A Game Of Questions

My friend and fellow writer J.M. Aucoin recently finished reading Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins, and he asked me to participate in a little author Q&A, something he’s done with other indie authors. That Q&A session is now up at his official website.JMAucoin

Not one to let it go at that, I decided to reciprocate, and get Justin chatting about his Jake Hawking shorts, his novel project, writing in general, and personal hygiene. Here’s what he had to say…

Pirates, huh? Why pirates? What makes piratical fiction attractive to you as a writer, and what makes them attractive to readers?

For me it’s the swashbuckling. I grew up on reruns of Guy William’s Zorro and Disney’s 1993 adaption of The Three Musketeers and in both cases it’s good defeating evil at the end of a sword. And for a five-year-old Justin, that was enthralling. I must’ve gone as Zorro for Halloween for five years straight as a kid (not that much has changed in my adulthood).

But I think people enjoy pirate stories and other swashbucklers because it’s a classic form of escapism. It allows readers to go back in time and vicariously live a life of adventure and danger without having to put their own lives on the line. The stories tend to be pretty romanticized – especially pirate tales – and full of fun action. Armed with just a rapier and a dagger, characters in swashbucklers can change the world, and that’s a very tantalizing idea for folks. 

Why did you start out with short stories first? Why not go for a full-length novel? 

It sort of came for two reasons.

I had two novels already written but they weren’t in publishing shape. One of them is still in editing mode and the other is archived for the time being. Editing and revising the novel was going terribly slow last summer – to the point of frustration — so I decided to work on something new. I had just finished reading The Fortunes of Captain Blood, a collection of pirate short-stories by Rafael Sabatini. I was thoroughly inspired to start my own pirate series in Blood tradition – a pirate who out-wits his opponent and not just blows them to pieces with his cannon.

The second reason was I wanted to give self-publishing a try. My writer-friend Jack Badelaire has had great success with his World War II action series, and it inspired me to give it a shot myself. I figured a smaller project would be easier to start off with. Something a little more contained to help me figure out the self-publishing ropes and how to go from a first draft to a final product. But titles sell titles, so I decided three short-stories would perform better than just the one in terms of sales. 

Speaking of novel-length works, what’s going on with that project? Give us your sales pitch, and when do expect to make it available? 

Oh, man. Soon I hope. The first draft was good, but needed a lot of work in some areas, so the first half is being rebuilt from the ground up. I’m hoping once I get to the second half it’ll be more revising and less rewriting. So that’s still on going. If all goes well, I’m hoping to make a deal with the devil to get it out this summer. *fingers crossed*

As for what it’s about… it’s the first in what I hope becomes a long swashbuckling adventure series. First novel is tentatively titled Honor Amongst Thieves. It takes place in France during the early portion of the 17th Century under King Henry IV’s reign. France is still healing from the Wars of Religion and is on the verge of becoming a major political power in Europe. Our hero, a soldier turned highwayman, gets a little more than he bargained for during a midnight hold up in the countryside. Soon he’s pulled into political court conspiracies and finds himself well over his head. I’ve tried mixing the grittiness of the Captain Alatriste series with the high adventure of The Three Musketeers. So folks can expect a lot of swordplay and some political intrigue. 

Back to the Jack Hawking series. You mentioned a possible omnibus edition collecting the three shorts. How’s that coming along? 

Still the plan, but things hit a snag last summer. I hired someone to do the cover art (different artist than who did the solo covers) for the collection as a way to make it stand out from the solo bits. But months went by and the cover never got completed. So now I need to go back and find someone else to do the cover art.

And therein lies one of the great challenges of self-publishing – juggling multiple projects at once. Since I’m editing Honor Amongst Thieves and the Hawking solo shorts are doing well, creating a collection edition is a bit lower on the priority list.

I should probably go and do that soon, eh?

Jake Hawking Series

The character of Little Queen seems to be a favorite, both for you as a writer and among fans? What’s the attraction? And where did the character come from? 

She was a happy mistake in some ways. I originally wrote Little Queen as a male. I wanted to create this large, former-slave turned pirate who was called Little Queen by the slavers and her fellow slaves as a way of further demeaning and emasculating him. He was supposed to be the silent but deadly type who overlooked Hawking’s safety. But I used the pronoun “him” only once in the first draft of A Pirate’s Honor, so a few beta readers read him as a her.

And it was love at first sight…

The character took a whole new level of awesome and became more interesting and compelling to me as a woman. She’s not only a female pirate, but also a former slave, so she’s been through a lot emotionally and physically. She’s also highly feared and respected among the rest of Hawking’s crew and other pirates to the point that buccaneers seek her out to try to prove their own prowess. She’s second in command on the Broad-Wing and the crew recognizes this and has no qualms with it. It may be a bit of a modern sentiment, but I’m writing for a modern audience. And woman pirates are far from being pirate myth, too. Anne Bonny and Mary Read being the most famous lady freebooters known to history, but there’s also William Brown, a black woman sailor who pretended to be a man in the service of the Royal Navy. She had quite the remarkable career, as well.

What I love most about Little Queen, though, is she action-focused. She’s a shoot first, ask questions later type. One reader described her as a pirate version of Xena because of her fighting prowess and the myth that proceeds her wherever she goes, which I love. And her demeanor is a perfect complement to Jake Hawking who prefers to use his wit before his sword. So I think people enjoy the dynamic she and Hawking have, and appreciate the deep and platonic friendship they share. Little Queen’s life as a slave has made her very untrusting of folk, but she’s also extremely loyal to her friends, so she’s a complicated and exciting character to explore as a writer, and as a reader.

I have big plans in store for Little Queen.

We were talking recently about the challenges of writing action sequences. How do you approach action scenes? Do you map them out in advance, or let them happen organically as you write? 

Pretty organically. I’ll know how it’s supposed to end more or less, and any major points in the skirmishes, and sometimes I’ll get ideas for really cool fight sequence as I’m drifting to sleep, but I let the action scenes write themselves for the most part. Of course, sometimes the fights go differently than I first envision it, but that’s part of the fun of writing, right? Watching as your characters take over your story. I try to make each character I write have their own fighting style, their own tendencies, and preferred weapons. And their personalities and emotional state can be seen in the fights – if I’m doing it right, anyways.

Writing ship to ship battles is a bit more challenging, mostly because it’s hard to write naval battles without double entendres creeping onto the page. Editing those out at least make me chuckle as I hit the delete key. 

Follow-up question: when you write swordfights, do your backgrounds in stage combat and fencing – and, what the hell, hockey – come into play? 

Oh yea. Definitely. And it’s a balance between both worlds, too. I study and practice period fencing manuals, so I have a strong knowledge of the technical skills and terminology used in the era. But if I were to just describe a sword fight using strictly that knowledge, the fights would be very dull and too technical for the average reader to enjoy. So I steal the basic idea from stage combat in that the fight needs to tell a story in itself. Even with swashbucklers, where sometimes guys with flashing blades come out of the woodworks, random fights shouldn’t happen – or rarely happen anyways. There needs to be a reason for the fight, and the readers should learn something about the characters in that fight.

At the same time, it’s historical fiction, and die-hard readers of the genre love those tiny details, and some are pretty fluent in the ways of period fighting. You want to quench their thirst, too. So it’s a balance between the two, though I tend to learn heavier on stage combat background because of its entertainment value, and sprinkle in period fencing as a garnish.

Alas, not so much with my hockey background, though maybe I’ll write a fight scene where Little Queen hipchecks someone into a bartop and then she, Hawking, and the Broad-Wing crew drop the gauntlets for a good ol’ fashion donnybrook. 

Best film adaptation of The Three Musketeers, and the worst, and why respectively?BBC Three Musketeers 

Do miniseries count? If so, the 1966 BBC adaption is the most accurate book to film adaption. They actually have all the musketeers’ servants in the movie and, hell, Brian Blessed is Porthos. And when I say Brian Blessed is Porthos, I mean that he is Porthos. It’s like Dumas wrote the character knowing that it’d be the perfect role for Blessed.

If we’re disqualifying miniseries because it can do the book in 10 or so segments, than I’d have to go with Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers or Gene Kelly’s The Three Musketeers. Kelly might be my favorite d’Artganan and Oliver Reed my favorite Athos. Those two movies do a great job are translating the book to a two-hour movie without it feeling like huge gaps of the plot are missing.

As for the worst adaption, that might have to be The 4 Musketeers. It’s a French adaption in with a sci-fi/fantasy twist. In that movie, Milady de Winter does die at the hands of Athos, but she made a deal with the devil, literally. So she comes back from the dead and has super natural powers. D’Artagnan also has this white falcon that brings him good luck or something, Richelieu is a crazy catlady (that’s actually historically accurate, though; he had upwards of 14 cats!), and the musketeer cassock looks like a graduation gown. The English voiceovers are also atrocious, as is the sound effects. It’s really just all around awful.

We’ll put it this way. My fiancé isn’t allowed to make me watch Manos: Hands of Fate again and I’m not allowed to make her rewatch The 4 Musketeers.

Also, Asylum’s modern take on the musketeers is downright awful, but with a charm that only Asylum can achieve.

Neither of us shave very often, but I think you shave less frequently than I do. What’s up with that? You know it makes you look like a hobo, right?

Beard

Now that you know Justin better, go read A Pirate’s Honor (A Jake Hawking Adventure) on the Kindle — only 99 cents!

Whine And Women

While I was submitting Action Figures to publishers the other week, I noticed an interesting theme running through their submissions guidelines pages. When it came to young adult fiction submissions, two phrases came up time and again, the first of which was “no vampires.”

The second — and I am presenting something of a composite phrasing here — was: “We are interested in stories with strong, proactive heroines; no whiny, angst-ridden female leads, please.”

I don’t think it’s a stretch to trace both of these to the Twilight novels, which have spawned a legion of copycats and, judging by the moratorium on Bella Swan-like characters, wannabes, complete with wussy, shallow female protagonists who spend their time wallowing in anxiety and being led around by the nose by their male love interests.

(I say all this freely admitting I have never read any of the books or seen any of the movies. My knowledge of the Bella Swan character comes mostly from critical reviews and from friends who have read the books and told me, quite emphatically, how much they hated Bella because she was nothing but a self-obsessed lovelorn wimp.)

On one level, I am not a fan of female leads who are so, for want of a better term, damsel-in-distressy. It’s tough to root for a character whose primary, if not sole motivation is to win the man of her dreams, a goal she achieves by simply being there for said dreamboat to rescue from whatever threat presents itself. They’re not much fun to read and they’re no fun to write.

Conversely, I’m also displeased with how often stories sometimes go out of their way to empower their female leads, particularly in period pieces. I readily acknowledge that history had its fair share of real-life Xenas, from Boudicca to Joan of Arc, but what made these figures so extraordinary is that they were very much the exception to the rule. Most women of ancient history were not bad-asses; they were more likely to be in the role of damsel in distress.

Creating a weak female character is a tricky task, if for no other reason than the reception she’s likely to receive from the audience. There’s little tolerance for portrayals of the woman as a victim, a doormat, a prize — even a sexpot or a femme fatale can be subject to scathing criticism for embracing their beauty and sexuality over their more profound qualities.

The question for the writer is: what serves the story better? If the story calls for a strong, smart, independent woman to make things happen, great. I’m happy to write a character like that (and I do in Action Figures. The main character is one of my favorite creations).

But sometimes, a different approach is necessary. In Bostonia, I have two female leads who are definitely not cast from the strong protagonist mold. I could describe both of them as broken people, individuals who have been crushed by their life experiences and have adapted in their own ways to deal with it, neither of these ways all that great. One is reactive, passive, afraid of herself; the other is more proactive and takes shit from no one, but she is also selfish, self-destructive, filled with self-loathing. Neither of them are heroes in a true sense, but they are what that story needed, and I can’t bring myself to offer even a false apology for that.

However, I will reiterate that writing more positive female characters is much more gratifying and fun. I’ll close on an up note and present some of my all-time favorite female characters.

Ellen RipleyAliens

Sigourney Weaver’s iconic sci-fi heroine ends up on just about every list of great movie characters, female or otherwise, and there’s a damn good reason for that: she belongs there.

Ripley is the godmother of the modern action heroine, not because of her capacity to kick ass, but for why she does so: the thing that galvanizes Ripley, that allows her to break free of her crippling fear of the titular xenomorphs and crushing survivor’s guilt is the overpowering need to protect her child — or surrogate, in this case, the young survivor Newt.

Before Newt enters the picture (so to speak), Ripley is literally along for the ride, but then this little girl falls into her lap, and from that point on, everything she does is for the sake of getting her de facto daughter out of hell alive.

(If you’ve never seen the director’s cut of Aliens, rectify that as soon as possible. There is a crucial deleted scene that fleshes out the Ripley/Newt relationship to a much more profound degree than is presented in the already excellent theatrical cut.)

Hermione Grangerthe Harry Potter series

Harry might have been the star of J. K. Rowling’s mega-best-selling series, but Harry wouldn’t have survived the first book without Hermione. She was more than Harry’s co-sidekick (along with Ron Weasley); she was the brains of the operation, the voice of reason, and that against which even Harry occasionally checked his moral compass.

Hermione had her girly moments throughout the series, but she wasn’t simply “the girl,” and never let anyone force her into that role. She embraced her intelligence, never backed down from a direct challenge, and never apologized for sometimes being a right royal pain in the ass — and more often than not, she was proven right in the end.

When great modern literary heroines are mentioned, Hermione is often listed in the same breath as Bella Swan, but they do not belong on the same list. Bella is what young girls should avoid becoming. Hermione is everything young girls should aspire to be.

Briar Wilkes and Mercy Lynchthe Clockwork Century series

Cherie Priest has become a favorite author of mine, and I can always count on her for brisk, exciting stories filled with colorful characters, and Briar Wilkes of Boneshaker and Mercy Lynch of Dreadnought perfectly exemplify the tough-as-nails protagonists common in her novels.

The characters are similar in that they are both haunted by their fathers (albeit in different ways), are trying to live up to their late husbands, and are driven by their familial ties — Briar by her son, who gets trapped in the deadly ruins of Seattle, Mercy by her dying father, who summons her from the front lines of the Civil War for what could be their final visit.

Despite their respective tragic backgrounds, these women never let the past crush their spirits. Instead, they are driven by their prospective futures, futures that could turn out as badly as their pasts — if they allow it. Their status as action heroines is incidental; they don’t go out looking for a fight, but they won’t back down from one if it stands between them and their goals.

Kara “Starbuck” ThraceBattlestar Galactica

The re-imagined Starbuck (as brilliantly portrayed by (Katee Sackhoff) was one of the standout characters in the new BSG, which is saying something considering what a uniformly superb cast that show had.

It’s kind of a cop-out to simply call Starbuck “tough but vulnerable.” Was she tough? Hell yes. Put her in a combat situation and she was fearless and unstoppable, but take her off the battlefield and she was a mess. Killing she could do, dying she could handle, but living scared the shit out of her.

Almost purely id-driven, Starbuck could be an incredibly frustrating character. She could be a hardcore bitch, often to people who did not deserve it. She constantly sabotaged her own happiness. The people who cared about her the most were the ones who got hurt the worst by her selfishness. It was honestly hard to like her sometimes, but she was always compelling.

Sue SylvesterGlee

I wanted to end with a great female villain, but I had a devil of a time thinking of one that truly spoke to me. There are a lot of she-devils in film, TV, and literature but few rose to iconic villain status in my mind…and then I remembered Jane Lynch’s delightfully vile cheerleading coach and kicked myself for not thinking of her sooner.

Sylvester fits a number of villainous categories: the villain you love to hate, the villain who believes she’s the hero, and the villain with a hidden softer side — and it is that last category that makes Sue a fully realized character and not just a walking one-liner delivery system.

One of the character’s defining moments came in the first season, when she allowed Becky (Lauren Potter), a student with Down’s syndrome, to join the Cheerios. The audience spent the rest of the episode wondering what her angle was, how she would use and ultimately destroy this poor girl, only to learn that Sue’s decision was utterly sincere — and that she had an older sister, Jean (Robin Trocki), who also had Down’s syndrome.

Sue’s fierce devotion to and adoration of her disabled sister stands in stark contrast to the monster that roams the halls of William KcKinley High School, and while it humanizes Sue to a great degree, it does not diminish her boundless capacity for cruelty. Indeed, it makes her moments of genuine anger all the more terrifying, because the audience knows what sort of heart beats beneath that track suit: one that, when given just cause, can fuel an engine of absolute terror.