Category Archives: Mixing it Up

Game on! Making writing fun 

It’s NaNoWriMo time.

As I said last month, I’m not really a NaNoWriMo participant. I do watch from the sidelines though. It’s interesting to watch writers push themselves to achieve word count goals. I do believe that the hardest part of writing is finishing a story, and anything that gets people to complete a project is probably a good thing.

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But I do worry about people putting ridiculous amounts of pressure on themselves to complete a project. Creating an artificial pressure-packed environment can make writing a chore, and that can give writers a bad taste in their mouths which can lead to less motivation, not more.

So how do you keep writing fun when the pressure is on?

Honestly, that’s a very hard question to answer. Sometimes writing really can be a chore. And if you’re trying to make a living at it, then it’s a chore that you have to do, just as much as if you were a pastry chef getting up at 4am for the umpteenth time and dragging yourself into work.

Here are a few things that might take the drudgery out of your writing as you try to maintain that 1,500 words per day goal that will get you close to a NaNoWriMo success.

  • Remove a significant character, and replace them with a completely different one. You don’t have to go all George R. R. Martin here, you don’t have to kill them. Maybe they just had to move away. Maybe your protagonist got into an argument with them, and they decided it was time to move on. Whatever the cause, this will force you to think about your characters’ personalities and give you a chance to explore how your protagonist deals with adversity.
  • Introduce some weather into your narrative. I can’t even think of the number of books I’ve read where it apparently never even rains, much less storms. Let nature become an obstacle to your characters’ goals. This is a great opportunity to paint a memorable scene.
  • It is apparently very difficult in a novel to get sick. Nobody ever seems to. I’ve read eight book series and the main characters never even get the sniffles. Your macho he-man hero type may be able to stare down a raging fire-breathing dragon, but how well does he handle a migraine?
  • Throw a party. In real life people go to parties all the time. Unless a party is part of the plot, characters in novels never seem to be invited to do anything. I’m writing this the day after Halloween. Maybe your main characters get invited to a costume party. What would they dress as? What would that reveal about their personalities that might not come out otherwise?

These are all things that can reveal new and interesting things about your character, while giving you something interesting and new to write. That’s when your mind is open to new ideas, and when your story can take interesting twists and turns that you didn’t anticipate. And if you didn’t anticipate them, it’s a good bet that your readers won’t either.

My What?

So…when someone asks you what your “special sauce” is it’s hard to know exactly what to say. Do they want my katsu sauce recipe? Do they want the password to the secret underground culinary fight club? Are they coming on to me? Who knows.

I bet he knows.

But if the question is what makes my stories sound like me…well that’s a difficult question to answer. I’d like to think that my nerdy and off the wall humor is my signature thing but not all of my stories are humorous — my poetry definitely isn’t. Plus I’m not the only author who tells those kinds of jokes so I still couldn’t claim that it’s mine and only mine.

So what is my signature bit? Well…the best way I can think to describe it is to say that it’s like Doctor Who. Every Doctor has their own thing. Sometimes it’s as simple as a signature outfit, sometimes it’s a catchphrase like allonsy or Geronimo, and sometimes it’s jokes about eyebrows that can be used as bottle openers. While other times it’s a story line that makes you think. It’s that last one that I think if anything is my “special sauce” it’s that. When I write my stories, whether it’s a novel or a short story, I try to put in something that’s going to make the reader think and ask themselves if they would have done the same in that situation…followed by a pithy break the tension. Just kidding. I do it two pages later…and only on Saturday nights.

But of course this is all conjecture since only Mr. Shooty McBangbang knows what the question really is.

Hybrid Genres

A guest post by Anthony Dobranski.

What’s a hybrid genre? You won’t often find hybrid works marketed as such, since there are only so many aisles in the bookstore. Look in — and across — the larger genres’ shelves, however, and they appear more and more. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels rank as Amazon best sellers in historical fiction and time travel romance. Charlene Harris fused mystery and horror fantasy in the Sookie Sackhouse series, and won top mystery awards for it. Tor.com now has a column for hybrids.

A hybrid genre story uses essential elements of two or more genres, in a single story that honors the audience’s expectations for its parent genres, but also questions them — or at least plays rough with them.

My forthcoming novel The Demon in Business Class is a hybrid fantasy, a modern-day story of magic and the supernatural, in the international setting of a corporate thriller, with a romance that changes the story but also completes it.

I wanted to write a fantasy about my own place and time, the way Wilde set The Picture of Dorian Gray in Victorian England. I live in an amazing era, the dawn of the networked age, a far happier adult world than the Cold War nuclear winter feared in my childhood, and a world more open to many kinds of people. It is also a time of cultures clashing violently, of heartlands that feel abandoned by elites, on all sides. Lately we’re hearing from globalization’s discontents, and I don’t discount their grievances or suspicions. I worked in international business, however. I saw its good side, its optimism, the way it helped humanity shift from Cold War us-vs-them absolutism to complex morally-unsatisfying alliances that feed and clothe more than war did.

I had the sudden bold idea for a novel, a difficult romance between supernatural corporate rivals representing moral opposites, a fantasy for a time of change and ferment, both chaotic and intoxicating.

The problem is, that’s a mess of a story, a weird assemblage that invites yet leaves unsatisfied the expectations of three different genre audiences. Here are just a few:

  • Magic — the directed use of supernatural power to achieve a goal — changes any society where it is public.
  • In fantasy, a heroic and vigorous culture overcomes a decadent if powerful one.
  • What would a business with magical powers advocating a moral polar attitude… sell?
  • Corporate thrillers require a big corporate conspiracy, whose goal is either money or power.
  • Romance is about individuals.
  • Romance disallows villains. Anti-heroes, yes, but even they must be morally improved by love.
  • If the opposition is truly polarized, each has to find something repugnant in the other — which makes romance hard.
  • Romance ends a romance; exposure ends a corporate thriller; in a clash of good vs. evil, evil has to lose.

You’ll have to wait until this fall to see how I got all those narrative questions and more all resolved, but it took witches, playboys, gangsters, cultists, a prophet, two angry angels, and a very modern Tarot deck – along with several rewrites and the help of committed beta-readers!

Along the way, though, I discovered some principles that can help you develop your hybrid genre story:

Know what you want. A story speaks to humanity through genre norms, but if you’re so flagrantly violating the norms of a genre, you’re doing it for a reason. If you don’t know what that is, it’s hard to work it into your story. It doesn’t have to be an easy reason to explain. Mine was so hard to explain that I had to write a novel to do it. It’s what binds all your other ideas together, however, so be clear about it.

All plates keep spinning. A hybrid tale gives your characters multiple arcs, and none stop, though some can slow. Think through where the character needs to go on each arc to see how to weave them together.

Genres themselves are as diverse as insects. Even a seemingly niche category like “sci-fi with aliens” encompasses 2001, Pacific Rim, and Aliens — each of which also belongs to a wholly separate sub-genre (hard-SF, kaiju, and bug hunt) with different ways to show heroism. Even if you want to apply a genre “norm,” there’s more than one way to go about it.

Don’t forget the writing. You are writing one book, but as your genre elements shift, your writing can shift with them. This is a chance to play, to satisfy yourself and your audience with the style to go with your story. Be terser in the thriller elements, festive in the social moments, vulnerable in romance, quick and cutting in anger.

Don’t fight a genre — use it. Genre demands and tropes can enliven your story, if you use them creatively. To have a romance that worked out, I couldn’t make my fated opponents the primary actors for or against a worldwide conspiracy, its James Bonds or its Blofelds — but I could make them a small part of such plans, maybe even a bigger part than they knew, while still giving them believable loyalties and higher stakes.

Consider the genre’s own influences. Noir and cozy mystery differ in setting and tone, but also in the social class and status from which their stories view their societies. Looking past the symbols to their hidden meanings gives you new perspective on how to refit elements to your story. Because —

It’s still all your story. We’ve been talking about genre norms and conventions as if you’ll get issued a citation from the genre department. You won’t. You have incredible creative freedom – if you stick your landings.

Are you writing a hybrid genre story? Talk about it in the comments below!

Anthony DobranskiAnthony Dobranski is an author from Washington DC. His first novel, The Demon in Business Class, comes out this fall from WordFire Press.

Mashing Up the Wild West

If you’re of a certain age in the U.S., you were raised with Westerns. John Ford and Sergio Leone filled cinemas and TV screens with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, the dust of cattle drives, the thunder of cavalry, guns, and the war whoops of Indians. By the time of my childhood, Western films were in their declining years, covering ground so well-trodden the genre itself had become cliché, a collection of easily recognizable and increasingly tired tropes.

However, the genre never quite made it to the grave. Since the Western film’s heyday, we’ve been graced with some spectacularly good fare: Tombstone, Unforgiven, Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, the remake of True Grit, the HBO series Deadwood, and Dances with Wolves.

The things that these examples do exceedingly well, and I would submit to you, the reason they’re so damn good, is that they take the tropes and twist them. Unforgiven puts an unforgettable twist on the Hired Gunfighter. Tarantino’s characters are nearly all recognizable archetypes—except they’ve been subverted or twisted in unexpected ways. The Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit takes Charles Portis’ brilliant novel and puts little Maddie Ross squarely back in the protagonist’s seat. Deadwood so brims with fascinating characters, crackling dialogue, and Shakespearean tragedy that its cancellation after only three seasons is one of the great travesties of modern television. Dances with Wolves, with its sweeping grandeur, epic depth, and visionary cinematography, is credited with revitalizing the Western film, and it does so by turning the tables on the Indian Wars. Without this film, none of the others might ever have been made.

But just how far can you twist the tropes? Can you have a science-fiction Western? A horror Western? A fantasy Western? Absolutely. Mix in any of these ingredients and you have what has come to be called The Weird Western.

The earliest sci-fi western mash-up that comes to mind is Westworld, complete with android gunfighters. Another notable is Back to the Future Part III, which nowadays we might call a little steampunk. The Wild West is a favorite milieu for steampunk authors, forming their own sub-genre of Western mash-up, including the Fictorians’ own Quincy J. Allen. Are there other SF-Western examples? Sure, but we won’t talk about Cowboys and Aliens.

Horror is a spice that mashes up tastily with Western stories. The Old West is replete with ghost tales and Native American mysticism. Murder, injustice, and brutality abound, all fodder for stories of the unquiet dead. Haunted trains, phantom stage coaches, vengeful medicine men, ancient knowledge from the dark depths of human history… are your creative juices flowing yet?

So the first step to a good mash-up is to recognize the tropes. You have to understand the nuts and bolts of a genre and how they fit together into the moving parts of the story. Throw in the things you love, the things you want to write about. A sprinkle of vampire saliva, a touch of decomposing zombie, a love story between a man and his raw meat, an angry deceased mother-in-law.

Twist and subvert the tropes into interesting new shapes. Take the Town Marshal archetype and do something with him you’ve never seen before, something interesting, something fun, something unexpected. In Death Wind, we made the Town Marshall an old man, too stubborn and grumpy to admit he’s forty years past his prime.

This kind of subversion is not new. Even in the 19th Century, the Western genre had become staid and cliché. The profusion of dime novels and penny dreadfuls had already created the tropes and archetypes we know today. In 1898 Stephen Crane, author of the Red Badge of Courage, wrote a brilliant subversion of the Western in his short story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” in which he plays with tropes like the Town Drunk, Town Marshal, and The Shootout with great insight and cleverness. The key to any good mash-up is play. Jam things together to see what works, what sounds fun.

Death Wind CoverA few years back, my friend Jim Pinto and I decided to collaborate on a screenplay. We wanted to do something neither of us had ever seen before, so we decided to mash up two genres we loved: horror and Westerns. But how to make it different from other notable horror Westerns around, such as The Burrowers and Ravenous? We threw in another ingredient we both loved: the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. And that’s when the fun really began. We were in undiscovered territory. Throwing together a collection of characters under-represented in Western fiction and film, we stirred them together into a juicy stew of crisscrossing conflicts and ended up with Death Wind, a screenplay that placed highly in several screenwriting contests, including Second Place at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival Cthulhu Con in L.A. and Grand Prize at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose in 2012.

After this success, it was a no-brainer to adapt the script into a novel. Death Wind will make its literary debut at Dragon Con 2016, published by WordFire Press.

About the Author: Travis Heermann

Heermann-6Spirit_cover_smallTravis Heermann’s latest novel Spirit of the Ronin, was published in June, 2015.

Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, he is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of Death Wind (co-authored with Jim Pinto), The Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Apex Magazine, Perihelion SF, Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including content for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and EVE Online.

He recently returned to the U.S. from New Zealand with a couple of lovely ladies and toting more Middle Earth souvenirs than is reasonable.

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