Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Dead King And Grim-Visaged War




A pair of interesting articles got my attention recently, mostly because they are somewhat related to my writing.  And maybe yours too.

 The first was this story about the forensic evidence concerning the death of Richard III. As you probably remember, they discovered the monarch's disfigured body two years ago under a parking lot in Leicester, England. That alone is just mind boggling, given he died over five hundred years ago. 




But now researchers are able to describe in detail the wounds that likely killed Richard III (the last English monarch to die on the battlefield), based on the marks found on his skeleton. Apparently the final death blows involved a pair of hits to the back of the head, though he was also stabbed in the face a few times, had his scalp nearly taken off by a sharp blade more than once, and had a rondel dagger driven into the top of his skull that left a key-hole-shaped puncture wound. Someone had also allegedly stabbed him in the backside, post-mortem, as a final insult after his body armor was removed.

Battle is a grim, violent business I never wish to experience. And yet I choose to write about it often, putting my character into the thick of it.

Which leads me to the second article I found in The Independent about women who write about war. Here's the opening quote from the article:

"When we reflect on the greatest war stories in the literary canon, they are tales of horror and heroism that have erupted across history's front lines. They are also – invariably –imagined by men, from The Iliad to Slaughterhouse 5. The assumption, when it comes to war fiction, has been that women can't write about battle because they haven't been there, on the front line."

I'm happy to say the article goes on to try and disprove that opening statement, giving examples of stories written by women about war. Though most are offerings that skew more toward the effects of war on people outside of actual battle. 

Historically, women haven't tackled the subject of battle often in their stories, but the idea that we can't because we never experienced it isn't an argument that sits well with me. Certainly there are men writing war stories who have never been in battle either. But to assert a writer can't describe a subject adequately because they've never experienced it, and especially because of their gender, seems a petty attitude. I've never cast a magic spell, fought a dragon, or flown a space ship either, but I'm pretty sure I could craft a story about any one of those scenarios. In that case my credibility would probably be enhanced by the fact that none of you have done those things either. But because people have gone to war and do know what it's really like, I do understand how a lack of experience is a pitfall for writers to beware of, I just don't accept it as an absolute. And I hope you don't either.

I'm a competent thinker. I can interpret the trauma of nine head wounds taken by a king who has fallen off his horse and imagine the terror and brutality of that moment. I can understand the anger behind the stab wound issued after the dead body was slung over a saddle and carted off for an ignoble burial. As a writer my job isn't to depict battle through a documentary-type lens but to render a dramatized version of it so I can show how it affects the characters and the story's outcome. I may not always get this part right on the first, second, or even third try, but it doesn't mean I need to shy away from writing about war because I haven't experienced it first-hand. 

And I'd argue it's the same with any subject we choose to write about, including depictions of race, gender, and sexual orientation other than our own. We want to bring as much authenticity to a scene as we can. Doesn't mean we have to have lived it ourselves. A fiction writers responsibility is to tell the story in the most compelling way we know how, relying on research, gut instinct, and our emotional intelligence. And a healthy dose of a good imagination helps too.


Have you ever felt like there was a story you wanted to write but didn't because you were intimidated by the subject matter? What's something you're writing about now that you never experienced first-hand? Did you know the dagger wound to the top of the head wasn't one of the fatal blows??? Whaaaat? 



* Top illustration of the Battle of Bosworth Field via Britannica

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dream Is An Action Verb

For so many of us, writing novels and seeing them published is a dream, whether through traditional means or independent release. It's a dream I've been holding onto for, well, a few decades.

There's a steep learning curve for some dreams, though. Twenty-five years ago (and probably even longer) I knew I wanted to write novels. For my first I decided to write a thriller! A murder mystery with undercover cops and intrigue and drama and…it was terrible. Couldn't even figure out how to get past thirty pages.

The desire to write was there, but the skill was lacking. I didn't understand story structure, or character development, or any elements of craft beyond creating that initial inciting incident, ending with some sort of climax, and a bunch of dialogue in between. All I knew was I wanted to write stories like the ones I was reading.

Fast forward a few years and I still wanted to write and publish a novel. I had all these things I wanted to say, all this pent up creativity I needed to pour onto the page. I'd taken a creative writing class, but I still didn't know how to shape a story properly. In fact, I didn't even know enough to know I didn't know what I was doing. Made it about fifty pages on a historical fiction book and ran out of gas.

Then, well, Harry Potter came along, and I did what many mothers who write do: I decided to write a children's story. How hard could it be to write a middle grade novel, right? Yeah. Thing is, I actually finished that novel…five years later.

By then I had picked up some books on craft and at least knew enough to structure the thing in three acts. And the internet had arrived! I was online talking to other writers in forums and learning from them how to elevate the writing quality. I also attended several writing conferences and sat in on workshops taught by successful agents and bestselling novelists. I finally understood how much I didn't know.

I gave up querying that first novel, knowing it wasn't the ONE, but the dream wasn't about to die. I began a few other dud novels after that, but set those aside when they proved not good enough. Then I hit on my current project. Decades after my first attempt to write novel-length fiction, I've now got two novels in my trilogy completed, stories I'm very proud of. I'm not finished learning, but I think I'm in a good place right now in relation to my dream.

But that isn't necessarily the point of this post.

I had reason to reflect on my journey recently when I nearly opened my mouth to tell someone that maybe it was time for them to give up on their dream. I've watched this person struggle, losing job after job, always putting their dream of being a musician first when they ought to have been focused more on carving out some security in life. But…who am I to tell anyone to give up?

I will say, however, there is a difference between hoping and wishing a dream will come true and actually working toward a goal. I'll hold the door open on a dream for as long as it takes, if someone is actively working to learn their craft and improve. We've all seen those people who walk around sour on life like they gave up caring about anything a long time ago. I don't ever want to be responsible for putting that look on somebody's face. Even unrealized dreams can keep us going if we continue to nurture them. But, like love, dream is an action verb.


Ever wanted to give up on your dream? Or tempted to tell someone to grow up and face reality already?

For some great advice about motivation and working toward a goal from the ground up, check out this letter Eugene O'Neill wrote to his struggling son. Tough love.


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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Insecure Writers: Time to Bloom

Today I'm pleased to share with you a guest post by M.J. Fifield, author of the new fantasy novel Effigy. Those of you already familiar with M. J. through her blog are likely aware of the, um, gnashing of teeth, flailing of limbs, and pulling of hair that went on prior to this novel being released into the world. While observing M. J. grapple with the stresses of the publishing process, I was often reminded of this Anais Nin quote:


"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."

It was a long, arduous process at times, but she overcame her insecurities and went for it. And isn't the end result beautiful and totally worth it? 

Take it away, M. J. 


A Strong Female Character


I grew up in the 80’s in a household where the television was never off, so one of my first role models (apart from my tough-as-nails mother) was Teela from the 1983 animated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. She was the captain of the palace guard, good with a sword, and responsible for the protection of the prince. She kicked ass, and did so all while wearing a leotard and high-heeled boots.

Teela

Teela led to She-Ra, the Princess of Power. She-Ra was a freedom fighter armed with a magical sword, high-heeled boots, the ultimate mini skirt, and a talking unicorn-pegasus hybrid. Oh, how I wanted to be She-Ra, Princess of Power. I spent a lot of time that decade running around the neighborhood with a stick as my sword pretending to be her. My neighbors now will tell you that I still do that, but it’s not true. Unless they have video. Then it might be true.

She-Ra…noticing a pattern yet with that hair?

 Anyway, I digress. I watched Teela, She-Ra, Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman, Emma Peel, and probably other women I can’t even recall at this time. In the 90’s, I became aware of Buffy Summers and the women of the Whedonverse. Talk about strong, female characters.

How much did I love Emma Peel?! LOVE.

Meanwhile, Haleine Coileáin came into existence. When Effigy begins, she’s sharp and tough-talking, but she can’t kill you with her pinky. She knows which end of a sword to hold, but she can’t do much damage with it. Mixed martial arts are beyond her, and she couldn’t draw a bow to save her life.

She’s not a warrior. Not in any traditional sense. Her weapons aren’t forged from steel, but rather intellect and fortitude. She’s armed with an overwhelming urge to do right. To be good.

Haleine’s strength isn’t in having the skill to throw someone across a room or shoot the wings off a fly at 1,000 yards, but in her own ability to be able to get back up after being knocked down, to keep fighting when it feels as though all hope is lost.

It’s not easy for her. She struggles. There are enemies determined to tear her down, and she falters. Mistakes are made. She gets lost. By the time the story ends, Haleine is in a much different place than from which she began—and it’s not a particularly strong place.

It’s for this reason that I worry that perhaps she isn’t as tough a female character as she should be, as readers might expect her to be. That said, readers thus far have considered Haleine a strong female character (one called her a kick-ass lady), so perhaps I should stop worrying and take their word for it.

Besides, if there’s one thing I know about the Coileáin women, it’s that no one—and I mean no one—can keep them down for long. Haleine may be lost for a time, but she’ll find her way back.

Because that’s what strong female characters do. With or without a sword.





Author Bio:
Armed with a deep and lasting love of chocolate, purple pens, and medieval weaponry, M.J. Fifield is nothing if not a uniquely supplied insomniac. When she isn’t writing, she’s on the hunt for oversized baked goods or shiny new daggers. M.J. lives with a variety of furry creatures—mostly pets—in New Hampshire.



EFFIGY:

The survival of a once-mighty kingdom rests in the hands of its young queen, Haleine Coileáin, as it slowly succumbs to an ancient evil fueled by her husband’s cruelty.


Buy the novel at:      Amazon US   Amazon UK  CreateSpace




Did it feel like a scary risk when you published your novels? And what do you think of the ever evolving strong female characters and the way modern authors are reinterpreting the female heroine? If we can just get them out of high-heeled boots and bosom-enhancing corsets I'd be happy -- the characters, that is, not the authors. They can wear what they like. :) 




This post is part of the Insecure Writer's Support Group hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Warning: May contain strong female characters. 






AND just a heads up I'll be taking a break from the blog for awhile. Got some things to work on that require me to put my head down and just get them done.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

To Sleep, Perchance To Dream


I was talking to a friend the other day about premonitions and how sometimes I'll dream about someone I haven't seen in years, and the next day I'll run into them or hear news about them out of the blue. Not sure what's at work there, but our subconscious mind swims in a strange pool of the unknown. Always working, always processing. And sometimes, when it's not preparing us to meet up with that old high school friend we haven't seen in twenty years, it'll kick out a really great story idea.

The series I'm working on now didn't exactly come to me in a dream, but it was moments after I woke up, not quite awake, not quite asleep, when I got a vision of my main character squared off against a man. I had no idea who she was, what her background was, what the man meant to her. But I couldn't shake the feeling of tension between them. There was a story there, I just needed to flesh it out. I remember feeling almost possessed as I wrote her backstory out in a notebook that morning, not wanting to lose that connection to the dream-like vision.

Apparently this is a rather common happening among writers and other creative types. Probably the most famous story to start out as a dream is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. And there's Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. But director James Cameron also says the Terminator came to him in a fever dream. His vision was of a metallic skeleton emerging from of a fire, red eyes gleaming.




Robert Louis Stevenson is another famous fever-dreamer. While bedridden after suffering from a hemorrhage, his subconscious delivered him a whopper of a plot that would later become the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Per his wife, Fanny:

"In the small hours of one morning,[...]I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily: 'Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.' I had awakened him at the first transformation scene." (source)




I can't say I've ever dreamed an entire plot, but I wouldn't say "no" if my subconscious suddenly decided to drop one on me. Seems fevers are great for coming up with outlandish tales. The trick is remembering to write it all down in the morning.

Ever come up with a story based on a dream? Do you think dreams are just the random flutterings of an overactive mind? Or are they the doorway to something more?



Artwork by John Waterhouse

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Insecure Writers: My Dystopian Dilemma

I should be able to wrap up the revision on my WIP this week. That's the good news. Just have a few scenes to clean up, including rewriting my opening pages again, and then it's off to find beta readers. The bad news is it appears while I was writing my novels, the dystopian genre has gone out of fashion again.

I don't really feel like this latest novel is a true dystopian -- even though I suppose it is. The trilogy I'm working on is set in the future, and there's a rebellion against a totalitarian-type government in the first novel, and questions about the balance of freedom and control in a healthy society are prevalent throughout. So, yeah, if I had to put a label on them for an agent, I'd probably have to go with dystopian. And that's not a good thing right now.

According to many in the industry, dystopian is D.E.A.D., overdone because of hugely successful novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Which only means it will be that much harder to find an agent yet again. Nothing new there, but it only adds to an already strong headwind -- apparently one rife with the smell of genre roadkill.

Sigh. It bothers me because I don't/didn't write to chase a trend. It's just how the story came out this time. And now all I hear is how hard it is to sell dystopian because of market saturation. Now, if there really are sales numbers to back up the idea that readers are tired of the genre, I don't know. Could be agents and editors are simply sick of working on dystopian stories, while regular readers still want them. In that case, it may just be a matter of finding the right agent/editor who hasn't worked on one in awhile and is keen to find a new one. Who knows. No, really, who knows?!

And, yes, I know Independent publishing is an option, and I'm seriously considering that. But I've always intended to try traditional publishing first. That's just me. So as I prepare to roll out the query letters, I'm feeling a wee bit insecure about any chance of success.

Now, if you would be so kind as to tell me in the comments that none of this matters and story trumps all, I would be most appreciative.*

Anyone ever been caught in a genre dilemma where you had to set something aside until it came back in fashion? Do you think dead means dead or merely sleeping? And should I go broader and refer to the novels as speculative fiction instead? Or maybe I should just call them Fred and be done with it. 












This post is brought to you via the Insecure Writers Support Group, hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Our group is going strong and nowhere near dying off anytime soon. Join us!






*Someone needs a pep talk as she begins to mentally prepare for query battle. :)

Creative Commons photo by Loren Kerns/ mangled by me in iPhoto. 


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