Wednesday, October 31, 2007

New Release: Chasing Fear

Torquere is doing a blitz of short stories especially for Halloween. Mine is called Chasing Fear.

Emilio loves Martin with everything he has, but he's still scared to go out and be openly gay, especially with the way his family reacted to the news. Martin just wants to go out and have a good time, so he pushes Emilio's limits to the breaking point. Emilio figures having a Greenman for a lover has its dangers, especially when it comes to going on a date in the great outdoors. Can he and Martin learn to see eye to eye?


It got dark early in late October, and more so in the thick, steep corners of Griffith Park where the trees fought for the sun, and clearing away undergrowth wasn't as high a priority as it was in the more popular, path-wound areas. Emilio Cardenas liked it up there for the quiet and empty space and the sense of being small and alone in the middle of Nature -- it was a tough feeling to find in the heart of metropolitan southern California, even for a ranger. He got twitchy when he spent too much time with people, though, and the heavy rain over the weekend had given him the perfect excuse to escape.

Sure enough, one of the tough old oaks that'd been loosening its grip on the soil sliding out from under it over the last few years had finally lost the battle and toppled. He didn't call for help with it; instead he spent the day taking it apart himself with the chainsaw and moving the wood downslope to where his little electric truck was parked on a narrow dirt trail.

Leaving the largest trunk sections round had meant he could just give them a shove and let them roll down to the flattish trail. Most of them had hung up on the viburnum shrubs at the downslope side of the path and the two that'd kept on going he'd just left; they'd make a great habitat for bugs and fungus as they rotted. The rest he'd finished cutting up and piled in the back of the truck.

It was twilight by the time he finished and the rougher trails were tricky to drive at the best of times, even in the narrow park vehicle. He should've hopped right up and headed back to the station and home to where Martín would be waiting, probably eyeing the clock and scowling, but instead he just stood for a while and felt the chill dark of early evening creeping across his skin.

A night sparrow called nearby and Emilio listened to its aggressive chirruping. When it had quieted, he pulled out a bottle of water and drank. It was another delaying tactic and he knew it, as was walking over to one of the healthy oaks a few paces off the path and leaning back against the trunk. It was dark enough that he could've seen a few stars if he'd been on open ground, even in the middle of LA County. All that was visible overhead from beneath the trees, though, were the dark, squirming branches, the ropes of climbing ivy and millions of shivering leaves.

A loop of ivy dropped out of the tree like a black snake and wound itself around his chest. Emilio gave a frightened shout and tried to move away, but the ivy tightened. One of his arms was caught and before he could get a good grip with the other, another vine bound it to the tree trunk, swooping up from below this time.

Emilio cursed again and a dark, masculine silhouette moved out of the shaded wood. The man strolled over to where Emilio was still struggling against the vines and cocked his head, looking him up and down. Emilio glared at him and jerked hard against the ropey vines, which had grown to the thick, tough wood of old, established ivy. He knew who it had to be, even before the man stepped out of shadow.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Come Hang Out With Me On Friday

I'm hosting the Torquere_Social community on LiveJournal tomorrow (Friday, 26 October) so come drop in and hang with me for the day. I'll be posting a couple of snippets from stories, including one from the short story I just wrote for Halloween, "Chasing Fear." If you don't have a LiveJournal, that's fine -- anonymous posting works dandy and you can just sign your post so I know whom to wave to. [wave]

I've never done this before O_O so come help me out tomorrow? Thanks! :D


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Busy Week

So I was working on this story. It was an urban fantasy, although since the whole thing takes place in a single house, I don't know how "urban" it technically is. It's set in a universe I've written in previously, and the other stories were definitely urban fantasy, so anyway. I'm going along and everything's chugging reasonably well, when suddenly both guys turn all Serious and there's anger and guilt and shame and threats flying around. It all fits the story and I like how it's developing, but wrapping it at less than 8K words (Torquere's upper limit for short stories) is sort of iffy, much less the 5K we were kinda-sorta asked to please try to keep it to for the Halloween blitz, since the editors didn't want to have to work thirty-six hour days to get however many stories spruced up and ready to release by Halloween.

Okay, so that one goes on the back burner. Luckily another idea came wandering by so I grabbed it and started banging away, one eye on the calendar and trying really hard not to let my blood pressure go too high. (I tend to spring leaks when it does and that gets messy.) This one's even more "only technically" an urban fantasy than the other, since while the guys live in the LA area, the story takes place in Griffith Park and they're surrounded by forest and such the whole time, so....

Anyway, this one's actually a bit more Halloweenish than the first one, so that's good. I got it finished and gave it an edit, wrote up a cover letter (I really hate writing synopses [flail]) and came up with a title (even more flailing 'cause I hate coming up with titles even more than I hate writing synopses) and sent it off. That was the 19th, about five hours ahead of the deadline, yay. I got an acceptance within a day and edits in record time.

A nice lady named Jane at Torquere (who's my editor for "Spirit of Vengeance") taught me how to use the Track Changes thingy in Word to go over the edits, how to "clear" edits and add comments and such, for which I am eternally grateful. I felt a bit silly asking, since the story she's working on is my second with Torquere, but with the first I just e-mailed "It all looks good" back and that was that. [cough] Anyway, I know how to do it now, thank you Jane. :)

So I sent my edits back for the Halloween story (which is called "Chasing Fear" by the way) and in the middle of all this I got an invitation from Romancing the Blog to be one of their regular columnists. Wow!

That was seriously cool and I'm incredibly flattered to have been asked. I've been reading and commenting over there since I found them back in August, while poking through links on someone's blogroll, and I've enjoyed the discussions over there very much, so it'll be fun being a regular part of the community. I wrote up a short bio and found a nice pic I took at a butterfly farm on St. Maarten to use as my avatar there. I'll post a note here as soon as I find out when my turn in the barrel will be. :)

Speaking of taking my turn in the barrel, I volunteered to host Torquere's social community on LiveJournal this Friday, the 26th. (And I'm not nervous at all. Not even a tiny bit. O_O ) I'll post a reminder note on Thursday with a link so anyone who wants to can come hang out with me for the day.

Right now, the top two things on my agenda are doing the edits for "Spirit" and working on some commentary I'm doing on a friend's manuscript. One's fun and the other is less so, so you can probably guess which one's going to be getting more of my time....

Hope everyone else had a great weekend. Personally, I'm ready for a nice, long sleep. :)


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

High School Homecoming Princes

I just had to share this here because it's incredibly cool. My faith in humanity and particularly the American chunk of it just went up a notch. :D

Royal yes to diversity at Davis Senior High

The students of Davis Senior High (in Davis, California) elected a gay couple as their homecoming royalty. Even more amazing, there's been no protest or wanking, from the administration, the student body or the parents and community (at least as of the time the article came out, which was Saturday). Amazing! And very heartening. Go, Davis! I hope it spreads.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Loose Id to the Rescue

For anyone who hasn't seen already, check out this post over on Treva2007 on Livejournal. Loose Id plans to bid on the contracts held by Triskelion, which is going through bankruptcy. There was a lot of worried blogging going on about what'd happen to the Triskelion authors (and other authors whose publisher had or is going under) since bankruptcy courts don't recognize contract clauses which revert rights to an author if a publisher goes under.

Treva says:

If successful in their bid, Loose Id, LLC will release the majority of contracts at no cost to the authors who entered into them.

In a few cases, new contracts will be extended to the author from Loose Id in lieu of the Triskelion contracts. If an author chooses to reject the offer made them, their contract will be released by Loose Id, at no cost to the author.

This is incredibly cool and I think Loose Id deserves some major kudos, whether or not their bid is successful. If I ever get back to writing het, this publisher will be at the top of my submission list, 'cause you can't beat working with truly good people.


Sunday, October 7, 2007

Playing with Genre Definitions

Another one of the Standard Topics came up a few days back on a romance blog, that being the "Isn't it outrageous how people diss us and sneer about how formulaic our stories are?!" topic. I've seen this one come around over and over since I first started hanging out on RomEx in the eighties (anyone who knows what RomEx was gets a cookie, and anyone who used to hang out there too gets a brownie and a wave) so it wasn't really all that interesting. It got me thinking about genre definitions, though, and how they contribute to this sort of brangle, and some other neat things you can do with them.

You can sort out a lot of genres by how they're defined. I've come up with three standard types of definitions: by plot, by setting, and by emotional impact.

Some genres are defined by their plot. They have a specific kind of story to tell. The setting and tone are irrelevant; only the plot is important when it comes to deciding whether a story belongs in one of these genres or not.

Since romances are defined by their plot, there's actually a molecule of truth to the "formulaic" sneer. A romance is defined by a main plotline consisting of two (or more) characters getting together and overcoming obstacles to form a stable romantic relationship. There you go -- that's your formula. Anyone who can't riff a hundred different detailed plotlines off of that needs to concentrate on their day job, though, 'cause that's open pretty wide.

Mysteries are also defined by their plot. The main character has some sort of puzzle to solve; the solution to the puzzle is the goal and the puzzle itself is the main obstacle. Usually they involve crime but they don't have to. Sometimes the main character knows part of the answer -- they might know who committed the murder, for example -- but they have to figure out some other part -- like how they did it, or how to prove it. I've heard mysteries dismissed as formulaic too, by the way.

The YA "problem story" also fits in here. The teenager has a problem, usually something typical of adolescence and growing up, and works to solve it. So long as the plot fits, the rest of the story can do whatever the writer wants.

Some genres are defined by their setting. So long as the story takes place in a certain type of place, it qualifies, no matter what kind of plot it might have. Note that setting includes social setting as well as physical, and different kinds of props.

Historicals (including Westerns, which are their own genre for whatever reason) are defined by their setting. If the story takes place in a reasonably realistic version of the past -- that is, if it looks like the writer was making an effort, even if they trip here and there -- the story's a historical.

Science Fiction is defined by its setting, although it doesn't have to be set in the future. Rather, science fiction is a setting which includes some sort of speculative continuation from a baseline. So a story set in the future where humankind has colonized other star systems and has all sorts of neato-cool high tech to play with is SF, but so is a story set in a future where everything collapsed and the remnants of humanity are grubbing in the dirt and eating each other. Both represent a continuation -- one a social and technical advance and the other a retreat -- from the baseline of the here and now.

But one can establish a different baseline and end up with science fiction set in the past; the steampunk subgenre makes great use of this idea, starting (generally) from Victorian England and using "advanced technology" based on the huge, complex mechanics of the early Industrial Age. An example for anyone unfamiliar with the genre is The Wild Wild West, especially the movie, but even the older TV show qualified when Artemus got out some of his wilder inventions. The point being, though, that your "advancement" can vary quite a lot depending on where you draw your baseline.

Fantasy is defined by a magical setting, whether the pseudo-historical setting of classical fantasy or the grittier contemporary setting of urban fantasy or anything else the writer cares to use, so long as there are magical elements to it. (Magic Realism is fantasy with its nose in the air; the difference only matters to the marketing department.) These can include magical items, magical creatures, magical places, or a system of workable magic used by one or more characters.

Paranormal hovers between SF and fantasy. Paranormal deals with unscientific things and phenomena in a pseudo-scientific way. It can have a science fictional feel to it (although not always), but it deals with plot and setting elements which have more of the magical about them, leaning it toward fantasy. Exactly where it is on the spectrum and which way it leans more strongly is up to the writer.

Some genres are defined by their emotional effect on the reader. Different writers will use different tactics to achieve their desired effect, but they tend to sort out in accordance with just how they hope the readers will feel while they're reading.

Horror is a good example here. The purpose of a horror story is to scare the reader. Many people will immediately think of ghosts and vampires and zombies and demons and other classic monsters when they hear "horror," but those things don't define a story as being part of the horror genre. A romance writer can create a romantic vampire and have him get the girl in the end, a science fiction writer can come up with a logical sounding explanation for what ghosts are and some sort of gadget for communicating with them to work out a peaceful coexistence, and a mystery writer could come up with a humorous demon who's desperate to figure out who killed Satan's favorite succubus before the Boss gets back from Tahiti. None of these stories would necessarily qualify as horror, despite using classic monsters.

The horror writer is free to use whatever comes to mind so far as settings, gimmicks, characters and plots go, so long as the reader ends up frightened and the story as a whole is either frightening or setting up for the fright. It's the effect that's important, not the method used to achieve it.

Suspense is another effect, that edge of the seat "Omigod, omigod, omigod!" that keeps the reader chewing their nails down to the elbow. And if they actually know in advance what's going to happen, so much the better. However a writer gets the reader into that state is fine; it doesn't have to be a chase or a murder threat or whatever.

Erotica is in this group too. One might think this would be a plot-defined genre, as in "Characters want to have sex, climax occurs when they get it" [cough] but you can write an incredibly erotic story that doesn't actually have any sex in it. Unfulfilled yearning can be extremely erotic, as can displacement activities such as eating. The point isn't the specific activity, even though certain activities are extremely common in the genre. The point is how the reader feels about what's going on -- whether the reader thinks what's going on is sexy and arousing. That "Mmmmm..." effect is what it's all about.

Note that these are definitions, not standards of excellence. Someone can follow the puzzle-story rule and end up with a story which qualifies as a mystery and still have it be a really bad mystery. A clunky science fiction story, with the "science" based on errors and fallacies and cliches so old they creak, can still qualify as science fiction, however awful. An erotic story which completely fails to push any of its readers' buttons is still erotica if it's clear the writer was trying. What makes a good romance or historical or horror story is way beyond the scope of this piece.

Once you know how to define your genres, though, you're more likely to be able to blend them successfully. If you know exactly what defines science fiction and romance, you can write a romance plot in an SF setting and make both work. (This is harder than it sounds, as any number of romance writers have discovered.) You can write a historical mystery or an erotic western or a suspenseful fantasy.

Note that it's easier to blend two genres if they're from different groups. Historical romances have been a thriving subgenre for ages, but you have to work harder for an erotic suspense. Piers Anthony wrote a science fiction fantasy by having the protag pop back and forth between universes, one science fictional and the other fantasy, but even as well as he did it, it feels a bit awkward.

Mystery romances have also been around for a while, but the writer has to juggle two different plotlines and it's easy for one or the other to feel shortchanged. Horror erotica is also very difficult. (And note that I don't consider an erotic story where one of the main characters is a werewolf to be actual horror, unless the story is intended to be bona fide scary.) Manipulating the reader's emotions takes skill and excellent craftsmanship, and manipulating them in two completely different directions within the same story is tough. Doable, but tough.

Being aware of what you're doing can help, though. Knowing exactly what needs to go into your story and where all the parts belong -- this to the plot, that to the setting, this other to the tone -- make it more likely that a story will succeed. Having well-defined goals is always a good starting point.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Doesn't (Necessarily) Hurt to Ask

So I've got this story. It's called "A Spirit of Vengeance" and it's a ghost story, and I think it's one of my best. I was thinking about making it my next submission to Torquere, but as I was browsing through their guidelines I saw a bit that says they don't take stories which "contain rape or other gratuitous violence."

That gave me pause because the way the character in "Spirit" became a ghost was by being raped and murdered in a hate crime while his lover was out of town. One might think that this would nix it so far as Torquere's concerned, but that "other" gave me some hope. If what they object to is gratuitous rape, then maybe I still have hope for this, because I don't consider the rape in "Spirit" to be at all gratuitous. And besides, it's all over and done with before the story begins -- it opens with the dead guy's lover leaving the funeral. And I really like this story; it's very deeply emotional and it's gotten some great comments from readers.

I suppose I could've just submitted it and let them decide, but I didn't want word to go around the office about how that Angie chick's too dumb to read guidelines, you know? :P So I sent a query to the editor who worked with me on my first story, described this one and explained why I didn't think the rape was gratuitous, and asked if it were something Torquere might be interested in. She wrote back and said it was, and that I should submit it. Yay!

Now, I wouldn't say it never hurts to ask, because despite what we're told in elementary school, there really are stupid questions. If I'd asked whether they'd like to see my het romance, or my children's adventure book, or my survey of southern California gardens, any of those would've been stupid questions because Torquere doesn't publish anything close to those areas. In this case, though, I had reason to believe that my story might not come under the stated ban, and I made it clear in my letter that I had read their guidelines and was just asking for some clarification. It was a reasonable question from someone who'd been paying attention rather than a shot in the dark from someone who hadn't bothered to do any market research.

And in this case I'm glad I asked.

Epilogue: I submitted the story Monday night, got a receipt acknowledgement yesterday, and a contract offer this morning. O_O I have to say I was completely blown away by how fast this happened. I was expecting it to take a couple of weeks at least to hear back but this was, like, instant. They are really on the ball over there and the more I work with Torquere the more I want to keep working with them.


Monday, October 1, 2007

Research vs. Invention

Candy Proctor wrote an interesting post today about that authentic feel a reader gets when fiction sounds real, whether it actually is or not. It's an interesting post (and I'm still pondering the concept of "aboutness") but it made me think about the trade-off we need to make whenever we don't have extensive personal experience or some other acquired expertise in the topic(s).

I think there's room for well done fakery in most areas of fiction. No one expects a writer to look up absolutely every fact about everything used or shown or talked about in a story, and sometimes doing so would be a bad idea even if we could. Using a real restaurant -- with the name, location and staff accurately described -- when a character gets a raging case of food poisoning there and dies is a good way to get sued, for example. But even beyond the grasp of the lawyers, a well crafted fake will often work just as well as the real info, at least for the majority of your readers. Weaving research with invention is a valuable skill and writers who are good at it can surround the reader with a seamless mesh of rich detail which all flows and hangs together.

I do like accuracy when I read, of course, but I also like my favorite writers to publish more often than once every five years. [wry smile] And from the writer's point of view, even if the need to earn a decent paycheck a bit more often isn't an issue, it can be frustrating and unsatisfying for a writer or anyone else to put so much prep work into projects that they only get results two or three times per decade. Some people have the mindset to make this sort of schedule satisfying, but for everyone else there's a reasonable balance which can be achieved.

I think the trick is to figure out who your audience is and make some sort of decent squint-and-roll-the-dice estimate as to about how many of them are likely to know more about [whatever] than you do, and make your researching decisions from there. Diminishing returns become a factor eventually and if you get to a point where another year of research will only cut down your nasty letters and sarcastic reviews from, say, five to three, maybe it's not worth the time spent. You might have to just accept that there's going to be some small fraction of readers out there who'll be sneering, but if the vast majority will be reading and nodding and reccing, you're still well ahead of the game.

Not that anyone can estimate reactions that closely, but it's definitely possible to hop onto Google and start reading reviews and other commentary in the genre (and preferably the subgenre) you're writing in. What do the readers want? What do they praise? What do they laugh at? This is really basic information, and for that matter one might hope that anyone writing in a given genre would have already read enough in that genre to know these things, but I've read plenty of stories where it was pretty clear the writer did not know the genre even that well and I'm sure others have too. Even someone new to a genre can find out what the readers like and dislike and scorn with just a few hours spent blog-hopping, though, and I can think of a writer or two who engineered their own downfall by (apparently) not bothering.

Or maybe they just didn't pick up on the subtleties.

One writer wrote a murder mystery a number of years ago set at a science fiction convention. Theme mystery series are popular and this could've been a neat idea, but it was pretty clear to me, as someone who's attended and worked SF conventions for a very long time, that this writer's actual experience of SF cons was extremely minimal, to the point where I doubt she'd ever attended a general SF con of any size. The book was published by TSR (the company which at the time owned the Dungeons and Dragons property) and there was some speculation among friends of mine at the time that maybe TSR had sprung for a couple of free passes to gaming conventions, which are unfortunately very different from science fiction conventions. Or maybe they just described them to her. It was particularly frustrating because so many small details were correct, but they just underscored the major clunkers. Whatever the reason, though, I and a number of others spent the entire book wincing and eyerolling over errors, which was a shame because the writing was decent and the mystery itself was interesting.

It's one thing to get a few minor details wrong, but when the entire setting sounds fake and third-hand to anyone who's actually been there, you've got a serious problem. Especially with something like a theme mystery, where the whole point is to market the books to a special interest group, you're deliberately courting readers who'll know where all your duct taped patches are. :/ It's like writing a police procedural and forgetting about Miranda, or writing a war story about submarines and completely ignoring pressure, or having your hard-SF characters hop into their reaction rocket and fly out to Rigel by lunchtime. These are incredibly basic errors and would signal to any reader at all familiar with the genre that the writer was faking and not doing a very good job of it.

Comparing time and effort spent in research versus your skill when it comes to invention, and balancing the result against the likely return in reader satisfaction is a valuable skill whenever you're writing about things you aren't already an expert at. It requires a strong familiarity with the intended audience, though, and a misstep can do considerable damage to both the story and the writer's reputation.