December 16, 2011

Five Tips for Intensifying Your Fiction

I'm pleased to have my sister Karri as a guest contributor for this post, since she's the one who inspired it. Please make her feel welcome, and enjoy!

Here are some tips and ideas guaranteed to create and promote doom, chaos, devastation, darkness, tumult, evil, despair, and mayhem - essential ingredients for every truly great work of fiction.

1. Give your main character not just one, but two step parents. If one can cause trouble, just think what two could do! (You can work it out any way you want. As the king of Siam would say: "You put in the details.")

2. Make each step parent arrange a marriage for your main character... with different people.

3. Make both parties to which your main character is betrothed hire someone to kidnap him or her. Then they can play keep-away.

4. Have your main character accidentally fall in love with both of the parties to which he or she has been unwillingly betrothed.

5. Give your main character serious personal insecurities, grotesque physical deformities, and a tendency to get amnesia easily.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to create more drama and trouble in their fiction? (Be as creative and silly as you want - this post is just for fun, after all. ;)

December 6, 2011

First Snow - Thoughts on the Natural Side of Fictional Story Worlds

This morning I woke up, pushed my sleeping dog off of my sleeping foot, and looked out the window to see - snow!
After two weeks of the local weatherman predicting the first snow, it's finally arrived! My transition into the Christmas spirit suddenly feels completed (and I have the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's song 'First Snow' going around in my head). I'm not the only one who's excited about it, either. No sooner had I dressed and made my morning cup of tea than my friend Ashley called me, asking if I had looked outside yet and wasn't it exciting? (And yes, I know you northerners out there are probably already sick of snow for this year... but please bear with me.)
Aside from getting me all revved up for Christmas and caroling and baking and all of that, this first snow also got me thinking about the more natural side of world-building in our stories. As I edit Son of the Shield, I've been adding in little bits and pieces to flesh out the natural story world I rather neglected in the first couple of drafts. I've added in varieties of flowers and other plants, constellations, and weather patterns unique to that story world.
But the shared excitement over this first snow got me thinking about the other natural events that we humans tend to get excited about - the first sign of green grass and flowers in the spring, the first weekend warm enough to go swimming, geese flying south and the first sign of autumn color in the leaves - and made me realize that my story world contains virtually none of that.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that a lot of the time in fiction, unless something in the natural world plays a significant role in the plot, it gets ignored. I don't want that to happen in Son of the Shield, so this morning I've been starting to think of ways I can bring the natural side of the world of Reyem to life. I realized that through the entire story (which spans a year and a half of their time) there is not a single mention of it raining. So there's one problem in need of fixing. It's not a desert, so it has to rain sometime.
But in addition to that, I'd like to come up with some natural events that the people of Reyem look forward to, like our first snow... or even something they dread, like we dread the thermometer hitting 100 or 0.
So that's something new that I'm going to be working on developing in my story world. So much to think about, so much to develop. It's a wonder any novel ever gets finished.

What is your approach to the natural realm of your story world? What are some natural events that your characters might look forward to, or dread?

December 1, 2011

Emerging on the other side...

... and finding that the world is still here!
After thirty long, grueling days and nights of NaNo (Has anyone else noticed that NaNo is only a few days shorter than the time God used to destroy the world in Noah's day?) we've at last emerged on the other side to find that, remarkably, life still goes on.
And better yet, there is no diabolical daily quota hanging over us any more! That uncanny internal clock that chants "You're getting behind, you're getting behind" has been silenced. No more annoying 'Stats' page telling us just how dismally far behind we are and how many millions of words we'll have to write per day to catch up.
Life's good, isn't it?
So, now that NaNo is safely behind us for another year (and by the way, my hearty congratulations to everyone who participated, whether you made the goal or not - merely taking part was no small thing), it's time to get back to life as we knew it.
And on that note, I'm pleased to announce that a new chapter of Falls the Shadow has been posted at The Lost Scribes! If you haven't already stopped by and read Chapter 14, you can Click Here to do so.
In this chapter, Skylar is beginning to struggle with the idea of keeping the library a secret from the professor who has done so much for him, and Coll, his best friend. The library is what they've been after for so long - now he's found it, and he can't even tell them.
He does make a surprising new discovery about the library, though... in the professor's study, of all places! Read Chapter 14 to find out what it is.

November 30, 2011

Journaling - Day 30 of NaNo

I'm finished!

Total Word Count: 55, 103

I made the word count goal, and my story is completed. It turned out nothing like it was supposed to, not at all like I thought it would, and I'm relatively certain it's pretty sappy. Like I said in the last post, I'm an action writer, not a sit-around-and-think-and-make-tough-decisions-and-fall-in-love writer. Unfortunately that's just how this year's NaNo seemed determined to come out.
Eh, oh well. I've got that story idea off of my plate and out of the way, and I've completed my second successful year of NaNoWriMo. So all's not lost, even if the story didn't turn out quite the way I wanted it to.

On the whole, I think this year's NaNo has been a great way to get myself back into a serious hard-and-fast writing groove after a long, crazy-busy summer and fall. I'm ready to get back to Son of the Shield and hit it hard. That editing just isn't going to finish itself (believe me, I know - I've been waiting for it to for some time now). I'm ready to get back to the 'normal' writing life bright an early come December first!
Well... maybe I'll let myself sleep in a little. You know, just to recover from NaNo. But you get the picture.

Writers, have you finished yet? What's something interesting or unexpected you've learned about your story this month, or maybe even something you've learned about yourself as a writer?
Non-writers, are you ready for your writer friends and family to finally be getting back to normal?

November 28, 2011

Journaling - Day 28 of NaNo

Total Word Count: 42, 717

Yes, by now I'm sure you're used to the fact that I'm behind. Between Thanksgiving and the nasty cold I've had that just refuses to go away, it's been tough catching up. I'm gonna have to really crank it tomorrow and the next day to finish on time. Frankly, I'll be glad to get it over with and get back to work on Son of the Shield, Falls the Shadow, and my bevvy of other projects.
One thing I've learned from this NaNo: I am totally an action writer, and I really don't do well when there's not a lot of action going on. Last year during NaNo I got to write naval battles and shipwrecks and invasions and last stands and espionage and kidnapping and escapes and plots and... yeah, you probably get the picture. This year, all my characters will do is sit or stand around and talk and think. And no matter what I do, they just won't do anything else. It's to the point now where I'm beginning to get very disgusted with all of them.
But, I only have to put up with them for two more days, and then I can get back to work on other things.
How's it going for everyone else? Have you reached the finish line already? Are you going to make it before the end of the month?

November 19, 2011

Journaling - Day 19 of NaNo

Total Word Count: 26,333

Still behind, I know. But making headway! (Or at least, not falling any farther behind.)

I came across this quote today:

"A novel is a work of creative imagination and to write it an author's mind must be completely at peace."

~Fyodor Dostoevsky

The man had obviously never done NaNoWriMo

November 16, 2011

Journaling - Day 16 of NaNo

Total word count: 21,370

Time to bring out the big guns, and employ shameless NaNo tactics. Today's weapon of choice: describe everything.

November 15, 2011

Journaling - Day 15 of NaNo

Total word count - 20,613

Yes, I'm behind. Quite a bit behind, actually. I'm hoping to catch up over today and tomorrow. The weird thing is, I'm not even sure what happened that caused me to get so far behind. Oh well, such is NaNo, I guess.
At the moment I'm trying to find some exciting action points I can throw into my plot line to sort of liven things up. At the moment it seems like it's all just thinking and talking and thinking and talking.
One interesting note is that I watched The Scarlet Pimpernel over the weekend, and now I'm starting to find that my main character, Grayson, is behaving sort of like Percy Blakeney. He's all tough and rugged and gallant on the inside, but on the outside he comes across as being more like absurdly charming. He's currently in the process of befriending the cooking woman who brings meals to his cell every day, going way overboard with his politeness and charm.
All the while, of course, looking for a way to escape. I have absolutely no idea how that particular plot thread is going to unwind, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
Oh, and by the by, in the excitement of NaNo Day 1 I forgot all about notifying you all about the release of Falls the Shadow chapter 12 on November 1. My apologies. However, with today being the 15th, Chapter 13 has just been released. You can Click Here to read it.

We're at the halfway point today, writers. The first half of NaNo is behind us. Here's to a wild and crazy and successful second half!

November 8, 2011

Journaling - Day 8 of NaNo

Word Count so far: 13,376

I'm finally caught up after the weekend! Hurrah!

Ashamed as I am to admit it, at one point I was forced to resort to pulling one of the infamous NaNo stunts along the way:

Grayson forced a smile and said something mildly profound as a moving conclusion to the chapter, but at present the author is unable to think of what it is so it will be added later.

Shameless, I know. But hey, sometimes a writer's just gotta do what a writer's gotta do.

Writers, have you been forced to pull any 'NaNo stunts' so far?

November 7, 2011

Journaling - Day 7 of NaNo

Total word count: 10,985

I'm a little behind on word count after the weekend, but I wrote over 2,500 words today alone so I'm sure I can catch up again... just in time for next weekend, probably. *rolls eyes* Oh well.
I've taken the excellent suggestion of several different people and shortened Tiberius' name to Ty for now. I may go back and change it once I don't have to worry about the NaNo deadline anymore, or Ty may turn out to really be Tiberius' nickname. Who knows?
I was kind of surprised to begin discovering today that my character Edea is pretty self-centered. It's not really how I imagined her, but the more I think about it the more I guess it makes sense. After all, she's royalty, and her entire life she's lived in the palace with servants to do everything for her, and until she became queen (just a little bit prior to the beginning of the story) all she ever had to worry about was entertaining herself. So even now that she is the queen her world still basically revolves around her.
I'm looking forward to seeing how this affects things when she sees my character Grayson offer to trade himself in as a prisoner of war in exchange for the freedom of his younger brother. I should get to that scene tomorrow, so I'll let you know!

How did your first NaNo weekend go?

November 4, 2011

Journaling - Day 4 of NaNo

Word Count so far: 6591

No, I'm not quite to my daily quota yet, but in my defense I've been at orchestra all day so I'm just thrilled that I've done as much as I have. I can probably get the rest finished this evening after I get home.
I'm beginning to question the wisdom of naming a NaNo character 'Tiberius'. It just takes way too much time and effort to type, especially when you're in a hurry. At least he's a cool character--calm and committed.
Plot-wise, things are progressing... well, they're progressing. I guess that's a good sign, especially since I really don't know just how the whole thing is going to play out. Right now the good guys are staking out the castle and formulating a desperate plan to rescue another the main character's little brother. For future reference (to anyone who may be interested) you probably need more than two people to effectively stake out a castle.

Oh, and by the way, I have a new story up on Avenir Eclectia. If you've been following my stories on there, you'll probably want to be sure and catch this one. I won't give it away, but it's a significant plot point. : ) Click Here if you want to read it.

November 3, 2011

Journaling, Day 3 of NaNo

Word Count so far: 5020

It's only Day 3 and already I feel like I'm barely staying afloat. I'm on schedule, but it's been a battle. I think I chose a storyline that involved way too much character turmoil and inter-character relationship stuff and all that. The story I did last year had a lot more action in it. Of course, this one may turn out to have a lot of action--the whole midsection of the plot is still a great big vacant blob in my head right now, so it may turn out to be action-packed, I just don't know.
As for my characters, they're still turning out to be different than I thought they would be--for the most part. Brant is exactly like I had imagined him, but Grayson (who was supposed to be a calm, laid-back, do-what-has-to-be-done sort of guy) seems a little panicky, and Queen Edea (who I had imagined as an insecure, people-pleaser type) so far seems like she has a lot of guts... maybe even a bit of attitude. That ought to make things really interesting when her advisers start usurping her authority later on in the novel. It might just turn out to be a lot of fun to write.
I guess we'll see! : )

Have you learned anything surprising or unexpected about your story or characters yet?

November 1, 2011

Journaling - Day 1 of NaNo

Word Count so far: 1694

The first day went pretty well, all things considered. My horse sprained his ankle over the weekend, so I had to take a trip to the vet's office this morning to pick up some meds for him (meds which he now adamantly refuses to take), but that didn't take up a terrible amount of time, so I was able to make my word count for the day plus a few extra words. Always a good thing. : )
I'm a little unsure what to make of my main character from what I've seen of him so far. I had really anticipated him being this calm, laid-back sort of guy, but so far he seems pretty worry-prone and panicky. Of course, he did just find out that his little brother has been kidnapped by enemy soldiers... so I guess that could be part of it. Maybe I'm just jumping to conclusions prematurely. It's been known to happen.

How did your first day of NaNo go?

October 31, 2011

The Clock is Ticking!

Friends, we have only a few hours left until the beginning of the biggest writing event of the year:
In my timezone it's about 13 hours 'til midnight. I'm still waffling on whether to stay up late and start writing at midnight, or whether I should just go to bed really early and get up super early in the morning to get started. I'm not a night owl by any stretch of the imagination, so I'll probably go with getting up early like I did last year.
I've got my NaNo profile all updated, and a new computer file waiting, ready to go for this year's NaNo project: The Queen's Flower.
I've got a good stock of writing supplies laid in (supplies in this case consisting mostly of chocolate-covered pomegranates) and a November schedule that has been hacked down to bare minimum so as to allow the most writing time possible.
I'm planning to journal NaNo here at the Lair like I did last year, so you all will be able to keep up with how it's going, or you can add me as a writing buddy - I'm MaryRuth (one word) on the site.

The hour is upon us, writers. Are you ready?

October 26, 2011

Modesty in Christian Fiction

One of my biggest pet peeves is the lack of modesty in Western culture. The American culture has thrown modesty to the wind completely, and even a heartbreaking number of professing Christians have either ignored the issue or interpreted it so loosely that their definition and execution of it don't come close to the actual, Biblical meaning. This saddens and, honestly, infuriates me. I take every opportunity I can to talk to people about it, and I'm also going to take this opportunity to talk about the issue of modesty as it applies to Christian fiction.
When it comes to modesty, books have the advantage over movies in that a much greater amount of description and detail is left up to the reader's imagination. If a writer doesn't really describe a character's outfit in any way that applies to modesty, the reader's interpretation is going to be left up to their mindset. If they are inclined to envision a character as being dressed modestly, that's how they will see it, and vice versa.
I have never read a book in which the author took a great deal of time or effort to describe just exactly how high a character's collar was, or how far down their leg their skirt came, and I don't think it's really necessary to do so. The instances in fiction where modesty becomes a legitimate issue, and the instances I want to focus on in this post, are more in regard to modest behavior on the part of characters.

First off: Regarding male characters taking off their shirts.
Here's the deal (and this goes for guys and girls alike): If your shirt is on fire, or has just been splashed with corrosive chemicals, or infested with fire ants, then by all means take it off as quickly as possible and you will not hear one peep of protest from me. Under those circumstances, I'll even help you get it off.
However, the circumstances had better be pretty convincing, and if it happens more than once in a story, I'm going to start getting very suspicious very quickly. I have lived on a farm for twenty-three years, working with animals large and small, domestic and wild, heavy equipment, pesticides, and herbicides, I've been involved in multiple car accidents, and never once in all that time have I been faced with the sudden desperate need to take my shirt off. So it's not like these things just happen at the drop of a hat.
Now, I'm not saying the legitimate need never arises. When my cousin fell and landed in a giant hill of fire ants, that was a legitimate need. When my dad accidentally doused my brother with diesel, that was a legitimate need. It does happen, and those circumstances don't bother me.
What bothers me is when authors almost seem to be seeking out reasons for their male characters (and 99% of the time it just happens to be the main guy character whom the main girl character is falling in love with) to take their shirts off. I guess a lot of Christian authors really want to show that for some reason (probably in a crippled effort to make their fiction appealing and mainstream, but I really don't know), but because it's Christian fiction, they feel like they have to have some 'acceptable' excuse for doing it. In my opinion, those authors are missing the point of how and why Christian fiction is supposed to be fundamentally different from secular. And don't think the readers won't see through it, because they will.
This applies to a lot of 'exceptional' circumstances I've seen in fiction - circumstances where it was painfully obvious that the author was just aching for some excuse to push the line under the guise of 'an exceptional circumstance that couldn't be helped'. Those circumstances always seem to conveniently end up with the highly buff guy character ending up shirtless or the gorgeous girl character ending up in some weird corset-type thing that conveniently happens to showcase her figure perfectly. And it never seems to happen when a character is alone, it always happens in front of other people. It bugs me, and it doesn't make me inclined to like the author.
Am I saying guys should never have their shirts off for any reason in fiction, or that there aren't genuine, realistic circumstances in which a serious wardrobe malfunction or breakdown might occur? Of course not.
Injuries represent scenarios in which there's simply no way to get around a bit of immodesty. In speculative fiction, especially fantasy, severe injuries are a relatively common occurrence, and I can tell you that it's impossible to treat a life-threatening wound without removing some clothing. It's not a big deal, so don't waste time and effort worrying about it or dwelling on it. Just say what needs to be said and move on. It's that simple.

The second big issue I wanted to discuss is dealing with characters who simply don't dress modestly, period. After all, every character in Christian fiction doesn't necessarily conform to Christian standards of behavior and dress, and those characters love to cause problems for their authors as well as their fellow characters. So how do we as writers deal with those characters and their skanky behavior while still holding to a high standard for clean content?
In my current WIP, I have a character who absolutely does not conform to any kind of Christian standard whatsoever, be it in dress or behavior. There's even a scene in the book where she has changed out of her military uniform into civilian dress and is primping in front of the mirror while contemplating how to enlist the help of one of the male characters for the plot she wants to set in motion. Suffice it to say that the dress she's wearing is part of how she plans to coerce him.
So here's a problematic situation. How do I deliver this significant but nonetheless distasteful plot point in a way that's clean and Christ-honoring? Here's how I did it:

"[She] turned sideways to the mirror, smoothing the front of her dress and examining her reflection. The green-gray silk was fitted and flattering, its floor-length skirt giving her the appearance of being taller than she actually was, and the color nicely complimenting her dark red hair and fair skin. The created effect was perfect: far from attention-grabbing, but far enough removed from the rigid convention of her uniform to provide a distraction for anyone even slightly willing to be distracted."

And then I move on with the story. Everything the reader needs to know is right there: the basic concept of the dress's appearance and style, and the character's attitude and purpose in wearing it. I didn't go into vivid, freaky detail, but the readers still (hopefully) get the idea pretty clearly. The power of suggestion plays a significant role in it too, by showing and suggesting just enough to the reader to let them put the pieces together on their own without you having to paint the whole picture.

Really, handling the modesty issue in Christian fiction isn't complicated. It takes some thought and situational awareness, but it's not horrendously difficult. Just remember: don't over-think or over-complicate something that's relatively simple, don't feel like you have to go all or none (either avoiding the subject completely or diving into all the gruesome detail), and don't feel like you have to include something you're uncomfortable with just to make your novel 'appealing' or mainstream.

October 13, 2011

L. M. Montgomery in Quotes

Lucy Maud Montgomery ~ November 30, 1874 - April 24, 1942
Author of 20 novels, including the world-renowned Anne of Green Gables series (and my personal favorite, Emily of New Moon).

On Life and Human Nature:

"I doubt if I shall ever have time to read the book again--there are too many new ones coming out all the time which I want to read. Yet an old book has something for me which no new book can ever have--for at every reading the memories and atmosphere of other readings come back and I am reading old years as well as an old book."

"Truth exists, only lies have to be invented."

"A girl who would fall in love so easily or want a man to love her so easily would probably get over it just as quickly, very little the worse for wear. On the contrary, a girl who would take love seriously would probably be a good while finding herself in love and would require something beyond mere friendly attentions from a man before she would think of him in that light."

"Youth is not a vanished thing but something that dwells forever in the heart."

"It's been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will."

"A broken heart in real life isn't half as dreadful as it is in books. It's a good deal like a bad tooth, though you won't think that a very romantic simile. It takes spells of aching and gives you a sleepless night now and then, but between times it lets you enjoy life and dreams and echoes and peanut candy as if there were nothing the matter with it."

"It's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it?"

"At seventeen dreams do satisfy you because you think the realities are waiting for you farther on." (from Anne of Avonlea)

"One can't get over the habit of being a little girl all at once." (from Anne of Avonlea)

On Writers and Writing:

"If it's in you to climb, you must--there are those who must lift their eyes to the hills--they can't breathe properly in the valleys." ~Mr. Carpenter (speaking of the unexplainable drive to write, in Emily of New Moon)

"My pen shall heal, not hurt." ~Emily Starr (from Emily of New Moon)

"The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland."

"You have the itch for writing born in you. It's quite incurable. What are you going to do with it?"

"All pioneers are considered to be afflicted with moonstruck madness."

October 10, 2011

Face to Face

As writers, we see and know our characters as clearly as if they're real people. We know what makes them laugh, what makes them angry, we know what their voices sound like, and we know what they look like.
As readers, if a writer has done a good job developing the characters in a story, we know much of the same information about their characters.
But have you ever noticed that characters don't always stay inside the story where we first met them?
On multiple occasions, I've seen a movie or read a book and thought that a particular character was just like a character from another story or movie. Sometimes, I've read about a fictional character who was just like someone I know in real life.
A few times, I've written a character... and then met them in real life.
The first time it happened, it really scared me. I mean it really, really gave me a serious case of goosebumps. I was at an open house party and met a young woman who was an absolute dead-ringer for one of my characters, and I thought 'Oh my goodness, this cannot be happening! This is terrible!'
You're probably thinking that that's kind of a strange reaction to have. In my defense, the character the woman looked like happened to be an extremely evil and terrifying sorceress. So I think I deserve a break on that one. (And, as it turned out, the lady at the open house party was neither extremely evil nor a sorceress, so it was all okay in the end.)
A few years after that, I met a man who reminded me very strongly of someone, but I couldn't think of who. I was just sure I knew him from somewhere, though. Then it dawned on me that he looked just like a character from a story idea I have on the back burner, waiting for me to get to it and write it. I dug out the notebook where I have the story idea written down and re-read the physical description of that particular character. It fit this guy to a tee. And the more I got to know him, the more and more he reminded me of my character's personality.
I catch glimpses of my other characters from time to time--singing in a choir during a televised concert, ringing little bells outside Wal-Mart at Christmas time, jogging down the sidewalk, or selling books at a home schooling convention.
There's something magical about that moment. We writers carry so many different people inside of us, and even though we know they're fictional they seem real, they feel real, they are real--to us, if not to anyone else. When we suddenly stumble upon one of them face to face, in the real world, I don't think there's any way to avoid feeling a connection to them. Our minds start screaming 'Hey, that's _____! She's right there, for real! Go talk to her!' And then we have to remind ourselves that it's not really our character--which isn't always an easy thing to do.
I know I've had to fight off the urge to whip out my notebook and start bombarding a total stranger with questions about their deepest desires and secret motivations or why they refuse to get their act together and do what needs to be done. I admit it, I've shamelessly come up with excuses to strike up conversation with someone who looks like one of my characters. I might have even dropped a casual question or two... just in case.

What about you? Have you ever met or seen any of your fictional characters face to face? How did you react to it?

October 7, 2011

Rules of Good Fiction... and When to Let Them Slide

As writers, it's important to learn and understand the rules and principles behind what makes good fiction. It's important to apply those rules and principles to our own writing. It's important to be able to recognize those principles when other writers use them (or fail to use them) in their writing.

But it's also important not to let our knowledge of those rules ruin our ability to enjoy a good story.

As we start to really gain some knowledge of how the writing world works and how fiction works, it's easy to start getting a Barney Fife attitude about it. We get all swelled up with confidence and self-importance and next thing you know we're standing at the ready to pronounce judgment and doom on any pleb so foolish as to break one of the sacred laws that form the code of good writing.
We writers have a tendency to get tunnel vision and focus way too much on the rules, however. We often conclude that a book is terrible because the author broke this rule and that rule and how did such doggerel ever get published? If you're still in the frustrating process of trying to get published, such cases are doubly infuriating because you, of course, know much better than to ever commit such literary sins so you should be getting published instead of these buffoons! (That J.R.R. Tolkien--who does he think he is?)

I hear ya, and I feel your pain. Truly I do. But calm down for a second and ask yourself: Did you enjoy the story?

Sit down and pick up your favorite novel--the one you read over and over and never get tired of. Start reading it with nothing in mind but finding writing mistakes and literary sins. It may be a few chapters before you find one, or you may find one a paragraph in. Gasp!

Now pick up one of those enduring classics--you know, that book that's been on the NYT Bestseller list for the last 300 years. Do the same thing: start reading it with finding literary sins as your sole purpose. How long does it take you?

So let me ask you this: have a few broken rules destroyed your ability to enjoy that favorite novel over and over? Have they dampened the success of that enduring classic?
At the end of the day, novel writing is an art, not a science, and what makes a great story is just that: a great story, not a perfect adherence to the rules of good fiction.
Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, and Sherlock Holmes don't endure and remain popular because their authors followed all of the writing rules flawlessly. (Come to think about it, have you ever heard any work of fiction praised in the media for that reason?) They remain popular because they tell an epic, inspiring story, or because they speak a bold message to the culture, or because they challenge readers to think in new ways.

Once you know and understand the rules of writing, it is hard not to notice them in other people's writing. And I'll admit that once in a while a book does make it to publication that I simply can't stand to finish because the quality is so poor. It happens. But those cases are rare--almost as rare as the book that contains no mistakes of any kind whatsoever.

So chill out, Barney. Alright, so they broke Ordinance 4861 Section a.) Paragraph 3 of the Good Writing Technique Manual. But they told a great story, didn't they?

And isn't that what you read the book for in the first place?

October 4, 2011

The Book Apocalypse?

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine about Falls the Shadow (if you have no idea what that is, Click Here) and told her that my co-authors and I had based the story on the premise of technology gradually phasing out first hard copy books, then written text all together. Very few people in our story world can actually read, because technology advanced so far that information could be downloaded directly into the human brain without them having to read and learn it themselves.
My friend then asked me a very interesting question: "Do you think that could happen for real? Could technology eventually replace hard copy books and make them completely obsolete?"
I was a little taken aback. To be honest, in spite of the hours I've spent working with my coauthors on Falls the Shadow, I'd never seriously considered the possibility of such a thing happening in the real world. I think it's a legitimate question, though, especially since the advent of the e-book. So here is my attempt at an answer.

Barring 1.) the Second Coming of Christ and 2.) another world war or natural cataclysm destroying the bulk of modern electronic technology, yes--I do think that technology will gradually make hard copy books completely obsolete.
New and better e-readers are being put on the market every time we turn around. The self-publishing world is exploding now that anyone can publish their own book electronically at virtually no cost. A book that would cost $14 or $15 in print can now be purchased electronically for only $2 or $3. If things continue at this rate, I think it's only a matter of time before hard copy books are a thing of the past.
But there are some things that have to happen before that can fully come to pass.

1.) The pre-ebook generation has to die out. A vast percentage of this generation has already joined the ranks of avid e-book users, but there will always be some (like myself) who simply can't come to terms with the idea of curling up in a chair next to the fire or stretching out in a hammock under a tree with a piece of electronic equipment. As more people switch to e-readers and more children are born into the e-book generation, though, the staunch hard-backers will become fewer and fewer.
2.) Bookstores will either close down completely or switch over to become strictly online stores as e-book sales drive them out of business.
3.) Schools, colleges, and universities will switch from hard copy textbooks to e-textbooks sooner or later. If the economy stays bad and schools keep suffering as a result, I'm betting it will be sooner.
4.) Public libraries will shut down due to a combination of lack of interest and lack of government funding.

Hard copy books will be around for many, many years to come, even if only in private collections, yard sales, flea markets, and antique book shops a few decades down the road. I don't think they're all going to vanish by 2020... or even 2030. So don't feel like you need to rush out and start feverishly buying up books before they disappear (although if you're like me, feverishly buying books is just a way of life : ).
Please don't get the idea that I am anti-ebook or anything like that. I think the e-book and e-reader are both great pieces of technology that have made reading 'cool' once again in society and might actually have some good influence on literacy statistics in our culture. I have nothing against e-books as a concept... they're just not for me.

In spite of everything, I daresay that even if hard copy books do become totally obsolete in the future, there will always be a few people who just have the bug--the bug that will only let them be satisfied with good old leather and paper and ink.
There will always be a mysterious few with a streak of something--of rebellion perhaps, or love of antiquity, or maybe just a strange kind of wisdom--running through their character, inexplicably urging them to collect and preserve something everyone else left by the wayside long ago.
And then what a story waits to be written about them!

October 1, 2011

Chapter 10 of Falls the Shadow!

In Chapter 9, Maricossa made the decision to return to the library and try to buy or bargain for books. Now Libby is faced with a choice...

...and she responds with a challenge.

Learn the secret behind the title Falls the Shadow as two equally desperate minds engage in a duel of called bluffs and clashing desires that leaves only one question:

Deal or no deal?

Don't miss Chapter 10 of Falls the Shadow!

September 30, 2011

Violence in Christian Fiction

To sort of follow up the "Arming Your Hero" series, I wanted to write a post about violence in Christian fiction. In the speculative genres, particularly fantasy, it is basically assumed that stories will contain violence, be it a sword fight, a fazer battle, storming a castle, or a good old-fashioned fist fight.
But as Christians, what should our approach to violence in fiction be? Readers, how much is too much? At what point should we put the book down? Writers, how should we handle violence when it comes up in our own stories?

The first real question is: When is violence biblically justified?
If you discuss this with enough people, it's only a matter of time until 'Thou shalt not kill' comes up. This is a relatively easy issue to handle with a quick explanation of the King James version's word choice. What they translated as 'kill' actually means 'murder' in the original Hebrew text.
If you haven't done it already, I would encourage you to study Old Testament law (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) and familiarize yourself with what it says about violence and killing.
Going into specific detail on the Bible's commands and accounts that revolve around violence would require a series of posts all its own, so for time's sake I'm going to base this post on the assumption that you all have at least a basic understanding of biblically justified killing and violence and are okay with the idea of violence in the real world as well as in fiction. (If this is not the case, leave a comment or email me with any questions you have.)

This brings us into the real issue I wanted to discuss in this post: What should a Christian writer's or reader's approach be to violence in fiction?
It is extremely important to understand that violence is very, very ugly. Over the last several decades books and movies have glamorized it into something exciting, dramatic, even artistic. You know the routine: the hero slays the dozen enemy warriors surrounding him while managing to sustain only superficial and cool-looking injuries himself, leaps onto his horse, swings the girl into the saddle behind him, rides to the arch-villain's stronghold, engages said villain in a deadly, several-minutes-long battle, slays arch-villain (sustaining another glamorous injury or two), kisses the girl, makes some profoundly witty remark, and the end credits roll. Hurrah.
Only that's not even close to what violence is really like. Real-life violence is unbelievably fast, bloody, terrifying, and horrific. A man doesn't just kill his attacker and carry on unscathed; even a perfectly justified killing has serious psychological effects on a person. A man who has been run through with a sword doesn't just cringe and crumple to the ground. Even a fight that doesn't end with a fatality often results in broken noses, missing teeth, black eyes, and more.
More recent titles in movies and literature have actually begun to show violence more realistically, but I don't see that trend as any better than the last one. Glamorized violence lulls people into a false perception of violence; realistic violence displayed as 'entertainment' inoculates people against the horror of what violence really is.
So as writers, we are faced with the task of finding a very delicate balance somewhere in the midst of all this. Where in the world do we start?
First of all, I want to make it clear that I don't have a problem with a fun, light-hearted work of fiction portraying violence in a somewhat goofy way (e.g. The dashing and witty hero makes an incredibly clever remark and all the oafish bad guys stand there dumbfounded while he renders them unconscious with a rolling pin.). With a book or movie of that nature, people understand that it's not supposed to be serious or realistic; it's fun and entertaining for the sole purpose of being fun and entertaining, and I have no problem at all with that as long as it's done in a clean and tasteful way.
But when you get into the heavier fiction, fiction intended to be taken seriously, violence becomes a much more complicated issue.
We don't want to commit the error of glamorizing violence. At the same time, though, we don't want to carry realism too far. A normal person does not enjoy seeing or reading about extremely realistic or gory violence, and we don't want to ruin their enjoyment of a story with our quest to achieve literary realism. (Besides which, a normal person probably isn't going to enjoy writing about excessively realistic violence, either.)
So where do we draw the line? How much realism is too much?
Honestly, I don't have a concrete answer or a step-by-step formula for dealing with violence in fiction. No two fights or battles are alike, and the scenarios surrounding them aren't alike either. Readers and writers have to use their own judgment in making decisions on what to read and what to write and where lines should be drawn.
In my own writing there are a lot of battles as well as fights on a smaller scale. My standard approach is to tell what happened ("He fell to the floor with a knife in his chest...", "blood poured from a cut on his face...", etc.) and leave it at that. If a character dies a violent death, I say enough to let the reader know what happens, but I do it in a relatively vague way that allows them to understand what's going on without having to read (and thereby 'see') all the gruesome and gory details. They can choose to fill in more detail (or not) with their own imagination. The way I see it, this allows me to tell the story without having to write bloody and unpleasant descriptions, as well as allowing the reader to read the story without having to read more detail than they want to.
One thing I make it a point to keep in mind when writing violent scenes is that violence is not something to be taken lightly. Ever. I'm not talking about a goofy bop on the head or a shove off the dock and into the pond; I'm talking about serious fiction. With fiction we do have some leeway to work with (simply because it is fiction and people don't read fiction expecting everything to be realistic), but as Christian writers it is still something we need to take seriously and consider carefully.
Society's persistently flippant view and portrayal of violence has greatly influenced individuals' perspectives of it--even Christians' perspectives. But maybe, if a generation of Christian writers would commit to portraying violence in a godly way--as something very serious that can't be taken lightly--we could begin to open their eyes and change those perspectives.

I think it's worth a try.

September 28, 2011

New Short Story Published

Hey all, I have a new short story, "Spark of Hope" available to read on Avenir Eclectia. If you've been following my stories there at all, you'll definitely want to catch this one. It could be a real plot changer! While you're there, be sure to read up on all the great stories from the other writers too. The world of AE is growing and expanding all the time, and it's a blast to follow the progress of all the different story lines. Be sure to leave comments--I'm sure I'm not the only writer who loves getting feedback on my work. : )

September 26, 2011

Arming Your Hero - Part 8

Here is the final installment in the 'Arming Your Hero' series... for now, at least. My brother James is hounding me to do a related series on sci-fi weaponry, but in my opinion that is just way too broad of a topic (especially since James doesn't even write). If sci-fi weaponry is something you would be interested in seeing here at the Lair, though, leave a comment and let me know.

Now then, down to business: arming your hero--as in, putting armor on him.

I'm not going to go into piece-by-piece detail on parts of armor and kinds of armor--that could be a post series by itself. Mainly, I just want to cover a few issues, misconceptions, and ideas about armor, wearing it, and using it.
A lot of people have the idea that a knight wearing armor had to be lifted onto his horse with a crane, or some such notion, because the armor was so heavy he couldn't mount a horse by himself. I understand how that idea could come about--after all, armor is heavy, true enough.
But a.) if the knight's armor is so heavy that he can't get onto the horse, chances are even a warhorse isn't going to be able to carry him any significant distance at any significant speed, and b.) if his armor is so awkward that he can't mount a horse, how is he supposed to be any use fighting?
Armor was heavy--very heavy. A normal suit of war armor weighed between 70 an 90 pounds. Jousting armor, which was designed to take hard hits, was heavier--90 to 100 pounds or more. So knights trained long and hard for wearing it and carrying all that extra weight. Even before he could become a knight, a squire went through arduous physical training to learn to function and fight in armor. It's really no different than what our armed forces do today. An American soldier in the Middle East today is carrying roughly 100 pounds of body armor and equipment, and he can still run, jump, fight, and work.
Furthermore, armor was fitted to the individual knight and designed to allow the most flexibility and agility possible. The armor was jointed where the knight was jointed, and fitted to match his particular body shape. So it's not as if he was a hermit crab who just squeezed into some random shell and ran with it. His armor was made for him and fit accordingly.
This also speaks to the incorrect idea that, if a knight was unhorsed, he was as good as dead. Certainly he was much more vulnerable on the ground than on his horse, but if he is trained to fight in full armor, he still stands a chance.

Your hero has options when it comes to how heavily and thoroughly armored he wants to be. If he's riding into battle he may want to suit up and go in full armor, but if he's a scout, or a bodyguard, or whatever, he may only want a piece or two--or none at all. Remember, armor isn't only the solid metal part. Your hero could wear chain mail, or leather, both of which were often used as layers of padding and extra protection under the outer armor. Or he could wear just an essential piece or two of armor, like the curaiss and pauldrons to protect his torso and shoulders, or greaves and vambraces to protect his arms and legs.
By the way, if you don't know the parts of armor and need to find out, I would advise you do a Google search or stop by the library to learn more. As I said before, there is way too much information on the subject to put in a single blog post, but you can get some great ideas as well as info if you do some reading on the development, history, and different styles of armor.
You'll also want to keep in mind that armor is very expensive. Not only is it a lot of work to make, but it has to be made to-order every time. So, depending on his financial situation, your hero may or may not be able to afford a full set.

That about wraps it up for the Arming Your Hero series. I've had a ton of fun writing these posts, and I've even learned a lot myself in researching the weapons we've talked about. I hope all of you have enjoyed it as much as I have. Be sure to stick around the Lair; as always, I have a lot of big plans for upcoming posts!

Any thoughts you have on armor? Anything in particular you'd like to see discussed or spotlighted here at the Lair?

September 23, 2011

Arming Your Hero - Part 7

In this installment of the 'Arming Your Hero' series, we'll be looking at war machines and siege weapons. While they don't often have prominent roles in fantasy stories, these weapons are an important part of medieval-style warfare that writers should have at least a working knowledge of. If your hero is commanding an army that's laying siege to a castle, fortress, or city, they may want to use one or more of these weapons. Or, if your hero is the one being besieged, here's what he can probably expect to encounter.


This is a battering ram--probably the most well-known siege weapon in existence. The ram itself was made from a large tree trunk fitted with a metal head on one end and usually reinforced all along its length with thick metal bands. The head was most often flat on the end, which enabled it to crack stone walls with blunt force. A pointed head (like the one pictured above) was more likely to get stuck if driven into a wall. The tree trunk itself was suspended from the top of the battering ram's frame by ropes or, more often, chains. This enabled soldiers to swing it back and forth, building momentum as they pounded it into walls, gates, or doors. The roof of the battering ram (called the Penthouse) was extremely important. The soldiers inside had to be protected from arrows, spears, rocks, boiling oil, fire, or whatever else the besieged forces had to throw at them. Many times the penthouse was protected by shields overlapping like scales, as pictured above. Often, however, it was only covered by planks of wood, or even just cow hides.

This is a type of catapult known as a mangonel. The design goes as far back as ancient Rome, but the catapult was still being used well into the Middle Ages. Using a tension pulley system, the catapult could launch projectiles over castle or fortress walls, or just fling them into oncoming enemy ranks--up to 1,300 feet away. Projectiles were usually rocks or flaming materials, although in some cases where a siege was particularly long and drawn out, a besieging army would throw dead animal carcasses or even human bodies over the walls to spread disease among the enemy (and produce some extremely negative psychological effects as well). One problem with the catapult design was that it had the potential to 'beat itself to death', so to speak. When the tension holding the arm down was released, the arm flew up at a high rate of speed and slammed into the cross bar at the top of the machine. The impact of the collision launched the projectiles incredible distances, but after a while it could be hard on the structure.

This is a trebuchet. It may well be the most ancient siege weapon design in existence, believed by some to have been invented in China as early as 300 B.C. The earliest trebuchets were called traction trebuchets, and used manpower to pull the arm down and launch the projectile. Traction trebuchets were later replaced by more advanced counterpoise trebuchets, which used a counterweight on the short end of the arm to propel the ammunition. The weapon pictured here is a counterpoise trebuchet. Trebuchets had their downside--it took a great deal of time, precision, and mathematical know-how to build one--but their amazingly accurate aim and power made them worth it. A good trebuchet could throw a 200 pound stone up to 300 yards, and a skilled trebuchet team could launch as many as 2,000 stones at the enemy in a single day. Needless to say, if you want to reduce a city, fortress, castle, or anything else to nothing but rubble, a trebuchet is probably the place to start.

This is a siege tower. It looks like heavy-duty scaffolding, and that's essentially what it is. When the terrain permitted, an army would sometimes wheel a siege tower up to the walls of the castle or fort they were besieging and send their soldiers up to the top, where they could then run out on top of the castle walls and get inside. Many siege towers had a drawbridge-type door that opened onto the top of the wall, providing a ramp the soldiers could walk across. Siege towers could be made in an open design, like the one pictured here, or they could be enclosed and armored. The trouble with siege towers was that they were slow, difficult to maneuver, easy to burn down, and if one was rolled up to your castle's wall you knew exactly where the soldiers would be making their entrance. I suppose if you had enough of them, though, you could simply overwhelm the enemy with numbers.

Another weapon that was invaluable during a siege was a ballista. The ballista was basically a giant crossbow that launched enormous arrows or darts hundreds of yards. The arrows were wooden, but covered in a layer of iron; one arrow launched from a ballista could rip through several soldiers at a time.

It's important to note that siege weapons were most always manufactured on an as-needed basis. Kings and generals didn't keep a supply of the on hand in case they suddenly needed to besiege someone. Siege weapons were heavy and slow, making transport over long distances and/or rough terrain virtually impossible. So war machines were usually constructed for a specific situation.

Do you use siege weapons in your writing? Which war machines do you think would be most effective?

September 20, 2011

Interview with Sarah Sawyer

I'm delighted to be able to welcome author Sarah Sawyer, a writer of Christian fantasy, to the Lair for an author-to-author talk. This will be a long post, but I had a great time chatting with Sarah and I'm excited to be sharing our conversation here at the Lair.

So, Sarah, how long have you been writing? What got you started?

As a child, I loved reading, and I loved inventing stories and story worlds. I can’t remember a time when fictional characters and situations weren’t floating through my mind. A few of these early tales made their way onto paper in some form, but they mostly existed in my imagination. In time, it became natural to consider actually recording them, and I sat down to write my first novel at sixteen. Now, I can’t imagine not writing.

Did you start off in the fantasy genre, or come to it later?
From the time I was a young child and my dad read me the Chronicles of Narnia, fantasy was the genre closest to my heart. However, the first two books I wrote were historical fiction—I was fascinated by certain eras of history, and the stories naturally fit with those time periods. I still enjoy historical fiction—like fantasy, it imparts a sense of exploring another world and immerses you in a different time and place. Yet when I wrote my first fantasy novel, I knew I had found my writing passion. At this time, I don’t see myself writing other genres. There’s so much variety in the world of speculative fiction, so much freedom for the imagination to roam, and so much room to explore the spiritual element (which is important to me).

What can you tell us about your current project?
Currently, I’m rewriting and editing the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy, tentatively titled Strong as Death. Giving any kind of short description is difficult because it necessitates leaving out so much of the story, but this is my working blurb:

For centuries, the Amroth desert has remained untouched by outsiders. But when a brutal enemy invades without warning, destroying villages and then vanishing into the rocky cliffs, terror sweeps the land.

In the wake of the devastation, Liana Aieul must lead the few survivors of her village to their one hope of safety: a mystical hidden refuge that may not even exist.

Pursued by an unstoppable foe and plagued by her own self-doubt, she must unravel the mystery of her past and her future in time to reach refuge. If she fails, they will join the dead.

Is there any kind of pattern to how you get your ideas, or is it different every time?
While there isn’t any one way I get ideas, I do have certain creative patterns. Old bits of myth and lore, ancient cultures, and unusual real-life accounts often spark ideas. I also find that music, times of prayer and worship, or quiet walks waken creativity. In addition, I tend to dream in story, and I’ve found a number of intriguing concepts that way—it’s amazing what the mind can invent in slumber. Then there are the ideas that come seemingly from nowhere, unfolding when I’m doing dishes, driving down the road, or taking care of some other mundane task. There’s a wealth of inspiration out there!

When you get a new story idea, do you immediately sit down and start brainstorming, or do you wait and let it grow for a while first?
When I get a story idea, I immediately write down everything that I know about the story in MacJournal. Often during that process, I wind up doing some informal brainstorming, and the general concept begins to take on form. It may be a few paragraphs, a few pages, or more. Regardless, after I’ve written it down, the concept simmers in my mind for an extended time, and I try to keep a record of everything that comes to me, even if I don’t end up using certain elements in the future. I usually only sit down and intentionally brainstorm when I’m fairly certain that I’m going to use the idea for a book.

Do you prefer brainstorming with a blank Word document, or with pen and paper?
As I mentioned, I start with the basic concept in MacJournal (which allows division into folders and individual files), but if I begin to suspect I will turn the concept into a book, I transition to Scrivener. I can type a great deal faster than I write, which is helpful to keep up with the flow of ideas in the brainstorming stage, plus the software helps me keep it organized for future reference, as opposed to stacks of paper that will later require sorting through. So for me, using the computer is a given. Especially with my most recent project, I’ve found organization of my brainstorming and notes to be vital and having everything digital from the beginning has helped that process.

A lot of 'experts' say that writers should keep a journal in order to stay in the habit of writing every day. Do you do this?
I do keep a journal, and write in it almost daily. I use it for reflection on life, working through thoughts and feelings, and as a way to dialogue with God, so it’s not something I do for the writing experience, but because it helps me process life.

What's the best piece of writing advice anyone has ever given you?
While this wasn’t advice given directly to me, I think William Wordsworth’s instruction to “fill your paper with the breathings of your heart” can benefit all writers.

Alright, time for the fun questions! What is your favorite fantasy creature?
There are so many fascinating creatures of lore, but if I had to choose one, I’d probably say Pegasus. A horse with the ability to fly would be quite a boon when it came to adventuring, not to mention an entertaining companion.

In your opinion, who is the best character you've ever written, and what do you love about him/her?
Wow, that’s a tough question. All my characters have a place in my heart, so I’ll just tell you a little about why I love my current protagonist. She perseveres in the midst of the worst circumstances, and despite her flaws and doubts, she’s committed to doing what she believes is right. Her inner strength is beautiful, and though she doesn’t see it yet, it’s ultimately what gives her people a chance for survival. Lest I sound like an overzealous author, I’ll leave it at that!

If one of your stories was made into a blockbuster movie (and you could be there to ensure they did it just right), which story would you want it to be and why?

Again, it’s hard to choose one. I’d probably say Strong as Death, in part because it’s the story freshest in my mind. Its epic scope would lend itself well to film, and I would love to see the story world—parts beautiful and parts grim—come to life.

Last question: it's pretty much an accepted fact that we writers are kind of... well, strange. I know I've been known to do some crazy things when I get a new idea. So what's the strangest 'writer thing' you've ever done?

Aside from the flow of laughter or tears while writing emotional scenes or the sudden leaps from bed in the middle of the night when struck by an idea or the housework completed while muttering character dialogue, I really don't do anything strange.

Well said! : ) Thanks so much, Sarah, for sharing with everyone here at the Lair, and for letting me barge into your world and ask so many questions! I had a great time talking with you.


If you're interested in keeping tabs on Sarah's thoughts and writing, visit her gorgeous website and/or her blog. She has some great thoughts on Christian speculative fiction and story elements, and a great store of intriguing thoughts, facts, and ideas about mythology, folklore, fairytales, fantastic creatures, and more. It's well worth checking out.