“Arch Enemies” reissued

My first novel was ARCH ENEMIES. It was released by Double Dragon 13 years ago and got some pretty good reviews.

But I have to admit — I didn’t really know what I was doing. ARCH ENEMIES was a young adult fantasy novel featuring a teenage bard. It was over 130,000 words, when YA novels are supposed to be no more than 70,000.


So, as the rights reverted to me, I decided to do what all authors want to do: Make it better! I added some scenes that had been deleted (yeah, it was originally even longer), moved scenes around, made it so that there wasn’t so much exposition early on, changed a few words here and there, and split it in two at the perfect point. Viola! Two young adult novels, each under 70,000 words.

I had the idea for the book when I got tired of the old cliche of the “Chosen One” in fantasy, where some kid finds out they’re special and by the end of the book, is the world’s greatest wizard or swordfighter and saves the day. “What if they got the wrong guy?” I wondered.

So this series involves Terin Ostler, who matches the description of the Chosen One in a prophecy and is told that only he can prevent the evil gryphons from escaping from the magical Arch, dooming everyone.

Here’s how my new publisher (Fantastic Books) explains it in their press release:

He is the chosen one.
Chosen for what?
No one will tell him.
Chosen by whom?
No one knows.
Chosen for a good reason?
Even that is open to debate.

When you’re a young bard on the road, and an 847-year-old prophecy hurls these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at you, life is going to get very uncomfortable very quickly.

Terin Ostler was living a happily anonymous life when two squires grabbed him out of a tavern and brought him before the Duke of Ashbury. Told that he was the object of a prophecy—but that no one would tell him what the prophecy says—he is forced onto a quest in which his life will be threatened by the enemies of the Duke, and by the Duke’s allies. His quest is to save the world from an apocalyptic war, which started nine centuries ago, and seems to be on pause. Terin Ostler is a man on the run… if only he could figure out where he’s going.

Reviewers comment often on the surprises and twists in the plot, and I hope you will want to check it out for yourself. The books are available as paperbacks and through kindle and nook. More details and reviews can be found on their specific pages here:

Terin Ostler and the Arch Enemies

Terin Ostler and the War of the Words

Coming soon is the reissue of the third book in the series, Terin Ostler and the Axes of Evil.

It’s a Wonderful Death!

A brave knight breaks her vows to fight against a lunatic king calling himself “the Doomsayer” and ends up dealing with unreliable henchmen, political assassins, and a sarcastic disembodied head in a bag. Can she and her friends save the Hidden Kingdom from an unstoppable foe before her prophesied death?itsawonderfuldeath-510

IT’S A WONDERFUL DEATH is a stand-alone novel in the shared fantasy world of Fortannis. The story takes place after my novels ARCH ENEMIES and THE AXES OF EVIL and features Terin Ostler and the squires from those stories. However, you do not have to have read those books (or any of the stories in the various TALES OF FORTANNIS anthologies) to enjoy this book.

It was written by Derek Beebe and edited by me … and by editing, I don’t mean proofreading. I did an editor’s job as I have discussed in this blog before! So I’m really happy with the result and hope you will be, too.

Zachary Didur from Random Chatter magazine had this to say:

“Simultaneously epic and hilarious, IT’S A WONDERFUL DEATH tells a fast-paced story with a ton of heart. It focuses on a handful of characters and really makes you fall in love with them. Nevertheless, Beebe isn’t afraid to ramp up the action to 11 and deliver massive fantasy set-pieces.

Even though the book deals with some very dark subject matter at times, the tone was kept light by clever dialogue and moments of real levity. It never quite becomes a straight up comedy or farce but instead deftly toes the line, and in the end is an enjoyable epic fantasy story.”

So if you’re a fan of my earlier fantasy novels and want to know what happens to those characters later, please check this out! It’s available in Paperback, E-book , Kindle  and iBook !

Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author A. J. Hartley

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing NY Times Bestselling Author A.J. Hartley today! A.J. is the international bestselling author of a dozen novels including the mystery/thrillers such as THE MASK OF ATREUS, young adult fantasies like ACT OF WILL, and children’s fantasies like DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT (which won SIBA’s best YA novel of 2012). Hartley With David Hewson he has written two adaptations of Shakespeare plays as Game of Thrones-esque epic thrillers, the first of which was MACBETH, A NOVEL (audio edition voiced by Alan Cumming), and HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. When he’s not writing, A. J. is UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Professor of Shakespeare.

A.J., I just finished reading ACT OF WILL and enjoyed it tremendously! Like my own ARCH ENEMIES, it is a first-person high fantasy story with a punnish title about a cowardly young entertainer with a sarcastic voice who gets thrown into an adventure against his will — so you can see why it appeals to me. (The stories otherwise have nothing in common plot-wise.) What inspired you to write ACT OF WILL?

A.J. HARTLEY: I grew up reading high fantasy—Tolkien, Le Guin, Lewis, and the like — and loved it all, but as my reading tastes expanded, I started to crave fantasy which was rooted in some version of reality and didn’t take itself too seriously. I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett because I think he proves that fantasy with a comic edge needn’t be “light” and can be as serious as more obviously ponderous works. I like that. I’ve always been a devotee of writing which is fun, outrageously populist, deliberately and self-consciously “genre” but still rich and complex and layered. Like Shakespeare, a master genre writer if ever there was one. ACT OF WILL grew out of many of these impulses: high fantasy with an attitude and a strong sense of character voice, swords and sorcery with a little Salinger thrown in.

VENTRELLA: It seems to have gone through a number of different printings with different publishers. Can you share that story with us?

HARTLEY: From the first time I submitted the manuscript, I ran into the familiar problem of publishers saying something like “we love it, but we don’t know what it is.” In other words, it was considered a hybrid in terms of genre. They didn’t know what shelf to put it on. It took me twenty years to sell it. Literally. By then the market had evolved so that smart-mouth heroes and a pointed absence of dwarves and elves were no longer considered antithetical to fantasy.

Even so, when the book came out from Tor, people weren’t sure how to market it. The original hardback cover (which I actually really liked) didn’t look like a fantasy novel at all, and it certainly didn’t suggest its young adult protagonist. Both novels (ACT OF WILL was followed by WILL POWER) were very well reviewed (the second book made Kirkus Top ten for the year –- and Kirkus are notoriously hard to please!) but they didn’t really sell. ActofWill

When they went into paperback, Tor went with more conventional fantasy style covers, but that didn’t solve the problem. Simply put, people who read them liked them, but not enough people read them. They eventually went out of print and I self-published them with the current, more aggressively YA covers. Interestingly, these covers (stylishly designed by a wonderful designer called Asha Hossain) have really touched a chord with readers and book sellers. They play up the drama of the stories, rather than the slightly tongue in cheek tone, but they fit the books very well indeed.

VENTRELLA: ACT OF WILL takes place in a sort of alternate middle ages, in that there are some things that are definitely relatable to the real medieval world (the way women were treated, men playing female parts in plays, etc.) yet without using any real places (and of course, adding some magic to it). How did you decide what to use and what not to use? In other words, how did you go about developing the world?

HARTLEY: To be honest, Michael, I didn’t. I just made it up as I went along, doing remarkably little of the kind of systematic world building I would do now. The world of the books is an odd mixture of my historical work as a Shakespearean, my travels all over the world (there are moments which — at least to me — evoke India, for example, where I had been right before the final version came into focus), and the voice is clearly modern, without being so contemporary that it would date quickly. What the world contains and doesn’t was determined by the story and the character, particularly the voice of the character.

VENTRELLA: What makes a novel Young Adult? When writing one, how do you change your style (if at all)?

HARTLEY: Most importantly, it’s about the age of the protagonist, and therefore about confronting adulthood in all its aspects. Beyond that, a young adult novel can do anything you might do in an adult novel. YA is defined by the age of the readership rather than by genre, of course, which means that there’s a lot of different kinds of stories within the bracket. Some are virtually indistinguishable from a middle grades novel, while others push the envelope as far as possible in matters of sex, violence, subject matter and vocabulary. So long as you are consistent and clear from the outset as to what you are writing, you can do pretty much what you want. For me, style has less to do with age group as it is to do with the sub genre or style of the story and I never consciously self-censer or simplify.

VENTRELLA: What are your upcoming projects?

HARTLEY: My next publication will be the HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (co-written with David Hewson) performed by Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies) which comes out May 20th. I think that will get a lot of attention. hamlet-cover-300x300 After that, I’m not sure. I’m mid stream on a couple of YA projects, but they aren’t done yet.

VENTRELLA: Of which of your fiction books are you most proud and why?

HARTLEY: This will sound like a dodge, but it’s not. I’m always proud of my work when I first finish it and wouldn’t want it published if I wasn’t, so each project tends to have a special place in my head/heart. Each book has something about it I’m proud of. In ACT OF WILL, it’s voice. In WILL POWER it’s about pulling off a socio-political critique of the genre from within.

VENTRELLA: What should someone read first if they want to get to know your work?

HARTLEY: Depends what they like. If they like YA or adult fantasy, ACT OF WILL. For something a little more Harry Potter-esque, I’d recommend DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT. For historically rooted thrillers, MASK OF ATREUS. For Shakespeare fans, the Macbeth or Hamlet.

VENTRELLA: I see from your CV that you were studying for your doctorate at Boston University around the same time I was graduating from law school and being a public defender there. Maybe we even rode the T together from Brighton. Why did you leave?

HARTLEY: I left after completing my Ph.D and getting my first academic job in Georgia.

VENTRELLA: Much of your work is scholarly. How have you found your styles compare when writing fiction and nonfiction?

HARTLEY: Apples and oranges. There may be a little bleed over in terms of ideas which inform both, but academic writing is an entirely different beast, from writing fiction. Scholarly books are much slower to produce for me, much cagier, much more research-driven and hyper aware of what other people have said. I can do the first draft of a novel in two months. My performance history of Julius Caesar took me almost six years.

VENTRELLA: I’ve always wanted to ask a Shakespeare expert this: Of the hundreds of Shakespeare movies that have been released, which one(s) is/are your favorite(s)? And which just made you scream at how terrible they were?

HARTLEY: I can usually find something of value in most half-way competent films or stagings because I’m looking to be shown something new from a production, not a “correct” interpretation of the play, which I don’t believe exists. We do theatre/film to generate a new art object which grows out of the (necessarily partial) play text, not to somehow broadcast the original in some kind of unmediated way. DarwenArkwrightmedium That’s aid, I do, of course, have preferences. Of recent efforts, I like the Loncraine Richard III with Ian McKellan as an early twentieth century fascist, Branaugh’s Henry V, the Goold Macbeth with Patrick Stewart as a Stalinist tyrant, the filmed stage version of Greg Doran’s Hamlet starring David Tennant, and Joss Whedon’s wonderfully intimate Much Ado.

VENTRELLA: How do you deal with the conspiracy nuts who claim Shakespeare never wrote his plays?

HARTLEY: Impatiently.

VENTRELLA: Shakespeare is often cited by authors who point out that what makes a good story is not originality, but the way the story is told. Do you agree?

HARTLEY: Well, it’s sort of a false binary, isn’t it? Shakespeare didn’t generally originate plots, but the stories have his unmistakable stamp which goes beyond sentence-level utterance. I think he proves that a gifted author can own and refresh a story people thought they knew

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

HARTLEY: Hmmm… I believe that writing is generally a fairly self-selecting process, in that you need to love stories and words and work to be good at it, but I see plenty of writing from people who have been at it a while which isn’t that good, so no, I don’t believe anyone can do it. There’s a lot you can learn—from classes, from studying other people’s work, and from just doing it—and I think that most people can achieve a basic competence in getting a story down coherently. But writing really well, with power and subtlety, with an eye for character and an ear for voice? No. I don’t think that can simply be learned by anyone.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

HARTLEY: I think that’s a genre question. Most people who read thrillers and fantasy novels want big drama and larger than life characters which take them out of their conventional reality. For people who read realist literary fiction, generally that’s not true. I like something in between the two.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

HARTLEY: I outline briefly and loosely — 10-15 pages that sets up the story, main characters, world, key scenes. The book, however, is in the details. Execution is all. atradus But the outline helps me to start with a clear sense of what the book is going to be so that I don’t wander for fifty pages trying to figure out what the story is, what drives it. You need a special gift for self-denying and brutal editing to write without an outline, I think, and most writers don’t have it. It can take me months, even years, to see what a book needs in terms of cutting. Outlines help get me there faster.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating a plot first, a character first, or a setting first? What gets your story idea going?

HARTLEY: Varies from book to book. ACT OF WILL, for instance, began with character voice. Plot came later. MASK OF ATREUS began with two intersecting plot ideas. DARWEN began with a way of reinventing the cross-over-into-a-fantasy-world I first encountered in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. WILL POWER came from an idea about what I found frustrating about some conventional fantasy…

VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?

HARTLEY: Usually, it means, write what you value, what you want to read, what you care about. Then it means, make sure you know what you need to pull it off.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to avoid “info dumps”?

HARTLEY: Cut them out and then find ways to reveal the information in another way! Unhelpful, I know. I think it helps to think of how movies handle the problem, usually visually.

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?

HARTLEY: I’ve never been a short story writer. I’ve done a few recently, but I think it’s a very different skill from writing novels, and for the most part I don’t they necessarily transfer that helpfully. If you want to be a novelist, write novels.

VENTRELLA: Do you think short stories are harder to write than novels?

For me they are, to do them well as genre fiction. They are, paradoxically, easier to pull off as literary fiction, I think, because they don’t have to have the pesky necessity of plot and event. Most genre short stories read—to me—like unfinished novels or, worse, mere episodes.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you have to people trying to find an agent?

HARTLEY: Write a really good book. Tears-of-the-Jaguar-cover-199x300

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

HARTLEY: Badly. Minimally. Irritably.

VENTRELLA: We’ve met at a few science fiction conventions. Do you find attending these to be a useful activity?

HARTLEY: I do, and find them useful to a point. They can help you answer real questions about the craft and the business, but their real value is in making you feel part of a community. Writing can be very isolating, and it is good to know other people are in the same boat. And sometimes they can produce connections which are directly useful. BUT, some people treat the discourse around writing as a substitute for writing itself. It’s not. Never will be.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

HARTLEY: It can be a very useful tool for people who already have a fan base, or for people who just want to make their work available but aren’t looking to make a lot of money off it. Some people do make money, of course, but I don’t think they are representative and for many the riches some self-pub promoters tout will never materialize. I also think self-publishing requires a degree of self-promotion most people are not good at, and which takes time away from the development and production of their actual craft: writing. Self-publishing can be a nice extra string to your bow, or a way to find an outlet as you work, but I would still recommend traditional publishing to most writers. Sometimes—not always, of course—but perhaps more often than we usually admit, rejection from publishers is indicative of the fact that the work isn’t ready. Publishing it in any form can do you more harm than good in the long term. I wrote lots of books that were rejected before I had one accepted, and I thank the stars that I didn’t opt to self-publish them. I might not have been able to see it at the time, but I can now. They weren’t ready. They weren’t good enough.

Ravencon 2012

Ravencon 2012

“As You Know, Bob…”

“As you know, Bob, the CloneMaster 3000 is powered by nuclear energy and is controlled by this switch over here.”

Don’t you just hate it when that scene appears? When a character explains to another character something that the second character already knows, merely as a way to get the information to the reader?

Imagine if we did this in real life. “As you know, Bob, this car we’re driving is powered by gasoline and controlled by this wheel before me.”

This is known as the “Info Dump.” It appears in many forms — from bulky prologues to long, technical paragraphs, to the “As you know, Bob” reveal. It is also something that should be avoided as much as possible, for obvious reasons.

First, you need to examine whether the information is even needed. Too many writers have this entire world in their head, and have spent many hours developing characters and places and back-history. They feel that all this must be shared, because otherwise, all that work was for nothing.

These authors are called “Self-Published.”

OK, that was snarky. There are indeed some very good self-published authors, but you see my point. These authors are wrong. All that background is very important for creating a believable work, but most of it should never find its way into the final draft. That stuff is for you.

Let’s assume your reader is smart. After all, he or she is reading, which already places them above the majority of the population. They can probably figure out what’s going on a lot of the time without it being explained in detail.

But there are definitely times you need to get necessary information to the reader. Find a way to drop it into the story unobtrusively. “The phone rang just as the Professor was readjusting the nuclear generator.”

The most common way to reveal the information that is needed is to have a secondary character. “As you don’t know, Bob…”

For instance, there’s the “Watson” technique. “Holmes, what does this mean?” A sidekick who needs the information to continue the adventure provides an excuse for the protagonist to dump the info. Done well, this can work great. The secondary character can be given only the bare minimum information or even the wrong information, yet provide enough for the reader to understand what is happening.

Then there’s the “Professor Exposition” technique. This one gets used a lot on TV and in movies, it seems to me. This is where the characters go to a specific person in order to have the plot explained to them. “Professor Exposition! We’re run across a hideous monster that eats bicycles and farts roses!” “Hmmm, let me check my Library of Deep Tomes. Ah! Here we are…” Sometimes you need to do this, but unless the Professor is one of the main recurring characters (like Giles on “Buffy”), it can seem forced.

Then there’s the “Fish Out of Water”. This is what I used for my two novels, ARCH ENEMIES and THE AXES OF EVIL (as well as the upcoming BLOODSUCKERS). The protagonist is placed in a new situation and must be educated by others.

For instance, in the high fantasy ARCH ENEMIES, young Terin Ostler has run away from home to become a bard. He is grabbed and brought before the Duke and told he fits the description of the Chosen One written of in the prophecy. (As it turns out, he’s not the Chosen One, but everyone thinks he is. Hijinks ensue. And deaths.) Anyway, he’s thrown into the adventure without knowing what he is supposed to do. He doesn’t know how to wield a weapon or cast a spell.

The prophecy involves keeping a mystical Arch closed to hold the imprisoned evil within. A magic ritual had been performed over 800 years previously and the magic is weakening.

Before I started writing, I knew the history of the lands, the way magic worked in the world, and what the ritual required.

I needed Terin to know certain things in order for the thrilling climactic scene to work, but he didn’t need to know everything. And what he did need to know, he didn’t need to know all at once.

His traveling companions are two squires (who have to protect him from the treasonous Duke’s men as well as the enemies who want to keep the prophecy from being completed). While on the run, the squires find time to explain certain things to Tern and give him lessons on magic. The three of them discover clues along the way. Some of the things they learn are absolutely incorrect. And there are some things that Terin never discovers until it is much too late for him (but not for the reader).

There are huge amounts of information that never made it into the book. And that’s a good thing. It just wasn’t needed in order to tell this story.

So avoid the Dreaded Info Dump, the pause that bites, the clause that sucks. Give as little as needed, in small doses, and in ways that are unobtrusive.

The bottom line is always this: Don’t Be Boring!

Prologues: The Devil’s Work

Prologues: Do editors really hate them?

Recently, at a writer’s discussion, an aspiring author discussed his fantasy novel. It started with a prologue that explained something important that happened fifty years prior to the action that begins the first chapter.

I advised him to cut it and work that information into the book in other ways. I dislike prologues.

Too often, especially in science fiction and fantasy books, authors use a prologue to explain the world and set the scene. Instead of jumping into the story, we get a long history lesson, full of names and places we’ll instantly forget, many of which never appear again in the book.

Bor – ring.

Let us find out about that background when it’s needed. Introduce it through dialogue instead of in some “info dump.” Trust your readers.

You’ll probably find that most of the information you created isn’t really needed for the story.

Writing a background history is important — I encourage all authors writing to develop their worlds fully. It will aid you greatly in developing your characters’ personalities. However, your reader doesn’t need all that information.

ARCH ENEMIES and THE AXES OF EVIL take place in a fantasy world with a detailed history. The magic in this world works in a specific way. Terin, the teenager who gets pulled into the adventure against his will, learns what history and magic he needs to know as he progresses through the story. Amazingly enough, that’s exactly the amount the reader needs in order to follow the story and get excited about its plot.

None of the rest of that grand world history is in the book other than through passing comments. It’s not needed to tell the story.

Not all prologues are evil. Just unnecessary ones. For instance, in a tale about a haunted house, a short prologue describing the murder that took place there a hundred years ago might work just fine. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a prologue that sets the story. But then, why not just name that “Chapter One”?

Here’s my entire first chapter for my upcoming novel BLOODSUCKERS, about a vampire who runs for President (disclaimer: This could change by the time of publication):

Norman Mark was a politician with skeletons in his closet.


I could have called that the prologue, because it sets up the feel of the book in a concise way while not actually starting the plot at all. In fact, Norman Mark is not even the main character.

I have no problem with an introductory opening like that — and neither do editors. There are plenty of examples of books that begin this way.

Really, what I hate (and what editors hate) are info dumps — where the author needs the reader to understand certain things and gives a lesson instead of tells a story.

I’m against those at any point in the book, but especially in the beginning. Your opening words need to grab the reader, and a history lesson doesn’t do it.

It’s the Characters, Stupid

As I write this, the last Harry Potter movie just opened. Harry Potter has made writer Jo Rowlings one of the richest people in the world, and deservedly so.

But why? People have written novels about kids going to magic schools before. Many of the plots are similar to standard fantasy fare, and in some cases even quite predictable. What did she do to make it all work so well?

It boils down to something successful authors understand: A story is not about what it’s about — it’s about the characters.potter

We go back to the books (and movies) we love not because of the idea behind the story, but because of the characters.

When ARCH ENEMIES came out (my first novel) the comments that pleased me most were from readers who talked about how much they liked Terin or Darlissa — how they related to them, and saw how they changed during the course of the story. This was something I specifically set out to accomplish: not just to create believable characters who didn’t act cliche, but also to remember that no matter how clever my plotline was, no matter how surprising my twist ending, it would mean nothing if the reader didn’t care about the characters.

At writers’ conferences and writing groups I’ve attended over the years, I’ve listened to and read works by aspiring authors that I know will never make it unless they realize this point. They have stories about monsters and gadgets and world-shaking events and the characters are secondary. The cleverest idea in the world won’t matter if no one cares what happens to your boring, uninteresting, or cliched hero.

Seriously, think about books you may have stopped reading because you became bored. Think about all those special effects movies that you watch once and never want to see again. I am willing to bet that there is one thing these have in common, and that is uninteresting characters.

I could go on and on — Entire books have been written about how to create believable characters in fiction, but it all boils down to you, the writer, remembering that the characters are the most important element of your story.

So create those characters that are larger than life. They should say clever things, perform amazing acts of bravery, never give up. They should be people we want to read about. (See my last blog on this subject!)

At the same time, they should have definite weaknesses. They should make mistakes, lose their temper, and act like real people act. They don’t have to be likable, just interesting! Sherlock Holmes has many character flaws, but he’s a fascinating character, isn’t he?

Note that I am not limiting this to your protagonist. Too often, writers create a likable good guy hero and then place that person against a “bad guy” who apparently exists only to do bad things. Instead, you should remember that your antagonist is the protagonist in his or her own story. Unless that character is insane in some way, they do not consider themselves evil. Think through their motivations, and give them good attributes to prevent them from being cliched and predictable.

Just always remember: Your story is about characters.


Jeremy Wembley grabbed the broom by the handle. He took forceful steps toward the back of the room where Patrick stood unaware. Patrick paid no notice as Jeremy shortened the distance between them, and seemed completely oblivious to Jeremy’s presence.

Jeremy raised the broom just as Patrick turned around.

“I’ll sweep the stockroom now, Mr. Brenner,” he said.

Jeremy knew that if he continued to impress his boss, it would not be long before he could get that promotion—and soon after, get the real reward he desired: night manager of the Fredricksburg 7-11 on West Norton Avenue.

Unless his arch-nemesis, that kiss-up Eric Stoher got there first…

All the elements are there. There is a goal the main character wishes to reach, and an obstacle that can prevent him. There is character development and conflict.

But, you know, who gives a flying you-know-what?

The fact of the matter is that we want to read stories about people and events that are larger than life. We want to read about heroes to do great things, make clever comments, overcome great odds.

This is nothing new. The ancient Greeks didn’t do plays about the guy who cleaned the stables.

And I am no exception. My books have been about wars and world-shaping events and the heroes whose presence made a difference.

However, at the same time, I have consciously avoided the standard hero that is a mainstay of much of fiction (and especially fantasy). You know the type – the Chosen One from Prophecy who is the seventh son of the seventh son who is the only one who can wield the magic sword Noonah because he has surplus midichlorians and blah blah blah. Maybe this hero starts off the book as a nobody, but he or she ends up as the World’s Greatest Swordsman or Most Powerful Wizard by the end and thus, being superior to us lowly humans, saves the day.

In my two published novels (ARCH ENEMIES and THE AXES OF EVIL) and in a short story in the just released anthology TALES OF FORTANNIS: A BARD’S EYE VIEW, my main character is a teenager named Terin. His problem is that, thanks to a mistake, everyone thinks he’s the Chosen One Who Can Save The Day.

By the end of ARCH ENEMIES, Terin is still running when a fight breaks out and still can barely cast a minor spell. So what makes him the hero?

To me, what makes a real hero is someone who doesn’t have all those skills and yet, through bravery and intelligence, rises above what is expected and does the extraordinary. Terin is the hero because he figures out a solution – he finds a way to solve the problem that is more than merely “hitting the bad guy with the weapon until he falls down.”

I like these kinds of heroes because they remind us that we all can be heroes sometimes.

Oh, I don’t mean to knock down the more traditional heroes: I love Batman and Luke Skywalker as much as the next fan. But when I create a hero for my stories, they tend to be average people put into extraordinary circumstances who must then find something special within themselves to make things right.

In the sequel THE AXES OF EVIL, people are now thoroughly convinced that Terin has wondrous powers, even though he doesn’t. Now he’s confronted with a trio of barbarian prophecies which, he later discovers, contradict each other. On top of this, his liege wants him to get all the barbarians off his land, and a bunch of silly goblins think Terin’s the one who will lead them to victory over the evil humans who oppress them.

These are problems that cannot be resolved by being the biggest fighter. Terin solves them all by the end of the book through his cleverness and resourcefulness, and by being brave and willing to risk it all.

That, to me, is very admirable. It’s what I admire about my real life heroes (Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King, to name two). And it’s the kind of hero I like writing about, because I can identify with him and understand his fears and worries.

The Axes of Evil

One barbarian prophecy says the legendary hero Bishortu will unite the three warring tribes. Another tribe has a prophecy that directly contradicts this, and they want Bishortu dead. And a third tribe, which may or may not be comprised of werewolves, refuses to let anyone know what their prophecy says. Meanwhile, the Duke on whose land the barbarians sit wants them all gone.

In the middle of all of this is squire Terin Ostler, who has been mistakenly identified as the great Bishortu. Under the Duke’s orders to get rid of the barbarians, he heads to their lands without the slightest idea of what to do.

Along the way, he has to avoid assassins, werewolves, lovesick barbarian princesses, and confused goblins while attempting to figure out the meaning of the magical and mysterious Wretched Axes. Nobody said being a hero would be easy.

I am so pleased to announce that my second novel THE AXES OF EVIL is now available.

I’m quite proud of it and think it’s a great improvement over the first. Partially this is due to experience (the more you write the better you should get), a good editor (as discussed in a previous blog entry) and paying attention to good advice from professional writers.

Fantasy author Gregory Frost likens it to Christopher Stasheff’s work. I read THE WARLOCK IN SPITE OF HIMSELF about 30 years ago and remember only that it was a fun adventure about a reluctant hero, and I am pleased with the comparison! (I hope I don’t go to re-read it and find plot parallels, because then I’ll be quite upset.)

“Humor, danger and a twisted tangle of unlikely prophecies make for a page-turning adventure,” said Gail Z. Martin, author of THE CHRONICLES OF THE NECROMANCER series. Award winning author Jonathan Maberry (THE DRAGON FACTORY) said it’s “a taut nail-biter of a thriller. Edgy, funny and dark.”

Readers of THE AXES OF EVIL should have an exciting ride, with non-stop action, humor, and unexpected plot twists. (And no, you don’t have to have read ARCH ENEMIES to enjoy this one.)

Unlike many fantasy heroes, Terin is not “the chosen one” or someone with super powers or special skills. Instead, he constantly finds himself thrown into terrible situations and finds solutions by being brave, honest, and resourceful. I always found myself identifying with average people performing extraordinary feats — to me, those are the real heroes.

The purpose of this blog is not only to allow me to interview professionals and learn from them, but also to promote my own work. (Any similar writer who says otherwise is probably not being very honest with himself or herself.) If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy THE AXES OF EVIL. As an aspiring writer, I very much appreciate (and need) your support. I hope you will give it a try and post your comments to Amazon and other booksellers. I am always anxious to receive constructive feedback, positive or negative — I can always improve, after all, so your comments are valuable.

You can order the paperback here.

You can download the ebook here.

You can download the kindle version here.

And you can join my Facebook fan group here.

Thanks for the indulgence. Next week, back to interviews!

Get a Good Editor!

One of the hardest things for creative people to do is to look at their own work objectively.

The final edits on my second novel (THE AXES OF EVIL) are now complete, and I am very grateful that I had an excellent editor this time to help me out. J. Thomas Ross, whose blog you should all be reading, tore apart the manuscript and now the book is 100% better.

Some of the edits were based on grammatical errors and phrasing, but any good editor should point those things out. No, what made the difference was having an editor who also pointed out exposition holes and other problems.

I can clearly see a situation in my head as I am writing it, but that doesn’t mean I have explained it well enough for someone else.

Here’s an example: In AXES, there is a scene where Terin, the main character, is trying to sneak into a barbarian village. He has obtained the aid of some rather incompetent goblins, and they are hiding in a food storage shed. Peeking out the window, they observe the scene and make their plans. This is important. A reader needs to understand the layout to not only get what is happening but also to build the tension and suspense as Terin leaves the building and heads toward the prison where his friends are being held.

I thought my description was just fine, but Judy (my editor) couldn’t see it. “Doesn’t the fence get in the way?” she’d ask. “And I thought the jail was the big structure at the end of the clearing.” I eventually emailed her a quick map of the town as I saw it, and that assisted in the rewriting. Hopefully no readers will be confused now.

Another problem the original manuscript had was mentioning things that made no sense unless you had read the previous book in the series. Judy had not read ARCH ENEMIES, and this assisted me greatly, as I wanted THE AXES OF EVIL to be a stand-alone novel. We looked at the references and eliminated the ones that were irrelevant to the plot of AXES and explained the ones that were. In doing so, I tried as much as possible not to give away all of the plot to ARCH ENEMIES — what’s the fun in that? Still, some spoilers were unavoidable and necessary.

Having someone edit your work is tremendously important. If you’re receiving many rejection letters, that may just be the reason why. I have always had family and friends read my manuscripts before submitting them, but even then they may not catch everything. Someone who does this at least semi-professionally will make all the difference.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

One of my blog readers (Stop laughing! Seriously, I do have some!) said that he appreciated the focus of this blog — helping aspiring writers with advice and examples — but wanted to know more basic information. For instance, he asked, how do I get ideas?

I recall reading somewhere that same question being asked of Isaac Asimov who responded with “How do you not get ideas?”

Most of the times ideas come from a “what if” scenario, especially when you’re writing speculative fiction. Everyone’s played “what if”. My writing has followed that pattern.

I read a lot of fantasy fiction. A common thread in many of these is The Special One who has some prophecy to fulfill and goes through a rigorous training in order to meet their destiny. Think of “Star Wars” for instance. With ARCH ENEMIES, I began with “What if they got the wrong guy? What if he was suddenly thrown into the adventure and didn’t have all those years of training and preparation?”writing

With THE AXES OF EVIL (the sequel, due out early 2010), I asked “What if he was faced with three prophecies which contradict each other and had to solve all three?”

Those were just the starting points, of course, because then the fun was throwing in the monkey wrenches. I love plot twists and turns and surprising my readers. Usually, that just involves looking at my outline and saying “Things are going smoothly in this part. What can I do to mess it up?”

Basically, the adventure should never be too easy and should never be predictable. I dislike books and movies where I can figure out what’s going to happen next, so I try my best to avoid cliches like the plague. (That was a joke.) My readers have told me that they really like the “Whoa! Wasn’t expecting that!” sections of my books, and the “How the heck is he going to solve this problem?” that isn’t revealed until the very last minute.

Doing that well takes preparation (which I have discussed in an earlier blog entry) because in order to work, all the clues have to be in place. Pulling something out of a hat at the last minute is a cheat and feels like one, especially if you’re writing a book with magic. I’ve seen too many movies and books where the solution is something magical: The “All you had to do was click your heels three times” ending doesn’t reward the hero in the slightest. Take Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” — the hero Prince is fighting the dragon. What an exciting battle! How does he defeat the creature? Oh, the three fairies come in and give him magic. Yawn, boring.

I like my heroes to do something special and unexpected yet completely in character. To be honest, that’s one of the hardest parts of writing, but also the most fun.

In THE AXES OF EVIL, there is a scene where a werewolf who can only be destroyed by a silver dagger through the heart must be killed. There is an elaborate plan laid out in which the the four main characters, armed with two silver daggers, attempt to accomplish this feat. But that’s too easy. Things go awry and soon Terin (the cowardly hero) gets stuck in a room full of werewolves with no weapon whatsoever. “This is great!” I thought. “This is exactly the situation I want.” Of course, it took me another month to think of a solution, but it’s much more satisfying and surprising than if there was just a great battle and the hero managed to stab his enemy.

I was recently given an assignment to write a short story “using pirates and magic.” Arrr! I love pirates! I had no idea for a story, however, so I just began thinking of typical pirate props — parrots, ships, peg legs, treasure maps and the like. Treasure maps led me to “X Marks the Spot” and being the lover of puns I am (oh, you can’t tell that from the two previous book titles?) this quickly became “X Spots the Mark.” What if the treasure map was a fake and the pirate was merely a “mark” for the scam? That began the adventure, but it didn’t lend itself to much of a story — until I brought out my monkey wrench.

Once THE AXES OF EVIL is finished with its editing (that will be the subject of another blog, I promise), I’ll begin work on BLOODSUCKERS: A VAMPIRE RUNS FOR PRESIDENT. The idea for that began when I heard someone refer to Congress as a bunch of bloodsuckers and I thought “Hey! What if….”

Bottom line: My technique is to start with the “What if”, come up with a basic story, and then throw as many unpredictable barriers in the way of my heroes as possible. This does not work for all types of fiction or all types of writers, but seems to keep me happy with my storylines.

Next week: back to interviews!

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