Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Writing style: Interview with author Gary Henry

In my continuing quest to define the essence of writing style, I have asked a good author-friend, Gary Henry, for his thoughts.

Gary Henry
Gary’s novel American Goddesses crosses a number of genres. Set in the contemporary American Midwest, it features superheroines and spies, a little sex, a hefty dash of romance and lots of action. Combining these genres takes — well, a lot of style.

In addition, Gary has published a collection of short stories titled What Happened to Jory and Other Dark Departures, and The Moon Poem and Other Strange Jingle-Jangles, a collection of poetry. Gary also reviews independent novels on his blog, Honest Indie Book Reviews. His Twitter handle is @LiteraryGary.

How would you describe your own writing style?

I like to think of my writing style as “snappy” – using active-voice and vivid verbs to the best of my ability. I try to vary sentence length and incorporate colorful description.

Are there any authors whose style you admire? Do you try to emulate them?

John Steinbeck is my idol, but too far removed from my own skill level for me to attempt to emulate. Probably Robert E. Howard is my biggest influence. I grew up reading his lurid prose – not just “Conan the Barbarian,” but many of the stories he wrote for Weird Tales and other pulps, reprinted in later collections. “Pigeons from Hell” was a particular favorite. Thought it was the scariest thing I ever read, when I happened upon it at 10 years old. Still makes me shudder.

Are there authors whose writing style you dislike?

No one comes to mind. I invariably find something to like in everything I read. The Silmarillion by Tolkien is one book I’ve made repeated unsuccessful attempts to get through. I devoured the Lord of the Rings trilogy at an early age, however.

How important is your writing style to you? Are you happy with your style, or are there aspects of it you try to change during rewriting or editing?

My writing style is an intimate part of who I am. I’m happy with it. I know it’s good and I can technically show why. However, I understand it can still be improved. Going through my work, I still find instances of passive voice, wordiness, lame verbs and other weak areas. Punctuation, especially commas and dashes, is a particular weakness.

Two who have helped me improve my writing during rewrites and editing are Scott Bury and Melissa Foster, both masters of their craft. I’m not the only one they’ve helped, either.

How can readers identify your writing style? Are there particular words or kinds of words that you tend to favour? Sentence structures? Or is it more in the story, the pacing or the characters?

I think it would be difficult to identify me or any author just from an unfamiliar passage of writing. I try, not always successfully, to keep words to one or two syllables. I vary sentence structure and length. I try to vary pacing in the longer works. But these are things many of us attempt.

Do you think your genre imposes certain restrictions on writing style?

If so, I don’t pay attention. That’s why I bill my first novel, American Goddesses, as a “sexy superheroine paranormal romantic sci-fi fantasy thriller.” The story blithely invades the territory of multiple genres, from romance to sci-fi.

I read a few romance novels, actually, to learn the elements: The Merry-Go-Round by Donna Fasano and If We Dare to Dream by Collette Scott. They were good!

Do you think your audience responds to your writing style, consciously or unconsciously?

Hard to say. All the reviews of my novel, short stories and poems have dealt with content — plot and character — rather than writing style. I’m sure readers must respond to writing style on some level. I’ve seen nothing to support that regarding my own writing, however.

How important do you think writing style is to an author's commercial success?

There are as many writing styles as there are writers — perhaps more. There’s no question that a few styles occasionally capture the popular imagination and catapult the books to varying degrees of success. No one knows why those styles of writing hit. My guess is it’s a combination of luck, work and circumstance.

I believe we increase our odds of hitting the popular imagination by taking as many shots as we can. We can increase the odds by trying to improve our writing skills as much as possible.

In the end, there’s just no formula. Why does a demonstrably poorly written novel like Fifty Shades of Gray succeed, while many similar knock-offs, and many more far superior books don’t get off the ground? No one knows.

Trying to achieve success by imitating the style of a successful book is not something I’d recommend, On the other hand — who knows what the beast will find appetizing on any given day, at any given time?

For my part, I’ll just continue to refine my own style until it completely suits one particular beast — me.

Thank you very much, Gary.

What do you think, readers? What elements of style are important to you? Does a writer's style make a difference to your response to a book or other work? Would you buy or recommend an author solely because of his or her style?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hallowe’en Treat, part 4: Six spooky sentences

The ride of fear

Photo used under Creative Commons from wwarby

It’s the last Sunday before Hallowe’en, and this is the last installment of my Hallowe’en treat to readers of this blog. Don’t worry, I’ll have lots more posts in the future, including more excerpts from various works.

This six-sentence excerpt comes from Part 2 of The Bones of the Earth. Here, Javor is riding with a column of Roman Legionnaires because … well, you’ll just have to read the book for the “because” part.

At any rate, they column is riding two wide along a long, twisting forest path, when suddenly they’re attacked by something they cannot see. Their only hope is to gallop as fast as they can to the end of the path and hope …

Three times, they heard screams; three times, legionnaires at random points in the column fell to the side. But the column dared not break stride and flew along the path. Horses stumbled, but righted themselves. Men gripped their saddle horns and prayed for salvation. Javor heard nothing but thundering hooves and jangling steel, and the amulet was vibrating so hard it felt like it was on fire.

Up ahead, he could see light as the path came to some kind of clearing, but at that moment, something cold and damp clutched around his neck and yanked him from the saddle.

Want to find out what happens to Javor? Click the cover image on the right and get the whole book!

For more great six-sentence samples, visit And leave comments on every one that you visit today!

Friday, October 26, 2012

A pre-Hallowe'en treat: another installment in The Mandrake Ruse

Happy Hallowe'en, dear readers!

Last year, I began what I hoped, and still hope will be a Hallowe'en tradition: publishing a free spooky story just in time for my favourite holiday. I love the spookiness, the humour and the way people evoke, bend, merge and play with ancient mythologies to create all sorts of new myths.

Last October, I published "Dark Clouds," about Helen, the Queen of all the Witches, and her son, Matt, the only man in the world who is immune to magic. At the time, I thought about turning it into a novel, even a series, so I put on the cover of the e-book version the series title The Witch's Son, and the novel title, The Mandrake Ruse. Mandrake features prominently in the story.

Now, time to confess: at the time, I had no idea about the plot of a full novel-length story about Helen, Matt and his pretty wife, Teri. Well, a year later, I have worked it out. I have a complete plot (well, almost) that picks up where "Dark Clouds" leaves off. "Dark Clouds" becomes Chapter 1 in The Mandrake Ruse; "What Made Me Love You?" will be Chapter 3. 

And below is Chapter 4, which takes our hero and heroine, plus a new character named Julian, to the lonely Alberta prairie at sunset, looking for clues as to why Helen and her coven raided the Prime Minister's residence. It will be available soon as a stand-alone story through Smashwords, iBooks and Amazon, as well as the other usual e-book retailers.

Followers of the Guild of Dreams fantasy writers' cooperative blog may recognize part of this; I posted it as a  teaser for my contribution to the "works in progress" theme. But it's changed since then, and I have to ask my fellow iAi member, Gary Henry (author of American Goddesses) for a pre-publication review and story edit.

Read it and leave a comment!

Happy Hallowe'en!

The Mandrake Ruse


Chapter 4: The Graveyard

Sundial Butte Medicine Wheel, Alberta,
photo courtesy

“Did we have to arrive at sunset?”

“What’s wrong, Matt — afraid of the dark?” Julian turned off the ignition and let the clutch out at the same time, making the gears grind and the whole jeep shake.

“I have no reason to be afraid,” Matt said.

“I’m not afraid, either,” Teri said and got out of the back seat. Matt knew she had very good reason to be nervous about cemeteries, but she strode with long steps and swinging arms to the fenced graveyard, her ponytail swaying. The failing light made her brown hair look black. She pushed the waist-high gate hard as if she were picking a fight with it. Matt saw her jump just a little when the gate squeaked loudly, but she strode through, looking at headstones.

The driver’s door slammed shut much too loudly for Matt’s liking, and he scowled at Julian. But the pudgy warlock did not notice and followed Teri into the cemetery.

Matt twisted in the bucket seat and fumbled to get a flashlight from the bag in the back. Teri or Julian may not have needed one to see in the dark, but he did.

He pulled the satchel’s strap over his shoulder as he climbed out of the Jeep. He closed the passenger door as quietly as he could, but the clunk echoed off something he could no longer see. He felt tingly all over and walked as quietly as he could toward the fence.

The light was failing fast. He looked to his left, where the sun had left behind an angry red smudge along the horizon. He marveled again, briefly, at the prairie's flatness. His thighs connected with something and he bit back a curse: he had bumped into the iron fence around the cemetery while admiring the sunset. He could now barely make out Teri’s slight form and Julian’s rounded silhouette among the headstones, but for a reason he could not express, he did not dare to turn on the flashlight. He groped until he found the gate and jumped, too, when it squeaked.

“What are we looking for?” he asked in as low a voice as he could when he came up to Julian.

“What?” said Julian, in a normal tone, which made Matt jump again. “Why so jumpy, man?”

“What are we looking for?” Matt repeated, a little louder. “And I’m not jumpy. I’m just trying to be careful, that’s all.”

“Careful? Careful of what? Who do you think is way out here in the middle of nowhere at dusk?”

“I don’t know, but neither do you. So let’s just be careful, okay?”

Julian shrugged. Just as Matt was about to ask “what are we looking for” again, Teri said, “I think this is it.”

Matt followed Julian to the darkest corner at the very back of the graveyard where a stand of trees, now almost completely bare of leaves, leaned over the back fence, casting a shadow that blocked out what little light filtered through the ragged clouds. Matt stumbled three times until Julian took his elbow.

Teri was looking at the trees. Matt had to shine his flashlight at the ground in front of her before he realized that there was no fence here; the trees marked the cemetery’s boundary.

Teri pointed to two whitish rocks on the ground in front of her. “Look at the inscriptions,” she said.

Even with the flashlight, Matt had to bend down close to see what she was talking about. On the rock on the right, he finally made out: “A bird?”

“A Thunderbird,” she said. “And look at the other.”

Matt moved the light. “A cross?”

Something about it bothered him. It was worn, yes, the way only crumbly century-old carved stone can be worn, but …

“Someone’s defaced the cross,” Julian said, his voice as low as Matt’s now. He was right: it looked like someone had scrawled some kind of carving tool across the symbol several times in an attempt to erase it from stone.

“Why would someone carve these two symbols in rocks on the ground, then deface one?” Matt said. He raised the light to see a gap in the trees, an opening to a path lined with a row of white stones on the ground on each side.

Together, Julian and Teri walked down the path marked by the white stones, drawn by something that Matt did not feel. He followed, afraid for and exasperated by his wife at the same time.

He shone the flashlight left and right. As they walked down the path between the white stones, the trees became more and more stunted, more and more twisted.

“These trees aren’t just bare for winter,” Teri whispered. She had to force the words out. She felt her throat constrict until it was hard to breathe in the chill air. “They’re dead.”

Julian snapped off a dead branch. “They’ve been dead for centuries.”

“Then why are they still standing?” Matt asked.

Teri had to stop and drag breath into her lungs. Julian was having trouble breathing, too.

"It must be a spell making it hard for you to breathe," Matt said. He took his wife and Julian by the arms and pulled them along the path until their breathing became normal again.

Julian stopped suck air into his lungs. "It was a gateway spell," he said. "Put there to convince anyone who's not serious about coming here to turn back. We're through the gate, now." He tilted his head slightly. “Do you hear that?” he whispered. He started down the path again, a look on his face suggesting he was following a sound that Matt could not hear.

“What language are they speaking?” Teri whispered back. A sibilance drifted by her ear, words at the edge of hearing and comprehension. She followed Julian.

“Well, I don’t hear anything, so they’re not natural,” Matt growled. Julian and Teri didn’t slow down, so he added, “They’re supernatural.”

Teri and Julian still ignored him. Somewhere, far away, a coyote’s howl made the skin on the back of Matt’s neck tingle.

The moon disappeared behind a cloud and the flashlight dimmed. “Damn. I just put in fresh batteries,” Matt muttered.

Teri did not mind. She wasn’t using the same light to see that Matt was. As they progressed, she could see the trees shrinking, being replaced by dead bushes that merged into the prairie. She could see that the grass was dead, too.

Matt shone the dying flashlight around. White stones on the ground receded on either side in curving rows. “We’re in a circle.”

“It’s a medicine wheel,” said Julian. “I didn’t think there were any this far north.”

“What’s a medicine wheel?”

“They’re rings or circles marked in stone on the grasslands,” Julian answered. “They were made by the Cree thousands of years ago on sacred or important sites all over the prairies. As I recall, there are more in Alberta than anywhere else. But I thought the northernmost was well south of here. I’ve never heard of this one.”

“How do you know so much about medicine wheels?”

“Shut up, you two,” said Teri. In the centre of the wheel was a cairn of grey stones, as high as Matt’s head, set on a patch of gravel and sand.

Matt caught her arm just before Teri touched the cairn. “Haven’t you noticed that everything here is dead?”

The flashlight went out completely. The wind whispered in Teri’s ear again, but she could not make out the words. It was maddening — she felt like she should understand them, as if she once had, but could not longer remember. The sound faded like a dream in the morning, then circled her head to come at the other ear.

“Can you understand what the voices are saying?” asked Julian.


Matt fought to keep his voice down. “I told you, they’re not real!”

“They may not be natural, but they’re definitely real,” Teri said sharply. “Look, there’s another Thunderbird inscription on the rock.”

Without the flashlight, Matt could not see any inscriptions. “Just don’t touch anything,” he said.

Teri walked around the cairn, Julian at her side like a dog. “I’m afraid...” he said.

Teri stopped. “Me, too.” An unaccountable fear chilled her from the inside out. Both Teri and Julian began to tremble.

Julian fell to his knees. “Yes, yes,” he whined. “Just stop whispering.”

“It’s a trick,” said Matt. He pulled Julian to his feet. “It was one of my mother’s favourites. She used to do it to my dad all the time.” He put his arm around his wife’s narrow shoulders to quell her trembling. “Don’t worry. Nothing here can hurt you.”

“Nothing here can hurt you, maybe.” The weight of Matt’s arm chased some of the fear away. At least her hands weren't shaking anymore.

“I won’t let anything hurt you.”

Teri shook his arm off her shoulders. “Matt, you may be immune to magic, but you’re not invulnerable.”

A gust revealed the moon and at the same time brought a new sound that did scare Matt: a deep growling that came from all around them, all at once, rising up from the hostile ground itself. The sound woke memories deep in the ancient, back of his brain, memories he never imagined he ever had, ancient, undeniable. His skin was suddenly covered in a thin layer of sweat from his scalp to his toes.

His eyes darted around. In the moonlight, he could now see that there were rows of small white stones radiating out from the central cairn to the stone ring, like spokes of a wheel.

“That’s why it’s called a ‘medicine wheel,’ said Julian.” Then he caught his breath as he looked beyond the ring. “Oh my, are those coyotes?”

Matt could not see past the rock ring, but the ancient part of his brain knew: “Those are wolves.”

Unconsciously, Matt crouched a little, feet seeking security on the dead grass, muscles loose, every sense alert. He felt as if he was confronting an ancient enemy.

Then he saw them with senses adrenalin-sharpened: wolves standing just beyond the ring of white rocks—at least a dozen, big, very big, calm. None of the grey shapes had bared its teeth, but a constant growl came from the pack, steady as surf on a beach. Matt, Teri, Julian and the wolves all knew: there could be no escape for three humans from their oldest competitors.

“It’s time to get out of here, Teri,” said Matt.

“You’ve always said that wolves don’t attack people!” she answered, but she wasn’t looking at them — she seemed to be studying the cairn.

“What if these wolves don’t know about that,” said Matt.

“Look: something is missing,” said Teri, pointing at a spot on the north side of the cairn.

“Come on, Teri!”

“No, look — there’s a place for something there. This cairn, this whole medicine wheel, was made to hold something, and now it’s gone.”

Teri was pointing at a flat spot half-way up the north side of the cairn. Matt couldn’t be certain in the dark, but Teri and Julian could see clearly a flat stone, obviously chiseled, and other carved stones arranged on three sides: a kind of stone box, almost like a trophy case in a school.

“That’s very interesting, Teri, but something doesn’t want us here,” Matt insisted. “Those whispers were a warning, and now they’ve sent the muscle!”

“I thought you were immune to magic,” Julian said.

“I’m not immune to teeth and claws.”

“Give me the drumsticks,” Teri said, holding out her hand but still looking at the cairn.

“Teri, never mind that — we’ve got to go, now!”

Teri just held out her hand like a queen, eyes intent on the cairn. Matt fumbled with the satchel’s flap and pulled out the decorated Cree drumsticks. The wolves growled louder.

“Matt, Teri, they’ve crossed the ring!” Julian whined. He grabbed Matt’s arm in both hands, and even Matt could see his wide eyes darting. “Come on!”

Teri ignored them. Matt wondered if she had been hypnotized — no, enchanted by the cairn. She carefully put the drumsticks on the flat stone in the side of the cairn. Immediately, the wolves stopped growling. They stepped closer, but they did not seem as threatening anymore. Matt took the chance to look away from them, toward the cairn.

The sticks' placement on the cairn seemed somehow just right. Despite the presence of a pack of gray wolves at his back, Matt felt calmer when he looked at the sticks on the cairn.

“Matt, Teri, can we get out of here? Now? The wolves are getting closer all the time!” Julian whined.

The wolves had formed a semi-circle and stepped forward, closer, deliberately and slowly. To Matt, they looked calm, almost … well, not friendly, he thought. How could a wolf look friendly? Not immediately threatening.

“I don’t want them any closer than they are,” he said, and pulled Teri by the arm around the cairn, away from the pack and toward the trees.

“The path is gone!” Julian said.

They had entered the medicine wheel by a gap in the ring, but where the parallel rows of stones intersected the wheel, the ring continued, unbroken, around the cairn as far as they could see.

Pulling Teri by the hand, Matt stepped over the stone ring toward where he thought the path was. Teri fell back as if she had hit a wall.

“Teri, what the hell?”

She rubbed her forehead. Julian held his hands in front of him and pushed like a mime at a make-believe barrier. “Matt, we can’t get past the ring. We’re stuck in the medicine wheel!”

Matt stepped back into the ring, then out again, unhindered. “This is ridiculous!”

Teri shook her head. “We can’t get out, Matt. That’s what the gap in the stones was for.”

Matt ran several steps along the ring in one direction, looking for a gap, until he could see the wolves near the cairn. He turned and ran back in the other direction until he saw the wolves from the other side; no gap either way. He wrapped his arms around Teri’s slim body from behind and pulled. He could step over the stones, but as soon as Teri’s shoulder came even with the stone ring, he felt something stop her. He pulled harder until she cried out.

“It hurts, Matt!” She pulled out of his grasp and rubbed her shoulder.

Matt stepped back into the medicine wheel. “Okay, Teri, get us out of here your way. Can you take us back to the Jeep?”

Teri pulled off her jacket and dropped her pants. “We all have to be naked.”

As she unhooked her bra, Matt looked nervously at Julian. “Teri, it’s freezing!”

“Don’t worry about me getting a cheap thrill from this,” said Julian, already down to his boxers. Every inch of his skin was covered with dark hair, even his back. “Now get your britches off.”

Matt scrambled to take off his clothes, feeling the chill of the October night. Teri lifted her arms over her head. Despite the situation, Matt could not help but watch her breasts rise as if to follow her hands up. She closed her eyes, concentrating on the transportation spell. Minutes went by; clouds shrouded, then revealed the moon. Teri’s brow furrowed, but nothing happened. She could not find the energy, the place where she had found the power before. “It’s not working,” she said.

“What’s wrong?” Matt wasn’t sure whether he should be afraid or relieved; he hated traveling by Teri’s spell.

“I don’t know. I cannot see the Jeep, or anything beyond this … this place.”

“I can’t help you, either,” said Julian.

Matt looked at Julian, at his wife, at the cairn. Were the wolves coming closer? he wondered.

There was no flash, no bang, no smoke. One moment, Matt was looking toward the cairn; the next, a woman stood in front of him. It was hard to see her features in the dark, but she wore a toque with long tassels on the sides to tie it under her chin — undone — and what looked like a shawl.

Teri and Julian could see better than Matt: the colours in her woolen shawl, the beads, four bands thick, around her neck. She was young, beautiful, with smooth skin and long dark hair hanging from under her hat.

“What the hell are the three of you doing out here in the middle of the night, naked?” she demanded in the flat tones of a First Nations accent. “Didn’t you see the No Trespassing signs?” A wolf nuzzled the woman and Matt, Teri and Julian knew what she meant by “No Trespassing.”

Matt’s hands went in front of his crotch and he shivered. But neither Teri nor Julian was embarrassed to be naked in front of the stranger.

“I was trying to cast a spell,” Teri said, as if it were as common as “I was looking for my watch.” “Something is blocking me.”

“Why did you come out here to cast a spell?” the stranger asked.

“Who are you?” Matt demanded. He wondered if he should pull his clothes back on. He could barely suppress shivers, but would that be a sign of weakness in front of a stranger? Would he be vulnerable with one leg in his pants and one out if the wolf beside her suddenly rushed him?

The woman held his gaze for a long pause. “Who are you?”

“We’re from the government,” he answered. It’s not really a lie. He tried not to be obvious about looking for his clothes on the ground.

“Canadian government has no say here. This is Grizzly Bend Nation land. First Nation land. Nêhiyawahk land.”

“We brought back the sticks for the medicine drum,” said Teri.

Oh no! You shouldn’t have said that! Too late, now, Matt thought. He remembered that they had left the drumsticks on the cairn, where they looked so right.

The woman in the shawl looked almost impressed. “Really? Who told you to bring anything here?”

“We put them on the flat stone on the cairn,” Teri said.

The woman disappeared, just as she had arrived: no flash, no smoke. Matt blinked and stared at the spot where the woman had been standing.

“Where did you find it?” she said from behind him. “How did you bring it here?” Matt turned and stumbled over his own heaped clothes on the ground.

Teri stepped up to face the woman directly. Julian summoned all his courage and stood beside her while Matt tried to find his footing in the dark. “We took it from Ottawa,” she said calmly.

The woman turned to Matt. "You look strange. The other two, I understand why they are here. But I do not like you."

Matt did not know what to say.

“Go,” the woman said.

“But we brought the drumsticks back!” Julian protested.

Matt could not believe what Julian and Teri did then: they stood absolutely still, staring at the woman in the shawl, mouths slightly open until Julian fell onto his bare butt.

But what Teri saw was very different. She felt as if she had no more control over her own body. She could do nothing but watch the woman change. The shawl became fur, thick and shaggy, the hat disappeared, the hair became a mane that reached over her head, animated by a will of its own. Her face morphed, jaw stretching into a snout, mouth gaping, long fangs drooling.

And she grew, legs and arms and torso lengthening and thickening. She grew until she towered above them, reaching toward them with claws that glimmered in the red light from her eyes.

Julian fell onto his naked butt on the cold ground. Teri’s knees shook, but she could not will her feet to move even as the claw came toward her and touched her bare chest. The tip traced a red line from her collarbone down to her navel, but all Teri could do was to look into the beast’s red eyes.

The beast’s head came closer. Its jaws opened impossibly wide, but Teri still could not move as it took her hand in its mouth and slowly closed its jaws. Pain flashed up her arm, replaced immediately by a blank numbness. The beast drew its bloody snout away and Teri saw her hand between its teeth. Blood, her blood, dripped from the beast's jaws. She watched, unable to make a sound, as more blood spurted from the stump of her arm, bright red in the dark night.

Matt watched the strange woman step closer to his trembling wife, and realized they were the same height. When the woman lifted Teri’s hand in her own and lifted it to her face, Matt decided that was enough. To hell with the wolves, he thought. He stepped between the women. “What is the medicine drum for?” he demanded.

The woman stepped back, outrage on her face. Now that he was close, he could see she was middle-aged, with creases from her nose to the corners of her mouth and deep crinkles at the corners of her eyes. She was as short as Teri, but stouter, and there were strands of grey in her long black hair.

“Go!” she said again. She stepped aside and a wolf took her place, and Matt was suddenly conscious of its mouth at his crotch level. He backed away, pushing Teri farther behind him.

To Teri, the beast vanished, replaced by the familiar sight of her husband’s naked back. Beyond him was a huge gray wolf, teeth showing. Behind it were the rest of the pack and the woman in the shawl. She could hear the wind again, as if she had not heard it for a long time, or as if she had become aware of a different sound only after it had stopped.

Teri gasped when she looked at her arm: her hand was intact. She flexed her fingers, fascinated by the way the little scar on the back moved. She looked down: no scratch on her chest, no blood. "It was an illusion," she whispered.

Matt wondered whether the wolves would really attack or were just putting on a show, a display to scare them. The question became moot as Julian scrambled to his feet and ran as fast as he could.

“Go away! Go now!” the woman screamed and the wolf snapped its jaws. Wolf spit hit Matt’s genitals. Matt grabbed his wife’s elbow and ran. She pulled out of his grip to pick up a piece of clothing from the ground. “Never mind that!” Matt snapped and hauled her away. He pushed Teri ahead of him to follow Julian as fast as they could go. Stones and twigs scratched their bare feet, but there was no more barrier at the stone circle for Teri.

Somehow, they found the path through the forest and tried to move their feet even faster. Teri stumbled but Matt held her up and willed his feet to move faster as they heard wolves growling at their heels.

This path was not this long on the way here! he thought.

Something sharp cut into Matt's foot. He fell, gasping. Teri shrieked a little and stopped beside him, but Matt pushed her farther down the path. “Go!”

He pushed himself back up to his feet and tried a step. Pain shot all the way up his leg and out his mouth in a hoarse cry. He heard the wolf pack behind him and fear overrode pain. He ran at top speed, catching up with Teri. His foot felt like it was on fire, and flamed hotter every time it hit the ground.

If I’m immune to magic, maybe my blood will slow them down, he thought. The wolves bayed louder. Great. They smell blood, and now they’re excited.

Which means they’re real wolves, not magical.

His bare toe hit something and he went down again, hard, naked skin scraping over the rough ground.

Teri ran back to him, fumbling with something: his jacket, which she had picked up when they ran from the medicine wheel. She reached his side seconds before the first wolf and thrust Matt’s open knife at its snout. It yelped and sprang back, and hot wolf blood splattered Matt’s legs.

The wolf hesitated only a second and sprang, sinking fangs into Matt’s forearm. Matt screamed and thrashed but the wolf held on and Matt could feel its teeth sinking deeper into his flesh. The wolf shook its head. Matt hit the wolf’s head with his free hand and kicked with no effect. He could feel the fangs hitting bone and a deep fear filling him.

He felt a thud. The wolf let go and fell sideways with a yelp. Julian stood over them, holding a big rock. “Come on!” he panted. Teri helped Matt up and he stumbled behind them. His forearm throbbed and the sole of his foot stung with every step. Scrapes stung his skin on his legs, his side and his back. Blood tickled his skin as it ran down his arm. The smell of the wolf’s musk stuck in his nostrils and sweat stung his eyes despite the cold air on his naked skin. But Teri held his side and pushed him forward, and her hands warmed his skin.

Something scratched his shoulder, then the opposite side. “The path’s getting narrower,” Teri panted behind him.

“The trees are closing in on us!” Julian exclaimed ahead of them. “We have to move faster!”

Somehow, they made their legs move faster. Matt saw Julian hesitate, and then they were out of the little forest and back in the cemetery. They stopped, hands on knees, panting, searching for enough breath. Julian fell to his knees, then onto his back, chest heaving up and down.

Matt looked back. The woman in the shawl stood under the trees at the entrance to the path, a wolf on either side of her. “Never forget how I let you go,” she said in her flat tones. “Now leave and never come back.”

“Who are you?” Teri stammered. Julian was already across the cemetery, heading for the jeep.

“Tell your people that Jessica Piyesiw has warned them!” she screamed, and vanished as she had before. The two wolves looked briefly at the naked trio in the cemetery, then turned and disappeared under the trees as only wolves can.

Teri put her arm around her husband to try to support him as he limped to the jeep. “You always think so clearly, Teri,” Matt said as she fished the keys out of his jacket pocket. She and Julian helped Matt into the car; Julian checked for a first-aid kit while Teri took one last thing from Matt’s jacket pocket: his cell phone.

“Call Racine,” she said.

“And tell him what? That we’ve lost the drumsticks as well as our clothes?”

“Tell him you need emergency medical help.”

As usual, Matt could not argue with his wife. He pressed the speed dial button.

This is going to hurt, he thought. Julian brought out a bottle of peroxide and some cotton swabs. And so will that. But not as bad.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What is writing style? Guest post by Roger Eschbacher

What is writing style? It’s an elusive topic, in many ways.
To help me chase down the essence of writing style, I’ve called upon some author friends for their opinions. First, we have Roger Escbacher, author of Dragonfriend: Leonard the Great, Book 1, a middle-grade/young adult fantasy adventure story set in the court of King Arthur.

Besides Dragonfriend, Roger Eschbacher has also written two children’s books: Road Trip, and Nonsense! He Yelled, both for Dial Books. He is also a professional television animation writer who’s worked for Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon, The Hub, and Cartoon Network. His blog is The Novel Project, and his Twitter handle is @RogerEschbacher.

How would you describe your own writing style?
I would describe my writing style as cinematic. My goal is to describe the action, world and characters in my book in such a way that readers have a movie playing in their head as they read along. I think this comes from two places, the first being that I’m a television animation writer. In animation, one has to fully describe what is happening so that the artists can animate it. Detailed descriptions are required in my “day job.” Second, as a reader I’ve always preferred books written in that style. I love getting lost in the “brain movie” when I’m reading for pleasure. In general, SF/fantasy books tend to be written this way, which is probably why I read this genre almost exclusively.

Are there any authors whose style you admire? Do you try to emulate them?
Dragonfriend cover imageI admire the writing styles of Neil Gaiman, J.R.R.Tolkien, Douglas Adams, J.K. Rowling, and Rick Riordan, to name a few. All of these folks are quite “cinematic” so I suppose that’s the reason why. Of those four, I’d say Tolkien would be the strongest influence. I love his command of the epic tale so much that I find myself rereading LOTR and The Hobbit every couple of years. Oddly enough, I try not to emulate him too closely for fear of coming off as a low-grade copy of a true master.Are there authors whose writing style you dislike?
Oh, yes.

How important is your writing style to you? Are you happy with your style, or are there aspects of it you try to change during rewriting or editing?
My writing style is very important to me and I am happy with it for the reasons listed above. When I’m editing, I do my best to make the manuscript an exciting and easy read. My goal is to produce a page-turner — something that flows. I want readers to fly through the book and not get knocked off course by speed bumps and, as Elmore Leonard says, “the parts that readers tend to skip.”

How can readers identify your writing style? Are there particular words or kinds of words that you tend to favour? Sentence structures? Or is it more in the story, the pacing or the characters?
For me, it’s all about story, pacing, and characters. Natural-sounding dialogue is important, too. I hope that readers would describe my style as fast-paced and exciting.

Do you think your genre imposes certain restrictions on writing style?
Not really. I tend to write “quest-y” stories and for me that’s liberating in that everyone expects that the hero and his friends will go somewhere, do a lot of stuff along the way, almost get killed but survive and make it home. The challenge is to tell a quest tale in a way that follows the expected rules but also continues to surprise the reader.

Do you think your audience responds to your writing style, consciously or unconsciously?
 Yes, I do. My favorite reader compliment on Dragonfriend was from a kid who said, “I can totally see this as a movie.” I smile every time I think of that.

How important do you think writing style is to an author's commercial success?
 I honestly don’t know the answer to this one.

Thank you very much, Roger.

Readers, let Roger and me know what you think. How important is a writer's style? What do you like? What do you wish authors would stop doing? And does an author's writing style affect your decision to buy or recommend a book?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

6 Sentence Sunday Hallowe’en treat, part 3:

Howling wind, howling wolves

It’s the third Sunday in October, so it’s time for another Hallowe’en treat from Written Words.

Here are six more sentences from a spooky passage in Part 1 of The Bones of the Earth. The setting: nighttime, three days past the summer solstice and three nights past the full moon. The main character, Javor (pronounced “Yay-vor,” by the way; it means maple) is in his village’s holody, or wooden stockade at the top of a small hill.

Wolves howling brought Javor back to the night. The moon and stars were quickly covered by swirling black clouds. Clouds never move that fast, he thought.

The villagers stopped talking; mothers held their children closer. The wind blew dust around the holody.

Javor stood and looked over the stockade—even the trees in the forest seemed to have come closer.

If you want to find out what’s past the stockade, you can get a longer sample from the Sample tab at the top of the page. And if you really want to know the story, get the full book from Amazon. Just click on the cover image on the right!

For more great six-sentence samples, visit Six Sentence And leave comments — not just for my blog, but on every one that you visit today!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Writing tips: What is style?

Creative Commons: dbdbrobot
I’ve been thinking a lot about writing style lately. Actually, I’ve thought a lot about it for a long time — as long as I’ve been writing, which is most of my life.

I find that my response to a book or to a writer, no matter what the subject is, depends a lot on style. I like an author who is original, who does not just try to copy a best-seller or the current trend in books you can pick up at the drug store.

But there is also something else that determines how well I like a story, something about the way the writer uses language.

I’ll give you an example: Margaret Atwood is generally accepted as one of today’s greatest writers. She has written a great many books in of a range of types — I am trying to avoid using the word “style” in different ways here — and, it could be argued, in different genres. Alias Grace could be called “historical fiction,” set in 19th century Upper Canada and based loosely on real events. The Handmaid’s Tale is a set in a dystopian future and, while it doesn’t have a lot of sci-fi tropes, it won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction.

Atwood is both accomplished and unarguably a master of the writing craft, but while she writes about many different subjects, there is something about her manner of writing that puts me off a little. The only word I can use to describe it is heavy. Her writing is heavy — I don’t read it quickly or easily; on the other hand, I can’t put it down once I start, either.

One writer whose style I really admire is Mark Helprin’s, particularly in his Winter’s Tale, a fantasy set in New York City. In addition to his ability to meld fantastic elements, humour and action into a setting simultaneously believable and fantastic, Helprin also manages to be very descriptive as well as economical with prose. It’s as good an example of magical realism as any I’ve ever read.

But what is it that determines the style? Word choice? Sentence length? Description? Active voice? Those are just a few items in the writer’s toolbox. Also critical are creating realistic, believable and interesting characters, pacing, mixing action and pathos and so much more.

The accepted good

There is a tension between popularity and what is accepted as “good writing” by the publishers and the leading literary critics of any time.

For instance, today, “good” writing is usually characterized by lean prose, active voice, realistic dialogue and sparse description. Writing coaches keep advising us to avoid adverbs in favour of more precise verbs, except when it comes to describing dialogue. We should only use “said,” and not try to change that around with “exclaimed,” or “replied.”

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard came out with ’s 10 rules of writing a couple of years ago; he admitted that he was at least a little facetious at the time, but now he says he seriously believes them. Okay. And Leonard is a great writer, and changed the literary world, and sells zillions of copies, okay, okay — but is he the arbiter of the English language, now? What if something happens in a sudden way? Elmore, what is wrong with the word “suddenly”?

The exemplars of great writing are still supposed to be Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I love their work, but again — should we all try to emulate their styles?

On the other side of that tension is writing that flies in the face of those rules, yet sells millions of copies. The current target of criticism is EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Here’s a passage:

I watch José open the bottle of champagne. He’s tall, and in his jeans and T-shirt, he’s all shoulders and muscles, tanned skin, dark hair, and burning dark eyes.

Descriptive, yes. Also clichéd — it’s been done so many times. “Burning dark eyes”? While we can all imagine what those must look like, couldn’t the author have thought of something original?

And yet, millions of readers ate that up, burning eyes and all. Did the burning eyes cause heartburn, I wonder?


Writing coaches also tell us not to use too much description. Hemingway and Fitzgerald did not describe what their protagonists looked like. Okay, but Dashiel Hammet did.

Efficiency is the goal!
(Photo: The Pug Father/Creative Commons )
I agree that too much description can get in the way of the story. There is a lot of material for people to read, that communication of any kind must compete for an audience’s attention with so much more material than there ever was before, so we writers should always try to get as much information across as efficiently as possible — fewer words, more information. I get that.

But we do need to describe some things, some times. And occasionally, an adverb is the best way to do that. See?

Who says so?

I cannot answer all these questions myself, so I am inviting other talented independent writers to weigh in. What is good style? How do they describe their own style? They’ll be appearing on this blog over the next couple of weeks. My first guest will be Roger Eschbacher, author of middle-grade fantasy Dragonfriend: Leonard the Great, Book 1.

So watch this space, and leave lots of comments and questions for the guests, please. Maybe we can finally determine exactly what writing style is, after all.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Spooky Sunday: 6 more scary sentences

It's Sunday, and you know what that means: time for another installment of six spooky sentences from my novel, The Bones of the Earth.

Like last week's Six Sunday excerpt, these six sentences come from Part One of the novel. In this section, the hero, Javor, and Photius, the mysterious wanderer from Constantinople, are tracking the monster that murdered Javor's parents - although Javor does not believe in monsters. Yet.

The pair have been following a trail of destruction for a day and a night, when Photius tells Javor they are about to enter the monster's own territory:
Past a small rise, the thin grass disappeared into a loosely-packed scrabble. A few bent, withered trees with hardly any leaves clung weakly to the hillside; ahead, a brackish creek wandered sluggishly to the east. At the bank, Photius said “Take care now, son. Don’t touch the water,” and they hopped carefully from stone to stone across a natural ford. Javor could see craggy mountains ahead; surprisingly, they had no snow on their tops. The whole vista seemed dead and repellent. Javor gagged on the reek of rotting animal carcasses.

Like that? Leave a comment. And check out some other great samples on Six Sentence Sunday.

And if you want to find out what happens next to Javor and Photius, click on the links on the right or the tabs on the top of this blog.

Happy Sunday!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Do the media reflect the world around us?


Photo of Surrey, BC Marathon courtesy Indo-Canadian Voice
The world presented is the world that advertisers feel they can sell to easily: white people with lots of disposable income for designer cars, clothes and computers.

Best-selling indie author Martin Crosbie has invited some Canadian writers, including me, to answer the question: is the Canada he knows, that we all know, represented in the mass media?

He doesn’t see the country he knows in the major newspapers or magazines of the country. Another writer, Karen Magill of Vancouver, added that Canadian writers, like Canadians generally, feel an inferiority complex compared to the media dominance of the US, and as a result aren’t as eager to write about their own country. She writes that she as advised to set her novel, Missing Flowers, in a US city, rather than in Vancouver, British Columbia — her home town.

In my guest post, I wrote that neither the news media nor entertainment media reflect the country that I see around me. I touched on the types of professions in fiction, the settings, and about how closed commercial publishers are to new voices.

But indie authors are also missing something important. It seems that, in chasing that big audience, many indie authors are aping the conventions followed by mass publishers. As a result, indie fiction does not reflect the world that I see around me.


What’s missing? Diversity.

I know that many of my readers are writers themselves. I’ve been reading a lot of indie fiction lately, and unfortunately, many writers fall into some stereotyping traps. Most of the characters’ names are English, or occasionally Irish or Scottish. Cops are sometimes Italian or Polish. I’ve come across a smattering of Hispanic women TV reporters, for some reason, but almost no African-American characters.

Why is that? Whom do indie writers think they’re writing for?

I live in a major, modern North American city in the 21st century. The people that I live and work among come from, literally, around the world. Almost half the people I grew up with were immigrants, or their parents were. When I taught in college, my students came from China, Taiwan, Jamaica, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Iraq, Bolivia, Mexico, the US; in my neighbourhood, people come from India, Norway, Jamaica, Finland and China. And some were First Nations, Metis or Inuit.

If you’re reading this on the bus, subway, metro, train or ferry, look around: how many of your fellow commuters are white, of British extraction? Or are there people you can see are Asian, South Asian, African or Hispanic?

Think about your neighbours. How many of them have English last names? How many more are non-English? Sure, English may be the largest single ethnic group, but they’re not more than half anymore — I don’t even think that you’ll find a majority of English last names in most neighbourhoods in England, anymore.

Write what you know

Open your eyes, and write stories that reflect the world you live in. It’s not what’s in the mass media. And the only way we’re going to have an impact on this warped reflection is if we start to write about what is really in front of our eyes.

What do you think? How can writers start to reflect the country, the world, the reality that’s right around us, right now? Leave a comment.

Monday, October 08, 2012

A Thanksgiving giveaway

Today and tomorrow, Monday, October 8 and Tuesday, October 9, I'm giving away The Bones of the Earth for free through Amazon.

That's right: you can download an e-book copy of The Bones of the Earth, completely free, but only until midnight at the end of Tuesday, October 9.

Come to this link:

What the reviewers say:

"I kept turning pages, fascinated, wishing to know what will happen next."

"A marvelous read..I spent the better part of a day in The Bones of the Earth in spite of the things I had to do!"  

"Scott Bury has the knack of making his scenes spring to life." 

"A story that has you holding your breath as you wonder what's next. Highly recommended.” 
Don't miss it!