4 most important skills to master for writing good fantasy

Wonka Imagination

Lately I’ve thought a lot about my skills and what differentiates a good (fantasy) writer from a bad one. Or what makes an original, engrossing fantasy novel versus a bland, boring one.

Now, there is no perfect recipe. And doing anything well is difficult. But I’m becoming more convinced that if I or anyone else can do these four things right, we’ll be in a much better position as writers.

Stop giving a shit about the rules

You should absolutely learn the tenets of good writing practices, from everything involved in creative writing to grammar. You should also study story structure.

But when it comes to writing the first draft, you should forget all of it.

Okay, here’s the thing. Writing rules can constrain you to the point that you don’t take risks, and that’s bad. For example, I’ll get so obsessed over not using “to be” verbs that I slow myself down when I’m first-drafting because I’m always searching for that perfect verb. Or I get so worried about showing and not telling that I struggle to put words down at all and end up distancing readers from a character when I could be putting the reader in their heads more. I’m holding myself back, and I can feel it.

Lower Your Expectations Writing

Do me a favor. Crack open a book you like and flip to a random page. Now count the verbs like “was” and “is.” You’ll probably see a lot of them. Or actually analyze a scene and count how many times the writer tells instead of shows. Often this is hard to do because you get sucked into the story — and that’s what really matters. Nobody will care how many times you use “was” or “were” if you can succeed in getting them in the characters’ heads and investing them in what’s happening.

I absolutely recommend outlining before writing so that you at least keep yourself on track. And yes, you should absolutely care about using stronger verbs and showing more than you tell. That’s good writing. But you probably don’t need to worry about it as much as you are, especially when you’re first-drafting. Turn off that editor brain. Get messy. Indulge your whims. You’ll have a better story for it.

Put a twist on everything

It’s important to take risks not only with your prose but also with your world and characters. When I think about stories that captivate me and make me jealous of an author’s imagination, I think of stories that do things differently.

The Fifth Season is a book I’m reading right now that’s an excellent example of this. There aren’t towns, there are “comms.” It’s not another stereotypical medieval fantasy world with land surrounded by oceans, it’s a world of shifting tectonic plates, where earthquakes are the normal way of life and everything — from how society functions to how magic works — builds from that one idea. It’s brilliant, really.

But author M. K. Jemisin is just pulling stuff out of her ass. She’s a writer! She’s supposed to make stuff up! You can invent as crazy and new and different of a world as you want!

Adventure Time Jake Rainbow

Yes, you need to create a consistent, logical world with constraints and consequences. But otherwise you can do anything you damn well please. My new goal: Think of something I’d assume would be “normal” in a fantasy story and challenge it by putting my own spin on it. Even if it’s something small, if you do that enough times, you’ll have a book brimming with originality much like The Fifth Season.

In a way, it’s hard to give ourselves that kind of creative license. Fantasy writers are very much influenced by The Lord of the Rings, cyberpunk writers by Neuromancer, supernatural writers by Dracula or Interview with a Vampire, etc. etc.

But guess what: Those writers made shit up. You can make shit up, too. There’s no law saying you have to follow their rules, and if you don’t, you’ll be all the better for it.

Make everything harder, and force characters to act

Conflict is at the root of a good story. But again, easier said than done. It’s hard to 1) constantly up the ante because we love our characters and 2) put them in a position where they have to do something and then actually go do it. Our characters should be those people we yell at in horror movies who go through the door when why would they be so stupid as to go through the door.

Think of it this way: If a crazy killer broke into your house, you’d probably be tempted to hide in the closet and cry and hope they go away. Or maybe you’d call 911 and then play it safe until the police arrived and handled it for you. But the more interesting stories are those where the character is so much braver or more foolhardy than we’d be, and they just start doing things. Because without them taking charge and taking risks and trying things out, it’d be pretty boring to watch. This goes for all of your characters. They need to actually move to move the story forward.

Alien Movie Ripley Action

Same thing applies to intensifying conflict. As writers, we have to be willing to get our characters in a pickle and then do the hard work of figuring how the hell they’re going to get out of this one. But that’s what will keep people reading.

Nail their voices

You know that test that goes, pick a passage of dialogue at random, and if you’ve done your job, you should be able to identify the character without looking at the dialogue tag? That’s maybe a little excessive, but the general idea is right.

Voice is being able to tell, how does a character speak that makes them unique from the others in my book? Voice is reading their POV and having all the writing filtered through not the author’s style, but the character’s style. Reading their chapter should be an experience in itself.

Die Hard GIF Bet Your Ass

Again, easier said than done, right? What helps is to create a quirk or trait that is all their own, as well as a core value that defines their life philosophy (or “misbelief,” an often imperfect worldview). That’s going to help them stand out from the other characters.

Now think of those couple qualities as a straight line. Constantly, when you write their character, you need to write around that line. You can veer in a zig-zag, snake-like pattern around it as you reveal new facets of their character and personality and story, and as they falter and grow. You don’t want to stick purely to the straight line because, well, then you’ll have a boring, one-dimensional character. But if you keep who they are in mind and return to that throughline, it’ll be easier to write them differently than other characters — not only in dialogue but in their actions and narrative voice, too.

All in all …

The more I write and acknowledge weaknesses in my writing, the more I realize how important all these things are to do. And “do” really isn’t the right word. These are goals, and I should always strive to meet them to the best of my ability.

And that ability is growing, little by little, story by story. It takes time and practice and experience, and sometimes you gotta get the “bad” stuff out of you before you can drill down to the really juicy stuff. But if we stick with it, we’ll get there.

What do you consider the most important skills to master in writing an awesome, original story? What makes a good book “good”?

Cool Story

How to write something longer than a short story

Writing novels GIF

You’d think if you struggle with word count, you should forget about novels and just write short stories, right? Nope. YOU CAN WRITE A NOVEL. Take it from me. Underwriting is practically my middle name.

If you get stuck after 2,000 words, maybe you’re not planning enough. Maybe you’re “pantsing” — or sitting down to write without much more than an idea and seeing where it takes you.

But 50,000+ word beasts don’t get written that way. Novels require outlines, or you’re gonna get stuck a lot. Now, everyone’s pre-writing stage is different. And there is such a thing as doing too much brainstorming and not enough of the actual writing, so you need to determine the balance that works for you.

Here’s a glimpse at my outline and “story bible” for my WIP. I have five major buckets:

Ideas:

  • My original brainstorming of my seed idea, along with the trigger moment where my story begins and the key scenes in my protagonists’ pasts that shaped their worldviews.
  • A rough sketch of the defining scenes that I knew I wanted in my novel.
  • A bullet-point outline of my whole book. I’ll slot in new scenes here and there, and I refrain from plotting out the next act until I’m done writing the previous one.
  • Main plots and subplots, with chapter-by-chapter developments. This helps me see how each thread is developing and whether any lack substance or depth. Occasionally, I’ll add new subplots while writing the book.
  • Stuff for agents: my query, theme, paragraph summary, elevator pitch, professional synopsis, etc.
  • Notes on the voice of my characters, as well as any slang and sayings unique to my world. I worry about this more in later drafts, but I like to have something to consider as I begin.
  • An ongoing list of things to fix in revision. While I’m working on the first draft, I’ll put stuff here if I’m worried something isn’t working so that I remember to come back to it later.
  • Acknowledgments (so I know who to thank should my book be published).

Characters:

Profiles on each of the central characters. Details about their physical description, personality, moments in their pasts that sparked their “misbelief” (worldview), and ideas on how they will fail and succeed throughout the novel.

As author Lisa Cron says, you can’t “write about the most difficult, life-altering series of events in the life of someone [that you] know absolutely nothing about.”

Rules of the world:

This is where I do my world-building! I take notes on my world’s history, cultures, creatures, religions, locations, and anything else that comes up in my story.

This adds dimension and can be beefed up as you go along, but it’s good to have a decent idea of how things work before you dive in.

Actual research:

Real-world research to lend credibility to different aspects of my story or to inspire fictional elements.

Examples: plants used for healing, types of geography/terrain, how archery or blacksmithing works, and so forth.

Scenes in development:

This is where I keep my scene cards, track my overall progress (chapter/act word counts and what I accomplished each week), and “guiding principles” — memos to myself about bigger picture considerations to keep in mind as I write.

In my pre-writing process, the scene cards come last, and I develop each immediately before writing that scene in my novel.


Writing catI don’t necessarily do all this work upfront. My real-world research, for example, I complete as needed as I’m writing the book, and I may come back to the character profiles to flesh them out more if I’m feeling stuck with a character.

But that’s pretty much it. It’s a growing, organic document, and pre-writing spawns a lot of ideas for plot, subplot, and character development.

I keep all these files in Scrivener, but some people prefer a binder and paper. It’s your choice.

What does you pre-writing process, outline, and “story bible” look like?

My favorite books this year were all by women

Kristen Bell sloth

It’s December, which means soon we’ll have a whole new year of books to look forward to. What’s your favorite book that you read in 2016?

Without a doubt, mine is …

Uprooted

Okay, Uprooted is from 2015, but … sigh. It’s so beautiful. And powerful. And enchanting. It’s the best fantasy literature that I’ve read since Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle (my favorite series). I don’t often encounter genuine page-turners, but this is one of them. GO READ IT PLEASE.

Also, yay for positive female friendships!

I also have to give a big shout-out to Liane Moriarty, who’s my new favorite author that I discovered this year (her books are secretly amazing), and Ava Jae, who’s my new favorite debut author (go read her too, please!).

I finished my Goodreads challenge this year. Did you?

A land without its name: a review of Tigana

Tigana

They don’t seem like conquerers … They didn’t seem like men in the midst of a triumph. They just looked tired, as at the end of a very long journey.

I haven’t sat down and read some good, thick fantasy in a while. Tigana was an excellent homecoming — rich in lore without being too fanciful, and hundreds of pages long without being indulgent.

Summarizing Tigana is difficult without revealing the heart of it, and perhaps that’s what gives Guy Gavriel Kay’s language, his story, its magic: Two tyrants, both sorcerers, are vying for domination of the world, but those who have been wronged by them — who have fallen from the grace of their beloved Tigana, a land now cursed so that none can hear its name except those born there (or with magic in their blood) — are gathering together to kill not only he who cast the spell but the other tyrant as well, so that neither shall rule.

This mutinous group, led by the dethroned prince of Tigana, does more sneaking and meddling than war-making, gathering their forces in secret and manipulating the tyrants from afar. Felling one tyrant is difficult enough, so I was eager to see how Kay would go about having them do away with two in a plausible, believable way. I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel isn’t riveting, but it is deeply enjoyable in that simmering old way of classic fantasy. Read the language carefully, and you can appreciate the fine craftsmanship that Kay put into it. Tigana is full of lengthy chapters but never lingers on one perspective for too long a time; it keeps the tension taut by introducing strange new characters and interweaving them into the plot, mounting ever higher the grand and fragile house of cards that Kay is building, all centered around the tyrant Brandin who cursed Tigana and the future of the lands.

The characters surprise you. One who stands for all that is hate and vengeance becomes a symbol of good and redemption; another who vows to destroy her enemy comes to love him. Moreover, a controversial scene in the opening chapters left me uncertain of my feelings about one of the central protagonists and caused me to wonder whether the author was mistreating another character for the sake of scandal, but Kay never let that event tarnish the respectability of either or let it govern their fates.

I only thought one character was done injustice: the tyrant Alberico, who is little more than a two-dimensional, exaggerated villain whose ill deeds and manner lack the complexities of the fellow tyrant Brandin’s.

The others, despite their role in the story — a hindrance or a help to the freeing of Tigana — I cared for equally. The ending is bittersweet: both happy and tragic, with a reveal of a secret that was brilliantly concealed and saved for the final moments. The story ends how you suppose it will, but not how you hoped or predicted.

Kay weaves together many small stories, consequential or seemingly trivial, without losing sight of their place in the conflict that’s brewing or forgetting to convey the sense of time it took for it all to come together — years and years, with the ache of centuries and an unmistakable weariness hanging on each word.

The magic here is old, and trembling, and monstrous. It’s used carefully, for fear of repercussion, which always comes. And it’s not restricted to one form but to many: to wizards who hide their power to save their life, to those who walk in a dream realm at night, to those who heal and others who torment and are crippled by their own sorcery.

That magic is never quite enough to fill you. Tigana leaves you yearning.

Grade: A

Nightmares in the jungle: a review of Catching Fire

I can only form one clear thought.

This is no place for a girl on fire.

Catching Fire cover smallI’m already well into reading Mockingjay, but I wanted to stop and discuss Catching Fire (spoilers!), the middle novel of The Hunger Games, which came to movie theaters this winter.

I always expect second books in trilogies to be the weakest. In Catching Fire, author Suzanne Collins turns the story in a predictable direction: a budding rebellion against the Capitol. The plot lacks as much substance as the first book, but Collins manages to surprise me by throwing main character Katniss Everdeen back in the Hunger Games with a bunch of old people and young, lethal victors from the past annual “celebrations.”

Katniss will always have a place in the Games now, but I didn’t expect to see her back in costume so soon. It’s a good twist, but not everyone will approve: The Games segment of the book is short and too similar to events we’ve already seen, and the first half to two-thirds are plodding. The romance, fake or otherwise, between Katniss and Peeta — the boy with the bread and her star-crossed “lover” — and Katniss and Gale — her childhood friend and fellow hunter — is more prominent in this novel (that’s good or bad, depending on what you were hoping for) although Collins thankfully grounds it in the grim reality of their situation. In the Games or in District 12, every move Katniss makes still puts her life and the lives of others in jeopardy.

So Catching Fire is lighter on content than the first book. There are some beautiful or dramatic moments involving a wedding gown, Katniss’s lead stylist (Cinna), and her competitors — and supposed allies — in the Games. I found the story absorbing though maybe that was because the romance was so juicy, but I also liked Katniss’s opponents more this time around. They’re a lot more striking: Johanna, who strips and trains naked (the actress for her in the movie, Jena Malone, is perfect); Finnick, charming and arrogant and deadly in the water and on land, who becomes one of my favorite new characters; and the intelligent and weird “Nuts” and “Volts,” to name a few. I also liked all the environmental traps in the arena even if they felt contrived (monkeys, blood rain, etc.), like Collins was just dropping obstacles in there to pad out the Games (not that the wall of fire from book one was ever particularly clever or original). The characters’ interactions are what make the battle royale interesting, not anything the Gamemakers throw at them — although I did think the jungle and clock theme were fun.

I spent a good amount of time during my read-through thinking about Peeta and Gale and whom, if either, Katniss is better off with. I don’t think it’s fair that she should be forced into a romance when marriage and kids and love are the last things on her mind. But for her, these relationships are still happening — unwillingly and as much out of necessity as natural desire. Her survival in the Games depends on how well she and Peeta can put on a “show” for the audience, but they’re also thrust together privately through their mutual situation. They comfort each other when they’re tormented by nightmares; their trust in each other is strong because of the Games — and that bond, formed through the preservation of their own mortality, is much more intense than that between her and Gale. Those two only tasted a small measure of danger in the woods outside District 12. Their reading of each other’s body language is much more intimate as hunters, and perhaps their world view is more similar, but Katniss never expressed a love for Gale whereas with Peeta, she feels gratitude and admiration — for the eloquence of his words, for his optimism. For saving her life time and again. For understanding what it’s like to survive the Games because he was there with her.

I don’t know how the trilogy will end, but I’m hoping Katniss gets to be with Peeta. What started as distrust and confusion and a sickly sweet performance has morphed into genuine affection, friendship, and more. They sleep soundly next to one another. She notices his hands as they work on a painting or drawing, like a lover would. And that’s all because of the nightmare they went through in their first Hunger Games. Sometimes, life is funny that way.

Grade: B

Broken hearts and virtual glass: a review of Idoru

“If we could ever once stop talking about the music, and the industry, and all the politics of that, I think I’d probably tell you that it’s easier to desire and pursue the attention of tens of millions of total strangers than it is to accept the love and loyalty of the people closest to us.”

IdoruWilliam Gibson, one of the early movers of cyberpunk, wrote a novel in 1996 about cyberspace love. Idoru, which I didn’t even realize was the second book in a trilogy called Bridge when I bought it (and that doesn’t matter), is about virtual avatars and worlds that have become so real that they cross dimensions and enter into existence.

As a gamer, that’s not an unthinkable concept to me. That future is all but here, with virtual reality and technology like Google Glass. Even with our many phones and computers and televisions, we’re constantly plugged in. Our lives are as much online as they are physical.

In Idoru, those realities intersect. The lead member of the popular band Lo/Rez plans to marry a synthetic personality called Rei Toei, the titular idoru — only their love and such a union is impossible. She’s not real, merely a conscious hologram projected by a machine, and everyone around Rez is wondering what’s going on in his head.

Enter Laney, who’s good at figuring out that sort of thing. So good that when he worked at SlitScan, a company obsessed with the ratings roller coaster of making and breaking celebrities, exposing and destroying their lives for entertainment, he predicted that a wannabe-famous young woman would kill herself. Nobody believed him, but he’s good at reading the signs — discerning the “nodal points,” like seeing faces in the clouds. Too good.

Those are skills that could be put to better use — use with Lo/Rez, or at least the people who protect them. Laney’s hired to get inside Rez’s head, so to speak. That’s the idea, anyway. The data isn’t there in the way it should be, and the mysterious idoru plays her own part in it, as does an innocent girl named Chia who travels to Japan to learn if there’s truth to the rumor about Rez’s proposal on behalf of the Lo/Rez fan club she’s part of. Only, she becomes involved in a dangerous sort of business, all accidental, that changes her perception of life, with its many planes, and of her own idol, Rez.

It’s a bizarre plot for sure, but Gibson’s writing has captivated and stuck with me since Neuromancer, and it’s just as absorbing here. Gibson shifts verb tenses and sentence constructions as easily as the characters do realities. His writing is plain, stark on the page, yet totally imaginative in the way that brings you to this whole other state of being, this completely new future. Tokyo. The Walled City. A love hotel. Beautiful and ugly have a way of mixing up together.

Idoru seems to search for a sense of its own meaning toward the later chapters, all switching between Chia’s and Laney’s perspectives even when they inevitably intertwine, but the message to me is one we’re more familiar with each day: the union of technology and nature that’s so pure, so invisible as to be untraceable — to be as one. “Porting” — logging on — is a commonplace phenomenon, no different than walking down the street. The idoru and Rez’s love is real even though she exists only as embodied information. And some people, like the shut-in otaku Masahiko, live more in data spaces like the Walled City than in the real world.

This is a future where anyone’s identity can be fabricated, can be replicated or falsified, as avatars or doppelgangers on video — your face on someone else’s body, incriminating. Or how you want to be seen. The new real you.

Gibson is clever to pair this exploration of a new nature with the widespread, cult-like indulgence in the celebrity. Like the real to the virtual, the digital version to the truth, the images don’t quite match up. They’re slightly off, almost imperceptibly. Rez and the idoru can’t be accepted. Their relationship is too controversial. But they will be. We’re getting there — one reality infiltrating another.

Grade: B

Awesome book cover Friday: Irregular Creatures

Happy Friday! Today’s book cover pick is Irregular Creatures by author Chuck Wendig.

irregular-creatures
I love cats, so … yeah.

The book is 99 cents on Amazon and actually sounds pretty cool:

Contained within are nine stories featuring bizarre beasties, mythological mutants, and overall “irregular creatures” – including flying cats, mermaids, Bigfoot, giant chickens, and mystic hobo hermaphrodites.

It also includes stories about a radioactive monkey (cocktail … which I’m guessing doesn’t end so well for the imbiber) and a zombie that won’t die.

If anyone reads this, let me know how it is! I’m actually quite tempted to buy it, but I have a couple other books that are taking priority at the moment. This is only 45,000 words, though, so I may get it anyway.

Enjoy the weekend!

Awesome book cover Friday: City of Dragons

This week’s book cover is oh-so-cool because dragons. Dragons are cool. And this one’s totally owning this book.

City of Dragons

City of Dragons by Robin Hobb is the third entry in The Rain Wild Chronicles.

Here’s a description:

New York Times bestselling author Robin Hobb returns to world of the Rain Wilds — called “one of the most gripping settings in modern fantasy” (Booklist) — in City of Dragons. Continuing the enthralling journey she began in her acclaimed Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven, Hobb rejoins a small group of weak, half-formed and unwanted dragons and their displaced human companions as they search for a legendary sanctuary. Now, as the misfit band approaches its final destination, dragons and keepers alike face a challenge so insurmountable that it threatens to render their long, difficult odyssey utterly meaningless. Touching, powerful, and dazzlingly inventive, Hobb’s City of Dragons is not to be missed — further proof that this author belongs alongside Raymond E. Feist, Terry Brooks, and Lois McMaster Bujold in the pantheon of fantasy fiction’s true greats.

And she’s a female fantasy author. Hoorah!

Hunting for Elfstones: a review of Wards of Faerie

Wards of FaerieTerry Brooks has written over 30 novels, but they’re all new to me. Before now, I hadn’t read any of his stories, but the subjects he traditionally delves into are familiar: fantasy adventure, magic, and elves.

To acquaint myself with his work, I decided to start with Wards of Faerie, which came out last fall and is already succeeded by a sequel, Bloodfire Quest. Together they comprise the first two books in The Dark Legacy of Shannara, one of many series in the larger Shannara line.

I read a digital copy, so I rarely got a chance to look at the cover, but the design for Wards of Faerie is more symbolic of how Brooks concludes part one of the series than how it unfolds. The splitting of the coin represents the broken parties at the end of the novel — characters take separate paths with different priorities, and some even scatter to unreachable locations — which promises lots of excitement for Bloodfire Quest but little for Wards of Faerie itself.

Continue reading Hunting for Elfstones: a review of Wards of Faerie

Awesome book cover Friday: Bone Quill

This week’s book cover is so cool, I had to share the full jacket. It’s Bone Quill, the sequel to Hollow Earth by John and Carole E. Barrowman.

Bone Quill

Here’s a description:

In this thrilling sequel to Hollow Earth, Matt and Emily must stop someone from unleashing an army of mankind’s worst nightmares. In the Middle Ages, an old monk used his powers and a bone quill to ink a magical manuscript, The Book of Beasts. Over the centuries the Book, and the quill, were lost.

Twins Matt and Emily Calder are Animare — just like their ancestor, the monk. The things they draw can be brought to life, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now Matt and Em are being watched — hunted — because only they can use The Book of Beasts and the bone quill to release the terrible demons and monsters their ancestor illustrated.

And someone is tracking down the lost Book of Beasts, page by page, and reassembling it. Matt and Emily have no choice: They must get to the bone quill first … before somebody gets to them.

What do you think? The cover is so striking, and I especially love the look of the eye and antlers.

So I’ve had a bit of a rocky week, and I’m hoping to update you all on that soon. The short version: My freelancing schedule is in flux right now, and I’m not certain how March is going to pan out for me. Currently, I’m looking for additional paid copy editing and writing opportunities. (I appreciate anyone keeping an eye out for job ads!)

Have a great weekend, everyone.