Monday, July 6, 2015

Chipping out of the Writer’s Block

Hello there, readers! It’s been six months since I was last up on Heroines of Fantasy, and I’d love to say I’ve been super productive during that time, finishing up my next novel, editing projects, and just otherwise moving forward on my stagnating writing career.


I did finish another draft of the never-ending novel I’ve been working on with a co-author for the last few years, and I am happy to say that it is now stalling out on my co-author’s desk rather than mine. I have almost completed edits for the lovely and talented Melissa Mickelsen’s next novel, her fantastic sequel to Nightingale (and if you haven’t read it, you should). But my own writing? The third installment of the Song series?


I have a couple of good excuses. Cancer, for one. That’s a good one! Then before my treatment fully concluded, I went back to work teaching seven classes to make ends meet. I truly did not have time for generating story. But when I completed the semester on May 22, I ran out of excuses. It was time to get down to business. I was excited to get started on outlining the next novel, and looking forward to making solid progress.

Then I opened the document. Nothing.

Next day: nothing.

And so on.

The summer started to fly by, and I panicked. Why couldn’t I write? Where were all of my ideas? I had never before experienced writer’s block to this degree. I was actually beginning to fear that I couldn’t write anymore, that I had quite literally forgotten how. On more than one occasion, I decided to just quit. Forget it, I told myself. Nobody cares about your third book, anyway.

But to my surprise, nobody quit on me. My friends kept asking me, “when is the third book coming out?” My answer, “when I figure out what to write,” made me feel even worse. I went onto Goodreads and discovered that people are continuing to read and review my books; even they are questioning where that next book is. I went from feeling insecure to trapped, and still no words would come.

At some point, I managed to sit down and plot out the beginning, middle and end in Scrivener, hoping that using a method and program I’ve never used before would help me break out of my own head. The problem, though, wasn’t ever that I didn’t have the beginning, middle and end plotted out. The problem is figuring out all that is supposed to happen in, you know, the rest of the book.

And then, magically, it happened.

While I was quilting with a friend, not thinking or talking about writing at all, an idea suddenly occurred to me. You see, all these many years, while plotting out the general path of the series, I had planned on four books. Book two, largely, was a vehicle to get to three, and three to four. But suddenly, while innocently sewing two squares of a memory quilt together, I realized that I could combine books three and four. The idea blew my mind.  Before I knew it, the possibilities were rolling around in my head. What if this happened, and that? How would that resolve?

The next day, I sat down to produce something for my writing group. I knew I had started this novel before (2011!), but in this iteration, I had been struggling to start with a different opening. However, time was short and I absolutely could not show up one more time without any writing! I opened the document, and was surprised to discover that the beginning was… just fine. A few revisions here and there, and it will be a fine first draft opening.

So what did I learn from this? First, writing is hard, particularly after a very long and foggy break. Like any other muscle, this one needs exercise to stay functional. Second, writing, at least for me, can’t be forced. The story needs to find its own way, and no matter of pushing and struggling on my part will make it fit into a certain prescribed pattern. Last, but probably most important, I need my readers. My friends, my writing group, my little coterie of fans—you are the reason why I do this, and you are what keeps me going.

That, and the voices in my head.

So, enough about me. Tell me, readers: what pushes you out of your writing slump?

~Kim Vandervort

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Wednesday Review: Struck

Title: Struck
Author: Clarissa Johal
Publisher: Musa Publishing (now defunct), CreateSpace
Publication date: February 2015
Genre: Paranormal/Gothic Horror
Price: $2.99 Kindle or $9.98 Paperback
Where to purchase: Amazon
Reviewed by: Cybelle Greenlaw
Description: Struck by lightning...claimed by shadows.

After a painful breakup, Gwynneth Reese moves in with her best friend and takes a job at a retirement home. She grows especially close to one resident, who dies alone the night of a terrific storm. On the way home from paying her last respects, Gwynneth is caught in another storm and is struck by lightning. She wakes in the hospital with a vague memory of being rescued by a mysterious stranger. Following her release from the hospital, the stranger visits her at will and offers Gwynneth a gift--one that will stay the hands of death. Gwynneth is uncertain whether Julian is a savior or something more sinister... for as he shares more and more of this gift, his price becomes more and more deadly.

Good morning, Everyone! Cybelle here with another Wednesday review. This week I had the pleasure of reading Struck by Clarissa Johal. I must say this was a great read, filled with suspense, humor, romance, believable characters, and downright scary moments. Gwynneth is a very realistic, down-to-earth heroine, who tries to find the best in everyone. Although emotionally vulnerable, she is far from weak and discovers her strength through her concern for others.

After surviving a lightning strike, Gwynneth begins receiving regular visits from the otherworldly stranger who rescued her, Julian. No one else can see him, but to her, he's very real and impossible to escape. He brings with him sinister, shadowy creatures that threaten to destroy anyone she cares for unless she lets him take something from her. What Julian takes, Gwynneth cannot identify, but the process is painful and creates a sense of deep loss. Through a new friendship with a mortuary beautician gifted with the ability to communicate with the recently deceased, Gwynneth begins to learn the identity of the mysterious Julian. Like her, he was once an artist, and through him, her passion for painting is reawakened. As Julian continues to use her, Gwynneth tries to protect her friends by isolating herself from them. Fortunately, her friends are persistent and loyal.

A fun aspect of the novel is the anticipation of a romance between Gwynneth and her childhood friend/roommate, Seth, a sexy man with a passion for cooking. Their mutual friend, Fenten, a charming gay man who loves Seth's skills in the kitchen, does everything he can to get them together. Along the way, the three friends encounter a number of fascinating characters and support one another in the fight against the mysterious forces attached to Gwynneth.

The book is fast paced and engaging, and I suspect most readers finish it in one sitting. While the atmosphere is dark, it is in no way gory. For readers who enjoy gothic horror and/or paranormal romance, this is a must read. I will certainly watch for more works by this author! 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Understanding Elatia

Today we have a real treat: an editor discussing one of her forthcoming books.  Elaine Daniels, of Recondite Publications dives into The Silent Slayer, a forthcoming book by Steven Beeho, and attempts to understand one of the most fearsome female characters you're likely to encounter.  

Elatia was born and raised in a nation of hunters, where a particular wood helps them to make powerful bows that women can use as easily as men. Attractive, intelligent and resourceful, she grew up with little to hold her back and much to help her advance her own desires. Unfortunately, she lacked empathy for others and developed a disdain for those around her. This grew to an arrogant cruelty. It led her to do harm to others and, when she escaped discovery, she soon wanted to do more. She thrived in being a danger in a society that radiated peace and equality. She loved to prey on the weak, she thrilled to take down the stronger. But Elatia knew there was only so much she could get away with at home before people would suspect her. Her nation was one of hunters, for that same reason they often left to wander the land and also territory beyond their borders. She set out to walk freely, hunt as she pleased and never become the victim. She went out into a world where much could threaten her, yet very soon all who knew her name were the ones to fear her. Her cruelty made her a highly effective torturer for information or persuasion. Her skill with the bow and cold, calm focus made her a deadly assassin. Her intelligence and awareness ensured she was never caught out. Elatia thrived amongst killers. She was among her own kind at last.

Despite being from Bamalia, a nation of equality, Elatia despises most of society, possessing particular disdain for those more powerful. Seeing strength as a form of power, Elatia has a penchant for torturing men; their fear guaranteeing her gratification. With her first kill under her belt by the age of sixteen, Elatia knew how to use her femininity and preyed on those who dared to find her attractive, although she also liked to ensnare the innocent and young. Coming from a race of skilled trackers, superb hunters - not to mention having the ability to survive in both grassland and woodland - Elatia honed her skills, so that by the age of twenty she began developing into something of a rare entity: a female assassin, known for willingly inflicting extreme torture on her victims. So terrifying were the tales spread about Elatia, more sought her out for hire, making her one of the top assassins, worldwide. With the mere mention of her name instilling a deathly fear, many victims beg for an imminent death rather than prolonged torture at Elatia’s hands.

“I doubt a single man in Callascino has gone to bed without checking every window and door since Elatia arrived.” He snorted in disgust. “What a name, she only feels elation when torturing someone.” 

It is her strong will and tenacious attitude, combined with deadly abilities that enable her to hold her own amongst ten of the top enforcers and assassins; the elite, a gang you would never hope to encounter. Being the only female and an attractive one at that, Elatia is aware that the rest of the elite fantasize about her and has no qualms in tormenting them. It is their fear of her and what she does that makes them abstain from taking advantage. She is also quick to use her derogatory observations to find fault with her male counterparts.

“You’re all killers and rapists, just like me, yet I’m not some cruel bitch but one helpless to her desire? Does your religion tell you that women are sluts and men can control themselves? Probably not. You think that way because it suits you, just like your other view of life is twisted.”

What sets her apart from them is that, despite her sadistic nature, Elatia never loses focus of what is expected of her and as of yet has never failed to complete a task. With a firm belief in her motto, ‘strike before they can’, Elatia is always on her guard, always aware of what might happen and, so, is always prepared. Her leader, Bane, considers her to be an expert at her craft - a true professional - and was particularly glad she agreed to join his gang rather than their enemies.

Unlike a lot of the elite, Elatia isn’t solely motivated by twisted urges, affording her greater self-control than most of her male counterparts and believes, in an unexpected moment of reflection, that because of this she would be able to walk away from her current life.

“Do you ever wonder what it would be like not to be us?” Elatia asked suddenly, looking at him, eyes still hard yet voice not full of revulsion for once.

“Yes, I think we all do. But it doesn’t appeal much, a life without fear.”

“I doubt any of us could stop. We all love it, to walk down a street and see everyone hurry out of your way, knowing they look at you only when your back is turned. It is wonderful. Yet there is also 
wondering if someone is aiming for your back, knowing all those people would cheer if you died, unable to ever really relax or risk death. Sometimes, and I mean only a few times, leaving all this and living differently appeals to me.”

“Really?” checked Rugal, yet he knew she spoke the truth, even if he wasn’t sure why. “What about your squealing girls and your cowering men?”

“Perhaps I would occasionally feed my craving. Strangely, I long to abuse the most when I abuse. Never have I gone a length of time without doing anything and felt like bursting through lack of pleasure. With self-control, I could stop. What of you?”

At first glance it is easy to dismiss Elatia as an evil piece of work, but as her story develops so does her character. At this point it appears that she can lose her permanent surliness and considers a life away from all the torture and killing. But, ever the professional, she has yet to finish the job she agreed to do and soon reverts to type.

Truly understanding Elatia may be something that never comes to fruition and whether she can relinquish her sadistic tendencies are yet to be revealed, but her multi-dimensional character is an enticing one to watch unfold in the drama in which she appears.

Elatia and excerpts featured in this post, Understanding Elatia, appear in The Silent Slayer by Steven Beeho, which is to be published by Recondite Publications, a publishing house of sci-fi, high fantasy and the downright weird, in September 2015.

This article was written by Elaine Daniels, editor of The Silent Slayer, on behalf of Recondite Publications.

Monday, June 22, 2015

And then you suddenly dig... this could be the start of something big!

Stacy Danielle Stephens is a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she majored in Secondary Education Language Arts.  Her first novel, Daybreak in Alabama, was momentarily considered by a small press known for publishing That Sort of Thing.  Her second novel, But Soon It Will Be Night, was considered by another small press which asked too much for too little.  Her three collections of stories, The Bohemian Girl and other stories, TheNothing That Is and other stories, and When So Much Is Left Undone and otherstories, are highly regarded by the disappointingly small number of people who have actually purchased them.

Those among you who know me will recall that I am not a proponent of the big idea, no offense to those who are.  I’m a big fan of Eric Berne’s “Away From a Theory” theory, in which he said that psychologists were always publishing papers titled “Toward a Theory of” one thing or another, but airline pilots never fly “toward” Montreal.  He felt that psychiatrists should get away from theories, or at least step back from their theories a little, if only to get a better look at them.
     In my first draft of this article, I had mentioned the character John Savage, of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and now I’m putting him back in because I can see where I was going with that after all.  He’d studied Shakespeare all his life, and had plenty of time for it, too.  Brother, did he have big ideas.  But he ended up hanging himself, because he could not effectively present those big ideas to either of the societies in which he had lived.
     Now, at last, we can consider Rachel Dolezal, strictly as a literary consideration, without discussing white privilege or inherent racist gobble-dee-guk.  What we want to look at is her big idea, and we don’t have to say she lied about her identity, we can call it a gift for fiction.  Frequent perms and a lot Tanfastic, and she’s everything she says she is, right?  Well, no, apparently she isn’t. 
     What went wrong?
     Her hair and makeup were impeccable, so we have to ask if, perhaps, her idea just wasn’t big enough.  Shall we suppose it would have worked better if she had claimed to be an extraterrestrial?

     It’s funny how you stare at the simulated sheet of blank paper on your flatscreen monitor and start tapping out the purest poppycock simply because it finds its way to your fingertips, and suddenly you realize why almost everyone says you’re a genius.  Rachel Dolezal’s failure is in being a real person, rather than a fictional character.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Wednesday Review: Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Title: Elysium
Author: Jennifer Marie Brissett
Publisher: Aqueduct Press
Publication Date: December 2014
Genre: Science Fiction
Price: $7.95 (ebook), $18.00 (trade paperback)
Where to Purchase: Aqueduct Press  |  Powells   |   Amazon   |   Barnes & Noble
Reviewed by: Julia Dvorin

Hello HoF readers, and happy almost summer! Julia here, with a review of Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett. This is Brissett’s first novel, and it is one of those deftly written, “challenging” reads that made me love science fiction in the first place: the kind of book where you start off thinking “huh?” and wondering what the heck is going on, and by the end you’re thinking “huh!” and pondering interesting ideas that stay with you and grow ever more nuanced as you think about them more. Though there are many familiar sci-fi tropes in the book (alien invasion; post-apocalyptic scarcity; underground cities; winged warriors; virtual worlds that substitute for the real), the non-linear, kaleidoscoping way the story is told is what makes these all come together into something really unique and satisfying.

We start off in a relatively familiar place (modern day New York) with a small set of characters (Adrianne, Antoine and Helen) involved in relatively familiar relationship problems, but then the story keeps getting stopped and reset and rerun by what seems to be some kind of computer program or AI. Each new iteration of the story has echoes of what came before it, like a digital palimpsest that is never fully scraped away and so shows through in spots.  The characters shift genders (Adrianne becomes Adrian; Antoine becomes Antoinette; Helen becomes Hector) and relationships (spouses, lovers, parent/child, siblings) and the world shifts from “normal” to one that becomes increasingly grim and bleak as it becomes clear that aliens from elsewhere have attempted to exterminate humanity and claim Earth for themselves. Certain images and thematic elements keep reappearing in the book, as if to remind us that we are re-running the same story in a different iteration.

But this is not really a story about alien invasion and post-apocalyptic human adaptations. It is mostly a story about the possibilities and permutations of love and loss, on mostly the individual level but occasionally on the societal or all-of-humanity levels. We are left wondering what—and who—is “real” and whether or not there is ever really one version of anything, be it an event, a story or a person. Or reality.

For me this book was at its strongest and most memorable when it was exploring the feelings of love and loss between the characters, in whatever form they happened to be taking at the time. The moments of true, relate-able human feelings were what pulled me through each scene, even when I didn’t at first understand what was going on with the larger story. By the end of the book I really appreciated Brissett’s skill at non-linear storytelling, and found myself more satisfied with the ending than I had anticipated (I had feared that the whole thing would just sort of bleed away into chaos, but it wrapped up in a clever way.) My only criticism really of this book was that it was, if anything, too sketchy—though I understand and appreciate why it was so, I selfishly and greedily would have really liked the book to be longer and to have even yet more iterations, so that the setting(s) and the situation(s) could have been fleshed out even more. More kaleidoscope, please!

Considering that this is a first novel published by a small press, this book has already gotten a lot of kudos and attention (nominated for the Tiptree, special citation by the Philip K. Dick award, recommended by Locus, reviewed by the LA Times Book Review, and more). I hope it gets more. If you like your science fiction chewy and thought-provoking, you will like Elysium.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Big Idea, an Evolving Notion

On my last post, I didn’t say much about who I am and what I’m doing here.  I thought it might be interesting to HoF readership to rectify that, as my thought process and experience with the genre might be different enough to interest you. (or not, but then, that’s why we have a comments section!).

My name is Gustavo, and I write a little bit of everything, but mainly science fiction and fantasy.  I don't edit magazines and I don't publish my own work - I write genre work because I enjoy exploring and sharing ideas, and often those ideas are best developed within an unreal or future setting.  Those of you who’ve read my work (or most of my blog posts) will know that I’m fascinated by big ideas and plot much more than I am by characters.

I believe that one of the most interesting things about our genre is how those big ideas have changed over the past couple of decades to reflect the evolving tastes of readers in the genre.  It’s not news to anyone that the SFF world has, thankfully, become more inclusive and diverse in that period.  But it might not be quite as obvious that the demographics have also shifted away from the general readership to a much more educated and cultured audience as well.  We have, in a very real sense, become inclusive elitists - and that shows in the topics we consume.

Since the ramifications of elitism and inclusiveness as a general issue are being discussed endlessly elsewhere (see: Hugo Awards 2015, Tempest in a Teapot Surrounding the for more details), I won’t waste your time with it, but would prefer to look at the big ideas that have come to dominate the critically accepted portion of the genre – and also to give you my take on it.

I think there are basically two major trends within the genre that have emerged within the last couple of decades.  The first has to do with diversity and the inclusion of traditionally underrepresented groups, but particularly the study of the roles of women with the genre.

The stories about women – or simply about women’s role in SFF societies – that have been told over the past four decades are often among the most powerful SF tales.  Sadly, however, only people who read widely within the genre will read the good ones, which I feel is a tragedy.

That situation arises because casual readers and non-genre fans, when researching a good women’s role story to read will be pointed towards the more extreme feminist expressions of the type, such as Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or some of Johanna Russ’ more militant work.  The only effect this can have on a casual reader is to cause them to shake their head and say: “well, the science fiction and fantasy genre is just as preachy and mediocre as I thought”, and move on.

Sad indeed, but partly our own fault for making the preachy, extreme stuff the visible flagships of a current that is artistically and conceptually far beyond the stage where aggressive agendas ruled the world.  There are so many delicate, thought-provoking pieces out there which examine the roles of women in future or fantastic societies that it would be impossible to mention them all (but I would check out many of the other authors on this blog for some examples of brilliance).  But to the larger readership out there, they are often all but invisible.

The second large current is Ecology.  This is a field in which the genre has been much luckier.  The great ecologically-driven SF classic is Dune, and it would be hard to have chosen a better representative.  The fact that modern SFF has been writing ghastly dystopian scenarios in which corporate greed destroys the environment has happily gone completely unnoticed by anyone save the tiny niche of readers who religiously consume Dozois’ Year’s Best collections.

But for such an important topic, it’s a bit sad to see that the major classic is nearly 50 years old as I write this.  That is both an indictment of the sub-par work which has followed and the self-ostracizing course of the genre as a whole (being elitist inclusionists has the effect of limiting the size of the audience even if the internal diversity of the group is improved).

So, all in all, the genre is still waiting for a renewal in these two topics: major novels that will sweep away the cobwebs and the conception of a stale, agenda-driven past.  Novels with poetry, but without preachiness that will break down the walls of the genre ghetto and reach a wider audience in the way that Game of Thrones has done for traditional medieval fantasy, or in the way that magic realism has been managing to do continuously with Garcia Márquez and Murakami. 

It’s not impossible.  Jaded teens have been reading "traditional" SFF in droves since a certain boy wizard first escaped from middle-class grayness in Privet Lane. 

We need to give them something to keep them interested when they grow up.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

REVIEW: Justice Calling: The 20-Sided Sorceress Book 1

Title: Justice Calling: The 20-Sided Sorceress Book 1
Author: Annie Bellet
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Price: $0.99 (ebook) / $8.99 (paperback)
Publisher: Doomed Muse Press
ISBN:  978-1500629724
Point of Sale: various via author’s website
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

I first heard of Annie Bellet via this year’s Hugo brouhaha.  Ms. Bellet had a short story nominated, but, in her words, tired of being “both a conscripted player and also a ball” she withdrew from consideration.  Out of frankly appreciation, I bought Book 1 of her 20-sides Sorceress series.  It’s a good book.

Jade Crow, narrator, heroine and sorceress of the title, is enjoying a quiet life in (fictional) Wylde, Idaho, gateway to “The Frank” (Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness).  Jade, who’s of Indian descent, runs a game shop there, serving the local population of fae and college kids who populate the town.  She’s also hiding out from her ex-lover, a man who personally saw Julius Ceasar get stabbed, and who wants to kill her and eat her heart.  (That’s how sorcerers get more magic.)

Then a hunky blonde man walks in and says Jade is a murderer.  Oh, and he’s a Justice – the fae’s police, judge and executioner all in one.  Thus ends Chapter 1, and starts a very entertaining if alas too-brief romp in Bellet’s entertaining world.  Jade finds herself forced to make a decision – stay and help or run – and do so quickly.

Justice Calling is really a novella – only 121 pages – but terribly entertaining.  Jade Crow is very modern, and speaks fluent Geek, as do her characters.  I found Jade’s predicament believable, as were both her and the other characters responses to same.  Jade has some very useful magical powers, but she’s not invincible, and neither is anybody else.  This was really an entertaining romp, and at least in the paper edition, there are two chapters from Book 2 of the series – which I ordered immediately.