Category Archives: The Writing Life

Genre-Blending: 3 Keys to a Well-Mixed SFF/Crime Blend

Guest post by Jayne Barnard.

It isn’t easy to pull a balance of elements from two genres into a single story. Mysteries need crimes, suspects, red herrings, and character development for motivation. Science fiction and fantasy require questing characters, a reasonably adventurous plot, and a certain amount of world-building as well. Each of those elements absorbs words, and melding them all smoothly into a single narrative – often a short story with a tight word count – can be agonizing. Here are three keys to cutting down the word-wastage and blending the genre elements smoothly:

  1. Don’t describe anything about the story-world except the facets needed to understand the action. Concentrate on what’s different from the reader’s default Earth-based mental image. Integrate those world-building elements into the characters’ inner thoughts, actions, and dialogue. Even though you, the author, must know what political, social, technological and possibly tectonic elements shaped the physical surroundings, your readers don’t need to know it all. Your readers only need to feel confident that it does fit together in some rational pattern, and that if they asked you, you could tell them. So only describe the bits that they need to know to understand the current story.

In When the Tide Burns (appearing in BURNT, Analemma Press, August 2016), the setting is a barge moored in a garbage-packed cove as the wind is rising. This could be present time, familiar reality for coastal dwellers until the fifth sentence. The soapberry wax, all that protected their clothing and equipment from the acid spray, was down to its last sheen in the tin’s bottom corners. Not such a normal cove after all, but one holding a danger unfamiliar to the readers. The implied menace of the acid spray, combined with the rising wind, are not only effectively alien elements of world-building but introduce a sense of a rising menace against which our protagonist must pit her wits.

  1. When introducing characters, only describe what makes the alien, orc, or robot different from an ordinary human. Don’t bother with anything about their culture or planet of origin unless it’s vital to the plot of this story. You need to know it all; the reader doesn’t. Again, integrate. Don’t info-dump.

In Quest for Parts (Enigma Front, Analemma Press, 2015) we see what the protagonist sees: a scrawny, pasty, generally human-looking intruder. But… Ignoring the racket, the guy stared into the sky-blue mirror, adjusting a knob at his collar with one claw. His face shimmered, gaining warmer tones while losing the sharp tips to his nose, ears and chin. The lasers in the room shimmered, too, stopping when his face settled. This character has claws, not fingernails, and can adjust his appearance by turning a knob. He’ll need those assets later in the story, so best to slide them into our protagonist’s, and the reader’s, first impression. 

  1. Make some element of your mystery one that could only occur in that particular alternate reality. Stories that could have happened down the block but are set on a space station will not be as engaging as those that require, nay, demand the setting and culture you have created for them.

In MADDIE HATTER AND THE DEADLY DIAMOND, the inciting incident sets this up immediately: The expeditionary airship of Baron Bodmin, ardent African explorer, has been found adrift and deserted. Its log-book is missing and no clue remains to its captain’s fate. A fortnight after its last sighting over the mouth of the Suez Canal, the airship appeared off the coast of Cornwall, floating low and rudderless above the waves. No escape canopy or life-vest remained on board. The batty baron must have vanished from an airship because only airships can stay aloft indefinitely without fuel or a pilot. Exactly where he vanished, and whether by accident, on purpose, or someone else’s design, is the first of many questions for which our intrepid Steampunk reporter must seek answers.

Now to integrate them all. An example from Painted Jade (unpublished) opens with all of the above: Working security on the top side of a conglomerate-built drift makes you a traffic warden in any gated community anywhere. You spend your days petting the dogs and smiling at the nice ladies. Or, if you’re me, trying to reverse that process. Troubles happen way down the bottom, where the ore processors and overcrowded labor force are located. Not my turf. I’m up here with the shiny clean management and their families. Low crime? Try non-existent. So it was unusual, to say the least, to get a morning report about a body bobbing against a pricey porthole high up on C7. A human body, not a stray hunk of rock freed from the asteroid belt. The dome owner objected less to the body proper than to it blocking his view of ore-blasting among the asteroids.

This opening encompasses all three of the keys: world-building, character, and unique element to the crime. The space habitat, the mining industry and the rudiments of a class structure are set out immediately. The point-of-view character’s job and general attitude are on the table up front. No other setting but space allows for the body, and all the evidence the killer left on it, to be perfectly preserved from the moment of disposal. Additionally, the space station serves like one of Agatha Christie’s isolated manor houses: all the suspects and the next possible victims are trapped in one place. The story could not happen anywhere else.

Thus, the essence of a nice, smooth blend of genres: integrate world-building with the lead characters’ actions, which also reveal their attitudes and attributes. Make the crime specific to that world, and the solution unique to those characters.

 

Jayne from steamconJayne Barnard is a founding member of Madame Saffron’s Parasol Dueling League for Steampunk Ladies and a longtime crime writer. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines. Awards for short fiction range from the 1990 Saskatchewan Writers Guild Award for PRINCESS ALEX AND THE DRAGON DEAL to the 2011 Bony Pete for EACH CANADIAN SON. Her longer work has been shortlisted for the Debut Dagger in the UK and won the Unhanged Arthur in Canada. You can visit her at her blog, on Facebook or @JayneBarnard1

I Just Love a Good Mystery: The Mystique of the Genre

 

Strength of Spirit_Amanda FaithA guest post by Amanda Faith.

I love a good mystery. Being the detective, following the clues, and arriving at the logical conclusion to catch the bad guy has always held such fascination to me. Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, Inspector Clouseau, Nancy Drew…these are but just a few of my childhood sleuths that I followed. I couldn’t get enough.

One of the largest draws for me was the fact that I could become part of the story. If the author did their job right, I had to work along side the detective to uncover the clues. It made me work. No, strike that. It would make me want to work.

There are some key elements in a great mystery that should be followed:

  1. A detective that engages the reader. No one wants to be bored reading nor should the detective be a twit.
  2. A solvable puzzle.
  3. A well-done setting
  4. Interesting characters. More than likely, there are several in the book.

Reading mysteries, I discovered that a great mystery has more than one mystery in it. Yes, it contains the “big question.” However, a great mystery also contains several smaller ones to keep the reader engaged, to bring more tension, more problem-solving opportunities, and more ways to introduce red herrings. It also brings depth to the main character (and sometimes the villain). Solving a crime is never neat and pretty. There are twists and turns, wrong assumptions, and initial wrong answers that help the reader stay intrigued. Sometimes it’s good in seeking the truth by showing a lie to propel the story forward.

A mystery must have stakes. There has to be an important, life-changing reason that the unanswered question needs to be answered. The question has to have meaning and weight or there would be no reason to pursue the answer. The greater the problem, the more the tension can grow.

Creating a good mystery can be challenging. There are a few things to keep in mind while writing.

  1. Start with the ending. I have discovered that if you know what the crime, who was involved, and how the bad guy gets caught is important. It will make it easier to create the story to make sure you get to the end game.
  2. A lot of exposition will kill a good mystery. Sure, sometimes it’s necessary. There has to be some exposition to move the story along. However, a good mystery engages the reader. They are part of the story. They are part of the crew to catch the bad guy. If a writer feeds them all the information, a reader will just toss the book aside, bored and hurt you didn’t let them be a part of the takedown.
  3. Do not be unrealistic with the conclusion. The clues, although challenging, cannot be so difficult that a reader cannot solve the case. You don’t want clues to be easy, either. No one reads to the middle of a book and stops. You need to take it all the way home. The reader should be able to go back and trace how things happened to discover how the detective came to the right answer at the end.
  4. Don’t make the conclusion stupid. I say this will all kindness, but things like the assistant figuring it out for the detective, there was an unknown twin, or arbitrarily have a key piece of information appear out of thin air. You can’t hide information. There has to be a hint of a clue somewhere prior to the time the detective unveils it.
  5. Introduce the criminal soon, and the detective sooner. Let the reader know within the first third of the book who the bad guy is so they feel they have enough time to solve the case.

Someone once told me that building a mystery is like the game Jenga (I wish I could remember who). Reach in, grab a block, and pull. Does the story stand? Did you watch it fall apart? This is where the edits come in. You will find all kinds of holes in your story during editing if your Jenga falls down before you get to the end.

I have discovered my love for mysteries has taking me to read about all kinds of mysteries, including real ones. Take the Egyptian Pyrimads, the ruins of Chichen Itza and Puma Punku, or the Lost City of Atlantis. How about the real cases of Jack the Ripper? Amelia Earheart? All of these real-life areas hold a sense of mystery for me. I find that I become lost in the clues and read about what researchers discover.

There are a lot of wonderful authors that transport the reader down a road to uncover the clues and catch the bad guy. Maybe the mystery can be the reader discovering their next great book to help them escape…if only for a little while.

Guest Writer Bio:
Amanda FaithTeaching high school English by day, college English by night, writing, and doing paranormal investigations doesn’t slow her down from having a great time with a plethora of hobbies. Her published credits include short stories, poetry, several journal articles, her doctoral dissertation, and her award-winning book Strength of Spirit. She is a staff writer for The Daily Dragon at Dragon Con and an intern for Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta at WordFire Press. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Masters in Education-English, and a Doctorate in Education-Teacher Leadership. Check out her website at www.amandafaith.net.

You Can Ride My Rocket…(Wink Wink)

There are some people who cringe at the idea of combining science fiction and romance. I suspect that these same people also don’t like Firefly so their opinions don’t really matter anyway. Personally I like a spoonful of romance in my steaming cup of science.

Science fiction is a genre that romance plays well with. Okay, I’ll be honest. If romance was a person they would be a double-jointed omnisexual gymnast. Romance can be easily adapted to satisfy everyone’s needs and plays well with every genre. But when it’s combined with science fiction it gives the story a lot of *ahem* unexplored territory in which to boldly go where Kirk has gone before.

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 (Bondage night with Lady Gaga?)

At its heart, science fiction is about exploring new possibilities. Sometimes it’s a new scientific theory, sometimes it’s a new planet, and sometimes you’re running from Shai-Hulud. Regardless of the territory it’s still all about exploration and all of the joy, fear, trepidation, and danger that goes with it. If you boil romance down to its very essence it’s about the same thing. Seriously. What’s more exciting and terrifying than exploring a space cave and nearly getting mauled by a Gorn? What can be more explosive than the Tothian minefield? Relationships!

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(I’m pretty sure the odds of not starting an argument when you suggest that your partner stop and ask for directions is 3,720:1)

Yes, there are a lot of novels where the romance is merely a time slot on the holodeck or a green skinned Mary Sue. But it isn’t limited to that. In fact, it can be a lot more.

When done well, romance can compound a story’s major conflict (cue Ted and Robin salute). In Babylon 5 the romance between Capt. Sheridan and Ambassador Delenn made it a lot harder for them to take necessary risks during the Shadow war. It also made things very awkward when (Spoiler alert) it turned out that Sheridan’s wife wasn’t dead. On the other side of the spectrum, Marcus’ final sacrifice wouldn’t have brought a tear to many viewers eyes, including mine, if his love for Ivanova wasn’t unrequited. The fact that they hadn’t so much as kissed turned what would have been just a noble act into the most romantically tragic moment in the entire show.

Let’s not forget that The Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t be the same without Han and Leia’s love spat or heartbreaking farewell. (Odd that both were in very cold climates.) But that’s enough examples from TV and movies. Let’s turn to books!

Linnea Sinclair writes some of the best sci-fi romances I’ve read. In fact, her novel, Shades of Dark made me cry. Some of hers are exactly what you would expect a sci-fi romance to be. However, in Shades of Dark the protagonist couple’s relationship become strained to the point of breaking when one of them starts learning how to use their latent alien abilities. They realize, almost too late, that their ignorance and folly not only hurt their relationship but put their partner in very real danger. It’s this last twist that for me makes this romantic conflict real. I mean we probably all know someone or were with someone who became so obsessed with something that it almost destroyed, or did destroy, a happy relationship.

In The Postman by David Brin the protagonist falls in love with an idea more than an actual person. When he stumbles upon a quiet, and safe community the idea of staying and building a life there rather than taking on the mantle of responsibility of being a postman is incredibly appealing. In some ways it’s strange to think of an idea as being romantic. Think if it this way: when you’ve been up late working on a manuscript and have to get ready for work at the crack of dawn, the idea of calling in sick has a lot of appeal. This is the same thing except their desire for comfort and ease is so idealized that it takes on a romantic quality.

Dara Joy is an amazing romance writer whose stories sometimes has a sci-fi twist. She has a duology, High Energy and High Intensity, that’s set in the real world but uses science in an… interesting way. The main character’s love interest is a sexy physicist who decides to teach them the basics of physics through sex. I know. It sounds super cheesy but take my word for it. It’s hot! Besides, who wouldn’t want to go to that physics class?

Okay. I’ll admit that last one was a traditional romance. While it doesn’t use romantic elements in a creative was she does get bonus points for including science in a creative way. This partnership does work both ways after all.

Whether you use a little or a lot, use more romance or use more science, or use a romanticized idea is up to you. It’s also by no means a requirement that there be romance in every science-fiction story. Rather, it’s another tool that can perform more than one task. It’s entirely up to you whether or not to use it, as well as how you want to use it.

Don’t be Diss’n the Myth

A guest post by T.L. Smith.

Star_People_Legacy_Cover_for_Kindle“One man’s myth is another man’s religion.” Many variations of this quote exists, so I won’t try to figure out who said it first. I only bring it up because that’s a popular trope for writers. I’m one of them. But for all the vast potential we can pull from mythology/religion, I think authors should keep in mind how easy it is to cross the line from entertaining, to insulting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not all up into ‘political correctness’, or afraid I’ll insult someone and they’ll come hunt me down. No, I’m talking about is how, with e-books and international markets, our writing crosses cultural borders all around the world. Even borders who try to regulate their internet and what their citizens can see. Our potential markets are virtually limitless.

I personally like the idea that a reader in some far corner of the world might get their hands on my book… and like it… and order more. With that in mind, I believe it’s possible to write a myth/religion based fiction, without insulting a large number of your potential readers. Whether you believe in their faith, or not.

It’s not pandering, it’s respect. In fact, internally I cringe when I use the word ‘myth’ out loud. Whether the followers truly believe(d) these characters exist(ed), or were created, they believe the purpose of God(s) is to guide humanity onto more enlightened paths. To better lives. To brighter futures. Even God(s) of destruction are there to cleanse and prepare the world for another attempt towards perfection.

So I put a lot of research into the characters I incorporate into my stories. I study them, good or evil, until I can see the person in my head. Until I can hear their voices, until I sense their intent to exist. Then I try to translate their personalities and motives onto the page and into my own stories.

Currently I’m working on a ‘gods are aliens’ Science Fiction novel series, that one day might see the light of day. All my gods, demi-gods, demons and humans, however obscure or popular, exist somewhere in the stories passed down through the world’s cultures.

The material available is vast and consuming, and in many cases…ewwwww. There’s some pretty twisted mentalities at play. Which makes me wonder about the original sources. Makes me sometimes wonder about myself too, as I try to bring these characters back to life in my own stories…just saying.

But back to paying proper homage to the trope… It might seem an easy task We see the ‘gods are aliens’ theories repeatedly on TV, but it’s not. It takes the right myth, the right region of the country of origin and an explanation to weave it into the fiction you’re writing. I just don’t see Zeus rampaging through modern Norway. Maybe waking from a long slumber to look down from Mt. Olympus and say “WTF?”

I wouldn’t add to Ulysses’ ordeal, but I might take on his mythical creatures and give them lives of their own, struggling to make this strange blue planet home after exile from their own distant destroyed world.

Then there’s bizarre stories of Gods on chariots, blankets, and winged creatures. The transport of Gods and their minions, awing the iron-age populace below. There are tales of war and weapons so devastating, they can alone destroy the entire planet. And let us not forget the gods’ insatiable appetites for human flesh, culinarily or erotically.

But be careful. As freewheeling as the ancient storytellers were, don’t take a character out of their personality. There things that Athena simply wouldn’t do, that Hera would, or Zeus took as a common practice. And speaking of ‘common’, unless you got a good twist, skip the usual suspects. They get a bit… boring. Dig deeper and pull out the gods few people know about. You get a lot more flexibility with their personalities and motives, without crossing the line.

However, this isn’t all about insulting someone’s religion. We want to be creative, but lend an accuracy to not offend the experts in this field. Last thing I want is some big-deal professor somewhere coming out against my book. I want a good review from them. Even if it’s ‘Didn’t like the story, but she got her facts straight. Thumbs up.’.

So how am I doing with paying the proper homage? Last year I released Star People Legacy. A story where Native American Mythology and Science Fiction collides down on the Yuma Bombing Ranges.

The ‘where’ was easy. I’m USAF and did my time down on the Gila Bend side of the ranges. The inspiration came from a story told by a couple NCOs who had an odd run-in on our bombing ranges. I carried the story around for (cough-cough) years, then on our way driving from Phoenix to San Diego Comic-Con, I told my friends the story. As clear as the Arizona skies 350 days of the year, Star People Legacy came to me as a concept.

Right there, in the back seat of Gini Koch’s car, I started writing out the concept. Then came the research. I could have stuck with myths (hate that word) isolated to the southwest, but I wanted it more universal. I looked for stories that spanned as many of the Nations as possible.

That is how I focused in on the Star People and their stories. I found an admiration for the stories and the Native Peoples brought together by them. I tried to incorporate that into the future world created for them, where social advances renew their cultures and internal politics help merge them into one Nation.

All the while a little part of me was afraid I might fail at respecting the Nations these stories originated from. Until Phoenix Comicon 2016. Sitting behind my books, a Native American family passed by. The mother saw Star People Legacy and looked up at me. Though her husband was rushing her to keep going, she grinned, pointing at the book. Before he pulled her away, she told me she’d read it, and loved it.

I so wanted to chase after her. To ask her straight up whether I’d given their story the respect it deserved, but someone heard her and stopped to look at the book. I’m happy with that few seconds of affirmation.

Now to get back to work on the next installment of aliens and gods.

Guest Writer Bio:
TL SmithT.L. Smith was born in Louisiana, but calls Phoenix, Arizona home between bouts of wanderlust. Even a stint in the U.S. Air Force as a radar specialist, training pilots in enemy detection, brought her back to the desert. Her time in the service taught her to appreciate the military culture and ever-changing technologies. Experience gives life to the Science Fictions she loves so much and helps her write about the strong women, holding their own as humanity reaches out into the universe. Come check out her current releases and where you can meet her next: www.tlsmithbooks.com