Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Photo credit: nimAdestiny, Flickr, Creative Commons


My best wishes to all for a healthy, safe, peaceful, productive and prosperous 2014.

Scott Bury
The Written Word

Friday, December 27, 2013

Book launch: Tube Riders 2 — Exile

Cover image tube riders 2: exile

Book 2 in Chris Ward's original and excellent Tube Riders trilogy has just launched.

Earlier this year, I gave five stars to Ward's stand-alone novel, Head of Words. It's a deep and dark psychological story that shows Ward's talent and professionalism as a writer.

Now, I'm telling everyone I can to pay attention to this original writer's steampunk-inspired Tube Riders series, which achieves the same standard of excellence.

What are Tube Riders?

Set in Britain in 2075, the Tube Riders are a gang of young people who defy a brutal dictatorship by playing a dangerous game of riding on the outside of London's Underground trains.

Book 2, Exile
Having narrowly escaped the Governor's savage Huntsmen, Marta Banks and the other surviving Tube Riders are on the run in northern France. Trapped inside a government-assigned quarantine zone, they search for a way out of a bleak countryside littered with abandoned worker robots and haunted by sinister monks, while at the same time a far deadlier threat than any they have faced before is searching for a way in ... 
From the towering spires of Mont St Michel through the dark horrors of the Paris Catacombs to the treacherous peaks of the French Alps, The Tube Riders: Exile is an epic continuation of Chris Ward's Tube Riders series. 
Chris Ward is from the UK but currently lives and works in Japan. In addition to the Tube Riders Trilogy, his work includes a number of short stories (available on Amazon) and the stand alone novel The Man Who Built the World as well as Head of Words.

What inspired the story?

"For the whole of my novel-writing life, I always wanted to write in different genres, try different styles and push myself as a writer and an artist. I had a rule that no two novels could be the same. In around 2009 I decided I wanted to write a big sci-fi dystopia. While my novels had always ranged from horror to comedy, my short stories had usually been in the speculative fiction vein, because they were easy to write and relatively easy to sell to magazines. Looking for ideas, I came across an old story I wrote in 2002 about a group of kids who hung off the sides of trains for fun getting into trouble with a rival gang. And hour and two sheets of A3 paper later, the Huntsmen, Dreggo, the Governor and the dark world of Mega Britain was born.

"I once promised myself to never write a sequel, but by the time I had written all 165,000 words of the first draft of the Tube Riders, I realised that it was really just the first part of one long story. Now, with Revenge, that story has reached its end.

"It felt strange to leave the Tube Riders behind, but while the main story is done there is a likelihood that there will be prequels or possible novels set within the three years between Exile and Revenge, mostly focusing on side or minor characters."

Exile launched on December 16, and book 3, Revenge, will appear in January. Watch Written Words for a cover preview!

Where to get it:

Visit Chris Ward's Amazon author page to see all his published work.
Visit Chris Ward's blog, A Million Miles from Anywhere.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas to all

I wish all a peaceful, healthy and happy Christmas season.

Scott Bury
The Written Word

Drawing by HIKINGARTIST.COM via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons attribution.

Friday, December 20, 2013

What makes a good read? Two best-sellers join the debate

Photo by Documentally / Christian Payne, found on Flickr, licensed through Creative Commons.
Writers are always struggling with advice from disparate sources on how to improve their writing. That’s why I turned to some best-selling authors and asked them what made certain books their favourites. What makes a good read? 

Weighing in this week are DelSheree Gladden, best-selling author of the Destroyer trilogy (Inquest, Secret of Betrayal and Darkening Chaos) and the Twin Souls saga, and Bruce Blake, the prolific author of the Icarus Fell series (On Unfaithful Wings, All Who Wander are Lost and Secrets of the Hanged Man), Khirro’s Journey trilogy (Blood of the King, Spirit of the King and Heart of the King) and the new Small Gods series (When Shadows Fall). With his wife, Rosie Bitts, he is the co-author of the Lady Corsairs series. 

Name three characteristics of books that you like. What makes you keep reading a book? What are some books that you weren't able to put down until you finished them?

DelSheree Gladden: 
Strong characters, well thought out storyline, and an emotional element to the story readers can connect with. What makes me keep reading a book is the characters. I have to connect with the characters and care about them and their struggles. It can be a fascinating storyline, but if the characters are only so-so, I’m not going to be hooked.  
The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson is one of my all-time favourites. I was absolutely riveted by his books. The complexity of the storyline was amazing, yet it never seemed overcomplicated or convoluted. His characters came alive from the first page and he did what is sometimes the hardest thing for a writer to do. He let the story go where it needed to go even if that meant losing characters and writing what I can imagine he didn’t want to write. 
Bruce Blake:
Three things that I look for in a good book are writing style, engaging characters, and originality. It can be difficult to find the combination of all three in the same book, but when I do, I can't stop reading. 
The most recent example for me is Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie. The voices of each character are so distinct and he has an interesting way of turning a phrase. Vicious Circle by Mike Carey, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and many of Stephen King's early books make my list, too.

What other books have these characteristics?

DelSheree Gladden
Some of the other books that I will always love are books like The Dresden Files and Aleran Codex from Jim Butcher, The Wheel of Time series by Jordan and Sanderson, The Dalemark Quartet by Dianna Wynne Jones, and pretty much any of Raymond E. Feist’s books. 

Bruce Blake
Anything by Stephen King up to “It." George Martin's first two books in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

Do you consciously try to emulate these books? If so, what form does that take: plot, structure, characters, settings, author's voice and word choice?

DelSheree Gladden
There are aspects of all my favourite books that I try to emulate. Sanderson’s plots are always flawless. I can never find even the tiniest hole. I will debate, rewrite, outline, make a dozen sticky notes, whatever it takes to try and make sure I’m not leaving unanswered questions for my readers. What I’ve tried most to emulate is creating good characters my readers will fall in love with. Butcher’s characters always have a great deal of depth. You can’t help but get sucked into their lives, even those characters who are only briefly in the book. His characters always have a defining inner struggle that impacts every aspect of their story. I want my characters to be that unique and real when I write as well.

Bruce Blake

Sometimes, but not always. I mean, Joe Abercrombie's use of unique
voices for each character definitely inspired my conscious choice to try something similar in my latest book, When Shadows Fall. On the other hand, without me really thinking about it, any good writing style challenges me to keep a close eye on my word choices. Stephen King’s depth of characterization gave me something to strive for and George Martin's detailed world and cultures were another inspiration.

Thank you, DelSheree and Bruce!

Visit DelSheree Gladden's website
Visit Bruce A. Blake's website

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Good reading: Two best-selling authors tell what they like to read

Creative Commons
What makes a book a good read? Three more independent authors give me their perspective: 

Mohana Rajakumar is author of So You Want to Sell a Million Copies?, Love Comes Later and a number of other books. Her latest is An Unlikely Goddess.

Name three characteristics of books that you like. What makes you keep reading a book? 

Mohanda Rajakumar: I love the characters or at least want to know what happens next. Books where the writer takes me into a world totally other than my own and I learn something new. And I talk to other people about what's happening in the world of the story — it's that compelling.

Jesi Lea Ryan: I like books with unique characters who don't irritate the crap out of me.
Plot is important, but it is becoming emotionally invested in the characters
that keep me interested. Richelle Mead's books (yes, all of them) are my
best example of this. Her books are action packed and filled with intrigue
and adventure, but she has such an amazing way of tying me in emotionally
that I feel like I am in the book. It's amazing! 

I also like books that run at a faster pace. I don't like a lot of pointless
musing. I'm a firm believer in what doesn't add to your story should be cut.
I can give you about fifty bad examples of this, but where I find it most is
in erotica. Good erotica uses sex scenes to further the character or plot.
Bad erotica has little plot or character and things it can survive on
gratuitous sex. It's annoying. 

What are some books that you weren't able to put down until you finished them? 

Mohana Rajakumar
Mohana Rajakumar: Gone Girl, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and The Night Circus.

Jesi Lea Ryan: Stacia Kane's Downside series have really unique characters, beautifully flawed.
What makes you keep reading a book? 
Mohana Rajakumar: To see what happens next and how we get where we are going.

Do you consciously try to emulate these books? 

Mohana Rajakumar: I do try to take readers into worlds they don't know because that's what drew me into reading as a child. And into writing as an adult. There were so many things to think about, I wanted to get out and share them with others. In terms of keeping the reading guessing, suspense I struggle with as a writer but character development I have much more confidence in my ability to deliver. 

Jesi Lea Ryan: I don't consciously emulate other books, but I'm sure they influence me to some extent. I read over 250 novels a year, and I don't have a stellar
memory.  I can't quote even from my favorite books. Part of this is because
I rarely read the same book more than once. I can tell you that I
consciously try not to write the things that irritate me. For example, I
detest indecisive heroines. And god, there is so much of that in YA and NA
romance.  Makes me want to hurl books across the room.  Indecisiveness does
not create plot tension, it creates reader tension, and that's not a good
thing!  So I don't drag things out too much in my books.  If the heroine
needs to make a decision, she's generally quick to act on it. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

What do great writers like to read?

Creative Commons
What makes a good read? Is it characterization, plot, style? A unique idea, or the rules of your favourite genre?

I’ve asked some of the best independent authors I know what they like to read — what makes a good read for them. Today, here are the first three to answer: 

Name three characteristics of books that you like. What makes you keep reading a book? 

RS Guthrie: I personally love great, literary writing and deep characters. Of course, like everyone, my initial buy many times depends on the cover, or especially the first part of chapter one sampling. I usually know by one to three paragraphs in whether I will like the book. Actually, that's a pretty good indicator of the books I won't like. You can never know for sure about liking/loving a book until it ends; sometimes writers give up two-thirds of the way through and that's a HUGE disappointment you can't see coming.
Rob Guthrie

Karen Wodke: Three characteristics of books I like: 
  • being drawn into the story right from the start
  • when a story is handled in a unique way or deals with unusual material
  • when a book is so well-written, it takes me away.

Scott MorganGood books need a strong storyteller's voice; to be true  to its internal universe; and to take chances. I don't want to read the same thing someone else wrote, I want to read a new idea, new way of seeing, new world.

What are some books that you weren't able to put down until you finished them? 

RS Guthrie: The last book I read I could not put down was Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. I can never put any of his books down. Gun, With Occasional Music rocked my world! Dissident Gardens is just out and I have not read it yet.

Karen Wodke: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn; The Mothers by Vardis Fisher (about the doomed Donner party crossing); Evening News by Marly Swick; The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien; Life-Size by Jenefer Schute.

What other books have these characteristics?

RS Guthrie: Anything by James lee Burke. In fact, he's the master of melding both elements (literary style with great characters). All of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series (21 books). Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, If I Die In A Combat Zone, and Going After Cacciato.

Karen Wodke: The books I mentioned are very different in style from each other. What they have in common is a compelling story. It would be impossible to list all the other books that share this characteristic. I like Dean Koontz, JA Konrath, earlier Stephen King, earlier James Patterson, Wally Lamb, Robert Heinlein, and a number of indie authors. The books I most enjoy reading share the following characteristics: interesting plot, descriptions that are appropriate to the story, a unique style of writing, and a steady pace.

Scott Morgan: All good books have these characteristics (a strong storyteller's voice; true  to its internal universe; and to take chances). Best examples for me are (fiction) Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg and (nonfiction) The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins.
Scott Morgan

Do you consciously try to emulate these books? 

RS Guthrie: When I first read James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series, I knew I had found my voice. Until then I kept flip-flopping between a more literary style versus deep, engaging characters and a lot of great dialogue (something you don't find in "literary" books). Burke showed me that the two can not only coexist but enhance each other and make for a compelling read. Primarily that affects my characters, dialogue, and definitely word choice. You need to be sparsely descriptive. Yes, describe the surrounding stage so the reader can smell it, see it, feel it, but don't take thirteen pages to do so. And dialogue, for me, is key. Good, engaging dialogue is the best way I know to show your character rather than tell him/her to the reader.

Karen Wodke: I don’t think I consciously try to emulate any other book. That said, a good book inspires me to work on improving particular elements in my own writing. For instance, reading Gillian Flynn has made me want to come up with
Karen Wodke
better similes and metaphors; she’s brilliant at both. She also has a very distinctive voice. A skill I admire in Stephen King is the ease with which he tells a story. Opening one of his books is like settling into a favorite chair. I admire the way Koontz pulls a reader in from the first page. And some thriller authors write such clean, tight plots; I can’t help but be impressed. There are important things to be learned from any well-written book.
You know what they say: easy reading is damn hard writing.

Scott Morgan: I try to emulate the writers more so than the books. writers like Brian Hodge always come up with incredible ways to tell stories that are not limited to single books. If I'm borrowing from books, it's usually inn how the writer constructs his/her universe with as little detail as possible. Great writers can put you in their heads but let you keep your own eyes.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Book launch: Binder

David Vinjamuri, fellow member of Best-Selling Reads and a columnist with Forbes magazine, has released his second novel, Binder.

What's it about? 

In the mountains of West Virginia, hooded men ambush and beat a group of environmental protestors. An Army colonel’s daughter goes missing, and ex-operator Michael Herne travels to West Virginia to find her.  But the girl wasn’t with the protestors and as Herne tracks her he encounters cults, communes and supremacists on the path to unraveling a deadly conspiracy. 
Binder is the sequel to the best-selling thriller, Operator.

Advance praise

"A terrific, fast-paced read.  It’s not just technically accurate but really gets into the mindset of the Tier 1 operator." 

– Master Sergeant Rodney Cox,  Instructor, SWCS (U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, NC)

After a brief stint as an intelligence analyst, David spent nearly 20 years working with corporate brands. He writes for Forbes, teaches at New York University and loves reading and the outdoors. He is an active member in Best-Selling Reads, as well.

Check out his book on Amazon.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Hootsuite, mistakes and crisis communications

The wrong way to communicate during a crisis is to not communicate at all.

Hootsuite demonstrated this last month. I think it’s an opportunity for all of us professional communicators to learn how to communicate during a crisis — especially when it’s a crisis that most observers will blame on you.

Hootsuite is a service that allows users to manage their Twitter feeds. One of its best features — the reason that I subscribe to it — is the ability to create a spreadsheet to schedule a day (or more) of Tweets in advance. Into the spreadsheet, you put the date and time for the tweet, the message, and any links. Then you save the spreadsheet in .csv format and upload it. Hootsuite will send up to 350 tweets at the time you specify.

I’ve been using it for more than a year. Then, around about mid-November this year, I started to get error messages when I tried updating a day’s worth of tweets. 

Any computer user with my level of training and knowledge of computers (very little) is used to error messages. Hootsuite gives you an error message if you try to schedule the same message twice in one day, or if any message is more than 140 characters long (Twitter’s maximum). 

In mid-November, however, when I tried to upload a file of daily tweets, I got an error message that had no specific errors. Just the message “No further tweets will be uploaded until the errors are resolved.”

I thought, naturally, that I had done something wrong. I checked my file to make sure no message, including links, was more than 135 characters long (a time-consuming process). I made sure that there were no repeated messages. 

Everything seemed to check out. But Hootsuite would still not accept the file.

I tried uploading a smaller file, breaking a day into two, then three, then four smaller files. Eventually, the smaller files would upload, but not consistently. There seemed to be no logic, no consistency to the way that Hootsuite would upload a spreadsheet. 

Finally, I Googled the problem. I found a forum for Hootsuite customer questions, and it seemed that a lot of people were having the same problem I was: they could not upload spreadsheets.

Hootsuite technicians, to their credit, were monitoring the blog, and left messages along the lines of “We are aware of the problem and are working on a solution.”

This continued for over a week — to no one’s satisfaction.

Crisis communications
This is an excellent example of crisis communications — how an organization communicates with its publics when something is going wrong. It can be very challenging in this kind of situation, because users naturally blame the company, the originators of the technology, for causing the problem in the first place.

There were several messages on the forum about how people were going to take their business to a Hootsuite competitor. “We’re paying for this service!” is how more than one customer put it.

Some of Hootsuite’s competitors started to take advantage of the problem by sending out the message that their services were working fine at the time.

The problem was that, while Hootsuite’s techs were working flat out on resolving the problem, they were not communicating that. Users had no idea what the problem was, how long it would be until it was resolved, or whether there were any workarounds. Doubtlessly, there were alternatives, and some customers probably changed horses. 

Eventually, around November 21 or so, they seem to have solved the problem. But they didn’t explain what the problem was, what had caused it or what customers should do the next time something like it happens.

Obviously, this is not good for credibility. Most people who use computers and web services expect there to be technical problems from time to time. We’re all familiar with that little program built into the deepest, most basic level of every operating system that causes random errors to pop up. We get that that’s how programmers ensure they’ll all have jobs, even after they build the perfect computer.

But we still want to know that the company we pay for a service we come to rely on is working on, and making progress with problems we encounter.

After the problem was fixed, Hootsuite announced they had solved the issue. I tried uploading a file of tweets, and it worked, no problem. I then sent Hootsuite’s customer service department an email with some questions about the experience. I explained that, as a journalist and blogger, I wanted to do a story about this issue, and gave them an opportunity to present their side.

I got no answer. Big mistake on Hootsuite’s part.

What Hootsuite should have done
  • Admit publicly and prominently that they were aware of the problem — on their Home page, and with an email to all customers who use the bulk uploader service
  • Communicate their plans — how long did they anticipate they would take to fix the problem?
  • Suggest work-arounds  
  • Communicate their progress 
    • what kind of resources (meaning skilled people and their tools) they had dedicated to the problem
    • when they had identified the problem
    • how long they anticipated taking to solve it.

I know that it can be scary for any organization to admit that it has a problem, but it’s better than the alternative: to let your market know that you can’t handle problems. Even if they took longer to fix the problem than they indicated, they could have announced that the solution was taking longer than they anticipated, and set another honest solution horizon.

The alternative, not communicating, leaves the impression of an uncaring corporation. It leaves users wondering if anything at all is happening behind the scenes, which in turn prompts them to turn to the competition.

Communicating during a crisis is one of the biggest challenges for any communications professional. However, the best strategy is the same as in most situations: keep communicating, be honest and tell your audience as much as you can.

More communication = more information, and today, people LIKE information.

What do you gain by not admitting your shortcomings? In the age of instant, constant and ubiquitous communication, you don’t hide anything. 

An organization is much further ahead by keeping the connections with its customers alive and open. Just as in a personal relationship, being honest about your problems  builds trust, which helps cement long-term relationships with customers.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

My electronics are crazy

Who can tell me where to turn off the setting on the computer for “Cause random problems” or “Unpredictably shut off critical functions”?

Have you ever noticed that your electronics will suddenly stop doing what they have been doing, more or less reliably, for months or years, when you haven’t changed any settings? My earbuds for my iPhone do that. I’ve had the thing for almost a year now, and most of the time it works fine. But then, for no reason that I can discern, one day the little control on the right-hand wire will cease to function. Yesterday, for example, I was listening to music on my iPhone when it rang. I pressed the button, which in this circumstance, should switch it from music to phone mode and answer the call. 

Nothing happened.

Neither did the volume control on the earbud wire work. To adjust the volume, I have to use the on-screen controls or the buttons on the side of the handset. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is inconvenient when you have to put your book away, re-sling your briefcase on your shoulder and dig the phone out of your jacket pocket. Of course, by the time you do that, the call has gone to voice-mail.

This same thing happened last spring. I noticed that the control button on the wire didn’t work to adjust the volume or skip to the next song as I was listening while riding my bike to work. I thought perhaps that I had damaged the wire by taking the iPhone on my bike, although the phone had never suffered an impact. But after a couple of weeks, the button began working again of its own accord.

This happened a number of times over the spring and summer, but by August or so, the functionality seemed to settle down and just work as it should. Until yesterday.

This same self-discombobulation happens other electronics, too. My DVD player gets grumpy when I press the buttons too quickly, and then seizes up. I have to unplug it to clear it. 

At unpredictable intervals, my printers will cease to function — without any changes to the system, settings or options.

Yesterday, I printed a letter I wrote on my desktop computer, no problem. Today, my son tried to print a report for a university assignment, and got an error message that said his computer couldn’t find the printer.

In that two-day interval, no one made any changes to the settings or the operating system. But in a span of two days, repeating the same instruction once brought two different results. 

Einstein supposedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same actions and expecting different results. Einstein, obviously, never had to put up with microcomputers.

Naturally, I welcome any suggestions to solve these problems. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

How a friend's comment solved a major writing problem

Image source: writeshop.com
I have been wrestling for years over how to organize my work-in-progress, Walking from the USSR. An almost casual comment from a friend over dinner presented a solution.

Now I feel I can wrap this baby up!

The book is the story of my father-in-law, Maurice, who served in the Red Army during the Second World War. It’s a complex story, because his life, like all of ours, I suppose, had several distinct phases. Understanding this story requires an explanation of the shifting borders of Poland, Germany, Ukraine and other countries, and some little-known facts about the war itself and who was on whose side.

I have written separate chapters and have enough raw material written down now to fill several books. All I need is to organize it and write a few connecting passages.

The trouble is, I’ve been at this same stage for well over a year now. I have made almost no progress in all that time. I have to admit, in that year I also wrote and published my second novel, One Shade of Red, and wrote a few other short stories and poems (and kept up with the rest of my life, but all writers do that). But the bottom line is that I didn’t get anywhere with the book.

Until last week, when a group of old friends got together at a local steakhouse for our quasi-annual bull session. One friend, Michel, asked how the writer was going. I summed up: “I’ve written most of the book, but I’m stuck on how to organize it.”

“What’s the book about?” Michel asked and sipped his beer.

“My father-in-law. He was drafted into the Red Army, was captured by the Germans, escaped from their POW camp, made his way with his 12 men back home, joined the resistance, was re-drafted when the Soviets came back, and fought through to Berlin before he could come back home to Montreal.”

I had to explain a little more — how a Canadian-born man ended up in the Red Army in the first place — and then Michel said “Why don’t you just tell it like that? He was drafted into the army, was captured and then escaped?”

I couldn’t say another word. Of course. It’s so simple — why hadn’t I worked that out long ago?

Sometimes, you’re too close to the subject to see it. It took someone who knew nothing about the project to make sense of it.

But that's the point of beta-readers, editors and literary friends. They can tell you about the obvious things that you, the obsessed writer, just cannot see.

That's another reason that we writers have to stick together. And have to get out of our homes or writing studios or wherever we write and talk to human beings occasionally. It just makes everything better. And far from being another distraction from writing, human contact is the stuff of which writing is spun.

Okay, now I have to get down to finishing the book. But at least now I can see the path clearly.

Thanks, Michel!

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Breathing life into long-lost cultures: Zoe Saadia's writing style

What is style? Written Words continues to explore the issue of style among independent authors. This time, I’ve asked historical novelist Zoe Saadia to weigh in.

Saadia is unique among writers of historical fiction. Her novels, like At Road’s End, The Warrior’s Way, The Highlander and her latest, Two Rivers, are set in pre-European contact North America. The cultures of the place and time play very important roles in the stories. These factors place a particular challenge for the novelist, whose job it is to bring the audience into the created world.

I faced a similar challenge, if not as steep, with my historical fantasy, The Bones of the Earth, set in Dark Age eastern Europe. At least in my case, I could find some historical information about the peoples and the cultures of that setting. Pre-Columbian Americas, though, have less background information readily available.

That’s what I asked Zoe first.

Your books are set in a place and time unusual, if not unique, in literature: pre-Columbian MesoAmerica, specifically the Toltec, Aztec and Mayan cultures. What was it that inspired you to write historical fiction in that setting?
My main goal is to present pre-contact Americas to the wide audience of readers, to make people discover and enjoy these neglected cultures and periods. 

For some reason, historical novelists paid no attention to such large chunk of history, while doing to death all those well familiar times and places. Rome and Greece, Medieval Europe, Stuarts and Tudors and the Regency’s sparkling balls and receptions, all those and more have tomes of wonderful historical fiction to represent them, plenty of movies to fill our screens; while two large continents prior to their “discovery” seem to have no history at all — judging by the historical fiction genre, that is. Their conquest is well covered, and the post-conquest times, but what was there before?

Well, fifteen years of research had shown me that there were many fascinating things to find in pre-contact Americas, many different cultures, ways of life, upheavals and revolutions, empires rising and falling, democracies being born. A wonderfully rich field for historical novelist, and so far untouched by others – what a treasure  
So for now I have Central America covered with “Pre-Aztec” and “The Rise of the Aztecs” series, presenting the turbulent Mesoamerican history of the 14th and 15th centuries and how the well-known (to us) “Aztec” Empire came to rise. 
My North American books, the Peacemaker Trilogy, cover the process through which the great Iroquois confederacy was born — the famous democracy the constitution of which inspired quite a few clauses in the modern-day USA constitution (a fact admitted by the Founding Fathers in quite a few letters).
How long does the research take for one of your novels? What sources do you use?
The initial research takes long, a few years and more, but as I write series, I use the already accumulated information for one novel for the next. This way the research and the writing advance alongside each other. 

For example, when I was writing the novels of Pre-Aztec series, which are set in the capital of the regional power that preceded the familiar Aztec empire, I did not intend to write “The Rise of the Aztecs” series. 

Yet, as the general story progressed along with the research, I found myself yearning to learn more. The cultural details of the daily life were already there, the people’s mentality, their attitude, their way of life. So, I checked and rechecked the facts outlining the events. Tthe conquered cultures are always more difficult to research, as the original documents get destroyed and the version of the past events reported to us by the conquerors is terribly distorted, coated with a thick layer of unashamed propaganda. 
This way it was much easier to write the next series, with even some of the characters sneaking in, insisting on their own private history being developed beyond the general happy, or unhappy, previous ending.
How would you describe your own writing style?
My writing style is not a customary way of writing historical fiction. As I truly want to make a wide range of people discover the cultures I’m featuring in my novels, I write in a lighter style of action-adventures stories, as much for history lovers as for the enjoyment of a person who would not pick a history book given a choice.
So, while grounded in solid, well researched history, my stories are full of action, centered around all sorts of people, fictional and historical characters, behaving like regular men and women with feelings and desires of normal human beings all around the globe and in all times. Cultural values and technology aside, to my firm belief, people were always people, with their basic needs and ambitions, in Caesar’s Rome, Napoleon’s France, Moctezuma’s Tenochtitlan or modern-day New York City.
So, as I myself love fast-paced, easily flowing books to read, I make a point of writing my stories in this way, full of action, adventure and humor whenever possible.
What are the important elements of your style? What are you trying to achieve?
I want to make people discover pre-contact Americas; to meet the fascinating nations and cultures that inhabited these lands, all those various different civilizations. I want to break the terribly wrong image the colonial books and records created, which Hollywood cemented later on with its terribly distorted Westerns. This is my main goal
One challenge for writers of historical fiction is finding the appropriate “voice,” particularly in dialogue. How do you write dialogue that is at once reflective of the characters’ culture, and not outlandish or irritating to the readers?
Oh yes, it is a challenge. The cultural conceptions are, indeed, difficult to “translate” to our language, sometimes.
But then, it’s a very interesting, satisfying challenge — to make your characters likeable, understandable to the modern-day readers, while avoiding turning them into modern people dressed in costumes. There is nothing more irritating for me as a reader of historical fiction as running into a shallow historical novel full of modern-behaving characters. 

To avoid that, good cultural research helps. To just sift through the heap of the historical records is not enough. One needs to understand the people one is writing about, sometimes by enlisting the help of the modern-day history enthusiasts from these areas, many times the descendents of the involved cultures. I’m very lucky to have many friends all over Mexico, people who help me understand the events I may have misinterpreted otherwise, people who even are teaching me Nahuatl, the original language of the Aztecs and the other local peoples, which is still very much in use all over the western Mexico.

This way the characters of my books behave naturally, making the readers sympathize with them and their action, even though some of these may not make sense according to our values.
Are there any authors whose style you admire? Do you try to emulate them?
My main idols are Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, both exceptional historical novelists, whose every book I reread many times. Each time, I learn about different times and cultures without noticing, while enjoying myself immensely. Both these authors made me realize the power of the historical fiction as opposed to the non-fictional historical accounts. 

As for emulating, I suppose I tried to emulate them in the beginning, but today I think I developed my own style. Still, if likened to one of them, I would be extremely flattered.
Are there authors whose writing style you dislike?
I have trouble with over-descriptive writing style of many old-day classics.
Do you think your type of literature, historical fiction, imposes certain restrictions on writing style?
No, I don’t think so. I found that a novel is a novel, that every story could, and in my opinion should, be full of action, with the fictional side coming ahead of the historical one. The historical and cultural backgrounds are very important, but the story itself is more so. The trick is to manage to keep this balance
Do you think your audience responds to your writing style, consciously or unconsciously?
Oh yes, I think they are. 

For one, many people who don’t read historical fiction in general, seem to enjoy my books, appreciating the reader-friendly style of mine. 
On the other hand, sometimes I get criticized by the hard-core history fans, who are expressing their doubts regarding the depth of the historical research behind my novels. To their opinion historical novel should be suitably heavy, full of excessive descriptions. Luckily, those are not many, not enough to make me start doubting my style. 
I do want to reach many people, to make them learn history without noticing, while enjoying a good story, like a good historical fiction should do.
How important do you think writing style is to an author's commercial success?
I think it’s very important. Especially today, with the television providing a serious competition, we have to keep up, not make it most enjoyable for the readers, easy to read and to lose yourself in the story. 
Thank you so much for your fascinating knowledgable questions, Scott. I enjoyed myself immensely, answering them!
Thank you, Zoe!

After years of researching Classic ancient Meditterranean history, Zoe Saadia turned to the Great League of the Iroquois and their amazingly detailed constitution. The common points and differences in the two cultures and their take on democracy spurred more research and study, and eventually led Saadia to write two series set in pre-Columbian Mesoamera: the “Pre-Aztec” series (At Road’s End, The Young Jaguar, The Jaguar Warrior and The Warrior’s Way), and the “Rise of the Aztecs” series (The Highlander, Crossing Worlds, The Emperor’s Second Wife and Currents of War).

Her newest series is set among the Iroquois Confederacy: Two Rivers, Across the Great Sparkling Water, and The Great Law of Peace.

Zoe Saadia is a founding member of Independent Authors International.

Visit her website and blog, Pre-Columbian Americas.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Charmin: when cute passes creepy to downright aggravating

I can’t keep it in anymore: I’m completely grossed out by Charmin toilet paper’s ads.

You know them, the series featuring cute talking bears who use Charmin toilet paper to shit in the woods. (Bill Maher claims the current Pope really isn’t Catholic, so I guess Charmin completes the trope.) 

The ad campaign was stupid enough when it claimed that Charmin didn’t break up and leave little bits of paper on your ass. I mean, beyond the fact that since bears don’t wear clothes and therefore probably wouldn’t be embarrassed about having paper on their backsides, how would any human ever know about toilet paper stuck to someone else’s ass?

That was creepy enough. But the latest goes well beyond it. In this one, Mama Bear brings in the newest “improved” Charmin, and Papa Bear goes absolutely ga-ga. But no, Mama won’t let him touch it.

For crying out loud, Mama Bear! Have sex with your husband once in a while so he has something to fantasize about besides toilet paper!

And Charmin: pull your heads out of your own asses.