My Name in Books

I wrote a post a while back using my name as an acrostic for some of my favorite bands. As much as I love music, I’m actually a writer, so here is my name with each letter representing one of my favorite books.

 

G – Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak by Lela Rogers. An amazingly cheesy WWII detective adventure. Fun read, though!

R – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. One of my favorite books, and a great study for writers wanting to experiment with the nuances of foreshadowing, point of view, and other storytelling twists. Continue reading

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My Top 10 Favorite Authors

I realized that since this is supposed to be a writing blog, I ought to make mention of other authors occasionally besides myself. In the various “top favorite” posts of this and that, I have never covered my favorite writers. So, I am now remedying that. Here they are, in a sort-of one to ten listing:

C.S. Lewis – Once I graduated from Little Golden Book versions of fairy tales, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is what I cut my fantasy teeth on. I’ve reread those books probably more than any other book or series ever.

J.R.R. Tolkien – Middle-Earth was the next logical step after I mastered the Narnia stories. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not easy reads, but I loved the stories and Tolkien’s words enough to read the books several times.

Beatrix Potter – My mom read me stories about Peter Rabbit and Tom Kitten along with those Little Golden Books, but I never actually outgrew Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter is one of my writing heroes in general, and not just because she wrote about bunnies.

L. Frank Baum – He is a recent addition to my favorite author list, because I only recently started reading his Oz books. Baum’s vivid imagination and love of the fairy tale style is evident in The Wizard of Oz and all the subsequent books.

Chris Claremont – He wrote all of the greatest X-Men stories of the 80s and 90s, in my opinion. I’ve always loved comics, and Claremont had some of the most vivid characters and elaborate storylines during his time on the various X-Men series.

J. Michael Straczynski – JMS, as he’s often known, is primarily a writer and producer for TV (though he has written a few comics, as well). I love him best for his show Babylon 5, which featured epic sci-fi storytelling on a Tolkien-esque scale. JMS not only drafted the overall concept for the series, but he wrote the script for almost every single episode himself.

John Maxwell – Here is my token non-fiction writer for the list. John Maxwell is known as a leadership expert, and I’ve read quite a few of his books. While I don’t have a desire to be a leader in a corporate or political sense, I do want to be able to positively influence people with my writing. And as John Maxwell says, “leadership is influence.”

Jeff Smith – Another comic writer. He’s actually an artist, too, and he wrote and drew his famous Bone saga. Bone is equal parts epic fantasy and slapstick humor, and a very unique cast of characters.

Lois Gladys Leppard – She wrote the Mandie books – an inspirational children’s mystery series. Unlike most of the books on this list, the Mandie books aren’t fantasy. They’re historical fiction, set in North Carolina around the year 1900. Believe it or not, I do enjoy the occasional non-fantasy tale.

Dr. Seuss – Who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss? His books have that fun, timeless quality that makes them enjoyable at any age.

Who is your favorite author?

Worldbuilding: The Why before the How

I’ve written several posts about world building for fantasy and sci-fi, but on this post I want to come at it from a slightly different angle. What’s more important than the how-to of putting together a new society or creating an alien race is why. Why do you want an alien species that can live on the surface of a sun? Why do you want steampunk airships powered by magic spells instead of gas or steam?

The coolness factor aside, what I’m talking about is getting you to look at the bones of your story and your world. Cultural habits, societal structures, technology and industry, animals both wild and domesticated – all of these elements of life are the way they are for a reason. It may not always seem logical or even right – like in the case of a society’s sense of fashion – but it still fits within the context of the larger world as a whole.

For example, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Talking Beasts are more than just cute anthropomorphized animals to make the story appealing to children. Even if they originally started out that way, C.S. Lewis develops the Talking Beasts into their own culture. The reason for the existence of this fantasy culture is revealed throughout the stories. In Prince Caspian, the children encounter a bear who had once been a Talking Beast, but after living like a wild animal for too long, he lost the blessing of his speech and intelligence. In The Silver Chair, the giants kill and eat a Talking Stag, which solidifies the giants as the enemy in the minds of the characters and readers alike. It is not until the sixth book of the series, The Magician’s Nephew, where Lewis addresses the creation of the Talking Beasts as Aslan sets them apart from regular animals in order to live out a unique purpose in the world.

The how of fantasy worlds can be important – and the how is even more key in science fiction. But if there’s no reason within the continuity of the world or the story for something to exist, it will probably come across to readers as feeling contrived. What if C.S. Lewis had put the hrossa or the sorns of Mars from his sci-fi book Out of the Silent Planet into the world of Narnia? Those two Martian races are beautiful, gentle, intelligent creatures – but they aren’t Narnians. He designed them to live on a lush, cool, low-gravity planet, not a magical representation of Earth. As fantasy creatures, they’re every bit as engaging as any of Lewis’ creations – but he had his “why” in order in his mind, and so did not have to contrive some illogical reason to explain “how” the Martians were in Narnia.

A word of caution, though – it is not necessary for there to be a lengthy explanation of all the whys and reasons behind the creatures and customs. As in my Narnia example, all of those details were worked into the story itself.

I know it’s tempting, after you’ve gone to so much work to create this elaborate world, to share every little detail and bit of backstory. If a detail can be worked into the story without pulling the reader out of the plot and into a textbook, then do it; otherwise, it will have to live only in your head.

But the important part is that it’s there. You as the author must know and understand all these whys and details. Even if you don’t write it out in words, an astute reader is able to tell when a writer understands their world or not. Don’t hesitate to let your creativity flow while you’re building your worlds. Map out all the how’s and explanations of societal structures, magic, technology, and creatures. Just don’t forget to ask yourself why.

Revisiting a Forgotten World

Writing Updates

I’m still working on my fantasy trilogy that has been my writing project for a couple of years now. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about some stories I wrote and a world I created many years ago. I don’t want to neglect my time spent on my current projects, but I also want to make some time to revive this older set of stories. Those stories were the ones that got me to where I am today.

Birth

This fantasy world of these old stories was my first foray into epic fantasy – I created a complex world, dozens of characters, and enough of a history and timeline to cover several novels. Initially it didn’t start out with all those elaborate details – it began as just one book, and the story was a rather obvious copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I wrote it in fifth grade, and it was probably barely 20,000 words (I don’t have a word count, since the story was hand written in pencil on notebook paper). Still, not a bad middle-grade “novel,” I suppose – and it was the longest story I had ever written and completed to that point. It spawned a two-part sequel, part one of which I wrote in middle school. Then for a while I left that world behind in favor of Star Wars fan-fiction, a lengthy story about horses on a magical island, and other assorted short stories.

Revisit

I revisited this world sometime in high school, with some fresh ideas and a slightly more mature command of writing and storytelling techniques. I wrote another novel which was intended to be a prequel to the one I’d written in elementary school, and I made plans to re-write that one.

The world was becoming more complex: I crafted different races and cultures, deities and religions, history and geography. I planned out a seven-book saga, even though one novel (and one and a half MG novelettes) is all I had written at the time.

In my college and post-college years I moved away from that world again, launching a new fantasy series, amid more short stories and some pitiful attempts at poetry. But even with all the school assignments, Shiny New Ideas, and other creative projects, I never forgot my first fantasy world that I built.

Revive

And now, even though I’m deep in the middle of something else, I’m feeling a burn to go back to this ancient world that has lain quiet and patient for so long. It requires another revamp – a bigger overhaul than just rewriting a childhood story. Change of format, change of storytelling structure, some changes to the timeline of history that I had created.

But the bones of the world are still there. I spent collectively years creating the complex societies of the centaurs, and the religion of the elves. I came up with detailed descriptions and biologies of several species of dragons, and a magical treasure that managed to make it through all the different versions of the world.

Even though I’m not fond of editing and rewriting, this revisiting is not the same thing: it’s a foundation, dusty but firm, that I can use to build on anew. Editing, revising, and rewriting will come much later, once I’ve got some new stories. But for now, I’m excited to be once again exploring a world that was my first love, in a sense. Let’s see where the stories take me this time.

Please share with me! Have you ever done a complete overhaul of a story idea, keeping it the same yet creating something new? Do you have a story or idea that’s stuck with you for years?

10 Quotes from Science-Fiction and Fantasy

We can learn a lot from fantasy and sci-fi. Sometimes we need to hear a truth come from the mouth of the Other, or to see our situations mirrored in a fantasy world. So here are ten of my favorite quotes about life from fantasy and sci-fi books, TV shows, and movies.

Some journeys take us far from home. Some adventures lead us to our destiny.The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others. – The Wizard, The Wizard of Oz

Words are, in my not-so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. – Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Equality is the nullifier of individuality… Equality is the despot destroyer of self-worth. In a world of sameness, there can be no heroes. – The Watcher, “Earth X #3,” Marvel Comics

Who’s the more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him? – Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars: A New Hope

Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens. – Gimli, The Fellowship of the Ring

‘Impossible’ is a word that humans use far too often. – Seven of Nine, “Hope and Fear,” Star Trek: Voyager

You doubt your value. Don’t run from who you are. – Aslan, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

We all have a destiny. Sometimes we do not see it, because we have been taught to believe that we are not important. – Delenn, “Comes the Inquisitor,” Babylon 5

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. … I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. – Puddleglum, The Silver Chair

What is one of your favorite sci-fi or fantasy quotes about real life? Please share!

Creating Fantasy Creatures and Alien Species – Real Animals as Magical Races

In a previous post on this subject, I gave some tips for creating convincing and relatable creatures to populate a fantasy or sci-fi world. In this post, I will continue in that vein, but I will come at it from a slightly different view – that is, using animals as characters in your story.

This post is not about creating fantastic new monsters or magical animals, though I might do a post on that later. This is about using familiar, “real” animals as sentient characters or races. While the practice of having sentient, anthropomorphized animals in fantasy is not especially common – except perhaps in children’s books – it can be a valid fantasy storytelling element even in YA or adult fiction.

In my previous post about creating fantasy races, I emphasized two key points in creating believable creatures: elements that make them human, and elements that make them non-human. Both, I believe, are necessary to create convincing, well-rounded fantasy creatures.

The non-human element is probably obvious – you as a writer are seeking something different, something besides just another fantasy kingdom filled with humans. Whether they are Klingons or Elves, the “otherness” aspect is part of the point of fantasy.

But equally important is the human element. There must be some way for the human reader – if not the human characters – to relate to and understand this magical race of “other” in your story. Some common ground should be there – even if the point of your story is the search for that common ground. You can write about Klingons all day long, but always remember that your readers are human.

So how does this work if you want to imbue real animals with magic and use them as the “other,” the alien race? To illustrate how this can be done, I’ll use examples from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. (While both of these series might be considered YA or even children’s literature, they are stories that are complex and mature enough to be enjoyed by adults).

What are the qualities that make them non-human?

In my previous post about creating fantasy species, I discussed three main categories to consider: physical traits, emotions or mindset of the species, and the general culture.

In the Narnia books, there are plenty of non-human creatures – and some of the most non-human of all are the Talking Beasts. The badgers, bears, mice, and dogs that have human speech and mannerisms are perhaps more alien than the fauns and centaurs and gryphons. Though they live in harmony with humans, they are very much non-human.

The physical is the most obvious, of course. Even though some Talking Beasts can walk on their hind legs and wield tools (like the heroic mouse Reepicheep), they are very much animal in appearance and behavior. No cartoony animals in cute clothes in these stories. Each species still behaves according to their animal nature as far as attitude and mindset – the fiercely loyal dogs, jittery hyper squirrels, gentle and aloof deer.

While the humans fight wars, voice their opinions, and rage against Aslan in the name of free will and progress, the Talking Beasts don’t change. Their steadiness of behavior and belief sets them apart from every other sentient race in Narnia.

They love and respect the humans, but the Talking Beasts are quick to remind everyone that they are most definitely not human, and are not trying to be in any way. The Talking Beasts are proud of their Otherness. The magic of Narnia makes them more than mere animals, but they never will be human – and they want to keep it that way.

What are the qualities that make them human?

As I mentioned before, some human elements are needed in your magical animal race if you want your human readers to relate to them at all. Even if the “otherness” is part of the point of your story, having at least some common ground can help to emphasize all the elements that make them non-human.

In Philip Pullman’s books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), the Panserbjørne (Armored Bears or Ice Bears) are at first appearance very animalistic and “other.” These Bears tend to shun human contact, but they are master craftsmen and metal workers. Their physical dwellings and societal structure are more human than animal, with their castles, metal armor, and sense of honor.

The Ice Bears, though emphasized as different and “other,” experience the very human emotions of fear and shame, hatred and love. The Bears have a king and their own laws for their kingdom. Almost the opposite of the animals in Narnia, who live in their natural habitats in the wilderness, the Ice Bears depend on their created laws and their skill with tools to hold their society together.

While the Bears and the humans have reluctant contact at best, until the plot of the story forces them together, the two species have more in common than each one believes at first. The Bears are animals and the Bears are Other, but just like humans, they hate and love and will fight to preserve their world.

Animals as sentient races and important characters can be a valid storytelling element for YA and adult fantasy, I believe, as shown by these examples. Always key is the human element, and the non-human element.Whether it’s a sword-wielding mouse, an armored polar bear, or some other animal, choose your beast and go create some magic.