Friday, August 30, 2013

Weekly Update: 8-30-13 (Credentialing Drama)

Monday night, with one week before the school semester starts, I tried to log on to AESOP, the website where I can get my subbing assignments.  Unfortunately, every time I tried, it kept yelping that my information was incorrect.  Though I had typed in my password often enough to have it ground into my memory, I went to the feature that would remember my password and typed in my name and my phone number.  The system refused to acknowledge me.

And that's when the panic hit.

I went from thinking about buying school supplies to imagining myself unemployed.  I was flooded with shame and my self-confidence plummetted.  I knew I should go to the Board of Education and ask what the problem was, but I couldn't bring myself to email them  All I could think of was that I had failed in some way I had yet to foresee and writing for help would only acknowledge my lack of worth.  So, for all of Tuesday, I stewed unproductively in my angst, paralyzed by anxiety, depressed from my own inaction.

Waking up Wednesday morning, a new thought entered my brain.  Had I renewed my credential?


Renewing my credentials was a simple process of going online, answering a few simple questions, and paying a fee.  It will take 10 days to process it, but I emailed the person in charge of staff for the Brea Olinda Unified School District and she said that once my credential's renewed, she'll put me back in the system.  Since few teachers are absent during the first week of September and since I was going on a Cruise the second week, it shouldn't interfere too much with my employment.

In the end, all that worry was for nothing.

You know, there are times when being a perfectionist with an overactive imagination works for me, and times when it screws me over royally.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Book Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Title: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Author: Taylor Laini
Genre: YA, Paranormal Romance, Urban Romance


"Who are you?"  It's a question that haunts Karou.  Raised by the half-human, half-animal chimera, Karou spends her free moments after art school running through portals all over the world, gathering teeth in exchange for wishes. But her "normal" life is interrupted when a war between the chimera and the seraphim leaks into the human world.  Could an angel with fire-colored eyes hold the key to her identity?  And could a budding romance with her enemy cause her to lose her family forever?


Karou is a good heroine.  She appears tough, but is actually vulnerable and lonely.  Around her friends, she's funny yet insightful.  Around her enemies, she's devious and feisty.  She's unfailingly loyal to her family, in particular the teeth-collecting Brimstone, her father figure.  I loved Brimstone.  He is grave yet soulful and sacrifices much for Karou, though she doesn't realize it at first.  The family dynamic was weird, warm, and wonderful.

The book kicks off in Prague, an interesting world unto itself, where teenagers sketch nude models in school and eat goulash in a kitchen best known for poison.  Add in raven messengers, teeth hunters, and magic portals, and the setting pops in a whole new dimension.  The first 150 pages masterfully balances teenage drama, mystery, and action and jaunts forward at a brisk pace.

It begins to slow when the love story takes center stage.  Personally, I'm not a fan of love-at-first-sight, warring-families, Romeo-and-Juliet-esque romances, which might explain why I felt the story lagged.  I also didn't care much for Akiva, the love interest, who instantly snaps from battle-hardened soldier to wounded puppy.  His emotional baggage doesn't prevents him from being a perfectly-manner, self-sacrificing lover.

Three-fourths of the way through, the story shifts from present-day action in Prague to flashbacks that take place in Eretz, the world of the seraphim and chimera.  Though this plays an important role in explaining the mysteries, it does have the strange effect of forcing the reader to start a new story right as we're supposed to be barreling toward the climax.  In fact, one might argue that the revelation is the climax, since the story ends abruptly after the flashback concludes.

The epilogue promises a continuation of the story in later books.  Overall, I would say that Daughter of Smoke and Bone has a lot of good points, that make it well worth a read.  But a few troubling trends late in the story make me wonder if I want to continue with the story.

Rant (Spoilers)

First of all, I'd like to acknowledge the unfairness of these rants.  There are many things I like about the book, but do I rant about them? No.  Instead I pick on the elements I dislike in gruesome detail.  My apologies to the author.

Warning: Spoilers Abound

Initially I thought my major complaint was going to be the romance aspect of the book.  I have problems with love at first sight, problems with Akiva's character, problems with the long descriptions of how damn beautiful everyone is (especially Akiva).  But I do realize these things are largely a matter taste.  Should I be surprised that a paranormal romance contains copious amounts of, well, romance?

No, what really confused me was pacing issues. The first part of the book deals with the conflict between Karou's life in the human world and her secret life with her chimera family, as well as the overarching question of who she really is.  Then comes the twist--Karou is abruptly separated from her family, when Akiva and his siblings set fire to the portals that connect the human world to Eretz.  However, there's one door left they don't know about--one in the sky.  And Karou knows how to get there.

By page 150, she's ready to make her trip into Eretz, world of seraphim and chimera.  But first she goes home to say goodbye to her best friend, little knowing that Akiva has discovered the location of her apartment.  At this point, I braced myself for a romantic subplot.  I knew the story between Karou and Akiva would delay getting to the portal--but even I didn't guess how long that delay would be.

Actually, I wouldn't have minded if Akiva had done something to actively prevent her from going to Eretz--if he'd been an obstacle.  Instead, he loses all will to resist Karou.  He stalks her, she wounds him, and they go on a date.

By page 250, Akiva realizes he knows who Karou is.  But instead of telling her and/ or the readers, he gets into a confrontation with his siblings and starts having flashbacks about a deceased Chimera lover named Madrigal.  For 50 pages, Akiva angsts over Karou's identity without actually telling us who she is and why he's troubled.

Then he tells her and we get more flashbacks. For 100 pages.

Now, I happen to like these flashbacks.  The ones with Brimstone not only explain the mystery of the teeth but reveal how just awesome a person he is.  But however well-written, the flashbacks are still backstory.  For 100 pages, nothing happens to Karou and by the time the flashbacks end, the story is over.

Remember the portal in the sky--the one Karou was all set to pass through on page 150?  She finally goes back to it on page 418--in the epilogue.  That portal is significant to me.  It marks the point where the story arched like a boomerang back to its origin.  As the past grew in importance, the present slowed and slowed and finally froze to a single moment in time.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Weekly Update: 8-23-13

Summer vacation is a sinkhole of hopes.  You go in thinking, Now that I have free time, I'l get everything done.  But, of course, you know that in your heart of hearts you know, you don't want to do anything.  This is vacation, and if you don't indulge your laziness now, you never well.  So, you start putting things off, getting much needed relaxation.  Midway through, you begin to think of getting something done.  But "everything" overwhelms you and you procrastinate, until it's fall again and time to get back to work.

And that's how my summers go.  My biggest accomplishment was reading 10 novels, getting my first novel ready for the agents, and brainstorming.  It's not exactly the "everything" I was supposed to get done.  Part of me is ready for fall to come, so I can shake off my apathy and go back to being my productive self.  Unfortunately, that part of me has also gotten used to sleeping in to 9:00.  5:00 AM wake ups aren't going to be fun.

The last weeks of August are filled with trepidition.  I have always been nervous about the first week of school.  It doesn't matter that I'm no longer a student.  It feels like starting over.  Add to the fact that I'll be submiting to agents and I feel guilty for all the work I didn't get done, and this week has been filled with anxiety.  And what do I do to combat that anxiety?  I procrastinate.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Entry for "Writing Contest: You Are A Writer" held by Positive Writer

The Positive Writer is holding a contest, and I decided to enter.   It's going on until the end of August.  First prize is a $75 Amazon Gift Card, but whether or not I win, I thought it would be fun to enter.  For more information, go to:

"What led you to becoming a writer? What did you go through to get here? Do you remember the moment you finally realized that’s what you are? Or, did it come to you gradually? How did you feel when you finally realized it? Were you elated, or doubtful, or both?"

This is my story.

When I Became a Writer

At age 12, I declared myself a writer and never looked back.

In my younger, greener years, I thought I wanted to be an actress.  I was forever acting out the dialogue of the many, many books I consumed.  At recess, I walked book-in-nose around the clover-speckled field, mouthing lines and trying to feel each character's voice in my head.  At home, I performed prissy huffs and blusterous roars to my bedroom walls or to the swing-set or occasionally to my two younger siblings.  When I made them laugh, I knew my acting was good.

Stories occupied the core of my existence.  I knew this in the same way I knew my hair was brown--because it was right there in front of my eyes.  When I wasn't reading one of my twenty thousand books, I was making up adventures off the top of my head.   Barbies would swing like Tarzan from the curtains, little gray dogs would hunt down jewel thieves, I'd crush weeds into healing potions and convince my cousins a mattress was a life raft.

Acting sprang from my desire to bring stories to life.  When I picked up The Lord of the Rings that 6th grade December, I didn't just sit quietly in a corner, I got up and physically dodged ringwraiths alongside Frodo, howled over stewed rabbits in my best Gollum voice, and single-handedly fought a giant spider as Sam.

The problem was, Frodo, Gollum, and Sam are male--and I am not.  That didn't bother me any, but I wasn't the one doing the casting.  Assuming a studio was to make The Lord of the Rings into a movie (as New Line Cinema later did), I could never play the role of my favorite characters.  I'd end up as--well, Rosie probably, Sam's girlfriend/ wife who pops up only after the ring is destroyed and doesn't so much as kill a single orc.  I didn't want to be anyone's girlfriend.  I wanted to be the star.

Similarly, I didn't want my choice in characters limited by how my body decided it wanted to look--namely, short, plump, and slightly Asian.  In my imagination, I could be anyone.  Real life got in the way of that.  So I switched to the one occupation where I could bring to life any character I wanted--every characters I wanted.  I decided to be a writer.  Then, not only could I play hero and villain alike, I could make damn sure those roles went to women.

Did I doubt?  Not really.  At 12, no one dared tell me my dream was impossible.  So I got into the habit of thinking of myself as a writer early on.  I possessed unshakable confidence.  But as for the actual writing, well, that was trickier.  Teachers and parents might praise me, but what did they know?  They only compared me to other students.  I compared myself to published authors.  I knew my little stories weren't that good.  Yet.  But I had faith that I'd get there eventually.  A little time, a little hard work, a little advice, and before long I'd be a published author....

At age 12, I declared myself a writer, and despite all the set-backs that cropped up since, I never looked back.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Weekly Update: 8-16-13

It's amazing how much effort it takes to go through a manuscript that's all ready been proofed.  You'd think all you'd have to do is correct grammer.  But then you hit things like point of view problems, adding in just a little bit more explanation, and judging whether to cut things out, and suddenly the project takes hours upon hours to finish.

That's what I've been doing all week.  I want to have the first 100 pages all sparkling perfect for the agents.  I thought it would take 1 day, maybe 2.  It's Friday, and I'm still working on it.  

I'm back in Brea, back to It's a Grind coffee with Michelle and volunteering at the library. I wrote another chapter of my Coffin story, and read about half of Taylor Laini's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, a YA paranormal romance/ urban fantasy.  So far, it's pretty good.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dissecting Fantasy: What's Your Hero Fighting For? Part 2

Progressing the plot means "raising" or intensifying the stakes.  How?  Mostly, by threatening to destroy what the hero most cares for.  While simple enough, it helps to get more specific, to look keenly at what the hero's fighting for and find ways to undermine it.

Last Time...

We looked at broad, universal stakes, such as "The World" (life on a massive scale), "Culture" (a group of people harboring a similar belief), and "Community" (home).  Today, we examine the more personal stakes of "Relationships" and "Soul," as well as "Other, Less Noble Reasons."   As with last time, I'll give a definition, an example using Lord of the Rings, and my suggestions for intensifying stakes.

* * *

Fighting for Relationships

Keywords: Love, Friendship, "It's personal"

Any person tightly knotted to the hero's heart.  Can be a close friend, a mentor, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a husband, a wife, a love interest, a son, a daughter, and so on and so forth.  

LotR Example

Friendship is the main relationship in The Lord of the Rings, and the evil ring forever tries to turn friend against friend.  This is shown from Chapter 1 when Bilbo, when asked to give up his ring, snarls angrily at his good friend, the wizard Gandalf.  Later on Boromir, one of the fellowship, betrays Frodo by trying to take the ring from  him.  When Frodo gets captured and Sam is forced to take the ring, he momentarily considers abandoning Frodo.

Yet in the end, despite the temptation of an evil ring, most of the fellowship remains steadfast and true.  At the end of the book, they have forged a bond that nothing can severe.

Intensifying the Stakes

The curtain falls on Act 2, and the hero groans in the rubble.  Miles away, the villain has gleefully captured the beautiful princess and taken her to his dungeon of evil.  The hero thinks of the face of his true love and his spirit revives.  He already knew that the villain planned to destroy the kingdom, maybe the whole world.  But this is different.  Now, it's personal.  No matter what, the hero cannot lose the woman he loves.

This classic scenario has played out so many times, it's become a cliche. Yet it keeps getting used, time and time again, because it's effective.  Writers know that the easiest way to raise the stakes is by making them more personal and the easiest way is to toss the villain a loved one at the climax. 

However, there are other ways of testing relationships.

Relationships based on love are the strongest bonds in the world.  We, as humans, love to see them built and fear to see them dissolved.  In a story, when we see the seeds of a relationship, we're curious to see whether they will blossom to it's fullest potential or whether events will cause it to wither and die.  Thus, we get the romantic subplot--though, in fairness, it could also be a friendship  blossoming or the tightening of a family.

On the opposite end, if you want to destroy (or threaten to destroy) a relationship, there are three main routes: death, betrayal, and separation.

Death is the most direct--if the loved one dies, the relationship ends.  Usually.  Of course, fantasy being fantasy, the loved might possibly come back to life or become some sort of supernatural being--ghost, vampire, zombie, etc.  In most cases, however, death of a loved one is a serious matter, and the hero will stop at nothing to prevent it.  A sadistic villain will take advantage of this, forcing the hero to choose between the loved one and the world (or something of similar high stakes).

Betrayal is more varied--and more fun. 

You can go the obvious route--have the princess stab the hero in the back and run off with the villain.  But I prefer more subtle, personal betrayals, using knowledge of that person's weaknesses against him.  This might be ridiculing the hero when he's most vulnerable or abandoning him during a crisis.  It can be a single poignant act, or many small gestures that accumulate.  It can be a calculated betrayal, an accidental betrayal, a betrayal coerced by the villain, a betrayal that comes from a moment of moral weakness, a betrayal made with sincere intention to help the hero.  In all instances, it hurts.  And now the hero has to decide to forgive the loved one or abandon the relationship altogether.

Assuming of course, it was the loved one that betrayed the hero.  It could be the other way around.

Separation is the third way of threatening a relationship.  Classically, separation involves time and space--the villain captures the princess and holds her for three years in a tower a thousand miles away.  But separation may also be mental--different beliefs or social constructs.  This works especially well with families: two brothers, one who believes in freedom, one who believes in order, finding themselves on different sides of a civil war. 

Of course, separation by itself is sad, but underneath the sadness is a fear that the relationship will cool.  People change and grow apart--can love endure that?  Maybe, maybe not.  The reunion is the moment of truth.  When separated loved ones meet again, the barriers will be stripped away and everything will feel exactly the same--or everything will be different.

However you use relationships to raise the stakes, remember one thing: you cannot coast on the hero's love alone.  The readers have to care about the beloved as well.  It's all very well for the hero to fall in love with the beautiful princess, but if the readers find her to be whiny, self-righteous, and useless, they might just root for the villain to feed her to the crocodiles.

* * *

Fighting for the Soul

Keywords: Transformation, Hero, Break, Sacrifice, At What Cost?

The hero himself.  His life, his personhood, his identity, his beliefs, his loves, his personality, his spirit, his core--everything he is and everything he might become--wrapped in one neat package. 

LotR Example

The ring Frodo carries corrupts the soul.  It did it before Gollum.  Once a hobbit-like person, Gollum murdered his cousin to get the ring and turned into a slimy, sniveling creature, addicted to the ring and miserable.  As Frodo journeys closer to Mordor, the ring drains him of personality, eating him from the inside out.

Sam, by contrast, starts off as Frodo's bumbling, overly-sensitive gardener and winds up arguably being the hero of the book.  He's loyal to Frodo to begin with, but that loyalty morphs into astonishing courage and inner strength, as Sam takes on a giant spider and a fortress full of orcs single-handedly to rescue Frodo.  By the end of the book, Sam is literally carrying Frodo those final steps up to Mount Doom, the only place the ring can be destroyed.

Intensifying the Stakes

Fighting for the soul means fighting to become (or remain) your true self, your best self.  It sounds selfish, but it is not, for it is from the best self that all other heroics springs--freedom, truth, compassion, love, sacrifice.  In my opinion, it is the most important thing that can be at stake.  "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?"

Losing the soul might mean forcing your hero to do morally despicable acts, it might mean stripping him of everything he loves, it might mean shaking his belief in God or humanity, or it might mean obliterating his personality.  In any case, something very human in him has been lost--maybe permanently.  Sometimes a hero must choose between saving the world and keeping his soul.  Sometimes he manages to do both.

But saving the world isn't always as depressing as that, for as often as some heroes lose a piece of their soul, others gain new insight into the strength of their spirit.  Rather than breaking them, circumstances transform them for the better.  The nobody farm boy becomes a king, the ragged street urchin leads a revolution, the repentant assassin saves the world.

But when transforming characters, remember to keep their innate personality intact.   If the smart-aleck brat transforms into a paragon of perfect virtue, the reader may feel as though the character's actually lost a piece of their soul.  The character should already have the good qualities inside them--the key is to bring them out and enhance them.

Does it have to be one or the other--losing the soul or gaining the soul?  Can it be both?  Yes.  Though it's easier to focus on one or the other. 

* * *

Fighting for Other, Less Noble Reasons

Keywords: Money, Revenge, Power, Glory, Fame, Survival, "I'm in it for me!"


Any of a number of selfish or immoral reasons, aimed to benefit the hero alone.   
LotR Example

None, really.  However, in The Hobbit, Bilbo and the dwarves go on an adventure, obstensibly to steal back their treasure.  Of course, they end up defeating a dragon and a goblin army, benefiting the land and fulfilling a bunch of prophecies in the process.  Bilbo is also transformed along the way, discovering an inner reserve of strength, courage, cunning, able to embrace a love of adventure he never even knew he had.

Intensifying the Stakes

Not all heroes want to make the world a better place.  Some just want to make money.  And that's fine.  The thing is, no matter how selfish and immoral the hero's purpose may be, at some point, he's going to do something noble, even by accident, because otherwise the story would be meaningless and boring.

That sounds harsh.

But revenge tales usually end up being about the nature of justice.  Survival tales become about the best and the worst of the soul.  Treasure-hunters often sacrifice their fortunes for those they care about.  People obsessed with power find a cause to latch it to.  Without some faint nobility, why would we care about these characters?

When heroes claim they're looking out themselves, the reader is waiting to see them transcend their selfishness and find a cause worth fighting for.  Normally, it doesn't take long.  A person fighting for himself on Chapter 1, may be roped into saving the world by Chapter 2.

* * *

That ends this installment of Dissecting Fantasy.  Hope you liked it.

Welcome Tyson

Last Saturday, my first nephew was born.  Welcome Tyson Raidin Lang.  :)

I'm an aunt now!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Weekly Update: 8-9-13

This is how quickly a writer's mood can whiplash.

This morning I read a general critique of my novel, The Changelings, by a Beta Reader from my Writer's Club which seemed encouraging.  "I think the book is excellent, personally as a reader I know I enjoyed it and I could see others like myself enjoying it, and I'm not even a hardcore fantasy reader."  Even her questions and concerns just inspired me to address them in my sequel, The Originals.

Then I started to reseach agents, and the doubts came pouring in.  One agent likes strong female protagonists and hates damsels in distress, leading me to analyze my main character, Sylvie.  She spends most of novel in captivity, but I don't see her as a damsel in distress, in part because she decides early on she needs to survive, adapts to her situation, and slowly elevates herself.  Is she strong?  Is she weak?  That's up to interpretation.

Another agent said point blank she wouldn't consider a novel with a word count of 240,000.  My novel runs at 228,000.  It's not that I don't know my novel is long and that it's a weakness.  But I've tried to condense it several times and it just won't get shorter.  I'm just sick of editing this novel.  I'm sick of pouring over each word and having to judge its worthiness. I just want to be done and move on, but I know it's not that easy.

This has been a week of ups and downs.  On Saturday, I got into a confrontation at my writer's club, was told my critiques were too harsh, and that people had quitted over them.  I ended up in tears.  On the positive side, I finished Neal Shusterman's Everwild and Everfound, completing the triology.  I also got 35 pages written in my "Coffins" story, which made me feel good.  Writing is the best therapy.  It's releasing that writing into the world that makes you insane.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dissecting Fantasy: What's Your Hero Fighting For? Part 1

This blog post is all about raising the stakes in epic fantasy.

I say "raising" the stakes, aware of how the phrase connotes swelling importance, as though your hero starts off searching for a lost cow, fights a dragon, and ends up saving the kingdom.  But often times in epic fantasy, the hero realizes the world teeters on the brink of doom by Chapter 2.  How can the stakes possibly grow bigger than that?

They can't.

But they can intensify.

The first step is to identify what the hero's fighting for.  I've narrowed it down to five "noble" objectives, with a sixth category for all the selfish ones.  A hero might fight for a single noble cause or all five of them at once.  Interestingly enough, in the scenario when the world is in jeopardy early on, the stakes actually may narrow, becoming less grand, but more personal.

Once you figure out what your hero's fighting for, it's now time to intensify the stakes.  Basically, you are going to threaten what the hero (and the audience) holds most dear.  This requires a certain amount of ruthlessness, because if you aren't willing to draw blood, the audience will never believe your threats.  On the other hand, if you destroy too much, the audience will cease to care and stop reading.  So it's a balancing act.

These are the six basic categories:

The World
Other, Less Noble Reasons

I'll go through each topic one by one, define it, give an example from The Lord of the Rings (hereafter abbreviated at LotR), and show how the author can intensify the stakes.  My suggestions are by no means exhaustive.  They're meant to spark the thought process.

* * *

Fighting for the World 

Keywords: Extermination, Extinction, All Life


Life on a massive scale.  This might mean all humanity (or what passes for sentient beings in fantasy novels), the natural world, or even the universe.  The antagonist (whether a person or a force) does not want domination, but massive destruction.

LotR Example

The Dark Lord Sauron cares nothing for nature, mowing down forests to feed to his war machine.  His stronghold in Mordor is a bleak and barren desert, with few plants and little water.  This is indicative of what all Middle Earth may soon become.

Intensifying the Stakes

From the moment you announce the fate of the world is at stake, you're bound to run headfirst into audience apathy.  After all, "a million is a statistic," and the readers are not going to care if far-off, generic forests get burned to the ground.  So your first task is to personalize the world.  Make your hero (and the readers) actually care about it being destroyed.

Find a piece of the world that is lovely and unique.  This doesn't necessarily mean flashy--you don't have to create crystal palaces and rainbow waterfalls.  Just find something to love.  Small but telling details can do the trick, such as trees that give off the faint smell of cinnamon, an odd-shaped rock, or crooked houses surrounded by wildflowers.  Emotional ties are equally important.  Look for places of healing, places that make the hero feel secure, places where he fell in love.

Now, that you've given the reader a reason to care about the world, you must deal with their disbelief.  Of course, the hero will save the world.  If he didn't, there'd be no story.  The readers know that, so the story loses its suspense.  But you, the writer, can take this power back into your hands, by calling their bluff.  Actually destroy the world.

Just not all of it.

It helps to think of destroying the world as a process, as opposed to a single act.  By the time the hero gets started on his quest, your villain should be actively channeling the forces of destruction.  Now, remember those wonderful places you built up earlier, with the cinnamon trees and wildflowers.  Burn them down.  Or, if you think that's too much, set a few forest fires and have your hero scramble to put them out.   This may seem manipulative, but it actually has a point--it puts the reader off balance.  Destroy one place and your reader knows the others are in jeopardy.  And she'll bite her nails, wondering if that oddly-shaped rock where the hero and his princess star-gazed arm-in-arm will also perish under the villain's touch.  

Just remember not to go crazy and burn everything down.  Leave something for the reader to love or they'll become numb to the destruction.

If, for some reason, you absolutely cannot destroy any part of the world at all, there is another way to use the fate of the world to your favor.

Imagine a carnival game.  Let's go with a classic one--three milk bottles stacked on top of each other.  You pay the man a dollar for three baseballs and attempt to win a huge fluffy bunny.  Now, in this analogy, the fate of the world is the fluffy bunny, and instead of paying the man a dollar, you pay him with your innocence, your health, your reputation, your most dearly held beliefs.  But you can't knock down those damn bottles, because they're glued down.  You're desperate to win the prize, but the costs keep rising: your friends, your lover, your life...

In this case, the suspense comes not from whether or not the hero will save the world, but what it will cost him to do so.  I'll discuss this more in the "Soul" entry.

* * *

Fighting for Culture

Keywords: Freedom, Truth, Justice, Peace, Democracy, America (or the name of another nation), Our Way of Life, Good, Evil


A large group of people who share a common belief or value.  It may be a kingdom, an empire, a nation, an alliance, or a religion.  It may be entire races of magical creatures.  This often crops up as a "versus:" Good versus Evil, Freedom Versus Slavery, Peace Versus War, America Versus Russia, etc.

LotR Example 

It's no coincidence that men, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and all the other "good" races are labeled as "free folk," while the evil orcs and goblins are called "the slaves of Mordor."  But the real litmus test of Good Versus Evil, however, is friendship.  The free folk consistently risk their lives for their friends.   The orcs stab each other in the back over a shiny shirt.  

Intensifying the Stakes

Good, Truth, Justice, Peace, Freedom, Evil, Lies, Corruption, Tyranny, Slavery--these are hot-button topics, which will incite emotions from your readers, so long as you back up these words with vivid concrete examples.  It's never enough to merely label yourself Good and your enemy Evil--these titles must be earned.

Of course, you may not want to write a straight-forward, black-and-white, Good versus Evil fantasy novel.  I support this.  I like my shades of gray.  But while you can do away with the judgement of what's good and what's evil, you cannot do away with values.  Everyone has some value, even if it's greed, power, self-interest, or chaos.

Of course, just because people have a value doesn't mean they're able to live up to it.

And this is how you intensify the stakes: you test those core beliefs.  If the Knights of the White Tower believe in courage, honor, and friendship, throw them into a battle and see if they stand with their friends and fight or abandon their friends and run.  If the good king believes in mercy, see if he'll actually spare the villain's life.  Sometimes people fail to live up to their beliefs--which only makes the story more interesting.  So long as they keep striving to uphold their ideals, the audience will usually remain sympathetic.

But what if the test results show the culture isn't even striving--what if the kingdom the hero is fighting for is weak in character and riddled with hypocrisy?  Is it even worth saving?

Let's go back to the carnival analogy, pretending that this time the prize is "Freedom" or something of that nature.  Now, in the previous example, the hero was forced to keep playing, because if the world ends, so does everything he holds dear.  But playing for "Freedom" is a choice, and any time the cost becomes too great, he can simply give up--or even defect to the other side.

This goes double with a tattered prize.  If the hero discovers that "Freedom" means a selfish, corrupt people touting their own right to do whatever they want while oppressing the less fortunate, he may reconsider sacrificing his life for it.

* * *

Fighting for Community

Keywords: Home


A group of friends and acquaintances that provides the hero with some measure of comfort and security.  A village, town, city, school, or military unit.  If the hero roves, the community may be a band of companions or a tribe.  Sometimes the hero may claim to be an outsider or a hermit, but if they have any acquaintances at all, they have a community, albeit a weak one.

LotR Example

The Shire is home personified.  Though the hobbits are forced to leave, they recall it often and draw strength from those memories.  Later the Fellowship of the Ring becomes a wandering community of those with the common goal of destroying the ring at all cost.

Intensifying the Stakes

Home.  On the surface, it seems negligible.  Assuming the hero has one to start off with, chances are by Chapter 3, it will be burned to the ground and/or the hero will find some other reason for abandoning it.

But the idea of home is too compelling to be left alone.  It exerts a psychological power, for it is the starting board from which the hero must jump.  A hero may yearn for his old home or he may gladly build a new one.  But if he ever returns back to his roots, he will usually find himself inextricably changed.

Meanwhile, heroes on long quests will knit together communities of traveling companions, strangers on the road, peddlers, innkeepers, and bards, which they'll rely on for shelter, supplies, information, medical aid, or simple conversation.  These long networks may become a hero's second family--or he may not trust them as far as he could spit.

Homes and communities are varied and interesting, but they all share one vital thread: they serve as a bridge between the public and private, the epic and the intimate, the universal and the personal.  As such, they are in the perfect position to be sacrificed.  What better way to show wide-scale destruction while still pulling on the reader's heartstrings?

Personally, I'm not fond of killing off communities just to manipulate emotions.  I do, however, support the hero losing his community from time to time.  This can mean running away from home, getting kidnapped, being banished, leaving on a quest, getting split up from a group, or simply moving on.  After a brief period of isolation, the hero usually manages to cobble together a new community of acquaintances.  Then, he promptly loses them all over again.  Depriving the hero of support, keeps him (and the readers) on their toes, as the safety net is stripped away.

One other note.  Your hero doesn't always have to like or trust all the people in his community.  That can act as another source of tension.  

* * *

Since my article is running long, I'll continue next time with the other three categories.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Weekly Update: 8-2-13

With the passing of July, I feel like I'm starting to move from playfulness to discipline.

Not that I haven't enjoyed sleeping in.  Not that I've grown tired of T.V. books, and Candy Crush.  But I feel the threat of September hovering just over the ridge.  I'm having dreams of substituting.  I suddenly feel the need to get something accomplished before the summer ends, even if it's not what I originally had in mind.

Oddly enough, the something I want to accomplish seems to consist primarily of braintorming and research.  Last week, I just finished brainstorming my second novel for what has to be the third time, so this week I'm looking at two other stories I want to develop: Three Floating Coffins and Company.  I've mentioned the former a few times, but I don't think I've properly explained what either is about.

In Three Floating Coffins, three princesses are cast into the ocean in (you guessed it) floating coffins, because a prophet has convinced their father, the king, that one of the girls harbored a dangerous magic.  The evil one will sink into the sea, while the good ones would float safely back to shore.  But youngest princess Odele knows the prophet is a liar.  Escaping her coffin, she sets out on a quest to save her kingdom from the evil prophet.  To do so, she must learn to wield her own magic and unearth the web of secrets that ensnare her land and her family.

Company is less developed.  A ghost happens upon a discarded imaginary friend and together they form a strange friendship.

A week's worth of brainstorming has yielded an abundance of ideas, but they are at once too complex and not complete.  Which, I suppose, is how I think. Nothing's simple to begin with.  I just pray that I can simplify along the way.

As for research, I've profiled two agents, which might not sound like much, but it means breaking through a cloud of anxiety, so I'm happy.  I've also gotten some reading done.  Last Saturday, I finished Everlost by Neal Shusterman.  Since it deals with ghosts, it inspired me to work on Company.   I've also read the first five chapters of Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale.  He does a great job of making ancient Greek history alive and exciting.  Also read the first two chapters of The Byzantine Empire by Charles William Chadwick Oman, which was free on my Kindle.  For a hundred year old book, it's surprisingly readable.

Writer's Club tomorrow.  My Coffin story's getting reviewed.  Wish me luck.