Oct 27, 2015

Karen Walker Guest Post

Today I've got a fellow author paying a visit. Karen Walker is one of the first people I connected with when I first set out on my writing and blogging journey, so it's a thrill to have her here to talk about her new novel, The Wishing Steps.


Thank you, Paul, for hosting me today. 

2009 was a major turning point in my life. My memoir, which took ten years to bring to fruition, was published in February. My husband and I had a dream trip planned to go to Machu Picchu (high on my bucket list). Then I had to have shoulder surgery and we couldn’t go. We had a limited amount of time in which to use the airline tickets. The only places we could find to travel during the timeframe were Scotland and Ireland.

Terrified to tackle the narrow, winding roads on our own, and fearful we wouldn’t find any of the sites we were interested in seeing, we hired drivers. Our trip began in Edinburgh, Scotland. On the second day, as soon as I stood amidst the ruins of Balnauran of Clava, a 2,000-year-old burial site, I heard an unfamiliar inner voice say, “Tell my story.” Having never heard voices before, I was taken aback and wasn’t sure I heard what I thought I heard. So I said, “Sorry, I’m on vacation.”

The voice came again a week later when I was exploring the Wishing Steps at Blarney Castle in Ireland. This time, the energy I felt was stronger and harder to ignore. We finished our trip and when I came home I thought that was the end of the mysterious voice. But it wasn’t. As I said, I’d never heard voices before so when this voice/energy continued to plague, er, speak to me, I knew I needed to listen.
The writing coach and editor I’d used for my memoir (Mark David Gerson, www.markdavidgerson.com) wrote a book called “Voice of the Muse.” I decided to do the exercises in the book and work with him in private sessions as well. I might write a companion piece to The Wishing Steps detailing the journey from hearing that voice for the first time to finishing the book. But what I can say here briefly is that it became a deeply profound and moving spiritual journey to tune into this voice of wisdom, which I call Goddess, and listen to its guidance. What the book became is my imagining what it might have been like when Goddess came to the very first woman back in prehistoric times. The story took off from there.
Here’s the scoop on The Wishing Steps.

Three Women and a Single Story That Unites Them Across the Millennia
"Totally engrossing. A must-read for today’s wise woman!” Rev. Kathleen McKern Verigin, minister/priestess
Brighid, Ashleen and Megan: Bound through time by a curious light, a mysterious voice and a call they dare not ignore. Yet in obeying this strange force, the women must face soul-searing trials that call into question everything they know and believe — about themselves and about the world around them.
“Guaranteed to inspire you to a deeper level of spirituality and a new appreciation for Goddess.” Rev. Clara Z. Alexander
Karen Helene Walker is a widely published essayist and author of the 2009 memoir, Following the Whispers. When she isn’t writing, you will often find Karen performing in nursing homes and retirement communities as part of the Sugartime or Sophisticated Ladies musical groups, traveling with her husband of 20 years, Gary, or relaxing with a good book at their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Visit the author’s website at www.karenhelenewalker.com

The Wishing Steps is available for purchase now at: Amazon.com (both print and ebook), Kobo, Barnes and Noble and iTunes.

Oct 22, 2015

Watch & Learn: The Star Wars Trailer

A little while ago I mentioned wanting to do a new series of posts extracting writing lessons from movies. Well, here we go. And I thought we'd ease into things with something short and easy to watch. Our first subject is the final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Let's watch it again:

Confession time: I adore film trailers. When they're done properly, they can be works of art in their own right. And the trailer for The Force Awakens is one of the best I've ever seen. I'd go so far as to say it's a perfect example of how to make a film trailer.

But we're not here to look at how to make a trailer; we're here to learn how to improve our writing, taking lessons from one. So sit back, class is in session.

There are three lessons we can take from the trailer:

  1. How to evoke feeling without spelling things out.
  2. How to make something old feel fresh and new.
  3. Showing respect for your readers.
Lesson 1: Evoke feeling

The one thing everyone's saying about this trailer is how emotional it makes them feel. And I get it. From 01:22 when the Force Theme comes in (one of my favourite pieces of music of all time), I get tears in my eyes. On repeat viewings, we can see more points where we're drawn to care for these characters.

Early in the trailer, we see Rey, the scavenger who declares she is "no one." Her portrayal echoes Luke Skywalker's desperate wish to leave his home and make something of his life. Something every one of us can relate to. The sense of being a forgettable nobody is a universal fear. So immediately, the trailer connects with a deep, primal feeling, particularly in young children. 

Next up is Finn, the turncoat Stormtrooper. "I have nothing to fight for" he says. A lost sense of purpose is a common problem faced as we grow older, especially during our teenage years and early twenties. So here's an emotional hook for a slightly older audience. 

Of course, no story is complete without its villains, and so we are next shown the First Order forces. Kylo Ren gives a threatening promise of finishing what Darth Vader started, and we see that the First Order looks every bit as well-equipped and well-organised as the Empire. With the way the trailer is structured, despite not being told anything specific about the plot, we get the distinct impression that the Resistance forces are in trouble. 

Let's take a step back from the trailer itself and consider the naming conventions. The villains are the First Order, a name that evokes strength and authority, but is also deeply sinister, suggestive of ingrained propaganda and tyranny. Finn's words, that he was "raised for one thing" support this.

Meanwhile, the heroes fight for the Resistance. The idea of a resistance suggests a very weak force, compared to their opponents. Even the Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy had a more structured-sounding name. An alliance means command hierarchy, even political leaders. But a resistance is a rag-tag group who have banded together to fight back. The last hope against a superior, despotic government.

I'll finish up this section with Han's lines.

"It's true. All of it. The Dark Side. The Jedi. They're real."

This is the final part of the age progression. Remember that there are multiple generations who'll be seeing this movie. The very young, experiencing it for the first time. The ones Rey is there to reach. Then there are the teens and younger adults, who may have had their first Star Wars experience by seeing The Phantom Menace. The ones Finn is there for, who might be a little bit doubtful as to what they should expect. 

Han is the oldest. And he is there to connect with the older viewers. The ones who grew up on Star Wars, the ones who may have even seen the original trilogy in theatres. When he responds to Rey, he's literally telling old and new audiences "This story is here, and it's for you." It's reassurance for those who might still have doubts that the Star Wars movie franchise can come back from the disappointing prequel trilogy. More to the point, his words also hint that the Jedi have become even more of a myth, that the guardians of peace and justice have not been restored, and that now is the time for them to return.

Lesson 2: Bring old and new together

I've often said that pursuing true originality in fiction is a bad move. Strive to write the best story you can, and don't worry so much about whether or not it's been done before. Few places can show this like Star Wars. A 40 year-old franchise with countless stories across all forms of media, there is pretty much no way to be sure of telling a Star Wars story that doesn't resemble an older one. 

So how to make the story feel new and fresh, while still paying respect to what's gone before? Well, look at the trailer again. We first get Rey, a new character, then we see Stormtroopers, a familiar sight. This leads to Finn, another new character, and a hurtling TIE Fighter which mirrors the escape pod sequence from A New Hope that brought Artoo and Threepio to Tatooine. Subtle suggestions remind us that we're in an established world with a long legacy, but never let us forget that this is a new story about new characters. 

Look at how Han Solo and the Millenium Falcon are used. Han is the primary original trilogy character used throughout the trailers. He doesn't dominate, he supports. His presence reinforces the new elements. We see the new characters on board the Falcon, ready to set off on their adventure. But unlike the prequel trilogies, what we see is not dominated by callbacks to the older movies. This is Passing the Torch 101. Old and new coming together.

In a sense, we've seen this all before. Stormtroopers, lightsabers, heroes scrambling to repel an attack while TIE Fighters fill the air. It all harkens to the original trilogy, the desert planet, the ice planet, the forest planet, but in a way that acknowledges the relevance of the past stories but stands on its own, rather than trying to coast along, hoping the reminders of the original trilogy will be enough to carry the audience through.

Also worth noting is the title of the movie. This isn't Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It's The Force Awakens. The previous trilogies are done, they're over. This is not something trying to shove its way into that saga. This is a new saga, one that anyone can enjoy. There are things which are familiar, and all new characters and events to discover.

Lesson 3: Respect your audience

Han's lines are important in more ways than one. On the surface, he's establishing a major aspect of the setting. The ongoing absence of the Jedi and the passing of his adventures into myth. But on another level, he's giving a very important message to us, the audience. 

Everyone's made fun of George Lucas for how he changes things, seemingly on a whim. He's been accused of having no respect for fans of the franchise time and again. From the racist stereotypes to Greedo shooting first, the "Nooooo!" scene, Anakin's virgin birth and 'midichlorians,' it's safe to say nothing was sacred back when the prequels were being made. If Lucas wanted to change something to make more money, he did it.

But that isn't happening here.

It would mean nothing if JJ Abrams came along and said "I promise you guys I'm going to do a good job!" If anything, it would come off as desperate, and a sure sign that the movie was going to be poorly-received.

No, here, Han Solo himself tells us that the stories are true. Star Wars. Our stories, the ones we've grown up watching and loving, are all true. We're being assured that the people behind this movie care about those stories as much as we, the audience, do. They matter. 

"They're real."

Class dismissed.

Oct 20, 2015

Star Wars and Racism

First, let's all sit back and watch this:


Okay wow. Right there at 01:22, when the Force Theme surges in, has me in tears. And that shot of the Millenium Falcon blasting through hyperspace? Holy crap this looks like everything I've ever hoped it could be.

With that out of the way, the new trailer comes hot on the heels of the latest anti-diversity outcry.

There is a hashtag doing the rounds, #BoycottStarWarsVII. And it's about accusing Star Wars of promoting white genocide.

I can't even muster up the will to try and play nice on this stuff anymore. Having a lead cast of character who include a white woman, a black man, and an hispanic man is not the same as promoting genocide, it's realising that there are more people, more characters, out there than white guys. Star Wars has been made fun of in the past for how few women and black people there are, and now we have two non-white characters taking center stage in a movie and that's supposed to be worthy of a boycott?

Guess what? Like the people who complained about Star Wars: Aftermath pushing an SJW agenda for having gay characters, anyone who thinks there's a problem with non-white characters in Star Wars is one of the bad guys. I know, we're not supposed to see the world in simple Good vs Evil terms, but damn, these people are making it hard not to. The Empire is evil, we all accept this. It is also famously racist. Species are kept as slaves, and non-humans struggle to achieve any success or acceptance in the Imperial government and military. Racism is explicitly a part of what makes the Empire the bad guys.

The Rebels, on the other hand, bring together species from various worlds, uniting despite their differences.

Can the irony of this argument really be so lost on people? How can they claim to love a franchise where they exemplify the traits of the villains?

Well, whatever. Let them stamp their feet and shout from the rooftops. Let them shun everything that tells them anything other than that they are the center of the universe. More room in the cinema for the rest of us.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to watch the trailer again...

Oct 14, 2015

What makes feminism hard to accept?

It's on my mind lately. Feminism is the belief that men and women should be treated equally in the eyes of the law and society, with no special favour or discrimination based on gender. It has further development in LGBTQ feminism and racial feminism, as LGBTQ women and women of colour have their own challenges they face that other women don't. But at its core, feminism is still based on the idea that a woman should not be treated differently than a man simply because of her gender. It seems simple enough, but any time I post something about it, or see someone else talk about it, you could almost set your watch by the time it takes a man to object.

Why is that?

I'm opening this up for discussion. Let's get it out in the open. Now, as a primer for this, I want to address two things:

  1. Feminism is about hating men - False. While there are people who hate men, we're going to stick with the dictionary definition of feminism here, as it is what the overwhelming majority of people who claim the feminist title want (and besides, it's not comparable to misogyny, since women who hate men tend to avoid them or at worst hurt their feelings, while men who hate women do much worse...)
  2. What about Men's Rights? - Yes, men have rights, and a range of problems, such as male victims of domestic abuse not being taken seriously, higher chance of suicide. Being told that catcalling is inappropriate is not a men's rights issue.
With those out of the way, I'll open this one up to the floor. 

Oct 13, 2015

A big thank you

To everyone who helped make Octocon 2015 such an amazing experience!

This was my first time attending Octocon as a guest, and I enjoyed every moment. Every panel was compelling, and every panelist I shared the table with brought great insight to the topics at hand. I'm working on a post-con report for Writing.ie, due for next week, so I'll save a lot of the nitty gritty for that. Suffice to say for now that if Octocon ever want me to be a guest again, I'd be happy to do it.

I was on 7 panels over the weekend, and I've found that the busy schedule definitely suits me. I felt utterly energised every day and was genuinely sorry when my last panel ended. My only regrets of the weekend are the number of great panels I wanted to sit in on that clashed with other commitments, and not having more time to chat with old and new friends.

I can't stress enough how wonderful events like this are for any author. You'll never get the same opportunity to mingle and exchange ideas with your peers and your readers all at once anywhere else.

Here's a run-down of some highlights:

  • The staff and other attendees being so accepting of Jen and I having the girls with us, and helpful in keeping them entertained.
  • Selling a bunch of books to attendees. There's nothing like seeing a stack of books shrink to boost your morale.
  • People I didn't know coming up to me and asking me to sign books. One had even brought his copy of Lady Raven with him for me to sign. There were only copies of The Memory Wars available to buy at the trade stand, so this was a wonderful surprise.
  • Discovering that JRR Tolkien believed Ireland to be fundamentally evil. Nice chap...
  • Sharing panels with some of my favourite people in the Irish SFF scene, and finding more awesome people to add to that list.
  • Having the whole panel on Practical Magic disagree with my opening point, which led to some great discussion on the nature and history of magic, and the problematic side of decreeing one kind of magic is "light" and another is "dark."

And as a final note, thank you to Gar Kavanagh, who has now stepped down as Octocon chair. It was him who first suggested I volunteer to join panels for Octocon 2012. It was one of the best decisions I've made in my career and I'll always be grateful to him for that. He's done sterling work as chair for the last several years.

I can't believe I have to wait a whole year for the next one. I need to go to more cons...

Oct 5, 2015

Went the distance, now I'm back on my feet

Yeah, I've totally dropped the ball on my blogging, huh? I'm sorry, guys. I'm going to work at it, I promise. I have some fun ideas for topics, too.

Last month I talked about making a fresh start, and how I needed to increase my Lady Raven sales before I could make plans for the third book in the series. Well, that's still very much the case, but things have been getting better for us overall and I'm hopeful we'll see some movement there in the new year.

Keeping with the positive changes, I've started work on a new book, going back to urban fantasy with an all-new series set in my beloved New York. When you've just come through a rough patch and want to get things moving again, why not work with what you know best? I'll have some more details about that as I write, but suffice it to say it's about fears and dreams and transforming one's hardships into power.

I'm heading to Octocon this weekend, both as a guest and as a writer for Writing.ie. I'll be doing a report on the event afterwards, so if anyone wants to share their thoughts, come and find me. You can find my panel timetable here.

What else is there? Oh yes, I mentioned new blog topic ideas. I used to write analyses of movies where I broke them down into the Hero's Journey, and while I really enjoyed them, there's a limited about you can do laying a single literary device over different stories. So I'm going to go further with that, and start a series of articles where I explain the writing lessons we can learn from movies. Movies, particularly ones aimed at younger audiences, need to be easily accessible and keep the audience engaged. They are a wonderful source of inspiration and examples of storytelling techniques. I'm aiming to get my first one up next week. I just need to come up with a name for them. I'm thinking "Writing Lessons From..." or "Let's Watch and Learn..." Any preferences?

And since one of my panels at Octocon is specifically about magic and how the interpretation of it intersects across fiction, games, and pagan beliefs, I figure the time is right to be a little more open about my spirituality. I won't be preaching, don't worry (I hate being preached at, myself), and any such article will be clearly marked so if anyone has no interest in spirituality, or finds it uncomfortable to discuss, can avoid them.

I guess what I'm saying is, I'm back. I'm back writing. Back blogging. Back in the world. Back being happy.

Let's do this.