Victor Catano: Writing Urban Fantasy
Tail and Trouble by Victor Catano
About the Author
Tail and Trouble by Victor Catano
About the Author
I normally make it a point to not talk too much about politics online. Simply put, I don’t have the energy (or maybe emotional fortitude) to get into arguments with strangers. With everything that has happened over the past week, however, I thought I would somewhat break that rule for today–at least long enough to hope my own experiences may help anyone else struggling out there.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I grew up with a very (here comes that p-word people hate) privileged childhood. My father had a very good job that paid well, and while he worked very hard to get to where he was, I never had to witness that struggle. By the time I was old enough to understand things like money, we had reached a point where it wasn’t a struggle. My mother was able to stay home with us. We owned a house (eventually a house and a vacation condo). We lived in a great school district, got to go on great trips, didn’t have to worry much about crime (“turn the alarm on in case someone tries to break in while we’re gone” was about the extent of my worry about criminals as a child/teen). From having my horizons broadened now, I know that I was very, very lucky (and continue to be so. Not everyone has the safety net I still do—even as a self-sufficient adult).
At the time, however, that was all normal. Everyone I knew had the same things we did to some extent. Sure, maybe that family owned Hondas instead of a Lexuses (Lexi?), but they still had a well-running car. Likely two. Maybe even three if they had a teen driver. Maybe so and so was going to Palm Springs this year rather than Hawaii over Winter Break, but they were still going away for the week to have a good time. White, Black, Hispanic, Asian… everyone living in my little sphere seemed more or less the same.
While that in some ways is great (I never saw any blatant racists in my neighborhood, I was never told to not play with X or Y children) it is also part of the problem. I never saw any racism, and thus to younger me, it didn’t exist.
I recently finished the book Polarity in Motion by Brenda Vicars—which turned out to be rather timely, as far as subject matter, this week—and one line truly stuck out to me: “I guess people don’t see their own way of seeing.” There are people, I’m sure, who are far more qualified than I am to speak about issues of poverty and race and justice and whatever else than I am, but from all I have learned, that quote perhaps sums up what I have learned the best. It is difficult to see issues when you haven’t experienced them.
Was anyone a racist in my neighborhood? Maybe. As a little blond girl, when would I have really seen it? Though I had friends of multiple races, the demographics in my neighborhood were almost a fifty/fifty split between White and Asian, so when going through all of my friends from back then (White, White, Asian, Asian, White…) I can’t even say I spent much time speaking to anyone who was a true minority in our neighborhood. Thinking back on high school, I honestly could only talk about three Black students by name (two of them mixed race) and that is because I knew them from classes we shared. I didn’t make a conscious decision to stay away from Black students, there just wasn’t a large number of Black students to start with, and I never would have thought to try to become friends with someone specifically because they were Black. That would have felt racist.
What I most remember about the end of high school, though, when it comes to these issues—and the thought that so often pops up when I see Facebook arguments about Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter, etc.—is my gut reaction to affirmative action as a high schooler. With absolutely no knowledge into what it was other than “it takes race into consideration with admissions” I hated it. Sure, racism was something we learned about in school, but that was in the past. There were plenty of races at my high school! Sure there were only a handful of Black or Hispanic students as far as I knew, but they were there, and they were doing just as well as I was. They all lived in the same neighborhoods as the rest of us. They all went on the same vacations and had the same cars. Making it easier for them to get into college over me felt like racism against me. It took several, several years of expanding my horizons and meeting people who didn’t grow up like I did to understand what programs meant to overcome the problems built up over centuries of institutional racism were truly meant to do.
And that’s why I can never think too harshly of people who claim saying “Black Lives Matter” is racist. Because that used to be me. Before I left my own little bubble, it would have been perfectly simple to continue thinking that racism wasn’t a thing. That poverty wasn’t that much of an issue. To think that most people lived the way I did. Everyone I talked to certainly did, after all! It is a nearly impossible thing to see how you see. There is a reason things don’t seem like problems when you aren’t the one experiencing them. As much as I try to read about other people’s experiences now (as an author, I think it’s part of the job description, trying to learn how other people experience life outside of me) I know that I will never fully understand their problems the way they do. Similarly, they will never understand mine the way I do (because all of us do have problems). I can’t claim I have all the answers. I can’t claim I have even a single answer. I can just say I wish people would step back from their gut reactions and talking points long enough to understand that just because they don’t see X doesn’t mean that X isn’t a legitimate issue.
I am lucky that, overall, my problems aren’t too difficult to handle. I consider myself equally lucky now that I can see that that isn’t the case for everyone. Change won’t happen while people are busy digging in their heels, all trying to yell about their problems being the real problems. Being out of work because the factory you worked in for forty years in rural Arkansas is a problem that needs to be addressed. Not being able to feed your children in the inner city is a problem that needs to be addressed. Black men ending up dead as they have this week is a problem that needs to be addressed. Cops ending up dead as they have this week is a problem that needs to be addressed. Pointing to the other side as being the problem and not being willing to help them because no one is helping you is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed.
As I said, it is not an easy thing to see outside of your own experiences. It has taken me over a decade of listening to accounts on all sides to understand as much as I do, and even then I’m sure someone suffering in any situation could school me on what their life is really like. I can only hope that people try to get past their gut reactions and try for empathy on all sides. Until we stop viewing the other side as idiots who don’t understand, nothing will happen outside of the shouting.
On Sunday I announced our new Sunday blog series, “Genres (and why we write them)” where this blog will be hosting authors who write a range of genres and talk about what drew them to the genres they write, what challenges they find because of their categorization, and other general thoughts about genres and marketing.
Before we fully get into the blog series, however, it seemed like a good time to talk about what genres are out there (and what genre your own writing might fall into for all the other authors out there).
Most plainly (as defined by Merriam Webster) a genre is “a particular type or category of literature or art.” Going a little deeper, when it comes to publishing, genre is a way of labeling a certain group of novels along shared subject matter. This makes it easier for authors to explain their books, publishers to market them, and readers to find things they are interested in reading.
Though there are dozens of genres and subgenres that are used when discussing novels, some of the most common you’ll likely come across (whether you’re looking for a novel to read or need a category for your novel) are:
Noticeably missing from the list above, perhaps, is “Young Adult” fiction. While sometimes listed as a genre in its own right, Young Adult fits into the category of age groups over genre, and thus can be added to any of the genres listed above (or any of the other genres not mentioned) such as YA Fantasy or YA contemporary fiction. When trying to decide which age group your writing falls into :
As I’m sure we’ll see through the entirety of our upcoming “Genres (and why we write them)” series, many books span genres and age groups, so it sometimes isn’t possible to say you write only YA Romance or Adult Contemporary. Genres are a grouping tool. I’ll let the rest of my guest bloggers say if they find that a good or a bad thing over the next few Sundays.
Recently, I had the pleasure of taking part in a panel on genres and the expectations that are placed on novels based on how they’re categorized. The recording of the panel will be available during Virtual FantasyCon 2016, but it certainly got me thinking about writing, and writing’s evil twin–marketing. Part of the reason books are categorized into genres, after all, is to help readers find books they’d like to read.
Since there are so many authors writing so many genres, I thought I would open up this blog to other writers over the summer to talk about what drew them to their genres, and what challenges they have found came about because of the genres they chose. So for every Sunday through the rest of the summer, there will be guest blogs from everyone from high fantasy to cozy mystery writers talking about their experiences in the “Genres (and why we write them)” blog series. To start off, though, you all get to hear mine.
When I started out writing, I never much thought about how my stories would be marketed. There is an old piece of writing advice that says, “Write the stories you’d like to read.” Even before someone had shared that with me, writing things I wanted to read was entirely my approach. These days, I still write what I want to read, but that can definitely make marketing a little more difficult–especially because readers of different genres have very different expectations.
As a whole, I’ve always been a very character-driven author. How characters play off of each other has always been what I find most interesting. I imagine that is why I started off as a romance author. Since romances are entirely focused on the couple falling in/being in love, the plot is character-driven by necessity. Of course, romances also tend to follow a very specific formula. Namely 1) Love interests are introduced; 2) there is some problem that keeps them apart; 3) Love interests end up together. There are hundreds of good ways to use that formula (as a romance reader as well, I’ve seen many unique plot twists and turns that still end up following the same general formula) but since I’ve always been the type to let my characters lead where they wish, fitting into that formula to be a “true” Romance writer was never my strong suit. Some people have loved that, some people hate it, and it definitely can make marketing a little hairy at time–since straying away from what readers expect from their Romance novels can be dangerous–but they were always the books I wanted to read, and that meant straying to the edges of the genre.
Now that I’ve moved into the historical fantasy genre, I’ve found that being at edges of genres is apparently my modus operandi. While I certainly have the fantasy part down in my novels–people finding out they’re reincarnated gods really can’t be anything but fantasy–writing what I want to read still means character-driven plots, and that isn’t quite as expected in fantasy novels as it is in romance. One of the oddest things I’ve found of straying into character-driven fantasy so far is actually that a ton of people who state they “don’t generally like fantasy” love the book. Much like the romance readers who don’t like my straying away from the romance formula, however, many pure fantasy readers end up on the other side of things, unsure if they feel like they got what they thought they were going to.
Treading along the edges of genres can definitely make life difficult. More than once while reading meaner reviews, I’ve debated if it would be worth it to write something that would fit inside genre expectations. I entirely understand why people like the genres they do and don’t begrudge anyone who feels let down when a book they’re excited about doesn’t hit the things they love about the genres they read–I certainly know I don’t love every book I pick up. Being able to hit expectations more solidly would definitely make the marketing side of things less of a headache. But then I’d no longer be writing what I’d want to read, and being able to do that is part of what makes writing so much fun. So for now I’m left skirting along the edges of my genres, finding readers who want to read the same things I do, because they’re obviously out there, even if genre-bending makes targeted marketing a little more difficult than it otherwise could be.
Happy June 28th, or as we’re calling it around my house, release day! I’m very pleased to announce my new style guide, Building the Bones: Outlining Your Novel, (part of the Red Adept guide series: Beyond the Style Manual) is now available!
Whenever I’m teaching a writing class, I try to make the point that there is no “right” way to write. If you need a binder full of notes before you start writing, that’s fine. If you want to jump right in and see how far you get, that’s fine as well. In perhaps the least sinister use of quoting Machiavelli, the end really does justify the means when it comes to writing. If you end up with a good completed manuscript, it really doesn’t matter how you got there.
When I first started writing, I was a die hard “pantser” (i.e. someone who “flies by the seat of their pants” and just starts writing with no outline). If someone had told me back then that I would one day be the one writing a “how to” guide on outlining, I would have told them they were crazy. After over a decade of learning to better my writing/developing my style, however, I’ve found myself stretching across the full range of outlining styles (from the basic character-goal-obstacle outline to a full scene-by-scene) depending on what each story has demanded. Though I still tend to fall on the less outline than more side of things when working out my novels, having done just about everything in the name of working out a story has allowed me to pick up a number of outlining techniques that can help nearly any writing style–so perhaps having pantser instincts actually has made it easier to write a how to guide than someone who has always used the same kind of full outline.
So, no matter your writing style, if you want to write a novel and aren’t sure how to get started or are generally a pantser but keep finding your novel fizzling out before you can get it finished, consider picking up Building the Bones. Hopefully all my years of floundering around will save you a little trouble.
Do you have a story you’ve always wanted to write, but weren’t sure how to begin? Have you tried pantsing and floundered, unsure how to finish your novel? Learning the simple basics of outlining can help you plot with confidence.
This instructional guide booklet covers the easy, straightforward techniques you need to plan your story before you write. These guidelines will aid you in organizing your ideas no matter what genre you write or what age group you write for. Whether you use paper or a computer to plan with, these outlining concepts will help you navigate the unknowns of your imagination so you can bring your story to life.
One of the first pieces of writing advice almost all new writers hear is the old adage “Show don’t tell.” Back when I first started writing, I fully loathed hearing people say that–mostly because I don’t think anyone ever explained it very well beyond “don’t use to be verbs.” While trying to stay away from weak verbs is generally good advice, even brand new writers tend to realize going on a “to be” witch hunt get you awkward prose (at least I did when I had an English teacher tell us to write a story without a single was or were).
More than being about to be verbs, though, showing and not telling has to do with “showing” the reader actions and emotions rather than “telling” them what your character is like or is feeling. For example, you could tell a reader, “She was a quiet girl and wanted to be left alone” or you could show a little girl sitting at the back of a classroom, her shoulders pulled up to her ears as she prays in her head that no one comes to talk to her. While both make the same general point, the second paints a much more vivid picture and pulls the reader into the scene rather than just giving them statements to remember.
While it’s good to stay away from weak/telling phrases in general (I was; I felt; I wanted; I liked…) showing becomes immeasurably important when it comes to fleshing out characters. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your readers that your character is quiet and shy, if all you show is your character being the center of attention at party after party, your character is going to read as someone loud and outgoing. When it comes to characterization, actions truly do speak louder than words.
So, instead of telling your reader character traits:
1. Look for scenes that show important traits. For example, rather than telling the reader that your character is a good fighter (or having people talk about how good a fighter that character is–as seems common in TV shows) look for a scene where your character will be able to show off those skills.
2. Shape dialogue to show personality. No two people speak entirely alike. Some people share certain verbal tics, but personality shapes word choice, slang usage, wordiness, and all those other things that make a character sound like a person rather than the author. If your character is shy and quiet, their dialogue will likely be shorter and meeker than a character who loves attention and so pontificates whenever given the chance.
3. Make a point when your character is acting out of character. Sometimes, you’ll need your “stickler for the rules” character to go against type and break into work to steal a file. That’s fine, as long as you show that that’s not who your character normally is. Make a point that your character is nervous/uncomfortable with what’s happening or take the time for them to struggle with making the decision to act against who they are (ideally after you’ve already shown who the character normally is earlier on). By showing what is happening is the exception to the rule will help keep the reader from seeing a strange disconnect between what they’ve heard about the character and what they’ve seen.
Just remember, when it comes to learning about characters, seeing how they act is much more powerful than hearing once or twice or ten times that the character is X. Use showing to your advantage, even if you still need some was and weres in there.
Today’s blog post is hosted by the wonderful blog Pure Jonel about one of the downfalls of writing historical fiction/historical fantasy… period word use. Read more at: http://purejonel.blogspot.ca/2015/12/JD.html
I’ve always been interested in etymology. Learning where (and when) words originated has appealed to both the writer and the history buff in me. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have more than one instance while writing my newest novel, Raining Embers, where I wished I was writing something contemporary rather than set in a fantasy world based loosely on the High Renaissance—it would have saved quite a bit of time trying to find period-appropriate words to use.
While I probably spent more time than was healthy going through etymological dictionaries to check words while working on Raining Embers, a few words/phrases I would have liked to have been able to use still come to mind:
1. “Cavalier.” Circa 1580, cavalier wasn’t too far outside the time period, but as it didn’t come to mean something more pejorative—as I meant to use it—until the seventeenth century, it seemed like a little too much of a cheat to work properly in the narrative. Read More…
As NaNoWriMo winds down, we have a guest post from Grammarly. The top five things to look for when you start looking for typos (though, of course, typos can wait until you’ve done your own deep edits!)
If there had been one grammar rule I wish I would have learned earlier on in my writing career, it would have been to learn how to punctuate dialogue. Where it’s possible to pick up many grammar rules without thinking about it, dialogue punctuation tends to be one of those unnoticed things that can then become very annoying to fix after the fact (especially if you’re a naturally dialogue-heavy writer as I’ve always been).
So, when writing dialogue, keep in mind:
1. Each speaker gets a new line.
This rule is simply to make it easier for the reader to see who is saying what. Every time you change a speaker, you will want to move to a new paragraph, e.g.
“Hi,” Sally said.
“What’s up?” Jane asked.
Sally shrugged. “Not much.”
“Hi,” Sally said. “What’s up?” Jane asked. Sally shrugged. “Not much.”
2. Both tags and beats can be used to mark who is speaking, but they are punctuated differently.
Simply put, a tag is something connected to dialogue that is specifically how the line is said (e.g. said, asked, yelled, whispered…) and a beat (sometimes called an “action tag”) is an action that is taking place while/closely to when the line is spoken).
If you are using a tag, the tag will be treated as part of the same sentence as the dialogue and thus connected with a comma and followed by a lowercase letter (if the first word of the tag does not include a proper noun such as a name). e.g.:
“Hi,” she said.
“Howdy,” he shouted.
“Hi.” She said.
“Howdy.” He shouted.
If you are using a beat, however, the beat will be treated as a separate sentence and thus be separated from the dialogue with a period. The first word of the beat will be capitalized, no matter what word, much like any other sentence. e.g.:
“Hi.” She waved.
“Howdy.” He walked into the entryway.
“Hi,” she waved.
“Howdy,” he walked into the entryway.
Note 1: Special punctuation, such as a question mark or an exclamation point, follows the same general rule with tags/beats, acting like a comma with a tag or a period with a beat when it comes to capitalization. e.g.
“Who is she?” he asked. (tag)
“She who?” She looked around. (beat)
“Who is she?” He asked. (tag)
“She who?” she looked around. (beat)
Note 2: The first word inside quotation marks is always capitalized, whether it is preceded by a tag or a beat. See second example in point three.
3. A tag or beat can be used at any point in a line of dialogue.
It is possible to put a tag or beat ahead of dialogue, at the end, or even in the middle. e.g.
“Hi, Jane. When did you get here?” she said.
She said, “Hi, Jane. When did you get here?”
“Hi, Jane,” she said. “When did you get here?”
As long as it’s the same speaker, the dialogue remains on the same line no matter where the tag/beat falls. This, once again, comes down to readability. If dialogue begins to be separated from tags/beats, it can become confusing. For example, if you have:
“Hi, Jane,” she said.
“When did you get here?”
It will likely look like a new speaker (perhaps Jane replying) is saying “When did you get here?” rather than “she” continuing her line.
Note: If a line of dialogue goes on for several sentences, it is generally best to move a tag to either the start of the line or after the first or second sentence so the reader doesn’t have to get to the end of the line and then go back to attribute the line to the proper speaker.
4. If you only have two speakers going back and forth, you can drop some tags altogether.
Sometimes, if you only have two speakers in a scene, it is possible to have lines of dialogue with no tags or beats at all. For example:
“Hey,” Sally said.
“Hey.” Jane waved as she walked into the room.
“Are you staying for dinner?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Oh.” Sally frowned. “Let me know when you do?”
As there are only Sally and Jane in the scene, even though there is no tag/beat on lines three and four, the reader can assume that Sally asks another question and then Jane answers once again. Again, though, readability trumps all. You want to be careful that you don’t go for too long a stretch with no tags–as a reader might get lost as to who was speaking what line and have to backtrack to the beginning of the conversation to figure it out–and you likely don’t want to drop may tags if you have more than two people in a conversation–as you don’t want the reader to have to struggle to figure out if it is Sally, Jane, Tom, or Steve who answered the previous line.
When dropping tags, you also want to be careful that you don’t end up with talking heads–that is, so many lines with no tags (or only quick “said” tags) that the characters are no longer grounded to the scene. Dialogue should be able to carry a lot of emotion, but don’t forget to put in tone of voice or body language when needed–or show how a character is moving around in general–or it can quickly become like reading a script without actors to deliver the lines.
All in all, when writing dialogue, making it simple for the reader to keep track of who is saying what is the most important thing. There is nothing quite like having to jump away from a line of dialogue to find out who speaking (or having to go back to re-attribute a line to a different speaker) to take a reader out of a flow of conversation. After all, in writing prose, the author needs to provide both the lines and actors–if you prefer just dialogue, consider if your story might be better off as a play.
This blog post comes by request: “I currently have a chapter that is only about seven sentences. Is that too short? How many words do there need to be to make a chapter a chapter?”
The simple answer to those question would be: “No, that’s not too short” and “One, if that” but let’s dig into that a little further.
When it comes to chapter breaks, there aren’t any true rules. They can be as long or short as you want. In fact, you don’t even have to have chapters if you don’t wish to. It all comes down to what is right for your manuscript.
In my own writing, I don’t bother with chapter breaks in my first draft. Since I tend to write out of order, it doesn’t make much sense to try to put them in on the first go around. Even if I am writing in order, I know enough will likely change come edits that entire chapters might go after the fact (In my latest novel, Raining Embers, what would have originally been the first three chapters were condensed to one, for example). Because of those overhauls, I personally just put in scene breaks when originally writing. Once I have a somewhat solid draft, I then go in and find scene breaks that work well as chapter breaks each about ten pages from the last.
Personally, I stick to relatively even chapters. Chapters, after all, are there to give readers periodic breaks. How you chose to do place your breaks, however, can affect your manuscripts quite a bit.
As with all choices when it comes to writing, it really is a matter of what you are attempting to accomplish in your manuscript. It is also possible to try a few ways out and then change them if they don’t seem to be working after the fact. Just always consider what you mean to do when making these sorts of choices for your manuscript to have the best effect.