Category Archives: Guest Posts

Magical World of Mish-Mash by Angela Castillo

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Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash

Sci-fi, fantasy, steampunk, cyberpunk . . . one of the challenges speculative fiction authors face is figuring out just what Amazon category to click when listing books. Especially in the case of short story collections, where many authors throw things together in a glorious stew of deathly curses, spaceships and roving mercenary camel-racers (runs off to write story about camel racers).

Most traditional editors are looking for definites. They want straight-up fantasy, sci-fi, space operas, or defined steampunk (is there even such a thing).

I say why choose? Some of the best fiction novels of all time are a happy jumble of several genres, and you don’t see the millions of readers who cherish them complaining.
Here are a few of my favorites. Please note many of them are children or YA because that’s what I mostly read!

C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy

Spaceships, planets and government conspiracies all point to sci-fi, right? But hang on. In Perelandra we learn about the eldil, angel-like creatures that communicate through thought. Rainbow-colored flying frogs abound, and a mysterious woman (who is rather like a Biblical Eve) is discovered on another planet. In That Hideous Strength, an apocalyptic world emerges where the leader wants to turn humans into brain-powered machines. The mixed-up frenzy continues, and it’s all glorious.

The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles
Julie Andrews Edwards

Mary Poppins writes a delightful children’s fantasy? Yes please! But hidden in the story of the Whangdoodleland, complete with Whiffle Birds, furry creatures called Flukes, and a villainous creature called a Prock, are references to tessering (a type of matter and space travel also referenced in another glorious match-up, A Wrinkle in Time) and DNA sequencing. So there’s that.

The Giver Quartet
by Lois Lowry

At first this series seems pretty straight-forward Utopian/Dystopian. You have the seemingly perfect future world that slowly unravels into something heartbreakingly sinister. As the series unfolds, though, it becomes apparent Lowry has created an allegorical social commentary, with plenty of spiritual/supernatural (dare we say fantastical?) Though some of the story arcs can be frustrating, it would be a rare reader that could walk away from the series without some serious food for thought.

The Claidi Collection

Claidi is a servant of an isolated kingdom. The rulers of the castle are lazy, cruel, and treat their servants terribly. This introduction screams fantasy until a stranger crashes his balloon outside the walls of the castle. Thus begins a journey through a land of gears, machinery, and magic–or is it magic? This series keeps the reader guessing all the way through. While the MC, Claidi, can make some maddening life-choices, the series is still fun and interesting.

Do you have any favorite genre mish-mash books? Or do you prefer to read more straightforward, cut-and-dry, single genre fare?


Angela CastilloAngela Castillo loves living in the small town of Bastrop, Texas, and draws much of her writing inspiration from her life there. She enjoys walking in the woods and shopping in the local stores. Castillo’s greatest joys are her three sons and one daughter. Castillo writes a variety of genres, including sci-fi and fantasy mish-mash, and has been published in The First Line, Aardvark’s Ark, Heartwarmers, Thema, and several other publications, and also has works available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format, including The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing.

 

Busy Moms Writing Guide Book Cover

 

Private Investigations in the Future by Meriah Crawford

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Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

I wear a lot of different hats (metaphorical hats, alas—I look dreadful in real ones), and one of those is that of a private investigator. I became a PI back in 2002 as part of an early midlife crisis, and did investigations full time for about three years. I’ve been a part-time PI ever since (sometimes very part time) but I keep my hand in because it’s such a fascinating gig. It also, like my college teaching job, sometimes gives me an opportunity to do good things in the world, like help people who the system doesn’t much care about. This work has given me a lot of opportunities to think about the role of private investigations and security in society, both now and in the future—and my love of sci-fi, as a reader, viewer, and writer, has offered me a different perspective on the subject than most will probably share. I hope this article will offer valuable information and insight for those interested in incorporating PIs and investigations in their own writing.

I first want to say: a lot of people have some major misconceptions about PI work. For example, a lot of people think it’s all online searches now. Databases and social media are definitely useful, but in fact, one of the complaints I’ve heard from lawyers over the years is that a lot of PIs don’t want to leave the office. They’d rather sit in front of a computer doing searches, or maybe make some phone calls. But there’s still so much you can gain from visiting locations and speaking with people in person. These things won’t completely change as time passes, though the amazing aerial and street-level imagery in Google Maps is already reducing the need to visit locations. I still catch many things that require a detailed look, or perhaps a sense of a place in the nighttime, or during rush hour.

I expect the spread of Skype and Facetime and other similar tools will also make interviewing people from afar more effective. But the best interviewing allows you to see the subject’s whole body to see posture, gestures, shifting, and so forth. And the people you most need to see in person are the ones who likely won’t agree to Skype with you, anyway, so again: in person is just better. Other technologies will have a big impact as time passes, though, including drones, tracking devices, and cameras. All of them are getting a lot smaller and more effective, as well as cheaper and easier to use.

Databases are an especially interesting conversation. There are many that PIs and other professionals have access to that the general public does not. Unfortunately, the data is often outdated. This was a problem for me on a recent case, due to people moving frequently and not providing a forwarding address, or simply using someone else’s address. As time passes, however, I expect the databases will become more accurate and up to date, and offer more types of data. To what extent depends on how much the government decides it needs to track us, how much we choose to offer our information freely on the web, and how effectively the data companies figure out how to collect that data.

There are also some really important laws that affect how I do my job, including federal laws like HIPAA, FCRA, FERPA, and state laws involving video and audio recording, and GPS tracking, among others. These laws will continue to evolve, and new laws will be passed. In particular, I expect there will be a lot more laws about online harassment and monitoring over the next few years, but law enforcement is always shockingly and sometimes devastatingly behind the times when it comes to technology. This will continue to be an issue. Likewise, when considering the longer-term future, laws around robots and sapient programs will be problematic in many serious ways.

Another, more interesting question (not everyone finds federal laws interesting, for some reason) is why and when people will hire PIs. The answer to this in practice is that, if you’re not getting justice through the system, a PI can be very helpful to get the information you need to either pressure law enforcement to take action or proceed through the civil courts. In the future, depending on the world we end up with (or the fictional world you build), this will depend on the availability, competence, and priorities of law enforcement, as well as on the extent and quality of the electronic monitoring systems. PIs will also need to become better at technology, analysis, and interviewing—though that’s true today as well. I will be surprised if PIs don’t become a lot more important in the future, but in a strong society with low poverty and effective policing, they should be a lot less necessary–and that’s a future I hope to see.


Meriah CrawfordMeriah Lysistrata Crawford is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a private investigator, writer, and editor. She has published short stories in several genres, a novella, essays, a variety of scholarly work, and two poems, and co-edited the anthology Trust and Treachery: Tales of Power and Intrigue. Her novel Persistence of Dreams, co-written with Robert Waters, will be released in 2018.

Meriah has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, and a PhD in literature and criticism from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Her work as a PI, spanning over fifteen years, has included investigations of shootings, murders, burglary, insurance fraud, auto accidents, backgrounds, counterfeit merchandise, patent infringement, and missing persons. For more information about her work, including articles about writing, visit her website, connect on Twitter or Facebook.

 

 

Destroy All Cling-Ons: Your Final Manuscript Polish by Rebecca Gomez Farrell

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Let’s take your manuscript from finished to polished by searching out the Cling-Ons lurking within it. Doing so will reduce word count, tighten your writing, and impress the agents, editors, and publishers who read it.

What are Cling-Ons? Useless words taking up precious space and weighing your writing down with wordiness. Fighting them off is a constant battle, but if you succeed, you’ll see a huge difference in your final manuscript.

When you encounter a Cling-On, ask yourself these questions:

1. Does the meaning change if I remove it?
2. Do I need it for clarity?
3. Does removing it change my voice/style?

If you answer yes to any of those questions, you can keep the Cling-On! It’s revealed itself as a Federation member. But most Cling-Ons will try to convince you they’re allies when they truly plan treachery. Consider each one’s usefulness and delete whenever possible.

Cling-On #1: That
That seems like an innocuous word, but in fiction, it’s often not needed at all. Remove it, and if you don’t notice its absence, keep it out.

Weak: The Star Fleet ensign feared that Klingons had taken over the bridge so much that he didn’t beam up.
Better: The Star Fleet ensign feared Klingons had taken over the bridge, so he didn’t beam up.

Cling-On# 2: Qualifiers
A qualifier is a word or phrase that increases or decreases the modified word’s effect. Strong writing takes a stance and sticks with it, rather than qualifies it. A partial list: very, quite, rather, more, most, less, too, so, just, enough, still, fairly, really, pretty, even, a bit, a little, a (whole) lot, a good deal, kind of, sort of, only, much.

Weak: The really scared Star Fleet Ensign didn’t much want to beam up.
Better: The scared Star Fleet Ensign didn’t want to beam up.

Cling-On #3: Passive Verbs
Few things make action drag worse than encountering a passive verb. Most commonly, a passive verb is a form of to be + another verb, but these are also common: begin, start, going, seems, got, and becomes.

Weak: The Star Fleet ensign became scared as he began to fear Klingons controlled the bridge, so he wasn’t going to beam up.
Better: The scared Star Fleet ensign feared Klingons controlled the bridge, so he didn’t beam up.

Destroying passive verb Cling-Ons comes with a bonus: you’ll probably catch most instances of passive voice in your manuscript as well.

Cling-On #4: Stage Directions
Stage directions are when we write every movement a character takes, much like blocking an act for a play. But readers can, and do, infer most movements on their own. Words commonly appearing in stage directions: turn, put, rose, stand, walk, reach, look, enter, exit, glance, lift, push, pull.

Weak: The ensign rose, crossed the room, went up to the bridge, and readied her phaser.
Better: The ensign headed to the bridge, phaser readied.

Cling-On #5: Prepositions
Prepositions are often superfluous because readers assume the information they give, especially for directional prepositions. Common ones to delete: at, to, up, down, of, in order to, toward, forward, back, along, away.

Weak: The ensign of Star Fleet ran away from the transporter bay in order to avoid the advancing Klingons.
Better: The Star Fleet ensign ran from the transporter bay to avoid the advancing Klingons.

Cling-On #6: Sensing Verbs
When the five senses are literally invoked to describe a scene, chances are you don’t need them. If your character’s point of view is clear, we only need the description. Writing that the character hears, feels, or sees something are the most common Cling-On sensing verbs.

Weak: McCoy heard thundering feet as the Klingons took over Sick Bay. He saw the Bat’leth’s shiny edge before he felt its cold metal slice his finger.
Better: Feet thundered as the Klingons took over Sick Bay. The Bat’leth’s cold, shiny metal sliced through McCoy’s finger.

Cling-On #7: Adverbs
Destroy adverbs mercilessly—oops, I mean without mercy. Editors frown on heavy adverb use, and that preference isn’t likely to change anytime soon. The earlier Cling-Ons include many adverbs, so use this step to hunt down ones ending in -ly.

Weak: The scared Star Fleet ensign shakily hit the self-destruct button as the Klingons terrifyingly rushed the bridge.
Better: Shaking, the Star Fleet ensign hit the self-destruct button as the Klingons rushed the bridge. They held Bat’Leths high and chanted, “TlhIngan maH!”

Now you have the weapons needed to defeat the Cling-Ons hiding in your manuscript. To battle!


Rebecca Gomez Farrell writes all the speculative fiction genres she can conjure up. Her first fantasy novel, Wings Unseen, debuted in August 2017 from Meerkat Press. As Kirkus Reviews describes it: “War, treachery, and star-crossed lovers abound in this high fantasy novel. . . . Farrell’s book is imaginative, filled with detailed worldbuilding, but rarely bogged down in exposition. Each of the protagonists’ stories is engaging in its own way.”

Her short stories, nearing 20 in all, have been published in the Future Fire, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and Pulp Literature among other outlets. You can also find several of her short stories in new anthologies: Little Letters on the Skin, Through a Scanner Farkly, and Dark Luminous Wings.

Becca’s food, drink, and travel blog, theGourmez.com, has garnered multiple accolades and influences every tasty bite of her fictional worldbuilding. She lives in Oakland, CA, with her tech wizard husband and two trickster cats. If this writing gig doesn’t work out, becoming a tour guide is next. Website: RebeccaGomezFarrell.com. Twitter: @theGourmez.

 

Anthology For Your Writers’ Group by April Grey

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Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Could you, should you, dare you, put together an anthology for your writers’ group?

In this age of Internet and computers, we all know how easy it is to publish online. Just hit “send.” However, putting together an anthology (ebook and/or paper) for your writers’ group may take a bit more effort.

For me, a love of learning led me to take classes from Dean Wesley Smith
http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/online-workshops, in how to create a book cover and how to format a book interior. Easy Peasy? Hmmm. Well, there are many You Tubes that teach you how to do formatting and design, so yes, with a little determination and time you can do it.

Although the how to’s is something that almost anyone can do, coming up with material—that’s where having a pool of creative people is vital.

The first anthology I put together was inspired by our local community garden, along with two stories about gardens from writers I knew. I’ve been involved in SF, Fantasy and Horror workshops since the early 90’s, both on-line and in real life and so would read many, many stories a year to give crit. In return I also got my stories reviewed.

Once the idea to put together an anthology came to me, I asked of the writers in my circle if they had any stories about gardens, gardeners or gardening. I pulled together six stories. Not a lot of material, but I was thinking this could be a promotional item. I included excerpts of material from the writers. Six stories transformed into twelve! I’d seen samplers from all sorts of publishing houses.

Besides years of critting, I was an editor for Damnation Press. This rewarding work allowed me to get to know an even larger circle of writers than from my writing groups.

My second anthology was again inspired by events in my life. Cronehood isn’t for the fainthearted. This time I had ten stories to go together. Instead of photoshopping a cover all by myself, I enlisted the work of Dirk Strangely. I have long been a fan of his Tim Burtonesque style, and I figured why not splurge and send some money his way? I’ve used his artwork for four of my covers.

We all know that a cover can make or break a book. Of course, what’s between the covers matters a great deal, but it’s the cover that lures the reader in to crack open the book or read an on-line sample.

Wonderful cover art, great stories, a formatter, and an editor. That’s it. For ebooks, Smashwords is extremely user friendly. Createspace’s customer service is great (though I always fight with them about the spine—that’s for another blog).

I haven’t mentioned publicity, maybe because that’s my least favorite bit. Word of mouth, blog hops, reviews, all of this needs to be done both leading up to release and after publication. Since this is being done not to get rich, but to promote your writing group, that you really need to have group support in getting the word out that your anthology is a must-read among a sea of other self-published works.

Another thing needed is a theme. Most anthologies have one. So far the Hell’s series has focused on gardens, crones, pets, and music. All the stories are more dark fantasy and humor than horror and can appeal to a wide audience.

Recently I was fortunate enough to be co-editor of our local Horror Writers Association’s anthology, New York State of Fright. It’s at its publisher right now and should be out in 2018. I’m very excited to see that work of so many writers who I have known for years and greatly respect. The theme is centered on New York and it is a varied and exciting read!

I hope that this has gotten you thinking about your own writers’ group. Great stories and cover art are the biggest factors. If you have that, then you should consider this as a great project for the new year!


Author April GreyApril Grey’s short stories are collected in The Fairy Cake Bakeshop and in I’ll Love You Forever. She is also the author of two urban fantasy novels: Chasing the Trickster and its sequel, St. Nick’s Favor.

She edited the anthologies: Hell’s Bells: Wicked Tunes, Mad Musicians and Cursed Instruments; Hell’s Garden: Mad, Bad and Ghostly Gardeners, Hell’s Grannies: Kickass Tales of the Crone and last year’s, Hell’s Kitties and Other Beastly Beasts.

She and her family live in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC in a building next to a bedeviled garden. Gremlins, sprites or pixies, something mischievous, lurks therein. Someday she’ll find out. Please visit www.aprilgrey.blogspot for her latest news.  Follow her on Twitter and FaceBook

DIY Writing Retreats by Morven Westfield

writing retreat

Advice on how to find time to write is invariably the same: “Place butt in chair” or “Make time” or “Set your alarm a couple of hours early.”

What if you’ve tried all that, and it isn’t working? Stealing an hour a day is too segmented for you to write with any sense of flow or rhythm. Stealing a few minutes to write while you watch your child’s soccer game isn’t productive because you’re too distracted by the noise, the glances to see how she’s doing, and the threatening buzz of yellowjackets.

How about a writing retreat? Imagine sitting down to write with your breakfast and later getting up from writing to refill your coffee cup, stretch, or answer the call of nature. Imagine being able to ask the other writers for ideas any time you’re stuck. Imagine walking into the kitchen and just blurting out “So, do zombies freeze? I’m thinking of having my characters escape to Alaska…” and getting answers instead of strange looks.

Think you can’t afford the time or money? Do you have a weekend? Do you have writer friends who want the opportunity to buckle down to write? Organize a retreat yourself. You don’t need a formal schedule, speakers, coaching, or workshops to benefit.

Search online vacation rental websites for a place. Ask friends and family if they know anyone who has a rental property available.

Encourage writers to carpool. They save money, have the opportunity to chat with another writer en route, and they don’t have to worry about finding a parking space at the rental property.

Instead of going to restaurants during the retreat, have everyone chip in for condiments, bread, cold cuts, coffee, tea, garbage bags, and so on. If allergies and eating habits make that impractical, ask people to bring their own easy-to-prepare foods. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; you can nibble as you write, with the exception of breaking formally for a communal Saturday dinner of potluck dishes.

For an even less expensive retreat, consider an at-home event. You don’t need to live in a mansion. Air mattresses are comfortable and you can set them up in the living room. TV trays make adequate laptop tables, as do computer lap desks. If you don’t have enough room for sleepovers or feel uncomfortable having strangers in your house overnight, make it a day retreat: People arrive in the morning and leave at the end of the day.

For the ultimate in inexpensive, try a virtual retreat. Everyone writes from their own desk. You select a select meeting software (Skype? Facetime? Google Hangout? Other?) and set up a meeting. Writers call in and spend about half an hour talking about their goals for the weekend, then everyone starts to write.

Leave the meeting software running; hearing keys clacking in the background, even if you’re not using video, can be very inspiring. This also allows people to throw out questions. If the occasional conversation bothers you, just turn off your sound until it’s over.

One idea I’ve bandied about but have no idea if it would work is a camping retreat. The cost can be very low for tent sites, but you have to worry about weather (wouldn’t want it to rain on your laptop!) and recharging your laptop and cell phone. If you have a spare battery for both, that could be a solution, but you can also check to see if the campground has tent sites with electrical hookups will rent you an RV site. Some campgrounds allow tents on an RV site if you’re willing to pay the higher hookup price.

Cabins are another option. Family cabins sleep 4 or more. Some campgrounds have “luxury cabins” that sleep 6-8 and include electricity, air conditioning, and WiFi. If you have more people than would fit in a cabin, hardy souls could rent a tent site, using the cabin only to recharge their laptops. Personally, I’d love to try writing outdoors at a picnic table, but nature wimps might be more comfortable inside.

If WiFi isn’t available, work offline or see if your smartphone can become a hotspot for your laptop. It’s true that WiFi makes it tempting to check email or Facebook, but if you have a research question or you need to ask an editor something, it’s good to have the ability to get online just for a few minutes.

For the Saturday evening meal, have a communal cook-out at the campfire. Keep it simple: meat or veggie burgers on the grill with salad or grilled veggies. While preparing the meal, chat about what you’ve been writing, talk out thorny writing problems, or read aloud what you’ve been working on that day. When planning your retreat, know who you’re inviting. Besides the issue of personal safety, consider the security deposit of the rental. Your writer companions should be responsible and respectful of others’ property. And if the rental contract stipulates no smoking in the house, they shouldn’t be sneaking a cigarette in the bathroom.

Decide on your focus. Will this be a write-a-thon, a critique session, a bonding exercise, or a combination of the above? Are you there to chat, socialize, write, network, or do a little bit of each?

Writing is a solitary task, but don’t underestimate the motivating power of the gentle peer pressure of being with a group of writers all working hard at their craft.


MorvenWestfieldMorven Westfield attended her first writing retreat in 2013 when a writer friend invited her to her writing group’s retreat. She was hooked by the camaraderie of people who actually understand a writer’s soul and by the energy from other writers. Since then, Morven has attended other mini-retreats or hosted mini-retreats in her own home at least once a year.

She is a member of Broad Universe, the Horror Writers Association, New England Horror Writers, and New England Speculative Writers. She is particularly active in the New England chapter of Broad Universe. Her supernatural-themed short stories have appeared in multiple anthologies, and she regularly contributes articles on folklore and the supernatural to The Witches Almanac. Her two novels feature vampires who battle modern witches. For more information, visit her website at www.morvenwestfield.com or follow her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MorvenWestfieldAuthor/.

Morven currently lives in Central Massachusetts with her husband. Like many writers, she keeps a messy office and drinks way too much coffee.