Every year, bestselling author Brenda Novak sponsors an auction to support finding a cure of diabetes. This year, I’m honored to participate in this worthy cause. As someone who is “recently” diagnosed with Type II Diabetes (I was officially diagnosed in March 2011, so I’ve spent the past year adjusting to this new lifestyle.), this cause is especially dear to me.
For that reason, I’m offering some fabulous items for you, my faithful Minions, to fight over–uh, bid on. Here are my offerings:
For Writers — Critique of a partial (up to 200 pages!) unpublished manuscript!
* Any genre
* Critique will focus on plot, pacing, and character development
* Manuscripts are due for review no later than August 31, 2012
* Maximum of a two (2) month turn around
* Follow up emails and/or phone call
I rarely offer critiques so this is huge. If you’re looking for feedback on a project, here’s your chance.
Tons of great items from outstanding authors are available. If you’ve never considered bidding on something, please consider it now. Support a great cause and win some seriously awesome stuff.
I admit it: One thing I love most about starting a new project is the research. Beginning with a kernel of an idea, selecting books and surfing websites to fertilize that kernel, pulling together disparate mythologies and cool modern science, and then watching my little kernel blossom into a carnivorous flesh-eating plant….*sigh* It’s magical.
In Part 1 of the “Writing Urban Fantasy” series, I said that — aside from the basic rules of grammar, spelling, and story structure — there are no rules to writing fiction, and this is true. However, this doesn’t always mean you can make the stuff up willynilly and trust readers to buy into it because you, the author, says so. Readers are far more savvy than that, especially readers of urban fantasy. There is a proliferation of urban fantasy on the market and readers who enjoy this genre tend to read A LOT and have seen multiple mutations of various supernatural beasties so you’re going to have to create something a little (or a lot) different as well as make sure your real world facts are in order.
With that said, I’m going to lay out my rules for researching an urban fantasy novel. Yes, I said there are no real rules to writing urban fantasy. However, there are rules for research…or at least there should be…and these aren’t “rules” so much as “guidelines.” They’re holdovers from my college days and have served me well. Hopefully you will find them equally useful.
Research Rule #1: Wikipedia is NOT an acceptable primary source.
First, let me just say that I like Wikipedia and use it often. However, I do NOT accept any information I gather from the site as valid without verifying it in at least two other non-internet sources. Why? Because anyone can add information to Wikipedia and the information presented on the site is often inaccurate or unverified. Therefore, unless I can verify the information through outside sources, I usually discount it.
This is especially important for information regarding the real world. If Wikipedia tells me the state capital of Mississippi is Hattiesburg, I’m going to refer to A) a map of the state, B) the state’s official website, C) a book on Mississippi state history. If verified, I’ll run with Hattiesburg as the capital. (FYI: Hattiesburg is not the capital of Mississippi — Jackson is.)
When we enter the supernatural realm of mythology, folklore, and things that go bump in the night, this level of inaccuracy isn’t as important. After all, the key word in “urban fantasy” is “fantasy.” Find the information that suits your particular project or make it up as you go along.
Research Rule #2: When in doubt, leave it out.
Confession: I know a little more than jacksquat about police procedures, and yet I write a series in which the main character is a federal agent. How am I able to do this? I researched my butt into oblivion before ever setting fingers to keyboard, and I probably used a tenth of the information I gathered.
Much of the information I left out dealt with forensics. I’m not an expert in the field nor do I want to become one. I have rudimentary understand of most procedures, especially with regards to crime scenes, and the rest occurs off-page because I don’t fully understand the various tests and procedures. I gloss over the parts I don’t know or understand and then manipulate the results to achieve my goals.
As an expert in the field told me several years ago, it’s better to gloss over those bits and just present your results than to include inaccurate information because the real experts will call you out for it.
Research Rule #3: Go beyond the books whenever possible.
Writing a novel set in Grand Rapids, Michigan in November when you live in Honolulu, Hawaii can be challenging. Unless you’re originally from Michigan and are familiar with the Grand Rapids area and all the nuiances that come from living in the northern US, you’re going to have to do some research. Yes, books and websites are wonderful starting points, but nothing beats walking the city’s streets in November and experiencing it first hand.
The same is true of law enforcement or hospitals or most professions. Nothing can compare to the actual experience of traveling 100+ mph along the interstate at 2:00am with lights and sirens as you respond to a radio call of “shots fired.” This is something I’ve experience first hand and will never forget.
If you’re setting a story in an unfamiliar location, try to arrange a trip to that location. Stay a few days. Take pictures. Talk to locals. Try to pick up “the vibe” of the area. You may not use everything you learn, but your story will be much better because you have that knowledge.
If you’re writing a story about law enforcement, check with your local metro police or sheriff’s departments. Some cities and counties offer “citizen acadamies” in which people from the community can interact with law enforcement officials from different branches. Many programs such as these will offer a ride-along program — you get to spend time with an officer on patrol and see what they see. (That’s how I ended up traveling 100+ mph along the interstate at 2AM.) If your community doesn’t offer a citizen academy program, most law enforcement agencies have a public relations officer on staff. Reach out to him or her, explain your interest, and most are willing to work with authors.
The same is true of the medical field, although it’s more difficult to gain access to “insider information” due to patient confidentiality laws. However, many hospitals have a volunteer program. While you may not have access to “the action,” it’s a great way to meet staff who may be willing to talk outside of work about what they do, and you’re also giving back to the community. It’s a win-win.
Now, I mentioned books and websites at the beginning of this post. I’m a bibliophile. I collect books. Yes, I have an e-reader and I love it, but I use it primarily for novels — fun reading. When I’m researching, I prefer the feel of a real book. Plus, I also tend to make notes in margins and use a ton of stick notes to create a “road map” for myself. Again, it’s something I’ve done since college and I doubt I’ll change.
How much research you put in to your “fantasy” elements is really up to you. It does pay to know basics, especially if you’re writing about spellwork or something in the magical arts. Again, people who really do know this stuff will call you on anything that seems to far outside the realm of believable. That doesn’t mean you can’t make anything up as you go. In fact, it’s best if you do. However, a little research can spark all kinds of new ideas. Don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole leads you. You’re story could lie on the other side.
Below is a list of some of my favorite research books. Most can be readily found on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or even better, grab the ISBN and ask your local indie store if they have it in stock or are willing to order it for you. Others may be out of print and harder to find — check eBay or Half. com for some of the harder to find books. Also, do be afraid to check the shelves at the local Goodwill, Salvation Army store, or other charity-based outlet. You may be surprised what you find. Estate sales and garage sales are also great resources for older books, as are library sales. Second-hand book stores are also great.
Here’s my list of some of my fave research books…and please be aware these represent only a fraction of the books I actually possess and actively reference:
The Elements of Style – Strunk and White
Vampire Universe – Jonathan Maberry
They Bite! – Jonathan Maberry
Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and other Monsters – Rosemary Guiley
The Science of Vampires – Katherine Ramsland
Psychic Vampire Codex – Michelle Belanger
The Vampire Book: Encyclopedia of the Undead – J. Gordon Melton
The Vampire Encyclopedia – Matthew Bunson
The Vampire in Lore and Legend – Montague Summers
In Search of Dracula – Raymond T. McNally
Our Vampires, Ourselves – Nina Auerbach
Vampires and Vampirism – Dudley Wright
Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend – Mark Collins Jenkins
Vampyre Sanguinomicon: The Lexicon of the Living Vampire – Father Sebastiaan
Werewolves, Demons, Zombies & Other Critters:
Zombie CSU: Forensics of the Undead – Jonathan Maberry
Dictionary of Demons – Michelle Belanger
The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology – Rosemary Guiley
Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels – Gustav Davidson
The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Rosemary Guiley
A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits – Carol K. Mack
The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King – Aleister Crowley
Fallen Angels, the Watchers, and the Origins of Evil – Joseph B. Lumpkin
Werewolves: A Field Guide to Shapeshifters, Lycanthropes, and Man-Beasts – Bob Curran
The Werewolf Book – Brad Steiger
The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures: The Ultimate A-Z of Fantastic Beings From Myth and Magic – John Matthews and Caitlin Matthews
The Fae World:
Faeries: Deluxe Collector’s Edition – Brian Froud
Brian Froud’s World of Faerie (v. 1) – Brian Froud and Ari Berk
Good Faeries Bad Faeries – Brian Froud
Goblins! A Survival Guide and Fiasco in Four Parts – Ari Berk and Brian Froud
Gnomes 30th Anniversary Edition – Wil Huygen
Giants – Julek Heller
Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia – Carol Rose
Fairies (Mysteries, Legends, and Unexplained Phenomena)- Rosemary Guiley
Note: Books listed here are for reference only. I do not advocate the practical use of any information found within these tomes without proper research, study, guidance, and/or training.
The Element Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells: The Ultimate Reference Book for the Magical Arts – Judika Illes
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs – Scott Cunningham
The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews – Scott Cunningham
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem & Metal Magic – Scott Cunningham
Practical Candleburning Rituals – Raymond Buckland
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols: The Ultimate A-Z Guide from Alchemy to the Zodiac – Adele Nozedar
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen – Scott Cunningham
The Alchemists Handbook: Manual for Practical Laboratory Alchemy – Frater Albertus
Three Books of Occult Philosophy – Henry Cornelius Agrippa, James Freake, and Donald Tyson
Liber Null & Psychonaut: An Introduction to Chaos Magic – Peter J. Carroll
This concludes the second installment of the “Writing Urban Fantasy” series. Up next…character development!
However, I don’t love people who obtain them without paying for them. I’m not talking about lending a book to your friend or checking out a book from the library. By all means, support your local library. Borrow from your friend. No, I’m talking about theft in the form of electronic file sharing, or e-piracy.
Karen Dionne, author of FREEZING POINT and BOILING POINT, wrote an article for DailyFinance about the high costs of e-piracy and what it means to authors. In her article, she makes the following statements:
“At one file-sharing website, users have uploaded 1,830 copies of three books by a popular young adult author. Just one of those copies has had 4,208 downloads. On the same site, 7,130 copies of the late Michael Crichton’s novels have been uploaded, and the first 10 copies have been downloaded 15,174 times.
Even if only a fraction of the downloads from this and dozens of other file-sharing websites represent actual lost sales, they still translate into a staggering amount of royalties that have been stolen from authors.” Click here to read the full article.
To say it’s “a staggering amount” is an understatement. Let’s examine the potential impact of even one of these examples.
Let’s take the 4,208 downloads of one book from a popular YA author. Let’s assume the book is available in mass market paperback and e-book formats for identical cover prices of $7.99. (E-books are often a little cheaper, but for our purposes we’ll assume an equal sale price.) Those 4,208 downloads represent $33,621.92 in lost sales, excluding tax.
We now come to the sticky bit, the harsh truth that most people don’t know about your favorite books. That $33,621.92 I mentioned? That isn’t the author’s money. We actually only see a small fraction of it. The majority goes to the publisher to cover costs of printing the book (or in this case, formatting the book to display correctly on a variety of e-readers), paying the cover artists and designers, paying the editor and copyeditor, and a host of other expenses.
So, how much of that $33,621.92 does the author see? Well, assuming again that the book originated in mass market paperback and the author had a cracking good agent who worked a really sweet deal, the author can count on seeing anywhere from 5% to 8% of the cover price. Most contract are actually written for less, but 5% is a good estimate. In other words, the author should receive roughly $1681.10 for those 4,208 e-copies, or approximately $0.40 per copy.
The third harsh reality of your favorite books is this: Until our advances are earned out and authors start drawing royalty checks, we aren’t drawing any money from the publisher. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Zero. This is why so many authors keep a 40-hours-a-week day job. Very few authors actually earn a living by writing alone.
What’s the fourth harsh truth? An author must pay his or her agent a percentage of their advance and royalties as well as income tax. The standard amount paid to an agent is 15%. So that $5000 advance from the publisher actually becomes $4250 ($750 goes to the agent) but we must still earn back the full $5000 paid by the publisher. Also the $1681.10 the author in our example would’ve received for 4,208 e-copies of her book if they were actually sold and not stolen (and assuming she’d earned out her advance already and was drawing royalty checks) would actually be $1428.93 (another $252.17 goes to the agent). The author must then pay income taxes at the self-employment of 15.3%…which means her grand take home pay is roughly $1210.30. Oh, and this doesn’t include whatever taxes are required by the state in which she
lives. The 15.3% self-employment tax is federal.
Here’s the fifth harsh truth… When you see an author at an event such as a convention, they’ve usually paid all travel expenses out of their own pocket. Registration fees, hotel, gas, plane or train tickets, food — all of it comes from our pocket.
Let’s assume our popular YA author, after paying her agent and taxes, has $1210.30 to attend a conference. Some of the larger conventions can have huge registration fees. Let’s say she wants to attend a national-level conference and registration cost $400 — that’s a huge chunk of her $1210.30. Now she wants to stay in the “host hotel” and has to pay an estimated at $200 per night at the conference rate and the conference last 4 days. She arrives the day before it starts and leaves the day after it ends for a grand total of 5 nights — that’s another $1000, which is $200 more than she has available. Add in travel expenses and food and our author is now in the red and losing money. Plus any promotional material she wants to take with her to advertise her book, such as book marks, pens, flyers, and all that other cool freebie stuff readers pick up by the handfuls, cost money to produce and the author is responsible for about 90% of it.
Good thing she has a day job and has saved a little extra money to supplement the cost of her writing.
Of course, we haven’t even covered the issue of how low sales for any reason can cause a publisher to not renew an author’s contract and affect the author’s ability to get a new contract with another publishing house. Lost contracts equal lost jobs for writers.
It also means the potential loss of your favorite books.
So go ahead and download that “free” e-copy and believe it’s not harming anyone, that “authors can afford it” because we all “get the big bucks.” Go ahead. Do it.
The final harsh truth is that we, as authors, can’t afford for you to want to save a few bucks and download a “free” copy of our work. It’s stealing. When you do it, you’re stealing our ideas, our time, and our ability to support our families.
The truth is no writer writes to get rich. We write because we love telling a story, because we love books, and because we want people to read the books we write.
We only ask that we be compensated for the time we so willingly give to creating the stories you love to read.
P.S. — I haven’t forgotten about the “Writing Urban Fantasy” blog series I started, but I’ve been busy, well, writing and will return to it soon.
What is urban fantasy?
Urban fantasy is often defined as having supernatural/paranormal elements layered over our recognizable modern or near-future world. The setting is a large city such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, or St. Louis. Often the main character is female and the story is told in first person point of view. The story can have elements pulled from other genres such as science fiction, mystery, horror, and romance and woven together in a cohesive manner with varying degrees of emphasis placed on each of these genre elements. Primarily, the plot will consist of a mystery to be solved or a problem to be corrected before some great calamity strikes. Romance, if present, is usually a secondary plot. Character and story arcs often carry for multiple books. These are “The Rules” of urban fantasy.
We could spend hours if not days debating the finer points of what is or isn’t urban fantasy. That is time we could spend doing more productive things, like writing the next book in a series or even the first book in a new series. For me, the definition hinges on the romance and if it’s the main focus of the story or not because it’s the easiest way to separate urban fantasy from its cousin, paranormal romance.
Where did it begin?
Most “experts” will point to the initial release of Laurell K. Hamilton’s GUILTY PLEASURES (Book 1 in the Anita Blake series) in the early 1990s as the beginning of the genre’s mass appeal to readers. However, I believe Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE would also qualify as an early example of urban fantasy, even though the point of view character is male and much of the story is told as Louis’s memories, the actual “interview” takes place modern times.
However, one could make a strong argument for finding urban fantasy’s roots in the Romantic Movement in works such as Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, Charles Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and Edgar Allan Poe’s MASK OF THE RED DEATH, to name a few. You’re probably thinking to yourself “But these are classics! How can they be urban fantasy?” The answer is simple: At the time they were written, they were set in the modern era, in urban centers, and carried an element of the supernatural. Time moves forward but the written word doesn’t. It’s fixed on the page.
Pinpointing the start of urban fantasy is difficult and open for debate. Suffice it to say the genre has steadily gained popularity is now one of the most widely read genres because of its broad appeal to readers of other genres.
What are some common elements?
The most common element is the supernatural. Whether the supernatural takes the form of vampires, werewolves, fairies, zombies, aliens, shapeshifters, or something else isn’t set in stone. Nearly any creature can make an appearance in urban fantasy.
What is the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance?
The two share 90% of their genre DNA. However, the main differences are this: Urban fantasy focuses on an issue outside of a romantic relationship between two characters. Paranormal romance focuses on a romantic relationship between two characters and how outside forces affect that relationship. The best litmus test to determine if a story is urban fantasy or paranormal romance is to ask the following question: “If the romance between Character A and Character B were removed, would the plot still stand as a viable storyline?” If the answer is “yes,” chances are good it’s urban fantasy. If the answer is “no,” it’s most likely paranormal romance.
Okay, so that covers the basics of urban fantasy. Are we clear on what is and isn’t urban fantasy? We’ve all got “The Rules” firmly fixed in our minds? Good.
Now forget everything I just said.
Because it’s fiction. When Mary Shelley wrote FRANKENSTEIN, she wasn’t concerned with a genre. She wanted to write a ghost story. She wanted to write fiction.
You want to write urban fantasy with a male protagonist? Do it. The “rule” that says you must have a female protagonist hasn’t stopped Jim Butcher, nor did it stop Mary Shelley.
You want to write urban fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic world? Do it. Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts series is a wonderful example of the broken “rule” that says it has to be a modern day or near future setting. You can even write a story set in the past. Edgar Allan Poe did. THE MASK OF THE RED DEATH uses the backdrop of the Black Plague for its setting even though Poe was writing in the 1800s, long after the plague had all but disappeared.
You want to write urban fantasy set in a small town? Do it. Look no further than the popularity of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series to see that small towns can be just as intriguing as large metropolitan areas. Charles Dickens’s London wasn’t the sprawling urban center it is today. Yes, it was still a large city but reading that story has the feel of being set in a smaller London.
You want to write urban fantasy with multiple character view points? Do it. Faith Hunter’s Rogue Mage series began with BLOODRING and featured both first and third person points of view. Bram Stoker’s DRACULA has multiple points of view and each is necessary to convey the story. This is important: The story dictates its needs. If it can be told from one character’s point of view, great. However, if more than one is required, don’t sweat it. There is no actual “rule” that says you can’t have more than one.
My point is this: Urban fantasy is a label used to identify where a book falls in the publishing spectrum. At the end of the day, it’s fiction. Aside from the basic rules of writing, such as grammar, spelling, and the structure of story, there are no rules. Some of the best fiction ever written has broken “The Rules.” Urban fantasy as a genre has broken rules from Day One and it will continue to do so. In fact it’ll be necessary for the next generation of urban fantasy writers to break even more rules.
Will we see urban fantasy set on distance worlds and trekking through the stars? I think so.
Will we see urban fantasy set in the Roman era with gladiators battling werewolves for the entertainment of thousands? It’s possible.
This is fiction and in fiction, anything is possible.
Okay, so we have a basic working definition for the genre. In my next post, we’ll discuss one of my favorite topics: researching the urban fantasy novel.
My next big conference event will be CONvergence in Bloomington, Minnesota — July 2-5. I’ve been working with the organizers to create a fiction writing workshop for the con. The announcement and details were posted on the CONvergence website this past Saturday. Check it out…
Open Fiction Writing Workshop [2.5 hrs]
Deadline to register is May 1, 2009.