Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Talk with Nerine Dorman

Today, I have a Q&A with Nerine Dorman. She is a South African writer of dark fantasy, the editor of my last two novels, a really hot looker, and all-around good person. Her latest book is the young adult fantasy, The Guardian's Wyrd. I asked for some of her thoughts on the art of creating a memorable story.

1) What writers have influenced you the most? What did you learn from them? Were there any writers from whom you learned valuable lessons, but whose stories you really didn’t enjoy?

Okay, here I’m going to go on the old stand-in JRR Tolkien. I cried when I finished The Lord of the Rings then immediately went back and read it again. Just the idea of creating a world where the actual story takes place after so much history has happened, and indeed is a thin sliver of the saga. So, for world-building, I have a massive debt to pay to Tolkien.

Then there is Storm Constantine, who once again captures me with her world-building and the way she weaves in arcane concepts with her milieu. Ditto for Neil Gaiman and what he did with The Sandman series of graphic novels. Then of course there is Poppy Z Brite who taught me what colours taste like, and about the smell of spilled oil paint long after the artist has packed up and left for the day.

2) What qualities make for a memorable character? How do you make your own characters stand out from those in other fictional works?

A character should be flawed. What if the hero is secretly selfish? Or if the love interest who appears beautiful, actually has a nasty twist in her personality? Characters are frequently damaged in some way, and have flaws in the way they think and act. Yet by the same measure they also need redeeming qualities, otherwise they’ll be thoroughly unlikeable and readers won’t enjoy the story. It’s a careful balancing act for any writer.

3) Writing is an art (involving creativity, inspiration and insight), but also a craft (grammar, style, the actual task of typing). Which do you find more difficult? Do you write only when inspired to do so, or do you treat it as a daily to-do, writing whether you’re inspired or not?

It’s an art, because I do believe you need to have what I term to be that mystical X-factor. Anyone can string together words, but it’s not so much the words, but *what* you’re doing with them that matters. I’ve tried to teach the craft to some who simply don’t have the capacity for the art. They fix many of their mechanical errors but the writing lacks lustre. But the same is also true of those who just practice the art – sometimes their works have limited appeal because they’re too unrestrained.

That’s not to say either is wrong, but you also have to ask *why* you’re writing. If it’s to make money, then you need to choose to write in a genre, like romance, that you know will have broad appeal, and then you’ll need to conform. Or you can write simply for the pleasure of creating a story that makes you happy. But then don’t expect that many people to read it.

4) How much detail of the course of a story do you plan out before writing? Do you let the characters and events surprise you? Do you do more planning, or less planning, for a longer story?

It varies. At present I’ve found it best to have a framework. My short stories are outlined in point form in a few sentences. I start the same with novels, but then flesh out those sentences to paragraphs. Since I often drop a story for months on end, it’s good for me to have as much information as possible there, so that I know what the hell I meant when I leave myself sometimes cryptic messages. And trust me, I’ve left myself some pretty bizarre pointers.

There have been a few occasions where I’ve done very little plotting, and invariably the story has fizzled within a chapter or two. I’m sadly one of those individuals who must begin a story knowing exactly *where* it will end.

5) What do you most want to achieve in a story? What do you most want to avoid? Why do you write in the genres you do?

I want readers to forget to eat, or be unable to put the book down. I want them to cheer or curse my characters from one page to the next. Mostly I just want to tell a rollicking story that that will get them excited and fire up their imaginations. I want to avoid being boring, or being difficult to read. So, hence, I’m definitely not going to write the next great literary novel. I write the genres that interest me the most, so you’ll rarely see anything without some sort of supernatural element.

6) What do you most want to tell everyone about your next upcoming work?

I’ve got a [shock horror] vampire novel for adults coming out soon, but mostly I’d like to invite folks to check out my latest, which happens to be be a YA fantasy novel. It’s kinda like Narnia meets Harry Potter, with an edgy outsidery kind of main character named Jay September.

Add The Guardian's Wyrd to your Goodreads list and purchase at Amazon or Kobo

Follow Nerine on Twitter and sign up for her newsletter.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Well, I'll be interviewed!

I’m going to be interviewed by Jackie Chin this Friday night 12/20/2013 at 10 pm Central time on Zombiepalooza, a podcast with about a million listeners. Anyone can listen for free at:
Warn your friends!
Go like Jackie Chin and Zombiepalooza on Facebook:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Lupa Bella: First Take

I am immensely pleased and proud to have received the following reaction to my novel, Lupa Bella, from Rosemary Edghill, author of Hellflower, Bell Book and Murder, and Shadow Grail: Legacies:
Lupa Bella is a compelling secret history of a world that might be our own. D.C. Petterson blends pagan mysteries and very human evil to create a haunting tale of love, lore, and renunciation that will keep you turning pages in your race to the end. Petterson gets better with each book. Keep an eye on this guy: he's good, and he'll surprise you.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

ValleyCon postscript

I just got home from a trip to ValleyCon in Fargo, North Dakota. It was my first visit. Highly recommended. Go there next year if you can.

I enjoyed the panel discussions -- lots of writers there, talking lots about writing. That's why I went, to hear from other writers and to make some contacts. I was pleased with the results.

I picked up a steampunk roleplaying game, Gaslight, which looks like it'll be great fun. I spent hours by the pool, playing Cards Against Humanity, the funniest party game I've ever played. Definitely for adults -- well, adults who refuse to grow up.

I learned about this awe-inspiring project to bring back the carrier pigeon. Extinct species might not have to stay dead.

The con suites rocked. Special mention for Inarra's Shuttle and the Star Wars cafe, though they were all great. The butter beer in the Hogwort's teachers' lounge was the best I've ever had.

For me, the highlight of the trip was the two long private conversations I had with C.E. Murphy. She is vivacious and outgoing, generous with advice and encouragement, a truly delightful lady. She has the best story ever about the Irish tendency to be laid-back. They could teach the Spanish a thing or two about maƱana -- but not today.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Cover Reveal - Lupa Bella

Hunt the magic.
Conquer the future.
Run with wolves.

I am pleased to be able to present the cover of my forthcoming novel, Lupa Bella. We are shooting for an Oct 31 release date.

For a thousand years, the de Luna family 
has protected the slopes of Santo Stefano from the outside world. 
Magic wanders through the woodlands, 
electricity is but a distant rumor, 
and werewolves are still secretly fostered to human families. 
It is 1962, and that's all about to change. 
One young wolf struggles to understand the threats of the new age, 
while protecting her brother, her lover, her secret, her birthright, 
and the feudal lord who still knows the Old Ways.
What must she lose, and what will survive?

This is a prequel to my previous novel, A Melancholy Humour. It shares the world and the mythology, but it stands entirely on its own.

I am delighted to be working with a different publisher, Dark Continents Publishing, with whom I share initials, and where my writing seems to have a better fit. I'm also overjoyed that the editor I worked with on A Melancholy Humour, Nerine Dorman, is also now at DCP, and helped to nursemaid Lupa Bella into reality.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

American Dreams

I've written in other places about the influence of science fiction, fantasy, and horror literature upon our culture. Writers with an interest in social commentary find science fiction valuable in this regard. It is possible to explore cultural issues by creating a foreign or alien society, a future or alternate world, and talking there about things that would be difficult to describe here. It is possible to play out fears and hopes, dreams and nightmares, in that sort of fictional setting.

This isn't a new technique. Jonathan Swift used it to advantage in Gulliver's Travels, back in 1726, a work long recognized as satire and social commentary. Indeed, the Berber writer Apuleius (who wrote in Latin) did much the same nearly two thousand years ago, with his novel Metamorphosis, or The Golden Ass. In more modern times, there is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, and stories from Aldous Huxley such as Brave New World. These and innumerable others were intended primarily as works that told interesting tales as a palatable way of presenting social commentary

More interesting still, perhaps, are works that were intended first as popular tales, stories that simply take advantage of existing social fads for commercial purposes. These don't comment on the culture so much as reflect it. Recent trends in current science fiction may reveal something about the nearly-subconscious dreams and fears of present-day America. As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."

Some works of popular fiction stand in a sort of gray zone. They may be immensely popular stories that reflect then-current social concerns, but it isn't clear whether the creators intended them as anything more than money makers. The prime example of this is the 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is now almost universally recognized as an allegory of paranoia about Communist plots, expressing fears that your neighbor could harbor a frightening secret intended to subvert our very way of life. Other sci-fi of that era reflects similar fears: 1951's The Thing from Another World (remade as The Thing in 1982 and again in 2011), 1958's The Fly (remade in 1986), and even George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead toward the end of that era. All of these create their fear through the idea of normal people being transformed into monsters, or monstrous realities hiding within people who could be close to you.

The themes were repeated in the 1967-1968 television series The Invaders, about aliens coming to conquer the Earth, aliens who could disguise themselves as humans, another thinly-veiled cautionary tale about Communist sympathizers among us. In 1984 and 1985, in the middle of the Commie-bating Reagan era, the television series "V" resurrected exactly the idea of The Invaders. "V" even returned in 2009. That many of the classics found new life as successful remakes shows the underlying fear remains part of our society. Communism has faded as a threat; but the theme remained.

My wife pointed out a current trend to me, the significance of which I hadn't noticed. We saw an ad for a new upcoming television series, Defiance, and I commented that the idea of alien invasion seems to be once again gaining popularity in modern culture. There is, for example, another current series, TNT's Falling Skies. She suggested there was a reason for that.

Americans are once again afraid of alien influences. Stoked by the twenty-four-hour "news" cycles which are mostly about political posturing, the fear has again floated to the top of the sewers of our collective mind. The fear was crystallized by Barack Obama's rise to the office of President. There is a conscious and intentional effort by his political opponents to depict President Obama as alien, un-American, socialist, perhaps not a citizen.

It's more than that, though. Our culture is rapidly changing, from opinions about gays to the ever-accelerating pace of technological advance. We are not what we were fifty years ago, or even a dozen years ago. The world is changing around us:
For this generation of entering college students, born in 1994, Kurt Cobain, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Richard Nixon and John Wayne Gacy have always been dead.
Click this link. It will make you feel very old.

Is it any wonder we again (still?) fear a dark invasion, a hidden conspiracy, forces from outside the comfortable fence of the known world? The Walking Dead embodies the fear of becoming something horrible; Battlestar Galactica, another recent remake, makes the aliens explicit; Terra Nova vividly depicted the monsters just outside the city walls. Supernatural depicts the threat with existential and religions overtones. The explosion of vampire and werewolf fiction carries that same undercurrent.

We Americans have always had a deep-seated fear of the Other. This seems odd since we are, in fact the Other. America, as is often said, is a nation of immigrants. We came here. Think about that. For most of us, we were The Invaders, and we conquered the people we found here to establish our nation. That is, in fact, what makes this fear so natural and comprehensible, so much a part of our national consciousness. We know it is possible for aliens to conquer, we know it happens, we know it can happen again, because we ourselves did it.

That may be why modern vampire fiction often depicts the monsters as being compelling and attractive, even while remaining unspeakably dangerous. We can play in that genre, we can explore our fears of what we are becoming, even while we acknowledge our moth-like attraction to the flame that will consume us.

This trend in modern sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction, enduring and perhaps increasing, says something very deep about American psychology and about the way we see ourselves and our world. It reveals our secrets, almost as a psychologist might analyze a patient's dreams. Indeed, these are our culture's dreams, expressed by the creators of popular fiction. We can observe a lot about ourselves by watching them.

(Originally posted at

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


If I'm going to get in at least one post each month, I have to do one in the next couple of days. So here it is.

The prequel to A Melancholy Humour has stalled a bit. It's really two books in one, the first half set in a tiny village on the slopes of Santo Stefano in Sicily. That part's done (in first draft, anyway), and I'm maybe 20,000 words into the second half.

Chicago circa 1965 isn't a challenge. I recall enough to texture the story with sufficient background. I have, however, introduced a potential love interest for my heroine, and he's turning out to be a bit of a putz. Who knew? Still, even that's not so much of a problem. If he comes across as too dorky, I can fix him in rewrites. (Anyone who can seduce a she-wolf had better not be a dork, if he doesn't want to wind up as dinner. I've got other long-range plans for him.)

I have been spending a lot of time in video games lately, but that's just an excuse. Besides, it's good research -- at least, the gems I prefer really are. Bethesda's open worlds of Fallout and Skyrim are addicting, and have some cool storytelling concepts ripe for stealing. Plus, they're awfully pretty in a dread-filled sort of way.

No, what's been slowing the story relates to my penchant for explaining things. Any first-year writing course will hammer home the need to "show, don't tell." That's rough when you write concept-heavy fiction. One slips into explanation mode far too easily. Furthermore, it's often hard to come up with a way to show certain ideas, particularly nuances of historical philosophy or theological struggles.

I put a lot of explanation into my first published novel, Still Life. In order to make the exposition more palatable, I had various characters explaining things to each other, or arguing about the ideas, but it still dragged on sometimes. In my defense, the story came out of the sense-of-wonder "literature of ideas" Golden Age of 1940's science fiction, where every novel had to have a detailed explanation of the workings of star drives, or the optics of lasers, or the geometry of a tesseract.

A Melancholy Humour had a lot less of that, but still involved discussions of historical issues like the role of bodily humours in Medieval medicine, or why it is that the Office of the Inquisition still exists today. But rather than tell the reader that Vincent is something of a neurotic depressive with suicidal tendencies, we see the story from inside his head so the reader can experience his pathology directly.

Telling rather than showing is a timesaver -- it uses less ink, and if a publisher has a limit on the numbers of words in a novel, it's hard to show everything. That's particularly true when a story is told in a point of view limited to a single character. This is the problem I've been struggling with in my current effort, Lupa Bella.

Observe: I could have Emmett tell Celeste that he's a Ceremonialist Magician, with ways of contacting daemons who give him secret information, and that's how he knows she's a werewolf. Any emotional impact then has to come from Celeste's reactions to being discovered, and to her uninformed assumptions about the reality of Magic.

Or, I could show the reader a scene wherein Em contacts his daemons and learns what they have to say. Emotion then comes not only from Emmett himself, but also from the reader's shock at seeing and experiencing the daemons (not to mention the impact of Ceremonialist Magic going on in the heart of a 1960's Chicago meat-packing warehouse).

The second course takes a lot longer than a paragraph of dialogue followed by one or two of reaction. It also requires being able to break away from the highway of my point-of-view character, Celeste, and take the reader through a backroads off-ramp into someone else's experience. After a hundred pages or more of being in Celeste's head, that's not going to work.

A third alternative is for Em to bring Celle to his temple-room, complete with the shadowy presences of the rest of his Magical lodge, and pull her into one of his ceremonies. By far, this is the best way. If I've involved the reader enough in Celeste's way of seeing the world, the visceral experience of her shock and surprise should shake the reader as well. This is, however, also the most time-consuming way, for we need additionally to see Emmett seduce her into it, not to mention the mechanics of him setting the whole thing up. If done wrong, it will slow the story unbearably, provide a distraction and detour from the main action when it could have been done in a half-dozen sentences.

Finding that balance between a story that gallops with action, and one that progresses more slowly but wrings every drop of sweat from the reader's bones -- that's hard work, and often takes trial and error, or long periods of meditation on how the hell do I show this?

After doing far too much talky-talky in Still Life, I showcased a lot more action and emotion in A Melancholy Humour. I'm trying to tell as little as possible in Lupa Bella, with the exception of occasionally having a character tell Celeste about events from decades before (and even then, I'm considering flashbacks instead). It's a lot longer way to tell a story, and it may force me to break it up into a series of smaller novels instead of one big one. My hope is to have a tale where I explain nothing, but make everything clear nonetheless.