Open Call for #BetaReaders! (Gods, golden guns, and diversity – sound like fun?)

I’m well-rested from my vacation week, and I seized that free time to finish Draft Six of Paradisa. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be polishing it, and then October means another beta round! Interested in becoming a beta? Keep reading ;)

What’s it about? Paradisa is a 90,000 word modern fantasy centered around mythological characters. In the realm of Paradisa, all deities from world’s religions, past and present, begrudgingly cohabitate. Despite their personal disagreements, most residents of Paradisa share a common goal of protecting and serving humanity. But now, this truce strains under the weight of a growing new evil – a monstrous entity and underground alliance which threatens both human and heavenly realms.

When Connor Bishara – an ex-SEAL whose life was ruined by DADT – has a permanently damaging encounter with this evil, he is left only two choices: join the fight and be cleansed of the damage, or run from the darkness until it kills him. Luckily for Connor, he has the help of a variety of allies, including the archangel Raphael, Greek gods Hephaestus and Aphrodite, and his college-aged sister Clara. With their combined strength, they will defend gods and men from the encroaching dusk…or watch helplessly as evil conquers a mission as old as time.

What is it like? In spirit, it can be compared to modern adventure fantasies like Artemis Fowl, Supernatural, Once Upon A Time, or even Doctor Who . This is not “urban” fantasy like Lost Girl or The Mortal Instruments nor is it “high” fantasy like Game of Thrones. I promise that unpronounceable names and leather clad werewolves are absent.

What does a beta do? Starting in early October, you will have 30 days to read the book and answer some survey questions. This is a content review only – not proofreading, copyediting, or line editing. You may provide commentary or margin notes, but that’s optional.

Who can apply? Anyone interested in the book who can return feedback by early November. I hope for a mix of both writers and casual readers, as well as a good spread of demographics in gender, age, and race. I would particularly appreciate the feedback of any LGBT, military, and/or Middle Eastern readers, as my protagonist is all of these things.

What format will the book be in? Any electronic form you request.

How do we sign up?. Email me at michelleiannantuono (at) gmail.com, or comment on this post before September 25th. Please provide your name, your email, and why you’re interested. And if we haven’t met, a little about yourself!

I wanted to beta, but you declined me :( Sorry, friend! I’m aiming for a diverse selection of 7-10 readers, so perhaps I already found someone similar to you. Or perhaps I chose someone who knew me less personally, due to their less obvious bias. Most likely, I’m picking on a somewhat first-come-first-serve basis, and there may be no slots left. I’ll be sure to keep you in mind for next time.

What did I get in return? My absolute willingness to beta a novel-length work of your own, at any time in the future. I also hope to provide a small token of my affection. If you live near me, maybe I’ll take you out to lunch. If you live far away, maybe an Amazon gift card. I know what I’m asking of you is a huge favor, so the best I can do is return the favor sometime for you.

Feel free to share, reblog, or link your friends to this post if you think they may be interested. I hope to reply to all interested parties as quickly as possible. Thanks guys!

The “Everyman” Is Not Dead

It’s been awhile! I did manage to complete Draft 5, or as it is known now, Draft 5.5 :P Unfortunately, I have decided to rewrite the first 40 pages of my book before passing it on to Beta Round 2. That sure did escalate! But why?

Although I am happy with the plot changes, I am still annoyed by the first third of my book. Both Austin and I agree that the opening of Paradisa is too awkward, oddly paced, and unbelievably random. (To her credit, H.K. Rowe called me out on this too!) I basically drag two normal people into a strange world because of a life-or-death situation, but that life-or-death situation gets fixed in Chapter Four. And, you know, they’re already there, so they decide to join with some deities and save the world.

I’ve tried to build in doorways of no return and urgency and moral pressure that forces the characters to abandon their normal lives. None of it works. None of it seems any more believable than the supernatural characters asking them point blank, “So, do you want to be the main characters of a fantasy novel?” How can one write an everyman into fantasy in a believable way?

Well, here are the methods previous authors have used. And as you can tell, they’re all complete clichés now.

  • “You’re the Chosen One, or you’re Special in some random way that attracts important, more powerful characters to you.” (Jupiter Ascending, The Matrix, Harry Potter, Divergent, True Blood, Twilight)
  • “You have secret powers you don’t know about yet!” (Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, The Mortal Instruments, Eragon)
  • “Your parent/cousin/uncle/someone you know got themselves involved in some crap that’s now fallen on you, or they were secretly powerful in some way. Or you are secretly a royal and a throne is waiting for you.” (Percy Jackson, The Mortal Instruments, Star Wars, Pendragon, Wanted, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones)
  • “You accidentally fell into some nuclear waste and now you have powers!” (Every comic book ever.)

To subvert these situations, modern fantasy writers often give us protagonists who start the story as a supernatural entity, fully aware of their abilities, and their books are about disturbances in what passes as their ordinary world.  Unfortunately, urban fantasy has beaten this method into a trope as well. If I see one more half-human/half-vampire protagonist struggling with their human side vs. their monster side, I’ll throw a book.

Some writers manage to overcome all these tropes. Artemis Fowl hunts down the mystical world himself, in order to sell its secrets and fund his father’s rescue. Katniss Everdeen brings herself into the larger story by saving her sister’s life. The protagonists of Narnia are curious children who discover a beautiful new world – an escape from their country torn apart by war – and are compelled to help save it because of a kind-hearted Jesus Lion.

I still don’t want Connor and Clara to be ‘special.’ I still hold that the everyman can be a good protagonist. One of the things I love about Doctor Who is that his everyman companions are the true heroes. They’re the ordinary human beings who take a chance on a crazy, mystical, eccentric man. And despite their meager human existence in the shadow of the Doctor’s technology and powers, their depth of humanity is always what saves the day and endears the Doctor to them.

Likewise, one of the major themes of my story is the duality and codependence between deities and humans. I need my heroes to be human.

It’s been a struggle to write this story in a way that brings Connor and Clara into the fold as ordinary people, but also makes the reader believe that they’d stick around with some angels and gods. So, I asked myself “Why did the other memorable, legendary characters of epic stories become involved in their stories? What were their motivations?”

It became clear to me that Harry Potter, nor Tris Prior, nor Katniss Everdeen began with the goal of saving the world. Harry Potter was simply asked if he’d like to go to a school for wizards. Tris was asked to pick a Faction. Katniss was metaphorically asked if she wanted to save her sister. These characters made choices that only affected themselves. Only later, when some antagonist emerges and the characters are forced into unusual circumstances, does saving the world or defeating a villain even become their macrocosmic goal.

Start small. Start with what a character wants. Then, what they want will lead them to the bigger story. Don’t drag the character into the big story and then ask them to stick around.

So, I’m rewriting the first third of my book, and I think I have a good idea for what draws Connor and Clara into the fold. They know their father has been murdered by a creature they can’t explain, and they want answers to what it was. When answers come knocking, it’ll only be natural that they’ll follow.

Think it sounds promising? Do you struggle with realistic character motivations? Do you struggle to avoid cliché?

Fun With Your Story Bible

Something I’ve always tried to do, and have usually failed due to lack of time and the pile of different notebooks I write in, is to make a comprehensive Story Bible for each WIP. This is mostly important with fantasy novels, as the world building and variety of characters demands a precise continuity and grounded history. But it’s not just for fantasy. Even for my NaNo WIP and for my previous NASA memoir, it was important to have ONE place to keep all my character notes, timelines, theme analysis, etc.

However, Paradisa is the first story that I’m really excited to write the Story Bible for, because it delves into a lot of stuff that the book doesn’t. While that seems moot now, I’m using it as a launchpad for things I’ll introduce in books 2 and 3. I want the world to feel fully realized and rich, and in order to do that, I have to research extensively. All of that research goes into a composition book, ordered by category, for me to find later. I put stars next to stuff I think I’ll actually use, and everything else is just there if I need it. Paradisa’s premise is simply that all mythologies and pantheons are real, so my Story Bible includes lists of every signficant mythological figure. They DO exist in my world, but whether or not I bring them into the story is another thing.

The other day though, I had a really ambitious idea that I’m super excited about, even though I doubt I’ll ever have the time to complete it. Inspired by Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods, which is basically just a story bible that got published, as well as Bobby Pendragon’s field guide to the territories of Halla, I really want to make a vividly drawn/animated story bible for myself to use as a reference material. I’d write it, organize it, and perhaps sketch for it (or assemble pictures) and then use a vanity press like Lulu to send myself a hardcopy version. Then, anytime I wanted inspiration or wanted to assure myself of back story, I could consult my pretty field guide.

As you might know, I’m not much of an artist, but I’ve got a good hand with Photoshop. I’ve made digital inks based on photo references before, and I’m fair at photo manipulation, so I think I could achieve this. It’s just the TIME that it would take is something I don’t really have. I should spend that time writing and revising instead, so perhaps this will something I dabble in during my next beta round, or during the querying stage. Still, it’s something I want to do one day, preferably in 2015.

I also think it would help with the visual/scenery aspects of my story that I’m missing, a bit, by forcing me to imagine what the world looks like. I’m pretty bad about that, mostly because I’m trying to avoid falling on fantasy clichés for what my architecture looks like. I don’t want the Egyptian gods to live in pyramids, for example. That just doesn’t make sense with the world I’ve built, but what DO they live in? So, this is stuff I have to figure out eventually, especially when I have my characters stroll deeper through this portal world. Surprisingly, the hell world is actually easier to imagine than the heaven world, because religions are/were very good about describing what their hells look like :P

Does anyone else keep a sort of story bible? IMO, a centralized reference is important for fantasy, but I’m sure there are plenty of writers who can keep it all in their head, or scattered through binders of notes!

Blasphemy or Mythological Fantasy?

For those who don’t know, my novel Paradisa entertains the concept that all gods are real – all religions of the world have truth, and lesser gods/angels are not actually sure who is the true Creator. They simply know that THEY exist and their purpose is to serve humanity.

Religion is a touchy subject. I have to be careful about how I personify these gods. I have to be careful to keep continuities straight and cultures accurate. Sure, compensating for the existence of ALL these dieties requires some acrobatic logic, as well as slanted interpretation, but I aim to stay faithful to the holy scriptures of billions of people.

That being said…this is fantasy. Stargate did this. American Gods and Supernatural do this. Mythological fantasy is a subgenre all its own, and never have I heard anyone get offended by the fictionalization of Pagan gods, or even Christian angels. I think most people accept that, so long as the gods and faiths are not portrayed in a negative light, speculation of their origins via fantasy is a non-issue.

All six of my betas come from different faiths, including Catholicism,  Methodist, Pagan, and perhaps even agnosticism. Only 1/5 Christian betas attends church (my boyfriend Austin,  for reference), so this was not the most fundamentalist group of people. Still, if anyone was to take offense to my portrayal of angels and saints, it should have been Austin. He did not.

Rather, it was my lapsed Catholic beta who worried “if someone as pious as Austin” would find it sacrilegious,  and who insisted that no creative license may be taken with religious figures…and that because world mythology is so vast, my inability to know every bit of it means I should limit myself to only one or two mythological characters total. He already thought that the slight twists of personality I offered my characters was far too deviant.

I disagree, of course. Mythology is only as vast as the parts I care to include, and those parts are well-researched. This is a crowded market, and no agent will buy yet another Persephone book, or a vindictive Aphrodite, or a mustache-twirling Lucifer. Something new has to be brought to the table to keep the gods true to type, yet fresh.

As for those who would still call this book blasphemous…let them. J.K. Rowling paid no attention to whackos who burned her “evil” books. Just from my own beta pool, I think most readers are smart enough to distinguish between a speculative work of fantasy (which paints religion in a nice light, might I add), and a holy scripture.

I am careful with these borrowed sandboxes, handling the characters as of they’re another kid’s toys I have to give back. That’s all anyone who writes in this genre can do.

Writing and Beta Updates

This post is not going to be particularly profound or insightful. It’s just a drive-by statistics post of where I am in my writing and editing, and some thoughts on my two beta responses from this past weekend.

  • My final two betas completed Paradisa and submitted their thoughts. I’d say 80% of their thoughts fell into consensus with the other betas. I think another 10% was probably critique due to personal taste, and the remaining 10% were unique outlooks that made me take a second glance at my outline. So, pretty standard!
  • While 10% uniqueness seems small, I think 5-20% unique suggestions or outlook is a good target.  Otherwise, the collective feedback would be unmanageable. Having a pool of people with about 80% consensus is very ideal and reliable – for both good things (across-the-board compliments on my action scenes) and the bad (oh boy, did everyone hate Clara!). Sure, there’s some outliers (Clara was Mom’s favorite character 0_o?), but when I have five people telling me “this character sucks!” there is obviously an issue there.
  • For the most part, my betas have told me problem areas that I already knew about, but in pointing out their most noticeable hiccups with the book, I can prioritize which problems are the most serious. Going in, I thought my weak antagonists were the most seriously dreadful part. Turns out, most betas were not too bothered by that, but they were very bothered by some traits of the hero characters.  So rather than telling me how to write my book, I think this just gives me a set of priorities for how to attack revisions. *shrug*
  • I have also completed 2 chapters in Draft Five \o/ Hoping to be finished by September 5th. I’ve set myself a semi-realistic schedule. Then, I may spend the better part of September doing some style edits, because I think this is the version of the story that I’m finally going to keep.  And when I pass it off to strangers in the next beta round, I want my style to be sharper. The rain has sucked my energy, so I’m not as peppy about writing as I need to be, but hopefully it will come easier once I warm up those muscles.

How’s your writing coming, Pressworld?

The Writing Process Blog Tour – My Writing Process

Thanks to Millie Ho for tagging all her followers on this!

Why Do I Write What I Do?

I’m a 90’s kid. I grew up with Disney movies, ensemble action disaster movies like Independence Day and Jurassic Park, and my mom’s profuse love for Star Wars (she has a Star Wars room in her house to this day.)

So, I like fun stories with big stakes and deep relationships between characters. A story usually has to have both elements for me to fully appreciate it. I can’t bring myself to care about all-action-no-substance flicks like Transformers. The Fast and Furious movies, on the other hand, have a HUGE amount of heart and great character chemistry. I also like watching Moulin Rouge simply to see Christian and Satine be in love; a movie that revolves around a good relationship can sway me, even if there isn’t much epic action going on.

I want to write fun commercial or genre fiction with characters you actually care about. It may be plot-driven, but that doesn’t mean the characters should be boring! If you’re not shipping all my characters together by the end of the book, I feel like I have failed. Additionally, the themes of my work usually have to do with science, space, or religion. That’s just a general statement, and the basis of my blog title “Aether House.”

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

1. Have an idea. Let it stew in my mind or a year or more. Paradisa stewed for 4. “Shannon-verse” has been stewing for 19. My short story Goliath stewed for about 10 months.

2. Decide on a project. I’ve got a masterlist of about 80 ideas, with about 10 that are favorites, and it’s often a process just picking one.

3. Research, character design, world building, etc etc. All that fun stuff to work out who I’m writing about.

4. Outline the book. REALLY outline. Most of my book have a 10k-20k word treatment that breaks down every chapter, every conversation, etc. It’s like a miniature first draft. I am not a “pantser.” Writing without a plan is miserable to me.

5. Analyze and revise the outline. When it’s happy, begin writing!

6. Write the first draft in 1-2 months.

7. Revise for a year or more, doing at least eight drafts and three rounds of beta readers. At least one of those rounds will be copyeditors, and at least one will be strangers. I’ll usually start on a 2nd book during this time, because I’ll have down time during those reading periods.

8. Profit?

What Am I Working On?

My novel Paradisa is on its fourth draft. Paradisa follows a half-Iranian half-Irish chef named Connor Bishara, who’s lived on autopilot since DADT discharged him from Navy SEALs. His only joy comes from supporting his much younger sister, Clara, as she pursues an engineering degree.

On the very first page, their car hits a pedestrian that is definitely not human – it’s a Spectre, or a strange new creature that gods nor angels can explain. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that their near-miss with a Spectre entangles their lives with the archangel Raphael, as well as the Greek gods Hephaestus and Aphrodite, who reveal that *all* mythology is real. Unfortunately, even the pantheons of the world are not strong enough to defeat the demonic threat hovering over Earth…but with Connor and Clara’s help, perhaps they could be.

How Does My Work Differ From Others In Its Genre?

I write human protagonists. Not elves/vampires/half-chimeras. My secondary characters have extraordinary abilities, but the story is told from the eyes of humans. One issue I take with most fantasy is that the leads are all magical, or half-magic/half-human, as a way to give them great power while still making them relatable. But I like to take the Doctor Who approach – I write about the ordinary human companions of someone extraordinary, and show why the powerful person and the human person can be equally useful and strong. I don’t go for prophecies, “chosen ones,” or any sort of destiny that points towards my humans being ‘special.’ They get thrust into the supernatural world due to circumstances beyond their control, but they’re ultimately the ones who choose this life.

Now fly, my pretties! I tag all of you!