The Power of Backstory - Guest Post for Speculative Salon May 28, 2012

Creating great fantasy is equal parts world building and character building. Characters are the true heart of any story. The deeper and more complex the characters, the more soul-catching the story will be. We all love to read about brilliantly strategic queens, dauntless knights, corrupt kings, and scheming princes, for it is the characters who sweep us away on tides of emotion. They make us weep for loves lost, shock us with betrayals, and thrill us when crowns are won or lost, but none of this happens unless the reader truly cares for the characters. So how does an author create characters that are both fascinating and believable? One way is by creating a compelling backstory.

Backstory is essentially the character’s background, but for literary purposes it is far more than just the character’s place of birth, his family status, or his schooling. To create a powerful backstory, a writer needs to give his characters emotional landmarks. It is the triumphs and the scars of life that forge the very soul of the character. These emotional landmarks steer the character’s choices like a relentless compass. They give the character hidden depths and make them believable and intriguing. One of the best examples of a powerful backstory is Professor Snape in Harry Potter. Until Snape’s background is revealed, he is a riddle to the readers, a character who seems to serve both the Light and the Dark. Snape’s abiding love for Lilly explains all his actions, all his difficult choices. Everything makes sense in the light of the reveal.

But creating a great backstory can have its risks. Once a writer constructs a detailed backstory, they often feel compelled to spill the beans and tell everything to the reader. Too much backstory will strangle a book to death, choking the story with meaningless detail and tiresome flashbacks. Backstory should be like an iceberg, with most of it hidden below the surface. It is only when the reader draws close to the character that they look down and see what lurks beneath…the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I’ll tell you a secret about backstory…it’s a secret! Who doesn’t love a good secret? Secrets are delicious story questions. The more secrets your characters have the more they will tantalize your readers. Give your characters lost loves, or thwarted ambitions, unfulfilled dreams, secret fears, or skeletons in their closet. Writing in the fantasy genre provides authors with iridescent dimensions that other genres don’t have. Rare magical talents, secret skills, or royal bloodlines are often hidden in the backstory of fantasy characters. But no matter the genre, backstory provides powerful questions that weave beneath the plot and draw the reader through the story.

In my epic fantasy, The Silk & Steel Saga, you’ll find characters with secret pasts, hidden powers, suppressed loves, shocking bloodlines, and buried crimes. From the brilliant Queen Liandra, to the seductive Priestess, to the cunning Lord Raven, you’ll empathize with the good and pray they prevail but you truly feast on the bad who are utterly compelling.

By using backstory, authors can create intriguing, multi-dimensional characters that pull readers into their books and keep them coming back for more.
Writing Tips
Include Holidays in your Writing - For Red Tash Guest Author Post Nov 14, 2012

The holidays are coming! The holidays are coming! Stockings are hung by the chimney, gingerbread cookies come fresh-baked from the oven, mistletoe decks the doorway, golden light glows from the menorah, the kinara candles are set on the table, bells ring on street corners, a crèche stands beneath the tree, and presents gleam in bright paper. Smiles are more sincere and greetings fill the air. No matter how you celebrate the holidays, they are bursting with symbolism and celebration and life. From the dawn of time, mankind has celebrated holidays with feasts, and kinship, and deep beliefs. Anticipation builds as the date approaches. Presents are hidden, feasts are laid, trees are decked, and festivities abound. The holidays hum with excitement, reflecting our cultures, our customs, our beliefs, our relationships, and even our hopes and dreams.

In real life, holidays are a cultural treasure trove, a milestone in the year, a memory forever cherished, so why leave them out of your writing? Writers should use holidays as golden opportunities to portray cultures, religion, and even relationships. Create holiday traditions that reflect your world and showcase your characters. Your stories will be all the richer for including holidays.

In my epic fantasy, The Silk & Steel Saga, I’ve included two holidays in the first and fourth books, using them in very different ways. In The Steel Queen, my characters enjoy the Feast of Midwinter, a celebration of the winter solstice, a time of kinship and gift giving. By tradition they exchange yulecakes. “Individual gingerbread cakes, no larger than the palm of the hand conveyed a heartfelt wish for the new year. Yulecakes came in four shapes, a diamond for wealth and prosperity, a circle for peace and harmony, a star for fame and success, and a heart for love and happiness. The cake’s shape expressed the wish and the coin baked inside expressed the nature of the relationship. Copper coins were used for new friends and acquaintances while silver coins were meant for good friends, light lovers, and distant relatives. Gold coins were reserved for close family members and life-long friends. Gold coins also symbolized true love.” Imagine the anticipation when two lovers exchange yulecakes for the first time. What color coin lies nestled within their heart-shaped yulecakes? Will the two coins be the same?

In The Poison Priestess, the fourth book of The Silk & Steel Saga, a holiday is put to a more sinister purpose. Royal Nachte is a time of revelry and feasting, the night when all of Navarre celebrates a dukedom raised to a kingdom. But the holiday of one kingdom can be the opportunity of another. While the wine flows and the people make merry, a well-planned attack is launched in the dead of night. I don’t want to give too much away here, but you can see how holidays can be woven into plots, becoming pivotal events.

Advice to Indie Authors - Blog for Speculative Salon, posted Nov 12, 2012

Ten years ago I embarked on the dream of becoming a published author. In February of 2009, I landed a contract with a major international publisher offering a five figure deal for my epic fantasy saga. Sound the trumpets and send up the fireworks, I’d beaten the odds and won the lotto! I was over the moon with joy, but after three short months the dream devolved into a complete nightmare. After two torturous years, I reclaimed the full rights to my saga, escaped from the major publisher, and formed my own company. To date I’ve published the first three books of The Silk & Steel Saga, (The Steel Queen, The Flame Priest, The Skeleton King, and soon to be published, The Poison Priestess) as well as a collection of short stories entitled The Assassin’s Tear. My books are getting great reviews, I have awesome fans around the world, and I can honestly say I’m thrilled to be in control of my own destiny.

Having experienced both sides of the publishing business, I thought I’d pass on some hard-won tips to other indie authors.

First and foremost, you need to write the very best book you can. An essential element of good writing is getting feedback from critique groups, from alpha and beta readers, and from professional editors. The more ‘eyeballs’ you get on your work, the better. Search for alpha readers in your neighborhood, at parties, at coffee shops, at bookstores, or even on-line. I had fifteen alpha/beta readers for my first book and they gave me invaluable feedback. Some of them became my biggest fans.

Secondly, the sooner you start promoting your book, the better. Authors need to build an audience before their book is published. This might sound like putting the cart before the horse, but major publishers promote their authors for over a year in advance. If it’s important for the majors then it’s absolutely critical for indie publishers. For The Steel Queen, I started two years in advance with Facebook and then progressed to a website and other forms of social media. Be creative, be entertaining, and use the social network to spread the word.

A picture is still worth a thousand words…that’s why covers are crucial. Eye-catching artwork, even when reduced to a postage-stamp size, is the very best marketing tool an indie author has. A cover is your calling card on Amazon, on Facebook, on your website, so make sure it’s a great one. Covers should look professional and they should reflect your genre with a single glance. Commission your cover as soon as possible so you have it for advance marketing. Get the most out of your covers by branding their designs, so all your books are easily recognizable.

Word-of-mouth is still king when it comes to selling books, so encourage your readers to write and post reviews. The best gift a reader can give an author is a review, but indie publishers also need professional reviews. Search for book reviewers on-line and offer them a complimentary copy for an honest review. Unfortunately major publishers are also chasing reviews, so they flood established reviewers with their own books (my publisher was going to send 50 advance copies just to Amazon US reviewers!). Since most reviewers are swamped, indie publishers often need to discover new emerging reviewers. Once a review is posted, multiply its value by spreading links through the web. 

Most likely ninety percent of your sales will be e-books, but spend the extra time and money to publish your books in a print format. Don’t miss out on the thrill of actually hold your book in your hands, and you’ll need paperback copies for many professional reviewers and for Goodreads giveaways.

And last, but not least, keep writing. The more good books you publish, the greater your chance of success. Write a saga or a series and publish new books at regular intervals. Keep writing good books and your audience will multiply. Best of luck to you!