Quote of the Moment

"What's Past Is Prologue." - William Shakespeare

Thursday, May 26, 2011

MGOC Series on Fantasy - Rachael Pruitt

Today's post is the first in a series. Several contributors to the book Many Genres, One Craft will be stopping by to guest blog about fantasy. Our first guest blogger in this series is Rachael Pruitt. To learn more about the author and Many Genres, One Craft, please scroll to the bottom of the article.

Why I Think I Love Fantasy by Rachael Pruitt

As is probably the case for many of us, my life has literally been changed by reading works of fantasy. That said, ironically, I do not usually read fantasy as a genre. My reasons for this are many, but probably boil down to the fact that I find most fantasy to be either so densely written that characters are nonexistent or--on the other extreme--so action-packed and superficial that I feel as if I'm reading Ian Fleming on steroids.

Yet when asked to rank my favorite classical and current fantasy authors, it is hard for me to limit my choices. I guess this is because, for me, when fantasy is great there is no other genre as powerful.

What is it about successful fantasy that makes it so powerful? The works I've listed below all offer a balance of brilliant world-building, believable characters, and the great pacing, suspense, conflict, and dialogue we are trained as writer/readers to look for.

Yet it is the pervading sense of wonder that, I believe, makes fantasy unique--and not merely the kind of wonder you feel watching the ocean at night or the last fireworks on the Fourth of July. I'm talking about the kind of wonder you experience when you smell your grandmother's perfume in the air of the room where she died--three years ago. The kind of wonder you feel when you turn off the highway and take a back road you've never seen before, a road that twists and bends through hills and farmlands, through villages so tiny they have no name unless you live there--all of a sudden, you realize you are lost--and a mist begins to rise . . .

The kind of wonder you feel when your heart opens up to a whole new world.

So here is a list of fantasy novels which have offered me enough wonder for a lifetime:

The Classics

1) CS Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe. This was my first introduction to fantasy as a six-year-old. Although I never got into Lewis' later Narnia novels, L,W, & W influenced me so much, I still look into strange closets with a sense of anticipation. You never know.

2) Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion tetrology (recently reprinted in one volume & available on Amazon). Based on ancient Welsh mythology, individually these novels are titled Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon, and The Island of the Mighty. I discovered these beautifully-written retellings when I was nineteen. Of Welsh ancestry myself, Walton's novels changed my life, haunting me with their romance, poetry, and tragedy, and turning me into a "myth addict" long before I ever heard of Joseph Campbell!

They were one of the earliest inspirations for my own Arthurian novels, also set in mythic Wales.

The only minor criticism I have about Ms. Walton’s writing is that, interspersed with her lyrical prose, she has a habit of putting feminist theory into the mouths of mustached Welsh warriors, a juxtaposition that very rarely works!

Historical Note: Walton actually wrote her books in the 1930s & 40s (predating Tolkein), yet it took until the early 1970s for her to find a good publisher. Song of Rhiannon won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award in 1973 & Evangeline Walton herself won a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, almost solely on the basis of these four novels. An interesting final fact about Ms. Walton is that she was treated with silver nitrate for bronchitis when she was a child, which caused her fair skin to turn grey & darken as she got older. According to Wikipedia, when she became well known as a fantasist in the 1970s, "her blue-grey skin made her appearance exotic, much like a benevolent deity from an Etruscan tomb fresco." (I was thinking more along the lines of Avatar!).

3) Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry (a trilogy of three novels, The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road). Begun in the mid 80s, these are Kay’s first novels, written before he hit on his template of creating fantasy worlds based on historical cultures. These are also my personal favorites. Here Kay simply creates a marvel-filled mythic world, clearly influenced by Tolkien, with the distinction that many of the primary characters are from Earth. Not only are his characters and setting wonderful, but so is his underlying concept: that the mythic realm of Fionavar is the origin of conflicts that will be played out on Earth as well. This not only ups the stakes, but is a fascinating--if chilling--idea. Especially interesting to me, as an Arthurian author, is Kay’s use of the Arthurian legend in his trilogy.

Current Favorite Fantasy Writers

1) Charles de Lint, especially Someplace to be Flying, Forests of the Heart, & Onion Girl. Charles de Lint is well known as being one of the first, if not the first, fantasy writer to develop the modern urban fantasy genre. I stumbled across some of his earlier works in the 80s (Yarrow and Moonheart remain favorites) and was transported back to my childhood fascination with CS Lewis-like wardrobes--those not-so-distant other realms, glimpsed in shadows just beyond my line of sight.

Although some of de Lint's earlier works are a bit thin on character development, his mythological knowledge is encyclopedic--& wonderfully woven into his novels. Additionally 1) his sense of magic, whimsy, & creativity 2) the charisma of his themes regarding the importance of art, freedom, magic, and the nature of mystery and 3) his written ability to conjure believable scenes in which real fairies and goblins appear in neighborhoods populated by artistic street kids and/or Goth musicians are all delightful.

He remains a unique & beloved talent in my book.

2) Judith Marillier's Daughter of the Forest, the first book in her Sevenwaters series, is a retelling of the Irish legend of the Children of Llyr. A haunting adult fairy tale, Ms. Marillier sets her story in ancient Ireland. The daughter of the title must save her older brothers who have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother.

Marillier's work and Jane Yolen's Briar Rose --which sets the story of Sleeping Beauty against the landscape of the Nazi Holocaust--are, to me, the two finest examples of adult fairy tales I've ever read. Both authors demonstrate deep respect and understanding for the power of mythic structure and are adept at plotting, characterization, and suspense.

3) Fantasists Maria Snyder (Poison Study), Carol Berg (The Soul Mirror), Lynn Flewelling (The Bone Doll's Twin), Sharon Shinn (Archangel), and--of course--Suzanne Collins and her Hunger Games trilogy are all brilliant at world-building, characterization, and plotting/suspense. Their individual "voices" are quite distinctive, but they are all an equal joy to read and have a treasured place on my bookshelf.

My Novel: The Dragon's Harp

A friend recently asked me what writers most influenced my own writing. I started to laugh because the answer is an unlikely hodgepodge of early Stephen King, Charles de Lint's urban/mythic fantasy, and Anya Seton (For those unfamiliar with her, Ms. Seton was a historical author of the 50s and 60s noted for her excellent research, romantically-themed plots, and fantastic writing ability. She was also noted for creating memorable, multi-faceted female protagonists--particularly admirable in an era when such women just weren't being "written".)

So this unlikely combination of influences has resulted in my first novel, an Arthurian historical fantasy, The Dragon's Harp. First in a four book series, Dragon's Harp opens as an aging Queen Gwynhyfar begins to tell the story of her youth to a young refugee girl she has saved from the Seaxons. In my version of the legend, Gwynhyfar is growing up in northern Wales, Merlin is her uncle, Vortigern is a serial killer, and Gwyn herself is torn between the gentle Christianity of her mother and the magical Druidic traditions of her grandmother and Merlin--traditions that reflect both the majesty and brutality of her world.

Here's a taste of the beginning:

The Coast of Scotland
510 CE

Men have called me beautiful. But the gods men worship now have cursed beauty.

My name is Gwynhyfar, born daughter to Cadwallen, Ordovician King of Dinas Emrys in the North. As a young woman, I married Arthur, High King of all the tribes of Albion. I am no stranger to the ways of sovereignty. I know much of pride and stature. Yet I am old now. I see my past and shudder.

---End of excerpt, The Dragon's Harp by Rachael Pruitt

In conclusion: my long awaited website should be up and running this June and will include excerpts from my novel, articles, & poetry. It will also offer interactive Arthurian artwork & story-creation, links to other sites about Celtic culture & mythology, and other interactive components referring back to my work as a teacher of personal mythology--"Myths for Our Time". Come join me, be inspired, & play!!

Happy adventuring,
Rachael Pruitt
April 28, 2011

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About the Author

Rachael Pruitt is a writer, storyteller, and teacher with a lifelong fascination for Celtic mythology and the Arthurian legend. Her Arthurian poetry has been published in Paradox magazine (2008 and 2009) and she has just completed her first Arthurian novel, The Dragon's Harp, a retelling of Gwynhyfar's coming-of-age. Currently an English as a Second Language teacher, Rachael has also published nonfiction articles detailing "Myths for Our Time", a personal mythology process she developed while an Artist in Residence in the Pacific Northwest.

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About Many Genres, One Craft

Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction (Headline Books, 2011)is an amazing anthology of instructional articles for fiction writers looking for advice on how to improve their writing and better navigate the mass market for genre novels.

MGOC is available for purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

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NEXT UP: The MGOC series on fantasy continues next week with Anne Harris!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Chris Stout - The Thrill of Exploration

Today we have Chris Stout guest blogging. Another great writer, as well as a good friend I met through Seton Hill's Writing Popular Fiction program. If you'd like to know more about the author, please scroll to the bottom of the article.

The Thrill of Exploration by Chris Stout

First and foremost, many thanks to Alexa and all of you for allowing a thriller writer to bomb in on this blog. I'll try not to break too much stuff while I'm here.

I'm a big believer in trying new things. I haven't always been this way, of course. It's hard to break out of the mindset of "do one thing, and do it really well." The drawback to that, however, is the possibility of missing out on all sorts of cool opportunities and experiences. For a writer, there are further dangers: burn-out, stagnation, boredom, feeling like you've said all you can. All of these can bring production to a screaming halt. Perhaps more importantly, the very act of creativity itself requires bringing something new to the table. Every artist strives to grow and evolve. Sometimes that means branching out onto a new path.

To illustrate: I refer to myself a thriller writer. My master's thesis was a thriller. If you ask me what kind of books I like to read, I'll recite authors like MacLean, Morrell, Child and Eisler. Same with the movies: if it has stuff that blows up, I'll probably want to watch it. I always figured that if I ever were to make a living as a writer, it would be by writing thrillers. I still hold onto that goal, but I've found that some of the stories I have to tell don't fit neatly into the realm of action and adventure. So what I am supposed to do with those?

The short answer, of course, is: write them. Believe it or not, I kicked against this notion for years, simple though it seems. I was convinced that writing time spent on something other than my genre was time that was wasted. It took earning an MA from Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction program to break me out of that mindset, and working towards my MFA has served as a reminder. There is a whole world of fiction to explore and be a part of. Refusing to write (or read) a story because it's "different" is purely self-defeating. In fact, my first two publications were outside of the thriller genre. One was horror, the other was fantasy. Those opportunities would have passed me by if I'd limited myself to my stated genre.

Now, meandering through different genres is not without its drawbacks. These days, the publishing world is all about establishing the author as a "brand." With this branding is the expectation of consistency. If you are a writer following the traditional route towards publication, you will probably need to adopt different aliases for different genres, assuming you want to publish those side-projects. That can create its own set of headaches, and lead one to conclude that all this talk of exploration is a waste of time after all. However, even if you never publish or even write a complete work in a different genre, it can still be worth exploring. You can take notes on your travels, and adapt the techniques you discover to suit your own purposes. The tension between the lead characters in a romance, for example, can help inform the relationship you create between your thriller hero and his nemesis. The rich world building found in fantasies could help a romance writer bring the setting of her seaside town to vivid life. The heart-stopping action sequences in a thriller can help turn the sweeping battles of an epic fantasy into a tense, personal battle for the heroes.

Knowledge and experience are powerful tools. They provide more than just a good feeling. As an author, you will be able to pay them forward to your readers. Take the chance and try something new once in a while. No matter what you consider to be your genre, you will enrich the stories you tell and thrill your readers with the fresh imagination that you provide. With that, everyone benefits.

Thanks again for the chance to guest post here. Happy reading and writing to you all, and don't be afraid to go exploring!

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About the Author

Chris Stout is the author of the novel Days of Reckoning and several short stories. You can follow him on Twitter @ctstout, or follow his blog at ctstout.blogspot.com.

You can purchase his novel Days of Reckoning from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you'd like to read one of Chris Stout's short stories, you can get "Charmer" from Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well.

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NEXT UP: The first guest blog post in a series from contributors to Many Genres, One Craft. Rachael Pruitt is the first up!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Writing Prompt #2 - Chain Stories

My apologies for posting this later than intended, but Blogger was down almost all day yesterday.

Any past Tips & Prompts can be found on my website: Writing Tips & Prompts.

Writing Prompt #2 - Chain Stories

So, what's a chain story? A chain story is when two or more people get together and go back and forth, adding bits to a story. Each person could write one sentence, one paragraph, or even one page (or more, if people are so inclined to attempt a chain novel).

This isn't to be confused with collaboration, though. Collaborating with another writer on a story or a novel is something that takes a lot more thought and planning. Chain stories take no planning at all! They are very in the moment.

Why write something that is so unplanned and spontaneous?

First, getting together with a group of friends and seeing how a story unfolds when you have to continue from the previous person's addition is just plain fun. Heck, if you have a bunch of writers at a party, it might actually be a great game to play. Most of the chain stories I participate in tend to end up humorous--it makes the stories more fun and off the wall. Lots of laughs all around.

Second, it teaches you how to think (er...write) on your feet. You need the story to still make sense from one entry to the next, and you have no clue what the person before you is going to write until she writes it. This pressure to come up with something on the spot is even harder if you time each person's turn. If you're doing it via e-mail, you can say, allow a day between each response, even less if you're writing the story in a chat or if everyone is together in the same room!

Third, it can get the writing juices flowing. If you're having some issues with Writer's Lack of Motivation (or Writer's Block, but I don't believe in that now, nope, no such thing) writing chain stories with others could just be enough of a push to make your fingers itch to work on your own writing. Like stretching before a run--it gets the blood flowing.

Don't be shy to ask some friends to join in writing a chain story with you. You may even come away with new ideas for your current or a future work in progress.

Now, after this prompt, I thought it would be nice to start a small chain story here. The rules for this one are as follows:

  • Each person writes one sentence, taking all sentences that came before into account.
  • Post your sentence in the comment section - you can add another new sentence after someone else posts after you. No limit to how many times you can add to the story.
  • Don't be afraid to be silly (and don't worry too much about grammar and spelling)!

OK, without further adieu, here is the first sentence:

Luca swirled the water of the pond with his finger, then yanked it back when something nipped at him.

NEXT UP: Chris Stout will be guest blogging!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

J. Gunnar Grey - Reading an Epublishing Contract

J. Gunnar Grey is guest blogging! She has been my critique partner for several years, and she's a great writer. For more information about the author, please scroll to the bottom of the article. Enjoy!

Reading an Epublishing Contract by J. Gunnar Grey

So the epublisher loves your story and wants to publish it. She forwards you a contract. You start reading and it's gobbledygook. There's no substitute for a good contract or intellectual property attorney, and I certainly don’t claim to be either. But here are some of the paragraphs likely to be included, what they mean, and what you should avoid.

First the contract should specify what it covers. This includes the name of the publishing company, the author's real name, the title of the manuscript, and the contract date. The date is important because contracts of this sort are bound by a time limit. More on this later.

Second is usually the publishing rights, which the author is granting to the publisher. This can take a number of forms, such as exclusive world rights, English language rights, North American rights, and so on. Rights can be further broken down by media, e.g., print-on-demand (POD) paperbacks, traditional print run trade paperbacks, audio formats, or the most popular right now, readable (text) digital format.

It used to be the case that authors jealously guarded their rights, selling different rights to different companies in different deals, which added together to total a more attractive sum than the straight paperback advance. In fact, this was considered an important part of the agent's job, getting the best deal possible for the author across a broad spectrum of the entertainment industry, including the movie option and audiobooks. This is less important than it used to be, because most epublishers don't want your movie rights in any case. Again, more on this later.

The third section generally covers what the author guarantees the publisher, and that's a manuscript that's free and clear of encumbrances. The author must warrant (guarantee, in layman’s English) that no one else has any right to the story. If it was previously published, all rights must have reverted to the author, who will generally be asked to provide written proof of this reversion.

Other paragraphs in the contract are likely to cover:
  • who provides the ISBN (usually the publisher)
  • who secures the copyright from the U.S. Copyright office (usually the author, if the author wants one)
  • who sets the selling price (almost always the publisher)
  • the conditions and percentages governing advances and royalties
  • who provides the cover art (generally the publisher but the author is often invited to submit, if he likes)
  • what happens if the publisher goes under (reversion of rights to the author) or the author dies
  • who pays taxes on the earnings (almost always each party pays their own)
  • whether the author has the right to audit the publisher’s books (if not, this is a red flag)
  • whether electronic signatures are acceptable, and
  • if there are any future disagreements between publisher and author, which state law shall govern (usually the publisher's)

Some specifics:
  • As mentioned above, these contracts are bound by a time limit, and for epublishing contracts, the duration is usually somewhere between three to ten years. While a longer duration allows the writer to build up a head of marketing steam with one company, that's assuming the two parties continue to get along.
  • It's important to specify when the contract begins running: from the date within the first paragraph, from the signature date, or from the date of the title’s release by the publisher. Theoretically, it's possible for a publisher to tie down the rights to a book and never publish it, if the contract runs from the release date. But before becoming paranoid, note that the publisher would have little to gain by such behavior, certainly not money. (Although that could be a lovely cozy mystery, couldn’t it?)
  • The writer should also note who has the right of final approval of the manuscript, him or the publisher, and whether his input is required for substantive changes. If an editor will be hired, who pays for her services?
  • The writer should maintain control of his name or pseudonym, his characters, and his career. The publisher may request a sequel, the right of first refusal (meaning she wants to be given first crack at any sequel or book featuring the same characters), or some deal of that sort.
  • There's usually a clause of mutual indemnification in these contracts. That means if anyone sues the publisher, this third party has no right to go after the company’s writing stable. Or if someone sues the writer, the third party can’t also attack the publisher through the contract.
  • Another clause is likely to cover who's allowed or required to take action in the event a third party infringes the book’s copyright.
There are so many possible red flags, there's no way to list them all. But here are some of the more common or outrageous ones.
  • The so-called "rights grab." This is where an epublisher ties down rights she has no intention of exercising, such as those for foreign languages or movie production. These are potentially lucrative avenues for the author, easily capable of replacing the advance (if the publisher doesn’t offer one). Note that if the publisher does intend to exercise these rights, and this is spelled out in the contract with a member of staff assigned to the project, it's not a grab.
  • A ridiculously long duration. Epublishing contracts are not meant to last forever and even ten years is seen as lengthy in this fast-changing environment. Twenty or thirty years, the length of the copyright, and "in perpetuity" all qualify as ridiculous.
  • Ownership of the characters. It's fair to say that an epublisher is merely renting the rights to your book for a set length of time. Any demand to own or control the characters or the serious is not a good thing.
  • Ownership of the author’s career. I'm not kidding.
  • Finally, any required transfer of money, time, or work from the author to the publisher. This does not include marketing, which is a necessary evil at any level of publishing shy of James Patterson or Janet Evanovich. It also doesn't include any volunteer effort the writer may put into the firm, such as a blog hop for all the house's authors. But if the publishing company requires its writers to pay for publication, that's a vanity press and it’s one of the reddest flags of all.
Some epublishing contracts are straightforward and easily understood, but others are complex, professionally prepared, tight legal instruments. There's something to be said in favor of a company that utilizes a basic contract, as it implies a willingness to be flexible and work out issues with its writers. But there’s also something to be said for a company that wants no grey areas where misunderstandings can form. Each writer considering such a contract should only sign if he's comfortable with the terms. And it's worth repeating—if there’s any doubt, there's no substitute for a legal beagle on your side.

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About the Author

J. Gunnar Grey has never wanted to be anything except a novelist, so of course she’s been everything else—proofreader, typesetter, editor, nonfiction writer, photographer, secretary, data entry clerk, legal assistant, Starfleet lieutenant commander, stable manager, dancer—and no, not that kind of dancer. Her long-suffering husband is just excited she’s actually using her two degrees, one from the University of Houston Downtown and the MA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. Gunnar writes novels that are mysterious, adventurous, and historical, but all sorts of other stuff can leap out of that keyboard without warning.

The first part of her novel, Deal with the Devil, is currently available from Astraea Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble (and you should go buy it - it's a great read!). She also published a handy book that every writer in e-publishing should have: Format Your eBook the Free and Easy Way.

You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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NEXT UP: Writing Prompt - Chain Stories.