Saturday, December 29, 2012

Top Blog Posts of 2012

The year 2012 is almost at an end--and what a year it has been! As we think over what this year has brought us, let's also look back at some of the highlights of the blog this past year. So, without further ado, here are the top 15 blog posts of 2012! (Posts are listed in chronological order.)

The Hows and Whys of Naming God in Your Fantasy Story

The Weapons in Fantasy Series -- Swords, Bows, Armor

The Fashion in Fantasy Series -- Females, Males, Shoes

The Villain Series -- 5 Ways to Kill Your Villain, Recipe for a Dark Lord

Easter and Fantasy

The Names Series -- Names in the Bible, How to Name Your Characters

Costs and Benefits of Self-Publishing

The Colors in Fantasy Series -- Tools, Opposites

So go ahead and click those links to read any posts you missed! And if you liked other posts from the blog, be sure to comment and let me know. I look forward to an even better 2013!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ships & the Ocean in Fantasy

Occasionally I will open a new book, and, within the first few pages, I’ll notice something different: the salty tang of the ocean breeze, the soft splash of waves breaking against the prow of a ship, the creak of the rigging—in short, the story is set at sea.

Fantasy stories set in or around the sea are somewhat rare, but a few authors have produced lovely stories of ships, islands, and voyages. Some prime examples are C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Chronicles.

Today, we’ll discuss several things that make sea stories powerful—and then, some warnings and cautions when writing tales set at sea. First, the positives.

The most important aspect is how rare oceanic settings are in fantasy. So few fantasy stories are set at sea that it’s always refreshing to read one. (Mind you, other elements—such as air—are even more neglected and deserve a few well-crafted fantasies of their own.)

Second, stories of voyages always possess a lovely old-fashioned medieval atmosphere. Ships and the sea possess a nostalgia as we moderns become ever more confined to cars, airplanes, and our electric-lighted-GPS-guided cities. To be out on the open sea, able to gaze up at the Milky Way (or, rather, the constellations of your own galaxies)—it’s a beauty we seldom enjoy. (That’s not to say that everything about sailing was golden. Remember, sailors sometimes had to eat rats! Don’t let life on board the ship get too comfortable!)

Next, stories of voyages have the potential to explore any number of fantastic settings in the form of islands along the way. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there’s a desert island inhabited by a dragon; a prosperous and independent island tyrannized by slave traders; an island with little invisible dwarf-like creatures each possessing a single enormous foot; and more. The possibilities for variations of culture, dress, language, and so forth on various islands are nearly limitless.

Furthermore, oceanic tales afford the possibility for underwater fantasy creatures. Among the possibilities are merfolk, nereids, talking seahorses, krakens, or some species of your own design. If you do write a sea story, be sure to include some sort of fantasy sea creatures so that your readers are reminded that this is no ordinary oceanic tale.

Finally, stories set at sea can offer the dual sense of discovery and danger. Voyages have defined goals or purposes (traveling from point A to point B is common, but exploration—say, for new lands or for lost people or for gold—are often used as well) that serve to give the story united thrust. There’s constant tension in the form of the potential of running out of food or of being shipwrecked or lost at sea. The sense of direction and danger in sea stories give them a hidden power.

However, before you run to your pen/computer to begin writing, let me warn you that oceanic fantasy stories have severe flaws that we as writers must face.

The first and most crucial warning is that stories of voyages have the potential to get very boring, very fast. Because there are a limited number of characters on ship, there’s not as much suspense. Readers can guess the source of the conflicts, and thus they don’t have the sense of “what’ll happen next” to keep them turning pages. Just as the ocean starts to look the same after a while, so too do stories of voyages.

Furthermore, oceanic stories are often episodic, with each stop on an island like a “mini-story” in the middle of one long, boring voyage. Unlike most stories, which possess a cohesive narrative that makes the story flow smoothly from one scene to the next, stories of voyages often jerk the reader from one island to the next in a series of unconnected adventures.

Finally, stories set at sea are predictable. The same obstacles seem to come up in all of them: hunger, storms, shipwreck, sea monsters, drowning…the list goes on. Again, this will leave your reader bored and without suspense.

However, there is redeeming potential in oceanic fantasies. As always, my recommendation is to invert the expected elements to make them the opposite of what readers will be watching for. For example, try making the sea bright pink instead of blue. I guarantee that your readers will be at least momentarily diverted. You could also have portals inside the ship that transport characters to other places, making the ship a transportation device on the inside rather than the outside. Or you could place the ocean in the interior of a ship rather than its exterior. Once you begin looking for ways to contradict the expected norms, the opportunities are endless.

What about you—have you read any good fantasies set at sea? Have you ever written any oceanic fantasy tales? Any pros or cons or helpful tips to add to the list above?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Day of Rest and Review, Part 2

Two weeks ago, the first part of my series of two posts on a "day of rest and review" was featured on the Holy Worlds blog. Here's the opening of part 2, published today.
In part 1, I discussed the concept of a “DoRR”: a Day of Rest and Review devoted to God and centered on your writing. Just to recap, here’s the overall structure I suggested for your day:

1. Begin with Scripture, prayer, and journaling.
2. Look Back
3. Look Now
4. Look Ahead
5. Close in Scripture, prayer, and journaling.

In today’s post, I’ll take a closer look at the “meat” of the DoRR—the three middle portions of look back, look now, and look ahead.

Read the rest of the blog post at this link. And, for a dose of much-needed writing humor, here is Calvin and Hobbes.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Why are Fantasy "Boarding School" Books So Popular?

Harry Potter. Vampire Academy. Princess Academy. So many modern fantasy novels are set within the walls of a school—preferably a boarding school. But why? What is the attraction of school setting? That is what I will explore in today’s blog post.

First, school settings are familiar. As readers, it’s quite simple to wrap our minds around the idea of a school, simply because we’ve all been in school before. We know what to expect—homework, exams, classes, nice teachers and nasty ones. Even if we haven’t gone to boarding school (or homeschooled), it takes only a sight stretch of the imagination to picture the setting of a school.

Second, though, what makes these books interesting is that it’s school—with a twist. The school settings of fantasy books are intriguing not because they’re familiar but because they’ve got something different to them. Hogwarts in Harry Potter is interesting because it teaches magic. Princess Academy is exciting because it’s preparing uneducated mountain girls to act like princesses. Vampire Academy is intriguing because…well…let’s not go there. The point is, all of these schools sound much less boring than our schools were (although this may be an issue of “the grass is greener,” since learning takes work wherever we may go to school!). The “school with a twist” concept is interesting because of the way it combines the familiar with the exciting.

What’s more, these school stories are places we’d like to attend. Of course, we might not want to have to fend for our lives against dark wizards (Harry Potter) or prepare to marry a prince we’ve never met (Princess Academy), but in general, the school is engaging enough that we’d want to trade our own “boring” school experiences for these more exciting fictional schools.

An often-overlooked and very subtle benefit of school settings, though, is the innate structure of a school story. The school year has a very definite beginning and end, along with breaks for Christmas and the like, which forces authors to condense the story into one-year units. While such imposed structure may not work for every story, it does wonders to the outline of the story when there are definite deadlines by which x actions must take place.

A complement to the structure of school stories is the automatic multilayered plot. Obviously, on the surface level, there is conflict arising from teachers and homework and exams. However, there are also opportunities for conflicts among classmates. Then, too, in fantasy stories, there’s usually some darker villain looming in the shadows who must be conquered by the end of the school year. So many layers of conflict embedded in the story make it much more lifelike and interesting.

So there you have it: top reasons why school stories are so popular. They’re familiar, they have a twist that keeps them from boredom, they’re places we’d like to attend, the stories have structure, and they have an automatic multilayered plot.

Comment below and let me know your favorite school story, or tell us if you’ve been writing a school story yourself!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Guest Post: Day of Rest & Review

I have the pleasure to announce that the Holy Worlds blog is now featuring part 1 of 2 of a series on a "day of rest and review" by yours truly. The first post is available at this link, and the second will be posted next week. Here is my introduction to the series:
In this series of blog posts, I’m going to talk about the benefits of taking one day each 6-12 months off of your work or studies to rest and review your writing. There’s a parallel for this in the business world: it’s called a “personal development review,” which is a term you might see if you brave the world of cubicles (prison cells) in the member care or human relations department of a large company. It’s not a thought that would normally cross the farthest reaches of a starving scribbler’s mind.

But maybe it should.
I think this subject is one that's largely forgotten yet incredibly important for our development both as writers and as Christians, so I hope you'll take the time to head over to Holy Worlds and check it out. Look around the blog while you're at it, too!

As a side note, you may have noticed that Faerie & Faith has been somewhat silent the past two weeks. I do believe it's becoming  an annual tradition for me to post very little in the month of November (which is the month in which writers go crazy and sit at keyboards for hours on end trying to reach 50,000 or more words before the end of the month). If you're interested in my thoughts on Nano, you can find them here. Enjoy, and be assured: I'm now back in the full swing of blogging, and plan to post all the more in December.