Friday Q & A: The Book Soundtrack

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Someone recently asked me this question, so I thought I’d extend it to all my fellow authors, as well:

Do you write with a “soundtrack”?

My answer:
Personally, I’m a music person (I grew up immersed in it), so I always have both a “series soundtrack” and a separate soundtrack for each book I write… a playlist of songs that keep the creative juices flowing and help me get into the “zone” of a particular book (it’s part of the secret to how I can write multiple books in multiple genres all at the same time, without ever confusing things… As soon as the “soundtrack” for that book starts, I’m instantly in that “zone”… Since I use the same soundtrack when drafting the storyline as I do when I’m writing, my brain’s conditioned to the pattern by the time I start writing…:) …)

If you have a question you’d like me to answer about writing in general, my process, my books, etc, please go to my FAQ Page and leave your question at the bottom of the page. I’ll select questions to answer on my blog every Friday, and those and other questions will be posted to the FAQ page, as well.

It’s All Geek: Perspectives on Science and the Paranormal (and why I write both, simultaneously)

I can’t tell you how many times I hear “But if you’re so science-minded, why do you write Paranormals, and believe in the paranormal?” Like these two things are mutually exclusive, and acknowledging one excludes me from acknowledging or understanding the other.

This is a stereotype I’m sick of. So let me set the record straight, once and for all. Parapsychology, the paranormal sciences, and physical science are not mutually exclusive. They never have been. The base concept of science is, in itself, to explain the unexplained. Let’s take a look at a few established principles, and a few conceptual theories, to explore what I’m talking about.

15524593-northern-lights-aurora-borealis-dramatic-landscape

A mere five hundred years (plus or minus change) ago, the science of the day declared the Earth flat, and that the heavens revolved around the Earth. This planet was, by established science of the day, the center of the universe. The concept of space flight wasn’t even a glimmer, and the established medicine of the day often involved the judicious application of leeches, for everything from poisoning to excessive bleeding (I’d love to see someone explain that one!).

The people who dared to challenge this established science of the day were labelled insane or heretics. They were often ostracized, sometimes imprisoned, and in some cases even put to death for daring to challenge the established science of the day and/or look for explanations to those things deemed inexplicable, at that time.

Thank goodness we’ve come so far, right? But have we really? When science declares something “hogwash” or “ridiculous” without exploring the possibilities inherent within it, that science loses its ability to truly function as it should – it loses the flexibility to bend and explore new dimensions and possibilities within our universe. Without that flexibility, without the “what if,” most of the science we take for granted today would never have existed.

I firmly believe that science holds the key to unlocking the potential of the human spirit. As Einstein once said, imagination is more important than knowledge. Anyone can spout knowledge. Being able to imagine how that knowledge might be put to use is of far greater value. While science seems content to study the human brain at length, it fails to explore how that brain chemistry might apply to things which, today, appear “paranormal.”

“Paranormal,” by most basic definition, means “outside of the normal.” By this definition, in the 1500s, the law of gravity, for example, would have been considered “paranormal.” So would Columbus’ assertions that the world was actually round, rather than flat, or Copernicus and Galileo with their “crazy” theories regarding the heavens above us. A mere hundred years ago, the computers we so take for granted as part of “normal” life were considered “science fiction” and completely, utterly paranormal, by the word’s definition.

Medical science will be the first to admit they do not have all the answers to how the human brain works, or even what it might be capable of. By this very admittance, they lay the groundwork for the possibility of eventually being able to empirically test for and gauge things like clairvoyance, clairaudience, Psychokinesis, telepathy, and a host of other parapsychological conditions. I firmly believe that, in time, science will uncover the root of these types of abilities, and will be able to study it very effectively, and therefore expand our knowledge and use of such abilities, taking them firmly from the realm of “paranormal” and into the realm of “normal.”

By the same token, I believe that science will one day progress to the point of being able to prove, conclusively, the existence of the spirit (human and animal) and its ability to survive corporeal death. Already, we see rapid advances in the methodology and equipment used to study and document potential hauntings, and I believe that if these advances continue to happen, and people continue to strive for that understanding, someone will stumble into the same kind of “eureka!” moment Archimedes did when he figured out volume displacement.

To understand why I believe this, I will apply some simple, established science. Namely, the First Law of Thermodynamics (otherwise known as the Law of Conservation of Energy and Matter). It states that matter cannot be either created or destroyed. It simply changes form to fit new conditions or environments. Medical science proves that the human body is animated through a complicated and not-completely-understood system of bio-electric signals, chemical reactions, etc. Basically, the human body is a kind of living, working biological battery/computer. We put off a tremendous amount of energy, in the form of heat. This is best seen in how our bodies begin to overheat when we are exerting a lot of energy, thereby requiring our bodies to kick in their onboard coolant system (sweat) to help cool us down. When we exert energy in a focused manner, we do so by transferring said energy to another activity or object – say, picking up a box. The energy our bodies generate through the use of fuel (food, water, air, etc) is transferred into kinetic energy, which allows us to grip and lift the box, at which time the kinetic energy is changed into force energy, applied against gravity to lift the box.

So, if we are batteries, with all this stored up energy at our disposal at any time, when we die, what happens to all that energy? The Law of Conservation of Energy and Matter says that it has to go somewhere. It can’t simply disappear. Rather, it must change form to fit its new environment and situation. In time, this energy might be absorbed into other things which utilize energy, or it might continue to absorb energy from around itself, taking on a more definitive form. In both of these cases, it would be following the Law of Conservation of Energy, and by the same token become the energy source known as “ghosts” or “spirits.” Since a large part of the energy we store up is stored in the brain, logic would follow that the energy released to a new form during death would retain some measure of its former use, at least for a while. Those electrical pulses that carry information and accumulated knowledge around the brain could retain some kind of energy “memory” which would allow for the intelligent interactions experienced by paranormal investigators.

The same principles of scientific thought can easily be established to many areas currently deemed “paranormal.” As such, I say with confidence that I do not actually believe there is a division between the paranormal and science. Instead, I think the one (science) simply hasn’t yet arrived at point where it is capable of empirical measurement of the things we at current deem “paranormal.” But I do believe the time will come when these fields of study collide, and I don’t believe it is very far off, either. In the meantime, I will continue to write my geeked-out, scientific paranormals, and enjoy the hell out of knowing that, on this front, I’m ahead of the curve.

Demoralizing Creativity: Artistic Careers and Popular Misconception

ZappaFound this on Facebook (I assume it’s correct, but I haven’t verified… I just agree with the sentiment, wherever it came from)

And, by the way, it’s not a “hobby”… I don’t mind giving away free books – to people who are actually going to review them. I don’t mind sharing my work, with people who actually want to read it. But this isn’t a hobby, it’s not a “cute little pastime,” or any of a thousand other insulting little turns of phrase you might come up with. Writing is my career. It was my very first occupation (even before I learned to actually write the alphabet), and it’s always been my goal to write full-time. Having to work another job in order to pay bills is a frustration I have to put up with, but that other job is the “moonlighting” one… that is the secondary job, whatever it happens to be, at the time.

So every time you think you’re not hurting anyone by downloading a pirated book, every time you think it’s “okay” to demand free access/free copies of books that no one has paid for (I’m not talking about borrowing from the library – libraries buy their books, to lend), think about this – if you went into work tomorrow, and your boss said “By the way, you’ll be working for free from now on. We’ve decided it’s okay not to pay you, because we decided it doesn’t hurt anyone if we don’t.” how long would you keep working there?
So why do you expect an author to work for free?
Writing is a career – so be a responsible human being: Buy a book if you want to read it (whether hard copy or e-book), and if you get a free copy from an author, realize that it’s not a right — they’re doing you a favor, and return the favor by spreading the word – tell your friends, post a review, comment about it on social media. If you want to call yourself a “fan” then show it by acting like one – your support tells the author you give a damn, and inspires them to keep writing. Stealing from us just tells us you don’t respect us or care about the work we do, and takes away our desire to keep writing.

Human Condition: Writing Strong Characters

The one question I get asked consistently that still baffles me when I get asked it is “Why do you write strong female characters?”

*blinks* I don’t.

I write human characters. I write women and men (equally) who have faced or are facing their most difficult battles. Men and women with scars that run deep enough to make them wary of life, and people. Men and women who have made mistakes they would give anything to undo, been the victims (and then survivors) of horrors and crimes that test the human spirit and one’s ability to survive.

I don’t see the distinction between a “male” and “female” role – human beings, as a species, can be heroic, courageous, strong, and compassionate in equal measure. They can also be petty, vengeful, self-absorbed, and all things villains are made of.

I write heroes and heroines that aren’t just cardboard tropes, because “perfect” people don’t exist, and they’re impossible to live up to. The hero who always does the right thing isn’t just boring, he’s impossibly difficult to aspire to be. As humans, we all stumble, we all fail, at some point. Sometimes it’s the little things, and sometimes it’s big ones. It’s not about the stumble, or the fall. It’s about how we pick ourselves back up afterward, how we set about making things right, and how we learn from our experience. My heroes quite often face monumental mistakes or self-created demons — they suffer regrets, and they have very real fears. They understand human nature, and they’re neither afraid of, nor threatened by, the strength of their female counterparts. While they often have strong protective instincts, they’re also highly aware of their female counterpart’s ability to take care of herself – sometimes, they’re even awed by it. :)

Likewise, my heroines aren’t all pristine little virgins who are all sweetness and light. Many of them have equally dark (and sometimes darker) pasts as their counterpart heroes. They come from histories of abuse (either externally- or self-inflicted or, in some cases, both), they’ve made mistakes, and they’ve struggled for everything they get in life. These heroines are kick-ass not because they’re inexplicably tough, but because they’ve had to become tough. Their struggles have taught them what to hang on to, and what to let go of. Who to trust, and when to pull the trigger. They don’t quake in the face of demons, because they’ve already looked into their own darkness, and come out the other side, stronger. They use their own demons to fight the world’s demons, and they’re not afraid to stand side-by-side, or toe-to-toe, with their male counterparts.

I write these kinds of characters because they give each and every one of us hope. They let us see that there’s no pit too deep to crawl out of, no issue too insurmountable to claw our way out of. I write these kinds of characters to remind myself and my readers that the human spirit is indomitable, that we can survive anything. I write these kinds of characters to show people it’s okay to be strong, that there’s no reason to be afraid of strength, in either ourselves or in others, as long as we remember that strength is not about power. My characters are there to remind us of the difference – that strength is about abandoning the quest for power, about making ourselves vulnerable. Vulnerable to each other, and vulnerable to our own demons, our own past, our own selves. My characters teach people to strip away the outer shell of “everything’s just fine” lies we show the world at large, and take a deep, long look into our insecurities, pains, and personal failures.

And that, dear readers, is why I don’t write just strong female characters. I write strong human characters.

Legends of Tirum

Legends of Tirum

Underground

Underground

“You’re Only As Good…” : The Intersection of Trauma, Fiction, and Publication

I know it probably sounds pathetic to most people that I identify myself so much by my career as an author – especially since I’m not and likely never will get rich doing it. I know there are plenty of people who, no matter what they say to my face, probably think it’s a waste of my time, because it’s not liable to make me rich.

 

I’ve always identified myself as an author… For as long as I can remember (back to even before I could read or write in reality), I’ve had that facet of myself, that identity wrapped up inside me. In my tumultuous childhood, writing was a lifeline, and the only voice I really had.  Life traumas have left me questioning whether or not I should have ever published, but never whether or not I should have ever written.  I think that’s the part that confuses some people.  They think the two are interlinked, and that if one writes, one must publish.

 

Truth? In some ways, I was much happier with my writing, before I published. The self-doubt and self-loathing I’ve struggled most of my life with didn’t invade my writing world until I published the first time… That was when the inner chorus of “See, you’re not worth anything” and “I told you no one wants you” and the “Why do you bother?” grew louder… and every time someone looks down their nose at me about “wasting time” or my “hobby,” that chorus gets louder still.  Every time the icy shoulders come out or someone talks over top of me or changes the subject when I start talking about my books, the chorus becomes more insistent.  Every time I schedule/pay for time to advertise, only to have someone else horn in, and everyone instantly turns their attention to that other person’s work, the chorus becomes deafening.

 

Truth? For every one person I’ve received an e-mail from about how much my work has helped them (and yes, there have been a number… I’m not discrediting that) over the years,  there have been twenty who haven’t even given me or my work a chance, and who’ve done the “snake oil salesman” routine, and told me “how wonderful” my work is, like I can’t see through them, and like I don’t know they’ve never read a word… not even the free postings I’ve offered over the years (and I’m not saying anyone has to read anything I write… what I’m asking for is honesty. If you don’t read it, don’t tell me you think it’s “wonderful”… I’d much rather you just said, “It’s not my speed” than lie to me, thanks.).

 

Am I bitter? No, that’s not the word I would use. Bitterness implies being angry at someone else, or a system, and I’m not. I know how this game is played. The problem is, I’m no good at playing it. I believe an author’s work should be able to speak for itself, not that the author should be out there prostituting themselves for the next reader… I know it’s a shabby way to look at things, and I’m likely to get backlash for it… I’m aware of that. But my truth is built on identifying myself by my work… I’m ashamed to say I allowed other people to dictate the kind of work I did, when I first started out. I allowed publishers to “sex up” my books, even though it destroyed the foundation of those books and characters, and stripped me of my own identity at the same time.

 

Who am I angry at for that?  I’m angry at me. I’m disgusted with my naivete, that I thought that was just how the industry worked, and that I had to go along with every change. I’m thoroughly annoyed at myself for allowing others to convince me I’m not good enough, that my work wasn’t good enough, unless I stripped away everything that made it me, and instead turned it into some kind of printed-page porno.

 

There’s a lot more to me, and to my work, than I think too many people give me credit for… And yet, I’m left with that rising chorus that says I’m worthless as a person, because I’m worthless as a writer, and that the proof is all around me… And, these days, without my identity as an author, I literally AM nothing. I keep writing, because I know that if I stop, if I pause long enough to take a breath, that swelling wave of self-doubt and self-loathing will drown me. And this time, it might just succeed in killing me.

Character Revelation: The Black Moment vs. the Moment of Truth in Fiction

It occurred to me while I was writing, last night (as things like this most often do), that one thing I’ve never seen discussed in any depth is the difference between the Moment of Truth, and the Black Moment, in a story. Perhaps that’s where some of the confusion starts (and maybe even ends), with some authors.

I’ve discussed Emotional Black Moments (EBMs) before, and how these are character driven. Emotional Black Moments are all about a character coming face-to-face with death, disaster and fear. A plain Black Moment, however, is far less about the character, and much more about the events he or she might find him/herself caught up in. Black Moments are points in the plot when things seem the most bleak, problems the most insurmountable. Black Moments encompass more than a single character.

The defining characteristic of a Black Moment is in how a group of characters comes together to resolve the issue at hand. Whether that group is a large one, or comprised solely of a hero and heroine, they must work together to resolve the Black Moment. These Black Moments can involve one or more EBM, as well, as Black Moments are often catalysts for extreme emotional moments and upheavals that cause considerable character growth and development.

In contrast to a Black Moment, a Moment of Truth is always about an individual. Like an Emotional Black Moment, these Moments of Truth are about character change, growth, and development. However, unlike an EBM, a Moment of Truth is about how a character acts or reacts when placed in a situation that necessitates some kind of self-sacrifice (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or a combination thereof).

The best example I can give of a Moment of Truth is when a loved one is being held at the point of a weapon.  How would your character act/react to this situation? Is he or she frozen in panic? Do they move to try to disarm the assailant? Do they try to talk everyone out of the situation safely? Do they fall apart and start crying?

Defining how a character acts/reacts in a Moment of Truth is tricky, if you haven’t taken the time to really get to know your character. A lot of what I call “pantsers” (ie, people who just sit down and write a book without really doing any kind of plotting or character creation) have difficulty with Moment of Truth moments. They tend to rely on the stock reactions (ie, “Oh, it’s my hero, so he’s going to act tough and say a lot of tough things, and then either the bad guy’s going to give up, or my hero’s going to shoot him”), and this reveals giant flaws in the character(s) involved.

Let me give you an example of how knowing your character(s) leads to a more realistic Moment of Truth.  In my novel HOPE OF HEAVEN, my hero, Peter Talladay, is a very protective person – particularly of family and women, including Hope (my heroine). However, he’s also a man dedicated to his job fighting terrorists, has a stubborn streak a mile wide, and is obsessed with avenging his family’s (mother, father, brother) murder.

When Peter’s Moment of  Truth comes, at the hands of Gordon McGuire, he has to decide between calling Gordon’s bluff and refusing to do what’s demanded (and thus potentially getting Hope killed), or doing what Gordon wants, which might spare Hope, but would mean giving a terrorist what he wants, and most likely letting the murderer of Peter’s family go free.

Now, the stock response to this situation (if working with a stock tough-guy, which Peter isn’t, but we’ll just assume for the purposes of this part of the argument) would be for Peter to try to disarm Gordon, followed by a fight of some kind, during which Peter (being the big, strong hero) would subdue and incapacitate Gordon, leaving him unable to perpetuate any kind of harm.  Totally predictable.

But because Peter isn’t a stock character, his reaction to the situation is quite a bit different. First of all, when he first realizes Hope is injured, his reaction is one of fear. He actually freezes for a moment, until she assures him her injury is only minor. Then, faced with the threat of what Gordon could do, Peter does the only thing his heart will let him do – he cooperates, aware that as long as Hope is in danger, there’s nothing he can do to take out the threat of Gordon McGuire. In the end, he lets McGuire have what he wants, to spare the life of someone he loves. No theatrics involves. In his Moment of Truth, Peter faces the difference between revenge and self-sacrifice, and sacrifices his desire for revenge and even his sworn duty, for the life of the woman he loves.  I am, of course, simplifying this scene quite a bit in an effort to not give away any pertinent spoiler details about the book. Let’s just leave it at this: Peter runs an emotional gauntlet in this scene, requiring him to deal with a LOT of issues all at once, and in a very limited window of just a few brief moments.

A Moment of Truth places your character in the unenviable position of having to, in a split second, make a judgment call based entirely on his or her personal morals and beliefs. If you haven’t yet answered the question of just who your character is, you can’t possibly hope to answer the question of what he or she would do when put in a life-or-death situation (theirs or someone else’s). Is your character going to step up and do the right thing? And just what constitutes “the right thing” to him or her, anyway? Do you know?

Amateur writers often make the mistake of not really investing in their characters (and I don’t mean they should be emotionally attaching to the characters on the deep “this is my baby” kind of way… that can get anywhere from frustrating to an editor, to just downright creepy). By investing, I mean time. Sit down, get to know your character(s).  No, you don’t have to use the 50-page bio package I fill out for every character. Nor do you have to invest in any fancy character generation program. But what is essential is that you get inside your character’s head.  Sit down and at least write a brief introductory bio for (or from) him or her. Find out what makes the character(s) tick.  Not just their physical attributes, but also their emotional and mental traumas, triumphs, etc. If you want readers to invest their time and emotions into your character and stories, you have to make the effort to get to know your characters.

If you’ve taken the time to really get to know your character(s), when the EBMs, Black Moments, and Moments of Truth arrive, your character(s) will literally leap off the pages with their unique and fascinating reactions.

What Doesn’t Kill Us: The Truth About Emotional Black Moments in Fiction

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the fiction industry. I say disturbing because to me, as both an author and a reader, the true story behind every good story arc is what makes the characters tick. And defining a character means putting him or her up against whatever nightmares you can throw at them, and watch how they deal with it. But the trend I’m noticing is more and more authors and script writers shying away from the truly difficult questions – the Emotional Black Moment, or EBM, as I call them.

 

The truly amazing characters in fiction are defined not by every action in a book, movie, or TV show, but by one single defining moment (or series of moments) of all that time – a moment where they shined not through physical prowess, but through their reactions to their own personal EBM. The more often they encounter these types of EBMs, the more depth and strength a character gains. But an author or writer who is afraid to let his or her characters face these moments in dooming the character to a cardboard existence. Those are the characters no one remembers.

 

No, I don’t claim to be the next NYT Bestseller, or a Hugo or Pulitzer Prize winner.  So, what qualifications do I have to speak on this subject?

 

I write characters people still, years after reading my books, write to me regularly to tell me how much impact the characters had on  them, and how they find themselves re-reading my books because they feel that close to the characters. One young lady put it most succinctly when she described her reaction to the Black Moment for one of the most complex couples I’ve written about, to date. She said “I wanted to go back in time and fix it all. I wanted them to be happy again.”

 

The characters she was talking about were Trevor Watkins and Jaye Michaels, from SHADOW WALKER. And, I have to admit, writing that book, even knowing what was going to happen, what HAD to happen, I, too, wanted to just erase the past that formed the foundation of their EBM as a couple. I didn’t, of course. They had to go through that. They had to face those demons, and each had to face personal demons, as well, in order for them to grow and become the solid, unshakable couple they needed to be to face the story arc’s Plot Black Moment.

 

SPOILER ALERT: There’s a HUGE EBM coming for Underground, in HERO’S HOPE… Something that will shake the foundation of the entire team, and especially the core of Tamia and Rick’s relationship. I won’t say anything more on that, right now, but I think that’s enough…

 

So, how does an author create a character’s EBM? Well, it starts with giving a character a real back story. There needs to be something there to feed into the EBM. Someone who’s lived a life of roses can’t possibly be expected to stare down a Black Moment capable of twisting a jaded reprobate inside out. If you only work with “life of roses” types of characters, be prepared that you’re never going to be able to create a truly impactful EBM… They’re not going to be able to handle it.

 

Characters who face and succeed in overcoming the most memorable EBMs start out with a past. Maybe, as in Tamia’s case, they have an actual criminal past, a past littered with poor choices involving drugs and violence. Or maybe, as in Trevor’s case, they grew up neglected by an absent, abusive, or negligent parent, witnessed horrors, and experienced shattering traumas in their past, already. And sometimes, their scars run a lot deeper under the surface, as in Telyn Gwndal’s case (from Legends of Tirum), whose belief in her own worthlessness was subtly applied by the society in which she was raised, a bastard child only accepted by her mother’s people because of who her mother was, but never for herself.

 

These characters each face their own personal EBMs, as well as EBMs that involve their significant others (Tamia faces her first EBM when she’s forced to reject the man she loves for fear of losing him and something else she holds precious – she’s about to face the worst one ever in HERO’S HOPE. Trevor faces his in a very big way when his amnesia lands him smack between a future he wants more than anything, and a past he can’t quite absolve himself of.  And Telyn’s about to face her biggest one, yet, in CHILD OF FALLEN WATERS.)

 

It’s not easy to face a character against an EBM. Our natural instinct, as authors, is to protect and shelter our characters. To treat them with kid gloves, so to speak.

 

Trust me, you have to banish that instinct forever, if you intend your characters to grow.

 

Yes, you’ll write painful scenes that leave you drained, crying, and feeling generally like the most miserable traitor on the planet. You’ll want to tear those scenes up and never look at them again. But if you put them aside for a little while, then come back and read them again, you’ll realize what awesome characters you really have, and how much more you respect and love them for what they’ve undergone and overcome.

 

Now, I’m going to shock you with the next exercise. Kill your character.

 

I hear the panicked gasps, the thuds of writers dropping like flies. :)

 

I’m not talking about publishing these scenes. I’m talking about sitting down and writing a “What if” that kills your protagonist(s). Be brutal, be decisive. Do it.

 

I can hear the wailing, already. “But whyyyy?”

 

Because if you can’t kill your character, you most certainly can’t torture them emotionally. If you can’t place them in mortal bodily peril (even if it never makes it into the book), you’ll never be able to rip their souls out and stomp all over them with jackboots.

 

Trust me.

 

Some of the hardest scenes I’ve ever written involve death. I’ve literally killed good guys, before (I killed Kelly Blake in TERMINAL HUNTER. I liked her character… but I killed her, anyway). I’ve placed characters in such mortal peril there seemed to be no hope for them (in TAMIA, I dangled Tamia, my title character, so close to that edge I terrified my audience momentarily – I know, because they told me. And in SHADOW WALKER, I put a gun to Jordan Watkins’ head, and a knife to Trevor’s throat. In SPIRIT MAGE, I teetered my hero, Nacaris, on the thin line between life and death, and taunted pushing him over the line. In BURDEN OF PROOF, I nearly drove Chelsea Hanover mad by setting her attacker loose on her yet again, leaving her battered, broken, and in terror). These scenes have been the most difficult to write, but also the most rewarding in watching the characters involved learn from, grow from, and overcome adversity because of them.

 

Don’t believe me? Read the books… Then come tell me what you think. I dare you.

TamiaCover     In Her Name CoverLegends of Tirum 3: SPIRIT MAGE