Interview: Mariko Tatsumoto

Mariko TatsumotoThis month I had the great privilege to interview author Mariko Tatsumoto, author of thelovely and wonderfully heartwarming middle-grade novel Ayumi's Violin.

What made you aspire to be a published writer?

I accidentally took a children’s writing class. I thought I was signing up for a creative writing class. Our “final” was to write a picture book. The instructor praised my work and encouraged me to get it published. I later took a creative writing class from the same instructor.

How long have you been a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers?

About ten years. I learned so much at the Gold Conferences. I always attended a session every hour, I never skipped. I also bought CDs of sessions I couldn’t attend. I relished in listening to stories speakers told. By attending conferences, I made writing friends whom have become vital in my writing life. I joined online critique groups set up by RMFW. The writers in those groups have taught me so much and have given me so much support, I could never thank them enough.

Who are some of your own favorite writers? What are some of your favorite books?

Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman, J.K. Rowling. I used to own hundreds of books, many of them first editions or signed, but I decided to pare down only to those I really care about. Now I own about a hundred print books. I only have about a dozen ebooks. Some that I could never give away are: Tom Sawyer, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Snow Falling on Cedar, October Sky, The Wave, and all the James Bond books by Ian Fleming because they were my father’s.

What are you currently reading?

Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown

Ayumi's ViolinWhy was it important to you to tell Ayumi’s story?

I think the hardships we endure in our lives never leave us, and we want others to understand what we’ve gone through. Immigrating to a foreign country is a difficult transition. Many people don’t understand how tough it is to make a new life in a new country where you don’t speak the language and you don’t understand the culture.

In some ways Ayumi’s father is subjected to the same mistrust and racism as Ayumi, and yet his experience with these things differs from Ayumi’s in fundamental ways.

Especially in 1959, being white allowed many privileges, such as traveling unrestricted and not being judged by his looks by strangers. As the book progresses, he learns to stand up for Ayumi more, but he doesn’t carry racism and resentment from his childhood like Ayumi. Father can get another job and speak up for racism.

While to Ayumi the violin represents her connection to her mother, from her death bed mother said, “I will always be in the music.” Not in the violin itself. Why is this distinction important to what happens later?

To Ayumi, when Mother tells her to take care of her violin, the violin embodies her mother. But Ayumi’s mother knew that music is what is important to Ayumi. The violin is only how Ayumi expresses her music. Even when she can't play her violin, wherever there is music, her mother is there.

While Brenda resents sharing her parents with Ayumi, it isn't the same as the racism of those who hate Ayumi but do not know her.

Brenda is jealous of a new sister in the house, not because Ayumi is biracial. Brenda is pretty much color blind, which children are if they are not taught to be racist. Jealously of other siblings is normal and natural, racism is learned.

Diego’s presence in the story is critical to show how his experiences with intolerance differs from Ayumi’s.

People stereotype depending on the race: Muslims are terrorists, Mexicans are lazy, Blacks are thieves, Asians are smart. Of course in 1959, Asians were not attributed with any positive stereotyping, but I threw that in to show that not all stereotyping is bad, such as Blacks have rhythm, Blacks are great athletes. Because different races are thought of differently, Diego, being Mexican, is thought of as being dishonest, prone to stealing. Thus, he’s fingered whenever there might be a burglary. Ayumi, on the other hand, isn’t regarded automatically as a thief.

If there is one message you wish families to take away from the story of Ayumi and her violin, what would it be?

Never let go of your passion, it will carry you through your darkest times.

What are some of your own personal writing habits?

I think about my book, such as plot, dialogue, scenery or whatever away from my computer. I think about those things while I’m hiking, driving, or lying in bed. When I’m at my computer, I’m putting words on the screen. I don’t allow myself writer’s block. I don’t have that kind of time to spare. If the next scene isn’t coming or I can’t figure out how C gets to D, I work on something else. Maybe I work on a scene or a dialogue that’s way beyond where I’m currently working on. Maybe I rewrite a previous scene. I keep going, not always chronologically, but that doesn’t matter.

The ages old question for writers: to outline or not to outline?

A flexible outline. If I don’t know where the story is going or don’t know what the theme is, I don’t know what scenes to write, what words to put into characters’ mouths. But if a character says something unexpectedly or a scene twists a different way than planned, I go with it. In those times, the story often takes an unusual curve that turns out to change the book for the better.

What can you tell us about any upcoming writing projects you have in the works?

I have two manuscripts that are ready to publish, which I plan to release in the next 6 -7 months: Accidental Samurai Spy and Kenji's Power. I’m currently working on a book with a working title of The Messanger about twelve-year-old Lilly in an internment camp during World War II.

Thank you so much, Mariko, for taking the time to answer my questions. I'm sure all of our members are grateful to you for sharing your insights into writing with us, as well as some details about Ayumi's Violin. Good luck! Or as they say in Japan, work hard and persevere!


I remember one of my first writers conferences. I pitched a project to one of the visiting agents or editors, and I remember being so thrilled when he asked to see the first three chapters. Later, one of the more seasoned conference attendees asked me how my pitch went and in my excitement I told her. Instead of being excited for me, she said, "Oh he asks everyone for the first three chapters."

Sad PuppyI don't know what was in this person's heart, what the intent was of the remark, but I know the effect. I was instantly deflated. I was being told, whether in mean spirits or total thoughtlessness, that I ought not be so excited, that I was not so special after all, and that in spite of having an actively acquiring New York publishing professional ask to see an excerpt of my manuscript I was in truth no closer to being published than I had ever been. It was a cruel thing to say, whether it was meant to be or not.

For several years after that, when asked how a pitch went, I always dodged the question, whether the pitch went well or not. It is easy to dodge such questions, just ask the person something about their work and they forget all about the question they asked. Whether a request for pages, or even the entire manuscript, meant I was about to be represented or not, I preferred the boost it gave to my inspiration to think so, than to have someone again poke it with a pin.

We are so often thoughtless in our comments to others that we often aren't mindful of how it may affect the listener. Especially new members or first time conference attendees. So let me set the record straight.

Happy DanceIf the agent or editor you pitched to at September's Colorado Gold conference, or any conference for that matter, has asked to see pages, never mind how many, that is rare. Don't pay attention to how many others he or she may have requested from other people. The fact is each agent/editor will never request pages of something in which they are not interested, they just don't have the time for such foolishness, even to spare feelings. Remember that the agent/editor you spoke to was at the conference for a reason. They want you to be a good writer, they want your project to be the one they pick for representation, they are there to find the next great novel for their list, and they would not have requested pages from you if they didn't want you to be the author of that novel. They are actually rooting for you.

Be excited. Be very excited. And don't let any off-hand comment from anyone dampen that excitement. Enthusiastically polish that excerpt and kiss the screen before you email it out for good luck. Then, don't sit by the phone with baited breath and wait for that phone call. Use the energy from your excitement to finish the project, or start another one. Take the inspiration and run with it. If an agent/editor asks to see pages, you are that much closer to getting published. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise!


A fellow member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers did not see any immediate impact on the careers of those she witnessed working so hard on our all-volunteer staff, either at the annual Colorado Gold Writers Conference, nor throughout the year on our board and support positions. She asked me if I found participation in RMFW rewarding. Because of the context of the question I knew she wasn't asking whether I found it personally rewarding. What she was really asking was: Did I feel the effort and time I put into volunteering in RMFW translated in any way to book sales, or any other help for my career as a novelist.

Not at all a simple question.

You've heard, I'm sure, the term: You get out of it what you put into it. And I'm sure that's true, as far as it goes. The benefits of participation in RMFW as just an attending member are direct - E=MC2. But are the benefits for volunteering and actually participating in the operation of the organization even measurable in any instant or even short term calculation? I submit that one actually gets back much more than what they put in when actively participating in RMFW.

I post to the RMFW email loop ( to keep members with whom I’m acquainted, but not necessarily on a direct-email basis, informed of what’s going on with me. I may not get any direct response to my posts, but doing so also helps to keep one's name out there on the loop. Your name also becomes prominent in other areas of RMFW such as the newsletter, volunteering for conference, submitting to the blog, etc. Keeping your name out there in the RMFW community does translate to your publicity, if not directly to sales, and opens doors that may not be open otherwise. Eventually guest publishing professionals – speakers, visiting editors and agents, etc. – will hear/read it. There are a million subtle ways in which this can benefit you. I’ve gotten a lot more attention (followers on Facebook and Twitter, name recognition when introducing myself at workshops and conferences, etc.) since I agreed to become a regular contributor to the RMFW blog, and I love doing it. You never know where this kind of networking might benefit you down the line.

So no, volunteering does not perhaps convert directly to sales, and I suspect that’s why things like the email loop aren't nearly as active these days as they once were. It used to be a very lively forum for discussion and debate, but lately most posters want to sell their books and that’s all. Well I assure you that while most readers of the loop scan over or even ignore ads for your books or promotions for your blog, they are eager to read other news and opinions of current events and hot publishing industry topics. The loop and other methods of keeping your name prominent in RMFW may not translate directly to sales, you never know what it might lead to indirectly down the line.

Likewise attending our free workshops and education events throughout the year. These are not just opportunities to look at an aspect of our profession from another colleague's perspective, something from which you are far more likely to learn than not, you also have the opportunity to network, to meet fellow writers and introduce yourself to them.

conference1The Colorado Gold Writers Conferences, sponsored every Fall by RMFW, is the Grande Dame of all networking opportunities the organization offers. There is no end to the openings you have to make yourself known to the organization at large, not to mention guest professionals from the publishing industry from around the country, and even, sometimes, other countries. From pitching a workshop, if you feel you have something to share with others, to volunteering to moderate workshops. You can volunteer to judge the contest, work the registration table, help in operating the pitch sessions, or just in general as a docent or information source for newcomers and other attendees. One of the best opportunities is to volunteer as a driver, to pick up and transport conference guests between the airport and the venue - here you have a good thirty minutes or more alone with one of the visiting editors, agents, or authors invited to the conference to chat with them and become acquainted. No better networking opportunity in my book.

In short, never pass up an opportunity to volunteer and participate in RMFW and get yourself and your name out there. Doors only open to you if people know who you are. And RMFW is one of the greatest local opportunities you will have to do so.

Oh, and when the doors do open, always be ready and never say no. Even if it doesn’t end up going anywhere, sooner or later one will.

Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
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My ruminations today are on the delicate balance between presenting our readers with something they want to read vs. challenging them to read something that is uncomfortable and even Clasicsunpleasant but that might stick with them a little longer. It starts with the photo I've included with this post. While browsing blogs and online news articles about books and literature I came across the ad you see at right, and it struck me as blasphemy that Fifty Shades of Grey should be listed among such classics as Catcher in The Rye, of all things. It is outrageous that a book that, by all accounts, is barely more than poorly written Internet porn should find itself on a shelf, albeit an imaginary online shelf, with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now, being an expert on web design and development I know ads such as these are rarely put together by humans any more. These days there are algorithms smart enough to detect the topic of the article or blog being read and assemble ads automatically that are aimed to draw the attention of a reader with similar interests. It is more likely that this ad was put together by what is called an ad-bot (short for advertisement robot) based on the content of the article I was already reading than by a human being. He doesn't know any better, all he knows is the criteria around which his algorithm was written. Which made me wonder what that criteria might be, that would list a universally panned piece of populist tripe amongst such literary gems. Artificial intelligence is still decades away from being able to program value judgments into computers, so it had to be some mathematically quantifiable metrics on which the ad-bot made the choice to include those particular books in this particular ad.

This got me asking what these books had in common. Emotionally I wanted to reject the notion the Shades could have anything in common with the other three. But I looked at them objectively. Since the article I was reading made reference to Atlas Shrugged, it made sense that it was this book which seeded the initial algorithm, which them searched for other books in common with Shrugged. For one thing, all four books are listed on most retail book sites as General Fiction. I would've though Shades would be Romance, but I looked and before Erotica it is listed on most sites as General. Next, each of these books had a profound impact on our culture when released. Again, a bot cannot make a value distinction as to whether that impact was good or bad, only that there was indeed a measurable sea change as a result of the release of each of these novels. For better or worse, each book was destined to go down in history as a classic, if by no other definition than that it impacted society in some significant way.

This got me to thinking about the books I've read that I enjoyed, and those I did not. Oddly enough, I found that there was a much greater number than I wanted to admit that I found uncomfortable or unpleasant to read but that stuck with me, that I could not shake. These were not necessarily badly written books, in fact most were quite well written, but books that forced me to confront things I usually avoid, or made me see things in ways that made me uncomfortable, or even changed my outlook on life against my will. Books like, for example, The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, a very dark look at attraction and rejection that includes the most detailed POV description of a suicide I ever read; or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess in which a young man's love of Beethoven is stripped away from him as a casualty of an experimental behavioral modification procedure (read torture); or Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs which I'm still not entirely sure I understood but that contained some of the most disturbing images I've ever read.

What surprises me is, arguably, these books that I profess to dislike have impacted my life to a greater degree than any book I read that I liked. I say arguably because there are some neck and neck.

And that brought me to an assessment of my own writing. Even as a small boy I aspired to write books that people don't just enjoy, but that they cherish and want to keep in their libraries to read again and again. I still go back and read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, The Hobbit, and Dune. And you can have my original hardcover copies of the Harry Potter series when you pry them from my cold dead fingers!

But I ask myself, is it better, for my own immortality, to have written a series of dearly beloved books, or to have instead left a legacy of disturbing, uncomfortable, haunt-you-in-your-sleep books that nevertheless impact people in a significant and long enduring way? I waffle on this occasionally. I still have no answer, except that in the end I write whatever I write the best way that I know how, leaving it all on the court, so to speak, and let others decide where my legacy falls. If you, dear reader, have an opinion on the matter, I'd love to read it in comments, below.

Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
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By Kevin Paul Tracy

Some of the most respected classical writers throughout history did literary criticism as either a sideline or as a career before they sold their own novels. From Edgar Allen Poe to Oscar Wilde, then great writers would often decimate their peers in papers and writing journals, eviscerating them in public treatments. Today, when two or more people get into heated, venom-laden, often imaginative insult wars in emails loops or chat rooms, we refer to it as a "flame war," but this sort of thing is not new to the journalistic world. Often quite famous writers would go back and forth in periodicals, attacking and counter-attacking each other's works in the most colorful and often personal ways. The public loved it, so it sold a lot of papers, so the editors loved it. Back then, there was a certain poetry to the insults exchanged. Poe once wrote of Ralph Waldo Emerson that he "...belongs to a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever — the mystics for mysticism’s sake." Because profanity was much more taboo than it is now, writers had to really challenge themselves to come up with original and imaginative ways to dress each other down that would both make their point and entertain the reader at the same time.

One could make a very convincing point about the lack of efficacy of such frontal assaults, popular as they were to the readers. It stands to reason than our best efforts in any endeavor are going to become intimately intertwined with our ego and self-esteem. This is our attempt to accomplish something intended for public consumption. We are expending effort and strain in its creation, and we want to do it correctly and in good form. We want others to not only read, but to enjoy it. No one sets out to fail, not on purpose. The man who does not care about whether others appreciate his attempts to create is a man better off dead - he is not truly contributing anything to the human condition, but stroking his own ego, little more than public masturbation. We are better off without him. Frankly I submit such men do not exist, or if they do, they are too rare to care about. So understandably we are going to feel attacked on a personal level whenever something we have created is attacked, and when that happens, any truth or lessons to learn from the criticism, however deeply buried under hyperbole and colorful language, is bound to be lost on us. We don't learn much from such criticism.

On the other hand, couching criticism in too much pillowy language to soften the blow often risks obscuring the points one wishes to make, or to blunt their importance so much that a very critical point may be ignored as less important. Saying, for example, "I love your writing. Just one small thing, for what it's worth, when you have a one-page character like the patrolman, who is very colorfully written by the way, discover the blood on the baseboard, no offense but you are not utilizing your protagonist, my favortie character in your book, in the most proactive manner," the point is so well couched in diplomatic rhetoric it could be lost. Ego and self-esteem of the writer aside, the best way to make a point is still the most direct, pointed, even blunt way: "You waste an opportunity to show your protagonist's sleuthing genius by having a minor cut-out character find crucial clues instead. And you do it repeatedly through the book." There can be no mistaking the point being made, and also the importance the critic places on that point.

Crying at The ComputerIn receiving a critique, I prefer the blunt approach to being coddled and swaddled and fed treacle. And still, other writers can get their hackles up and throw a glass of wine in your face for saying it.

There are those whose opinion, no matter how qualified, we as individuals do not respect, for whatever reason. I submit that the level of umbrage we take from a criticism increases exponentially in reverse proportion to the amount of respect we bear the critic: the less we esteem his opinion the greater offense we take at it. For this I'm afraid there is no remedy. As writers, we must merely bite the bullet and take it.

I further submit that to engage a critic on any level is folly. It doesn't matter that you can explain away his point, that you have a greater knowledge of writing craft than he, or that you are right and he is wrong. Engaging him can only make you look bad on a multitude of levels. One, you come off as insecure about your own writing. No matter how well reasoned or skillfully worded your retort, any retort at all smacks of defensiveness and lack of confidence, like you feel you have something to defend. Second, you can come off as petty, especially if anything you say can be interpreted as a personal attack on the critic. Reacting to a critique can sound like you are only reacting to the critique, and any personal opinions you express about the critic were only formed as a result of his critique, not based on any other independent knowledge or observation. Thirdly, you can appear quite arrogant in a retort, as if you consider yourself above any criticism at all, and not just this one critic or critique.

A lot of criticism, especially on the Internet, isn't worthy of response. It is in vogue these days on the Internet to launch attacks on someone who has put themselves forth in the public eye if only because it is so easy to do so. Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James recently underwent just such an ordeal, setting aside time to answer questions from fans on Twitter, only to be attacked by a collection of online thugs who found it funnier to lance and humiliate her publicly than to permit any serious dialog about her books. The only way to protect oneself from such a basting is to maintain some control over those permitted to participate - charge a nominal fee or issue invitations to the event without which one cannot participate. At any rate, the kinds of flaming criticisms to which she was submitted has been quite aptly described by many as appalling and uncalled for. These sorts of attacks aren't even worth a response, they are just ignorant and mean-spirited.

The only effective response to criticism is no response at all. Utter and complete radio science. It can be very difficult, but as I've already said, there is no way to indulge in the alternative with any sort of success at all. It is simply professional suicide to try.

There is a mind set to taking criticism gracefully, and while it isn't easily adopted, with practice it can make hearing harsh criticism much less sharp and damaging to our ego. First, always remind yourself that this person, whatever else they may be, is a reader, just like every other reader out there in the world that you wish to reach. In the end, his reaction is the reaction of a reader, which means out of the millions who potentially might read your book (and let's face it, none of us dream of a small audience) there are those out there who will have the same reactions, thoughts, and objections as him/her. You must decide whether you believe that number to be great or small, but in the end you are not going to be there, reading over their shoulders, ready to defend yourself against their reaction to your novel. So to the degree that they are honest, his criticisms are valid, not matter how they are worded, merely due to the fact that he is first and foremost a reader, your audience.

Second, if the critic is a colleague or fellow writer, be grateful that this particular reader, the critic, has himself writing chops, the skills himself to recognize flaws in prose and story craft, and the language to describe it in such a way that makes it very clear to you where you have gone wrong. Thirdly, especially if the criticism is badly worded, or deliberately worded to be insulting or to get a rise out of you, keep in mind that such personal attacks say much more about the person leveling them than they do the person at whom they are leveled. In such a case, leaving such caustic criticism unanswered tends to bring out in even greater relief and clarity the pettiness and arrogance with which the criticism was written/given.

And lastly, always remember that no matter the criticism, in the end you choose to accept it or not. If the project is still in development, you still get to decide whether to take the criticism and make the requisite changes to your work or to ignore it and leave it as it is. If already published, then you are limited as to what you can do anyway, and so it accomplishes nothing to take such things to heart. Even as you take the criticism of those whom you respect and admire, retain your faith in your own talent and skill. In the end it is your project, ultimately your offering to the world, and it must feel right to you, or you are not being true to yourself.

Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
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By Kevin Paul Tracy

The other day I stumbled across, of all random things things, the old Punk Rock hit, "Turning Japanese." ("I think I'm turning Japanese. I think I'm turning Japanese. I really think so!") Before I knew it I was laughing and doing a silly dance there at my desk. It had been ages since I'd heard the thoroughly ridiculous, utterly indulgent song, and I'd forgotten what a catchy beat, toe-tickling melody, and nonsense lyrics it brought to the ear. I found myself completely delighted, my spirits lifted for no other reason than this empty-headed little song. And, as most things do, it got me thinking.

There is a certain snobbery in certain industries, most notably the arts, that summarily dismisses and in almost all cases delights in tearing down and lambasting the simple, the silly, the indulgent. "Turning Japanese" was roundly dismissed as inconsequential and in some cases even detrimental to the library of American music, and yet someone listened to it, enough people to make it, if not a number one hit, then at least a top 40 gem. There was something about it, silly and inconsequential as it might be, that pleased people. They enjoyed listening to it.

I stopped watching the HBO TV series "Game of Thrones" after the so-called "Red Wedding" episode, but only partially because I was disappointed as a viewer. While doing research online I came across several credible quotes by the author of the show who freely admitted he killed off his heroes in ignoble ways to shock and alarm readers/viewers. He didn't want them to rely on the heroes to save the day, didn't want fans to relax in the idea that the hero would eventually prevail, that good would eventually defeat evil. Perhaps that is fine for him and for the thousands who still read his books and watch his television program. But it seems to me a cynical focal point around which to pivot a plot. I write because I have a story to tell. I write the story that wants telling. I don't indulge some disgruntled agenda to manipulate an audience or to make a rhetorical point.

There is an on-gong debate I've been following online in British literary circles where the underlying operating assumption is that any book with a happy ending is immediately dismissed as unimportant, puerile, indulgent and of no consequence. Never mind the quality writing that may fill the pages leading up to it, if it ends with the good guys winning then it is summarily dismissed. Forgive me, but such a sweeping displacement strikes me as every bit as shallow as the books themselves supposedly are. Am I wrong? To me, I love reading well written prose. How the story ends is almost immaterial to me, if the intervening story and the skill with which it was written was a joy to experience. Almost, because an arbitrary or manipulative ending can spoil a good tale.

We are all entitled to write what we wish, and if you find an audience, well good God of course more power to you. But I think it wrong to try to shame others for indulging in certain literary palate cleansers such as Louie L'Amour's westerns, Ian Fleming's James Bond series, or even Charles Dickens entirely operatic but delightful fiction. There is a reason television shows like Little House on The Prairie, The Gilmore Girls, and today's Castle run for so many years. No one mistakes them for real life. But there is something simple, silly and pleasing about them to a great many audiences.

While I, myself, prefer a happy ending, I don't dismiss a book that doesn't have one. In point of fact I think Stephen King is an American treasure, probably one of the best writers I've ever read, and I don't recall a single one of his books that ended on a totally positive note. So while I prefer one, I can appreciate all. I would never dismiss the hard work of any writer on so slight and arbitrary a criteria as that. I take in the entire work as a whole and take it as it is offered by the storyteller, and judge it on that basis alone.

Something many of you have heard me say many times, and I think it is entirely true: Whether your story has a happy ending or not depends entirely upon where you choose to end your story.

Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
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By Kevin Paul Tracy

This is not going to be a popular opinion with a lot of people out there, including many aspiring writers.

In answer to the question, "Can you teach someone to write?" my answer is yes...and no.

I firmly believe you can teach someone to write, but you cannot teach anyone to be a writer.

I've said for many years, everyone has at least one story to tell, and I mean it - absolutely everyone has at least one story to tell. Telling that story is one thing. Telling it well - in the sense that the words are spelled correctly; the grammar is structured according to current norms; the characters are built according to the latest personality tropes and types; the plot follows standard forms and formulas; the narrative utilizes the prescribed forms of metaphor, simile, and exposition; and the arc of conflict builds, climaxes and resolves as it should - can be taught to someone willing to learn. These are all critical building blocks to fiction we all need to learn, but if this is all you have, I've read these stories, and all I can say is, "Yawn!"

Learning to weave a tale like a fine but tattered fabric is nothing that can be taught, it can only be felt. Writing is passion, writing is pain, writing is one of the most intimate acts of self-exploration, and in some cases self-destruction, there is. But more than anything else, writing is love. Writers love stories, love the written word, love to read as much as write. Until you've tried to continue typing through the fog of your own tears, you've never written anything. Until you've read and re-read a passage, unable to believe that you wrote something so beautiful, you've never written. Until you've chewed your nails until they bled while waiting for your favorite reader to finish your latest chapter and tell you what they think, you haven't written.

Ouroboros WormWriters love the story. They embrace it, swaddle it in a way only a parent who holds their own newborn child could possibly understand. Their own favorite writers, novels, characters, and stories are as known to them as boon companions, loved by them like family, cherished by them like the unrealized dreams of childhood. Writers keep a copy of an obscure book or an otherwise critically panned movie for the one line of dialog or piece of narrative that speaks to us. I, myself, keep a copy of the flawed and largely disregarded "The Worm Ouroboros" by E.R. Eddison because the over-the-top scene setting and narrative descriptions tickle my sense of author self-indulgence and narrative excess.

Finally, writers will understand what I'm trying quite poorly to say in this article. Anyone can teach you to write, but no one can teach you to be a writer. That is something you must discover within yourself entirely on your own, if it is there to be found.

Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
Kevin's Amazon Kevin's Blog


By Kevin Paul Tracy

I've spent the past three posts discussing elements of politics in fiction, somewhat focused on world-building, which is often considered an activity of the speculative fiction writer, but I submit is also a job for any crafter of mysteries, adventures, thrillers, etc. who wants to provide a solid plot line that fulfills and satisfies readers. It is time to move on from political intrigue, or spies and terrorists, to full-scale war in fiction.

waterlooMost of us have written the occasional (or frequent) action scene - fist fights, exchanges of gunfire, and various forms of chase scenes. But few have the occasion to relate a full scale battlefield clash between two forces numbering in the hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands. To some the task may seem daunting, but if you keep in mind that, in the end, even chapters about massive combat are still ultimately about characters the readers have, hopefully by this point, come to care about, the task becomes manageable, if no less complex.

The challenge is to relate the larger events of the battle, the strategy and tactics, the turn of advantage, the ebb and flow of victory and defeat, while still keeping the very small, individual, human element integral to the narrative. I suggest planning for the battle comes at the very beginning of story craft - in the outline phase for the entire book. If you know this book is going to have a large-scale battle in it, you have some elbow room to plan ahead. Introduce characters whose diverse occupations and roles are going to be useful in giving the reader insight into the various aspects of the conflict later. In a medieval setting, for example, introduce the Kings and Generals early in the story, but also perhaps a squire, perhaps a message runner, an infantryman or two, and perhaps a conscientious princess or lowly midwife who might become a nurse to the injured or a beacon of leadership to refugees, etc. These do not have to be major characters, and they do not necessarily have to hold the roles at the very beginning of the book, as long as they are in place when the conflict starts so that we can turn to them from time to time during the battle for their very personal, human dramas amidst the larger backdrop of war.

Characters in place now, the battle starts. A battle is kind of like a tide at the beach, it ebbs one way, flows another, breaks against hard forces such as rocks, then tumbles past soft forces like shells or seaweed. Think of writing your battle sequence like a tide. Start with a bird's-eye view, giving us the larger context, the state of war as it begins, then rush down into the midst of it and focus on the actions and consequences of one of the characters established earlier. At an appropriate point, preferably upon a cliff-hanger, zoom your storytelling camera back out to the thousand foot view again, tell us how the tide of battle has shifted, who is advancing and who retreating. Then, dive back down again, choose another character whose very personal story gives us a context-filled experience that affects us and keeps us engaged.

And so it should continue - wide-shot, then close-up, wide-shot, then close-up, keeping us apprised of the progress of the larger war at hand, while simultaneously keeping us engaged on a deeper, much more character-driven level. If done well, the reader comes away from your book with a fulsome sense of satisfaction, that they were able to follow the impact of the greater events at hand because they were also given the very personal, individual micro-view of how those larger events affected individuals they cared about.

Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow to be release 4/15/2015; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

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spyBy Kevin Paul Tracy

This month's post builds on the ideas in February's post with thoughts on infusing fictional politics into your fiction. In that post I refer to the root of all politics, economics, and how ultimately it is commodities in high demand - oil, gold, the spice Melange - and the need to share them that lead to politics, both good and bad. In any society, or world, no commodity is in higher demand, especially for governments, than information. No government can operate long where it cannot gain access to information - information about everything from how their own commonwealth are doing to how other, outside commonwealths are faring. Not to put too fine a point on it, a government is always starved for information, and no matter how much information there is to be had, it is never enough for any government.

And so we enter the world of political intrigue, where those seeking to hold on to their power, or to gain more, seek to control the flow of information. They want it, and they want to control who else has it. To do so they often indulge in some rather unsavory practices, such as spying and theft to gain information, lying to mislead others about information (often called euphemistically "misinformation") and even assassination to prevent information from being passed on to another. Information gained is then used in various ways to gain political advantage, from sabotage, to blackmail, to arms races, ad infinitum. We are entering a time in our own world where, due to social media and the Internet, information has suddenly become quite vulnerable to theft and exposure. There are those who believe if all information is available to everyone, even state secrets, then no one can hold power, and that is what they dearly long for - anarchy.

In your world-building, erecting a political infrastructure can give your stories pillars around which your plot can grow and intertwine. Deciding what information is critical to power in your world, and how that information is controlled and brokered, can be complex, but in the long-run very rewarding, enriching your fiction in ways you might never have imagined in the beginning.

One thing that pleases readers is to have information that the characters don't. Having your characters act on incorrect information is a great way to build suspense. For example, the information that King Mark has is that the neighboring kingdom of Latland has rich deposits of sulfur and nitrates needed to make powder for cannons, but peaceful King Fred of Latland denies this. So King Mark allies with the openly ambitious King Barney of Simlor, his neighbor on the other side: he will cede a hundred square miles of his southernmost lands to King Barney in exchange for his help in invading Latland and taking the mines. The information that King Mark doesn't have is that King Fred is not lying, Latland has minimal deposits of either commodity, if that. Unknown to King Mark is that the richest deposits of sulfur and nitrates are, in fact, in the very southernmost regions of his own lands that he is ceding to King Barney. So who do you suppose disseminated the misinformation that misled King Mark? Well, who has the most to gain from the situation? King, Barney, of course, right?

The key is that your story cannot be only about these political intrigues. If it is, it will ultimately lose the reader's interest. Your stories must be about characters, people. These worlds we build are only a backdrop to the real stories, about how the characters interact and affect each other. For example, the above story isn't really about King Marks being led into attacking his friend, King Fred, by the unscrupulous and greedy King Barney. It is about a young man, Mark, whom no one ever believed in, who inherited his kingdom by marriage and the untimely death of his father-in-law, and who is desperate to show his wife and everyone that he is fit to be king, that he can be a worthy husband, man, and leader after all.

As always, like character back-story, much of what you build may never actually reach the page, but it informs your story in subtle ways the readers can detect. The feeling that there is a living, breathing culture with a pulse behind and underneath everything that happens in your books is what can leave your readers feeling fulfilled and eager for the next volume, whether a series or stand-alone.

Check out Kevin’s latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda, a startling and engrossing gothic thriller Bloodflow, and don’t miss Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow.

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By Kevin Paul Tracy

senateAfter writing last month’s column on infusing your fiction with real-world politics, I thought I’d address this month’s column to how to infuse fictional politics into your fictional world. In fiction it is often necessary to build a world as a stage on which the events of your novel or series will play. Most often this is done in Science Fiction or Fantasy, but it is done in other fiction as well. For example thrillers often create a world very close to our own, but different enough to avoid complaints by purists. In world building, the more complete your world the more real it becomes to your reader. Even if, like character back-story, much of it doesn't reach the page, readers can still sense the fulsomeness with which your world was built. The subtleties bleed through, even if you the very author are unaware of it. Politics can be a great way to add intrigue and urgency to your story lines.

The thing to remember about Geopolitics is that at the core of everything is money. Find any driver of international political conflict – oil, borders, religion – and you don’t have to dig much further to find the root financial drivers behind it. Now I’m going to use a dirty word, please don’t stop reading: that’s economics. Use the word economics in almost any context and people’s eye glaze over, but it doesn't have to be as dry and boring as the pundits on television make it seem. Let me explain how you can use basic economic concepts to build a realistic, engaging, and exciting geopolitical scaffolding around which to build your fictional world.

The definition of economics is stated in a single sentence: economics is the management of finite resources. Period. That’s it. Simple, right? Resources can be anything from food, to water, to grazing land, to narcotics, to oil, ad infinitum. In economics a resource has at least two properties: demand (how many people want it and in what quantity) and supply (how much of it is available or how difficult is it to come by). The value of any resource increases as demand increases and/or supply diminishes. So, likewise, it’s value decreases as demand goes down and/or supply increases.

dune_frank_herbertYou can use this simple idea to infuse a whole lot of ecopolitics into your world. Consider Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune. In this science fiction epic, the resource in greatest demand in the universe is the spice known only as Melange. Melange extends life. Additionally, two of the most powerful political organizations in the universe need it: the Spacers Guild need it to enable their pilots to fold space and traverse the galaxy, and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood uses it extensively as a part of their rituals and ceremonies. In order to make use of the services these two organizations offer, every other political body in the universe, from the Emperor himself to the lowliest royal house, must deal in Melange. If that demand alone weren’t enough to make Melange the most valuable resource in the universe, there is this one fact: Melange is only available in one place in the entire universe – the planet Arrakis, aka Dune.

So you have a commodity, the spice Melange, in high demand by very powerful entities, and in very rare supply. You can imagine the intrigues and alliances and betrayals and, yes, even battles that emerge out of the conflict introduced by this economic stress. (Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, your can read the books by Frank Herbert, who got enough mileage out of this political tension to fill six books.) Now your book doesn't have to center around this economic tension, but it can add all sorts of color and richness as a backdrop to larger epics and themes. Dune itself is more about prophesies and myths and the emergence of a super-being or god who will bring peace to the universe.

The point is, if you feel the world you’re building is thin or lacking in richness and opportunities for conflict, don’t forget that politics is a great way to introduce grander themes and wider scope to a novel or epic series. And that the core to all politics, eventually, comes down to economics. Of which now you know just enough to build upon.

Check out Kevin’s latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, “Rogue Agenda,” a startling and engrossing gothic thriller “Bloodflow,” and don’t miss Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow.

Follow Kevin at:
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