Wednesday, July 17, 2013

When Life Gets in the Way: An Exercise in Courage


There are times in life when the projects you’re working on simply grind to a halt. The past two months have been such for me. As you’ve no doubt noticed, I’ve neglected blogging for more Saturdays than I care to count. I do have an excuse: two cross-continental moves between Asia and Europe, then Europe and North America, made me rather busy. That’s not to mention living out of a suitcase as well as fitting in sight-seeing in Europe and seeing friends and family in America. However, the point of the matter is that I have not been writing or blogging during this time. How can I ever find the courage to start back again?

You see, it takes courage to begin anew when you’ve neglected to work on something for a long while. Your conscience may start to bug you and you think, “I really should start to work on a new blog post…” but then things happen, and life gets in the way, and you don’t take the time to get started. In fact, it can be easier to push the projects aside and ignore that small voice in your head after a while. Soon it’ll be one month, then two, then three since you’ve written anything.

What’s a struggling sometimes-writer to do?

Here are some tips that I’ve found helpful for times like now when my writing has ground to a halt.
  • Discover what made you stop in the first place: Were you bored by your story? Was your life just “too busy” for writing? Did the genre of story not appeal to you any more? Did you get five or fifteen new ideas and couldn’t decide which one to work on? Did work/school become too urgent and time-consuming? Whatever your problem was, by identifying it, you make it easier to avoid the problem this time. Think back to the last time you wrote and the circumstances surrounding it, and see if you can think of what made your writing slow down.
  • Schedule time to write: there are always moments in the day in which you don’t have anything urgent or important to do. First pinpoint those times—maybe fifteen minutes after breakfast, half an hour before lunch, or an hour late at night. Then schedule some time to write then. The more intentional you are, and the more a part of your routine you make your writing, the easier it will be to start afresh.
  • Remember, the first time is the hardest: Any writer will know that beginning a story, a blank page, a fresh piece of paper, can be an intimidating challenge. But you have to start somewhere. Write one word, then another, and pretty soon you’ll discover that the most difficult part was starting. (Although finishing a project can be just as tricky…but that’s a subject for another post.)
  • Above all, don’t give up: It’s never too late to start writing again. Never fool yourself into thinking that you’re a horrible writer who will never finish anything and nobody wants to read your work. I want to assure you that every single person has a worthwhile story to tell. Whether or not that story is the one you’re working on now, you can be assured that you are adding something of value to the world. You can even find yourself a team of fellow writers or encouragers to keep you going and remind you that what you’re writing is significant. Just don’t give up!


So here I am, concluding the first blog post I’ve written in over a month. It’s been difficult to write, but I hope that these tips on courage help you just as much as they’ve helped me. Enjoy writing!


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Creating Fantasy Languages


One of the most interesting aspects of fantasy works is the fact that they take place in worlds of their own, with the potential for entirely new life-forms, cultures, and languages. A few fantasy authors have capitalized on this unique opportunity by going so far as to create their own language(s) to populate their fantasy world. Of course, J.R.R. Tolkien stands as an eminent example of such a practice.

In today’s blog post, I’d like to examine first of all whether it’s worthwhile to create a language/languages for your world, and second of all provide you with some resources in case you are interested in creating languages. So, without further ado, let’s begin.

Pros:
  • Languages provide depth: There’s nothing that proclaims the hard work and seriousness of your story than a language. Adding a unique fantasy language adds an immediate dose of credibility to your story that your readers may enjoy.
  • Languages add believability to characters and settings: Languages can be invaluable tools for developing various unique civilizations and cultures in your story. Also, individual characters may be better described and recognized based on the language(s) that they speak.
  • Languages can be fun to create: This one’s pretty self-explanatory—languages are a fun break from the grind of churning out a rough draft or meticulously editing your manuscript. Just don’t get so caught up in languages that you neglect the story itself!
  • Languages are important biblically: The account of the tower of Babel tells of a time in which everyone spoke one language and “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Gen 11:6) Recognizing the power of language, God created different languages, causing people to be scattered and divided throughout the earth. In short, languages have power biblically. Don’t underestimate this power in your story!


Cons:
  • Languages are time-consuming to create: It takes a lot of effort and time to come up with a unique language, especially if you use a distinct alphabet. Tolkien himself began the work of creating his elvish languages in his teen years, and the project was still in progress in his forties. Be aware that this isn’t a project to take lightly!
  • Languages don’t advance the plot and rarely help to create better characters: While languages do have some role in the story as part of the setting, they are not usually instrumental to the progress of the plot itself. They also don’t usually add to the believability of characters, since other elements—such as their likes, their dislikes, and their interests—are more essential to readers’ knowledge of characters. So don’t let languages become too much of a priority.
  • Languages require explanation and can distract from the overall story: Let’s be honest here—foreign languages slow the action down. They should be used sparingly, if at all. Be sure to weigh the benefit of adding depth to the cost of slowing down the story before you insert any languages into the story!


With that analysis behind us, let me point you to some resources in case you would be interested in creating languages.

The Language Construction Kit: a very helpful resource for those trying to create an artificial language. You can use the resources in as much or as little depth as you wish.

Language Creation Society: if you’re really serious about creating a language, they have some helpful resources on their website. Be warned—it’s not for the faint of heart!

Discussion Thread on Creating Phonetic Systems: You may have heard me mention the HolyWorlds forums once or twice on this blog. That’s because they contain many, many helpful discussions on topics relevant to Christian fantasy writers—including this particular easy-to-understand guide to creating languages and phonetic systems.

Article on How Language Affects Behavior: this article by Stanford researcher Lera Boroditsky highlights examples of how the language you speak affects how you see the world and how you behave. Although it’s not directly related to creating languages, it is very fascinating to skim if you have a few minutes to spare.


And that brings us to the end of today’s post. Now it’s your turn: have you ever tried inventing a language? How did it go? Any advice on how to include languages in your fantasy story?



Sunday, May 19, 2013

Writing During Vacations


In case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been these past two weeks, I had the pleasure of a wonderful holiday in Vietnam. With beaches, mountains, motorcycles, friends, shopping, and delicious Vietnamese food, I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more.

Before you start getting too jealous, I’d like to remind everyone that summer holidays are just around the corner. For many of you, you’re wrapping up school or work, and maybe even graduating within the next few weeks. Give yourself a pat on the back and a hearty congratulations. At the very least, you’ve nearly made it through the first half of the year!

With the prospect of some freedom and breathing room up ahead, that leads me naturally to the subject of what happens to our writing when we’re on vacation. How can we make writing a part of our holidays without making the vacation too stressful or unpleasant?

1. Have a plan
Deliberately schedule time each day or every few days to write. Don’t leave this to chance—if you don’t schedule time, the more fun activities of vacation (watching TV?) will take first place and you will get little or no writing done at all.

2. Write as early in the day as possible
Yes, I understand you want to sleep in (heaven knows we all need more sleep!), but once you’re up, don’t wait until later to write. Get it done early on.

3. Don’t stress about quality
You’re on holiday, for goodness’ sake, so relax a bit! Don’t worry about getting the story perfect. Just get it done! Particularly when you are writing your first draft, your focus should be on writing, not on how good your writing is. Even if you decide to edit rather than write over the vacation, you should still take it easy on yourself. Have confidence in the small steps you’re taking. Don’t let yourself stress about the final product before the story is even finished.

4. Determine what you want to focus on: researching/planning, drafting, editing
Each person has different writing strengths and weaknesses. For me, writing the first draft is the most difficult part of the writing process. I’ve found that, when I’m drafting large chunks of story, long uninterrupted vacation times are essential. Then during the rest of the year, it’s a lot easier to carefully edit what I’ve written. So for example, I wrote my first full draft of my novel Red Sun Blue Earth over the month of June last year, when I was on holiday. During the rest of the year, I primarily spent my time editing. Of course, each person is different, so make sure you’ve pinpointed what portion of the writing process you want to tackle over your vacation.

5. After your vacation, focus on the positives
If you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t accomplish quite as much as you’d hoped over the holidays. Rather than bemoaning the fact that you didn’t write four hours a day, however, you should congratulate yourself on what you did do. Re-read what you’ve written, if you’d like. Maybe tally up your total wordcount or pagecount. Reward yourself for what you’ve accomplished.


And that’s it—just a few pointers about enjoying yourself (and your writing) over the holidays. So tell me, do you have any ideas yet for what writing you want to accomplish over the summer? Are you planning to travel anywhere exciting? Do you prefer drafting, editing, or researching/planning over the holidays? Let me know in the comments!


Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: The Circle Series

Today it's about time for another book review, and I'm particularly excited to introduce today's book (or, more properly, series). I'll be reviewing Ted Dekker's Circle Series, which many people regard as a masterpiece of Christian literature. You'll see more of my thoughts below, so without further ado, here is my review!

Title: The Circle Series (Black, Red, White, Green)
Author: Ted Dekker
Page Count: 1,553 pages total

Stars: 4 of 5
4 = well-written and a good read

Teaser: After being chased by mysterious gunmen, Thomas Hunter wakes up in an "Other Earth" that he keeps returning to every time he falls asleep. This "Other Earth" at first resembles an unfallen Eden. Soon, however, evil and sin threatened the Other Earth. Bad as this may seem, these catastrophic events in the Other Earth are eclipsed by the threat of a deadly virus about to be unleashed on our Earth. Thomas Hunter gradually becomes a leader in both worlds as he attempts to avert both impending disasters.

Age level: 14+ (mid-teens)

Violence: 3 of 5
3 = definitely some gory portions, especially in Green, but nothing beyond PG-13 material

Romance: 2 of 5
2 = love and romance are a part of the story, in a restrained and godly manner

Language: 1 of 5
1 = a few instances of slight language

Christian worldview: Dekker, as a Christian author, writes an explicitly Gospel-centered novel series along the lines of C.S. Lewis. I admit I was a bit doubtful at first as to how the Gospel would tie into the story and whether it would feel over-spiritual or too allegorical. However, I think on the whole the series managed to reveal true Christianity as it might appear in both our earth and the "Other Earth" without being too cliche or trite. As such, I believe Dekker's Circle Series is a valuable addition to Christian literature.

My personal opinion: I love being able to dig into a long and satisfying series, and Dekker's Circle Series provides exactly that, with the bonus benefit of Christian themes. I was particularly impressed with Dekker's closure of the series and how it formed a sort of circle in and of itself. (I know some others found fault with this circular ending, but I thought it was clever and it resolved my unanswered questions well.)

So then why did I give the series only 4 stars? To be honest, I wasn't always too impressed with Dekker's characters and writing style. His plot, to be sure, is excellent. However, the word choice and sentence structure was occasionally clunky and overall seemed a bit plain and simplistic. The characters, too, didn't always feel alive and real, especially the female characters. On the other hand, as I mentioned above, the plot is truly original, the settings are splendidly crafted (especially his descriptions of "paradise"!) and I loved to hate the villains.

Overall, then, the Circle Series is an impressive work that I would urge any Christian interesting in writing fantasy to read. It's enjoyable, tense, action-packed, and a fascinating glimpse into Christian redemption viewed through the lens of a fantasy world.

Now your turn: have you read the Circle Series or any other Ted Dekker books? Do you like how he incorporates his faith into his stories? Any other comments on his work?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fanfiction

Star Trek devotees started the fanficiton
craze with the magazine above 
I must confess to a recent obsession with fanfiction--not of the fantasy sort, but more along the lines of Jane Austen novels. The variations and the scope within even the seemingly limited world of Jane Austen have me amazed at every turn. This minor obsession has led me to wonder about writing fanfiction myself. In today's blog post, then, I'd like to explore some of the pros and cons of writing fanfiction, whether for fantasy or other stories.

Before I begin, though, let me mention that my first full-length story (ahem, first forty-page scribbled notebook story!) was a fanfiction of Nancy Rue's Josiah Hutchinson stories. I used to love the characters and conflicts of Josiah's life in Salem and, naturally, I wanted in on the action. Since completing that story, I've dabbled into fanfiction only once in a two-page story about Eragon that I began but very quickly abandoned. Now, however, I find myself rather tempted by the thought of exploring Jane Austen through fanfiction!

Which leads me to wonder...should I or shouldn't I? To help me decide, I'll be exploring the pros and cons of fanfiction in today's post.

Pros:

  • Head start on the story: One of the greatest benefits of fanfiction is that the story contains already developed characters and a "storyworld"--or setting--that gives you a head start in your writing. You don't need to worry about what the characters look, act, or talk like; all you need to worry about is the plot.
  • Motivation: If you already love the stories and the world, then writing fanfiction may give you the right motivation to carry your story through to the end. You might not be motivated enough to write your own story, but a fanfiction of Lord of the Rings? Bring it on!
  • Fan base: A definite benefit of writing a story in a genre that has a fan base is that you have an instant audience for your story. A niche market for a particular type of fanfiction can provide your first readers and critiquers, who will eagerly devour and help improve your story.

Cons:

  • Copyright issues: This is the main issue in writing fanfiction. Because of copyright issues, your work must remain private and non-commercial unless you write a fanfiction of an older story without copyright restrictions (such as Jane Austen's works). Thus, be aware that even if you write a stunning fanfiction, you might never be able to publish your work.
  • Lack of originality and freedom: When you write fanfiction, you don't have very much room to change characters or to develop the story in your own directions. You may feel a bit confined, particularly to the author's original writing style. While I of course realize that you want to respect the original author's works, I would recommend that you don't confine yourself to do exactly as the original author did. Otherwise, you risk being predictable. Instead, explore and push the limits, even in your fanfiction.
  • Perceived image: A risk of writing fanfiction is that you may end up looking like you're piggy-backing off of someone else's work. Readers may wonder whether your writing would stand up on its own, without the framework of someone else's story. Be prepared for questions and doubts, both of your own making and of your readers' making.
  • Restricted imagination: Personally, I believe making up your own characters and setting is a unique opportunity for your imagination to grow and develop. If you never branch out on your own, you may end up restricting your imagination (not to mention your confidence for future writing!). Make sure, therefore, to keep fanfiction in balance with works that come from your own imagination.

That brings us to the end of our pro-and-con evaluation. So, will I end up writing some Jane Austen fanfiction? I'm thinking, for now, I'll focus on writing my own stories. Perhaps someday, though, Austen's characters and stories will re-awaken to life under my pen!

What about everyone else? Have any of you written fanfiction? What are some pros or cons you've experienced?

Warning: One does not simply write fanfiction...without going a little bit insane.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Saying Goodbye

"Parting is such sweet sorrow," said Shakespeare. Well, he was wrong: saying goodbye is all sorrow and no sweet. The problem is, there are times in life when we as writers need to say goodbye, whether to people, places, stories, or fantasy worlds. I've been reminded of this idea lately because I'll soon be saying goodbye to Asia and moving to the US. There's another reason, too -- I finished my first novel Red Sun Blue Earth last month (you can get it here on Amazon), but that means the story is over. It's done. I need to move on with my writing to a different world populated by different characters.

But what I'm learning is that it's hard to say goodbye.

Now I certainly hope I'm not alone here. Most people have moved to a different house at least once or twice in their lives. Some have even moved to different sates or countries. So you know what I mean--saying goodbye to a beloved place or friend can be difficult.

As writers, though, it can be even more difficult to say goodbye to our favorite stories. When we write, the words and actions and places and people of the story consume us. Even when we finish a rough draft, there's still a lot of editing and revising to do. We have to go back and tinker with sentences or tweak character traits. We see the action in our heads and hear the voices of characters over and over. But, eventually, there comes a time when the story is done. Maybe it's as good as it'll ever be, or maybe you've realized you need to set it aside for now even if it isn't perfect. Maybe you decide there's another story you'd rather be writing. Either way, saying goodbye can be hard.

What can we do, then, as writers? Must our hearts be broken each time we move on to the next story? I think not. Below are some ways to cope with saying goodbye to a story.

1. Keep a list of your favorite quotes from the old story to inspire you and keep you from feeling discouraged at the problems that arise in your writing. You can even collect pictures in an album or on Pinterest and look through them occasionally to revisit the good old days. However, don't leave these out in a too-obvious place--you need to be reminded, but you don't want to compare your new project with the old one. Each project should be uniquely special to you.

2. Get excited about your new project. Write like mad, every day if you possibly can, and be inspired by new character voices and fantastic places. It's a lot easier to remember the old place fondly if you're having fun in the new place!

For me, I've been writing a fantasy story that is really bad in quality but amazing in quantity--in the past four weeks, I've written over 40,000 words/200 (notebook) pages! My philosophy is to focus on writing more pages and enjoying the story, not stressing about whether it's good. (In case anyone's interested, the story is set in modern Ireland/a parallel magical Ireland, and the main character, Kelsey Marx, must take part in political revolutions and act in saintly plays and fight Vikings.) So, all that to say: deeply involve yourself in your new project, and keep at it!

3. Always remember that you can go back. If you really want to, you could write a short story or a poem about those characters from that story. Even better, you can go back and read what you've written. However, your focus should not be on looking back but on looking ahead. Rest assured, greater things are yet to come so long as you keep on writing!

4. If all else fails, eat chocolate and do something un-writing-related (just do not laze around on the Internet!). Maybe buy an awesome 500-piece puzzle. Paint a picture. Play a board game. Take some photos. Then, once you start feeling better, get to work on your new project. And have fun with it! Don't pressure yourself to be perfect, just pressure yourself to enjoy your writing and your life!


So that's it, folks -- your trusty tips to overcoming post-writing-depression. Let me know in the comments if you've ever suffered from this peculiar illness or if you have any other tips on saying goodbye that you'd like to add.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Review: Blackbringer


The past few weeks we've been discussing heavy issues like racism, bullying, and human trafficking and how to deal with those into our stories. This week, to give us a bit of a breather, I'm going to be reviewing one of my favorite fantasy books of all time, Blackbringer. Enjoy!

Title: Blackbringer
Author: Laini Taylor
Page Count: 448 pages

Stars: 5 of 5
  • 5 = An amazingly well-crafted story. Definitely one of my all-time favorites.

Teaser: When the ancient evil of the Blackbringer rises to unmake the world, only one determined faerie stands in its way. However, Magpie Windwitch, graddaughter of the West Wind, is not like other faeries. While her kind live in seclusion deep in the forests of Dreamdark, she's devoted her life to tracking down and recapturing devils escaped from their ancient bottles, just as her hero, the legendary Bellatrix, did 25,000 years ago. With her faithful gang of crows, she travels the world fighting where others would choose to flee. But when a devil escapes from a bottle sealed by the ancient Djinn King himself, she may be in over her head. How can a single faerie, even with the help of her friends, hope to defeat the impenetrable darkness of the Blackbringer?

Age level: Pre-teens and up (12+)

Violence: 2 of 5
  • 2 = PG-level violence that is significant in the story (other than one rather gruesome description of a devil, the violence is not severe)
Romance: 0 of 5

Language: 1 of 5
  • 1 = replacement swear words/made-up swear words

Christian worldview: The world in Blackbringer is "created" by several djinn, who at the time of the story have little or no involvement in the world. Obviously, this is a different view of creation than the Christian perspective. However, the djinn are not worshiped as God but seem to be reminiscent of Tolkien's Valar. As such, I didn't feel that the story significantly contradicted a Christian perspective. (Also, the story had an afterlife which I can't tell too much about to avoid spoilers. It wasn't a Christian view of heaven--God wasn't there--but it cohered with the rest of the fantasy world and as such didn't bother me.)

My thoughts: I picked this book up in the library for the first time over six years ago and fell completely in love. This is a flawless stand-alone fantasy book suitable for a wide audience. (Blackbringer does have a sequel, Silkslinger, which is very imaginative and sweet with a bit of romance in it. I don't like it quite as much, though, because it doesn't have the same grandeur or darkness that this book has in it.) 

Anyway, back to Blackbringer: it's got a spunky main character who is very tough and brave, with relatable strengths and weaknesses. The various side characters have fully developed personalities that are quite enjoyable and make me want to cheer them on. Plus, who can't love a story with diminutive faeries with wings?!

The setting is fantastic, too. The interaction between the human world and the faerie world is fascinating. Taylor's descriptions are quite vivid and easy to visualize. Oh, and did I mention that the author included beautiful illustrations of the main characters? It's totally fantastic.

But most of all, what I love about the story is that the villain is truly one of the best-crafted villains I've read. Scary, ominous, mysterious, dark, surprising...all of that and more. There are even a few "minor" villains scattered throughout to keep up the tension. The conclusion is dramatic and everything it should be. Really, I couldn't ask for a better story.


Comments, anyone? Have you read Blackbringer before? Or do you have any book recommendations for me?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Slavery & Human Trafficking

A few weeks ago, I began a series on tough, ugly issues that confront our world (and fantasy stories) today. I encouraged us as fantasy writers to use our writing as a platform for change. So far, I've spoken about racism and bullying. Today, I'll continue the series with a post on the very ugly issue of slavery and human trafficking. It'll be a bit longer than usual, but please bear with me!

I. Slavery in the Bible

First, some Biblical background. In the Bible, slavery is mentioned multiple times, especially in the context of the enslavement of the people of Israel. The Bible addresses how horrible slavery felt to those suffering in it by saying in Exodus 2:23, "The people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help." However, the story doesn't end there. The Bible tells us that, "Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel--and God knew." (verses 24-25) And God acted by bringing the people out of slavery.

In the New Testament, where slavery was a common practice, the church did not forbid slavery. Rather, speaking to slaves, the Bible said, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ...rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man." (Eph. 6:5-7) To masters, Paul wrote, "Do the same to [your slaves], and stop your threatening, knowing that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven." (verse 9) We should keep in mind, though, that slavery was legal back then and that the early church tried to obey the laws as much as possible, so long as they did not contradict God's law. More important for today may be the verse Micah 6:8, which reads, "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" It is our calling as Christians to fight injustice--including human trafficking--in the world today.

But let's dig a little deeper into Scripture. The Bible also refers to slavery in a deeper spiritual sense. Romans 6:17-18 and 22 reads, "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin ... and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. ... But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life." While we know that physical slavery is a horrible injustice, we must remember that as Christians there is an even greater issue: the slavery of people's hearts to sin.



II. Slavery Today

Now let's fast-forward two thousand years to slavery in today's world. For some background, I'd like to quote from the information found on International Justice Mission (IJM)'s website.

Forced labor slavery is the use of deception, threats or violence to compel someone to labor without pay or for no pay beyond the substance necessary to continue the labor. It is called by many names, including debt bondage and forced labor, and is a form of modern slavery.

Modern-day slaves face brutal conditions in rock quarries, rice mills, brick kilns, fisheries, garment factories and many other industries around the world. Victims of slavery are often deprived of the freedom of movement, unable to leave the facility where they are forced to work and unable to seek employment elsewhere. Forced laborers are also often victims of violent physical and sexual abuse.

Debt bondage is a common method used to entrap victims of slavery. In this illegal scheme, an employer offers a small loan (often as low as $25) to a laborer, with the understanding that the loan will be repaid through work at the owner’s facility. The owner then ensures this repayment is impossible by refusing to pay the employee and inflating the loan through exorbitant interest rates, false charges, and denying requests for information on the status of the loan. The laborer is forbidden to leave the work facility until the loan is “repaid” in full—despite the fact that the work already completed by the laborer should have fulfilled any obligation to the owner long ago. The employer becomes the laborer’s owner—and the loan’s conditions are often extended to relatives of the victim, including children, who are forced to work off a false and ever-growing debt.

THE FACTS
  • There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today—more than any other time in history.
  • Children below the age of 18 years represent an estimated 26% of all forced labor victims.
  • In a wide-reaching survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, approximately 40% of countries had not registered a single conviction against perpetrators of trafficking and slavery, which is crucial for deterrence.


III. Slavery in Fantasy

So, now that we've got that information under our belts, what can we do? Besides donating our time and resources to supporting ministries like IJM, we can harness our writing as a tool for change. How?

First and foremost, you can mention the issue of slavery or human trafficking in your story. Even just mentioning it will raise awareness of the issue. Getting the problem out in the open is crucial to eventually affecting change in our world. It doesn't have to be a major theme in your story, but knowing that the problem exists in the background could make a world of difference.

Second, if your story allows it, you can describe and show the suffering caused by slavery through the lives of one or more of your main characters. Mentioning the problem of slavery is all very well, but it's only when people realize that slavery is a problem--an unjust, painful, hideous problem--that people will start to think about what they can do to change it. As writers, one of our best tools is making something come alive to our readers. What better way to use that skill than to make the pain of slavery visible and tangible to readers, making them realize that not only slavery exists, but it must be changed!

Finally, if your story permits, you can even propose solutions to slavery through your story. Perhaps the talking eagles in your fantasy world are enslaved, but your main characters, a group of fearsome magical mice, wage a war to free the eagles. Or maybe your characters recruit freed slaves to join the fight against the evil dark lord. Maybe your main character, a former slave, returns to the place where she was kept as a slave in order to rescue her family or friends. The possibilities are as wide as your imagination; through these and other ways, you can use your story to propose solutions to slavery.

As always, do keep in mind that your story is not a sermon. Your story is life contained in words on the page. Never try to force your story into a message; instead, allow the flow of the words and the lives in the story to allow your message to shine through.


Now tell me: can you recommend any good books that tackle this problem? Have you ever tried to write about slavery? Do you have any suggestions or things to add to what I've mentioned above? Any resources about slavery in the Bible? Please comment and let us know!

(By the way, if you haven't had a chance to yet, I'd really recommend checking out IJM and getting involved in the fight against modern slavery.)


Friday, March 22, 2013

Bullying

Last week, I started a new series on tough issues in our world that we as fantasy writers can--even should--confront in our fantasy stories. If you missed out on my post last week, I highly suggest that you read it here. In today's post, I'll be talking about another extremely serious issue: bullying.

Most of us have had experiences with bullying before, especially as children. Now a few points, first, about bullies. According to many studies, bullies are often insecure people who tear others down in order to make themselves feel better. Bullies are not automatically "evil." Rather, they are often motivated by envy or resentment and may think that bullying is the only way they are esteemed, valued, or noticed. In terms of personality types, bullies are usually authoritarian/dominant personalities that enjoy controlling others, especially those against whom they are prejudiced.

With that information under our belts, let's turn to bullying itself. Bullying refers to some form of coercion or belittlement, whether emotional, verbal, or physical. Bullying often happens in the presence of a crowd of uninvolved bystanders, which adds to the victim's sense of humiliation. Bullying involves hurting someone through some sort of abusive language or behavior, usually intentionally. In some instances, casual or flippant words may have the same effect as bullying, even if they were not intended spitefully. Some common forms of bullying are name-calling, exclusion from events, verbal or written abuse, and physical violence.

Those who are victims of bullying often suffer the effects of bullying all their life. They typically feel belittled, and sometimes take that out on others by becoming aggressive or bullying themselves. Victims often feel lonely, depressed, and suffer from very low self-esteem. If you have had any experiences being bullied, you will remember the feeling of humiliation and misery as a result. It should come as no surprise, then, that those who are bullied also suffer from increased risk of suicide.

Bullying is a huge issue in our world, and can be found in as many different environments as there are people: school, the workplace, clubs and activities, on the Internet, and more.

Now, how can we translate this issue to our own fantasy worlds? The opportunities are nearly endless. Even fantasy races can participate in bullying, whether as bullies, bystanders, or victims. The psychological consequences of being bullied can add layers of meaning to certain characters in your story. You could include bullying as a backstory for a character, or you could make a character who has to stand up to bullying over the course of your novel.

One thing that I'd like to encourage here is that we, both as people and as writers, should have compassion on everyone involved in bullying. Of course we should condemn bullying wholeheartedly. However, we can also recognize that bullies and bystanders might sometimes deserve some compassion because of the things that are out of control in their lives (although that's not to say we should support their responses). Keep in mind the fact that everyone is hurt by bullying. Look for ways to translate bullying in your story into more complex situations with the potential for redemption.

Let me know what you think. Have you ever written a story in which someone is bullied? Do any of your "bad guys" show signs of being bullies? Have you read stories that dealt with this issue? (Note: If you're interested in finding out more information about bullying, I'd start with Wikipedia's overview here and the US government's stop bullying site here.)


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Racism

In these next few blog posts, I'd like to focus on some deeper, darker issues that we as fantasy writers are in a perfect position to tackle. For today, we'll be talking about racism.

First off, why should we even mention ugly issues like racism in a fantasy story? Isn't fantasy all about escaping the dark realities of this world and immersing readers in a world full of fairies and rainbows and light? As anyone who has read fantasy will tell you, no, rainbow-fairies and escapism is not what fantasy is all about.

In fact, I believe that fantasy is a medium that is excellent for conveying even the darkest truths about this world. You see, fantasy is like the reflection in a pond on a crisp autumn morning. The real world inspires the fantasy reflections. Sometimes, though, by seeing those reflections, your readers will be able to look at the real world with a clearer eye. What fantasy gives us, then, is a change of perspective. When we finish the last page and close the book, we don't look at the world in quite the same way.

So, in essence, fantasy provides us with the chance to challenge and maybe even to change a reader's view of the world. What a task--and what an opportunity!

Now that we've dealt with the power of fantasy, let's get down to the dirty business of racism. As most people know, racism refers to judging others based only on their skin color or race. Racism can result in one race believing itself superior to others and segregating or enslaving other races.

How does racism fit into fantasy? Well, most fantasy worlds have multiple beings/species/races. For example, Lord of the Rings has a variety of sentient beings--Elves, humans, wizards, and hobbits, among others. What if hobbits suddenly decided that their height entitled them to a superiority above all the other beings in Middle-Earth? Instead of a dark lord you would have a hobbit, both terrible and beautiful and powerful and short! Or, to make the issue a bit more human, what if the men of Gondor decided that they were superior to the men of Rohan and Bree and the North, and then decided to enslave anyone other than the inhabitants of Gondor?

As you can see, there are ample opportunities for racism, segregation based on race, and racial slavery even in fantasy stories.

I suggest that you take a close look at your own story. Is there a place where your story might benefit from the tension and conflicts created by racism? Do you have multiple species or races in your story, and does each one have a separate place in society? If your fantasy world has everyone equal, then think about the history of your world. Was there a time in the past where everyone was not equal? If so, how did the present equality happen, and how could you use those lessons in your story?

All of the above is not to say that you should be preachy in your stories or start ranting about the horrors of racism. Your story, not a moral lesson, is what's important here. I do suggest, though, that you take the opportunity to use your story to reflect some of the darkness in the real world. Challenge your readers by showing them ugliness not just in fantasy but in their own lives. Give people the chance to learn and change. Whether you use racism or some other topic (maybe one that I'll be covering over the next few weeks), I hope that you use your story as an opportunity to challenge and change the world.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Announcing...My Book!

At long last, the day has come: my first novel, Red Sun Blue Earth, is published! You can find the ebook and print book here on Amazon. But before you hop over to Amazon, let me give you a short "review" of my book to let you know what it's all about.

Title: Red Sun Blue Earth
Author: Sienna North
Page Count: 248 pages

Stars: (well, that would be rather self-serving!)

Teaser: Sayaka Sato is an ordinary fifteen-year-old—until 3:46 pm on March 11, when an earthquake and tsunami strike Japan and rip her life into shreds. Sayaka is frantic to find her family, but first, she must survive cold, hunger, and worse. Will Sayaka be able to reunite with her family, earn their forgiveness, and forge a new life for herself, or will she be too late?

Age Level: 13+ (teens and up)

Violence: 3 of 5
  • Scenes of death and destruction make up a significant portion of the story, although there are no graphic/gory descriptions.

Romance: 0 of 5
  • Sorry, romance-lovers--you'll have to find another tale!

Language: 1 of 5
  • A few hastily cut-off exclamations

Christian Worldview: This book is not a Christian fiction book, and none of the characters in the story are Christian--not surprising, considering Japan's Christian population is less than 1%. However, I certainly believe that the themes in the story (such as hope and forgiveness) support a Christian message and don't glorify anything non-Christian.

My Personal Opinion: It goes without saying that I love my book, aside from those horrible moments of paralyzing self-doubt inflicted upon all writers. It took me quite a lot of effort to write, edit, get test-readers' feedback, edit, hire a professional editor, edit, get more test-readers' feedback, edit, proofread, and publish! I would say that the story is especially great for people who want to learn more about Japan, who are interested in the 2011 disaster, or who enjoy coming-of-age stories. I hope, though, that everyone can find something to enjoy in it.


I am hosting a release party for Red Sun Blue Earth on my favorite forum, Holy Worlds Historical Fiction. To add to the excitement, there will be contests, quizzes, and giveaways. The invitation is below, and the party can be found here. Feel free to join the forum and and participate in the party!

And, while you're at it, here is the link for my ebook and for the print book. Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments!


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Islands & Fantasy


I recently stumbled across an intriguing lecture series on iTunes regarding islands—their history, their culture, and even their atmosphere. This led me to think, what is the connection between islands in fantasy? What fantasy stories contain islands? What are the pros and cons of using islands in your own story-world? These are questions I’ll explore in today’s blog post.

First, some pros of using islands in your story:
  • Writing a world set on islands is a fairly unique choice. There are other examples of island fantasies, like Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Chronicles or C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader or Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice. However, on the whole, islands are an untapped treasure mine for fantasies.
  • The setting of an island can provide a frame for the story to orient your readers and allow you to construct realistic limits on the action.
  • Island stories often include ships and pirates—always a good thing, in my opinion.
  • Islands are so very intriguing in our own world, and they develop such an interesting flavor and tradition all their own. Consider Ireland, England, Japan, Indonesia, or any other famous island in our world. Use these real-world islands as inspiration.
  • Islands provide many interesting cuisine options like sharp shellfish and seaweed. Can be quite interesting for detail and, perhaps, character squeamishness.


Now for some cons:
  • The most important drawback to an island fantasy is that it can be limited, not only geographically but also in terms of characters. If you do decide to use an island story, consider carefully whether you want your island(s) to appear in isolation or connected to/warring against a mainland for more variety.
  • Also, as with many other stories, an island setting will not save your story if you have a boring plot and cliché characters. Islands can only do so much—you need to work out the rest yourself!



And that’s it for today, folks. What about you—have you ever written an island fantasy? What are some of your favorite island stories?

(Side note: My first book is coming soon on Monday, March 11. Stay tuned for the announcement!)


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dissecting a Book Cover

Some books from my Goodreads shelf
Picture yourself in the bookstore of your choice, the smell of coffee and paper wafting through the air, a light buzz of background noise filling your ears as you scan shelf after shelf. At last--there--you see it! The most beautiful book you've ever laid eyes on! And you knew, without a doubt, that that book must be yours.

Ever had a reaction like that? Probably not. Still, we've all felt that irresistible attraction to a beautiful book cover that makes us want to pick up the book and see what it's all about. More importantly, almost all of us have had some experience with a horribly designed, amateurish book cover that makes us want to run away as fast as possible.

As these reactions reveal, it's not just what's in the books, it's what's on them that counts. Therefore, in today's post, we'll be exploring the most basic and crucial elements of any successful book cover. You may not be designing your own book cover--for sanity's sake, I hope you aren't!--but you can still use the tips below to evaluate book covers and, when the time comes, to guide your own designer as you create your book cover. (Stay tuned for an announcement about my own book cover at the end of today's post!)

1. Readability

This is the absolute single factor that will make or break a cover. The title, the author's name, the text...it all needs to be legible! You all know how frustrating it is to try to squint and puzzle out, "Is that an 'i' or an 'l'? Is that curlicue a word or decoration? What does 'lmfori' spell, anyway?" The last thing you want is for your readers to be frustrated with your book before they even reach the first page!

So, in a nutshell: make it legible.

2. The Human Element

It's a psychologically proven fact that the human eye is drawn first to any human element in an image before looking at other items in the image. Don't believe me? Try it out on this image below:


Your eye was drawn to the person, right? The point here is that people are drawn to other people, and we can take advantage of that fact when creating and evaluating book cover designs. To put this fact into more tangible terms: potential readers will pick up your book or click on the link to the book and then read the book more often if your book cover has a human element on it. Don't ignore the power of the human factor.

3. A Sense of Genre

What are covers there for? Have you ever thought about why books have covers (other than to keep the dust and coffeestains off)? Here's your answer: book covers are a form of communication.

Your book covers exist to alert readers at a glance to the book's contents. If it's a scifi thriller, you might see a lot of steel surfaces but you won't see a girl in a ballgown on the cover. If it's a mystery, you might see a magnifying glass but you probably won't be seeing a Ranger, hooded and cloaked.

On the reading end, of course, we already know this fact subconsciously. What makes us pick up some books in the library and pass on others? A lot of times, it's because the covers have already alerted us to the material inside.

But as writers or designers, we need to realize that the cover of our book sets up expectations about what the readers will find inside. We need to utilize the cover as a first-glance tool, not just for catching a reader's attention, but to let them know what to expect inside.


And those are the most crucial considerations of cover design! I hope this post has increased your interested in the fascinating world of cover design. Let me know about any experiences you've had with covers in the comments--best, worst, or your own cover design process.



I mentioned above that I have an announcement to make. My cover designer, Scarlett Rugers, has completed a beautiful cover for my novel, Red Sun Blue Earth! I highly recommend Scarlett's work for anyone looking for a cover designer. And for those of you who don't know, my novel is the story of a teen girl who survives Japan's 2011 tsunami, and her search for her family in the aftermath. The book will be available on March 11, 2013, the two-year anniversary of Japan's tsunami.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Food & Fantasy

I love food. Cranberry scones, lemon sorbet, apple pie, Japanese hiyashi-chuka noodles, fresh-baked bread, thin crust pizza...food can be so delicious and amazing!

Then again, sometimes it's more weird than wonderful--bird's nests, shark fin soup, grubs, fried crickets, and more. As fantasy writers and readers, we can be alert to using all of the mighty powers of food for many different purposes.

That's what today's blog post is about: food and fantasy.

1. Everyday-subsistence food
Your story may be a fantasy, but your characters do need to eat. (Unless they are some sort of non-eating-elemental-beings, in which case they probably need energy like moonbeams rather than food.)

Think carefully about what the ordinary people in your story eat on a daily basis. Do they have wheat and corn and potatoes, as in our world? Is there a ready supply of meat? Or are they vegetarians (like me)? Are there any types of daily foods that are unique to your world--special fruits, for example, or maybe a type of vegetable that your main character hates?

If your characters travel over the course of your story, be sure to have them sample different cuisines along the way. There's no better way to add realism to your story than by describing the different sorts of foods your characters encounter along the way!

A few words of warning: while food is an interesting detail that adds texture to your story, don't let it be unnecessarily prominent. Don't just mention food for the sake of mentioning food. Whenever you mention food, make it part of the conflict: the main character doesn't want to offend her host, but she hates eating zinzer roots; some village children are falling sick because of malnutrition; your crew of hearty sailors have scurvy or are running short of food. You get the picture. Make food interesting, important, and maybe dangerous.

2. Special-occasion food
In our world, food is so often tied to celebrations. Think of Thanksgiving dinner. What would it be without turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing? Then there's Easter, which is practically synonymous with eggs. Or what about Chinese New Year--you have your springrolls, your pineapple tarts, your lo hei/yusheng. Food is an inescapable part of celebrating.

So in your fantasy world, when you have celebrations of the new year or for a coronation or for the king's birthday or for the Harvest Festival, be sure to concoct some special and essential foods to celebrate.

3. Food with special properties
Think of all the examples: Snow White's poisoned apple. The elves' lembas bread from Lord of the Rings. The Weasley twins' nosebleed nougats and canary creams from Harry Potter. We're writing fantasy stories, so we really can let our imagination run wild with our foods. Make your foods poisonous, deceiving to the eye (maybe it looks like sugar and tastes like coal), bestow strength on the eater, make the eater turn into a canary, make the eater invisible...the possibilities are endless.

If you're really interested in the possibilities of magical food in fantasy, study J.K. Rowling's use of candies and foods in Harry Potter. Food is one of the many things that makes Rowling's stories come to life in readers' heads.


A note on presentation: in some cultures, like Japan, the arrangement of the food is crucial. The food is meant not just to be useful but to be beautiful. The colors are chosen to create harmony on the plate; the foods are arranged in special shapes and positions. In such cultures, food can be an art form in and of itself. You could write an entire book about a girl determined to succeed as a food artist but prevented by the traditional heirarchy of her fantasy world. My point here is, don't just think about food as a detail or sustenance for your character. Make the food and the presentation of the food woven seamlessly into the fabric of your fantasy culture.


All this talk about food is making me hungry! Good thing it's almost lunchtime. Let me know if you've made up any foods for your fantasy world, or if you have any cool examples to share of uses of food in the stories you've read.


Friday, February 1, 2013

What to Do When You're Self-Publishing

For those of you who don't know, I'm self-publishing my first novel, Red Sun Blue Earth, in only five weeks on March 11, 2013. It's the story of a teen girl caught in Japan's 2011 tsunami, and how she survives and tries to find her family. As you can imagine, my story has been consuming a lot of my thoughts and energy lately. I thought I'd take advantage of the things I've learned so far in the process and write a post on resources you can use when you've reached the self-publishing stage.

Mini story, "The Two Princess and Freddie," by yours truly


1. Get yourself a professional cover.
Seriously, folks, it's that important. The cover is your first impression, the first connection between your readers and your story. It's a method of communication in the same way that your first page is. Your cover could in fact make or break your story. Don't skimp here! Budget carefully so that you can hire the best.

The cover designer I'm using for Red Sun Blue Earth is Scarlett Rugers. I've been very impressed with her services thus far, and her prices are fairly reasonable for the industry. Here's a blog post on covers for self-published authors, and one on getting cover art. Other cover designers that I researched are Damonza and Historical Editorial. Self publishing companies such as CreateSpace also offer basic cover design, but not sure that I'd recommend using those resources. They may not offer professional quality covers or enough flexibility to get a cover you like.

2. You need feedback. Hire an editor, or at the very least have a team of test-readers edit and critique your book.
What I said above really says it all. The stereotype of self-published books is that they are poor quality and badly written. Who doesn't like busting stereotypes? So be sure to make your book the best it possibly can be by offering it up as a sacrificial offering to the eyes of editors and test readers who may butcher it but who will probably ensure that your book is better than it would've been on its own.

For my book, once I was finished with two drafts on my own, I got together a team of test readers from my favorite writing forum, HolyWorlds, who gave me some good feedback. I also got feedback from family and friends at this point. After incorporating their feedback in a third and fourth draft, I hired what's called an editorial evaluation, which is where editors give me their feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of my story in about a six or eight page Word document. (It's less detailed and more general than page-by-page editorial services, but since hiring a professional editor costs one or two thousand dollars or more, I needed to economize a bit!) I got the evaluation from CreateSpace, and was very pleased with the quality and depth of it. If you are looking for a full editor, I'd suggest the following resources as a starting point: Book Editing Associates, Through the Looking Glass, G-Revisions, Editorial Freelancers Association, and Hock's Editing Services.

3. Appearances matter, so be sure to format it or hire a formatter.
This one's a bit more basic. The technical details of preparing a Word document or manuscript to sell online can get a bit complex, so I'd recommend hiring someone to take care of it for you. However, it's definitely possible to DIY this one, especially if you've got an eye and the time for nitty-gritty details. Here's a tutorial that walks you through formatting your book in HTML. Although I haven't hired a formatter yet, I'm planning to use the skills of Aubrey Hansen, who has done some excellent formatting in books that I've read in the past. Plus she's extremely affordable.


There's more involved, of course, but these are the three major elements that every self-publishing author needs to deeply consider before the book becomes public. I may post later about other aspects of self-publishing to keep in mind. This is quite enough information to start off with, though, in my opinion!

Let me know in the comments if you've ever self-published, and what resources you've used, and if you have any questions on self-publishing or any tips to share from your experiences. Have a great week!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Medicine and Healing in Fantasy

I don't know about everyone else, but I had a bit of a rough week. First off, I developed a nasty sort of infection so that I could barely move my arm. Then, I needed surgery to remove the infection, and not just any surgery, but the whole anesthetized enchilada. Since then, I've had to go back to the doctor's almost every day for poking and prodding -- also known as "healing."

Now, as a writer, there's a definite silver lining to this otherwise-unfortunate circumstance. That is to say, if I ever need to write a character who develops an infection and has to have surgery or is anesthetized, then I'll know what it's like! And, what's more, it got me thinking about medicine and healing in fantasy. So let's explore that topic in today's blog post.

Fantasy stories are by their very nature dangerous. Whether your hero battles a fire-breathing dragon or your heroine takes up swordfighting, the chances are quite high that one of your characters will be injured in the course of your story. (If no one gets injured in your entire story, well, maybe now's your chance to re-think your strategy.) What, then, is your poor bleeding character to do? Below, I'll explore several options for types of medicine and healing that you could use in your story.

1. Herbal Lore 
Pros: This is really the quintessential fantasy healing method. For example, in Lord of the Rings, Aragorn's athelas or kingsfoil plant brings healing to people who have been hurt by the Nazgul. It can be quite effective in medieval-style fantasies in particular.

Cons: On the other hand, it seems to me that so many fantasy stories abound with strange herbs with interesting properties. If you are going to use herbal remedies, then make them unique somehow. Beautiful flowers, meaningful symbolism, deceptive appearance--the options are almost unlimited. Another thing to keep in mind is that it takes quite a lot of knowledge and training and skill to find and administer herbal cures. In other words, don't let just anyone plaster plants on your characters!

2. Magical Healing 
Pros: Again, this is a method of healing that feels quite natural in most fantasy stories. Plus, in some cases, you may have situations where characters aren't affected by regular diseases or wounds but rather by dark and evil forces at work. In such situations, magical healing may be the only cure. Remember Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit, when he heals that tiny and absolutely adorable hedgehog Sebastian? That's a situation in which magical healing works wonderfully.

Cons: Magical healing can't be a cure-all for any problem. Even in a magical and fantastic world, there needs to be pain and suffering and loss in order to make your story meaningful. For example, again in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo returns to the Shire, he feels the pain of the sword-stab he received on Weathertop. In the end, the pain of his wounds (physical and, perhaps, spiritual) makes him decide to leave Middle-Earth forever.

3. Modern Medicine
Pros: Using modern medicine like painkillers and antibiotics and stitches is quite an unusual choice for a fantasy story. Because it's so rare, it's always very interesting. And, too, if you introduce some sort of epidemic like the plague, then modern medicine can offer quite effective cures. In an old version of a fantasy story I was writing, teens from earth get transported to another world, and they are carrying modern medicines that they use in the story.

Cons: Obviously, modern medicine would not work in every novel. Some fantasies are so historical in nature that using modern medicine would be out of place. However, sometimes you can borrow concepts and ideas from modern medicine and translate them into your story in ways that would work. Also, don't forget that modern medicine requires a whole lot of training. To become a doctor or a nurse, you need to go through years and years of rigorous schooling. Even in a fantasy story, don't cut corners--make your healers work for their medical skill.


Medicine and healing in fantasy is such a broad topic that one blog post can't begin to cover everything.  What about medical schools? Hospitals? Apprenticeships? Well, maybe that will be a post for another day. In the meantime, let me know what type of healing you use in your own stories or particular forms of medicine you've noticed in other books. Stay healthy, and keep writing!