Monday, October 31, 2011

So you want to inject the paranormal into your writing...

Crossing paranormal with other fictional categories — be they mystery, romance or general fiction — couldn’t get any hotter. But there are pitfalls those new to paranormal writing can easily fall into, which can doom a manuscript. Here are some tips to help you avoid those pitfalls:

1. The worst mistake newbies can make is thinking the supernatural elements are just tack-ons. The paranormal aspects must an integral part of the storyline. If you can imagine removing the magical elements, while telling the same story and having it turn out the same way — you’re not using it right.

2. Readers need to understand the rules governing the magical aspects of the world you’re depicting. You can explain those rules — and whatever consequences might result — either explicitly or by allowing the reader to absorb their essence by showing them at work. Most writers use a combination of both. Some can be accomplished by including a character that encounters the paranormal for the first time. The reader can learn how these rules function as the character does, and the reader can share her surprise.

3. You need to decide whether the magical aspects are known to the general populace of your world, or not. Either way works, but there is a built-in level of conflict if your paranormal beings have to struggle to hide their natures. In the Harry Potter novels, the muggles — non-paranormal beings — are generally unaware of the wizardry being performed in their midst, which provides lots of opportunities for conflict, as well as humor.

4. Characters who possess supernatural abilities must be seen using those abilities, or we need to know why not. For instance, Annabelle Haggerty, the Celtic goddess/FBI agent protagonist of my Magical Mystery, MAGICAL ALIENATION, needs to be careful how much magic she performs at the FBI, where she must hide her secret nature. But I once worked with a writing client who described her protagonist as telepathic with animals, yet the character never displayed any telepathy in her frustrating interactions with animals, until the three-quarter point of the novel, for no reason that was ever explained.

5. Magical characters must still be real characters, as richly developed as those not possessing paranormal abilities, yet not be perfect beings, either. Your novel should contain challenging personal growth arcs for these characters, too, even if they also have some extraordinary abilities. 

6. Just as everything comes together in the climax of any other novel, it must in a paranormal work. The solution your protagonist employs to meet her goal must rely on both her natural and supernatural abilities, to bring about a solution that works on both levels. She should also overcome her personal challenges, achieving personal growth as she achieves her story-objective.

7. Most importantly, even magical beings have to earn their successes. If you allow your protagonist to finalize the action in the climax with the effortless waving of a wand, or some solution not inherent within the storyline, you will lose your reader’s respect. If you change the magical rules you’ve already established to allow your character an effortless solution, you’ll also lose that reader. For the reader to continue to suspect disbelief, she must trust in the integrity of your novel. If you want to get around some generally accepted paranormal beliefs, find a realistic way to do it. In the TWILIGHT series, for example, Stephenie Meyer circumvented the belief that vampires can’t go out during the day without burning up by choosing a locale that’s heavily overcast.

Writing paranormal can be extra challenging because so much has to be integrated, and it must work equally well on multiple levels. But it’s great fun to write, and these tips should speed you on your way toward writing paranormal cross-category success.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Are they out there?

 Given my town's -- Sedona, Arizona -- reputation for being Woo-Woo Central, I suppose it’s inevitable that some visiting smart alecks ask, “So…any spaceships land here lately?”

I usually answer with the straightest of faces, “The mother-ship lands every afternoon in the parking lot, but I wouldn’t advise taking it, since it’s the local, not the express.”

The usually just stare at me then, and I’m never sure whether they think I’m crazy, or if they are. I’m honestly surprised by how often we get that question — really, too many times to count. I don’t even know where it comes from. I associate Sedona with crystal stores and psychics, along with such non-metaphysical avenues as hiking and great views. Not aliens.

I’m not one of those people who has ever seen evidence of alien visitations. If E.T. popped up in my kitchen, I think my heart would stop.

And yet, as a lifelong science fiction fan, I love the idea. I was weaned on it. Who can forget how, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Michael Rennie instructed Patricia Neal to give the robot Gort the command, “Klaatu barado nikto,” to keep it from destroying the Earth?

So it’s not a surprise that a sci-fi strain has found its way into my writing in the forthcoming second adventure in my Samantha Brennan and Annabelle Haggerty Magical Mystery, Magical Alienation, which will debut shortly. 

For a writer, fantasy of any kind presents the ultimate “What if…?” situation. The most exciting aspect is when the writer takes actual facts and/or widely accepted urban legend, and mixes in a giant helping of imagination, to create something that nobody has ever seen before, but which feels as if it really could happen right in our world.

The first book in the series, the Lefty Award-nominated for Best Humorous Mystery, High Crimes on the Magical Plane, introduced fake psychic Samantha Brennan and genuine Celtic goddess/FBI agent Annabelle Haggerty, along with Angus, the ever-hot ancient god of youth and love and laughter, who becomes Samantha’s love-slave, as well as leprechauns, banshees and other mystical beings, who shake up Samantha’s view of the universe.

Magical Alienation picks up with High Crimes on the Magical Plane left off, introducing new gods and goddesses, including Fiona, Annabelle’s secretive goddess mother, and the trickster gods of Lugh and Taliesin, responsible for such real present-day phenomenon as bizarre weather patterns and crop circles. There is a reason why Allyson James, the national bestselling author of Stormwalker called Magical Alienation, “…a hilarious tangle of gods and goddesses.”

It explores what may have happened in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The craft that crashed there then — which the U.S. government has always insisted was a weather balloon, but which local residents at the time insisted was an alien aircraft, with actual alien inhabitants — and the persistence with which this rumor has continued to circulate to this day, has always fascinated me. In all likelihood it was a weather balloon, but what fun is that? That’s where the “What if…?” scenario and imagination comes in. Magical Alienation not only explores that crash, it probes the mysterious Area 51 in Nevada. And if you think you know what those places are all about, you’re in for a whale of a surprise in Magical Alienation!

In science fiction, particularly the old films, earthlings are often depicted as the buttheads of the universe. We’re seen as beings so careless with our own environment and theirs that other creatures have to come from planets across the galaxy to give us a collective slap on the wrist to keep us from messing up all of space. You have to admit that Michael Rennie as Klaatu seemed the ultimate universal diplomat in The Day the Earth Stood Still, while we savage earthlings sure proved him right when we shot him.

Some of the characters in Magical Alienation can’t dispute that butthead-theory, including Rand Riker, the bad boy of Rock ’n’ Roll, who’ll do anything for eternal youth, Kenny Campbell, the junior senator from Arizona, with his curious definition of “family values,” as well as a rouge militia unit whose form of domestic terrorism has a decidedly magical twist.

Throw in a horrific harmonic convergence and the darkest night the planet has ever seen, and it’s not clear which of these characters can possibly survive it.

That’s why Darynda Jones, author of Second Grave to the Left, wrote, “It’s intriguing and IMPOSSIBLE to put down! Get this book. You will not be disappointed!” And why fantasy author, Jeff Mariotte, author of the Dark Vengeance series, described it as: “…fearless, frenetic, and funny. Kris Neri's tale of gods and rock stars and fake psychics has more twists and turns than a French braid, and she employs all her mystery-writer's chops to keep readers spellbound from beginning to end, wondering who’s really who and what’s really next.”

I just call it the most fun I’ve ever written. And let me remind you, as Samantha discovers, when Celtic gods are involved, nothing is ever as it appears.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Book Review: FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT by Darynda Jones

Do you woo-woo? I do. I’m really thrilled by the still-growing popularity of the urban fantasy genre and other paranormal fictional forms, not just because I write funny urban fantasy (or magical mystery, as my publisher calls it), but because I also love reading it. A really creative paranormal writer can set my imagination soaring. The problem is that whenever a publishing trend takes hold, some writers jump on the bandwagon and simply rehash what others have done. Look at what happened when THE DA VINCI CODE hit the heady heights of top bestsellerdom — we saw far too many Catholic Church secret conspiracies and capers set in museums. Now, suddenly, everyone who was anyone in history was a vampire — Robert E. Lee, Richard Nixon, a couple of popes... Where is the freshness this genre demands? The new paranormal beings?

Well, you’ll find a particularly wonderful one in the debut novel by New Mexico author, Darynda Jones, FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT, and its new sequel, SECOND GRAVE ON THE LEFT.

Lively, sparkling Charley Davidson is a part-time private investigator and a full-time grim reaper. From her first day in this world, the day she was born, she assumed the job of helping the souls of the newly-passed-on to go to the light. She doesn’t know what happens to them after they do, it’s just her job to help them to move in that direction. But some of the recently-departed don’t want to go, especially when they died as a result of violent crime. Then they want justice before moving on. Since Charley is a PI, the daughter of a retired cop, niece of an active one, and a frequent consultant to the Albuquerque PD, she’s the ideal person to give it to them. In FIRST GRAVE ON THE LEFT, it’s the three senior partners of a law firm — all murder victims — who need her to unravel the cause of their demise before they’re ready to give up this realm.

The ghosts aren’t background figures here, they’re highly engaged, sometimes learning important truths that would have helped them in the lives they’ve just lost during this in-between stage. Some are just transient figures in Charley’s life, as they wait for her to find out who killed them, and deal with those they’re leaving behind, while others are more permanent fixtures in Charley’s life and home. The permanent ghosts are hilarious, especially when they think they’re still performing earthbound activities. And as with lots of ghost stories before this one, sometimes it’s funny when Charley finds herself locked into a conversation with one of the departed, while in the presence of a living nonbeliever who thinks she’s talking to herself, and maybe just nuts.

Distracting Charley during her search for the bad guy is the unsettling, though super-hot, dream sex she’s been having with an entity who has been following her all of her life, who might be dead, but who might actually be something else entirely. The exact nature of this super-supernatural being is just as a fresh and surprising as the precise way Charley’s gift is depicted as functioning.

While a distinctive genre today, urban fantasy is actually the amalgamation of other genres, of crime, fantasy and romance, though the exact percentages will vary by novel, and will often reflect the background of the author. My own, and those of other mystery authors, will often emphasize the mystery, though the crimes reflected will usually take on a supernatural quality. Darynda Jones’s sparkling series is stronger on paranormal romance and fantasy aspects, but while the crimes and their investigation represents a smaller segment of FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT, they are well done, with the need for justice strongly projected, and the resolution highly satisfying.

The best part of this series is its sassy, snarky, sexy protagonist, and the cheeky charm of a voice that will grab you from the first page and won’t let go of you until its satisfying conclusion. Original, engaging, and not to be missed. 

-- Kris Neri

High Crimes & AM AZ

I appeared recently on the AM Arizona TV show to talk about HIGH CRIMES ON THE MAGICAL PLANE. So fun!

Before I went on, I reviewed everything I wanted to say and just hoped to remember it all. During my segment, though, I don’t think there was a thought in my head…except perhaps to hope I sounded okay as I blathered on, and to note how good the hostess’s makeup looked and to hope mine looked as good. It all went by so fast, and I found it impossible to speaking while simultaneously thinking about what to say.

I hoped it sounded good. You be the judge -- see it.

– Kris Neri