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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Same But Different

Please welcome guest blogger Deborah Blake

As writers, we all want to write the book of our hearts. But we also want that book to sell. As someone once said: “Writing is art; publishing is a business.” And nothing illustrates that better than the publishing industry’s tendancy to fall in love with trends. Everyone who has ever been told, “We want something that is just like what is already out there—but different,” raise your hand. I thought so. Okay, you can put them down now.

The vampire craze is a perfect example. You can’t sneeze in a bookstore without bumping into a book with vampires in it. Don’t get me wrong; I like vampires. But when I set out to write an Urban Fantasy last year (after reluctantly setting aside my two previous humorous paranormals because agents kept telling me that humor was OUT), I made the conscious decision to write something different. No vampires. No werewolves. And no zombies. Definitely no zombies. I wanted to write something that was in keeping with the current trends, but different.

Easy peasy. Not.

Luckily, I had a starting point. A few years ago, I had a short story published in THE PAGAN ANTHOLOGY OF SHORT FICTION: 13 PRIZE WINNING TALES (Llewellyn 2008). That story, “Dead and (Mostly) Gone,” featured a protagonist who was a witch-cop in a world much like ours, except that witches were another race and finally accepted in society. This protagonist, Donata Santori, worked as a Witness Retrieval Specialist, talking to dead crime victims. Since everyone who read the story asked for more of Donata and her world, I knew I would use this character and the bare bones I had laid down in the short story.

But there wasn’t much there. So I set out to do some serious world building. I knew I wanted to come up with paranormal characters that were different and interesting, so I started out by reading piles of Urban Fantasies by authors I respected—C. E. Murphy, Kim Harrison and the like—so I could see what was already out there. After all, if your intention is to do something completely different, you have to know what already exists.

Then I sat down with a stack of reference books. I’ve published five books on modern witchcraft for Llewellyn, so I have all sorts of interesting books on the paranormal that I use to research the nonficton; many of which came in surprisingly handy for creating my new world. In the end, I narrowed down the major paranormal races in my world to six, along with a number of minor ones. These included Witches, Dragons (who aren’t exactly dragons), Ghouls, Fae (who aren’t like most of the Fae in other books), and the Ulfhednar, based on a Norse shapeshifter legend. Okay—yes, you’ve counted correctly. But to find out about the sixth race, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the books to come out. It’s a secret…

But you’ll note that there’s not a vampire in sight, and that the shapeshifters aren’t your traditional werewolves at all. (And the Ghouls turned out to be almost aas creepy as the zombies I was trying to avoid, but that’s not my fault. It’s theirs. Don’t you hate it when the characters have minds of their own?)

One of the things I knew I wanted to have in the books was a cool sidekick. For this role I needed a minor paranormal creature, one that could garner some respect but still be good for the occasional bit of comic relief. Enter Ricky the Kobold. Kobolds are among the races of “little people,” in this case, ones who were said to live in caves and low places, and moved into basements and such when people came along. According to legend, Kobolds could be quite helpful if they liked you, and downright annoying if they didn’t. Perfect.

Needless to say, there was a lot more worldbuilding involved before I was done. Backstory and history, and the plot “hook,” and such. And I spent hours creating in-depth profiles on each of these races, and how they each tied into the main backstory. But I firmly believe that part of what made this manuscript succeed when the previous ones didn’t was my approach to “the same but different.”

And it did succeed. (Yay—dontcha love a happy ending?)

This manuscript, PENTACLES AND PENTIMENTOS, is the one that finally got me an agent; the wonderful Elaine Spencer from The Knight Agency. With any luck, it will be the one that kick-starts my fiction career.

So take heart. There is no need to let “We want something that is just like what is already out there—only different,” make you crazy. Well, crazier, anyway. If you’re a writer, you probably need a certain base level of crazy to keep you going. Just figure out what you like that is already out there, do a lot of research so you can come up with an interesting twist that no one else has come up with yet, and write, write, write.

Easy peasy.

Deborah Blake is the award-winning author of five books from Llewellyn Worldwide, with EVERYDAY WITCH A TO Z SPELLBOOK and WITCHCRAFT ON A SHOESTRING coming out later this year. She gives a number of popular online writing classes, including “Witchcraft for the Paranormal Author” and “Beyond Fangs: Creating New & Interesting Paranormal Characters.” The learning and support continue on her loop for paranormal authors of all levels, The Creativity Cauldron. To learn more, go to her website at www.deborahblakehps.com

Beyond Fangs: Creating New & Interesting Paranormal Characters presented by Deborah Blake runs June 28th through July 14th

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