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

Go to camp – for writers

camping in the African bush

If you’ve ever wanted to write a book, this may be your time to give it a shot. The National Novel Writing Month organization (NaNoWriMo for short) doesn’t just take place each November — it also holds two less formal events, Camps, in April and July. In just two days’ time, you could embark on your own writing adventure.

What’s the difference, you may wonder? While the big November event requires you to start a new book and write 50,000 words of it, for the camps you can choose your own goal. You can start a new book, revise/edit an existing book, or finish a book you’ve been working on for a while. You’ll keep track of your progress however you want, by word count if you like, or perhaps by committing to writing so many hours per day, or producing a certain number of pages.

To help you achieve your goal, there are plenty of online resources, camp counselors to help struggling writers, support groups with different themes, and regional events you can attend (in November they were still all virtual, but some in-person events may start opening up). You’ll find much more information on the NaNoWriMo site.

I’ve never participated in one of the camps, so I can’t speak from personal experience. Last year I signed up for the April camp to get some words down towards a travel memoir, but just a few days later my hubby and I found out about a terminal illness in his family, and that became the focus of our lives for the ensuing two months. However, it’s my understanding that, once you’ve signed up for the camp and announced your project for the month, you can sign up for a ‘cabin’. i.e. a group of cabin-mates you hang out with and get support from. You can choose to be assigned randomly, direct your cabin choice by listing some preferences, or create a private cabin that you’ll share with whomever you invite.

There are also discussion forums on different topics, a ‘campfire’ circle general discussion group, sponsor offers, and other interesting things that can be fun BUT can also be gigantic time-wasters. Distraction is one of the greatest enemies that I’ve seen participants fall victim to in the writing groups I’ve been in so far.

Just fyi: I have no vested interest in NaNoWriMo, but I’ve found it a very valuable way to focus on a writing project, and I highly recommend it as a great opportunity to crank out that book you’ve always dreamed of.

To novice writers, I can give you one essential piece of advice: you’ll only achieve your goal if you’re serious about tackling it in the first place. You’ll have to push yourself and remain steadfast in your quest. It takes determination and fortitude to write an entire book, even without editing it as you go along. But, whether or not you complete your entire book within the 30 days, by achieving your camp goal you’ll have created a solid foundation that you can keep building on.

After becoming one of the winners of the 2020 NaNoWriMo, it took me until the end of July 2021 to complete the first draft of my first novel. Finally, on July 31st, I was able to type the words “The End”. Hot damn, I’d written an entire novel! It was a dream I’d been nourishing for well over a decade, and achieving it was exhilarating, empowering, satisfying -– so many layers of emotion. My hubby and I opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

If you stick it out, the reward for all your hard work is a powerful sense of validation. You’ll be able to say “I’ve written a book.” Not many people can do the same. Of the writers’ group I joined last November, no one else has posted that they finished theirs; I hope that they do some day so that they can experience the same joy.

If you decide to try out one of the Camps, I wish you all the best, and I hope you’ll let me know how you’re doing from time to time.

Cheers,

Erica

Do you have a book inside you?

When I was still employed full-time, and dragging myself into the office from Monday to Friday, I used to watch the television series Castle and fantasize about having that kind of life. The freedom to spend your days doing interesting research, having a group of writing buddies to play poker with (backgammon would actually be my game of choice), attending book signings and comic cons – in short, having a really fun day instead of slogging away behind a desk.

Now, slogging away earned me a pension and enough money to do much of the travel that populates my books, so it was a viable means to an end. But it was far from fulfilling. After I took early retirement, I decided it was time to try writing the book series I’d been scribbling notes about for years.

The key word here was ‘try’. I suffered from what most novice writers do: a lack of confidence. Until you’ve completed your first novel (or other form of book), you truly have no idea whether you’re capable of it. And the only way to find out is to try. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.

I’d made fits and starts for many years while still working, but I was always worried about whether I was wasting my time. And it’s difficult to really get into a book while squeezing it in after work and between things like cleaning the house.

That autumn I decided to finally jump on the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) bandwagon. The idea is to write 50,000 words of a new book between the beginning and end of November. It’s a marathon: roughly 1667 words every day for 30 days straight. But I decided a month wasn’t a huge amount of time to have devoted if it didn’t work out, and if I did complete my quota, I’d have the makings of a full novel. And I really liked the event mantra of just getting those words out of your head and onto ‘paper’, not worrying about editing or polishing it. After all, nothing else happens until you write that first draft. The freedom to just write, good or bad, broke through that fear wall I’d been standing on one side of. If I decided it was garbage afterwards, I didn’t have to show it to anyone. And if it was pretty good, well then…

There are hundreds of writing groups that convene, loosely speaking, during NaNoWriMo, for any writing theme or type of writer. There’s also a very active Forum where people toss ideas around, ask questions, or pass the time. What surprised me the most about some of the comments was the number of people who signed up for the writing sprint without any idea of a book to start with.

For me, everything starts with that nugget of an idea. You flesh it out into a story, nurse it along, sweat over it, and hopefully produce something you can work with. But there has to be that idea, that ‘hmm, what if this happened?’ concept.

It’s said there are only seven basic plots, and each of these has been told again and again and again, in different variations. What fascinates me is how many great writers find ways to put a different spin on a time-honoured plot.

So you have your nugget. How do you turn that into a full-fledged novel?

All stories consist of several essential components:

  1. Your protagonist – the heroine/hero of your story. They must be a fully-developed person (or other creature): strengths, weaknesses, faults. You must know them inside-out – where they came from, what influenced their lives, what they think, how they’ll react in the situations you’re going to put them in. Well, mostly; it’s fun when they surprise you on occasion.
  2. The “Inciting Incident”. This is the change in your protagonist’s life that sets her/him/them on the path taken in the novel. Maybe it’s a vengeance plot, or a romance, or a quest for a magic sword. And because of this important incident, the protagonist then has:
  3. A strong goal. This goal drives the protagonist forward to the climax of the plot.
  4. Antagonist(s). There will be people (or creatures) that get in the way of achieving that goal. They may want to prevent the heroine from achieving her goal for reasons of their own, or they may want to harm the heroine, or they’re just inimical to the heroine’s existence. Whatever the case, the antagonist must be strong enough as a character to keep the ultimate outcome unpredictable (unless the book is a romance, where the outcome is fairly obvious but the journey to get there is the interesting part).
  5. Challenges. These are the ups and downs of the protagonist’s journey that form the plot.
  6. All of the challenges build until the blockbuster climax of the story. If you’ve done your work well, the climax resonates with your readers on many levels.
  7. The denouement, where everything wraps up and ties up – unless you’re writing a multi-book series, in which case everything doesn’t tie up, and this section leaves some intriguing questions in your readers’ minds that will make them pant for the next book.

Some authors advocate writing backwards – that is, knowing what the ending of the book is going to be, and then filling in the protagonist’s journey to bring her/him/them to that conclusion. That is the plotting method I used, not on purpose really, but I already knew where my heroine had to end up at the close of each of the first two books in my series in order for her to face the situations she has to face in the final book.

There was a lot of work to get her through the first book. Although my books are a mix of urban fantasy and science fiction, I incorporate real places in the world (although I tweak them a fair bit) and real history (tweaked also 😊). I conducted a great deal of research to get the feel and the details right, to create a level of authenticity in my readers’ minds that would give them the sense that my story might actually have taken place, somewhere in another layer of our world that isn’t seen by most people.

I have files on all my main characters – their backgrounds, where they live, their wardrobes even. I have a fictional town that I’ve mapped out in considerable detail, and a fictional college that lives in full colour in my head.

There’s a lot more that goes into creating a book than will fit into a single blog post, but you can see why I was amazed at people who start the November challenge without even an idea. I think you could bang out a quick book in 30 days, but it would be very superficial, or very short. My favourite kind of book is full of layers and adventure, so that’s what I strived to write. According to my beta readers (my recruits who very kindly volunteered their time to read the second draft and critique it), I succeeded. Now I’m working on the final edit and plan to publish later this year.

That’s been my journey so far. If you have an idea for a book that just won’t leave you alone – that keeps pushing at you enough that you’re frequently jotting notes for a scene, or a plot twist, or a conversation – and you’re willing to see what you can do with it, maybe there’s a complete book somewhere inside you just waiting to see the light of the computer page.