Boring thrillers

Boring thrillers: a contradiction in terms? It’s something I’ve been promising to write about for a while now.

I like crime stories but I’m quite fussy about them. To begin with, I want to be in the position of the detective, amateur or professional, and I don’t appreciate being given the criminal’s pov, or some prologue that gives the solution away. I like being asked by the author to investigate alongside the detective and draw sensible conclusions then check them against the eventual ending. I like it when the author plays fair – no deus ex machina at the last minute and preferably no ‘well they were insane and nobody knew’. ( I read a couple like that recently.) I don’t like things that are too gruesome as we ‘watch’ though I don’t mind the investigation of gory crimes. Nor am I keen on really cosy mysteries, partly because I don’t often find them realistic; most investigation is done by professionals, either police or private detectives, not by amateurs.

Having said all that, I’m fairly careful about what I buy or borrow, and always read the blurb. I don’t read many reviews, in case of spoilers. I look at the first couple of pages and if an entire novel is clearly going to be in present tense I tend to turn away. Not a criticism because it’s clever and I know there are people who enjoy it – I’m just not one of them. It’s also a literary ‘trend’ and that’s something I don’t want in my genre reading.

However, recently I have read a number of thrillers that passed all those initial tests and then turned out to be totally uninspiring.

There are the police procedurals that are more about the procedure than the crime. I really think we can skip too much time explaining how a police station works. Even differences between different countries can be covered very briefly. Forensic science labs likewise. I want results and then the detective’s reactions to them.

Some stories have so many characters and so many threads introduced very early that my brain switches off. I have no objection to a cast of hundreds if they’re brought in gradually!

Then there are crime stories that are more about the detective than the crime. Yes, I want an interesting detective so that they come alive on the page and engage my sympathy, but I really don’t want chapter after chapter about their family or their problems till it detracts from the main plot.

That brings me to another kind of boring – boring detectives. I don’t necessarily want a superhero (in fact I don’t much like superheroes) or someone with so many quirks they aren’t real, but I do want them to stand out from the crowd. The same goes for their partner or sidekick. I’m happy with them finding romance – with each other or elsewhere – but again, it shouldn’t overwhelm the plot.

I love most Scandi-Noir on TV but have tried some Scandinavian novels and found them lacking. I think the actors and directors must bring extra life to the characters when books are used for series.

So when I give four or five stars to a crime story you’ll know it has passed all my tests. I’ll mention a few writers I love: Charlie Cochrane and RJ Scott both write mm romantic crime mysteries. KJ Charles does the same and includes magic. Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series is wonderful, as is Ian Rankin’s Rebus. My comfort reading includes Lindsey Davis’ Roman detective Falco. There are others but this isn’t a critique or review post. It’s just to explain why sometimes in my reviews I talk about thrillers being boring.

And you know, when I invest time (and money) in a thriller, the last thing I want is for it to be boring!

October’s Monsterfest ficlets – free to a good home.

Community icon courtesy of Brumeier

Every October a writing community I belong to on Dreamwidth runs a monsterfest. The mods give a number of prompts and the members can write to those, rec appropriate things they’ve read or watched or just discuss the monster/legend in question. All the prompts concern fantasy creatures of one kind or another.

I don’t always write but this year I did and my contributions – all short ficlets – are now on AO3. At least one will be expanded and turned into a novella (or even a novel) eventually.

I find writing drabbles and ficlets to prompts a very good writing exercise. Everything has to be finished quickly, must stand alone and should be accessible to readers with no prior in-depth knowledge of the topic. That’s harder to achieve than it sounds.

Some members write fanfic responses. All mine are inspired by various fandoms but are not specific. The pieces reference well known legends, and none contain any sex or violence. The last paragraph leads back here, to the short story I gave you for Halloween.

So here’s the link for anyone who’s interested.

https://archiveofourown.org/works/35085676

You can follow the link to my contribution but if you like monsters I suggest you also check out the collection because there are a lot of good stories there from this and previous years.

https://archiveofourown.org/collections/Shoobie_Monster_Fest

Free Halloween story. The Old Ones

I wrote a story for Halloween. It’s about 6k long and it’s free. You can look along the tabs for the Free Stuff page or you can just follow the link here!

The Old Ones

It’s a contemporary paranormal mm romance set in Northumberland National Park. Werewolves and ghosts against a background of heather!

My usual editor (m.a.naess) helped put right the bits I’d left in confusion. Many thanks to her! She is worth more than her weight in gold!

Then I had to get a WordPress chat person to sort out why I was failing to put the link on my page correctly. They ended up editing it for me and have left me with some study materials… I think WordPress, along with Facebook, Microsoft Office and other sites, now have so many bells and whistles it’s almost impossible for the ordinary home user to keep up!

Anyway, I’m glad I got this loaded in good time for the Halloween weekend. Enjoy!

Romance plus

I enjoy reading romance, whether it’s boy meets boy, boy meets girl or girl meets girl. I am less interested in threesomes (though I’ve written one in fanfiction). I often, however, read well written books and end up giving them only three star reviews and then forgetting them completely. I was wondering what it is that makes me faintly dissatisfied with a lot of romance books and realised I need romance plus…

Romance plus crime or mystery.

Romance plus fantasy.

Romance plus historical interest.

Romance plus external drama.

In other words, stories where the romance is central but doesn’t play the starring role throughout. Or in more ‘other words’, stories that cross genres – and for that reason can be hard to find.

The first three are fairly obvious. I have to say I love it when more than one box is ticked (e.g. historical crime). There is excitement generated by the world building or by the mystery and that adds immeasurably, for me, to the pleasure of the story.

The last perhaps needs to be unpacked. If the protagonists are going to face drama in their search for a HEA or HFN (I don’t like sad endings in fiction – they’re all too prevalent in the non-fiction I read) I need the drama to come from outside. There are plenty of romance tales that focus on the angst faced by characters who are caught up in their own self doubt or immediate family problems. I prefer it when they come up against things like natural disasters or the dangers posed by social norms within their society. I’m not so keen on war, though I do read it. It reminds me too much of war stories which, as a genre, I tend to avoid. (Again, there’s quite enough war in my non-fiction reading.)

I don’t necessarily want romance plus sex. I will happily read explicit scenes and don’t want any ‘fade to black’ at the bedroom door. However, the slightest hint that the story is in fact a vehicle for sex scenes and I’m instantly turned off. I also find, in this respect, that less is more. I like the UST that precedes the sex, and the personal development that accompanies it far more than details about the mechanics. My imagination is much more likely to work on its own, without the author spending pages explaining unnecessarily how Tab A went into Slot B. Even in books that otherwise fit my preferences, I tend to skim those parts.

This is not to say that I won’t enjoy sweet stories featuring the initial get-together or maybe the effect on one partner’s child, but as a rule these are quickly blurred in my memory into one long trail of sugar. If they’re well written they’ll get their three stars, but no more. Obviously, if a book meets my other criteria but is badly written it won’t make even the three star grade.

The romance plus books are the ones that make four or five stars in my memory and my reviews. Incidentally, five stars are usually reserved for books I would re-read. This cuts out most crime stories because they don’t work as well second time around.

There are the five star series like Seanan McGuire’s October Daye novels, KJ Charles’ Magpie Lord or Kaje Harper’s Hidden Wolves. These do have crime, which adds to their interest, but the crime is not the absolute focus; the magic is (or werewolf society in the case of Hidden Wolves). Then there are the five star standalones like Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks with enough magic to make the pages sparkle, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy with its piercing dissection of Indian society and politics. And of course Lord of the Rings, which is kind of ‘high romance’ in the mediaeval sense. My comfort reading is Georgette Heyer’s long list of Regency romances but I think it’s the focus on historical detail that makes them so memorable for me rather than the romance element. (Other comfort reading involves Pratchett’s Discworld and Lindsey Davis’ Falco series, both of which have varying degrees of romance but focus on social or historical issues.)

I’m sure some of you thoroughly enjoy the books I discard and find comfort in what I think of as saccharine reading. We all have different needs when it comes to fiction. My need is definitely for romance plus!

The Virgin and the Unicorn

The Virgin and the Unicorn is finally ‘live’!

At last! After some technical problems involving tearing my hair out (after going grey) and relying on wonderful friends, my novel The Virgin and the Unicorn is finally available on Smashwords and Amazon.

Kian, son of a lord of the manor, finds himself with an arranged marriage to a foreign prince. The prince’s sister needs a unicorn horn for her dowry and Kian wonders if his only qualification is his virginity. (Same sex relationships are illegal in his home country.) The marriage brings problems faced by most newly wed couples alongside culture clash and the royal duties that take Alair from Kian’s side. It also brings court rivalries. Eventually, the unicorns of the title appear but are not quite as expected and Kian has no intention of parting one from its magnificent horn. So can the marriage survive, and will the princess ever get her dowry?

The buy links are as follows:

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1101529

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09FB1JC63

Serious thanks and lots of love to all my FB friends especially Tal Valante, Jackie Keswick and Gynn Silva (and Gynn’s cousin).

Oh, and it appears I need to subscribe to or buy a new version of Word. I think I’ll subscribe then I’ll never have this kind of chaos again. My current copy is 2013 and was state of the art when I bought it – so I suppose in this age of built-in obsolescence it has served me well till the last couple of weeks.

A new book is imminent!

I’m about to publish my latest novel: The Virgin and the Unicorn should be available towards the end of next week. It’s a story of arranged marriage and is a standalone but I’ve left room for a sequel featuring some of the minor characters in more prominent roles.

I’ve finished all the final proofreading, the formatting and the cover. I’ve been working on the blurb which I find harder than the initial novel writing. I’m also working on marketing, which is why I’m actually giving advance information this time!

I never realised, when I started out, just how much time is taken on all the peripheral aspects of publication; time that detracts from writing and that, to be honest, I don’t enjoy. I especially don’t enjoy marketing. It requires a totally different skill set from writing, and I just don’t have it! Besides, tagging and marketing are particularly hard, because although the novel does contain one major sex scene, it’s by no means erotica.

Here’s the blurb (which might have some changed details between now and the time when it appears on Amazon or Smashwords).

“I knew you needed a unicorn and I knew I was a virgin and…”

A same-sex marriage is arranged in a Regency-style alternate universe . Can a hard working prince find wedded bliss despite his duties? Does his sister really need a unicorn horn as her dowry and if so how can she get one? Will a young foreigner ever settle in his new country and accept his own family’s attitudes? Find out how Alair and Kian cope in this tale of discovery and romance. There’s only one explicit sex scene (the wedding night) but the discussions of sex and emotion are probably only suitable for adult readers. A full length novel that explores culture clash, social expectations, the problems that beset any young couple and a new slant on some mythical creatures which turn out to be very real.

And the cover, which won’t change other than to have slightly different sizing for the different sites, is the header picture for this post.

Writing fanfic v writing original fic: some thoughts

As you know from my March reviews, I read virtually no fanfic last month but that didn’t stop me from thinking about it, and about my own tendency to write both fanfic and original work.

Over the last twelve months I’ve published two novels, a couple of short stories and three fanfics. (For details, see previous posts.) The fanfics were longer than the original short stories, and took more research. It occurred to me you might like to know some of the differences between original and fanfic writing from the point of view of the author.

First of all, when writing fanfic, it’s important to know the ‘canon’ or original book, show or film. There’s no need to stick to it. As soon as my story starts, I’m veering away from the original, whether my tale takes place during the canon, before or after, or in an alternate universe. However, it’s important to know what the characters were originally up to. If, for example, one of them died in canon but I want them alive in my story (my The Paths of the Living which is LotR fanfic)has Boromir survive the attack of the orcs) I have to explain, credibly, why my version differs. Other fans are unlikely to read or enjoy something that ignores canon and drives a coach and horses through it. My novel SGX has original characters set against the concept of the Stargate – it has failed to attract any attention from SG fans and cannot, of course, be published as anything other than fanfiction. I’m still quite proud of it but I can understand that fans of SG1 want ‘their’ heroes. In a completely alternate universe (The Morning Gift has Bodie and Doyle of The Professionals in eleventh century Oxfordshire) the core character traits need to be maintained or there is no point using the character or trying to appeal to other fans.

Obviously when writing original fiction there’s a need to know the ‘backstory’ of each character but at least I’m responsible for that backstory and readers can’t contradict me. I do, however, have to be careful not to contradict myself!

Most of us don’t recall every detail of the shows we have seen. Books are easy, because it’s always possible to re-read. Happily, TV shows are easy, too, because the episode scripts are online and can be read and referred to. In this way, if I missed an episode I can still get its full impact provided I know the context, and if I can’t remember e.g. a minor character’s name, well, there it is on iMDB. There are also trailers and so on (on YouTube) to help the writer become reacquainted with movements, voices, etc. Sometimes, as with two of the auction fics I wrote, there’s a need to binge watch a new show. For The ballad of o guerreiro I had to watch Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard and for The fault…is not in our stars I had to finish watching the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. The watching is not pure pleasure; it’s important to concentrate and notice details that can be incorporated into a story. Having said that there has to be some pleasure involved or the stories won’t arrive in the author’s brain.

When writing original fiction, once I have created the characters I feel as though I know them in much the same way as I ‘know’ characters in books or on screen.

Most fans talk about needing to get the voices right. It’s essential to listen carefully to characters in a show. Listening gets the writer closer to their patterns of speech, vocabulary they frequently use, mannerisms such as pauses, and so on. I try to use a beta reader who is also familiar with the canon so that they can spot where I’ve deviated from any particular character’s norm. I usually write Brit characters but if I ever write e.g. American ones, I look for a beta who is also familiar with the speech patterns and vocabulary of the country. I once wrote a story in The West Wing (Campaign) and my beta saved me from calling a sweater a jumper…

In much the same way it’s important to keep original characters ‘in character’. Many writers (I’m one of them) use extensive notes and glossaries, some of which they share with their readers but the primary purpose is to keep the writing consistent. Not to mention details like eye colour or favourite drinks!

Some critics and authors sneer at fanfiction, calling it derivative and lacking in imagination. This should not need to be countered, but here we go.

All art is in some sense derivative. The creator is inspired by other art or by events in real life. Many artists begin by trying to recreate well known works. An original writer who is using historical fact or current scientific research to underpin their story is no less derivative. Similarly, much original work relies on traditional tropes and we all know there are very few original plots. A book or show introduces characters to readers and viewers. If these characters are sufficiently well developed and likeable fans will inevitably weave further stories about them. Writers create new stories about Arthur and his knights, about vampires and about elves; artists and architects such as Gaudi (see header picture) are inspired by the natural world. When I wrote Lord of Shalott I had to be careful about ‘canon’, particularly Tennyson’s poem, and the only reason my work could be published was that the ‘canon’ was out of copyright.

All writing requires imagination. (Even the writer of non-fiction has to imagine how their words will come across to the reader.) Imagining a story or scene involving someone else’s characters is not much different from imagining a story or scene involving invented characters. Nobody accuses the creators of the modern BBC Sherlock of lacking imagination but this is fanfiction all through.

Another common misconception about fanfiction is that it inevitably revolves around sex. Admittedly there is some erotica. After all, readers like it! But a great deal of fanfiction is either ‘gen’ or only brings in erotic elements as part of a complex plot whereas I have read a great deal of original fiction that is more sex than story. Obviously, mainstream commentary will highlight anything that titillates the public. I have personally included explicit sex in some of my work, such as The Paths of the Living, and The Morning Gift, but I have written other fanfiction where sex barely rates a mention. As with original work it really does depend on the story.

Some people seem to regard writing fanfiction as a kind of apprenticeship to what they call proper writing. As I began writing both at about the same time I have never subscribed to this idea. Also, the words ‘proper writing’ tend to assign a higher value to things that are made for sale rather than given out of love. Much fanfiction is written and posted freely for the pleasure of other fans and the resultant fan community is itself a reward.

I enjoy the fanfic community and I enjoy the company of other original writers. Sometimes the two sets overlap, possibly more often than people think. I don’t feel my writing is really different in either genre. I do know both give me pleasure and I hope they offer something to my readers too.

For anyone who wants to find my fanfiction, it’s all (96 works) on AO3 (Archive Of Our Own) under the pseudonym moth2fic. You don’t have to be a member to read, to download, or to comment. And most of it is, I hope, accessible to non-fans who have no idea of the canon.

The picture shows details on Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. We visited before construction was finished.

Book giveaway

I’m giving away the first volume in my Living Fae series this week on Smashwords (but not Amazon) in the hope that it will encourage interest in the rest of the series. Just go to the buy link using the tabs above and enter PZ65N at checkout for a free copy. Offer ends 28th February.

It’s the first part of the story of modern fairies who live in Cheshire UK (near where I live). It’s told in diary form by the main character of the series, Harlequin, who grows up on Werneth Low. He then moves to Alderley Edge where he meets his partner Yarrow, leader of the local unicorn troop. Their relationship forms the background to the four volume series. You can find out more about it on this website using the tags. Enjoy!

Sometimes writing goes slowly

Why some chapters are a lot harder to write than others.

So I, or rather my characters, had reached the ball – the one the fairy princess didn’t have the right shoes for. And suddenly, my writing turned to treacle. It wasn’t writer’s block – I knew perfectly well what would happen next, what all the participants felt, thought, did, and so on. I could see the scene vividly in my mind. Translating that into something that would make sense to readers was what was giving me a headache.

I realised, rather belatedly, that it had a lot in common with the other things I find hard to write, and for exactly the same reasons. Sexual encounters and battle scenes. What on earth, you may well ask, have these got in common with each other and then with dancing?

Think about it. They all involve quite detailed choreography. With dancing that’s fairly obvious. Battle scenes and individual fights have to be carefully constructed so that the required outcome is reached. The correct ‘side’ has to win. Some characters really mustn’t lose their heads or their limbs. Serious injury has to be avoided by anyone whose story is unfinished, and yet there usually have to be some deaths. So it’s all a bit like arranging a fight for stage or film. (Some people make an entire career out of that.) The sex scenes, too, have to have all the limbs in the right place at the right time. I find the sex, the duels and the individual dances slightly easier; I can always fall back on the feelings of one of the protagonists though in some way’s it’s a coward’s way out. But the crowd scenes defeat me every time.

They really shouldn’t, should they? I mean, most of us have been to dances, had some kind of sexual encounter, wanted or otherwise, and probably indulged in at least play fighting as children. We’ve also witnessed crowds dancing, and sex and fighting on the screen. So I know what goes on, what should go on, what my characters need to do, etc. It’s not at all like using my imagination to create something like magic or aliens or a landscape.

Well, that’s part of the trouble. I can visualise the scenes so well. I can even feel the physical contact, smell the gunpowder, and so on. But when I experience them that way I’m caught up in the speed of what happens and that’s definitely at odds with the speed of describing them for readers. I’ve tried using dolls and those posable wooden artist’s models but dolls don’t move rapidly whereas people do. A doll can show me what positions in sex, dance or a fight are impossible, but can’t show movement in slow motion which is what I need if I’m to describe the encounter in a meaningful way.

If I’m describing a long journey, readers don’t expect a minute by minute account. An overview is fine. But for some reason close personal stuff, loving or hostile, needs detailed description. I believe some publishers demand detail, and certainly my beta readers tell me to expand those scenes.

There’s a further problem. When I read explicit sex or battle scenes my mind usually switches off. I skim till I reach the end when the characters start talking to each other again or till I know who has won. This doesn’t apply to dancing but dancing other than ballet tends to be boring to me as a mere observer. Since I don’t often read the details I find them even harder to write.

And yet the fairy princess had to go to the ball, with the right shoes, and meet her fairy prince, if the novel was to progress in the right direction, and somehow, merely saying there was a ball and starting the next chapter with: And the next day… wasn’t quite going to work.

I sorted it, but slowly. As I say, some chapters are a lot harder to write than others.

As for the picture, yes, we really did find a nail that shape, so I photographed it. I now use it (from a different angle) as an avatar.

Five things in my WIP

Fiona Glass didn’t tag me but said anyone could join in with the five things in your current WIP meme.

The Seekers (working title) is a stand-alone fantasy based on some characters I developed in an rpg some years ago. I started it during Nanowrimo but always knew it was a long term project. I got about 30k words done in November but have been busy with Christmas ever since. Yesterday I got back to my characters who were getting fretful and feeling ignored. I only managed 500 words but it was a start! I mentioned my current writing in my poem about plot bunnies but thought I’d make it clear what I’m working on at the moment.

Five things in the story?

*A found family on a quest to escape their current lives

*Disinherited royal fairy twins – one gay and one asexual

*A goblin pedlar (on his coming of age travelling year) who is seeking his heart’s desire

*A large talking bird who helps fight bandits

*A fairy princess who needs new shoes for the primce’s ball in the desert

The icon was made for me about fifteen years ago by kethlenda, a friend on Live Journal.