Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Religion in my stories (and an excerpt!)

You know how polite social discussion should always avoid politics or religion? Well, we're kind of blowing that up on SFF Seven this week. We are talking about the R word. Religion. Specifically, we're talking about religion's place in story and how -- or if -- we use religion to drive story arcs.

And to that I answer, yes. Even if we don't call it religion, every good character has a moral code. One of my favorite examples of that is the character Amos in The Expanse (book series and tv show). He comes right out and says early on that there are three types of people: those you follow, those you protect, and those you kill. And then the rest of the series is how he sorts folks into those pails and what it takes to move someone from one pail to another. He never mentions gods or faith or anything like that, but his sorting system is a religion, and he's so consistent in applying it that it makes for fascinating character interactions and interior growth.

In my cyberpunk romance series that begins with Wanted and Wired, the setting is mid-21st-century, so it's close enough that the characters all have recognizable religious affiliations. Most are secularists, but a few -- notably Kellen, the animal lover and all-around good guy -- have vestigial Christianity clinging to them. This presents as his easy ability to have faith, both in people and in phenomena, and it puts him at odds with his true love Angela, who is evangelically secular and maybe even a little hostile to all religion. I tried to play with that push and pull and come out with a "see, we can all get along without anybody having to lose their individual essence" conclusion. Not sure if I succeeded, but that was definitely in my mind when I was writing.

Religion is a little trickier in the world I'm writing right now, because it's set in the far future when humanity is an interstellar civilization. Their religions, therefore, should be less recognizable, and I don't want to just set up easy analogs for the current major religions and go from there. Instead I've tried to develop religions that would, I think, make sense to these highly technological people. To do that, I've looked at historical rise and fall of religions and discovered that we tend to develop religion as a response to phenomena that we know a little bit about, are impressed by or fear, and hope will not harm us. So my starfaring folk of the future literally worship the stars and the vast, mysterious space between. I think it makes for some fun dynamics with my characters:

Just before fitting the tube to his mouth, Ash caught her gaze and smiled. Not an intimidating smile at all and quite friendly even. Also loaded with memories, all of which hit her at once. How very unfair. Memories should not make one want to weep.

“Stars’ breath to you, Hestia,” he said.

The words were an aphorism based on the fanciful notion that benevolent stars literally breathed travelers across the void on drifts of grace and interstellar radiation. That wasn’t how faster-than-light travel worked. Honestly, no human knew precisely how it worked. Only the vast computer System, which controlled travel and most everything else, really knew. Without the System, people would be unable to travel between planets, no less between stars. But people didn’t like to be reminded of their required subservience to machines, and also the species was as a whole given to poetics, so they made up these stories about stars breathing and such. People being people, she guessed, reached for comfort where they could.

Still. No one had wished her stars’ breath at the outset of a voyage in … well, a long time. She was startled by how un-alone it made her feel, but this time in a good way. Too good, drat him.

“Same to you,” she managed before the lid of her berth hissed shut.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Religion of Character Development

Does religion change/determine the course of a story?

Uh, for the characters? Sure. Assuming religion is defined as devotion to a fixed set of beliefs, then all my stories deal with religion. It could be argued that character development is the discovery, testing, and confirmation or change in said beliefs. Whether there are greater entities involved in those belief systems and whether there are formalized mass followings varies. 

In my Fire Born series, there are five gods who are actively and visibly involved in the lives of their creations. How those gods are worshipped forms the structures of the five different societies. Naturally, the protagonist comes along to shake those beliefs to their core, sometimes shattering them and sometimes reshaping them as her own beliefs and values are tested and changed.

In my Immortal Spy series, gods, fates, angels, and dragons are the ruling class. Jokes abound about pillars of real-world mass religions. 

Now, if you're wondering if my personal beliefs prevent or permit me to write characters, plots, and settings in certain ways, I would say they permit me and never prevent me. As an author, if you can't or won't examine systems of belief through the eye of fiction, then you might need to rethink what kind of stories you're telling. Are your characters being challenged? Are they on a journey? Stuff's bound to happen that makes them question who they are, how they're doing things, why they're doing them--regardless of whether the protag realizes or admits it--it should be obvious to the reader. That's character development. That is the religion of storytelling.

Monday, March 29, 2021

That Old Time Religion

For a touch of irony, here's the cover of my next book, entitled THE GODLESS. It's out in September. The premise? For the Sa'ba Taalor the gods are everything. They hear the gods in their hearts at all times. But what happens when for the first time in their entire lives, the gods go silent? 

Here's  hint: Things get weird. 

 I've said it many times. I am NOT a religious man. Never much cared for it myself.  Faith I have, but I don't follow any particular religion. There' a difference. 

But I acknowledge that religion is a huge part of the world, and it's just as big in my fiction. A belief system in gods has been a formative part of our world for centuries. Why would we think it would be otherwise elsewhere?

I mean, you could probably make that a part of a major storyline but it would be a damned big vacuum to fill. Faith, religion, politics, power...they go hand in hand in a great deal of western society. Ever hear of the Inquisition? How about Buddism? They've definitely had their points of impact across the world. 

How you choose to use religion (and faith) is entirely up to you, but I think it's fair to say that my SEVEN FORGES novels wouldn't work at all if the gods did not interfere on a literally daily basis. There are seven gods of war, and they drive and shape their followers to be living weapons in their names. Their people, the Sa'ba Taalor, are feared by everyone because they are literally all fanatics, ready to die for their gods or kill for them without hesitation. That is hardly the only example of my writing where religion is key but it's the most direct example. 

Religion is, by necessity, a power. Religions that do not get a powerful backing do not last, but in the process of becoming a power, the administration of said religion is very likely to get their hand dirty, to say the least. n the name of God the Catholic Church has caused and ended wars,  brought ruination to entire cultures, forced millions to follow their beliefs with swords and fire and bribery and blackmail. In order to hide their secrets they have lied, broken laws, twisted the facts to suit their needs and very likely committed murder on a few occasions if the accusations are to be believed. And that, friends and neighbors, is me being non-judgemental. Look at the history of the church and it's all there in black and white. 

Whether or not you believe the accusations, it certainly does make an interesting plot point in almost any story involving a Catholic priest, a nun or the occasional zealot, to say nothing of tales of exorcism. 

Yes, religion has its place in fiction, just as it does in the world at large. We would not be who we are if not for the faith of the many and the beliefs of the masses. Our world history could not have been shaped the way it has been without a belief in the Almighty...or at least a willingness to exploit that belief. 

Your mileage may vary. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Choose Your Own Religion

Here's a tease of the cover of THE SORCERESS QUEEN AND THE PIRATE ROGUE, out April 19, 2021. This is Book #2 in Heirs of Magic, Book #1 being THE GOLDEN GRYPHON AND THE BEAR PRINCE, with a prequel novella, THE LONG NIGHT OF THE CRYSTALLINE MOON, in the UNDER A WINTER SKY anthology. The cover isn't quite final, so some elements here may change, but it's getting close! Look for a full reveal soon. :-)

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is "That Old Tyme RELIGION: Does Religion Change the Course of a Story?"

My answer? It depends!

I'm a big of a mixed bag, religion-wise. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family who were pretty much all lapsed, to the point that my stepdad was a former Catholic priest and my mother flunked theology in (her all-girls, Catholic) college because she stormed out of class after arguing with the nun. Extended family included an ex-Carmelite nun and a lifelong Catholic priest. On the other side we have Missouri Synod Lutherans, which my father left behind to convert to Catholicism, a wedding surprise for my mother, who had hoped to escape by marrying a non-Catholic. There's some kind of inverted Gifts of the Magi shiz going on there.

So, while I grew up well versed in liturgical debates, I mostly considered myself Catholic in the same way I'm Irish - by weight of ancestry. In (my co-ed, liberal arts) college, I majored in Comparative Religious Studies, along with my primary major of Biology. My honors thesis compared Meister Eckhardt's (an excommunicated Catholic priest and scholar) sermon On Detachment with Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching

For a long time I described myself as spiritual, but not religious - which didn't seem to explain anything to anyone. Now I just say I'm a practicing Taoist. Since almost no one knows exactly what that means (including, arguably, other Taoists), that at least gives me space. 

All of this is by way of saying that, in my books, religion crops up a surprising amount. Or maybe it's not surprising. I find spirituality and the religions that grow from spiritual study fascinating. One of the terrific aspects of creating alternate fantasy worlds is that I can make up my own pantheon of deities - and I can use the worship of those gods and goddesses to explore and comment on religions of our world. The religions I've created have ranged from distant gods (Forgotten Empires) to a trio of goddesses who interfere with fate to the point of taking avatars (The Twelve Kingdoms and the Uncharted Realms). 

In only one series so far have I included absolutely no hint of religion or deities: Bonds of Magic. Those of you who've read DARK WIZARD should feel free to write an essay on why that is. I can promise you that it's a deliberate choice. 

In fact, I'd argue that religion always affects the course of a story. Even in its absence, there is a consequence on the world and how the characters live in it.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Brainstorming Shift

 I usually write my posts on Thursday evenings after the day job. Yesterday, however, the evening was spent getting the first round of Covid shots for the DH and for me. 

No problem, I told myself. I'll write it in the morning. 

We can all plainly see that did not happen. I have symptoms - relatively mild, but symptoms nevertheless. As a morning, it's also been a cluster that resulted in the horrible death of a member of my yard community (a black racer snake who likes to hunt around the foundation of the house). Buried him/her in the garden in a sunny spot. Going to miss seeing 'my' snake.

Brainstorming is generally a solo activity unless I have access to another writer who is as character-driven as I am. I like brainstorming for others. I like having others brainstorm for or with me. But it's not generally something I seek out unless I get stuck. Since brainstorming is about shifting how you think about a story, I find it useful when I'm staring at the same sentence for days on end. I don't always or even often take the suggestions giving in brainstorming sessions, but picking up ideas isn't the point. For me, the point is leveraging other people's ideas to pry my thinking out of the rut it fell into. That, for me, is the job of brainstorming with other people.

The rest of the brainstorming happens solo. Need to be able to hear those little internal voices and give them some space.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

My brain is a lonely storm

So, brainstorming. Aside from being a weird word -- seriously, say it out loud and try to visualize the thing you're saying... see what I mean? -- the concept is also, for me, a little fraught. 

I love talking about other people's stories, sometimes helping them get to the next step, and then watching them sail off to implement all the great ideas they came up with just by talking it out. And sure, I've tried to replicate that sort of thing for my own writing. I've attended brainstorming sessions with local writers' groups, and even some smaller, less formal sessions with my own critique partners. But in the end, we all sit down at a table or something and they look at me and say something like, "So, what's your idea?" or "What do you need help with?" and instantly, I don't even know how this happens, but my idea becomes garbage. Like, I'm so embarrassed by it, by the weird stuff my brain thinks up, and I know it's boring and there's no saving the story, so I mumble something dismissive and try to move the conversation on to the next topic, usually someone else's story. More solid ground.

Let me be clear: my failures with getting brainstorming help are entirely my own. The support structure around me is lovely and encouraging. I just... I think maybe brainstorming with others requires a level of confidence that I haven't achieved yet? Something like that. 

Until I get there, all storms take place inside my own little brain. I would of course love to hear your take on a better way to bottle this particular lightning.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Braaaains! Erm, Brainstorming


What is my brainstorming process? Do I solicit opinions? Do I drag trusted coconspirators through the twists and webs of my weird? 

Mostly, no. 

I will bounce the idea of which project(s) to pursue off a friend or two, but when it comes to the stories themselves, that's not a group-think thing. It's not because I think I'm some sort of fantasy genius; it's more that my author-voice is rooted in how I conceive and farm the story. I need to be able to roll around and bury myself in my imaginary dirt without permission or supervision, or feeling like I'm intruding on someone else's turf. Even though I'm a skeletal plotter, I return often to the landfill of my imagination for the details of the story. 

For me, story ideas usually start with a protagonist, two or three supporting characters, a couple of climactic moments, and an emotional challenge. From there it's figuring out magic systems, the presence of creatures, and the environment. Then comes the tricky bit, the plot. 

Now, I do love to participate in brainstorming other people's ideas or just brainstorming with friends for shits and giggles. Makes me a fine hypocrite, I suppose, but what's not to love about a lengthy game of What If? It's a great way to learn more about my friends. And, who knows, I might even track a little dirt home.  

Monday, March 22, 2021

Group or no Group?

 so the quetion this week is do you write alone or do you brainstorm?

I write alone with the sole exception of when I don't. Most times I find I prefer it that way, but there are occasions when I get feedback from a very select group. this has only to do with the fact that, for me,  the writing process is a matter of personal taste. 

When I collaborate, which I often do, is the exception to that rule, of course. 

But mostly it's just me. 

Of course, to prove me a liar, I'm working on collaborative projects with two different people right now. 

Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Magic of Group Brainstorming

Hello all and happy spring!

At the SFF Seven this week we're asking: What’s your brainstorming process? Do you come up with ideas by yourself or do brainstorm with someone else?

Me? I don't preplot because I can't. My ideas all come to me pretty much in the course of writing. Some of them come from daydreaming about the story, but the real flow comes as I write. A lot of the time, that's the ONLY way the story flows. 

The salient exception to this is that I love brainstorming with author friends. There are few things more fun for me than brainstorming a world or exits from sticky plot solutions with other creative brains. And I have just as much fun working on their stories! It's a real truth that, for whatever reason, an outside mind can almost always see the story more clearly than we can our own. I can tell other writers how to "fix" their stories and have zero ability to find solutions to my own. And vice-versa. 

Especially when trad publishing wants me to tell them something about the plot before I actually write the book, I turn to my friends. I can usually say who the characters are and I can describe the situation they're in - and then my brilliant author comrades take it from there. It inevitably changes when I write the words, but they are true lifesavers in giving that much-needed perspective.

Brainstorming for the win!

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Making it Personal: Backstabbing Best Friends


Our topic for the week is all thanks to the Ides of March and legendary backstabbers. Who's the best backstabber in fiction?

Dear people, I give you Fernand Mondego.

What a jerk, right?

I have ridiculous love for The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I've been taken with the tale since I was a teen and am currently working on a fantasy novel inspired by it. When the movie with Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce released in 2002, you can imagine my delight. Though the story and characters had been changed pretty drastically, the essence of the original work remained. And I LOVED IT. Still do. I will never turn down an opportunity to catch a viewing, and I'm re-reading the book this year, too.

In my opinion, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the best revenge tales ever written--if not THE best. However, the betrayal in the film felt even more severe than in the novel. How? Why?

Because Fernand's character received an excellent revision, IMO.

In the film, Edmond and Fernand are best friends. In the book, the young men are merely acquaintances (Fernand is Mercedes' cousin). Because there's no personal history between the men in the book, the knife of Fernand's betrayal, though still buried deep, doesn't strike the reader's heart quite so sharply. 

Until I prepared for this blog post, I'd known the villain in my novel was missing something, some detail, some WHY for his dastardly behavior, but wildly enough, even given how much I adore The Count's tale, both film and book, I couldn't put my finger on the issue. Last night, the answer hit me.

The deception is awful, but it's not personal enough. It doesn't cut to the bone.

I even recalled some old writing advice I'd read and stored in the cobwebby corners of my mind: MAKE EVERYTHING PERSONAL. MAKE IT HURT. The stakes, betrayals, loss, etc. will affect our characters and readers much more if raised to that next degree--the emotional degree.

It was like a lightbulb went off in my brain, though I felt dim for not having seen the answer before. Thus is the writer's life, I suppose. Betrayal hurts more when committed by someone we believe loves us, or at least a person who possesses some level of loyalty and familiarity. This also affects the villain/protagonist relationship across plot points, because the game totally changes when a character is up against someone they know well--or thought they knew well. There's soooo much writers can do with this type of conflict, so many twists to explore. It's FUN, y'all!

So, if you're wondering how to amp up the conflict in your tale or if something feels off, examine the emotional layer. Is the conflict personal? Can you revise and dig deeper? Don't be afraid to try.

Remember: If Dumas can benefit from a revision, we all can ;)

Friday, March 19, 2021

Ask Not Who the Villain of This Piece Might Be

So many lovely villains to choose from. Scary aliens bent on destroying humanity - never mind that they have good reason. Magical creatures no one quite understands being invited to cohabitate human bodies and minds without any thought of the consequences - though, in that case, who's the real villain? The magical creatures invited in? Or the idiots who do the inviting? Then there's the mythical creature drawn from her native land to the New World as the stories about her spread into territories she'd never dreamed. 

But my very, very favorite villain is whoever my hero happens to be in whatever I'm writing at the time. Yes, most of my heroes and heroines have nemeses to face, but each hero and heroine first has to face themselves. And most of the time, when they do, they see the face of what they hate and fear staring back at them from the bathroom mirror. I made a heroine face down her distrust of others and of herself. I made another face down her envy and sense of inadequacy. Yet another had to overcome prejudice. The hero in the book I'm working on now has to figure out hate. 

I like characters who are their own worst enemies. Initially. I expect them to start catching clues pretty quickly, but not all at once. Change is a process and I want to see it. If I don't, I won't believe that the characters have grown enough to defeat whoever or whatever is their ultimate stumbling block. 

I've got a lot of love for that moment when a character looks at nemesis and sees themselves reflected. That 'oh shit' realization never gets old.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

What Makes a Perfect Villain


my son's picture book Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker The Galaxy Needs You open to the illustration of Ray and Kylo Ren fighting with their lightsabers drawn

Villain [vil-uhn] noun: a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime.

This week we’re talking about the most dastardly characters, those cackling antagonists, those thorns in our hero’s sides. If they’re done well we love to hate them. And my award for Favorite Backstabber goes to Kylo Ren!

If you’ve been hiding in the dark side, Kylo Ren is from StarWars and fills the role of villain against Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And in these movies he’s identified as being neither Jedi (the good guys) nor Sith (the baddies). 

Wait…I named my top villain as one that’s neither good nor bad?!?


I believe there’s good and evil in each one of us and it comes down to the decisions we make each day that determine what type of person we are. We are all our own hero, but I know there’ve been times—I worked as a manager for five years—when I made choices I believed were the best course of action that made me a villain in another’s story. 

That’s why Kylo Ren is the most dastardly, perfect villain. He represents us and our struggles to choose the right path. As you watch The Force Awakens you see him face these tough decisions—hoping he’ll choose the right one—but you don’t feel totally confident that he will. 

Your villain should be part of, either physically or in spirit, every plot point in your story.

And that’s good writing. That should be our goal as authors, to craft a villain that’s vital to the plot. Your villain should be part of, either physically or in spirit, every plot point in your story. No, you don’t have to think up a super complicated reason why they do what they do. You should be able to answer/write what drives your antagonist in one sentence, not in pages of backstory. 

If you’re feeling stuck in your WIP or struggling with a book idea that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, check out your villain. Make sure they’re more than an evil genius who wants to take over the world. Or if that’s their thing, then also give them a tangible reason on a smaller scale. We’ve all heard about humanizing the antagonist to capture the audience in order to deliver a solid punch when the hero wins the day, so be sure add in some depth, but not so much that it overshadows your hero. 

Did this give you any ideas on crafting your current villain? Do you have a fave antagonist that inspires your writing?

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

My Villain Problem

I have a problem with writing villains: I always sort of fall in love with them and then want to redeem them, even if they've done really bad stuff. Darth Vader coming back to the light after destroying at least one planet and every innocent soul on it? Yes. Thanos getting his sought-after retirement in a golden field after dusting half of life in the universe? Okay, I can see it. I confess to a similar soft spot for Dracula, the creature in Frankenstein, Annatar in The Silmarillion (he just wanted to be pals with pretty elves and make jewelry, what?!). 

Personally, I spent the entirety of a book creating a dude so bad he tried to kill his own child... and then two more books explaining why he really thought he needed to and felt terribly bad about it after, and also he had great hair.

See? It's a problem with me.

I think my favorite villain, though, is Prince Nuada in Hellboy 2. If you haven't seen the movie or read the novelization, I'll just rec those right now. He's not only immortal, a warrior, an elf, and a prince, he's also such a badass and really does care about his people and his planet. Like, maybe too much? 

And that might be the trick, for me, to making villains angstily relatable: they love hard. Too hard. Sometimes it corrupts them or leaves them vulnerable to temptation. But if it all starts with love, they can't be completely lost, right? I mean, that's what I learned from Luke Skywalker.

Of course, now I'm a grown-up human and absolutely believe there's no such thing as an unredeemable villain, and the best stories are the ones that prove me right.

(Spoiler: Not all the villains mentioned in this post were, in fact, redeemed. In fact, most were defeated, ultimately. Still.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Bagorn the Betrayer

In dubious honor of the Ides of March, we're outing our most villainous characters--either the ones we've written or the ones we love to hate that someone else has written.

My most evil, hateful, and malicious villain? Larco Bagorn from LARCOUT. He's king of the country by right of birth. A member of the order of Dark Minds, he is a Memory Maker. With one touch, with the power to see people's pasts and change them with just one touch. He has zero guilt or hesitation to use his gift. His top 5 most dastardly deeds:

  1. He stole the love of his brother's life and his brother's kid, claiming them as his own. Changed his brother's memories of said love and child, so his brother believes they are the king's.  
  2. Had the general of his military rape his wife to beget another heir, erased the general's memory, but made the wife keep hers. 
  3. Alters the memories of nobles and advisors to set them at odds, thus fomenting rebellions then executing everyone associated. 
  4. Closed his nation's borders to create scarcity, to turn the helot class against the nobility, and to turn the nobility against each other.
  5. Personal Plot Goal: To destroy the nation he rules because they wouldn't let him love the man he loved.
Power is a dangerous thing, especially when no one can call you to account...until the hero shows up.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Backstabber and Betrayals: A Sword by Any Other Name

 Who is the greatest backstabber of all time? For me that's easy, Stormbringer, the sword that is both bane and blessing to Elric of Melnibone, the "hero" of Michael Moorcock's Elric series. Stormbringer is a sword and so much more. every time the blade kills someone it pulls the soul from its victim into itself and feeds a part of that energy into Elric. The problem, aside from the possible guilt of feasting on sous, is that the sword prefers the flavor of Elric's companions and loved ones to that of his enemies. 

You really, really need to read these stories of Moorcock's Eternal Champion. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Backstabbers and Betrayals: Beware the Ides of March!

This week at the SFF Seven, we're asking for our most dastardly characters or favorite backstabbers. 

One of my favorite backstabbers is a subject of some historical controversy: Bess Throckmorton. She was one of Queen Elizabeth I's ladies in waiting - and her sometime favorite. Until Bess fell in love with and Married Sir Walter Raleigh, who the queen also loved. At least, that's how the story goes in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and that's the version that inspired aspects of my Forgotten Empires trilogy.

I loved how this dynamic was portrayed in the movie - and I particularly felt for Elizabeth and her heartbreak, though I think we're supposed to sympathize with Bess. Elizabeth, though, loses the illusion that Raleigh might love her for herself and she loses her belief in Bess's friendship. 

I based the dynamic between Lia, the Queen of Calanthe, and her favorite lady-in-waiting, Tertulyn, on Elizabeth and Bess. But I told it my way and changed up the details. Still, it was super fun to write my own backstabber story!

Also, you can preorder book #3, THE PROMISED QUEEN!

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Writing Resources I Can't Live Without

I'm pretty sure that I'm supposed to choose ONE resource to share this week, but if you've read any of my posts, you know that I'm a list maker and a list giver, so you're going to get FIVE resources instead of one :) Hey, five is great considering that I could list at least a dozen. I do want to say that Thesaurus is probably the resource I use the most, and though I didn't list Jami Gold's website because someone else already did, know that her spreadsheets are, well, a gold mine for writers. What other sites do I recommend?

  1. K.M. Weiland's Website: Or, more pointedly, her series on story structure, which I linked. I highly recommend new writers (and even seasoned ones) peruse this site and take time to study the info K.M. provides. In my editing life, the two main issues I see the most are the lack of understanding story and scene structure. And I get it. It's difficult to implement even once you grasp the concepts, but I return to her site any time I need a clear example of how a particular plot point needs to work. It helps me figure out where to go next in my own stories.
  2. Grammarly: You can use the free version or spring for the paid version, but either way, Grammarly can teach you a lot of basic grammar rules and help you clean up and tighten an MS. The important thing to remember is that it's software, and therefore it isn't always right. You have to examine each instance and decide what to do. And while I know that is kind of tedious work, if your grammar game isn't strong, you can use Grammarly to learn hands-on. 
  3. Purdue OWL (Online Writer's Lab): More grammar help. If you don't know or understand a grammar rule, you can probably find it here along with excellent examples. I lived on this site years ago when I knew I needed better skills.
  4. I write historical fantasy, the kind where the real world blends with the magical or supernatural. This means that I have to make decisions on word usage, often based on etymology. When did a word first come into use? Did it have a different meaning in the timeframe I'm using it in my story? Trust me, when you're writing a novel set 300-700 years in the past, this website helps so much.
  5. Fantasy Name Generator: I love this site. I use it to get my brain going when I need ideas for names of pretty much anything. They have an enormous database for fantasy names and real names. You can even find name ideas for mountains or rivers or continents or villains. Wildly helpful for those moments when you're staring at the screen trying to come up with something unique.
What's your favorite resource? What did we miss?

Friday, March 12, 2021

Where I Go to Know

The single writing-related resource I use is a search engine. It's because I don't really have one go-to. Most of the time, I want to know what the psychological drive is that transforms hate into love. I want to know how survivor's guilt manifests. How fast is acceleration of a craft in a solar system if you deploy a solar sail of x size. How does the brain respond to foreign objects and where can I place something like that without killing someone outright? 

Huh. It's possible I'm on a couple of FBI watch lists.

Perhaps I land a little more frequently on Jeffe's side of the internet with but if I do, it isn't by much. I'm one of those writers who finds a word image or gesture and I make sure I get my money's worth out of it in a draft. It's in rewrites that I realize I've used the same thing sixty-some-odd times and then I break out the synonyms. 

But for most things, it's my trusty search engine. It may take me far afield, but serendipity is a thing and occasionally the rabbit holes pay off, too. Most of the time, I get right where I need to go, grab my info and I'm back in the race. Though, in this race it should be noted that I'm the tortoise. And I stopped for snacks. And a nap. And . . .

This is Perceval (the silver tabby) and her mini-me Peseshet (the brown tabby and white in shadow here) above. Even though they were rescued a year apart, we're pretty certain they are related. Perceval certainly treats Peseshet as if they are. I figured we could all use a little cute on a Friday morning.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Alexia's Go-To Writing Resource


Grammar Girl website open to 'Lay' Versus 'Lie' post with an image of a young woman on her back in a field of daisies.
Grammar Girl website

As a writer I’ve got pages and pages of bookmarked websites and a few writer groups I can go to with questions. I’ve also got a couple of books that get pulled off the shelf depending on what stage of creating I’m in. 

But the one reference I consult the most? I wish it were something cooler, like Vivien’s popular science works she uses, or KAK’s Deviant Art obsession (which is totally valid). But for me, it’s a basic:

Grammar Girl’s ‘Lay’ Versus ‘Lie’ post.

Go ahead. Laugh. I know I sure do.

It never fails, I'll be cruising through my WIP and someone or something has to put someone or something down. And then my brain goes into second-guessing mode. I try to rely on my gut and keep going, but inevitably I’ll end up clicking on my bookmarks folder to re-read through Grammar Girl’s tips. 

Which, I believe, brings about a good point. As all of us SFF Seven-ers have pointed out—there are GOBS of writing resources out there! You can find a book or post on every topic I can think of and then some! You can throw yourself into research and never surface. 

if you don’t have the basics—

your writing will never accomplish what you want it to

But if you don’t have the basics, like knowing when to use lay and lie, your writing will never accomplish what you want it to and all of the time, effort, and sometimes money, you sink into the other resources is worthless. It’s like, if you want to be able to do a handstand you can’t just jump right to Adho Mukha Vrksasana. First you need balance, strength, endurance, flexibility, concentration and then you’ll be able to nail a handstand during your yoga practice. 

Back to the writing angle though, there’s a lot of aspects I want to get better at, and thankfully I’ve got Grammar Girl to help. So tell me, what basics do you struggle with? Comma use? Past and present tense switches? Go ahead, lay it on me

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Handiest dandy writing resources

This week, we're talking about the one writer's resource we consult most often. The topic isn't picky about whether we're to give a research reference, a craft reference, or an inspiration reference. So I'll cheat and give one of each.

For sciency research, I get loads of good info -- mixed with charming fanboy glee -- in the assorted popular science works of Michio Kaku. Yes, you've probably seen him on non-serious shows like Ancient Aliens, and yes, he can be, um, sometimes too enthusiastic. But also, he's an accomplished theoretical physicist, plus in high school he built a particle accelerator in his mom's garage. That is exactly the kind of energy I'm going for in my fiction.

For inspiration, I'm going to double-cheat and give two: the DARPA web site and the daily newsletter from Atlas Obscura. The former can spark thoughts of where we're going, and the latter amazes with stuff that's been right here all along.

For craft... well, you know, the thing about craft books is that after you read them a half dozen times and internalize their information, you might not refer to them as often later on. And sometimes you might, er, forget which pieces come from which book/workshop/theorist. For instance, is this a pinch point, is it a black moment, or is all lost? All kind of the same in my brain. So I'll just recommend my personal favorite, Brooks Vogler Hague Cron Snyder's Generic Story Structure That Always Works. Or you could save time and peruse Jami Gold's web site, specifically the section for writers. It's loaded with goodies, including beat sheets, spreadsheets, how-to articles, and Scrivener templates.

Now, are there resources that I refer to almost as often as these? Oh yes. SO many. I don't think it's possible to write fiction without casting your net broadly for bits and pieces you can use to build your world and story. I take a relationship dynamic from a television drama, a magic system element from my kid's science class, and a plot twist from Shakespeare, squish em all up like dough, and bake the hell out of the resultant lump. 

Your process is most likely better.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Writer's Resources: Getting The Visuals

What ONE writer's resource do I often consult? OMG, I have to choose?

Closes one eye. Clicks on the Bookmarks folder. Clicks on the Writing Resources folder. Clicks Open All In New Window. 
Watches computer smoke, wheeze, and freeze.

 Fiiiiiine. I'll limit myself to two. When I'm starting the book(s): Art Station / Deviant Art

I'm a visual writer. I write the movie playing in my head. I hoover up inspiration from these two artist-centric websites. Also the same places I look for cover artists when I'm shopping for illustrators. It doesn't matter the genre, the subgenre, or how far weird my rough storyline, there are thousands of pics that'll help crystalize characters and settings. Heck, some even shake loose plot twists. Beware the rabbit holes, though. It's easy to lose weeks to fantasizing about the next doorstopper.

Resists urge to link All. The. Resources.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Tools Of The Trade

 In 6his case, reference tools. that's our subject for the week, what is the one essential reference tool we simply cannot live without. 

One? Good heavens, that's a mall number. I can think of an easy dozen. first and foremost, the internet. Where would I be without google to send me do2wn a rabbit hole or twenty? The thing is, I research bloody near everything, except names. I just yank those out of the air. 

Back in the day, when I was writing for role0kayingGames and the 'Net wasn't quite s useful as it is today I'd spend a fortune on research books. I'm completely serious. It was over seven hundred dollars worth of books on the Old West before was satisfied that I had enough information.  I spent a fortune that was absolutely necessary because a lot of the esoteric information I needed to add in for authenticity simply wasn't available like it is these days. There weren't a million sites per subject, though I'll grant many of the sites available these days are hardly given to accuracy, they still exist to sort through. It's a bonus that you can use to your advantage if you are careful about the truths you seek and find. 

Her4's one for you. Stephen King's Danse Macabre. IT is, to my knowledge, the first non-fiction book that King ev4er wrote, and it is a hodgepodge of pop culture information autobiography and writing advice, all mixed into one very lengthy essay written as the sort of conversation you might have over beers with q writer at a convention. I absolutely love that book and have read it easily half a dozen times. I'm not likely to ever have beers with King at a convention doubly so because I don't drink, but the information I have gleaned from the book is absolutely priceless. The pop culture I refer to in this case is horror movies and horror books and the references made started me on my personal education regarding both subjects and expanded my very narrow horizons a great deal. Seeing as I started my writing in the horror genre, I needed my eyes opened. Seeing as Stephen ing is literally rags to riches story in the genre I was looking to step into, the book was also a wild ride into the territory of what could be done and what could not be done. Have I had Mister King's success? hell no, but I make a decent living most years. I get by. 

Reference tools vary greatly and depend heavily on what you are looking for. My v4ry favorite tool? The one I access m0re than any other? Talking with my peers. e share anecdotes, we take about what works for us and what doe not. We connect and learn from each other. 

But that's just me and your mileage may vary. I'd also recommend Strunk and White's Elements of Style. 

By the way, the images below are five of the books that my sevenu=hundred dollars in research helped make possible.  


Sunday, March 7, 2021

The One Resource Every Writer Needs

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is references. We're asking our bloggers what one writer's reference do you often consult? Database, community, club/org, book, etc.

I'm going old school and picking my ragged, much-beloved paper copy of The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale. My copy is the 1978 edition and I may have had it nearly that long. I'm pretty sure I had it in high school. I used it for writing papers all the way through high school and now I use it for writing novels. 

You guys, this is THE BEST RESOURCE EVER. 

It's not a thesaurus, which tends to lead the casual user down twisted paths of etymological absurdity.

It's worlds better than anything I've been able to find online. (I have looked, because sometimes I want a quick reference and I don't want to have to step off the treadmill to pull this bad girl off the shelf.) Online references are so much more limited.

What The Synonym Finder does is allows me to explore and refine a concept. It leads me to branching and diverse terms for the Thing I'm Trying to Describe. You'll note I have sticky notes in place for words I often use - like "blue" and "black" - that I want richer, more precise and more interesting images for. 

Everyone should have one of these!

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Planning to Succeed

Photo by Emma Matthews
This week's SFF Seven blog topic is what's on our mind, so this was a super easy week for me to post. The thing that's been on my mind of late is how glad I am that I began the year with a plan for my editor/author life. I know that not everyone is a planner and not everyone needs to plan ALL THE THINGS, but for me, a simple quarterly roadmap and to-do lists gives me some sort of weird superpower to actually get things done.

Many moons ago, if you'd told me that I'd ever be the kind of person who makes a to-do list every single morning or who plans out each quarter of the year like it's her job, I would've laughed you out of the room. I was a newbie writer finding my way, writing whenever I wanted or could find a spare hour. To be honest, writing was a hobby, not something I treated like the career I wanted to have. And that stunted my growth, in my opinion. If you don't aim yourself in the direction of your dreams, then how will you ever get there?

Slowly, most likely.

For a long time, I couldn't finish anything. I might have drafted a novel (sad, awful drafts) but going through revisions and seeing a work through to the very end was super tough for me. Granted, my life has been one big roller coaster over the last decade as I took care of my ailing parents and raised teenagers. But hindsight is 20/20, and if I'd known then what I know now, I have to wonder where I'd be in my writing career currently.

That said, our journey is our journey. Maybe you believe we go through things for a reason, maybe you don't. All I know is that over the last decade, I've tried so many different planning systems and methods that if I had the money I've spent on all of those little planners and apps and binders and stickers and Washi tape that I would never use, I could've paid for this new laptop I'm typing on tonight.

BUT, back to going through what we go through for a reason. All of my early efforts to get organized might not have helped me then, but I went through enough try/fail sequences over the years that I finally, blessedly, figured out what works for me:

1) A quarterly plan. I highly suggest following Sarra Cannon at Heartbreathings blog and maybe try watching her YouTube videos. She has a free 90-day goal sheet and several other free planning sheets for writers that are so helpful. You choose your top three goals for the year, then break those goals down into bite-size tasks that you can actually achieve. Gone are the days of telling myself that I can write and edit a book in 3 months. I know that I don't work that way, and I'm honest with myself. It takes the time it takes, and I've had enough years at this to know what that amount of time is for me, so I plan accordingly. Anything that I don't complete at the end of the quarter rolls over to the next quarter. Like my friend Alexia said in her post this week: It's so good to give yourself credit for what you achieve, no matter how small. Quarterly planning facilitates this, because you don't have to wipe the board clean to feel successful (though YAY if you do!). I always end up feeling proud of myself for what tasks I DID complete, even when I have items left that must roll over. This method was a mental game changer for me. Plus, now that I have 99648895 deadlines, I need the organization to stay on top of things.

2) A simple To-Do List. You can find to-do lists literally anywhere or even print or write your own. I'm highly partial (slightly addicted) to my Rifle Paper Co. to-do lists, and y'all will have to pry them from my cold, dead hands to make me give them up. These lists have saved my life. There's no way I can remember all of my day job, life/mom, writer, and editor duties without lists. I have one for work, one for writing, and one for life. My work and life lists/pads stay at my day job desk. My writer list/pad goes everywhere with me.

3) A Kan Ban board. Sarra Cannon talks a lot about using a Kan Ban board for tracking quarterly goals. Basically, you take a dry erase board, create a 9-box grid, and transfer the info from your 90-day goal sheet onto sticky notes that then go onto the board. Column 1 is Goal 1, Column 2 is Goal 2, Column 3 is Goal 3. The top row is then filled with the tasks needed to get you closer to achieving each goal, and you simply move those stickies from Row 1: To Do, to Row 2: In Progress, and finally, to Row 3: DONE. Sarah has great YouTube videos if you want to learn more. This method works so well, because unlike a planner that you might never open, a board is IN YOUR FACE, a daily reminder, (as long as you don't hang it in a room you never enter). The more you are forced to look at the board, the more likely you are to actually try to tackle the tasks that await you there.

Now, sadly, these methods won't work for everyone, I know, but sometimes, understanding what WILL work takes trial and error. Maybe this will help someone out there find the right path to success, however they define that word. It can literally mean just getting to a point of actually knowing what you need to do to get where you want to go.

Best of luck! Now go make a list!!


Friday, March 5, 2021

When the World Goes Sideways

Ah, the many little substances, rituals, and activities we use to soothe ourselves. Corvid is partaking a little homegrown catnip. 

Dad is being admitted to the hospital as I type. Thus, you may understand when I say there's next to nothing but static on my mind. So far, it looks like he'll be okay. Yet another close call. Had Urgent Care not insisted on giving him an antibiotic shot, things would have gone very, very badly today. 

So I'm self medicating with documentaries and fake ice cream (frozen banana, blueberries, plant milk blitzed in a blender). Meditation is probably on tap for the evening, too.

What's your vice of choice when your world goes pear-shaped?


Thursday, March 4, 2021

When things Don’t Work out the way You wanted them to

A shattered blue butter dish sits on the gray counter, behind is a wine bottle holder with 2 bottles and to the right is a King Arthur sour dough starter crock.

Life is like a broken butter dish, you never know—wait, wrong line. But I did crush my butter dish and I don’t know what I’m gonna get to replace it. 

Cracked, broken, disappointments. There’s a million sayings about failing: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Failure is part of success. Think positively and positive things will happen. Hang in there, baby. 

And since we’re all human here—apologies if you’re reading this, ART—we’ve experienced things not going to plan in countless ways. Butter dish, am I right? Though that’s not the only disappointment on my mind this week, I’m also obsessing over how I keep failing to get any writing done. 

So, authors, how do we deal with disappointments in regards to writing?

The past couple of weeks have been challenging for me health wise. It’s difficult to look at screens or even move quickly when your head isn’t on straight, literally. I’m becoming a regular at the chiropractor’s office and I’m running out of audiobooks (that’s my SOS for any audiobook recommendations you may have). And I’m still struggling to get any words down! 

Then I saw a fellow author’s post on Instagram about setting goals for the week, big or small…that you intend to celebrate! These wise words are from @ChandraBlumberg if you’re wondering, she’s positive, uplifting, and has a bright smile. Go follow her. 

Her words were a simple reminder that struck me. I prefer to start my days off with a little yoga and prayer and meditation time before I even come down the stairs. No, it doesn’t always happen because I have a dog that snores and kids that sleepwalk, but I feel better and happier when I start my day off that way. Now, why can’t I translate that to my writing? Why do I only see the pieces that don’t go according to plan and not the celebratory parts?

In 2018 one of my manuscripts was a finalist in the Golden Heart and this national award put me with a group of likeminded writers. We chose our class name: Persisters because we were a bunch of women who would persist in their dreams to write. I’m thankful for each one of these women and wish I had more time to talk with them, but even the bits of check-ins here and there are a boost. They remind me that we all have struggles, writing related and not. They remind me that I want to keep going because they’re proof that hard work does pay off. And they remind me that they’re here for me to unload, writing related or not. 

For me, that’s something that I need to be able to keep writing. Things don't always go according to plan‚ and that’s okay! Yes, this is what happens when the topic is what's on my get to ramble along with me. 

It's okay because I need my Persisters and fellow authors on Instagram to remind me that I’m not alone in this. I’m going to make a conscious effort to celebrate a little thing, writing related, each morning. I’ll take stock of my to-do list and set an attainable goal that won’t stress me out. And I’m going to keep cheering on everyone else because you never know when a kind word or a bit of encouragement will make all the difference. 

Have you found your writing community and surrounded yourself with those who want to lift you up? 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Reality shifting is totally a new thing

There's this challenge. On TikTok. It's totally new. Like, old people have never done this thing. Seriously.

Here's how it goes: you lie down on your stomach and spread your limbs out like a starfish and here's the trick: you do not go to sleep. Instead! You imagine your favorite fictional setting / person as you count down from 100 and then... you shift. Or, uh, your reality shifts. And you're there, in the other place, the better place, with the hot fictional somebody. Like, really literally there. I'm not making any of this up.

Except, well, the truth is that I make stuff up all the time. All the stuff, all the time. I'm a longtime daydreamer and fanfiction writer, so yeah, I've imagined vivid scenarios with fictional hotties. (You probably have, too. It's okay to fess up in the privacy of your own brain.) TikTok folk are calling it "reality shifting," and it's on my mind right now because of how very big a thing it's become. Teens and young adults are needing to rename daydreaming so they can claim it as their own Brand New Thing, and I respect them for that, and also I totally get where they're coming from.

If I could yeet our stupid reality and replace it with waltzes with Labyrinth-era Bowie or pre-kingly, dirty ranger Aragorn, I would totally.

And the fact is, I do. That's, um, what being a writer is? 

I know!


No one has ever in a long time!

Used their imagination to a replace their crappy reality where they have zero agency with a fantastic reality that they control completely.

So I not only understand the attraction to this challenge but I shall also take it as a challenge myself: I will now attempt to -- no, not reality shift, but also actually yes, to create a fictional world and fictional characters that will give my readers a haven, a safe place, a better place, and most importantly, power over their own minds. And, if they need it, an escape. 

TikTok challenge accepted.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

On My Mind: Protagonist Age

On my mind this week are thoughts about determining the appropriate age for the protagonist(s) of a new high fantasy trilogy that's up next in the writing queue after I finish Bix Book 7. It stems from frequent forum discussions about why there are so few women age 40+ starring as protagonists. It's not to say that there aren't any books that slot that need; it's that women of a certain age remain atypical protagonists.  

Is it an issue of the ease of fallibility? The younger they are, the more we forgive stupid decisions. Stupid decisions allow for characters to end up in high-stakes situations far more often and easily than mature characters who know better. After all, brains aren't fully developed until the mid20s.

Is it an issue of fewer responsibilities? Quests are a lot easier when the only responsibility you have is to yourself. As you age, you amass things, people, relationships, and obligations. Responding to an inciting moment for a 40+ carries greater weight than a barely 20 something, yet it's easier? more palatable? more acceptable? for a young adult to cut ties to 'find themselves' or to shirk responsibilities because they can't prioritize?

Is it an issue of implied permission for selfishness? Youth is inherently selfish. The world of a teen/young adult revolves around the individual. Even if they're obsessed with a romantic interest, it is only because they believe that interest will somehow "save" them from whatever ills. If a 50-year-old pulled the same self-centered stunts, they'd be shamed, ridiculed, derided. They wouldn't be heroic, they'd be assholes.

Is it an issue of youthful romance being hot and passionate, where midlife love is dull, tame, boring? Let's face it, as a society, we're conditioned to believe that bedding the hot, young (above the age of consent) thing is a laudable goal regardless of the age difference. But what if a 60-year-old protagonist doesn't want the plaything? Training wheels are tiresome. The drama of youth is tedious. What they want is someone established and content with who they are. They want the butterflies of new love without the angst youthful insecurities. Too blah? No meaty story there?

Is it an issue of a happy stable relationship being a character flaw?  Whatever shall a writer do about romantic tension if their protagonist is in a long-term loving relationship? Default to justifying a cheating scandal? Less heroic, unless they're the one being cheated on, in which case being the victim is trite and overdone. Kill off the loved one as motivation? Again, cliche. It requires more creative effort to show that love can be constant and still have challenges that don't mock or threaten fidelity. 

Is it an issue of the ease of inexperience? Imagine, if you will, a youthful protagonist who wasn't an instant expert. Who wasn't in a position of authority because they hadn't earned it yet. Because, gasp, the old folks with tons of hands-on experience were in charge and not inherently evil? Imagine the protagonist in a position of leadership has to quell another uprising of privileged, entitled youths who can't conceive of the world beyond their limited experience. Is that as interesting as the story of rebellion told through the eyes of the youth?

Is it an issue of mass appeal? Since every adult has been young and precocious in their own way, does it make a story more relatable to the masses if the protag is also young? Does having an older protagonist limit reader enjoyment because of conscious or unconscious ageism? Is "she's too old to do that" a fault of reader perception or author creativity? 

Obviously, I don't have answers. I'm still working through the tradeoffs of an older versus a younger protagonist. Opinions? Considerations? Tell me about them in the Comments!