Looking for Villainspiration

abstract-1057521_960_720It’s dark and dreary in my hometown of San Jose this week, and the ghost of something dark hovers at the edges of my thoughts whenever I watch the news. The combined effect might be disturbing if it were an ordinary week, but right now I’m obsessing over how to craft a worthy villain to terrorize the protagonist of my new series. I need all the villainspiration I can get, because the task of creating a villain requires a different kind of soul-searching than writing a nuanced protagonist.

As an avid reader of all kinds of literature, I’ve been frightened by the creations of many talented authors who are adept at writing believable antagonists for their heroes. Below are some of the most helpful nuggets I’ve taken from their hard work and brilliance.

Knowledge of the villain’s plans and motivations should be hard-won.
One of the creepiest books of all time is Dracula by Bram Stoker. I’ve lain awake at nights as a grown adult unable to sleep for fear that the red light blinking in the corner is not, in fact, my fire alarm, but rather the red pupils of an evil vampire after my sweet little throat. Stoker’s Dracula never revealed his darker side to the heroes willingly. He acted the part of a gentleman, and it took serious detective work to uncover his evil past and nefarious plans for the future. When the heroes earn their knowledge, the reader credits it more than when it’s handed over in a neat package of backstory from someone in the know.

Sometimes the worst villains start out as the heroine’s friend.
This isn’t a new idea, but it’s one that is powerful time and again when executed well. When a friend turns enemy, they know the heroine’s fears, strengths, and vulnerabilities. And because the villain began as a friend, the author is less likely to let the villain devolve into a caricature of evil instead of a person. Sarah J. Maas has a new twist on this idea in her Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy. The heroine’s true love in the first book becomes the villain of the second, without any idea that he has fallen from his throne in her heart. Seeing how the good in him grows warped in both fascinating and troubling – in the best way.

No monologuing. Ever.
Your heroine can have a speech. Your heroine’s friend can espouse on relevant topics at lenght. Your heroine’s mentor can have a rallying pep talk. But, please, skip the long explanation of motives, preview of evil plans, and exhaustive reminiscences of the past coming from the mouth of the villain. If the villain’s backstory is crucial, find a creative way to expose it. J.K. Rowling created the pensieve to give Harry a peek into Voldemort’s past. It allowed the reader to experience events in real time, with action, instead the biased ranting of Voldemort. This makes more sense for most villains, who would never willingly reveal weaknesses or plans to someone with the ability to undermine them.

Take a peek inside your villain’s head.
It’s human nature to over-simplify and stereotype the people we encounter, and the heroine of your story is no different. When, as a writer, you’re lost inside your protagonist’s head, good and evil are very black and white. But readers have a different reaction to villains who are too extreme, or cartoonish. They are less terrifying, because they don’t feel real. Writing from the villain’s perspective (even if you don’t use what you write in your final draft) forces you to give them believable motives, a view of the world that makes sense to them, feelings, and a personal history. If you’re looking for an author who does this so well, consider the protagonist/villain of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Humbert Humbert. The man is a child molester, but in his own head he is a victim of the thirteen-year-old torturing him with her beauty. You find yourself on the brink of sympathizing with him, and then the reality of what a monster he is hits you again and again. Even if you can’t give your villain a voice within your novel, as his creator you should know him well, so you can write him believably.

Thunder (or a garbage truck) is rumbling in the background as I write this post, reminding me that I should return to the task of tackling my next novel. So I’ll dim the lights, shed reality, and put some of this villainspiration to good use. As long as I don’t encounter my own personal tormentor…writer’s block.



Modeling Your Novel on a Classic

shutterstock_189453926A great source of inspiration for me has always been looking at the classics. And I’m not alone. How many times have familiar storylines crept in to popular works of fiction? The best authors take certain elements from classics and do something so new that many readers don’t notice the references to the original.

I loved how Hugh Howey used elements of Romeo and Juliet in his Silo series. It was a completely original twist on Shakespeare’s classic. Howey used the device of two lovers who come from completely different worlds that are bitterly opposed to each other, but his characters were completely his own. Lukas stands in for Romeo, and while he shares Romeo’s dreaminess and romanticism, is also fiercely intelligent and loyal. Even better, Juliette is a far more compelling Juliet, taking her destiny and those of her people in her hands and leading them to their salvation. By the time I finished Howey’s books, I decided I liked his characters even better than Shakespeare’s originals.

Other authors take the reverse tactic, and choose classic characters and place them in a new setting. One of my favorite recent finds is The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. This is a young adult sci-fi/fantasy series that takes characters from classic fairytales and gives them an extreme makeover. The first book in the series is a loose take on Cinderella. Meyer’s Cinder has a heart of gold at her core, just like her inspiration, but she is a cyborg who helps her prince charming to end a plague that is ravaging the population.

So what have I taken away from those who are borrowing from the greats?

Don’t make your adaptation overly faithful to the original.
It’s tempting to assume that when you’re borrowing elements from a classic that the genius who created it knows best. But it’s critical to bring something dramatically new to the story, or readers might as well read the original. Choose the elements that fit your story, and don’t hesitate to ignore those that don’t work.

Keep your references subtle.
Some of the best stories I’ve read borrow from classics in such a way that I often don’t realize the connection until after I’ve finished the story. It makes a second reading of the book that much better. If it’s too obvious or heavy-handed, the effect can be to dull the impact of your story.

Don’t choose multiple classics to borrow from in one novel.
A rookie mistake that I made in my writing was to incorporate inspiration from multiple texts into my writing. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to do this, but it takes a masterful hand to incorporate different references expertly. Often the effect can be confusing or overwhelming. And remember, it is your original content that will bring readers back, not what you’re borrowing from the classics.

Have you borrowed from the classics when writing your novel?

Motivation vs. Inspiration

shutterstock_81172669For self-published writers, a lot of deadlines are self-imposed. This can be a blessing and a curse. It allows for flexibility, but it also enables us to procrastinate, since the only person we answer to is ourselves. Sometimes we’re waiting for inspiration to strike, but at least for me, I think that the real culprit is motivation. Do I have the energy, after a day of working my day job and a night with my adorable but rambunctious toddler, to sit down and write a couple thousand words? Or would I rather finish the Divergent trilogy? Perhaps if I had an editor breathing down my neck that would be the motivation I need to channel my inspiration and write.

However, motivation won’t be a problem for me in 2014. I have a unique deadline that is compelling me to finish writing the third book of The Conjurors Series. I’m having a baby in the middle of March. After my little bundle is here, I question whether, for at least a few months, coherent writing will be possible. So it’s up to me, right now, to admit that being pregnant is no excuse for slacking off. But having a newborn and a toddler might be a compelling reason to take a break in a few months.

Knowing that this deadline is coming has been both motivating and inspiring. It’s immovable, and every time my baby kicks inside me it’s a reminder that time is ticking by. But rather than feeling that the pressure of the deadline is leaving me blocked, I’m finding that my inspiration is there when I focus on it. I suspect it’s been there the whole time, and the only thing holding me back was finding the motivation to tap into it.

So once I land back on Earth and juggling two kids instead of one feels possible, I’m wondering how I can find the motivation to always chase after my goals this aggressively. I don’t think my husband would be on board with having babies every time I’m getting lazy with my writing.

What do you do to motivate yourself to adhere to your deadlines and keep writing when you’d rather be playing Candy Crush? Please tell me, because I’m going to need all the motivation I can find to write pretty soon!

Author Interview: Ronan Cray on Writing Horror

Red Sand CoverI’ll freely admit that when it comes to scary books and movies, I’m a giant chicken. I’m the reader who skips to the end of the book to see who dies so that I don’t get too attached, but then ends up having nightmares for the next two weeks anyway. So Ronan Cray’s horror novel, Red Sand, is not a book that I would normally try. But I’m glad I did, because it is a quick read with a unique twist – every chapter is written from the perspective of a different character.

In this interview, Ronan talks about what inspires him to write horror and how he crafted Red Sand, which landed him on the “Top 10 New Horror Authors” by Horror Novel Reviews.

Tell us a little about yourself.

It starts with a lie. I am a fictional character, a pseudonymous projection of all that is cool in the actual author with none of the geeky quantities. That amounts to about 1.05% of the original. Still, that exciting reality exists, as it does in all of you, albeit heavily diluted by day jobs, boredom, and mundane responsibilities. My makeup derives largely from annual and weekend travel – tours through the dry husk of the Forbidden City in Beijing, tastings of clear whisky at the Oban distillery, cold drafts in a St. Petersburg apartment, the cool autumn deaths of Pennsylvania flora. I am the memories of a drowning man. After a near-death experience, when you say, “My life flashed before my eyes,” you don’t see that wait at the DMV, the TPS report at work, the bus ride home. No. You see Ronan Cray.

What was the original inspiration for your horror novel, Red Sand?

Red Sand came from a dream. A big fellow chased me over the dunes and volcanic rocks of a desert island. A conch horn blew in the distance. “No!” he said, in fear. “It’s too soon! I could have done it!” It was too late. Hunter became hunted. They unleashed the creatures. They swarmed over us, vegetable Isz, tubers and vines destroying our flesh before I woke. That scene, slightly modified, started the book. The rest followed.

One of the most powerful aspects of your story was how each chapter was written from a different character’s perspective. How did you come up with that idea?

We’re surrounded by voices and stories, all of them valid, all of them interesting. I don’t believe in main characters. Who is the main character in a family, in a marriage? Most of the ills of this life derive from our solipsistic worldview, each person believing themselves to be the main character in their lives, waiting for everyone else to recognize this. But far more powerful characters frequently intervene. I’m fascinated by everyone’s agenda, and how those agendas inadvertently intersect and conflict with everyone else’s. That’s where drama comes from. I wanted the reader to experience omniscience, knowing the trajectories of characters bound to collide yet helpless to stop it. So I decided to explore the same story from the point of view of many. Out of dozens available, I chose only eight. Or rather, they chose me.

What was the hardest part about writing Red Sand, and how did you overcome it?

Of course, the multiple points of view turned out to be the hardest part. I often wrote myself into a roadblock. I’d give a character special knowledge, revealed only to her and the reader, then kill her off. (The character, not the reader). With that knowledge lost, how could the other characters continue the plot? Interweaving the plot between multiple characters meant fastidious tracking of facts and careful placement of actors on the stage. I couldn’t comb out a linear story, like first person novels can. I had to braid it. Rope is stronger than its individual strands. I think a story told by multiple characters is stronger in the telling.

Red Sand put you on the “Top 10 New Horror Authors” by Horror Novel Reviews. Besides great writing, how did you land your book on this list?

I didn’t actively promote myself as some great author. I was just as surprised and delighted as the other authors on the list. But that honor has made me more careful. I want my next novel to live up to, even exceed the first. I think it has.

Many of the readers of this blog are self published. Do you have any advice or marketing tips that have worked well for you?

Three words: think long term. Does a painter throw a show with one painting? Does a band get on stage with one song? Many authors get discouraged after they see their first book turn transparent right before their eyes. The public is a fickle, hurried bunch (see question 3) and don’t have time to discover your greatness immediately. A self-published author is a desert mirage attempting to build itself from particles of sand.  It takes time. And lots of sand.

What are some books and authors that have inspired your writing?

I’m inspired by the old greats – Stevenson, Dickens, Kafka, Hugo, and especially Conrad. In the old days, horror was implied. There is nothing implied in Red Sand, and my prose can’t compare, but that is the foundation I build my books on. Horror is a result of understanding. Events only have meaning when perceived.  Who perceives it is the story. The old masters understood this. They spent a great deal of time showing the reader the character, developing the context. Only when the reader fully lived in that world did they reveal the conflict. Modern books tend to skip to the action (myself included), in part because we are all more educated, less naïve, but also because we are less patient. I still prefer old books to modern ones, with apologies to my contemporaries.

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?

I’m fortunate to have a video game company turning my next book, Dust Eaters, into a video game. We’re running a Kickstarter through November 1st to raise funds. I do hope you’ll support me.

Author Interview: Michael Fedison

me2The author I had the pleasure of talking to today is Michael Fedison, who not only has written a young adult sci-fi adventure called The Eye Dancers, but also a popular blog as well. His writing style is very natural and free-flowing. It feels like a peek inside a creative and very collaborative brain. His posts, both on the craft of writing and life in general, are very enjoyable to read. Visiting his blog always makes me realize how much I like being a part of the writing community, where it seems like most people are very open and want to share best practices. Mike is the embodiment of this – both a talented writer and just a cool guy happy to help fellow writers learn what they can from his journey.

The Eye Dancers is written from the perspective of four boys who find themselves in a parallel universe where they are the only ones who can save a missing girl. He does an excellent job giving each of the boys a unique voice. I enjoyed learning about how Mike found inspiration for his novel, and I hope you will too.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am, first and foremost, a dreamer, someone who always has his imagination on overdrive.  I have loved to write creatively since the second grade.  By day, I work as a technical writer for a computer software company—so the creative writing offers an escape.  At the same time, I can be practical when I have to be!

What was your inspiration for your The Eye Dancers?

eye_dancers_lowresFirst and foremost, The Eye-Dancers is a story inspired by my own childhood, the friends I shared growing up, and the conversations we’d have about outer space, life “out there” . . . all sorts of stuff.  Combine that with my desire to write a book about adolescence, growing up, friendship, the very nature of reality, quantum physics and parallel worlds, and the oneness of all things—even things that seem so distant and removed—and you have the inspiration behind The Eye-Dancers!

Tell me about your main character. Was he based on someone you know (or yourself)?

Well, there are really four main characters—Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski.  They are all inspired by friends I knew when I was a kid.  So it was fun to write for these characters.  Mitchell is the character I can relate to the most—when I was his age, I shared many of his characteristics.  Like Mitchell, when I was in junior high, I was very shy around girls, had an overactive imagination, and loved old collectible comic books, especially The Fantastic Four.

Where do you go for inspiration when you’re feeling blocked?

The Twilight Zone is always a favorite, as is Ray Bradbury.  If I’m in a slump, I can pick up a Bradbury short story, get lost in the language, the imagination, the enthusiasm, and that almost always serves as a tonic when creativity is running low.

What’s the strangest thing that has ever inspired you?

I would have to say the “ghost girl” dream I had when I was a teenager.  I dreamed of a little girl, standing out in the road, beneath the streetlamp.  In the dream, it was late, well past midnight.  I looked out the window, and saw her.  She gestured for me to come outside.  But I felt afraid.  The light from the streetlamp filtered through her, as if she were more ghost than girl.  What did she want?  Why was she there?

I never discovered the answers, as I woke up shortly thereafter.  For weeks, I wanted to include this mysterious girl in a story—but nothing seemed to fit.  Finally, I decided to file her away in a “story vault,” and hope I would be able to write about her someday.

Fast-forward twenty years, and I experienced the same dream, of the same girl!  The difference?  This time, when I woke up, I had the start of a story idea in place.  That story would become The Eye-Dancers.

What are some books in your genre that have inspired you?

Can I skip over the genre part? 🙂  I love to read—all genres, fiction as well as nonfiction.  Truman Capote is one of my favorites—a master wordsmith.  Ray Bradbury is phenomenal—unparalleled imagination and love of writing.  To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace . . .  I could go on and on!

What are some words that you live by?

Reach for the stars.  Recognize your dreams, your calling, and go for it.  Don’t get discouraged when things veer off course, as surely they will.  They do for all of us.  The key is to keep dreaming, keep working, keep perfecting whatever it is you feel passionate about.  There is only one “you.”  Do what you love, find your voice, and share it.

Is there anything else you would like us to know?

I would just like to say that I write what I love, I write about the things that resonate for me.  That’s really all any writer can do.  Hopefully, by sharing the things that matter to me in the best way I know how, I can also make those same things matter to you.

Author Interview: Kendra Highley

author-picI’m excited to share my interview with today’s author – Kendra C. Highley. I had the pleasure of being one of the original reviewers for the first book of her Matt Archer series, and have been a huge fan ever since. For those who haven’t heard of the series, it’s about a boy who is chosen by a magical knife to become one of the world’s few monster hunters. It’s an action-packed, funny coming-of-age story under the most unusual circumstances, and I highly recommend checking it out. She recently published the latest book in the series, Matt Archer: Legend, and her contemporary YA novel, Sidelined, was picked up by Entangled Publishing and will be released this year.

Kendra was also one of the orginal reviewers of my novel, Into the Dark, and her advice was invaluable. Watching her star rising has been an inspiration for me, and I hope you feel the same after hearing about what motivates her in today’s interview.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a wife and mom of two, and work as an HR manager during the day. I love to bake, read, write and vacation. Vacations don’t come often though, so I have to enjoy them while they last! I live in the Dallas area and I report to two cats. I’m their primary staff advisor (it was a promotion–I’m very proud).

What was your inspiration for your the Matt Archer series?

Matt Archer Legend 680x453Strangely, that’s easy for me to answer. I was at my first writers’ conference in 2009, and a published YA author was talking about Twilight and the dearth of “boy-centric” YA. She said, “Boys don’t want to fall in love with misunderstood vampires; they want to kick vampire butt!”  My son was 8 at the time, and a big reader, and my initial thought was to write a short story about a boy who saved his uncle from a monster…and the whole Matt-as-a-Monster-Hunter concept was born from that.

Tell me about Matt. Was he based on someone you know (or yourself)?

There are little bits and pieces of people I’ve known, but Matt’s really his own person. He was a very strong character in my head from the very beginning. Odd, since he’s a teenaged guy, and I’m neither. But I just had this connection with his voice and he formed through that.

Where do you go for inspiration when you’re feeling blocked?

I’d like to have a pithy answer…but usually I go to my pantry and snack. : )

What’s the strangest thing that has ever inspired you?

A bottle of Vicodin. I’d had to have my shoulder stitched up after an injury and that’s what the doctor prescribed. I’m very wary of prescription pain pills, and had just read an article about how they were the #1 abused drug among teens now. Out of that, Sidelined (Entangled, 2013) was born. It’s a story about an elite high school basketball player with scholarship opportunities. However, she gets seriously injured at the state tourney and can’t play anymore. She eventually becomes addicted to pain killers and much of the story is about her spiral down, and her struggle back out.

Tell us about an inspirational figure in your life.

My Dad. He read to me nearly every night when I was little. I arrived at Kindergarten able to read because of him. He encouraged my love of books from early on, and when I told him I planned to self-publish, he was right there to support me. My mother died when my sister and I were teenagers, so we just had Dad…he’s always there when we need him. And he’s super-smart, too. When he retired, he went back to school to get a Ph.D. in American History…because he had dreamed of doing it. He’s an inspiration.

What are some books in your genre that have inspired you?

This would be a long list, so I’ll limit it to five:  A Wrinkle in Time, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Jackaroo, and Twisted.

What are some words that you live by?

Life’s too short not to eat chocolate. : )  But also “family first.” It’s really hard to work two jobs and juggle family life, but I try hard to take care of my family like they take care of me.

Is there anything else you would like us to know?

Writing is hard, and a lot of times you feel like giving up. I was lucky enough to meet Laurie Halse Anderson in 2011, and when she found out I was a writer, she signed my book cover with “P.S. Don’t Quit!!!!”  I took it to heart, and that made the tough times easier to deal with and the great times that much more rewarding.

If you are interested in self-publishing, there’s a great blog by Lindsay Buroker that can answer a lot of your questions.  She’s very generous with the knowledge she shares and, given her success, her advice works.  You can find her at www.lindsayburoker.com. <KP: I second Kendra’s recommendation. Lindsay’s blog is one of my favorite self-publishing resources.>

Author Interview: Rebecca Demarest

rebeccademarestToday Rebecca Demarest shares the inspiration behind the very unique voice of her novels, short stories, and blog. I had the pleasure of reading samples of her work, and her style is quick-paced and authentic. She isn’t afraid to tackle tough subjects with sensitivity and realism. After immersing myself in her writing, I was incredibly impressed by how driven she and prolific she is so early in her career.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a mild mannered technical illustrator by day and an author and book designer by night. My writing ranges from literary to speculative fiction, with an emphasis on bridging the gap between those two genres. I have a B.A. in English and Psychology from Willamette University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College.

What was your inspiration for your novels, Undeliverable and Mark of the Storyteller?

CaptureUndeliverable was inspired by a random news story I heard talking about this mysterious Lost Letters Office—now the Mail Recovery Center—in the United States Postal Service. I was intrigued, and started digging into its history and its current operations. That was much harder than it would seem because no one at the Center is actually allowed to speak to civilians about anything and their monthly auctions are actually rather secretive (I was nearly arrested for taking pictures). But once I had a sense of what the Center did on a day-to-day basis, I started contemplating what kind of story could happen there, what kind of people would be drawn to it. After a couple years of research and free-writing, Ben slowly came into focus and his story took shape. A lot of the details of the characters themselves came from myself, my family, and my friends, which helped to make them real to me.

As for Mark of the Storyteller, this was actually inspired by my senior thesis class at Willamette University. It was a fantastic class about Grimm’s Fairy Tales and we were given the opportunity to either do a research paper on the tales or create our own unique re-interpretation of them. I leaped at the chance to do a creative English thesis as I was already weighed down with a research thesis in Psychology, and wrote a short story that eventually became the villain interview section at the beginning of Mark. The basic concept I had wanted to address was ‘What happens when the villain isn’t who we think it is, but is instead the one person we’re supposed to root for? And why do we have those misperceptions?’ Let me tell you, creating the world that all these characters live in and wreaking havoc on the stories and characters we know well was an immense amount of fun.

Where do you go for inspiration when you’re feeling blocked?

News sites, actually. Articles about bleeding glaciers, people hijacking barrels of maple syrup, or the fact that the ancient Egyptians made jewelry out of meteorites can all give my imagination a boost. Also, turning off your music and actually paying attention to the world around you while you walk, including eavesdropping on your fellow commuters, can provide some outlandish leads.

What’s the strangest thing that has ever inspired you?

The absolute strangest thing was an article about a lithopedion, or stone baby. A lithopedion is the result of an ectopic pregnancy that self terminates after the 14th week and the mother’s body calcifies the fetus to prevent it from causing harm to the mother. I couldn’t help it, the idea just grabbed hold of my brain and I couldn’t shake it, so I’ve got a short story in the works centering around this phenomenon.

Tell us about an inspirational figure in your life.

While I have found many of my writing instructors and friends inspirational, the woman who is the most inspirational would have to be my mother. She has not led the easiest of lives and has dealt with a series of genetic and environmentally induced health problems, many of which required surgery and extensive recoveries. But through all of this, she has never lost her sense of adventure, determination, or love. In fact, she started her first business just a couple years ago as a professional storyteller and has reached her five year goals, four years early. If she can deal with all of the health issues, two kids, and a husband who traveled extensively for work and come out the other side with enough energy to devote to a whole new career, then I can do anything.

What are some books in your genre that have inspired you?

This is a really hard question to answer because I read a lot of books each year. In the literary genre, I find the work of George Saunders, Scott Nadelson, Steve Yarbrough, Tom Perotta, and a handful of others to be greatly inspiring, mostly modern literary authors. In the speculative fiction genre, I draw a lot of inspiration from Tamora Pierce, Robert A. Heinlein, Patricia C. Wrede, Jasper Fforde, and Terry Pratchett.

What are some words that you live by?

Be and not seem. This is one of Emerson’s philosophies, and I’ve had it on my wall as long as I can remember. In my life and in my writing I try to stay true to myself and my ideals. Do not pretend you are a good person, let your work speak for itself. Do not pretend you are competent, actually go out and do the hard work to make it true.

Is there anything else you would like us to know?

I’ll be doing an Indiegogo campaign in November to help defray the last editing and marketing costs for Undeliverable, which will be launching in March of 2014. If you’d like to learn more about me or my writing, drop by my website at http://rebeccaademarest.com or follow me on Twitter @RebeccaDemarest.