Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Squad Mentality in SFR

by M.A. Grant

Since I first read the tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, I’ve loved stories featuring strong casts of supporting characters. While SFR can feature tales of loners wandering through unknown worlds, the genre lends itself beautifully to stories where a tightly-knit crew is just as important as a lone hero.

Soldiers, mercenaries, pirates, space explorers, scientists, diplomatic delegations...the potential makeup of these groups is endless, as are the problems they face together. Anna Hackett’s Hell Squad series and Jenn Burke and Kelly Jensen’s Chaos Station series are two of my newest discoveries featuring this key element.

What I love about both is that the central romance between main characters isn’t a standalone thread of the plot. Instead, the books are as much about how the pre-established bonds between squadmates or crew members are tested by the burgeoning romance. In the face of sometimes extreme challenges presented in science-fiction worlds, becoming a respected member of a team is a critical element to not only the romantic relationship’s success, but also to survival.

In my latest release, Honour Bound, First Lieutenant Alexander Cade doesn’t fit into the rigid world of the Republic and is banished for his efforts to quell corruption in the outlying provinces. By invoking an ancient rite, he is able to bind himself to a specific squadron of men, ensuring he’s surrounded by loyal soldiers during his exile.

Writing the relationships between Cade and his men was one of the most enjoyable tasks I’ve undertaken as an author. The varied personalities and acceptance they had of their clear-cut roles helped their scenes to flow as I wrote.

Enter Natalia Volkova, Cade’s love interest and a survivor of a rebel hard labor camp he liberated in his youth. Facing certain death without her aid, Cade’s squad was forced to grow. Like that, the comfortable world of their “family” stopped making sense and my real work began.

The simple logistics of how a squad would adapt to a newcomer were overshadowed by the challenge of capturing each man’s reaction to Talia’s abrupt inclusion. I was fortunate to be able to talk to firefighters and servicemen about their experiences in similar situations. Hearing their stories helped me realize that the stories of groups like Arthur’s knights had never really stopped. The modern era had simply forced aspects of fidelity to evolve, a trait I continue to discover in more and more works of SFR.

SFR pushes us to the extremes of technology, behavior, adaptation, and exploration. But, perhaps more importantly, it challenges us to reevaluate our concepts of families and teams and their impact on romance.

How important do you feel secondary characters are in SFR? Do you have any other books you’d suggest for anyone in need of a squad-fix?


The Lawmen of the Republic: fierce, honourable, soldiers, men. But what happens when all that they’ve been told turns out to be lies?

The wars to establish the Republic are over. The families of the Ton have risen from the blood and ashes to claim the new aristocracy. Their prodigal son, First Lieutenant Alexander Cade, is the Lawmen Academy’s youngest and most successful graduate. However, his muddied bloodlines force his exile to the Northern Wastes, the last unclaimed territory of the Republic.

Lailian scout Natalia Volkova knows that her survival in a rebel labour camp rests entirely on her iron will and killing prowess. Her fierce quest for freedom is tempered by only one thing: conflicting memories of the young Republic lieutenant who helped liberate her camp, and then returned to the fold of her people’s oppressors. She never expects that their paths will cross again – under very different circumstances.

Cade’s honour limits his choices to one: take his band of specialised Lawmen into the Wastes, and protect it and its people. There, he meets Talia, a tough, resilient refugee who holds little respect for the Republic and its laws. But as a deathly outbreak leads to a desperate race for a cure, Talia and Cade will find themselves on uncertain ground: What is right is not always obvious, and what is honourable is not always right.

About the Author:

Marion Audrey Grant is fortunate to live in the rugged beauty of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. Her family’s complete support for her love of reading and writing helped lead her to graduate college with majors in Creative Writing and English. Thanks to her husband’s unending encouragement and willingness to participate in brainstorming sessions, she now works as a scribe to the intelligent women and wounded heroes who need their stories told.

Honour Bound is the second novel in her Lawmen of the Republic series. This novel and a companion novella, Lace & Lead, are both available from Escape Publishing.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are solely those of the author, M.A. Grant, and not the SFR Brigade.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Ground Beneath Our Feet

by T.L. Smith
As well as the air, stars, plants, civilizations and the people who call it home. A lot goes into building worlds when you step into Science Fiction or Fantasy. I’d like to say I put a lot of work into developing the worlds in my stories, but so far they come to me as virtually complete images, just needing a bit of polish to make them shine.

My most recent release, Star People Legacy, takes place on Earth in the near-future. That made the world building part easy. I even knew exactly where it took place. On the dry, hot, inhospitable Goldwater Bombing Range in southwest Arizona.

Why? Two reasons. First, I was stationed on the U. S. Air Force side of the range during my stint in the military. Secondly, one day some of our guys came back from dirt-biking on a closed section of the range, with a ‘men in black’ story. Most of us questioned whether they’d sampled some wild cactus, getting the benefits of a bit too much mescaline.

Whatever the truth was, I carried that weird little story around in my head for years (and years). Then, driving through the area on the way to San Diego Comicon with Gini Koch (SFRB member and author of the Alien/Katherine “Kitty” Kat series), I told her the story. I barely got the words out of my mouth before MY story coalesced. I pulled out my laptop and started writing.

Of course the story in my head was different. I had to alter the location slightly. The base I’d been stationed on is virtually gone now, so I shifted to the Yuma side of the range. The primary character became a female U.S. Marine Captain. Also a member of the Navajo Nation.

Socially, the issues of illegal immigration still exist, but other issues have changed. Such as Native American politics. In my future world they had truly become One Nation. My ‘men-in-black’ encounter leads the character into a truth-altering battle, where ancient Native American mythology collides with Science Fiction.

The secondary characters took a bit of supporting research, except for one special person. On the way to San Diego, we (meaning Gini) got pulled over by an Arizona Highway Patrolman. He let us (meaning Gini) go with a verbal warning, and told us (yeah, meaning Gini) where all the next speed traps were. So Mr. Highway Patrolman became my character’s main squeeze, and I didn’t kill him.

My characters grew as I nailed down the exact myths needed to tell the story. I threw in some real historical facts, blending them in to fit the story. Since I tend to write strong female military characters, a little misogyny show up. Sad to say, but I can’t help but to believe that gender issues in the military will never totally go away. Not even when we ‘poor defenseless women’ start kicking butts all the way to Alpha Centauri.

All this happened in the back seat of Gini’s jam-packed Scion, driving just a wee bit too fast, through my old stomping grounds. I had the story completely outlined by the time we unpacked in San Diego.

But this was just one example of my world building process. For writers, ideas come from all around us. Something that happened in our real lives. A joke on the radio. A picture on a passing billboard. Someone tossing out a ‘what if… all can be sparks igniting our next endeavor.

Our unbelievable characters can be a real people. That fellow soldier we served beside. A professor that impressed us. An Ex who didn’t. All these people can be morphed into what we need, modeling them into the perfect lover, or villain. Or both.

A great resource for figuring out imaginary societies, politics and religion exists right here on planet Earth. Within the same continents we have everything from Super Powers to 3rd World countries. Every nation contains a magnitude of differing religions and politics, from relatively peaceful to frightfully warring. From the past we hear the extinct whispers of humans who struggled to survive. And everywhere you can find a theorists trying to figure out what it takes to create Utopia.

As for the environments of our fantastic new world, look to our planet Earth. She gives us a vast array of environments, from frozen tundra to scorching deserts, from the highest altitudes to the deepest sea trenches. Ancient ruins to modern skyscrapers. It’s all here waiting for us to build or tear down at our literary whim.

So plant your feet wherever you desire, take a good look around and see that grows.

T.L. Smith was born in Louisiana, but calls Phoenix, Arizona home between bouts of wanderlust. Even a stint in the U.S. Air Force as a radar specialist brought her back to the desert. Her time in the service taught her to appreciate the military culture and ever-changing technologies, giving life to the Science Fictions she loves so much. T.L. Smith often writes from a military perspective, strong women holding their own as humanity moves out into the stars, but with a touch of romance. She believes the only vacuum her characters should live in, is on the other side of the airlock. Come visit her vision of the future as we throw ourselves out into the universe. Check out her website www.tlsmithbooks.com or blog http://tlsmith-sfauthor.blogspot.com

Star People Legacy

The day Captain Beth Castle put on the U.S. Marine Corps uniform, she made a vow to protect her country and its citizens. It was a vow she knew she’d uphold for life, but nothing prepared her for what she faced in the Tinajas Mountains east of Yuma, Arizona.

While inspecting Aid Relief Stations along the Arizona/Mexico border, an ancient myth she’d learned growing up on the Navajo Reservation comes to life. A hostile encounter with a strange group of men triggers a change in her body and Spirit.

When she goes to her family for help, Beth discovers the horrible truth -- the myths she's been told about are real...real aliens. Now Beth's involved in an epic battle between good and evil -- a battle that could cost her everything she holds dear, including her family and the man she loves.

Star People Legacy is available at:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Creation Myth: Remixed

By Starla Huchton

From the ancient Egyptians to today’s fast-paced modern world, religion has been a part of human culture. It’s a concept that comforts us and offers explanations in an existence that so often feels beyond our control or understanding. Humanity has studied the beliefs of our ancestors and come to our own conclusions about what we feel to be true about the universe, and whether that’s praising Odin or discarding the notions of higher mystical powers entirely for science, everyone has faith in something.

But what if everything was connected? What if Viking valkyries and Christianity’s angels were one and the same?

What if the explainable could be explained in a single, unifying theory that spanned millennia?

Science Fiction has never shied away from the hard topics, often building new religions for alien cultures or judging the world through eyes unused to human customs. In The Night Bridge, I’ve taken the notions of our modern world and adjusted the lens a bit, casting humanity as the largest science experiment ever conducted since The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. The architects of this experiment learned to bridge the gap in space and time, crossing over to a place where time moves far more quickly, in order to learn how they developed into what they are and getting a glimpse at where the future might take their species. When a dozen years on Earth passes in as little as a month for this other race, it’s a much more complicated undertaking than growing mold in a petri dish. So what would such a thing entail?

Designing that sort of experiment not only takes the dedication of vast amounts of people, but computing power as well. The calculations required to successfully travel between one dimension and another would take lifetimes to unravel, but for a machine that’s advanced enough, it could take a matter of moments. While that technology is not yet within our grasp, it might not be all that far off. Traveling between intersecting places and times might be a thing we take for granted in two hundred years.

And much as a computer would be used to calculate travel between the realms, it stands to reason it would also be programmed to detect problems with the experiment. Physiological signs of distress exist in all forms of life, manifesting in ways that can be seen, predicted, and alleviated. But while a computer might find those things, sometimes it takes a special, more human touch to solve problems. It would need the ability to dispatch an experiment specialist on a second’s notice.

Without beings guiding the evolutionary path, how could we guarantee the results? Guardians would need to be assigned to act as mentors, messengers, and protectors for the growing culture (in both senses of the word). Specially trained, highly intelligent people would be required to keep the experiment in control, especially when outside forces would take it for themselves. The presence of more advanced races could skew the evolutionary process in either direction. These “angels”, “demons”, and humanity would all vie for the final say in ownership of the Earth, and that’s the key to all of it: when life becomes sentient, who are the gods and who are the flock?

I took all of these things into account when writing The Night Bridge, along with much more. In exploring this theory of how we came to be, I needed information not only on religion throughout the ages, but on more scientific concepts than I can count. It’s these big ideas of science that allow us to extrapolate on theories such as this, to make them plausible, giving way to creativity on a smaller scale that allows us to explore the universe from the comfort of our living room.

In a world where belief defines reality, who can say anything is impossible?

Find The Night Bridge in ebook and print on Amazon:

A geek of all trades, Starla Huchton has been crafting stories in various genres since 2007. She is a three-time finalist for Parsec Awards for her podcast fiction work, and was the first place winner for Science Fiction & Fantasy in the Sandy competition in 2012. Her work spans science fiction, fantasy, New Adult Romance, Young Adult titles, Steampunk, Contemporary, and various other varieties of stories. She is greedy and likes all the genres!

When not writing, Starla trains three Minions, a black lab, and a military husband whilst designing book covers for independent authors and publishers at DesignedByStarla.com.





(The views expressed therein are the views of the author and not necessarily that of the SFR Brigade.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Cover Art Caught Between Art & Commerce

When I contracted my first book a long time ago—though in this galaxy, not one far, far away—I think it’s fair to say that I had seriously unrealistic expectations about the cover art that would be wrapped digitally around my new baby. Yes, I had high expectations for a book called Pig in a Park. I was young. And it was my first.
My poor publisher. I gave input and what came back—sigh. My “vision” of my cover was fairly scary in execution, though said publisher did her best to fulfill my cover dreams. After studying the cover nightmare, I asked my publisher what she thought the cover should look like. The result was a better cover that did a fairly good job of informing the reader what was inside. It sold books.
It was my first lesson in the push/pull between [cover] art and commerce.
We write a book and we want the perfect cover for it. It’s really that simple. 
As I was mulling this post, I asked AnaBanana, a cover designer I’ve worked with, for her top three tips on how to design a great cover:

1. Learn some basic design principles and approach your cover like it is ART - because it is!
2. Look at others’ work but don’t let it define your own work. Let your natural style come through. 
3. Don’t be afraid of failure. Think of it as a learning experience. You’re learning if your DOING something, but there’s nothing going on if you’re not trying.

Obviously she is a designer. Art is her business and she does it well. And if there is a chance that your book is going to be stacked in the big window at the local Barnes & Noble, you want cover art. 
But in this brave new world of the digital book, a lot of the nuance of cover art is lost in the thumbnail that is all that most readers see when browsing Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, GooglePlay or the NOOK store. 
This is where art bumps into commerce and art often gets dented. Maybe you get lucky with a first cover that hits the target perfectly between art and commerce. But what if your “perfect” cover art doesn’t sell your book?
At that point, you really need to focus on how to get readers to love that cover. 
Or change your cover. 
I fell for most of my covers at some point. I loved a lot of them. They were part of the package called published book. That makes it hard to break up when it’s time. It took me a while to realize that, at its most basic, a cover is...
  1. ...a part of your overall brand and...
  2. ...it’s a billboard that tells the reader as quickly as possible what kind of book is inside. Granted, in thumbnail it is a very small billboard, but a billboard none the less. 
This would be the commerce side of your art. 
If you can get some distance, some detachment about your covers, focus on their function and purpose, it will make it easier to break up with them if the business side requires it. Don't fix what isn't broke.
In my many, many years in the publishing business, I’ve had beautiful covers. I’ve had functional covers. I’ve had covers that I thought were hideous, but sold books. Because I’m not always the best judge of what will sell my books (and it pains me to write this), and because I’ve invested money in covers that didn’t always appeal to readers in that tiny thumbnail size, I finally realized that I needed to dive into (for me) the very cold waters of cover design. 
I won’t kid you. It was scary. I took a webinar, bought a cover design package, and didn’t open it for several weeks. I spent that time telling myself no one had to know or see my stuff if I sucked at it. And of course, WHAT IF I DIDN’T KNOW I SUCKED? 
Yeah, it’s a lot like, I don’t know, writing a book? 
Then I read this article by a long time author who pointed out (paraphrased), if she were smart enough to learn how to write a novel, she was smart enough to learn how to manage her writing business. And, I realized that—even if I never used my DIY covers—it was a good idea to know about this side of my writing business. Hey, I might even learn enough to give my designers better guidance and feedback. 
And there was another hard reality to face while I hovered at the design water’s edge. One of the HUGE benefits of being an independent author is the ability to be nimble, to change what wasn’t working. But if I couldn’t do even minimal cover design, I wasn’t nimble. 
Of course, knowing what isn’t working doesn’t help that much with finding out what does. I’ll be honest, a lot of it is trial and error. Some of my books have had four or five covers. Conventional advice is to study what works, but what if you don’t know why a cover works? A lot of really popular covers don’t push my “buy” buttons. And my books don’t fit neatly into the really obvious genre niches. 
I also needed to make sure that my covers tell readers, as well as I can manage, what’s inside. For instance, my former publisher put a gal in a corset on my steampunk novel and one reader thought it was sexier inside than the book actually was. You can’t control ALL reactions, but you can avoid the big mistakes. I don’t put bare-chested guys on my covers because any sex in my books is off camera. Way off.
Once a month, The BookDesigner does a blog post on covers. Designers and authors send their covers in and he comments on points, good and bad, and picks his favorites. I've learned some things reading those comments and studying those covers. Over time, he’s recognized that not everyone can afford a top dollar designer and now offers basic cover design templates that work with Word. I have not tried these templates, but have used his book design templates and they worked very well for me when I worked on my first self-published print book. Plus he offers customer support for all his templates.
Another resource is Canva. I had looked at it as a place to create free or very low cost promo images, but I found out some authors use it for cover design (the pay side). Also, they send out design tutorials for free after you sign up (which is also free). You only pay as much as you want there, but some features aren’t available for free. 
If you do not want to DIY, there are pre-made cover sites, so many I won’t link to them, but there are some very nice, very professional looking covers out there for purchase. With a pre-made cover, you do have to fit your vision to theirs. And, if you have to replace several covers, or ask for a lot of customization, the costs can add up fast. 
For super cheap, there’s Fiverr. I have not tried any of these cover designers, but I do know people who have had success there. If you have a lot of books needing covers, it is a low-cost, fairly low-risk option. 
If you'd like to give DIY a try, The Book Designer offers webinars for different services for authors and one week he offered the KD Cover Kit that I mentioned above. It includes basic templates (divided by genre, which really helped me get closer to the "right" genre design) that you can use to build covers by swapping out elements, images, fonts, etc, without having to have a PhD in PhotoShop. Ed is constantly adding videos on how to use the templates and other resources to the kit. Plus there is a Facebook group where you can share tips and get feedback from other authors. Thanks to help from Ed, I’ve been able to find an affordable mix of royalty free images and fonts. I also use images from the hubs. With the templates provided and feedback from the group and Ed, I’ve been able to begin the process of building a consistent brand for my novels. I even got a nice review for Core Punch’s cover. 
It also saves me time and money because I can create my own audio covers and swap them out as needed. (I have two audio books that have old covers. I just couldn’t justify the extra cost at the time I when I bought my high end covers for those two books.)
Of course, the real test is the readers. I’m seeing books that were sitting unnoticed on the digital shelves getting found and bought. And even better, I look at my bookshelf and see a consistent look, an actual brand spreading slowly through my backlist, and forward to my new releases.
I still have a long way to go before I reach the level of “art,” and honestly? I will probably never reach that level of design. I won’t pretend to be anything but a journeyman at cover design. For my business, I need to put the bulk of my time into writing books and save the art for the real designers of cover art. 
But if you’re looking to better understand the design process, or need to get better control of that part of the costs of your writing business, I’m here to say, you can do it. Hey, you were smart enough to figure out how to write whole novels. 
Do you design your own covers? Have any tips to offer this journeyman? Have you thought you’d like to learn? What resources have you found helpful?

The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not the SFR Brigade.

Pauline has published 16 novels. Her latest release is Sucker Punch: An Uneasy Future. It is the second book in a new series that is a spin-off of Project Enterprise and The Big Uneasy. You can find Pauline here:
Vi never liked math and aftermath isn’t floating her boat either….

Hurricane Wu Tamika Felipe has moved north. Yeah, the storm almost killed Detective Violet Baker, but it also blew some romance her way. Her uptight partner, Dzholh “Joe” Ban!drn actually kissed her. 

But there's no time for any follow-up kissing, much to Vi’s regret. They are hunting something very bad. Something that tried to kill them while they were dirt side during the storm. 

And has now escaped up into New Orleans New. 

It’s not business as usual, though there is some deja vu in there, when Vi and Joe get sent to a FEMA camp to check out a dead body. 

Until that body turns into a trail that might lead to the evil it. Or to its next victim. 

Just when Vi thinks things are crapeau enough, the MITSC (Men In Top Secret Color) show up and take over their case. Are they after Joe or the evil it? 

Before they can find out, the evil it lures them into a trap. 

It’s ‘it’ versus them and it hasn’t lost yet….

SFR Brigade Bases of Operation