What makes a good Fantasy Story

Not that it’s easy to do, but this is what I think is needed, as I hammer up from little to big (not the way you’re supposed to learn, but in writing, it’s like catching fireflies to get all the writing advice you need, so in some respects, it is the only way to learn). So big picture, I think you need:

  1. A sense of wonder (an emotional reaction, created through: premise, which in turn encompasses: setting, big picture conflict, magic system, character types and attributes)
  2. A cool plot, that catches interest early, picks up speed, and ends in a crescendo (plot, obviously)
  3. A song of emotion, through the story (have the character FEEL intensely, see the story through an emotional lens, have it tie together consistently and have clear backstory to create it, and clearly share it to the reader in your scene and POV choices).

Three things. Simple, in a way.

Execution, however, is incredibly difficult and complicated. And, of course, execution is 90% of the battle. But that first 10%, getting the big picture right, is essential. If you miss that, you miss it all…

(I might have to revisit my writing mountain and refresh the top layer. It seems to tie into that thinking)

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This is another sketch from StoneDragon (Broken Cowboy), for one of the characters which dances along the line between good guys and bad guys. I apologize for slowness on my progress here (or should I? Some days this seems like a big assumption that anyone cares. :) ) But even for me, it’s quite discouraging that I’m still early in the most recent structural edit. I’d give a lot to be working on a new, fun and exciting story instead, instead of something that is feels so chewed over. But anyway, I will finish it. One day. One way or another! 

If you haven’t guessed, I’m feeling a bit run down, and (evident from the less frequent posts) very stretched for time. We have been house hunting, just bought a new house (after several auctions), and now have to sell our home. Work is still crazy, to the point that the older kid wants to know why I’m working so much more, and why I don’t find another job, and it’s not easy to fit writing and art into what is an exhausting schedule already.

But I’m trying. It may just be slow. Hopefully the rest of the stuff slows down and my battery recharges…

You don’t sand a tree to get a table (Priorities)

My first job was in a woodworking company, which made custom cabinets and furniture. We lived in a small town and I was fifteen and wanted to save up for a car, so I walked around town, handing out my carefully thought out CV (grass-cutting for allowance money, etc). The family-run woodworking shop must have had the same cutting edge attitude as I did, because they said ‘sure’, and put me to work right away—literally. I dressed up for what I thought was an interview in a nice sweater and they put me to work on a big belt-sanding machine right away. At the end of my efforts, they hesitantly told me to dress more appropriately for the next shift.

So what has this got to do with writing? Well, what I quickly learned was that you do things in a certain order. The company would get great big sheets of wood, then plan what the pieces they would need to cut out, cut it on a great ban saw (I saw that saw fling a chair across the room once, when someone wasn’t holding on properly, so cool), sand it, dowel it, seal, and stain or lacquer it. And that sequence never changed. Because it would be a waste of time or materials to do it any other way. You measured and planned what pieces you needed first, so you didn’t waste the great sheets and people’s time experimenting with different sizes and seeing how they looked. You cut the wood down before sanding, because why would you sand what you never planned on using? And in fact, I once got in trouble for sanding a part of a table that no-one would ever see or touch. Why waste the time they were paying me for to do that? It was a waste of money and time. No-one would ever know the difference.

It’s taken me a while, but it’s finally sinking in that it’s the same with writing. It’s very tempting to write the chapter of a first draft, then go back and polish the language. Make the dialogue better, correct the grammar, tighten words. It makes me happy. But it’s also wasting time. My time has an opportunity cost. If I was paying me by the hour, like my old woodworking boss did, I’d be livid. Because the scenes are not yet cut to size, or attached in the right order. It’s like I’m cutting down a tree, giving it a few swipes of sandpaper, then taking out the chain saw. It’s the wrong order. It doesn’t hurt the project, but why on Earth am I wasting the energy and time? There are better uses for it.

So when you’re writing: plan, write, do big picture edits (chopping, resizing, shuffling things around) and THEN polish. Tighten your words, dialogue, and shine at the end, not the beginning.

And if you do get an interview at a small woodworking shop, you may not want to wear your nicest sweater. :)

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An oldie but goodie image. I like this little dragon a lot. If I had more time, I’d do more art like this (posed more dramatically), but work is very consuming right now, as I may have mentioned. Not that it’s bad, just a lot to manage, so I’m struggling even to keep my StoneDragon edit going. Art has unfortunately taken a backseat. Hopefully that will change at some point…

 

 

A hard weekend. Unreasonable expectations. A writer’s life.

I love to create. Art and writing. Even at my work, I enjoy crafting a good report, a clean spreadsheet. I like building things. I love a good story. So it stands to reason that I always wanted to write. Not that I always have, but it’s always been a dream. But except for the lucky few (maybe), it is a difficult, fairly thankless road. My wife thinks I’m crazy to have a hobby that makes me depressed on a regular basis, as rejections come in for stories that I have spent hours, days, months, or even years on (I’m not always the most productive, granted, so my years might be another’s weeks). I crafted a fun story late last year, with a cool world, cool ideas, and cool character (I think). It had a neat twist, and had reasonably good reception at OWW. And it was rejected for the anthology it was written for.

And that hurts.

It was a crazy high profile anthology, for full disclosure, with high profile authors. New York Times best sellers anchoring it. Only a few slots open. I knew, even before the response, that it was unreasonable to believe that the story would make it in. Yet… I kind of did. I think it was a good story. Sigh.

I know the motto you have to submit to get accepted, that 100% of stories that aren’t put into the world never get published, that you should have a rhino thick skin and play the numbers. But getting rejected also throws off my writing confidence and enthusiasm. It can stall me for days, or longer. I got rejected Friday night and haven’t completely shaken off my depression. Granted, a tough day at work didn’t help and I’m feeling a little under the weather, too.

So forgive my whining, my lack of fortitude, my bad weekend. But I think it’s unrealistic to assume that no one has them. Most writers do. It comes with the writing life. I just wish it didn’t.

Tonight I’m doing some art instead. Still creating, but not trying to drum back up that writing confidence. Waiting for that bruise to fade, and the well of confidence to fill back up (warranted or not!) :)

Hope your weekend went better.

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The featured image is a sketch I made for the StoneDragon book, which is slowly plodding along. I actually really like having the art to go along with, even to inspire me as I’m writing. I’d like to do some more coloured pieces, but we’ll see what time allows. This image is Karen Waters, the daughter of a sea god, a god who is losing a battle and hiding from his enemies. Karen will take a foolish but brave action which sets everything in motion…

Your Package. Your Short Package. Your Short-Story Package.

I knew I’d get the wording right eventually. :)

I don’t consider myself an expert on short stories, even though I have one published. A few months back, before I got that one story accepted, I tried to make a list at how I looked at them. I figure it would be interesting to review.

I think that an effective fantasy short story should have the following elements, in the following priority:

  1. A cool idea, whether based in plot, character, world-building, or theme. Something that people might want to talk about afterwards.
  2. Clean tight writing. It’s with a bit of surprise that I realize I haven’t got a post on this topic yet to link to. Important in all writing, but even more so in a short story.
  3. A clear emotional goal for the reader. What do you want the reader to FEEL at the climax of your story. Maybe the answer is relief from tension, as you have a high-octane action story, maybe it’s a pang of loss or nostalgia. But whatever it is, it’s worth considering. There are tricks to creating reader emotional reaction, if you know exactly what you’re trying for.
  4. Some kind of surprise, whether plot reversal, story revelation, or character action. But while surprising, the seeds of the reversal need to be hinted at earlier in the story (the ‘rule of three’).
  5. Goals and obstacles. Really, no post on this one either? I seem to be roaming around on cool topics, but skipping over some essentials. Will try to remedy! But anyway, clear character goals and obstacles in a scene creates tension.
  6. An early hook. A first sentence and early paragraphs that intrigue and raises interesting questions, without creating confusion (a fine line, as I’ve talked about here). This is often tied to your ‘cool idea’, above, and why reading widely is a help. If your cool idea has been explored by a well known story, it’s not cool anymore, but derivative. Boo!
  7. A meaningful resolution that ties all the major elements of the story together as a package(thought-provoking is a bonus).
  8. Nothing extra. No extraneous characters, setting, world-building, or other elements that distract or are not contributing to that overall package. See Egg or Wiffle Ball, where I talk about my occasional struggles with this concept, as I am often more intrigued by a first chapter than a short story, which therefore means I often have unrelated stuff that would only be explored later. A fine line to walk.

That’s it for my package today! No tip for delivery required (mailman joke there, not anything else, for people who’s minds have sunk so far into the gutter that they can’t see their way out! He he. Shame on you.)

Here’s to a productive and successful 2016!!

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The art is a first and VERY quick character sketch for Bernetta Brogi, a young lady who swings a couple of mean axes, in StoneDragon. I’m polishing up my world building wiki in this draft, and doing a bit more character work. I may polish up the character sketches more later, but you may also see some other quick charcoal pieces in the coming months. It just helps me to visualize and keep the details consistent.

This took about fifteen minutes this morning, with some interruptions as I was summoned to the Little Prince’s room. :)

 

Sliding down the Clothesline (Sense of Forward Progression)

Happy holidays! To celebrate, a nice dark cowboy image. :) I’m working on StoneDragon (or the Dead Dragon Cowboy) tonight, right before wrapping up a few left-over kids presents, so thought it would be an appropriate image.

I’m going to talk now about one of the most impactful concepts that I’ve come across recently in my writing thoughts, one that I’ve spent some time mulling over and want to better apply in my own writing. It is the concept of writing following a clothesline, with various story elements tied to it, but an absolute need to keep that line of forward momentum.

Maybe a zip line would be a better analogy. You can tape setting, theme, description and other things to the wire, but you need that sense of purposeful movement that comes from sliding along it.

It’s a forward moving line, not a patchwork quilt where you don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

This concept can be credited to a couple of people, at least in my own research: Joshua Bilmes as recorded in one of Brandon Sanderson’s writing lessons, and Ilona Andrews, in describing how to deal with transitions (albeit in a slightly different context).

One of the points that this brings in is that description and detail should only included if they are directly relevant in time and significance to the main character in their immediate circumstances. Plot is the clothesline, other stuff can be strung along it, but it has to keep moving. You can’t stall in something that doesn’t have a sense of being relevant to the immediate story.

In other words, each paragraph should build on the one before and need the one after to fully realize the impact of the writing. As long as you keep this forward progression, you don’t need to rush. You can paint setting, give details, and help the reader to visualize the scene and understand your story.

The point is that readers want to feel a confident hand at the wheel. They want to make sure that everything that they are reading has a purpose and that they aren’t stuck in a morass of unimportant details that don’t lead anywhere. Especially for a new writer, that hasn’t earned their trust.

So keep things tied to the clothesline. Keep moving forward. And may that make all the difference for all of us!

Merry Christmas! May you have all the success you dream of in the New Year!!