The Practice of Creativity

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I couldn’t wait to read this book as I am hooked on following the adventures of the brave, smart and complex women that populate Samantha Bryant’s novels. Be prepared for a fast read in this third installment in ‘The Change’ series. Everything pops in this well-plotted novel that continues the adventures of four menopausal women changed forever by the scientist, Cindy Liu. The characters from the first two novels who choose to use their superpowers for the collective good include Linda/Leonel (a woman who was changed into a super strong man), Jessica (a woman who can fly), and Patricia (a woman whose skin can make spikes and armor). In Face the Change, these superheroes feel the consequences of their choices as their work with ‘The Department’ (an organization that deals with supernatural occurrences), deepens in complexity and scope. This has particularly acute ramifications for Leonel and his husband, David. In order to help community relations, the Department’s charismatic director encourages Leonel and Jessica to take on public personas through their new work in the ‘Unusual Cases Unit’. They even get costumes and stage names. This turn of events allows the reader to explore with Leonel and Jessica what it really feels like to be a superhero. Patricia also begins working for the Department. Can a woman used to calling the shots become a team player? Patricia plays with this question throughout Face the Change. Bryant continues the excellent characterization that defines the series and in this book, we spend extended time following Leonel and Patricia.

 

Helen is one of the four women who used Dr. Cindy Liu’s products, but who didn’t turn into a superhero. She’s still the villain and she’s nastier and more dangerous than ever! We primarily see her actions and the havoc that she creates through her daughter Mary, introduced in the second book. The stakes are raised dramatically for the smart and compassionate Mary, who has to deal with an increasingly unstable mother set on seeking revenge against Cindy Liu and the other women. Mary has to make some difficult choices during the course of the novel. Her fear and challenges are believable, as is the slow reveal about her own unusual talents.

As the book opens, Cindy Liu is on the run after narrowly saving herself and her father from being arrested. Cindy’s special formula has regressed her to the age of thirteen (her actual age is sixty-seven). Being thirteen isn’t fun for anyone, but especially not for a super talented scientist. Cindy doesn’t take it well.  The frustration she faces as she makes decisions about her ailing (and unethical father) while dealing with moods, zits and raging hormones (often directed at a hot bodyguard hired by her father’s friend) makes for a very fun read. None of the characters in this novel are one-dimensional and Bryant continues to make us sympathize with, if not always like, Cindy.

A second compelling subplot emerges in this novel, too.  A group of patients that underwent an experimental neurological treatment, at a local hospital, awoke with exceptionally strong powers including mind control and telekinesis. Six of these patients band together and begin to create criminal mayhem.  Sally Ann, Leonel, Jessica and other members of the UCU must work together to stop these criminals.

Bryant delivers strong action scenes throughout the book. There are also unexpected romantic developments in this story that are quite satisfying. There are great twists, turns and reversals throughout. This series keeps me on the edge of my seat. Although much is resolved at the end of Face The Change, the clues that are peppered throughout book about the world-wide strange happenings makes me hopeful that Bryant has plans to keep the UCU busy for many more books to come.

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I’ve always thought that it’s pretty cool that I live in a region of the state (known as ‘the Piedmont’), that names a Laureate each year. James Maxey, the current Piedmont Laureate is the first speculative fiction writer ever chosen to hold that title. His announcement received lots of buzz and many writers and fans of speculative fiction delighted in the news.

James Maxey is the author of the Bitterwood fantasy quartet, Bitterwood, Dragonforge, Dragonseed, and Dawn of Dragons, as well as a pair of superhero novels, Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. His Dragon Apocalypse series combines both superheroes and epic fantasy, and so far three books have been published, Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker with a fourth one in the works.  He has also published numerous short stories, the best of which are reprinted in the collection, There is No Wheel.

He writes fast-paced, action-driven pulp fiction with a strong emphasis on character growth and world building. He deals with larger-than-life characters adventuring in exotic worlds. Readers who delve past the dragons and superheroes on the covers will discover stories that explore the deeper aspects of the human condition, from the highly personal—love, hate, grief, anger, faith and hope—to larger societal issues, like the balance between individual freedoms and social order.

I met James last month at the NC Comicon. We had a fantastic discussion about the writing life. I bought his book Greatshadow and have fallen in love with the characters and the unique narrative structure he uses. I encourage you to check out his work as this month Greatshadow is free and his Bitterwood series is only 99 cents!

I’d never met any writer who also had the duties of a laureate and found myself curious about all kinds of things: What does the Piedmont Laureate do? What had been the best and most difficult parts of the year for James? What kind of reception did he receive as a speculative fiction author?

In the midst of his busy end-of-the year schedule, James graciously agreed to an interview. I’m delighted to welcome James Maxey to The Practice of Creativity.

 

-Tell us what it is like being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate.

The Piedmont Laureate is chosen each year by the United Arts Council, the Durham Arts Council, the Raleigh Arts Commission, and the Orange County Arts Commission. The mission of the Laureate is to promote reading and writing, and each one is chosen to represent a particular genre or form of writing. My focus as Piedmont Laureate was speculative fiction, a broad label covering fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, superheroes and many more genres set in worlds not quite our own. I write about these things because I read about these things.

As Piedmont Laureate, I’ve taught several writing workshops, some focused on speculative fiction, others with a broader focus on writing in general. I’ve also led several discussions at libraries and museums, and done readings at Mordecai House, Burwell School, and libraries. It’s been a crazy busy year. I’ve lost count, but I think I’m close to 30 events for the year. It’s definitely kept me busy.

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-You’re the first (but hopefully not the last), Piedmont Laureate that primarily writes speculative fiction. Do you think that your selection, in part, represents an increasing literary respect for speculative fiction?

Hmm. I’m going to parse your question carefully and say that there is definitely an increasing cultural respect for speculative fiction. You’d have to be blind not to see that the box office each year is dominated by movies with a speculative fiction theme, and some of the biggest publishing success stories of the last twenty years have come from the speculative fiction domains. You also see the same themes now making big inroads on television.

That said, I still think there’s some literary snobbishness in regards to speculative fiction. One common prejudice I encounter all the time is the notion that speculative fiction is mainly for kids. There’s also a wide perception in the literary establishment that the genres are kind of trashy, valuing sensation over thoughtfulness. And, I’m sad to say, that’s probably true. 95% of published speculative fiction is trashy. But, how does that make it any different than any other subset of literature? 95% of everything is crap. Still, it does bug me that the undeniably great work that gets done in the genres doesn’t get more respect. When I spoke at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences about science fiction back in October, someone in the audience made a comment that it seemed like science fiction was all about concepts, and not much attention was paid to characters. I think this is a pretty common notion. In the marketing materials for my own books, the first thing that gets pitched is the big idea behind the book, with the characters not mentioned until the second line. In fact, looking at the publisher’s blurb on the back of my novel Bitterwood, it’s the third line before my title character is mentioned! People who actually dive into my work will find it full of unique characters with rich backgrounds and complicated personalities. To develop my protagonist Stagger in my novel Greatshadow, I detailed his family history all the way back to his great-grandfather, showing how choices made almost a century before his birth shaped the type of man Stagger was going to become. The fact that my novels have dragons on the cover doesn’t mean that I haven’t put character development first.

-What have you most enjoyed about being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate?

The best part of being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate is that I’ve got to meet and talk with a lot of nerds. When I was growing up, liking comic books, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, etc. was a pretty sure way of getting yourself branded a nerd and isolated from the rest of the pack. But once computers started infiltrating themselves into our day to day lives back in the mid-eighties, it seems like nerds have gone from social pariahs to a dominating force in popular culture. When I was a teenager, wearing a Superman shirt to high school would have marked me as a loser. Go to Target or Walmart today, and at least half the shirts have superhero logos on them.

Before this year, most of my public events have been at science fiction conventions, and I still assumed that speculative fiction was a modest subset of the culture despite what I was seeing in Walmart. But doing events this year at libraries, the Sertoma Arts Center, Museums, and historical sites like Mordecai House and Burwell School, I’ve discovered nerds everywhere. The nerd stereotype that I fit into in my teens—young, male, white, skinny, and socially awkward—has been completely blasted away. At the NC Comicon where we met, the room seemed evenly split between male and female, and was far more diverse in age and race than Hollywood would have you believe. Nerds unite!

-How has being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate changed your writing schedule and/or relationship to writing?

Definitely, for worse and for better. The worse is the fact that, in 2015, I haven’t actually done much writing. I’ve produced about 100,000 words of new fiction this year, a pretty low ebb. For much of the last ten years, the second I finished one novel I’ve dived into another. Going months without actively working on something leaves me feeling uneasy. It turns out, not writing books is actually a lot easier than writing them. It’s kind of terrifying to discover that I can enjoy my life just fine without constantly being hunched over my keyboard. The best thing is that I’ve had a little time to step back and think about what I’ve accomplished with my writing, and what I still want to accomplish. A dozen books into my career (counting books written but not yet published), I found myself wondering if I was just repeating myself. If you look at my characters Sorrow in Witchbreaker and Sunday in Burn Baby Burn, they both have fairly similar goals and personalities (though vastly different moralities, once you dig deeply into their motivations). In last year’s Bad Wizard, I found myself returning again to some of the faith versus reason themes I’d already explored in my Bitterwood saga. Fortunately, this last year I’ve given a lot of thought to books I’ve read that I consider to be truly great. It’s helped me recognize that there are still huge philosophical questions that interest me that I haven’t tackled in depth yet, and also helped me think about how I can really swing for the fences in the books I have yet to write.

I’m going into 2016 with the goal of writing 366,000 words. I’ll actually be teaching a workshop at the Orange County Library on January 9 called “366: Your Most Productive Year of Writing Ever,” where I’ll be showing how I’m setting my goals and the time management tools I’ll be using to meet them, plus some tricks I’ve learned over the years to help me write even on the days when I feel utterly uninspired and uncreative. (Anyone interested in this free workshop can email me at james@jamesmaxey.net for details or to sign up.)

-What are you working on right now?

Back in the spring, before the bulk of my Laureate duties kicked in, I wrote the first draft of my final Dragon Apocalypse book, Cinder. Rewriting it and getting it out before X-Con in May is my first priority. After that, I plan to write a superhero novel called Big Ape. It’s a companion book for an unpublished novel I wrote a few years ago called Cut Up Girl. The two novels will cover the same years of story from the perspective of two different fledgling superheroes. Some of the plot points intersect, though each book can be read alone without requiring the other to make sense. But, if you do read both books, a fuller picture of the world and both characters will emerge. I think Cut Up Girl is a great book, with a story unlike anything else you’ve likely seen in a superhero adventure. But Big Ape is the book I’m really excited about. Since it stars a character who is half-human, half-chimpanzee, I plan to really dig down into just how much human nature is actually animal nature, and do what I can to search for what it is that truly defines being human. The character is also utterly isolated, neither fully man nor animal, stranded between two worlds he feels he can never fully be part of. Working through this existential loneliness will, I hope, give this book a powerful emotional weight.

If a reader wants to try your work, what do you recommend?

If a reader wants to get a taste of my work for free, through the end of the year my novel Greatshadow is available as a free ebook. Greatshadow is one of my personal favorite books, featuring what I think is my best love story, some of my best humor, and a cast of quirky and unique characters. And, did I mention it’s free?

However, while I love Greatshadow, there’s no question that my most popular books by far are the four novels of my Bitterwood saga, now collected in a single volume as Bitterwood: the Complete Collection. The collection is also my best reviewed work. As of this morning on Amazon, it’s got 15 reviews, and 14 of them are 5 stars, with a single four star review in there, because there’s no pleasing everyone.

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And, for the month of December, Bitterwood: The Complete Collection, is available as an ebook for only 99 cents at most major ebook retailers. I think people respond well to the entire series because it does tell a truly epic story of a war between dragons and mankind. It features my most troubled protagonist in the character of Bitterwood, and a huge cast of other great characters, both human and dragon, as they struggle to survive in a world descending into anarchy. And, whenever people come up to me at cons and tell me what they enjoyed about the books, they always mention the dragon Blasphet, who is probably the single best villain I’ve ever managed to create. He’s so enthusiastic in his wickedness that he completely takes over the book every time he’s on the scene. Usually my antagonists are under the illusion that they’re the true hero of the book. Blasphet knows he’s the villain, and just runs with it.

-Would you share with us your best writing tip?

Momentum matters. Going back to my last answer, the biggest trap beginning authors can fall into is to write only when you feel inspired. If you practiced piano only when you felt inspired, would you ever master the piano? If you only went out and ran when you felt inspired, would you ever build the endurance and mental stamina needed to run a marathon? A key thing to understand is that any time you sit down to write, you aren’t working only on the story or chapter in front of you. You’re working on your entire career. If you want to “make it” as a writer, odds are you will write millions of words over the course of decades, maybe tens of millions. To get there, you’ve got to put your butt in the chair and slog out the words on days when you’re tired, or a little sick, or worried about your family or your job. You’ve got to keep tapping the keyboard when you are certain you are writing the worst sentences ever recorded onto a hard drive, when you hate every last character in your novel and can think of not one original idea for where you’re taking the plot. Because, you know what? Writing is where the magic happens. You can sit around daydreaming all you want, but until you start typing, you don’t actually know what’s going to emerge. Again and again I’ve discovered that, as I’m slogging through something I don’t want to write, something will spark and the next thing I know I’m on fire. I start out telling myself I can quit for the night if I make to 500 words, and the next thing I know it’s 3 a.m. and I’ve got 5000 words that just sparkle.

 

James Maxey’s mother warned him that reading all those comic books would warp his mind. She was right. Now an adult who can’t stop daydreaming, James is unsuited for decent work and ekes out a pittance writing down demented fantasies about masked women, fiery dragons, and monkeys. Oh god, so many monkeys.

In an effort to figure out how Superman could fly, James read books by Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking. Turns out, Superman probably wasn’t based on any factual information. Who would have guessed? Realizing it was possible to write science fiction without being constrained by the actual rules of science proved liberating for James, and led to the pseudo-science fiction of the Bitterwood series, superhero novels like Nobody Gets the Girl, the secondary world fantasy of the Dragon Apocalypse series and the steam-punk visions of Bad Wizard.

James is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop where he studied with Author in Residence Harlan Ellison, as well as a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. He honed his craft over many years as a member of the Writer’s Group of the Triad and continues to be an active part of the Codex Writers’ online community.

James lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his lovely and patient wife Cheryl and too many cats. For more information about James and his writing, visit jamesmaxey.net.

I first met Samantha Bryant online, last November, during the intense worldwide writing challenge known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Novice and veteran writers alike try to complete a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in a month. This was my first NaNoWriMo and I was looking for local writers to connect with, who were also undertaking NaNoWriM0, during what promised to be an exhilarating and caffeine-laden month. By sheer chance, I ran across Samantha’s profile on the NaNoWriMo site and saw that we had a lot in common and that she only lived an hour away. We both like to read and write speculative fiction, are great fans of ‘The Magic Spreadsheet’ (a writing accountability tool), and are bloggers. Samantha’s wonderful blog is called ‘The Balancing Act’ and she routinely writes about being an educator, the craft of writing and being a mom. The other thing that I took notice of right away was that Samantha was coming out with her first novel with a fabulous premise—women who through experiencing menopause develop superhero abilities. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that the speculative fiction field has produced many menopausal superheroes. Menopause is such an important social, biological, cultural and even spiritual transformation for many women, yet it rarely receives prime time attention in fiction. In Samantha’s debut novel, Going Through the Change, four unrelated women experience menopause in a way that triggers superhuman capabilities. They must find out how to use their powers and why they have them. Sounds irresistible, right?

It’s been a blast getting to know Samantha and her writing. During NaNoWriMo, she was a kind and encouraging writing buddy. And, we both completed our NaNoWriMo drafts!

I am delighted to welcome Samantha Bryant to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

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Tell us about your new book Going Through the Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel. What inspired this book?

I’m a long time comic book reader. My mom used to take Little Me to a bookshop on the avenue in my hometown where I could buy old comic books for a dime each and she could get mystery novels for a quarter. I was allowed to spend a whole dollar, so I’d get a lot of interesting reading that way! So, superheroes have been part of my imaginative landscape from the beginning.

Much more recently, through my library, I met a local writer, James Maxey, who was holding some craft and business of writing workshops. James wrote a superhero novel (Nobody Gets the Girl) and an even more awesome side-quel about the villains (Burn Baby Burn). Up until then, I didn’t know the “superhero novel” was a thing. I was so excited to learn that it’s a thriving subgenre!

I’d been writing a women’s fiction novel (unpublished as of yet: His Other Mother). I feel proud of the book, but finishing it was emotionally difficult. So, I promised myself that, if I finished that book, I could write something “fun” next. The actual idea sprang from a long, rambling conversation with my husband about the relationship between hormones and superpowers.

What is your biggest hope for Going Through the Change as it meets readers?

In my wildest fantasies, the book sells a bajillion copies and wins all the awards and I give up my day job and enable my husband do so, too, and we and our girls travel the world solving crimes and saving people like Nick and Nora Charles, but with less inebriation.

More realistically, I just hope I find some readers and they enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. The thing I’ve always loved about science fiction and fantasy in all its forms is the way you can explore life issues without feeling as though you’re taking them seriously. At its best, it’s fun and thought-provoking at the same time. It’s emotionally true, even when you’re dealing with things that can’t possibly happen in real life, like flying women or women who can throw fire.

Through Linda, I got to explore issues of gender identity, racism, and what makes a strong marriage. Patricia let me find out what it might have been like to choose a single life in a powerhouse career instead of becoming a wife and mother. Writing Jessica taught me about inner strength and reinventing yourself when life throws you curve balls. Helen had a lot to say about regret and bitterness and how they can twist a person.

Writing this novel let me live inside each of these women. I love them all and they are all in me in some way. I hope my readers will come to love my superwomen the way I do.

Please tell us how you came to work with your publisher, Curiosity Quills Press.

This will be my first published novel, but it’s not the first one I wrote. When I finished Change, I had been playing submission tag (mostly I was “not it”) for a year and a half with my other novel. I’d gotten some nibbles, but no bites. In the process, I learned that I didn’t have the patience for large publishers. I’m okay with “no” for an answer, but I just wanted to get an answer sooner, so I could move on and try someone else if my book wasn’t a good fit.

So, for this book, I only looked at small, independent publishers. I started paying more attention in my online life to speculative fiction writers who were working with small presses. Matthew Graybosch, author of Without Bloodshed, and fellow user of Google+, had posted a few times about his publisher, Curiosity Quills.

So, I cyber-stalked them a little. I liked what I saw. They seemed to really love what they were doing. Their website had personality. They were transparent about what kind of deal I could expect from them if they accepted my work. So, I wrote up a query letter and sent some pages.

It was a really pleasant surprise how quickly things moved from there. Within a few days, I had a request for the full manuscript. A contract was in my in-box just a few days after that. Working with them has been lovely so far! All my questions are answered promptly and seriously and the entire community of Literary Marauders has been warm and welcoming.

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How do story ideas usually come to you? Do you start with character, plot or conflict, etc.?

The best ideas seem to come from something that scares me a little or worries or upsets me. My first novel came about from my unreasonable fear that I would be hit by a car in the grocery store parking lot and that my infant daughter would be left alone. Going Through the Change stems from my anxieties surrounding doctors, going through menopause, and getting older. A short story I wrote recently is, in a way, about how much I don’t like gardening.

Usually, I have a vague idea about a scene and a sketchy outline of a character in mind and I sit down and start writing. I’m very much a discovery writer at first–I write to discover what the story is going to be. When it’s going well, it feels more like I’m channeling a story from some external source than like I’m making it up inside my own brain. I’m one of those writers who wants to kvetch about what her characters did to her today.

If you could be any superhero for a day, who would you be? Why?

I’m not very tall or very strong and am always frustrated by my lack of vertical reach, so I would probably love being Helen Parr (Elastigirl from The Incredibles) for a day. She’s also a great mom and manages, in the end, to balance superhero and family life. That’s quite a role model.

It could also be cool to be Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For one thing, Joss Whedon would write my dialogue. For another, I’d be preternaturally strong and fast and athletic. I wouldn’t want her love life though.

In my child’s heart, though, I’d probably be Red Sonja. She was my first superheroine love, after all-from those ten-cent comics days. Because she’s mostly naked all the time, I was sure I shouldn’t be allowed to read her, which, of course, made her all the more appealing. She’s fierce and unafraid, undeniably female and strong. A truly independent warrior.

What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

The one thing that truly made a difference for me was committing to a daily writing habit. For me, I did that with Magic Spreadsheet, a gamification tool for writers created by Tony Pisculli, which awards points for meeting a daily minimum word count.

For many years, I struggled to write while meeting all the rest of my responsibilities as a teacher, wife, mother, dog-mom, sister, daughter, etc., etc., etc. I would get a few hours once a month or so, and spend half of them just trying to get back in the flow.

But, once I committed to writing at least 250 words every day, come hell or high-water, that problem disappeared. It’s not hard to find my way back into the story if I’ve only been away twenty-four hours. It made the time I had more productive. Over time, with practice, I became able to write more words in one hour than I used to write in a four or five hour session. I began to finish things. So there it is: write every day.

 

Samantha Bryant is a middle school Spanish teacher by day and novelist by night. She lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with her husband, daughters and dog. Her secret superpower is finding lost things.

Connect with Samantha in multiple ways:

Her blog: http://samanthabryant.com
Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/samanthadunawaybryant
Author’s page on Curiosity Quills: https://curiosityquills.com/authors/samantha-bryant/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/mirymom1
On Google+: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+SamanthaDunawayBryant/posts


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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