#atozchallenge R is for Roger Zelazny


by Lillian Csernica on April 20, 2019

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Once upon a time, I had the pleasure of meeting Roger Zelazny, author of The Chronicles of Amber and creator of Dilvish the Damned. I love his writing style. It’s dense and rich and such a pleasure, much like flourless chocolate cake.

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goodmangames.com

Mr. Zelazny had a book signing scheduled at one of my favorite local indie bookstores. Quite a few people turned up. I was in line for an hour or so. I spent the time thinking over the one question I most wanted to ask this Grand Master.

At last my turn came. This is the question I asked:

“When you do your daily writing, what method to you use to reach your target?”

Mr. Zelazny put down his pen and mulled that over. His reply:

“I sit down at my desk four times, and each time I write at least three sentences.” He smiled. “Something usually catches fire.”

I have kept this in mind, especially on the days when the words just will not flow. Keep at it. This is not an all or nothing situation. If you have to take a break, walk away, drink more coffee, whatever, then do it. Then come back and try again.

Keep it up until the daily quota is met. You never know when something will catch fire.

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#atozchallenge Q is for Questions


by Lillian Csernica on April 19, 2019

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What makes an interview exciting? Great questions. I have the pleasure of answering some wonderful questions put to me by Deborah J. Ross, editor of Citadels of Darkover.

Read the interview here.

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#atozchallenge P is for Pain


by Lillian Csernica on April 18, 2019

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When it comes to writing fiction or nonfiction, pain is your best friend.

Does that sound strange? The truth of human nature is we respond with more sympathy to another person’s suffering than we do to good news.

Physical pain can be quite dramatic and effective on the page.  Lasting damage, such as blindness, loss of a limb, or even death takes sympathy farther into actual pity. That has its uses as well, but what we really want our readers to feel is empathy.

From Dictionary.com:

The differences between the most commonly used meanings of these two terms is:

  • sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters

  • empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another, which is why actors often talk about it.

The emotional pain associated with such injury and loss is the key to engaging reader sympathy.

Inciting incidents in famous novels:

The Hunger Games — Katniss must volunteer to be a tribute in order to save Prim’s life.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter — For love of a mortal king, the title character abandons Elfland for the king’s human realm.

Misery — Bestselling author Paul Sheldon lies injured due to a car accident and is rescued by his biggest fan Annie Wilkes.

The Maltese Falcon — When Sam Spade’s partner Miles Archer dies while on the job with their new client Brigid O’ Shaughnessy, Spade must investigate.

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Good stories come from bad decisions. People who are experiencing intense pain, whether physical or emotional, are not in the best state of mind to make intelligent, well-reasoned decisions. The more pressure we put on our characters, the harder we make their struggles, the more our readers will empathize, become involved, and experience the story.

 

 

 

 

 

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#atozchallenge O is for Opportunity


by Lillian Csernica on April 17,  2019

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There’s a famous saying: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” That might have been true once, but today the Internet has brought the marketplace to the consumers. They don’t have to “beat a path” anywhere. It’s up to us as the sellers of our writing to get our work in front of the people who will buy it.

How do we do that? By making the most of every opportunity.

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Where are those opportunities? Market listings.

Duotrope — It’s possible to glean some information from this site without paying an annual subscription fee. Me, I have a subscription. Best money I ever spent. I credit this site with improving my acceptance rate.

The Submissions Grinder — This site is free. There is a lot of information available. Do be careful to follow through on the links and make sure you’ve got the latest submission requirements. Many markets, especially anthologies, have limited reading windows on very specific themes.

Remember what I said about building a writing community? That’s another crucial element in finding opportunity. The more writers we know, the more contacts we have in the writing world, the more likelier we are to hear about opportunities.

One day I was at the supermarket. I bumped into Deborah J. Ross, a well-known writer and editor who also lives in my part of the world. We’ve known each other for a while now, mostly meeting up at conventions. Deborah happened to be putting together a new anthology. She said she’d love to see a story from me. Holy cats! I thanked her and got to work right away. That story, The Katana Matrix, will appear in Citadels of Darkover.
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What happens if we can’t find an opportunity that matches what we have to offer?

We take it to the next level by finding ways to create our own opportunities.

Tailor stories we’ve already finished to suit the target market.

When I was in college, I took a fiction course and wrote the original version of Masquerade. The result landed about halfway between literary and genre fiction. Later, when I decided to start submitting the story, I rewrote it and cranked up certain aspects so the story fit into the horror genre. It first appeared in Midnight Zoo, then Karl Edward Wagner accepted it for my second appearance in The Year’s Best Horror Stories.

Push our limits by writing on a subject or in a genre where there are many opportunities.

I started out writing fantasy and horror. I switched to romance because it was easier to break into the novel market there and the money was better. The result? Ship of Dreams. That novel did earn out its advance, and it continues to bring in good royalties.

Ask questions, seek advice, beat the bushes in pursuit of potential opportunities.

Where do we start? Join online writing communities. Join the professional association that suits what you prefer to write. Go to the places where you will meet other writers, editors, and publishers. Conventions, seminars, lectures at the local library. Yes, attending the larger events can get expensive. We have to weigh the potential benefits against the cost. One good pitch session can save a lot of time and effort.

Remember: Be polite. Be considerate. Be grateful. Pass on the kindness to other writers who need help. This is how we grow our community, and how we keep ourselves in the minds of people in a position to alert us to opportunities that could make all the difference to our success.
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#atozchallenge N is for Now!


by Lillian Csernica on April 16, 2019

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“Now!” is a powerful statement. Immediacy is what brings fiction to life on the page and in the mind of the reader. You don’t have to write in the present tense, but you do have to keep the writing stripped down, streamlined, and precise.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about strong plotting came from Weird Tales then-editor Darrell Schweitzer. He stressed the importance of asking, “Why now?” Why is the problem situation the main character faces happening at that time and in that place?

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In Maeve, John Fenton has car trouble on a lonely road in the Irish countryside and takes shelter in a pub before a big storm hits. Only by being in that particular pub on the right kind of stormy night does John have the opportunity to meet the local legend known as Maeve.

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In The Family Spirit, it’s Christmas Eve and Ben is meeting Janice’s family for the first time. He has no idea just how many of the family he’s going to meet, and what kind of distance some of those distant relatives have traveled to be there.

Knowing the answer to “Why now?” will get your story off to a much stronger start!

 

 

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#atozchallenge M is for Mentor


by Lillian Csernica on April 15, 2019

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One of the best things a writer can do is find a mentor.

Writing is a lonely business. We have to isolate ourselves, otherwise we’d never get any writing done. When it’s time to emerge from that productive isolation, it helps to have a supportive community of other writers. What helps even more is having a someone who’s been there and done that, who is doing it right now, and can offer support and advice about the process.

Joining a writers group can be one way of building a community and perhaps even finding a mentor. I discuss the pros and cons of writers groups here.

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What can a writing mentor do for you?

Writing advice — The best way to find good guidance on how to improve your writing is to ask someone who has achieved at least some publishing success. Call me old-fashioned, but I respect the gatekeepers. Editors and publishers with established track records of professional success. Writers who have had fiction accepted by them have proven their level of skill. Both the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Romance Writers of America have mentor programs. If you’re writing in these genres, give them a look.

Professional etiquette — This can encompass everything from how to approach publishers and agents to coping with the perils of volunteering for a writers workshop. The experience and perspective of a good mentor can alert you to pitfalls and make sure you present your best polished professional demeanor.

Marketing tips — Writers who have a sales record will most likely acquire some familiarity with the tastes of the editors to whom they send their fiction. This familiarity arises in part from the submission process, but it can also be informed by face time at conventions. Getting the inside scoop on marketing trends is a wonderful thing.

Coping with rejection — There are three basic stages: form rejection, checklist rejection, personalized rejection. Given the speed of submission managers and email replies, the odds have gone up somewhat in terms of getting actual comments on submissions. That being said, it still takes experience to read such comments and understand their meaning. I was overjoyed the first time I got a rejection from Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine that included a comment about looking forward to seeing more stories from me.

Coping with success — This can be worse than rejection. Why? Because while success breeds success, it also breeds anxiety and pressure to perform. Not every idea will turn into a winner. It becomes a numbers game, which means a lot of hard work. In retail, I learned the 80 20 Rule, aka the Pareto Principle, which says 80% of your results will come from 20% of your activities. Having a mentor will help you learn how to spend your available writing time wisely.

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#atozblogchallenge L is for Location


by Lillian Csernica on April 13, 2019

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One of the key ideas in retail success is “Location, location, location.” Put your business in the right place, where the right customer base will find you, and you stand a much better chance of making a profit.

When writing stories, your setting is a vital element. I see a lot of stories with complex worldbuilding, but the setting is more like stage scenery or a rack of props. Where you locate your story, or which locations appear in your story, can be just as powerful a story element as plot or character.

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Consider some famous settings:

Mars — The Martian

A train — Murder on the Orient Express, Strangers on a Train

A bus — Speed

A deserted islandRobinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies

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These settings have crucial aspects in common:

  • The physical location is very limiting, requiring quick thinking and immediate adaptation.
  • The main character is trapped in that setting. There is no easy way out.
  • The stakes are life or death.

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When I write historical fiction, location encompasses not just the physical setting but the time period as well:

Fallen Idol starts out in a mall food court, an ordinary, modern, nonthreatening setting. The main character, a photographer, notices a girl with elaborate and dramatic makeup. The rest of her skin is completely covered up by layers of clothing. The photographer follows this girl to a creepy abandoned factory, full of strange foreign folk art, where the rest of the story, rooted in a famous historical conflict, takes place.

Saving Grace is set in a chateau on a pilgrimage route in 14th Century France. The main character fled Russia during the Tatar invasion. She is a vampire. That makes daily living hard enough. She is also a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. At this time most of the Western world was controlled by the Pope of Rome. That puts my heroine in constant danger of arrest as a heretic and schismatic. That meant being burned at the stake.

The Kyoto Steampunk stories take place in Kyoto 1880. Dropping a Victorian physician into an Oriental environment where he can’t speak the language and knows nothing about the social protocol makes every problem I give him twice as difficult.

Make the most of your fictional location. It can make a huge difference!

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#atozchallenge K is for Kids


by Lillian Csernica on April 12, 2019
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by Lillian Csernica on April 12, 2019

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People told me that when I had kids, my life would never be the same.

Those people had no idea how right they were.

My son Michael was born at 23 weeks, weighing 770 grams. That’s one pound, eleven ounces. He was the size of a kitten lying across my palms. This was back in 1996. At that time the age of viability was 24 weeks, because only then would the lungs function. During every single day of the following three and a half months Michael spent in the hospital, we watched and waited to see if our baby would live or die.

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Two and a half years later, John arrived. He went full term, a hefty eight pounds, ten ounces. During delivery, John refused to breathe. By then the hospital staff knew our family rather well, so the head of neonatology was on hand to jump start John and make sure he started life in good form. John had to spend the first week of his life in the NICU, which drove me crazy because I wanted my baby. Then, as John missed verbal milestones and showed other unusual behavior, we learned he has Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

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Now people tell me I should write about my experiences with both of my sons. I should write about battles with insurance, battles with the school district, battles with the boys themselves. I should write about all the doctors and nurses and teachers and aides I’ve worked with through two decades. I should write about what I’ve learned and what I wish I’d known.

It’s not easy to write about difficult events when you’re still in the process of living through them. Now that my boys are legal adults, they face a sharp decline in services, lack of day programs, and the ongoing insurance battles. Michael is still in just as much danger from every medical crisis. John is still learning how to handle some of his symptoms. I am their mother, their legal guardian, and their primary advocate.

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The time is coming when I will write more nonfiction. Right now, I write escapist literature because that’s what I need to write. I don’t travel as much as I’d like to because I simply can’t. In order to hang on to my dented sanity, I run away from home inside my head.

 

 

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#atozchallenge J is for Jousting


by Lillian Csernica on April 11, 2019

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I worked at the first Medieval Times dinner theater in the United States. It was in Buena Park, which is famous as the home of some Hollywood-based companies. The big draw of Medieval Times is having your dinner while watching two knights on horseback engage in a jousting match with real lances.

I managed a crafts booth at the Agoura Renaissance Faire for a jeweler. My boss managed to get a spot in the Gift Shop, which was out in the small courtyard ringed by the stables. Yes, my shop was in a converted horse stall.

Oh, the stories I could tell about what went on while I worked there. The Head of Security was a fascinating fellow with a military background. Each of the knights had tales to tell. The owner was a gentleman from Spain. I loved this place for the same reason I love international airports. You just never knew who might show up from one night to the next. We had a lot of celebrities come to see the show, actors and sports stars and other Big Names.

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Working at Medieval Times did cause me cognitive dissonance as a writer. The production designer must have done some reading on what an actual joust looked like in terms of arena design, how the horses were caparisoned, and what the armor looked like, along with the lances. Other than that, historical accuracy went out the window. It was all down to whatever looked good and sold souvenirs.

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This is an occupational hazard when you write historical novels. I strive for historical accuracy, I really do. There have been times when somebody in an editorial position has pointed out to me that I occasionally get carried away with realism at the expense of story. The first time I wrote a medieval novel, that involved six different languages. Why? I had everybody speaking the language he or she would have spoken at that time:

My agent told me I’d better stick to French, Spanish, and English.

If you’d like to get a look at the jousting match, there’s one episode of Cake Boss where Buddy takes his family to Medieval Times. He made a cake for a special occasion being celebrated during the tournament, and the cake alone is impressive.

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I is for Instinct


by Lillian Csernica on April 10, 2019

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Today let’s talk about our creative instincts.

A lot of the creative process takes place on the intuitive level. I sit there in the creative trance, groping for the right word, waiting for my mind to zoom through all the possibilities until the word that feels right arrives. That one I grab and write down. There are times when I have to go look something up, especially if I want the foreign language equivalent of that right word.

Sometimes we come to a fork in the road. Which project do I pursue now? There are several business factors that will influence that decision such as contractual obligations, marketing, and agent advice. Many times it will all boil down to that intuitive push.

I once stood at that creative crossroads, torn between a medieval romance and a contemporary romantic suspense. I chose the latter, which prompted me to track down a martial arts star purely for the purpose of finding out where to get some of his promotional photos. (I like to work from photos of real people who resemble my heroes and heroines.) That led to a phone conversation that resulted in two screenplays.

It’s essential to feed the mind a strong and varied diet. If you’re going to have a compost heap in your imagination, you have to build it up, aerate it, turn it over, and let the natural processes achieve the decomposition. Only then will you get the transformed substance that will help you grow those prize roses or melons.

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My latest short story release is The Badger Epidemic in Next Stop on the #13. The key elements in the story are badgers, cholera, and steam trains. What could badgers and cholera have in common that could possibly bring them together in the context of Japan’s Industrial Revolution? Steam trains and telegraph lines.

Because I read so much, because I feed my mind so much history and folklore and strange news items, all of those ideas came together in a single short story.
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