Monday, September 27, 2021

Auntie Deborah Answers Your Questions About Writing

In this installment, Auntie Deborah discusses writing a first draft, the unfairness of publishing, and when to run away from a publisher's contract. 

Dear Auntie Deborah: How can I prevent myself from constantly trying to edit as I draft?

Auntie Deborah: You’re halfway there in understanding why it’s important to plough through that draft so you can look at the whole thing when it’s time to revise. It’s tempting but (for many of us) deadly to halt forward progress and nitpick. Here are a few strategies that have worked for me:

  • Beginning each session with reading the last page or so but not making any changes in it.
  • Reminding myself that the only draft that counts is the one on my editor’s desk. And that what looks like an error may point me in the direction of a deeper, richer story, so I need to preserve all that drek the first time through.
  • Reminding myself about author B, whose work I greatly admire, who told me that no one, not even her most trusted reader, sees anything before her third draft.
  • Giving myself permission to be really, really awful.
  • Falling in love with the revision process. I can hardly wait to get that first draft down so I have something to play with.
  • Writing when I’m tired. Believe it or not, this helps because it’s all I can do then to keep putting down one word after another.
All that said, sometimes editing is the right thing, like when it feels as if I’m pushing the story in a direction it doesn’t want to go, or I’ve written myself into a hole I can’t dig out of. Usually that means I’ve made a misstep earlier, not thought carefully about where I want to go. Or whatever I thought the story was about, I was wrong, and the true story keeps wanting to emerge. How do I tell when this is the case? Mostly experience, plus willingness to rip it all to shreds and start over.

Dear Auntie Deborah: How do you come up with names for your characters?

Auntie Deborah: Sometimes the novel and its setting dictate parameters for last names. For example, if I’m writing a science fiction novel about Scottish colonists on Mars, I’m going to look at Scottish last names.

Often the character herself will suggest a last name, either based in ethnicity or personal traits and history. An aging hippie might have changed their last name to Sunchild or Windflower or Yogananada. A family trying to erase immigrant origins might have a last name like Smith or Jones.

And then there’s the telephone book (do such things still exist?) Or the credits for a really big movie, the ones that go one for screen after screen after screen. Do be careful when using real last names, though. If they’re too different, they might be identifiable. Just use the lists as prompts for your thinking.

Another strategy is to look at first names and then use them as last names. (My middle name is Jean, which was my mother’s last name, so the reverse could also be true.)

That said, always do an internet search for the name you’ve chosen. Even if you aren’t aware of others with that name, it’s good to know.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Heroic Hackers Save the Fae

Phaethon, by Rachel Sharp (Pandamoon)

When a new tech company releases a smartphone that’s light-years beyond previous models, customers line up to be the first to own it. Jack and Rose, hackers par excellence, join the throng with the purpose of cracking the tech, stealing the code, and making it all available online in a sort of underground people’s tech empowerment. The Phaethon phone does things no device has ever been capable of. Not only does it make and receive phone calls, take photos, search the internet on voice command, but it interacts creatively with its owner – and it flies. The puzzle deepens as Jack digs into the primitive, outdated code and Rose opens the case to find junk parts that shouldn’t be able to do anything, let alone do the incredible things it can. What gives? As they delve deeper into the mystery, they stumble upon Phaethon’s incredible secret; the phone is powered remotely by a tiny magical creature. Soon they’re drawn into a world of mythical beings, friend and foe alike, and must take sides in a war not only for the control of fae but the future of the human race.

I loved it. I loved Jack and Rosie, both as quirky nerdish individuals and as a long-established loving couple. I loved their friends. I loved the way the mystery unfolded, step by page-turning step. It’s intelligent, compassionate, and just plain fun.


Friday, September 17, 2021

Short Book Reviews: A Skunk, a Badger, a Magical Egg, and A Chicken on a Mission

Egg Marks the Spot (Skunk and Badger 2), by Amy Timberlake (Algonquin Young Readers)

I adored the introduction of Skunk and Badger (Skunk and Badger), at first unwilling housemates, who become fast friends. Badger is a fussy, hyper-organized Important Rock Scientist who resents any interruption of his routine, while Skunk is expansively friendly, speaks to cryptic chickens, and cooks gourmet meals. Skunk’s one obsession is the New Yak Times Book Review. That’s really all a reader needs to know before embarking upon their next adventure: a camping trip. The trip proceeds along hilarious lines, with Badger calculating the exact weight of every multi-purpose article in his neatly organized pack, and Skunk throwing in pots and pans, fresh produce, and other items on which usefulness he and Badger disagree profoundly. This, then, is the essence of their friendship: how the differences supply each other’s blind spots.

Needless to say, the camping trip quickly takes several unexpected turns with an obnoxious bully from Badger’s past, an incredible find in a cave, the secret mission of chickens, a bivalve moving company, and much, much more. The characters are endearing, the action lively, the prose deliciously inventive, and the deeper themes of friendship, loyalty, and courage shine through. 

A splendid book for the whole family to read aloud!

Monday, September 13, 2021

Galaxies Dance to the Death

This image  from the Hubble Space Telescope was so striking, I could not resist sharing it with you.

These two galaxies (NGC 3808A on the right and NGC 3808B on the left) are distorted ("peculiar") by the massive gravitational tides of a near encounter. The one on the right shows areas of new star formation as a result. Eventually, they will merge into a single galaxy. The bridge between them is made up of gas, dust, and stars.

I wonder what the night sky looks like from a planet in either one -- delicious fodder for a science fiction story! Or a fantasy? What will the two galaxies look like in a billion years? Computer modeling can give us a fascinating peek. Meanwhile, (thank you yet again, Hubble!) we get to enjoy this beautiful, dramatic image.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Gods and Monsters in a Kansas City Pub

Nectar and Ambrosia (An Amaranthine Inheritance Novel) by E. M. Hamill

Gods and monsters meeting for a drink in a Kansas City pub – how great is that as a premise? Callie stumbles on the place, which apparently only those gifted with rare abilities can see, and into a world of mythology come to life. Soon she’s working as the new server, fending off lustful Pan, matching wits with Puck, managing a lugubriously drunk Zeus, and using her Classics major knowledge to sort everything out. There’s a love interest, the pub owner Florian, sentenced to the confines of the place, and the slow burn attraction has the flavor of romance without dominating the plot.

The book’s strengths are the originality of its premise and plot twists, plus a likeable and capable heroine. For me, these more than overcame its shortcomings and kept me reading. I found it to be at times overwritten, burdened by repetition and belaboring things that I had already figured out. The blend of action-driven plot with romance sensibilities such as long, repeated descriptions of the physical reactions of Callie and Florian to one another, without the centerpiece of their relationship, was at times uneasy. On the whole, however, I found it a quick and enjoyable read.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Physician to the Fae Plague

The Memory of Water (Magorian & Jones Book 1), by Taylen Carver (Stories Rule Press, 2020)

Despite a confusing and completely unnecessary prolog, this book drew me in. A plague has swept the world, killing most of its victims but transforming the survivors into creatures such as goblins, angels, sirens, and dragons. Feared and reviled by the human remnant, these “Errata” are hunted and corralled into reservations. In one such sanctuary, Michael Jones, a physician, devotes himself to treating the plague victims through the all-too-often-fatal metamorphosis. This is despite or perhaps because of the death of his family at the hands of the early Errata. The struggle is often futile, so Jones ends up teaming up with Ben Magorian, an honest-to-goodness wizard, although not the most easy-going person. Despite their incompatible beliefs, Jones’s entrenched skepticism, and Magorian’s antisocial attitudes, the two team up to thwart an even deadlier menace.

Once the story got going, I kept turning the pages. I loved the idea of medical approach to an essentially magical transformation. The various Errata races and their abilities, as well as the individual struggles (or not) to retain their humanity not only fascinated me but raise questions of ethics and compassion. I had a little trouble accepting that most people would so strongly reject their neighbors and family members for getting sick, or would not be curious, eager to have conversations with mythic-appearing creatures or to exploit them in movies, promotions, and the like (human greed at work). That’s my primary criticism, yet I was able to take such rejection and prejudice as a given in this world and go along with the story. I’m a sucker for wounded, conflicted heroes, and Jones was just that. This is the first of a series of the “Magorian and Jones” novels.