Speculative Chic

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The really great people at Speculative Chic asked me to stop by and talk about some of my favorite things in Sci-fi/Fantasy. I decided to use the space to talk about some really excellent books by women of color. If you’re looking for something new to read, check it out (and the rest of the site too!). Even if you aren’t, you should check out the site.

You can see the post here.

A Story is Born I.L. Cruz

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In this edition of A Story is Born, I.L. Cruz is here to talk about her Enchanted Isle series. I found I.L. through her blog, Fairy Tale Feminista. If you like faerie tales, you’ll really enjoy her site. I highly recommend it, even if she does spell it fairy instead of faerie.


Starting from the Beginning: The Birth of The Enchanted Isles series

I remember the story that started it all.

My daughter was perfecting the art of being two and refused to stay down for her nap. My solution was to read to her from a book of fairy tales she’d gotten for her birthday. One of the stories was Rumpelstiltskin. I read the story and she fell asleep, but my mind kept turning the story over and over in my mind.

It’s a story about a woman who had a lying father, who claimed she could spin straw into gold. It’s a story of a woman who is bullied by her king to make good on her father’s lies on pain of death. And it’s the story of a woman who threw herself into the power of yet another man who made the most outrageous demand of all—her firstborn. Yet the story never gives her a name.

In an era where everything sends everyone into fits of ire, I’d say this took me to four or five—annoyed and pensive. Childhood is full of stories that cast men and boys as heroes for being bold and clever, but girls and women are heroes only when they’re meek and beautiful. The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. It began the germ of an idea.

I started looking for instances where women were at the heart of an adventure and more often than not romance was center stage. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like a good romance for men or women in any combination—it makes a story more well-rounded. But the more I read, the more I realized that a romantic entanglement spurred women and girls in adventure stories as though being female meant adventure for the sake of it was unthinkable. Being a proactive kind of person, I decided the only way to fix this oversight, was to add a story of my own.

My aims were initially simple. Write a story about a woman who engaged in an adventurous life and make her Latina, another deficit I’d noticed. I knew she was would have a love interest, but it would have little to do with her motivations. Because my reading of fairy tales gave rise to this idea, I began my search in the pages in my daughter’s books. This was at a time when fairy tale reimaginings were becoming popular. I settled on Mother Goose, but writing is rarely that simple.

The book, which would become a series, evolved through time. At first it was a mystery and then mystery/fantasy. At one point it became a YA novel because I went to a conference and the “expert” said it should be geared to young adults. It was at the same conference that someone else gave my work a title. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to tame my idea into a YA mold.

Then I remembered what originally brought me to writing. I wanted to see myself reflected in genre fiction. And I couldn’t do so within a context that was pushed on me. So, I did the hardest thing a writer has to do. I started from the beginning. I still liked my characters, but I knew the situations I was subjecting them to were artificial (as much as that is true for a world outside our own where magic is real). I opened myself up to other possibilities.

My characters had been with me long enough to talk back—a scary prospect to any sane person, but a common occurrence for a writer. From my “conversations” with my characters the Enchanted Isles books were born. It’s been and continues to be a rewarding and at times, heartbreaking experience, but I’m so happy it’s my career.


You can find I.L. at the aforementioned Fairy Tale Feminista, her website here, and on Twitter here.

You can find her books at the links below.


A Smuggler’s Path
Digital or Paperback


A Noble’s Path
Digital or Paperback

Cancel Culture – A Creator’s Point of View

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First off, Happy New Year! I hope 2020 brings much happiness and joy.

To kick off the new year, I wanted to write about something I’ve been seeing more and more talk about: cancel culture.

Now this is going to be on the long side, so:

TLDR: Don’t be an asshole. If you do become an asshole, don’t whine about people calling you an asshole, or try to make them out to be the ‘real’ asshole.

Now, for those unfamiliar with the term Cancel Culture, I envy you. While I don’t usually rely on Wikipedia as a source, in this case, the
definition is sufficient. But, like any sort of social reaction, there is nuance that is hard to easily quantify.

Call-out culture (also known as outrage culture) is a form of public shaming that aims to hold individuals and groups accountable for their actions by calling attention to behavior that is perceived to be problematic, usually on social
media. A variant of the term, cancel culture, describes a form of boycott in which someone (usually a celebrity) who has shared a questionable or unpopular opinion, or has had behavior in their past that is perceived to be either offensive or problematic called
out on social media is “canceled”; they are completely boycotted by many of their followers or supporters, often leading to massive declines in celebrities’ (almost always social media personalities) careers and fanbase.

Some examples of “cancel culture” include, but aren’t limited to: Louis C.K., Shane Gillis, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, more recently J.K. Rowling, and many, many more.


CLARIFICATION VIA MINI-RANT:

What I’m going to go into from here on is about people who say or do offensive things, NOT people who are themselves offensive. Like, for example, people who use their positions of power to get others to do things against their will, and actively work to destroy those who don’t go along with your twisted little fantasies. Those people are predators who need to compensate their victims AND spend a long while behind bars.


As way too many of those on the receiving end of this digital public shaming often shout about censorship and first amendment rights, I’m going to briefly (I hope) digress to hammer that argument into the ground. Apologies to my non-American readers for this. The text of the first amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
Government for a redress of grievances.

The first five words are the key. Congress shall make no law. The first amendment’s purpose and protections extend only as far as the government. It offers no protections from private entities, or businesses, such as social media companies for example. If you work for me and I discover that you like to spend your off time posting about how awesome lynching was, I’m going to fire your ass. Possibly out of a cannon. Into the sun. Some could argue about the fairness of firing someone based on what they do when I’m not paying them, though in my example it would take some serious mental gymnastics. What there can be no argument about, however, is that my firing of the above-mentioned douche-canoe violates their first amendment rights. Congress passed no law preventing them from saying something despicable, I just decided that I don’t want that view point associated with my business. Neither does the first ammendment guarantee you a platform, i.e. social media. When you sign up for any social media account, there is a (often lengthy) terms of service agreement you must agree to. And yet, some insist those companies are somehow obligated to permit any and all speech. To which I can only assume they would have no issue to me sitting in their living room 24/7, shouting obscenities through a bullhorn, and refusing to leave. Free speech, right?

Another unwritten aspect a lot of the first speech enthusiasts seem to believe is that the first amendment also protects them from criticism or consequence. There is so much irony in this idea that I’m amazed they don’t drop dead from heavy metal poisoning. The truth of course is that it ensures the exact opposite. Detractors have the same free speech rights. It should be noted the Supreme Court has ruled that all rights—including free speech—are not absolute. Yelling fire in a crowded theater is the most common example, but it also includes incitement to violence. This is why death threats are illegal, and why you rarely hear direct calls to do violence to others. It’s often coded. Or its weasel worded so the person can say they never actually told anyone to do that, they just said that if it happened it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. This is why no social media is prevented from banning racists or bigots, but those same racists and bigots are allowed to organize protests and marches, so long as they don’t incite violence or put the public at risk.

Some like to include the “war on Christmas” in the cancel culture discussion, but that’s a false equivalency. Someone saying something other than “merry Christmas” does not intrude on your freedom of religion. However, insisting they do, does intrude on their freedom of speech. Also, it’s just a quick path to being an asshole.

Okay, so not so brief a digression. Sorry.

But, Bishop, I hear you ask, what does this have to do with being a creator? Well, I’m glad you asked.

I heard a clip from a podcast in which a group of comedians lamented how hard it was for them these days. They can’t perform at the venues they used to because they get booed/heckled, or just aren’t booked. The reason of course is because their material isn’t “politically correct.” I have several problems with this notion, as a person and an artist.

As a person, I’m sick of the PC boogeyman. No one seems able to agree on what exactly it means aside from: if you say something I don’t like (happy holidays) I can call you out for being rude or insensitive. But if you tell me I said something rude or impolite, it’s being PC. Generally, I try to start from a place of respect or politeness. If someone tells me something I said offended them, or the like, I generally apologize and make a mental note. It costs me little, and it helps me avoid being the asshole. Are there some people who go to extremes? Yes. As humans, that tends to be our default: “If one is good, then a thousand is awesome.” As I’ve noted in other posts, I’ll respect just about any viewpoint, up until it deems someone as less than, particularly if it’s something they have no control over (skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.). Even if it something they do have control over, so long as it doesn’t dehumanize, and all parties involved are consenting adults, I say, you do you.

At this point we come to the crux of the post, apologies for taking the long way around, but I couldn’t find any other way here. As an artist, I’m bothered whenever I hear another artist blame the audience for their failure.

“The audience is too uptight/PC to get my humor.”

“My book is too highbrow for most readers to appreciate.”

“People are too indoctrinated into mainstream music to get my style.”

“My work is just too edgy for most sheeple.”

Two words: Bull. Shit.

If you’re a creative, once you put your art out into the world, you no longer get a say. It belongs to the world and they will do with it what they will. If they dislike it (which isn’t the same as not liking it), it isn’t because of some failure on their part. It’s because of a failure on yours.

Wait! Don’t freak out!

This doesn’t mean you’re a failure as an artist, just that you failed to connect in that instance. That’s what art is about, creating a connection. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, but you created it. For example, if you’re a comedian and people aren’t laughing at your material, the problem is the material, not the audience.

It’s not unlike when someone puts their foot in the mouth—or their head up their ass—and the defense is that they were taken out of context. In fairness, that can be a legitimate criticism. Using a single sentence from a ten-minute speech could leave out important information and change the tone of that sentence. But typically, “taken out of context” is code for “yes, I said that and meant it, but I refuse to accept the consequences.”

If you say something rude and/or offensive, and that wasn’t your intent, you stupendously failed in your attempt to communicate. And there’s no shame in that, we all roll a 1 sometimes (Dungeons & Dragon reference). Hell, it happens to me fairly regularly (thankfully, more often just saying something stupid rather than outright offensive) and it’s happened in every book I’ve written. Thank the merciful Gods my editors have been great in catching them and helping me do it less, but it still happens. When it does, there are three ways to proceed. Yes, there are more than three, but most are just some variation of these three.

  1. You can acknowledge that you messed up, apologize (sincerely, and no ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended’ bullshit), and make the effort to do better next time. The last part requires listening to others about where you went wrong
  2. You can do nothing. Just ignore all the looks and comments and go about your day.
  3. You can stand firm, or even double down.

The last two—spoiler alert—are great short cuts to becoming a complete asshat in short order. If the idea of apologizing and “giving in” or “capitulating” makes you uneasy, well, tough. Your job as a creative, or anyone who communicates with others, is to get your message across and understood. It’s not easy, and you’ll fail a lot. Like a LOT. But you won’t improve (as either a creative or a person) if you never recognize your own failures, and certainly not if you blame the audience.

This is how I view my job as a creative anyway, and what I do when I fall short. Maybe something works better for you. Or maybe you don’t care and think that if people are offended, they should just get over it. If you’re the latter, and your goal was to be an asshole, congratulations on your stupendous success.

A Story is Born – Terry Newman

#SFWAPRO

For this installment of A Story is Born, Terry Newman is here to talk about his comedic fantasy noir series (yes, you read that right). It hits on all genres and Terry shows why he has been so successful in comedy writing in all sort of media.


I have always made up stories, even before I could write them (or anything else) down. I played them through in my head. These short ‘imagination films’ featuring many of my favourite TV, film and comic book characters, as well as my own made-up characters.

I guess it’s what children do.

With this sort of start I consequently did pretty well at ‘English’ at school (despite a cavalier approach to spelling). I also did well at ‘German’, but living in the UK I stuck with English for writing.

I hated metalwork, which is why I never became Tony Stark.

I was good at everything else mind (no false modesty here!), but unfortunately – even though I went to ‘The Nobel Grammar School’ – I never won a Nobel prize. Only because our school was too modern to do that sort of thing. Otherwise it would have been a pretty good boast, having a Nobel prize.

Ah, perhaps I have gone back too far then? I’ll speed up.

Eventually careers talk time came around and the school’s Careers Master pointed me towards drama college or film school, where I could indulge these passions for making things up and possibly become a dissolute waster along the way. I was getting good at that too.

‘No’, I boldly said, (sic) to my Careers Master: ‘I’m going to be an ecologist and save the world from the upcoming environmental disaster.’ Sadly, back then in the later part of the C20th far to few people believed anything as bad as climate change was just round the corner.

Ha! That’ll teach them!

So I headed to the laboratory as best as I could and fell in love with electron microscopy. And, I mean, I could always write great stories in my spare time, couldn’t I? I’d have so much spare time, wouldn’t I?

I began writing my first full story, a comedy, detective, noir fantasy: ‘A DEAD ELF’ featuring dwarf detective Nicely Strongoak, while a proper electron microscope-wielding cell biologist, as some light relief from the chore of PhD writing. This was a long time ago (very last century) when the idea of mixing noir crime, fantasy and comedy in the one book seemed really outlandish! Well, it got me funny looks at parties, but this is what interested me: in particular Raymond Chandler, Tolkien and Douglas Adams. Let’s stick ‘em together I thought.

It was seeing a sign for an ‘Elf Service Station’ on the Derby Road that got my imagination firing on all cylinders. (The wind had blown a branch over the ‘S’). I just thought: ‘I bet they would have, bloody elves.’

I had never sided with the dwarves before – I was actually always one of the tallest in my class until everybody out-grew me. Fortunately, well after I had finished playing rugby.

Dwarves would make the best detectives after all – able to mix with the ‘White and Wise’ and the downtrodden and dirty in those mean cobbled streets. It is an interesting idea I had here after all, that all these medieval-type fantasy worlds would have to develop as time went by and deal with race relations and prejudice, political corruption and crime, and all the other delights of the modern era. It just had to happen!  Tick, tick, tick, went the brain!

Then, like The Beatles, I went to Hamburg. OK – it was just for a conference, a rather rushed affair, which is why I ended up there without any money and no return ticket. Boy, did I write a lot of ‘Dead Elf’ that week after the lectures had finished – after all I couldn’t afford to go anywhere – or eat. (Fortunately breakfast was provided).

That first incarnation of A DEAD ELF was a radio series. The BBC producer who read the script was very nice about it, but pointed out that the BBC had something similar in the mix and why didn’t I turn it into a novel? Unfortunately I had that PhD to finish and then papers to write and a chap called Terry Pratchett came along and basically did pretty much exactly what I wanted to do with fantasy. So, I put ‘A DEAD ELF’ away in the computer’s bottom drawer, but Nicely wouldn’t go away – in fact a second story gradually also emerged, but this time there was lot more detective and less satirical fantasy.

When, still a full time electron microscopist, I began writing topical comedy for a friend’s stage show I had a vague idea that this might be way to find an agent who could help me find a publisher for ‘A DEAD ELF’. This was now beginning to look much more like a proper novel now mostly thanks to a proper Word Processing package. However, a few months later I was surprised to find myself sneaking out of the lab lunch time to work at Broadcasting House writing for two of the BBC’s top topical comedy radio shows: ‘Week Ending’ and ‘The News Huddlines’.

You could do that then.

I ended up with some dozen commissions in total and jokes and sketches on TV’s prestigious ‘Rory Bremner’ show as well. What had begun as a way of finding a publisher was now the main preoccupation. Good job too, as to my surprise the worlds of comedy writing and book publishing have very little in common. This means that ‘A DEAD ELF’ had still to see the light of day.

Next, I tried my hand at playwriting, got my first commissions there and had three shows on at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the same year.

Oh, and some awards! Very minor awards, but more than you get doing electron microscopy. One play went on to be performed in New York and got a rather good review in the New York Times. I am still very pleased about that.

No agent still mind, as the worlds of playwriting, comedy writing and book publishing have even less in common.

One thing I was sure about, this was now all a lot more fun than science, and science funding was getting harder every day. Electron microscopy was not fashionable any more. So, I hung up my microscope – well, I would have done if they weren’t the size of baby elephants. I started writing film scripts as well and began helping other people with their work and even started teaching scriptwriting. I went properly freelance and closed the lab door for good.

And then strangely I became university lecturer again – this time in ‘writing’, not cell biology! Wow! Two university lectureships – how cool will that look on the C.V.? Not at all, is the answer.

Still, none of it had helped me find a home for ‘A DEAD ELF’! So when, working now full time as a writer and script doctor, I saw a post about Harper Voyager UK’s Digital First Initiative I emailed them ‘A DEAD ELF’ and basically forgot I had done so.

After all, I was writing my first musical now! Hell, why not?

Some time later I decided to self-publish ‘A DEAD ELF’. Two weeks after I had accomplished this, Harper Collins contacted me to say that they wanted to publish my book.

I unself-published ‘A DEAD ELF’.

My ebook was epublished by HV, with minimal publicity, as ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of Dead Elf’. (A title I hated). With no review copies sent out, the book didn’t exactly shake the foundations of the publishing world! I knew it could be popular – I had total faith in Nicely. It just needed to get in front of the right readers.

Some months later (after the paperback was published as a Print On Demand) somebody at Harper Collins in the USA saw something in my story (or maybe they liked the cover – good cover!) and it was mentioned in a large promotional ‘Bookperk’ email to Harper Collins readers.

Within two weeks ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of Dead Elf’ was selling like hot cakes and it became a Kindle #1 Bestseller in the ‘Epic Fantasy’ genre – it was outselling both Tolkien and Martin! Eek! I got a banner from Amazon to this effect to put on my website. Over a hundred reviews ticking up too!

However, with no follow-up publicity from the UK part of the Harper Voyager business, my sales couldn’t keep going at that rate. I was now inspired to finish Nicely’s next adventure, confident that this would sell even better as we could get surely some review copies out there too, given ‘A DEAD ELF’s’ success. My editor said she was looking forward to reading the book, so I dropped everything else and speedily finished the manuscript and sent it off to her. It was called ‘The King of Elfland’s Little Sister’. A jolly clever mash-up of two great books – one fantasy and one detective; but you knew that!

I waited, and I waited. I sent off emails. I started book 3 still waiting. Eventually I heard that my editor was off sick. I carried on waiting. I contacted senior people and was told that it would be read. About a year after submission, pretty much out of the blue, I received an email from a p.a. to say that ‘because of lack of capacity’ Harper Voyager would not be able to do book 2 justice and so were not going to publish it.

And that’s after a relatively successful first book! Publishing eh?

Fortunately the experience had given me some contacts and so ‘The King of Elfland’s Little Sister’ was published by Monkey Business, an imprint of ‘Grey House in the Woods’ – bless ‘em – and I’m very pleased with it.

So that’s how my first book came about and how I stumbled through academia and didn’t win a Nobel Prize, either at school or as a scientist. I did help sort out cardiac atrial natriuretic peptide secretion though and discovered a corkscrew-headed sperm and the uniqueness of the plant endodermis membrane. I have also given quite a few people a jolly good laugh along the way – not always in my writing. More laughs still to come!

Detective Nicely Strongoak Book Three is now finished too – hurrah! It’s called ‘Dwarf Girls don’t Dance’ and completes the ‘Dwarf Noir’ trilogy. It will be published by Monkey Business later this year.

Check out Terry at his website here, his Wikipedia page (lucky bastard) here, or on Twitter here. Even Nicely has his own website here.
You can find all of Terry’s books, which are not only inexpensive ebooks but also well worth the read, on his Amazon page.

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.

 

#SFWAPRO

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