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

Laugh it Up

Like many others, I rushed to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in theaters this past weekend. Now, I’m not going to spoil any plot points, but one spoiler-free element of the film surprised me: it had a sense of humor. That isn’t to say that Star Wars is a series without humor, but instead of dry humor and droid jokes, there are conversations that were genuinely funny, and a few moments where a combination of timing and unexpected reactions caused the whole theater to erupt in astonished laughter.

Thanks to Star Wars and other pieces of media I’ve seen recently (such as Thor: Ragnarok, finally playing through last year’s Ratchet and Clank game, and so on), I’ve been thinking about the use of humor in stories and genres that aren’t necessarily comedies. When you’re fighting bad guys in space in order to save your home from destruction (which actually describes all three examples above, coincidentally), why should humor be included amidst the action and drama? Actually, when used correctly, humor can actually be used to enhance the mood and tension of the narrative!

Humor can help strengthen the narrative in a number of ways. It can be used to highlight what your universe defines as normal; if your character can crack jokes about killer robots that look like crabs, the audience learns that either crab-bots are normal in this universe, or at least fitting in with the rules this universe has set up. Funny moments can help give characters (and the audience) a chance to breathe and collect their thoughts between action beats. It can also be used to betray expectations, such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi mentioned above, or in reverse where something seems to be funny but turns out to have a shocking consequence.

For an example on how this can work, I’m going to discuss an eccentric video game, Disgaea 4. It’s a comedic tactics game where a fallen-from-power vampire decides to overthrow a corrupt regime in order to fulfill the promises of fair treatment he made to his disenfranchised employees. Such a premise could make for a gritty, supernatural political thriller, but the humor is what makes the story—such as the vampire getting upset at a newspaper, not for running a smear campaign against him, but because of its atrocious spelling mistakes. Or the fact that he thinks sardines are a proper source of food for himself and payment for the series’ trademark exploding penguins.

We're serious about sardines here.

Just like any other vampire…?

Part of this humor comes from the reactions of other characters, such as the vampire’s resigned werewolf butler, which helps explain which aspects are normal (the exploding penguins) and which are uniquely the vampire’s eccentricities (his commitment to eating sardines instead of drinking blood). Tough attacks on a demonic overlord’s regime gets broken up by a teenage girl teaching her adopted younger sister/world-destroying weapon in-training, a breather moment that also serves as a subplot about humanity and sisterhood. And when the humor takes a backseat to penguin-exploding vampire revenge schemes, the risk of that being lost to our protagonist forever helps us realize the stakes in place.

My stories tend to face dark concepts, such as a demon collecting her first soul or a paranormal mercenary trying to save his brother from 20+ years of possession. Dark can be fun, but if a story stays dark for too long, it can become an emotional drag for readers. The demon child may be all-powerful, but she can still be confused why Earth canines are so much smaller than her hellhound Huckleberry. The possessed brother may occasionally try to take over the world, but sometimes the spirit possessing him just really wants dibs on his favorite breakfast pastries.

In the end, humor works much like a good story, wherein the punchline is the plot twist. The unexpected answer to the audience’s question catches them off-guard, be it revealing the identity of the protagonist’s lost parents or why the chicken crossed the road. Laughter and joy can be as memorable as any other emotional reaction to a plot twist—and in today’s world, couldn’t we use just a little bit more laughter?

~Dorian

In the Presence of Other Worlds

If there’s one writing technique I’m fond of, it’s imagining alternate universes. To consider how differently events would turn out if one key concept were changed, be it one small event (Bruce Wayne was shot instead of his parents, as per one comic series) or a larger idea (what if Hollywood, but in a fantasy setting?). And if I can ever get to Stephan King levels of fame and be able to publish a story and then publish a literal AU of that same story, believe you me, I will feel like a god. Expect maniacal laughter.

Now, you may wonder why I referred to this specifically as a writing technique. I do so because imagining AUs can be useful for a variety of purposes, be it developing characters or practicing new genres without flinging oneself completely into the unknown. Imagining an alternate universe can even lead to entirely new stories, such as how the Temeraire series and the Fifty Shades of Gray books were originally AU fanfics of Master and Servant and Twilight respectively. But how exactly can imagining AUs help?

Karmonis Lineart

Karmonis is also an occasional pincushion.

From a character perspective, I’ll use a fantasy character I’m developing as an example. Karmonis Mordai is a tiefling (i.e. looks like a satanic demon without actually being one) who was unfairly exiled from home, forced to become a ranger for hire in his travels. I ended up playing him in two different games, so one version of him found a small band of adventurers to travel with on a quest, while the other settled into a city and is now fighting to protect a larger populace of people in his new home. One setting helps me develop his faith and small-scale interactions, and another puts him in a position of power as a rebel force and weighing his impulses against the needs of his people. Developing him across two worlds with one key difference—did Karmonis overcome his guilt and allow himself to find a home—has helped me develop his character immensely.

For AUs as a method of trying different genres, I’m going to consider fanfiction for a moment. Fanfiction is where I first started writing, and instead of rehashing the familiar, I took to writing AUs as a way to contribute something new. One of my first forays into original fiction was to take the mechanical trappings of my favorite fandom (a popular video game series I will not name, out of sheer embarrassment) and put them into a gritty dystopia. The characters and world were new, but with the same basic rules in place, I still had fellow fans who were interested in reading and providing me feedback. A later example was taking the characters from an urban fantasy tale and putting them in a more high-fantasy setting, allowing me to practice the trappings of fantasy rules through a familiar modern lens and characters I already knew how to write.

In these cases, both techniques can be applied to our own original fiction. Have a character you’re having difficulties figuring out? Imagine them in a fresh setting, how they would react with a different role in the story, or even if a key aspect of their identity was shifted. Interested in a different genre? Take characters you’re familiar with and write them in such a setting, so you can focus on what’s new instead of having to build it all from the ground up. Don’t have time to write it all down? Even just daydreaming can help get the creative juices flowing.

(I myself have a tendency to put my characters in different games, be it a dice-rolling tabletop game or a video game. They can lead you surprising places—imagine my terror when I realized that a character of mine would totally side for the main antagonist of Fallout 4 because of the importance he places on family.)

Amusingly enough, most of my upcoming novel “Bones and Bourbon” can be attributed to me imagining AUs in one way or another. Retz and Jarrod Gallows were originally characters in a webcomic I was writing, but they kept stealing the spotlight from the main characters, so I considered giving them their own story. Around this same time, a friend sat me down to watch Supernatural for the first time, so I started to imagine what the Gallows brothers would do if they were in the Winchester brothers’ shoes. (And yes, those early drafts of the series did read a lot like a Supernatural fanfic, and thus are horribly cursed.)

Other characters joined the cast as they were given the AU treatment; what if this manipulative vampire was instead a lamia, and what if this girl and her monster friend from a Monsters and Other Childish Things game were monstrous siblings and on the run in a setting where they weren’t the only paranormal beings running amok? Even antagonist Nalem started as a benevolent god in an earlier story of mine, stripped of the mundane upbringing that had taught him kindness in his original series as he was tossed into Retz’s head for “Bones and Bourbon.”

Feel free to change things up, even just for sake of daydreaming. And if the changes you make actually stick? Don’t be afraid to run with them. The multiverse is the limit, dearests.

~Dorian

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