Five Things That Don’t Happen in Fiction (But Do In Real Life)

Before my co-author and I began writing novels I had no idea that characters live under strict guidelines we don’t observe in real life. True, they can be glittering vampires (What’s up with that, anyway? Part of the deal for eternal life was no more sunshine, or poof! But that’s a subject for another day). Or they can live in world overrun by zombies, or filled with angry teenagers forced to fight to the death on national television. But here are some rules writers and their characters can’t break.

1.) Identical or Similar Names

Don’t know about you, but even with the first name Melanie, I find myself in situations involving other Melanies. A few weeks ago, my co-author Andrea and I were asked to play tennis in a group with another Melanie and Andrea. Figuring out who was coming and who wasn’t was a bit tricky. But in noveland, similar names are a no no. You can’t even have multiples of the ubiquitous Kayla/Kaitlyn/Katie, although any kindergarten teacher will tell you that there’s always at least three of them in any  group. The exception being if similar names are used as a plot device, i.e., one Katie gets another Katie’s texts by mistake, and ends up on the run from international terrorists. And, okay, I realize this is a terrible example because no one with a cute name like Katie would ever do anything more deadly than photobomb.

2.) Out of character behavior

In noveland, characters may grow and develop over time, but within an expected arc. I’ve had editors tell me to change a phrase because “Bethany wouldn’t say that, it isn’t consistent with her character.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen mild mannered women go full metal bitch on a bad day. Conversely, the people I loathe most in the world will sometimes annoy me by doing nice things. In fiction, if a bad guy commits a selfless act, he is virtually guaranteed to die a couple of paragraphs after redeeming himself. Lengthy deathbed monologue optional.

3.) Excessive use of cellphones and other devices

One of my theories on the current popularity of dystopian and historical settings in all genres is that it gets rid of the blasted phone, not to mention iPod, iPad, laptop and monster TV with seven million channels. Of course characters in some novels use cell phones, but not in the maniacal, obsessive way real people do. That’s because it would be boring as hell to read about someone snapchatting and Instagramming her life away (maybe we need to think about that).

4.) Wardrobe repetition

In noveland, every everyone seems to have access to Kim Kardashian’s closet or the equivalent. The exception, of course, is when clothing is an indication of a disturbing character trait or the end of civilization. Crazed killers might wear the same jeans and shirt repeatedly, as would someone on the verge of a breakdown. Zombie fighters in a world where there is no running water, electricity or J. Crew may also have wardrobe issues. But the rest are expected to undergo multiple wardrobe changes, and each and every outfit must say something about who that character is. I have to applaud fictional characters, who are rarely seen shopping or doing laundry, yet manage to come up with clothes that are not only clean, but expressive. Personally, I spend a lot of time in yoga pants.

5.) Paying bills, voting or paying taxes

If I weren’t ready to give up real life and live in a book for the clothes (see above), I’d do it just to avoid all civic and personal responsibility. When was the last time a character returned to his home to find his electricity had been cut off because he’d been too damn busy tracking down a kidnapped girl or saving the world to pay the power company? Never going to happen. Magical elves take care of all these mundane details even in books where there are no magical elves. But that’s okay. Who wants a detective hot on the trail of a psychotic killer to turn to his partner and say, “Damn, man, I forgot it was April 15. You’re going to have to handle this while I go wait in line to mail my return.”

Queen of the Court $.99

book_cover_V4Get Queen of the Court for just $.99 for Kindle September 14-18.

If you enjoy social satire, you’ll love this tale of an ex-stripper, Shana Lee Jones, who bails out a bankrupt country club and, to the horror of members, makes it the stage for her own reality show. You won’t find another novel featuring outlaw bikers, Wiccans, socialites, country club tennis, Ponzi schemes, politics, the paranormal and even, possibly, murder. It’s the perfect way to stretch summer beach reading into fall. Give yourself a reason to laugh this September.
http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Court-Melanie-Howard-ebook/dp/B00DNBMZ6A

Which One of You Is the Stripper?

My co-author Andrea and I get some pretty interesting questions from readers. Many of these queries are thoughtful, and allow us to reflect on our work in ways that otherwise might not have been possible. Others are just funny as [insert favorite expletive here]. And so…
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1.) Which one of you is the stripper?

It’s Andrea. Just kidding. Despite the fact that our protagonist in Queen of the Court, Shana Jones, is a former stripper, this detail is not drawn from our life experiences. It’s a common misconception that a novel’s central character is always the writer in disguise. This may be true in some cases, but J.K. Rowling (I am always picking on her – just fanatically jealous of her millions) is not a wizard, Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha) was never a geisha, female or Japanese and so on. So no ex-strippers here, but we are willing to develop a pole dancing routine if it will get our book made into a movie.

2.) Are there any characters in your book who aren’t human?

One could argue that Lavinia Winter and her daughter Allie Beech lack the range of emotion to be considered fully human. But the audience member at a book signing who asked this question really wanted to know if Queen of the Court had any cats as characters. The answer is yes, including a colony of feral cats and an old battered Tom who saves….oh, wait, spoiler. Anyway, yes, we have cats, and we are animal lovers and pet owners. But we would like to assure everyone we are not “cat ladies” and have no intention of dying alone in a stuffy apartment surrounded by an excess of felines. Unless, of course, it will get our book made into a movie.

3.) Is your book based on actual people, places and events?

I quote our front matter here: “This book is a work of fiction. Characters, organizations, events and incidents are the product of the authors’ imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons and places is entirely coincidental.”

4.) So are the people who think Belle Vista is really their country club mad at you? [Asked by a reader who didn’t quite believe the answer to question 4.]

Yes! We hear this all the time! Interestingly, people we have never met regularly claim they are in the book (most seem to think they are Allie Beech). There are also those who proclaim publicly that they refuse to read the book, because they know we’re making fun of them and they think it is mean. Which is interesting, because if you haven’t read the book, how can you know we are making fun of you?

A couple of points here. First, we played country club tennis, so we’re making fun of ourselves. Second, it’s country club tennis. We are not poking fun at starving children or Mother Teresa. Third, if you really believe you are one of the characters in Queen of the Court, you have bigger problems than being one of the characters in Queen of the Court. Read the book and you’ll see what we mean.

We are frankly hoping that the once percent grows a set before our sequel comes out, because all this whining is giving us headaches. One final comment: Stop calling us mean. We prefer the term “bitches”.

Melanie Howard and Andrea Leidolf are authors of the social satire Queen of the Court and Merrywood, a mystery scheduled for publication this summer.

Queen of the Court is available in paperback and for Kindle on Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Court-Melanie-Howard-ebook/dp/B00DNBMZ6A

FIVE MYTHS ABOUT INDIE BOOKS

ImageOne of the most first questions I’m asked when someone finds out I’m an author is always “so, did you self publish?” I wouldn’t mind, except that it’s usually asked with a smirky “yeah, I could be that kind of author too” look that implies that I’m cranking out pamphlets about alien abduction on an ancient mimeograph in my garage. I try not to go into self-justification, and instead point out that indie authors – those of us who publish using services outside mainstream publishing houses – represent an increasing slice of the book publishing pie, and that readers who snub indies are missing vibrant new voices and some very enjoyable books. However, often that isn’t enough. So I’m taking a few paragraphs to correct some of the myths that keep people away from indie books.

1. I DON’T WANT TO READ A BOOK WITH A LOT OF MISTAKES

Time to stop reading altogether then! Here’s a link to a paper by an irate English professor excoriating the editors of Harry Potter for all their many grammatical mistakes. http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/Fairfax_Magnet_HS/faculty%20pages/Education%20Week_%20No%20Wiz%20at%20Grammar.pdf There are also a legion of websites pointing out content errors, such as bikes being returned to characters who already had them, and Harry’s birthday being on the wrong day of the week for that particular year. I don’t know about you, but both my kids and I loved Harry Potter and never noticed any of these, because we weren’t looking for them. I won’t deny that online publishing, especially uploading an eBook, is now so easy some writers do decide to just throw something up there that hasn’t been properly edited. But I know our book, Queen of the Court, went through numerous edits, both professional and amateur. Are there a few mistakes? Yes. Just as there are in most books, since they’re products of human endeavor. I think a high quality indie offers readers a similar experience to a high quality book from a publisher. And let’s face it, a crappy book is a crappy read, no matter who publishes it, or how many mistakes it has.

2. I WANT A BOOK WRITTEN BY A REAL WRITER

Really? Good! I’ve been a writer for twenty-five plus years, had stories in major magazines and won a slew of awards. My co-author was the Washington correspondent for SPY, one of the smartest, funniest magazines ever published. So please, if you’re looking for work by “real writers” buy our book. (Maybe instead of the latest conventionally published memoir by a twenty-something who has never written anything before. Just sayin’.)

Major publishing houses may be known for their bestseller lists, but they publish the work of unknowns as well, it just gets little attention unless it takes off. I’m not picking on J.K. Rowling, but her first venture into adult literature sold only 1500 copies under a pseudonym, despite the might of her publisher’s publicity efforts. Only when her name was “revealed” (oh, yes, that had nothing to do with boosting paltry sales, I’m sure) did The Cuckoo’s Calling start selling. Some recent bestsellers, such as Hugh Howie’s Dust and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey were originally self-published. Dust, in fact the entire Silo Saga, was great. I haven’t read Fifty Shades and don’t intend to, it’s not my thing and I have heard nothing good about the writing. But the formerly self-published author was at the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscar Party scouting talent for the film, so I don’t think she’s waiting for my stamp of approval to consider herself a “real writer”.

3. WHEN I SPEND MONEY, I WANT A QUALITY PAPERBACK

I can’t speak for all indie writers, but our book is beautiful, with a professionally designed cover and interior. We’re more than happy with the quality of the paper and production from Amazon’s Createspace, and our book looks comfortable on shelves with conventional novels. My UVa classmate K.M. Topping has produced an absolutely stunning looking young adult novel, Hunter Crispian and the Little Brother of War independently as well. Go ahead and judge a book by its cover! Many indie authors hire wonderful creative designers for their covers and interiors and work with them to make sure the cover truly reflects the content. Amazon has to refund money when a customer returns a book for poor quality, so when they handle production through Createspace, they have a vested interest in the outcome. Quality sells, and they know it.

4. I JUST TRUST CORPORATE PUBLISHING TO DECIDE WHAT IS GOOD AND WHAT ISN’T

Really? I don’t. I read a lot, and we’re talking upwards of fifty books a year. Some of them are awful, even those from major writers that get major publicity. I recently picked up the new mystery by Isabel Allende, a writer I adore. Ripper was a major disappointment, with a meandering plot and cardboard characters. If it had been an indie book, I would have thought it was not professionally edited, or edited at all. I don’t blame Allende, who in her seventies has the guts to flex her writing muscles by trying out a new genre. I do blame the editors and publisher for not sending this major talent back to her drawing board. There was a good book somewhere in there, but Harper failed to tease it out. I am sure some readers loved this book, but my point is that buying a book is a risk, you are not going to love everything you read no matter who publishes it.

5.A LOT OF INDIE BOOKS SEEM TO BE ABOUT WEIRD STUFF

Indie publishing does seem to have more than its fair share of paranormal romance, Fifty Shades knock offs and dystopian sagas. Some of these books are quite good, but if it’s not your style – and it’s not mine either – looking at a page full of these can be a turn off. Fortunately, Amazon and other online booksellers have sort functions, so you can rid yourself of sexy vampires, bondage babes and rotting zombies with a couple of clicks. I think sorting by genre is a gift to readers, but can be tough on novels like ours. Queen of the Court is a social satire that really crosses categories. It’s humor, but has some substance, it’s chick lit, but many male readers love it, it has an mystery element, but that’s not the main focus. In your friendly, neighborhood bookstore (the one that went out of business five years ago) it would probably be shelved somewhere near Carl Hiaason’s novels and Bridget Jones’ Diary. The lack of identifiable genre makes our job as indie authors – finding readers – even more difficult. But we work at it every day. The eBook version of Queen of the Court is just $.99 through March 8 because we want to introduce more readers to our work. We hope you’ll take a chance with your hard earned dollar and explore the world of indie publishing, starting with our book. http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Court-Melanie-Howard-ebook/dp/B00DNBMZ6A

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

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We knew when we wrote Queen of the Court that because it was satire, critics (and by this I mean cranky amateurs as well as professional reviewers) would find some of our characters and scenes over the top. Like the fact our protagonist Shana Jones grew up worshipping at the World’s End Apocalyptic Church of Signs, at least until the snake-handling leader, Pastor John, was delivered to his heavenly reward via timber rattler. As it turns out, my co-author Andrea and I may have more impressive powers of prophecy than our unfortunate creation Pastor John ever did. Earlier this week a story broke in the news that is so close to our plotline that if it were fiction, we might have a legal case.  http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/16/us/snake-salvation-pastor-bite/  Pastor Jamie Coots, star of the National Geographic reality show Snake Salvation (yes, snake handling and reality TV together, where have we heard that before….) and spiritual leader of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, met his maker via snake venom in the manner of Pastor John while conducting a religious service.  Like the real Pastor Jamie, Pastor John was from several generations of Pentecostal  snake handlers who believe that the bible requires Christians to take up snakes and, despite significant evidence to the contrary, the Holy Spirit will protect those who do from venomous bites.\ Our fictional Pastor John passed his pulpit down to his son, Levi and we read on CNN that Pastor Jamie hoped his son a the fully grown yet oddly named Little Cody, would take over for him. Spoiler alert: based on the story line we wrote for Levi, we would strongly, I repeat strongly, advise Little Cody to look into other lines of work. Something safe, like accounting or stocking shelves at the Piggly Wiggly. For more fiction that is, if not stranger than truth, at least every bit as entertaining, read Queen of the Court. http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Court-Melanie-Howard-ebook/dp/B00DNBMZ6A