Monday, October 26, 2015

Hounded - A Book Review

Since I was so torn after reading Shattered by Kevin Hearne, I thought I'd do a follow up review on the first book in The Iron Druid Chronicles, Hounded. If you're wondering why I read the seventh book first, it was the only one the bookstore had at the time and for my own writer research on how books in the middle of a series are handled.

Atticus O'Sullivan is over two-thousand years old and the only Druid left on earth. He's settled in Houston, Texas and owns an occult bookstore. He has been hunted for centuries by Aenghus Og of the Tuatha De Danann because he stole a magic sword. In Hounded, the god has located Atticus...and he wants the sword back. Atticus ends up being a pawn in the games of gods and goddess and will need all his power to stay alive.

I would say that I enjoyed Hounded more than Shattered, mostly because it was written from one point-of-view. I don't have a problem with multiple points-of-view; I do have an issue with using different tense when points-of-view change as was done in Shattered. I also found that Hearne inserted himself less in this book than Shattered. There were still a few times when a pop culture reference came up that seemed a little out of character but it wasn't as glaring as in Shattered.

I am a sucker for anything with mythology in it, especially Celtic. Hearne seems to have done his homework, which makes his characters vivid and the world believable. I enjoy is Atticus's tone and wit. He's sarcastic and saucy, which for me are a good combination. Though I have a hard time believing the level of immaturity the creeps in at times. I loved his lawyer, Hal Hauk--another snarky attitude. Atticus's elderly friend, Mrs. MacDonagh is quite funny, especially when the werewolves were doing her yard work.

The overall story kept me reading. There is action, suspense, drama. Hearne keeps up a good pace.

Again, this series could be my favourite if it wasn't for a few things.

I get Atticus's relationship with his dog, Oberon. It's great that they can communicate telepathically, but Oberon's character isn't my favourite. Most time I find it annoying. I mentioned in my last blog that I've seen reviews by people who really enjoy Oberon, just not me.

The male fantasy of goddesses throwing themselves at Atticus gets old. I understand that Atticus is a good looking man, but find it a bit of a stretch that the Celtic goddesses are all hot and bothered over him.

There were things I let slide so that overall I would enjoy Hounded...then I hit the epilogue. I should have stopped reading after the last chapter because the epilogue tainted the whole book for me. I'm going to tell you why so if you don't want a minor spoiler, quit reading here knowing that I would recommend this book for those who like a snarky, witty Druid, mythology, and urban fantasy and can get past the weaker parts of a book.

Still with me?

After the story ends, Atticus takes time go hunting with Oberon. They have fun and return home to a surprise Atticus set up for his BFF...several french poodles...all in heat. That's how the book ends. To me, that was gross and unnecessary. Leaving the book like that left me with a negative impression, especially since I worked to ignore aspects I didn't like.

I love the world and characters that Hearne has developed. Some of the finer details are not to my liking. It's not enough to deter me from the series, though it is enough to keep it from being a favourite.

Monday, October 19, 2015

What I Learned From My Days In The Newsroom

I worked in the radio news industry for over ten years, everything from a freelance reporter to news director. There are some things I learned during that time that I’ve carried over to my fiction writing.

1. Lead lines

The first line of a news story is supposed to grab attention. This is the same in fiction. You want the first line of your story and chapters to grab the reader so they aren't tempted to put it down.

2. Write tight

When writing news, you only have a certain amount of time to get the story across. It’s amazing how much you can put in a two minute newscast if you stick to the important details. This goes for fiction too. Don’t use two words when one will do. Make every word count. If a scene isn't contributing to the overall story, dump it (yes, even if you slaved hours over it and it's your favourite).

3. Check your facts

There’s nothing worse than airing a story with the wrong information. It’s important to check your facts, same as in fiction. If you’re writing about something that you’re unfamiliar with, look it up, find someone knowledgeable to talk to about it. If you're doing historical fiction, research, research, research.

4. Everyone’s story is the most important

When people are planning events or have a cause, to them, that is the most important issue and should take precedence. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. It’s great the people are passionate about what they do. In the grand scheme of news, their story doesn’t always rank. It’s the same for characters. Each character has a motivation, an agenda. To that character, his issues are the most important to him or her. This goes for secondary characters too. They have desires, issues, and needs that they want filled.

5. Professionalism

With social media and email, this seems to be a dying thing. Just because you can't see the person you are writing to doesn't mean you shouldn't put your best foot forward.

When you attend an event as a news person, you're representing the place you work for (this can be said about any professions). Media outlets are under constant public scrutiny, the last thing I wanted is people talking about how unprofessional I was at an event and having it affect the station. I also wanted the people I was there to see to talk to me and take me seriously. If they didn't, they may not have granted me interviews. I've met the Premier, federal and provincial ministers, heads of companies, musicians and more. I used to deal with mayors and city/town councilors on a daily basis. If I couldn't get these people to talk to me, it affected my job.

This carries over to writing. If want agents and editors to take your work seriously, then act professional. You're trying to enter into a business deal with these people. It doesn't mean you can't be yourself, just make sure you're coming across as someone they would want to work with.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Finding My Characters

I'm more of a pantser than a planner when it comes to writing. I do a basic outline and know where I want the story to go, but when I sit down to write, I let the story take me where it will. This includes my characters.

I worried that I didn't sit down and plan out my characters in detail, filling out elaborate character sketches that other seemed to. Like my story, I have a solid concept of the characters in my head but if I force myself to think about them, nothing comes to mind or they end up being cardboard. As I write the story, they come to life for me and I let them unfold naturally. I don't know how common this is since I keep reading about people who do character profiles before they start writing.

Recently, I read a blog by a writer who also doesn't do character sketches but discovers her characters as the story goes (and do you think I can find this blog again? Nope.). I was happy that I wasn't the only one.

As I write both the story and the characters reveal themselves and I go with it. Sometimes I think I know my character then he/she  does or says something I hadn't expected. It can be quite interesting. My husband thought I was crazy until he saw an interview with actor John Cleese, who said that sometimes the character takes over during acting and that he had heard that it happens with some writers too. After that, my husband believed me.

During my first novel, I had a hard time developing the main character's love interest, mostly because I was forcing his personality. Once I stopped and listened to him, his true character revealed itself and he was a deeper and more rounded character. My great epiphany about him came while I was working out and I allowed my mind to wander.

The down side is that either you need to stop writing and make notes about your character(s) as you go or have a really good memory about details you have written. I do both, depending on how my writing session is going. Sometimes, when I'm doing a read through, I'll keep a pen and paper handy to make character notes as I read.

So, for anyone else who has trouble plotting out characters in detail before writing, you're not alone. I fine tune my characters and story though multiple revisions, like any writer. As long as you have a good concept before you start, there's nothing wrong with letting characters write themselves if that's what works for you.

Creating Tension - Crash Course

Recently I travelled to attend another interesting writing workshop, taught by Brian Henry of the Quick Brown Fox blog. This one was on creating tension and suspense.

Tension and suspense keep the reader interested. They want to know what will happen next...if writers do their job exceptionally well, the reader NEEDS to know.

So how do we create that sort of interest?

It's not always easy. As writers, we lead the reader along, making them see what we want while not losing them through confusion or disinterest because we aren't revealing enough. It can be a fine balance at times. Without enough tension or conflict the novel is dull. On the other hand, too much can overwhelm the reader.

First you need a character your reader cares about. If you don't care about the character you won't worry how this person will make it through the conflict. The character doesn't always have to be likable, but the reader needs to relate and feel empathy towards him/her.

Once you have your character, you need to keep your story focused. If you make your plot and subplots too complicated, you will lose the reader. It doesn't mean you can't have an intricate plot, just make sure your reader can follow it.

People read to experience something new, to feel something, to be plunged into a different world. Give them that. Layer your characters with emotions and sensations. Give them strong emotions with some conflict. We don't always feel one way or another about things, sometimes circumstances dictate how we feel or react to situations. If you're writing fantasy or sci-fi, make your world interesting. Have your characters interact with it so the reader can experience the world too.

Then it's time to throw your character to the wolves. Make his/her life miserable. Characters needs to experience crises to challenge themselves and come out of the whole situation changed (for better or worse). Building to these turning points in your story builds tension and suspense for the reader. So draw it out, but keep it interesting.

As I mentioned earlier, writers lead the reader along. It's a good idea to give them a plausible outcome, then turn the tables and surprise the reader with a different outcome. This can be tricky because you don't want to cheat the reader. Like having the main character captured only to have help arrive shortly after as part of his/her plan. Or providing a different outcome that was way out of left field.

You can also provide a few ways the problem can be solved so the reader is unsure which the character will choose. You should drop some hints as to what is really going to happen, they don't have to be obvious, but make it believable. In my research for writing a mystery novel, I saw the tip to add these sort of little details/clues about the real solution during an action scene when the reader is focused on something else. Then at the end the reader won't feel cheated because you hinted at the real solution, just not outright. Sometimes it helps to make a list of all the ways the character could solve the problem or get out of trouble. Write down anything and everything. Usually the first ones we come up with are standard tropes so we need to flush all the ideas out to dig and find the really creative solutions for our character.

Delaying the action is another tension builder. Slow the scene down. Like in horror movies when the character hears a noise and is slowly walking towards the door at the end of the hall. That walk is drawn out to build out suspense. In writing, slow the action down. Take time to describe the character's heart pounding, the eerie light coming from underneath the door, the creak of the floor. This can be tricky because you don't want to bore your reader either. As a reader, sometimes I want to know the outcome so badly that I start skipping sentences to get to the action.

Those are some of the things we discussed during the workshop. Are there any other tips you have for bringing tension and suspense to your writing?

Preparing to Query

My urban fantasy manuscript is revised and edited, and I've started the querying stage. I'm definitely better prepared this time because I've learned so much in the last year.

For those new to this phase, a query (as defined by the dictionary) is an inquiry from a writer to an editor of a magazine, newspaper, etc., regarding the acceptability of or interest in an idea for an article, news story, or the like: usually presented in the form of a letter that outlines or describes the projected piece.

Sounds simple doesn't it? If only it were.

Before you think about querying, make sure you have a completed manuscript. This means you have finished revising, editing and proofreading. You believe it is polished to the best of your ability. You have had others (beta readers) read it and give their thoughts. If you can find a critique partner, have that person read it and give their honest feedback.

Once you've completed that step, celebrate. Seriously. It's hard to write a novel then go through the months (or years) of editing and revising. You have accomplished something many people only talk about doing.

Next step, before querying, is check your word count. If you're shopping a 120,000 word romance novel, that number alone will get you turned down. Word count is important because the more words in a story, the more expensive it is to print and the more time the reader has to invest in reading the book. Some readers will not pick up a book that is thicker. You probably have a lot of stuff in your manuscript that isn't needed. Is there too much back story? That's often the biggest problem. Does the manuscript start in the right spot? We are all guilty of starting a story with lots of set up at some point. Start as close to the first major turning point as possible and back fill the essential details as you go.

To check if your word count is in the acceptable range here are a couple websites:

Writer's Digest Guide (you should bookmark this site in general. Lots of good stuff here)
Literary Rejections Guide (this is a good site for many reasons)

The best comment on word count I saw was to look at the Harry Potter series and compare the length of the first book to the others. You have to earn your extra words.

Got your word count? Great.

Make sure you know your genre. There's lots of genres and subgenres out there and some books can cross genres. Know where yours fits.

If you poked around on the Literary Rejections website, you may have found their page on genres. If not, you can find it here. Writer's Digest also has a list here.

Now are you ready to query? Almost.

You've spent anywhere from months to years on your manuscript. By now you could recite your story in your sleep. But do you know the hook?

Wait. Hook? Are we going fishing? Actually we sort of are. Your hook is what makes an agent request your work.

What is the main conflict in your story? What does the character strive for? Who or what is keeping your character from that goal?

A helpful formula I've seen is: When (conflict in your story) happens to (character), he/she must overcome (obstacle) to (achieve goal or finish quest).

I don't recommend using that in your query letter but do it for yourself to help develop a hook. Hooks need to be punchy and they help show what makes your story unique. Agents can have hundreds of queries waiting to be read and often read a bunch in one sitting. It's important to make yours stand out.

Once you've done these steps then it's time to start writing the query, which I'll cover in the next post.

Other posts in the querying series:
The Query Letter
Time To Query

Preparing To Query Part 2: The Query Letter

You've written a novel, how hard can it be to write one letter? You will be surprised.

Your query letter is a brief description of your work and a little about you. It should be no more than a page long and make sure you edit and proofread it. This is an agent's or publisher's first introduction to you and your work. Make sure it's professional. You are approaching these people to enter into a business agreement, don't give them reasons to doubt you. I have been amazed at the remarks I've seen from agents regarding unprofessional queries. Don't promise them that you're the next bestseller or that they will make millions off you. Let your writing convince them.

Start your query with an introduction - make it personal. Do not write one letter and mass email it, agents will know and the majority won't read any further than the generic salutation or list of email addresses at the top. At the top of each email, put the agents name. Dear Jane, Dear Ms. Doe, something that shows you know who you are sending the letter to. I personally do Dear Ms. Doe as a show of respect. DO NOT address your email/letter, Dear Agent, To Whom It May Concern, or any other impersonal greeting. One agent tweeted that she received a query that started, Hey Bitch. She stopped reading there.

There's some debate about the next paragraph. You can launch right into your pitch (as discussed in a pervious blog) or put your book information here. If you're doing your book information you need to include the genre, word count and something to show that you have researched the agent (which I will discuss in the next blog). It can read something like:

With your representation of fantasy, my 92,000 word manuscript Queen of Swords may be a fit for you.

If I know an author the agent represents in the same genre as your story, you can add it in. It shows that you have done your research.

Next start your pitch. Lead with your hook and a paragraph or two about the plot. Make sure you put in the main character and what is at stake for him/her. Read the back of books to get an idea of what to include. The pitch needs to be interesting, but not give everything away or be too information heavy. It can be a fine balance.

After your pitch, put a little bit about yourself that is relevant to your writing. This is a short paragraph. You are selling your work. If the agent likes your work, then they will ask more about you. Don't write about your family (unless it's very relevant to your book) or give a the whole background on how you came up with the idea for the book.

For help writing your query, here's some links:
Query Shark

Like your manuscript, this letter will be revised numerous times. Give your query to someone who hasn't read your manuscript and ask if there was anything confusing in it. Let someone who has read your manuscript look over your query to make sure you got the important points. Agents can read dozens of queries in one sitting, yours needs to stand out and make them want to read more of your work.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

My Chris Cornell Adventure

I did something rather selfish on Friday. I went to a concert. Now to most that may not seem like a big deal, but for us, it was. And you know was amazing! 

I hadn't been to a concert in years so when I heard Chris Cornell was coming to Toronto, I was determined not to miss it. I've been a Soundgarden fan since the band and of the singer, Chris Cornell (and his amazing hair) since their early days when I was a teenager. I missed Soundgarden twice in the past couple years when they came to Ontario so I didn't want to miss Cornell this time.

If you didn't see my previous post, music plays a big part in my writing. Usually my work connects with a band and I listen to their albums while writing. My latest urban fantasy novel chose Chris Cornell. I have been listening to his solo albums, Soundgarden, and Audioslave for hours over the last several months while writing and revising this manuscript. So seeing Cornell preform was extra special. Anyone who writes (probably creates in general) to a soundtrack understands the connection you can develop with the music. I hear certain songs and they take me right to my characters and story. If I listen to other music and become stuck while writing, I bust out my Chris Cornell playlist and am back on track.

It was a week before the concert when I found out he was coming. But it was a Friday...of Thanksgiving weekend, so the timing was good for us to travel the six hours to Toronto. The problem was life.

I had no one to work at my store. So I decided that I'd close on Friday and Saturday if I had to. Anyone who owns a retail business knows that this is a tough decision. I need the money to pay for rent and new stock, but I also needed this. I was fortunate that a friend stepped up and said she would keep my store open for the couple days.

Then it was my husband's work. He couldn't get Friday off so we'd have to leave once he was done work at 10 a.m. This meant the possibility of driving about seven hours to my parents' place to drop the kids off, then another two to Toronto (on a long weekend), then back to my parents' again after the show. Given that my husband gets up at 4 a.m., I thought that was too much, but my husband insisted we could do it. Thankfully, I have a wonderful family and someone met us part way to pick up the kids.

Of course we need tickets. Ticketmaster was sold out. So we paid an a ton more for tickets off another provider. I'm trying not to think of that because it still bites my ass, especially since we live on a tight budget.

It would have been easier to say, "Forget it," and just stay home. With the number of people we had to inconvenience, the hassle, and the money, not going would have been the way I usually handled it.

I'm going to be very honest. The past year has been rough. Everyone has their hardships, so I won't go into mine, but let's just say lately it's been stress headaches for four weeks, insomnia, and tears. I was done in many ways. I knew I needed something like this, something I could count as a win because there haven't been many lately. When I told my husband about the concert, he knew it too. When I brought up all the buts, he said, "You deserve to do something for yourself."

You only live once and it wasn't like it was anything drastic, like taking off to Europe. It was one concert, by a musician that I truly admire and love. It was one thing that would mean a lot to me and give me the pick me up I needed.

So, I threw caution to the wind, called on several people to help make this work, and went. This was about indulging myself and reminding myself that I can have fun.

Am I ever glad I did.

I waited all week for something to come up that would keep us from going (seriously, that's been my luck for the last year). I tried not to get too excited because I worried it would be taken from me.

But the universe smiled on me.

My husband and I got to Toronto early enough to hang out downtown, which we hadn't done in years. It also gave us some together time, which is very rare for us.

Then we headed to Massey Hall, which is a fantastic venue for a concert. Put an amazing singer like Chris Cornell in there and you have a memorable night. We sat in the balcony to the right side of the stage in second row. They were really good seats. Cornell took the stage a little late because, being the awesome man he is, he was texting his wife who was worried that the plane she was on was going to crash. Once she was safely landed, he took the stage. He played a two and a half acoustic set that included solo stuff, Soundgarden, Audioslave, and a number of covers. Cornell sounded amazing. Sometimes you get fantastic singers who don't sound as good live as they do on an album. That was not the case with Cornell. He was amazing (yes, I know I keep saying that, but he was!).

Going to that concert was worth the hassle of arranging the trip, the six hour drive (five hours of it with kids), and the money. Every now and then you have to do something for yourself, to remind yourself who you are, and to simply have a good time. It's easy to get bogged down in daily life and forget to live. Because I gave myself this, I feel refreshed and ready to keep on fighting. 

Thank you Chris Cornell for the amazing show and the pick me up I needed. It gave me something positive to look forward to when things weren't going well.

For everyone else, my message is go see Chris Cornell! Just kidding, though if you are a fan do. Find something you love and treat yourself every now and then. You deserve it.