SirensToday we’re going to dive into a new ironSoap feature meant to help spread the word about new or upcoming books by digging in a little with the authors or contributors on some key storytelling aspects: world-building, character, and editing. Since this is the first such feature—for fantasy anthology Sirens—we have all three being discussed by different contributors to the project.

So what is Sirens? It’s part of Rhonda Parrish’s Magical Menageries anthology series, which also includes Corvidae, Fae, and Scarecrow. She sums it up thusly:

Sirens are beautiful, dangerous, and musical, whether they come from the sea or the sky. Greek sirens were described as part-bird, part-woman, and Roman sirens more like mermaids, but both had a voice that could captivate and destroy the strongest man. The pages of this book contain the stories of the Sirens of old, but also allow for modern re-imaginings, plucking the sirens out of their natural elements and placing them at a high school football game, or in wartime London, or even into outer space.

Sounds great, right? Now let’s check in with a few of the contributors to hear their thoughts on some of those elements of storycraft.

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Chemistry Spectacular

Wellington College via Creative Commons

Aspiring Voices is going on a short hiatus through the end of the year, but we’re stepping out on a high note with the spirited and unique Alexander Chantal. I spoke with Alexander about his unique take on forms, the scientific perspective he brings to crafting a narrative, and the eclectic array of authors that have influenced him.

Paul: Tell me a little bit about how you got started writing. Was it something you always enjoyed, or did you come into it at a later point in time?

Alexander: When I was young, I enjoyed writing little bits and pieces here and there. My mother got me a “My First 500 Words” book when I was very little. I read it all in little or no time, it was fun. Then I was given eights volumes of an encyclopedia, at that point in time I realized three things: I wanted to write small stories with the stuff I already knew, I loved science and reading was like alcohol, once you’re addicted, there is no way out.

I didn’t start off writing like most people, writing small stories on a notebook, but rather making board games with ridiculously elaborate stories and rules. It was crazy, but then and there I realized I loved Sci-Fi. What really got me writing was the Left Behind series. I was’t much of a religious person, but the story was so interesting, then my love for anime grew in intensity.

Initially, I started writing poetry. Didn’t think for a second I’d try and become a writer. A poet, that’s what ran through my mind. Seven years ago, I started writing my first story, I never gave it a name, and then my recent work-in-progress: Adagio for Canon.

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Sweat

Marek Pokorny via Creative Commons

I don’t mean to suggest that Dominic Delveccio was a remarkable person. His job required security clearance and he took pains to reveal this information to those he met, but the secrets he possessed were of little value. The near-hero he saw in the mirror scarcely resembled the sagging flop of nervous sweat and ill-timed anecdotes I knew.

The air conditioner was out the day he finally triumphed. It was a morning of damp armpits and crinkle-fans made from printer-paper. Everyone made the same joke about Indian summer. Dominic pried a yard of fabric from his generous backside and twirled a pen around his finger. The boss blamed Dom’s team as usual. Dominic’s jaw pulsed beneath a bread dough cheek. Boss got worked up, started in with the cussing and the personal insults.

That reliable gleam of hateful insolence tempered by resignation never left Dominic’s deep-set eyes as he fished in his pocket and pulled out his phone. The boss’ tirade trailed off as he stared at the number with a hint of recognition.

“What’s that?” he demanded.

Dom cracked his neck and said, “I called your mother. She’s been listening. She wants to talk.”

Today’s Aspiring Voices guest is the whip-smart Melanie Drake. I talked to her about her complicated writing process, scrutinizing readers for their reactions, and why she may someday be the rare writer/paleoanthropologist.

Prehistoric Art

Edoardo Forneris via Creative Commons

Paul: What was the catalyst that made you want to start writing seriously? Have you always considered yourself a writer or is it a relatively new thing in your life?

Melanie: I’ve considered myself a writer for a while, but it was only within the last two years that I began wanting to start writing seriously.  I was in an accident on my way to work one Saturday, and it made me realize how short life really is.  I want to spend the rest of my life doing something I love instead of being miserable doing something I hate just for money.

Paul: Wow, yeah. Sorry about the accident! So what do you do for a day job? Is it like writing is the one thing you can imagine being happy doing for a living or is it just one of the possibilities that you’ve decided to pursue for the time being?

Melanie: I currently work nights as a Customer Service rep answering phone calls, emails, and web chats and spend my days going to college full time.  There are only two jobs I can imagine being happy doing for the rest of my life. First is my writing, of course, as it is my first love.  The second would be a paleoanthropologist, which is the study of humans using fossils.

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This week’s guest is the clever and articulate Noel Ashland. I talked to her about finding a creative environment, the joy of the short format, and her unexpected strategy to avoid writing the story you don’t want to tell, plus a lot more.

The Teacher's Desk

Mike Bitzenhofer via Creative Commons

Paul: Have you always thought of yourself as a writer or was it something you picked up along the way? What attracted you to writing in the first place?

Noel: I remember when I was little, I loved to make up stories. I told stories to my family and friends long before I could write. I think I’ve always thought of myself as a writer or at least a storyteller. Fifth grade was when I really started writing, and I was attracted to it because I could unleash my overactive imagination and entertain people at the same time.

Paul: Was there a particular teacher in fifth grade (or other point in school) that encouraged you or was that just the point at which it kind of solidified for you, where you realized you could express your imagination and get a positive response for it?

Noel: My 5th grade teacher made a difference. Her name was Mrs. Dorsey, and we all had a writing notebook. She always encouraged me to read my stories out loud to the class (I was pretty shy then), and my classmates would always tell me how much they enjoyed them (I wrote a lot of humor at the time). I’m sure the stories were terrible, but that’s when I remember really spending a lot of my free time writing. I wrote stories, plays, and poems. I even made comic strips (I am not an artist, but the art was funny and went with the story). If I wrote before then, I don’t really remember it. I think it was that she gave us a lot of freedom to write about what we wanted and gave us some fun prompts to try out. She would even take the time to read things I wrote outside of class and make comments.
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In this edition of Aspiring Voices I sat down to chat with ED Martin, author of the forthcoming novel The Lone Wolf. We talked about humanistic psychology and its role in her writing, how finishing her first book led to ideas for more, and the downside of having creative impulses in the morning.

Love and Redemption, Part 3

J. Star via Creative Commons

Paul: So I was kind of drawn to the tagline on your website that reads, “…stories of love and betrayal, sacrifice and redemption”. What is it about those things that attracts you as a writer?

ED: I have a degree in psychology, and I really enjoy examining people’s motivations for their actions and reactions. The themes I write about are universal, no matter the genre. So many conflicts people have revolve around love, but for me there’s no story in that. For me, it gets interesting when you have a character who loves someone, but maybe he betrays her somehow. How does she react to that? Or a character loves someone, but her goal isn’t the same as his. What’s he willing to give up to help her? And more importantly, why does one character react one way but another reacts differently? These themes are something we can all relate to; by writing from different perspectives, maybe I can help readers open their minds and better relate to other people.
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This week I’m welcoming the wonderfully thoughtful Lea Grover to the Aspiring Voices hot seat. Lea is a prolific blogger over at Becoming SuperMommy and writes fiction on the side. Lea and I had a chat about historical fiction as a connection point to your past and present, the paradox of wanting your children to understand suffering without having to suffer, the social aspect of writing, and why you can’t believe anything anyone says over the phone.

Vintage Series -- Adams Lake c. 1950, My mother

Mark Kortum via Creative Commons

Paul: You’re a blog writer and have done work on a number of sites, many in the so-called mommy blogger realm. What is it about fiction that attracts you? Does it scratch a particular itch that slice-of-life or journal-style non-fiction doesn’t? If you had to choose only one, which would you pick?

Lea: Fiction has always attracted me. Making up stories, inventing characters… it gives you control over not only some version of the physical world, but over your own emotions as well. It definitely allows for a creative expression that non-fiction doesn’t. If I had to pick only one, I would probably pick fiction, but that’s only because I’ve had the opportunity to write about my life—which has had its fill of extraordinary events. I feel like my non-fiction is something that I write because it can be used to help people, and my fiction is what I write because I quite simply can’t not write.

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An effervescent Callie Hunter is my guest today for Aspiring Voices. I chatted with Callie over breakfast about living inside your fictional characters, letting your characters live their own lives inside your head, the differences between writing screenplays and novels, and why going to nursing school may be just the thing her writing career needs.

Journal BW

Walt Stoneburner via Creative Commons

Paul: Tell me a little about what made you start writing with the intention of sharing with other people.

Callie: Even as a kid I liked to write stories, but it only became an intention to share when I wanted to build on the foundations of my characters. Sure, I have a character, but how would they interact with others? How would they grow and adapt to new challenges? I really learned that sharing my writing was a good idea when I discovered roleplaying. But that didn’t teach me the correct way to write, and taught me very bad habits. But with that practice, I learned to build a good character and give them elements of realism.

It wasn’t until I turned that character into a novel that I desperately wanted to share with writing workshops, mostly online, as there aren’t many close to where I live, sadly. If I share my writing and other people enjoyed it? That’s what drove me to keep trying, learning from mistakes and producing higher quality work.

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sinister

thetrial via Creative Commons

book podcast I listen to recently held a conversation stemming from Claire Messud’s recent statement in a Publisher’s Weekly interview:

If you’re reading to find friends [in fictional characters], you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?'”

The question boils down to likable characters, which brought to mind a mini-debate I had with a friend on Twitter some months ago wherein it was declared that there are enough books containing likable protagonists that there is no cause for reading about unlikable ones.

I think the problem I had with the podcast debate and even some of the online debate around the Claire Messud quote has been confusing character with protagonist and character flaws with character construct. I think most people would be hard pressed to say they don’t want to read a book that contains any unlikable characters: antagonists, for example are regularly despicable. As far as I know, this isn’t controversial in the least.

The other thing is people seem to be conflating the idea of flawed characters and unpleasant characters with unlikable. Any character worth their salt will have flaws. Certainly some of these are more palatable than others, but without flaws characters are flat and uninteresting (moreover, unbelievable; see Mary Sue). The term “flawed character” is misleading then in the context of this discussion. What I think Ms. Messud and Publisher’s Weekly interviewer Annasue McCleave Wilson are talking about are unpleasant characters, or those whose flaws are sufficient to hold them at arm’s length from the reader.

Even the term “unlikable” is somewhat misleading because, and I think this strikes to the heart of Ms. Messud’s point, there are characters who hold reader’s affection at bay but remain fascinating who often get a pass even by those in the “I don’t read books about unlikable characters” camp. I, too, have decried books for containing unlikable characters but for me this is shorthand (and one I ought to rethink for clarity) for “characters who begin, end or remain throughout dull; lacking in fascination.” In this case the critique is that the characters are not written well, rather than somehow failing to conform to a subjective qualification based around what kind of real life person I would enjoy spending time with. So long as a character and the challenges they face continue to be intriguing, how relatable or pleasant they seem becomes a moot point.

The core of this is that I worry about readers who discard or avoid books because their protagonists aren’t entirely pleasant. This is especially true when principal characters start off prickly or detestable. The axis of a good story is change and growth, so I wonder what kinds of stories these readers limit themselves to if they discard a book based on the main character’s origin point? What challenges can books possibly offer readers if every point of view comes from some variant of Andy Taylor? As Ms. Massoud says, where in this is the life?