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Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

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Learning from the Fiction Masters, Part 1: C.S. Forester

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Folks, I’m often asked, “Barb, who have you learned from, as a writer?”

The answer usually goes like this: “My husband, Rosemary Edghill, Katherine Eliska Kimbriel, Stephanie Osborn, Jason Cordova . . .

And I get an exasperated shake of the head. “No, Barb. Who have you read that has helped you?”

In addition to all of the above — do check out their work, please, as soon as you can! — there are writers anyone can find in the public library that will help them write rip-roaring yarns of action-adventure, or perhaps some gentler, humorous stories of far-off places, or maybe just evoke England between the World Wars in such a humorous way that you can’t stop laughing.

Who are these writers? Why, C.S. Forester — he who wrote the Horatio Hornblower series of military, ship-going fiction, L. Frank Baum — famous for the his stories of the fabled (and fabulous) land of Oz, and P.G. Wodehouse, of course.

In the next three blogs of this series (to come out every week on Friday), I intend to discuss one of these seminal writers at a time — and today, Forester is up.

Forester is the most obvious choice for anyone to read who’s writing military science fiction, if you haven’t already. (BTW, here’s a handy link to blog of the C.S. Forester Society, a going concern 115 years after his birth. All authors should do so well!)

Why should you read Forester? Well, he logically lays out exactly how an English ship of the line from the late 1700s/early 1800s actually ran. How the officers interrelated, how the ship worked, what sort of jobs people had on the ship, and does all that by showing how his main character, Horatio Hornblower, ascends the ladder in rank and has to deal with more and more challenges.

Granted, Forester wrote his books out-of-order, somewhat in the same fashion as contemporary military SF master Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s a good strategy, too, because it allows you to fill in the background of your hero or heroine as you see fit.

Why do you want to read Forester, though, if you aren’t planning to write any military SF at all? Well, he knew how to spin an action-adventure yarn, that’s for sure, so that’s one reason. Another is to observe how he authentically evokes the English Navy of Hornblower’s era, and does so in a way that is relatively unobtrusive — it’s there, it’s sensible, and Hornblower relies on it implicitly (as a real-life seaman of that time would’ve done).

This last is something that many contemporary writers do not seem to do nearly as well (with the exception of Bujold and the writers listed above). Many other writers, some quite celebrated (and with much greater sales figures than mine), use a technique called “infodumping” in such a way that it’s not just obvious, it’s so obvious that any reasonably assuming reader who already knows the writer and the universe in question is likely to skip it entirely.

Remember — you want to seduce the reader, if at all possible. You do not want to hit the reader over the head (unless you are writing humorous fantasy; that’s different). And you want the reader to enjoy what you’ve written, every single word, rather than skip hundreds or thousands because you’ve been too heavy with your infodumping.

Besides, Forester wrote more than just Hornblower. He wrote movies, plays, children’s stories, horror, mysteries . . . all sorts of stuff. So if one thing doesn’t work for you — even if it’s the genius of the Hornblower stuff — try another.

Anyway, if you haven’t read any of C.S. Forester’s work yet, here’s a few books to get you started — and best of all, they should be available in any good public library. (A good, free book is a win-win for all concerned in this down economy.)

  • BEAT TO QUARTERS — the first, and possibly the best, Hornblower novel.
  • THE AFRICAN QUEEN — an interesting sea-faring novel made into a movie. (You’ve probably seen the movie, so why not read the book?)
  • POO-POO AND THE DRAGONS — a children’s story, complete with illustrations by Robert Lawson.
  • PAYMENT DEFERRED — a horror/murder mystery, where the guy about to be executed for a crime is truly innocent, but cannot exonerate himself. If he does, he’ll prove he’s a murderer — but of someone else.

Enjoy!

Depression and Robin Williams — A Remembrance

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Folks, over the past day or so, I’ve seen many, many tributes to the late comedian/actor Robin Williams (1951-2014). Some were funny; some were touching; some were things that should’ve been said to Williams before he died.

One thing that’s been said, over and over, is that Williams suffered from severe and unremitting depression. This is alleged to be the main reason as to why he’d turned to substance abuse in the past (he was a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict), but it’s also possible that the depression got much worse due to the heart issues Williams suffered in recent years (he had an aortic valve transplant in 2009).

The mind and the body are linked. We all know this. So when your body is not doing well, that feeling of illness can be reflected in your mind also.

And it’s just that much worse if you’re someone who fights depression and anxiety . . . I know this due to the struggles of my family and friends, past and present.

I’ve written about depression before (see this post about the late Mike Flanagan if you don’t believe me). It’s a difficult subject to discuss, because so many of us don’t want to talk about it. There is a stigma attached to depression, as if the person who’s feeling depressed actually wants to feel so bad . . . and treating a depressed person is so difficult, so challenging, that even if a patient fully cooperates in trying to get better, some of them just don’t.

Thus Robin Williams.

Ultimately, Williams will be remembered for his comedy, for his acting, and for his personal generosity. He was a brilliant, caring, kind-hearted, and generous soul who brought happiness to many despite his own struggles against depression and addiction.

But what I will remember most about Williams is how open he was about everything. His struggles. His joys. His failures. Williams was an American original, yes, and a genius, too. But he mostly was himself, and he owned up to his failures as easily as he talked about the much more fun stuff — his numerous successes.

Williams’ wife and family have asked that people do their best to remember Williams as the creative, funny and brilliant man he truly was. But I can’t do that — mostly because I think that leaves far too much of who Williams was on the table, unaddressed.

Instead, I’ll remember him as a complex, interesting, mercurial, honest, and compassionate creative artist, who lost his long battle with a pernicious disease — chronic, severe depression — after a valiant fight.

I hope that now that Williams is in the Afterlife, he’s getting caught up with his great friends, Christopher and Dana Reeve, and so many others who preceded him in death . . . and that he has found the peace he’d sought all his life at long last.

Keeping Hope Alive . . .

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing my best to keep hope alive. Life has been difficult and frustrating; it’s almost inconceivable to me, sometimes, that I’m still alive and my husband Michael has been dead for nearly ten years.

And I’m all that remains of what we’d hoped and dreamed for. I’m the only one who can finish his work, as well as my own. And as it’s difficult for me to figure out just what Michael had intended to do — writer Ursula Jones called this phenomenon “breaking into” someone else’s thinking (she was discussing finishing up her sister Diana Wynne Jones’ novel THE ISLANDS OF CHALDEA in the end-notes) — sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the right thing in carrying on Michael’s work.

Then again, I loved Michael, and I loved his stories, too. It makes me feel closer to him to do whatever I can to keep things going, even if what I write isn’t exactly the same as what he’d have written. Even if it’s taking me ten times as long to figure out this new novella set on Bubastis as it undoubtedly would’ve taken him, at least I’m trying to do it.

And that, in and of itself, is worthwhile. Michael would tell me so, if he were here . . . though of course, if he were, I’d not be doing this.

Mind you, I’m not the only writer who has ever wondered whether or not what I’m doing makes any sense. This blog from writersrelief.com about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and writing explains why writing and hope are so inextricably mixed:

As human beings and creative writers, we sometimes have a tumultuous relationship with hope. Hope keeps us going. We hope someone will understand what we’re trying to say with our writing. We hope the world will be a better place for our children. But when times get tough, hope can also feel like cold comfort.

Why have hope? we ask ourselves. What good will it do me if I know I can’t succeed? Sometimes when the task ahead seems truly impossible, hope seems futile.

But few people understand what it means to be hopeful as deeply as the man we honor every year at this time: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a pioneer of the civil rights movement. King’s dream was simple, but achieving it meant overcoming countless barriers and complexities. In many ways, hope was the driving force behind his remarkable achievements.

I missed this blog when it was first put up in January of 2014, but I find its words to be especially meaningful right now. (After all, studying the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., is never a bad thing.) I cannot imagine the odds against Dr. King when he first started agitating for civil rights and fair pay for laborers and equal rights for women and any number of other positive things — and he must’ve felt discouraged from time to time, too.

He didn’t show it very often, because Dr. King knew that people needed to believe that their lives, however meaningless they seemed, could indeed make a difference. So on bad days, he must’ve said, “I’m going to go out there and do the best I can,” and given whatever speech he had planned with whatever energy he had. And in so doing, he helped to lift people up with his words.

Words matter. Whether you’re an orator or a writer (or somewhere in between).

When I write a story, I want to make you think about something beyond yourself. Pondering something else can give you hope, because it means you can still think, still feel, still understand.

And I know that was Michael’s motivation for writing, also. He wanted to divert people, get them outside of themselves, and give them a few hours of entertainment that might actually make ‘em smile . . . maybe that’s why I’ve pushed so hard with my own novel AN ELFY ON THE LOOSE, because as a comic fantasy, what else can it do but make people smile?

Before I go, let me share one quote (also cited in the Writer’s Relief article) I found especially meaningful from Dr. King: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

That, in a nutshell, is why I keep writing. Because I believe in hope. And that hope has to come from my own, hard work and effort — otherwise, why would it be worth anything?

“Drop Dead Diva,” Season Six — What is Grayson’s Afterlife?

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Folks, a few years ago I wrote a blog about the TV show DROP DEAD DIVA. It was the end of season three, and I found the ending flatly unbelievable…and said so.

Ever since, I’ve had multiple hits on that post daily. It may be the most popular single blog post I’ve ever had. And I’ve had many people ask me over the years, “Barb, when will you talk about DROP DEAD DIVA again, hm?”

Well, today’s the day. But first, a brief explanation as to why I didn’t say anything for a while.

You see, I didn’t watch season four because I was taking a full year away from TV, in the hopes it would rejuvenate my creative impulses. (It did.) But I have watched seasons five and six.

Until now, while there have been some good episodes and some “what the Hell?” episodes, I hadn’t felt moved to blog.

What changed?

Well, a few weeks ago on DROP DEAD DIVA, Jane Bingum’s long-term love-interest, Grayson Kent, died. It was not an expected death by any means, though he had been shot…anyway, Grayson died, and last week’s episode showed him in Heaven, talking to Fred the Guardian Angel from seasons 1-3 (and a few guest appearances since), who of course Grayson doesn’t really remember.

(It’s a tenet of the show that when a Guardian Angel is replaced on Earth, no one remembers him or her except for the person the Guardian Angel was looking after in the first place. In this case, that would be Jane.)

The very end of the episode showed Grayson waking up on Earth in someone else’s body, just as Jane did at the beginning of season one, episode one. But unlike Jane (formerly Deb Dobkins, a vapid blonde model; waking up in the body of a plus-sized lawyer was mostly a big step up for her), Grayson woke up in the body of a convict.

When Jane still thought of herself as Deb Dobkins, she was prevented from telling Grayson who she was by Fred. But Grayson doesn’t seem to have a Guardian Angel at all from the previews…he just woke up, and called Jane, and told her he’s back and in the body of this convict in cell block D — presumably in Los Angeles, California as that’s the official setting for DROP DEAD DIVA, last I checked.

I know from watching season five that every dead person who returns to Earth, whether in an expected fashion or not, has a Guardian Angel. (Britney, who before her death was the real Jane Bingum, came back and definitely had a Guardian Angel.) Yet Grayson does not seem to have one, and doesn’t realize the lack of one, either, even though Fred admitted he was Jane’s Guardian Angel years ago.

(Granted, I’m not sure how time passes in Heaven. But I digress.)

Fred told Grayson that Jane went back by “hitting the return button” on Fred’s computer. And that now, Heaven has removed all the return buttons, so no one can do it any longer. And Fred said at first that Grayson had to pick an afterlife.

But later, Fred said that he’d found a keyboard with a return button, and that Grayson should press it. Fred seemed both resigned and rueful over this, mind you. But unlike with our Jane (née Deb) or Britney (née Jane), who pressed those keys on their own without knowing what they’d do, Fred actually encouraged Grayson to press that return button, but of course warned Grayson that Grayson could wind up anywhere.

The oddest part was when Fred told Grayson that Fred will gladly suffer the consequences — because Fred suffered none when the real Jane went back to Earth a year ago and became Britney.

Anyway, Grayson presses the return button. And winds up inside that convict.

All of this is what I’ve seen on the last few episodes of DDD during season six. The remainder is pure speculation.

But hear me out anyway.

Sunday evening, Lifetime will be airing the latest DDD episode, “Afterlife.” That title seems quite wrong if Grayson really is alive again, albeit in the body of a convict.

So that got me to thinking . . . what if what we’re seeing happens to be Grayson’s afterlife?

Because really, Grayson wants to be with Jane. He is deeply in love with her, and was going to propose. (He was also in love with Deb, mind you, and it was real, too. But he loves Jane/Deb for other reasons; she’s much more of a mental equal.) His afterlife, if he had a choice, was to be with Jane forever — he told Fred that.

So what better way could there be for Grayson in the afterlife to be with Jane in this way?

I’m sure that the convict version of Grayson is in jail unnecessarily. Jane, as an exceptionally good lawyer, will find a way to get him out. And then, he and Jane will live happily ever after…seemingly in the real world.

But as DDD still has two or three episodes remaining, that does not feel right to me. It would wrap up the Jane/Grayson storyline too soon.

And considering that Fred the Angel had a relationship way back when with Stacey (Jane’s best friend), and Grayson told Fred that Stacey was getting married, could it be possible that Fred will show back up on Earth in order to court Stacey?

This would be an incredibly popular move, if so. Because Fred was well-loved among DDD fans, and was a major reason that DDD worked so well. (Brooke Elliot as Jane/Deb is wonderful. But without Fred, viewers might not have believed as much in Jane’s transformation.)

Anyway, I will be most interested to see what DDD actually does during the “Afterlife” episode. How about you?

Written by Barb Caffrey

June 8, 2014 at 3:43 am

Kendall and Kylie Jenner “Write” a Book — My Rant

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Folks, I just finished reading two sample chapters from REBELS: CITY OF INDRA: The Story of Lex and Livia, a book purportedly written by Kendall and Kylie Jenner. (Yes, they’re the sisters of Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney Kardashian.)

Here’s my capsule review: It’s dreadful. (Take a look at these one-star reviews if you don’t believe me.)

Why?

There’s no plot. There’s nothing in the way of characterization. And the Jenner sisters didn’t even write it.

The only good thing about REBELS: CITY OF INDRA: The Story of Lex and Livia (and yes, it has all of those colons) is this: Two ghostwriters actually got paid to write this garbage.

As a writer of YA fiction (you may have heard of my novel, AN ELFY ON THE LOOSE, if you’ve ever been to my blog before), I am appalled that this pitiful excuse for a book is currently sitting at #353 paid in the Amazon store.

And the only reason it appears to be there is this: The Jenner sisters are the young half-sisters of Kim Kardashian, reality starlet. So when they said, “Hey, we want to write a book,” they immediately got a book contract.

Then, apparently, after they realized how hard writing is, they quite sensibly hired ghost writers — which actually makes good business sense, but doesn’t show much on the creative side of the ledger for either of the Jenner sisters.

And now, they’re making money hand over fist despite the many negative reviews, merely because of name recognition.

It’s enough to make me, a barely known author, cry.

What can you do to combat this sort of nonsense? It’s blindingly simple: read something else.

“But Barb!” you yell. “I don’t know what to read! Help me!” (With or without exclamation points, granted.)

Look. I know many writers, and have reviewed many, many, many better books than this one. Here are just a few in the YA category that I recommend, and why:

Stephanie Osborn’s StarSong is a fable about a young, spoiled girl who realizes she needs to grow up and start doing things for herself before she finds the man of her dreams. This is an excellent novella about a spiritual awakening and a nifty coming-of-age tale, all in one. It was written for pre-teens, but anyone eight or above should enjoy this fun little story of loss, romance and redemption.

Chris Nuttall’s latest, LESSONS IN ETIQUETTE, is the second story about Emily, a teenage girl from our world who’s been transported to a quasi-medieval world where she can do magic and is important…but is important as much for the technical innovations she introduces into this new world (the printing press, Arabic numbers, double-entry bookkeeping, etc.) as she is for her own prodigious magical gifts. It’s a well-paced, well-written book that will keep you turning the pages, and is possibly Chris’s best book to date.

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s NIGHT CALLS is the story of Alfreda Sorensson, who is a frontier girl with magic. Again, she does for herself, thank you, and spends her time productively by learning about herself and the world around her. This is one of the best books for teenage girls I’ve ever read.

Jason Cordova’s CORRUPTOR is about Tori, a teenager trapped in a virtual reality game environment. Tori’s ex-boyfriend causes trouble, while Tori’s widowed father tries to get her out of the simulation. It’s a fun, fast read with a lot of real-world implications.

Sarah A. Hoyt’s DARKSHIP THIEVES is about Athena, a girl on the cusp of adulthood who must find herself, fast. Her father is against her, so she flees as far away as she can and finds a whole different place than she’d ever imagined…she falls in love and marries, yes, but she does so on her terms and by showing how competent and intelligent she is at every turn.

Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill’s neo-Arthurian Shadow Grail series (LEGACIES, CONSPIRACIES, SACRIFICES and VICTORIES) features Spirit White, who loses her parents in an accident and only then finds out she has magic. But what type, and why? (And was it really an accident?) So she first has to find herself, learn her talents, and then save the world…

Folks, those are just a few of the many excellent books out there in the YA and/or pre-teen category. These are all writers who work hard at their craft, write excellent stories that make sense, with characters you will appreciate, and came up with plausible worlds in the bargain. I highly recommend all of these stories, and hope you will support these writers — real writers working really hard to give you really fine stories with real craftsmanship.

(Really.)

So, in short: Please do not support this newest effort by the Jenner sisters. They don’t need the money. They didn’t do the work. And they don’t deserve your patronage thereby.

But many other real writers do.

——–

Edited to add: I’ve started a Twitter campaign called #SupportARealWriter to get the word out about real writers who use real craftsmanship to create good, solid, honest books — really. If you see #SupportARealWriter at the end of something, please  support that writer and let people know their books are out, available, and are much, much better than the above book with the Jenner sisters’ name on it.

Attending Digicon 2014, Presenting Three Workshops

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Folks, over the next three days (May 29-31, 2014), I will be attending Digicon 2014, a special event put on by SavvyAuthors.com. This is an important online writer’s convention, and I’m proud to be a part of it.

But I’m not just attending Digicon14. I am also presenting three workshops, which are:

  • “When Your Crystal Ball Doesn’t Work — How to Fix Your Foreshadowing”
  • “Procrastination Sedation — Or How to Quit Wasting Time on Social Media and Write”
  • “Manuscripts Gone Wrong, or, How to Drive Your Editor Crazy Without Even Trying”

Now, why did I pick these particular topics?

Foreshadowing is one of the trickiest things for any writer to do. Even experienced writers can be confused by foreshadowing. So I tried to give some common-sense general tips. (I’m also hoping people will chime in with their own examples, so we can be a bit interactive.)

As for the second, time-management is essential for writers. Without it, we are doomed.

And as for the third? Well, I’m an editor. I’ve seen many mistakes time and time again. These mistakes can be overcome, but first, writers have to be made aware of them . . . it’s the same old adage as applies to anything else: You cannot fix a problem if you don’t first know it’s a problem.

If you, too, would like to be a part of Digicon14, it’s not too late for you to sign up here.

Hope to see you there.

Written by Barb Caffrey

May 29, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Dealing with Frustration

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Have you ever had one of those days where you just wish you could start the day over?

Most of us have, actually. But when we have a day like that — a day where the word “frustration” is written in all-caps, and Murphy’s Law seems to be overly optimistic — it’s hard to remember that other people have suffered the same slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, too.

Or at least, most of them.

My late husband Michael used to say that no one can tell you what you’ve experienced but you. (That was his way of saying that everyone’s different, and everyone’s experiences can’t help but be different as well.) But he also said that because most of us tend to go through the same things, albeit at different times and perhaps in different ways, that helps us realize that we’re not completely alone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my husband tonight. This isn’t much of a surprise, as I tend to think about him often . . . I can’t bring him back, no, but I can at least remember what he told me, and in that way, at least some of what he was continues to survive.**

Holiday weekends are difficult for me. (If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ve probably figured this out.) Memorial Day weekend, which is a time to remember our servicemen who died in the line of duty, is a very somber holiday to begin with; as Michael served in the Navy honorably (albeit much more briefly than he would have wished due to a knee issue), I suppose it’s not at all surprising that I’m ruminating on frustration, on things I can’t change, on Murphy’s Law and on the whole issue of how to bear defeat, during this particular weekend.

A fortune cookie, of all things, had a cogent saying about this: “The toughest challenge in this world is in bearing defeat without losing heart.”

I think that’s what we all have to do on our darkest days. We have to believe that something will improve despite it all, and that the meaning that eludes us on days where nothing goes right and absolutely nothing makes any sense will eventually show itself.

So it’s hard — very hard — to keep going when you don’t see anything different on the horizon.

But it’s worthwhile to keep trying, no matter how tough life is, and no matter how many difficulties have befallen you.

That’s yet another thing Michael told me. And I believe it still makes sense.

———–
**Yes, I know that while I continue to survive, at least some of Michael is alive as well. But it’s a difficult concept for me to ponder.

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