A Story is Born I.L. Cruz

#SFWAPRO

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

A Big Announcement!

#SFWAPRO
One of the downsides to being a writer is that you often get good news but can’t share it right away. A few weeks ago this happened to me (again) and now I’m finally able to share it.

*drumroll*

Two-Gun Witch has been picked up!!!


(SQUEE)

For those of you who follow my blog posts, you know this has been a long and often daunting road. I feel this book is my best work to date, which it should be in terms of my writing skill, but I also believe this is the best story I’ve written with some of the best characters. For those who haven’t followed my posts, or don’t remember, the short version is that the book got sent around to the big publishers, and a few smaller imprints. Generally (high 90 percentile) the editors really liked the book and wanted it, but the marketing people put the kibosh on it because they weren’t sure how to sell it, or felt it was too much of a gamble (fantasy westerns don’t usually sell well). I knew this would be an issue even though I think it’s more of a historical fantasy; only part of the story is set in the old west. As such, It didn’t take long for me to realize that a small press would be the best place for TGW. They can often take risks the bigger houses won’t.

The book will be published by Falstaff Books. I think Falstaff is a great home for TGW, and not just because they call themselves the Misfit Toys of Fiction, but that helped. I’ve known John Hartness for a couple of years now, and I’ve rarely met someone who works harder for authors and books. Additionally, there will be an audiobook which is something I’ve been wanting for a very long time. I’m super excited (in case you couldn’t tell) and I can’t wait to see what the book becomes.

Obviously there isn’t cover art yet, or a release date beyond sometime next year, but as soon as they become available, I’ll be announcing them here. While I am eager to get the book out, I’m also excited to have the time to build up some hype, get some reviews, and hopefully spread the word. This is of course where you (my wonderful, brilliant, incredibly attractive, spectacular readers) can really help. Have I mentioned lately how much I love you all, you sexy beasts?


(I’m just going to assume this is you)


(or this #BestCompanionFightMe)

In the coming months I’ll be releasing details about the book (see above about hype) and also revealing details about a special offer for pre-orders from The Fountain Bookstore (my local indie, who ships worldwide).

In the meantime, here’s a little something for you wonderful (and did I mention super hot?) people to tantalize. This is a sample flap copy I wrote up last year. If you don’t know the term, the flap copy is the paragraph or two you find on the back cover of paperbacks or inside the flap (hence the term) of the dust jacket for hardcovers. It’s unlikely that this will be the final copy, but I think it offers a good idea of what the story is about.

Talen is a Stalker, a bounty hunter hired by the Marshal Service to hunt down humans stained by dark magic. She’s also a two-gun witch, one of the few elven women who can wield two magical revolvers, spell irons, at once. For three years she’s lived for the next bounty, and a whisper of vengeance for the destruction of her people. That changes when she takes the warrant on Margaret Jameson, a new kind of stained, one immune to the usual tools of collection. Upon finding her quarry, Talen realizes Margaret isn’t stained at all, but someone worked very hard to make her appear so. The search for an answer carries the two unlikely partners from the wilds of the Great Plains to the expansive cities of post-Civil War America. There, they learn the truth is much darker than they imagined, and it could mean the death of millions, or even reshape the world itself.

More to come. Watch this space.

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.

A Story is Born – T. Frohock

#SFWAPRO

Welcome to the inaugural post of what I intend to become an ongoing series. Several authors I respect and admire have an ongoing blog series where authors can come and talk about their books. John Scalzi has The Big Idea, Mary Robinette Kowal has My Favorite Bit, and Chuck Wendig has 5 Things I learned. I wanted to do something different, and since authors are so often asked “where do your ideas come from” I decided my contribution (or rather theirs) would be how the story of their book came about.

But I’ve taken up enough space talking about other people. For the very first A Story is Born I invited T. Frohock to talk about her book, Where Oblivion Lives. She did one better and talked about how her Los Nefilim series came about.


In the beginning …

King Solomon was dying. That was how the first incarnation of Los Nefilim began. It went something like this:

In the garden beyond my window, a night bird cried a sublime song while in the distance, a guard called the watch. Otherwise, the palace slept as I, Solomon, third King of all Israel, lay dying with only an angel at my side.

She was a small creature, this angel of mine who cradled my hand, her wings folded demurely at her back. When I was a young man, the tip of her head barely reached my collarbone. Now she towered over my deathbed. She seemed larger somehow; an illusion amplified by the darkness and my fear of the dark.

Except that book didn’t sell. It was too much story in such a short space of words. There were angelic and daimonic wars, and multiple incarnations, and the narrative moved between Solomon’s first person account of the events in the past and the third person account of the events on the Iberian Peninsula in 1348. It was a huge tale that probably should have spanned multiple novels, but I wrote it like one book and it failed to win an editor’s eye.

That happens sometimes. We spend a lot of time and energy on our prose, and though it might feel emotionally devastating when something doesn’t sell, often it just means a particular work isn’t ready for publication. Sometimes, the story needs time to settle … ferment, if you will.

With that thought in mind, I tucked the novel into the metaphorical trunk that is a computer’s memory, and then I moved on to other stories. None of them sold, either.

I was ready to quit writing. Not out of petulance—okay, maybe a little, but once my hurt feelings passed, I took a quick inventory and realized that if my work wasn’t being published, then it was probably something wrong with my writing. Maybe … just maybe … it might be an idea to start back at the beginning. I considered taking some classes, honing my craft a little more before trying for publication again. In other words, it was time for a break.

Meanwhile, the novella market was opening up and a friend suggested that I try writing one. At something of a loss for what to do, I decided to make the novella a gauntlet challenge: if the novella was rejected, then I would quit writing for a while.

As I turned ideas over in my head, I remembered my Solomon story, which is really the backstory for Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel. That backstory went something like this:

You see, the Psalms of the Old Testament were written by several people: David, Solomon, and someone called Asaph. I thought it odd that there was so much literature about David and Solomon and the other members of their respective courts, but this guy named Asaph gets a byline and then pretty much drops out of sight forever. I’m sure Biblical scholars know more about him, but I couldn’t find anything. So I made up a story about how Asaph and Solomon were great friends, but they had a falling out, one so severe that Solomon banished Asaph from his court and imprisoned him with a half-mad angel, but Solomon still loved Asaph too much to erase him from existence entirely, so he left his name on the Psalms they composed. The end.

Then I kept the components of the original story that worked: Solomon/Guillermo, who in his arrogance caused the fall of the Nephilim; his best-friend and betrayer, Asaph/Diago; and the commander of one of Solomon’s army divisions and Asaph’s lover, Benaiah/Miquel.

For everything else, I essentially started from scratch. I eliminated the shape changing and as I reworked the story, I discovered that it wasn’t really about Guillermo. The story of the nefilim was about Diago. So I trimmed the details down to their very essence for the first novella, and since they all had Spanish names, I kept the setting in Spain.

Rather than stick with epic fantasy, I moved the story forward to the turbulent years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. The novellas (In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death) all serve as an introduction into the world of Los Nefilim, as well as forming the basis for discovering the Key—the song that will enable the nefilim to open the realms as the angels do. The novels, which begin with Where Oblivion Lives, concern Diago’s actual composition of the Key. Somewhat like an opera in three parts, the stories follow the crucial points that lead our heroes to the next act of the movement.

The newest novel, Carved from Stone and Dream, will be published February 2020 and is something akin to Band of Brothers meets John Wick. It takes place at the end of the Spanish Civil War. I spend some time talking about the Spanish retreat and how the French treated the refugees fleeing Franco’s armies.

It’s been an amazing journey with these three guys and their adventures. As I work on the third novel, A Song with Teeth, I’m bringing this portion of their story to a close and realizing that theirs is the journey of three men moving away from the toxic masculinity of their firstborn lives to learn to nurture one another in an emotionally healthy relationship.

After reviewing this very long post, I guess my message to authors is a simple one. You never know which incarnation of a story might sell, so stick with the process you’ve developed for yourself and keep trying, keep writing. More than anything, don’t be afraid to experiment with different styles.

Write on … I will watch for you.


T. Frohock has turned a love of history and dark fantasy into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. A real-life cyborg, T. has a cochlear implant, meaning she can turn you on or off with the flick of a switch. Make of that what you will. She currently lives in North Carolina, where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

You can find her in a lot of places online, but she is most often at her website or lurking on Twitter.

Writing the Right Way

#SFWAPRO

There is no right or wrong way to write.


Okay, I suppose I should expand a little.

First, this can’t be said enough: all writing advice, regardless of who gives it, is very, very, very (you get it) much your mileage may vary. What works perfectly well for one person is completely useless to another. Everyone has to find their own way to create, and while some pieces of advice can be useful (a controversial opinion from someone who writes a lot of writing advice) it’s up to you decide which is useful to you. As seems to be happening more, this post is inspired by interactions I’ve seen on various social media platforms.

Outline – to pants or plot!

You might’ve come across the terms pantster and plotter. A panster is just someone writes by the seat of their pants, and a plotter, well, plots out the story. I’m 99% pantster. I do create an outline for everything I write, though it’s rarely more than a two pages, three at most. It’s little more than the chapter number, the point-of-view character, and what key event needs to happen in that chapter. With the exception of The Forgotten, every outline I’ve created is generally useless by chapter 4. As the story develops, the sequence changes, new ideas come into fruition, etc. I’ll usually update the outline for a while, but before long I say screw it and just focus on writing the damn story. I’ve never thought of it this way before, but for me outlines are like the towers for rocket launches. It’s necessary to get me started, but it gets left behind in a fiery explosion. Not really. Well, okay, there was that one time, but I can’t legally discuss it.

On the other end of the spectrum, I know authors who build outlines that are nearly novels on their own. For them, this is the skeleton around which the story is built. I also know some people who don’t outline at all. If you find them useful, use them, If not, don’t.

Write the book start to finish!

Guess what? You don’t have to! This can also tie into the different software people prefer. I have several friends who use Scrivener and they love it because they can write chapter 21 then chapter 7 then 8, then 1. Apparently you can also move the chapters around with ease and it’s just awesome. I wouldn’t know as I don’t like Scrivener and thus don’t use it. To me, it’s overly complicated for what I need and while I generally love learning new software, I’m happy to stick with Word and just get the writing done.

I do write from start to finish and in a completely fictional and non-scientific study I’ve done, it appears that those who can and do write chapters (or sections) out of order also rely on robust outlines. As I don’t, I don’t. For me, the story grows and develops as I write it, and the very idea of writing a later chapter before a preceding one fills me with dread. The ability to do so is clearly witchcraft, and while I approve of witchcraft in general, writing witchcraft is beyond me. But you can do that magic, get witchy with it. Just please don’t turn me into a newt. I’m not going through that again.


(college was a wild time)

You must use (enter software name here)!

Yes, I’ve actually seen this argument and, you guessed it, it is grade A bullshit. Use whatever works for you (are you noticing a recurring theme here?). G.R.R. Martin uses an old DOS machine running WordStar because it works for him, and he’s George R. R. Martin so people work around it. I use Word because I’ve used it forever, or at least since Word Perfect died, and I know how to use it. In the past, I’ve written long hand (my hands hurt just thinking about this), and used word processors, as in an actual word processing machine. They were like computers that only ran Word. I’ve also used manual typewriters, not because it was iron but because that was all that existed. Yes, I’m old, get off my lawn.

To make a long story short—too late—find what tools work for you. If the ones you’re using don’t, try something else, and keep trying until you find something that does. I’m a computer geek from the way-way back, when the old ones walked streets lined with boothy-phones and the internet was called Encyclopedia Britannica. So, I prefer to do all my work on a computer. I outline, keep notes, create story bibles, write, and edit on a computer. Some people can’t edit if they don’t print it out and mark it up, which is cool for them. One author I know uses a whiteboard and 3×5 cards to plot and layout a story. It’s a little too Beautiful Mind for me, but she rocks it and good on her.

TLDR: Writing can be hard. Chuck Wendig—very funny man and skilled writer—once said something along the lines of: writing can be rainbow unicorns that poop cupcakes, and sometimes it’s digging ditches. I imagine many of you reading this know the truth of that statement. Writing is hard, so don’t make it any harder than it needs to be. Grab a shovel, even if that college professor, famous author, weird guy on the street, the Dalai Lama, or a weird Dalai Lama on the street said you should dig with your hands first. It’s a creative process and no one knows how to do it your way, but you. If anyone tells you otherwise, tell them I said they should piss off. This will probably confuse them, but if they’re Catholic it could terrify them, so, have fun with it!


(Avoid all advice from the Llama Dalai Lama)

The Myth of Natural Born Talent

#SFWAPRO

I saw a conversation on Twitter recently about a writer “starting from nothing” and it got me thinking. There’s a fairly prevalent myth regarding not just writers, but nearly everyone in the creative arts. Hell, if we’re being honest about it, it extends into most aspects of life. This myth (and it is a myth) is that some people are just born artists, or singers, or mechanics, or mathematicians, or scientists, etc.

“She’s always had a gift for math.”

“He was drawing the most amazing things by five.”

“She was always helping with car repairs.”

“They were always making people laugh.”

It’s true some people have a natural aptitude: i.e. their brains are wired in such a way that they grasp some concepts quickly. However, this doesn’t mean someone is born with a best-selling novel in their tiny hands (thankfully for mothers everywhere), or a paint brush, or singing Ave Maria. Well maybe the last one, but it just comes across as crying. I don’t know any writer, musician, artist, or the like who never had to work at their art. Make no mistake, while some people might have a natural advantage, damn near anything you can imagine is a skill developed over time. Let’s take a common go to when the topic of geniuses come up.

A common misconception about Mozart is that he was born a gifted musician for whom music came as natural as breathing. The truth is more nuanced and complicated. Amadeus’s father was a music teacher and composer; more successful at the former than the latter. Amadeus sat in on his older sister’s lessons at age three and developed an interest in music. His father began teaching Amadeus, and by four, the child was playing the piano. The story goes that he was composing original music by five, but there is some debate about how true this is. His father stopped composing at the same time his son started, and most of the handwriting of the music was his father’s. Additionally, his father made money from his children, touting them as prodigies and having them play in front of the well to do of Europe.

This is not to say Amadeus wasn’t brilliant, but he also spent literal years learning his craft. It’s been shown that young children learn much quicker than adults, by necessity. Consider for a moment just how much kids learn in just the first few years of life: motor skills, language (sometimes more than one), social interaction, spatial awareness, and a whole long list of other things. We’ve all heard how young Olympians are when they start training. A lot of what we recognize as natural born talent is simply an interest sparked at a young age that isn’t lost. If your friend in high school who was an amazing sketch artist started drawing when they were six, is it any wonder that ten years later they’re pretty freaking good? Could it be that if you start something early enough (while the brain is still developing) that a natural aptitude is created? Regardless of how, some people are just better at somethings, but how is that different than all the other advantages people have over each other (better schools, food security, support and encouragement, a stable home life)?

When I was very young, five or six I think, my brother (nine years older) had an open house at his high school. This would’ve been the early eighties and Apple computers were just beginning to show up. While my mother talked with my brother’s teachers, I found a computer, booted it up, loaded a game, and set to playing. For anyone unfamiliar with the Apple II, let me assure you this wasn’t a herculean feat. Maybe I had some natural aptitude with computers, but more likely I got lucky. However, this event got the attention of my mother and the teacher. As such, I got branded a computer genius at an early age. When most kids were getting Atari 2600s, Colecovisions, or the like, I got a commodore Vic-20 (yes, I’m old, I’ve come to terms with it). When I complained that I couldn’t play many games on it (it had a cartridge slot and cassette tape input, but few options) I was told I could make my own games. So I did. I’ve used the Vic-20, the Commodore 64, Timex Sinclair, Wang (the computer, I was a kid you perve!), several Tandy models, and eventually windows and Apple computers (including the early Macintosh). I remember hearing about Cray supercomputers and losing my mind.

After working with computers for almost forty years (we’ve established that I’m old) I can be functional in a program or system in a few days, and be showing others better ways to use them in a couple weeks. This isn’t to brag. I’m not a genius, I’ve just spent a lot of years developing this skill.

I’ve also been writing, at varying levels of seriousness, for just about as long. That skill however wasn’t born from the encouragement and support of my above example. I’ve mentioned before that my childhood wasn’t ideal. It’s wasn’t the brutal hellscape some grow up in, but it left its mark. I lived in near constant fear and amid near constant conflict. Like many families in that situation, we projected the appearance of normalcy. Most of my friends knew things weren’t great for me, but only a few knew the whole truth. I grew up believing that maintaining this illusion was of the utmost importance. This meant lying, a lot. My instinct to “keep the peace” at any cost took a long time to overcome. I have a feeling more than a few of you reading this know what I’m talking about.

But a useful aspect of this skill is that it translates well into storytelling, both writing and acting. I wrote my first stories in either kindergarten or first grade, I’m not sure which. I don’t imagine they were terribly inventive, but my teacher would read them to the class at story time. I don’t remember those instances in detail, but I remember how amazing they felt. I wrote poetry through junior high and high school. Yes, most of it was terrible and will never see the light of day, but some of it was good enough to win contests. When I got into college, I started taking writing more seriously. It took me ten years to finish my first novel, but only three months to finish the second. That second, The Stolen, would be my first published novel.

I’m a bit of a rarity among the published authors I know in that I don’t have a sizeable stack of novels (finished or not) in the proverbial drawer. Before The Stolen was published, I’d only worked on two novels, and only finished one (the other won’t ever be finished because, well, it’s crap). I don’t think this is because I’m some literary genius or naturally gifted writer. Rather than writing more novels, I took one (guess which) and started working with freelance editors to improve it. That’s when I learned that coming up with a story, and telling it well, were two different skill sets. I’d gotten pretty good at the first, but had no idea how to do the second. I learned a LOT from those early editors, and even more from my editor at Harper. In the years since, I’ve learned even more and continue to improve my craft. I hope I’ll continue to learn and improve for the rest of my life.

I know this has been a long post, and thanks to those of you who made it all the way through, but it has all been prelude to a simple idea. Anyone can learn the skills to become a writer (or nearly anything else) at any point in your life. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing since you were five, or you didn’t start until you were in your sixties.I don’t know for sure why we assign an almost magical air to people who are exceptionally successful or talented in a given field. Maybe it’s because it makes it easier to dismiss our dreams (or worse, the dreams of others).

“You’ll never be as good as Yo-Yo Ma.”

It’s worth noting here that he started on the cello at four-and-a-half.

It’s true you might not be the next Amadeus Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Johnny Cash, or Van Gogh, but that doesn’t mean that if you put in the time effort, that you can’t ever be amazing at something. It might take you longer that some, or less than others. It’ll be hard, and sometimes it will just plain suck, but you can do it.

And don’t try to be the next anything, or berate yourself because you won’t be. We already have one. Work to be the first you. That’s something we don’t have, and no one else can do it.

The Author’s Voice

#SFWAPRO

Recently, a writer friend posted about a conversation he had with his agent regarding his voice. The writer is a self-confessed style chameleon, meaning he can mimic the styles of other writers, a laudable skill. However, the agent was curious what his voice would be when he wasn’t copying someone else. I tried to express what I thought the agent meant, but I’m not sure I expressed my thoughts well, so I’ve decided to tackle it here in a longer form.

If you’re a writer, or in the writing world, you’ve probably heard the term ‘writer’s voice’ before, but what is it? Unfortunately, a lot of people see it a bit like pornography in that “you know it when you see it.” It’s also one of the hardest, and most important, things a writer will do. As I’m a fan of philosophy, particularly Socrates, let’s start by trying to define the ineffable voice.

First, to be clear, I don’t mean a character’s voice. Each character (hopefully) has their own distinct voice expressed through word choice, emotional responses, and the like. A writer’s voice is a style, or feel to their writing. It doesn’t matter what genre the story is, their voice is the foundation upon which the story is told. Here’s an analogy that might help. There are some musicians who have such a well-defined style, or voice, that you can recognize one of their songs that you’ve never heard before. I think Santana is an excellent example of this because of his guitar. Mumford and Sons, the Pogues, Gaelic Storm, Tom Waits, David Bowie, and Social Distortion are a few more examples just off the top of my head. Just about any die-hard fan can recognize the style of their favorite bands though.

So how does this translate into writing? Well, like music, style is built from different factors. Not many people make it a point to sit down and dissect a piece of writing to try and find the author’s voice, but it can prove to be a useful exercise in your own work. Here are just a few examples of what makes up a writer’s style or voice:

Word choice and sentence structure is often a key element in an author’s voice. Are their sentences long, or do they tend to use shorter, more clipped sentences? Do they use a lot of descriptive terms, or are they more direct? Anne Rice is a good example of the former and Hemingway of the latter. Do they use a lot of ‘ten dollar words’? Does the use of them come across as authentic? What about profanity/curse words? How much? Is it creative? i.e. does someone get called an asshole or a bloviated shit weasel.

The pacing of a book can be another aspect of the writer’s voice. It goes without saying that most stories, and (hopefully) all novels have a pace that varies: faster in action scenes, slower during deliberations, etc. But the story will also have an overall pace. Most people have read books where a hundred pages feels like ten, and other books that are the reverse. That level of pacing is determined by things like exposition, plot complexity, and even the characters.

Dialogue use versus narration could be considered part of pacing. The more dialogue used, the more ‘white space’ there will be (usually), and the more pages a book will have. The denser the text, the slower a book tends to feel. Despite the impact they can have on pace, I think dialogue versus narration deserves its own consideration. Narration doesn’t always have to feel slow and dialogue doesn’t have to feel fast. A long stretch of dialogue can be as dry as narration, and I’ve read narration that is more thrilling and energetic than the dialogue. Genre can have some impact in which way things lean, epic fantasy tends to have more narration for example, but there are exceptions. I tend to favor dialogue over narration, sometimes too much, even in my high fantasy stories.

The tone, or feel, of a story is a bit harder to define, but just as key. I’ll use my books as an example. They tend to the darker side, but not dark as in horror. If my books were people, they’d carry the scars—physical and emotional—of a hard lived life. They’d know how it feels to be hungry, and not know when you’ll eat again. They’ve been preyed upon by someone more powerful, and regularly come out on the losing end. But they still cling to hope, and in fact derive their strength from it. I’d classify my books in the neighborhood as Richard Kadrey and Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files particularly). This obviously begs the question: doesn’t the individual story drive the tone? Of course it will have an impact, but with my work at least, I find the story adds depth to the tone rather than wholly defining it.

Lastly, there’s plot. I don’t just mean complex versus simple, but how the plots tend to be constructed. Does the story have seemingly disparate pieces that don’t come together till the end, or is each branch obviously part of the whole? Does the author use misdirection, throwing twists that turn out to have nothing to do with the main thread? Do they rely more on subtext, or are the hints more overt? Does the plot twist and turn, or does it just emerge from the fog? Again, the plot structure can shift from book to book, but it can also be a common thread that adds to the writer’s voice.

I could list other elements that can define a writer’s voice, but I think these are the easiest to see and breakdown. But style isn’t a recipe. Some writer’s might find their voice from all the examples I listed, some from only a couple, and others from elements I didn’t list at all. As writers we tend to start by mimicking the style of writers we like, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The more you write though, the more you’ll probably see your own voice shining through. There’s no secret to finding your voice, and no timeline. I started to find mine by the second book I wrote, and really felt like I’d found my groove by the fourth. Some people may need more time and some lucky bastards might find their voice right out of the gate. It’s okay to hate those people, we all hate them.

However long it takes to find your voice is how long it takes. It isn’t a race and taking more or less time to find it doesn’t make you a better or worse writer. Regardless, I hope this post helps you along the way. It’s rarely an easy journey (unless you’re one of those previously mentioned lucky bastards) but it’s an important one, perhaps the most important. At least that’s my opinion.

Seriously though, if you found your voice the first time you sat down to write, screw you.