Friday, April 27, 2012

A Few of My Favorite Books

Today I'd like to try something a little different. I won't be posting elegant synopses of writing techniques guaranteed to spark your creativity (not that I ever did that!), and I won't be writing about the specifics of a fantasy world--the people, the places, the colors, the things.

Instead, I'd like to hear from you. Remember how, in my last post, I talked about reading books in your target genre? Well, today I'd like to explore the genre of fantasy. What are some of your favorite fantasy books? Just a simple list or a few titles will do. Tell me your favorites, please!

And here's my own list, for good measure. If you haven't read these books yet, I definitely recommend you try!
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (a must for every fantasy writer)

The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling (Even though many people find problems with the magic, this series is one of the most popular young adult series of our time. It's important as writers to know what our audience loves to read.)

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke (The sequels weren't quite so good, but Ms. Funke certainly has a gorgeous way of spinning words, and the story here is fabulous. Worth a read. Also, Funke's story Dragon Rider is a heartwarming and humorous tale. Definitely read it.)

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine (Hilarious twist on a classic fairytale)

Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale (A compelling world with vivid characters, and thankfully free of objectionable material. If you're female, I'd definitely suggest reading it.)

The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge (An older story, true, with all the delicate beauty of the 18th century. However, in terms of Christ-honoring fantasy that's well-written, this book is one of the best that I've found.)

The Blackbringer, by Laini Taylor (An unexpected gem. One of the absolute best modern fantasies I've read, and again, nicely free from objectionable stuff. An awesome villain and an excellently crafted world, complete with a hilarious heroine named Magpie.)

The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper (A story that feels older than it is, with lots of Celtic and Welsh legends interweaving throughout. Somewhat mystical and packed with symbolism. Cooper's unique voice definitely makes it worth a read.)

The Complete Fairytales, by George MacDonald (These were inspirations for both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, and they're absolutely lovely stories. They felt like they'd leaped straight out of the brothers Grimm. Also, MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin is lovely too.)

Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (A laugh-out-loud twist on every cliche known to man. Read it as a family! The sequels are good as well.)

The Percy Jackson series, by Rick Riordan (I don't know how you feel about ancient Greek gods, but despite the strange premise of the story, I love Riordan's sometimes sarcastic and always funny voice. It's good to learn how to write for a modern audience. Also, the series also scores points for teaching ancient Greek mythology.)

Something by Robin McKinley (I especially enjoyed The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. Also quite worthwhile are her two Beauty and the Beast retellings, Rose Daughter and Beauty. Probably most appropriate for 13 and above.)

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster (I guarantee that this book will make you look at the world in a whole new way. A boy takes a journey through a land where words grow on trees, sounds take shape, and Rhyme and Reason are the damsels-in-distress. Awesome read for the family.)

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis (If you haven't read these yet, there must be something gravely wrong with you. At any rate, I envy you, because reading these treasures for the first time is a pleasure that few other books can bestow. Plus, the spiritual undercurrents in Narnia are excellent to observe and imitate as Christian writers.)
I suppose that sums up my list, at least for now (I may add to it later as more titles come to mind). At any rate, I believe the books listed above represent a wide range of fantasy, both new and old, tried and true, Christian and non-Christian, popular and unknown. Each of these books is certainly worth your time.

Now, come, tell me your favorites!

Monday, April 23, 2012

3 Major Writing Lessons

What follows are three lessons I've learned over my years of writing. I've also included specific advice (books to read, etc.). Hope you find it helpful, and enjoy!

1. To Write Well, Read Well
~ Read How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler. This volume provides excellent keys in grasping the flow of arguments in nonfiction and plot in fiction. For those limited on time, devote half an hour or fifteen minutes every evening to skimming a chapter or so. Be sure to read the table of contents to see which portions would be most helpful to you.

~ Research your desired writing field for bestselling or highly rated books in that genre. As you read these books, take note of techniques the author uses, themes the book espouses, the book’s structure, and other points that come to your attention. Keep a reading journal that sums up your thoughts and impressions on the book and—especially—how it relates to your writing. (You may wish to polish these impressions and post them as book reviews on a blog.)

~ Read good books on writing. This will enable you to learn from others’ mistakes rather than reinventing the wheel. The books On Writing Well (William Zinsser) and The Elements of Style (Strunk & White) may be a good place to begin. Additionally, there are many genre-specific writing books that may help you as you progress further into the realm of serious writing. Portioning out these tomes and reading a little consistently each day, along with recording your observations, will help you to fit this practice into your life. (Again, your observations may be excellent material for blogging.)

2. Write Every Day
~ The “write” that I am referring to is writing works that are roughly in line with your goals of what you want to publish. While it’s very well to keep a journal, simply cataloging the day’s events does nothing to challenge your writing. Further, if you do not write, then you will never finish any writing, and you will certainly never get published.

~ It can be quite helpful to utilize a competition like the annual National Novel Writing Month in November to kick-start your writing routine. However, in the end, it is up to you to find the time in your life to write. Begin the day with writing, and reward yourself with relaxation only after you have written your goal for the day. Most importantly, be consistent. If you promise yourself to write every day, than do it. Your writing will thank you.

3. Get Outside Feedback
~ Those of us who have participated in critique groups or worked under a mentor know that this rule goes without saying. No matter how many times you edit your work, the simple fact that the work is yours precludes you from looking at the piece with purely impartial eyes. For that, you will need partners or mentors who give you strong—even hurtful—critiques.

~ In the end, the final decision of what and how to edit should still remain yours, no matter what critiques you receive. Often, you may find that your readers have contradictory responses and suggestions for the work. In any case, it is up to you to decide what you want to change. Thus, read their suggestions and critiques with an open mind and heart, remembering that the final decision lies with you.

These “rules” aside, there are a thousand and one ways to become a good writer. Read and write yourself and see which areas are most helpful along your journey to excellent writing.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A New Direction?

I've been thinking a good deal lately about my writing and how it relates to this blog and all of you. Basically, my musings come down to this: should I make this blog a more generally Christian writing blog, or keep it fantasy-specific?

Don't get me wrong, I love fantasy. It's definitely my favorite genre to read, and one of my favorites to write.


My current work-in-progress (which, due to my only-write-things-that-other-people-would-be-interested-in policy, I haven't told you anything about) deals with a teen girl caught in Japan's March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Basically, nothing could be farther from fantasy. Plus, I write a lot of poetry, too. In fact, I've had a few poems published recently.

And, more important, there is a lot about writing that doesn't really go under the banner of "fantasy" alone. I think non-fantasy writers might be able to benefit from some of the bits and pieces of advice I've collected, and I don't want to throw them off (or bore you) by about general writing stuff on a fantasy blog.

So, all that to say: what would you, dear readers, like to see? Traditional halls of fantasy lore? Modern stainless steel and cuppa-tea writing advice and anecdotes? A mix?

To help you let me know what you'd like, I've slaved many hours over the hot computer to write a nifty little poll (and figure out how to add it to the blog post). So take your pick and be sure to let me know why you want what you want in the comments!

Should the blog take a new direction?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter & Fantasy

The title for this post may catch you off guard a bit. What do Easter and fantasy have in common? Should they have anything in common? As Christian writers, we need to ask ourselves some very tough questions about writing and Christ. So, in honor of Easter Sunday coming soon, I've decided to address these questions now.

Just to warn you a few things before we begin: these are extremely controversial topics, and there are no easy answers. Whether or not you agree with my thoughts and conclusions, approach this post with a lot of prayer and listen to what God is telling you about your writing.

The overarching question here might be as follows: "Must Christian writers (especially of fantasy) present a complete account of Christ's saving death and resurrection in their stories?" Along with this comes other questions: "What exactly makes a story 'Christian?' Simply being written by a Christian? Having Christian themes? Presenting the gospel?"

In short, I would like to suggest that "Christian" writing is a lot more complex than it appears at first glance. To answer some of the secondary questions above, just because a "Christian" author writes something doesn't make it inherently Christian. Conversely, even nonbelievers can write works that support Christian themes through God's common grace.

In the course of study and prayer, I've found the following Biblical guidelines helpful for providing rules to guide my own writing:

1) What is lawful/unlawful?

Paul talks about this first guideline in several of his letters, notably 1 Corinthians 10:23, where he states, "All things are lawful" (more on the next part of the verse in point 2). Basically, what this is understood to mean is that if it does not break specific Biblical commands (do not murder, do not commit adultery, etc.) then it is "lawful."

What does this mean for writers? We should not glorify anything in our writing that the Bible presents as unlawful. So if someone murders, show that murder to be wrong (through the murderer's punishment or through other characters' condemnation, and so on).

2) What is helpful/detrimental to my walk with Christ for me, personally?

In 1 Corinthians 10:23, Paul continues his guidelines by saying, "All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up." In this passage and in others (especially earlier in 1 Corinthians, in regard to food offered to idols) Paul makes it very clear that even if some activity may obey God's commands, it can still be unhelpful or detrimental to your personal walk with Christ.

This is often determined by your culture and upbringing--for example, in the Corinthian church, those who had been brought up eating food offered to idols as an act of worship felt it weakened their faith to eat the food after they became Christian. For others, however, raised in different circumstances, eating that food was just like eating any food.

So what does this mean for us? Well, first, as writers, we don't want to write about something that will tempt us to think sinfully or even something that distracts our focus on God. For example, some Christian writers (especially younger writers) prefer not to write about romance. They believe it's fine for others to, but for them personally, it's not helpful or edifying at that time in their life. The same can be said for using certain types of profanity or substitutes for profanity--some may find it deeply offensive; for others, it's just second nature.

3) What builds up/sets a stumbling block before other Christians?

What does the Bible teach about this guideline? Well, Paul certainly has a lot to say. In the same passage we've looked at twice above -- 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 -- Paul says, "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor." Also, in 1 Corinthians 8:9, he states, "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak."

This is a very difficult guide to follow writers. We write, after all, so that other people can read what we've written (at least, most of us do). Often, our readers may be brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, we come under this guideline all the time. But how, you may ask, can we protect other Christians from stumbling in the context of a fantasy story? Clearly, it's impossible to foresee every single detail that might cause one of our readers to stumble. 

This is one of those areas where there are no easy answers. I can't give you a magic ruler that says, "That sentence there, especially the adjectival clause, will cause Mariella to stumble, so cut it out!" Here, you must pray sincerely and deeply to God and trust in Him to lead you as you write and edit. Consider getting someone you respect, who has both life experience and Biblical understanding, to look over your draft and point out some potential problematic areas. Again, pray, keep praying, and don't stop praying.

4) What reaches out to non-Christians?

In 1 Corinthians 10:32-33, Paul continues, "Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved."

As Christians, one of our primary responsibilities is to "Go, make disciples." We are to proclaim the kingdom of God; a weighty task, certainly. So what part does our writing play in the process?
Basically, the answer is different for each individual. God may call some to write directly allegorical stories (Pilgrim's Progress, and the Chronicles of Narnia, to an extent). For other stories, an actual "salvation experience" is not necessary; instead, God speaks through Biblical themes of redemption and love and sacrifice. 

Here, again, use much prayer. God does have a plan for your writing, just as He does for your life. Your role is to trust, pray, and obey!

I'll conclude my post here, although there's much more to be said on this topic. Hopefully, you've been challenged to think deeply about how your writing relates to your Christian walk. Whether or not you agree with the points I've outlined, I pray that you'll at least be led to give further thought to how your writing is a part of God's plan for your life. May God bless you, and have a happy Easter  Resurrection Day!