Interview with author April Wood

I’ve “known” April Wood for several years in that internet 5photos6way where you get to feel like you know people you haven’t actually met in real life. I came across her awesome reader’s blog, A Well Read Woman, while I was promoting my first book.

Well, I noticed a change in her Facebook posts recently and was surprised to discover she had a book out! Then, two books! Needless to say, I was intrigued and wanted to add her to the interview ranks.

Ok, so I’ve always known you as a book blogger and I’m curious about the transition. Have you always written? When did you start calling yourself a writer?

Yes, I’ve been writing since I could form complete sentences on paper. I had all these “books” that I penned with crayon and sealed with contact paper — haha! But I didn’t consider myself a writer per se until I was published. I didn’t feel like I “earned” the title before this.

What has been the hardest thing about publishing? What has been the most fun?

I honestly can’t stand the publishing process but to have a bound book in my hand, that I wrote, has been unbelievably rewarding. It makes all the stress of publishing worth it.

When did you decide you wanted to be published?

As a blogger, I read all these great stories from authors, like yourself, who later became friends of mine. I wanted a piece of that — to share my stories with the world too. I’ve always written, but blogging and becoming part of the book community brought out a passion to fully immerse myself and become a published author myself.

What inspires you? What do you do if you get stuck?

Fantasy novels are fun to write because I can find inspiration from nature, painting a pretty picture with my words and developing settings that I could only dream of.

Writer’s block just plain sucks, but I find if I force myself to just sit down and start typing anyway, that something, even if it’s just a paragraph or an idea to come back to later, will mesh.

Talk a bit about your books. Who do you write for?

I write the kind of books that I would like to read. I write for people who enjoy witchcraft in fiction as much as I do. My stories are about young teen witches who have magical abilities related to their elements (earth, air, fire, water), fall under the spell of romance, and solve mysteries that hit close to home.

Check out April’s author site here.

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How to get the right to use lyrics in books

lyrics blogI imagine every writer has considered the use of song lyrics in their fiction. Music is so much a part of our lives. It can capture the mood, set the time period, connect the reader to a kind of collective memory.

I’ve always been told it couldn’t be done. Every author blog (like this one) and writer’s group I’ve ever known says it’s a headache best avoided. And maybe they’re right when it comes to most musicians, but I got permission from Ani Difranco. Here’s how:

  1. I found the email address of her management on her website.
  2. I ignored internet advice and skipped the legalese, writing a fan gushy request I didn’t honestly expect to hear back from.
  3. I got a reply from her management asking for more specifics.
  4. I replied with the legalese I should have included in my first email, along with more about my publishing history and the book itself.
  5. I got a yes.

So, here’s the info you should probably include up front:

Book title:
Author(s):
Publisher:
Expected release date:
Expected print quantity:
Print formats:
Territory of release:
Term of rights request:

Most of the answers are self-explanatory. For those that aren’t, I used google. I am not a lawyer and I can only tell you that I asked for “nonexclusive rights with no time limit unless or until the copyright owner revokes the permission.” For the expected print quantity, I found differing advice. Some said a low estimate was more likely to succeed while one site said to go with a number beyond your wildest dreams. I went with 10,000. If I sell more than that, I’d be thrilled to renegotiate terms. As it is, they requested a complimentary copy and I’m beside myself thinking Ani might read my book!

I’m planning to release the book, Blood & Water, in November. You can read more about that here.

Has anyone else gone through this process? Please share stories in the comments.

The Writers Circle: Writing Book Reviews

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

A lot of authors rely on readers to provide an honest and (hopefully) positive review for their books on sites like Amazon, Goodreads and others.  Do you do this on a regular basis or only if asked?  Do you do it only if you really loved the book or really hated it? How many plot details do you go into during your review and how do you come up with a rating for it?  As an author, do you look for or ask for reviews?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

Preparing a Novel for Publication – Preparation, Pre-orders, and Promotions, oh my!

Professional publication isn’t easy. Whether you’re traditionally published or self-publishing, you need to present yourself professionally. How your book looks, on the inside and out matters. How you promote your book also matters. Today, I’m going to walk you through how I, a self-publishing author, navigate the murky waters of publication while attempting to be as professional as I possibly can be.

I’m going to draw your attention to one important thing: If you act like a professional, treat yourself and others in a professional fashion, and treat your work like it is a professionally produced product, at the end of the day, you are a professional. It doesn’t matter if you spend $1,500 to produce a novel (like I do) or if you spend $0.00. Professionalism isn’t about budget. It’s about behavior, planning, and executing your publishing plans.

Having a budget helps, though.

I’m going to walk you through how I’ve been working on my upcoming novel, Winter Wolf, from start to finish, including tidbits and tips for a smooth release.

My Process:

  1. Outlining
  2. Drafting
  3. Editing
  4. Cover Art and back-of-cover copy
  5. Pre-Orders
  6. Promotions
  7. Formatting
  8. Publication

1: Outlining, 2: Drafting, 3: Editing

This is pretty self explanatory, so I’m not going to waste a lot of words on it and will instead jump straight to my unasked-for advice: Write your book, and make it as professional as you can. I hired two editors to help me whip Winter Wolf into shape. I’m working like some professional publishing houses do: the publication date is set when the book isn’t completed yet. Unless you are an experienced professional, do not do this. Deadlines like this are serious, and cannot be missed.

  • For most people, the pre-order and promotions phases will not begin until after the editing phase is completed. Your mileage may vary.
  • In this phase, professionalism is really important. Listen to your editors. Let them be picky. They’re improving your novel. Leave your ego at the front door, and always be polite.
  • If you aren’t using editors (not recommended!) then you should take extreme care and caution with your work. Use your word processor’s grammar checker, and confirm each and every rule. If you’re breaking a rule, you need to know the rule and why it’s acceptable to break it.
  • Use a synonym checker and master list of commonly misused words. Their and there are two different words! So are where, were, and ware.

Fun Fact: My outline for Winter Wolf was so detailed it was pretty much a first draft, which in turn makes the drafting and editing process much smoother. It took well over a week to completely detail the novel, make corrections, and do my developmental editing chores. As a result, the drafting and editing phase is well ahead of schedule.

4: Cover Art and Back-of-Cover Copy

Winter Wolf by RJ Blain This is the finished cover for my upcoming novel, Winter Wolf. Due to the importance of the cover art, I actually ordered the cover art from my artist, Chris Howard, in the very early stages of production. Once Chris started working on the cover, it took approximately a month to finish. The texting, commonly referred to as typography, was done independently with a different graphic designer.

A professional cover artist can help you create an attractive, compelling cover. But also remember that not all cover artists are graphic designers, and you want a graphic designer handling your typography.

Since the cover should tie to the novel, I did the back-of-cover blurb shortly after the cover art was completed. It took me about five hours to come up with my blurb, and I didn’t finalize it until I gauged the interest from some fans and readers.

Here’s the blurb I’m using:

The Hunted Wizard

When Nicole dabbled in the occult, she lost it all: Her voice, her family, and her name. Now on the run from the Inquisition, she must prove to herself—and the world—that not all wizards are too dangerous to let live.

The savage murder of a bookstore employee throws Nicole into the middle of Inquisition business, like it or not. Driven by her inability to save the young man’s life, she decides to hunt the killer on her own. Using forbidden magic to investigate the past, she learns that the murderer is in fact a disease that could kill the entire werewolf race.

Forced to choose between saving lives and preserving her own, Nicole embraces the magic that sent her into exile. Without werewolves, the power of the Inquisition would dwindle, and she could live without being hunted.

Nicole’s only hope for success lies in the hands of the werewolves she hates and the Inquisition she fears, but finding someone to trust is only the beginning of her problems. There are those who want to ensure that the werewolves go extinct and that the Inquisition falls.

But, if she fails to find a cure, her family—including her twin sister—will perish…

Why did I choose this blurb? I feel it has the important elements of a good blurb: It has a character who has a problem to solve. It tells a bit of what the story is about–but not too much. Finally, it hints at the consequences of the character’s failure, and what she gains should she succeed.

These are the types of blurbs that appeal to me, which is why I asked friends and fans for their opinions. I settled on this blurb because it resonates with me, and it’s also appealing to others who like the type of stories I write. That’s important–you want to write a blurb which attracts readers who enjoy the types of stories you write.

These were all marketing decisions, as the blurb is one of many weapons in my publication arsenal.

Tip: Professionals don’t insult the tastes of readers in their blurbs. The blurb is about the book, not you, your opinions, and whether or not you think books of whatever sub genre are boring. Exceptions may apply, especially in parody works.

5: Pre-order

Amazon recently opened pre-order functionality to self-publishing authors. Winter Wolf is my initial experience into the pre-ordering system. Here’s a very brief walkthrough of how it works from a writer’s perspective, and how to set it up:

1: Fill in the book data as normal.

However, this time, you have the option of marking a ‘finalized file’ or a ‘draft manuscript.’ For Winter Wolf, I am using a dummy manuscript of the approximate length of the actual book. The manuscript isn’t ready to be finalized, nor will it be ready until mid October. Most authors should not do this. I’m good at meeting my deadlines, and I’m experienced with doing so. If you are not the same way, absolutely do not start a pre-order unless you are 100% certain you can have the finalized manuscript ready on time. Amazon will ban those who fail to have their manuscripts ready from the pre-order system for one full year.

You do not want this.

Tip: Professionals meet their deadlines.

2: Select a date

Amazon and other pre-order services require the finalized manuscript two complete weeks prior to the novel’s official release date. Most services will ban you from pre-ordering if you fail to have the manuscript prepared on time. Yes, I’m repeating myself, but it’s really that important.

Buyers will be able to see your pre-order approximately 24 hours after submission, where they can click “pre-order” to buy the book. They’ll be charged for the book on the day of the novel’s release.

6: Promotions

Armed with your pre-order links, you can arrange any promotions you want without having the stress of doing a soft launch or needing to get links to your bloggers at the last minute. This is a huge relief, as someone who had to do this. My previous novel’s release was beyond hectic, as I didn’t have buy links until the last minute.

  • Research your promotion companies–there are great ones, and there are scams. Research, and don’t accept the first site you find as the final say. The hours you spend researching may save you a lot of grief and heartache later.
  • Many promotion firms require at least six to eight weeks to prepare for a tour or single-day blast promotion.
  • I’m using six different groups for promotion of Winter Wolf. I’m really proud of this novel, and I feel it is worth the investment.

Tips on Professionalism: When working with promotion groups, stay polite, if you’re asked for something, deal with it as soon as possible, and have patience. A single advertising campaign may take you hours to properly prepare.

7: Formatting

Sometime between the editing phase and the publication date, formatting the novel is necessary. You’ll need to format twice; once for the ARC, and once for the production copy. You may need to format three times, if you’re doing a print manuscript. From past experience, it takes me several hours to format a novel for publication, and I’m experienced enough to have streamlined the process.

  • The interior of your novel matters. Do it right. If you can’t, hire someone to do it right for you. If you don’t know how to do it right, learn–do not publish until you’ve mastered your formatting. Always check for errors if you’re converting files.
  • As with many things, plans included, ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ applies–the simpler your formatting is, the less likely there will be problems over different devices.
  • My first formatting run is done a month prior to the novel’s release so I can send the book to reviewers. The second formatting run is for the finalized version, which will be done several days before my deadline for submission.

8: Publication

Two weeks prior to the official publication date, the finalized manuscript goes into all systems. At this stage, I’ll be completely done. On publication day, all I’ll have to do is sit back and watch.

That’s how my novel is being dealt with this time–a very drastic difference compared to how my other books were produced. This method won’t work for everyone. However, the basic principles of professionalism still apply, no matter how you approach completing your novel.

In short, these are the things I’d suggest to you if you want to carry yourself as a professional:

  1. Swallow your ego and correct your mistakes.
  2. Don’t argue with people helping you. Either use their advice or don’t, but listen and keep quiet unless you have a question.
  3. Always be polite–even if it means gaining a reputation of being old fashioned from saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ so much.
  4. If you can’t be kind to a reviewer of your book, don’t say a word.
  5. If you say you’ll do something, do it.
  6. Don’t miss your deadlines. (Excuses won’t get Amazon to overturn the 1 year ban from pre-ordering.)
  7. Edit your novel.
  8. Proofread your novel.
  9. Proofread your novel again. People are paying you for your book. You don’t want basic mistakes! (All books have them, just fix them when someone finds one.)
  10. Yet again, proofread your novel.

Good luck.

How does one’s personality affect setting and detail contained in his fiction?

If you read my prior article, Feeling the arpeggio resonate in your chest, you’ll recall I described feeling let down from what I perceived to be lack of detail contained within a contemporary work of fiction I was reading at the time.  This got me thinking:  How does one’s personality affect setting and detail contained in his fiction?

Without diving into a detailed analysis of type theory, let’s just say I consider myself to be a detail-oriented person.  I’m the type of person who maintains meticulous auto repair records; I record water quality readings of my two freshwater aquariums on a weekly basis; I even visually inspect by eye for level, square-ness, and symmetry of buildings and homes whenever I enter them.

As I paused to ponder my own personality traits, I realize they play a significant role in the setting and detail contained within my fiction.  If I bring my reader into a house built in the 1920s, I’m going to describe how the wood-trim moulding is large, ornate, and covered in six-coats of lead-based paint.  But is that level of detail really important to readers?

For some readers, I suspect plot is of key concern and the little details don’t matter.  I was one of those readers in high-school literature classes.  I wanted enough detail to answer the questions on the test, but wasn’t interested in reading a story for entertainment when I had three more hours of additional homework to finish that night.

As an adult, I now read for entertainment and knowledge and therefore want to be surprised by the little details contained in the story.  If the fiction I’m reading is following a motley crew of pirates in search of hidden treasure, then I want to learn a little bit about the interior construction and layout of their Schooner vessel in addition to simply reading the character development.

Now acknowledging different types of readers and writers in the world, I’m starting to understand why some stories become instant classics while others only ever entertain a limited audience.

Someplace in the World

WorldGlobesShariStories happen someplace in the world, but not just anyplace. Someplace special where I will take you. That’s the purpose of writing about specific locations and periods and incorporating them into our stories. We writers take our readers to places they may never have been at times they couldn’t have traveled. Try to imagine Khaled Hosseini’s young runner, Hassan, chasing a blue kite down the sidewalks of Parkway Avenue in Trenton, NJ rather than across the snaggletooth alleys of Kabul, Afghanistan before the revolution. Doesn’t have the same panache.  Or consider Charles Dickens’ famished Oliver Twist begging for soup from the cafeteria lady at the school lunchroom instead of the miserly master of a workhouse in 1800’s London. Not nearly as desperate. Floating in a hot air balloon over Albuquerque is a daily errand compared to the heart stopping thrill of racing around the world for 80 days at the imagination of Jules Verne. You can’t gallop the Pony Express in Manhattan or mush the Iditarod in the Everglades.

The places where our stories happen are as important as the characters that people them and the events that energize them. When well realized, each complements the others and creates memorable images that propel the plot. More, the plot is possible because of those locations. Even if you have never visited Kabul, Trenton, the Great Plains, Nome, or hitched a ride in a balloon gondola, you have a sense of the roiling sky above, the smell on the street, the sounds pummeling your ears, the motion that nearly makes you sick. Ignore location in your books and run the risk of readers dismissing your work. “Where in the world does this take place?” you can hear them ask, and if they do, you have failed.

How then, to include a genuine scene of the exotic or extinct in your story, to be in that place at that moment when you’re potatoing at your computer? My own stories have begun as much in a place as with a hero and a quest. They are lock stepped into a setting as distinctive and essential as The Great Wall is to China, into a period as horrific as the Inquisition is to 15th century Spain. The Inlaid Table was born in a shtetl in Poland between the two world wars and otherwise would have been a laminated TV tray. Where Did Mama Go? is as fastened to the current  zeitgeist of Alzheimer’s discourse as cell phones are glued to teenagers. The Tree House Mother would only have been a description of a backyard fort were it not for the twisting narrow roads that confounded fire departments when Lemon Heights burned in the 1960’s.

Our house was only a few miles from the center of that inferno. I remember the billowing black smoke that rained ashes on the flatlands where we lived. If there is an authentic voice to the fire in my story it’s because of a bit of luck forged years before. My parents were longtime friends with a couple who lived in the hills.  When the fire combusted, our family worried for everyone but we knew who we worried for the most. They were safe and their house stood, as it turns out, but many years later the woman proved an amazing source of first hand information. I recalled a lot about that week but I hadn’t been in the hills, a foot from flames. She had.

I phone-interviewed Anita for hours over several days and met with her in a restaurant where I could sense the anxiety she’d felt all those decades past. She told me things no one had reported, details that gave flesh to a skeleton of an event. About the lost fire trucks, the panicked horses, the police coming around twice to warn people to evacuate, the water department manager who stood on the roof of the building and watched the fire leap ridgelines.

Then she brought out a packet of newspapers in a plastic sleeve, an entire journalistic rehash for two weeks of detailed reporting, and allowed me to take them home. Studying those papers was a boon I couldn’t have planned. Small town reporters know that a once in a lifetime opportunity to write up something other than football scores and broken hydrants is to be mined for every ounce of fool’s gold and diamond dust, because it might be the only chance to move out of the minor leagues up to the real deal. The local newshounds honed their skills with attention to detail, accurate fact collecting worthy of the FBI, and local color so neon that everyone knew exactly who’d been interviewed and which houses burned. Thank you one and all, you young cubs, and I hope you went on to bylines and columns of your own.

I studied the papers, I re-wrote my notes, I pondered, and had plenty of true life detail to write into my otherwise fabricated story. My hero, a figment of my imagination, got sidelined by horses fleeing down the road. She gave directions to lost firemen. I know from personal experience the acrid scent of smoke, how hot are raging flames, but the frightened horses and lost firemen – that was the contribution of my friend, Anita. She doesn’t write stories but she remembered.

Do whatever you need to gather first person evidence. If you can’t interview Columbus or visit Spain, scour diaries, census records, personal letters, almanacs, ship registers, train schedules, old maps, and supply lists. Snoop where snooping will unearth something useful, even though you won’t know how useful till you’re writing. Get those facts and thread them into your story so your reader will smack his hand against his head and declare, “Feels like I’m right in the middle of this.”

Be well, friend.

Book Review: The Guns of Retribution by Icy Sedgwick

The Guns of RetributionMy name is Virginia Diaz and as this is my introductory post here at Today’s Author, I’d just like to say howdy and tell you something about myself. I, like many others who read and write for Today’s Author, was that kid–you know, the one who read incessantly, voraciously, and also kinda non-stop once she had found the true value of reading wasn’t that she passed the test or got praise from her teachers and parents, but that it was a place all her own–in fact, millions of places, zillions of places, an infinite multi-verse to which she could escape and have adventures both romantic and strange. That was me–is still me–is us, I think.

Yeah, I know you already know about the value of the shared word–you’re here aren’t you? But, how did we get here to that exceptional love of reading? Each of us, of course, had her or his own journey. As far as I can remember, mine began with an adventurous kids’ book about the famous Money Pit on Oak Island which ignited my imagination like nothing I had read before ever had. I was about 10 or 11 years old and the exact title and author’s name escapes me, but the experience of reading it remains decades later. Before that, I wasn’t at all likely to pick up a “boy’s book” like a treasure hunting adventure, but since then, well considering how that one book had changed my view of reading, limiting myself from any genre seemed silly.

Not only am I one who loves reading and has a love-hate for writing (you know what I mean if you’ve ever had writer’s block) but I really love to pull the storytelling apart like a clock and see what makes it tick–and talk about it–man, I love to discuss why a particular set of words works well or doesn’t work at all.

And so, I come around to what my main focus here at Today’s Author will be: Book Reviews. In keeping with the spirit of this site’s purpose to encourage new and independent writers, I will be focusing mainly on self-published authors and small presses. (If this is you and you’d like me to consider reviewing your work here at Today’s Author, make contact in the comments.)

As I previously wrote, I will read just about anything–even “boys’ books” like westerns, so today I’ll be reviewing Icy Sedgwick’s just re-released novella western The Guns of Retribution (Beat to a Pulp, 2013). The Guns of Retribution is a story of one Grey O’Donnell, a tragic hero of the old west whose fatal flaw seems to be that, while he can bring justice for others through his wits, determination, and quick shooting, those victories come at great personal cost to Grey. For Grey, no good deed goes unpunished and nearly every truth told or act of common decency is paid back with betrayal and deceit–it’s awesome! Okay, it’s not awesome for Grey or for anyone who he cares about for they also feel the brunt of his misfortune, but as a metaphor for how capricious fate can be, and how we puny humans can do little to truly influence our fate and change our lives for the better, it’s awesome.

One of the other strengths of the book is Sedgwick’s deft handling of description. As a reader I have always found heavy-handed description to be hugely distracting and sometimes even enough to put me off a book (I really don’t need to know what the characters had for dinner for three paragraphs, you know?). The description in The Guns of Retribution is sprinkled between the action and throughout the dialogue so smoothly that the reader hardly notices that it is description and it sure as shootin’ doesn’t pull one out of the narrative, but instead allows the reader’s mind’s eye to fill in the blanks. In a tale meant to move fast and take no prisoners (okay there are like half a dozen people taken prisoner, but that’s not the point) the author still manages to create a full, lush world populated by the old familiar archetypes of the genre given new liveliness and deeper motivations.

The one real criticism I do have is that while Sedgwick’s female characters ring true in both words and actions, they rarely get a chance to interact with each other. The femme fatal, Madeline Beaufontaine, is a near perfect characterization of that well used trope–she is sexy bad news and we know it from the moment we meet her. She also has a sister, the lovely Violet, who keeps the town of Sandwater’s only inn and puts herself squarely on Grey’s side through her actions. However, all the reader gets to know about their relationship is what others–mostly male characters–tell us. As I read I kept waiting for the scene when those very opposite sisters would interact, but it never happened. Cocheta, an Apache woman from Grey’s past, gives voice to her entire tribe and has a hand in the resolution of the main plot, but her sole interaction with another female character is to hold her daughter’s hand in the background of a scene. Certainly, the author should be credited for creating well rounded women, but as a reader I would have loved for her to go another step farther and let us have some more interaction between the womenfolk.

I have heard rumors of an upcoming sequel and I am very much looking forward to more adventures with Grey O’Donnell in the cruel, dry world that Icy Sedgwick has built. And, if I had my wish, Grey would meet up with his own version of Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley to give the world of The Guns of Retribution an even more well-rounded feel.

Intergalactic War II

So, in case you missed it, yesterday Matt committed the most heinous act of blasphemy ever by anyone, even tangentially, associated with sci-fi. Although he will be forgiven, the Vogons have been notified.
vogons
But I do understand where he’s coming from. He fell victim to one of the classic blunders–Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could never have lived up to what it had become in his mind. We’ve all fallen victim to this, and if we’re being honest we’ve all probably done it to other people.

For me, it’s Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I hated this book. A visceral, palpable hatred. But I doubt it has much to do with the story or the writing. No, my ex ruined this book. She was both horrified and excited to find out that I’d never read it. Not only did she run right out and buy a copy for me… she hovered. She asked me, at least twice each day, how much I’d read. Did I get to the part where…? Did I like the part where…? Eventually, I finished the book just to get rid of my literary stalker.

In subsequent years I’ve thought about giving the book another try. This book is nearly universally loved by sci-fi types, so it’s probably safe to assume that I’d like it if I gave it a fair shot. But even the thought of reading it again starts my teeth grinding. And even though, in my head I know that my distaste didn’t stem from a weak story, or bad writing, or over-description, or any of my other pet peeves about writing–even though I know that I dislike the book because of the conditions under which I read it–I know I’ll never revisit it because it already has a negative impression.

It would be easy for me to point out to the formerly good guy, Matt, that much of his impression of the book might have been attributed to having inflated preconceptions about Hitchhiker’s. That part of the magic of the book is how it tends to catch readers off-guard with its silly characters and ridiculous plot. It is making fun of serious sci-fi as much as it’s making fun of society. But by the time Evil Overlord Matt read the book, these weren’t a surprise to him. He expected a funny book. In fact, he probably expected a very funny book.

I guess the moral here is to be careful when making recommendations to your friends. You can easily ruin the very thing you’re trying to sell.

That, and Matt should be punished for his heresy.
vogons2

A how-to guide for starting the next intergalactic war

I fear I’m about to start the next intergalactic war by making the following statement:  I am not a fan, nor do I highly recommend reading Douglas Adams’ book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Wait!  Before you energize your photon light sword thingamajigs, just hear me out!

It seems science fiction was never really my cup of tea.

I believe my first taste of science fiction likely came in the form of a toy included within a McDonald’s Happy Meal in 1983.  What else would have prompted an impressionable six-year-old to want to see Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in the movie theaters?  Although now thirty years later, my only memories of that franchise are of an icy-cold air-conditioned movie house, a 16-oz white plastic commemorative soda cup in which the silkscreened characters wore off after three washes, and a glossy-covered activity sticker-book.

In the late eighties, as I entered my ‘tween years, I recall painful memories of being trapped in the house on rainy Saturday afternoons, channel-surfing across old television shows like Buck Rogers and the original Star Trek series.  Snore.  This was boring stuff for a nine year old that would rather be outside riding his bicycle.

A few more years passed until the fall of 1991.  I was a freshman in high school and now afforded the liberty of non-chaperoned trips to the mall with friends on Friday and Saturday nights.  That’s when I first discovered the book.  Nestled mid-way back of a small bookshop was a book title that jumped out in front of me and shook me for attention:  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Somewhat intrigued, I picked the book up off the shelf and read the synopsis on the back cover.  Seems interesting, I thought, but not today.

Over the next twenty years The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came to haunt me dozens of times.  There were references in television programs, strategic placement on library bookshelves intended to catch my eye, and of course, casual conversion.  But by this point in my life I was pretty certain science fiction wasn’t the genre for me.  After all, at the time it seemed just about every science fiction story involved spaceships, lasers, and smugglers, right?

It wasn’t until five years ago I was browsing bookshelves to pick up a story or two for an upcoming vacation, when again the same book title jumped out and shook me.  Something was different, however.  This time I thought, everyone I’ve heard over the years who gave this book a rave review can’t be wrong, can they? For twenty years I’ve never heard anything but good reviews for this book.  That’s it, I’m buying it!

I proceeded to read the book on the plane as I journeyed down to Florida.  It kept my interest with its quirky humor, sure.  But looking back, I can’t help but recall feeling there was so much more Douglas Adams could have done with the story.  Many of the book’s conflicts felt rushed.  There was the setup to great action and conflict that could have been drawn out for pages and pages, but instead was wrapped up and resolved in a page and a half.  I also felt I didn’t really get to know the characters.  To me, that was extremely disappointing.

As a writer, I self-discovered two lessons by reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  First, I learned that if I ever write a high-intensity scene—like where a character might get sucked out of a spaceship—to really work hard to draw out the action over several pages or an entire chapter.  Second, I learned creating a plot outline beforehand may help narrow the scope of the story’s plot.

But as a reader, I learned there’s more to science fiction than spaceships, lasers, and smugglers.

Lessons from Camelot

Tori Amos once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that choosing her favorite song was like choosing a favorite child, and that whichever she didn’t choose would feel the rejection. That’s the way I feel about choosing just one book that has influenced me.

Before I tell you the winner, let me at least tell you who was in the running, so I don’t feel as guilty. On Writing by Stephen King, IT by Stephen King, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, and anything by Joyce Carol Oates.

I still feel guilty. So many of my favorites hung out to dry.

But there must be a winner. And that lucky book is . . . The Mists of Avalon!

For those of you unfamiliar with this book, it’s about the Arthurian legend, told predominantly from the point of view of Morgan le Fey (Morgaine as Bradley calls her) and focuses on the struggles and adventures of the women involved in this tale.

I read this book at two dramatically different times in my life. First as a 17-year old, and then as a 30-year old, and I must say that the second experience of reading it was as exhilarating and as meaningful as the first. This is a common concern: that I’ll revisit my favorite books, only to find them lackluster and wilted with the years. But not so in this case.

At 17, I was just beginning to come into my feminism. I wasn’t quite sure what that word meant to me, or how it would shape my life. When my best friend turned me on to MOA, the first thing that struck me was that this was a novel about women, told in their voices. At the time, that was a revolutionary thought, and it made sudden sense to me. Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin are all well and good, but there are so many women who play pivotal roles in the legend—let’s hear about them! I liked that Bradley doesn’t just give voice to Gwenhwyfar (who has always been a heavy-hitter), but she recasts Morgaine, exhumes her from the dustbin of witchery, haggery, deformity, and places her within that iconic triangle of Arthur, Lancelot, and Gwenhwyfar as a powerful character. In fact, Bradley crafts a whole mess of triangles (feminist, much?) and throws her characters from one to the other, showing that stories—and history, perhaps—are shaped and reshaped. Stories are malleable.

So, at 17, I was struck by the blatant woman-ness of the novel. It made me feel strong and wise, and it tapped into my feelings of sensuality and desire.

At 30, I had much the same reaction. I was just as excited to read the first few lines (“Morgaine speaks . . . In my time I have been called many things: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen . . . ), I was just as tapped into that feeling of sensuality, I was just as interested in the range of women Bradley develops and in their public and private concerns. And I had the same distaste and frustration with the ending, which I won’t elaborate on here (in case you want to read the book yourself).

Besides affecting me in terms of my feminism, the book influenced my writing as well. First of all, MOA gave me permission (that I clearly needed) to write about women. Second, it showed me that even if I was writing about the Arthurian legend, or 19th century mining towns, or how I felt that day about a boy, there should be a running current of real, relatable, human concerns. Everything that goes on in MOA has to do with power, lust, hope, betrayal, love and forgiveness — despite what other fantastical things might be happening — and those are feelings/experiences we all know and can access. I learned (and am still learning) to use those big feelings, especially when I’m writing something that seems obscure or strange. Readers will relate if you give them something to relate to.  Another thing I learned from MOA is something that I brought up in my introductory post; this thing about intentionally shifting focus from the heavy-hitters, the big guns, the main attraction, so to speak, and focusing instead on the periphery. For Bradley, Morgaine was peripheral, as was her mother, Igraine, and as were so many other women in the Arthurian legend. Peripheral, or nonexistent. Bradley chose to put these characters front and center, and create other characters that reflected common, relatable problems women (and men, for that matter) face.

Lastly, I learned that writing can interweave both fact and fiction, that I can take what serves me most in what is out there—news stories, legends, historical accounts— and zoom in on what interests me so that I can focus, shift, add to, and reshape them to make something new.