Frank Tuttle is a professional athlete. Wait. No. Frank Tuttle is a moderately round fantasy author who started writing during the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and made his first professional sale in 1996, to the now-defunct Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. Frank’s stories have also appeared in Weird Tales and, though he isn’t sure these count, various police blotters throughout the American South. Lately Frank has moved from short stories to novels. His Markhat Files series is nine titles long, and he is two books into a YA trilogy which will feature four books (math was never Frank’s best subject). The YA series currently includes ‘All the Paths of Shadow’ and ‘All the Turns of Light.’
When Frank isn’t writing, he tends to his pack of rescue dogs or hunts ghosts. He notes that ‘hunts’ is far too strong a word; he generally just sits in the dark and invites spirits to speak into his array of microphones or pose for his camera.
Frank writes to Pink Floyd, chews pencils, and likes good beer, black and white movies, and another good beer.
1) What challenges do you face writing a series vs stand alone stories?
Stand alones are easy — you introduce a setting, add characters, and stir in two heaping cups of trouble before you let it bake and hope you wind up with a tasty, tasty word-cake. Then you clean up the pots and pans, and start all over with different ingredients. Or, if you cook as well as I do, the Hazmat Team from the sheriff’s office suggests you just eat out from now on as they fix the yellow QUARANTINE tape in an X across the locked kitchen door.
But with a series, you’ve got recurring characters. Running story arcs. Inside jokes. Now, in a calm and orderly world, readers would start with Book 1 and proceed in a methodical fashion to Book 2 and then 3, and so on.
One might notice, though, that we live on Earth. So you must assume many first-time readers of the series are going to dive into Book 7, and you’ve got at best a couple of pages to convince them the read is worth the time. Somehow, you’ve got to get readers quickly up to speed, show them who is who and what is what and why this character loathes the other character and why dogs in this world hold political office and you’ve got to do it without tipping your hand.
Info dumps are the death of reader engagement. Instead, you’ve got to tell little stories about the stories you’ve already told and you’d better make these little stories both amusing and brief. It’s a bit like stage magic — the hand, or in this case the sentence, had bloody well better be quicker than the eye, because there are a thousand other books clamoring for the reader’s attention.
Too, you’ve got to keep the cast of characters fresh and entertaining. Which means they need to lead lives of their own, even when they’re not in the spotlight. I noticed before I even started writing myself that the books which stuck with me were filled with people who, even if they were not the protagonist or the antagonist, deserved books of their own. They lived hard and if they died they died well. Keeping that level of detail and focus can be tough, especially when you find yourself really getting interested in one of the supporting cast.
All that is followed by the need to occasionally retire or even kill off a supporting cast member. You’ve got to be VERY careful with that. Now, if it serves the story, fine. But be prepared for some backlash — readers get attached to the people they’ve spent a lot of time with. If you’re going to hit fans with a death, there’d better be a significant payoff involved. Or you’ll simply lose readers, and that’s not what any writer wants. Except maybe Mr. George R. R. Martin, who mastered the art of the gleeful fictional bloodbath and keeps fans coming back for more.
Finally, there’s continuity. It’s so easy to state that Evis the gangster vampire always wears a black fedora in Book 2, and then have him strolling around town in a light grey derby in Book 9. Thankfully my editors have better memories than I do, most of the time!
2) How have you dealt w/said challenges?
I’ve dealt with the situations discussed above like so many writers before me — with a wildly ineffective campaign of alcohol, blue-streak cursing, and extensive rewrites. I could improve my emotional stability and overall quality of life with the simple purchase of a buck-and-a-half notebook and a cheap pen, and I could start keeping what grown-ups call ‘notes,’ but I look on my desk and I see booze and a cuss jar and a manuscript in its 14th iteration of rewrites, and I don’t see a notebook or a pen. Sigh. It’s true what one of my teachers said — “Live and don’t learn, is that it, Mr. Tuttle?”
I can credit good editors to helping me avoid any public missteps. And they can credit me with what I suspect is a considerable number of migraines and incidents of private rage.
3) Do you find it any different to write your female protagonist vs male?
Yes. I do. Here’s why.
I’m male. I’m 53. The protag of my ‘Paths of Shadow’ series is Meralda, who is 18 when the books start. That’s a gender gap and an age gap, and while I can vaguely remember being 18 (my memories are a confusing mish-mash of blue police car lights, loud music, and gas station burritos) I have no recollection of ever being female, although I did try to walk in heels once.
Which led to a lot of soul searching. Research. And finally, late one night, a realization.
Write her as a blinkin’ PERSON. Don’t try to ‘make’ her a woman. Women are people. People come in a vast and bewildering spectrum of hopes and fears and likes and dislikes. Yes, being a woman presents a unique series of challenges and difficulties. These challenges and difficulties are called ‘men.’ I checked again, and since I appear to be one of those, I stepped back and looked hard at how I myself have interacted with women. Then I had a few drinks. Made some hasty late-night apologies. It became clear to me that Meralda might be the smartest, most capable being in the room, but if someone with a beard said two and two equals five, she’d have to drag out a chalkboard and present a half-hour lecture just to prove her point that no, it equals four. And even then there’d be a lot of ‘Well, but’ type muttering and someone would probably suggest that she ‘be a dear’ and go make coffee.
That was a sobering realization. So I decided that by damn Meralda WOULD be the smartest person in the room, and I’d make bloody sure the men around her knew it. And I did something else — I wrote about better men. Men who didn’t always patronize, or mansplain, or ignore. I’d like to think that younger female readers found a hero in my bookish, exasperated Mage Meralda, and that my younger male readers might see men in the book behaving like good men.
Now, my Markhat Files series starts out with Markhat, the titular protagonist, as a single tough-guy private eye in a world where magic works. The tradition in film-noir gumshoe books is, of course, to introduce a parade of female romantic interests, all of whom are discarded at the end of the current book. Well, Darla, who (spoiler) later marries Markhat, was having none of that. Now, Darla and Markhat work as a team, and I love the Nick and Nora Charles vibe that now fills the books.
Writing Darla is a lot of fun. Her biting wit is easily one of the best aspects of the series. Woe betide anyone who suggests she go put on a pot of coffee; they’ll find their head stuffed in the percolator, and the cup lodged in an orifice not conducive to the introduction of a hot beverage. And she’d do all that with the most serene of smiles.
I will suggest to my fellow male authors that they simply shut up and listen. Listen to women talk. Females are not strange alien beings operating on some far-off and inscrutable mental plane. And by the way, not every female needs to be some ass-kicking non-stop killing machine, either, any more than all males need to be portrayed as such. There are so many different expressions of strength. They are all around you, every day. Just listen.
4) In your opinion, what types of conflict create the most compelling stories?
I try to couple an external conflict with an internal one. Here’s an example — in “All the Turns of Light,” Meralda suddenly and inexplicably finds herself able to bend and reshape reality on a whim. But her investigation into the phenomena convinces her that she might well, and quite by accident, unravel the fabric of her universe by exercising, or failing to suppress, this newfound ability.
At the same time, she has an entire airship full of people looking to her for safety in the face of a magical attack. Which leaves her tempted to use her powers, even risking all of creation, or instead to face an enemy with nothing but her wits and a few trinkets. Does she trust her mind, or embrace a powerful but dangerous ability? Does she risk everything for the safety of a few? And will she lose herself by becoming, in effect, a deity?
Meanwhile, the airship is getting pounded. Someone has to DO something.
Big decisions for anyone so young. I struggle with decisions and life’s little mysteries at drive-thrus sometimes — fries, or onion rings? And why am I not in a car?
Markhat’s cases often put him in situations that challenge his beliefs, or raise the specter of his wartime PTSD. He struggles with a deep cynicism, a persistent haunting fear that nothing he can do will ever change the fate of the people he loves. His world is dangerous and corrupt. Justice and safety are something only the very wealthy can afford. Which is why, for instance, he’ll go off in search of a blind kid’s stolen dog — because someone NEEDS to, but no one else will. And if the search awakens his demons, and it invariably does, that’s the price he’s determined to pay.
Conflict is the beating heart of any story. It can’t falter. It can’t beat too fast. It certainly can’t beat too slowly.
If it stops, the book is dead.
5) What genre do you like, but find intimidating to write (if any)?
I love reading science fiction. But I’ve never been able to write it; magic always creeps in. I don’t know why. I suppose I see magic as something our world lacks, and sorely needs. No whiz-bang hyper drive gadget can make up for that cosmic omission. Maybe one day I’ll get past that, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
I’d also like to write a humorous romantic fantasy. I have such a book outlined, and the first chapter is complete. Maybe one day soon I’ll tackle it. People are never more irrational, or more entertaining, than when they’re trying to untangle matters of the heart.