Thursday, August 28, 2014

Daphne Benedis-Grab lets a passion for Christmas inspire her fiction

The leaves are changing already. Kids are going back to school. Before you know it, boom!, the winter holidays are upon us. Today's guest, Daphne Benedis-Grab, definitely has a little Christmas in her heart. She shares it with readers in her upcoming middle-grade book, The Angel Tree. Please pass the gingerbread.

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Write what you love.  It’s classic fiction writing advice, advice I’ve been given and given to others countless
times.  And though it may be cliché, I think it’s some of the best writing wisdom there is.  A case in point, my upcoming book, The Angel Tree.  This book is bursting with things I am passionate about, that I adore thinking and thus writing about, and it made every step of the very challenging process of writing and editing a manuscript so much easier, because every time I went back to the story I was diving back into things I love.  Such as:

Christmas, of course!  I’ve been nuts about Christmas since I was little.  Yes, the gifts are a part of it, a lovely part, but they really aren’t the point.  To me it’s the feeling of Christmas, the spirit as it were, and all the ways, big and little, we honor it.  For our family it starts with the tree, picking it out, setting it up and then the ritual of decorating it with ornaments bought and made over the years, each with its own story and memory.  Then there’s the music- I have a crazy big collection of Christmas carols and they bring me such joy.  There are the parties, friends coming together and catching up- that is such fun.  And then there are Christmas movies and TV shows, like Elf and Rudolph, that are magic each and every year.  Another essential part of Christmas?  The food.  Which is another thing I’m passionate about so it gets its own section.

Years ago friends started telling me that reading my manuscripts made them hungry.  I delight in describing food I love.  Usually that means sweet things- in The Angel Tree one of my favorite scenes involves fresh cinnamon doughnuts.  But I have almost as much fun detailing a really rich lasagna or a fresh peach.  Food is a pleasure to eat and it is a pleasure to write about.

There are a lot of other things I loved writing about in The Angel Tree- quirks certain characters have that resonate for me, the dog, Valentine- I love animals and love writing about them!  But bigger than that is friendship and people overcoming hardship.  We all have journeys in our lives, times when we struggle and those moments where we connect deeply with others.  Creating those moments for characters is incredibly satisfying; challenging but worth it when an arc holds together in a meaningful way from start to finish.

So when people ask, I will keep giving them the same advice: write what you love.  Yes it might be cliché but the thing about this cliché?  It works!

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Learn more about Daphne Benedis-Grab on her website.

You can purchase The Angel Tree at Indiebound and on Amazon

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Katrina Archer on lying, being valued, and the fear of being UNTALENTED

What if staying alive required having one special skill that was highly enough valued by society to make you worth keeping? Katrina Archer's YA novel, Untalented, explores that premise. And it doesn't take the easy way out. Katrina stopped by to discuss her challenging book.

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Hi Anne, thanks for inviting me to your blog today!
Untalented tells the story of Saroya, a young orphan who finds herself without a Talent in a world where Talent is everything. The core premise came to me after a specific incident in my engineering career: a manager of mine told me I would need to specialize in one key area of focus, or risk devaluing my career. I balked at that: I’m a dabbler at heart, and have always had a wide range of interests that span both the sciences and the arts. I have a short attention span, and get easily bored if I’m not constantly learning new things.
But I wondered: what would a society look like that only valued specialists? What if they’d taken that concept to such an extreme that they’d created a caste system around it? And what would happen to someone in that culture who simply could not specialize? That society is the Kingdom of Veyle, in which we find Saroya, the heroine of Untalented.
The thing is, Saroya knows, deep down in her bones, that she’s not useless. But her society won’t let her prove that to them. She’s cast out of her home, and denied work in the rigidly controlled Guilds of Veyle. So what does she do to survive? She lies. She lies about what she is, she lies about her credentials, and ultimately, she lies to herself about the true extent of her skills.
My family motto is “Sola bona quae honesta”, or roughly, “Only that which is honest is good”. It became an interesting character study for me to deal with someone who must lie to survive, but a great source of conflict, because Saroya’s falsehoods wind up losing her some of her only allies. She lies so much that she finds herself in a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” situation: nobody wants to believe that an Untalented girl might be able to save the capital city from looming calamity, and she’s alienated the only people who might have helped her.
The truth about who Saroya is also has scandalous implications that could bring down the leadership of Veyle, and discovering that truth leads to one of her most difficult choices. Only by being truly honest with herself can Saroya come to terms with who she is and claim her heritage. But by the time she learns that lesson, she’s been squeezed into a corner by the people who will benefit most from preserving their own lies.
Because I don’t see things in rigid shades of black and white, Untalented explores some moral grey areas. Being true to yourself and the people you care about always means telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But sometimes unselfish honesty’s about more than just not lying.
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Learn more about Katrina Archer at Follower her on Twitter @katrinaarcher.
Untalented is available for Kindle and in other editions. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Cupid, Kidlit, and Comics. Oh, My!

It's been a while since I posted an update on my own publications. (Letting other authors tell us about their work is just too much fun!) But I do have a few pieces of news:

1. ROMANTIC RUCKUS. My LGBT mad-scientist sci-fi romance, "The Love Gun," is included in this collection of crazy tales about every imaginable kind of love gone wrong, published by Strange Musings Press. Buy Romantic Ruckus in both e-book and print editions.

2. 2014 YOUNG EXPLORER'S ADVENTURE GUIDE. I'm particularly pleased to have my middle-grade sci-fi story, "Standing Up," included in this anthology. It's about a differently-abled girl who isn't sure she wants to be normal. Or even human! The team behind Dreaming Robot Press has a wonderful view of the potential for science fiction to open young minds. You can hear about their philosophy and also back this worthy project on their Kickstarter page.

3. FrostFire Worlds, from Alban Lake Publishing, has purchased the third story in my series about the dragon Koob and her human daughter, Akilah. (Want to know how a dragon can have a human daughter? Read the series!) "Song from Silence" will run in the August, 2014 FrostFire Worlds.

4. Prose comics! I can't tell you much about this yet, but it's too awesome not to mention. I've been commissioned to write some novelettes and short stories for adults over the next couple of years. They will be heavily illustrated by an astonishingly talented artist, who is also coming up with the basic concepts and characters from which I will build the stories. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rerun Greats: Rhys Hughes Defines Magic Realism

One of this blog's first guests was the speculative author Rhys Hughes. I thought I'd rerun his wonderful essay on magical realism. Enjoy!

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Magic Realism (A Personal View)
by Rhys Hughes

The term 'Magic Realism' is a mysterious one and I am frequently asked to explain what it means. The truth is that it's a vague term and has many precise definitions, which perhaps is the same as saying it has no precise definition at all. My response is to shrug and simply say, "It's fantasy that isn't fantasy." But that's really quite unhelpful, especially as 'fantasy' itself is a vague term that encompasses an enormous range of styles and subject matter. 'Magic realism' isn't a genre, but it is possible to talk about it as a type of fiction with a distinctive flavour.
There are certain basic qualities that can be called 'magic realist' that one doesn't usually find in conventional fantasy. A writer of fantasy will often try to create a place or a time that may or may not have parallels with the place and time we currently live in, but generally that invented world isn't supposed to be our world. Even if the fantasy story is set in what seems to be everyday life, sooner or later some incident will occur, an intrusion of the supernatural, that ultimately demonstrates that the fantasy world isn't reality as we truly know it. In such stories, all the magic might be said to be external. It comes from outside.

In magic realism, on the other hand, the magic is mostly internal. A writer who is a magic realist rarely invents new worlds but uses this world as a stage, and yet he or she doesn't write about how life actually is but how it sometimes feels. So magic realism tends to be an emotionally based style of writing, rather than intellectually, politically or philosophically based. The prose tends to be 'hot', 'sultry' and 'tropical'. It uses exaggeration and overstatement to present the subjective worldviews of the characters and these subjective worldviews will often interact and influence each other. It is safe to say that understatement has little place in magic realism.

The most famous magic realist novel is undoubtedly still Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is a character in that book who is fatally shot. In a realistic story the wound might be described accurately; in magic realism it is described symbolically. We are told that the character’s blood “came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlour, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.”

This doesn’t mean that the blood really travelled so far, but that the emotional shock of the character’s death was so great that it felt as if his blood was seeking out witnesses to the deed. Magic realism makes very heavy use of symbolism. Every significant event is a symbol or extended metaphor, but even though those events are determined by a literal application of feeling, they are also presented in a deadpan style. So if someone is deliriously happy they might start flying, but nobody around them will comment on this miracle, even if they notice it, because the flying takes place on the inside.

To redefine your own life in magic realist terms you merely have to turn every emotion you experience into a concrete symbol or action. Jumping for joy can now result in leaping over the moon or stars, but don't forget the cosmic ramifications that will follow; being sad might result in floods of tears powerful enough to destroy cities; anger may topple mountains and cause earthquakes. None of this is objectively real but subjectively it is exactly what happens to all of us during the process of living.

I now expect to be told that my understanding of magic realism is wrong, for it is a style of fiction that has many advocates with opposing views as to its real meaning and significance. The best magical realists were either unaware they were writing magic realism, or else they disowned the label when it was applied to their own work, yet it's generally accepted that the original magic realist was Alejo Carpentier. Other Latin American writers evolved the form. Frustrated with the cool rationality and understatement of most Western fiction, they injected colour, vibrancy, mythology and a passion for coincidence, implausibility and hyperbole into their prose.

The heyday of Latin American magic realism was in the 1960s and 1970s. With a few exceptions the style didn’t really catch on in the English-speaking world until the 1980s, and then, for some reason, magic realist novels suddenly flooded the bookstores of Britain and the USA. Back then it was possible for the most difficult magic realists to be translated into English and published by major houses. I remember working my bemused but enthralled way through Mario Satz’s Sol, a book that probably wouldn’t be published now except by a small independent publisher. But an enthusiasm for this kind of literature soon spread to other continents and some of the most accomplished magic realism now comes from Africa, the Middle East, India, and even further afield. Here is a short list of my own personal favourite books in this genre that isn't a genre…

Alvaro Mutis, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll
Mia Couto, Under the Frangipani
Isabel Allende, Eva Luna
Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel
Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World
Felipe Alfau, Chromos
Amin Maalouf, Leo the African
Cabrera Infante, Three Trapped Tigers
Jorge Amado, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
Gina B. Nahai, Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith
Fazil Iskander, Sandro of Chegem
Manuel Mujica Lainez, The Wandering Unicorn
Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke
Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The General in his Labyrinth

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Learn all about Rhys Hughes on his website.
Rhys is very prolific. His most recent books include Bottled Love Story, Rhysop's Fables, and The Sticky Situations of Zwicky Fingers.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Writing Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn (Part 2 of 2: Co-author Day Al-Mohamed)

Last week I welcomed Danielle Ackley-McPhail to discuss her re-thinking of the classic tale "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves". Now it's time to hear the perspective of her co-author, Day Al-Mohamed. Welcome, Day!

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Diversity and Writing the Neutral that Never Was
by Day Al-Mohamed

Several years ago, I wrote a story with a Chicano protagonist.  I submitted it to my writing group and the first comment I received was, “Why did you make him Hispanic?”  It actually came from several people with the intimation that “adding race” was unnecessary.  At the time, I was taken aback.  The only answer I had was: Because I wanted to. There has been a significant increase in the push for greater diversity in speculative fiction.  #WeNeedDiverseBooks has some great articles, and I strongly advocate reading some of those written by N.K. Jemisin or the ever awesome Daniel Jose Older.

Today, I don’t want to talk about diversity on a personal level, and trust me as an LGBT woman of color with a disability, it doesn’t get much more personal.  But it is also a professional issue that should be addressed by authors.  If you were to ask me (and this was a question I received from a recent convention panel): Do I think writers have an obligation to write diversely?  I would say, “Yes.”  Immediately, people bristle at being told they should do something, and get worried about writing something they are not, getting it wrong, tokenism, cultural appropriation etc. but let me explain.

Writers have an obligation to build fully realized worlds, and yes, that means diverse worlds. Look around.  In a single day, how many women do you meet? How many people of other races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, or disabilities do you see? How often do we see signs or menus or television programming in other languages?  How many expressions of faith do we come across? What about unique ways of dressing or speaking?  If this world has so much diversity, then so should those worlds we create. It isn’t just about diverse writing but about good writing.

When we’re young and when we first start writing, without meaning to, we’re taught to write to the default.  What’s worse, we’re taught to think to the default and that default is white, male, and heterosexual.  Let me give you a recent example. In the current World Cup excitement we heard commentators, regularly referring to Landon Donovan as the "all-time U.S. leading goal scorer." He has 57 international goals. The all-time U.S. leading goal scorer is Abby Wambach, with 167 goals. The second highest scorer is Mia Hamm at 158 goals, followed by Kristine Lilly who, at 130 goals has more than doubled Donovan’s scoring. Notice something? They’re all women.  When we talk and think about the sport, the “neutral” is men’s. 

Valerie Alexander in her recent article gives another example: “When Sonia Sotomayor was being confirmed for the Supreme Court, members of Congress repeatedly asked her (repeatedly) if, as a Latina, she would be able to remain neutral. I don't recall ever in the history of confirmation hearings, anyone asking, "As a white male, do you think you'll be able to remain neutral when deciding issues of law?"” Here, the neutral is Caucasian.

And yes, as writers we fall into this default thinking too. We write the default.  And just like my writing group, whether they meant it or not, we feel like we have to have some reason, or qualification for the character to be something other than the default. Why does the character have a disability? What is the significance of their race? Because it makes them who they are.  Shouldn’t we want wonderful complex characters who interact with their society from a variety of feelings, thoughts, and identities?  Shouldn’t we want a richer world with the complicated push-pull of politics, religion, race, culture? The default can make for a good story, diversity will make for a great one.  
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You can learn more about Day Al-Mohamed on her website.

You can purchase Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and other retailers.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn (Part 1 of 2: Co-Author Danielle Ackley-McPhail)

We've got a two-week special going on! The two authors of Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn will be my guests this week and next, respectively. Today I welcome Danielle Ackley-McPhail, who talks about the crossing of cultures she experienced in researching and writing this story.

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It may seem odd to have a steam adventure couched in the desert, among nomads and a people long known for their faith and a belief in magic. Quite a challenge, in fact, to meld so many different threads: history, engineering, magic, and the Islamic culture. What could they possibly have in common, after all?

You would be surprised.

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn began—rather naïvely—as a short story based on the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, meant for the upcoming anthology Gaslight and Grimm (Dark Quest Books). Because I always strive for authenticity and did not have much knowledge of the culture and tradition of the Middle East—beyond a familiarity with one variation of the tale itself—I enlisted the help of my friend, Day Al-Mohamed, who quickly became my co-author. Between us we used our knowledge, experience, and a good deal of research to find the right details to seed our story with to create an alternate Saudi Desert fitting to the tale we wanted to tell, where the magical and the mechanical co-existed and reason and faith mirrored one another in an intricate dance.

By taking historic references—such as Charles Babbage’s work shop and Al-Jazari’s The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices and building the story around them we captured the essence of another era, grounded it in fact, and then made it our own. Thanks to resources on the internet we were able to draw on mechanical puzzle boxes, Egyptian stick fighting (dancing), early airship designs, and Persian dynastic history, all of which fed life into our tale, along with an echo of reality that makes “what if” plausible.
One of my covert ways of enriching this tale could have only been accomplished via the internet. Names have power. Names have meaning. In Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, those names not dictated by the original tale or history also have hidden significance—unless you are conversant with the meaning of Persian/Arabic names, then they are overt. Each name was researched and chosen for a desired meaning relevant to its use.

See, as writers we build worlds and create people with our words and if we take care with our choices we do so very well. Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn has become a tale that the Western World can take up and experience a different era and an exotic culture so very different from their own, and the Middle Eastern World, or descendants of it, can pick up and see themselves, their culture and history, as everyone should be able to do from time to time.

Thank you for reading. Come back next week to hear what my co-author, Day Al-Mohamed, has to say about the multicultural aspect of our tale.

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn Back Cover Copy

Come, Best Beloved, and sit you by my feet. I shall tell you a tale such as sister Scheherazade could have scarce imagined…
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You can learn more about Danielle Ackley-McPhail at her websites:,
You can purchase Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Blair MacGregor on writing gender equality in the fantasy genre

Traditional gender roles are hard to combat for the fiction-writer, especially in a genre like fantasy which has a long tradition of distressed damsels being captured and needing saving. Even for a writer who is aware of this problem and wants to defy it, knowing how to let the females drive the story takes a lot of thought and practice. Today's guest, Blair MacGregor, generously shares her advice.

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I've always wanted to write epic, sword and sorcery, and dark fantasy stories with female characters as central players in the plot, but my younger self lacked the greater perspective to do so with depth. I didn't understand how to build a society that permitted female characters to get on with the story rather than be sidetracked to prove relevance and competency. I lacked the experience to create characters able to interact without the trappings of gender inequality.

The Bechdel Test is a baseline, but was never meant to be more. After all, I wanted my characters to inhabit a culture that didn't use gender as its guiding measure of value, competency, and ability. In my novel-length works, I chose to focus on three primary aspects of character and culture creation to reach that goal. They aren't exclusive or exhaustive, but provided me a foundation upon which to build.

First, one woman is not enough. The solitary woman operating in a male-dominated setting often spends time and energy struggling to gain and keep respect, and the cost is often a separation (physical and/or social) from other women. It also reinforces the notion that female influencers are Rare and Special—quite the opposite of what I wanted. I needed many female characters—primary, secondary, and beyond—to balance my created world.

Second, I didn't want my female characters to need a mentor to convince them they were both worthy of their goals and able to attain them. Instead, the culture itself should be one that didn't set gender-based limits to begin with. That doesn't mean the characters don't encounter mentors. Quite the opposite. But the decisions wrestled with center on moral choices rather than barriers to acceptance. Guidance focuses on the best way to achieve goals, not whether women are deserving and capable of pursuing them.

Third, I wanted to take a step beyond character agency—that ability to make decisions and take action. Agency (and its partner, competency) are critical in the creation of likeable and robust characters, but agency and competency can be practiced in isolation. My characters had to have influence, too—the accepted and expected power to change the course of events, lead others, and face consequences. Agency alone is hollow if not coupled with influence.

So could my novels still "pass" the Bechdel Test? Ayup. A goddess and a chieftain discuss waging war. A soldier and an outcast debate the morality of power. A pair of dead warriors struggle to help an ambitious ruler. Two powerful women can't decide if they should be allies or enemies.

But—and this is just as important—the men also have conversations that aren't about men. And men and women together have conversations about men and women. Certainly the characters sometimes talk about sex and desire and relationships because that's part of the human condition. No one, however, treats them as defining parts.

Best of all, I didn't have to deliberately include those conversations because the created culture itself—filled with both women and men of agency and influence—requires them to take place.

We absolutely still need fiction that splashes glaring spotlights on gender inequality—work that provides women and girls pathways to achieve their own agency and influence in real life, and provides men and boys an understanding of the positive roles they can play in the process. But as a writer who tells stories within created worlds, I opted for a culture in which questioning gender equality would be the odd conversation rather than the norm.

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Learn more about Blair MacGregor on her website and her Amazon author page.