Old School Textbooks

Alright, so I graduated in 2014 and the textbooks aren’t that old. Still, I did graduate (cum laude, thank you very much)  and I haven’t touched them since. In fact, the whole school thing feels very distant to me now.

Did I really manage to go to school for three straight years, no summer breaks, all while holding down a full-time job, caring for my child as a single parent, and somehow finding the time to write?

How in blazes did I do that?

I must be a superhero, seriously. Or I had divine Grace on my side.

It’s probably divine Grace.

Anyway, I decided to pick up one of the old history books this week and start re-reading it, this time for fun.

Yes, reading a textbook can be fun. And in this case, it was both fun AND inspiring. While reading The Heritage of World Civilizations, I stumbled over one sentence that threw my creative muse into a whirlwind.

It was about plastered skulls as memorial art in the Neolithic Period and I decided I had to use that somewhere. It has become a detail I’ll be putting in Swans (the Fantasy I’ve been working on) and with a little brainstorming with a very handsome and intelligent man, I have sealed it into the outline.

One line in a history book and suddenly I have a really cool, fun detail and sequence of events to follow through my novel.

Old textbooks are fun. Really. If you have some lingering at home you should pick one up. I’m not sure how Accounting 101 or Trigonometry might help in a novel, but I have every faith in your creative powers. There might be something in there you can use, you just have to take the time to look.

A More Textured Story

Stories are not just about the characters on the page. True, they hold the bulk of our attention, but they would not exist outside of the world in which they live. We’re taught as authors that in order to sell the books that we write, we have to have character and conflict.

There are even formulas we are given while attempting to write query letters that focus solely on the character and the plot. But when push comes to shove, a lot of us aren’t reading a novel to see character and plot.

No, we’re there to experience a new culture. We’re there to meet more than just the protagonist, we’re there to see the kind of world that only the author could dream up.

We want to explore big ideas, such as the Trappist system that was just discovered by NASA. How many people are already imagining what it might be like to live there?

I certainly know I am.

But then, I did the same thing with Gliese – which is about 20 light years away from Earth and has several little planets orbiting it.

Gliese became the “shadow of the Big Bad” for my book Tapped. Rather than Earth being the host of civilization, I moved humanity to Gliese and made Earth a backwater town.

I have plans for Gliese. Big plans. Epic plans that I’m excited to implement in the coming novels. (And with Trappist just being discovered and all, you can bet I’ll be finding a way to nudge them into the Tapped series too.)

But beyond exploring new places, novels are also supposed to highlight the complexities of human nature. We read them to help us understand ourselves and the world around us. We just get to do it while jumping from planet to planet or befriending a dragon.

The texture of our stories is what makes them memorable. Harry Potter would not be nearly as memorable without Hogwarts and its talking paintings, moving stairwells, and history. Sure, we got a story about good vs. evil, but we got on broomsticks and with wands.

So how do you create this texture in a novel without info-dumping or making the book so long nobody will dare pick it up?

Well … I can tell you what I do.

I write the first draft.

And I don’t think about how long it is. I just write it. Anything and everything. Flashbacks, lengthy info-dumps, whatever I need to understand the depth of my own story.

And then … I edit.

 

Problem Characters and How to Negotiate

Since beginning Usurper I have had one character in particular who troubles me; Evaliana Auliere Dyngannon.

Nice long name, I know. She goes by Liana, for obvious reasons. Who wants that mouthful every time you’re being spoken to?

Liana and I constantly have issues, which I know makes me sound insane but I’m an author so I’m allowed. (I hope.) But when push comes to shove, every time I try to write in her point of view I end up hating the scene.

Loathing the scene.

It’s too shallow.

There’s not enough oomph to the character.

I don’t know her the way I know Trenna (her mother) or Nelek (her father) or even Kaden (her brother). She’s this … anomaly outside of her family.

Or inside it, however you want to look at it.

She is … angsty.

And I hate angsty.

Seriously, I avoid angsty with all my power.

But as I’m going through this edit I’ve come to the understanding that … I’m going to have to deal with angst. In order for Liana to be a three dimensional character on the page, she has to be allowed to explain why she’s so … arrrgh! About everything.

So …

I keep her scenes fairly brief.

I just have to. For my own sanity.

Until she grows up and gets over herself, she has a limited word count. (This is part of the reason I don’t do the Young Adult market all that well, can you tell?)

In return, I let her angst all she wants for that limited word count.

And then, once the angst has been written/edited/dealt with in some manner, I get chocolate.

Boom.

Those are my negotiations … with my fictional character … who only lives in my head and on the page …

Yeah, I know how crazy it sounds.

The Countdown

I am now exactly three months away from Persona’s publication date.

What does this mean for me?

AJMaguire-PersonaCoverArt-ChrisHoward_rev28_ART_ONLYWell, it means a lot of work, actually. I have a list of things that need to be done like … hunt for virtual space (AKA – look for people online who wouldn’t mind me commandeering their blog/site for a day) and prepping advertising spots and getting reminder letters ready for all the wonderful people who agreed to advance review the book and … so much more.

SO. Much. More.

Side Note: Thank you so much to all of my advanced readers. I’ve heard from most of you already and I really, really appreciate the time it takes to sit down and read a book these days. You’re all awesomesauce on toast and I uber love you.

What happened to the Kindle Scout Campaign?

As predicted, this was not the right fit for me. Kindle Scout is made for people who really don’t mind shouting over and over and over again that their book is up and needs votes. I am not that sort of person.

Granted, if I were that sort of person it is entirely possible that I would sell a lot more books. The tactic seems to work very well for a lot of people. For my part, I cannot justify being that much of a pest. And if I spend all my time promoting, I get no writing done. (I am a single parent. My time is limited.)

Having re-read the manuscript hunting for any last-minute errors and the like, I have to say that Persona is a favorite of mine. While I may have bemoaned all the research I had to do writing a historical fiction, it is still one of my favorite stories. Megan is a gentle hero, which I believe to be one of the more common and less noticed heroes in the world today.

In any case … the countdown has begun! Three months and two days and this novel will finally be out for sale. It’s been a long but very satisfying road to see it get to this point and I’m excited for the next step.

 

 

Round Robin Discussion – Scarring your characters

This month for the Round Robin topic we are talking about emotionally scarred characters. The questioned posed is; “What mental, physical or spiritual wounds or scars have you used in your stories?”

The truth is … we all have scars. Whether they’re big or small or whatever, we have them. They define us as people. And the same should be said of any fictional character.

Now as a writer I don’t sit down with a particular “scar” in mind for the characters I’m dealing with. It’s really a discovery process for me. But once I’ve discovered that particular “wound” in my character’s personality I make sure to highlight it during the editing process and really draw it out.

Because being a writer is really being a student of humanity. We’re here to show what it is to be human and touch on subjects, both painful and joyful, that are often too complex to be fully expressed.

But which scars have I actually used?

Well, Trenna Dyngannon (Sedition series) had a serious issue with her mother that was really brought out in the second book of the series; Saboteur. Basically there was neglect and self-worth issues that Trenna had to battle through, which I found very interesting given how very strong Trenna is as a character.

One wouldn’t expect someone like Trenna Dyngannon to feel a sense of inadequacy, but due to close contact with her mother she finds herself struggling to remember that she isn’t actually defined by what her mother does or says.

In the Tapped series, both Seach and Jorry are deeply scarred by the fact that they had to abandon their former Captain. Relo’s absence is a deep burden for both of them given that they know exactly what has been done to him at the clutches of the government.

On top of that, Jorry and Seach are haunted by things that happened during the war. Moments that they wish they could forget, and truly traumatic orders that they found themselves bound to follow. This particular scar carries through the whole series (I’m in the middle of writing the second book now) and, inevitably, will come to a crisis point where they have to make a decision to either fight again, or try to find some other way to change the galaxy as they know it.

But perhaps the most noticeably scarred character of mine is Reesa Zimms from the book Deviation. Reesa is a science fiction novelist who has used her writing as a means of therapy for herself (no, this is not even remotely autobiographical, I promise) and in the book … well … let’s go ahead and give a snippet. I haven’t done one of those in ages.

“I’m dying, Matt,” she whispered.

She felt him move to her side, felt his knuckle graze her cheek, and heard him sigh.  “David is very good at what he does.  You should have a little faith,” he said.

Opening her eyes again she met his gaze. “And why should I be spared from a fate I forced onto the whole female race?”

He frowned, gently pushed a lock of hair behind her ear, and made a thoughtful hum.  She waited for his answer, praying it would be right.  She needed him to have an answer, to have some form of redemption for her.  Perhaps justice was served in her death, but even death-row inmates were given a chance at clemency, weren’t they?

A final prayer, a last wish, she thought.

“I think we’ve come to the matter of your own motivations, Reesa,” he said. “Tell me why you really wrote the books.”

Her heart might have stopped at the sudden wash of pain.  She certainly wished it would.  Fixing her gaze on the juncture between wall and ceiling above them, she was transported through her memory, to the small clinic exam room when she was eighteen years old.  Her mother’s voice rang loud in her ears, calling her irresponsible and thoughtless, convincing her that a child would ruin eight years of modeling competitions and progress.  And in her hand, Reesa could still feel the coarse, politely brown paper bag of contraceptives she’d been given after it was all over.

Matt made a soft, soothing sound and wiped the tears from her face.  Reesa closed her eyes, unwilling to look at him as she made her confession.

“I wrote a book where everyone was as ugly as I felt.”

Take a look at what others are saying about scarring their characters!

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Victoria Chatham http://victoriachatham.blogspot.ca
https://bobrich18.wordpress.com/2016/08/27/the-wounded-healer
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com
A.J. Maguire  https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/ (YOU ARE HERE)
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

 

The Versatile Writer

One of the most important traits a good writer has is versatility. And I don’t just mean in life, but in the writing itself.

Yes, authors who want to see their books completed have to be versatile in their lives just to squeeze writing time into a day. Parents have to find times that don’t clash with the whole parenting regime (get ready for school, take child to such-and-such event, help child with homework, get child ready for bed.)

Those of us with day jobs obviously can’t write while at work, so there’s that obstacle to get around. And then most of us with children also have a day job, compounding the aforementioned things that take up our 24 hours.

So yes … writers have to be versatile.

But that’s not what I’m really talking about today.

You see, once upon a time I did a lot of interviews with a lot of different writers and I started to notice a somewhat alarming trait in most of them.

A lot of them, not all of them but the vast majority, were very stuck in one particular genre. It’s all they read. All they write. All they pay attention to.

I can only imagine that this mindset comes from the “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” or “Why mess with a good thing” mantra that we’ve all heard. They found one genre that works for them. They like it. And they don’t see a need to expand further than that.

They “know what they like” and it made me just a little sad.

A book is a whole world, a whole life for the reader to live. By limiting yourself in your reading and writing habits, you’re limiting your readers too. Not only that, but you’re missing out on some really awesome learning experiences in regards to your craft.

Every book is like a cat. They have different personalities and different needs. Such as my cat versus my son’s new kitten.

IMG_0051

Pest. The Grandpa Cat.

My old grandpa cat (Pest) likes to laze around, talks to me while I’m on the phone, and lets me know I’ve been on the computer too long by attacking my head.

My son’s kitten (Nuisance) has a lot more energy, runs about, attacks anything that moves and recently chewed right through my headphone cord because apparently it looked really tasty. (Bad Kitty.)

I can’t approach Nuisance they way I do Pest. He attacks my hand when I do. I have to wait for him to come to me, curl up on my neck in the middle of the night and start to purr before I can really pet the creature.

It’s the same with books. You have to adapt to each one.

DSCN5896

Nuisance. The Kitten.

It’s alright if you really love writing in just one genre, but every genre has elements of the others in it. There’s mystery, romance, crime, adventure, and history in just about every single book you pick up. So if you’re not reading those genres, you’re missing out on seeing it done really well. (Or really poorly, depending on which book you pick up.)

So … versatility is more than just how you manage your time and adapt to your life, it’s about how you approach your craft. Are you willing to try something new?

Read a book you normally wouldn’t.

If you normally write in first person, try third. And vice versa.

Be a chameleon, you know? Your book is going to be versatile, or it should be, and how you approach it should change to match.

Let’s Talk About Brand

So there’s this thing in the writing business where people say writers need to have a “brand” to rely on. Something to shove at a reader so that the reader knows what to expect whenever they pick up a book written by that author.

James Patterson readers know that the plot is going to move fast and it’s going to twist in ways you don’t expect. I remember from his class that he said he wanted people to know when they picked up a book of his that “the pages would turn themselves.”

And considering how many books of his frequent the bestsellers lists I think we all can attest that he’s definitely made his name a brand.

Brandon Sanderson also has a brand name to him. When I pick up a Sanderson novel I expect unique magic, intricate plots, and deep fantasy that can transport me.

When I read Diana Gabaldon I expect rich characters and enlightening history and a more visceral reading experience than I can get anywhere else.

Now then … as an author I have to ask myself exactly what “brand” I might be presenting. I find this highly annoying because, as much as I can recognize the trademarks of other authors, I’m really clueless as to my own. And from what I’ve heard from other authors, they feel the same way.

On my website I have “Writing Mayhem” as the tagline.

Why?

Well … because I love the word “mayhem” and wanted to use it. And because my life as an author feels full of mayhem. I write everything from Science Fiction to Historical Fiction. My Fantasies range from Epic to Steam Punk.

My muse just can’t seem to commit to any one genre, which makes “branding” me quite difficult.

I could try finding that one common denominator between all the books and banking on that … Which would be the characters. In all my books to date, the focus is always on the individual character on the page and the struggles they face.

But again … how do you “brand” that?

A.J. Maguire – Character Tormentor … A.J. Maguire – “The characters will grab you by the throat and demand you free them.”

… Yeah … No thanks.

In all seriousness, and after many years of trial and error, I’ve come to understand that “brand” is a conscious decision.

I have two releases scheduled for this year; the novelette “Torven” and the historical fiction Persona.

One is a fairy tale.

One is a “who am I” story based in WWII.

What “brand” do I hope to attach to them both?

I want readers to trust that if they pick up one of these books they’re going to get a good story.

How do you brand that?

Well, I’m still not sure. But when I find out, you’ll be the first to know.