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

Spice Up Some Worldbuilding

Just about every living thing, real and imaginary, relies on some form of consumption to survive. Most beings we write about require food and water to survive, and even characters who don’t—say, robots or beings with photosynthesis—will likely notice the food sources of those who do. It’s a point of reference that we as humans all share, and something we all think about when realizing we never actually got a dinner plan set up. Er, not that I’m speaking from personal experience here…

I didn’t used to think about food much, mostly because I was a picky eater, from a picky family with an even pickier sibling. I had my small staple of foods I would eat, and this didn’t really improve until college. (Well, once I learned how to cook and our cable was cut down to just the Food Network, if I’m being honest.) Part of the issue was that I never realized the limitless potential of food, from how the ingredients combined to realizing that spices and condiments can in fact improve a dish—yes, I ate everything plain, meaning it took me over fifteen years to try sauce on my pasta. I told you I was picky.

Not only have I come to appreciate food in real life, but I’ve started thinking about its place in fiction. At least 98% of characters need to eat after all, and what they choose to munch on says a lot about them, and also the world they live in. What foods are readily available and what’s in high demand? Do folks need a certain amount of wealth or status to eat certain foods, or are there reasons to avoid certain ingredients? How is the food hunted, harvested, or otherwise created, and then who actually prepares the food?

If your story is set in our world (past or present), the answer shouldn’t be too difficult, though you may need to research details outside your experience. Since Deadly Drinks is an urban fantasy series, I haven’t had to figure out much for Bones and Bourbon in terms of food—mostly figuring out what a lamia might eat, or what poorly-paid paranormals can afford. But while food isn’t as noticeable as alcohol in the series, it does come up in terms of where (and when!) characters are from. Left to their own devices in the kitchen, ancient evil spirit Nalem is going to gravitate toward different flavors than a Japanese/Brazilian furaribi, and both will be drastically different from the alchemy-laced Germanic meals that the Gallows brothers are used to their parents cooking.

(It also means that when I travel to a city for book research, I have a good excuse to try different restaurants to figure out where my characters might end up eating. See, writing has its perks!)

Science fiction rooted in our current technology can also have an element of research to it, though since the future is not definitive, it can still be played with. If your setting takes place on Earth (or a terraformed planet), how does technology help or hinder the growth of food? Details like what economic classes can afford “real” food, or watching rebel forces try to grow their own gardens inside an urban landscape, can help ground such a setting with efforts taking place in our own world. Meanwhile, space fiction has its own complications, such as how to keep food for long voyages, or discovering what’s edible on an alien planet.

The more fantastical you get, however, the more worldbuilding you have to do in order for everything to remain logical. Otherwise, you’ll just raise further questions: if you mention a character is drinking blue milk on a desert planet, readers are going to wonder where this milk came from and why it’s blue. Same goes for other aspects of your setting: a large army on the move needs some sort of food, a walled-in city either needs farmers within its borders or some way to import supplies, and that super cool fortress hidden in a volcano still needs to get water if the king of darkness doesn’t want his servants dying of dehydration.

One of the fun settings I have in the works is King’s Oak, a fantasy setting where an entire city-state nation is built into a giant tree, which is planted where four powerful leylines meet, causing it to be split between all four seasons at once and rotating them accordingly. The setup is fantastical, but I’ve put a lot of thought about the imports and exports of this city, including the food.

One can’t exactly set up swathes of farmland in the branches of a city, and there’s only a small sea for fish that’s shared with a neighboring country, so I decided most of the meat comes from birds or lizards, and insects are actually used as a common source of protein as well. As for plants, from fruit trees to wheat, I realized that they could be spliced onto King’s Oak itself, and thus almost every surface of this setting can be used to host plant life. Plus, with the seasons rotating along different parts of the tree, different quadrants can host unique plants, such as a wetter quadrant being host to what could be found in our rainforests. Because of all this, I can include both mundane and “exotic” ingredients in one place; who’s up for some grasshopper pancakes?

Hopefully, this post has given all of you some food for thought (pun fully intended) on what you read/watch and write in your own stories. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a dinner to plan.

~Dorian

Cut and Drive

I just returned from a brief trip to California for a memorial service (a sad occasion, but a lovely time was had), and as is tradition in our family, we drove all the way down (and back) in one 9-10 hour stretch, with only two pit-stops in between. We’re militantly tough drivers, partially because we don’t mind being alone with the scenery and a case full of classic rock CDs. Some of my best brainstorming comes from letting my mind wander during these trips.

As I remembered this trip, sometimes building also means destruction. This is true in fiction more than anywhere else.

Much as we want to keep every great idea we scribble in our notebooks, the truth is, we can’t hold onto them all. Too much of anything, be it plot threads or characters, and the story gets weighed down. Some authors can go on for a few hundred thousand words longer than the rest of us, but I’m sure even George R.R. Martin has had to cut content from the Game of Thrones series. Even outside of books, there’s a reason that extended cuts and b-sides exist, but aren’t kept in the core content.

I found myself doing a lot of story trimming this weekend. One task was simpler, streamlining a novella I’m working on for NineStar Press’ LOST collection. I cut out a couple characters (I have a great fear of bogging down a story with too many characters, after my first NaNoWriMo attempt landed me with a novel of 16+ characters in 50,000 words) and rearranged relationships around, which on paper sounds like no huge deal. And really, it isn’t. I have to scrap the opening to the novella again, but elements of those first attempts can still be recycled. If nothing else, I learned more about the world and the people within it, so the demolished wordcount at least lead to some worldbuilding. Like tearing off a bandaid, it stings a bit, but the pain passes soon enough to forget.

Then there’s the hard cut: I scrapped an entire book.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done so for the Deadly Drinks series; the first draft of “Bones and Bourbon” was similar only in name and protagonist to the novel releasing next April, and its in-progress sequel had so many restarts before I finally finished the first draft. I’m lucky in that I hadn’t started book four (seeing as book three isn’t even done yet), but even though words hadn’t hit the page yet, tossing it still hurt. Why was this?

Because it had so much I WANTED. The magical world intruding on the mundane. Playing with Frankenstein’s Creation (I refuse to call him a monster–or, stars forbid, Frank). Secret societies! Magical cyborgs! Ghost-powered transportation through other dimensions!

But from the time I revved up the engine and rolled out of the parking lot with Santana tunes blaring from the speakers, I knew it didn’t fit. When writing a series, one has to consider not just developing plot and character across one book, but over the series as a whole, and this book didn’t fit the direction the series needed to grow in. Such a fantastical tale would raise the stakes for the entire setting too much for a mid-series book, and the Gallows brothers were taking the back seat to all the cool elements I wanted to include.

So I let it go. I burned the images in my head and picked a few pieces out of the ashes that I did need for what book 4 will become. The rest of it gets tucked away to percolate in the back-burners of my mind, likely emerging on another long road trip as a new story all its own. I collected sights and snippets of songs to inspire a story that’ll fit better with my narrative arc, and if I’m lucky, I might still be able to sneak some interdimensional ghosts in there. (But first, we finish book three, edit book two, publish book one. I like to work well ahead of schedule.)

It’s a matter of weighing what we want to write with what the story needs. Let your mind wander, but know when to reel it in when it drifts too far.

Now that I’ve spent so much time cutting content, it’s time I got back to work creating again.

~Dorian

PS: Speaking of road trips, I did sneak a couple of my favorite details along I-5 in “Bones and Bourbon.” I also refrained from making any jokes about the State of Jefferson, but I can make no promises for the finished product…

Want It All

At the heart of any good story is want. Characters are motivated by their desires, be it achieving a goal, avoiding a consequence, or some other obsession important to them. Conflict arises when obstacles arise that stop characters from their goals and they go for it anyway. (Apparently, not a lot of characters listen to the Rolling Stones.)

Now, it’s possible to just repeat this fundamental trick until the end of the story, and that makes for a fine plot on its own. It’s like a Mario game, where Mario keeps stomping Goombas and dodging Bowser’s fireballs until he finally rescues the princess. However, doggedly chasing after one goal can get boring and predictable after awhile; even Mario had to take breaks for medical degrees, go-karts, and wandering the contents of Bowser’s internal organs. So what’s a storyteller to do when what a character wants just isn’t cutting it anymore?

Add more wants, that’s what. If these new goals conflict with the old ones, so much the better.

After all, people as a whole aren’t just one-want beings. My goal is to become a successful author, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also want to in the meantime find a new job, travel across the country, and convince my cat to stop trying to knock over my bookshelves. These goals can cause conflict on their own—such as if my partner and I disagree about where to travel—or by working against each other, like if finding a new job meant more money for travel but less time for this author-to-be to write (and more time for the cat to knock things over). I wouldn’t call this a novel-level amount of tension, but examples still stand.

One of the easiest ways to set up an internal conflict in your characters is to give them an overarching goal, something that will take at least the course of a story to complete, and then a short-term goal that can threaten it. In my recently-released story The Orpheus Well, for example, the protagonist has an overarching goal of discovering the mystery of the titular Orpheus Well and its peculiar owner. However, her short-term goals often rely on her having to utilize the well’s powers to bring back the dead, serving to deepen the mystery but put her at risk.

Do the goals have to require the same amount of importance? Not necessarily, though they should both feel equally important to your character, in order for the conflict to feel impactful. If a character is torn between “rescue kidnapped family member” and “take a nap,” that’s going to feel contrived—unless the character hasn’t slept for a week straight and the family member in question is one they could live without. In “Bones and Bourbon” however, Jarrod has two goals that are wildly out of sync in the grand scheme of things: stop ancient evil spirit Nalem from wreaking havoc and possibly taking over the world, and rescue his younger brother Retz from Nalem’s clutches. Logically, stopping Nalem has priority since failing to stop him could harm a lot of people, and Jarrod knows this—but he can’t just let his brother die without a fight. Since both feel equally important to him, we get his character conflict.

Stories that go on longer (like a long-running comic or a novel series) can see goals change and evolve over time too, or even have new desires complicate matters. Could Jarrod later decide that something is a greater threat than Nalem, and leave the ancient spirit alone in order to confront a worse enemy? Sure, and that choice can cause conflict too, especially if the decision to leave Nalem alone has consequences. Or he could try to stop Nalem AND another threat at the same time, with complications arising from both, and just when he thinks one or both goals are achievable…bam!

Managing multiple goals can be tricky. They can just serve to deepen someone’s personality, or the whole novel can revolve around someone trying to reconcile their contrasting desires. But if you can pull it off, it can push your story into unexpected directions, keeping you and the readers racing through the pages.

Write on and follow your own wants, dearests. Until next time,

~Dorian

Talking Bodies

How a character is described (or drawn, in the case of artists) can say just as much about the creator—and not just how often they must stare into mirrors, considering how many initial descriptions have protagonists navel-gazing at their reflections. I mean the kind of appearances we allow to be seen in our works, as well as how they’re represented. It’s a discussion that often pops up on my various social media dashboards, and since it’s just resurfaced this past week, I figure it’d be a good starting topic for this blog.

Fiction, be it visual or written, can be an escape to a more fantastic, more “perfect” world. Thing is, by excluding different bodies—those of color, of different sizes or genders, or even disabled ones—we thus imply that those bodies are not perfect or deserving of representation. Everyone deserves a chance to see themselves in fiction, not just those who happen to have the right measurements and a smoldering gaze.

Granted, we’re used to wanting to make our characters likable (even those love-to-hate villains), and in our attempts to give them a good first impression, we make them attractive. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s part of our society, like how everyone has to dress nice for a job interview. But readers and viewers are going to spend far longer than a fifteen-minute interview with our characters, and in the case of our protagonists, get to see their thoughts and personality at the same time as the physical stuff. Because of this, we can unlearn our urge to make everyone pretty little defaults. We can make a cast whose bodies are as unique and diverse as real life—and it always helps when even the most fantastical fiction has roots in reality!

While it’s a goal that’s all well and good, it can be hard to know where to start. Adding diversity can be a difficult tightrope, walking the line between “is my character more than this one trait?” and “did I just add this trait to this character so I can check off on my invisible diversity checklist?” Now I’m no expert, but here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up in my own body-building quest.

  • Let their bodies help fuel their narrative, not consume it. In the “Deadly Drinks” series, for example, protagonist Jarrod Gallows is a trans-man. I chose this because a lot of his story is about being pulled between two sides—human and huldra, nature and nurture, mundane and magical—and having him be trans* fit that narrative. But while his gender identity and connected dysphoria is brought up, it’s not the only thing that defines him. He’s also a protective paranormal investigator who drinks to deal with all the morally-gray cases tossed his way; in that respect, the only thing separating him from Dean Winchester of “Supernatural” fame is that he’s wearing a binder under his shirt. (And has a tail from his half-huldra heritage and a curse hiding on his body…but that’s another bullet point entirely.)

  • Don’t leave your main characters out. It can be easy to introduce a minor character who’s a WoC in a wheelchair if she’s only around for a scene, but if the rest of your cast is still full of skinny-white-Hollywood-stars, readers will notice. Same for if your protagonists are “traditionally pretty” and your antagonists aren’t so much. Take your main cast and see what you can push about their identity. Does your ex-soldier have a bad knee from a fight gone wrong, prompting him to sometimes use a cane and adding tension when his leg is further hurt? Is your romance heroine perhaps a little soft, except for a sharp nose that she doesn’t mind because it’s the same as her grandmother’s? Even small details can go a long way.

  • Looking for a starting point? As the adage says, write what you know, and look at yourself or others in your life for characterizing physical details. My family tends toward having rather large noses, so I’ve developed a tendency of giving a lot of my characters the same fate in both my writing and art. (At least my nose isn’t quite as pointy as the Gallows’ family nose…) My Dad’s side of the family (myself included) has also had a fair share of dental nightmares, enough that I made a whole short story on the subject, and it also shows up in how Retz Gallows uses some of his bone-controlling powers in “Bones and Bourbon.”

  • Don’t just research a cursory introduction of what to know if you aren’t of a certain race/gender/size/health/etc, but also what stereotypes to avoid. A person with ADHD is not necessarily loud and manic! Overweight and athletic are not mutually exclusive! People of color can have narratives that aren’t about immigration or discrimination! If you can, research what people are saying not just academically when they talk about media, but also informally in their own blogs and posts.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember, however, is that one author can’t do it all. We each only have our own perspective, with our own opinions and biases. That’s why it’s important to help read, watch, and support diverse creators that we enjoy! (You can even start by sharing a few in the comments below, if you’d like.)

Until next time,

~Dorian