Your Setting

Surround yourself with things that make you want to write.

This is a lesson I’m learning more and more.  As you learn more about the world, you begin to find a million things that lead you in all directions.  Watching a foreign film makes you want to learn French.  Reading about adventure makes you want to travel the world.  Meeting a champion juggler makes you never want to juggle ever, and that’s that.  All these are great.  If you’re like me, you know that most things are within reach, and with a little work you can achieve them.  Learning French, traveling the world, never juggling— all worthwhile goals.

But do you remember the moment you decided you wanted to write?

If you’re a different kind of artist, or your career lies elsewhere, substitute your dream whenever I say the word “write”.  This applies to anything.

As a kid, I read a lot of Brian Jacques books, and I’ve posted before about how much they mean to me.  Through reading and imagining, I began to dream about writing my own stories.  For the past four years, that’s what I’ve been doing, and I love it.  I love daydreaming about it and pushing toward that goal.

The path has its ups and downs, though, like anything.  You start off shot from a cannon, propelled by your amazing inspiration and genuine love for what you’re doing.  Then, of course, comes the letdown when you actually realize you’ve got a long way ahead of you.  But you pick yourself up and keep moving, and you enjoy the work for a while.  Then you poke your head up and look around, and start comparing yourself to other people, and you wonder what you’re actually doing. (more…)

Getting Rid of Parents (Fiction Only)

Many difficulties come standard in the task of writing child protagonists.  To a certain point, a person is a person no matter how small, but there are subtle differences in younger characters.  Their behavior can be slightly different from that of an adult— less logical at times, or not quite sure of morals yet.  Their physical limitations, of course, must differ.  A ten-year-old boy cannot take the same amount of knocks on the head as the adult hero of an epic fantasy (there is considerable debate on whether the hero himself can take that many hits realistically, but the point remains).  Most importantly, however, there is a child’s place in society to consider.

Any middle grade fantasy will grind to a halt when the child’s parents decide she can’t cross the street without permission.

But books about children have been around for centuries, from the Brothers Grimm to C.S. Lewis.  Many people have solved this problem for their stories, many different ways. (more…)

An Ode to Brian Jacques

When asked about my favorite author, I used to say, without hesitation, Brian Jacques.  He wrote so many books, each of them vivid and wondrous and fun to read, he never left me without something to sink my literary teeth into.  His books inspired me to write.  His books inspired me to read thicker and thicker books (until I hit Robert Jordan— perhaps a little thinner now?).  His books, each of them, struck my emotions, struck my imagination, without failing me.

And he wrote animal fantasy.  Go figure.

These days, I say I enjoy Dumas, or Tolstoy— at least, when I’m talking to college admissions people.  These days, I say I enjoy Brandon Sanderson, or Cornelia Funke— at least, when I’m talking to people closer to my age.  Tolkien, Lewis, Flanagan, Riordan, Wells, D’Lacey, Stroud, Paolini, Hulick, Mull, Colfer…  The list of great authors will never end.  I don’t want it to end, as I continue to discover the Marcus Zusaks, the John Greens, the Laini Taylors, the Patrick Rothfusses (Rothfi? Rothfa?).  I always want the list to keep growing.

But my favorite author?  It always comes back to Brian Jacques. (more…)

Dear YA Authors

Dear YA authors,

I graduated from middle grade fiction a long time ago.  Hardly knowing what was to become of me, I left the world of short, heartwarming stories about orphans and cats behind and invaded the unknown land of death, kissing, and trilogies.  I used to bemoan the absence of books over 300 pages, but now the shelves are chock full of long books.  Not only that, but no author stops at a single book– they always write at least three books per series.  I thought that was great.

At least, until I realized I wanted something else.

Series are great.  It’s always nice to follow the same characters through a few books, watching them as they grow over time.  Trilogies likewise.  Trilogies have a distinct format that makes it enjoyable to see two opponents fight each other for three books in a row.  It’s a great feeling, when you reach the end, to know that the main characters have finally won out against all odds.  They can finally live.  Regardless of the predictability of a trilogy– with its charming first book, its slightly sagging sequel, and its dark and bloody finale– a trilogy makes a nice, tight boxed set that looks great on any bookshelf.

But after a while, trilogies get tiring, don’t you think? (more…)

My Cardinal Rule Explained

Since I published my highly controversial TCWT post, I have been getting all sorts of complaints about what I call my “cardinal rule”.  It states:

When you can’t think of anything to do next, add a duck or some explosions.

I, of course, took that famous extra step and made it an exploding duck, but that’s beside the point.

In the days since I published that post, I’ve run into several people who didn’t know what to write next.  What did I tell them?  I quoted my cardinal rule.  Infallibly, they answered,

I don’t think ducks or explosions will fit in very well with my story.

That’s where you’re wrong, my friends!  Ducks and explosions are symbolic, and I am probably the only person who could ever take this literally.  For the rest of you, however, there requires some translation. (more…)

The Top Five Characters From My Bookshelf

There are few characters in literature that I’ve encountered that have really made me love them.  There were characters that I liked, but high above those were the characters with beautiful personalities.  The following is a list of five amazing characters I’ve encountered in my own reading. (more…)

Mea Culpa

You know what I did?  Yesterday I sort of rewrote that short story… but I didn’t.  I just substituted words I thought didn’t work with words I thought worked better.  My thesaurus was beside me and I was basically cutting and pasting my way through the thing.

It doesn’t work like that.

Most of the people who commented on that draft said they liked the first one better, even though the first one had prompted the changes I made.  The difference between the two?  The first one was written straight out from my head, and the second one was made up of direct quotations from a thesaurus. (more…)

Review: The Accidental Hero

Note: The Accidental Hero is also known as Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation.  Both are by Matt Myklusch.

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How to Make a Reader Jump Out of His Footwear

When you’ve been reading a lot, you can tell what an author is thinking.  It doesn’t matter who the author is; whether it’s Brian Jacques, whose books you’ve been reading since age 7, or a new author you’d never heard of, you can tell what he or she will do next.  There are things that you can recognize as big writer no-nos, which if violated will mangle the author’s reputation for good writing.  Things like describing a scene vividly, then leaving it empty with nothing substantial pertaining to the plot.  If the story had a break between plot points that spanned three months, is the author going to describe each and every day in detail?  No, just the one at the end of the break.  Thus you can see when something big is coming.

And then there are things that are just common sense.  If the author says the character is dying, you know his or her death is coming up sometime during the book.  The author is not going to postpone the death scene until his or her trilogy is done if he or she announces that it’s coming in the first book.  Where and when requires more finely-tuned senses, but there are signs that can tell you these things.

Cliches always buy the biggest advertisements available.  Roadside billboards, stickers everywhere, T-shirts that say “IT’S COMING!” in Day-Glo orange capitals, messages in your French onion soup.  You can see these things coming from miles away, and it’s just because they’re cliche.  We learn to look for things we don’t want to see, and often we see them.  This is why I hate cliches so much.  You can see them coming, and when they arrive, you bury your face in your hand with a backhoe on steroids.  “Why, why, why?” you mutter, but still authors insist that they can’t succeed without copying someone else.

Plot twists are another thing that send up bright green flares in the dead of night.  Often, you’ll be able to see different things before they happen, which completely obliterates any hope of a shocking reveal on the author’s part.  When the reader reaches that section, he or she just says, “Oh, I knew that,” and goes on, not caring for the main character’s devastated feelings.

The best books are those written without these signs.  Though that is extremely hard to accomplish, it can be done.  The same idea is behind my feeling about these signs as is behind my feelings about book teasers and spoilers (read this post for more information): I want to be surprised.  And what is more surprising: a person jumping out of you from behind a solid partition in a chicken costume, or someone slowly approaching you in full daylight wearing bright pink?  (If you weren’t expecting anyone to come along in bright pink, perhaps you’d say the second option, but for the purpose of this post we’ll just go with the first.)  That’s right, the walking poultry is much more surprising.  So if you saw that person in bright pink slowly ambling toward you, admiring the scenery and giving you altogether too much time to examine him, would he surprise you if he reached you and calmly said, “Boo”?  That’s almost what the author is attempting when he or she tries to surprise a veteran reader, unless the author is really good at his or her job (which you ought to hope he or she is, or else you’ll be pretty disappointed in the book).

All I’m trying to say is that if you want to put one past the reader, spring it on ’em really suddenly.  Don’t give any inklings.  Don’t give any idea at all.  The best way to do this is to have no idea of it until you spring it on the readers, making them completely unaware as well.  Thus, you can’t be planning the book and must be a pantser through and through.  If you have even a shadow of a hint of a sliver of a thought, you’d better be really good at hiding your feelings.  Of course, you could always go for the “clamor in the east, attack in the west” approach, where you stick another gargantuan billboard right in the reader’s face advertising your planned surprise’s archenemy, and then make that vanish just before putting your planned idea front and center.

Thank you for listening, and feel free to comment and revise your writings accordingly.

Good Vs. The Evil Fourth Book

The best fantasies have the same premise: good versus evil.  Lord of the Rings.  The Chronicles of Narnia.  The Dark is Rising Sequence.  Grimm’s fairy tales.  The Inkheart Trilogy.  The Redwall series.  Rangers Apprentice.  Leven Thumps.  I’m listing off my favorite fantasy series’ here, and all of them are the same.  The Kane Chronicles, Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  The Beyonders, Fablehaven.  Star Wars, even.

All of the authors of the series’ listed have different ways of showing right as opposed to wrong.  Brian Jacques, in the Redwall series, has all the villains a part of the same race of creature.  Good people are some harmless thing like a mouse or a squirrel, and evil people are rats, foxes and the like.  In Inkheart, it’s rather easy to see who’s who.  Since the Inkworld, where most of the adventures take place, is a fairy-tale sort of land, bad guys are generally ugly and good guys are generally good-looking.  The same with Grimm.  The green-skinned, shriveled old hag is always the antagonist, whereas the handsome prince is infallibly good.  In Rick Riordan’s books such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the bad guy is usually the one trying to take over the world and destroy human civilization.  QED.  Rangers Apprentice, the same thing.  The bad guy is the person going against the king of the realm.  Lord of the Rings, the good guys are good-looking and have the unique ability to ride through rivers without drowning.  The bad guys are usually giant eyes in the middle of nowhere, shriveled kleptomaniacs, and large hideous beasts.  Chronicles of Narnia.  Aslan, the embodiment of righteousness, is quite obviously good.  The White Witch, the oppressive tyrant who likes hypothermia and petrification, is definitely bad.  Star Wars baddies have red lightsabers and evil blue lightning, and run on fuel such as hate.  Good guys are wise, peace-loving, and wear constricting robes.  It’s obvious which side to choose.

My favorite way to show good versus bad, however, is in Leven Thumps.  There’s a specific character named Azure who is on the side leaning toward world domination and the destruction of all we hold dear.  He used to be a thoroughly good guy, who was all for the exact opposite of the above.  Unfortunately, he turned 180 degrees and is now working diligently for evil.  The cool thing, however, is that all the good that was left in him after he turned was concentrated into his right ear.  That sounds really funny, but it’s quite profound.  That ear itches constantly and he can’t stop scratching it, making it swollen and bleeding.  It’s a perfect metaphor, saying that no one bad is completely bad.  They all have their conscience nagging at them like an itchy ear, which they try to scratch away, but keeps coming back.  This is brilliant.

Now, to end the post on an unrelated note, I’d like to rant for a little while on the fact that when you’re looking for something, you never find it.  When you stop looking, it pops up everywhere.  For instance, when I first read Percy Jackson and the Olympians, I got through the third book without a hitch, then went to the library for the fourth.  It had disappeared.  Eventually I had to request it from another library just to read it, wasting a month and a half in the meantime.  When I went to the bookstore to buy this fourth book, I found the third and fifth, but not the fourth.  I went about a year with a large hole on my bookshelf, where I knew that the fourth book would fit perfectly.  Each time I went to buy it, it wasn’t there.  I gave the series to my younger sister to read, and she was fine until book three.  Then I went to the library to look for the fourth book for her, and found a large space on the shelf.

Just about a month ago, I bought that fourth book at Barnes & Noble.  The next time I went to the library, what do I see, but there are two copies of that fourth book sitting there on the shelf.  Those two books have not left their positions from that day to this.  Now I can look at my completed set of PJ+O on my bookshelf, never to search in vain for the elusive fourth book again, but I can hear their derisive laughter following me wherever I go.  I’ve never kicked a book across the room before, but I could honestly do it to those two library copies right about now.

Good thing I won’t.