Author Interview: M. Pax

Speculative fiction author M. Pax is a self-professed workaholic with a dozen published novels and numerous short story collections. Her seven-book space opera series, The Backworlds, takes readers to a universe where bio-engineered humans survive on different planets and the humble become heroes. The Tracer (2018) is the newest release in The Rifters world, an urban fantasy series that follows a band of protectors who fight monsters released through rifts in a rural Oregon town. Visit Mary’s informative website at MPaxAuthor.com for a free starter library. You’ll also find her on her Amazon author page and on Facebook, Twitter (@mpax1), and Pinterest.


The Tracer (2018) is the fourth book in The Rifters series. What are the challenges of writing a series? What do you focus on to keep readers coming back for more?
The biggest challenge to writing a series is keeping the details consistent from book to book. The big concepts are easy to remember, it’s keeping track of the tiny details that can be a struggle. The other challenge is to end each book with a proper ending, yet leave questions unanswered that will springboard the next book in the series.
I focus on unfolding the plot so the conflict and story grow larger in each book. The characters grow, the plot grows, and I unravel threads from earlier books. The story has to remain familiar while introducing something new.

What was the most difficult aspect of world building for The Rifters books?
I spent a lot of time researching Black Bart trying to get into his head. Creating the town of Settler took some work, too. I found the perfect town as a model, but it was in the wrong place. So I moved the town to where I wanted it and renamed it. Bart, the research, and creating the world and the characters were pure fun for me and labors of love. Oregon inspired a lot of what went into The Rifters.

You’re now working on book 8 (Endpoint) in The Backworlds books. What is it about this series that keeps inspiring you to continue? How far ahead have you plotted the storyline?
My fans inspire me, and the setting inspires me. The Backworlds is rich in history, planets, and people. There’s a lot to explore. I enjoy standing on Elstwhere (in my mind) and looking out at the slice of the galaxy I created. The Backworlds is in the same arm of the Milky Way as Earth. Humans haven’t traveled too far from home yet, and I bioengineered them to survive on the different planets instead of terraforming the planets. Then I asked myself: What else is out there? I love the cast I created and planned the series to where it is now. I know how it will end. The major plot points have been set since the initial planning. How I get there is what happens when I’m writing and is a thrill. This story arc ends with book 8.

The main character in Backworlds is Craze, a likeable guy who never seems to catch a break for long. How did you create and develop his character?
I like stories about regular people who are dealt a bad hand in life and fight to find ways to cope and be happy. It’s a theme I return to again and again. Craze was created to be a reflection of the regular person. He doesn’t always make the right choices and is shoved into being the hero. His dreams and desires change over the course of the series as he encounters different worlds, people, aliens, and war. He’s definitely fun to write.

Will those who know you recognize you in any of your characters? What is it about your protagonists that make readers connect with them?
I’ve never been a bartender on another planet, but I wouldn’t mind the job if it came up. My idea of happiness and success have changed over time like Craze’s. I’m tenacious like a lot of my characters, and I keep searching for ways to enjoy life as it comes. My characters are always regular people with regular challenges. Then some extraordinary challenges come up, which help them with the smaller problems. They overcome and find ways to cope. I think we’re all searching for how to carry on when facing the stresses of life.

If the stars aligned, what past or present television or movie series would you love to be involved with?
Sharknado. I’d love to be eaten by a shark, and I have a secret dream of writing a B science fiction movie for the Syfy channel. Maybe a rabid herd of dishwashers or something.

You’ve published almost two dozen short stories (available separately, in anthologies, and in your own collections). What is it about the short story form that draws you to it?
I wrote two series (never published) and had proven to myself I could finish a novel. The short story allows me to hone skills at a faster rate. Submitting the short stories and gaining feedback from editors was crucial in my growth as a writer. Between novels, I usually read books on the craft of writing and work at applying new skills to my craft. The short story allows me to practice more quickly. The more I practice, the quicker the new skill becomes a habit.

When did you know you were a writer?
I’ve always been a writer. I spent my childhood lost in my imagination and in the stories I read. My favorite past time was daydreaming about living in a favorite story: Winnie-the-Pooh, Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Pippi Longstocking. I wrote my first story in grade school. When my dad asked what I was interested in doing with my life (I think I was 10 years old), I said a writer or a horse trainer. Horses aren’t part of my life anymore, but I’m still a sap for a story about a horse. The writing never stopped. No matter what I was doing, I was also trying to figure out how I could write. I could barely afford to eat when I lived in New York City, but I found the money to buy a typewriter. Writing is part of how I’m wired. I have to do it. I love walking around in my imaginary worlds and poking at the corners to see what else I can find.

What is the best encouragement or advice you’ve received in your writing journey?
Three things put me on the road to writing and publishing. 1) I was very lost and unsure what to do with myself at a certain point. My mother said, “You were always good at writing, write me something.” So, I started writing every day. That’s when I wrote those two series I never published (not ready for prime time). 2) When I was writing and submitting short stories, I received a great rejection from a top science fiction magazine; a full page of what was great about what I had written and what needed fixing. That short story was “Stopover at the Backworlds Edge,” which became the opening scene in the second Backworlds book. 3) About that same time, I met author Lindsay Buroker online who encouraged me to start publishing as an indie. I’m really glad she talked me into sharing my writing with the world. I love being an author.

What writing projects are you working on now?
Besides outlining Endpoint (Backworlds #8), I’m editing Spaceberg (the first in my Squad 51 series) to release later this spring. I’m also working on the sequel to Spaceberg, called Space Trash. When that’s done, I’ll start on the third in that series. Last, but not least, I’m working on a collaborative project with a group of authors. My goal for the future is to finish The Backworlds, The Rifters, and The Hetty Locklear series.

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Five Poisons That Paralyze Your Writing (and Their Antidotes)

Bill O’Hanlon has authored or co-authored 30+ books including Write is a Verb: Sit Down, Start Writing, No Excuses. Not only is he a prolific nonfiction writer, he’s an entertaining speaker who motivates his audience to follow their dreams. In the case of a presentation I attended a few years ago, he discussed five poisons writers often succumb to and the antidotes to neutralize them.

1. Perfection Poison (Everything-Must-Be-Just-So Poison)
Writers who fall prey to this deadly poison get lost in a desire to make everything perfect before starting to write. This might include acquiring various writing software (and the computer to go with them), designing/creating or decorating a writing space, waiting for the perfect time to write, acquiring writing skills, and amassing research.

Antidotes
• Give yourself permission not to be good (to write the worst book ever).
• Be willing to be radically edited, torn apart and made better.
• Start writing.

2. I-Don’t-Have-Anything-New-To-Say Poison
All the stories have already been told—this lie can stop a writer from penning the first word. But no one can write the story like you can. You have a unique style, voice, and slant.

Antidotes
• Everyone is profoundly weird—embrace your weirdness.
• Consider: Every musician is limited to the same 12 notes, yet the uniqueness of their compositions is amazing.

3. I-Don’t-Have-Time Poison
This might be the most popular excuse not to write. With so many demands on our time, it’s easy to let this poison keep us from our writing dreams.

Antidotes
• Do something writing-related everyday, even if it’s only sharpening pencils.
• Make a commitment, set your priorities. If you want to write, you’ll make the time—just 5 minutes a day can make a difference and prove to yourself it can be done.
• Consider: Maya Angelou wrote at her kitchen table (with children on her lap) before going to work.
• Consider: Bill O’Hanlon wrote 10 books in 10 years and had three kids to support and nurture.

4. This-Will-Never-Get-Published Poison
Understanding why you write is key to overcoming this poison. O’Hanlon believes a “Writer’s Energy” can motivate or fuel our writing. These four energies are being:
• blissed – you love to write
• blessed – you’re encouraged to write
• pissed – you’re angry enough to write (righteous indignation)
• dissed – (prove someone wrong and) turn that sensitivity into fuel for your writing

Antidotes
• Figure out how to write without a guarantee of publication.
• Try again, fail again, fail better.
• My suggestion: write to please yourself and for the sake of the story.

5. I’m-Not-In-The-Mood-To-Write Poison
You’re not inspired to write. Your muse is just not showing up. What if the muse never pays a visit?

Antidotes
• Show up and the muse will, too. Start writing, it will take care of those moods.
— F. H. Bradley: The mood in which my book was conceived and executed, was in fact to some extent a passing one.
— Madeleine L’Engle: Inspiration comes to you while you’re writing rather than before.
• Treat writing as a profession—do the job and you’ll find your groove.
• Remember: the more you write, the better you get.

Wherever you are is always the right place. There is never a need to fix anything, to hitch up the bootstraps of the soul and start at some higher place. Start right where you are. ~ Julia Cameron

Have you ever been paralyzed by these poisons? What antidote did you use to keep writing?

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Indistinguishable Magic

Any story that is told with proper artistry and depth should be indistinguishable from magic. ~ David Farland

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Compelling Book Covers: Awesome Artwork, a Crackling Font, and a Constellation

Book covers fascinate me. The good ones incorporate the right balance of color, fonts, and imagery to spark interest and convey a book’s genre. It’s an art form I admire, and which I doubt I’ll ever get a handle on (but I hope to have the need to communicate with a cover artist at some point in the future).

In my research to understand book cover design, I’ve started out by collecting sample covers that catch my eye. I’m also becoming more aware of my own book-choosing habits. What is it that makes me push the buy button? An intriguing cover? A well-penned blurb?

Here are three books on my to-read mountain that I’ve already felt compelled to buy and why I committed to the purchase.

Nameless_DwarfThe Nameless Dwarf by D.P. Prior
Cover: Appealing colors (I like blue!), awesome artwork, and an interesting disparity between the title and what appears to be a warrior giant. Overall a great cover, well-balanced.

Summary: The last hope of the dwarves comes from the unlikeliest of sources: a mythical city beneath the waves, an axe from the age of heroes, and the Nameless Dwarf, in whose veins flows the blood of legends…an epic tale of remorse and redemption that pits a whiskerless thief, a guilt-driven assassin, a consumptive wizard, and an amnesiac dwarf against the worst imaginings of a craven mind.

My Take: The cover itself, with its hint at action and a cast of fantasy characters, was enough to compel me to buy the book.

Skynoise: A Time Travel Thriller by Ernie Lindsey
Cover: A “simply” rendered sky as a backdrop and a title that crackles with energy (and suggests science fiction).

Summary: In the present day, undulating wails are heard in the sky across the world with no apparent earthly origin. When respected academic Helen Weils meets conspiracy theorist Chip Sledd, she dismisses his theories of a connection between the disappearance of Roanoke Island colonists in 1587 and the strange noises in the sky. Then black-suited agents pursue her and Chip, and she realizes the past is more flexible than she thought possible—and seeking the truth might mean accepting the strangest theory of all.

My Take: The cover and the title drew me to the blurb: part time travel science fiction and part technothriller…with a blend of mystery, suspense, psychological drama, comedy, and fast-paced action adventure. The combination of a good cover and a blurb describing a different kind of time travel story sold me on the book.

DogStarsThe Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Cover: An example of a simple and uncluttered layout that works. Complimentary colors and an unusual font that’s different but not distracting. It all comes together to pull the eye to the title and the dog constellation.

Summary: A powerful novel about a pilot who survived the flu that killed everyone he knows. When a random transmission beams through his radio, the voice ignites a hope that something like his old life might still exist. Narrated by a man who is part warrior and part dreamer, a hunter with a great shot and a heart that refuses to harden…a breathtaking story about what it means to be human.

My Take: I probably would have passed on this one because of the cover’s simplicity, but the title and the constellation made me curious enough to check out Amazon’s Look Inside feature. The first three paragraphs from chapter one:

I keep the Beast running, I keep the 100 low lead on tap, I foresee attacks. I am young enough, I am old enough. I used to love to fish for trout more than almost anything.

My name is Hig, one name. Big Hig if you need another.

If I ever woke up crying in the middle of a dream, and I’m not saying I did, it’s because the trout are gone every one. Brookies, rainbows, browns, cutthroats, cutbows, every one.

The story’s post-apocalyptic aspect and the character’s voice promised an interesting read and compelled me to push the buy button.

What do you think? Would these covers compel you to buy the books?

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Author Interview: D Wallace Peach

Author D. Wallace Peach infuses her speculative fiction with vivid prose and intriguing plots. Her twelve published books are divided between two four-book series and four standalone novels. Kari’s Reckoning (2017) is the fourth and final novel in her Rose Shield series, a storyline that explores flawed and compelling characters, a sentient landscape, and a magic system that allows for manipulating emotions. Learn more about Diana and her writing on her website/blog MythsOfTheMirror.com and her Amazon author page, and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter (@dwallacepeach), and Goodreads.


What was the initial spark for the Rose Shield seriesa character, the setting, a what-if question?
For any of my books, my initial spark is usually something related to a magic system. I’m a fan of fantasy author Brandon Sanderson and enjoy the structure he brings to the magic in his books, including how he integrates his concepts into the characters, themes, and plot. From the magical inspiration, the rest gradually falls into place.

The magic system of the Rose Shield started with my experience as a counselor. I believe that our emotions drive us more than our thoughts and reason. When we interact with others, we’re influencing them emotionally—trying to make them smile, comply, love, take our side, leave us alone. For the Rose Shield, I took that concept a step further and asked: what if a group of people could influence others’ feelings through a special talent? And what would they do if there was someone who could stop them?

Among your cast of characters are influencers (magic wielders), warriors, assassins, rebels—and Catling, who has the ability to disrupt the power of the guild that rules her world through manipulating emotions. Were the characters fully formed when you began writing, or did they reveal themselves to you as the story unfolded?
I do tons of pre-writing preparation, including biographies on all my characters, even the secondary ones. I describe their childhoods, fears, dreams, challenges, goals, and secrets. Characters take further shape as the outline comes together. And, of course, when I start writing, more of their personalities emerge. On occasion, I have to edit their biographies because, despite all the planning, I still allow them to be themselves. That’s part of the fun.

Tell us about the main setting. Do you consider it to be a character in the books?
The Rose Shield takes place on a terraformed world, so it has Earthlike and alien elements. In this series, the planet is sentient, so it’s not only a character, but it causes all kinds of havoc. The world’s luminous rivers are its veins, and when humans start messing with the planet’s “blood”—the source of their unusual power—the planet straightens them out. Kari’s Reckoning, the last book in the series, is partly about the “setting” getting her way and putting humans in their place.

What was the most difficult aspect of world-building for this series?
Definitely keeping the magic system (the power to influence others’ emotions) logical and consistent. It’s a powerful skill, and I had to keep asking the question: why wouldn’t they just use their influence? There needed to be reasons and consequences in every instance for using it or deciding not to.

You released the four-novel Rose Shield collection within two months of publishing the first book. How did the series come together?
It took me two years to write the series. I wrote the entire outline for all four books, plotting them as one long story, before I started writing. That way the whole thing felt cohesive to me—all the forecasting was in place, characters had complete arcs, themes flowed from the beginning to the end, and I plugged up the plot holes. I structured each book with escalating challenges and ensured all the books worked together as one intensifying story that led to the final climax. The editing passes were bears, the grizzly kind. I wanted to release all four very close to each other so that readers who enjoyed the first one could pick up the next immediately. It made sense from a marketing standpoint, and it’s how I like to read. Basically, to release them together, I held up the first books while waiting for the last.

What are the hardest kinds of scenes for you to write, and how do you get over this hurdle?
I have two types of scenes that I find challenging. One is battle scenes because I hold my breath and have to type really fast! Ha ha. They’re so intense, people are fighting for their lives, so I can’t take a breather. I’m in this intense “zone” and have to see it through. I’ll occasionally find myself gasping because I’m not breathing!

The other scenes that are tough are sad scenes. I get emotional, all teary and snotty. My husband is used to it now, but when I started writing he’d stare at me with a worried look on his face. For me, writing is an emotional commitment. I take a deep breath and dive in because I want the reader to feel it. If I maintain a protective distance, I think the reader can sense it and won’t be as invested in the story.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a two-book series right now: Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls. I’ll publish those together in May. The idea/magic for these books started with lots of musing about the nature and mystery of the soul. What if we could access the souls of the dead as a way to keep those we love near us? What if we were able to merge? We might acquire skills and knowledge, a more robust constitution, a happier temperament, greater wisdom. All positive, right? But time and again, human beings demonstrate a tendency to take things to the extreme without considering consequences. These books will have plenty of conflict, but I’m hoping that there will be some wisdom and heart in them as well.

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3 Fiction Writing Terms: Foreshadow, MacGuffin, Red Herring

The writing business is one of the deepest oceans to navigate. Besides mastering book distribution, marketing, and promotion, writers must also learn a unique set of terms and techniques before deciding what to apply to their own work. When I began treading the writing waters twenty years ago, I didn’t even know what MFA stands for or that a Master of Fine Arts degree can be earned in creative writing (not just visual arts, performing arts, etc.).

This post is part of a series of short lists with definitions and links for further reading that I could have used when I started on my own writing journey.

Foreshadow

Foreshadowing hints at something important that will happen later in the story. According to KM Weiland such hints “can be blatant or subtle. Subtle is almost always better, since you don’t want to giveaway your plot twists. But, at the same time, your hints have to be obvious enough that readers will remember them later on. Usually, the earlier you can foreshadow an event, the stronger and more cohesive an effect you will create. The bigger the event, the more important it is to foreshadow it early.” Foreshadowing can be found in many elements of a story to include dialogue, setting, and character types.

For more:
Kyle Malone, Mythic Scribes: “In the Land of Mordor where the Foreshadows lie”
NowNovel.com: “8 foreshadowing laws: How to foreshadow right”
Robert Wood, Standout Books: “How To Use Foreshadowing With Confidence” Part 1 and Part 2
K.M. Weiland: “How to Use Foreshadowing” and “Setup and Payoff: The Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing”

MacGuffin

“A MacGuffin [also McGuffin or Maguffin] is a plot device that is an object, goal, or something that motivates the protagonist and drives the plot, but serves no other purpose whatsoever. The significance or importance of the MacGuffin is never explained, and sometimes it might never actually be shown. All the reader knows is that everyone in the story is trying to get their hands on it.” ~ Joe Bunting, The Write Practice

The statuette in The Maltese Falcon and the suitcase in Pulp Fiction are two examples of physical MacGuffins. In “What is a McGuffin?”, Michael Kurland discusses other types of MacGuffins (some found in Shakespeare), such as the tale told by the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet and King Henry’s desire for the whole country of France in Henry V.

For more:
Joe Bunting, The Write Practice: “How to Avoid the MacGuffin Trap and Create a Unique Plot”
Michael Kurland, Gotham Writers: “What Is A McGuffin?”
Robert Wood, Standout Books: “Is There Such A Thing As A Good MacGuffin?”

Red Herring

Used most often in thriller/mystery/suspense writing, red herrings are false clues meant to throw a character, and the reader, off track.

“The term has its origins in the training for hunting dogs. Usually when a dog was tracking a scent, it wasn’t the only scent competing for the dog’s attention. Since fish have a distinct and powerful odor, they were sometimes used to train the dogs to stick to the scent they were tracking…When the dog followed the fish scent, the dog had followed a red herring.” ~ Liz Bureman, The Write Practice

For more:
Liz Bureman, The Write Practice: “Why Writers Love Red Herrings: A Brief Guide”
Kathryn Lilley, Kill Zone: “Hooking Your Readers with Red Herrings”
Robert Wood, Standout Books, discusses foreshadowing as a red herring in “How To Use Foreshadowing With Confidence – Part 2”

Though you might never use red herrings or a MacGuffin in your particular genre, foreshadowing is a useful technique found in every kind of fiction writing (even just a character’s casual remark or a darkening sky that hints of a future event). Have you used any of these techniques in your writing?


For more in the 3 Fiction Writing Terms series, check out:
Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory
Arcs, Beats, Blurbs

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Read a Book, Make a Friend

A book is a special object, a time-tested conveyor of not just information, but emotion and connection. Some of my best friends are books. ~ Seth Godin

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7 Speculative Fiction Writing Contests for 2018: March-May Deadlines

Writing contests abound on the internet — a Google search for 2018 competitions brings up over two million results. A speculative fiction submission can get lost in such an ocean of general fiction entries.

The following list only includes contests with specific categories for speculative fiction genres. For that reason I didn’t include Writer’s Digest’s long-running annual competition with a Genre Category that includes mystery, romance, etc. Listed by submission window/deadline, you’ll find two contests that take book-length submissions and four contests with low or no entry fees. If you’re ready to enter a writing competition, why not give one of these a try? Good luck!

AlbedoLogo21. The Aeon Award Short Fiction Writing Contest
Since 2004, the Aeon Award has been a prestigious fiction writing competition for unpublished short stories in any speculative fiction genre. The grand prize is €1000 and publication in Albedo One, the leading Irish magazine of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Second- and third-place prizes are €200 and €100, as well as publication in Albedo One. The contest runs for four rounds throughout the year. At the end of each round, the best short stories are shortlisted for the contest. The top three winning stories are chosen after the end of the last round (November 30). Multiple entries allowed from all nationalities (written in English). Read the contest guidelines.
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Word Count Limit: 10,000
Submission Windows: Jan 1–Mar 31, Apr 1–Jun 30, Jul 1–Sep 30, Oct 1–Nov 30
Entry Fee: €8.50

2. Writers of the Future Contest
L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest is a chance for new writers of science fiction and fantasy short stories to have their work judged by some of the masters in the field and discovered by a wide audience. Entrants retain all publication rights. Prizes awarded every three months: $1,000, $750, $500. Quarterly first-place winners are eligible for the Annual Grand Prize of $5,000. Contest year ends September 30. One submission allowed per quarter. Read the contest guidelines.
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Word Count Limit: 17,000
Submission Windows: Oct 1–Dec 31, Jan 1–Mar 31, Apr 1–Jun 30, Jul 1–Sep 30
Entry Fee: None

3. 22nd Annual Parsec SF/Fantasy/Horror Short Story Contest
The theme for the 2018 contest is Flawed Reflections. This may be used literally, metaphorically, etc. Your interpretation of the theme must be integral to the story and not just mentioned in passing. The contest is open to non-professional writers who have not met eligibility requirements for SFWA or equivalent. Maximum of 2 submissions. First-place award: $200 and publication in the 2017 Confluence program book. Second-place, $100; third-place, $50. Read the contest guidelines.
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror
Word Count Limit: 3,500
Deadline: April 14, 2018
Entry Fee: None

4. Baen Books 4th Annual Baen Fantasy Adventure Award
Baen Books is excited to announce their fourth annual writing competition. The award recognizes the best original adventure fantasy short story in the style of Larry Correia, Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Moon, Andre Norton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and David Weber. Accepts only one submission of an original, unpublished work. The grand prize winner will be the featured story on the Baen Books main website and paid the industry-standard professional rate. The author will also receive $500 worth of Baen Books. Second-place award, $500 worth of Baen Books; third-place, $300 worth of Baen Books. Read the contest guidelines.
Genre: Fantasy
Word Count Limit: 8,000
Deadline: April 30, 2018
Entry Fee: None

5. The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award competition for full-length short stories draws about 200 submissions from around the world. Winners have included writers with a long history of publishing and/or winning awards, as well as writers who have never  published a story. The Ghost Story awards $1,000 to the winner plus online and print publication. An honorable mention and second honorable mention awards include publication and cash prizes of $250 and $100 respectively. Multiple entries and simultaneous submissions are permitted. Read the contest guidelines.
Genre: Paranormal/Supernatural
Word Count: 1,500-10,000
Deadline: April 30, 2018
Entry Fee: $20

6. Prophecy Creek Book Award in Speculative Fiction
Hidden River Arts offers a $1,000 award and publication on Hidden River Press, an imprint of Hidden River Publishing, for an original, unpublished book-length work of speculative fiction. Accepts multiple and simultaneous submissions. Read the contest guidelines.
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Word Count: Book-length
Deadline: May 15, 2018
Entry Fee: $22

7. The Colorado Gold Writing Contest
For over thirty years, the Colorado Gold Contest for emerging (unpublished) writers has given commercial-fiction novelists the chance to get their work in front of acquiring agents and editors while also providing feedback and encouragement for the craft of writing. Winners in six categories (including scifi/fantasy) receive: 1st place, $150; 2nd place, $100; 3rd place, $75; two remaining finalists receive $30. Read the contest guidelines.
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Submit: First 4000 words of your novel plus a 750-word synopsis
Submission Window: April 1 – May 31, 2018
Entry Fee: $30
Critique: $25

Are you planning to enter writing contests this year?


Image “Pencil Holding Trophy” courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Author Interview: Maer Wilson

Author Maer Wilson uses her experience in the theatre to build believable characters to inhabit her “cozy dark” stories. Her Modern Magics series, which follows a pair of supernatural detectives whose clients are usually dead, includes three novels and four prequel novelettes. In a departure from that series, she put her own twist on the zombie apocalypse with Apocalypta Z. And in 2016 she shined the light on a science fiction icon in her memoir The Other Side of Phillip K. Dick. You’ll find Maer on her website MaerWilson.com and her Amazon author page. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.


Between novels and novelettes, you have seven offerings in your series of Modern Magics stories. What are the challenges in writing a series?
One of the most important challenges I was aware of was consistency—in all things: overall voice, characters’ voices, traits and qualities, as well as story arcs. While you want a character to grow, you don’t want them to do things that don’t fit who they are. I tried to keep even tiny things that I established in one book throughout the series. I kept only a small list of notes, but I often referred to my previous work to see what I had done. Such as checking hair color for a minor character who had not been named in a previous book, but who had made a short appearance. I had to make sure nothing contradicted itself.

What was the most difficult aspect of world building for the Modern Magics books?
The world building was relatively easy. I took our world and used it as a basis for what would happen if magic was to become real. I added in two characters (Thulu and La Fi) who could exist in our world, but who had supernatural abilities. From there, I layered in the return of magic. How it would affect the average person, how it could happen in the first place, etc. Rather than be difficult, this was one of the most fun things to do. My biggest concern was making it a logical, believable world. It pretty much wrote itself once I had my main characters established. I had fun picking out names for the magical characters (fairies, pixies, daemons, etc.) and figuring out their personalities. For instance one of my favorites is Aela, a fairy who has a passion for red nail polish and gets drunk on tapioca beads. I wrote the first draft of book one (Relics) in five weeks. I ended up scrapping the second half due to a cliff-hanger ending. The story had to go a different direction, and I was in rewrites for the next year. But the world was there and established and didn’t change much from the first draft.

Apocalypta Z, with its endearing point-of-view characters (one of them a poodle), is a unique addition to the zombie apocalypse genre. What sparked the idea for this story?
I had posted a picture of my puppy Cienna on Facebook, and someone said I should use it as a cover for a book. A story took form, and I began writing “Cienna and the Zombie Dogs.” Except it wasn’t a short story as I’d intended. So I started again and moved most of the short story into a chapter in the novel. I’d been watching iZombie and had recently seen Warm Bodies and loved the lighter touch and departure from such graphic films as Night of the Living Dead. I hadn’t watched The Walking Dead at that time, but I did know the zombie genre had a huge following. As usual, I took the genre and put my own twist on it.

Will those who know you recognize you in any of your characters? What is it about your characters that make readers connect with them?
In the Modern Magics series, there is a little of me in La Fi as well as her grandmother, Nana Fae. And Maddie, Cienna and Chloe in Apocalypta Z are basically a different version of my real dogs and me if we were thrown into the zombie apocalypse. I believe that my extensive theatre background helps me create characters who feel real. They are flawed, but I try to make them as believable (and relatable) as I can.

What was the most challenging aspect of putting together your memoir The Other Side of Philip K. Dick? What one thing would you like readers to know about your friend?
That was a tough one. I had to go back 45+ years. Fortunately, many of the incidents were fresh as I had talked about them often throughout the years. But I wanted it to be accurate, not something I’d changed through the years. Phil and I had many mutual friends, and I asked several of them to read the book to make it as true an account as I could. As to the one thing about Phil? He was not the mystical cult icon he has been turned into. He was partially to blame for that because of some of the writing he left behind, but what he speculated about and what he really believed were not necessarily the same things. Some think he lived only to have deep discussions about philosophy and such, and it simply is not true. He was very interested, of course, but he did not gather people at his feet to dispense his wisdom. He loved to mess with people and say outlandish things to tease them. He would be delighted at all the controversy about him. But at the end of the day, he was just a guy who happened to be a great friend—and a great writer.

Tell us about your writing process/writing routine.
I write when I have time. Usually I’m working in my head, so when I sit down, I simply start writing. I don’t use outlines and only brief notes, so I’m definitely a pantser (except for the memoir) and only have a vague idea where I’m going. I let the characters dictate how the story plays out. I listen to soundtracks while I write (instrumental, not songs).

What is the best compliment you’ve received as an author?
From M. Joseph Murphy about The Other Side of Philip K. Dick: “The strongest piece of writing I’ve read in years.”

What writing projects are you working on now?
Since I’m one of the partners at Ellysian Press, I don’t always wear my writing hat. Lately I’ve been busy editing and working on our authors’ wonderful novels. However, I do have several of my own novels in various stages. Two are Sci Fi manuscripts. Truthsayer is set in a mining colony about 250 years in the future. Side Step is an alternate universe story. I also have a historical fantasy that spans seven centuries (The Journal) and a fantasy screenplay I wrote years ago that I’m doing the novelization on called The Hourglass.

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3 Fiction Writing Terms: Arcs, Beats, Blurbs

Every occupation has its own set of unique terms, and the writing business is no different. Writers need to understand these terms as much as they need to know the characters they write about. When I began learning the writing craft twenty years ago, I was clueless about many things including simple facts such as MS stands for “manuscript” and a manuscript is an unpublished work. 

This is the second post of a series, a list with definitions and links for further reading that I could have used when I started on my own writing journey.

Arcs

1. Character Arc
“A character arc is the internal struggle and progress a character goes through over the course of a novel that changes him in some way… It can sometimes be confused with character motivations…but why a character acts is different from how he changes because of his actions. Motivation drives the actions. Growth is the result of the actions.” ~ Janice Hardy

K.M. Weiland discusses three types of character arcs on her website:
“The negative change arc tells the story of a character who ends up in a worse place than that in which he started—and probably drags others down with him.” With a positive change arc the protagonist “will be forced to challenge his beliefs about himself and the world, until finally he conquers his inner demons…and ends his arc having changed in a positive way.” A flat character arc (or testing arc) “is about a character who does not change. He already has the Truth figured out in the beginning of the story, and he uses that Truth to help him overcome various external tests.” This type of arc is still one of change because “the character is the one changing the world around him, rather the world changing the character” as is typical with positive and negative arcs.

2. Story Arc (or narrative arc)
More than simply a structure of beginning, middle, and end. According to NowNovel.com, “Story arcs are the overall shape of rising and falling tension or emotion in a story. This rise and fall is created via plot and character development.” Reedsy.com explains, “While the plot is comprised of the individual events that make up your story, your story arc is the sequence of those events.” Also, “The narrative arc is to the story what the character arc is to a character. The narrative arc involves the plot on a grand scale, and a character arc charts the inner journey of a character over the course of the plot.”

For more:
Janice Hardy: “Grow Up Already: Creating Character Arcs”
K.M. Weiland: “Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 1: Can You Structure Characters?” and “How to Write Character Arcs”
NowNovel.com: “Character development questions: Building character arcs”
Reedsy.com: “What is the Narrative Arc? A Guide to Storytelling Through Story Structure”

Beats

1. Action Beats (also dialogue or narrative beats)
Not to be confused with dialogue tags (he said, she yelled), action beats are bits of action interspersed in a character’s conversation in the form of some kind of physical movement (such as body language and facial expressions) and sometimes thoughts. Action beats identify the speaker as the one performing the action and are best used without dialogue tags. “Action beats must serve to move the story forward or advance characterization; they cannot exist only to give the character busy work.” ~ K.M. Weiland

2. Action/Reaction (Emotion) Beats
Barbara Ashford says, “As an actress, I’d drill down into a scene to identify its beats—the moments where the emotion of the character shifts. That not only helped me understand the character’s arc but to depict it convincingly. The same technique can help you craft more compelling scenes in fiction by discovering the emotional truth of every moment and determining if the actions and reactions on the page are making those emotions clear—and vivid—to the reader.” She suggests “if you struggle with creating complex characters or building emotional resonance, try analyzing a moment from a story or novel that you find powerful. Break the scene into beats to determine the moment-by-moment shifts of emotion (s) that the character experiences. Then try the same exercise with one of your own scenes.”

3. Story Beats
A description of the important points or action in a story. A beat sheet is a way of keeping track of those points, similar to an outline. In discussing Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat method of structuring a story, Janice Hardy writes, “Snyder breaks down storytelling into three acts similar to the Three-Act Structure, with very specific turning points in each act (called beats) similar to the Hero’s Journey. In a screenplay, these beats are so precise it even says what page they should happen on, but there’s a little more flexibility in a novel.”

For more:
C.S. Lakin: “Actions Speak Louder than Dialog Tags: Using Beats in Writing”
Janice Hardy: “Plotting with the Save the Cat Beat Sheet Structure”
K.M. Weiland: “An Easy Way to Immediately Improve Your Character’s Action Beats” and “Most Common Writing Mistakes: How Not to Use Speaker Tags and Action Beats”
Storyfix.com: “Introducing the Beat Sheet”

Book Blurbs

1. Back Cover Blurb
A brief summary of a book, written in a compelling way that hooks readers. “At basics, the back blurb is a sales pitch. It has to be almost an exaggeration of your story that entices the reader to buy, or at least download a sample to their Kindle or iPad.” ~ Joanna Penn

2. An Endorsement of a book, preferably by an expert or an author representative of the book’s genre or niche. An early endorsement from an important person in the industry can sway an agent or publisher to an author’s side. “[T]estimonials and endorsements from relevant, influential, or important people tell us that the book we’re thinking about buying is a safe purchase. Favorable comments from people we already trust tell us the book is a low-risk investment. They reassure us.” ~ Build Book Buzz.com

For more:
Joanna Penn: “How To Write Back Blurb For Your Book”
Abigail K. Perry on diyMFA.com: “Writing Back Cover Copy: A Secret for Your Novel’s Success”
Sarah Juckes: “How to Write an Effective Blurb for a Self-Published Book”
Mike Duran: “The Ugly Truth about Author Endorsements”

Writing is a complicated business that includes learning the mechanics and finer points of dialog and story structure, as well as constructing a compelling book blurb and reaching out to others to secure endorsements. So many things to know and learn, but we’re all on this journey together.

Is there a writing term you’d like defined? Include it in a comment below, and I’ll add it to a future post.


Check out the first in the series: “Fiction Writing Terms: Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory.”

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All who wander are not lost.~ JRR Tolkien

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