Who Do You Write For?

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As writers we often have one eye on our intended audience as we write, even if it isn’t conscious. Like a lot of art, if you ask a writer about his book, either you or he will compare it to something else: “It’s Harry Potter meets A Tale of Two Cities.” Inadvertently, or perhaps quite intentionally, this book’s audience has been identified. It is the very small but dedicated group of readers who enjoy books about child wizards during the turmoil of the French Revolution. Most of us don’t intend such comparisons to define our intended audience, but it happens and permeates what we write. No matter your genre (including literary fiction), odds are you have a set of preconceived notions that go with your selection of an audience.

As a fantasy writer, I tend to take for granted that my readers will know that elves have pointed ears, dwarves are short and bearded, magic spells are cast by wizards, and countless other small things. I’m assuming those readers will have enjoyed other fantasy novels, particularly what is considered the canon (Tolkien especially) and thus have some context. But, our assumptions can cut both ways. Experienced fans of our genre might read in a mystical explanation to something completely mundane. Conversely, the uninitiated might be completely mystified by something that is canon to most fantasy readers. How do we as writers prevent this?

For me, the answer is simple: assume your reader has never picked up a fantasy novel before. That’s right, nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. This has two benefits. The first is that you prevent any confusion or frustration on the part of your reader. The second is that you’ve just opened your book up to countless readers outside your genre. That’s not to imply this is an easy feat. What is easy, is to be so proud of the complex world you’ve created that you can’t wait to show your reader and you inundate her with information. In my post, Too Much Information! Knowing What to Reveal and When I go over the “how” of exposition, so there’s no need to rehash that here. What I will delve into, is the “why.”

Let’s ignore the obvious: you don’t want your reader to be bored by a dissertation before getting to the story. That’s important, of course, but what I want to discuss here is the second reason. I take Ms. Rowling’s lead and assume ignorance on the part of reader: a broader audience. Really, in the end, don’t we as writers want our stories to be read, and enjoyed, by as many people as possible? I certainly do. I’m sure there are those who think of themselves as purists and unless you know the arcane details you’re not “worthy” of reading the story, but that’s not for me. I want my tales to be enjoyed by anyone who picks it up, even if their usual preference is romance, mystery, biographies, printer manuals, math books, cereal boxes, newspapers, well, you get the idea. I believe if you strip out the supernatural aspects of my stories, or replace them with mundane aspects, the plot and characters still hold together. At least, that’s what I strive for. That, and no readers left scratching their heads when they’re done.

This is something all of us should strive for. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a book about faeries, or the Founding Fathers of the United States. After all, your readers might not be American or aware of American history. See? There I just assumed the readers of this blog were mostly American. I could’ve deleted that line, but I think it serves to show all of us that we have to strive, constantly, against those sorts of assumptions. Don’t limit yourself, or your work, by not inviting someone in to enjoy it. Be a good host and make your party as inclusive as possible, and ensure each guest is as welcome as possible.

My Love of Music

Do you want proof that God has a sense of humor?

I’m a writer, and nothing drives me battier than the sound of typing on a keyboard. I can handle it for a little while, but after five minutes or so, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. Oh, and when I’m not writing (day job), I do a lot of developing and programming. Yeah, the irony is palpable. This, combined with the fact I’m very visual in my writing—I “see” the stories like a movie playing in my head, and transcribe what I see—is why music is so important to me when I write. What’s a good movie without a killer soundtrack? It’s a bonus that it also drowns out the maddening sound of striking keys. Argh, even thinking about it puts my teeth on edge!

For every book I’ve written, I’ve made multiple playlists. They typically surround characters, or specific scenes. Sometimes, when I’m working on a particularly powerful scene, I’ll put a single song on a loop and listen to it continually till I’m done. Music is so important to me that all my characters have favorite musicians and songs. Listening to those artists fuels me emotionally and also helps me get into my characters’ heads. Edward is a Tom Waits fan, followed closely by Diana Krall, Leonard Cohen, and Dave Brubeck. For Caitlin it’s Gaelic Storm, The Elders, Sarah McLachlan, and The Cowboy Junkies. Brendan leans towards The Pogues, The Wolfe Tones, and, despite his anachronistic tendencies, Dropkick Murphy, Flogging Molly, and Flatfoot 56. Dante is more eclectic as a result of his age, and his tastes range from Vivaldi (he’s a sucker for a solid cello concerto) to Daft Punk and The Crystal Method.

Wraith was a bit more complicated. As I worked on The Forgotten, the music was more about the story. The songs were dark and brooding. “Ain’t no Grave,” by Johnny Cash saw quite a lot of play, and if you’ve read The Forgotten, you’ll understand why. It made sense I wasn’t focused on music for Wraith as a character. After all, she was a homeless kid struggling to keep sane from one day to the next. She didn’t have a lot of time to listen to music. That changed when I started writing Three Promises. Wraith came to life in a way I never imagined, or dared to hope. Her story opens in the aftermath of The Forgotten and I knew she’d be battling severe depression and trying to find a sense of purpose. As someone who has struggled with that since I was a teenager,  I knew personally how much music can help. I wanted Wraith to have the same experience, to find refuge, and possibly hope, in music. But what songs? What artists? When I found not just the artist, but the song, it was so perfect, that I knew I had to include some of the lyrics in the story itself. The song was “Wonder (Wonder Woman Song)” by The Doubleclicks.

I was introduced to The Doubleclicks through John Scalzi’s blog when he posted the video to “Nothing to Prove.” It’s perhaps their most famous song; an anthem for geek girls. The song is awesome, and the video is not just powerful, it’s empowering. Fans of Angela and Aubrey, the sisters who make up The Doubleclicks, know that most of their songs are all kinds of nerdy fun. They sing about cats, board games, dinosaurs, burritos, lasers… well, you get the idea. But some of their songs are more personal, and are deeply moving. Their song “Bad Memories” really resonated with me and their cover of “In the Middle” is amazing. I thought about using “Nothing to Prove” to give Wraith hope, but it just didn’t seem right for her. Then I heard “Wonder (Wonder Woman Song)” and I knew that was Wraith’s song. How does a song about a super-powered Amazon inspire a homeless girl fighting depression? You’ll have to read the story, and I suggest listening to the song as well. Not because you’ll need to know it, just because it’s an awesome song.

For The Returned, I wanted something that fit the broad mix of amazing music New Orleans—the setting for the book—had to offer. I chose songs you might hear street musicians playing on the corners of cities anywhere; songs filled with power and emotion. Wraith however is still a diehard Doubleclicks fan. So when a particularly important scene came up, I knew where to turn. This time it was the song “Godzilla.” The song is sad, but tinged with humor, and fit who Wraith was becoming perfectly. For both The Returned and Three Promises, The Doubleclicks were good enough to let me license the lyrics, and I was thrilled to be able to (legally) include them in the stories.

I’m sure I’m not alone in my love of music. Like any art form, it’s emotionally evocative. Most people know the shameless joy of singing to a favorite song at the top of their lungs while driving, not caring who sees you. We find solace and comfort in songs when we have a broken heart. We celebrate with music and dancing; though if you’re like me, it can only loosely be called dancing. We find comfort in our sad times with the perfect track. Songs mark the passing of the years like signposts. And sometimes, just sometimes, you hear a song and it reaches into your soul from the very first time you hear it. For me, those songs tend to be the bittersweet ones; sad, but filled with hope, and the promise of tomorrow, a new day where anything is possible. What can I say, I’m a romantic. The emotion, the magic, the power of music fuels me, both in my life and in my creative endeavors. Music, books, every kind of art, it all serves to connect us. When the artist creates, that creation is imbued with some of their soul, an emotional snapshot of them at that moment in time. The stories in my books are my snapshots and The Returned feels like my best work yet. I hope you read it, and that you enjoy it, maybe connect with it or the characters within. If you’d like, I’d be happy to suggest some music to set the mood before you start reading.

 

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My Favorite Bit – Techno Magic

I’m on Mary Robinette Kowal’s site today talking about my favorite bit of The Returned, namely blending technology and magic (computer hacking!). Check it out here, and also check out Mary’s site. She’s an amazing author (Hugo Winner!) and does fantastic work as an audio book narrator. You can read my spot here: My Favorite Bit

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Beth Cato Interview, The Sequel, This Time It’s Personal!

You probably remember Beth Cato. I interviewed her in April for the release of Final Flight. Well, she’s back with another new release. Breath of Earth comes out August 23rd, and while you’re picking up a paperback copy of The Returned, (which comes out the same day) you should totally get Beth’s book too. I did convince her to bring something extra to the pub for this interview though. She’s promised to share the recipe for one of her amazing treats which earned her the (well-deserved) title of High-Priestess of Churromancy by Kevin Hearne.


So, another book. Already. Really? Are you just trying to make the rest of us look bad? Or is this a clever attempt to shame Patrick Rothfuss and/or George Martin to get the next book in their series out?

Ha! Well, we’re not talking about books here that are sizable enough to bash intruders over the head–and I’m pretty sure GRMM and Rothfuss books would be excellent for that purpose. In my case, Final Flight was a longer-length short story. Breath of Earth is a full 400-page novel. It’s in trade paperback, so it’s not that effective for head-bashing purposes… unless you buy a full box. Which I totally endorse.

Don’t sell yourself short. Book bashing is all ability technique. I once disarmed a group four ninjas with nothing buy a battered paperback copy of Nine Stories, true story. Moving on, Breath of Earth is a departure from your Clockwork Dagger series, was it hard abandoning turning away from the characters you created and got readers caring about?

This is where the whole space-time continuum of the publishing industry makes things weird. I actually wrote Breath of Earth three years ago, during the limbo time when I had a verbal book deal for Clockwork Dagger but not an actual contract yet. I then had to wait until Clockwork Dagger and its sequel were written and done before my agent could submit Breath of Earth to my publisher for consideration. Are you still following me? It messes with my head, too, because I have been hopping back and forth between these steampunk worlds for several years now.

Ah, the dangers of time travel. Been there, done that, am I right? Tell us a little about this new book. And will it become a new series, full of characters we grow to love who will then be abandoned by their author in favor or something new and shiny?

Breath of Earth does indeed kick off a new series, and I hope to stay with these characters for a few years more (HINT: buy this book so I can finish the series). This world features some heavy duty alt history: America and Japan are allied and in the process of taking over China. Magical creatures exist. Airships and advanced technology are powered by captured energy from earthquakes. My heroine, Ingrid Carmichael, is a clandestine geomancer. Women aren’t supposed to be geomancers. This complicates her life, especially when someone is trying to assassinate geomancers in San Francisco–and the fault lines emit waaaay too much energy for one person to hold in check.

You heard her, buy this book! Do it! Right now! And certainly not because she’s bribed me. So this story is set in 1906 California, what drew you to that era?

I’m a native Californian. I have experienced my fair share of earthquakes. As a historical fiction buff from an early age, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire always fascinated me. When I was trying to figure out a new series to write, I realized no one had used that era and place for steampunk. I decided to take on the challenge.

Fire, mass devastation, crushed hopes (and people), what isn’t fascinating about that? No, I’m not moving away for any special reason. This is a historical fantasy novel, so how much did you keep to historical reality and how much did you make your own?

Even when I consciously twisted history, I tried to make it as accurate as possible. Same with my use of mythological creatures–I wanted to keep it as authentic as possible, relying on native sources wherever I could. This has been downright daunting. I have included a bibliography in the back of the book and also have it on my website because I really want to encourage people to delve deeper into the real history, especially when it comes to the Chinese immigrant experience in America. The amount of erasure on that subject is shameful.

A book with homework, interesting marketing idea. Is the rumor I made up about you and John Hodgeman being caught in a closet playing seven minutes in heaven at the Nebula awards true?

I’d never play any game in a closet during that particular block of time. That dinner was expensive, man. I wasn’t going to miss out on a single crumb!

Sorry, I just got the timing of the closet rendezvous wrong. Sorry, my bad. In your last interview you mentioned this book had geomancy and mythology. Care to expound? I know that interview was ssssoooooo long ago it might be hard to remember way back then.

Sure! Geomancy is earth magic. In Breath of Earth, such energy is released through earthquakes. The rare folks who are born as geomancers act as mediators with the earth. They take in energy and can stop earthquakes–but that power also quickly overwhelms the human body with a fever. They can overheat and die in minutes. The only way to release that contained power is to be in contact with a crystal called kermanite; it siphons the power and holds it for later use as a battery.
I bring in mythological creatures from around the world, too. Even fairies. (Yes, THAT spelling.) Garden pixies are common, and things like unicorns or pookas might be seen in use by rich men about the city. There are also major creatures called Hidden Ones–demi-god level beings that are either well hidden or extinct.

Since we’re friends, I’ll ignore that grievous spelling error. Name four of your favorite fictional characters, and you don’t get to pick Laura Ingalls, your Little House on the Prairie love is well documented.

I couldn’t choose Laura anyway–she was real! Let’s see. Raistlin Majere from Dragonlance, Hermione Granger, Flavia de Luce from Alan Bradley’s delightful mystery series (11-year-old girl who loves poison and investigating murders!), and Paks from Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion series.

An excellent list! Just what I’d expect from a fellow awesome author. Speaking of which, I personally don’t really struggle with remaining humble while being so awesome, what about you?

I feed cookies to people and desperately hope said people will like me, so I think it’s safe to say I have difficulty accepting any kind of self-awesomeness.

Cookies are always a sure fire way to make friends, and a trait I would assuredly assign to the awesome. I’ll give you some pointers in awesome acceptance. Moving on, I’d ask what you’re reading but you’re probably too busy baking, working on your next three novels, six novellas, two screenplays, and cookbook to have time to read. Okay, fine, what are you reading right now?

A nonfiction tome about the Hawaiian Revolution and an old holiday baking issue of Cook’s Illustrated. And for the record, I have never written a screenplay. Publishing industry rejections are bad enough, I don’t even want to mess with Hollywood!

You heard her, Hollywood, she has no interest at all in you buying the movie and/or TV rights to her stories. Tell us about the main characters of your new book.

Ingrid Carmichael is a young woman of color and a geomancer. She keeps her magical prowess secret with the help of her adoptive father and mentor, Warden Sakaguchi, and works as a secretary for the Earth Wardens. She’s not happy being constrained in such a role.
Then there’s Cy. He’s a southern gentlemen and a mechanical genius with a few secrets of his own. His business partner is Fenris, an acerbic and likewise brilliant mechanic. Fenris is going to gain a large fan club following, and Lexie Dunne has already been declared president of this club. Send her your membership dues, folks.

I don’t know how loudly I’d proclaim Lexie’s interest in your book. Her sister is really the gifted judge of literary excellence. You went viral not just once, but twice (I’m not counting that unfortunate event while researching a 12 monkeys fan fiction story). Tell us about it? Was it as satisfying as we’re all told?

It is pretty cool when a tweet goes crazy like that, though it’s also maddening if you have alerts and sound effects set. My “most viral” experience was one of my #TwitterFiction stories last year, which you can see here: https://twitter.com/BethCato/status/598567939533471745
Maybe you can wield your inherent awesomeness and make it go viral again!

I make no promises. I must wield my inherent awesomeness judiciously. But if it happens, I reserve the right to take full credit. Alright, time to cough up a recipe! Hand it over and no one gets hurt!

Let’s do a recipe that YOU have actually eaten, Bishop! Chewy Honey Maple Cookies! These things are like crack. The smell alone drives people crazy.

Chewy Maple Honey Cookies6_sm

Originally posted on Bready or Not: http://www.bethcato.com/bready-or-not-chewy-honey-maple-cookies/

Honey and maple team up to create sweet and chewy cookies that last for days… unless you eat them all right away.

  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons maple flavor
  • 1 cup bread flour (or all-purpose flour, but cookies will be less chewy)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • maple sugar or turbinado sugar for the tops, optional

In a large bowl, beat the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and honey and beat until creamy and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and then mix in the egg, vanilla extract, and maple flavor.

In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients: bread flour, all-purpose flour, cornstarch, baking soda, and salt. Sift together.

Slowly stir together the wet and dry ingredients until just combined. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and stash in the fridge for several hours or days.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350-degrees. Use greased stoneware, parchment paper, or silpat mats. If you want to add some sparkle to the cookies, place some maple sugar or turbinado sugar in a saucer and dip in the tops of the dough balls. The cookie dough, even straight from the fridge, has a soft Play Doh-like consistency, so it will spread some when it bakes; keep this in mind when you space the cookie dough balls.

Teaspoon-sized cookies need to bake 9 to 12 minutes; Tablespoon-sized take 11 to 13 minutes. Let set on cookie sheets for 10 to 15 minutes before moving to a rack to cool completely.

Cookies will keep in a sealed container for at least a week. They are excellent for travel or shipping.

OM NOM NOM!


I can indeed vouch for the cracky-deliciousness of these cookies. Make them, make lots of them and I promise all who partake will forever follow you blindly*. Thanks, Beth. As always, a delight to have you, especially when you bring cookies. Breath of Earth is available right now, everywhere.

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*Not an actual promise.

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Excerpt of The Returned

Are you one of those people who hasn’t picked up The Returned yet? Well, here is a little something to entice you. I’ve posted up the prologue (yes, it has one) and the first three chapters. You can find the link to them on the book’s page (the link above) or click on them each here. Happy reading, and because I know you’ll want to rush out and buy a copy to find out what happens next, here are the links.

Prologue Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3

THE RETURNED_Small

HarperCollinsAmazonBarnes & NobleGoogle PlayiTunesKobo

 

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Growing as a Writer, and a Person

In just a couple of weeks, July 12th to be exact, The Returned, will be released to the world. Surely you’re all aware of the date and are counting down with bated breath. This will mark my fourth published book in just under two years. I’m going to say that again because it’s still a little hard for me to believe. Fourth book. Published by a major publisher. Fourth book in two freaking years!

Ahhhhhh!!!
hobbes

Okay, sorry, where was I?

Despite the relatively short period of time, it feels like I’ve come quite a long way. The Returned is the first book whose outline survived until the very end. I admit, as a lifelong Panster—writes by the seat of my pants—I was worried the book would be too formulaic. It wasn’t. Wraith grows a lot as a person and a character, as do Caitlin and Edward, both in their relationship and as individuals. As release day approaches, I think about something I’ve heard other authors say; that it took them three or four books to feel as if they’d found their voice. It’s heartening to know I’m on a similar track.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my other books, but I think The Returned is my best work to date, as it should be. That growth and improvement is something I strive for as a writer: to always be improving in my craft. I’ve recently started rewriting a book—the first novel I finished—and it’s remarkable to see how far I’ve come as a writer since finishing that book. It’s also more than a little embarrassing to think I sent that manuscript to agents, but we’re not going to talk about that.

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Yes, I’ve improved as a writer, but for me, being a better writer is inextricably tied to being a better person. Unfortunately, growth and improvement is never a singular, instantaneous event. It happens over a long period of time, sometimes so slow that, like the proverbial frog in the pot of slowly warming water, it goes entirely unnoticed until you have some context. When it happens, it can be embarrassing (see above, and we’re still not talking about it) but mostly it’s wonderful to see, clearly and starkly, just how much progress has been made. In this post I talked about how much I learned about the tropes and stereotypes I’d blindly fallen into and how I work to rise above them. I say work not achieved, because I still have a long way to go. This fact was brought into harsh relief as I was editing The Returned.

The hardest part about change, of any kind, is accepting and acknowledging things about yourself that need to be improved or, shudder, “fixed.” It’s a fact: sometimes we meet an asshole, and sometimes, we are the asshole. Very few people enjoy being the asshole, particularly when it’s not intentional. I certainly don’t, especially when it adds to the already massive pile of shit that marginalized groups have to deal with. I’ve worked hard to, for lack of a better term, check my privilege.

I’m a straight white male who grew up in the 80’s. Like a lot of kids, in elementary school I had a fairly diverse group of friends, but as I grew up and social structure became more central to life—junior high and high school—my group of friends became more homogenized. In short, the vast majority of my friends looked like me and had similar experiences in the world. I imagine it was the same for a lot of people. For me, my distorted view of the world was compounded by a father who, to put it mildly, was a less than a stellar role model in terms of minorities and women. But that excuse only works for the young. Those who are, for lack of a better term, trapped in their environment and unable to change their circumstances. As an adult, I’m responsible for my behavior. Yes, we’re all, everyone one of us, shaped by our pasts, and we carry those biases, preconceived notions, and judgements forward into adulthood. BUT—and this is a “but” of mythic proportions—while I might have a reason for why I have those blind spots, it’s not an excuse to do nothing about them. Some people may see wanting to improve yourself as apologizing for who you are. I don’t, and I’m not.

The problem, however, is that blind spots are by their definition not visible. As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Often, we only find learn about them when someone else points them out. It’s easy to see that as a personal attack. In some ways, it is, and justifiably so. After all, I’m being the asshole. I know it’s not the responsibility of the person calling me out to do so gently or kindly. Is anyone regularly patient and understanding with assholes? I’m not. So, it’s my responsibility to recognize that I’m at fault, and address said blind spot like a grown up. I’m not saying I always agree, though I do always try to see things from their point of view. I’m not even saying it’s enjoyable, it can be shameful and embarrassing. No, it’s not always easy, but then I’ve never felt the fear of creepy men following me while catcalling, of being been pulled over because of the color of my skin, of being  threatened because of who I love, or the anger of being seen as less because stairs aren’t a pathway but a barrier.

It’s good to keep some perspective.

After The Forgotten, I thought I’d come a long way in terms of checking my privilege and making sure my characters all had agency (influence on the story). Turns out, I still have a long way to go, and a hell of a lot of blind spots. My editor for The Returned was a woman and several years my junior. Much to her credit, she never failed to call me out when I needed it and I have the utmost respect for her because of that. I won’t lie, I was shamed by how many small things she pointed out. Not because of anything she did, but because I felt I should know better. I’m both amazed at how subtle changes can make a huge difference in terms of granting, or taking away agency, and humbled that I didn’t see before, something that is so obvious now. Want an example? I originally wrote a line of dialogue where one male character asks another male character where he is taking his wife on their honeymoon. My editor (whom I’m not naming only because I didn’t ask her permission first) said I should change it so the first character is asking the second where he and his wife are going on their honeymoon. That small change moved the wife from being someone who was being taken somewhere (no agency) to someone who was going somewhere (agency).

Yes, that change is small, and incredibly subtle, but it makes a massive difference. The small things are, by their nature, the hardest to see. As someone who hasn’t had people try to take my agency away from me, I don’t always recognize when I’m doing it to someone else.

Imagine what it would be like meeting someone who mispronounces your name, and continues to do so every single time they see you. It would get annoying but you’d probably write that person off as a jerk. Now, imagine that it’s the majority of people you meet who do that. And more than that, when you correct them, they roll their eyes and tell you to get over it, or worse, threaten violence. That is just the barest taste, of the faintest whisper, of what some have to deal with every single day.

I’m sure there are some who will say I’m being ridiculous and that this is political correctness run wild. While I will agree there are some cases where PC has gotten out of hand, I think for the most part it comes down to respect, and treating people how you want to be treated. You know, like we all learned in kindergarten: be nice and polite to others, and when you’ve done something wrong, including hurting someone’s feelings, say you’re sorry. Some lessons never stop being valid. Though sometimes it can take forty years, and writing four books to really appreciate them.

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