Almost there

One more day to go in National Novel Writing Month, and we’re pushing hard. I just wrapped up a doozy of a chapter, with consequences that will hit my heroine hard, and have less than a thousand words to go to reach the month’s goal of 50,000. It’s been a challenging month, because I want to do my trilogy proud and wrap it up with a bang, not to mention tie up all the loose ends, mete out proper justice to a few bad guys, and leave my future readers well satisfied with the journey. So, no pressure at all. Next week I’ll have more time to chat, but for now I’m going to take a break from a very intense writing day and chill for a bit, probably with a Hallmark holiday movie or something else light on the brain. See you next Tuesday 🙂

Book 3 is under way

Two years ago I began my tentative adventure in fulfilling a long-held dream: to write a novel. I’ve always loved reading — taught myself to read when I was four — and began writing stories somewhere around the age of eight or nine. Many years later, I’m getting the first book of my trilogy ready for publication, editing the second book for my beta readers, and have put ‘pen to paper’ for Book 3. It’s a little startling to realize how far my adventure has taken me already, and a little weird to think about typing The End to the entire saga in a few months

How does one get to this point? In my case (because all writers are different and I can’t speak for everyone):

  • By having a story to tell, that must pour out until it’s finished.
  • By getting that first rough, crazy draft done.
  • By having beta readers who’ve loved your work and keep pressing for the next installment.

There’s still plenty of work to do. The front cover art for Book 1 is set, having been vetted by the members of the small-business group I belong to; I’ve been working on the blurb for the back cover, and need to get some publishing details finalized (e.g. the ISBN number). I’ve had several requests to include maps of the small town where much of the action in the novels takes place as well as the private college where my protagonist works; I’m researching software to help me create versions that are more polished than the sketches I produced in PowerPoint. And finally, as a self-published author, all the advance promo rests in my lap, but I’m looking forward to working on it and posting the first pieces here on this site!

The entire process repeats for Book 2 — feedback from beta readers, a couple more edits to bring the novel to its best state. The cover art will be a variation on the version chosen for Book 1, so that won’t be too difficult, and I’ll build on the promo that’s already been put out there since Book 1. Hopefully I’ll already have a solid fan base.

Book 3 will undergo the same transformation, from rough draft to final product. And then what? Two years ago, when I wrote the first words of Book 1 (whose title has evolved constantly until a few months ago), I wasn’t even sure I could produce an entire novel, or that anyone would like it. There was no thought of what I’d do once I finished the entire trilogy.

I assume all successful writers (as in, have finished and published a book) go through this, the ‘what’s next?’ state of mind. I’ve given it some thought, and for some reason have decided to write a horror novel — even though I’m not a huge reader of the genre. Having watched stylish horror movies and turned off a few gore-fests, I do know what I like and don’t like, and the idea of penning my own chiller feels like a thrilling challenge to take on. Can I scare the pants off my readers in a way that burrows into your minds for a long time afterward? We’ll find out 🙂 It will be set in the same ‘world’ as my Chaos Roads trilogy, but with a different protagonist who brings her own peculiar baggage to the story; still fleshing out the details and how her journey will play out.

For now, however, I’ll keep you posted on Book 1, Through the Monster-glass, as it heads toward the day when it becomes available to the public on Amazon Kindle! Check back for many more details in the next few weeks; the cover art will be coming soon.

Oh the Horror!

A moody ruined castle in Ireland – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

If I were you, I would never tell ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people, for you never can tell but that some one at the table may be tired of his or her nearest and dearest.”
The Screaming Skull, F. Marion Crawford

Do you love all the Halloween competitions on television at this time of year? Halloween Baking Championship is my personal favourite – it’s so much fun to watch what demented inventiveness the bakers come up with! Halloween Wars and Outrageous Pumpkins are also great. If you like any of those, horror may be your preferred reading/writing genre.

I’m more into stylish, eerie horror than gore. Some gore is okay – wouldn’t really be horror without it – but as a main ingredient I don’t love it.

H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of horror was probably one of my biggest influences growing up. I discovered his strange, compelling world of terrible, ancient god-monsters early on, and ever since have loved that sense of creeping dread that infuses his stories. Lovecraft’s horror lives in the shadows, with the things you suspect are there but can’t see, or in awful dreams that make you want to stay awake for the rest of the night. It leaves a lot to your own imagination, which to my mind is where it should be, tapping into your personal nightmares.

So what is horror fiction? Essentially, it’s where bad things happen to people. They don’t get rescued or have a happy ending, unless it’s with a twist that disturbs your mind long after the tale ends.

Classic horror lets the reader follow along as an awful creature OR an evil/maniacal fellow human pursues the protagonist(s) for their own terrible purpose. The first Alien movie did a superb job of that kind of horror. Fear of the unknown is very powerful – viewers and the crew know that there’s something nasty on the ship Nostromo, but neither know exactly what it is, just that people keep dying. The remaining crew race to find it before it gets them, and the movie allows the viewer to feel their increasing terror. We hosted a watch party with that movie when it first came out on video, and I remember spending the entire two hours quite literally on the edge of our sofa.

Horror that has a psychological edge is some of the most effective, I think.

Psychological horror is the kind that messes with the protagonist’s head, and the reader’s/viewer’s. Is what the heroine or hero thinks is happening actually happening? Is the villain who the protagonist thinks it is, or maybe the villain is able to draw them into their tainted web despite themselves? Or there’s something increasingly wrong with a person the protagonist cares about – can the hero/heroine figure out what’s going on in time to save them? You get the idea.

But be careful – many tropes in this kind of horror, like ‘I’m seeing crazy things but no one believes me’, have been done to death, pardon the pun. If, as a writer, you want to head in that direction, I feel you need to give it an effective twist for some freshness.

One of the reasons the movie Scream was so successful was that it took the old clichéd horror movie elements, where the characters do stupid things that inevitably get them into trouble, and mocked them at the same time that it used them. Very clever!

Certain houses, like certain persons, manage somehow to proclaim at once their character for evil. In the case of the latter, no particular feature need betray them; they may boast an open countenance and an ingenuous smile; and yet a little of their company leaves the unalterable conviction that there is something radically amiss with their being; that they are evil.”
The Empty House, Algernon Blackwood

Buildings soaked with evil combine elements of both classic and psychological horror. People either: enter innocently, and are trapped in the building’s malevolent web; go in with knowledge of the building’s reputation and want to either investigate or disprove the stories; or themselves somehow trigger the madness. And so an abode that should provide shelter becomes the terror. We want to find out what the cause is – a lingering ghost, an evil entity that’s crossed into our world, an event so awful that its residue has permeated the building’s walls

“It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,” said the sergeant-major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”
The Monkey’s Paw, W. W. Jacobs

And then there are the tales of people who insist on messing a cursed object, either naively or despite every warning. We readers know that nothing good is going to come of it, as in the classic tale The Monkey’s Paw, but we read on to find out just how fate is going to punish the protagonist who persists regardless. The results are always horrific  – hence the adage ‘be careful what you wish for’.

Why do we enjoy horror stories? I believe it’s for the same reason lots of us enjoy a good thunderstorm or blizzard – we love the thrill while we’re safely protected from any real danger. We can curl up with a cup of hot tea, snuggled under a lap blanket with a book in our hands, as shivers run up our spines. If the power goes out with a shrieking blast of wind or crack of lightning and we have to read by candlelight, so much the better!

If this post has inspired you to try your hand at writing horror, sign up for this year’s round of National Novel Writing Month, which starts on November 1st. Have some fun, explore your darker side!

I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!
The Cask of Amontillado, Edgar Allan Poe

How do I creep thee out, let me count the ways

The 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary, in Greenfield Village at the Ford Museum, Dearborn Michigan – photo by E. Jurus

“Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” Robert Bloch

“Everyone is a moon and has a dark side, which he never shows to anybody.” Mark Twain

“I fear not the dark itself, but what may lurk within it.” Unknown

Isn’t “lurk” a great word? Makes you think of something that shouldn’t be there, that wants something from you that you don’t want to give, like a piece of your soul. It’s a simple word, but so evocative for writers and their readers.

October 16 is Dictionary Day. It celebrates the birth of Noah Webster, an American writer who published the first dictionary in America in 1806, and it’s the perfect time to also acknowledge the wonderful world of words for thriller, suspense, fantasy and horror writers to enthrall their readers with.

The first single-language English dictionary ever produced was created by Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster and clergyman in England. Cawdrey drew on word lists published earlier in educational texts, and in 1604 he published Table Alphabeticall. It listed only about 3000 words, considered ‘hard’ words, as in those unfamiliar to the general public of the time. Defining each word with a simple and brief description, his goal was to organize the English language and help people to become better at speaking it. The archaic terms and spelling would stymie most of us today, though, such as Cawdrey’s description of how “far journied gentlemen” would collect words on their travels and, returning home, “pouder their talke with over-sea language”.

As the English language grew, other kinds of dictionaries began to arise. In 1658, Edward Phillips published one that included technical terms. There were also ‘canting’ dictionaries that listed slang terms. Eventually book publishers started compiling general dictionaries with more expanded entries.

Noah Webster attended Yale College and passed his bar exam. When he wasn’t able to find work as a lawyer, he earned money by writing a series of educational books, later moving to New York City to publish articles, essays and serve as editor for a newspaper. After publishing his first Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, he continued to compile words and definitions, and 22 years later published an even more comprehensive version. There were seven ensuing editions, and his mantle was taken up by George and Charles Merriam, who hired his son-in-law, a professor at Yale, to continue the revisions, including the addition of illustrations. The Merriam-Webster dictionary is a staple today, along with the OED, the Collins English Dictionary, and numerous others.

We tend to take dictionaries for granted – a thing of dread in school when words and grammar were pounded into us – because they’ve been ever-present in our lives, but language has been evolving from the time it was first developed. Cultures began to take note of changing words and meanings as far back as the ancient Greeks, who began creating dictionaries in the first century C.E. (A.D.).

English, in particular, is an amalgam of many other languages – we have borrowed freely and frequently over the centuries. In looking up a word in the dictionary, we find information about its ancestors: OE, or Old English, is common, as you might expect, but Latin is the root of words in many contemporary languages in Europe that have influenced the English vocabulary today.

Take the word “Dragon”. It comes from Middle English (the form of English spoken from the 11th to late 15th centuries) dragoun, which in turn was borrowed from the Old French (version of French spoken in medieval times) word dragon, which came from Latin draco and/or Greek drakon.

We all know that it was a huge mythological creature in somewhat serpentine form, typically depicted with large wings, small legs and a toothy mouth that breathed fire. Wiktionary lists quite a few other definitions, though, including one I wasn’t aware of: “A luminous exhalation from marshy ground, seeming to move through the air like a winged serpent.” The page also lists a number of fun synonyms (should you be writing about a dragon), hypernyms (the broader categories that dragons fall under, i.e. monsters and serpents), derived terms (terms that have ‘dragon’ in their names), related terms (dragoon, dragonet…) and all kinds of other interesting tidbits. An entire page for one little word!

Words are a writer’s best friend, and dictionaries our best resource. If I’m writing high fantasy, I might want to refer to a wyrm or a wyvern instead of a plain dragon. Drawing other cultures into urban fantasy (which is the genre I write), I might want to set part of my story in Kenya (which I’ve actually visited and so can write about authentically, to some extent) and mention their legends of dragoni, perhaps terrorizing a village and eating all of the mbuzi (goats).

Writers can use words in such creative ways to make a scene come to life. Consider this brief excerpt:

She’d been sitting in the kitchen, Chris recounted, when Regan ran screaming down the stairs to her, cowering defensively behind her chair… The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty

We only cower if we’re absolutely consumed with fear. We can picture the girl, Regan, behind that chair, trying to escape from the demon terrorizing her. I read the book when it first came out, and had trouble sleeping for a full week. My hubby, then boyfriend, worked part-time at a movie theatre, and told me how often people in the audiences for the film version fainted. Movies have visuals and ominous music to help set the mood, but writers depend entirely on words.

It’s a good thing there are plenty of them. Apparently “the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use (and 47,156 obsolete words)”, according to the Word Counter website.  The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) currently contains over 600,000 entries!

In tune with this month and Halloween, I found even more fun stuff online about words. Dictionary.com offers these eerie words to describe nighttime and all its darkness and mystery:

Gloaming – a noun that means ‘twilight’, but in a spooky story, it would be so much more atmospheric

Fuliginous – an adjective that means ‘sooty’ or ‘dusky’; this one is a little obscure for the average reader, imho

Evanescent – an adjective that means ‘abbreviated’, or more specifically ‘quickly fading or disappearing’; it’s often used to describe something like bubbles, or life, but it could be used for something darker

Ether  – a noun that has several meanings, but in this context would more romantically refer to space, as in the heavens, or the air around us

Tenebrous – an adjective that means ‘shut off from the light’, as in dark and murky, or ‘hard to understand’, obscure – very poetic word from the gothic era of literature, useful or not depending on your writing style

All the light had fallen away from the world, with only the fog illuminated now. Even the stars struggled against the black, managing only the slightest pinpricks of twinkles through a gloom that was both everywhere and nowhere at once. It wasn’t the dark of night; it was the tenebrous shadow of bad omens. — C. Robert Cargill, Dreams and Shadows

Horripilation – basically, goosebumps, i.e. the hair on your body standing up, usually from fright, but could be from excitement; the majority of readers would need a dictionary, which is probably why writer Stephen King used it but then went on to explain it:

“Suddenly he was swept by horripilation. The goosebumps swept up from his ankles all the way to the nape of his neck, where the hairs stirred and tried to lift.” Under the Dome: A Novel

A thesaurus can help us find good synonyms for words so we’re not being too repetitive as writers, but it’s a dictionary that gives us clear definitions for the nuances of each word.

I leave you with a sample of classic writing from Bram Stoker. He’s often been chastised for being overly dramatic, but I think his style, and choice of words, worked well for a spectacular Victorian horror story. Here’s part of the scene where Lucy Westenra has finally succumbed to the predations of Dracula (still a mystery to Dr. Sewell and her other suitors at that point). But instead of looking sadly dead, she looks miraculously beautiful – the reason for which, as Van Helsing suspects, will soon become apparent:

“Before turning in we went to look at poor Lucy. The undertaker had certainly done his work well, for the room was turned into a small chapelle ardente. There was a wilderness of beautiful white flowers, and death was made as little repulsive as might be. The end of the winding-sheet was laid over the face; when the Professor bent over and turned it gently back, we both started at the beauty before us, the tall wax candles showing a sufficient light to note it well. All Lucy’s loveliness had come back to her in death, and the hours that had passed, instead of leaving traces of “decay’s effacing fingers,” had but restored the beauty of life, till positively I could not believe my eyes that I was looking at a corpse.”

Happy Dictionary Day!

Symbology of numbers

Butterflies in the genus Diaethria all appear to have a number tattooed on their wings – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Today I was moving the little magnet on my decorative Halloween wall calendar, and noticed that it’s now only 40 days until Oct 31, aka Halloween — woohoo! (Hopefully that’s not too triggering for you, like the people who want to drive you crazy by counting down the number of shopping days left until Christmas.)

We have many methods of marking the passage of time, and certain dates hold special significance. Some dates float, as in Thanksgiving ; others are fixed, whether as a birthdate, a chosen commemorative day, or a date that may live on in notoriety. On September 10, 2002, who would have ever thought that the very next day would become infamous from then on? (Other than the perpetrators of the attacks.)

Throughout history, certain numbers have taken on more mystical qualities.

The number 13 has become so associated with bad luck that hotels won’t even list a 13th floor, and hostesses have refused to have thirteen people at a dinner party. Fear of the number even has a name: triskaidekaphobia.

Theories abound as to why people link 13 to bad things – in Norse mythology, Loki the trickster god showed up uninvited to a banquet as the 13th guest and tricked a blind god into shooting an arrow at another god, killing him; Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Romans, was supposedly the 13th man to sit at the Last Supper; King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest (and killing) of all the Knights Templar on Friday 13, 1307; and so on. In some minds, the superstition was probably reinforced in mid-20th century America by the nearly-disastrous Apollo 13 moon mission.

But there are cultures who believe that 13 is a lucky number, and in Asia, a different number is considered extremely bad: 4. It’s a homonym for the word ‘death’ in some Asian languages. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, Bad-Luck Numbers that Scare Off Customers, most companies in that part of the world avoid using the number entirely (such as in a company phone number), and potential business partners would be wise to do the same.

The number 40, which gave me the idea for this post, was used over and over again in the Bible. The rain of the Great Flood fell for that many days and nights, Noah waited for 40 days after the rains stopped to send a bird out to look for land, Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for that length of time, the wandering Hebrews took 40 years to reach the Promised Land, the season of Lent lasts for 40 days.

Even today, 40 can be found throughout many cultures. The practice of isolation to prevent the spread of disease has traditionally been 40 days, and in fact that’s where the name ‘quarantine’ comes from. Maybe we need a special word for the 10 days of isolation following a Covid diagnosis 😉. A full week of work in North America is traditionally 40 hours, and 40 ounces is a standard size of bottle for liquors. And who decided that the term ‘catching forty winks’ represents having a short sleep?

Of course, once our brains decide that a certain number must have significance, we tend to see it everywhere.

The number 23 has attracted a dedicated following. There’s a Facebook group of people who believe that 23 follows them through life, called the 23rdians, as well as a group on Twitter. While that number, like all numbers, has mathematical properties, people looking for what’s been called the 23 Enigma will recite ‘statistics’ such as adding up the four digits of the year performer Kurt Cobain was born, and was died (1967, and 1994), which with each year comes out to 23, and the fact that criminals Bonnie and Clyde died on May 23, 1934 (I’d have been more impressed if they’d died in 1923). I’m sure that if you could widely research birth and death records, you’d find a lot of people who entered or left the world on that date, just as you’d find plenty on the 24th of the month, or the 4th, or the 31st.

What is one to make of animals that appear to have numbers printed on them? Does it mean something? Hubby and I spotted one ourselves, a Diaethria butterfly, in the Amazon jungle. It’s a pretty white butterfly with a splash of red on the wings, and what looks like the number 88, 89, or 98 outlined in black. It’s even called the ‘89’98 butterfly’. If I were a superstitious sort, I’d probably think it was a lucky sighting, since in Chinese culture the number 88 is considered a symbol of good fortune. But enough things went wrong after that trip that I’d have to say it didn’t bring us any luck.

Humans have a built-in predilection to look for patterns — Survival 101. Patterns are one of the ways we learn, either to repeat actions that are beneficial, or avoid those that aren’t (although for some reason it took me over 40 years – there’s that number again – to learn to stop sticking my head in a hot oven as soon as I opened the door to check a roast or a cake). Patterns are legitimate, but sometimes people let pattern-spotting get out of hand, and will begin finding coincidences that validate their pet theory. That’s how conspiracy theories get started.

For writers, pattern-spotting and superstition are rich mines for motivating their characters, or even entire civilizations. Entire movie franchises have been built around it.

Tomorrow will mark 40 days to the start of this year’s annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). What that means for you, if you’ve always wanted to write a novel, is that you have essentially the length of the Biblical Flood to build your ark.

A couple of years ago, the NaNoWriMo organization surveyed winners as to what contributed to their success, and one common theme was advance preparation. You could start with not much of an idea and just dip your toes in the water, but I don’t think you’ll find the experience very satisfying.

If you’re serious about starting a novel this year, get your ducks in a row: basic plot outline, a good sense of your protagonist, her/his/their goal, obstacles to achieving that goal, where and when the story will take place. And my suggestion: where the story will start, and where it will end (then you just need to fill in the steps to take your protagonist from beginning to finale). You won’t need to finish your novel by November 30th, but if you reach the 50,000 word goal, you’ll be well on your way.

To help you, NaNoWriMo is offering a five-week course, NaNo Prep 101. It’s self-paced, so you can work on the contents whenever you’re able. From their website, this is the course outline:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 19-25)
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 26-October 2)
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (October 3-9)
  4. Build a Strong World (October 10-16)
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 17-23)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 24-30)

Each week’s module includes numerous resources as well. You can find all the details and start the course here.

I’ve had so many people, when they find out I’ve written a novel (and am working on books 2 & 3 in the series), tell me that they’ve always dreamed of doing the same. If you have the same dream, this could be your year!

Writing prompt: what’s in the swamp

It’s been an intense week doing final edits on Book 1, so this week’s blog is an exploration into the swamps that haunt our forests. The photo was taken in a provincial park in southwestern Ontario, just as leaves were starting to put on their colours. We came upon this weed-strewn marsh where nothing seemed to be moving or making any sound.

Now there are those of you who might see this image as a pretty artifact of the woods, something to enjoy on a pleasant walk through nature in the early autumn, and of course it can be taken that way.

But there are some of us who see the eerie possibilities in how well this would work as a fantasy or horror setting.

The mire appears to stretch endlessly, dark murky pools drowning the roots of lifeless trees. What are they? Is there anything that crawls through the waters, perhaps only coming out at night, when it won’t be seen as it slowly stalks its prey? Perhaps something seeks refuge in an abandoned tree, making its home inside a hollow trunk, hidden amid the remote woods where no one or nothing will think to look for it. Or could it be the trees themselves that are the unsuspected menace?

It’s up to your imagination to spin the tale of what goes on in the swamp when no one’s around to see it.

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

(P.S. My hubby and I escaped alive — or did we?)

Cut/Snip/Tweak

I’ve always admired great editing in films, when the timing, pace and impact of a scene create something truly memorable.

There’s so much that goes into a scene, whether it’s on a screen or a page. Even though the director or novelist have something planned out to take the plot from introduction to finale, everything that first emerges is what Hollywood calls ‘raw footage’. Sometimes (often for me) inspiration strikes along the way and takes the plot in a direction that wasn’t exactly in the original plan.

I think of it rather like a brain dump. As I’m writing a scene, I’m watching it play out in my imagination and transcribing it onto my electronic page as best I can so that my eventual readers will see it the same way in their imagination. That means I have to:

  • portray the setting well enough to make it vivid but not bog my readers down in extraneous details
  • describe the characters as neatly as possible
  • let them act authentically, even if that means changing how I first saw the scene playing out
  • make the action memorable and important to the plot – even though my reader may not see exactly where it’s going, or whether it might be a clue, a red herring or the buildup to a twist
  • not stretch the rubber bands of credulity and tension too far
  • stop the scene at the best point: not so short that it doesn’t flow, or so long that it dribbles off ineffectively

But some of that can be tweaked in the editing phase. I’m not sure how other writers do it, but while I’m writing the first draft I describe everything in great detail so that I can see it play out fully. Making the scene better – tighter, more impactful – comes in the edit, where I might trim it, restructure it, move it in the plot, or perhaps even decide that I want to discard it altogether.

To date, having finished two of the three books in my series, I haven’t discarded an entire scene. As I write, I’m very much aware of making sure everything has a point.

In the editing phases, I look for things that should be cut. I’m also a very visual writer, so it’s important to me that my words paint pictures well.

Every scene has a mood – optimistic, ominous, edgy, suspenseful, comforting, romantic, mouth-watering… Every character has their own nuances – the way they look, move, speak, react.

And then there’s the entire book all assembled, carrying the characters from first impression to a finale that resonates, stuns, answers questions or asks more.

I follow the standard guideline to put the first draft aside for a while once you’ve finished it, then return to it after a month or so and re-read it with fresher eyes.

After celebrating the official keyboarding of “The End” on my first novel with glasses of champagne, I tried to ignore the manuscript, to not even muddle it around in my head for several weeks. It wasn’t easy. Finally, it was time to dive into the edit with eyes wide open. Some of it impressed me – great turns of phrase that had sprung spontaneously out of my head. Other parts I looked at as critically as possible.

The next phase was to give it to my crew of beta readers. As much as I needed to know what was wrong with the book – what wasn’t working in their minds – what I needed even more was to know if they even liked the thing.

You have a tale that’s been living in your head for years, and you think it’s pretty cool, but others might think it’s awful, or boring. So you nervously place your baby into their hands and wait for feedback.

I did a fair bit of research on what to ask beta readers to look for and comment on. I gave them a one-month timeline, although a couple of them took a bit longer. My hubby read it first, and, despite it not being his preferred genre, liked it so much that he finished it in a week. Then, as I apprehensively opened each successive ‘book report’, I realized that I had a viable story.

My beta readers gave me a wide variety of opinions. They were a perfect cross-section of people that might pick up my book in a store or online, and their comments were really interesting. A lot of commonalities, a few illuminating disparities.

All of them said they’d definitely want to read Book 2 and 3 to find out what happens. Hallelujah! They’re all waiting eagerly for Book 2, which is having a rest on my external drive while I go back and do the final edit of Book 1.

This edit is the big one, the one that readers in the wider world will see, hopefully like enough to buy, and then fall in love with enough to recommend to all their friends. This is where I’m scrutinizing for grammatical errors and, like an overgrown garden, trimming away weak, weedy leaves to let the flowers and healthy leaves shine. I’m also propagating the shoots of next year’s garden and making sure there’s continuity from one season to the next (one of the reasons I wanted to complete Book 2 before doing the final edit of Book 1).

My family and friends are pumped for publication and the launch party. I’ll be nervous, but also relishing the fact that I finally achieved a long-time dream. So wish me luck, and I’ll keep you posted on the progress!

Book 2 is finished!

Entrance to the Currents sound-and-light show, Niagara Parks Power Station. Photo by E. Jurus

I typed “The End” after fifty-five chapters and about 192,000 words of the second book in my ‘Chaos Roads’ trilogy. The future is clouded for my heroine and all the people in her life, like the fog screen at the Niagara Parks Power Station in Niagara Falls, Ontario, that precedes their Currents sound-and-light show (which my hubby and I enjoyed a few days ago).

What a journey this second novel has been! The protagonist barely survived the events of the first book, and has to deal with the profound changes in her life as a result, heading towards an inevitable transformation she’s not sure she wants.

The first completed draft is four chapters longer than Book 1, which surprised me, but the story must be told in the way that it wants to unfold. I don’t have complete control over it — let’s just say that it developed a few twists and turns I didn’t see coming. That’s a large part of the fun of writing for me, that I get to look forward to the adventure as much as my readers do.

All thoroughly backed up onto an external drive, Book 2 will now rest easy for a few weeks, simmering like a stew, while I complete the final edit of Book 1 and get it ready for publication. The official title will be “Through the Monster-glass”; I’ll post a preview and other information as I get it finalized.

I belong to an business-women’s entrepreneurial group, and at this month’s meeting we were all asked to share what we love the most about our chosen vocation. My answer was both easy and complex:

  • I love the process of writing, of capturing a scene in words that will make it come alive for my readers
  • I love the surprises along the way, as I’ve already mentioned
  • I love making my brain work: doing the plotting, the research, the wordsmithing
  • The sense of accomplishment is profound, to do something you’ve dreamt your whole life of doing. Even if it doesn’t sell (but of course I hope it does, and my beta readers all loved it), I’ve still achieved something remarkable.
  • I love that my journey is inspiring others to follow their dream

It took a great leap of faith on my part to embark on this journey. Throughout high school I received great marks on my creative writing, but there’s still a huge divide between those short stories and putting an entire book together. I wanted to write something that would live on in my readers’ imaginations long after they finish the final chapters, and I had no idea if I could actually do that.

You start off with the rudiments of an idea, and maybe the main plot points, but there’s still an awful lot that has to come out of your head after that. My genre, fantasy/sci-fi, typically runs between 100,000 to 150,000 words, maybe longer, which is frighteningly intimidating. My second blog post on this site, “Do you have a book inside you?“, shares more details of how I got started. Finishing the first book a year ago at the end of July was one of the shining milestones of my life.

Book 2 has highs, lows, profound questions, and lots of action. The third book will challenge my heroine in ways she never expected, answer many questions and open up many more. I hope it will be a thrilling, satisfying wrap-up of the amazing journey she’s been on — but that’s to be determined when I start writing it during the 2022 session of National Novel Writing Month this November. I look forward to taking all the notes on my very-detailed, multi-page spreadsheet and transforming them into the final part of the story, and I know I’ll be sad when I type the third and final “The End” next summer.

In the meantime, there’s the final, extra-scrutinizing edit of Book 1 to finish, then formatting it for publishing, working out a cover design, uploading it to Kindle, and holding the Launch Party (all details to follow on this site, and the Facebook page I’ll be creating). Lots to do, and a busy few months ahead.

You can find me on the NaNoWriMo site as AdvGal. If you sign up for the event, look me up — I’d be delighted to keep in touch and provide encouragement!

Celebrating National Book Lovers Day

Bookstacks at the Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland

North of New York City, along the edge of the Hudson River, there is a small estate lying between the railroad tracks of Metro North and the broad expanse of the river.

Chapter One, Ghostlight, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

One October, I made a pilgrimage, with hubby as chauffeur and adventure partner, to the Hudson River Valley in New York State, just on the strength of one New Age/Occult book that I’d read. It was the book that made me fall in love with the genre of urban fantasy, because it told the kind of story I’ve always hoped could be true: that our world holds more in it than our humdrum everyday lives.

The author, Marion Zimmer Bradley, led a very controversial life, but she was a damn fine storyteller. I loved her style – very readable but incredibly evocative, even poetic in spots. The story in Ghostlight is fascinating, but what hooked me even more was the setting, which was so well-portrayed that it was almost a character in itself.

So that year, my hubby and I decided to do a road trip, and I suggested the Hudson River Valley. You might be more familiar with this part of New York State as the eerie locale for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Its author, Washington Irving, built his own house there in the town of Sunnyside. He was basically a superstar in the region, and to this day you can see his influence all over the valley.

One of the many things named in honour of the Hudson River Valley’s favourite celebrity

Irving found great inspiration in the mysterious atmosphere of the Catskill Mountains, and when autumn rolls around the entire area takes inspiration from his stories to create one of the best places to go for Halloween-themed travel.

Farm markets abound in the Hudson River Valley
Bumper sticker spotted at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, town of Sleepy Hollow, New York State

Great books live on in our psyche long after we’ve finished reading them, and this week’s blog is a celebration of National Book Lovers Day, celebrated in both Canada and the U.S. It’s not an official holiday, just an acknowledgement of all the enrichment books have brought to countless lives ever since they were first created.

Storytelling became an art long before the written word, through the generations of cultures who passed along knowledge, both practical and spiritual, to those who came after them. Even early rock art told stories.

Tribal rock art, Botswana, Africa

Stories began to be inscribed on stone and clay tablets. And not just stories – records of things, from inventories of goods to spells and curses (as in the Egyptian Book of the Dead) to lists of kings and other important historical facts.

Stories were created to explain how the world works. Cultures like the ancient Egyptians and Celts and Greeks had elaborate tales about the supernatural forces they believed were the cause of things that went wrong.

As science was developed, books were written about discoveries. But others were written just to entertain – to thrill, to haunt, to tell tales of love and romance and chivalry.

My parents loved to read to me, and I developed a love of books from all those wonderful imaginary journeys. I fell in love with the stories of HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe at an early age, and when I was fourteen, an ex-boyfriend introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, which I read non-stop during my Christmas holiday break. Oh how I wanted to visit Middle Earth, to see dragons and elves and magical silver. (When we travelled to New Zealand a few years ago, one of the great highlights was a visit to the Hobbiton movie set, including mugs of hobbit ale at the Green Dragon Inn.)

The gate to Bilbo & Frodo Baggins’ house, Hobbiton

That’s the power of books, that they can make a place or a story come so alive for us that we don’t want to leave.

I still love to hold a good book in my hands, curled up with a cup of tea, but I’m also quite happy to download ebooks to my laptop when I can’t get them in our local bookstore. My hubby and I have lately been downloading the Nero Wolfe mystery/crime series of novels by author Rex Stout. These novels capture the atmosphere of the 1950s, from gumshoes to slinky dames, through the eyes of quirky genius Nero Wolfe, who rarely leaves his brownstone in New York City, solving crimes with his remarkable brain while his assistant, debonair and smart-mouthed Archie Goodwin, does all the legwork and his chef Fritz cooks remarkable gourmet meals. We’ve read most of them before, but are now revisiting an old friend and adding the substantial canon (40+ books) to our collection, all compactly stored on our laptops.

Writers also learn to become better by reading great books, and it doesn’t have to be a ‘classic’. Not everyone’s into the works of Tolstoy, or even J.R.R. Tolkien. Whatever genre you like to read, enjoy the experience, escape with it, learn from it, let it fire your imagination.

In future posts, I may start doing book reviews, and I’m also thinking about creating a book club for budding writers, to discuss books we like (or hate), what we loved (or didn’t) between their pages. We’d ready any genre, because I think a good writer can learn something from all of them, and because a diversity of writers would make a great book club. If you’re a new writer and would be interested in joining such a club, let me know!

“If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.” JK Rowling

Deception – a risk/reward strategy

Spider well-camouflaged on tree trunk in the Amazon jungle – by E. Jurus

Should I tell you that I had some amazing reason for not posting yesterday as usual? I could try, but it’s not in my nature to dissemble. The truth is that my body is still fighting off this prolonged summer cold and I forgot. (Adding reminders in my phone calendar as we speak.)

Lots of people lie; I try not to hang around them. Starting a relationship with someone implies an inherent trust that neither of you will jerk each other around, and if one of you does, the feeling of betrayal is profound.

So why do people do it? That question has always mystified me. If the perpetrator gets some temporary jollies out of it, will they then, at the end of their life, have only this to reflect: “I spent my life behaving like an asshole and I’m so proud of it”? Perhaps they lie to themselves about their own motives, because I don’t see how anyone can feel good about damaging someone else.

Of course, these types of people are the scoundrels that populate all the great mystery novels and thrillers. After all, if no one ever did anything bad, what would we write about?

As a writer, we have to try and understand the motivations of the scoundrels so we can write them believably. Why do they do what they do? None of us are born as despicable people, so what happened in a scoundrel’s life to set them on their path of destruction?

If you happen to know a person like that well enough to track their journey, you’ve got a head start. But there’s lots of published material out there as well. The article I’m highlighting this week takes a look at famous imposters in history — the ultimate con, to convince quite a few people that you’re someone or something other than what you seem.

The impostor must always believe in their mind that there’s some great benefit to trying to pull off such a swindle. It happens all the time in the natural world; prey species often camouflage themselves to either hide from predators or look like something much more threatening than they really are. Predators camouflage themselves to look harmless — like the spider on the tree above, in the Amazon jungle. It blended so well into the bark of the tree that if I hadn’t been looking straight at it I’d never have noticed its presence. I can only imagine how many insects wandered unwittingly past, only to be snatched up for dinner.

For this week’s reading, I suggest you check out Body Double, in the JSTOR Daily newsletter. It’s a fascinating overview of several famous swindles over the centuries. They’ve inspired many well-known authors, and maybe they’ll give you some great ideas to use in your own novel.

And for all those lying, cheating scoundrels out there, remember: karma’s a bitch!