The Haunting of Charleston: Setting Deadly Curiosities in the Real World

By Gail Z. Martin

My new urban fantasy novel, Deadly Curiosities, is set in modern-day Charleston, SC. Charleston is one of the most-visited tourist cities in the U.S., and it deserves its fame. It’s an old city in a young country, and it’s played a big role in history, from the American Revolution through the Civil War and into the current headlines. It’s beloved for its food, its architecture, its horse-drawn carriage rides and its multitude of ghost stories. And when I visited Charleston a few years ago, I thought that all of those features made it a perfect setting for an urban fantasy series.

So how does an author handle writing fantasy in the real world?

Carefully, and with a lot of fact-checking.

In my Chronicles of the Necromancer series and my Ascendant Kingdoms Saga books, the setting is entirely of my own making. Yes, the kingdoms have a medieval, somewhat Western European look to them, but their history, their geography, everything about them is completely out of my imagination. There’s no historian who can gainsay me that I got the dates wrong for King So-And-So’s reign, or that some other historic point is incorrect. My world, my history.

That all goes out the window when you’re writing about a city where hundreds of thousands of people actually live, and many thousands more have visited.

I remember talking to someone who actually lived in Hawaii when Hawaii-Five-0 was on TV back in the 1970s. When I asked about the show, he said that people who lived in Honolulu regularly had a good chuckle when the cops on TV went to the corner of streets that didn’t intersect, buildings that didn’t exist, etc. Some of those “errors” might well have been intentional to avoid causing problems for real businesses. (There have been horror stories about companies or individuals who had an address or phone number used in a movie, TV show or song.) But whether intentional or not, the locals noticed.

On one hand, there’s no point setting a book in a real city if you aren’t going to use real landmarks and snippets of the city’s actual history. Otherwise, you might as well just make the whole place up and be done with it.

On the other hand, as an author you don’t want to accidently cast aspersions on real people (living or dead—unless they are so famous that they are essentially in the public domain, like Abraham Lincoln). And if you’re looking for a location for a gruesome murder, vicious ghoul attack, human sacrifice or some other less-than-flattering activity, it’s reasonable to think that private businesses don’t want that kind of thing linked to them, even in fiction. (Public sites, like monuments, parks, government buildings, etc. are fair game.)

So while the locale in which a major event happens in the book does exist (the old Navy yard), the buildings I reference are completely fictitious. So are the businesses that Cassidy patronizes as well as their owners. On the other hand, landmarks like the Charleston City Market, Battery Row, and White Point Garden do exist, grounding the story in some reality and giving visitors to Charleston a clear image of where the action takes place.

Some of the historical figures I mention (like the famous murderess Lavinia Fisher) are real. Others I created based on historical precedent, but not on a single historical person. When writing in a modern-day setting, I Google names to avoid accidentally using the name of a local person, and I’m cautious about using references to influential people from the past since they may well have living relatives in the area. None of these were things I had to worry about in my epic fantasy!

I’ve taken some liberties with the city’s history as well. If I can find an interesting event in history that works into the story, that’s great. But if I need something to advance the plot, I’ll insert a little alternate history to make it work. After all, if magic is operative and Charleston is filled with vampires and Voodoo, adding a new pirate or an extra hurricane here or there is not such a big stretch!

At the end of the day, I want the series to feel comfortable and familiar to those who know Charleston well. Maybe the Charleston in my books isn’t exactly the city they’ve visited or lived in, but all the right touchstones are there to make them feel at home. And with luck, the ways I’ve altered the city and its history to meet the needs of the story feel authentic, the Charleston that could be or might have been. After all, this is fiction!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Gail Z. Martin

What We Collect

By Gail Z. Martin

In my new book Deadly Curiosities, Cassidy Kincaide is the proprietor of Trifles and Folly, a 350 year-old antique and curio shop that exists to get dangerous magical items off the market. Behind the idea of antique shops and shows, flea markets, swap meets, even garage sales, lies the concept of the collector, the person who is continually seeking that perfect piece to complete a set, or who wants to have the biggest and best assortment of something.

Why do we collect what we collect, and what does it say about us?

My father was a collector and a hoarder. I grew up going to antique shows, curio shops, flea markets, used book stores (the musty kind, not the cool kind) and any gathering where old stuff was for sale. And I never cease to be amazed at what people collect.

At various times, my dad collected old VW Beetles, antique steam engines (the huge ones from sawmills), Native American artifacts, books about the Old West, Baby Ben alarm clocks, Smith-Corona typewriters, old Singer sewing machines, 1920s oscillating fans and bear traps. Yes—bear traps.

When it came time to clean out his stash after he went into a nursing home, I had the chance to think a lot about collectors and collections. Not everyone lets theirs get as far out of hand as my father did, and unless it takes over your life, collecting can be a fun hobby. But why do we collect things, and what makes us pick particular collections?

I can’t back this up with more than anecdotal evidence, but I suspect that nostalgia heavily influences the choice of collection. As we dug through all the things dad bought, I could link many of them to stories he had told about things he remembered from his childhood. The Baby Ben alarm clock from his grandmother’s house—he had over 100 of them. The treadle Singer sewing machine from the early 1900s that his mother had used when he was a child—45 of those. The steam-powered engines he remembered from his youth working on a neighbor’s farm, the Model-T Ford from his childhood, and the Native American artifacts and Old West books that reminded him of listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio…he had them all.

Collecting involves strong emotions. Consciously or not, I think many collectors pick items that take them back to a happy or safe memory or a pleasant time in their past. Maybe the object reminds the collector of a beloved person, or a favorite place, or a less complicated time in life. Seeing, touching or using the objects sparks that momentary connection, that flash of dopamine in the brain that is comforting in a very deep way.

I think the same factors are at work when we decide what to keep and what to throw away. The concert ticket from a special date, the trinket you picked up on a favorite vacation, the crayon-scrawled picture from a child now grown—these also cause that hit of happy juice to the brain as one-of-a-kind treasures.

Which brings me back to Deadly Curiosities. Cassidy is a psychometric, able to read strong emotions and memories by touching objects. Not all objects have a resonance, but those that do usually pack a psychic wallop. Many of the antiques and curios that find their way into Trifles and Folly have supernatural qualities as well, including dangerous dark magic. It’s up to Cassidy and her team to get those objects off the market and keep them out of the wrong hands.

Think about the way you feel when you pick up a memento that reminds you of a particularly special time. Now imagine having that feeling augmented by magic, being able to re-experience that moment as if you were there, even for someone else’s memories. Most of us keep knick-knacks that remind us of the good times. Many of the objects that find their way into Trifles and Folly hold the resonance of tragedy, evil or supernatural mayhem.

So the next time you see a tempting object at an antique shop or yard sale, scan how you feel when you handle it. Because as Cassidy Kincaide knows, everyday objects can have a dark side.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Gail Z. Martin

Why Short Fiction Still Matters

By Gail Z. Martin

Not too long ago, short fiction terrified me. I didn’t flinch at a contract requiring 175,000 words, but 8000 – 10,000? Horrors! Then a friend invited me to be in her anthology, and I said yes—with trepidation. Turns out I enjoyed writing the story, which was required to have both pirates and magic in it.

That started the ball rolling. Since then, I’ve said yes to fifteen anthologies, and I’ve started to write two series of direct-to-ebook short story series, with a new story every month on Kindle, Kobo and Nook. One of the anthologies that included a short story of mine, “Magic: Esoteric and Arcane” went on to win a British Fantasy Society award for Best Anthology and be nominated for a Nebula award for Best Anthology. And from those anthologies have come other invitations to participate in new anthologies, plus a contract for my “Deadly Curiosities” novel/series, which expands on the characters and world I created in “Magic”.

Some folks love writing short stories and don’t worry about novels, in the same way some authors only write long fiction. I’ll also admit that I take a little different approach to short stories, since mine tend to be stories in a series with continuing characters, somewhat like a serialized novel. That’s very different from the friends of mine who have sold hundreds of stand-alone short stories to magazines. I’ve also heard it said that “Novelists are failed short-story authors and short-story authors are failed novelists.” While I get the humor in that concept, I think it does an injustice to most authors.

In my opinion, a short story is more difficult to write than a novel because you’ve only got about twenty or so pages to fully convey plot, character and setting with enough skill to emotionally engage your reader and spin a memorable tale. There’s a lot more wiggle room in a novel, more set-up time, more space to expand and flesh out. While writing a novel poses its own challenges, short stories aren’t “easier” just because they’re short.

For authors, short fiction offers several benefits. Anthologies are a “sampler platter” where readers who might not take a chance on a full novel from an unknown author can take your writing out for a low-risk test drive to decide if they want to go further. Depending on the anthology, short stories can also provide a nice advance check—from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Being in an anthology can put an author in esteemed company, a nice boost for a new author to be among more established peers. And as in my own experience, a successful short story can spawn a new novel or series. Not only that, but short stories allow an author room to experiment with concepts and characters that may not warrant a whole novel, but are interesting to explore. They permit an author to grow and stretch.

The two series of short stories I publish direct to Kindle, Kobo and Nook gives me the ability to keep a narrative going in two worlds that weaves around and in-between my books. My Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures series explores the background of a popular character from my Chronicles of the Necromancer books, essentially building a prequel one story at a time. Likewise, my Deadly Curiosities Adventures are tied in to my new “Deadly Curiosities” urban fantasy   Plus, writing to the theme of an anthology is just plain fun, forcing me outside my normal comfort zone.

For readers, short stories have that “sampler platter” benefit in reverse, providing access to bite-sized fiction by authors you might have heard about but not tried yet. It’s a great way to discover a new author without committing to an entire book. Themed anthologies can be lots of fun as you see authors create stories with unique variations on the central concept. And as many readers tell me, short stories are nice to read on a commute because they don’t leave you hanging mid-chapter until the end of the work day!

There seems to be some debate on whether or not anthologies are good for publishers. Magazines of short fiction have certainly seen a tough market, with many long-established publications going out of business, moving completely online, decreasing the number of issues per year or raising prices to make up for a diminished readership. Editorial cut-backs at the big publishers have left editors with less time to take on anthology projects, and budget constraints have made the big publishers wary of projects that don’t have slam-dunk potential.

On the other hand, many small presses embrace anthologies and seem to do quite well with them (based on the fact that they keep bringing out more and more anthologies). Anthologies do well on Kickstarter, since the publisher has perhaps thirty collaborating authors to promote the campaign instead of just one. Many of these anthologies are published without author advances, or with very low advances but the promise of royalties. What the small press can offer is a combination of at-convention sales to a core of engaged fan readers, as well as the flexibility to explore niche themes. An anthology with a winning theme and a few dozen authors may well seem less risky for a small press to produce than a novel with a single author, since a reader who loves the theme and loves most of the anthology writers perceives a success, where the sales of a novel hinge on a single author’s skill.

Despite what you may have heard, I think that short fiction is going strong, and will be around for quite a while. So the next time you feel like snacking on a story instead of a full sit-down meal of fiction, grab a short story and dig in!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Gail Z. Martin

Sometimes Someone’s Gots to Die: Killing Off Fictional Characters

by Donald J. Bingle

Many years ago, an amateur graphologist told a business colleague that I was, based on my signature, a serial killer. When she assured the gentleman that she knew the signer of the document and that I was not, in fact, a serial killer, he responded “He may not have killed yet, but I assure you he will.”

All that occurred before I had done much writing, but I’ve done plenty since and I have, in fact, killed many, many since that time … all of them fictional characters. Look, I used to play a lot of tabletop roleplaying games; I used to write and run such games. I know all about killing characters and having characters killed. Having played more than six hundred different RPG characters in my classic tournament roleplaying career (I was the world’s top-ranked RPGA classic player for about fifteen years), having adjudicated failed resurrection rolls, looted the bodies of fallen comrades, and declared to the GM that my player-character was jumping into the maw of a fire-breathing dragon to save the party, I understand that killing off a beloved character, even one made of nothing but toner, paper, and imagination, can be wrenching both for the creator and the spectators/readers, but sometimes it must be done.

What are valid reasons for killing characters (in gaming or fiction)? Here’s a few:

  1. To heighten tension. Much of fiction is about creating compelling, relatable characters and then creating increasingly difficult and dangerous situations for them to attempt to overcome. If the characters are too powerful or the dangers too small, not only is there not much tension or suspense, but there is nothing to spark the character growth that is important to the protagonist’s character arc. Sure, we all watch and read plenty of things where we know that good will ultimately triumph, but the creator has to somehow make that risk real. One way he or she does that is by killing characters. Sometimes these are secondary characters, comic side-kicks, love interests, or nearby innocents, but nothing ratchets up the feeling of risk like death. Sometime, when you really want to keep your readers/viewers reeling and off-base, you kill off a major character. Sure, in fantasy (and soap operas), they might come back, but you never know. When anyone can die at any moment, you’ve got some built-in suspense.
  2. To stay true to the character. Sometimes anything but heroic sacrifice feels like a cheat, a betrayal of the morals and values of the character in question. If you’ve purposefully created (or somehow boxed yourself into) such a situation, the only way to resolve it that will ring true is to let the sacrifice be made.
  3. To increase the pain being inflicted on one or more other characters. Remember when I was talking about increasing the difficulty and danger for the protagonist? Well, death of someone close or innocent or both can create a lot of difficulty and pain. You can then use such pain to fuel the change in that surviving character’s/protagonist’s arc. And, the loss of assistance and support (emotional and/or physical) can greatly increase the difficulty or remaining tasks.
  4. To eliminate a played-out character. It’s bad enough when a character falls into disuse because they have nothing left to add to the protagonist’s development or resolution of the plot, but it’s even worse when that played-out character hangs on, doing nothing new, or becomes a caricature instead of a character. Sometimes, you just have to clear out the dead wood. Funeral pyre, anyone?

#

What are some things to keep in mind when killing characters?

  1. Keep your point-of-view in mind. Most novels and stories are written with third-person, limited perspective, which means that each separate scene is from the point-of-view of a particular character, often also reflecting that person’s internal thought process. Even if not overtly done as a narration, this gives the reader the feel that they are being told the story (or that scene of the story) by the POV character. That feeling is upset, even destroyed, when the POV character for the scene dies during the scene without having relayed that information to a third party. Sometimes readers don’t know exactly what bothers them about such a scene, but I believe there is a subtle disconnect that occurs in such situations. So, unless your character later rises from the grave or is telling their tale from beyond, don’t kill the POV character in a scene. Have some other character be the POV character for that scene.
  2. Don’t use death as an easy way out. Sometimes authors don’t know how to end a scene or a story or a book. Death can be used to cover up such creative famine. If everyone, or everyone important to the story, dies, there is no need to tie up loose ends, resolve inconsistencies, or patch plot holes. It’s a cheat and it feels like a cheat to the readers. Try not to do it.
  3. Make the death commensurate with the importance of the character. The more important the character, the more important the death should be, and the more volume it should be given in the work. Building up a character at length, just to have them offed by a stinging insect in a sentence fragment aggravates the reader. The death may be quick, it may be unexpected, but the total volume of space the death and its aftermath receives should be proportionate to the importance of the character.
  4. Don’t make your reader/viewer throw the book/television across the room. If too many people die or characters die too often or for too little reason or with insufficient regard, your audience may get upset and start throwing things. Thrown things may never be picked up. Yes, you may surprise and challenge your readers/viewers, but if you want them to remain your readers/viewers, try not to piss them off too much. If you feel you must, or do, alienate your readers, do something in the work as soon as possible thereafter to ameliorate that feeling of disgust, whether that is showing them how the death was necessary or affects other characters or quickly giving them a replacement character to care about.

 

Of course, this is all just my opinion. It’s your work and you should do what is best for the project, regardless of this advice. I’ve killed a lot of characters, sometimes, in part, just because I tend toward writing dark stories and because I dislike the traditional Hollywood happy ending as unrealistic.

In my most recent project, Frame Shop, I write about a writers’ group’s involvement in murder … and then more murder. Link through the Kickstarter project at http://kck.st/YMyWaS. (Even if the Kickstarter is over, the last update will have a link to where you can find/buy it.) Then, you can tell me if I’ve followed my own advice. As always, more about me and my writing at www.donaldjbingle.com.

Aloha.

Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand TM

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Guest Blogger

In Praise of Escapism

By Gail Z. Martin

I read a lot of both fiction and non-fiction. When I read non-fiction, I read to learn and sometimes that takes me into unhappy or unpleasant territory. Many a time when I’ve finished a non-fiction book about some depressing period in history or an analysis of one of the world’s ills, I’ve felt worse than when I started the book. I accept that as the trade-off for gaining knowledge that I need for a purpose. That kind of reading is akin to work—I don’t do it for fun.

But when I read fiction in my limited spare time, I want to have fun. I want a book or a movie or even a TV show to get me away from the cares of the real world for a little bit, to thrill me and let me see the good guys come out ahead. I unabashedly want a dose of escapism, and frankly I think escapism gets a bad rap.

I’ve heard some reviewers or some “influential” thinkers dismiss a book or a movie as “mere escapism,” as if there was something unhealthy about wanting a mental vacation from the cares of everyday life. In some circles, it’s not cool to admit having read a book that won’t out-tragedy or out-angst everyone else’s reading list. But the truth is, I can get tragedy and angst by turning on the evening news. There’s no shortage of it, and wallowing in it doesn’t mean you’re more sophisticated.

In a country that consumes more than its share of prescription antidepressants, alcohol, pot and illegal drugs, getting your break from reality in the pages of a book seems like a sane and reasonable choice.

Recently, I read an interview with a very famous author who went on record disliking happily-ever-after endings and having the good guys win and the bad guys lose. The author didn’t think that was realistic. And I thought, how sad.

I immediately thought of the iconic pictures of the spontaneous celebrations at the end of World War II when total strangers danced and kissed in the streets of New York City. There were tickertape parades and lots of champagne corks (and beer bottle tops) popping as the people who lived through an awful darkness celebrated the fact that the good guys won and the bad guys lost and it felt like happily-ever-after.

And of course, after the confetti was swept up and people slept off the hangover, we woke up to the Cold War, but that was a story for another book.

See, we all have “happily-ever-after” moments in life, times when—just for an hour or a day or a few lucky weeks or years—the good guys win and the bad guys lose. You get married, have a child, get a diploma, get your dream job, build a home, buy a dog, go on the perfect vacation, get back a medical test that says the cancer is in remission, find out the cyst is benign. And you dance and kiss someone and pop a few corks and in that wonderful moment, the good guys come out on top and it feels like happily-ever-after.

Of course, tomorrow there will be bills to pay and car repairs and hassles at work and more bad guys and battles, because the story continues.

And that is why I don’t find it “unrealistic” when a book ends on a high note. Because the author is picking an arbitrary point in time for the ending. End the book a day earlier, and the skies might still be dark and uncertain. End the book two weeks later, and there will be new threats. But end in the moment of celebration when one threat has been overcome and the characters are taking a well-deserved victory lap, and it’s made all the sweeter because we know that “ever-after” is ephemeral.

We live in a culture that feasts on the dark, bitter, ironic, and unhappy. Personally, I think it’s partly the voyeurism of a generation that hasn’t had to live through any real hardship, and partly the old “freak show” effect where seeing someone less fortunate makes the viewer say, “wow, my life sucks but at least it’s not that bad!” Neither is a particularly healthy world view. There’s a strain of schadenfreude that runs wide in our culture, loving the chance to say “I told you so” when someone stumbles or a hero fails. Some people have given up in believing in heroes or good guys because they don’t want to be disappointed, which is like giving up on falling in love because the divorce rate is 60%.

Which brings me back to escapism. Why the hell not? How is it more adult to pop a Prozac than read a book with a happy ending, or see a movie that makes you want to cheer and shout? I do believe that you become what you feed your mind. Feed it depressing stories full of morally bankrupt people and you’re not likely to feel chipper and ready to take on the next challenge. If I have to choose, I’ll take happy over fashionable every time. Escapism is a healthy, well-adjusted, no-side-effects, non-damaging response to the ups and downs of everyday life.

I’ve had letters from readers who read my books while sitting vigil at a bedside in a hospital, or in a tent somewhere during a military action with shellfire in the distance. They thanked me for giving them somewhere to escape into, a place where—at least for a moment in time—they knew who the good guys were, a hard and desperate struggle turned out to be worth the cost of the scars and blood, and things ended up more right than not.

In my dark moments, reading about characters who struggled through desperate times and won helped me make it out of my own discouragement. Those happily-ever-after (at least for a while) endings, those stories where you could tell the good guys from the bad guys, they are the pick-me-up after a stressful day or a hard week.

So here’s to escapism. Long may it live happily-ever-after.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Gail Z. Martin

Haunted Heirlooms

By Gail Z. Martin

Anything you keep for sentimental reasons has a hint of haunt to it.

Deadly Curiosities, my new urban fantasy novel from Solaris Books, is centered around a 350 year-old antique and curio shop that exists to get dangerous magical items off the market and out of the wrong hands. The proprietor, Cassidy Kincaide, is a psychometric, someone who can read objects by touch and sense strong magic and memories.

While Cassidy’s talent goes far beyond the nostalgia most of us experience, there’s more truth to her magic than you might feel comfortable acknowledging.

The word “memento”, one we often use to mean sentimental knick-knack, actually means “remember death,” and described the Victorian penchant of making jewelry to memorialize their dead. While we no longer make death jewelry, the items that we keep for sentimental reasons are more similar than not to those old Victorian lockets–a memorial to memories and emotions that we don’t want to forget.

Think about the treasures you’ve got stashed away in a box in your closet or under your bed—or maybe in a storage unit. You keep things that have little or no monetary value because they bring back a strong vision of the past. Pictures, jewelry or personal possessions of those who have passed away serve to extend the influence of the dead over the living, even if it’s just the power of memory.

The items we hang onto—as individuals and collectively (museums)—not only remind us of the past, they shape our understand of that past by what we choose to keep, and what we throw away. Because what we keep is selective, our heirlooms tend to reinforce the memories we value and erase the things we don’t want to remember. Many families have been sundered by vicious squabbles over heirlooms with no monetary value for this very reason. As a society, the items we enshrine in museums reinforce a code of conduct, a view of national identity, a worldview. Old objects have power.

Even the dialog over historic items and national treasures taken in antiquity posits that what we are is influenced by the objects we own and that those objects are linked to our very essence. When I’ve been in the Smithsonian, the Vatican Museums, the Louvre, the British Museum, I see items taken from one empire by another because of what those items signified, the psychological and sociological power invested in them. The recent movie “Monuments Men” shows the lengths to which nations will go to acquire or rescue their treasures. The extensive efforts by First Nations peoples to regain their artefacts suggests just how much importance we attach to heirlooms.

Go to any religious shrine, and you’ll see more objects with a hint of haunt. Relics and religious artefacts are invested by our belief with power. We look to them for clarity, luck, protection. Wars have been fought over such objects because on a deep instinctive level we sense imbued power. Think of the feeling of awe that you get in a historic site/shrine/museum, a sense that because of the objects housed in that place, the past isn’t gone, it’s just thinly veiled.

Which brings me back to Deadly Curiosities. A place that exists to find the powerful old items linked to bad mojo and black magic, run by a secret coalition of immortals and mortals who are trying to protect the world, one cursed heirloom at a time.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Gail Z. Martin

Audiobooks 101: The Basics

labyrinth_audiobook1By T.W. Fendley

Earlier this year, two things prompted me to take a closer look at how to create audiobook versions of my books. First, as a reader, I’m a big fan—of the 58 books I’ve read so far this year, all but eight were audiobooks (and those weren’t available in audio). Second, I heard audiobook sales are expected to continue to rise for the next five years. As a writer, that’s a market I wanted to know more about.

With the popularity of Internet-connected devices like mp3 players, smartphones and eReaders, downloadable audiobooks are now accessible to most people. Due to this rapidly changing technology, audiobook revenue grew at an annualized rate of 12 percent from 2008-2013, to $1.6 billion, according to IBISWorld.

But that’s only part of the story. Libraries have seen a staggering increase in demand for audiobooks. In an online article, a library director reported audiobook usage more than tripled from 2009 to 2014 in the three-county Mid-Wisconsin Federated Library System, with Overdrive as their sole vendor. Other libraries—like the St. Louis County Library system I use—now offer a wide selection of audiobooks through Overdrive, OneClickdigital and Hoopla.

While I was convinced audiobooks were worth trying and knew several other authors who used Amazon’s ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange) to get audiobooks produced, I was put off by yet another contract and another process. It turns out, it can be really simple and–dare I say it–fun!

Here’s how the process works: I posted an excerpt from my short story on ACX, offering a royalty share instead of direct payment to the producer/narrator. Royalty share means ACX keeps half the proceeds, and the producer and I split the other half.

When Laurel Schroeder contacted me via ACX about producing my short story JAGUAR HOPE, I was thrilled with her audition. We signed the contract, which included deadlines, then I sent Laurel the complete manuscript.

While she worked on the narration/production, I contacted author/illustrator Jennifer Stolzer, who did the cover for the ebook back in 2012. Jennifer quickly converted it to meet ACX cover specifications. Everything worked like a charm. I approved what Laurel sent me, and on Feb. 12, I received notice that ACX would do a “final quick quality control process, and then begin distributing it to Audible.com, Amazon.com, and iTunes. Barring any issues in the quality check, that process should take upwards of 14-20 business days.” Six days later, it was available for purchase!

ACX works with authors and producers to promote the audiobooks by offering them free copies to send to reviewers. They also pay a “bounty” if your book is a new Audible member’s FIRST purchase. The $50 bounty is split by the author and producer—ACX doesn’t get a cut. But where to find someone new to Audible? (And alas, Missouri—where I live—is one of the few states excluded from the bounty program.)

I used ACX to find Tiffany Williams, who narrated my short story “Solar Lullaby,” and Shelby Lewis, who’s working toward a December release for the audiobook of my new young adult fantasy novel, The Labyrinth of Time.

If you’re considering getting into audiobooks, here’s some advice from Laurel and Tiffany:
Laurel Schroeder (Jaguar Hope) What advice would you give authors about how to solicit auditions for their book? For instance, ACX gives choices such as female/male/male reading as female, Spanish/British accent, brooding/storytelling/etc. Some of those categories are a lot easier to sort through than others. It’s pretty easy to decide if you want a male or female voice for your book, or if you’re open to either. Same with accents–you pretty much either want one or don’t, depending on where your book is set. But the ‘vocal style’ category is a little trickier. I think of it as a jumping off point, or a way to help the narrator understand the main tone of the book. But it always seems to me that a well-written story will require a number of different vocal styles!

Tiffany Williams/Airbending Media Productions (Solar Lullaby)–What makes you want to work with an author again? Communication. Responding to questions regarding pronunciation, or character notes; being flexible if there are unforeseen events that delay recording (a rarity, but things can happen); and sharing promotional/market tools/ideas. Also, if I’m not selected for a project, an email beyond the generic rejection from the Right’s Holder thanking me for auditioning is wonderful! Especially if I had resubmitted an audition at their request. I will be likely to audition for a future project if they post something.

Tiffany Williams–What three tips would you give authors about working with narrators/audiobook producers? Communicate! Collaborate! Enjoy the process and success of the medium!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Guest Blogger

Why Book Covers Still Matter

by Gail Z. Martin

Back when the only place to get books was in bookstores, browsing the shelves for new and interesting covers could be a pleasant Saturday afternoon pastime. Even before bookstores added coffee shops, it was easy to while away several hours just perusing the covers of books, looking for a hidden gem, a new adventure, or a tempting tome.

Now, much of our book buying has moved online, either to purchase paper books via Internet booksellers, or to download ebooks. It’s gotten harder to leisurely browse, in part because there are fewer brick-and-mortar bookstores than there used to be, and in part because those physical stores that do exist have often cut back on their range of books in order to feature profitable extras like gifts, music, movies and coffee.

So in an age when shoppers may only see the cover as the size of a webpage thumbnail, do covers really matter?

I believe they do. I know that some people lament the death of book covers in the same way they lament the passing of music album covers in the age of CDs and iTunes. And I agree that books do face some of the same threats that music has faced, although there are significant differences. All the same, I think that the reports of the death of book covers, to paraphrase Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated.

We’ve often been exhorted to not judge a book by its cover, yet covers are often the first connection an author makes with a reader. This is especially true if the author has not yet reached the superstar ranks of name recognition, or if the reader has never read anything by the particular author in the past.

It does appear true that the better known an author is, the less effort goes into their covers. Make it to the pinnacle of success, and covers often feature only the author’s name and the book title with a solid color background. But for most books, the cover signals the reader that this book is part of a particular genre, like other books the reader has enjoyed, and begins the job of shaping expectations before the book even gets lifted off the shelf.

A good cover–one that accurately signals the reader as to the genre and type of story–plays a major role in attracting an audience for the book. The quality of illustration and bookbinding also tells a reader something about the book, as many small press and self-published authors will attest. Watch readers move through a book festival or the vendor room at a genre convention, and notice which books get handled more often, and which ones never get picked up. Good covers make a difference.

What makes a good cover? It’s a complex mix of elements that starts with a professional quality illustration. Poor art is a stumbling block few books can overcome. Appropriate illustration is the next hurdle. Readers understand the visual shorthand that signals mystery, thriller, urban fantasy, epic fantasy and other genres. Send a miscue, and you’ll lose many potential readers while disappointing those who buy expecting a different sort of book.

Type font, placement and color matter, just as it matters to have a catchy title for the book. I’m not a graphic artist, but I can tell when the placement of the words on a book cover doesn’t look professional. Traditionally published authors don’t have to think about these things, but it’s a detail that many small press and self-pubbed authors struggle with as they strive to gain legitimacy in the reader’s eyes.

The back cover matters, too. I have my books face up on the table at signings to attract readers, but when I engage prospects in conversation, I’ll hand the book to them back cover up, encouraging the person to read the book summary and endorsement quotes. A gripping teaser of a recap goes a long way toward pulling in a reader and building a hunger to read the rest. If the reader has never read a book by a particular author, endorsement quotes by familiar authors or publications decreases perceived risk. While not every reader is swayed by blurbs, those quotes matter a lot for a certain type of book purchaser, and as an author, we want to send good cues on as many different levels as possible.

Authors like to believe that it’s the words between the covers that really matter, and they do. But without a cover that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them pick up the book, those words never get read. I can’t count the number of times a reader has told me, “Your cover made me buy your book.” I make sure to profusely thank my cover artists, and I work as closely with them as possible to provide the details necessary to do justice to the story inside. Covers matter!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Gail Z. Martin

Telling Feminist Stories from a Male Point of View

Seasons rgb, FINAL, med, low resI enjoy writing stories about strong female characters. My characters aren’t the kind that shoot first and ask questions later (although they do defend themselves and their loved ones when necessary). They tend to be intelligent and strong-willed, with their own goals. However, they’re not always the main character. In Seasons’ Beginnings, my main character, Kron Evenhanded, is a man who must interact with many women over the course of the story. These women include magicians, both friendly and opposed to Kron; goddesses; and ordinary women. How can an author write a feminist story while working with a male protagonist and point-of-view character?

One way to make a story feminist is to have a variety of female characters in important roles. A woman is Kron’s chief antagonist, but there are also women supporting him. Some of these women are even more powerful than him (they are goddesses, after all). Other women appear in minor roles, such as a brewer who brings Kron up to date on what’s been happening in the city. Even minor characters like the brewer demonstrate that women can run businesses on their own. These women are not isolated, but interact with each other as well as Kron. There’s a pair of sisters, a pair of goddesses, and several women who are Avatars. (Avatars are men and women who are given specific types of magic by their patron deities.) True to the Bechdel test, these women talk about many things, not just men. Some of these women change over the course of the story, gaining new abilities or taking on different roles. Part of what drives this story is what the different women do with their power once they gain it.

What does Kron think about all of these women? Kron has worked with women—specifically, Salth, the woman who will become his chief enemy—at the Magic Institute where he was trained. Although he’s not fazed by women with power, he finds it difficult to adjust when Bella, the woman he loves, is chosen to become an Avatar. He knows she will be in danger from Salth, who has more power and knowledge than Bella does, so his instinct is to protect her constantly. Bella herself has always expected to become a traditional wife and mother, but when these dreams are thwarted, she must come to accept and embrace her new role.

If all of these women are so important, why did I choose to make Kron the central character of this story? His actions affect the other women and cause key events that drive not just this story, but the rest of the Season Avatars series. (In fact, I originally wrote Seasons’ Beginnings as a short story to set up the world and later decided to expand it into a novel.) When the Avatars receive their magic, Kron is the one who must train them and act as their leader before they face Salth. At the climax, Kron makes the most significant decisions and the deepest sacrifice.

I plan to have four more books in this series, each primarily told from the point of view of a different female character. Kron will continue to interact with the Avatars and even clash with them over who should be the leader. However, he will always respect them and treat all Avatars equally, no matter what their gender is. By showing gender equality in fiction, I hope to make it more common in real life.

 

About the Author

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan started reading at the age of three and only stops when absolutely required to. Although she hasn’t been writing quite that long, she did compose a very simple play in German during middle school. Her science fiction novella Move Over Ms. L. (an early version of Lyon’s Legacy) earned an Honorable Mention in the 2001 UPC Science Fiction Awards, and her short story “A Reptile at the Reunion” was published in the anthology Firestorm of Dragons. Other published works by Sandra include Twinned Universes and several science fiction and fantasy short stories. She is a founding member of Broad Universe, which promotes science fiction, fantasy, and horror written by women. Her undergraduate degree is in molecular biology/English, and she has a Master of Technical and Scientific Communication degree. Her day job is in the laboratory of an enzyme company; she’s also been a technical writer and a part-time copyeditor for a local newspaper. Some of her other accomplishments are losing on Jeopardy! and taking a stuffed orca to three continents. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, Eugene; and son, Alex. In her rare moments of free time, she enjoys crocheting, listening to classic rock (particularly the Beatles), and watching improv comedy.

Sandra can be found online at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books

What’s coming up in 2015?

War of Shadows comes out in April. It’s Book 3 in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga continuing the quest of Blaine McFadden and his convict friends to restore the kingdom of Donderath after the Great Fire and Cataclysm lay waste to their homeland. You’ll get a first look at the amazing cover right here.

Then in late June, Iron and Blood: A Jake Desmet Adventure debuts. This is the new steampunk series that my husband, Larry N. Martin, and I are co-writing, and it’s set in 1898 in an alternative history Pittsburgh. Airships, amazing gadgets, and supernatural threats—it’s going to be a wild ride. I’ve got the cover art for you to take a look at—it’s pretty awesome!

In November, the second Deadly Curiosities book will be on shelves. It doesn’t have name yet, but it’s already well on the way to being written. We’ll pick up with Cassidy, Teag, and Sorren as they keep dangerous magical items off the market and keep supernatural threats from destroying Charleston, SC.

And of course, the Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures series of short stories will continue in 2015. For Jonmarc, “Season 2” finds him fighting as a mercenary in Principality, where he just might attract the attention of the Eastmark army. The Deadly Curiosities Adventures follow the exploits of Cassidy, Teag, and Sorren before and between the books.

Anthologies!! I was crazy and lucky enough to be featured in a lot of anthologies in 2014, and the trend continues for 2015! Dreams of Steel 5, a steampunk anthology from Dark Oak Press features one of our Sound and Fury short stories, a tie-in to the Iron and Blood series. Big Bad 2, also from Dark Oak Press, will have a horror story from Yours Truly unrelated to any of my series. The yet-unnamed space-themed Origins Gaming Convention anthology will also feature one of my stories. And I’m sure there will be more to come! (For a full list of the anthologies that are available for purchase, please check out the Anthologies link on my website.)

Some anthologies will straddle the dateline, being Kickstarter-funded in 2014 but squeaking in just before or just after the new year. That includes Heroes, an anthology from Silence in the Library which features not-your-average superheroes and story illustrations by comic book great Mark Dos Santos. Icarus: A Graphic Novel, also from Silence in the Library, features my add-on story in that universe illustrated by LucasArts/Marvel artist Joe Corroney. Expect to see these somewhere mid-winter!

Conventions and Notable Dates for the rest of 2014 and 2015! Here’s what I have confirmed so far:

  • 2014 World Fantasy Society, Washington, DC
  • 2014 Atomacon, Charleston, SC
  • 2014 Philcon, Cherry Hill, NJ
  • January   Arisia in Boston, MA
  • January   Illogicon in Raleigh, NC
  • February Mysticon in Roanoke, VA
  • March AZ Renaissance Festival in Apache Junction, AZ
  • April War of Shadows launches!
  • April Ravencon in Richmond, VA
  • May ConCarolinas in Charlotte, NC
  • June Origins Gaming Convention in Columbus, OH
  • June Hawthorn Moon Online Event
  • June ConTemporal in High Point, NC
  • July Iron and Blood launches!
  • July ConGregate in Winston-Salem, NC
  • Nov Deadly Curiosities Book 2 launches! (I promise we’ll have a better name by then!)

I’ll update the list as I hear more about conventions for Fall, 2015. And of course, my Thrifty Author Publishing Success Meetup group continues to meet monthly in Charlotte—check out the Meetup.com site for details.

My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for stories and books by author friends of mine. And, a special 50% off discount from Double-Dragon ebooks! You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Details here: www. AscendantKingdoms.com

Trick or Treat: Enjoy an excerpt from my short story, The Low Road, here: http://www.wattpad.com/story/9463190-the-low-road

Extra bonus excerpt from Michael Ventrella’s Arch Enemies here: http://michaelaventrella.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/archenemiessample.pdf

And even more excerpts and freebie wallpaper from Danielle Ackley-McPhail’s Badass Faeries series here: http://www.badassfaeries.com/freebies.ht

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Gail Z. Martin