Pulp or Poet?

[Size Mismatch]
Photo courtesy of Miguel Castaneda
via Creative Commons

A writer’s life is nothing, if not angst-filled. Each day, we struggle with dilemmas—most of our own making and many imagined. As for me, I like to battle my demons in private. The best course, I feel, is to put that kind of drama into my writing and let my characters live in Hell. But, frankly, I just can’t take it anymore, and I need to spill. So please, bear with me.

I’ve been writing for more years than I care to admit. In my twenties, I devoted my energy to screenwriting. Great idea, jefe. Get to the end of the line behind the thousands in LA already slaving away at what they hope will become the next ‘Captain America.’ Though I did manage to sell one screenplay and see it made into a movie, I never really enjoyed the success I was hoping for.

When indie publishing came along—mostly thanks to Amazon—everything changed for me, as it did for many other aspiring authors. For years, I had been amassing ideas for novel-length books, and the only thing stopping me from ordering my sport coat with the suede elbow patches was the terrifying thought of trying to secure a literary agent. Weak, I know. But enough about that.

My Eternal Dilemma
I’ve always aspired to write well—as opposed to banging stuff out fast for the money. And, believe me, if you’ve ever downloaded free books to your Kindle, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a lot of crap out there—a lot. And what frustrates me is the fact that this drivel sells—way better than anything I have written. Which brings me to my current dilemma—am I a poet who wants only to create beautiful things (that don’t sell), or a successful pulp writer who’s in it for the money?

My personal belief as to why a lot of indie books sell has nothing to do with quality. Sure, they have to have some semblance of plot and structure. Of course, the cover shouldn’t make you puke. And the formatting has to be at least good enough for you to be able to read the thing without getting vertigo. But what these books have going for them, I feel, is that they are catering to a successful genre. Like Romance.

Now, before you get all huffy and threaten to take my lunch money, let me explain. I am not trying to say anything bad about Romance writers. In fact, sometimes I wish I were one so I could sell more books. What I am saying is, must I write in genres that sell, rather than what I am interested in? It’s a great question.

Romance Rules
So, why did I pick on the Romance category? Take a look at the May 2016 Author Earnings report, which you can find here. This is what they say about indie author earnings (bold text is mine):

Turns out there were 43 [invisible authors] lurking unseen in the dark spaces between Amazon’s bestseller lists, including one author invisibly earning more than $250,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, 30 of the 43 invisible six-figure earners — including the top earner — were self-published indie authors. Most were writing in the Romance Fiction genres, but there was also an indie author of editor’s-choice Cozy Mystery Fiction, and even more surprising, a traditional-award-winning indie writer of Literary Fiction. We happen to think that’s pretty cool.

Cool, indeed. I have a number of writer friends—many of whom publish Historical Romance, Regency Romance, Contemporary and New Adult Romance. It’s my sense that they are doing pretty well. But here’s the thing—from what I can tell, they actually enjoy writing Romance. So for them, this is the best of all worlds.

A Genre Comparison
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would like to provide an illustration of what I am talking about. The following excerpt is from my horror thriller novel, Even The Dead Will Bleed: Book Three of Tell Me When I’m Dead. Notice that the writing is purposeful and dark—just the thing for pulp fiction:

The girl was pretty with long, light brown hair and frightened blue-grey eyes that were almond-shaped—slightly Asian—and ringed with dark circles. Her full lips were pink and moist, her skin fair and blemish free. She couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty. I looked at the back of her hand and noticed a red needle mark—probably from an IV.

“Are you in danger?” I said.

Still nothing. I glanced left and right to see who might be watching. Then I released her arm and took a step back, my open hands away from my pockets. I thought she would bolt, but she stood there unsure, looking at her bare feet, which were dirty. Her shoulders jerked up and down and I realized that she was crying. I remembered what Becky had said when the alarm went off—someone’s escaped.

I wasn’t sure what to do. She must’ve broken out of Hellborn, and now they were looking for her. I didn’t want to leave her there—not like this. She needed help. But I didn’t want to get mixed up with a kid. Griffin, the girl Holly and I had rescued in Tres Marias, had turned out well—and I thanked God for her—but I needed to be alone to complete my mission.

“I’m Dave,” I said. “What’s your name?”

She looked at me steadily. I didn’t know what new hell I was signing up for. It was pretty obvious that it would involve more than slipping her twenty bucks and wishing her good luck. When she spoke my blood went cold.

“Don’t let them find me!” she said.

 

Here is another excerpt—this time from my latest, unpublished Young Adult novel, Chainsaw Honeymoon: A Ruby Navarro Disaster. Not to brag, but this might even border on the literary. See if you agree:

A loud yawn startled me. It was Dad. How long had he been standing there?

“Come on, Rube, it’s late,” he said.

And by the way, when did he get all parental? Mom must’ve had a talk with him.

“No-uh,” I said. “I need to figure out this sequence.”

Between you and me, I was struggling to keep my eyes open.

Gently, he closed the laptop and guided me to my bed. As I dug through the duffel bag for my pajamas, I felt something foreign. Removing my hand, I saw Mr. Shivers. How had he gotten in there again? I thought I’d left him in the closet back home. Too exhausted to care, I tossed him into a chair, where he landed in a sitting position.

“Tomorrow, I could use your help setting up the Roku,” Dad said.

“Aghh, you’re so pathetic. Fine, I’ll see what I can do.”

I let go of a major yawn. Smiling, he gave me a bear hug, practically squeezing the air out of me.

“Ooh, I thought I heard a fart.”

“Dad, that’s so rude!”

“It used to make you laugh.”

“When I was five.”

“Good night, Rube. Brush your teeth.”

He and Mom had definitely spoken. I wondered vaguely if he was going to go off and practice The Beggar’s Sideshow per Mom’s instructions. Before he left, I broke down and decided to spill. After all, the man deserved to know the truth. I picked Ed up and put him on my lap for moral support.

“Dad?”

“Yeah, baby?”

“She is moving on, you know.”

He was leaning against the doorframe, staring at me intently. I could almost see the man hormones keeping his emotions in check. Barely. His face was a mosaic of disappointment, anger and disbelief. He smiled sadly and, without another word, closed the door behind him. See, this is the difference between women and men. I would be throwing things at this point.

 

The point is, I didn’t research the markets for either of these works—I just sat down and wrote them because I felt like it. We’ll see if the charming and perspicacious Ruby is enough to help me sell some books.

Sage Advice
I am currently reading How to Make a Living as a Writer by the well-respected author and teacher James Scott Bell. His book offers clear, practical advice on how to actually pull off what he promised in the title. One thing he suggests is studying bestselling categories on Amazon and making a conscious decision to master that market, then cranking out your own novels. Here is what he has to say:

I believe a writer should love his genres. But you can learn to love a genre. Sort of like an arranged marriage.

Nicholas Sparks did this with his own career. He went into it like a businessman. He looked at the bestselling genres and discovered that each one had two big names that dominated. At the same time, a surprise book emerged called The Bridges of Madison County. It was a tear-jerking love story written by a male author. And it exploded.

Sparks decided he could be the second name on this unique subset — men who write tear-jerking love stories.

He’s done pretty well.

Now, from a business point of view, he’s absolutely right. But in the words of Jerry Seinfeld when asked to wear the puffy shirt, “But I don’t want to be a pirate!”

If I were more practical, I would begin immediately my own market research and get to writing that puffy shirt book. But to be frank, Romance isn’t really my thing—unless guns or time travel are involved. Besides horror, I am drawn to Thriller, Mystery and YA. Having said that, though, if I follow Mr. Bell’s advice, I am still going to have to research what sells within those categories. And I’m not sure I want to write a political thriller, for example. So, I am almost back where I started.

In On Writing, I seem to recall Stephen King referring to himself as a “journeyman writer.” Here is a guy who consistently cranks out solid work in a genre he loves—and who makes a very good living. But he is practical, too. He knows he is a business. I’m still working on that concept.

What to Do?
As I said, I have a new book coming out, written without the benefit of checking in on bestselling categories. I hope it does well. If it doesn’t, I may decide that my next novel needs to have the word “girl” in the title. It doesn’t take a ton of research to know that those seem to be doing very well lately.

Writers, Your Cell Phone Is out to Get You!

[Week 20: Writer’s Block]
Photo Courtesy of clocksforseeing via Creative Commons

I thought that title would get your attention. Look, this isn’t going to be some stupid rant about how we need to return to simpler times when people walked instead of drove cars, washed their own clothes in the river and churned their own butter. Technology can be beneficial when used wisely. But whoever the genius was who decided to cram an incredibly powerful computer that fits in your palm was clearly not thinking about the welfare of writers.

I mean, seriously. We’re talking about a demographic that will use any excuse not to write. Hypochondriacs who insist they are suffering from a painful medical condition known in most English-speaking countries as writer’s block (or bloqueo de escritor to our Spanish-speaking friends). Lollygaggers who have zero problem binge-watching every television show ever created because they are “doing research.” Yeah, let’s give those guys one more thing to distract them.

The Good Old Days
Back in the day when cell phones didn’t exist, writers were more observational. How do I know this? Well, because I used to be that way. It was not uncommon for me to sit in a public place for hours, watching people. And when in conversation, I used to give the other person my undivided attention. This was normal, people! It’s how we used to conduct ourselves in a civilized society. Later when I sat down to write, I recalled character traits and dialogue I had observed. It’s what, I feel, gave my work authenticity.

Of course, this is not to say there weren’t distractions. Television, for example. But you couldn’t very well schlep around a set around with you. Sure, portable TVs did exist, but they were used mostly by smiling seniors traveling the country in high-mileage campers.

Now
Things really are different today. I know everyone says that, but it’s true. It’s as if we are more distracted than ever. I blame technology. Think about it. We can spend hours consuming content on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. And, yes, we can also get lost in Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Pokémon GO. (Speaking of Netflix, check out my earlier post, “Damn You, Netflix—Another Distracted Writer.”)

Let me ask you something. When was the last time you went to a public place and watched real people interacting, rather than staring down at your phone every five seconds? I thought so. And I’m not claiming I’m any better. In fact, the main reason I decided to post this was to warn myself about the dangers of personal electronics.

So what happens when you don’t spend enough time thinking and observing? Well, you tend to rip off characters and dialogue from movies and television. Sure, you’re probably still reading but, come on. How many minutes a day do you spend looking at your phone instead of reading a book? Yeah …

Everything in Moderation
Things are only going to get worse. Cats and dogs living together. I am confident there will come a day when devices that can connect to the Internet will be embedded in our brains. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this article from 2013. It’s only a matter of time. What then? Do we, as writers, just give up? Oh, and haven’t you heard? Researchers have been programming AI machines to write novels without any need for human intervention. Take a look at this. I’ve already resigned myself to the possibility that this infernal machine will land a literary agent before I do.

Okay, this is starting to go sideways. Back to my original point. The key to the whole thing, in my view, is discipline. As I stated earlier, cell phones can offer a great advantage when used properly. if I’m in a conversation with someone and one of us happens to mention a fact the other feels is inaccurate, either of us can quickly Google the topic and correct the error right there and then—though I would advise you against trying that with your spouse. Trust me.

There is a time to use your cell phone and a time to put it the hell away. I suggest you remember that during meals, at parties and when attending church. Our brains are wired to observe, and it would be a shame if we let that higher function atrophy to the point where we evolve into a bunch of dumb, drooling spectators. Kind of like those clueless characters in ‘Idiocracy.’ Consider yourself warned.

Fiction and Profanity—F-Bombs Away!

[Slim Pickens Riding the Bomb]
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Recently, I reread an autobiographical novel I had written a number of years ago, thinking I could tidy it up for publication. Though I enjoyed much of the writing style, I was horrified at the frequency of f-bombs. Why? Because I don’t write that way anymore. And I couldn’t even defend the use of these words as critical to the genre. This book is essentially a dramedy—Life, Love and the pursuit of sex.

Some time after, I read an interesting post by PJ Parrish, which is a pseudonym for sisters and writing partners Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols (see “Profanity in Crime Fiction: Reality or Lazy Writing?”). In it, they state …

There are different reasons why readers dislike profanity in their fiction. It can [be] colored by religious conviction, personal morals or just plain old taste. Authors are guided by the same impulses. Mark Henshaw, a Mormon crime writer, wrote a blog “Why I Don’t Use Profanity,” saying, “My short answer to the question is: because my mother reads my books. My long answer is a bit more involved.”

A Religious Debate
There are any number of articles and blog posts about whether foul language belongs in good fiction. If you’d like to test that assertion, try a Google search on “fiction and profanity.” According to Montee and Nichols, some authors write blue because they feel it’s required to make their novels realistic. Others, like Mark Henshaw, leave it out because their mothers are reading their books.

Now, I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination. I have been known to let go, using strings of colorful expletives the way Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold. And I don’t happen to think most good writers choose profanity out of laziness either. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to leave that kind of language out of my writing. Not because I feel I am better than everyone else. It’s mainly a marketing decision. In other words, I don’t want to turn off any potential new readers because they can’t get past the swear words.

Being “Authentic”
Not to take sides, but I do want to address the question of authenticity in fiction. Apparently, some authors feel that in order to depict realistic worlds (e.g., war, crime, etc.), they need to use lots of swear words. Well, I don’t think that’s true. If it were, then why isn’t urban crime fiction littered with liberal doses of the N-word? I don’t care how “realistic” you think your fiction is. The fact that you are telling a story means you are creating a world that doesn’t exist. Sure, it can resemble the real world, but in the end, it’s fake. And thank goodness!

Think about it. What if you were to write about real life exactly as it is? Wouldn’t it be kind of, I don’t know, boring? People don’t like to read fiction that depicts real life—they read to escape to a different life. And, yes, you should see things that are familiar. But a good writer is drawing you in with great characters and a powerful made-up story. So, if you agree that this is the case, then who is to say you have to include the f-word just to make things seem real?

Profanity and Violence
Very often, violent stories go hand-in-hand with profanity. Just watch any R-rated action movie. But this is not always the case. Take ‘The Conjuring,’ for example. This film received an R-rating from the MPAA. Why? Because it’s scary and violent. Yet, there is no hardcore swearing anywhere in the movie, according to the parents’ guide. So to those who think you need this kind of language to appear realistic, let me ask you this—What better time to let off a few f-bombs than when your mother is possessed by a demon? Yet, none are found in ‘The Conjuring,’ and the story still works.

Many of you know I wrote the horror thriller series TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD. At the time, I made a conscious decision not to use certain expletives. Sure, there is some mild cursing but nothing hardcore. And, again, if you’ve read the work, you’ll know that these books are violent as hell. Some may disagree, but I believe I have created a balance that works. In my fictional world, people can find themselves in horrible danger and not swear like merchant marines. And readers can still enjoy a powerful story.

So what are your thoughts?

Adapting a Screenplay—Fun Times

[Scream Poster]
Photo Courtesy of IMDb
Early in my writing career I focused entirely on writing screenplays—something I would not recommend to the foolhardy. You see, unlike novels, screenplays serve absolutely no purpose if you can’t sell them. They sit in a pile in the corner of your home office collecting dust, instead of appearing with nice covers on Amazon. That said, if you are lucky enough to have a written a screenplay that sold (I did that once), you might be on your way to an actual career in the movie business.

But enough about fairy tales.

Horror Comedy, Anyone?
I want to talk about a particular screenplay I wrote a few years back that had to do with a fourteen-year-old girl, a nasty marital breakup and a behind-the-scenes look at an indie horror film. Sounds fascinating, right? At the time I really thought I could make that thing sing. Now, from a technical perspective the work was professional. But I was never really able to generate enough interest. So … I tossed it into the corner and allowed it to gather a nice patina of dust.

Until recently.

I’d been toying with the idea of adapting some of my screenplays into novels. I mean, why let all that good writing go to waste? And I decided that, because I had just come off a heavy horror thriller trilogy with lots of bloodshed, I would tackle a fun horror comedy … with somewhat less bloodshed.

Novelization, Shmovelization
I’m just about finished with the “novelization”—something I’d never done before. And let me tell you, it’s hair-raising. In screenplays, each page is a combination of slug lines, short descriptions and dialogue. That’s it. Try turning that into beautiful prose that descends on the reader like the first gentle snowfall in a New England winter. The process is quite instructive, though, and I am learning more about voice than I ever thought I would.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress from time to time, but it’s my goal to turn this thing into an enjoyable book that captures some of the craziness of living in LA, from the POV of a precocious teenager. Wish me luck.

Getting Away with Murder

[American Psycho Poster]Spoiler Alert!
If you plan on reading the TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD series but haven’t gotten around to it yet, then stop right here! Go ahead—I’ll wait.

Okay, you know the title of this post is total clickbait, right? Admit it, though. It got your attention. Anyway, I want to talk about killing someone and actually getting away with it. Before you call 911, let me explain. I am a writer and I create characters. Many times the characters are expendable—bad guys, helpless bystanders … But sometimes I am forced to grapple with killing off a character who is not only central to the story but beloved.

This is what happened when writing my horror thriller trilogy TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD.

Plotters and Pantsers
Before I go any further, I must tell you there are two kinds of writers—plotters and pantsers. Plotters like to create vast, detailed-filled outlines before writing a single word of their novel. When they are finished, they know exactly where they are going and how they will get there. Good for them. I hate plotters. Which brings me to pantsers …

We pantsers like to fly by the seat of our pants. We have only the vaguest notion of where we are going, and we have no frickin’ idea how we will get there. Welcome to my world, by the way.

Pantsers manage to move the story along through intuition and serendipity. When we are inspired, we happily travel in a westerly direction. When we are stuck, we curse and throw things and gain fifteen pounds. But here’s the dirty little secret—and it’s why no one in the history of writing has ever proven once and for all that plotters are better at writing than pantsers, or vice versa. Why?

Because we all end up in the same place.

Now, you could argue that plotters write faster because they already have the story down pat. But that’s not entirely true, since they must spend a fair amount of time creating their outline—a step pantsers like me happily skip.

So what does all this have to do with murder?

Death in Venice
I made the decision to kill off a main character in Book Two. And I did it after discovering she needed to be dead in order for the protagonist Dave Pulaski to fulfill his destiny in Book Three. For those of you who read Books One and Two, you’ll know I’m talking about Dave’s wife, Holly. And this was no easy task. Here’s the pivotal scene …

Holly stood there on the platform, paralyzed. Her slender body trembled. She couldn’t even cry. Next to her, Griffin and Fabian stood mutely, his fingers reaching for her hand and gripping it. I wanted to will myself to Holly’s side and made a move to reach her. The cop standing next to O’Brien pointed his rifle at my head. Warnick gripped my shoulder. Balls of red light streaked across my eyes. My heart raced. I wanted to rip out the throats of everyone who meant to harm my family.

“You took away everything from me!” the mayor said. “My wife, my sons … my future!”

“We didn’t kill your family,” Warnick said. “Someone attacked our convoy.”

The mayor let out a pitiful wail that echoed throughout the cavern. O’Brien eyed him uncomfortably. His voice softer, he said, “If you hadn’t come after me, they’d still be alive.”

Warnick wasn’t finished with him. “Why did you leave them behind? You could have saved them.”

“You don’t understand. This was supposed to be my ticket …” Choking up, he forced himself to go on. “It’s bigger than you can imagine. They got me out of there, they …”

“You abandoned your wife and children,” Warnick said, unafraid.

“They promised me,” the mayor said, weeping.

Overlapping voices echoed in the cavern, and I struggled to make sense of them. Sweat dripped into my eyes, and the vague forms of Holly, Griffin and Fabian wavered in front of me like ghosts in the harsh orange light, pleading with me to do something. I wiped my eyes, and Holly screamed. When I looked up I found her on her knees in front of the mayor.

“Dave!”

The mayor tore the weapon from O’Brien’s hand and pointed it at Holly’s head. My heart thudded—I couldn’t breathe.

“Dave, I love you! I’ll always love you!”

“Please,” I said. “Please don’t.” I wept, unable to control myself. I was completely helpless—at the mercy of a madman. There was nothing I could do.

“I lost everything,” the mayor said, his voice a monotone. “Let me show you what that feels like.”

It was a dream. The bullet—a .45, I think—left the chamber so slowly. I could see it spinning as it raced home to its target. Every thought in my brain vanished, my mind laser-focused on the deadly projectile. And when it struck my wife in the head, exploding out the other side in a burst of blood, brains and bone, I died for a little while. That picture—that memory of Holly—the impact of the bullet twisting her sideways and down into the dirt—that photograph is burned in my memory forever like a cattle brand. And it’s always accompanied by the sound of screaming—Griffin maybe—and Greta’s desperate, urgent barking.

It was a dream—I knew it was. Not real. A nightmare. But if it was, why couldn’t I wake up?

Because it was real. There was no escaping it—not this time. If I’d been holding my weapon I would have used it to join Holly. There wasn’t any point in going on. She was all I had lived for. Nothing else mattered. And the baby. So blessed to be conceived but not to be born. I fell to my knees and could only remain there, sobbing.

I’m sure you’ve heard of writers who weep when their characters die. After I wrote that scene, I cried like a baby. Really. I loved Holly deeply, and I wanted with all my heart to let her live. But she couldn’t. She had to die in order to give Dave the hate he needed to exact his revenge in Book Three.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I wanted you to know that writers do care deeply about our characters. When they suffer, we suffer. And when you think about it, doesn’t that make for a better reading experience?

Damn You, Netflix—Another Distracted Writer

[Netflix Button]Want to know what the hardest thing about writing is? For me it isn’t a lack of ideas. I have more stories knocking around in my head than time. In fact, when they bury me I will ask that they toss in the dog-eared notebook with all the unfulfilled dreams I had hoped to get down on paper. Is it a clean well-lighted place? No. I work in a dungeon of sorts. I do have access to coffee and a bathroom, though, so it’s not so bad. Honestly, the hardest thing about writing is not writing. Why? Because it’s 2016, people, and there are just TOO MANY DAMNED DISTRACTIONS!

Finding a Balance
Now, I am not suggesting that just because I am a writer I shouldn’t get to enjoy a little R&R. But bingeing on ‘Nurse Jackie’? I literally spent the summer getting caught up on ‘Supernatural’—which is a great show, BTW. I even bought Season 11 on Amazon Prime. But it’s these kinds of stupid interruptions that kill the writing process.

Want some more? How about Facebook? Yeah, that. Okay, I love staying in touch with family and friends, but do I really need to watch another hoverboard catch fire? And Twitter—don’t get me started. I mainly use that to curate and share content I am interested in. I also do a little marketing. But the thing is a huge time sink, let me tell you. What about reading? That is not a distraction. To write better, you need to read more. The truth is, I don’t read nearly enough either.

Starting Fresh
Okay, time for a resolution. I need to dial down on Netflix and amp up on actual writing. The only reason I’m baring my soul like this is because I am confident there are hundreds—if not thousands—of writers out there suffering from the same condition. Look, it’s easy not to write. All you have to do is pretend you’ll do it tomorrow. And let me tell you, streaming and social media were godsends for the born procrastinator. Hooray, ‘Orphan Black’! Nevertheless, the next book isn’t going to write itself.

So, say it with me …

I will write first and goof off later.
I will ignore cute pet videos, raging political debates and recipes from the New York Times.
But above all, I will spend more time with my family, because writing will never be as important.

Here’s to a fantastic, productive 2016!

The Monster Mash—Creating Believable Beasts

[Lauren Scharhag]Guest post by Lauren Scharhag

I grew up in the 80s. It was a magical time when bug-eyed, glowing-fingered aliens crashed in suburban back yards, when heroes rode luckdragons, when David Bowie danced with goblin puppets, when nightmare creatures battled for the fate of a flawed purple gemstone … well, you get the idea.

For me, the creatures of science fiction and fantasy are just as compelling as the main characters in the story. Anybody writing in the genre knows how important world-building is. Part of good world-building is creating believable creatures for your distant planet or magical realm.

Here are some things to consider when designing your monsters from the claws up:

Magical or Cryptozoological?
Is your creature born or conjured? Did it hatch from an egg, or did a rabbi scoop some mud together and slap a sign on its head? The way a creature comes into being tells a lot about what its habits will be like, where it lives, what it subsists on, etc. Magical creatures don’t have to be as convincing from a biological standpoint—or stand up to close scrutiny at all, for that matter:

  • Don’t feed a mogwai after midnight. Um, isn’t it technically always “after midnight”?
  • How the hell does a Pegasus fly? Does it have hollow bones like a bird?
  • What about Beholders? How do they—ahhh, you know what? Never mind.

As magical creatures, it’s part of their charm. But if we’re talking about an animal that is born or hatched, this takes a little more thought.

What Is Your World Like?
What is your world’s climate like, its ecosystem, its culture? Animals adapt to their environment to survive. Consider how the animal might have evolved in relation to where it lives. Is the animal native to the area you’re writing about or did they come from someplace else? If they’re not native, how did they get there? How do they interact with other species?

Some of my favorite fantasy beings are the elephant-like Mulefa from Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. Now, it helps that he was writing them from the point of view of a scientist who made keen observations regarding their anatomy, habitat, social behavior, etc. But Pullman obviously put a lot of thought into their ecology. A species of pod-bearing tree combined with some solidified lava beds gives the Mulefa the means to move—and I don’t mean that in the sense that they use pods for transportation. I mean they have evolved in such a way that they now require the pods to peregrinate, attaching them to spurs on their legs and zooming around on them like Tony Hawk.

I was blown away by the level of detail, planning, imagination and originality the Mulefa required. How in the world did someone dream something like that up?

Real Creatures, Alive or Extinct
Start with real critters. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but coming up with good, convincing and memorable creatures for your book has to be more than a Horse of a Different Color (enchanting though that rainbow-hued equine was, he was still just a horse with a dye-job).

I co-author a series called The Order of the Four Sons with Coyote Kishpaugh. It takes place across multiple dimensions. In the second book, the heroes find themselves marooned in an inhospitable, desert world called Carcosa. Keeping the Mulefa firmly in mind as we began to design the world, we gave a great deal of thought to what sort of flora and fauna could thrive under its harsh conditions. We researched animals and plants that live in the Australian and Saharan deserts, as well as Death Valley. To give the animals an otherworldly bent, we turned mainly to creatures that have gone extinct like the Tasmanian tiger for inspiration.

We also took into consideration the symbolism of the place. We have stranded the heroes in a world where everything is either aggressive or toxic. We looked at some of the fiercest-looking desert dwellers we could find, like the Solifugae, an order of desert spiders that can get quite large and look like an ungodly mixture of arachnid and scorpion, with pale, segmented bodies and pincer-like mandibles. They’re not terribly threatening to humans, but the point is, they look scary.

Another type of creature we looked at was some sort of animal to transport people around our deadly fantasy desert. Ultimately, we found our way to tapirs, an endangered South American animal with a prehensile snout (maybe Pullman influenced me even more than I realized!). Related to horses and rhinos, tapirs are decent runners, so with some alteration, we thought they would make fine pack animals. In the course of researching them, we found out that tapirs appear in Asian folklore. In Korean, their name is maek, so we named the creatures “meks.”

Finally, there are the real, live animals that share space with you. I can’t tell you how many creatures in my oeuvre have been influenced by an ugly, runty, squinty-eyed, foul-tempered little cat I found by the side of the road one day and decided to bring home. She has way more attitude than a five-pound bundle of dirty-looking orange-brown fur ought to have, but she’s my little beast, and I love her. Without her, I wouldn’t have stories full of dragons, mermaids, ehlems and man-eating blobs. At least once a day, I pay homage to my little feline muse with offerings of tasty treats. She seems as pleased with this arrangement as I am.

So all those hilarious pet stories you love to tell at parties? Yeah, turn those into fantastical adventures.

Barring that …

Tap into Some Folklore
There’s an entire world of myths, legends, fairy tales and folklore from which to draw inspiration. From kitsunes to skin walkers, from djinn to Baba Yaga—there’s always some creature or entity begging to be remade into a new story.

Obviously, you have the perennial favorites: vampires, werewolves and zombies. Personally, I find those to be a bit tired, but even they can have new life breathed into them—reanimated, if you will. (I know, I know. Feel free to throw things.)

To use another example from our books, in The Order of the Four Sons, we have an Eastern European sorceress who practices necromancy. Eastern European folklore is rich with blood-suckers and the undead. We came up with creatures called eretics, a sort of zombie en flambé. The amount and type of magic it takes to raise and sustain them burns their flesh, so they’re blackened, red and quite disgusting as they lumber about, flaking off patches of skin and doing their mistress’ bidding.

Another resource is the good ol’ D&D monster manual. I’m not saying to blatantly rip something wholesale from the Eberron or Forgotten Realms playbooks or whatever. What I am encouraging you to do is a monster mashup—create composites. Synthesize. It’s amazing what sort of literary Frankenstein might emerge. A fang here, a bit of drool there, some galvanic action and voila! Your creature will be up, wreaking havoc on a poor, unsuspecting populace in no time.

I hope you find my thoughts on monster-making helpful. Thanks for reading, and best of luck dreaming up your own ghoulies, ghosties and three-legged beasties!

Book Blurb

[The Order of the Four Sons Cover]

For centuries, two ancient, magical sects, the Order of the Four Sons of Horus and Starry Wisdom, have battled for possession of the sacred, powerful Staff of Solomon. Whoever possesses the staff can open doors to other dimensions—or rip open the very fabric of existence.

The staff was broken into pieces and scattered across the cosmos.

Now, a member of the Order, Fernando Rios, has disappeared in a small Missouri town.

When a team is sent to investigate, they discover that Rios was close to finding one of the lost segments.

The problem is, he wasn’t the only one.

The Order of the Four Sons by Coyote Kishpaugh and Lauren Scharhag is a classic tale of good versus evil. An epic, magical journey of fantasy and adventure.

Join members of the team, Colonel JD Garnett, novice mage Kate West, Detective Ryan Murphy, scholar Doug Grigori, and field techs Bill Welsh and Cecil Morgan, as they race to stop evil from destroying not just Earth, but a myriad of worlds.

And life as we know it.

Where to Buy
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA

About the Author
Lauren Scharhag is a writer of fiction and poetry. With Coyote Kishpaugh, she is the co-author of The Order of the Four Sons series. She lives in Kansas City, MO with her husband, two cats and a squinty-eyed beastling. You can find Lauren on Twitter, on Facebook and on her blog, www.laurenscharhag.blogspot.com.

Writing Horror That Appeals to Women

Photo Courtesy of Nathan O’Nions via Creative Commons
[Woman in Forest]So I want to talk about the experience I’ve had writing my horror-thriller series. Books One and Two are available now, and I recently sent the third book in the trilogy off to the editor. When I started writing about Dave Pulaski and the nightmare he awakened to in Tres Marias, a small fictional Northern California town, I didn’t set out to appeal specifically to men or women. I simply had an idea I wanted to try and set out to tell the best story I knew how.

Well, many months have passed, and I’ve noticed from a lot of the Amazon reviews that women seem to like these books. A lot. Now, I’m not trying to piss anyone off here by engaging in lame stereotypes, but frankly I was surprised. Books One and Two deal with an outbreak that’s responsible for creating a town filled with the ravening undead—a solid formula for attracting hardcore male readers. Looking back at what I wrote, I’m going to be so bold as to lay out some principles that made these stories women-friendly. And I would like nothing better than to have female readers respond, telling me that I am full of crap. Here goes …

1. The Writing Has to Be Good
This goes for male and female readers. Thanks to Amazon and others, it’s insanely easy to self-publish. And as a result, there’s a lot of drivel out there. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been sucked in by an interesting cover, only to discover that the author has published what is essentially an amateurish first draft.

I’m not saying, by any stretch of the imagination, that I am a brilliant writer. But I put a lot of work into my writing, and I do everything I can to ensure that what I end up with has been properly edited. So you can rest assure that when you pick up one of these novels, you’re going to get a professionally produced product.

2. It Has to Be about More than Horror
Okay, writing horror is fun. The genre is wide open and allows the author to go places that most literary fiction would blanch at. But stories should be about people. Things will happen, but it’s what the evil does to the characters that matters. Some will become heroes, others will hide, and still others will succumb to the evil.

My books feature all kinds of characters. And for the most part, they are flawed—especially Dave, the protagonist in this series. But that’s what it means to be human. Somehow, we must overcome our shortcomings and do something amazing in the face of Hell.

3. Redemption Is Key
Sure, there are plenty of stories out there that end with everyone dying. Those aren’t for me. I prefer to see a character go through the worst hell imaginable, then somehow survive—a changed person. Sounds like the Hero’s Journey, doesn’t it?

Look, I don’t know whether men like to read about characters who are redeemed. Hell, I don’t even know if women do. I’m going by my gut here, people. And my gut tells me that redemption is essential to any good story.

4. There Needs to Be a Love Story
In the midst of all the blood and the screaming, there is a strong undercurrent of Love in my series—the love between Dave and his wife Holly. I don’t think I would have written these books had there not been a love story. I have no idea if this element made for a grand story that is attractive to women. But I’m pretty sure that most men who read horror don’t give a rat’s tushy.

Comments, anyone?

A Writer’s Life—Makin’ da Pizza

Photo Courtesy of Arthur Mouratidis via Creative Commons
[Hand-tossed Pizza]Almost a year ago I posted some musings on writers and the marketing side of the business. And, yes, this is a business. Speaking of which, I’ve been blessed to be able to make a living for many years, doing something that has nothing to do with writing fiction. This feeds my family and keeps my wife from panicking every time the price of groceries goes up. And though I’ve been writing in one way or another since I was fifteen, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I decided to approach writing fiction in a much more professional way by taking advantage of indie publishing platforms like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and others. And the advent of these new alternatives to traditional publishing is both a blessing and a curse. I’ll get to that shortly.

Why We Write
It isn’t unusual to hear from writers who claim they do nothing but put pen to paper because the alternative is to go crazy. Stories are bursting out of them—stories that must be told. And to a large extent I agree with that. But, having had the benefit of writing and holding down a job at the same time, I can say in all candor that, at least from my own experience, writers write because the idea of actually working for a living is horrifying. I’m thinking of Charles Bukowski, who worked in a post office for a time. Don’t you think he would have rather been writing? I mean, at least Ernest Hemingway started out as a journalist. Look, all I’m saying is, if everyone had the choice of slaving away in a soul-killing office or holing up in a clean well-lighted place, which would they choose? Fine, salespeople would probably still prefer to sell because it’s in their blood. That and the fact that they are evil. Kidding! No, really, they’re evil.

Writing is a Blessing
Okay, enough about that. Writers write because blah blah blah. Now, if you are spending your time writing, good for you. You are probably a person with tons of imagination who likes creating stories and sharing them with the world at large. And, as a bonus, you’d like to get paid, right? Of course you would. Otherwise you’re Bukowski at the post office.

For me, sitting in my basement creating characters who often find themselves in dangerous situations is fun. Want to know what’s more fun? Hearing from readers who tell me they liked seeing characters in situations in which there’s a very good chance they might wind up dead. It’s a real high.

But for indie writers, it’s not just about creating the story.

Writing as a Curse
Unless you are a successful author with a publisher who is waiting with baited breath—and a fat advance—for your next book, there’s a lot of other work you have to do. It’s almost as if you are having a shared experience with the guy in the soul-sucking office job. Here are just a few things you need to worry about …

A Decent Cover. This thing has to look good. And guess what—you’re going to have to spend money on it. I’ve seen too many Kindle books with covers that look like they were designed by an eighth-grade dropout with a new set of Sharpies.

Proper Editing. I include copyediting and proofing in this category. How many books have you downloaded lately that read like an instruction manual that has been translated into English? I mean, seriously. I get that you have a good idea and want to give it life. But if you are a lousy speller or have problems with tenses, get an editor.

eBook Formatting. That’s right. You can’t just upload your Word document and hope for the best. Well, actually you can, but that’s not the point. You want to ensure that your darling will display correctly on virtually every device. Unless of course you decide to kill your darling because, you know, Faulkner said it … Never mind.

Marketing. This one’s my favorite because it never ends. Why can’t these things sell themselves? I’ll tell you why—because there are literally millions of titles available on Amazon. How in the world is anyone going to find your book in that roiling sea of bright covers and pretty prose?

Which Brings Me to Me
Part of marketing is figuring out things like book titles, descriptions and SEO, which contribute to the all-important goal of being discoverable. Me? I’m in the process of rebranding my horror-thriller trilogy, the first two books of which are published. The third is coming out later this year, and I arrived at a place where I realized that I needed to tie the three books together better—for brand recognition. This is no easy task. Other authors much more famous and successful than I have taken different approaches to their series. I had to consider what I have going with my books and capitalize on that.

Though I haven’t figured it all out yet, I do know that I’ve had some pretty good success with the title of the first book, Tell Me When I’m Dead. That title rocks, in my opinion. The second book is entitled Dead Is All You Get. Not as good as the first title, but I still think it packs a punch. I was going to hold a contest to come up with the title of the third book, but my wife put the kibosh on that idea in short order. “You’re the writer,” she said. “Do your job.”

My wife’s not a sentimental person, and she likes to speak her mind. But you know what? She’s right.

So what to expect. The third book is almost finished. (I’m not as slow as George R.R. Martin—I swear!) Then I will design a cover and do a cover reveal. At that time you’ll see the new title, as well as the new branding for the trilogy. Finally, the book will be edited, formatted and published.

There’s a lot to being an indie writer—doing things that have nothing to do with the words. But as I said at the beginning, writing is a business. Once you understand that, you’ll have the time of your life. It’s like making pizza—really good pizza.

Want to Write Well? Learn to Research

Photo Courtesy of Ed Yourdon via Creative Commons
[New York Public Library]As writers, we like to pride ourselves on our ability to turn a phrase. And after having written for a while, we find that we’ve developed our own style—our own voice. But the best writing in the world can be ruined if we haven’t researched a topic properly. The cold blade of Truth will cut through our words and leave a wreckage of pretty ideas that, though appealing, make the reader want to scream. There’s a wonderful moment in Woody Allen’s film ‘Sleeper’ where the Diane Keaton character has written a poem (heavily influenced by McKuen) about a butterfly’s metamorphosis. The only problem is, she gets it wrong, with the thing ending up as a caterpillar. Awkward …

Some time ago I read a book that was, for the most part, enjoyable. The plot was taut, the characters real. And I probably would have given the author an excellent review, until I came to the part where he described the protagonist attending Mass. Now, I am Catholic and I know what a Mass looks like when I see it. And his description landed pretty far from the truth—to the point where I would have thrown the book across the room had it not been downloaded to my Kindle. Just imagine your readers tossing your book aside in disgust when they come across something they know to be patently false. Yeah, awkward.

A bad piece of writing advice goes like this: “Write what you know.” Well, here’s what the author Joe Haldeman has to say about that:

Bad books on writing tell you to “write what you know,” a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.

The point is this—if you are a horror, fantasy or sci-fi writer, then obviously you cannot write what you know. You are creating worlds that don’t exist, for crying out loud. But that doesn’t obviate the need for some solid research. You need to describe places and things, and how stuff works. But here’s the beauty part—most of the time, all you need is a great Internet connection.

Learn to Become Self-sufficient
I am a member of several online groups catering to authors. And nothing gets me more wound up than someone posting a question like this: “If my character gets shot, how long will it take for him to bleed out?” I have three little words for you, Mr. Lazy-ass writer: Look it up! Here’s a better question: “I’ve been researching gunshot wounds, and there seems to be a discrepancy on how long it actually takes for a person to bleed out, depending on where they were shot. If my character takes a bullet in the abdomen, what do you think is a safe estimate to make my story believable?”

Now, that’s a great question. The author has taken the time to do the research herself, and she’s also told us what she learned. Finally, she’s made her question very specific. A gold star for you!

Wikipedia is Good But …
Look, I am as guilty of this as the next guy. I use Wikipedia prodigiously. The key is to not treat this well-known site like Encyclopædia Britannica. Typically, when I find something of interest in Wikipedia, I also check one or two other sites to see if they are saying the same thing. If so, then I’m pretty confident that what I’m reading is accurate.

Another great source of information—especially when you are writing about how things work—is YouTube. It’s utterly amazing the stuff people post there! Want to know how to assemble or disassemble a particular weapon? Need to know what the inside of a morgue looks like? More than likely, there’s a video that will show you. Related to that are television shows. Many of the better ones hire real-world consultants who advise the writer and director on how something actual works. I recently finished watching the brilliant new Amazon series ‘Bosch’ (based on the Michael Connelly books), and I have to believe these guys know what they are doing.

The other thing to check for accurate writing is online product catalogues. I am currently completing my horror-thriller trilogy, THE DEAD SERIES, and all of the books reference weapons, both large and small. There are gun shops in my immediate area, but they don’t necessarily carry RPGs and Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns. Both YouTube and online gun catalogs have proven invaluable.

The Joy of Research
In my view, research should not be burdensome. I’m the kind of person who likes to learn new things. So, the fact that I have to stop the creative process momentarily and look something up doesn’t bother me. Now, I may not get everything right. I’m not a trained doctor, soldier or police officer. So I may find things that are technically accurate, but would never work in real life because those people just don’t do it that way. Think ‘Bosch.’ And if I get something wrong, I always appreciate a reader contacting me and telling me so I can fix it.

Writing is not just about creativity and a command of the language. It’s about discipline. And doing research is a very disciplined way to approach your craft. Oh, and here is a link to a post about gunshot wounds and bleeding. In case, you know, someone in your story just got shot.