For the Love of Story

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I’ve decided to keep Raymond Day in my novel. I feel the story is going to suffer greatly without it; he needs to be there. Day, who first appeared in The Queen of Crows, is a problematic character for a few reasons. First, his origin story dates back to the Westward expansion in the 1830s era. He is a vampire (not spoiling anything by telling you that) and how he became an undead being that can only survive on human blood is the stuff of nightmares. But that particular detail, mind, is tied to what happened historically. Yes, it’s alternate history. However, to make his Native American character believable, certain details reflect what happened at the time. I haven’t settled on a specific tribe yet, as he played a minor role in the short story, but thinking Cherokee might be the best fit.

I have a stack of books on the subject, and the one I started reading last night is by Peter Nabokov. It’s called Indian Running, Native American Testimony: From Prophecy to the Present 1442 – 1992. I’ve decided to take the academic approach, by reading first-hand accounts, to make Day’s character believable — but also handle one of the trickier bits about him. That is, often when Native American characters are presented in fiction (if at all), there’s a tendency to put them in a historical context as if they are invisible in the modern world. (This is a PolicyMic article that gives a brief overview of some of those issues.)

On the flip side, there is also a tendency to lump every tribe together, so a character becomes representative of all Native Americans; much like when whites are all lumped together and the distinction between the French and the English, for example, is completely erased. Saying that all tribes got along just fine is like saying all of Europe is one big happy family. Really, the lumping occurs from a lack of knowledge. It’s easy to categorize when you don’t know the details, and as a writer it’s my job NOT to do that.

Am I obsessing about research? Oh hell, yes. I’m going to get parts wrong, but at the same time? I would rather be smart about characterization, which is often embedded in the style of language and descriptions I use, than be like: “Oh hey, here’s this pulp-y character that comes along and is there to move the plot forward.” There are very few Native Americans in modern-day fiction. Few. I can’t remember the last time I saw one in a film; The Prophecy, maybe? Native Americans are not fantasy elves with mystical powers that have their own form of magic because of their deep connection to the land. Beliefs? Yes. Aliens from outer space? No.

And what of those beliefs? Well, you see this is the other reason why research is a requirement for me. No two tribes are alike, and beliefs vary widely. The vast majority of Native American beliefs don’t match European goals and thought processes, either. That’s where these accounts are helping me, because I am reading and seeing exactly what people from the era believed, what they experienced, and how they viewed the expansion. Hey, big hint folks: it’s not what Hollywood has depicted. Ever.

I’m lucky, I suppose, in that there’s no shortage of materials out there. I think the only reason I’m not (lucky), is because it’s going to take me longer to finish writing the book, but once I have his character down it’ll go much faster. I mean, sure it sounds like an excuse. Research can be a way to procrastinate, but the thing is: I’m not reading any of these books or diving in because I don’t trust myself as a writer, or because I’m freezing up, or any of those other “lets-beat-ourselves-up” reasons… I’m reading all this to internalize the information, so that I do the best job I possibly can. With so few Native American characters out there, that’s immensely important to me, and I’d never forgive myself if I was sloppy about it even though I’m writing fiction knowing what I know. Call it pride or whatever you like, but that’s just how it’s gotta be. I LOVE BEING A WRITER. And this? This research? It’s part of my job.

    Mood: Strangely strange.
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: Quite a bit.
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: I moved. Well, kind of.
    In My Ears: White noise. ZZZzzzzzz
    Game Last Played: Ninjas versus Zombies
    Book Last Read: Indian Running, Native American Testimony: From Prophecy to the Present 1442 – 1992
    Movie Last Viewed: Kill Bill II
    Latest Artistic Project: Art classes. SON OF A BISCUIT! That reminds me…
    Latest Fiction/Comic Release: Last Man Zombie Standing
    Latest Game Release: Mortal Remains
    What I’m Working On: Primarily tie-in games work, original comics, short stories, and novels.

Because Calisthenics Are Gentler

Spike and Giles... Together at Last

I’ve been on the hunt for period books from the nineteenth century, and I came across this little gem. The Girl’s Own Book was written by Mrs. L. Maria Child and was first published in 1834. Applewood Books has a ton of period historical tomes ranging from cookbooks to this one, which is essential a book of manners with a lot of social commentary attached. I’ve got a copy of the The Boy’s Own Book ordered and on the way.

There is a ton of information in this like poetry, basket-weaving techniques, gardening, games, and exercises. There’s also a lot of illustrations that serve the “how to” aspects of the guide. Here’s an example:

“CALISTHENICS. This hard name is given to a gentler sort of gymnastics, suited to girls. The exercises have been very generally introduced into the schools in England, and are getting into favour in this country. Many people think them dangerous, because they confound them with the ruder and more daring gymnastics of boys; but such exercises are selected as are free from danger; and it is believed that they tend to produce vigorous muscles, graceful motion, and symmetry of form.” — SOURCE: The Girl’s Own Book



For context, the first YMCA was a volunteer-run organization that started in London. In the U.S., according to the YMCA website, centers didn’t open until the 1850s. And, even more remarkably, a freed slave by the name of Anthony Bowen opened up a YMCA in 1853, which predates the Civil War by eight years or so.

So why are these things important? By piecing together different facts, I am building a sociological narrative that I can tweak and apply to my fiction. Or, in other words… I don’t want to bend my rules of worldbuilding without knowing where I can break them.

P.S. Geeking out about a book for cartoonists from the 1920s. This was a reference for Walt Disney. Hee.

    Mood: Procrastination station. Really don’t want to clean the house, but…
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: Eh. Not sure if I want to go there.
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: Up, down. Up, down. Up, down.
    In My Ears: One cat. Snoring.
    Game Last Played: Candy Crush <---I WISH I HADN'T. Book Last Read: Encyclopedia of Superstitions
    Movie Last Viewed: A re-watch of Tai Chi Zero
    Latest Artistic Project: *Still* *still* *still* need to take pictures…
    Latest Release: “The Button” We Are Dust anthology and for gaming, a fun Scion: Extras (Supplemental Yet Can Be Somewhat Useful On Occasion Scions)


Perspectives Past and Present

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I’m diving into alternate history storytelling for a magical world I took four years to build. Some of this has roots in world history and the way society evolved (or didn’t) in certain contexts. I’m taking the approach that to truly represent the scope of the story, I cannot just write one type of character from a particular ethnic background. What happens in this series is epic, but the story itself begins small. To tell the story and build the world, I ask questions. I think. I need the mental space to do that, but this is where everything begins: when I wonder.

History fascinates me in a way I cannot describe properly. It’s partly due to the ghosts of the past and the nostalgia that comes from that, but also caused by the fact that human beings have dealt with less — and still survived. I suppose what interests me the most, is the ability to piece together a particular person’s story, and empathize with that individual. For example, slavery appalls me. But how did folks survive? What would I have done if I was in their situation? To me, this is what keeps the historical record alive, not just by learning what happened, but by trying to identify with the people on some level.

What saddens me, is that the human side of the equation often gets lost. New is better. Our ancestors were dumb, right? Only, that’s not true. How we view history depends upon who’s telling what happened. It’s not a zero sum game. Just because we have technology, it doesn’t automatically mean that human beings are more evolved and somehow better than we were in the past. Just because it costs more to take sick leave, for example, doesn’t mean that’s morally wrong, it just means that human beings get sick and have to take off of work. But on paper, it looks bad or seems impressive. Often, dissing the past is a technique folks use to sell the living something. Even nostalgia-based advertising is about what’s new, for collecting vinyl records is a new experience to those who didn’t grow up with them. Popular isn’t necessarily better, either. How long did people believe the Earth was flat? That Earth was the center of the universe? Do you know which Western mathematician proved the Earth was round? How many years did it take for that knowledge to take hold worldwide?

When we have something new like an advance in medicine or technology, we change internally and externally. For example, we can now track how our brains change with internet usage. But are we really better off? Are we superior to those who came before us because we have something shinier, better, newer? Because life is more convenient?

If, all of a sudden, an EMP blast went off and our technology was wiped out… Would we know what to do? Can you identify poisonous versus edible plants? Kill, clean, and cook your own food? Those who lived in the past could and where their knowledge was focused as part of their daily life, ours is now lacking. Flip that around, and a pioneer wouldn’t be able to drive a car, but we could teach them how with time and patience.

Take also into consideration what an archaeologist of the future might find from our culture. What traces will we leave behind? If all our art, for example, is digital… Will that survive? Or are we headed for another Dark Age because the physical record of our culture is moving more towards data?

Fiction allows me to explore the human aspects of historical events by asking questions; magic provides me with a sense of wonder and, I hope, my readers, too. Storytelling in an alternate historical timeline gives me the chance to explore the past. I am not seeking to be right. Instead, what I hope to find, is a connection.

    Mood: Thunder, Thunder, Thundercats!
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: I’m on my second count.
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: A nice, albeit mistified, walk.
    In My Ears: Climbing Up “Iknimaya – The Path to Heaven” from Avatar (Don’t judge.)
    Game Last Played: Last Night On Earth
    Book Last Read: The Shadowmarch Series by Tad Williams (Re-Read)
    Movie Last Viewed: The Last Stand
    Latest Artistic Project: *Still* *still* *still* need to take pictures…
    Latest Release: “The Button” We Are Dust anthology and for gaming, a fun Scion: Extras (Supplemental Yet Can Be Somewhat Useful On Occasion Scions)

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Progress Report #2

When I’m online or have chat open, I’m working. I can’t play games or socialize too much; if you see me on Twitter or Facebook it’s usually when I’m taking a quick break or have it on my phone. I wish I didn’t have to be on either network, but this is how I get my news and stay on top of what people are doing. Sometimes, though, I wish I could filter out the news, rants, and ridiculous negativity. It’s hard some days, because I’m a writer, and words resonate with me musically and literally. I suspect there’ll be a purge coming at some point, but regardless I have to use these networks wisely so I can keep creating. I guess that’s why I love my Tumblr account so much! It’s pure, unadulterated joy. Love, love, love logging in and seeing new art filter through every day. Yay!

Does this mean I work too hard? I do put in more than fifty hours a week when you factor in reading and research, but I also have a life and I would not be doing this much if I did not enjoy it immensely. I don’t mean to say that in a snarky way; I’m very intense (as others often point out) but that’s only because I try to make the best out of every possible moment. I don’t always succeed or I go into a mood, but the point is that I’m living. Doing. Writing. And very, very happy I can do this. It may not always be realistic, so I have to take advantage of the time I have now. Many pro writers aren’t making what you might on a salaried position. (GalleyCat has a great collection of three testimonials if you want to see some reports.)

Even when I’m not on a gig, though, I’m always working on something. I have to have a pen and paper and art materials close by or I’ll go crazy. I can tell when I haven’t been doing much of one thing or the other, because that’s when my mood really suffers. I guess you can call me the pragmatic writer? Holistic? Not sure… 🙂 Either way, if you’re going to chase the rainbow, put your tennis shoes on first.

Without further adieu, here’s the updates!

Games

Vampire The Masquerade 20th EditionI announced that I’m the Brand Manager and one of the writers for the Firefly RPG line, which will be published via Margaret Weis Productions. I’m knee deep in outlines and scripts at the moment. More than that, I dare not say…

I’m wrapping up my work for the Mage 20th Anniversary Edition contribution and also working on a Vampire: the Masquerade supplement. Plus, there’s a few other things in the works that I’m not ready to announce just yet. My goal is to wind down work on other games so I can focus on the Firefly corebook and GenCon for this portion of my business over the summer.

Fiction…And COMICS!

The Queen of Crows e-Book | Alternate CoverI’m excited to say that my first comic will be published via Red Stylo Media! *throws confetti* “Last Man Zombie Standing” will be available in an anthology called Unfashioned Creatures, A Frankenstein Anthology late this Summer. If you want to check out some of this publisher’s comics, they do have some available at DriveThruComics.com.

I have also honed my new, original fiction projects down to two: a science fiction novella titled The Red Door and a massive project for the Violet War, which is the setting for The Queen of Crows. Remember, you can now get multiple versions of the original, full color edition from DriveThruFiction.com.

Consulting

John “The Muskrat” Kovalic went to the GAMA Trade Show this year and some new business initiatives that we’d been working on will spring from that. Ninth Level Games launched a Kobolds Ate My Baby Kickstarter that I’ve been behind-the-scenes on; that’ll end on April 3rd. The 50K mark combines Munchkin with Kobolds Ate My Baby!

Onyx Path is moving along; there’s a lot of questions right now, and Rich is taking the time to really think about what the company is doing and what he wants.

We’re focused on GenCon and a few, other foolish surprises…

The Queen of Crows: a One-Year Retrospective

The Queen of Crows by Monica ValentinelliIt’s been a little over a year since I announced the The Queen of Crows debut, so I thought it’d be a good time to take a look back and share with you some of the highlights and low points from releasing it.

The full color edition was first published on DriveThruHorror.com in early March 2010. Released as an e-book, we designed it in a PDF format because that allowed us the flexibility to provide a full color illustration from Leanne Buckley, period artwork, and a magazine-style layout. We did not release a low-res version for the Kindle or the Nook, in part because we had to reformat the entire piece and strip out all the images. That heavily influenced where the book was going to be available for purchase; DriveThru simply allowed me the opportunity to do what no other site would.

The Price of Innovation

I went back and forth about pursuing the black-and-white, low-res edition, but at the time it felt like an afterthought, so I waited until this Fall to put it out. The novelty of the book, which was a selling point for a few reviewers, decreased significantly when I eventually formatted it for the Nook and the Kindle. The Queen of Crows at Amazon.com fared better than the version of The Queen of Crows at Barnes and Noble, but not by much.

Combined, I feel that the release of The Queen of Crows pre-dated “what e-books can do” in both the minds of readers and leveraging new technology by a year, maybe even two or three. Remember, at the time the iPad and the Nook Color wasn’t even out yet. So people weren’t thinking about enhanced e-books at the time, not until highly experimental things like the Alice in Wonderland iPad app came out. The lesson I learned was that while e-books and e-book readers continue to evolve, what can be done with an e-book far exceeds the technology at this time. e-book publishing still, even with what’s available now, has a long ways to go.

The Importance of Reviews

Reviews and interviews did help out tremendously getting the word out about The Queen of Crows. I’ve included a list of what’s out there at the moment at the bottom of this post so you can see the evolution. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten many reviews on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, which I know has affected the sales.

Reviews are becoming more and more crucial from a reader’s perspective because it helps get the word out about a book and ensures them that a product — in this case creator-owned — is a quality one. I’ve had several people tell me that this past weekend at OddCon. Which was bizarre, because some readers were saying that authors can just bypass a publisher directly and sell a thousand copies (not exaggerating on that number, by the way). Even if that were the case, priced at $4.99, an author would only make roughly $3,500 off of a book that sold that many copies. Remember, retailers get their cut, too, which right now teeters around the thirty percent mark. So in order to break poverty level, which is around $18,000 a year, an author would have to publish–not just write–six novels a year and expect they’ll sell that many copies. I know a lot of authors talk about word count and whatnot as a way of measuring scale, but remember authors aren’t robots. While we continue to write, it’s impossible for every author to maintain that frenetic pace and not have their work suffer as a result. Some authors are more prolific than others; some, like myself, don’t write the same word count every day. We’re all different and the answer to the publishing industry changes shouldn’t be to work harder and add marketing acumen on top of all of that, too.

Other readers were way more realistic and understanding, advocating that the publishing industry as a whole is still important to readers because of its ability to ensure a baseline of quality. With creator-owned publishing, there’s no guarantee the book won’t be rife with typos, grammatical errors and other issues.

Emotion Trumps “Buy My Book”

What fascinated me about these discussions, and I’ll talk about this more in an upcoming post, was that the readers were less likely to try any creator-owned product if they had a couple of bad experiences with self-publishing. I feel this dovetails into what I’ve been saying about book marketing all along; you can tell someone until you’re blue in the face how awesome your book is, but it’s not as powerful as when another reader shares their connection to the book in some way.

That emotional connection is what I had hoped to achieve with the book trailer for The Queen of Crows. The music was composed by James Semple, a professional in the entertainment industry who has scored movies and games. For example, James has composed soundtracks perfect for gaming including Four Shadows: Music for Trail of Cthulhu and Dissonance: Music for Esoterrorists through Pelgrane Press. In the video, which falls at the bottom of this post, I scripted the trailer to create that sense of identification with the main character, Tse. James breathed life into his plight with music.

Niche Product, Unique Genre

The Queen of Crows e-Book | Alternate CoverMind you, the e-book incorporates the Native American Navajo from the 1860s, which is a niche for storytelling. It’s also one of the reasons why Lori Devoti recommended that I create an alternate cover for The Queen of Crows so that people aren’t turned off by the Native American theme before they open the book.

I knew that this project was going to be unique when I wrote it. To a point, I’m a big believer in market research. Here, I specifically created this e-book for a reason. The Queen of Crows is the origin story for Mahochepi, who is a central character in my modern urban fantasy novel, and it’s a preview of things to (hopefully) come. Yes, I have been revising my urban fantasy novel for a while now. Here’s why. First, I knew I was writing on spec, so I prioritized my life and career accordingly. Then, day job didn’t get in the way, but emotional mojo did. Now, I’m saying “Screw you, Mojo Jojo” and working on it regardless of what I’m doing and what schedule I have. I want, very much, to give an agent or editor the best story I possibly can. I want to pen a tale many people will love.

Look Back to See Ahead

And we’re back to the retrospective. One question that continues to come up from readers is: “I love the short story, could you please write a sequel?” I’ve thought about this a lot, because in my mind readers are the kings and queens of ages past. The short answer is that I want to, but I’m not sure if writing a trilogy of tales — which is what it would have to be — would be best for me right now. The bulk of the marketing has been on me for this project, and I’ve done a lot to spread the word, but now I need to scale back a bit. I have to focus on readers, not marketing, and to do that I need to write like hell, have fun, and hope something comes out of it. Offering another creator-owned property for me right now may not be the best route to go, but I’m not sure. For something like that, Kickstarter might come into play.

A sequel isn’t out of the picture, it’s just not something I plan on doing right now — unless a large portion of you storm this post and demand one. The funny thing is, the “Will there be a sequel?” question tends to pop up with a lot of my short stories. It certainly did with Pie in Buried Tales of Pinebox, Texas and it just did with Tomorrow’s Precious Lambs in The Zombie Feed, Volume 1. Um, yeah…and I expect that’ll happen with Fangs and Formaldehyde, too. These requests are awesome, because it tells me a reader wants more, more, more. Well, I’d like to fulfill that request. Plenty of new stories in the old noggin, so we shall see.

The Queen of Crows has taught me a lot. Timing is important, but so is a self-awareness of where you are as an author. Readers are royalty, no matter what anyone else says. Market research is crucial to understanding what your expectations should be. Collaboration, when done well, can turn out awesome and amazing things. New marketing campaigns for new books work better than existing ones, because people want the shiny.

And, of course, this experience has reaffirmed my faith in my own work. I’m a pragmatist by nature, but I have to tell you, I have dreams. Big dreams. No idea how or when or what or where, but it doesn’t matter. One day I believe I’ll get to where I want to go, even if it takes me a lifetime to do it.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t take that long.

A Word of Thanks

Before I leave you all, I would like to say a few words of “Thanks.” For everyone who purchased, reviewed, spread the word or interviewed one of us for The Queen of Crows, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of Mahochepi’s ancient and crusty heart. Your support is deeply appreciated.

Leanne, James, and Shari if you’re reading this post, know that I never forget a kindness. Ever. Hopefully I’ve made some headway in that regard. Matt? Thank you for helping me to continually move forward. It is your encouragement and faith in me that has allowed me to be who I am today and dig deep into my storytelling.

The PR Round-Up

Now that that’s over with, I leave you with a round-up of interviews, design notes, reviews and the trailer. Thanks for reading my one-year retrospective on The Queen of Crows. For those of you who haven’t picked it up, I hope you’ll do me the honor of reading it some day.

Interviews and Design Notes

Reviews

  • Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Janette Dalgliesh – “Valentinelli gives us a lyrical yet chilling encounter at a crucial point of America’s history.”
  • Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Jason Thorson – “Valentinelli’s writing is well-researched and vividly executed. Her world pulls itself from the pages of history books and comes to life, fully realized and described in concrete detail.”
  • Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Steven Dawes – “Anyone who purchases the Queen of Crows should be arrested for piracy. For all you get in this book, the measly price tag of five clams is plain stealing in my eyes!”
  • Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Charlie Von Eschen – “I have spent a lot more money for stories that were much much less enjoyable. I recommend the Queen of Crows. And now I have to pay attention to the Violet War too.”
  • Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Jess Hartley – “I’d recommend The Queen of Crows for anyone who has a soft spot for hard topics, who likes their historic fiction a bit on the dark-and-yet-beautiful side or who is looking for a glimpse into the creation process of a darned-good read.”
  • Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Bill Bodden – “Buy this ebook for the story; you won’t be disappointed. Consider the additional features a very large bonus, making the pittance paid for this work seem trivial indeed.”
  • Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Preston DuBose – “Having read the final (much different) original story, some readers will be fascinated to read the original and see how much has changed, while others will undoubtedly wonder why they’d be expected to read anything other than the final, most polished version. In other words, if you’re the kind of person who eagerly consumes all the bonus content on a DVD then you’re likely to enjoy this book. If not, you’ll still enjoy the short story but you’ll likely skim over the extra content.”
  • Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Stephen Jarjoura – “This just screams “fearless author” to me, someone who’s not afraid to say “here’s my story, here’s my inspiration, here’s some character notes, and here’s an early draft so you can see how far it’s come.”

Promotional Trailer

Watch the promotional trailer for THE QUEEN OF CROWS e-book. Music was composed by James Semple.

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