Christmas Listening: ‘Merry Christmas From the Heartbreakers’ by Mur Lafferty

I’ve decided that I have a new Christmas tradition. Well, not new, exactly…it dates back to 2006. That is when Escape Pod #85 hit the Internet with Mur Lafferty’s delightful story Merry Christmas From the Heartbreakers. Mur writes a Christmas story every year for Escape Pod, but this one stands as my favorite, and I make a point of re-listening to it every December. This will be one of the rare times when I actually listen to a podcast episode from my feed. If you haven’t heard this story before, you’re in for a treat. If you have, then you know what I’m talking about, so listen to it again.

Raise a glass with Gingermuffin and enjoy the story. Happy holidays!

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Posted in General, Podcast, Short Stories | 1 Comment

On Religion and Human Tragedy

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a lifelong Roman Catholic. That may come as no surprise to some, while it may leave others, especially those who are committed skeptics, scratching your heads. Believe me, there are days when even I wonder why I remain in this tradition, particularly when I hear about some of the more baffling priorities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, it is part of me and likely always will be. At its best, my religion challenges me to do better, to be better, and to make a difference for good in other people’s lives. More often than not, I fail to meet that challenge, but it is always there. You don’t have to believe that Jesus is God to take up that challenge. For me, however, that belief is the starting point for everything else.

Today, however, I left Mass feeling annoyed and shaking my head. The deacon who gave the homily spoke about the first Sunday of Advent in predictable, bland terms. It was pleasant and all, and would have been okay for any other first Sunday of Advent. But this wasn’t just any ordinary Sunday.

In case you haven’t followed the news over the past several days, a young woman who lived within walking distance of my house disappeared on Friday, Nov. 19. After eight days of searching, authorities yesterday found her dead body partially hidden in a wooded area in a park where I have walked my dogs literally dozens of times. She had been murdered, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend (supposedly, he wasn’t buying the “ex” part.) Just like that, a lovely 20 year-old girl with a world of promise and bright future is gone, another victim of violence at the hands of a so-called loved one.

I did not know Jenni-Lyn Watson; I don’t know her family. My two older sons did not know her, though they have told me that she rode their school bus. My closest connection is that I have from time to time gone jogging on the street where her family lives. It doesn’t matter. As a parent, my heart aches for her parents, her sister, and all of the friends and relatives who loved her. Coming a close second is my sadness for the alleged killer’s parents, who must feel as if their world is collapsing around them. And we can’t forget that the ex-boyfriend has not yet been convicted of the crime; in fact, the public has seen almost none of the evidence that supposedly links him to it. If he is guilty, then he deserves whatever punishment the court throws at him; if not, his life has been ruined for no reason. I’m trying to withhold judgment here, angry as I am that someone here could do something like this.

So why did I leave Mass this morning annoyed? Because this was a very significant tragedy for our community. There was one thing that was on the minds of everyone in that church this morning; our hearts were heavy because of the sad news about Jenni-Lyn Watson, who grew up less than five miles from the church. Yet the deacon spoke not one word about it. Even if he wanted to devote most of his homily to the message of Advent, he could have taken a few minutes to address what was on everyone’s minds. Did he? No, but he managed to mention at least three times the special vigil Mass for the unborn that he attended last night.

Sometimes, especially when something terrible has happened, we go to church for comfort, to be reassured, to hear someone say, “God knows you’re hurting, and He’s there for you.” I know I was looking for that this morning, and I suspect a lot of other people were as well. Instead, we got yet another reminder that abortion is legal in this country. Guess what? I’ve been hearing about that since I was in the sixth grade. I get the message. Today, one preacher had a golden opportunity to reach out to his listeners and give them the warmth of God’s love. And he blew it.

When people leave their churches, whatever the religion may be, this is one of the reasons why they do it. Yes, the Bible, written as it was thousands of years ago by simple men, is filled with agricultural analogies to which we in modern society have trouble relating (“bear good fruit” may have had more impact two hundred years ago than it does today.) Yes, the music is often dreary (increasingly I notice that the lyrics “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad” are often set to a minor key. Interesting contrast.) And often the homilies are formulaic and abstract. But I think the real reason people leave is that they see no relevance in the service or Mass to the problems they face the rest of the week. How does the absurd phrase, “Let go and let God” have any meaning when your employer is losing money and you’re worried about another round of layoffs? Who exactly can let go of their worries in that situation? They can’t, nor should they. They can pray to God for strength, for a good ending to the situation, or for grace in dealing with it, but they can’t whistle, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

And when we go to church seeking comfort from our pain (and my sadness about Jenni-Lyn’s death is miniscule compared to what her family and friends are experiencing,) we don’t need a reflection on today’s reading from Isaiah. We need to hear some variation of, “Though I walk in the valley of darkness, I fear no evil for You are with me.” When religion touches people where they hurt, the people come back.

As for me, I’ll go to Mass next weekend and the next and the next. And maybe the preacher will pleasantly surprise me and say something uplifting or challenging, something that I’ll think about over and over again during the week. Or maybe I’ll hear another homily lifted from a textbook. During this, what is supposed to be the season of hope, that is one very depressing thought.

Please pray for Jenni-Lyn Watson and Steven Pieper and their families and loved ones.

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Posted in Essays, General | 3 Comments

How To Write a Great Book: It’s That Easy

I highly recommend Mur Lafferty’s blog post from last Friday for any writer looking for the secret ingredient that will make his/her book great. As I continue to work on my novel about a ghost hunter, I found a few of her points especially instructive to me, though all of them are worth considering:

Raise the stakes. Up to this point in my story (I’m around two-thirds of the way to my target word count), I’ve suggested that the villain has the capacity to kill, but no one has actually died yet. I’m not saying that someone will be killed in this novel (I haven’t decided yet), but it’s definitely on the table for consideration. As I tried to convey in Acts of Desperation, nothing raises tension like a character whose life is in danger.

Adventure changes people. My main characters are going through some very difficult events. I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying that the ghost hunter has been around the block with ghosts a few times, but the person he’s trying to help is experiencing this for the first time. Still, this fight must have a profound effect on both of them. I can see that one of my jobs as a writer is to decide what that effect will be, keeping in mind that it might not be positive.

Keep the action coming. Pacing is something I struggle with, especially in first drafts. My first novel (which is kept securely in a box in a closet at home) developed a reputation as an effective sleep aid, at least during the first half (beta readers have told me that the second half picked up considerably.) As I write about a man battling a supernatural being, I have to balance the exciting parts which are also supposed to be terrifying (come on — it’s a ghost already) with necessary down time for the characters. I don’t expect to have the balance right until the third draft or so.

If I can raise the stakes for my characters to a high enough point that readers will care, trace character arcs that change in reaction to the events of the story, and get the pacing right, I think I’ll produce a book worth reading. It’s that easy. Wish me luck.

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Recommended Reading: ‘Bloodroot’ by Amy Greene

At the end of my discussion of Horns by Joe Hill, I mentioned that I was in the midst of reading another novel that I had found through a review in the now-defunct Realms of Fantasy Magazine. I finished reading that book, the amazing Bloodroot by Amy Greene, this afternoon. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Bloodroot is in some sense the story of Myra Lamb, a woman who grows up and lives in the mountains of Tennessee, but the author’s approach is unique. She breaks the story into four sections with the narrative told from six points of view, only one of which is the main character’s. Instead, we hear Myra’s story and her effect on the people around her from her grandmother, who raised her after the deaths of her parents; the boy next door (figuratively speaking; we’re talking rural America here), who is hopelessly in love with her and will never have her; her twin son and daughter; and her violent husband who is haunted by his own demons. The story traces the tragic history of Myra’s family through early deaths, early and ill-considered marriages, abusive spouses and in-laws, dear friendships, and stints in prison.

The book gets its title from the name of the mountain that Myra calls home and the name of a plant that grows there. The mountain is like another character, overshadowing all that happens, pulling the characters back despite their sometimes desperate attempts to get away. These people have hard, painful lives; this is not a feel-good story, but it left me feeling surprisingly uplifted at the end. Ms. Greene’s sense of place, a place she obviously knows and loves well, is magnificently displayed throughout the book. I grew very attached to the characters and ached as I saw them stumble into situations and actions that bring them trouble.

One of the things I really like about this book is the multi-dimensional nature of the characters. The most despicable of them have some good in them, and the heroes and heroines, genuinely good people, do some awful things. The reader can sympathize with the reasons for these actions while not necessarily approving of them. The characters are much like real people that way.

For those who like fantasy, you will find little hints of magic sprinkled throughout the narrative. These incidents are remarkable for the way that the characters just accept them as normal. Bloodroot Mountain is not a fantasy setting, but it does seem to have magical qualities.

Bloodroot is Ms. Greene’s first published novel, and her Web site states that she has another on the way next year. I am very much looking forward to what she gives us next. This is a fine young writer whom we would all do well to emulate.

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More on Query Letters

Kristin Nelson offers her top 10 list of why adult and children’s science fiction and fantasy query letters get a rejection:

Reason 10: Generic descriptors of the story

Reason 9: Overkill on World Building details and not enough about the story itself.

Reason 8: Explaining that unlike already published SF&F novels, your work has character development

Reason 7: Popular trends (such as Vampires, Werewolves, or Zombies) with no unique take clearly spelled out in pitch

Reason 6: No mention of or insight into the characters who will be driving the story

Reason 5: The manuscript is 250,000 words (or more!) and this is unpublished, debut author

Reason 4: The work is called SF&F but it sounds more like a mystery or thriller or something else.

Reason 3: Convoluted Plot that I can’t follow in the pitch paragraph

Reason 2: SF&F stereotypical archetypes as the “hook”
–the mysterious object
–the unexpected birthright
–the quest
–the villain that has risen again
–exiled to another planet
–mayhem on spaceship to new planet
–Androids with heart of gold
–The main character as the key to saving the world or species
–the just discovered talisman

Reason 1: No hook—or mention of a plot catalyst that is new or original in this genre

Interestingly, despite it’s being #3 on the list, she ultimately decided that a convoluted plot that can’t be explained in the pitch paragraph was the top reason for rejection. Does that mean you can’t find an agent for a book with a complex plot? I don’t think so. However, if you can’t clearly sum up the plot in a paragraph, your chances of getting the agent to ask for sample pages appear to be greatly reduced.

That can be a serious challenge. Think you can summarize Lord of the Rings with its three concurrent story lines, multiple characters (some of whom are plant life), and the entire world of Middle-Earth in a paragraph? I’d love to see a hypothetical Tolkien query letter for that.

Still, if you’re a frequent reader of Kristin Nelson’s blog Pub Rants, like I am, then you know that she is someone we should all listen to. Her agency represents a lot of successful authors, like Gail Carriger, Jamie Ford, Linnea Sinclair, and Ally Carter. No one can argue that she’s not credible. I’m going to have her top 10 list (and the next day’s follow-up post) handy next time I work on a query letter. Maybe that will be the letter that convinces an agent or editor to ask for the full manuscript of one of my books. And that would be very, very sweet.

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Special Halloween Episode: ‘The Raven’

Happy Halloween, everyone! To celebrate, here’s a little spookesode, courtesy of one of my favorite characters and one of America’s greatest writers, Edgar Allan Poe. One good turn deserves another: I had so much fun writing a fictional version of him for Purgatory, that it seems only fitting that I present his classic poem, The Raven. I love some of the phrases he turns in this poem — “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt”, for example. It really is a musical work. Mr. Poe was much more than the comic figure I made him out to be in my novel. He was the original American mystery and horror writer.I leave you with one word: Nevermore. Enjoy!

Promos

Photo of The Raven by Ian Burt

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Book Trailer: ‘Toothless’ by J.P. Moore On Sale for Halloween!

Another podcast author goes to print, this time J.P. Moore. His 2009 zombie podcast novel Toothless has been published by Dragon Moon Press and is available now. I give you the book trailer, suitably creepy for Halloween.

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Get Your Query Right

Dragon Moon Press, which has published the novels of several podcast authors, is opening its doors to unsolicited submissions again during the month of November. Gabrielle Harbowy, associate publisher for DMP and the person about to be deluged with queries from hopeful writers, has offered a helpful list of tips for how to write the queries.

I’ve written so many queries and studied so many examples of effective query letters that it surprises me anyone would need reminding of some of these things (don’t send attachments if the submission guidelines say “NO ATTACHMENTS”), but it’s easy to imagine some of these things getting overlooked. If you’ve written anything from a fifth grade school book report on up, you’ve probably accidentally used the wrong word at some point, so yes, it is important to say that your novel is 85,000 words, not 85,000 pages. Equally important in my view is #6 on her list, which emphasizes professionalism. I love a good sense of humor as much as the next person, but the place to be funny is in the text of your novel (if it’s a humorous book,) not in your query. You may be kidding when you say in your query, “Accept my novel or I will hunt you down and steal your young,” but it may not come off that way to the reader. At best, it will make you look silly; at worst, it will make you look like someone the editor will not want to go near.

I especially like the last five items. You’re presenting yourself as a professional writer, so spell- and grammar-check your query, for crying out loud. Quadruple-check your submission for typos. Let everything sit for a day, then check again. Finally, when it’s all ready to go, send it out and try to relax; meditate, do yoga, go for a long run, whatever it takes. You’ve given it your best shot; if the editor doesn’t accept it, move on to the next market.

I don’t have anything to submit to Dragon Moon this year that they haven’t already passed on, so I won’t be participating in the query rush. I wish the best of luck to those of you who will be. Dragon Moon has published some excellent titles over the years. If they accept yours, take that as very high praise.

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Recommended Reading: ‘Horns’ by Joe Hill

I’ve decided to begin a series of blog posts discussing books that I’ve found particularly powerful. These are not just titles I liked — I have hundreds of those. The books I’ll discuss here are those that I didn’t want to end, the ones with characters for whom I felt genuine emotion. First up is one I just finished a few weeks ago — Horns by Joe Hill.

Horns follows a few days in the life of one Ignatius William Perrish (what could possibly go wrong with a name like that?), who awakes one morning to find devil’s horns growing out of his forehead. The obvious fashion problems aside, the horns cause him another problem: They cause people he meets to speak aloud their deepest, darkest thoughts. Unfortunately for Ig, many of those dark thoughts are about him. You see, the only woman he has ever loved was raped and murdered in the woods a year before; while Ig wasn’t charged with the crime for lack of evidence, most people have absolutely no doubt that he did it.

The truth is that Ig is innocent. Because of his new-found ability to get people to ‘fess up, he discovers the identity of the killer, and the news devastates him. We see Ig slowly transform from wronged grieving boyfriend to a demon bent on getting revenge. In between, in a series of flashbacks, we learn the full story about Ig, his late girlfriend Merrin, their friend Lee, and the secrets they all kept from each other. The news Merrin kept from Ig is particularly shattering; the way she chose to handle it leads to the brutal circumstances of her death.

I absolutely love the characters in this novel. Merrin is an absolute sweetheart, the kind of girl any guy with an appreciation for brains and beauty would fall for. Lee is horrifying; if I thought anyone would understand, I’d dress up as Lee for Halloween. Ig’s brother Terry is intriguing — a talented musician, loyal to his brother and his family, but cowardly when character counted most. And then there’s Ig, who is both hero and villain, horribly wronged and obsessed with exacting heartless revenge. Even at his darkest moments, it’s hard to not sympathize with Ig. Hard as it must be to deal with the awful way he lost someone he loved, the pain of being wrongly convicted of the crime in the minds of so many must be exponentially worse.

Two weeks later, I still think about these characters and the places in the book. I highly recommend this title. Go to your favorite bookstore or library and check it out. Visit the author’s Web site to learn more about him and his work. I’m looking forward to reading more of it.

I learned of this book from a review in the late, lamented Realms of Fantasy magazine, which has just announced that it is folding again, probably for good this time. It’s sad but not wholly unexpected. I’ll miss the site of a new issue showing up in my mail and the thrill of discovering all those great new writers and stories. I hope another publication, either print or online, will step up to take its place.

I’m currently reading another novel that I learned about in Realms, Bloodroot by Amy Greene. If this one hits me the same way, look for a blog post about it in a few weeks.

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Things That Go Bump in the Night

Good blog post from the Dystel & Goderich agency blog. I have always loved scary stories — I remember getting spooked by the stories my dad would tell around the campfire when I was a kid. Ghost stories always gave me the biggest scares. Vampires, mummies, witches — they were scary enough, but ghosts really freaked me out. When I was in 6th grade, there was a very short-lived TV series called Ghost Story. I was an avid fan, even though it scared me to death. I also remember watching Dark Shadows when I was 6 or 7 until I started getting nightmares and my parents pulled the plug.

So now I’m writing a ghost story of my own. The novel I’ve been writing for the last year is about a ghost hunter, a single mom, and an uninvited house guest who just won’t leave. It’s been an interesting experience, pushing myself to write something that would scare me. It’s been both challenging and fun. I’m trying to recapture that sense of the unknown that gripped me when I was a kid. I don’t rely on gore (not that there’s anything wrong with that, FDO). If I can unsettle the reader with the suggestion of weird things going on, I’ll be happy.

I’ll end this with the same question that Jim asked in his blog post: What are your favorite horror stories/books/movies? What will you be reading or watching on Halloween? The Exorcist? Halloween? Salem’s Lot? Start the debate in the comments!

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