From the Ashes of Old Tales: on Recycling Characters

Sometimes, a story doesn’t work out. Not enough time, plot doesn’t make sense, the list goes on for reasons why a book idea might get scrapped. But does that mean all that plotting need to go waste? Not at all, which is why this post, I’m going to talk about about recycling…recycling old characters, that is.

I’ve been creating new worlds and stories for years, from fanfiction in my youth to college tabletop campaigns and my published original works nowadays. It’s no surprise that I’ve built up a steady stock of characters over this time…as in, enough to populate at least a small town. Some are newer; most of the characters in my short stories, for example, are made specifically for that story. But others, I’ve been writing and re-writing for years. In Bones and Bourbon alone, I’ve had Retz around since Christmas of 2009, Jarrod was created a few months later, and Nalem was created before either of them in 2007.

(Meaning Nalem’s been around as long as a pre-teen, which explains a lot about what it’s like writing him, now that I think about it.)

Of course, these long-time characters have changed quite a lot since their inception. Retz is ace instead of a cowardly womanizer, Nalem is no longer a benevolent demi-god of darkness (much as he may claim to be), and Jarrod…is still a monster-fighting alcoholic, but now with a boatload of identity issues and a steady boyfriend. Heck, said boyfriend Farris was meant to be a one-time character in my first-ever tabletop campaign, but the players attached to him so much that I kept him around and snuck him into a book, where the readers then attached to him, and now he’s one of the main characters.

So, how does one recycle and reinvent characters? If their details and storylines get changed so much, are they even the same person—and if the answer is no, does that matter?

To explain how this process works, I’m going to explain one of my more extreme examples. I’m going to talk about Nalem.

For those who haven’t read Bones and Bourbon yet—first, please do so if dark fantasy action with bad puns is your thing. Second, Nalem is the main antagonist of the story, an ancient spirit who controls bones and experiences the world through a vessel whose body he steals, that currently being protagonist Retz Gallows. Yet as I mentioned above, I first made him as a benevolent deity, despite him being a demi-god of darkness. What changed, and how much of the old Nalem has stuck around over the past eleven years?

We begin with college, when I’m first working on the Deadly Drinks series and trying to figure out how Retz’s powers work. He’d had the bizarre bone-controlling powers since the moment I made him, but I’d decided I wanted there to be a drawback. (I was super invested in magic having equivalently powerful drawbacks in those days; probably from watching too much Full Metal Alchemist.) I had just finished the first draft of Bones and Bourbon, a draft so early it holds no similarity to the finished product, and Retz spent it all alone in his head…save for a key moment in the climax when he was rescued from possession by a sinister voice in his head whispering “Mine” as the spell was broken.

I wanted to know who that voice belonged to. I tried to make a new antagonist, but all I found were stereotypical creepy necromancers. I wanted someone new. I turned to my roster of characters with no stories of their own, which held an already sizable lineup by the time I turned eighteen.

It didn’t take long to stumble upon Nalem. He already had the design in place; back when he was a character with a body, his trademarks were flowing pale hair, thick sunglasses, and a visible spine that descended into a tail with spiked vertebrae. Even without his body, Nalem was a smooth talking immortal who thought he was better at hiding his temper than he was, insisted he was a hero even when others called him a villain, and already had a history of meddling in the lives of other characters for reasons he believed benevolent.

I still had a lot of work to do in turning him from benevolent demi-god to a wicked body-snatching spirit. The toughest thing about recycling characters is deciding what elements to keep and what to throw away; it’s far too easy to force details in just because it’s supposedly integral to the character. I scrapped a tragic love for a goddess of light, deciding there’d be no true deities appearing in the Deadly Drinks books, and set aside his right-hand soldier for a more high fantasy venture (though somehow, this character ended up in the scifi novella instead…) Nalem always had a musical focus for his powers, but his original castanets didn’t seem quite as fitting for Retz, hence the switch to a far more menacing viola. He lost his family, his backstory, and even his body—but that core identity remained.

Could this Nalem still be called the same character as the original demi-god? In terms of design and backstory, there’s almost no similarity past the skeletal theme. But personality wise? New Nalem was a twist on the old, a musing on what would’ve happened if a kind deity was accused of wickedness too many times, even by his own followers. To quote a certain Blue Öyster Cult song, “If he really thinks we’re the devil, then let’s send him to Hell.”

Thus, we had an antagonist, a counterpoint to Retz who stands in his way from within his own head. And from this twist in his original concept, I found a theme for the Deadly Drinks series in exploring what happens when one’s noble purpose becomes corrupted, plus some commentaries on the pitfalls of immortality. Readers loved to hate him so much that instead of making a one-word debut in the climax, he’s right there in Chapter 1 and keeps up his arrogant sarcasm for the whole book. Not bad for a character born from doodling edgy designs in my notebook during class.

And sometimes, characters are like notebooks. They acquire notes and scribbles and odd extra tidbits in the margins. Sometimes, all that paper gets recycled into a brand new notebook. It’s usually not 100% recycled material, says right there on the sticker; some bits are old, some are new, but all the paper’s still blank and waiting for you to spill ink upon.

~Dorian

Once More, With Feeling

Hello dear readers, I hope you are all well! Things are busy here in Gravesworld, so I figure I’d best give you all an update before starting this week’s blog post.

First off, events! For those near Cottage Grove, I’ll be selling and signing books at Books on Main during the Art Walk, starting at 6 PM. If enough people show up, I may even do a small reading!

Then, come August, you can find me at SpoCon up in Spokane, Washington! Not only will I have my books available, but I’ll also be appearing on a number of panels, discussing everything from fantasy creatures to tabletop games and colonization in sci-fi. If you’re in the area August 10th through 12th, I’d love to see you there.

In other news, not only has Bones and Bourbon continued to do well, but its sequel “Corpses and Cognac” is in the works. We have a tentative release month for it over at NineStar, so long as I am able to complete a workable draft by the end of summer. I’m currently three chapters (out of twenty-one) into Draft 2, and for various reasons, I’m rewriting most of the book.

Sound scary? On the surface, but in this part of the process for me, it’s business as usual. Now that I have a couple books (well, a novel and a novella) under my belt, I have a better idea of what to expect for the jump from Draft 1 to Draft 2. Thus, today’s blog is about the refining process of later book drafts, as we slowly lurch from writing to editing.

In reality, the draft numbers are arbitrary for me; when it comes to the Deadly Drinks books, I’ve actually written them numerous times before Draft 1 is completed. These “Draft 0” stories are the preliminary runs deemed unfinished or unsuitable for publication. Bones and Bourbon’s Draft 0 was only the same in title and protagonists; it didn’t even have Nalem or Farris, much less anything even resembling the same plot. Corpses and Cognac had much of the same characters, but its various early drafts kept wandering in strange directions, ending too early or getting lost in weird concepts that didn’t fit the rest of the book.

Draft 1 is what I call the completed draft I decide I want to refine into a book. The overall characters are in place, the plot hits most of the moments I want, and I have an idea of the book’s themes. If I already have so much in place, why am I still rewriting the entire book for Draft 2? Well, there are a number of reasons…

  • Updating the writing style. I finished Draft 1 back in early 2016, after a couple years of false starts and Draft 0’s. It wasn’t an easy book to develop, so after my beta reader gave it a look, I let it sit for awhile as I started the third book and edited Bones and Bourbon. As such, I’ve written quite a bit since then, and my skills have improved quite a bit. It’s time to bring “Corpses and Cognac” up to that level.

  • Strengthening story elements. All the prior drafts were about figuring out where I wanted the plot and character arcs to go. Now that I have an idea of what I want to keep, I can cut out the extraneous details and build up what works best. This is the draft where most of the foreshadowing comes into the story, new concepts are fine-tooled to fit the story (while making sure they remain consistent with the series as a whole), and the cool descriptions come in.

  • Reworking an antagonist. Because I realized, in the middle of writing Chapter 2 of this draft, that elements of one antagonist were perhaps a bit too similar to Lady Delight’s in the first book. Even if it was just me being paranoid, I still figured it better to change things now than hope no one notice later. Hence, changing how that antagonist works—and fiddling with my outline in the process.

  • Finding the humor. “Corpses and Cognac” began as a rather bleak story, all things considered. Then again, so did Bones and Bourbon. I have to know the story first before figuring what makes elements of it funny. Humor and the darker elements of a story are delicate to balance; they best work together when they ebb and flow, so readers are eased out of the deep stuff by a moment of light and brevity.

  • Letting the characters speak. Draft 1 is a journey in what needs to be said. Draft 2 concerns how that’s spoken. Retz and Jarrod alone sound quite different from each other, from their word choices to their sentence structure. Now that I’ve worked with both old characters and new, it’s time to make sure each of them sound distinct (and for the reoccurring characters, that they sound familiar too). By the end, the goal is that readers should be able to tell who’s who even if they ignore all dialogue tags.

In the end, is that a lot? Well…perhaps it is. As it turns out, that’s the nice thing about giving the draft time to sit while working on other parts of the series in the meantime. After months (er, years) of thinking on it, the words are flowing like a fine wine. Even if the words and some of the story elements are new to me, I’ve lived with this story so long that I know where it needs to go as I write it. Armed with the first draft and a rocking playlist, I’m ready to polish this draft into the novel it needs to be.

Right now, my main goal is to treat this like an extended NaNoWriMo; write every day that I can, and try to hit a higher word count when possible. However, it’s also important not to burn out, so I’m making a concentrated effort to take time to relax, be social, and plot out other projects. Through a balance of dedication and recharging, this draft of “Corpses and Cognac” should finish up by summer’s end, maybe even with time for a pass by my beta reader and some literary polish for Draft 3 before it hits my editor’s inbox.

I’m excited. Are you, dear readers?

~Dorian

From the Secret Diaries of Evil…

It’s almost here!

“Bones and Bourbon” releases this coming Monday…except for those who pre-ordered the ebook through NineStar Press, who can download their copies tomorrow. For everyone else, Amazon currently has print and ebook copies ready to preorder, as does Barnes & Noble, and ebooks can also be acquired through Kobo and Smashwords. I’ll update you here as more options, such as Barnes & Noble, become available.

As expected, I’m both excited and low-key freaking out. It’s a good kind of freakout, but still. This is actually happening. I can’t thank you all enough for helping this happen, because even your presence alone has been an invaluable support to me.

Now let me tell you about last Saturday, when I participated in an Author Takeover on Facebook for NineStar Press authors. There were a lot of entertaining presentations and conversations, and for my part, I shared some artwork and information for the creatures set to appear in “Bones and Bourbon,” complete with some commentary from my antagonist Nalem’s secret notebook. However, I recognize that not everyone has a Facebook page, or wants to scroll through all the discussions to find my posts, which is why I’ve decided to re-post them all here! Without further ado…


ATN Retz

Retz, with Nalem as a laughing skull.

“There are those who call me an evil necromancer. Regardless of their morality, they are wrong, if only because I do not RAISE THE DEAD, just their bones. What use have I for flesh? It is weak, fallible, and…smelly. Eugh. I also refuse to be called a lich, a witch, sorcerer, or any other inane titles. I am but a self-made god.” —Nalem

Fantasy is rife with the undead and those who raise them. Flip through any generic fantasy tale, be it a Tolkien rip-off or a modern horror tale, and you’ll find necromancers and zombie hordes galore. Sometimes, there are also just skeletons running around, with no flesh and no cares in the world, and they’re goofy to watch.

At least, it is until Retz and Nalem get involved.

Nalem was created by taking many of my favorite antagonist tropes—formless spirit that can possess people, “raising” the dead, a penchant for snark and inflicting horrific bodily harm—mashing them together into one evil bastard, and then sticking said bastard into a protagonist’s head. I also decided that instead of raising zombies, he would only have powers over their bones, either animating them as their skeletons were or completely warping them to suit his whims. Swords out of ribs? Check. Fusing your enemy’s teeth together? Also check. The result is a “hero” with decidedly un-heroic powers, and a deep connection between a man and the world’s greatest evil…who also happens to be his worst enemy, mentor, and confidante all rolled into one arrogant package.

ATN Huldra

Jarrod (left), Retz from the back (upper right), and their parents (lower right)

“I have never been a fan of huldras. They have always flaunted their emptiness, as if that makes them immune to my powers. They also keep claiming I’m “wicked” and “beyond redemption,” as if I care about their opinions. However, I suppose I should thank them for their foolish ways; they have inadvertently created the perfect vessel, with which I may finally complete my plans…
…If that troublesome brother of his doesn’t decide to “rescue him” first.” —Nalem

Traditionally, huldras are creatures in Norse and Scandinavian lore, though there have been mentions of them in other cultures. They are known for their ethereal beauty, complicated by a cow tail (or a fox tail, in certain variations) and a gaping hole across their back that reveals their bodies to be hollow inside. They are known to assist those who are polite, but those who cross them are reminded of their strength when the huldra straightens an iron horseshoe with their bare hands…or just uses their immense strength to batter the offender senseless.

In “Bones and Bourbon,” our sibling protagonists have a huldra mother who fits the lore, but since the Gallows brothers are also half human, they are known as hulderkind. Jarrod inherited his mother’s incredible strength—and a cow tail—but Retz’s biology is far stranger. He has the hole in his back and his hollow inside, save that unlike a traditional huldra, he still has a human skeleton. This led to him being the perfect vessel for Nalem, whose powers can warp Retz’s bones to suit his whims without worrying about puncturing any vital organs.

I also gave the huldras sped-up healing, so the Gallows brothers don’t have to visit a hospital after every fight. Plus, it seems huldras have developed an instinct for judging whether someone is good or evil…and while Retz’s morals are warped by his necromantic mental roommate, Jarrod’s instincts are clearer than he’d care to admit.

ATN Furaribi

Isamu (left) and Aimi (right), Furaribi siblings

“Fools more superstitious than I would consider spotting a furaribi to be an ill omen, much less two of them so far from home. I, of course, will not be waylaid by such opinions; all I have to do is track these creatures without my vessel betraying me, and I will be one step closer to the fruition of my plans.
…And yet, I swear that girl is familiar. Have I somehow encountered her and forgotten? Or does her boundless optimism and love of scathing pop music simply remind me of my vessel?” —Nalem

Furaribi aren’t particularly common as far as yokai (spirits and other creatures from Japan) go. They’re said to take the form of fiery birds with dog-like faces as they float along riverbanks. They supposedly form from lost souls unable to pass on to the next life, and while most are content to float in peace, some can be goaded into a vengeful fury if reminded of their past lives…

Since not much is known about furaribi, I’ve given them a couple twists for “Bones and Bourbon.” For one, I made them more humanoid, though their talons and fiery wings are still reminiscent of birds. I also gave them the ability to disguise themselves in a human form, so they may travel past their riverbanks to mingle with mortal society. Their origins are unclear in this story; their only concern is escaping their wicked lamia captors. However, it may be significant that Aimi is the first furaribi to be born outside of Japan, and a few key powers seem interested in her…

ATN Lamia

Lady Delight

“A letter from Lady Delight arrived today. Of course the damnable snake refused to state what she needed help with—she has to lure me over first before she can bribe me, after all. Or betray me, seeing how she loves to mimic my own tactics.
I should burn the letter and send back the ashes as my reply. Then again, if the rumors are true, she may finally have the connections I need to make her useful. I may as well investigate the veracity of these claims…but first, I’ll have to find a goat.” —Nalem

The lamia seen in “Bones and Bourbon” are a composite of multiple snake-women hybrids found in mythology. The most notable is Lamia, a lover of Zeus who was cursed by Hera into a monstrous form often described as serpentine; most art depicts her with the upper half of a woman and the lower half of a snake, similar to Gorgons who also feature in Greek Mythology. However, the lamia in “Bones and Bourbon” also have a completely nonhuman form, where they resemble giant snakes such as the Hindu Naga…except they also grow multiple heads as they age, reminiscent the multi-headed Hydra. Plus, their fangs contain deadly poison, just like…actual venomous snakes!

Lamia are also known to live for centuries, which gives them time to indulge in their common hobby as collectors. Unfortunately for the Gallows brothers, the lamia they have to face is Lady Delight, owner of a fantastical menagerie of monsters. Sentient, rare monsters she’s planning on selling at an otherworldly fair. And the highlights of her collection, a pair of furaribi, have just escaped her lair…

ATN Unicorns

Two rude, bloody unicorns

“I hate when unicorn heads escape and bleed all over my notebook. I still neither know nor care why it was following me, but Lady Delight should appreciate the gift. For now, I think I’ll leave it in the passenger seat; I want to see how my vessel reacts when he wakes up.” —Nalem

Ah, unicorns. Pure champions of love, light, justice and…wait, is that blood?

Yes, unicorns are one of the few common creatures you’ll see in “Bones and Bourbon,” but these aren’t the mild-mannered sweethearts you find statues of at the kitschy fantasy stores. These unicorns are warriors, carnivores who purify the blood spilling from their kills. As long as a unicorn’s horn is intact, they cannot be stopped, even as a disembodied head. For reasons unknown, they also seem to have a vendetta against Retz, even though he doesn’t actually have any blood in him to purify. Perhaps they just don’t like him and his decrepit car?

ATN Alexander

Alexander Gallows as a Fae

Good news: Alexander Gallows is dead!
Bad news: I wasn’t the one to kill him.
Worst news: Whoever DID kill him botched the job, and now he’s an undead Faerie, complete with powers he really didn’t need. I should have murdered him myself while I had the chance!” —Nalem

The word Faerie brings a variety of beings to mind. Some think of Tinkerbell and other diminutive beings with glittery wings, flowery homes, and pint-sized attitude. Others imagine grand courts full of magic and deceit. And then there are those who imagine the “kindly ones” waiting just off the path, luring travelers to follow them to the lands of the dead or other strange worlds…

All these and more count as Fae in “Bones and Bourbon,” though the most commonly seen are the latter. A world known as Arcadia waits just past our world, twisting the familiar into visages where chrome trees leak oil and castles of fire and light await on brimstone clouds. Those who die in Arcadia find they do not stay dead, but fuse with the environment to become bizarre creatures. Such a fate has befallen Alexander Gallows, father to our protagonists…though in his case, his transformation may not entirely be a curse.

ATN Farris

Farris O’Reilly

I love when mortals bring me toys to break. Jarrod, you make it all to easy to ruin your day. Wait, he’s able to see the supernatural AND has no memory to speak of? Could I be so lucky? It seems that Fate has decided to smile upon me after all…!” —Nalem

Of course there are humans in “Bones and Bourbon,” even if they don’t make up much of the cast because…well, almost every story has humans, but how many have snake-ladies and carnivorous unicorns? But I may as well mention how humans play into this supernatural mess, if only so I can showcase a picture of the novel’s main human, Farris.

Most humans can’t see the supernatural. Well, they can, they just…can’t comprehend the supernatural for long, so their memories warp so that events make sense to them. They’re quite skilled at accidentally ruining paranormal plans without realizing it, particularly because a mysterious being known as “The Harvester” seems to be protecting them from supernatural backlash.

Once in a while, for a myriad of reasons, a human comes along that can see man and monster both, often becoming mediators between them. One of these was Alexander Gallows, father to our protagonists Retz and Jarrod. Another is Farris, daredevil amnesiac and Jarrod’s devoted boyfriend. Where did he come from, how does he know how to use a sword, and what makes him think trying to rodeo a unicorn’s in any way a good idea?

Oh dear, Nalem found me with his notebook. I was going to tell you all about two mysterious beings, The Harvester and Bloody Mary, but Nalem just…ripped the corresponding page out of his notebook, tore it up, and ate the pieces. Guess you’ll have to read “Bones and Bourbon” to find out what that’s about, now won’t you?

Hope you’re ready for the 23rd, dear readers.

~Dorian

A Recipe for Deadly Drinks

So this is what daylight looks outside of the dreaded Editing Mines! It’s a different kind of bright from a computer screen, isn’t it? Unlike the east coast, we’re getting some sun in between the bouts of rain, so it actually feels like spring, as April should.

Speaking of April, know what releases in less than three weeks? That’s right, “Bones and Bourbon” releases April 23rd, available in both print and ebook formats wherever books can be acquired online (and, if all works out, at certain bookstores and conventions)! Right now, we’re busy with copyediting, finalizing the cover art (it is GORGEOUS and I cannot wait to share it with you), and preparing to promote the book with everything from events like the Author Facebook Takeover to some top-secret projects.

It’s been a long, strange journey to get “Bones and Bourbon” to where it is now. Ever wonder how a novel comes to be? Here’s the story on how this one happened.

The journey started one Xmas morning when I was still in high school. Though I had been writing fanfiction for years at that point (some stories with enough “fan characters” and alternate settings that they were almost completely original works), it had never occurred to me to become an author; my goal was actually to write for video games, inspired by JRPGs such as Final Fantasy X and Chrono Cross. Then I opened one particular book: the writer’s digest Plot and Structure by J. Scott Campbell.

I had a revelation: instead of being beholden to the constraints of graphics and commercial deadlines in video games, I could just write the stories on my own! I could be an author! I read this book on writing as if it were the holy grail of inspiration, and as soon as I shut the cover, I closed my eyes to brainstorm a novel (as if it were so easy). What popped into my head was a man standing aloft on a ship made entirely of bones as it bore him over a churning ocean in a storm. I decided the man’s name was Retz Gallows.

He was not the protagonist.

Originally, Retz was a straight-up necromancer who used his powers to keep his deceased girlfriend alive, and was the call to action for a mild-mannered metal-bender named Samson. That story wasn’t developed enough to last beyond the first chapter, and I soon moved on to an X-Man-esque story called “Arcanum,” where certain individuals developed superpowers as a reaction to traumatic incidents. This was where Retz’s powers shifted into controlling just bones instead of the undead in general, though he was also a cowardly romantic, as much comic relief as he was a friendly rival to the protagonist. I kept adding characters into the story as I designed it; my plan was to make a long webcomic with a diverse ensemble cast, with Retz just being one cog in a complicated machine.

Cue a friend telling me about a tabletop game known as Changeling: the Lost and asking me to make a character for it. Without knowing much about the setting, I created Jarrod, a gun-wielding, hard-drinking investigator trying to clear the name of his disgraced father. When I drew him, he looked vaguely like Retz—more a testament to my art style at the time than anything—but I decided that they could be brothers. Jarrod joined the “Arcanum” cast and became the serious, non-supernatural counterpoint to Retz. As I built the plot, I decided he was a spy against his will for one antagonist, due to cursed roses planted in his skin—and if he didn’t comply, he’d turn into a plant completely, a fate his father had already suffered.

They were still not the protagonists. With how much screentime they stole in the story before they were even introduced, however, they might as well have been the stars. Individually, they each had more artwork than even the protagonist of the series! So instead of burying them in a giant ensemble cast, I decided to give them their own story to run amok in. I wrote about them in my college writing workshops and played them in tabletop RPG campaigns, which led to me spending my school breaks trying to write the first books in the “Deadly Drinks” series. Which were…only around 50k words each, the same length as a NaNoWriMo entry, and read more like bizarre episodes of Supernatural with the serial codes filed off. Eww.

Even though these early attempts will never see the light of day, they did serve the purpose of sharpening my skills and helping me figure out what I wanted “Deadly Drinks” to be about. I brainstormed a new start to the Gallows brothers’s adventures, pulling in concepts from my college classes and characters I hadn’t used in years. Giving Jarrod a steady romantic relationship from the start was inspired by my medieval romance professor’s comment on the rarity of such things in romances, though it took time before I settled on Farris, who was a surprisingly popular non-player character I’d made for a Changeling: the Lost game I’d run. Nalem was originally a god I’d created for a fantasy series in high school, and making him share Retz’s body stemmed from wanting to explore a deeper connection between protagonist and antagonist that I hadn’t seen much in fiction. Orphaned heroes too common? I made sure the Gallows brothers had BOTH parents alive…or at least undead and sentient enough to influence their lives.

Along came November 6th of 2012, a date I can only concretely recall because it was also the night Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term. During my science fiction analysis class in college, I was struck by a flash of inspiration, and a scene in the back of my mind’s eye: Retz and Jarrod fighting a multi-headed snake, leaping across gilded cages suspended from chains in a castle as they tried not to be devoured. There were creatures in these cages, including two fire spirits that the brothers had to rescue. I had to know why.

I could not tell you what that day’s class was about; I instead wrote the entire initial outline of what is now “Bones and Bourbon” in that class period. I fleshed out the opening chapters, one for each brother, during my writing workshops over the next few terms, while I wrote the novel in whatever spare time I had. I had to rewrite it as I went and the story continued to change, particularly as I realized that the brothers weren’t entirely human—instead being half huldra, which explained how they could survive in their dangerous urban fantasy world—and that Jarrod was transgender like some of my close friends. I wrangled the story together, finished the first draft on a friend’s couch at the start of my senior year of college, and immediately wrangled a few of my constant classmates to beta-read for me so I could prepare draft two.

Flash forward to last year. “Bones and Bourbon” was polished enough to send to agents and publishing presses, with the first draft of its sequel finished and the third book in the series underway. No surprise, it garnered a few rejections at first—I even rewrote most of Retz’s introduction to make it more engaging, since most submission requirements only reached partway through his first chapter. Between querying agents and participating in Twitter pitchfests, all I’d hoped for was a bite of interest. #SFFPit rolled around in June, and after crafting a slew of pitches (a different one for each hour, some of them crafted on the spot during breaks at work), I sent off this tweet:

 

It wasn’t the most popular or exciting of the pitches…but it did garner the attention of NineStar Press. I ran to my computer after work to research this publishing press. Deciding it sounded like a legitimate press that would respect my work and wasn’t in danger of folding, I submitted my manuscript—almost five years old if its ‘birth’ was the creation of its outline—and kept writing while I waited. The website FAQ told me to expect a 12 week response time. I heard back in 2—and it was a resounding YES.

Now, here we are. Less than three weeks until release date, when this story that was once scribbled on in-class notebook paper is unleashed upon the world, and those boys I imagined on a whim will finally get to share their adventures with all of you.

Dear readers, I hope you’re as excited as I am.

~Dorian

Soul Love, Slow Burn

It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’ve got a long shift at the day job, while my darling dearest waits through jury duty; how romantic! Okay, we’ll actually just be celebrating later in the week, since to us it’s just another day to celebrate our relationship, which is something we do quite often. Yes, we’re one of those ridiculously sappy couples even after years of dating. It’s romantic no matter what day it is.

Surely, this reflects when I write romance in my stories, right? Well…

It’s no secret that romance isn’t my genre of choice. I’ve found a few I’ve enjoyed of late, but it’s a thing I’m picky about. Why? Emotionally, I try to be a practical person, and this applies doubly so to romance. My partner and I’s romance was a long one, years of friendship that later blossomed, and when people express surprise with how long we’ve dated, I just shrug and say “my parent’s dated for thirteen years before getting married.” I’m also the sort that made a checklist of things that would need to happen before even considering marriage (dearest, if you’re reading this, thanks for your patience with all that.)

Needless to say, love at first sight tropes and whirlwind romances make me gag. “You barely know each other!” I cry as I slam the book shut or shut off the movie. And forced romances in other genres, like a fantasy book where the protagonist and obvious love interest A fall into a contrived romance over a story that takes only a few days? Ugh. There are exceptions, but overall, it makes me roll my eyes so hard that I’m surprised I haven’t spent more time staring at the inside of my own skull. Give me a romance that slowly builds across a series, the kind where I cheer when the lovers have already gone through hell together when they finally kiss. That kind of love’s my cup of cocoa.

Furthermore, when I was in college, a discussion in my medieval romance class mentioned that at least in medieval literature, all romance was about the pursuit; there were only a handful of stories that actually touched upon a relationship in-progress. That struck a chord in me, because even as a child I’d noticed this in modern stories too. Just look at the Disney flicks we grew up with; do we ever see the princesses with their princes after their kisses or marriages in the denouement? Even in those shoddy direct-to-video sequels, half the time that relationship doesn’t even factor into the plot. What happens to that happily ever after once the credits have rolled?

Surprising no one, these points affect how I write romance in a couple of ways. Mainly, I like to write a lot of pre-established relationships, where the lovers are at least close friends if not already dating by the time the story starts. Instead of focusing on the pursuit of romance, I find tension in how the couple navigates their issues. Are they strong enough to survive complications? Will their love make them stronger, or does it blind them to darker issues arising in each other?

Valentine-Jarris

Jarrod (L) and Farris (R) sharing a drink for Valentine’s Day

No surprise, you’ll see these points and more come up in the Deadly Drinks series, seeing as protagonist Jarrod Gallows and his boyfriend Farris are already dating when “Bones and Bourbon” starts—and Jarrod hasn’t been entirely open about his past when his possessed brother starts reappearing in his life. There will be other relationships seen later in the series, but even those that start in one book are going to get a chance to breathe and grow throughout the series if I get any say about it.

 

Now, I am slowly starting to branch out and try my hand at showing a romance as it starts. I have a for-fun practice project (which is…totally not a self-indulgent fanfic, nope) that involves romance blooming between characters from literally two different worlds, which will give me some interesting complications to work with as I figure out how to actually write a first kiss. I’m also preparing a novella for NineStar Press’s upcoming “Lost” collection, whose requirements only asked for characters to be lost and for some sort of LGBT+ romance to occur. The result is what I’ve been calling “polyamorous, alien space pirates,” which has a runaway pirate threesome crash on an alien planet and, during their escape, discovering a fourth member of their relationship. I manage to partially avoid my distaste of a whirlwind romance by having them be soulmates, so a sudden connection makes sense because it’s destiny and they’re made for each other…but it’s a step in the right direction. And it has pirates in space! Everything’s better if you chuck it into space.

So happy Valentine’s Day, whether or not you’re in a relationship of your own or just romancing vicariously through fiction. I’ll be working, figuring out how to write the final romantic scene for my space pirates, and looking forward to many more years with my slowburn sweetheart.

~Dorian

Time After Timing

Before I begin this week’s blog, I must quickly apologize for how sporadic the blog’s been recently. Still trying to figure out how to balance deadlines, i.e. making sure my novella’s making timely process before its ultimate due date of April 30th while remembering to come up with blog topics. I’ll hopefully be better about this once the first draft is done and I’m onto the editing stage, but we all have things to learn as content creators, now don’t we?

In a similar vein is the topic of this week’s blog, which is one of the first things I had to learn as a writer: timing.

Back when I got my start writing fanfiction, I was notoriously bad at timing. Part of this was because I was so excited to just be writing cool ideas that I wrote whatever came to mind and let the story guide me—the ultimate pantser, so to speak. Which would’ve been fine if I didn’t write “hot off the presses” and posted updates as soon as they were written (which the posting guidelines for fanfiction.net explicitly warned us not to do back in the day). I was notorious for scenes dragging on too long, only to suddenly crash into the ending with no foreshadowing because that’s what I happened to write that afternoon. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a vicious plotter and self-editor now?

Either way, I’d like to think that years of constructive criticism from readers and workshops have helped me turn timing into one of my strengths in my writing, instead of a glaring weakness. I put a lot of thought into how I pace my stories, and that’s weighing particularly heavy on my mind this week as I near the end of my novella’s first draft. Thus, I’m going to talk about a couple of tips and tricks I’ve picked up about timing, so I can get into the headspace of puzzling out how I’m writing this ending.

  • There’s a delicate balance between action and rest. No matter how much is happening in your story, characters still need a moment to breathe and process what’s going on. Without such respites, they won’t have time to reflect on what’s happening—and neither will your readers. How much time you need depends on what kind of story you’re writing. If the action scenes are few but really need to stand out, you can get away with having more time to reflect and build character. A film that’s actually a great example of this is the movie Redline; there are two big races, one at the beginning and one at the end, and the rest is building up characters and stakes while gearing up for the ultimate race. On the other hand, if you’re trying to keep the characters and readers on their toes, however, you can actually pull off interrupting a calmer scene with a sudden beat of action, something Cordelia Kingsbridge does well in Can’t Hide From Me.

  • From a technical standpoint, reading tends to drag on if the sentences and paragraphs end up the same length; the repetition becomes monotonous. Furthermore, structure can be used to convey mood and tension. Action tends to be clipped. Clipped sentences. Short paragraphs grab our attention. But if the sentence goes on longer, it usually signifies a calm in the action…or at least that things are slow enough that the protagonist can stop to notice and think about things. Changing things up in your sentence structure like this will actually help the flow, amongst other things.

    (On a related note: Sentence structure can also be used to differentiate character voices. When reading “Bones and Bourbon,” note how Jarrod is more curt and thus uses shorter sentences that are to-the-point, while Retz has a tendency toward longer but more casual sentences.)

  • I often work with multiple protagonists in my longer stories, so timing becomes important in order to maintain consistency in the story. It’s not a matter of rehashing the same timeframe or event with different characters; seeing the same thing on repeat bores readers unless there’s enough variance between the differing POVs. I tend to utilize switching between POVs to escape lulls in the story. In “Bones and Bourbon” for example, there’s a lot of travel that takes place, and the Gallows brothers aren’t always in the same location. Readers don’t need to see the entire journey, so I use that as a time to swap, such as when Jarrod gets hired by a client and is traveling to them for more details, so I let him travel while seeing what Retz is up to in the interim.

    Showcasing the same scene in different points of view can be a little trickier, especially if you’re trying to see the same moment for both of them. The trick here is that if you rewind or fast-forward time so one protagonist can catch up with the other, to do so in small increments. When Jarrod and Retz reunite, I reach the scene first in Jarrod’s POV, where he notices evidence that his brother’s shown up, but how and why is a mystery. When I return to Retz’s POV, I only go backwards by a scene, showing his lead-up to how he leaves the evidence behind, and then continue moving forward. If I had moved too far back—such as having Retz’s chnapter start an entire day before what just took place in Jarrod’s scene—it would be too much of a difference for the readers. (Unless, of course, Retz’s chapters were always a few days before Jarrod’s, but I would have to keep that consistent.)

  • I’ve always been fascinated by parallels, callbacks, and reprises, those spaces in a story that echo an earlier event in some way. Sometimes this is to repeat an emotional response, and other times to subvert it, but either way requires timing to pull off. A silly example I remember from my childhood (so you don’t have to) was the pilot movie for the short-lived TV Show Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. In one fight scene, Buzz Lightyear is training a robot companion and says “You’re good, but I’m better,” only for the robot to destroy a bunch of enemies and repeat the line back at him, echoing the sentiments of heroism and one-upmanship…only to get shot by the main bad guy, who then echoes the line again, still boasting but considerably more sinister. While it showcases both uses of a callback quite well, it all takes place over the course of about one minute—without time for the line and its implications to settle, the repeated line just becomes annoying at best.

I could go on, but blogs are bidden to timing too in order to keep readers’ attention, and letting your eyes glaze over at this rate would defeat my point. Timing is a delicate act, and to complicate it further, everyone has different preferences over it—just look at the debate over pacing in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In the end, like any writing technique, timing becomes a matter of not just skill, but preference, style, and what suits the story best.

Now dear readers, I believe it’s time for me to get this novella finished.

~Dorian

Madness to the Methods (On Editing)

In lieu of blogging last week, I instead worked on the first round for editing on “Bones and Bourbon” before it releases. However, this was technically an optional round; my editor isn’t actually starting his work until February. I had a couple reasons why, so I figured I would share the most important ones with you dear readers. Even if you aren’t an author in the midst of the writing/editing process, I hope it still provides an informative look at what goes on backstage before a book goes live.

1. How Do These Work Again?

As I was originally querying for “Bones and Bourbon,” I was also working on the other books in the series. The second book was finished and sent to my beta reader and I began work on book three. Amongst other things, the third book prominently features the furaribi, Japanese fire-spirits first seen in “Bones and Bourbon.” When I started working on that, I decided to brush up on furaribi facts for ideas…and realized that more information had been dug up about these obscure supernaturals, which I had missed out on while writing the later “Bones and Bourbon” drafts because I’d lived in The Middle of Nowhere with all its dial-up internet glory.

I’d fixed most of these details before sending the novel to NineStar Press. However, now that I’ve written about half of the third book and settled on a few other worldbuilding details, I wanted to make sure that all the details for the furaribi worked between the two books. A minor example of one such detail was that originally, Aimi mentioned being only sixteen, and furaribi lifespans were implied to be much like human ones. After the research and edits, furaribi are much longer lived—Aimi still looks like a teenager, but there are hints that she’s far older than her looks suggest…

Other supernatural details also had to be doublechecked for logic and consistency, such as how huldra bodies operate (could/would a hollow body still be able to produce sweat and tears?), whether the details of the occasionally-used alchemy made sense, and so on. After seeing how other authors have changed the rules of their magic mid-story and thus created plotholes (unless Harry Potter’s Hagrid is MEANT to secretly be the most powerful wizard who taught himself wordless magic), I’ve decided to err far on the side of caution when it comes to making my universe work.

2. Wait, That’s Offensive!

Not only do I hail from the Middle of Nowhere, without access to much media, and also in a predominantly small town of predominantly average white folks. Most of what I learned from diversity was learned from my time at Mills College down in California, and then by actively seeking diverse voices in literature and social media since then. Much as I try, I’ll be the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn about being a good ally.

As I discussed earlier in a twitter thread, I didn’t realize that albinos were often portrayed as villains or enigmatic, otherworldly beings, and how damaging that stereotype is. It makes complete sense when thought about, but not knowing any albinos personally, I simply didn’t think about it until someone brought that up. Problem was, “Bones and Bourbon” originally implied that main antagonist Nalem’s original body and thus true form…was albino. Erk.

Thus, during this edit of “Bones and Bourbon,” I removed all references of Nalem being albino and even changed a couple scenes and concepts around to fit this. I could’ve chosen to ignore the stereotype, clung to how long the character had been this way (I even had commissioned art of that particular design), and simply resolved to make it up in a later story while maybe subverting the stereotype somehow in this one. But if I did that, I still would’ve added to that damaging stereotype now, and potentially hurt my readers in the process. I’d rather spend a few hours changing details in my novel than spread harmful stereotypes for however long my book is read.

Another note I should add is to doublecheck words that refer to a minority group—be it race, sexuality, disability, or any other group—and make sure that the group that word is referring to doesn’t find it offensive. Some words used to be in common use and are now considered offensive (I know I caught one that had somehow snuck its way into my book). Others are words we’re told are offensive, but the minority group actually prefers it (such as discussions I’ve seen about those who are disabled preferring that term instead of “differently abled” or other such tip-toeing phrases). We creators don’t get to decide what is and isn’t offensive to people outside our experiences, so make sure to defer to the experts who’ve lived it.

3. A Season of Consistency

When I first wrote “Bones and Bourbon,” the story was set in Autumn, right around protagonist Retz’s birthday. It was full of pure Oregon atmosphere, full of pouring rain, falling leaves, drowning rain, apple harvests, early frosts, and even more all-consuming rain. For a variety of reasons, I decided that atmosphere was better suited for the second book, and thus I booted “Bones and Bourbon” back a couple months, to the end of July and beginning of August. Contrary to popular belief, Oregon does mostly take a break from the rain during the summer, especially during the last couple years where it’s instead been on fire.

I thought I’d edited out all the rain, save for one scene where I planned to keep it in (because what’s Oregon without at least a little rain?) Readers, I had to rearrange whole fight scenes to remove mentions of splattering mud and blood intermingling with the rain. I even found other consistency issues I’d somehow glossed over, including a reference to an encounter that was no longer in the book. Glad I caught that before readers could ask what that fight was about and how a taser got involved.

4. Making a Career of Evil

Villains are fun to write. Villains are also hard to write, because it’s so easy for them to seem funny instead of scary. Dracula may sound scary, but how terrifying can an elder vampire be when he’s seen bashing himself against a window in bat-form because there’s too much garlic in the way?

Many great villains get a chance to monologue about their evil plans, and Nalem gets his chance to shine in the middle of the book. When I read through this speech during my edits, however, I found it to be all style and no substance. His rivals were right to mock him, and I almost joined in! You can’t take a villain seriously if even the author thinks he’s all bark and no bite. I’d also developed a bit more about his past schemes and modus operandi while writing the later books, so I rewrote his speech both to sound more sensible to his audience and to better fit his plans later in the series.

These are by no means the only edits I did, and I’m sure the editing process is far from over, but at least I got these four main issues out of the way. Now more than ever, I’m excited that I’m actually in the process of publishing my first novel, and in a few short months, it will be available for the world to read. I must admit that it’s a little scary too, mostly because once this book is published, so many details for the rest of the series will be set in stone, and that means no more last-minute edits to fiddle with details like this. As an author, that’s just something I’ll have to learn to contend with: to finally let the story just be.

Hope you’re as ready for the final form of this story as I am.

~Dorian