Author Archives: Jo Whittemore

Jumping Genres

Yesterday, I had a release party for my new book Front Page Face-Off (shameless plug!).
Except it wasn’t a fantasy novel like my last three have been; it was contemporary fiction, a genre I was convinced I would NEVER get into.
There’s a sacred rule in the ancient tomes of publishing that when you start in a genre, you must write only in that genre or risk losing your following.
HA!
Tell that to NYT best-selling author Carrie Jones who started in contemporary and migrated to speculative fiction.
Tell that to NYT best-selling author Maureen Johnson who jumps the genres with ease (By the way, I’m VERY much looking forward to her Jack the Ripper series).
Tell that to NYT best-selling author…you see a pattern here, right?
But I’m not saying to entirely disregard the ancient rule. You SHOULD establish a following first and foremost, and once you do, then feel free to stretch your wings and dabble in other genres if you wish.
Granted, not all genre jumps are successful. I’ve seen some pretty rough fantasy novels from contemp authors and I’ve even seen great adult fantasy authors butcher youth fantasy. But there are some real gems out there that can be missed if people don’t tap into their hidden talents.
When I started in fantasy, I refused to even try contemporary because it seemed so much harder to write about the real world where the rules are set and there’s no fun in magic.
Then my agent at the time noticed that most of the positive responses we received from editors had to deal with my humor and characters. So my agent asked me to try writing a contemporary piece. It was soooo difficult at first because little sprinkles of magic kept trying to sneak in, but I found that without having to worry about the fantasy aspect, I was free to amp up the humor.
And I found that I liked writing contemporary.
No, it’s not my new genre. I’ll still continue to work in both, but it’s a whole new world that’s open to me now. New books to discover, new authors to fall in love with.
And it works the other way too. If you’re a contemporary fiction lover, try suspending your disbelief just a little bit. Allow a few “What if?” scenarios to play through your mind no matter HOW outlandish the results.
Break the stereotypes.
Contemporary fiction isn’t just for strait-laced, down-to-earth types and speculative fiction isn’t just for head-in-the-clouds dreamers.
Jump the genres with me! I promise the grass is just as green on the other side.

Jo Whittemore

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Star-Crossed Lovers

If you’ve been awake for the past decade, you’ve seen some pretty unique, often freaky romances. I’m not talking about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, I’m talking love of the supernatural kind.
Vampires, werewolves, zombies, gods, faeries…have you noticed that there’s pretty much NOTHING humans won’t get horizontal with?
I’m also talking love of the doomed kind. 9 times out of 10, something gets in the way of this relationship, be it a hunter with a silver bullet or old age taking its toll on the mortal form.
And 9 times out of 10, we know how things are going to end…but we still keep reading because speculative fiction is the suspension of disbelief, and we’ve also all suffered doomed relationships. Not usually with re-animated corpses, but doomed nonetheless.
But why the appeal?
For me, it’s the uniqueness of the relationship. Sure, when I was in college I could date a guy who drove a Jaguar…but I couldn’t date a guy who turned INTO a Jaguar. There’s something very special about being with someone who’s…well, very special.
There’s also the appreciation that this is someone who doesn’t conform to society’s rules (sometimes because they can’t/sometimes because they choose not to), a rebel without a cause. Not to mention, they’re not tainted by modern society. They’ve got that romantic old world charm.
When we talk about trends in speculative fiction, we know that they all eventually come to an end to make way for something new. This, I believe, is one of the few exceptions to that rule.

Sound off!
What’s been your favorite cross-species romance?

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The Showdown

When we talk about showdown, we’re talking about the major (usually final) conflict between your main character and the antagonist. Up until this point, your MC has had minor struggles, sure, but nothing compares to this.
This is what your character has been growing towards.
Every good showdown is either physical, emotional, or mental. Sometimes, it can be a combination of the three. No matter what the type, the conflict will always be resolved by something your character has learned during the story.

Let’s repeat.

Your major conflict will always be resolved by something your character has learned during the story. This is why it’s important for you to be foreshadowing throughout the novel. This is also why it’s important for your character to have an A-HA! moment.

Your major conflict will have something precious at stake. This is the way you can tell a major conflict from a minor one. The stakes are higher, be it a shared love interest, a sorceror’s stone, a desire to rule the kingdom, etc. Whatever is won or lost will make or break your MC. Again, foreshadowing will lead us to believe this as an absolute truth.

Your major conflict will involve something both sides want very badly. This goes hand in hand with the point above, but if your antagonist only kinda wants to destroy the planet, he won’t pose as much of a challenge. Especially if he gives in too soon.

Your major conflict will test your MC’s limits. Again, we could be talking physical, emotional, or mental limits. We need to feel that the character is giving everything they’ve got to get what they want.

Your major conflict will have a clear winner and clear loser. Nothing irritates a reader more than when nobody wins and the book ends without any clear shift toward good or evil. Neutrality is nobody’s friend. Even if the bad guy concedes and calls it a draw, he loses by giving in first.

Some other things that might happen (but don’t always):
Your MC will offer the antagonist a way out. This shows us how merciful and kind the MC is so we root for him or her even more. Of course, the antagonist won’t take the way out because, as I mentioned, both sides want to win very badly.

Your MC won’t get exactly what they want. This is handy for books that involve sequels or for books where your character is to learn a lesson. Because you can’t always get what you want. Yes, your MC stopped the bad guy from destroying the planet, but he escaped, so your MC didn’t stop the bad guy from ever trying again. But it’s good enough…for now.

Your MC will win but won’t be a hero. This can happen when your MC has to go against everyone else in order to do what he or she thinks is right. Heroes like that are much loved by readers because kids and teens know how hard it is to go against the crowd.

Now…let’s get ready to rumble!

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Inside or Outside?

When we talk about scifi or fantasy or any specfic world and its various aspects, there are two ways for a writer to present them to the audience: as an insider or as an outsider. By this I mean, is the MC someone who is already well-ensconced in the fantastical world around them or are they stepping into this for the first time?

This will largely be determined by the plot of the story, but just consider both options for a moment. How different would the Harry Potter novels have been if they’d been narrated from the point of view of an insider, of someone who was already well established in the magical world? Contrariwise, how would the Bartimaeus trilogy have been different if the narrator had been an outsider, someone dropped into a strange world where summoning demons was commonplace?
There are certain advantages and disadvantages to seeing things either way.
 
Outsider Advantages:
-We get to explore the world just as the MC is exploring it, complete with all the fascinating new sights, sounds and smells.
-We’re able to be more objective in our approach, building our own opinions of people, politics, etc

Outsider Disadvantages:
-All the descriptions and explanations can become expositiony
-The story slows to account for every “WTF is THAT?”

Insider Advantages:
-Intimate feeling of being “in the know” on something unfamiliar to most people
-NOT having to have every detail explained to the MC so the action can move at a good pace

Insider Disadvantages:
-Everything lacks that polish and shine of the brand new; can be taken for granted.
-Awkwardness of explaining something vital that a character already knows about to an audience that doesn’t.

And finally, I give you a few examples from each:

Outsiders:
Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass
Holly Black’s Spiderwick Chronicles
Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalize

Insiders:
Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games
Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series
Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron

Sound off, readers! Which do you prefer? Inside or outside?

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Coming Soon to a Theater Near You…

Spec Fic’s in the theaters, y’all! Here are some great books hitting the big screen first quarter 2010:

January 15
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold-the story of a teenage girl who, after being murdered, watches from heaven as her family and friends go on with their lives, while she herself comes to terms with her own death.

February 12
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan-A teenager named Percy Jackson discovers that he’s the demigod son of the Greek god, Poseidon. He embarks on a journey across modern-day America with his friends to save his mother, return Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt, and prevent a war between the gods.

March 5
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll-Alice Kingsley, now 19, attends a party at a Victorian estate, only to find she is about to be proposed to by a rich suitor. She runs off, following a white rabbit into a hole and ending up in Wonderland, a place she visited many years before, though she doesn’t remember it.

March 26
Clash of the Titans from snippets of Greek mythology (yes, I’m cheating a bit here)-Perseus volunteers to lead a dangerous mission to defeat Hades before he can seize power from Zeus and unleash hell on earth.

Check back with us in April for more book-to-big screen magic!

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Creating Believable Characters

So, we’re talking now about creating believable characters because, let’s be honest, most stories nowadays are character-driven. What this means is that the main character will determine the actions and ultimate outcome of the story based on who he or she is.

I fall back on a familiar example of Harry Potter. At the very end of the first book, Harry obtains the philosopher’s stone, and Voldemort tries to take it from him.
If Harry had been an evil child, he could have handed the stone over to Voldemort and made a bargain to be his buddy. If Harry had been a coward who cared more about his own life than protecting his loved ones, he would have done the same thing.
BUT because of who he is, because of his character (which is revealed to us/develops throughout the novel), the outcome is that Harry won’t hand it over, even if death is on the line.

And we believe it.
Because we know that’s who Harry is.

To be believable, your characters must have:
-Weaknesses
Nobody is perfect, and it’s our quirks that make us real and relatable. Weaknesses can be physical, mental, emotional, or all of the above. If your character is terrified of fire, we’re more likely to believe that he wouldn’t rescue a kitten from a burning building. OR if he rescues the kitten, we appreciate his selfless act even more because we know what he had to overcome to do it.
On top of this, sometimes a weakness makes us understand why a villain does what he does.
-Strengths
Everyone is good at something, and we often use this skill to define a particular character (example: My friend is excellent with numbers; we call her The Human Calculator). Be cautious of letting those strengths make your character a stereotype. If your character is good with numbers, don’t make her a lonely nerd with glasses. And of course, you mustn’t overlook strengths for your antagonists as well. We need a reason to root for a character or a reason to fear them.
-Opinions
Part of the reason we are drawn to (or repelled by) someone is their personality. We share their views on something or we despise them, and based on the strength of their opinion, we can again know why they would choose to react to a stimulant in a certain way. I’m also going to group likes/dislikes under this category.
-Goals/aspirations
While some people do wander aimlessly in real life, your characters shouldn’t because that makes for boring literature. BUT this doesn’t mean their goals or aspirations have to be lofty or high-powered or make them insanely rich. It can be something as simple as getting that White Castle burger (I know…movie reference).
We should know within the first two chapters what your main character’s goal will be for this book. Granted, that goal can change as the story develops, but as they’re facing their first crossroads, they need to have a plan of action.
-Sense of self
Even if your characters are evil, they must be cognizant of themselves and their actions. Nobody operates strictly on instruction of another without a single thought about it (exception: minions, who shouldn’t play a weighty role in your story to begin with). Your characters should be aware that they exist. They should know to be embarrassed when they get caught doing something stupid, they should be appalled when something happens that they don’t agree with. It’s difficult to explain but easy to see when you read a story.
-Change
Finally, your characters must change somehow through the course of the story. Nobody ends an adventure the same way they started out. If nothing else, your character swill be wiser about the obstacles they have had to overcome. And sadly, they won’t always change for the better. They may become bitter or disheartened…but that’s what makes for a great vengeance sequel!

Jo Whittemore

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The Melting Pot of Fantasy

At the SCBWI conference in LA this summer, author Holly Black made a statement that stuck with me…some of the best fantasy melds different genres (here I’m going to generalize fantasy to encompass all speculative fiction).
And it’s very true.
If you blend spec fic with romance, you get Twilight and Eternal.
If you blend spec fic with horror, you get Beautiful Creatures and The Graveyard Book.
If you blend spec fic with mystery, you get The Maze of Bones and The Mysterious Benedict Society.
But I will also posit to say that some of the best spec fic relies on the point in time: Victorian England, Renaissance, the 17th Century (pirates and Salem witch trials).
Don’t get me wrong, modern stories are just as good, but some of my favorites call forth images of a different age with different technology and clothing and mannerisms.
It also allows for a certain suspension of disbelief. If the story’s set during the Depression, who’s to say it didn’t happen? Historical records weren’t as accurate back then, the nation was in turmoil. If a vampire was feeding on the impoverished, would most people even be aware?
There’s also the “wink-wink” notion of knowing a historical event and hearing it related from a spec fic point-of-view. (Oh, the Statue of Liberty? That was meant to be a giant mind control device built by a power-hungry French wizard. Thankfully, a group of kids stopped him at the last moment, and Lady Liberty’s torch became a beacon of hope).

So what’s YOUR favorite spec fic genre & time blend?

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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Spec Fic…

This past weekend, I happened to catch Elf on television. For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, it’s about a human elf (I know, right?)named Buddy who was raised by elves at the North Pole (aka Santa’s workshop). He goes in search of his family; mischief and mayhem ensue, not limited to Santa’s sleigh being powered by holiday spirit.

The movie made me realize how much of our holiday lore is a work of speculative fiction. I’m not including religious works (even if some people consider them spec), but here are a few of my holiday favorites:

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A Huffman

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

All of those, it should be noted, have been made into motion pictures or performed in some theatric venue.
Why is there so much speculative fiction surrounding the holidays?
Because even the most doubtful of us will suspend our disbelief just long enough to hear Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore, if it means we can gain a few moments of hope that miracles can happen, that there are better times ahead, and that goodwill toward all man is possible.
My favorite holiday specfic has been and always will be A Christmas Carol. I love the whole time traveling aspect, the visitation by the ghosts (especially Marley…*shudder*), and, on the realistic side, knowing that people can always change.
Sound off…what’s your favorite holiday spec fic and why?

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More than One Way to Make a Vampire

In honor of the recent release of a certain movie with vampires and quivering-lipped girls, I thought of how different authors have portrayed vampires over the ages.
For example, traditional fiction describes vampires as somewhat captivating creatures with lothario tendencies. In Eastern European folklore, however, they were simply re-animated corpses.
In some fiction, sunlight is the death of vampires, while in others it’s just a nuisance. Vampires in most fiction, however, seem to maintain a pallid complextion.
Some vampires are soulless demonic creatures that have survived hundreds of years. Some are simply people infected with a parasite/virus that makes them cannibalistic and withdrawn from those not like them.
And let us not forget the garlic/holy water/turning into a bat/sleeping in a coffin stereotypes of old.
For me, I’m a traditionalist. I prefer my vampires afraid of daylight, dashing but dangerous, cursed creatures that don’t just fall in LUV at the drop of a lady’s handkerchief. That’s not to say I’m against human/vampire romance, but I prefer the vampire to nosh on a few necks before he finds The One.
So, what about you? Do you prefer the old-school vampire, or are you loving the new twists?

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Fighters, Choose Your Weapons!

What’s a good spec fic story without some good conflict? And what’s a good conflict without a bit o’ bada$$ weaponry?

What would I have in my arsenal?

-The subtle knife from Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
Being able to slice a hole between worlds? I’d be visiting Chocolate World like crazy. Not to mention that knife is EXTREMELY sharp. Remember what happened when that kid accidentally nicked his finger with it?
“Dear Wendy’s, I found this finger in my chili…”

-Scientific formulas that give me powers, tattooed on my body a la Michael Reisman’s Simon Bloom series.
Oh, what’s that? You’ve got a cute little bunny tattoo? Well, my heat formula tattoo gives me the power to turn your bunny into hossenfeffer!

-Shield bugs from Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series.
We’re not talking your garden variety squashables. These bad boys will fight to the death for their masters, and when they’re done, you can use them in your insect collection!

-Fawkes the phoenix from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
You knew I had to mention Harry Potter at least once. And with Fawkes at my side, I’d be close to immortal. Come on, Fawksy. Cry for mama!

-Bartimaeus the djinni from Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy.
He can shapeshift, which makes him an excellent spy, and he’s got an excellent sense of humor. Granted, he’s kind of a douche who would sell you up the river for his freedom, but come on….he can turn into Gerard Butler, ladies!

So, sound off! What (or who) would accompany you into battle?

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