Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My Writing Process - Blog Hop

Jeff Brackett tagged me in a "writing process" blog hop, which basically means someone sent him a list of questions about his writing process, with the instruction to answer them and tag other people. Jeff is the author of the cyberpunk detective novel Streets of Payne, which I reviewed here a few months back (check it out - it's fantastic!), and the post-apocalyptic novel Half Past Midnight. To read about Jeff's process, click here.

Alrighty, my turn...

1) What are you currently working on?
I have classic Writer's ADD, which means I'm always getting ideas for new novels before I'm finished with the one in front of me. Because of that, I've got five and a half different projects on my hands right now! Here they are, in no particular order:
Windborn, the first book in my YA high fantasy series, "Fated Stars," which is currently under contract with Glass House Press. It takes place in a fantastical world, in which enchanted creatures such as unicorns and mermaids dwell alongside humans. Windborn tells the tale of an air nymph trapped by dark magicians seeking to steal her powers over the wind. In her struggle to escape, she discovers that there's far more at stake than her own life. An ancient evil is stirring, one foretold to engulf the entire world in fire. Current status... to borrow a Twitter term, #amwriting.

Tell Me My Name, a novella that takes place immediately prior to the events of Windborn, which is due to be released later this year as part of Glass House's StoryTime event. This one's in editing, and I consider it a half project because it's directly related to Windborn.

Jane Colt #3, the presently untitled third book in my "Jane Colt" space opera series (Books 1 & 2, Artificial Absolutes and Synthetic Illusions, were published by Red Adept Publishing). By this book, Jane's old life in the safe center of interstellar civilization is long gone, and the story will further explore the lawless fringes of the universe. Status: outlined, but further development needed.

Flynn Nightsider and the Edge of Evil, the first book in the my "Flynn Nightsider" YA dystopian fantasy series, also under contract with Glass House Press. The story takes place in a future in which monsters have overrun the earth and those with magic have turned what's left of civilization into a totalitarian nation, protecting the people from supernatural dangers but demanding their freedom in return. Flynn is a discontent 16-year-old who's been treated like dirt his whole life just because he was born without magic, and after a mysterious clue from the past spurs him on a quest to uncover the truth about his mother's death, he winds up joining an underground rebellion to overthrow the oppressors. This one's also in editing.

Butterfly Dome, a YA sci-fi romance and first book in a planned trilogy. After the nations of Earth nearly destroyed their world in the Boundless War, benevolent humanoid aliens brought the humans life-saving technology. But they also brought with them a mysterious disease that only affects children and kills the afflicted before they reach twenty. 15-year-old Iris was born with the disease and quarantined in a government-controlled artist colony, where everyone strives to achieve immortality through fame. But after a strange encounter with an alien boy, she starts to realize all is not as it seems. I wrote the first draft of this one about a year ago and revised it earlier this year, but haven't yet decided what to do with it.

I'm also co-writing a book with a fellow sci-fi author, although it's anything but sci-fi. It's a prehistoric romance that takes place more than twenty thousand years before common era, intended for young readers (Middle Grade/Children's).
2) How does your work differ from others in its genre?
Which one?! Okay, here we go with the list again:

Fated Stars: I conceived this series with the intention of following the tradition of classic fairytales, like The Little Mermaid, and epic fantasies, like The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet while those two types of stories are indisputably related, they are different in tone. Fairytales are about magic and romance on a very personal scale for the characters while epic fantasies are, well, epic, telling tales of mighty rulers and great, world-changing wars. "Fated Stars" has both, so I like to think it's more epic than most fairytales and more magical than most epic fantasies.

Jane Colt: I see this series as being different from other space operas in its tone and focus. Most space operas I've seen are about powerful people with powerful starships, and I always wondered: what about everyone else? So Jane starts the series out as a relatively ordinary office worker - not a top tier space captain or experienced con artist or anything. I also believe I delve into character matters more than most space operas, which my tighter story focus allows me to do.

Flynn Nightsider: I'm pretty sure that when I first came up with the idea for this one, you had dystopia, and you had fantasy, but not both. The dystopian element of this series was inspired by the Arab Spring protests, as well as the ongoing struggle for balance between order and freedom in China. Meanwhile, the supernatural element was originally a metaphor for the endless dangers authoritarian governments espouse to keep their people compliant.

Butterfly Dome: This one takes classical arts - viola, ballet, opera, etc. - into a somewhat dystopian future, and much of it was inspired by classical theater traditions. I believe it's that mixture of the old and the new that makes it different from other YA sci-fi romances.

As for the prehistoric romance, I think it's the collaboration between myself and my co-writer that makes it different from, say, Clan of the Cave Bear, since we each have our own unique style.
3) Why do you write what you do?
My mind is always spinning tales of "what if", which is why I write sci-fi and fantasy (even the prehistoric story is somewhat fantastical, since it takes place in a world so different from the one we know today). I'm all about creating new worlds and sending my characters off on great adventures. At the same time, they are first and foremost people, which is why I spend a lot of time developing my characters and exploring their psyches. 
4) How does your writing process work?
I always start with the setting, which comes from writing sci-fi and fantasy that takes place in an entirely different world. Before I can get down to the nitty-gritty of the plot, I need to know where it takes place, because that will directly affect what I'm able to do with the characters. So I'll open up a Word document or two (or three or four or five) and hash out the details of the world. For example, with Fated Stars, I set up locations, histories, and mythologies for the faraway, fairytale land it takes place in, and outlined the rules of magic.

Then come the characters. I'll write out basic biographies for each one, which helps me learn who they are beyond the most basic traits I'd given them. For instance, Jane Colt's brother, Devin, has a haunted past that turned him into who he is by the time Book 1 begins. Meanwhile, Jane herself has had a relatively ordinary life, but the way she was raised influences the kinds of actions she takes.

By this point, I probably have at least three or four documents in my novel folder, and still no actual story! So then I'll brainstorm the plot. And when I say brainstorm, I mean "spew out every little thought that passes through my head into another document". After that, I'll pick and choose which areas I really want to develop.

Then comes the plotting. I'll start with a skeleton outline with the basics of what happens. For example, in Flynn Nightsider, I knew I had to open with Flynn uncovering a clue from the past, then have him follow it in search of answers, then end up on the wrong side of the law and get himself captured.

After I have a skeleton outline, I'll divide it into chapters and develop more of the details. For instance, Chapter 1 shows Flynn finding this clue and making the fateful decision to do whatever it takes to discover the truth about his mother's death. Chapter 2 follows his attempt to learn more about said clue while revealing the dangers still posed by the supernatural. Etc.

Sometimes, I'm ready to go by that point, but there's nothing scarier than a blank page. So most of the time, I end up outlining each chapter in even further detail, right down to blow by blow action scenes and details of what needs to be said during a dialogue. Only then am I really ready for actual words and sentences...

This is why I consider myself a storyteller, not a capital w Writer. Because while I certainly enjoy the way words convey a tale, the story is what matters to me, not the sentences themselves.

So there you have it! My answers to the "writing process" blog hop. I'm supposed to tag other writers, but I know how busy everyone is with their own blogs and I think everyone I know has been tagged in something like this before, so I'm going to channel my inner Flynn and say, "Won't follow the rules!"

Friday, April 25, 2014

REVIEW: Correlation / Mia Grace

TITLE: Correlation
AUTHOR: Mia Grace
PUBLISHER: Red Adept Publishing
AVAILABILITY: Amazon (Kindle), Amazon (paperback), and other online retailers

Young Adult - Contemporary/Science Fiction/Romance

Full disclosure: Red Adept Publishing, which published Correlation, is also my publisher for the Jane Colt series. I received a free copy of Correlation in order to inform the author interview I conducted in November with Mia Grace. I chose to write a review independently, and the below represent my honest opinions.

Correlation is a finely written little book that deserves more attention that it's been receiving. Mia Grace has a talent for description and characterization, and while her book certainly fits under the "Young Adult" banner, it feels more literary than a lot of titles in the genre.

The plot of Correlation sounds very simple: a teenage girl named Hailey, seeking solace after an accident puts her brother in a coma, helps her best friend clean an old house and its overgrown garden. A mysterious force sends her back in time to the Vietnam War era, where she meets a young man who she knows won't survive the fighting. Her knowledge of his fate could save his life – if she can convince him she's not crazy.

But the story doesn't pan out as you'd expect it to. First of all, while the journey back in time at the center of the plot, it's not the main point of the story. The story itself is really about the characters – primarily Hailey. It's a character study of sorts, exploring her life as a typical teenage girl – with a crush on a cute boy and everything – and the survivor's guilt she experiences after her brother's accident. Grace paints this character's life in vivid colors, delving into Hailey's life and emotions.

As for the time travel part – though it sounds like science fiction, it doesn't read like it. How the time travel works is never explained, and it really doesn't matter, since the important part is the interaction between Hailey and the young man from the past. It's tough to say more without spoiling the story, but I will say this: Hailey's actions in the past change her present reality. The book is written in two parts: first what happens to Hailey before the time travel, and then what her present is like afterward. Correlation is really a thought experiment and perhaps a bit philosophical in nature. If you went back in time to change one thing, how expansive could the consequences be?

This book is a hard one to describe, but it certainly makes you think. It's not so much a page-turning plot-driven save-the-day type story, but rather a richly written depiction of possible realities. When you're done, you won't be left with the satisfying "and this is how it ends" a typical YA book would give. Instead, you're left contemplating. For those thinkers among you, I recommend taking a chance on this one.

Mia Grace grew up in the Midwest and now resides in the beautiful state of Vermont. Her young adult novels include FOUND DAYS, a coming of age story with a surprising twist, and CORRELATION, a young adult time travel that takes the reader back to the tumultuous Vietnam era. She's currently working on a young adult time travel series.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Portrait of the Author as a Young Man

What do you imagine when you picture a horror author? The author of nightmare-inducing gore-fests who delights in inducing great feelings of disgust and revulsion in his readers? Whose stories ooze with so much carnage you can almost feel the blood dripping from the cracks in your Kindle when you read? Is the face pictured on the cover, in fact, the portrait of the author?

Perhaps you know better, but imagine a madman, for only a madman would take such pleasure in tearing apart his fellow man through the written word. Is this Stephen Kozeniewski, author of the slaughter-filled zombie abomination known as The Ghoul Archipelago?

Is this the face of a horror author?

Or perhaps, he is not all insanity, for his entrails-exuding guts-mire of a book does contain commentary on our current society. In his own words, he sought to elevate the genre, and does so by satirizing the political, economic, and religious powers in between gross-out sessions. Is this Stephen Kozeniewski, who uses the horrible merely to teach us all a lesson in how our world is today, and works so hard to make us lose our lunches so we'll be sure to remember it?

The face of an intellectual author

Or perhaps our enigmatic writer is of the new-fashioned old-fashioned type, bringing the traditional writerly accoutrements of pipe, bow tie, typewriter, and intense expression to the modern era, rejecting the flashing and clicking of the computer screen. Perhaps the very way in which he is pictured writing is a commentary upon our society! Is this Stephen Kozeniewski?

The modern writer

Ah, but even the mad and the intellectual must grow from small children. And so, ladies and gentleman, I present to you the Portrait of the Author as a Young Man. A very, very young man. Behold, the true face of Stephen Kozeniewski!

Do not be deceived by those innocent eyes, behind which lies  twisted brain.
Look at that cutie patootie! Who would have thought that, behind that sweet smile and the childlike wonder reflected in those puppy-dog eyes, likes a mind as contorted and gnarled as the disemboweled entrails of which he writes! Oh, how looks can deceive.

But wait, there's more!

Future mass murderer of fictional characters
If there was any doubt before that Stephen Kozeniewski is a cutie patootie, let this dispel them! Again, with the sweet smile, but this time there's the added adorability factor of dorky glasses, suspenders, and tie!

Oh, perhaps you think that this cherub-faced, sweet-smiled child grew into one of the writers pictured above, or someone resembling the type. The madman? The intellecutal? The old-fashioned modern man? 

But you would be mistaken, for here is the present day Stephen Kozeniewski, spiller of blood, butcher of characters, and creator of nightmares! 

Same childlike wonder...
Same innocent smile...

And the reviewers agree: this author is still a cutie patootie! 

Now that I have unmasked this horror writer as an innocuous, friendly-faced everyman, allow me to make it up to him by listing his web presence links:

And check out his the aforementioned gore-oozing, bloodstained, stomach-upsetting masterpieces he wrote:

The Ghoul Archipelago
After ravenous corpses topple society and consume most of the world’s population, freighter captain Henk Martigan is shocked to receive a distress call. Eighty survivors beg him to whisk them away to the relative safety of the South Pacific. Martigan wants to help, but to rescue anyone he must first pass through the nightmare backwater of the Curien island chain. 

A power struggle is brewing in the Curiens. On one side, the billionaire inventor of the mind-control collar seeks to squeeze all the profit he can out of the apocalypse. Opposing him is the charismatic leader of a ghoul-worshipping cargo cult. When a lunatic warlord berths an aircraft carrier off the coast and stakes his own claim on the islands, the stage is set for a bloody showdown. 

To save the remnants of humanity (and himself), Captain Martigan must defeat all three of his ruthless new foes and brave the gruesome horrors of...THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO.

Braineater Jones
Braineater Jones wakes up face down in a swimming pool with no memory of his former life, how he died, or why he’s now a zombie. With a smart-aleck severed head as a partner, Jones descends into the undead ghetto to solve his own murder.

But Jones’s investigation is complicated by his crippling addiction to human flesh. Like all walking corpses, he discovers that only a stiff drink can soothe his cravings. Unfortunately, finding liquor during Prohibition is costly and dangerous. From his Mason jar, the cantankerous Old Man rules the only speakeasy in the city that caters to the postmortem crowd.

As the booze, blood, and clues coagulate, Jones gets closer to discovering the identity of his killer and the secrets behind the city’s stranglehold on liquid spirits. Death couldn’t stop him, but if the liquor dries up, the entire city will be plunged into an orgy of cannibalism.

Cracking this case is a tall order. Braineater Jones won’t get out alive, but if he plays his cards right, he might manage to salvage the last scraps of his humanity.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bringing Writers into the Classroom


I teach writing to high school students. But I don’t see myself as a high school teacher. My job, as I see it, is to mentor young people as they come of age.

I’m an Advisor at Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood, Colorado. I’m the English teacher. But the kids in my classroom are looking for more than English. They’re looking for meaning. They’re looking for something real.

Right now I’m teaching The Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I use the text to teach the kids to read. I use the ideas in the book to teach them to think. And the story Pollan tells about food...I use that as a guide for our own educational adventures in the food chain. Like Pollan does in the book, we visit farms. Food markets. I bought the kids McDonalds then drove them to a feedlot with a 100,000 head of cattle that filled our nostrils with the stench of feces and urine. The poop was piled twenty feet high by tractors. The cows were covered in it up to their spines. Our lungs were singed from the ammonia.

I had the kids eat the burgers and take it all in.

Later in the semester I had the students interview their oldest living relatives. Out of that interview, the students brought traditional recipes to class, and we prepared meals together.

This week we’re discussing the ethics of eating. I have them justify it: their choice to eat, which is to say their choice to kill. I do this because I want them to be on solid moral ground. I do this because I want their bodies to be well.

Why? Because I’m their English teacher. It’s my job.

I also facilitate a writers’ group. Because I believe kids need mentors (more than just me), I partner with Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a Denver based community, to bring local authors into my classroom.

We meet at lunch every Wednesday, the writers’ group. This is a very committed group of writers (some students have graduated and still participate in the group via email from college). They take their writing seriously and provide one another with thoughtful, constructive feedback.

Once a month, we have a guest author. The guest author actually reads the week’s submission and critiques it, along with the rest of us. Imagine being seventeen years old and having your story critiqued by a published author.

After the critique session, we invite any interested student in the school to a craft talk with the author. After which, the kids get an opportunity to interact more openly. They get to ask questions about the writing process. About inspiration. About how to get published.

What’s really happening is that relationships are being developed. This is the secret to education. They can pass any law they want at the state or at the federal level. They can mandate testing. Or they can sell our schools to corporate enterprises. None of that will fix the problem we have with education in America.

Because the answer is this: teaching is about relationships. Kids need mentors. It’s that simple. They learn from the people they trust.

What happens in this guest author program is magical. Kids begin to see themselves as writers. They develop authentic relationships with authors in the community. They have consultants.

At my school, every student completes a Career Exploration Passage. It’s one of six rites of passages each student undertakes to graduate from high school. In the Career Exploration Passage, as the title indicates, students explore a career. The project involves an internship, research, consultants, a series of interviews, a resume. And eventually the student maps out a path to his or her chosen field.

The beauty of the curriculum at the Open School is that the students I work with get to consult with actual professionals. They get to interview our guest authors and develop relationships that will last long after high school is over.

To make all this work I went to our school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization (PTSO) and asked for $50 a month to bring local authors into the classroom. The parents on PTSO generously supported the program, and they also asked me to consider ways to raise money to pay for it.

It was a reasonable request on their part, responsible even, but I had to think about it. What could I do to help support my own program?

Meanwhile, I went to Lighthouse Writers Workshop and told them what our PTSO was willing to do. Lighthouse generously matched my school’s contribution.

So we had $100 a month to bring local authors into the school. Not much. But money communicates value. By paying authors what we can, we let them know that we value their profession. Their work. Moreover, writers are hungry, and, so far, the guest authors have been grateful for the gig.

This week we’re hosting Caleb Seeling, the publisher at Conundrum Press. Caleb also writes graphic novels.

Then it finally came to me a few weeks ago: how to raise money for the program. I had a book release pending for my literary thriller Patriarch Run. It occurred to me that I could donate the April proceeds to PTSO and, in that way, raise money to support the guest author program at the Open School.

Which is what we’re doing. It’s a good book. It’s a good cause. And we’d welcome your support.

If you’d like to know more about our amazing school (there have been many books written about it), let me know. And if you’d like to learn more about me or my stories, you could drop me a line about that, too.

Thank you for finding me,

Benjamin Dancer

Twitter: @BenjaminDancer1


Benjamin is an Advisor at Jefferson County Open School where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. He wrote the novels PATRIARCH RUN, IN SIGHT OF THE SUN and FIDELITY. He also writes about parenting and education.

Patriarch Run is a thoughtful and character driven literary thriller. Think of it as Jason Bourne meets Good Will Hunting.
Billy discovers that his father might be a traitor, that he was deployed to safeguard the United States from a cyberattack on its military networks. After that mission, his father disappeared along with the Chinese technology he was ordered to steal–a weapon powerful enough to sabotage the digital infrastructure of the modern age and force the human population into collapse. 

Against a backdrop of suspense, the story explores the archetypal themes of fatherhood, coming of age and self-acceptance through a set of characters that will leave you changed.

Excerpt from Patriarch Run:

Rachel never rode over the summit of the mountain because of the treacherous nature of that trail. It was against all rational judgement that she found herself on it now. At tree line the horse climbed over the ridge, stepped out of the spruce forest and onto the packed scree that made up the trail from there to the tundra. The mountainside below them gave way completely to granite cliffs.
The trail snaked along the top.
At the highest point among the cliffs, with nearly a thousand feet of empty space beneath the hooves of Old Sam, Rachel spotted two figures several hundred yards in the distance. She talked to the horse. Said she couldn’t be sure, but it looked to be a man and a bristlecone pine.
 The horse walked on.
“Watch your step, Old Sam.”
As they closed the distance, Rachel recognized him and saw that he was untying a rope from the gnarled tree.
“You couldn’t have picked a better view.”
Regan had looked at her once when he first heard the hooves on the scree, then he went back to his rope. Now he looked up at her face. Looked the horse over. Then he studied her eyes. She had divined his purpose.
He looked away. “Yeah, it’ll do.”
The two knew each other, but had rarely had cause to speak.
“I don’t mean to meddle, but it seems to me that the rope is ill conceived.”
Regan finished retying the rope to the tree, tested the knot and asked, “How so?”
“Too much length, and the wind, along with your own momentum, will lacerate your flesh against the rock.”
He looked over the edge. “That occurred to me as you were coming up. I shortened the rope.”
“Not enough length, and it’ll be slow and painful.”
He studied the coil of parachute cord on the ground and said with very little inflection. “It looks about right to me.” Then he walked over to a granite boulder.
“Seems you’ve thought it through.”
He sat down and pulled off his right boot. “We’ll see.”
Rachel reached behind her and took out a water bottle. Drank. She offered the bottle to Regan with a gesture.
He put out his lower lip and shook his head almost imperceptibly.
She capped it and put it back.
“Mind if I ask you a question?”
“Go ahead.” He pulled off the other boot.
“Why the rope and the cliff?”
“I don’t follow.”
“When I was a kid, coyotes killed my dog. I heard the fight, but by the time I found her in the dark, they were already feeding on her guts.” He took off both socks and stood up. “They pulled her insides out through her anus.” He stepped over to the precipice and surveyed the valley.
“How old were you?”
Rachel nodded her head, which he didn’t see.
“With only the rope or only the cliff, I’d be left for the coyotes.”
“But this way it’s only insects and birds.”
He spun to face her, his widened eyes betraying surprise–or maybe alarm.
“Birds always eat the eyeballs first,” she continued. “Must be a delicacy to them. The insects just want a womb for their maggots. A nutrient-rich source to give their young a good start.”
Regan fidgeted with the socks in his hands.
“You could’ve picked a high branch.”
He looked distracted, as if he was still digesting the other image. “I thought of that.” He walked over to his boots, unbuttoning his silk shirt.
“A bear could cut the rope.”
“It seems you’ve thought it through.”
He took off his shirt, folded it and set it on a rock. “We’ll see.”
Rachel looked back over the trail. “Well, I best be goin’.”
She turned the horse, “Those are some fancy clothes.”
“Yeah.” He took off his belt. “The boots alone cost me eleven hundred dollars, and that was before tax.”
“I suppose it’s fitting.”
“It seemed that way to me, too, down at the house. But after being up here, I don’t think so.”
“How so?”
He wasn’t looking at her anymore. “I think I’ll be more comfortable without them.”
“What are you going to do with those eleven hundred dollar boots?”
He carried the clothes over to the bristlecone tree, put the boots on top of the folded shirt, the socks inside the boots and the belt around the boots. “Come back and get ’em if you like.”
“Well, I best be gettin’ along.”
“You know my place?”
“I know it.”
“We’ll be sittin’ down for supper around six. Sirloin and potatoes. If you have a mind to, you’re welcome to stop by.”
He picked up the loose end of the parachute cord and started tying a hangman’s noose. “I appreciate that.”