The Shadows We Make – Reader Question #2

As you may know if you’ve read prior posts, I invited the followers on the Jo Allen Ash Facebook page to send me questions they might have about The Shadows We Make—characters, settings, something they might be wondering about the writing process, or whatever (within reason) interested them. The second question, from Bella M., is:

You mention that Grace and her brothers get their names (as well as Grace’s green eyes) from her mother’s side. Who is her mother? Where do the names come from?

Answer: Although not explained in this book (The Shadows We Make) and only touched on in the next (The Thrice-Gifted Child), Grace’s mother, whose name is Aine, is a descendant of an extremely ancient line with ties to Earth. When her ancestry is discussed, the land from which her mother’s people are said to have originated is referred to by the ancient name of Eire. There will be more about this lineage and what it means to Grace.

Thanks, Bella M.! Who’s next?

The Shadows We Make – Reader Question #1

I recently invited the followers on the Jo Allen Ash Facebook page to send me questions they might have about The Shadows We Make—characters, settings, something they might be wondering about the writing process, or whatever (within reason) interested them. The first questions, from Don J., is:

How do you decide when to switch from one character to another during the story?

For those of you who have not yet read the book, The Shadows We Make is written entirely in the first person through the point of view of three different characters. Each character has her or his own unique voice. What Don wants to know is how I choose to switch the character/point of view throughout.

Answer: It’s not unusual to switch back and forth between points of view (POV) in fiction, but in this case, the switching is taking place between characters speaking in first person, making the task a little more challenging. As to how the decision is made to switch from one person to another, it is, after all my years writing, a matter of instinct, so it took me a while to figure out how to answer Don’s question.

I’ll start with the reason a writer (or at least this writer) switches from one character/POV to another character/POV. The switching over from one character to another helps to keep the pace going, keeps the tension up and, especially in the case of first person POV, offers glimpses into another character’s thoughts. Thoughts which are otherwise hidden to the reader, especially if what a character says and what he or she thinks, feels and does is entirely different from their verbal cues, or even their physical actions.

I am not an outliner (although, I’ve occasionally been forced into it), so I am unable to describe the switch as a decisive point along the storyline. For me, an answer to Don’s question is going to run something like this: The switch is not a concrete, has-to-be-this-way decision. The switch comes when the story and the characters demand it. It’s sort of like driving. You make a turn in the road when the time comes, when you subconsciously (or consciously) recognize the needed change in direction. It’s as though I find the characters waving me down, saying, yes, yes, this is the way. Wait until you discover what we have in store for you down here. As long as I don’t diverge too far off the path, the story I’m carrying in my head together with all the characters’ voices, emotions, motivations, contrariness, will get me and them where we’re meant to go.

Thanks, Don! Who’s next?

Might I boast?

Silly thing to ask, but I’m not used to tooting my own horn. However, I received the most fantastic review for my upcoming release (July 14, 2022) of my debut as a young adult author with the dystopian, sci-fi/fantasy novel, The Shadows We Make, written using the pen name Jo Allen Ash.

When I first received the email advising the review had been completed, I actually got a bit sick to my stomach because, true to form, I wasn’t sure what to expect and felt nervous about looking at it. In fact, I delayed until hours later. What I found when I opened it made me grin until my cheeks ached and caused me to quickly text the exciting news to, well, everyone.

This is the quote I am using (although there are plenty I can pull, because it was all so wonderful, and I likely will for varying purposes):

“…intricate worldbuilding … complex characters … beautifully crafted … will appeal to readers of all ages.” – BookLife review

If you’re interested in reading the whole review, you can find it here.

Grace Irese, sixteen-year-old desert warrior with a chip on her shoulder, is gifted in ways she does not yet realize. Duncan Oaks, teenage member of the Grif-Drif con-artist guild, is a boy who has made one bad choice too many. Finding themselves remanded to an off-world juvenile facility with lifetime sentences, Grace and Duncan plot an escape into the horrific environment beyond, determined to save Duncan’s young sister from Grace’s war-torn world.  Can they and their unlikely companions survive their quest unscathed, or will they find they’ve been forever altered?

Set in dark alien worlds and told in the first person with three separate voices, The Shadows We Make is a fast-paced tale filled with conflict, bravery, a touch of strange magic and characters bound by unexpected friendship.

(PS: The Shadows We Make is available for pre-order now at on-line retailers and also from brick-and-mortar bookstores.)

Bemoaning Change

One might think from this blog’s title that I am adverse to change. In general, I am not. Change can be good. Medical advances are a good thing, for one. So is a change of scenery (believe me).

But I wish to address the changes that have been going on for quite a while in the publishing industry.  I’m not talking about all the self-publishing opportunities that allow everyone and his brother to put a book up for sale, sometimes with disastrous results and other times with an astonishing new work being released into the world. Nor am I talking about the trend for many publishers to release books in print-on-demand only. I think I’ve addressed the downfall of that practice for the author in another blog. The change I wish to point out is that in which publishers have decided the best practice is to release as many books by a known author as can be crammed into a single year. Once, publishers allowed an author the time to write their best work possible. Recently, it’s become a matter of requiring authors to write the best work possible in the time allowed.

And it shows.

We, as authors, have a procedure we follow, emotionally, mentally, physically. Sometimes the germ of an idea is just that, and possibly never meant to come to fruition. Now, however, an author must grasp that germ and force a book from it in order to meet the required quota.

And it shows.

I recently started to read a book by an author I’ve enjoyed in the past. I am on chapter six and ready to quit. Actually quit, not go back, not find out what happens next or at the end, nor what occurs with the many semi-secondary characters that have been introduced in the most minute detail, right down to the color shirt, the brand of sneakers, the trouser or dress style, the hairdo (dating myself here), the shape of their eyeglasses, the things they like to eat, page after page. All these things are introduced not as part of the action, moving the story forward, but in what I can only term as list fashion. He was wearing this, and this, and this. She was wearing this, and this, and this. Oh, and that guy over there? He was wearing this and this and this and was about this tall, but we will never hear about him again. Description, I must say, without point, especially since, for me, those characters are forgotten as the page is turned.

Why would an author whose stories I’d previously thought riveting, whose style was quick and to the point, enhancing the thriller, suddenly inject so much unnecessary information into each and every page? Since I am only on chapter six, perhaps I’m not being fair. I might skip ahead in the book to see if I’m right—certainly not to find out what happens in this story because frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.

As to why an author would do this: word count. In the unfortunate scenario requiring authors to hasten their work along, expand that useless germ that should have been cast aside or at the very least been allowed to fully form before being shaped into the contractual hasty book, authors find themselves not meeting the required word count. Thus, the book is padded.

And it shows.

The publisher pushes the book out the door in this condition and into the hands of the likely to be disappointed masses. Likely, I say, because I may be wrong and will therefore refrain from speaking in absolutes. But I am right for me, and as I paid good money for the book in question, I will permit myself to feel what I feel. In deference to the author, however, I will not divulge the name, for the very reason that my opinion may not ring true among the remaining readership. I may even go so far as to say I will probably check out the next book to come down the assembly line in the hope this was only an off day for the author. Off day is an exaggeration, but not by much. There are only so many days in the year and if you’re required to put out six or seven books in that timeframe, well…

It shows.

Reading as a Writer

Recently, I started and became a member of a family book club with planned monthly Zoom meetings. This past Sunday was our first. Let me say up front it was great fun. Cousins all, we enjoyed spending the time together, not only discussing the book but checking out one cousin’s latest crafting, briefly talking about football (well, I wasn’t, but I listened really well after asking who the heck was actually playing in the Super Bowl) and reminiscing.

The majority of the meeting did seem to be focused on the book we’d read, though. Amazing how many differing opinions there can be about the same work, especially when the book is a genre in which the reader doesn’t usually have an interest. Once we got past the general opinion that the characters’ drinking (and loving) lake water was the most disgusting thing imaginable, everyone got into an emphatic discussion regarding the various characters, the shortcomings in the tale, the aspects they enjoyed and what they all felt to be an unsatisfactory ending. They verbalized being let down by not knowing exactly what happened, not only to the unlikable character whose inner thoughts ended the story, but with the turmoil left behind by the discovery and consequence from long-ago actions. I had previously been satisfied with the conclusion. I’m not saying I’ve changed my mind, but the debate definitely provided me with an appreciation regarding viewpoint. This is why discussion is good. It opens you up to recognizing a perspective other than your own.   

When the meeting looked to be winding down, my cousin Bobby asked a pointed question of me. He wanted to know what I thought about the book from a writer’s standpoint.

Ummmm…

All kidding aside, I was quick to answer. I told him I don’t read books as a writer, that I read them to be entertained and enjoyed, which is a true statement, but perhaps one requiring a little more explaining (you have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy).

As a child I used to read books I enjoyed ten or more times for the sheer love of the words written, the story told. At some point during these multiple reads I started to absorb why I loved the words written and the story told. Eventually I looked to them with a conscious eye to discovery, to learn how these wonderful worlds were created, how words made magic. I suppose at that point it became impossible to separate the reader from the writer in my brain.

Even so, immersion in my craft didn’t mean I no longer read books for the joy experienced (or the heartache, or the anger, or the thrills—whatever the author chose to evoke). However, I do sometimes find myself rereading a passage with conscious recognition as to the absolute beauty and writing skill defined therein. I can’t help that reaction. It is, after all, who I am.

But if and when I identify good writing or poor writing ,or note, sometimes with a screeching halt, typos, unintentionally poor sentence structure, glaring errors such as a character’s eyes being blue on one page and green two chapters on, plot failure, disappointing endings, etc., it doesn’t mean I’m doing so because I am a writer. We, as readers, notice all these things. I was a reader before I made the conscious decision to write. I enjoy reading books. My enthusiasm or disappointment comes from the reader in me, and yes, quite possibly the writer as well, but not as separate, conscious entities. The writer and the reader don’t sit on my shoulders like cartoon angels and devils, spouting out arguments in my ears. The writer and the reader are intertwined unless otherwise directed. They live in reasonably happy cohabitation.

So, when asked about reading as a writer, the above is my expanded reply. With that addressed, let’s move onto the next book, the next read. Cousins, I just ask that you don’t make it one of mine. The reader in me would be fine with it, but I’m not so sure the writer could take your brutal honesty. 🙂

Music in the written word

To me, the written word is like music. It has a beat, a melody, a rhythm, a pattern. Changing any of these can make or break a mood, or cause the reader to wonder at what point the character has strayed from his or her true self.

When I write, there’s a certain cadence. I don’t follow one deliberately, but it blooms as the tale’s true voice. I don’t sit there and tap out a beat and make my words follow it. I can’t even imagine how work would screech to a halt if I did. It happens, though, through some unconscious process.

I’ll often read passages aloud that I’ve written, ones that don’t seem quite right, and usually it’s because the pattern has broken down. Other times I read them with joy because they are singing. I guess I may be listening with a different type of ear altogether.

There are times, of course, when pattern is deliberately altered, the same way it might be in musical composition, leading the listener (as with the reader) in a certain direction or to make them recognize a particular atmosphere or frame of mind. One couldn’t compose a concerto with the same three notes and hope for success, after all (although there is probably music out there somewhere that would prove me quite wrong).

Right now, I’m working on a young adult novel told in first person with three points of view. The one character’s beat is a bit shattered, somewhat chaotic, with stretches of lyricism, indicating his damaged, hectic but methodical mind. Another’s has a pounding cadence interspersed with surprisingly elegant interludes. He possesses a lumbering acceptance of life occasionally spattered with guilt and sparkling revelation. The third is eloquent, filled with the poeticism of her soul, but yet her music falters, too, when appropriate to the moment. As I’ve said, I don’t do this deliberately. The music appears with the character in my head and I strongly believe helps identify his or her voice to the reader, as well as to me.

I’m positive I’m not the only writer to recognize the music in writing, or to acknowledge its value. When I was young and first reading, the books with the most distinct rhythm were those I enjoyed the most. There was rhyme, yes, but with rhyme there exists, usually and especially in children’s books, rhythm. Perhaps that’s where it all began for me, the connection between writing and music’s flow—with Green Eggs and Ham.

Word Count… Really?

I know. Why should there be limitations on how many words are used to tell a particular story? Truly, there aren’t. It’s your story, after all, so you can go on and on and on and on—and on, as long as it serves your tale, right? Well, yes and no.

Adhering to word count isn’t an issue when you’re writing something for yourself, family or friends to read. I’m not saying that’s the only reason you shouldn’t concern yourself with word count, but it is the one time you can count on it not to matter (or at least you can hope it doesn’t—ask a family member at what point in your 200,000 word cozy mystery they tuned out and you might get an idea why genre and word count have such a strict relationship).

And, of course, there are authors out there who, due to their renown or the stupendous stories they weave, will be permitted to exceed expected word count without so much as a peep. There’s nothing wrong with that. We enjoy their stories nonetheless. Their talent shines through. But for mere mortals who are struggling to get published, there are rules and boundaries and expectations.

Even the self-published author might consider keeping their suspense novel to no longer than 75,000 words because, in most cases, those of us looking to read suspense have come to expect the length. Too short, and you’re feeling cheated; too wordy, and the only suspense might be the unfound answer to the constantly circling question in your head as to when it’s all going to end.

There are reasons why publishers have placed word count limits for their various imprints or editorial lines. Experience, naturally, and reader expectation, and some limits ultimately reflect the bottom line (printing costs). Because of this, guidelines regarding length are rather stringent. Self-publishing affords an author more leeway, certainly, but one should still be cognizant of what a reader has come to expect in terms of story length.

For example, let’s say you write romance. Harlequin is a well-known publisher of romance, with various lines. Their Intrigue line is for high-stake thrillers. Word count: 55,000—fast read, fast action. The Harlequin Historical line requires a word count of between 70,000 and 75,000 words. A historical romance (or fiction in general) has more scenery to it, more backdrop in which the characters interact. It moves at a different pace (not dragging, though, or you’ve dropped the ball somewhere else along the line). My novel, Once and Always, a historical set in India in the 19th century, was published by Kensington and consisted of 110,000 words. Each publisher has their own limits. I am only citing these as examples.

Science fiction and fantasy novels require quite a bit of world-building and the usual word count for one of these is 90,000 to 120,000 words. Thrillers generally run about 70,000 words. Cozy mysteries top off at between 50,000 to 60,000 words, although if they’re a bit shorter, no one’s complaining. The length still works. Are mystery novels your forte? Keep it to about 80,000 words. There are, however, mystery sub-genres with varied word counts. In fact, there are exceptions to all of the above, whether because of the story you’re telling, or because a particular publishing house has its own outlines for their needs.

To sum it up, if you’ve written (or are planning to write) the next great [fill in genre here­] novel and are seriously looking to have it published by some other means than self-publishing, take a check on word count to see if you’re in the ball park before submitting. Seriously, you could find your work rejected because it doesn’t fit within the word count parameter. If the novel is exceptional, though, you might have an editor asking you to tweak it to fit the boundaries. You know what I say to that? Don’t take the moral high ground. Sit and think about it for a (little) bit. They are, after all, the professionals. You might actually want to work with them and take their advice.

So, as always, research your market. Research, research, research, and always write the best you can and then write it again.

Until next time folks, have a great week!