Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

4 Steps to the Ultimate Compelling Villain

Monday, August 18th, 2014

good versus evil sea

I want to talk about villains. Not the blackened-to-the-core, maniacally twisted kind or the ultimate evil, soul-devouring kind—I’d say genre fiction is all too familiar with stereotypical antagonists of this ilk. No, I want to talk about the villains you love to hate.

Once upon a time in fiction (say, twenty years ago), good and evil were starkly portrayed in black and white. The villains were all soulless monsters, blackguards or psychopaths (or the ultimate evil overlord), and the only thing readers really cared about was seeing the hero incinerate them.

Flash-forward to 2014 to a growing trend in grey or “grimdark” fantasy, which has antiheroes adorning book covers and entire series solely exploring the murky shades of amoral grey. In the YA market, we see a plethora of books featuring fallen angels, werewolves and sparkly vampires all just trying to be understood. Genres beyond fantasy are seeing a similar turn: suddenly we’re looking through a serial killer’s dark glasses, interpreting the world via the twisted logic of a corrupted mind.

The blogosphere is alive with articles questioning the advisability of writing from the viewpoint of morally muddled heroes (or psychopaths and criminals). Does helping the reader identify with a villain’s rationale de-emphasize the victims’ plight? And with so many anti-heroes stomping their devil-may-care way through genre fiction, is the perceived line between good and evil in real life becoming blurred? There are a host of rationales trying to explain this shift of focus. It may be a complex reflection on the state of Man, or it might be simply that after decades of reading the same formulaic stories, genre readers are getting bored with biblical extremes.

For decades, fantasy followed the Tolkienian model of absolutes—ultimate evil versus ultimate good, and the only side foray was into the cravenness of man. There are plenty of great fantasy books that still follow this model, and more hitting the shelves every day. But while I’ve rarely ventured into the twilight of grimdark fantasy, I admit to needing more from my villains now than a maniacal outlook or soul-crushing magic.

In my ideal story, the villains are as frightening as they are intelligent, both compelling and repellant. I want to be inexorably drawn to them and hate myself for it. Because my own epic fantasy series is equal parts philosophical exploration and entertainment, I need my villains to be intriguing, and I need the reader to understand their motivations. There’s value in exploring the grey shadows of moral ambiguity if the journey enlightens us to the real truths of this world.

For those writers interested in creating compelling villains, here are four things to keep in mind:

1. Villains should have a goal that is entirely justifiable from their point of view.

In real life, no one sets out to become the villain. The criminal takes his first steps towards iniquity as a result of some event (or sequence of events) that crushed his self-respect. The greatest conflicts that trouble governments today come not from a diabolical outlook but from the view of a righteous cause. That this cause seems diabolical to those on the receiving end of its hatred is entirely the point—there are at least two sides to every quarrel. Present each viewpoint equally and compellingly, and the reader will become as conflicted as your characters.

2. Villains should have skills, abilities or knowledge that remains unexplained.

While their aims and the motivations beneath them should be explored, the reader shouldn’t understand everything about your villain. That sense of mystery is what glues the reader to the character.

3. Let the reader spend time with them in small doses.

Here again, mystery, mystery, mystery—this is the mantra. Give the reader glimpses. Make them want more time with the character. No matter how terrible his actions are, the reader can usually accept them if given in morsels. Tantalize, don’t gluttonize. The less is more approach works best.

4. Give the reader hope of reform.

Nothing captures the heart of the reader more than the possibility of reform—especially if the reader truly fears the villain as much as they’re drawn to him or her.  There’s nothing quite so effective as hope of reform to endear a reader to a villain. You can drag the reader through enormous turmoil and treachery so long as you maintain that hope of redemption in the end.

What qualities do you desire in your villains? Do you have other approaches that work for you? Let me know in the comments below.

P.S. ~ For the many of you who’ve been asking, you’ll get to know A Pattern of Shadow & Light’s own villains in altogether new and uncomfortable ways in Paths of Alir, A Pattern of Shadow & Light Book 3, which is now available for pre-order on Amazon and coming soon to B&N, Kobo, iBooks etc.

How Not to Write Yourself into a Corner (in Your Novel and in Life)

Monday, July 28th, 2014

There’s something known as writing yourself into a corner. This phrase might be used to describe any number of authorial ailments, from the scene that mystifyingly “doesn’t work,” to the sinking realization—many chapters in—that your entire plot resolution hinges on something your protagonist can’t possibly know about. While trying to finish my third novel, Paths of Alir, I became mired in one of these situations. It felt like there was no way out and no way through.

The more I thought on the matter, however, the more clearly I began to see the real issue emerging. My problem wasn’t the plot, or the characters, or some other tangle. My problem was that I’d forgotten who was creating the story.

As writers, we make the rules. We decide what will and won’t be in our stories. For genre writers, this encompasses everything from new physical universe laws to the types and names of trees, but the concept applies for other fiction writers equally.

In those moments of prime decision, you the author are the omnipotent god of the universe of your novel. You’re the pinnacle of causation. You make decision after decision about how the world of your novel will function and where its story is destined to go. Maybe you have it outlined, or perhaps you have only a vague idea of its path. But you make decisions that lay the story foundations, and thereafter, you channel your characters through topography formed by these decisions.

In those early moment of creation, you are prime cause, but in the next moment, you go forward into writing the story and become the characters. The instant this happens, you necessarily become the effect of the rules (decisions) you established only moments ago as the omnipotent god. Creative writing really has to work this way. You must assume the characters’ viewpoints in order to tell their story, so you have to take that walk into terra incognita and forget you made the rules.

It’s inherent in that surrender, though, that when you become lost in the tangled threads of story, you forget how you got there. You forget that you’re the one who designed that maze of plot paths. You forget that you can change the maze into new shapes—or eliminate it completely. In fact, you can just make those topographic foundations disappear in the blink of an eye (and the pressing of a delete key). There’s nothing you can’t do in your story world.

Except, apparently, remember in the most important moments that there’s nothing you can’t do.

A writer is limited by what he can envision. Or as you’ll see it written in my series, the phrase is, “a wielder [one who works magic] is limited by what he can envision.” But it works out to the same meaning. We make decisions, and then we limit ourselves by them—most often by forgetting we made them.

This truth is readily apparent in the microcosm of novel writing, but if we take a deeper look, we’ll find decisions we’ve made about ourselves, our goals, our lives—decisions that limit our ability to reach farther and live life larger. Decisions that invalidate our potential and ultimately send us—just like those decisions framing our story—into a corner in our own lives.

So here’s the conclusion I reached after this inspection: we can’t avoid making decisions, but we can get better at remembering we’ve made them. And we can certainly keep a weather eye towards those decisions or self-invalidating statements that limit our potential, our goals, or our reach towards a bigger and brighter future.

We can be the gods of our own universes. We just have to remember, in those dark and cornered moments, who is actually writing the story of our lives.

Have you experienced this phenomenon? I would love to hear how you found your way out of your proverbial corners.

Breaking Up With Your Novel

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

breaking up with your novel

Last week I finished penning the third book in my epic fantasy series and sent it off to beta readers. Paths of Alir was two years in the planning/writing, and the final clocked in around 300,000 words. (It is an epic fantasy. Providing a series is well-crafted, anything short of 250k and epic fantasy fans somewhat turn up their noses). A well-written novel of any genre and length will present characters the reader can identify with, but let me tell you, by the time you’re three books into a series of this depth, you and your readers are deeply invested.

Investment is exactly the point—and the problem. I sent off the manuscript last week expecting to feel that remembered sense of accomplishment, and…

Nope. Nothing like it. Instead of a warm glow, I experienced only a haunting sense of loss.

I don’t know if every writer encounters this agonizing moment upon departing the world of their novel. Perhaps it’s worse when you’re square in the middle of a five-book epic fantasy that’s already pulled nearly a million words out of you. Or perhaps it’s no different from finishing one novel that you poured your heart into for two years, or ten.

Writers often equate their passion for the craft with obsession, even at times addiction. I’ve heard writing a novel analogized as a mistress who jealously demands your creative attention. These are justifiable parallels. As the author, you become truly intimate with your characters. You spend all of your free time with them and (to be honest) quite a lot of time that wasn’t yours to devote (i.e. when you should’ve been focusing on some other task). I regularly warned people in my “real” life that I was only about 60% there. It was a generous estimate—40% was often more true.

In looking at the nature of this author-novel relationship, certain things should’ve been quite obvious to me, yet it never occurred to me until I closed the door on my world how deeply I was in love with it. So much so that pulling mentally out of the world (even knowing it necessary to gain perspective) felt agonizing. I felt like I’d broken up with my novel.

Suddenly I stood in that moment we’ve all experienced: you’ve just shut the door behind a departing lover…perhaps experiencing that duality of conscience in which you start second-guessing your decision to eject this person from your life…realizing with a visceral and all-encompassing regret how much the other person meant to you… I had closed the door on my novel and stood leaning my forehead against that door feeling all of these same emotions.

It should’ve occurred to me sooner that my novel (or in my case, my entire series) and I had been having an intimate relationship. Mayhap I’m the last author on earth to figure this out. In any case, it got me to thinking about the parallels between our novels and our loves. Here are five ways finishing your novel is like breaking up with your significant other:

1. When you’re in a passionate relationship, it’s all you want to talk about. Likewise while you’re passionately engaged in writing your novel. You’ll inundate your friends with unsolicited gushings that sometimes push them to the fine edge of patience. You live and work and eat and breathe with these characters in your head twenty-four/seven. It only follows that they’re the first thing on your mind when it comes time to reluctantly pull out of the world and engage with people who actually breathe oxygen.  

Of course, now that you’ve finished writing the novel, here comes that enforced separation. You and your significant other have decided you both need a little space, time to reflect, time to work on yourselves, perhaps. You seek comfort in friends, ex-lovers…new lovers (relationship rebound)—new books, new manuscripts, but none of them hold the same luster as the novel you just completed. And no matter who you’re with, now that you’re no longer together with your novel, all you can talk about is how you’re not together anymore.

2. Intent on staying out of the novel’s world for a while, you find yourself going to all the places you used to go together, only now you’re going there alone. Your morning tea or coffee…your stop by the bakery…your shower, your morning run or drive to work… Always before, you and your novel shared an intimacy in each mundane moment. Now you feel the novel’s absence in everything you do, and the world has lost some of its magic.

3. Suddenly you can’t listen anymore to the soundtrack you’ve been glued to for the last three months—or any song that reminds you of your novel, your characters or the world. Instead, you find yourself returning to those old breakup favorites, mulling over the pervasive feeling of loss that is gripping you, wishing your beta readers could read faster so you could at least talk with them about your novel love.

4. While you’re waiting for your beta readers, maybe you’ll return to an earlier manuscript or a short story with the same characters and linger there like a voyeur, observing the characters from afar like you’d watch your ex at a restaurant or a bar with friends, not daring to intrude or interact. They were your friends, too, but now you feel estranged from them. 

5. Lastly—almost worst of all—you’re beset by the nagging, ruthless worry of whether or not there’s another novel out there for you. Will you ever be able to find the same magic in the next book that you found in the one you just finished writing? Can your next book ever be as well-crafted, as wondrously inspired? Will you ever find another novel idea that feels as true, or that touches you as deeply?

How can a conglomerate of symbols representing thought take on such life and feel so real as to engender such an emotional upheaval at its end?

And how often we writers equate our novels with lovers or children or the labor of birth, implying an explanation-defying yet truly intimate connection with a work that has no substance, no mass save printed ink on paper, and no recognition of us—its author—whatsoever, and yet is unequivocally an entity with which we’ve interacted, reasoned, worried, slaved over and—ultimately—fallen in love with.

Have you had a similar experience finishing a creative work? What parallels have I missed? Please share your thoughts. Misery loves company. ;)

The Use of Emotion in Storytelling

Monday, July 22nd, 2013


I was recently in dialogue with a reader about the use of homoeroticism in my novels. She asked if I had intentionally created a correlation between two homosexual characters (Sandrine du Préc in Cephrael’s Hand and the Prophet Bethamin in Dagger of Adendigaeth) and unethical conduct.

In short, I had not. However, I found the question intriguing. I loved it, actually, because no one had ever asked me this. Nor had I ever looked at these characters from any other point of view—to me, their sexual attractions were just part of their nature, part of who they were, and I had no hidden agenda or statements to make about those choices. Yet, I could see how, by having the only two homosexual characters in the series thus far both be morally corrupt, this might imply some personal viewpoint on the topic.

(In point of fact, they’re both bisexual, but it doesn’t matter for purposes here. Also, while Sandrine certainly has questionable moral standards and could readily be labeled immoral, the Prophet is merely amoral. The difference I see between the two could fill many more pages.)

Nonetheless, I looked deeply at this after my reader’s question. Why had I shown these two characters as homosexual?

My immediate answer: to create an emotional response.

In our society, it’s readily apparent that most people respond to homosexuality on a visceral level. Either they find it secretly erotic or unreasoningly repulsive or some point just shy of one of these extremes. Even those with relatively impassive views on the topic might undergo an involuntary response when experiencing the moment through a viewpoint character’s eyes.

So yes, I consciously determined that Sandrine and the Prophet would have these urges in order to elicit that sense of homoeroticism, or that repulsion against it, in my readers’ experience.

I had to ask myself then: is it fair that I used homoeroticism to engender an emotional response?

Whereupon I thought, this is what writers do.  We tap into the fears, the hopes, and the mutual joys and desolations of life and imbue our characters with these same tribulations in order to produce that harmonic resonance out of the reader’s own experience. How well we do this determines how much our characters are loved or hated. A story that elicits no emotional response is hardly interesting, is it?

Everything we’re trying to do as writers—and what indeed separates a great story from a mundane one—is that emotional impact. Writers will use whatever methods are available to them to do this, and the gamut of choices is wide. The basics of technique certainly play into it—you’ve got to know passive from active voice and how to arrange a coherent sentence/paragraph/story—but the quality of technique elevates from grammar into craft when you begin looking at the ways a writer elicits an emotional response. Some writers might even be considered unscrupulous in their expert manipulations of our heartstrings, but in the end, if they’ve drawn out our emotions, they’re lauded.

This reminded me of an essay on art that I once read. The author asked, how good does a work of art have to be to be considered art? His answer: technical expertise adequate to produce an emotional impact.

Ultimately this is what I’m trying to do: to introduce you to characters who you can relate to—characters who find purchase in your heart—and to use whatever artistic craft is available to me to make you so invested in these characters’ welfare that you cannot stop reading until you know they’re safe. And of course, they’re rarely so.

In the end, I forgave myself for any unintended aspersions to sexual choice (sorry about that!) and decided that at the very least, I was accomplishing my purpose as a writer in having produced that emotional response one way or another.

I’m open to any thoughts you have on this topic. Share them below! 

An Amuse-bouche for Fans of A Pattern of Shadow and Light

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

As some of you may know, I’ve been traveling in Europe this month gathering a plethora of research for book three. Much of the third installment of A Pattern of Shadow & Light is set in the Empire of Agasan – specifically in the Sacred City of Faroqhar – which in turn is based on Italy. So my time abroad has been well spent, even if it hasn’t seen new words written to move the story along.

I’ve been getting a lot of mail recently from fans wanting to know when book three will be ready—and rightly so. I want you all clamoring for more. However, since I am ultimately benevolent towards my readers, and since book three is still a ways from hitting the shelves (even the cyber ones), I thought I would give you some fodder for thought on where the story is heading. A few little nuggets to chew on to satisfy your craving, even if it only just takes the edge off your hunger.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read Book 2, The Dagger of Adendigaeth, stop here and go immediately to download it. I don’t want you left behind.]

[SECOND ALERT: What I say now, below, could still change. I think it’s fairly set or I wouldn’t be sharing it with you, but I reserve the right to reshape the story.]

Okay, now that that’s all covered, let’s look at a few threads we’ll pick up early in book three:

Tanis and Phaedor – when we left these intrepid explorers at the end of Dagger, they were gazing out over a lush valley and a sliver of ocean beyond, a place the zanthyr had just named home.

In book three, Tanis will head into that valley with Phaedor, where he’ll learn more about his mother and father, more about his own unique nature, and ultimately head to the Sacred City of Faroqhar as he continues on his path. He will also face another Malorin’athgul (cue scary music riff).

Franco and Carian – we last saw these Nodefinders in T’khendar. Franco has been training under Dagmar, and Carian was making new friends with the Sundragons as he learned T’khendar’s secrets.

In book three, these two will team up at Björn’s behest to stand against Niko van Amstel as he seeks the Vestal appointment and ousts Dagmar as the realm’s Second Vestal. Niko has plans that will rattle the firmament of the second strand. Unless Franco and Carian can find a way to stop him, he could further push the realm out of Balance to disastrous consequence.

But more troubling to Björn than Niko’s plans alone are the faceless men who stand behind him. Björn needs Franco and Carian to unmask the masterminds using Niko as their pawn, and our two favorite Nodefinders will be wading through a morass of unscrupulous characters in this search (and cursing the entire way).

What about Gwynnleth, you may ask? Currently she’s staying in T’khendar, and I’ll have to keep the why of that a secret for now.

Queen Errodan – When we left the Queen of Dannym at the end of Cephrael’s Hand, she stood upon the quay watching King Gydryn’s ship vanishing into the dawn.

Ean’s queen mother has already shown herself strong-willed and steadfast – she stood apart from her king for five years to protect Ean, never mind the strain it placed upon her heart. With the king and his generals now gone from Calgaryn, Errodan stands alone to meet the Duke of Morwyk as he makes his play for the Eagle Throne.

She’s a powerful woman in her own right, but in Lord Stefan val Tryst, Errodan will face unimaginable trials to both her integrity and her honor.

We’ll also meet some new characters in book three: the Empress of Agasan and her Consort, the High Lord Marius di L’Arlesé, as well as their daughter the Empress’s heir.

We’ll spend some time in the head of the young Agasi Nodefinder Felix di Sarcova as he maneuvers the halls (and forbidden nodes) of the Sormitáge seeking answers to the mystery of his best friend Malin’s disappearance.

And we’ll pick up a new viewpoint character in an old friend whose thoughts have, until this point, been a mystery to us.

I hope these threads (which are all in progress) reassure you that in fact I am working on book three and not just resting on my laurels basking in your adoration. Although that would be nice, too.

And if, dear readers, you raise a loud enough clamor, I’ll even consider posting the first chapter of book three on this blog.

It picks up with Tanis, by the way. 

Overcoming Writer’s Block – 5 Unconventional Ideas

Monday, April 29th, 2013

As writers, we innately tend to know when our story is working and when it isn’t. I like to describe this awareness as a sort of resonance, but it could just as easily be compared to an engine with all pistons firing. A skilled mechanic can tell just by listening when an engine isn’t purring along. Likewise the practiced writer. 

Sometimes the words just pour out. The pages flow one to the next, your dialog perfectly captures the emotion of the scene, the story conflict builds or resolves into the next arc without interruption or even much thought… In those moments, the creation appearing on the page before you seems to flow from a divine source. 

And then there are the times when you can’t seem to make a chapter work to save your life. The island paradise may be your final destination, but the sea between you and this goal is either a storm of occlusion that has you struggling to stay the course or a dead calm without a breath of inspiration to cast you forward. On those days you simply cling to whatever you can, aimlessly adrift, praying for a spark of lucidity in which it all suddenly begins to untangle and the wind picks up. A moment that brings your island into view. 

I’ve been working through my own difficult seas recently. During this time, I tried some of the popular methods for overcoming writer’s block (of which there are as many suggestions as there are writers) but ultimately I returned to my own rather unconventional means of navigation.

Here are five of my successful ways of calling the wind in a dead calm:

1. Go back to where you were last doing well.

You’re sailing along and suddenly slam into a bog. The waters turn muddy, the way forward becomes unclear, and nothing you write thereafter seems to work.

If you can look back and see a time in the story when everything was going well (even if that point was a chapter or more ago) returning to the point where you were last doing well and then continuing forward again in a new direction can often prevent running into the bog again.

How do you chart a different course? Change your dialogue, alter your character interaction, throw in a new plot twist or peril, or even send your character(s) somewhere else entirely. The point is to cast your new heading directly from the point where you were last doing well, even if it means tossing all of the pages written since. 

2. Look to see if you’ve compromised your character’s integrity in some way.

I’ve many times found that the story will bog if I’ve somehow compromised my character’s integrity. For example, at the beginning of Dagger, my truthreader Tanis faces off against an overwhelming enemy named Pelas. My first attempt through the scene saw Tanis with spunk and fire, talking back to Pelas with brave defiance. It was interesting to see a new side of Tanis—and it didn’t work at all.

The problem lay in the fact that my young Tanis isn’t defiant. The way I was writing him in that scene—the way I originally felt I had to write him—was out of character for him. He’s innocent and he’s brave, but he’s not impudent and rude, and he wouldn’t suddenly become belligerent even when facing overwhelming odds.

I had to look at how to rewrite the scene, how to make it both interesting and intense, yet stay true to Tanis’s character. Going back to the beginning of the scene and letting Tanis be himself led to a breakthrough—oddly enough—in Pelas’s character (which ultimately made him a reader favorite). 

3. Rethink a character.

If you suddenly bog and something isn’t working in the story, take a look at the characters in that part of the tale and try adding complexity or new depth to them. Reveal a new side of them that is plausible to the reader. Give them a hidden passion, a compulsion, or a secret love or torment. Any time you can add something new to a character’s personality, you give the reader more about that character to connect with. 

In the example above, I had been writing Pelas as a typical villain–flat, unimaginative, boring, actually. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but when I took another look at Pelas (as a part of solving the problem with Tanis) I realized Pelas could be much more than he appeared. Even if it means going back to the beginning to add a nuance or hint here and there to set up your character reveal later, it’s usually worth it.

Rethinking a character from the ground up can often open entirely new paths through the story and pull you rapidly into breezy seas once more.

4. Change location—not yours but your character’s.

When something about a scene just doesn’t feel right, try putting the characters in a different setting. Instead of having them meet in a courtyard, move the exchange to a ballroom, a garden, or a dark alley.

Changing the scene will cast new shades upon the existing conversation and add new elements of danger or anticipation, longing, love, heartbreak or excitement. Sometimes we’re so focused on plot that we forget to take advantage of the setting, but setting can do so much to convey or engender emotion. It’s an invaluable tool.

You may end up changing the dialog you already have written to adapt to the new environment. Sometimes that shift of location is all you need to set a new course.

5. Don’t strand yourself on a reef of your own devising.

This is perhaps the most perilous hazard to keep an eye out for when sailing creative waters. 

As writers, we often have an idea of our destination. Some writers chart their path island by island (chapter by chapter). Others merely use the stars to guide them in the general direction they wish to go.

No matter your means of navigation, it’s all too easy to decide on a certain course and then become stalled by it. You make a decision about the path the story should take while just rounding the head at point A. Then as you’re sailing into port at point C, your next heading doesn’t make sense anymore. But you’ve decided on this heading because that’s how you planned the story. You’re already thinking it has to be that way. But you are the one who set that course to begin with. You can simply decide to go in a different direction.

This is almost always easier said than done. Firstly, it can be difficult to isolate which of the many decisions are the ones now stopping your forward progress—we make the rules, you see, then we have to follow them in order to keep continuity in the story; so we become just as bound by the rules we made as our characters are. The second problem faced when looking at this is the understanding that you have the entire story/plot/chapter/character arc planned out—the course is set!

But if that very course is what is sinking you, hadn’t you better rethink it?

I’ve experienced this with laws I established for my fantasy world or powers I’ve given to my characters. I’ve seen it with plot points decided on months ago that now just don’t make sense—or that cause unsolvable conflicts with later story threads, or even with the time it would take to develop the backstory to support the plot element I’ve decided must exist.

I’ve seen it with character back-stories and planned future conflicts and myriad other vortices I created for myself and proceeded to sail directly into as if I had no choice, as if the gravity of my own creation now exhibited more power than I did.

We have to be able to change our minds about our story or we’re no longer captaining our creation but enslaved by it.

I hope these ideas will help you to continue sailing free.

*    *   *

What’s your experience? Share your thoughts on writer’s block and any methods that have successfully gotten you out of the calm and back on course. 

Fear: The Most Undervalued Emotion in Fantasy

Friday, April 26th, 2013

I’m thrilled to host this guest post from fantasy author A.E. Marling (@AEMarling) in celebration of the upcoming release of his epic fantasy novel, Gravity’s Revenge

“The time for fear is past.” ~ King Theoden, The Lord of the Rings

In fantasy worlds, fear is the enemy. It swoops down on black wings to smash the heroes to the ground, to paralyze their hopes. It comes with talons and ghostly swords, with blazing eyes and green fire. It rusts men’s resolve. Turns allies against each other. It clears walls of defenders. It is the edge that no armor can stop. Cowardice to courage marks the most common arc of character growth in fantasy, possibly in all genres. For heroes to stand a chance, or even to remain standing, they must say goodbye to the butterflies ravaging their stomach. Anyone who reads enough might begin to believe that all fears should be smothered in their cradles. 

Read closer. Characters in fantasy novels fear all the time. They are cautious. They respect danger, trying to avoid the greatest perils. When they throw fear to the wind, it’s often because they have no other choice but one last desperate gambit.

Real-life heroes also fear. Soldiers in modern armies still experience the tearing sensation of numbness in the pit of their stomachs. They merely fear letting down their fellow soldiers more. I read an article in which a veteran said his greatest worry was that his mistake would get a friend killed.

“I do not fear either pain or death,” Eowyn of The Lord of the Rings said to Aragorn. “Then what do you fear, my lady?” “A cage.” Even the bold must fear something. If not, then we would have a hard time relating to them. They would begin to seem inhuman.

I hope my readers never meet someone who is truly fearless. There is a name for that condition: psychopathy. Bereft of emotion, psychopaths have only an intellectual understanding of danger. In one reported case, a psychopath broke into a man’s home, murdered him, had a beer from the fridge, and fell asleep beside the corpse on the sofa. (Clearly, this psychopath was not an intellectual.) He woke up in handcuffs. A person in that situation who has fear in their repertoire would be less likely to kill, fearing social recrimination if nothing else. Adrenaline would careen through his bloodstream. His heart would pound, his pulse race, his stomach cramp, and his lungs gulp air. He could never fall asleep.

The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence

Even for us non-killers, fear has its uses. A performer on stage will always feel the rush, that tingling burst from the presence of hundreds of eyes. The greatest entertainers will expect the feeling, be ready for it, and use their heightened alertness and strength to amaze. Those without any urge to perform (or find the safest way to Mount Doom) may still have need of fear. In fact, it may save their lives. In the book The Gift of Fear, the author cautions that often people will imperil themselves by ignoring fears. A woman might, for instance, experience a chill before allowing a strange man to carry her groceries into her apartment. To avoid appearing rude or ungrateful, she might push away the creeping sensation that’s bristling its way up her spine. If she acts fearlessly and lets him inside she could well regret it.

“You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.” — Gavin de Becker, consultant to the FBI and author of The Gift of Fear

Some might prefer to call this inner sense the intuition. Whatever the name, adrenaline accompanies it and causes those well-known feeling, from trembling fingers to cold feet. The important thing to remember, Gavin de Becker writes, is that fear is in response to some external trigger. Even if our brain’s conscious processing has not yet caught on, we have to respect that our fear might be onto something. Stories will often have the theme of trusting one’s instincts. The wise old mentor might urge the hero to follow intuition and, in the same wizened breath, to stamp out every last spark of fear.

That's some slipper slope, Yoda.To be fair to the Jedi masters, they likely are cautioning against allowing fear to paralyze, or drive one to impulsive violence. But to deny all fear seems less than practical. “Ignore your doubts,” sounds too close to, “Ignore your intuition.” Heroes feel fear, and we should expect no difference from ourselves. When that sensation of ice prickles down our backs, we should first think what might have caused it. (But don’t freeze in the headlights too long.) Next, we should avoid thinking of fear as an evil. Not, “Oh, no, this is terrible!” Or, “I’m afraid, so I must be a coward.” But, “Ah, something important is coming, and my body is getting ready to fight.” I say it’s past time fear got its due in the fantasy genre. After all, I always root for the underdog. Especially if he is a terrifying mongrel that breathes fire and has three heads.

In my latest fantasy novel, a tragedy arises from an acute shortage of fear. The protagonist studies magic in a vertically inclined magic school. To reach the lofty altitude of the academy, she had to overcome her fear of heights and walk up a cliff. When the academy’s enchantments begin to fail, she senses the mounting danger but ignores her worries. She has grown too used to being bold. To save her school and her students, Enchantress Hiresha will have to regain a healthy respect for fear. She’ll need the full speed of her intuition to outsmart the mastermind holding the magic school ransom. Only with every instinct and every edge adrenaline can bring her will she have a chance to oust the invaders. Hiresha faces twelve to one odds in battle, and each step could end in a plummet.

“He who is without fear has no hope.” – Lord Tethiel, Gravity’s Revenge

Discover the fun fantasy loot at the Kickstarter for Gravity’s Revenge


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Reviews, Writer’s Block & the Author’s Integrity – A Problematic Trinity

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

I’ve been struggling recently with a situation that arose from the number of positive—yes, I just said positive—reviews I’ve received on my latest novel (which, by the way, was recently selected as a Finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year – yay!) It took me a bit to sort through just what I was experiencing, and I thought I’d share these ideas now that I’ve got the problem resolved.

To begin, I want to talk about universes. Not the Stephen Hawking kind. The kind that come with us when we wander from place to place. The kind that offer a retreat in which to explore our own thoughts. The kind where we imagine and dream…where we envision the people and events that eventually fill the canvases of our artistic works. 

I have never spoken with my characters, yet they’re as real to me as anyone I’ve passed on the street. I carry my characters around with me in the universe of my head.

When a writer envisions a story, he creates it first in his own ‘universe’. Though intangible, these universes can feel very real to the person who owns them—as real as the physical universe we all live in. Of course, the clearer the writer sees things in his own imagined universe, the better he can bring his readers into it through narration and description, through the medium of fine storytelling.

Now, for every author who has created a world to be read about, there are countless readers who recreate that world in their own universe as they read. They take the author’s descriptions and mold and shape them into their own versions of the characters and events. No matter how complete the author may have been in his/her descriptions, readers still inject the characters with their own colorations—they still have to imagine them, you see. 

This concept of multiple subjective universes reminds me of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, where Amber is the one true world, casting infinite reflections of itself.

Every book casts infinite reflections into the universes of its readers; and in every reader’s universe there exists a slightly different—or largely different—reflection of the book.

So what does this have to do with reviews? The truth is—and whoever would’ve thought I’d be saying this—the plethora of glowing reviews for The Dagger of Adendigaeth actually mired my forward progress into the story.

For an agonizing span of days, I couldn’t understand why I was experiencing this writer’s block on Book 3. I had the story planned out to the ninth hand of chance. I had countless positive reviews rolling in for Dagger, extolling my ‘epic follow-up,’ and an abundance of dear readers expressing their excitement for the next book in the series. Even where someone voiced a criticism, their thoughts were usually insightful in some way.

Please don’t think I’m complaining (trust that I am working through this difficult situation of overwhelming admiration for my novels), but it took me some time to figure out why praise was miring my forward progress into the story.

We all love getting to experience our work through a reader’s eyes. I think this is the artist’s real pay. This form of reader contribution—i.e. their exchange with the author—is far more valuably some subjective feedback than the material dollars and cents provided. But when we look at reviews, what we have to keep in mind is that the story being reviewed has subtly changed from the author’s original. Our readers take our worlds and make them their own as they read along—and therein lies the trap in spending too much time “listening” to reviews. 

Here’s what I finally realized: Any time you take a review to heart, you run the risk of departing your true Amber world and getting caught instead in the reflections of your work. For instance, my readers commended Book 2, and I devoured their praise, gobbling up every morsel as reviews came pouring in. Yet in reading all their kind words, I began to feel the pressure of continuing to please them, of not disappointing them with my next novel, of continued success. I began to wonder how I would ever make Book 3 better, more exciting, even more valuable to my readers than Book 2 had proven to be.

Here’s the real problem in my taking on this viewpoint: I didn’t write Cephrael’s Hand or The Dagger of Adendigaeth for anyone’s benefit but my own. When I wrote those novels, I retreated to my universe entirely and asked no one’s permission, sought no one’s regard, and just wrote what I wanted to write because it pleased me to thrive in that creation. I wrote to entertain myself. (Now it happens that I’m a picky fantasy reader, so something that entertains me is likely to please others, but that’s really beside the point).  

You see, there I was, assuming the reader’s viewpoint suddenly, trying to determine how to keep my readers happy, worrying how to make my opening scenes as interesting and vital as those of book 2, fretting that I’d never be able to make book 3 as intriguing, as heart-wrenching…so many concerns. I was second-guessing all of my plot points and plans, because I wasn’t sure they would be interesting enough to others. I had abandoned my most successful action of just writing for my own entertainment. In trying to take the viewpoint of the reader and fit my story to their unknowable expectations, I lost my way, and the story went nowhere.

So this is the crux. Any time you as the author get tied up in trying to fix or alter or somehow match your world to a reader’s reflection—even the reflections of glowing praise—well…you’ve lost the integrity of the world. Because ultimately when you assume the reader’s viewpoint, you’re now sitting in the reflection, too. You’ve become one with the kaleidoscope of reader universes. You’ve lost your true path, your Amber. 

If you’ve experienced any shade of this phenomenon in your own artistic work, or even in life, here’s the most important thing to remember: those reflections are but shadows of the real world. Your world.

What do you think? Have you experienced this idea of universes, either in your reading or in devising your artistic work? How have reviews of your work impacted you? Share your thoughts. 

On Reviews, Obsession and Art (and a gratuitous adorable kitty pic)

Friday, January 11th, 2013

photo (5)My cat Sam sits with me when I write, whether I’m working on my laptop or composing on the piano. He likes being around when I’m being creative, which is pretty cool, considering he’s a cat. As a child, the idea of having a cat for a writing companion seemed wonderfully romantic; in reality, he’s mostly in the way. He’s really fat, and he wants to be either lying in my lap, where my laptop is, or lying on my laptop itself—either of which situation conflicts with one’s ability to type.

Even so, I obsess over my cats. I’d like to think I don’t, but I do. It’s just in my nature. I don’t think you can be a good fantasy writer and not have obsessive tendencies—at least not an epic fantasy writer.

To write epic fantasy, you have to be able to move in and out of the heads of innumerable viewpoint characters on a chapter by chapter basis, while weaving together a dozen or more story threads into some form of cohesive whole. You have to be able to create an entire world with realistic conflicts, cultures, languages and religions and design and explain a magic system that follows actual laws—and above all, you have to be able to craft a good story out of this complicated tangle.

Artists obsess over their creations. They also obsess over people’s reviews and critiques of their creations. Art is obsession in all its many guises.

To you, Joe and Marybeth Reader, this is probably just some book you picked up for somewhere between $0.99 and $10 dollars (most likely). Maybe you loved the story and happily gush about it to your friends. Maybe it wasn’t your cup of tea. Maybe you hated it with a passion. I can safely say, Joe and Marybeth, whether your response was lukewarm or glowing, the writer of that novel obsessed over every part of it far longer than you did over their choppy dialogue or the errant typo encountered during your thirty-minutes-before-bedtime daily vigil.

Art of any kind is basically communication. Good stories are all about communication. Simple tales might have one thing they hope to communicate. If the story is well crafted, that communication is universally received. The more complex the story, the more obscure the ideas being conveyed, the more varied the reception of the author’s communication. And when you’re writing about invented worlds and races, when you’re crafting a commentary on real life but using a parallel world to do it, when you’re weaving a tapestry of philosophical ideals meant to be explored and evaluated, compared and pitted against reality, and when you’re writing at a level that requires a fairly high degree of literacy in your reader…well, that single communication has turned into a peacock’s fan colored by nuance and intimation, where each feather represents a different character and each swirl upon the fan poses another thread of philosophical exploration.

The greatest reward for an author isn’t in the money someone pays for their work. It comes when that reader receives the author’s communication. I don’t care if someone disagrees with me, so long as I can tell from their comments that they at least understood what I was saying. 

To be understood—that’s all any of us really seek from others, isn’t it? In the broad scheme of life, don’t we all just want other people to understand why we do what we do, why we react a certain way, why we feel certain compulsions or harbor unusual passions? Don’t we want them to understand those parts of ourselves that we don’t even comprehend?

There are a lot of varying viewpoints about reviews. Truthfully, I welcome any review, because a) I want to know if my communication was received and b) they help encourage potential readers to pick up the book.

But with this said, let me ask, what would be your ideal review? Would it embrace the whole of your story in a way that lets others know what they will find within its pages? Would it touch upon your philosophies and story threads, and capture the essence of favorite characters? Would it encapsulate your communication as the author, even if reduced to a few succinct sentences? And would it give, overall, a sense of the world, the characters, the feeling of being there and what it’s like to have experienced the story? 

When a reviewer writes a review so expertly detailed, so eloquent, so revealing of their depth of understanding that you’d think they were talking about their own novel…this is the highest compliment any author could receive.

I recently read such a review. I’ve been sending it everywhere, because no better summary has ever been written of my novel. And it starts like this:

“Melissa McPhail created a world unlike any other in fiction but also not unlike our own, where individualism and unity exist all at once; good and evil coincide, are intertwined, and vary in shades; and philosophy, mundane and profound, shape lives. With her debut novel, she captured a world—from its physical base to its ethereal heavens, and everything tangible and intangible between, before known time and (hopefully) not its “after.”

Please read the rest at The LUV’NV, because it truly is an amazing review. Itself a work of art. 

And thank you again, Raindrop Soup, for understanding me so beautifully.

Building A Fantasy World – The Magic of Genre Fiction

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012
Many thanks to The Cover by Brittany for originally hosting this post on her blog. 

Some fantasy authors cringe at the topic of world-building, but actually, it’s one of the most thrilling aspects of writing genre fiction. When we write fantasy, we become the Maker of Worlds. We establish our world’s limitations, its physical barriers, and the triumphs and tragedies of its histories. Ultimately, as its creator, we can make our world any way we like. We can envision a world inhabited by a single race—like Endor or Pandora—or one of multiple races and kingdoms.
No matter what type of world we’re creating, we have to know some things about it in order to be able to describe it to our readers. But how do we go about this monumental task?  At the highest level, the world-building field can be divided into two camps.  
In Camp #1 we find the Engineers.They believe in establishing the entire world before they ever write a word of story. They use exhaustive lists of questions that explore a variety of topics in order to flesh out their world. If you enjoy D&D, Warhammer 40K and other games that involve detailed lists which must be compared with more detailed lists in order to a) set up the game and b) take a turn, Camp #1 is the approach for you. 
The Engineers enjoy establishing kingdom, country and empire, coming up with names of forests, rivers, towns and cities and examining their respective histories, their geographical boundaries, their ideologies and their economic products. They’ll easily spend days developing the relationships of the ruling monarchies and plotting their family trees and blood-feuds, and love every moment of it. As they work through these details, story ideas may come. To be sure, they’ll have a long list of kingdoms and character names to choose from by the end of this exercise. And probably some gorgeous diagrams and maps. But they’re not likely to have much of a story to show for all those invested hours.   
In Camp #2 dwell the Gardeners (the great Ruth Harris calls them pantsers). They simply start writing the story by the seat of their pants and see how it grows.
“But a writer must know kingdoms and peoples and places before he can write about them!” you scream.
The Gardeners believe all of these details will appear as the author pens the tale, growing organically as the story evolves. (We’re taking into account here that you already have an idea for your story, that you know your protagonist, his or her conflict, the antagonists, and the basic story arc.)
So, these things in place, with the Gardener approach, we start writing. Our character is on a horse, so we name the horse if we care. He’s going to a town so we name the town. What our character sees and experiences while in town—the scene literally appearing in words on the screen as its appearing in our heads— establishes how large or small the town is, its relationship to nearby towns or cities, and the struggles and challenges faced by its inhabitants. We basically make these things up as we go along.
So our character goes into a tavern. We sit for a moment and come up with a name for the tavern, deciding also in that moment that it is a pirate establishment, so we give all of the men inside nose piercings and wild black hair. They need some kind of history now, so we decide they inhabit an archipelago off the coast of this kingdom (or perhaps one far away, which changes entirely the reason they might be in that tavern). How much of the pirates’ experience we share fleshes out more of the world our protagonist lives in.
Each new meeting or interaction offers a chance to provide a little more of the world’s varied history—to a) make it up right then, b) explain something we’ve already mentioned but refrained from delineating; or c) some information we had planned all along. 
Okay, we’ve left the pirates. Now our protagonist is off to the castle. Maybe we’ve had this part of the story mulling in our heads for days or months, or maybe it’s heading in a new direction since we met the pirates. With each new character we introduce, we also have the opportunity to develop and reveal more of our expanding world, its history and culture, and the conflicts that define the ideologies of its kingdoms. These story and character seeds can be sewn ahead of time (if we think of them), or sprouted on the spot. 
Is one approach more difficult than the other? It depends on our inherent mindset. For Gardeners, endlessly designing a world with no story is difficult and tedious. They need the story in order to flesh out the world. Conversely, the Engineers delight in this exercise and shy away from writing the story without a detailed blueprint from which to build.
And then, as with most extremes, there are those of us who fall somewhere in between. Certainly, a little planning is beneficial, some fleshing out is good. Knowing the names of the surrounding kingdoms and at least their kings or queens (or ruling Empires) is helpful in framing the context of the tale. 
Ultimately, an approach is only as workable as it works for you. Wherever you fall on the world-building scale, it’s your world to create as you please, and that’s the magic of being a genre-fiction writer.
What camp do you fall into? Or is there another camp altogether that should be represented here? Let me know how you approach world-building.