece, strictly genre conscious. Pulp. Mr. Scavo tasked me with writing trendy material, transforming simple outlines, foolish whims, and idiotic ideas into short novels.
            I guess I was supposed to work my creative magic but I was all tapped out. It’d been years since I’d written something for myself. I wasn’t even sure that I knew how to anymore. Pulp on-demand with a small publishing company like Scavo’s Prints was a more pragmatic job than begging the big companies to accept my manuscripts. I needed to pay the bills and it could have been worse— I think. It wasn’t what I originally wanted to write but I was virtually guaranteed to be published. Plus, we were based out of San Hugo, not LA, which was always a bonus.
            “Mr. Marlowe, you can go in now.” Lily announced as she glanced up from her desk. 
            “Darling, I’ve already told you that you can call me Roger.” Trying to be smooth, I winked but the timing was off so it came out awkward and I instantly wished that I hadn’t tried at all. 
 I entered his smoky office and took the ebony leather chair across from him. 
            Mr. Scavo had called me in but insisted on finishing whatever he was reading before so much as acknowledging my presence. I hated that – his need to prove that I was beneath him. What a jerk.
            He twisted the wedding ring on his sausage fingers. I could only guess he had outgrown the thing and that, now wrapped tightly around his fingers, it was restricting him in ways he had not anticipated when he committed to it so long ago.  I wondered if he felt the same about the marriage that came with it.
            “Roger. What the hell? Another flop. Even by our standards. Genre fiction isn’t supposed to be a big risk. Dammit! I’m in business to make money not give it away to you artsy types.  If you want to keep your job, Marlowe, you’d better find a way to recover these losses. Understand?” 
            “Yes sir.” I replied. I gritted my teeth and held my tongue. I wanted to scream in his face that I had asked for a few extra weeks but he insisted I rush it. Even by our standards. 
            Mr. Scavo held up the sales report.
            “Consider this your first and only warning. If you don’t find inspiration immediately you’ll no longer have a place in this company. I pay you to produce books – books that sell.”
            My jaw quivered. I wasn’t prepared for his final insult before he dismissed me. 
            “Perhaps you could work with Charles to come up with some more original ideas. Have him give everything a look over before you submit your next piece to me.”
            I cringed. “With all due respect, sir, Charles writes romantic fantasies— women’s books.” 
            “So? Your point is?” 
            “So – I write Crime … Noir. I hardly think a love triangle is what my readers want.”
            “As of now, you have no readers. Laugh at Charles and his girlie stories all you want, his books sell. You’re in a rut and you could use some help.” The chair groaned under the weight of his body as he shifted. “So quit your sniveling and ask him for some help dammit!”
            I wanted to scream. He’d spent the last three years telling me to write only from the outlines he approved and now I was being blamed for shitty sales. I wanted to sweep the papers from his desk, to knock his typewriter onto the floor, to kick his fat ass off the chair that bowed beneath it. I was ready to explode but I maintained an appearance of quiet composure. 
            “What should I do?” I asked, with every ounce of respect that I could fake. 
            “Roger, the problem is that you’re as straight on the narrow path as Charles, only it’s affecting your work. Be honest, you have no experience in crime or death. That’s fine if your market is the average housewife but I think you just aren’t convincing the rest of us anymore — I don’t really know what to tell you. Maybe you need a little more real word experience.” He folded his thick hands in front of him. 
            “Your next piece is scheduled to print in January. We’re set for this season but you’ll need to start for next year’s releases. I want something completely fresh and new. Roger, I want something that sells. I’ll give you three months to bring me a draft that I can work with. Don’t disappoint me.” 
            I stormed out of his office, throwing the door open. The smiles disappeared from Charles’ and Lily’s faces. 
            Charles appeared concerned. “Hey Roger, what’d he say?” 
            “I need more life experience.” I replied flatly. 
            Lily Ann Marie tilted her head sideways, confused, as always. 
            Charles followed me down the hall. I just wanted to be alone. 
            “Roger, I saw the Report this morning. I read your book and I liked it. It’s just numbers don’t let it get to you.” He patted me the back as if we were the best of friends. 
            “Yeah? Just numbers?” I scoffed. “Tell that to Scavo.” 
            That was easy for him to say. Right next to my results were his own — bright and glowing like the midday sun.
            Charles’ face was full of empathy or maybe just pity. It didn’t really matter which. I didn’t want either. 

         Feeling sorry for myself, I rushed to the parking lot and sat in my car. Smoke flowed in a steady stream from my lungs to the little opening in my window. 
       I sat behind the wheel, imagining all of the dark and dastardly events that could take place in a desolate lot, scribbling out a myriad of notes - page after page of ideas on a legal pad the same lemon color as the street lights that flickered above me. As I stared down at my list I realized Scavo was right. The crimes of my tales were routine. Even now, my ideas were little more than a list of things I’d already read or written.
       A wave of relief washed over me when the bright bulb of the street light died and I was plunged into an atmosphere darker than my thoughts. I sat in the dark listening to the sound of my breath until she came.
       I heard the click of her heels long before I saw my brunette angel, all alone, her hips swinging with every step. Her hair was blowing in the breeze as she crossed her arms over her chest.
      Charles ran after her, waving her red scarf in the air. She turned to meet him. A smile filled her face as he flailed his arms, no doubt explaining something. She politely thanked him as she reached out for the scarf and their hands met. There was a long pause after that. They lingered close to one another.
      I was anxious, worried that Charles would steal a kiss and that I would be forced to watch. But Lily took a step back. She thanked him again as she wrapped the red scarf around her neck and made her way through the parking lot. I was relieved.
       I’d spent my last few hours contemplating crime and as I stared at her soft figure gliding over the pocked pavement, I suddenly became aware of just how dangerous the city could be for a young dame. Especially a pretty one like Lily. 
      I flicked the last of my cigarette out the window and pitched my note pad onto the back seat. Something clicked inside of me and I knew that this was it. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to her. She was a rabbit and, come what may, I resolved to follow her deep into the rabbit hole. 
      Lily seated herself on the iron bench at the bus stop across the street. Even beneath the harsh glare of the street light she still looked stunning. It dawned on me that I had found my inspiration, Lily Ann Marie, but I was still lacking in experience— Criminal experience. 
       Up to that point, loitering was the only thing I could ever be accused of and even that was stretching it. But as I watched Lily waiting for her bus, I told myself this was my chance. I wouldn’t be hurting anyone. Just following a coworker home, getting a feel for the mind of my criminal and the woman he stalked. Character research, really. Nothing more. Had I known everything that it would lead to, I would have just gone home and thought of something else or just quit writing altogether. It would have been the smart thing to do. But of course, I didn’t know and so I stayed.
       Bus 41 screeched to a halt. The doors hissed as they thrust open. And Lily, bundled in her tawny overcoat and ruddy scarf, boarded the silver bus and took her seat in the front. 
       My heart pounded and my engine purred like a cat as I turned it over and stalked the bus. There wasn’t a cop in sight. It was exciting. I felt sneaky and powerful — like a lion stalking his prey.  I kept a little gap between my car and Bus 41. I followed it deep into the city, where massive buildings loomed overhead.
        Bus 41 chugged along, stopping every few blocks to shuffle and trade old and new passengers. Lily remained toward the front of the bus. At least I imagined she had, I couldn’t see her from the back. I pictured her sitting there alone, reading or looking out the window, maybe stretching her sore hands or massaging her tired shoulders. Though I couldn’t so much as glimpse her, I watched at every stop, anticipating her exit. But she stayed on Bus 41.
       The bus turned into Mission Valley, taking Friars Road around and stopping between the apartment complexes that were overlooked by the Spanish Mission. Caught at a red light, I waited patiently behind Bus 41. There, I saw her walking on the sidewalk— a ghost from my past.
       From behind all I could see was the tight clothes hugging her curves in all the right places, the bottle-blond hair, the skirt that came a little too far above the knees, even the way she clutched her purse. It hit me like a ton of bricks. It had to be her- but it couldn't have been. I was puzzled. 
     The car behind me blared its horn. Shaken from my daze, I looked forward only to realize that the light was green and Bus 41 had vanished. As I drove away I glanced into my mirror at the blond woman and tried to convince myself that it wasn’t my old squeeze June but I couldn’t really see either way. A black car pulled up and the woman hopped into the passenger side before it sped off in another direction.
       Having lost sight of both Bus 41 and the mysterious woman that looked like June, I had no choice but to go home. 

        When I finally made it back to my apartment I kicked off my brown leather shoes at the door and headed straight to the dingy kitchenette where I promptly threw together a ham sandwich and a double scotch. It slid down my throat with ease. It had been a long day and I was grateful for it. It was exactly what I needed. At the sink, where I took most of my meals since the kitchen table had become the permanent home to my typewriter and mountain of futile notes, I rinsed my ink stained hands and patted them dry on my old gray trousers. 
       Wedged between my barren cupboards and the embarrassingly empty refrigerator, there was a cat calendar on my wall where I marked Friday with a fat red marker NEW PITCH TO SCAVO 6PM.    
     I didn’t have to go to the office for a few weeks but I wanted to tell him about my new idea and more importantly, I needed an excuse to get back to the office and see the mysterious destination at the end of Bus 41. 
     I needed to see it for myself. The street where she lived. I wanted to see inside her home as well but I’d have to think hard about how to go about it. Of course, I could’ve made up a setting but I always struggled with making it believable. There were things about a woman’s home I could never quite get right in my books. Things like a box of baking soda in the ice chest, the sweet smells, the rugs and curtains and extra pillows. It baffled me. I wanted to see it in person.

June 26, 2015

5 Things to Give Your Vigilante Characters

1. Give them a personality. 
Like any character, you need to give your vigilante a well developed personality. I think this becomes even more important for vigilante characters though since they tend to toe the line of morality, you just might need their personality to tip the scales in their favor. If your vigilante is a bland character, our attention will be drawn to his violent actions and we will be less likely to like and therefore sympathize with him in his struggle against evil.

For the brothers in Boondock Saints, this was achieved by balancing their Catholic faith with realistic paradoxes such as their excessive drinking, swearing, and smoking. This was a delicate approach to take that I particularly enjoy. If they were too (traditionally) religious, it might be enough to push them into a terrorist category. As it is, they choose victims based on standard American ethics rather than personal (Catholic) morals. All the same, without their religious affiliation we might question the moral credibility of a couple of Boston Irish men who curse like sailors, smoke like chimneys and drink like fish. I think the MacManus brothers provide an excellent example of the kind of balance you need to achieve in your vigilante characters (particularly if choose to downplay the next component).

2. Give them a push.
Nobody just becomes a vigilante because they feel like it. They have to be desperate enough to occupy the shadowy gap between justice and the law. The Vigilante character must be borne of hardship or depression, either of which can be brought on by the unjust (often violent) death of a close loved-one.

In The Crow, this is the death of both Eric and Shelly. Daredevil- his father. Batman- his parents. The Punisher - Frank's wife and daughter. The Brave One- her fiance. Law Abiding Citizen- his family. V for Vendetta - well, everyone. The only exception to this that I can think of is The Boondock Saints in which case, their reason comes from a supernatural dream. All the same, it came after they learned of a horrible murder (though they themselves were not personally connected to it).

It is usually the trauma and lack of closure and justice for the "bad guys" which pushes them into action.    
3. Give them a proper enemy (and a friend). 
They say villains are for comic books, not books or movies but when it comes to vigilantes, I disagree. The Antagonist of the piece needs to be established as being quite obviously evil. This doesn't mean they can't be well developed characters, but the reader should never cross over into sympathizing, liking, or (even worse) admiring the villain. The reason this is a huge no-no for the vigilante genre is that when you get to climax - the big fight between your vigilante and the villain, the issue of who is morally superior should never be questioned. If the villain proves to be morally superior (or at least more likable than the hero), when he is arrested (or more often dies) at the hands of the vigilante it becomes unclear whether the act was truly necessary. Which brings to mind the question - was that justice or murder?    

Write your villain well but don't lose sight of what you are trying to accomplish. Your villain should be evil not only according to your own religious or cultural assumptions, but in a universal way that probably includes crimes like rape, human trafficking, drug dealing, kidnap, and murder. If the most offensive thing your villain has done is shoplift a candy bar or download a song from the internet, you need to dig deeper and make it grittier.

Another common feature is a friendship that develops between the vigilante and local law enforcement (though it's not always the case, the cop is frequently a minority or otherwise fringe-  black, gay, woman, the only one on the force that isn't crooked etc.). In my opinion, this provides the readers with the comfort of knowing that the passionate cop sees the flaws in the legal system and virtually (or actually) gives permission to the vigilante to continue his otherwise questionable activities. In other words, the straight-forward officer (sometimes journalist) that befriends the vigilante essentially provides the reader with the reassurance that the vigilante is "justified". The cop character usually (though not always) tries to get the vigilante to abandon his ways and leave matters in the hands of the professionals. But this doesn't mean they aren't willing to help the vigilante out of sticky situations. If vigilantes were Westerns, the villain would would wear a black hat, the cop white, and the vigilante a gray that changes shades throughout the story.

4. Give them Hell. 
If you've set up your story properly (providing a well developed and likable vigilante, a villain that makes your skin crawl, and something to inspire and push your protagonist into action) the next step is setting up "practice" and giving the vigilante a little taste of Hell. Unless he has supernatural powers to aid him (like The Crow) don't make it easy on your vigilante to win. If you choose to balance your drama with humor, provide a few comical errors as the character grapples with the how-to of his new occupation. If you prefer to keep it serious, let a few of the early trials go smoothly and surprise us with a strong opponent and some close calls. Remember, your vigilante probably needs to gain some experience before he works his way up the food chain.

Another aspect to watch for is to make sure neither women nor children are killed (by the vigilante) either on purpose or in the crossfire. This is still a really powerful way to turn your readers against someone which is why it should be reserved for "the bad guys" and not your vigilante.  

5. Give them redemption or death. 
You can't end your story with the vigilante going to jail. You just can't. He can die. But he can't go to prison -unless he wants to as in Law Abiding Citizen (SPOILER: the film begins with Butler as the vigilante but when he morphs into the villain. Obviously, there's no redemption option here. And so - he dies).

Your other option, like The Brave One, is to end on a positive note in which case the vigilante is emotionally healed (or has worked through their trauma) and no longer feels the need to continue his / her crusade for justice. They can go into retirement, so to speak. As far as I'm aware, those are pretty much your two (traditional) options for an ending for a standalone vigilante piece. If you choose to go with a series, the vigilante can either continue (evil never dies) or can possibly inspire someone to take his place.

Let us know if you have anything to add!   

June 1, 2015

Creating a Revision System That Works For You

I traded in my red pen in for a pack of colored pencils and it's helped me edit and revise more than I could imagine. Every writer knows that there are tons of conflicting advice for us offered on the internet and even in print books. Rather than adding to it all, I just wanted to take a moment to encourage you to chart your own path and figure out what works for you.

Whether you outline faithfully or not all, there's no reason you need to make the revision and editing process more difficult than it already is. My advice is to find a method that works for you and be consistent with it. If you can't find a revision and editing method that works for you, consider creating your own or adapting my system to fit your own needs.

Personally, I avoid highlighting. I find it to be too abrasive - an overwhelming assault on  my senses during revisions. Instead I use a color coded system for notes and any other distinctions I need to make, both as I go and during any minor revisions before the actual 2nd draft though some of it stays until the very end.

My system is this ...
  • Royal Blue : Reduce, reuse, recycle. If there are word choices or if I know a passage is a good candidate for being either cut or drastically reduced. For me, most of these passages can be found towards the beginning particularly with things like setting a scene or discussing weather or an intricate backstory that doesn't necessarily need to be shared with the reader in the next draft. 
  • Red : Red is for personal notes. (Expand this scene.) I also use red with coding brackets> in order to frame a passage which I am commenting on. For instance, with something like "Rewrite this paragraph" I might frame the paragraph with brackets for more clarity. 
  • Gray : Outline. Every chapter (and most scenes) begin with an outline. If I haven't finished a scene or the chapter yet, that is, unless I am confident that I have not deviated from achieving the goal of the chapter, I will not remove the outline. At the same time, I don't want it to run straight into the actual text. If this isn't clear, it's like this, I start with an outline and flesh it out into what might be 800 word scenes (which is really not enough). I have to mark it so I'll know to come back and add some prose, watch the verb tenses or POV, etc. Really, I use this color the least since I usually plow right through the scene and remove the outline. It's still helpful to have it available in my system though so I won't be cutting it anytime soon.
  • Green : Reword. If I have to read a sentence more than once to figure out what I was trying to say, it probably needs to be rewritten. If I can't understand my own writing there's no way anyone else will either. This is helpful for when I want to push through a scene and can pick up on what is wrong before I actually know how to fix it. I try to read through a whole scene before making drastic changes and this helps me spot the bits that aren't working for me.  
  • Orange: Placeholder. When I am writing a first draft I usually don't stop to name all of the streets and locations (sometimes even minor characters go unnamed as well). In that case I will usually mark my placeholder as orange so that in the next draft it'll stand out and I'll be sure to change them as I go (and check for consistency of course)!    
Everyone writer has to find a system that works for them. Since I am a fan of the 50 Page Edit System, this has seemed to work well for me (so far). Right now I am revising a manuscript that I wrote before I developed with this system and I am finding that it would have been so much easier had used this in the first draft.

When my text is all the same color (black on a white background) it can be difficult for me to start hacking and slashing at the text. It might sound silly but allowing myself to document my (original) perception of the text during the first (few) rounds of revisions and edits allows me to either agree or disagree with my earlier thoughts. For instance, while rereading, I skip straight over the blue portions and if it works without it (as I previously though it might) then I'll go ahead and eliminate the passage without further ado. I find that it makes "killing my darlings" that much easier. It allows me to remove some of my personal attachment to the work itself and kind of pretend that I'm editing someone else's work rather than my own (which we all know is way easier).  

I have yet to experiment with writing on my typewriter so I'm not sure how that will work. I guess I should buy a new dual colored ribbon and give it a go.

How do you go about editing and revising your texts? 

May 20, 2015

A New Cover ...

I have recently resurrected my Noir manuscript and have been pushing it through another draft. It dawned on me that I rather loathed the title "To Be Determined" which I originally coined to be ironic. I've been playing around with different titles, taglines, and cover designs and though I may change the image (which I got from Freestock) I feel like I am at least headed in the right direction. 

Here's another possibility which makes the "author of" and the historical setting of the book more clear. I'm not sure if it compromises the emotional effect though. 

I thought I'd take a moment to post the newest version of a cover that I've been seriously considering. I was thinking about shifting the text up a tad. If you have any critiques or comments, please don't hesitate to post them below. :)

May 7, 2015

5 Things You Need to Know About Writing Multi-ethnic and Bi-racial Characters

I've been thinking a lot lately about the Diversity Challenge. I think it's absolutely wonderful but it's still missing something that's all too often overlooked. One of the most "unheard voices" comes from multi-ethnic people.

Here are 5 things you need to know before you write a multi-ethnic or bi-racial character.

1. No Excuses- Pretty-Please! 
When multi-ethnic characters are presented in fiction it frequently is in the form of Fantasy where the MC is part of a secret mystic or magical bloodline. I want to see multi-ethnic characters that aren't defined as being the "different" one. I want to see a black mother and a white father and no explanation as to why this was such an extraordinary or unusual match (implying it wouldn't happen under "normal" circumstances). I want to see more Lucy and Ricky Ricardos or Jasmine and Crosby Bravermans. If we really want to end racism, we need to stop making excuses for why two people from different ethnic or racial backgrounds fall in love or have children together.

2. Appearance- "You're X but really you're Y." 
What many people don't realize is that when you are living between the groups (never fully in one or the other) you are literally told your entire life what you are. There is little room for you to figure this out for yourself when from day one you are told who you are and the views and opinions and interests you are expected to have are decided by everybody but you. And what's worse, these expectations differ from person to person. You can literally never please anyone or feel like you fully belong in any setting.

I look more Hispanic than my sisters and we all feel it. When I am with Hispanics I am constantly reminded that I am "white-washed" but when I'm with my Caucasian friends I'm "so Mexican" (I'm also the first one asked for a Spanish translation- it's just expected that I grew up with the language).

I once went to an Our Lady of Guadalupe festival with my sister. I got hungry and there was food so -why not? I was in line for a taco-truck where a group of Hispanic men stood around joking in Spanish. I understood enough to understand the jokes and laugh politely. They served me twice as much as I paid for. My sister (who doesn't understand any Spanish and looks much more Caucasian) stood in the same line just moments later, received several rude and condescending comments and was given half of what she paid for. No joke, it was my sister's parish (where she works) and I was a random volunteer but I was given free things all day and welcomed with open arms while my sister was given an uneven table and shoved in a corner. I had a great time. Sadly my sister did not.

My point is not that Hispanics are racist (though let's be honest, I've seen it happen quite a bit) but that nobody asked either me or my sister if we felt like Hispanics or whether or not we felt a connection with Our Lady of Guadalupe. We both grew up in the same region, with the same parents, in an English-only home. We both eat tacos and sauerkraut (not together of course) but when we're out in public we are told what we are by others. We are expected not to defy expectations and are forced into one of two constricting boxes- White or Hispanic Non-white. I don't want to be one or the other because I really do feel like I am both. It's complicated.

3.  Language 
The languages you speak at home can be a huge determining factor with molding your personal identity and for bi-racial or multi-ethnic characters it becomes especially important.

Cultural identity is often tied closely to language. The more Spanish I learn, the more "Hispanic" I feel. One of my sisters speaks German and thus feels closely tied to that part of our ethnic identity.

When you are creating a multi-ethnic character, you don't have to represent both sides equally. The language used at home is often the ethnic group the individual will identify with slightly more. It is yet another factor but of course not the only one to consider.

4. Parents and Gender Roles 
In the West (where women are traditionally seen as the primary caregivers for children) there is a tendency to identify with the culture / race / ethnicity of their mother. Using our earlier examples, Little Ricky would probably grow up to view himself (mostly) as a White American while the character Jabbar, in Parenthood, (having a black mother) likely identifies more with being "black" than being "white" (like his father).

I grew up speaking mostly English and with a Caucasian (stay at home) mother. Thus, combined with my Conservative political views, it should make sense that I often feel "white" BUT the fact that I have been labeled my whole life as a "Chicana" and the fact that I speak some Spanish complicates my personal identity in a way that many of my siblings sympathize with but do not entirely understand.  I can't tell you exactly how to write a bi-racial or multi-ethnic character because everyone's personal experiences are so diverse which brings me to my next point.

5. Dynamic identity 

For bi-racial and multi-ethnic people, which "part" of ourselves we identify with can change from day to day, even from one hour to the next.

When I open the fridge I'm just as likely to reach for cheese and knäckebröd as I am to reach for Tapatio and a warm tortilla. I feel "white" when I listen to music like Metallica, Frank Siantra, or Garth Brooks. But I feel Hispanic when I listen to Selena, Daddy Yankee, or Elvis Crespo. But no matter what, I never feel like I am entirely one or the other. I'm both and it's complicated.

Hopefully, I've given you a few things to consider about Multi-ethnic identity. In my personal opinion, being multi-ethnic is harder than just being a "minority" (though technically I am). People (and characters) often struggle to define themselves early in life but as they grow older they learn to care less about the "parts" of themselves and more about viewing themselves as a whole. Please don't be afraid to include bi-racial or multi-ethnic characters in your stories. There's more of us than you'd think and we would like some cultural sensitivity and representation too.

April 29, 2015

The Layers of Hell that Dante Forgot

We've all been there - you're going along beautifully, creating the best written thing known to mankind when your computer crashes, the program falters, and you have that moment (or hours or days) of panic because even though everyone tells you to back up your manuscript it's been (a week? a month?) since you have.

This anguish (followed by the purgation of reformatting your computer) are the layers of Hell that Dante forgot to write about (that is, writer's hell).

You probably hear it often but I'll tell you once more. Don't be a fool. Back your work up. Create a system and stick to it.

If you're like me and you replace your computer every few years, you'll be thankful for this. Of if you're like me and you have a habit of buying cheap computers because the promise of a mail-in rebate is enticing (darn you marketing ploys you know me so well!) then you might find that when it breaks you're unable to retrieve your files. I lost tons of my music and ebooks that weren't saved elsewhere- not to fret - most of it was public domain and easy to find online but some of it was indie  and is no longer available on the internet. Learn from my mistakes. Invest in an external drive or use your cloud. Do what you have to do just make sure you save your projects in more than one place.

The moral of the story is- if it is digital and you don't want to lose it, back it up or there will be Hell to pay. 

April 16, 2015

Crafting Characters Like Clay

Image from Creative Commons
In biblical times there was a common Near Eastern image of the gods crafting humans with clay. There's also the fact that my sisters have been watching Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers (where the villains and monsters are made of clay and are sent to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting teens). Anyway, I haven't been able to get this image out of my head and every time I sit to write the image is there- crafting characters from clay.

Being a writer is like being a potter. Like the gods of old, we craft our characters by hand, pushing and prodding at them until they take the form we want them to. We sit, silently, before them watching as they begin to transform under the guidance of our gentle touch. It can be a messy thing sometimes, at least, it is if you struggle with organization like I do. And when you finish, it must be put through the kiln. In the same way, our characters must be tried by fire.

Something many writers struggle with is "being a jerk" to their characters. That is, providing a deluge of problems that the character must wade through in order to emerge triumphant. But the more bitter his struggles, the more sweet his triumph will be. My recommendation is to not hold back. Be rude to your characters. Be a jerk. Be mean and torture them. Put your characters through Hell. It makes them stronger and without it your character is incomplete.

It is not enough to just create a great character - without their struggles and interactions with others they are incomplete. They must be put to the test, given time and subjected to the flames of trial and tribulation. Only then is the character, like your earthenware, finished.

HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors has an excellent article on crafting character arcs that I highly recommend.

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April 1, 2015

Writing Camp: A Nerd's Paradise

I've restructured the book and decided to begin in a different place
 (before the initial revolution) so the blurb is just a little off.
This is generally what I was thinking for the cover. Any thoughts?
April is upon us which means it is finally time for Camp Nano! For the last month or so I had planned on using this time to finish up the end of the (the first draft) for Book 1 and amp up the volume of Book 2 in my Fantasy series but as the date drew near I changed my mind. After a month or two of solid work on The Western Woman I decided that I needed a change of pace. Writing a massive series can be overwhelming and when the pressure becomes unbearable I try to switch to a different project to resist giving up on writing altogether.

This month, I've set a goal of 40,000 words for myself. I plan to write for one or two days then take a day to edit. Hopefully my end product will be better that way.

I'm taking a very different approach to In Hiding  with a more scene-based structure rather than my usual A.D.D. fluff that's all over the place. It's going a little slower but (so far) I think it has more potential than some of my previous projects. If I can keep with this structure (3-4 scenes per chapter with 1,000 - 2,000 words each scene) I will hopefully have a solid manuscript in need of minimal revision.

Another thing I've been working on has been to push through the scenes that I don't necessarily want to. I have a tendency to skip around and write a bit in the middle, a bit in the beginning, then back to the middle, to the end, back to the beginning, and so on and so forth. I have a loose idea of where I'm headed and though I do have some of the middle bits already written it should not be a huge issue getting from point A to point B.

Something I have found helpful is writing an outline of the next chapter (and scenes) before writing them. Rather than just saying everything exactly as it needs to be, I try to give myself options along the way (either they fight about this then she storms out or she leaves without noticing, comes back later and they fight, etc.)

I'm feeling more confident about this piece than I have about my previous pieces (not that I don't like my other writing, this piece just has a more commercial feel to it and I can see it being received much better than the other two).

I'll try to edit a few pieces and post some (perhaps next week).

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