A Story is Born – Terry Newman

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

The Art of not being an Asshole: Representation, Stereotyping, Appropriation, and Erasure

#SFWAPRO

For those of you who don’t know, I’m white. In fact, I’m very, very white.

I’m also a man, and straight. Basically, I hit the privilege lottery. It doesn’t mean my life has been easy, or that I haven’t worked hard to get where I am. What it does mean is that there are a lot of challenges and obstacles that I never had to face. However difficult my life was, it would’ve been more so if I were a woman, or black, or trans, or all of the above.

If you’re someone who struggles to understand the idea of privilege, and you’re still reading this, here is a great video that explains it.

As a general rule, I try to avoid being an asshole. Having privilege doesn’t make me an asshole, but it does make it easier to be one, and it means I suffer fewer (if any) consequences from it. It doesn’t even have to be intentional. For example, dismissing or diminishing the struggles of those who don’t look like me because I’ve never had to face them.

What does this have to do with writing? Quite a bit actually. I wrote a couple of blog posts about it here and here, if you’re interested in reading them. If you aren’t, here is the tldr: as a writer, I have a certain amount of power. My stories and characters can reinforce stereotypes and tropes. They can dehumanize or reduce a group of people to a caricature, or their culture, beliefs, and history to a plot point or set piece. They can even erase entire groups of people entirely. They don’t have to, but they can. What’s more, the blind spots I have that are born from privilege make it super easy; stomping around, blithely unaware of what I’m stepping on. That, to me, is a good example of an asshole.

So, if I don’t want to be an asshole, which I don’t, I have to be mindful of my figurative surroundings. It takes effort and requires a willingness to recognize and acknowledge when, despite my best efforts, I still wind up being the asshole. And when that happens, apologizing sincerely, accepting the consequences, and striving to do better in the future.

This isn’t easy to do. In fact, this blog post was spurred by a recent conversation with an author friend. This person is one of the kindest, selfless, most thoughtful people I know. In fact, they are so averse to causing anyone harm that they feel paralyzed at times. They want their writing to be diverse and inclusive, but they fear screwing it up and how that will impact others. Some will use this as example of PC culture run amok. To those people, I cordially invite them to fuck off. This author wants to do the right thing, to be a good person, but they’re not sure how. I know my friend isn’t the only person who worries about this, so I’m going to share some lessons I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made.

In case you didn’t know this, representation is important. Everyone should get to read stories with characters like them in it. However, you need to do it correctly. If the only black character in a story is the magical negro, the only Asian is a ninja assassin good at math, or the only LGBTQ character is a super effeminate man with a lisp and limp wrists, you’re not doing it correctly. Proper representation is why #ownvoices is so important. When members of marginalized groups tell their own stories, it gives them representation and the world some cool new stories. Additionally, it also shows those of us not in that group what positive representation looks like.

So, does this mean non-marginalized people should never write about marginalized groups? No of course not, and for a couple of reasons. First, the current lack of diversity in the writing world means the only way to get broader representation is if non-marginalized people include marginalized characters. Second, and for the same reason as above, this will result in the erasure of marginalized people from literature. Obviously the ultimate goal should be increasing diversity of creators, and while it is improving, like all social changes, it’s a long slow march. In the meantime, I think those of us with privilege owe it to readers to provide them with positive, accurate representation. BUT when someone who isn’t marginalized creates characters that are, they owe it to those groups, their readers, the story, and themselves, to do it right. That means avoiding stereotypes and negative tropes.

First, let’s be clear; all stereotypes are bad. Yes, even positive stereotypes. No group is a monolith, and stereotypes deprive them of individualism, internal diversity, and complexity. In order to avoid stereotypes, you need to be aware of them. Some stereotypes are so old and have been repeated for so long that people forget the origins, or that they are stereotypes at all. As such, when writing about a group that you don’t belong to, never assume what you know is accurate or correct. Do research! And I don’t mean just Googling a list of common stereotypes (though that’s a start). Read articles by members of that group; multiple articles (again, no culture is a monolith). Find colleges/universities that have classes or departments dedicated to that group and ask to talk to someone there. If you reach out to individuals, always be respectful. Remember, no one owes you their time and attention, and it’s not the responsibility of a marginalized person to educate you. If they do give you some of their time and attention, recognize they’re doing you a favor, not the other way around.

Unlike stereotypes, not all tropes are bad. Some are neutral, and some are just overdone. Others though are truly offensive, hostile, and/or bigoted. The white savior, magical negro, noble savage, fridging, bury your gays/dead lesbian syndrome, and manic pixie dream girl are just a few examples. There are many, many more, so again, do your research.

Another, all too common, problem area is cultural appropriation. If you’re unsure what exactly that means, it’s the seizure of aspects from a marginalized culture by a non-marginalized people, with no regard for those whose culture is being seized. Some dismiss the idea of appropriation. They say it’s an homage or celebration of the culture they helped themselves to. Make no mistake, that’s utter bullshit. In most cases, the person doing the appropriating is part of a group that at one time actively tried, or succeeded, in destroying that culture. Black culture is the result of successful destruction. Enslaved people were often punished for practicing their native religions, or speaking their native languages. Over the course of centuries, any memory of where they’d come from was lost. As such, they were forced to creature a new culture of their own. American Indian boarding schools represent a real effort by the US Government to destroy Native American culture in the name of assimilation and “civilizing savages”. As such, avoid including any ceremonies, rituals, or religious beliefs of marginalized groups in your stories. Even if you’ve done a mountain of research, if you’re not a member of that culture, it’s unlikely you’ll have a deep enough understanding to do it justice. Some groups (understandably) actively work to keep aspects of their culture, or all of it, from outsiders. Respect that choice. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a character from that culture in your story, but don’t include any rites or ceremonies. Also, avoid using a thinly veiled stand-in for a group or culture. You won’t fool anyone.

Another invaluable tool is hiring a sensitivity reader. This is an invaluable service that not enough people use. Keep in mind that a sensitivity reader will provide feedback on problem areas. They don’t give you a seal of approval, and you should never, ever use them as a shield from criticism. As has been mentioned (repeatedly) no culture is a monolith. The idea of sensitivity readers has gotten a raw deal lately. Part of that is a knee jerk reaction to “PC culture” but it’s also a result of less than scrupulous people taking advantage of the need. So, again, do your research. Make sure the person you’re hiring belongs to the group you need help with. I know from personal experience how hard this can be. My current project, Two-Gun Witch, is set in the years just after the civil war. A concern was raised that one of my characters, an elf, seemed to be a stand in for Native Americans. While I made a concerted effort to avoid this, and included Native American characters (Lakota specifically), I recognized this as a legitimate concern. It took time, and help from a friend, but I found a Lakota sensitivity reader.

When the reader gets back to you, don’t argue with them. You hired them for their feedback, so use it. You should also be prepared that you might need to scrap the project. If your reader says the story is just too problematic, listen to them. It’ll hurt, and it will suck, but it’s the right thing to do. If you feel strongly about it, hire another sensitivity reader. If you do, however, be honest with them from the start. Explain that you had a reader look it over, what they said, and that you’re looking for a second opinion. Lying or holding back is just setting yourself up to be the asshole.

If this sounds over the top, or too much work, disabuse yourself of that idea. Writers do research. I don’t know of any who haven’t spent hours researching some minute detail that will only show up once. The characters and, more importantly, the readers who will connect with that character, deserve the same consideration.

Now, here’s the downside. You’re almost certainly going to offend and upset people, even if you do put in the time and effort. For some people, the minority in my experience, there won’t be anything you can do to not offend them. In other cases, you will have legitimately missed something. Regardless of which it is, do the right thing. Don’t make excuses, or dismiss the offense. Acknowledge that you came up short and that you’ll strive to do better next time (and actually strive to do better).

My (admittedly privileged) view is that I’d rather screw up trying to make a more diverse story than play it safe and not include any character who don’t look like me. I know I’m going to get it wrong, and I’ll accept the consequences of that. It’s just part of not being an asshole.


Note: Please feel free to comment, especially if you think I’m off base on something, or got something wrong. I don’t claim to be an expert or to know it all, and I’m always looking to improve.

Imposter syndrome (A Long Hiatus)

#SFWAPRO

I know it’s been a long, long while since I’ve posted anything, aside from posts promoting other authors and the occasional short story anyway. As I mention in my Post “Your Baby is Ugly…Again” my contract with Harper expired, they didn’t offer another, and I started on a new project.

I’d like to say that project is what occupied my time, but it wasn’t.

I’d be willing to bet all of you are aware of Imposter Syndrome, even if you don’t know it by that name. In short, it’s the feeling that an achievement isn’t earned, and as such, you feel like an imposter just waiting to be found out. Now, imposter syndrome isn’t limited to the creative fields, in fact, I’d be surprised if many of you haven’t suffered from it at some point or another in your life. Maybe when you became a new parent, landed a new job or promotion, or just faced some sort of challenge. The more significant the achievement, the more likely it seems imposter syndrome will rear its ugly head, and for any reason it can find.

Perhaps that’s why so many authors, nearly all of those I know, struggle with it. It’s not easy to get there, and oddly, everyone else who achieved it has clearly earned it. Just not you. The most insidious part of imposter syndrome is that successes don’t count, only failure, even just failure to succeed. Very early in my writing career, I met a multi bestselling author (New York Times, USA Today, etc) who has been writing for almost 30 years. He is, by every metric, a success. I told him I was terrified my first book would be my last. He told me he feels the same way after finishing every book. He worries people will finally see he has no talent and his writing career will be over. As you can imagine, that was both reassuring and depressing. It’s good to know you’re not alone in how you feel, not so much to find out those feeling won’t go away.

Here’s another excellent example of how those at any level can suffer from imposter syndrome.

As I’ve said before, when Harper passed over the next book in the American Faerie Tale series, I was exceedingly disappoint, though not entirely surprised. My imposter syndrome had been expecting it, and he relished that rejection like a fine meal. Hoping to keep him at bay, I threw myself into a new project. Everyone I’d told about it said I needed to write it because they wanted to read it right now. So I worked, and wrote, and when it was done I was very happy with it. Honestly, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Which is how it should be, you should always be improving in your craft.

My agent started sending it out, and the initial response was amazing. Nearly everyone it went to wanted to read it. I felt certain it was only a matter of time before I was offered a contract and then I’d be a writer once again, and this time it would be for real.

Why do I say it like that? Well, my path to publication was unconventional. If you’ve read my other posts, you know I had no agent when Harper offered me a deal for my first book, normally a requirement. Instead, I was one of 4500+ people who participated in a, very rare, open submission window open to unagented authors. In the end, I was one of a dozen or so picked for publication. The Stolen even launched Harper’s new imprint, Harper Voyager Impulse, and for a time, the cover was on the header of Harper Voyager’s website (yes, I have a screenshot saved). But none of that mattered to imposter syndrome; I’d only won a contest, I hadn’t earned my way in, so I wasn’t a “real” author. I thought selling this new project would, finally and definitively, prove I was a real author.

Yes, I’m fully aware how ridiculous that sounds. But like phobias, depression, or other dark states of mind, reality has very little, if anything, to do with it.

You can probably guess what happened next.

The rejections started rolling in, one after the other. Almost without exception they were effusive in their praise. They loved the story and the characters, and felt the writing was really strong…BUT.

But.

That dreaded word, so small, but powerful enough to wipe out all the words, however good, that came before it. Sure, Intellectually I knew, and my agent continually reminded me, that such praise was a good thing. It meant the book was good! They just didn’t know how to sell it, or they’d just signed a book like it, or other entirely valid reasons. Intellectually I knew, logically I knew. But that didn’t matter. The imposter syndrome kept whispering that this just proved I’d been right all along. I wasn’t a real author, I’d just gotten lucky. To be fair, luck plays no small in life, especially when it comes to achieving dreams, but in the end it only gets you so far. My luck, it seemed, had run out.

That’s when imposter syndrome’s friend showed up: depression. I’ve made no secret of my struggles, especially in my youth, with depression. This wasn’t a chronic or persistent depression though, this was acute. We all get depressed sometimes, and if we’re lucky, it’s circumstantial rather than biological. It’s no less valid, but usually easier to overcome. This particular depression didn’t prevent me from getting out of bed, it just made sitting down to write anything seem pointless. So I didn’t write, not much anyway. I worked on short stories, and when I did write it felt good, but actually getting my butt in the chair took effort. As such, this blog and posts for it fell further down my priority list.

What was the point? No one was going to read them anyway, right?

So what changed? Well, the especially observant among you might’ve noticed I haven’t mentioned the title, or much of anything, about this new project so resoundingly rejected. The reason is, there’s some new interest in it. Obviously I can’t say who, but that influx of hope gave me the strength to push imposter syndrome, and his friend, to one side. Nothing may come of this interest, but I decided to put this new found hope to good use and write a blog post.

I chose this topic partly because writing about it, and as such naming it, takes away some of its power. Don’t look at me that way, I’m a fantasy writer, okay? But I also chose it because I know others struggle with it too, and, well, it’s always nice to know you aren’t alone. I’m lucky in having good friends and a group of writer friends in much the same boat as me to offer support. But, for me at least, it’s too easy to dismiss their kindness and encouragement; they’re your friends after all, it’s what they’re supposed to do. Again, recognize this has nothing to do with reality. Your friends, and family, aren’t obligated to blow sunshine up your backside. Sure, sometimes they do it anyway, but even then it’s because they love you, believe in you, and want to help.

That being said, when a stranger offers encourage or support, it can stick better because they have no reason to do it.

So, dear readers, as a stranger, I tell you this: Imposter syndrome, for all his power, is a fucking liar. He is utterly and entirely full of shit. So tell that bastard to fuck right off whenever he shows up and starts whispering. Yeah, I know. It’s soooo much easier said than done. But how about this, I promise to do it if you do? Deal? Make no mistake, we’ll both give in sometimes, and that’s okay. Feel bad. Let the little shit have his moment, then remember that you‘re made of pure, high grade, artisanal, fair trade awesome. You can do the thing! More than that, you earned that achievement, that job, that relationship, that thing! You heard me, you earned it! So don your steel-toe boots, kick imposter syndrome in the balls as hard as you can (repeatedly), tell him to fuck right off, and that Bishop sends his regards.