One of the problems with letting a project drag on too long is that eventually you grow tired of it and start thinking about the next one and the one after that. This is the point that I’ve reached with my ghost hunter novel. For reasons that aren’t clear to me, it has begun to feel more like work and less like fun. I like the characters and the story I’ve created so far, but I’ve been working on it for so long that I just want to be done with it. I made a New Year’s resolution to finish it by the end of February, and I’m still hoping to accomplish that.

However, thoughts of future projects keep popping into my head — maybe some urban fantasy, maybe some horror, maybe some non-specfic drama. The more immediate project is one that a friend and I began discussing last spring. I don’t want to reveal any details of the story, but it’s timely. We agreed that we would write it together, which is both exciting and a little scary at the same time. I’ve never collaborated with anyone on a fiction project before, and I’m not entirely sure what to expect. Our styles are quite different. Melding the two will be a challenge, hopefully one that we’ll enjoy and that won’t cause hard feelings. My co-author (whose name I won’t reveal because I haven’t asked for permission to do so) is a very dear friend, and I don’t want our joint project to change that.

On the other hand, this person has given me dozens of valuable critiques on my current work in progress and on PURGATORY (another one of my future projects is yet another draft of that book based on her suggestions.) I think that could be one of the best things about collaborating — one person will think of or catch things that the other person missed entirely. And no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Two heads working together will hopefully come up with something better than either would have produced individually. In business jargon-speak, this is called, “synergy.” (That is the first and last time you’ll see me use that word here. I despise business jargon. If you ever hear me use the word “utilize,” feel free to have me committed. I’ll thank you for it later.)

Complicating this project is the fact that we don’t live in the same region of the country, so our work together will be through e-mail and Skype. That shouldn’t be a major hindrance (I’m thinking of Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine writing the first Books and Braun novel while she was still in New Zealand and he was in the States,) but it adds to the challenge. We’ve already e-mailed some ideas back and forth; the next step will be a detailed outline. I’m hopeful that actual writing will commence in a couple of months. Keeping in mind that we’re both insanely busy much of the time, I still hope that we can have a first draft done by the end of the summer (notice how I worked in summer? The temperature in Syracuse right now is minus 10 degrees F.)

So, wish us luck. And if anyone out there who has done this before wants to chime in with ideas on how to make it work, I’d love to hear them. Suggest away in the comments.

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Thoughts on ‘A Christmas Carol’

It’s Christmas Day and I’m thinking about traditions. One of my traditions is to try every year to re-read Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. I know that, due to the various film, TV and audio versions, the story has become a virtual caricature of itself. However, it is probably the second-most famous Christmas book (The Bible being the first,) and for very good reason. It’s a classic fantasy story, with ghosts and time travel. It’s a story of hope and redemption, showing that there is good even in the worst of us, and no matter how badly you’ve messed up, there is always time to set things right.

And the characters! Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Marley, Tiny Tim — these are some of the most unforgettable characters in literature and popular culture. Think about it — Charles Dickens published this book in 1843. How many other characters (hey — how many other books) published 167 years ago can you name? In my case, the answer is nada. What characters written in the last 30 or 40 years will be remembered in the mid-22nd century? Harry Potter? Edward and Bela? Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom? Maybe, but I’m not betting my future royalties (hey, it’s Christmas — the season of hope) on it. Dickens’ characters have survived into the age of iPads, smartphones and the Tea Party because they still speak to something in each of us. There’s a little Bob Cratchit in each of us and also a little Scrooge.

Beyond that, there is plenty of humor in A Christmas Carol. If you listened to Purgatory, you may have noticed that I have a particular fondness for dry humor. Consequently, I love passages like this one from the scene where Marley’s Ghost appears to Scrooge:

His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

Or this from the scene of the Christmas party at Fezziwig’s warehouse:

In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomachaches.

Or this from the beginning of the book in Scrooge’s counting house:

Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of strong imagination, he failed.

Not only are these lines funny, but they convey a real sense of the setting: A screechy violin, and a chilly office (anyone reading this shiver in a conference room lately during a long, boring meeting?). I can just imagine myself like Bob Cratchit, huddling over a candle and trying to get warm.

This book remains the best way to experience this story. I love the Muppets; Jim Carrey makes me laugh; and I have nothing but admiration for Patrick Stewart, George C. Scott, and all the others who have tackled the role of Scrooge. But to really appreciate this story, you must return to the words of the genius who made it up. If you’ve never done so, I strongly encourage you to do it. I’m writing this at seven in the evening Christmas Day; Christmas 2010 is nearly over. However, just as it wasn’t too late for Scrooge to change his life, it’s not too late for you to enjoy this fine, haunting (no pun intended) story, just as it’s never too late for us to take its closing words to heart:

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards, and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

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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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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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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!


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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