Tag Archives: Maria Vasquez

Friendships Among Your Characters

A lot of people talk about romantic relationships in their writing. Romance is certainly a popular genre, and one a lot of my friends write in. I’ve written about my thoughts on romantic relationships in books before, in particular the question of whether a romance should be followed until death does them part.

Yet there’s another type of relationship I don’t tend to see as many people talking about: friendships. While I’m sure there are plenty of great books out there that are focused purely on friendships instead of romantic relationships, I don’t tend to see them often. Usually a friendship is developed more on the side of the main plot, rather than being the focus.

I’ve been thinking about friendships in writing a lot lately because I’m developing one in my own novels. While the friendship would certainly be a subplot instead of part of the main plot, it’s still an element I’ve put a lot of thought into developing. There’s a few certain specific concepts I’ve been exploring, each of which has different variables worth considering.

The specific friendship I’m talking about is between two of my main characters, Tock Zipporah and Maelyssa Southeby. They’ve got quite a bit in common: they’re both teenage girls who have developed magical powers, they both dislike authority figures, they both roll with a tough crowd, and they both enjoy excitement and wild rides (Mae is a skater and Tock likes to cruise in arcane-powered vehicles of her own design).

Of course, your novel might not contain these supernatural elements. You might write about detectives solving crimes. Soldiers returning home from war. Explorers on an interstellar spacecraft. Llamas procrastinating by drinking coffee. But whatever your story is, the focus should be on the characters.

So what elements will affect the development of a friendship between your characters? One question is “What is the basis of their friendship?” This question can help you know whether the friendship is a key part of your story or just part of another plot element. For example, many romance novels have a friendship story on the side, usually between the female main character and her best friend. These kinds of friendships fail the Bechdel Test, which asks the following:

1. Does the story have to have at least two women in it?
2. Who talk to each other?
3. About something besides a man?

It’s #3 on this list that will make the difference between a friendship that’s there to be a friendship versus a friendship that’s there to support the romance plot. Usually, the best friend in a romance novel is someone for the main character to talk to about her new boyfriend, someone to support her after the inevitable fight that almost breaks the romance up, and possibly someone to backstab her somewhere along the way (such as by revealing a dirty little secret or trying to seduce the main character’s love interest). In a situation like this, the friendship doesn’t have anything to stand on by itself.

I wanted to make sure Tock and Mae’s friendship existed independently. So I made sure to develop it based on their personalities and interests and goals, rather than on any external variables. So far, they’ve never once talked about a man or each other’s love lives (though I’m sure they could in the future, after their friendship has been firmly established). They show genuine, platonic affection for each other. They’ve supported each other through some serious tough times. And they have a really good rapport, so that when you see their interactions on the page, you should really feel that they’re true friends.

Of course, not all my characters have developed as strong of a friendship as Tock and Mae have. For instance, Gabby Palladino and Maria Vasquez are good friends as well, but their friendship hasn’t gotten quite as much development. That might be because there was always a greater focus on Gabby’s relationship with her main love interest, Callia Gainsborough. Which means that Gabby and Maria’s friendship might have a harder time passing the Bechdel Test.

And I think another interesting type of friendship to explore would be a platonic friendship between a guy and a girl. Usually, male/female friendships have some underlying sexual tension and the assumption (or hope) that they’ll eventually get together. Just look at something like the Harry Potter series and how many people ‘shipped Harry and Hermione (including, it later turned out, the author herself). A lot of studies have shown that male/female friendships are rare, and the majority of the time one person or the other is secretly attracted to their friend. Despite this, it could be interesting to explore a legitimate friendship with no romantic or sexual aspects whatsoever. Though odds are, your readers will still ‘ship the characters anyway (just like some will probably ‘ship Mae and Tock, even though that’ll never happen).

There’s probably a lot of other variables that go into a good literary friendship. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, along with any other examples of well-developed friendships in the books you’ve read.

Things You Don’t Know About Me (And How They Influenced My Writing)

I’m a very open person, but there’s a lot of things I don’t bring up very often. Some of them are because I’m embarrassed about things from my childhood, others because they just don’t fit smoothly into an average day’s conversation. A lot of them, however, had big influences on my development both as a person and as a writer. At the suggestion of one of my Twitter friends, I’d like to discuss some of these fragments of my past and talk about how they relate to my current work.

Divorce

Image Credit: The Telegraph
Image Credit: The Telegraph

My parents are divorced. For most people, this is a traumatic experience, as a family is torn apart by tensions that leave the children wondering what will become of them and whether their parents still love them. Everyone talks about how half of all marriages end in divorce, and it’s generally a topic surrounded by little hope and a lot of heartache.

I was glad my parents got divorced.

My parents never should have been married (setting aside the fact that had they not married, I never would have been born). They got married when my mom was pregnant with my older sister. As my mom tells it, when she found out she was pregnant, the first thing she did was go to my grandmother and ask for help. Mom-mom’s answer was, “Well, you’re going to get married.” It was to be expected considering my Irish family’s traditional Catholic ideals.

My parents were incompatible. They cheated on each other several times (and in the years since the divorce both of them have told me stories about all the wrongs the other committed). I remember coming home more than once to find my father’s clothes in garbage bags on the front lawn. What I didn’t know at the time was that the reason was because my mom found out about some affair or another. When they were screaming and fighting at each other in the kitchen at night, I never knew why. I just knew I was scared, and I wanted the fighting to stop.

Then one day they sat us down and told us they were getting a divorce. And my one and only thought was, Thank God, this means there won’t be any more fighting.

After the divorce, the only downside I remember was that I felt a bit isolated. In particular, when I was in fifth grade, I started having trouble with being home alone. I was old enough that I was no longer being sent to a babysitter, but I wasn’t quite old enough to be brave enough to be home by myself.

Around this time, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Aloi, assigned our class a creative writing assignment. It began with the first page of a story done that was already written to set the scene. Old man Jenkins had died years ago, and his house was abandoned. Yet on this dark night, you see lights coming from the basement of his old, weather beaten home. A slip of yellow paper was hanging out of the mailbox. The shutters were creaking in the wind. And then…

Each student continued the story from that point. I had a blast writing mine. At this time, I was also staying late after school each day. I’d started lingering after class each day because I didn’t like being in the house all alone. Mrs. Aloi, likely sensing my hesitation to go home, let me stay after class to help her with various bits of work. Because of this, I had the unique opportunity to read every single one of my classmates’ Halloween stories. To keep me busy after school that day, Mrs. Aloi had me take every student’s paper and type them all in to her word processor.

It was 1990, and home computers were still a new thing. Few people had word processing programs at home, and my own parents still owned two old fashioned typewriters. This was my first experience using a word processor, which was built like a laptop but could only be used for writing, nothing else. I typed the other students’ papers for no other reason than that Mrs. Aloi wanted to give me something to do, and I quickly realized that I was the best writer in the class. Most of the students had only written about a page or two, without much happening in the course of their story. A few had only written a couple of paragraphs. I had written seven pages.

It was the first story I ever wrote, and I still have it to this day. I wrote an elaborate tale where Mr. Jenkins had faked his own death, and had now mysteriously returned from beyond the grave. I bravely entered the lonely, empty house to find a murder victim with a knife in her back. I had to single handedly bring Jenkins to justice for this crime, Action Hero Kid to the rescue. I confronted Jenkins alone, and knocked him out cold with a baseball bat, only to become trapped in the abandoned home. He awoke and came after me with lethal intent, and I had to find a way to escape. There was a secret passage under the house, and I fled to safety, trying to find the police. Unable to find help, I was forced to return and confront him again, even after being driven off the last time. I confronted him with no fear this time. There was a climactic final showdown that left Mr. Jenkins in jail.

I had so much fun writing it that I asked Mrs. Aloi for another assignment. She gave me two similar ones, a ghost story and a monster story. While neither of them became as memorable of an experience as The Mystery of Jenkin Mansion, I was still already addicted. It was my birth as a writer.

I began writing short stories at home, for fun. My early attempts always fell short of the standards I set for myself when I compared my writing to popular modern authors like Robert Jordan. When I was fifteen years old, I threw a fifty page story in the garbage because I foolishly compared myself to Jordan’s writing, and knew that my own work fell short. I constantly strove to get better, thinking that if I wasn’t as good as the published authors I loved, then it wasn’t worth doing. The more I read, the more I worked to improve my own writing. Even as a teenager, I was already studying writing as a process, and working towards constant improvement.

Encouragement?

encouragement002

 

I received no encouragement after Mrs. Aloi. My high school teachers never gave out fiction assignments, and I was always bored and disengaged when they assigned research papers and the like. I often didn’t bother to write boring school papers, instead opting to continue working on my own writing. I would write stories in class instead of paying attention to the lecture. One teacher confiscated a story of mine once, thinking I was writing notes to pass in class. He returned it when he realized his mistake. I returned to writing the story, even after being scolded for it. I wouldn’t let the story end without reaching it’s climax.

My mother never saw any future in my writing. On dozens of different occasions, she said to me, “If you spent half as much time on your schoolwork as you did on that stuff, you’d get straight A’s.” Yet I didn’t care. Writing was far more important to me than math, history, or even English. Fiction was more important to me than reports and composition. I first took a creative writing class “just for fun.” I never stopped writing, and even stopped paying attention in some of my other classes and instead spent class writing stories in my notebook. One semester I had a science class where I took only ten pages of notes, while I filled two spiral notepads with a story I was working on.

I never really received any praise or encouragement for my writing until I started studying as a Writing Arts major at Rowan University in 2007. Up until that point, my writing had mostly been something I kept secret. I’ve got probably dozens of stories I’ve never shown anyone (though some of the better ones I’ve posted here on the blog). Sometimes I’ve wondered how much further I might have gotten if I’d ever had any encouragement growing up. Instead I guess I’ll have to keep pushing forward from where I am now.

Final Fantasy

Image Credit: Square Enix
Image Credit: Square Enix

I’m a bit of a Final Fantasy addict. My first and true love in the series is Final Fantasy VI (which is really III, just like IV is really II, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re not a real Final Fantasy fan). Final Fantasy VI follows the story of a mysterious young woman in a world where magic is returning for the first time in a thousand years. If you’ve ever read anything about my writing process, you’ll immediately see the similarities between this and my upcoming novel, Manifestation.

My actual plot and characters are vastly different from anything that happens in Final Fantasy VI, but I definitely drew from it in several key points. One is the theme about the return of magic. Another is the idea of Magitek–machines that draw on magical energies to mix magic and technology. And another is the lovely lady depicted above, Shiva, the Ice Goddess.

In the game, Shiva is a creature you summon with magic to rain down an ice storm on your enemies. She appears in many different Final Fantasy games, and is probably one of the most commonly seem summoned monsters in the series. She’s also usually depicted as the most graceful and beautiful of them all.

Shiva ended up being the direct inspiration for the character Maria Vasquez, star of the short story Radiance, and one of the main supporting characters in the third and fourth books in the Arcana Revived series. Maria isn’t a “summoned monster,” but she is something quite a bit more than human. Radiance shows her transformation from a normal teenage girl into one of the Manifested individuals that wield the newly revived power of arcana.

Collaborative Writing and Roleplaying

Image Credit: kqed.org
Image Credit: kqed.org

In more recent years, I started writing on various collaborative writing and roleplaying sites. If you’re not familiar with them, these sites usually involve post-by-post story writing on message boards, where each writer adds to the story and carries the scene forward. The newly launched writing game, Storium, is based on these same concepts. However, while Storium is designed as a game using virtual playing cards, the other sites I’ve written on are based around writing, plain and simple.

Several of the characters I’m currently writing in the Arcana Revived series were originally developed on these roleplaying sites. Gabby Palladino, Tock Zipporah, and Minori Tsujino were first written in collaborative stories alongside other writers. Not only did I develop their characters and personalities there, I also came up with a number of plot ideas that ended up making their way into my current novels. While I’m no longer writing on these sites, their influence is directly responsible for everything I’m doing today.

Time Travel

Image Credit: Mashable
Image Credit: Mashable

What does time travel have to do with any of this? Well, I suppose a better question is, what does my writing have to do with time travel. The answer is my unfinished and unpublished novel, Rogue Traveler.

Rogue Traveler was the first “complete” novel draft I ever wrote. As I mentioned above, I once started a novel at age 15 that I ended up throwing in the trash. In the years after that, I started (and stalled out on) several more novels that would get anywhere from 20 to 100 pages before I lost my focus or got writer’s block. They were all learning experiences, however, and I’ve corrected a lot of the mistakes in my writing process that previously led to all of those dead ends.

Rogue Traveler never hit a dead end in the story, but I had a hard time sticking with it. I started it in 2001, and continued writing it over the next five or six years, barely finding time for it here and there. I never got as immersed into it as I did with Manifestation, my upcoming novel. I think that Rogue Traveler has a strong and interesting story, telling the tale of a teenage girl from the future who gets lost in the past. However, I didn’t give Trish Kerring, the main protagonist, the amount of background development that I gave to Gabby Palladino. As a result, I often struggled during the writing process, and the novel tended to stall out.

I wrote a few short stories and expansions to the Rogue Traveler story in 2007-2008. One of them is posted here on my blog, depicting a bit of Trish’s background life long before her time travel adventures begin. In the long run, though, I didn’t develop the passion and obsession that I currently have for Arcana Revived. To give an example of the difference: it took me 6 years to write Draft One of Rogue Traveler, and I spent another four years or so after that trying to get it revised but never quite finishing it; by comparison, I wrote the first draft of Manifestation in three months, and now here I am, nearly two years after I started it, about to release the soon-to-be-completed novel. The main reason I did so much better with Manifestation is simply because I’m obsessed with it and can’t put it down.

So there’s the five Things You Didn’t Know About Me. I hope you found them interesting. They’ve certainly all had a huge impact on who I am today.

Updates on Life and Writing

Hey, it’s been awhile since I wrote a normal blog post about “stuff” instead of academic research, eh?

That’s because grad school CAN and WILL kick your ever-loving ass, and there’s nothing you can do about that. I’m extremely behind on a lot of things at the moment because I’m focusing the majority of my efforts on school. However, aside from school itself (and the academic research I’ve been doing), there is a bit more going on that I decided to make some updates about.

First, my short story Radiance has just sold its 50th copy. That’s cause for celebration. Radiance is the first short released in my upcoming series, Arcana Revived. The first full length novel, Manifestation, is planned for release later this year (once the school semester ends, I’ll be working on that more than anything else). But in the meantime, Radiance provides a preview of the story world, as well as an introduction to a character who will become a major player later in the book series.

Second, it’s my birthday in, oh, about an hour and fifteen minutes. If you didn’t get me anything, I understand. You can get yourself a copy of Radiance as an un-birthday present and I’ll consider that a happy birthday indeed.

Aside from that, I’ll also be updating soon about more short stories I’m working on. I wrote one earlier this spring for my Fiction Workshop class. It follows Callia Gainsborough, one of the main characters of Arcana Revived and love interest of the main protagonist, Gabriella Palladino. Gabby and Tock tend to get most of the spotlight in the novels, which is one of the reasons I love short stories. Characters like Callia, or Maria Vasquez from Radiance can get their own chance in the spotlight, even though they’re second-or-third-billed in the novels. The story I wrote for class (under the working-but-maybe-to-be-changed-title Questioning Angels) takes us a bit closer into Callia’s character in a short but sweet adventure that takes place in between Book Two and Book Three of Arcana Revived. That means it likely won’t be published for quite a long while (after Book Two, most likely), but it’ll benefit from being workshopped in a graduate-level class and going through multiple revisions.

I’ll probably be writing another story for class soon, which will also be part of the series. And of course, there’s still Belladonna, and several other shorts that have each been through a few revisions. They’re all on the back burner right now because Manifestation is in edits and on the verge of being released, so it takes #1 priority over everything else until further notice.

So I think that’s it for now. Expect to see some more academic blog posts in the near future, and the continuation of the Ethnographic Hockey series. And a Very Merry Unbirthday to You!

How Video Games Have Influenced My Writing

Most of the time, writers seem to talk about the books that have influenced their writing style. I’ve certainly been influenced by Tolkien (naturally), Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, James Alan Gardner, and plenty of other authors. I’ve taken inspiration from many other sources, including webcomics like Girl Genius (the main character of that comic, Agatha Heterodyne, was one of the primary sources of inspiration for my character Tock Zipporah (whose proper name is actually “Minerva Agatha Zipporah”)). But since I’ve been playing video games since I was about six years old, gaming has definitely been another influence that has changed the way I write.

There are a few different specific ways that video games affected my writing, so I’ll address each one individually.

The Influence of Gods and Monsters

I write urban fantasy, and my work is steeped heavily in mythology, magic, monsters, and other classics of the fantasy genre. I try to veer away from overused creatures (such as vampires, werewolves, elves, dwarves, and dragons) and create a combination of my own homemade creations along with my interpretations of less-used mythological creatures.

One basic example of that is golems. Golems are creatures made from inanimate matter, and can range from magically-animated stone statues to living clay to robots that are powered by mana instead of electricity. I don’t tend to see golems used all that often in most of the books I read (though I’m sure I could name a few examples, like the animated suits of armor in the Harry Potter books). They’re a common sight in both video games and tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. My character Tock is a golem-maker, and video games are definitely a big influence in the way I design her golems. Instead of creating animated stone statues or living suits of armor, Tock tends to go for things like magitech creations, similar to those seen in Final Fantasy VI. In that game, you see things like robots that fire magic-powered lasers, living war machines created by magic, and magic-powered mechwarrior suits (called “MagiTek Armor” in the game). All of these things have been a huge influence in the way I view Tock’s ability and the things she creates, particularly in Contamination and Collapse.

Another influence from the Final Fantasy games in particular is the design of their summoned monsters. Many of them are based on various real-world myths and legends, and you can go into a lot of detail analyzing how closely the games stuck with the mythological inspirations versus how much creative license they took.

I don’t directly draw from many of the summoned monsters in Final Fantasy, but my all-time favorite has always been Shiva. So much so that Shiva is a very direct influence over my short story, Radiance. In some of the later books in the series (including Book 4 that I’m working on a first draft of right now), there are other places where you’ll see the influences of Final Fantasy summoned monsters emerge. I tend to take things in a vastly different direction with a lot of creative license, so the results don’t have much in common with the games, but I can’t deny where some of the inspiration came from.

Visual Effects of Magic

Magic can take many forms in novels. In Harry Potter, we see characters using wands and chanting magic words in faux-latin. In the Sword of Truth series, we see a lot of mystic glyphs and arcane inscriptions. In the Wheel of Time we see magic described as a weaving of energies, which for me usually brings to mind the image of glowing threads creating a tapestry of power before they are unleashed.

Many video games tend to have more visual elements. A lot of this has to do with practical issues of gameplay. For example, you can’t expect a character in a video game to stop mid-battle and sketch magic runes on the ground with white sand in order to create a spell effect. Instead, there tends to be flashes of light that are designed to add to the excitement of a game while also adding a personal touch of style. These visual styles can be so distinct that you could easily identify which game a spell came from just by the way it looks, which adds something to the overall style of the game.

The magic in my books tends to be very visual. There is a complex rules system that determines how magic works, and that is far more important to the plot than what a magical effect looks like. But at the same time, I feel that vivid descriptions can make a battle scene more exciting and add more personalization to it. In some books, like the Wheel of Time series, there are times when two magic-users are simply staring at each other while an invisible battle rages between their minds. That can get fairly boring, whereas the more interesting battles are those with plenty of fireballs and lightning bolts being thrown around.

I also feel, however, that there should be a certain uniqueness to the visual effects of magic. Many of the book series I’ve mentioned have unique enough magic systems that if you were to see a description taken from each one, you’d immediately know which series that description is from, just from the way magic is described. Again, this isn’t a plot-central issue (and the way magic is related to the plot is far more important than the visual effects). But creating unique visual elements can be a good way to develop a personal style that will be associated with your particular books.

A good example of this in my series is the character Maelyssa Southeby, from the story Belladonna (which is currently in revisions). Like Radiance, Belladonna details a character’s journey as she develops a strange power that she doesn’t understand. Mae has a power that, technically, could have been created without visual elements. She could have used it with pure magical energies that couldn’t be seen by a normal person. Instead, however, I developed a design for her power that is more personalized and unique. I think it helps make the power more “hers” and not just “another superpower.” Part of the difference is purely aesthetic, but those aesthetic choices can be a good way to personalize something.

Combos

Some types of books have magic systems that have certain specific things they can do, and certain things they can’t do. In Harry Potter, for example, you’ll tend to see the same spells used over and over again. One thing you don’t really see is the characters finding a way to combine their powers.

Now, the idea of powers combined can, if done improperly, become cliche and trite. I tend to veer away from anything that requires characters to combine their powers in order to send a message about teamwork and how “together, we are stronger than we are alone.” That sort of thing gets a little too after-school-special for me.

However, there is another way that the idea of combo powers influences my writing. In many video games you can have characters combine two completely different abilities in order to do something that isn’t just stronger and more effectively, but which is actually impossible to do with a single character alone. I’m not just talking about increasing the power level to a greater scale (if you read the Wheel of Time books, you’ll see Aes Sedai “link” in circles for greater power, but they still just throw fireballs and lightning bolts; they merely throw BIGGER fireballs and lightning bolts).

When designing my magic system, I made sure to keep things very open-ended. There are no fixed “spells” that have to have a certain effect in a certain way. Many magical effects in my books are based on how creative the character can be in how they use their power. Because of this, characters can also find ways to use their powers in conjunction with each other to create unique effects. This leads to some interesting scenarios in the later books where the characters are able to puzzle out some unique solutions to the problems they face.

Leveling Up

In video games, the power levels of your characters tend to go up steadily throughout the course of the game. Books aren’t always like this. In the Harry Potter series, Harry might become more skilled in his use of magic by the end of the books, but he’s not casting spells that are more powerful (for example, he still uses “Expelliarmus” in the final battle, but it’s not like he’s able to disarm a dozen wizards at once). The same applies to some non-magical books as well; Katniss Everdeen starts off The Hunger Games as an expert archer, and there’s no real sign that her archery improves over the course of the books.

I prefer to have my characters grow, not just in terms of their personalities and flaws, but in terms of their skills and magic as well. So at the beginning of Manifestation, no one even HAS magic. No one has a clue how it works. Chaos ensues. A big part of the short stories Belladonna and Radiance is the way the characters first manifest their powers and have to learn how they work. Characters then grow steadily stronger throughout the course of the books, learning new ways to use their abilities and increasing the scale they can operate on.

There’s probably some other more subtle influences video games have had on my writing, but this is a pretty good run down. Of course, there’s always the chance my books will one day be made INTO video games, in which case these influences would come full circle.

Literature vs Genre Fiction

I’m currently enrolled in a Fiction Writing Workshop class at Rowan University. Since this is a graduate-level class, the intent is that we will learn things that go beyond just plot and characterization and show, don’t tell. The professor described it as a more in-depth course where we will be refining our writing on multiple levels and in as much detail as possible.

One of the issues that was raised on the first day is “What is the difference between Literature and Genre Fiction?” The answers varied, but in the discussion that followed we basically defined Genre Fiction (whether it be fantasy, sci fi, romance, mystery, etc) as books that are designed just to tell a story. They have a plot with a beginning and an end, and they are written for the purpose of selling books. Many authors who write a sci fi adventure book probably don’t say that they’re trying to send some epic message about the human experience. They may just enjoy those types of stories and think that they have a good story to tell.

Literature, on the other hand, was defined as writing that has some deeper meaning or message that goes beyond the story. It tells us something about life, and resonates in a way that will carry with the reader long after the experience.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have Sci Fi Literature. If you picture it as a Venn Diagram, you’d have some overlap between various genres and works of literature. Some stories, however, are just stories.

To give a basic run down, I’ll go over some of the books I’ve read so far this year. One was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This is definitely Literature. The story wasn’t just a story about animals taking over the farm. Instead, it was a political commentary about how power can corrupt and governments can take advantage of the people.

Then I read Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars, about the war taking place in Wonderland where Alice has to overthrow the Queen of Hearts (in a darker and more action-oriented tale than the original Alice in Wonderland, in a similar vein as the 2010 Alice in Wonderland film). This book didn’t seem to have any important political message; the war in the book was simply the Queen of Hearts grabbing power and ruling the land with an iron fist. You don’t really need to dig much deeper than that to understand the conflict.

Some books, as I mentioned above, can fall into both categories. For example, while there might be some individual dispute on this, I’d consider the Hunger Games Trilogy to be both literature and sci fi/action-adventure. On the surface, the first book is a story about teenagers being forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the evil Capitol that rules over the various districts. However, there can be parallels made to many social issues: youth violence (such as school shootings), poverty, the misbalance between starving third world countries and lavish capitalist societies, and the way media will depict any kind of tragedy or violence on the air just to get higher ratings. The fact that these events are taking place in a futuristic high-tech society that has force fields and such is just a matter of setting.

The questions raised in my graduate class, about the difference between Literature and Genre Fiction, has made me have to sit down and consider my writing in a new way. I don’t have any aspirations to be considered a literary writer or have my work have some deeper meaning (though if I sat down to analyze my work from a neutral perspective, I could definitely list a variety of ways that Manifestation and Contamination are critiques on how our society reacts to acts of terrorism, and the way blame is passed to people who aren’t responsible for the attacks just because society views everyone of certain “groups” as being equally to blame). I sat down to write an urban fantasy story, and if people later decide to consider it literature, then hey, bonus.

However, even though I don’t consider myself a literary writer, this class will require me to produce works of literary fiction. I still plan to make it urban fantasy literature, but I need to think more deeply about my approach. My goal with the class is to work on more short stories to go alongside Radiance, Belladonna, and the other shorts I’m working on for release along with the rest of the series. I may end up writing several new short stories, or one long one (since the class is open to either possibility). But for the new stories I work on to count as “literature,” I need to make sure there is a deeper meaning.

Is there a deeper message in Radiance? I would say yes. On the surface level, it’s a story about a girl gaining a magical power. Yet on a deeper level, it’s about faith and belief (which are themes that run though all of my writing, since belief is a very powerful force in the Arcana Revived world). So I’m considering how to look at the types of themes and deeper messages I tend to work with, in order to consider how to focus more on those things in whatever I’m about to write this semester. I haven’t yet decided how to go about this, but the ideas of belief and faith are a good starting point. I think I can say a lot about the power of belief and the way your personal perspective can change reality around you.

On one level, these are concepts I’m familiar with from my Communication Studies education; there’s a principle called Symbolic Interactionism that explains how our understanding of reality is changed by communication. This is a subtle effect, but can have a real impact. A small example would be if your parents treat you like you’re stupid, and you end up unmotivated in school, resulting in low grades, thus proving your parents right. Yet if they encourage you and tell you that you can succeed, you’ll try harder, get better grades, and prove them right. Your success or failure in such a situation can be determined by what kind of communication takes place.

On another level, this idea can be applied to fantasy works when considering the effect magic can have on you. The way characters like Gabby Palladino and Maria Vasquez communicate about magic in their world has a very real impact on how it functions. I don’t want to go into more detail because of spoilers, but it is something you can see in Radiance if you pay close attention to Maria’s thought process during the story and watch the nonverbal communication between her and the other minor characters in the book. There are some deliberate moments where people’s reactions reflect their beliefs in a way that causes literal changes in the world. It’s Symbolic Interactionism meets Magic and Mystery.

So in order to write literary works in this class, I think I’m going to take these concepts and focus on them more than I have in the past. Hopefully the results will be something my classmates say has a deeper message or says something about faith, belief, and society.


mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

CreateSpace and Amazon

and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook

Characters

I’d like to talk about characters.

I’ve just finished reading The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to get into a full review of the entire novel (short version: great, imaginative story with stunning detail, but poor structure, plot holes, and problems with the prose), but one particular thing the book left me thinking about is the characters. I feel like the book had too many characters, and several of them came off as flat, undeveloped characters that didn’t serve a real role in the story.

How many characters does your story need? How much detail does each character need? How much do they need to be developed?

You could find thousands of different answers to those questions on various writing blogs. I’ve read a few before, and they all seem to approach the question from a different perspective. Some answer from the perspective of the role the character plays in the story: are they the protagonist, antagonist, love interest, sidekick, or something else? Others approach the questions from the point of view of character archetypes: the orphan hero, the mysterious traveler, the trickster, the wise sage, and so on.

I tend to approach this question from a slightly different point of view: are we being told this character’s story, or are they a minor player in someone else’s story?

Allow me to explain.

If you’re writing a novel from a single character’s point of view, then you’re writing their story. The Harry Potter novels are, when it comes down to it, Harry’s story. There are sporadic times when we see another character’s point of view, but it’s rare in those books to be taken away from Harry and see events going on elsewhere. He’s the central focus. In a situation like this, any other characters exist in roles relative to the main character.

You see this in movies all the time as well. Any superhero movie  tends to focus primarily on the hero. We see a great deal of Batman or Superman’s life, and very little of what is going on with anyone else. If we do see events taking place away from the character, it’s only based on how those events relate to the main character. For example, if we see what Lois Lane is up to on her own, it’s usually only to show the danger she’s about to get into so Superman can come and save her. That still makes it Superman’s story about how he rescued Lois Lane, not Lois Lane’s story about how she was rescued by Superman.

You can also have a central group point of view that functions the same way, if the characters remain together all the time. A movie like Saving Private Ryan is a good example. The entire movie follows six soldiers on a journey together. We’re never separated from those characters, and they’re on the same journey with the same goal the entire time. Other characters who appear serve a role in relation to them. The group encounters people who need to be rescued, but the focus remains on the soldiers doing the rescuing. They encounter other groups of soldiers, but only for as long as it takes to question them about where Private Ryan is. When the main group moves on, we never see these minor characters again.

So in the above examples, we have a single central point of view (whether it’s the point of view of a single person or of a unified group). Other characters exist only in relation to the main character(s). We never see more of those minor characters’ lives, so they don’t need much development. This is a good thing, because in a short book or movie, there’s only room for so much development.

But what if you have multiple POVs?

A lot of people say that for books around 50,000 words or so, you should stick with a single point of view (or maybe alternating between two points of view, such as between the two main characters in a romance novel as their relationship develops). This is because 50,000 words is only really enough time to get deeply into one or maybe two people’s lives. It’s better to focus your attention on them as much as possible so that they get the greatest amount of development. If you split such a novel up between 10 characters’ lives, we’d barely get the chance to know each of them.

Now, longer works are very different. Robert Jordon’s The Wheel of Time series, for example, has 15 books (14 + a prequel) totaling well over 4,400,000 words. There are no less than a dozen “primary” main characters who each have their own ongoing story throughout the series, and then hundreds of other supporting characters that end up tied to one of the main characters. In essence, by the later parts of the series, each main character develops a “team” of their own. Matrim Cauthon has the Band of the Red Hand, and multiple well-developed characters seen with him regularly throughout their many adventures. Perrin Aybara has the combined Two Rivers, Mayener, and Aiel forces he commands from book 6 onward, and his own team of supporting characters. Egwene Al’vere ends up leading the Aes Sedai with her own team of supporting characters.

So by thinking about a story like this, there ends up being several “tiers” of characters. When working on my own novels, I’ve developed four tiers that each character can be divided into. These go from the main characters, to their major supporting characters, to minor supporting members of their teams, to miscellaneous (often unnamed) characters.

An example of this setup would go like this:

Tier 1: Gabriella Palladino (Main Protagonist)
–Tier 2: Gabby’s major supporting characters: Her family (Mother, Father, older brothers Frankie and Anthony, older sister Adrianna, nephew Dante), plus her best friend Callia Gainsborough.
—-Tier 3: Gabby’s minor supporting characters: Classmates at her high school (Jacob, Rick, Charlie, Erica), her brother’s friend Matt.
——–Tier 4: Miscellaneous unnamed students, teachers, police officers, etc.

Based on that kind of breakdown, it would make sense that Gabby would get the most character development. She’s the one who is the central focus of her scenes, and we see supporting characters (such as her family) only as they relate to her point of view. We do not, for example, follow her dad to work and find out what his life is like away from his family. We do, however, follow Gabby to school and see parts of her life away from her family.

And that’s just one “team.” There’s also another team for Tock Zipporah, who has her own central story to follow. She also has major supporting characters, minor characters, and miscellaneous characters who are all a part of her ongoing story.

Here is also where the short stories I’m writing become fun. I mentioned recently that I’m working on a short story, Belladonna, which follows the story of Mae Southeby. Mae is a Tier 2 character in the main set of novels, which means she gets a lot of screen time and action, but we aren’t really reading her story; we’re reading Gabby and Tock’s story. Tier 2 characters can get tons of development, but they’re not the central focus. Writing a separate short story about that character gives them a chance to be Tier 1 in their own story. That’s also what I did with Radiance; Maria Vasquez becomes a Tier 2 character in Gabby’s team in the later books, but in Radiance, she’s Tier 1.

This is also how spinoffs work. The Sarah Jane Adventures gives the character Sarah Jane Smith, from Doctor Who, the chance to move from a supporting character to a main character. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does the same thing with characters from The Avengers. In each of those series, there will be a new set of major, minor, and miscellaneous supporting characters. Plus, if a character from the original series guest stars on them, they technically become Tier 2 since they’re only a guest on the spinoff.

So based on all this, the question isn’t really “How many characters do you need?” It’s a question of “How many Tier 1 MAIN characters do you need?” In a shorter book (50,000 words), there should only be one or two Tier 1 main characters. Each of them can have as many supporting characters as they need, so long as those characters remain tied to the main character. In a longer work (100k-150k), you can easily have three, four, or five Tier 1 main characters, each of which can have their own groups (family members, friends, coworkers, classmates, comrades in a military squad, etc). Just remember who the MAIN characters are, the ones who get the most central focus, and think of the other characters in terms of how they support the main characters’ stories.

Belladonna

So I mentioned the other day that I was shifting gears a bit. Manifestation is currently in the hands of four people who are reading it and preparing to offer me critiques. Meanwhile, I’m refocusing some of my efforts on another project, Belladonna.

Belladonna follows the origins of Maelyssa Southeby, or “Mae” for short. She’s a teenager living in San Lorien during the events of Manifestation. Like Maria Vasquez, the main character of Radiance, Mae undergoes an arcane change that unlocks a mysterious power like no one has ever seen. Throughout the course of the novels, Manifestation, Contamination, and Collapse, Mae becomes a major player in the events that unfold. Belladonna, however, shows how it all got started.

I originally wrote Belladonna back in September, when the Kickstarter for Radiance was still going on. I then left it to sit for awhile. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King suggests that after the first draft of a piece of writing is complete, you should stick it in a drawer somewhere and not look at it for like six weeks or more. That way, when you come back to it, you can look at it with fresh eyes. So that’s what I did with Belladonna, and I’ve just now started revising it.

I ended up getting some new ideas today, and as a result I added quite a bit of new material to the story. Belladonna has now been increased from 4500 words to over 10,000. That’s quite a bit longer than Radiance, which is about 3000 words. It’s possible Belladonna will be trimmed down a bit during revisions, but it’ll still be a nice long story, and a lot of action takes place in those pages.

I probably won’t be finished with revisions of Belladonna any time soon. I just finished Draft Two, but most of my stories get four, five or six drafts before they’re finished. I’ll probably work on Draft Three later this week. Then, by the time I finish that and get started on school next week, I’ll end up needing to get back to Manifestation. Then what will most likely happen is when Manifestation goes to my editor on March 6th, I’ll dive back in for a fourth revision of Belladonna. Then there’s a good chance the short story will be released (as an ebook) around the same time as Manifestation comes out. Maybe a bit sooner, since a 10,000 word short story takes far less time and effort to polish up than a 120,000 word novel.

I’ll keep you updated on the progress. It’ll be some time yet before the story is released, but when it is, I hope you love it.

Critique Partners, and Shifting Gears

So as of this morning, I’ve sent Manifestation out to four people for critiques. I made the decision late last night after going over the document a few more times. I ran through my entire stack of notes until they ran out. Some of the notes were about scenes that I’d already cut. Others were old notes about issues I’d already worked out without needing to consult the notes to remind myself. The rest of the issues in the notes I addressed, until I didn’t have a single note left to consult.

That left me sitting there, staring at the document, going, “Now what?”

I decided my lack of certainty about what to do next meant it was time for critiques. After all, I’ve already rearranged the chapters, done line edits, cut scenes, added more scenes in, rearranged some more chapters, split some scenes in half, cut stuff out of the middle, slid the pieces back together to fill in the gaps, and made sure that every chapter flows as best as possible from one into the next. I’ve done as thorough of a job as I can making sure the writing is solid, the grammar is clean, and the story is sound.

Which means I needed a fresh set of eyes on it to point out whatever I’ve missed. People call this “Author Blindness” or things to that effect. After working on this novel for almost a year and a half (off and on), I’m at the point that I can’t view it objectively. And NO ONE has read it yet. I have given a couple of chapters here and there to a few people, but no one has ever yet read the whole novel from beginning to end (not counting the first draft scenes that used to be on the blog).

Hopefully my CP’s will have some excellent suggestions for me to work out, so I can dive back into this project with full gusto. I’ve still got a March 6th deadline to get Manifestation to the editor I hired. That’s just about two months, minus whatever time it takes for my CP’s to finish reading and critiquing the story.

Meanwhile, I need something else to shift my efforts towards. I always have projects I need to work on, but there’s always a “central” project that I’m devoting most of my attention to. Part of my efforts will be classes at Rowan when the spring semester starts on Jan 12st. I’m also working on a literature review for my Graduate Assistant job. Then there’s the Goodreads Reading Challenge I’m participating in. But none of those are a core project for my personal writing career.

So what I’m going to do next is start revising a short story. If you haven’t heard yet, I’m self-publishing a series of short stories to go along with the Arcana Revived series. The first story in the series, Radiance, follows the origins of the character Maria Vasquez, who starts playing a major role in the third book in the series, Collapse. Originally, Maria’s entrance was supposed to be in the second book, Contamination, but that book ran longer in some parts than expected and certain events were pushed back to book three.

In addition to Radiance, I’ve written several other short stories set around the events in the series. Most of these are all in first draft form, but I plan to revise them all and get them ready for publication. The short stories are naturally pushed back behind the novels in terms of importance, so I’ve been focusing more on Manifestation first. However, since I’m on a short break from Manifestation, I decided it’s time to start some revisions of these stories.

The one I’ve decided to work on first is titled Belladonna. This story follows the origins of another major character in the series, Maelyssa Southeby. Mae is first introduced in Manifestation, then steps up into a major role in both Contamination and Collapse. Belladonna not only gives a closer glimpse at Mae’s individual life as a character, but it also serves to show the reader what else is happening in the world beyond what we see of Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, the two main characters of the series.

So today, I’m going to work on those revisions. Belladonna is currently about 4500 words, making it one of the longer short stories I’ve written (and longer than most individual chapters of Manifestation). I’m going to take it through at least a second or third draft before it, too, goes out for critiques. Then it’ll be polished up for publication, and will soon join Radiance as part of the Arcana Revived short story collection.

New Blog Design

So I’ve been sick of what my blog looks like for a long time. I’ve browsed through the design templates many times, and never found one I was quite happy with. Then yesterday I was looking and found this “2014” design that just came out. I’m not sure how well it’s working out, but I like the layout better than the old design. Having widget columns on both sides seems cleaner, and allowed me to better organize the layout. The only real thing I don’t like is that it’s black and wide, when I’d prefer a slightly different color scheme. However, WordPress charges an extra $30 per year for the ability to customize your colors, and that’s not worth it for a blog that I don’t make advertising money or anything like that off of.

Speaking of making money, I just posted Radiance to Smashwords, so now you can find it both there and on Amazon. The main advantage of Smashwords seems to be that it allows customers to download the ebook in multiple formats. To the best of my knowledge, it’ll be exactly the same on each site, except that Amazon only allows downloads to the Amazon Kindle, whereas Smashwords can allow you to download it to a Nook or other device. Smashwords also offers it in PDF and Text formats for PC viewing.

It’s also been awhile since I’ve talked about ebook sales, so I’d like to mention a few things about that as well. I’ve discussed online advertising before, but I’ve been unable to keep up with the advertising campaign due to being too busy with school and NaNoWriMo. I like to share what I’ve learned, however, so that anyone else considering self-publishing a short story can maybe learn from the experience. When I publish Manifestation, I’m sure I’ll have a whole lot more to discuss about self-published novel sales, but for now the short story sales is what I can discuss. Here’s a basic rundown of the ebook sales I’ve had so far:

September: 15 total sales (mostly through my Kickstarter campaign).
October: 6 total sales.
November: 7 total sales.
December: 3 sales so far (2 on Amazon 1 on the new Smashwords account).
Grand total: 31.

Is that good? Is it bad? I honestly have no idea. The vast majority of those sales come from people who see me talking about Radiance on Twitter or here on the blog. A small number might have come from the advertisements I was doing. However, Amazon doesn’t tell me where customers were directed to their site from. On my blog, I can see whether someone reached my blog from Google or from a link on Twitter or someplace else. Amazon doesn’t share such traffic information with me (as far as I’ve been able to find). So it’s hard to say.

But the important question is, what do numbers like these say to a self-published writer working on building a brand? “Don’t quit your day job” seems like the immediate answer, but there’s more to it than that. See, I never expected (and still don’t in the near future) for Radiance to become a bestseller by itself that I would make a major profit on. The reason the short story was released was as a preview of my world and the Arcana Revived series, and as a supplement to the upcoming novels. Early next year, I’ll be releasing Manifestation and doing a LOT more promotion. When I do so, I’ll be able to advertise by saying things like “Did you like Manifestation? Well, here’s another story in the series for just 99 cents!” Or, I can get people to read the short story to get a taste of my writing and my world so they can decide if they want to buy the novel. Basically, Radiance is not, and was never meant to be, a stand-alone work. It has a complete story in itself, but it’s part of a larger whole.

I’ll also be releasing many more short stories soon as well, after Manifestation. So while 31 sales of one short story might not seem like much, it’ll add up when there are 10 short stories and 3 novels up there. And that’s the crux of my business plan: Putting out as much work as I can so that my readers have a lot of stuff to read. That’s also why I maintain the blog. It gives me a place to post other free stories to build interest in my writing.

So to me, those 31 sales mean 31 people who (based on the feedback I’ve received) seem to really love the story and are interested in getting more. And more will come! Which means everything is going according to plan. I may never be able to quit working a day job and live off my writing, but I’m building an audience and developing a full line of works for sale. Hopefully it won’t be too much longer before the other books and stories are out there. I don’t want poor Maria to get lonely, after all.

Radiance – Now on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords

My short story, Radiance, is now available through both Amazon and Smashwords:

"Radiance" Short Story
“Radiance” Short Story

Radiance is the first short story released in the Arcana Revived series. The ebook contains the 3000 word short story, Radiance, plus a poem, Frozen Petals, and a short excerpt from my upcoming novel, Manifestation. It’s just 99 cents (US price; price in other countries is automatically adjusted based on conversion from US dollars).

Radiance is also listed on Goodreads.