The Open Road – When Inspiration Hits

Anyone who has written a trilogy knows it is considerably harder to finish the final book than to conclude a one-off novel. This is simply because one needs to tie up all loose ends from three novels. I have done this twice, at the end of the first Wycaan Master trilogy and then at the end of the second.

When my mother passed away last year and then when I visited my father earlier this month, I found myself with plenty of time on the plane and in the UK to write. This luxury is something I have never experienced as I usually weave my writing time around an intense job and a desire to be an active father and husband. On each trip I wrote almost 50,000 words in 14 days, much of it at the aptly named apartment where my Dad lives.

Kingfisher Court, Bournemouth

This month, as the plane wheels touched ground, I concluded a big scene that left me two-thirds of the way through the final Kingfisher novel, a medieval fantasy trilogy I have worked on since finishing the Wycaan Master series. What lay before me was the build up to a climactic ending that necessitates bringing multiple characters together from different parts of the land, enabling them to finish their subplots, and get to the scene of the climax.

And I had no idea how I was going to do this.

But I have faith in the process. Knowing I would not have concentrated writing time until the summer, I decided to put it on the back burner and return to editing and finding an agent for Book 1.

Then I drove from San Francisco to Portland (about 10 hours) through beautiful scenery of mountains, rivers, and forests, listening to soccer podcasts and enjoying Mrs. Elfwriter’s company.

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Deep in an Oregon forest, she put on a playlist that included many symphonic rock songs I write to (Nightwish, Epica, Within Temptation, Tarja). Abruptly a musical track of bagpipes, The Gael by Dougie MacLean performed by Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, filled the car (one of Mrs. Elfwriter’s choices, I might add) and the entire final scene entered my mind with incredible clarity.

Now here’s the problem: we were driving on the Interstate 5, in the middle of nowhere with a 6pm deadline to be in Portland. How could I get this down on paper? I was literally squirming with excitement as I drove.

I couldn’t dictate to Mrs. Elfwriter, it would spoil the possibility that she might one day read the books. Whipping out my iPad while driving…well we won’t go there. I had once downloaded an app (Quick Voice?) but had no idea how to use it and this didn’t solve having said passenger.

What resolved the problem was one of Oregon’s wonderful rest stops, often situated in a forest or overlooking a vista. Best part (okay, 2nd best part since knowing the conclusion to your novel and trilogy tops everything) is that the final two hours of the drive passed unnoticed, fatigue totally forgotten.
Last scene from Kf3 driving from Portland 1Have you ever had an experience where you have an intense creative experience at such an inopportune moment? Wanna share?

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books.

More ahttp://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

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Sex or Swords?

I recently finished reading an epic fantasy novel by an author who is perhaps a year ahead of me. He is a couple of novels deeper into his series and seems to have a similar, but not bigger, social platform. 

But his books are selling impressively and I enjoyed reading his work, but there was nothing in the quality of the plot, writing, etc. that suggested why he is outselling me.

There are a lot of things in common between our novels. They are both character driven and, though there is a clear plot arc, you really stay engaged because you are rooting for the characters. There is plenty of action and moral dilemmas. If and when I write a review, and I definitely will because this is so important to the author (hinting here!), I realize that it would be similar to many of the reviews I have received for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and The First Decree.

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But there are two fundamental differences, perhaps three.

1) His novels are meant only for adults.

2) There is a fair amount of sex.

There is also considerable swearing, but I don’t think someone buys a book because of the swearing. It might deter a few people, but not act as motivator.

These differences lead me to wonder about whether young adults are reading ebooks – which remains the most popular with all struggling authors – and I will examine this next week.

But for now, I want to focus on sex. Let me be honest. I’m very fond of sex and I enjoy reading and writing about it. In my non-fantasy novels, there are probably two graphic sex scenes in each. I believe that the way my characters deal with sex, before, during and after, reveals far more than any long description can ever hope to achieve.

All three books ­– A Gardener’s Tale, The Accidental Activist, and Unwanted Heroes – have garnered criticism from a few reviewers who were upset or disturbed by what they read, but there are many others who mention it positively. There was nothing 50 Shades, or anything violent or forced in these scenes and, in truth, I remain proud of them, even when I know my mother and mother-in-law have read them!

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However, what is the place of sex in epic fantasy? The book in question has two sex scenes and neither are particularly graphic or explicit. Throughout the novel there are sexual references but little more than men’s comments or a woman’s thoughts. Both scenes were written well and felt part of the story. Both added to the richness of the characters.

 I have wondered about Game of Thrones, in particular because my 14-year-old is interested in reading and watching the series. I have no doubt that George R.R. Martin wrote what he understood to be sexual mores of that period and I agree that it probably happened as he described, but the sex was clearly not a turn on for me (neither was it for most of Martin’s characters come to think of it).

Much of the sex were men exploiting their power over women and a few scenes are of women who manipulate men to get something they want through sexual favors or binding the men’s lusts to them. All good stuff, perhaps, but not something I want to share with my teenage son.

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I want him to know about sex as something romantic, a bonding act between two people who love each other. I want him to know that anything that is not two consenting adults pleasuring themselves and each other, is deviant. It might not necessarily be wrong, but that is for him to decide according to his values.

In the Wycaan Master series, I touch on many values and morals. I challenge the young adults who read my books to make choices about race, violence, friendships, loyalty, and enjoy it when I hear my son or his friends comment that they are proud/disappointed/upset/ happy about the actions of a character. I like that they feel guilty, understanding and maybe partly rooting for the bad guys. Nothing is ever black or white.

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But what about sex? There are certain hints in my novels that some things are going on, but it is easily missed if a young adult is not thinking about such topics. To write about sex, even in a tasteful youth-orientated way, would strip my novels of being YA (young adult). I would lose the initial motivation of writing to influence a new generation. 

Is it possible to write in sexual scenes in a YA novel? Most parents do not vet a book, trusting that if it has received recognition as YA then it will not include certain things such as swearing, graphic violence, or sex.

I do not want to step away from the target audience that so intrigues me and I am not sure I am ready to abandon them. However, I am frustrated that there are strict boundaries, frustrated that I could convey so much to my target audience through my young characters having or thinking of sexual encounters. I could convey healthy values associated with sex, values that I want to share with my own sons.

So my question is: Can sex be handled within a YA context? Your thoughts?

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.

 

Advise For Writers From The Hunger Games

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie but plan to, you might want to skip this week’s blog post.

I actually posted this on Left Coast Voices but wanted to share this with elfwriter followers as well. There have been a number of articles gleaning lessons from the Hunger Games for their preferred audience. Apparently, everyone is getting protective about having the original idea and the others not giving credit to them. So let’s get that behind us: I had the idea for this post after reading David Berkowitz‘s article for a fundraising magazineThank you, David.

For those of you from another planet, “The Hunger Games,” is an amazing high-concept story about a post-apocalyptic society that annually sacrifices twenty-three teenagers as a way of reminding everyone who is in power.

1) Define Your Goals: Set A Few Simple Tasks: It took Katniss (the heroine) a while to decide what she needed to do in order to win (kill the others). Her mentor gave her clear first steps – get away from the Cornucopia, find water and shelter – which in turn gave her confidence and momentum. 

2) Know What You Are Writing: Heroine Katniss is the archer. Her cohort Peeta could pin Hulk Hogan. Figure out what your strengths are and play to them.

 3) Know Your Target Audience And Find Them:  Cinna, is a one of the most enjoyable characters in both book and movie. He is Katniss’ and Peeta’s stylist, responsible for ensuring that the crowd sit up and notice them. Together with Haymitch, their district’s adviser, they come up with a strategy to earn not only the support of the people, but also the all-important sponsors (media outlet or publishers for authors). What is important is that they stick to the strategy and maintain a consistent message.

4) Find Your Own Platform, And Get Comfortable With It: Katniss soon learned that the forest was her friend, using the stealth methods she had honed hunting. Likewise, she was both good and familiar with the bow as her weapon.

As authors, we often join every social media and adopt every tactic, essentially not doing much in any category. Choose a platform – blog, Facebook, etc. and consistently work through it. If you decide to go via bookstores, be consistent and follow up with every bookstore before, during and after an event.

5) Be Generous – There Is Something To Karma: Katniss had endured a tough childhood and carried the obvious scars. She was stubborn, a rebel, and uncooperative with her advisor and most everyone else. But she cared about others and this eventually paid off. Three other tributes saved her life because of this.

We are not competing with other authors. People aren’t choosing between their books and ours. Help others, share your experience, be generous with your time. People remember who stood by them and supported them. They will be there for you.

6) The Rules Change: The organizers freely change the rules in the Huger Games to suit their own goals. There is nothing fair or just, they simply want to achieve their own goals. Be ready to change tactics. If you are only selling books out the back of your car (still works for me!), and not on the Internet, you haven’t been paying attention.

7) Choose and Trust a Mentor: Haymitch, the advisor to Katniss and Peeta, was the only other citizen from their district to survive and win the Hunger Games. As a rude, obnoxious recluse who is also an alcoholic, he doesn’t really inspire.  But he made it and knows his stuff. Find a mentor and stick with them.

 

8) The Odds Are Never In Your Favor: so get over it. There is no guarantees for success.  It is not quite as bad as the Hunger Games where there are no second or third chances. Read a lot. Learn from others’ mistakes, learn from yours, and okay: may the odds be ever in your favor.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

 

Welcome Back Old Friends

It takes about four months for me to write a first draft of a novel. The rest of the year is spent editing the manuscript and promoting the books that I have already published.

I actually enjoy editing and marketing, but there is no rush here to compare to writing a novel. It is extra special, I think, when writing a series. In my political fiction, I have just begun the third in a series, and I have put it aside while I write the third book in the Wycaan Master series.

It is strange to finish a novel in a series and walk away from the characters that I have created. They seem to think they can still follow me around, hang out with me at the gym, intrude when I am trying to write something else, and sit in my car while I am driving.

 Most often, they appear in real people. It might be a comment, a mannerism, or an accent. Sometimes a person will say something and I will stare at them. These poor victims then feel a need to explain themselves because they fear they have just offended me. But really I am thinking that the Wycaan teacher Mhari might have said that, or Ilana would have arched her hip in exactly that way.

The worst part is when I suddenly think of a better way that one of my characters might have said something or dealt with a situation. I am consumed with concern or guilt and chastise myself, like a parent who missed an educational opportunity with a child.

 

But beginning a book is like welcoming old friends back after a long time apart. It is the family gathering once or twice a year. There is so much to catch up with, new stories and challenges, people growing up, flourishing or struggling. It is a fusion of the familiar and the potential.

 It is an amazing journey, and I could not walk it without the characters of my books by my side.

Welcome back, old friends.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first has reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).