Writer-to-writer critique: the boot camp of the craft

The simple technique that will teach you to write better than any other method, class or book

For as long as there have been story-tellers, we have commented on one another's work. Writers, poets and bards alike--we are a mouthy bunch.

Sometimes these comments have taken the form of criticism, ridicule, jealousy or insult. And many writers and story-tellers have been greatly harmed by the comments of others, suffering blows to confidence and motivation. 

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

And yet, the comments of fellow writers can contain gold. I know of no other way to learn the craft of writing faster or better than through the sincere cooperation between two or more writers. And based on the comments of some of my favorite famous authors, it seems clear that no writer is ever "beyond critique" or at a level where the comments of colleagues can no longer help. 

Critique--the term used to differentiate constructive criticism from tearing down another writer--isn't just useful. If done correctly it can also provide great motivation and pleasure. It is very rare that anyone, other than another writer, wants to discuss in detail the ins and outs of your writing project.

Even your most avid readers (and your immediate family) are likely to grow weary of your writerly obsessions. This isn't that different from any other profession. My husband and his buddies can bore me to tears with endless technical discussions about surveying and cartography. (Just measure it and draw a line already! What is the big deal?)

My husband assures me that even though I think my profession is creative, vastly more fun and endlessly interesting, he finds long conversations on the finer points of writing just as boring. And this is why we need fellow writers. 

While the practical method of writer-to-writer critique may be well-known and may in fact seem intuitive to many, I have found that parts of it strike fear in new writers or lead others to abuse the trust and claim authority they don't have. Beyond that readers often don't understand the tenants of the system through which their favorite books, movies and TV shows are made. 

It is worth setting down the rules for critique. This is a starting point for writers' groups as well as useful information for everyone involved in the process.

1. There are skills that can be learned in writing. Experience is to be respected.

2. At the same time, a writer of any level can usefully critique the writing of a writer of any other level. The critique may have different uses, but even the critique of a novice can be helpful to an open-minded master. It is at the very least the honest impression of a reader. No such critique should be dismissed out of hand or ridiculed. 

3. Critique may be done for compensation, in trade or simply in good faith. Critique does not have to be reciprocal but the terms should be agreed upon in advance. Critique is always of value, even if it is not compensated in which case it is a valuable gift of time and attention.

4. On average, about seventy percent of comments in any given critique will be useful or pertinent to the writer. No writer is obligated to agree with or to use suggestions made by a critique partner. 

5. Rules of grammar and style vary geographically, culturally and between genres. Arguments about the absolute correctness of a change have limited use. It is worth stating clear reasons for one's belief. Style and grammar guidebooks are useful sources. However, in the end the final decision of rightness in the given context is the prerogative of the entity taking responsibility for publication--be that a publisher or a self-publishing author. 

6. Differences of opinion are inevitable. There is no single best POV, tense, voice, distance or style. Intentional grammatical errors are not illegal and have their uses. Questions over dialogue tags are a matter of continued debate. It is worth listening to writers of long experience, but in the end each must form one's own path. Insults do not become us. 

7. Keep in mind that, as in any creative profession, a minimum experience of ten thousand hours of active writing is considered the initiation level for a professional. However, this line is arbitrary and denotes only a level of experience, not the rightness of one's arguments or the marketability of one's work.

8. By the same token, what is correct and most seemly in writing is not always what is most marketable. Each writer has his or her own goals for writing and it is not the place of a critique partner to judge, only to give the most honest advice that individual can give.

9. We all have biases. I love first person narratives. I recently met a fellow author who hates first person. It's just personal taste. We can't help but have such biases and when we read the work of other writers those biases will get in the way. The more aware you are of your own biases the more useful your critique will be. When unable to entirely get past biases it is worth stating that you are biased on a particular issue, so that the writer can keep that in mind. That said, completely avoiding critique partners with biases against your POV or stylistic choices can weaken your writing. Remember that readers have biases too and our goal is hone our craft in every way possible.

10. Critique means honest advice to improve a piece of writing. Pure and simple. That can mean spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, voice, plot or description advice and more. It does not ever mean judgment upon the abilities or prospects of the writer. That is beyond the bounds and is never an appropriate topic for comment. 

A peek inside the Beltane story: Shanna and the Water Fairy

Readers have been waiting a whole year for the next installment of Shanna's story. Words fall quick but the pictures to make a story come fully alive take more time. 

Still the wait has been worth it. The third Shanna book has the most beautiful illustrations yet and a story that will keep kids breathless for each succeeding chapter--judging from my experience reading it out loud. 

This time eleven-year-old Shanna discovers a hidden spring on the city waste land behind her new school. When she learns that the spring and the pocket paradise of trees and flowers around it is to be bulldozed to make way for a new shopping mall, Shanna is horrified. Not only is the spring a beautiful place and the water is sorely needed to help irrigate the soccer field and school playground, she's also pretty sure there is something--or someone--magical about the spring.

After Shanna writes a letter of protest to the local newspaper, she and her eight-year-old brother Rye get a glimpse of the grown-up world of city politics. They learn about activism and how committed individuals can make a difference in a community. In the midst of it, they share the celebration of Beltane with their friends from many cultures and help to spread the love and passion for justice that infuses this special day.

While this is the third book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series and readers of the other books will recognize the main characters, the book can easily be read on its own. It is a real-world adventure story for kids who care about their community, their friends and the earth. 

Now with no further ado, here is an excerpt from the beginning of Shanna and the Water Fairy . If you would like to see how this story appears on a Kindle, you can click on the orange button to go directly to an Amazon Kindle preview of the book. No app or other download required.

Chapter One: The Spring

Shanna grasped the rough rock and pulled with all of her strength. She gulped in a great lung-full of the rich spring air and heaved herself over the last boulder just ahead of Rohan, Ella and Rebecca. 

“Queen of the mountain!” she chortled as she spun in a circle and waved her arms in the warm, free air.

Her friends pulled themselves up and collapsed giggling on the rock beside her. 

“You’re too fast!” Ella puffed, as she sucked on a scraped finger.

“I’ll beat you next time,” Rohan laughed as he pretended to tackle Shanna’s foot.

“You kids be careful on those rocks,” their teacher’s voice floated up to them from the trees below. “There could be rattlesnakes.”

“I think we’re making enough noise to scare away the rattlesnakes, Mrs. Baker,” Rebecca called down. “And you said we were supposed to find as many different kinds of rocks as possible.”

“Well, did you find any new rocks while you were scaling the mountain?” Mrs. Baker’s voice sounded like she was chuckling now. 

“I think so,” Rohan called down and he held up a speckled rock. “This might be granite.”
Another group of kids came running out of the trees to show Mrs. Baker their new rocks. They were led by a girl with light brown hair. She was Brandy, the most popular girl in the fifth grade. And she didn’t like Shanna. If she was entirely honest with herself, Shanna had to admit that she didn’t like Brandy either. 

But looking down from way up on the rocks, Brandy looked small and Shanna thought about how her new school wasn’t as bad as she’d first feared. Mrs. Baker, her class teacher, was a lot of fun. She had gray hair, but she still loved to go on field trips, and she found a way to do a lot of lessons outside—even math. 

This warm spring day they were collecting rocks for science. It was also for math though, because Mrs. Baker said they would be practicing percentages and graphs once they gathered all of the different kinds of rocks they could find on the waste land behind the school. 

The waste land was a long, low hill that ran up from the back of the soccer field through brush and rocks and a few scraggly trees to the new River View Condos. It wasn’t really a park and there was litter here and there among the boulders and water-starved trees, but Mrs. Baker said they had to learn as much as they could from it before it got bulldozed. 

Ella and Rebecca started looking for more rocks, walking up the gradual hill behind the Queen of the Mountain boulders. Shanna followed them at first, but then she saw dark green rocks down in a little gully under some particularly nice trees, so she slipped and slid her way down. 

As she got close she heard a splashing sound like water hitting a rock. Was someone pouring out their water bottle? What else would make that sound out here?

Shanna looked in among the trees. They didn’t look very high down in the gully, but they were actually bigger and less scraggly than most of the other trees on the wasted land. 

The whole country here was pretty dry and trees didn’t grow in big forests the way they had where Shanna used to live. There was usually just one or two trees together. But in this little gully there was a whole clump and the grass around them was lush and green. Out on the open hillside the grass was already turning yellow from the dry heat, even in April. Mrs. Baker called it a “drought.” 

Curious, Shanna stepped closer. In the little hollow under the trees the air smelled wetter. And the grass beneath her feet was brilliant green. Shanna saw something sparkle and flutter in among the trees. Maybe a butterfly.

She climbed over some big rocks and slipped in between the trunks of the trees. And there behind the trees were more flowers than she had ever seen outside a flower shop. Red, purple, yellow, blue, orange… They hung down the rocks and covered the ground under the trees.

Shanna looked around for the butterfly and there were at least ten of them, flitting in and out of the sunlight and shade. She was about to call out for her friends to come and see the beautiful scene, but something stopped her. 

One of the butterflies was different. It seemed to glow against the shadows under the trees and Shanna couldn’t see it right. It didn’t even look like a butterfly exactly, but it wouldn’t hold still so she couldn’t get a good look at it.

Instead it zipped back and forth as if showing Shanna the way forward. It dipped first at Shanna and then back further into the trees. Shanna walked carefully now, trying not to step on all the beautiful flowers. The air in the little grove of trees was sweet with the smell of them—almost overwhelming, so it made Shanna dizzy. 

And maybe she was just dizzy when she looked up from her feet again and stared. 

There in front of her was an even more amazing image. Flowers with delicate dew-speckled petals hung down all over a wall of boulders. And the rocks weren’t really dark green like Shanna had thought. Instead they were covered with thick, wet moss.

And out of a crack there came a sparkling trickle of crystal clear water. It leaped and splashed down the rocks below and filled a little pool, before trickling under the roots of a big tree and disappearing back into the ground. It wasn’t a stream exactly, because it just went back into the ground.

But that wasn’t even why Shanna stared. Right in the middle above the sparkling pool was her butterfly. But Shanna was sure for a wonderful, dizzy second that it wasn’t just a butterfly. It had the shape of a person with wings and it shone with a turquoise light. Its wings were violet purple like the flowers and its hair was a deep blue green. Shanna couldn’t see it much better than that.

Then it winked a deep greenish-brown eye at her and dove straight down into the water. In a flash and a sparkle of drops, it was gone. 

“Ella! Rebecca! Rohan! Come quick!” Shanna cried over her shoulder, too startled and amazed to rethink her shout. 

She dropped to her knees on the mossy rock by the pool of water and looked around as carefully as she could. Where had it gone? 

Had she seen what she thought she’d seen? A butterfly? Or… could it really be… a fairy? A real fairy?

The other kids came panting into the grove of trees with thudding footsteps muffled by the grass, and Shanna didn’t see it anymore whatever it was. She thought then that she shouldn’t have yelled, but it was too exciting.

“Wow! This is a really cool place,” Rohan said, looking around at the trees, the climbing and hanging flowers, and the little pool. “Good find, Shanna.” He grinned and ran a hand over one of the tree trunks.

“It’s like it called to me,” Shanna said, still caught in the feeling of wonder.

A children's book for water protectors

Last spring, before I had heard of Standing Rock, I wrote the first draft of Shanna and the Water Fairy -- a story to foster the innate passion of children for social and ecological justice. 

If you don't want your child to become an environmental activist, you might not want to let her or him read this book. 

If you don't want your child to become an environmental activist, you might not want to let her or him read this book. 

It's part of the Children's Wheel of the Year series, but as with all of these books, Shanna and the Water Fairy can be read as a stand-alone adventure story. This time Shanna, an eleven-year-old girl in a typical American school, discovers a hidden spring on city waste land that is slated to be bulldozed and turned into a new shopping mall.

The spring is tucked away in a rocky gully--a pocket oasis of flowers, lush ferns and life in the midst of a dry drought-stricken land. It's a tiny, seasonal spring overlooked by the construction project's environmental report. Yet Shanna discovers something magical. 

A guardian resides in the spring, a mysterious changeable being or perhaps a real-live fairy. Shanna and her brother Rye decide the spring and its magical patron must be protected. They learn the first steps in local activism and find support in their community, while creating a homemade Beltane celebration of spring that brings together families of various faiths.

I come from dry, semi-desert country and I understood water as precious since early childhood. Shanna and the Water Fairy was born out of that deeply-rooted relationship to the land and water. As a young teen, I fought for a small spring in the dry mountains of Eastern Oregon.

The active protection of home, land and life is in no way beyond the comprehension of children. And in today's world that can often mean defending water.

This time the Shanna books turn to a topic that is by no means limited to earth-based and Pagan holidays and the themes they teach. Shanna and the Water Fairy is a book that celebrates Beltane and the fiery passions that are stirred by both love and war. But it does so with characters from a wide variety of faiths and in the context of a community effort spearheaded by a child.

Painting by Julie Freel

Painting by Julie Freel

As I edited the book and Julie Freel prepared illustrations over the past year, test readers often remarked that I had written a good book in response to the events at Standing Rock. At first I was confused. There is very little  in the story that is similar to the story of Standing Rock. The activist is far from native to the area, the struggle is purely local and its only tie to the vast tides of politics and climate change is the implied reason for the on-going drought.

But as the year went on I came to see why the book left test readers with a feeling of connection to Standing Rock and new energy for community action. It is a different event and the spring came from my own childhood, but in the end this book, my long-ago spring and Standing Rock are all part of the same story.

The earth is our home. We need the earth, the land, the air, the water, the trees... Beltane or May Day, the passion of the young--it is all tied to this. If anyone is to be a warrior today, the obvious pledge of allegiance is to the earth, our home and our source of life.

How to write dialogue readers will devour

When we read, what we really want is human speech--yelling, chatting, laughing, screaming. The reader's heart yearns for companionship and adrenaline.

If you can bamboozle the reader into the fictive dream and give them fantastic conversation within it, they'll never want to leave.

Good dialogue can be achieved by following some basic rules. Excellent, grab'em-by-the-pituitary-gland-and-never-let-go dialogue takes preparation. 

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Here are the basic rules:

  1. Dialogue needs to be less formal than narration, even when it is between formal adults. Vocabulary should reflect spoken vocabulary, which is about one fifth of a character's reading vocabulary. You will not make your character sound dumb by having them use normal words. Overly formal dialogue with sentences too complete and words beyond the natural spoken vocabulary level of the type of character is the most common dialogue mistake by beginning writers.
  2. Reread lines of dialogue out loud and see if they sound natural. Use incomplete sentences, pauses, vague terms, extreme specifics and poor grammar where it is obvious that they would be used in real speech. But within reason! Dialogue must first and foremost be familiar and real to the reader. 
  3. Keep dialogue lines short. Most dialogue should be one sentence or less. Occasionally use two or three short sentences max unless your point is that the character is going on and on. And even then be cautious. Who wants to read in detail about a character giving a lecture?
  4. Dialogue should be more coherent and more concise than real speech. But remember "all things in moderation."
  5. Speech differences, slang and accents can be hinted at but do not change every word or sentence to match the difference or your text will become unreadable. Mark Twain was an incredible linguist and even so many readers have a very hard time deciphering his dialogue. Don't try this at home, folks. 
  6. Avoid obvious phrases of greetings and pleasantries unless you're emphasizing them to develop cultural setting (and even then do so sparingly). If two characters meet and each says "Hello, how are you?" hint that they did so in narration. Don't spell it out unless you have a damn good reason.
  7. "Late in, early out" applies because conversations are essentially scenes. Enter the conversation as late as possible while still giving all necessary information and leave as early as possible. Don't drag the reader through extraneous scaffolding.
  8. No "as you know, John" please! Do not have a character tell another character something both should logically know already simply in order to tell it to the reader. There are better ways to get facts across.
  9. And along with that last, don't "info dump" in dialogue. Work it in. Yes, "work" is the operative verb here. It is hard but it can be done. Information contained in dialogue must be primarily that which is natural for one character to tell another, not things the reader needs to know. Information for the reader can be contained in narration, setting and most importantly the behavior of characters.
  10. A note on tags: Mostly use the word "said." This is the exception to the rule you learned in high school language arts about using varied vocabulary and the most specific verb possible. The word "said" is almost invisible. Readers will simply understand who said something. Use other tags such as "stated," "argued," "cried" sparingly and only with good reason.
  11. A note on not using tags at all: In moderation, the tags can be cut altogether in some modern styles, especially in two-way conversations. As a general rule, tag the first lines of each character and then allow them to switch off. However, don't create strings of tag-less dialogue more than four switch-offs long. It forces readers to calculate rather than read. Try reading the dialogue aloud in a monotone and see if you would be confused about who is talking. The point is not to make the reader work. Readers are supposed to be in the fictive dream. Period.
  12. A note on actions as tags:  An even more advanced trick is to do away with standard tags involving "said" or an equivalent and use action and expression sentences instead. The key is to leave no doubt who is speaking without actually saying it. Example:  She ducked her head, looking at him out of the corner of her left eye. "I don't know. Do you think we should?" He coughed and spots of pink bloomed on his neck. "I... I..."
  13. On that note, consider the narration sprinkled in with the dialogue to be part of the dialogue itself. There have been some experiments with "dry dialogue," meaning using only the actual spoken lines without any indication of the character's actions or expressions. Usually these experiments also rely on a minimum of tag lines and they fail spectacularly. I'm not saying don't experiment, but gaining readers through this kind of experiment is equivalent to winning the lottery. It's extremely unlikely but writers do it anyway because experimenting is how everything good got invented.  When you're done experimenting and ready to write a story, make sure your dialogue includes lines of action. It is best if something is happening in the plot while the characters are speaking. But if your characters must have a conversation in which they are mostly just sitting there, you still need actions and the more sedentary the characters are the more detailed the actions need to be. Show the minute motions of hands, a flicker of emotion or picture what your character is reaching for. Watch people talk in real life. Very few people just sit motionless while they talk and if they did we would definitely notice it and put that in narration.
  14. Use the time warp. Finally, there is a strange sort of time warp that happens in fictional dialogue. Usually it means time passes more quickly in the story than the lines of dialogue can account for. Let's say ten minutes passes in your fictional world while your characters have a leisurely conversation. That conversation will probably only be four to five dialogue lines long. You then assert that ten minutes passed and the reader will feel like ten minutes really did pass. The exception would be if there is extreme tension, such as characters waiting for a timed bomb to explode in their faces. In that case a lot more than four or five dialogue lines will be noted. It has to do with the attention to detail in a suspenseful situation. Subconsciously readers know that in a scene without life-and-death tension  you aren't reporting every motion or word spoken to them. They expect you to tell only the important parts. But in a scene in which utter disaster and/or death is imminent, you are expected to tell much more. Doing that well is a matter of maintaining tension, however, and that's another post entirely.

That's how you write tolerably good dialogue. But if you want to write sizzling, page-burner dialogue, you'll need more and the ingredients are difficult to put into hard and fast rules. This is more about preparation of the writer than it is about a list of tips.

First, read a ton of the type of fiction you want to write and other types of fiction as well (for balance and perspective). Pay attention to the dialogue. When you really love some dialogue, stop and analyze it. Look at how long the dialogue lines are, what kind of phrases they use, if they use any complete sentences.

Think about the characters you most love in fiction and go through books, looking specifically at their lines of dialogue. Dialogue is much of what makes character. Observe how the character speaks. Is it consistent?  Again, what types of phrases and sentence structures does the character you love use?

Take note of these things either in your brain or on paper and keep reading and noticing. In time, the simple act of paying attention will improve your writing.

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Record conversations and listen to them. Today in the world of smart-phones this has never been easier. Record a family argument. Record a boring meeting. Record your friends hanging out and shooting the shit. Then transcribe some conversations. Write down EXACTLY word for word what was said. Include all the messy stuff, um's... repetitions, confusion. Notice how simple the vocabulary is and how incomplete the sentences are.

Then take those transcriptions and change the statements to make them as short as possible while still containing all the important information. Remove repetitions. Leave sentence fragments and a few important pauses that carry meaning. Clean up the grammar just enough to make it understandable. Do this for as many hours as possible. The awesomeness of your dialogue will be in direct proportion to how many hours of transcription you do. 

Then before you sit down to write a scene of dialogue, sit back and imagine it. Close your eyes if necessary and play it like a movie in your head. At first this will not be easy. The better you know your characters and the emotional undercurrents going on at that moment in your plot, the easier it will be. But keep at it.

The first dialogues with new characters may need revision later, but don't worry about it. Do the best you can with your mind-movie in the beginning. Play it out.

Then write. If you can, let your mind hear the voice of the character as you write the line of dialogue. If your brain doesn't do that, reread the lines as yo go, imagining your character's voice and the expression on their face and on the faces of those listening. Get the emotion of the moment in your own head, even if it is hidden between the lines of a constrained setting or repressed by formal characters. 

Finally, after you have written the dialogue go back over it in editing and read it aloud. Try reading it in a monotone and ensure that you still know who is supposed to be speaking by context, tags and word choice. Also read it with a semblance of the voices and emotion appropriate to the scene. Does it sound realistic? Do people of that type actually talk this way?

If the answer is "No, but I want them to talk this way," you need have a long talk with yourself about what your goals in writing are. If you want to create dialogue that will reach out and grab your readers and hold on with unbreakable tentacles, then you've got to face the fact that readers will read what puts them into the fictive dream. And that dream is broken when characters sound fake. No if's, and's or but's about it. 

If the answer is "I don't know," go back to the beginning of the preparation. The problem may be that you don't have enough experience with people in whatever specific cultural, age or professional category you're writing about. Start specifically reading stories about people of the type your characters are. Analyze how they talk. Let it absorb into you. If possible, record some conversations involving people of the type you are writing about. Transcribe. Keep doing it and great dialogue will come. I promise.

This method works. You may have to modify bits of it to suit the way your own brain works, but in essence this is it. Dialogue is very particular. To be good, it has to follow some pretty strict rules. To be spectacular, it needs to make the reader forget they are reading and feel like they are in the conversation. That takes time, practice and quite a bit of intuition. 

Best wishes and keep writing!

A story of cultural and religious diversity for the spring equinox

The gift of a friend,
The promise of the pentacle,
A new beginning…
And the courage to stand your ground.

Shanna and the Pentacle is a story for earth-centered families to share the wonder of renewal and rebirth. The spring equinox (Ostara) is a time for buds and shoots, for the smell of wet earth and for asserting your true self. A new beginning can be hard but it’s worth it after all.

Ten-year-old Shanna and eight-year-old Rye are starting out at a new school just before Ostara. A teacher notices Shanna’s pentacle necklace and asks her to take it off. Brandy, a popular girl, says Shanna is going to “hell” and Rye has his own trouble with kids who say boys don’t draw or sing. Still the magic of Ostara is at work. Shanna and Rye are learning to enjoy the cultural diversity of their new school and help comes from unexpected sources.

Like Shanna and Rye, children from earth-centered families often stand out in mainstream society. Without strong identity and confidence, they struggle to choose their own path. The Children’s Wheel of the Year books provide concepts our kids need to face these challenges.

And they are a lot of fun. I never had kids get their teeth brushed this fast for story-time before we had these books. Thanks, Julie Freel, for the great illustrations that make it all possible!

If you only read one thing to survive the Trump presidency...

read this.

Love Trumps hate.

This contemporary fantasy thriller predicted the revolt of park rangers, the politics of hate and the brainwashing of a nation more than two years ago. It's fiction with an eery ring of truth.

A story of friendship across borders and resistance against a modern tyranny, this series packs a powerful punch. 

Five stars from Amazon reviews.

Get ebooks and paperbacks:

Book 1: The Soul and the Seed

Book 2:  The Fear and the Solace

Book 3: The Taken and the Free

Book 4: Code of the Outcast

Book 5: Path of the Betrayer

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Books for kids and families: February 2017

Ten-year-old Shanna has an uneasy feeling about the stranger her seven-year-old brother Rye met on way home from school.

Is she just a silly chicken or is this what Momma calls intuition?

Then Shanna and Rye are disturbed by an angry presence in the shadows under some pine trees and by a mysterious raven. Their mother shows them how to use the magic of Imbolc to protect themselves and stand up for their beliefs.

Shanna and the Raven is the first book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series for earth-centered and Pagan families. It is also a useful book for anyone teaching children about multicultural tolerance and about how to use intuition rather than prejudice to judge potentially dangerous situations.

Mystery and painting: An interview with Julie Freel, illustrator of the Shanna books

This week I would like to take a back seat and put the spotlight on Julie Freel, the painter who has made the Children's Wheel of the Year books possible. You can see photographs of many of the illustrations from the Imbolc story titled Shanna and the Raven here.

Children love the direct, emotive paintings that illustrate the scenes of these everyday adventure stories. The paintings bring alive the traditions of the earth-based holidays and without them the stories would be incomplete. 

It's time readers got to know the artist behind the illustrations. The best way to do this turned out to be in the form of an interview, so here it goes. 

Julie painting imbolc cover of beltane.JPG

1.    Julie, the first Shanna book is largely about intuition. How do you define intuition?

I describe intuition as an internal knowing based on experiences and wisdom that you have gathered. And something beyond that which is unnameable. 

2. What do you call the unnameable?

Mystery

3.  Is painting an intuitive craft or is it mostly learned skill for you?

It's both.

4. What do you hope to give kids who look at your pictures in the Shanna books?

A sense of connection to the characters and understanding of the story that leads them to a deeper connection with themselves, the earth and mystery.

5. What is the best part of painting illustrations?

The only illustrations I feel inspired to paint are those which have meaning and depth for me.  There is a magic in painting that occurs when these marks on a page suddenly pop into the experience you're trying to illustrate.

6. What is the hardest part?

My technical deficits, reworking illustrations when the picture gets muddy instead of clear, leaping internal hurdles like self doubt and time management, so I sit down and do it.

7. What feeling do you have when you are in the midst of it?

When it’s going well, it’s like being in love. When it’s not, I feel frustrated and hopeless. Best is when I get lost in painting, then it’s calm and meditative. 

8. Is there anything interesting you can tell kids about the process of making illustrations?

Illustrating a story you want to tell is most fun if you do it in your own way, without thinking about whether anyone else will like it or trying to do something that's really not you.  In terms of working with someone else to illustrate a book, it helps me that my writer sketches her vision for scenes.

9. What was the most important part of learning to paint for you?

Drawing was something I could do well enough to gain attention and validation. The first thing I remember that inspired me to paint was Van Gogh. His bold colors and brush strokes called me to express my own emotions through color and form. 

10. What is the difference between painting a stand-alone painting and illustrating a book?

The book provides structure and motivation to paint more often. It's nice to do both. Even stand alone paintings have to be something that really motivate and touch me in order to inspire me to paint.

11. Where did you learn painting and drawing? 

From watching other children draw as a child, from high school art teachers, college classes, occasional classes and workshops.

12. How do you keep learning?

By painting with artist friends.

13. Where are you from?

As I child I grew up in Southwest Michigan and spent my adult life in rural Eastern Oregon, traveling often to the Czech Republic to see family.

14. Where do you live now?

In northeastern Oregon. 

15. What animals do you live with?

Toby, my cat and Sami, my dog and various grandchildren.

16. What is something surprising about you?

I am a child and family counselor and my work with disadvantaged children inspired me to write and illustrate the first (and perhaps only) therapeutic story for Romany children living in Czech orphanages.

Thank you, Julie. If readers have further questions, you can post them in the comments and I'll do another interview post. You can find the Imbolc story Shanna and the Raven, Julie's first book illustrated with oil pastels here.

Awakening the inexplicable knowing of childhood

A child adopted soon after birth cries bitterly for a sister and later it is discovered that a biological sister was born to her birth family.

A four-year-old turns to his grandmother and says, "I'll never forget you, Grandma. Never ever."

An timid little girl found her strength in the song "Jesus Loves the Little Children" at Sunday School, though she didn't really believe he was the one and only god. She then grew up to be a therapist for traumatized children.

Children know things that don't make logical sense. There are so many things they don't know--like if you chew on that electrical cord it will eventually fray and zap you with electricity and if you throw your plastic toys across the room in a tantrum some of them will break and the others will be confiscated. 

But then they do know some incredible things.

James Hillman, a prominent psychologist and author of The Soul's Code, wrote that children possess a form of intuition which seems almost miraculous and as we age we lose it, some faster than others but almost all inevitably.

I am always the student in class with my hand up and an annoying question bursting out. If I were at a lecture by Hillman, my question would be, "Do we have to lose it? Isn't there some way to keep on knowing?"

I have been fascinated by that question for years because I had predictive dreams as a child. I can't prove it to others, but I know that it wasn't my imagination. I knew. 

When I was nine I dreamed of the moon, big and full in the velvet dark. Then the moon rippled and shattered, breaking into two--one still round and whole and the other squashed and blurred. That was all but I jerked awake and sat up in bed, bathed in cold sweat. 

I immediately knew what the dream meant. I had lost one of the new contact lenses that my mother had bought with a huge portion of our family's meager subsistence income. I wasn't told exactly how much but I knew it was a lot. My vision impairment is such that I could see twice as much with contact lenses as I could with glasses, so I needed them badly.

That was why the dream left me shaken and gasping for a few mements. I was relieved that I was in bed and the contacts were safe on the shelf beside me. Just a nightmare, I thought, and I went back to sleep. 

The next day I put in my contacts and went to school. I came home and immediately got out my sled and followed my brother to the sledding hill. We barely stopped for dinner. Then the moon rose and we went back out into the silver fairyland of a full-moon winter night. 

I straddled my sled at the top of the hill, tasting the cracking cold on my tongue and the ultra dry air in my nostrils. My brother let loose and slipped off down the hill into the dark. I dug my heels in and pushed. The sled scraped against the hard crust of snow and then I was flying. 

The cold air rushed past my face, ice crystals stinging so that I had to squint my eyes. The night was alive around me, the sound of sled runners, the shaddows of well-known trees, the star-studded sky and the moon hanging straight out in front of me. Coyotes called on the far ridge and I looked up at the moon, whooping with sheer joy.

And then I saw it. The moon rippled... and then shattered, just as in the dream.

A spark of fear jolted inside me. I had forgotten the dream until that instant and with the wind and spraying snow in my face and the speed of the sled, I could do nothing.

Except cover my face with my mittens and slide to the bottom completely blind.

My brother came when I called for help and I gingerly took lowered my hands from my face. My right eye felt wrong and the moon and everything else was completely blurred. He crouched down to look at my face and then at my mittened hands. And there, amid the snow and wool he found the tiny contact lens--worth more than all of our Christmas presents put together.

On the eve of Imbolc, Ten-year-old Shanna and her seven-year-old brother Rye find protection and connection through the use of intuition and through a myterious raven, who turns out to be a friend. This is the story of a modern earth-centered family who follows the old gods and celebrates the wheel of the year. The Shanna stories give children in Pagan and goddess traditions a community and inspiration within lively adventures that kids can't get enough of. Check out Shanna and the Raven: An Imbolc Story on Amazon.

That was the first prophetic dream I had but not the last. Several times during my childhood, I had other such dreams. I can't explain it but I am telling the simple truth. I dreamed it the night before each time I came close to losing a contact lens. My doctor always said it was incredible that I never lost a contact and never had an eye infection. It's unheard of among similar patients. 

When I first got contact lenses, I lived in a cabin without hot water or an indoor toilet. To say that money was tight would be a vast understatement, so it is good that my dreams helped out. I could wish my dreams had warned me about a few other things in life than just this, but mostly they didn't.

Some children seem to be protected. Is it a guardian or is it intuition? And if it is intuition, what is intuition exactly? I have found some answers to these questions, answers which led me to a earth-centered, polytheistic Pagan path. But each person answers these questions in different ways and I doubt there is one absolute truth.

There can be sign posts and maps however, help along the way.

The book Shanna and the Raven is a piece of a map for both children an adults. It is a children's story of today's world, an example of how children use intuition in the real world--for protection and well-being. It is also a story of one family's celebration of Imbolc, a tale for earth-centered families that portrays seasonal celebrations as an integral part of life.

Using the full power of language in description and metaphor: Advanced writing tips

The roar ravaged his ears, the cacophony deafened him, and he swooned into mindless unconsciousness...

Quite. 

Creative Commons image by Brandi Redd

Creative Commons image by Brandi Redd

That is what happens to readers who read purple prose, if they don't just toss the book and find something better to read. Fortunately for the readers, most of them do toss such books.

And the writers cry in lonely despair, "But it was such a beautiful phrase!"

Writing students often justify embellished prose by claiming that they wish to use the "full power of the English language" or that they refuse to "dumb down" their writing with common and simplistic words. While using the full power of our incredibly versatile language is a worthy goal and I am not in favor of dumbing down writing to the lowest common denominator, neither of these goals really have anything to do with the use of purple prose.

Purple prose is something to be avoided. Period.

And yes, as with many things in writing there is a fine line between purple prose and style. But we can get to that.

What is purple prose?

Purple prose arises when a writer:

  1. Uses unknown words from a thesaurus in order to appear sophisticated or learned or simply to vary word choice. The key issue here is the use of UNKNOWN words. A thesaurus is a good tool and varying word choice is a good idea. But the words you choose must be words you have seen in use and are comfortable using, not one you just looked up today. 
  2. Repeats the same information in multiple descriptor words. This is one reason why writing "mindless unconsciousness" is a bad idea. When a writer is first thinking through ideas, descriptors will often be repeated in verb, noun, adjective and adverb. This is what first drafts are for. Experienced writers nail these repetitions in editing and make sure each word says something new.
  3. Exaggerates or creates logical impossibilities with description. The key to good writing is allowing the reader to experience and usually to visualize the scene. Exaggerations don't help and logical impossibilities stop visualization cold. I know that mostly we're talking about fiction, so you might ask how I know if someone is exaggerating in fiction. Take for example my statement that  "the roar ravaged his ears." While certain extreme body metaphors are permissible--"Her voice was strangled," for instance--we have to be careful with that. Trying to picture a sound that ravages someone's ears throws the reader off. Test such phrases by visualizing them. If it looks like a cartoon and you aren't writing a cartoon, then don't do it. 
  4. Employs more and longer words than necessary to impart information, atmosphere and style. This is the most thorny of the issues, because some styles do call for a bit of "flowery" language. Where would fantasy and historical fiction be without a good turn of phrase. But there are ways to distinguish style from purple prose. They usually go back to the first three problems in this list in some form. Purple prose often over-describes in multiple ways, uses a longer and less-known word when a shorter one would do just as well and/or drives all descriptions to extremes. But there are times when a writer simply wallows in description, dragging the hapless reader along until the reader gives up and goes to find something with more plot (i.e. conflict).
Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

No reader enjoys purple prose. Some writers will argue with this because writers sometimes enjoy their own purple prose. But writers don't really count as their own number one reader. Purple prose isn't legitimate description, which may bore some but inspire others. Purple prose is always boring, annoying and embarrassing. 

That said, almost all writers go through a stage of purple prose and many of us struggle to weed it out in editing even as professionals. Struggling with the demons of purple prose is no sin. Allowing them to cavort drunk and unhindered through the temples of our word gods is.  

Fortunately, the methods for stamping out purple prose and making your descriptions shine twice as bright are relatively simple. Here are the basics:

  • Say what you mean. Get the image or other physical sensation of your scene in your mind and show it.
  • Know the full (surface, secondary and deeper) meanings of words. Study dictionaries, notice how words are used, and use words you know well. 
  • Be specific. Use the most specific noun or verb you can think of. If you write an adjective or an adverb be aware that you do so only because you do not know a noun or a verb that can replace this particular combination of adverb and verb or adjective and noun. If you mean "hurry," don't say "go quickly."
  • Whenever choosing between two words that mean the same thing, use the shorter or more common of the two. This isn't primarily about helping a wide range of readers to easily understand your story, although it may help with that. It isn't the same as dumbing down, which is more about content than anything. This rule really just makes your writing better, smoother and more intelligent. It is an odd but undeniable fact that too many long words make a writer appear unsophisticated and pompous. 
  • When editing, read through your paragraphs and cut out any word that can be cut without changing the meaning of the paragraph. At first you'll have to experiment with taking out a word and rereading over and over again, but eventually your brain will start identifying likely culprits automatically. Start with adverbs, interjections, prepositions, adjectives and exclamations. Always look at "really," "just" and "still." There are many times to use these words. But if you can take them out without changing the connotations of the sentence, do it.
  • Identify words and phrases you personally use too often. Then do a search with your word processor and look at each instance in your story. Try to get rid of any repetitions of the same word or phrase that are unnecessary. Each of us has a certain style and more over we go through phases in which certain words or phrases pop out constantly. This is normal, but it should also be kept in check. Repetition, when used, should be deliberate and purposeful, not accidental.

On top of these common guidelines, there are a few specific tips professed by George Orwell, the father of the genre of dystopia and a writer of extraordinary clarity and descriptive prowess: 

  • Don't use any metaphor or analogy, you've seen more than once. A good general rule, though there are times to break it. If you set that as your goal, you will be much less likely to riddle your story with cliches. 
  • Use active voice whenever you can and use passive voice only when you have no other choice. Beginning writers learn that "passive voice" is bad. And it usually is. But when you need it you really need it. If you need to show the unwillingness of characters to disclose who did something, you will definitely need passive voice. It is said that you identify passive voice by looking for the word "was" but that can be misleading. Don't confuse passive voice with past continuous. You can recognize passive voice by asking "Who did it?" as if you're a detective. If the answer is not at the beginning of the sentence or phrase, the verb is passive. So "she was shocked" is passive. But so is "she is shocked."  And "they were shocked." Who shocked her/them? It's not at the beginning, so it's passive. However, "Her mouth was gaping open" is not passive. It is past continuous and depending on the context and style, it may be correct.
  • Don't exaggerate, especially if it's "only" fiction. This bears repeating. Say what you mean. Give the reader the true image of your story.

Finally two advanced tips from my own hard won experience. 

  • Never use a phrase or word because it "sounds good."
  • And kill your "babies."

These two rules are related. In the professional jargon of writers a "baby" is any word, phrase, plot twist or device that you are unreasoningly attached to during the editing stage. You will notice the pull of these bits. They are the parts that make you smile when you run across them and yet they rarely entrance anyone else. You know for sure that you have a "baby" when you find yourself thinking or saying, "But it just sounds so good!" or "It's only that I really like it that way."

These are red flags. 

Sure, we are allowed to have preferences, but if your only defense against problems with a word, phrase or plot twist is that you like it, then you should almost certainly get rid of it. This is painful but will vastly improve your writing. It is called "killing your babies" because all writers know the pain of it but we have to laugh at ourselves a little in retrospect. If you look back on the "baby" phrases and words you were so attached to a year or so ago you will know what I mean.

This is a safe place for writers and readers alike to discuss these issues. I read all comments and I love to hear from you. What are your experiences with using description and metaphors? Any particularly harrowing stories about "killing your babies?" Comments of your own experience are always welcome. We are concerned with improving our own writing, rather than judging others. 

The #1 secret to writing gripping characters

When I was in high school my teachers, mentors and family members gushed praise over my talent as a budding writer. I'll bet that if you're reading a post about the secrets of the writing craft, yours did too... or perhaps they still do.

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of Flickr.com

I have seen many talented students in writing classes and writer's critique groups over the past twenty years. And there is one terrible affliction that affects them all at some point--the same one that has at times afflicted me. That is the belief that I had made it. 

I don't mean financially. There are only a handful of writers in the whole world who have made it financially through their craft. But I'll admit it. I've suffered through times when I thought I had become such a good writer that I had little left to learn of the craft. I'm glad to say that as I've gotten older, that particular affliction has recurred less and less often. 

Before you get offended and go off certain that you are the exception, sure that you have learned all the basics of writing and only need to polish the brightest jewels in your prose, please stop and consider. I was seventeen when an article I wrote in a small-town newspaper won a statewide competition. I didn't even have to submit the article. It was noticed all on its own. My first writing professor in college initially scoffed at the idea that I would double his required word count and make it all high quality as well. He wasn't scoffing after two semesters in which I delivered before every deadline. And yet when I look back on my writing from that time, I can only cringe and laugh and tell myself it is good that I've improved.

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof Flickr.com

I had the spark and many others do too. I am not saying you're a hack, just that many new writers who are good still don't have the best skills of the craft. And after twenty years of writing non-stop, I stand in awe at all I have left to learn. 

So, don't despair. Keep your current writing in good clean folders and notebooks. Make sure you keep it safe. You will need it in ten or twenty years, when you will look back and be astounded by how far you have come. It will make you cringe but also give you courage. 

But I promised you the big secret of writing gripping characters, not all this blather about how much you have yet to learn. Don't worry. That wasn't click bait. 

It's only that my writing students have been teaching me that new and talented writers who can dance with language, produce dazzling sentences, craft sturdy and beautiful paragraphs and plot a snappy narrative believe they have it made and often refuse to consider technical terms. They assume they know the "rules" already, even when they don't. 

My writing students recently swore to me that they know what P.O.V. means. Their manuscripts tell another tale. 

So, I decided to put this out there. The single most important key to writing gripping characters is the correct and deft use of Point of View. As you probably already know, Point of View (abbreviated to P.O.V.) refers to the perspective your story is narrated from. It goes beyond the difference between first person versus third person. Or the mandatory caveat that stories can technically be written in second person, but that just because a thing can be done doesn't mean you should. 

There is also the difference between limited P.O.V. and omniscient, i.e. whether the reader feels like a bug sitting in your character's brain, listening to his/her thoughts and watching the action through his/her eyes, or feels like the God of monotheistic religions, sitting on a cloud and viewing the whole thing from above. As the terms hint, the former is called "limited" P.O.V. and the latter is called "omniscient."

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

If the terminology of "first person" and "third person" gives you trouble, here is an excellent beginner's guide to P.O.V. But what I am discussing in this post goes a bit beyond the bare bones. 

Many writers think of P.O.V. as a simply a technical decision you make at the beginning of a writing project, like the verb tense you will use. You decide whether or not you will tell the story as "I" and in the present moment, so that the reader feels like they are the main character and the events are happening right now OR if you will tell a story about another person--a guilt-ridden old man, a reckless young woman or some other "he" or " she"--and in some long distant fantasy age or possibly a yet unforeseen future.  And ,many writers believe that once the decision has been made that's the end of it and that gripping characters can be had with any tense or P.O.V.

Many will argue that P.O.V. is not character development and thus it has nothing to do with how gripping your characters are.

But they'll be wrong.

Deciding which P.O.V. to use is no small thing. It's a momentous choice and not one you can change easily. I can tell you from bitter experience, that if you change your mind two chapters into a story and decide to change your P.O.V. you should definitely not attempt to edit your chapters to reflect the change. You should start from scratch and write the chapters again. P.O.V. affects everything, every turn of phrase and many things too subtle for anyone to consciously edit well. 

The reason for this gets at the root of why P.O.V. is the key to gripping characters. 

Here is a hard truth. Despite all this talk of different P.O.V.s in fiction, there is in reality only one P.O.V.:

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

The reader.

I'm serious. At the very least, it's the only one that matters. When you read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you are presented with a myriad of different P.O.V.s but they all meet at one point. They all meet in the reader. The reader feels and understands the various characters, knows their fears and anger, grits their teeth in frustration and clings to fleeing hope. 

How does Martin manage to get readers so hotly engaged in the characters and the story and keep them that way for years... a lot of years?

It is primarily because when Martin wrote, he clearly took the position of each character in turn, put himself in those shoes and smelled what that character smelled, felt what he or she felt, burned with the anger of that character and knew the history of that character--even the history not specifically stated in the pages. 

New writers make P.O.V. mistakes a lot, chief among them being what we call "head-hopping." You can technically avoid head-hopping by learning what it is and how to avoid it from a technical standpoint. But there is an easier short-cut to avoiding it and one that will inevitably make your characters grip the reader more.

Try this exercise. After you finish reading this, take your hands off your keyboard, close your eyes and form the image of the character who you want to tell your next story. I don't care if this is the kennel boy, the vapid alien, the plucky rookie cop or an omniscient God.  Make up an image. Then make up an image of a video camera in your hand. Put your eyes into the camera and then your ears and lastly your heart. Make sure they are firmly inside this camera. And then hand the camera to your character.

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Good. Now, go write. But write ONLY what that camera in the hands of your character sees and hears and feels. 

If you are writing the next big thing after A Song of Ice and Fire and you need to jump from character to character, take a moment each time you want to make the switch to a different character. Envision the next character and clearly see within your mind the character who had the camera last handing the camera to the next character. Then continue writing. 

Don't just switch without taking the time for this exercise or some similar moment of concentration and visualization. You must take this time and engage in a conscious process of switching. That is the key to writing gripping characters.

Not just deciding on a P.O.V. and not just choosing the "correct" one for your type of story, which is a debatable issue. But rather the clear understanding of what your P.O.V. can see and hear and feel.

Your book may not be a movie and you may not even want it to have a film-like feel. That doesn't matter. Your narrator still can only experience what he/she/it experiences. No more. 

You can have the camera held by one person and thus see all closely from that person's perspective, including understanding their inner world and feelings of that one character and misunderstanding and guessing at the feelings and thoughts of other characters. Or you can give the camera to God and point it at the characters, seeing all of them more objectively, yet not delving deep into their inner thoughts and emotions. But you cannot have it both ways without a clear break.

Keep in mind that characters cannot actually see themselves, unless they are looking in a mirror. You cannot start a sentence describing a character's facial features and ending with his inner, unspoken fears. Well, physically you can of course, if you really want to. There are plenty of examples of a character looking into a mirror and noting their appearance and then continuing with their inner thoughts. But this is an overused technique and should only be employed if it comes up as a completely obvious choice for your character. If you create this kind of sentence without the mirror and thus imply looking from the outside and then the inside of the person at the same time, you will destroy your reader's experience and turn readers away from your character. Such a character does not hold interest or empathy. 

When I explained this in classes, one student responded by pulling out examples from classical literature in which this rule has been broken by famous authors of the distant past. The question was plain. Do I dare to challenge the titans of fiction?

Well, in some ways I do. We don't look down on the great medieval painters because they painted stiff, portraits of children with faces that appear middle aged. But neither do we emulate them. Crafts progress and P.O.V. is one way in which the craft of fiction writing has developed over the past several hundred years. 

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of Flickr.com

On the other hand, many early works are quite good and have a magic of their own. I didn't claim that P.O.V. is the answer to everything, just the key to gripping characters. Engaging character development was not always the highest goal of the fiction writer. In the ages before Facebook and on-demand TV, fiction could take at least a little longer to get around to the point and characters could be a bit less gripping in favor of other virtues of the prose.

Today, however, they can't.

Either you grip your reader or you die. All writers must die as George Martin would probably say. The question is whether or not you will die in obscurity without your stories being read.

If you want to grab readers, make your characters grip. And in order to make them grip, be absolutely certain of your P.O.V. and stick to it. Never forget who is is holding your camera at any given moment and be firmly inside their experience as you write. 

There is more to writing gripping characters of course, things like character description, motive, character arc, background and believable interactions--all things I will discuss in other posts. But getting the P.O.V. right and sticking to it is more important than any of that. Without a solid and steady P.O.V. there is no character to develop. 

I love connecting to fellow writers. Let's share our experiences. Drop me a line below and tell me and other readers about your experiences with writing P.O.V. Have you made any dramatic mistakes with P.O.V.?  What is your favorite P.O.V.? Are these terms new to you or have you been wrestling the beast for some time?

Be well and keep writing.

How to market on-line... from someone NOT selling a book on the subject

I’ve got to be honest here. This is unlikely to be the most popular blog post about social media and on-line marketing. That’s because I am not going to tell you this is the best time to be an author, entrepreneur or creative artist and there is a ton of money just waiting for you once you buy my book on marketing and use my simple five-step plan. That’s what a lot of sites say and it’s a more palatable message than the truth.

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

I’ve spent the last three years busting my butt looking for answers in this field, trying out quite a few things myself and watching many of my fellows crash and burn. I have no intention of writing or selling a book about how to market on-line. So I don’t need to make things sound better than they are in order to sell you something.

And yet I want to tell what I have learned. 

“Why?” I can hear you asking. “If you know so much about it, why don’t you just write your own book on marketing?”

I’m not writing my own book on marketing because I don’t see any quick or easy ways to do it. The whole rigmarole around selling such books by promising unrealistic fantasies of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps makes me physically ill and tempted to violence against innocent pieces of computer hardware (because the authors of said drivel are out of my reach). 

The real impetus behind me wanting to blog about how to market on-line is that I get spammed every day by dozens of new entrepreneurs and authors tagging me in their posts about their new cover, their new jewelry line, their new Amazon discount deal or some such as well as new the same people force-adding me to their fan groups and fan events, thus dumping dozens more emails in my inbox before I have a chance to opt out of these spammy groups and events. I mostly just delete these spammers, sometimes unfriending them if I have time. Occasionally I vent my frustration with irate messages asking them to stop spamming me and suggesting that this is an unwise marketing strategy for books or anything else. 

But the other day I took a different tact. I was in an especially good mood, so instead of ranting and deleting or even ignoring, I simply sent the spammer a concerned note, explaining their tagging tactic was going to backfire and make people hate them. And instead of an irate response back, which is usually what you get for your trouble, this one thanked me, said he was very new to marketing and asked for advice. 

He was the author of an erotic thriller—something I would read AFTER I finished all the technical manuals and pukey romances, if I were stranded on Mars for years without access to any other reading material. In case you can’t tell, I find erotic books excruciatingly boring. I know. I’m weird, but all readers are weird in one way or another and this guy seriously had the wrong reader demographic going. I had to tell him.

So in the interests of reducing spam and of having a blog post to send future newbies, here is what I know about on-line marketing.

What doesn’t work

Spamming doesn’t work. I know you’ve probably read marketing things that say a person has to see your book or product X number of times before they’ll be likely to buy it and so you’re trying to fill that number by making sure people see it on social media. 

Here are the problems with that concept:

  • “Likes” not the number of posts determine what people get to see. When you start out you post about your new book or product a few times and your enthusiastic friends and family “like” the post. That gets you an initial boost but after awhile not even your friends and family are going to “like” or actually enjoy your repeated marketing posts.
  • So if you continue posting about your book or product the algorithms determining what your “friends” on social media see in their news feed will almost never choose you. 
  • There is way too much noise. Those marketing books were written about an era when advertising meant billboards and TV commercials, possibly direct mail leaflets. At that time, people were presented with one advertisement at a time and if there was a snappy logo involved, it would eventually sink in after several exposures and they would have the general feeling that this is a known (and thus inherently somewhat trustworthy) brand. That’s the whole rationale behind the X-number-of-views theory.
  • In 2016, you can toss it out, right along with your old TV. Today the on-line environment means multiple ads coming at us all the time from the top, bottom, sides and often the center of our screens. People’s brains get used to skimming and jumping.
  • Add to that the fact that there are billions of on-line products and logos being marketed and the chance that anyone is going to subconsciously get the sense that your logo is trustworthy simply by encountering advertising is minuscule, even if you have a fairly large budget. 

That’s why many on-line marketers turn to tactics that cause potential customers to remember them with hate rather than trust. These tactics primarily involve ensuring that your message gets specially delivered to the individual.

These marketers use whatever Facebook or Twitter or other social media happen to be directly delivering to people at the moment. Right now on Facebook this means adding people to groups and events without permission and tagging people in posts. Both of these tactics are legal on Facebook and they result in the person added or tagged getting a special message about it—a message that always gets delivered rather than just sitting in the news feed que and possibly not being seen at all like regular posts.

Some marketers feel that they have somehow “earned” the attention because they have to input each name to be added or tagged individually and it is actually quite a bit of work. But whatever the marketers think, the result is still the same. They are forcing the random people they target to deal with yet one more message in their already swamped on-line environment. This either results in the person swiftly dismissing the spam or in the person taking a moment to notice and hate the product presented.

Don’t do these things.

Don’t post tons of posts about your book or product, don’t in fact try to get random people to see your message X number of times and don’t send random people special messages about your book or product, so that they have to take the small action of deleting your message and/or opting out of your spamming group or event.

These tactics don’t work. If they worked for someone else it was before 2011 or they are a celebrity of some kind already.

What does work… sort of

There are no quick fixes. The book market is completely saturated--over-saturated by orders of magnitude. Many other on-line markets are similarly flooded. It is very unlikely for a new author, artist or innovator to break in without several years of work, unless you have some prior celebrity and a big publisher or distributor (and even then it isn't a done deal). But from three years of hard full-time work, a ton of reading and discussions with more experienced marketers, I have observed a couple of strategies that provide some returns:

Creative Commons image by 401(K) 2012 of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by 401(K) 2012 of Flickr.com

Strategy 1: Find a clear-cut genre and write A LOT of books in that genre (more than ten, twenty books is better) following genre standards to the letter and write snappy, easily read prose.

This is not about writing “well.” It is about writing what the largest group of readers wants and that is not actually in line with good prose. It is instead about keeping everything ultra simple, both plot and prose. Characters must fit popular beauty standards and the problems and solutions in the books must pander to the current trends of the age group of the your ideal readers. Avoid controversial subjects or main characters representing minority groups. 

Then give away a few books for free, sell the rest cheap and blog about your genre incessantly. The same might be applied to music, I suppose, but with physical products this mainly requires producing the cheapest and least environmentally-responsible product you can. I’m not saying this is a good tactic. It’s a soul-destroying tactic for either writers, artists or other businesses, but I have observed that it has some merits as a marketing strategy. It can make someone a living.

Strategy 2: Choose an underrepresented non-fic topic and write a book or two about that. Alternatively specifically include characters representing minority groups or other demographic niches (not genre so much as demographics). Sell those but blog incessantly about your topic, minority or nich and advertise your books in each blog post.

This can be applied to physical products as well. Simply choose to sell something that is unavailable or not widely available on-line but needed by a specific group of people (even they are only 0.2 percent of the population) and then blog the hell out of it. It takes several years to break in and you need some luck. First, you had better be right that your product or book niche is both underrepresented and needed. And you have to hope that several other businesses don’t come up with the same idea at the same moment or slightly earlier than you.

I recently found exactly the product I needed for my hyperactive child who legitimately needs to chew on something in order to focus. I found one on-line company that could demonstrate a track record and had nice-looking chewies designed for older kids (not babies) made from materials that don’t pose a health risk. I had never heard of the company before but they got my business right then, because I searched and they had a blog and it demonstrated knowledge and a track record. I bought $50 worth of products from them immediately. No X number of views. Just a niche need met. This is a much better strategy than the first but it does require you to have a niche and to blog for free for months, probably years before you ever see payday. 

Strategy 3: Finally, you can write or make only what you are passionate about, blog incessantly about the topics and themes connected to those books or products, advertise the books or products beside each related blog post, offer a free book or sample for subscribers to your blog, blog at least once a week, post your blog posts on social media where people may actually really want to read them, such as matching-topic Facebook groups or Twitter tags.

Thus I write fantasy and blog about herbs because fantasy readers often like herbs and there are herbs in my books. I write dystopia and I blog about social exclusion and social justice issues related to the themes. This has gained me a mailing list of five hundred truly interested people in one year and favorable Facebook and Google algorithm ratings. Some people now come to my site by searching Google for some of my keywords. I don't have to rely on having a huge number of Facebook friends or on manually inputting their names into spam methods, because I can reach people who aren't friends with me at all by putting interesting posts into Facebook herbalist groups that will actually enjoy them.

Creative Commons image by Pictures of Money of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Pictures of Money of Flickr.com

One reason I actually encourage you to indulge your own passions and write about what you love is that you won't have to do nearly as much research and the research you do have to do will give you added energy. I could have blogged about the history of the fantasy genre to support my books, but then I would have had to do a lot of extra research. I know medicinal herbs already, so I can blog about that. I want to avoid doing a ton of research, not because I'm lazy but because you never get paid to blog and you have to be able to keep it up for YEARS in order for it to matter. So pick a topic you don't have to research too hard.

This isn’t a hugely effective strategy, but it does get you a mailing list of actually interested people. It is most lucrative when combined with a niche market (see strategy 2) with very little competition. But it is also something you can do to feed your soul, while paying the bills with another job and having the hope that with consistent effort over many years, you may be able to make your living doing what you love. Honestly, only one in several thousand people will ever succeed with Strategy 3, but that is also the strategy that has produced some of the most remembered writers of history, who were often unknown in their lifetimes but were eventually discovered and recognized for their intense passion. 

All of these strategies have one thing in common—the specific desire of the potential customer. In Strategy, 1 you cater to the largest known customer base, giving them what they want for as little as possible at all cost to quality and your own creativity--banking on the fact that although you will never be great you can make a living by simply having so many trickles of income that it adds up. In Strategy 2, you find a niche market in need of something and then fill that need. Here you have to price your products a bit higher (sometimes very high) because the market is small. In Strategy 3, you focus on your own passions and work on connecting with people who share the same passions and thus the desire for what you have to offer. 

Contrast this with the author of the erotic thriller who dumped his video trailer in my inbox. No attempt was made to determine if I or anyone else tagged by his dozens of posts was at all interested in his topic. He simply fired his shotgun and let the random pellets spray. Pounding the average person with random ads will only get them to block you, delete your Facebook "friendship" and cut off all contact if they can. Thus it isn't good marketing. Blog about the themes of your books or possibly your genre if you are aiming for the mass market.

All three of these strategies share one more thing and that is a stand-alone webpage. I know there are Facebook business pages and I have asked experts about them, but I have not been able to determine whether or not they are good for anything. There was once a time (back in the dinosaur days of 2012) when Facebook business pages were considered "social credit," meaning a potential customer could go to your business page and see that you had a ton of "likes" and thus believe that yours is a moderately trustworthy brand. Facebook business pages and Twitter accounts show how many people have been persuaded one way or another to “like” your page, although bundles of “likes” are also for sale, so the credibility this affords is ever decreasing. However, these pages don’t really do much to get your message out to the people who want what you have to offer. The best base for any of the reasonably functional strategies is a stand alone website. 

So, here’s what I told the erotic thriller guy: 

"If you write thrillers with a macho, gun-porn sort of aesthetic and you know a lot about guns, blog about guns. (Just an example. I have no idea what your thrillers are like.) And then you get on Twitter and FB and post the link to your blog with hashtags and in "Facebook groups" that like posts about guns—such as hunter's groups, NRA people, Republicans, survivalists, ranchers and men’s groups with that particular atmosphere. And then people who actually like guns will click on your link, go to your page, read your post, sign up for your mailing list to get more such posts and... eventually some of them buy your books, if you were actually right that people who like guns might also like your books. It's tricky and a hell of a lot of work, several times more work than writing a good book, but it actually allows you to post on social media in a way people will applaud rather than hate and thus they will like you rather than hate you. No one really has ever sold anything by annoying people. It only seems like they must have because annoying random people is the most common (and the most unsuccessful) marketing tactic."

I wish everyone out there good luck in finding those who want what you are selling. They very likely do exist even if you’re selling a thneed.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Four magic spells you can cast on your novel with a fictional language - Advanced Writing Tips

In my last post, you learned about the building materials needed to make a fictional language. Nuts and bolts, verbs and nouns, bricks and cement—that sort of thing. You could stop there if all you need is a few sentences of dialogue to add an exotic feel to a character who is supposed to be from another culture in your story. But the real magic and usually the whole reason for creating a fictional language for your story goes a lot deeper--to a level that makes your settings and characters live and breathe.

Creative Commons image by Nick Kenrick

Creative Commons image by Nick Kenrick

Language is part of culture and culture is part of your fictional setting--the environment that shapes your characters. As such, when writers invest time and effort in creating fictional languages the purpose isn’t just a generalized exotic atmosphere, but rather a technique for shaping characters and social setting in specific ways. With languages, we can play with psychology and symbols and get deeper ideas across without having to spell them out and spoil the plot.

Creating a fictional language is a wonderful way to manipulate the culture and setting of the world in your novel because you become like a true magician. By uttering a few words, you create massive changes. As such, you must be careful what you wish for. Subtle things in a language can have far reaching effects. 

Here are a few of the magic spells you can cast—or avoid casting—depending on your needs.

1. Play with gender and other social divisions

I mentioned gender briefly in the post about grammar. Many languages show the gender of a person being spoken about. Others even make clear the gender of the speaker, meaning that little boys and little girls actually have to learn to speak in two different ways. But it isn't a given. Some languages may not point out gender so much.

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt 

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt 

Take a moment to think about the possible consequences for the culture. As a general rule, linguists have found that languages that emphasize gender are found in cultures where gender roles are very clear cut and inflexible. English makes it very hard to avoid spelling out whether or not a person being spoken or written about is a man or a woman. This has caused a lot of frustration for English-speaking feminists, who wish to break down stereotypes and avoid the second reference to a theoretical doctor or repairman as “he” or a nurse as “she.” In recent decades, many people have tried to avoid this with cumbersome constructions, like “he/she” or “they” used in the singular, or with obscure, made-up pronouns like “ze” and “xe.”

That may seem like a big problem to English-speaking feminists, but take a language like Spanish, where even the adjectives show what gender the person you’re talking about is, and all nouns are associated with a gender. Talk about stereotypes and assumptions!

Then there are the Slavic languages—like the Czech my children are growing up to speak—where it isn’t just pronouns, nouns and adjectives but even verbs! You cannot say anything about what you have done in the past without giving away your gender. Avoiding the gender of a person is almost impossible even in the shortest sentences. As a result, gender-neutral names are anathema and officially illegal. They would cause no end of confusion. Small boys in this culture—my son included—often encounter a strange problem because as toddlers they are exposed primarily to women’s speech at home and thus inadvertently speak like females for a few years, not having heard enough male speech to form it correctly. Men often come down heavy on this quirk of little boys and thus reinforce the patriarchal idea that being female is shameful. Gender roles are often starkly defined.

What does this mean for your fictional language? Well first of all, if your story takes place in a culture with heavily defined gender roles, make sure the language has lots of gender definition in it. You can point out these issues, even if your dialogue is actually written in English. How characters think about language and the mistakes people notice others make in language are both keys to cultural norms and can say volumes about the social environment without you having to explain. 

On the other hand, if you want to claim that your fictional culture is not hung up on gender and is thus more equitable, you will need to do away with this sort of gender differentiation in the language. Preferably don’t even use separate pronouns for “he” and “she.”

My own example comes from The Kyrennei Series. It isn’t until Book 5, that the Kyren language is more deeply explained, but there are earlier hints about gender neutrality. As in many fictional languages where the author wants to emphasize gender equity, there is no specific pronoun for “he” and “she” in Kyren. 

However, almost all societies do have divisions. (If yours doesn’t, where will your necessary, fictional conflict come from?) It is an excellent idea to emphasize the most crucial social divisions in your grammar. What if instead of “he” and “she,” you had separate pronouns for peasants and nobility?  Your social structure would be locked in place even more rigidly than medieval Europe. Peasants and nobility might not even be considered to be of the same species! 

In my Kyren language, the division that is not apparent between genders exists between the old and the young and between those who are Kyren and those who are not. There are four different pronouns for “he/she” (and another four for “they” for that matter. In Kyren, you get no breaks for speaking in the plural.) 

Creative Commons image by  Rusty Clark

Creative Commons image by  Rusty Clark

There is a pronoun for a young Kyren person and one for an old Kyren person. There are also pronouns for a young non-Kyren outsider and for an old, non-Kyren outsider. Just to make it more fun, all nouns come in these categories too, just as nouns have gender in Spanish. The verb endings  reflect the same differences. 

This tells the reader—without anyone ever saying it outright—that the ancient Kyren culture was obsessed with age, respectability and Kyren versus outsider status. There are important reasons for this as any Kyrennei Series reader will know. That’s why it's magic. This kind of game with gender and social divisions can paint vivid pictures and spark massive conflict in your setting. 

But go cautiously at first! As with all powerful magic, there are costs and pitfalls. Keeping the words of the spell (and the grammatical endings) straight can be an immense task, if you complicate your language in this way. At the very least, you should play with it a bit before inserting it into a book. If you want to tackle encoding social divisions in your language, make sure that everything I wrote in the last post about the building materials of language is very familiar first.

2. Fun with time

Most languages change their verbs a bit to show when something is happening in the present (you’re reading), in the past (I wrote), or in the future (you’ll write). There are some languages that don’t entirely separate these ideas of time, however. Or they may do so in ways English speakers would find unsatisfactory. 

One could say that English is a bit obsessed with pinpointing time exactly. We have at least twelve basic verb tenses, all of which we consider to impart crucial bits of information. Consider the differences between the sentences “I will have written it by tomorrow” and “Tomorrow I will have been writing it for a week.” Most languages would have to go into quite a lot of explanations to make sure you got all the nuance of difference between those sentences.

Why does English have so many verb tenses? Possibly our ancestors worshiped clocks. Hard to say but if you want to make a society obsessed with time, you had better give them at least a moderate number of verb tenses. 

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Conversely, if you want to protray a society where people live in the moment and emphasize their phlegmatic relationship with time, you don’t have to give them verb tenses at all. If they really need to specify that they fought a battle yesterday, they can just say, “We fight yesterday.” The point gets across. And there are real languages like this.

What if you’re writing science fiction and you have a society that is very familiar with time travel? They would almost have to do without verb tenses. Thus it would not be so important whether the battle already happened or will happen in the future. That’s relative and might even be changeable. 

As with gender and other divisions, be careful with over complication. But also have fun. Time is a lovely play thing.

3. Making your characters prejudiced

A prejudice is simply an assumption or a pre-conceived notion. It does not mean your character is bad. Everyone, even good people, make assumptions all the time. And many assumptions and prejudices stem from the very language we speak. 

Terminology, such as the word “disabled,” creates assumptions. When a person (or a machine) is called “dis-abled” our English-speaking brain assumes that this means it is less able in general, even though what we actually mean is that one certain function works differently. In today’s society some “disabilities” such as deafness, may not really “dis-able” the individual in any significant way. Deaf people simply speak a different language. We all have differing abilities and lack of ability in various areas. Whether you are called “disabled” or not, you know if you are a fast runner or if you have perfect pitch. Often certain abilities will be mutually exclusive. You can’t have both the strength of a body-builder and the speed and agility of a prime soccer offense player. The two don’t work well together, but neither is considered “dis-ability.”  

In fiction, you could construct a language where terms for bodily abilities were different and thus created different, possibly more open-minded assumptions. Of if you want to heighten conflict in your story (always good for your plot), you could construct terminology that actually increases assumptions. Consider the interesting real-world fact that the word for German in many Slavic languages literally means “those who can’t talk.” It is very similar to the modern word for “mute.” One can see what the ancient Slavic tribes thought of the ancient Germanic tribes. But the assumptions carry over subliminally even until today. You can do this in fictional languages as well.

In the Kyrennei Series, the term “Kyrennei”  means “people of the night spirits”  or something of the like. Their term for people who aren’t Kyrennei is “Nyttanah”  which means “people of the day spirits.”  There are all kinds assumptions and prejudices that pop up because of these two terms. I don’t mean by this that my characters are bad and evil racists. I simply mean that they are reawakening an ancient culture which makes certain assumptions and this does play into some of the conflict. 

Another way to show assumptions and prejudices is in the use of adjectives and nouns. As I said earlier, putting a certain gender to each noun will automatically cause people to leap to certain associations with that noun. School is feminine in many cultures and castle or fortress is usually masculine. If it were the other way around that would say something interesting about the culture. But there are many other ways to do this beyond gender.

The best way to show this trick is by example. In my fictional language, Kyren you cannot say an adjective such as “big”  or “small”  without giving away what you think about the person or thing being described. Adjectives have endings that show whether the speaker thinks the attribute (such as largeness or smallness) is temporary or permanent. Thus if you say a child is small, you will use a temporary ending. But if you say an adult is temporarily large the connotation is quite different. In fact, in the world of the Kyrennei an adult can be only temporarily large--generally those who carry Kyrennei genes but are born into Nyttanah bodies. If they undergo a genetic change, they will become smaller, more the size of a young tween.  

And the ending also changes depending on whether or not the speaker thinks that all similar people or objects generally share that attribute--in this case temporary largeness and whether the person or object is unique in being being temporarily large. So, if you speak about a child as small, you will either say the child is temporarily small like all children or temporarily uniquely small to say the child is small for the age. There is no middle ground. You have to choose in order to use the adjective “small” in Kyren. 

This is a very advanced linguistic trick but it can define your society in interesting ways. If you force the language to reveal the assumptions of the speaker, whether those assumptions are about groups of people or objects (as in Kyren) or about whether or not actions are completed or not (as in many real-world languages) you will force your people to be cautious in their wording and create cultures where offense is given easily. 

4. Showing the love

Good fiction must have conflict and that is why most of my language-tweaking suggestions involve giving your fictional culture problems and tensions. But there is another way to create conflict—love. 

That’s right. Make your people love something and then threaten it, abuse it or deny it to them and you’ll have more conflict than you know what to do with. But the deeper the love runs, the greater the passion will be. 

Creative Commons image by Gisela Giardino

Creative Commons image by Gisela Giardino

And there is nothing deeper in psychology than the way we use language. 
So, if you want to make your fictional characters love something with a deep, irrational passion or show a cultural reverence for age, wisdom, freedom, youth, piety, virginity, sex or whatever, encode it in the language.

First of all, you can make words connected to those things you want your fictional people to revere romantic and beautiful in sound. This can be particularly effective when the thing you’re adopting as a social obsession is actually something modern society thinks of as negative, such as death or sex. 

This is a good place to make up idioms. You can make positive associations between words that today’s real-world culture might not see as positive.

Here's a real world example from the Czech language. When a person wants to say that a situation, idea or thing is NOT good in Czech, they might say, “It’s not greasy and salty.” While not being greasy and salty (especially applied to things that aren’t food) is generally considered a good thing in modern culture, that phrase dates back to a time when the poor peasants in this landlocked country desired salt and fat (usually a priceless bit of lard) above all else. And the phrase is still widely used today. Language shows what we desire and love.

Obviously idioms can just as easily show what a culture despises or does not value. In English, when we say, “The CEO made a blind decision,” we aren’t just saying a bad thing about the CEO, we’re also expressing a cultural assumption about blindness as unwise or stupid. If you are aware of these markers and use them in the dialogue of your characters as fictional idioms, you can create complex loves and hates in a reader without ever having to resort to the more obvious tricks of the trade.

These are a few of the advanced, professional-grade power tools used by writers when constructing a fictional language. Pulling it all together can take time, especially if you make the language overly complex. But you may not need as much of it as you think. Insert a few specific idioms into your English-language dialogue and you’ve essentially hinted at a fictional language. If used consistently and with care the bits and pieces can make the cultural setting of your story shine.

Creating a fictional language - Step 1: Mastering the building materials

J.R.R. Tolkien has long been seen as the master of fictional languages—a genius in fact—and many writers I talk to say they would never attempt to repeat his feats because that would require being an academic linguist.

Creative Commons image by Dianne Lacourciere

Creative Commons image by Dianne Lacourciere

My bachelor’s degree is in linguistics—Slavic linguistics to be exact. And I had the great honor to study with professor George Smalley at Lawrence University in Wisconsin in the 1990s. However, I’m not an expert or a true academic linguist. And still I can make a very credible fictional language, and I can tell you that it isn’t as difficult as it looks. There are amateur pitfalls to avoid, certainly, but the background necessary to start a fictional language can be laid out in a few steps.

The first and most indispensable step for making a fictional language without looking silly is mastering the parts of speech or the building materials that you'll use to construct your language. The essential issue is that you don’t want to take a sentence like, “I’m going to cut off your stinking head, you barbarian!” and translate it word for word simply by making up a word for each word in the sentence. That would result in something like “Gwa’l tori ik akshi ma lu yelim krat, dre marano!” 

Even if you wrote each one of these words down in your notebook and remembered them well enough to use “dre” for “you” the next time you wrote a sentence, it still would be silly. For one thing “dre” doesn’t appear to be related to “lu.” And it should be, because “you” and “your” always have some relation in any language. Beyond that “am going to cut” is one verb and in most languages it would be one word, maybe two. English is a bit strange that it makes so many little words out of one verb. 

If you tried to make a fictional language by the method of translating every word from English, it would not only be silly, it would be insanely difficult to maintain for more than a sentence or two because of the finicky little words you'd have to keep track of, like "am" and "to." 

Creative commons image by Avenue G of flickr.com

Creative commons image by Avenue G of flickr.com

The key to making a believable fictional language and not going nuts while you do it is having a good grasp of your building materials and making your own rules for them. For most people, the most difficult part of creating a fictional language is reviewing what you learned in middle school English class about verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles and the like.

Now stop that! Your eyes are glazing over. I can smell it. I’m not going to make you diagram sentences. But essentially if you can keep these few terms straight, you can make a fictional language that no one can sneer at.

Verbs

A verb is an action. (Sit, run, be, am, am going, are sitting, was running, has been reading—be careful of the fact that many verbs in English are made up of more than one word but that’s really the only tricky part.)

There are no known languages that don’t have verbs of some sort. The main trick to this part is making sure you’re using the whole verb. In the sentence “I will have been writing for ten years next week” the verb is “will have been writing.” That’s four words in English (not even counting the pronoun), but in many languages it would be one word. It is much easier to simplify your verbs in this way. You don’t need a word for each of the four words “will have been writing.” .

Instead what you need is a rule. Take the most important word from that verb—”writing”—and make up a word that means “to write” in your fictional language. Let’s say you make up “Falimanesa.” Great! That sounds suitably grand for our noble profession. 

But stop a minute and look more closely at your fictional word. You must decide what about it makes it basic verb in your language. Is it that it starts with F?  Or is it that it ends in “esa” or just A? Usually it’s the beginning or the ending. Just as English has “to” to show that we’re talking about the basic verb “to write” other languages have their own ways to mark a verb.

Let’s say you decide to go the easy route, like I would. Looking at your first fictional verb, you decide that all basic verbs will end in A. (Vowels are a good choice for the standard ending.) So "Falimanesa" is "to write" and "Bida" is "to eat," and so on. Just build a word list as you go. If you only need a few sentences of a fictional language in your book, it won't even be that many words but it will look like it's a real language.

Then it’s time to decide how complicated your grammar will be. In the beginning, it is best to start out simple, which means you probably won’t have much beyond a past tense, a present tense and a future tense. 

Past tense is things like “I wrote,” “I was writing,” and “I had written.” In your fictional language you do not need separate words for these different English phrases. They’re all just past. They happened. It’s over. 

Present tense is things like “I write,” “I’m writing,” and “I have been writing.” Don’t complicate it. Make them all the same. The same goes for future tense. There is no need to have a different form for “I’ll write,” and “I’m going to be writing.” They are in the future. If you want to make your life difficult and have a degree in linguists somewhat more advanced than mine, feel free to ignore this.

Now you need to have a simple rule for your three verb tenses. Let’s say you make all writing in the past be “Falimanesan,” all writing in the present be “Falimanesat,” and all writing in the future be “Falimanesas.”

Creative Commons image by Juhan Sonin

Creative Commons image by Juhan Sonin

Simple. Elegant. Easy to remember. Past verbs end in AN, present in AT and future in AS. Yes, most languages have exceptions but don’t tinker with that until you’ve mastered this. You can also theoretically make your verb change depending on what the subject is. It can be as simple as the difference between English “I run” and “he runs.” But it isn’t necessary and at first it is better to keep it simple. It will look complicated enough both to you and to your reader by the time you’re done.

In the fictional example of my sentence about cutting off heads. We need a verb for “to cut.” Let’s make it dramatic like, “aksha.” To show that the cutting is going to happen in the future (however near) we’ll use “akshas.” 

Nouns

A noun is a “person, place or thing.” (Yup, you probably remember that from grade school. "Dog", "house," "houseboat," "you," "Mr. Blip the alien" and "I" are all nouns.) 

Theoretically, nouns can be simpler than verbs. You don’t really NEED to have various forms of nouns. But you should be aware that most languages do have some rules. In many languages, nouns have a gender—masculine, feminine or neutral. Some languages have even more than that, although they aren’t called gender anymore but “noun classes.” The basic thing is that if you have a gender, it’s best to find a way to show which gender your noun is by its spelling just as we did with basic verbs ending in A. You could say all masculine nouns will end in O and all feminine nouns will end in hard-sounding consonants like T, K, G, B and D. It all depends on the gender roles in your fictional society. 

It’s also good to know that many languages change their nouns depending on where they are in a sentence or context. This is called “case.” You don’t have to do it and I recommend not dealing with it if you don’t yet know what a noun case is. But you will need to have a way to show the difference between singular and plural nouns (dog vs. dogs). You will also need to add something to your nouns, when you run into prepositions like “to” and “for” and determiners like “my” and “that.” But those can be saved for another section. Just be aware that you’ll probably need to add something to your nouns, either as separate words or added to the beginning or end of the noun.

In my example, we have four nouns “barbarian,” “head,” “you,” and “I.” Let’s say “head” is feminine. So we’ll say, “krat” and the barbarian is a male, so we’ll say, “marano.” 

Now one of the more important parts of a fictional language is what you do with the pronouns. “I” and “you” are not your average nouns. They are pronouns. They’ll get used A LOT. And they don’t have to follow the same rules as other nouns. This is one place to make exceptions. 

If you have made very simple verbs that don’t change depending on who is doing the action, then you really need good pronouns. Make pronouns short and easy to differentiate. We’ll say “I” is “Gwa” and “you” is “Dre.” At this point, it would be a good idea to make up your equivalents of “we,” “he,” “she,” and “they” as well and to decide if you’re going to have separate pronouns for different genders. Just as we have “he” and “she,” you could easily have different genders in the words “I” and “you.” But you don’t have to. In fact, you don't have to have separate words for "he" and "she." Feminists will be thrilled. But it's worth thinking about what gender is like in the society where your language is spoken.

Adjectives and Adverbs

An adjective describes a noun. (Green, huge, multi-faceted and monstrous—all prime suspects.)
An adverb describes the action of a verb (slowly, wildly, on Tuesday, for weeks on end—are all adverbs and like verbs in English many of them are actually phrases of several words.)

Some languages are less likely to use adjectives and adverbs and more likely to have a special verb meaning “to eat slowly.” You can play with such things in a fictional language, but you can also just copy English when it comes to this sort of thing. Tolkien did, so you’d be in good company. 

It will be helpful to you and it's general good linguistic policy if there is some way to tell what is an adjective and what is an adverb by the spelling, just as we did with nouns and verbs. English has the ending “ly” to differentiate a lot of adjectives. Let’s say adjectives are going to end in IR and adverbs are going to end in ESE. In this fictional language. To make it simple they all will. Not just some as with the LY ending in English.

The one place to be careful is in adverb phrases like “on Tuesday” and “for weeks on end.” These usually tell how long something is going on and it is better to use one word for these phrases or at least come up with a consistent way of making them. 

The only descriptive word in my example is “stinking.” Let’s say “yelimir” but make a little note in your notebook that “to stink” had better bear some resemblance to this word and end in A. Probably should end up as “yelima” for the verb “to stink.”

Prepositions

Prepositions are words that prep another word or phrase. 

“In,” “at,” “under,” “around,” “before,” and “of” are all prepositions. Some languages don’t make them separate words but rather add a prefix or a suffix to the word that the preposition preps, as if they wrote “the dog is the kitchen-in” instead of “the dog is in the kitchen.”

You can simply translate prepositions straight across. Make up a word for “in” and always use it for “in” when you translate a sentence. Many languages work almost like that. At least they have a word that is a bit like “in” even though it is often used in a few situations where English would use “at” or isn’t used in some instances where English does use it. But in general you don’t have to play with your prepositions. But you can and it is one of the easier ways to make your language more authentic and less like a direct code of English. 

In the fictional language Kyren in The Kyrennei Series I made many prepositions into prefixes, so that instead of a separate word, the preposition is attached to the word it preps. Thus, “of the Kyrennei” becomes “i-Kyrennei.” 

Many real languages use a grammatical function called “case” which essentially acts like a preposition but instead of a separate word, it adds an ending to or otherwise changes the words being prepared. This is very common and English is a bit of an exception because we use almost no cases. (We do use cases when it comes to pronouns. That’s why you say, “You see ME,” instead of “You see I.”)

Some languages use a preposition word in some situations as well as the case ending, but in other situations it is only the ending. For instance, in Czech the word for train is “vlak.” But “in the train” is “ve vlaku.” There is both a preparing word for “in” and an ending. 

If you have not learned a language which uses cases, it is better to avoid using such complexities. But you can easily make a special ending denoting each English preposition word. Your language would then appear at first glance to have cases and no one could really argue with you.

In Czech, going "by train" is simply "vlakem." There is no preposition word for "by" only the case ending. You could think of the ending EM as the equivalent of "by." It isn't quite that simple in Czech, but in a fictional language it would look very authentic.

Let’s use that trick in our example. We need the preposition “off” for the example sentence. But we’re going to add it as an ending to the adjective and the noun, instead of a separate word. So, I say “off” will give a word the ending ARA. So, “Gwa akshas … yelimirara kratara, dre marano!” We still need a word for “your” but we’re getting a lot closer and the sentence is starting to look like a real language. 

Articles and determiners

The English article is “the,” “a” and “an.” The easiest way to deal with these words in a fictional language is just to drop them all together. Most languages do and it doesn’t hurt a thing. Although writing without article in English makes you sound like barbarian, it really doesn’t sound too bad in other languages.

Creative Commons image by Jem Henderson

Creative Commons image by Jem Henderson

However, other words like “my,” “your,” “some,” “any,” “this” and “that” are very necessary. There are more complex ways to handle them, but for the purpose of making your first fictional language relatively easy, it is best to simply designate a word for each of these. 

Just keep in mind that they should be short and they can’t be entirely arbitrary. Possessives like “my” and “your” should have a clear connection to the pronoun they are related to. So, if “dre” is “you,” then we’ll say “drem” is “your.” 
Words like “this” and “that” are also good to keep slightly related. But that’s a detail.

Other words

Other words such as the connectors “and” and “but” or interesting constructions like “would,” can be handled by simply making up a word to correspond to the English equivalent. That’s the simplest way, even though you can get complicated with many of these concepts as well. 

It’s only advisable to think before you leap. Some words like “since” can be a preposition and a connecting word. And a word like “could” actually is a combination of “can” and “would.” Be aware that some words ending in ING in English look like verbs but they are really nouns. A "human being" is one example. Make your words relate in logical ways as much as possible. You’ll save yourself a headache when trying to use your fictional language and it will look much more believable.

Now go play with your words or else. Gwa akshas drem yelimirara kratara, dre marano!

Children's Healing Stories: Realistic problem solving for bullying

"If you have a choice of schools, ask what they do about bullying and if they say they don't have a bullying problem at their school, choose a different school," a teacher with twenty years experience once told me. "All schools have bullying problems. The ones that acknowledge the issue and have a policy for dealing with them have fewer problems."

That is some of the best advice I've ever heard on the subject of bullying. And there is a lot advice out there, but much of it is ineffective precisely because it is focused on making things look peaceful and happy on the surface.

As a girl, I was once the new girl at school. In class, I was treated well, if coolly. The school was a good school with high standards. But there was no policy or way of dealing with bullying. I went to the bathroom during a break and three other girls came in after me. They wetted down hunks of toilet paper and threw them over my stall door, jeering at me and laughing as they splattered me with the sodden paper. 

No adult ever saw these things and I was far from the only one to face them alone.  I knew from a lot of experience that if I told teachers about the incident, it would be dismissed with a bit of sympathy or the teacher would freak out and demand to know who had done it in front of the class, which would result in far more ostracism. 

So, I never said anything about that incident. The cumulative effect of bullying can be quite severe, impacting a child's ability to learn and causing psychological and relationship problems that last a lifetime. If a child faces only a little teasing or bullying and it isn't addressed, they will often feel that it is "just the way life is" and thus they will become a perpetrator at other times. Every child in our schools has experienced either bullying or being a bystander, feeling helpless while another child is bullied. And many have been bullies and may feel defensive shame that actually contributes to perpetuating further bullying.

The problems seem intractable, particularly considering how much violence and injustice children observe in the adult world. However, anti-bullying programs have shown over many years of trial that there are methods that schools can use to mitigate bullying and vastly improve outcomes. The methods involve mediation and bringing students, teachers and parents together to discuss divisive issues. 

But you may ask what you can do if your school isn't yet open to such holistic anti-bullying programs. 

Even where such programs exist, children need to build the confidence to speak up about harassment and have a measure of trust in the program. Where formal programs don't exist, there are still many skills that an individual child and her parents can employ to improve a situation. 

The healing purpose of the new book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series Shanna and the Pentacle is to highlight a real, contemporary and truly problematic bullying situation and offer a functional model for dealing with it. Unlike many anti-bullying books the end result is not a school with no bullying problem and a bunch of kids drawing rainbows. It is a realistic end, in which Shanna, who faced bullies, comes to understand the situation better and learns to stand up for herself. She gains friends among children who are open to differences. Because problems among children are often rooted in the attitudes of adults, this is also addressed and children can see that adults make mistakes and that these mistakes can be addressed through a respectful process. 

This book and others in the series can be used to give children confidence in a solution as well as to bring comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone. Every child is different from the norm in some way and many have experienced the pressure to shave off any of our protruding corners--to hide those parts of us that are not perfectly "normal." Healing stories give both children and adults the understanding of our differences as gifts and the knowledge of that many others have been through the same difficulties.

Shanna and the Pentacle has just been released in ebook format and will be available in paperback next week. Find out more here.

Children's Healing Stories: Kids can utilize intuition and be safer

I was returning to the apartment of friends where I was staying late in the evening. I was a teenager alone in a city far from home. And one of those things that parents fear most happened. 

Teach children intuition meme.jpg

A man came down the sidewalk toward me and stopped under a streetlight. The street was nearly deserted, only the occasional car going by and no other pedestrians. The man greeted me in a friendly and kind way, but I felt instantly that something was not right. 

There was nothing so terribly wrong about this man, except perhaps the fact that he greeted a young girl alone at night in a city. If he had been a few years younger, even that would not have seemed out of the ordinary at all. Still my hackles rose. Somehow I knew…

Intuition?

That illusive term we can’t quite explain. Some believe it's merely the quick, subconscious analysis of factors barely perceived by the senses. Perfectly logical and scientific. Others believe something more mysterious or spiritual is at work.

Either way it's a faculty that we know we have. Myth has it that women use intuition more easily and more readily. But the truth is that men can use it as well. But in either gender it helps if one has some practice and confidence in one’s own intuitive abilities.

That night when I was out alone on a dark street in a faraway city, I was afraid but I had been taught to use my intuition and I had been given a few self-defense skills by a handful of teen workshops. And so, with the feeling of danger buzzing in my nerves, I played cool for a few moments. I pretended I had no foreboding sense about the stranger and chatted lightly to him as we walked toward the dark apartment building. And I quietly gripped the key to the door in my pocket.

Illustrations by Julie Freel

Illustrations by Julie Freel

As I turned toward the building and said goodbye to the man, his hand came out and settled firmly around my upper arm. My feeling of danger had been correct. Now, out of the light and away from even the sporadic traffic of the street, he would make his move. 

“Hey, Nat! I’m over here!” I called gaily toward another doorway as if I did not sense the tension in his grip. “Come meet this guy.” Then to the man. “My brother and his friends are here. You’ll like them.” 

His hand lifted from my arm in a second of uncertainty as he doubted whether or not someone could be hidden in the shadows. And in that second, I bolted for the safety of the correct doorway, racing inside and up the stairs to a door with locks and deadbolts.

Twenty years later, I am a mother myself with two growing children. And like all parents I want to arm my children with the skills to protect themselves in an unpredictable world. There are some who trust in weaponry, whether it be guns or pepper spray. But statistics don’t back the theory up. Such physical weapons are more likely to be seized and used against the defender than employed against an attacker. 

Illustration by Julie Freel

Illustration by Julie Freel

Others favor teaching self-defense and martial arts techniques at a young age. And these techniques are more useful. I carried pepper spray for years and never had it handy in any of the dangerous situations I encountered. However, I did use techniques like the ruse about friends waiting a doorway that I was taught in self-defense classes in this situation and another similar incident.

So, I will teach my children these skills and see to it that they have more training in self defense. But I also know there is another faculty that was even more crucial to my safety at the time. I was prepared to escape and cautious enough not to give away the fact that I was alone, because my intuition was strong and well practiced. That I believe made all the difference in my two encounters with personal danger as a teenager and intuition saved me from great potential harm.

That’s why I have given a great deal of thought to how to help children develop intuition. I know that it can be developed. It's enhanced by both practice and confidence. I trusted my internal sense as a young girl because I had been told by wise adults that I could and should tap into that inner knowledge. It was important both to my inner development and to my practical safety. 

As a writer, one of my tools is now storytelling and I’ve seen the power of stories to impart deeper understanding and inner confidence. As a result, I became interested in the stories available for children on the subject of intuition and self-protection. But I was surprised at some major gaps in the literature for kids in this area.

There are children's books that explain about "okay touching" and "not okay touching." There are even storybooks to help the youngest victims of abuse cope after the fact. But there is precious little out there to help children successfully avoid abuse or an attack in the first place.

Partly this is because adults write the materials for children and it pains us to be too upfront because that might frighten children or lead to paranoia. And it's partly because evading harm isn't simple at any age and intuition is a slippery concept to impart. 

Beyond the issue of the topic, many of the stories in this area are not very much fun for children. They are too often pedantic and unlikely to be chosen by children. Instead these are books chosen by adults to forcefully teach a child. But anyone who has watched how children absorb information will know that it is very difficult to force children to learn concepts that are preached directly. It's much easier for children to absorb concepts and lessons that are part of a suspenseful, gripping story that is fun to read. 

From this need was born the first book in the Children’s Wheel of the Year stories. There is a tradition in the modern earth=based spirituality movement that claims February 2 as a holiday devoted to intuition and protection. It's an ancient Celtic festival called Imbolc. The themes are inspiration, intuition, protection, healing and the hope of new beginnings. These themes are embodied in the story of Shanna and the Raven, a book I wrote for children ages six to twelve, in hopes of answering the need for stories that help children develop intuition and train their inner listening skills.

The story begins when ten-year-old Shanna and her seven-year-old brother Rye meet a new neighbor on their way home from school. The neighbor is nice enough but he asks their names without giving his own. And more than that Shanna just doesn’t have a good feeling about the situation. Then the children encounter a raven that seems to warn them of danger and darker fears haunt their steps. As the story progresses Shanna learns the meaning of intuition and the raven, which she initially thought might be a bad omen, helps her to understand her inner sense. When true danger threatens her brother, Shanna’s intuition leads her to come to his aid in time. The story teaches both how to tap into intuition and the confidence to trust one's own sense.

Shanna and the Raven is the first book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series. It will be published on January 8. Within a few days it will be available in Kindle, Nook, Apple and other ebook stores. It will also be available in paperback here. The beautiful illustrations have been created by Julie Freel with pastels in a style that is very emotive and close to the hearts of children. We both hope the books will bring joy and confidence to many, many children.

Code of Magic: The keys to writing gripping fantasy

When I was a teenager and a serious fantasy fan girl (I read The Silmarillion twice and wrote epic poems to chronicle its stories), the first book on writing I read was about how to write about magic.  It would be twenty years before I became a fantasy author, but as a reader I loved learning about the mysteries behind the creation of my favorite fantasy worlds. This post (originally published as a guest column for Marie Lavender's blog) comes from what I learned both as a writer and as an avid and studious reader of the genre over four decades.

The vast genre of fantasy is akin to a wildly diverse landscape—encompassing vast plains of epic proportion, shear crags of nail-biting tension, dark places where many fear to tread, deep forests of ancient myth and cities of every description where corruption and courage vie for dominance. Still, as enormous as this genre is there is one thing that indicates whether or not a story belongs in the fantasy universe. Fantasy stories contain some form of “magic.”

Creative Commons image by  Nicolas Raymond

Creative Commons image by  Nicolas Raymond

It may be no more than subtle dreams invading reality in magical realism or it can be a full-blown flying printing press that shoots bolts of lightning in a steampunk/western mashup, but there’s got to be magic.

Magic in this context can be defined as something that cannot be explained purely by science. The line between fantasy and science fiction is under some debate because there is always the question of whether something that can’t be explained by science today might someday be within scientific grasp. But fantasy should generally fall on the side of strange and wonderful things that science isn’t expected to explain.

For writers, the fantasy genre maintains all the challenges that other types of literature entail, plus a few. There is often a lot of work to do to develop settings and to make characters that are very different from us relatable. But the thing that makes fantasy either fly or flop is the design and execution of whatever magic is in the story.

While it may be fun to throw pure imagination at the page and let all things go wild, as in Alice in Wonderland, writers do well to be wary of that path. It can lead to obscure literary praise (if done extraordinarily well), but it leads into the surrealist subgenre of fantasy, where few paying readers venture. And thus it doesn’t generate bestsellers.

If you want to not only write fantasy but have other people read what you write, careful thought on magical systems is mandatory. David Eddings reportedly spent six years developing his magical system before starting the Belgariad. Being less bold than the grand masters of fantasy, I took twenty years to work out my first magical system and it is satisfyingly troll proof. A magical system doesn’t necessarily have to take that long, but some serious thought goes into the good ones.

There are rules you can follow to make the process easier. Good magical systems can be had by rehashing the same themes explored since the dawn of true civilization (ahem… that being in 1911 when J.R.R. Tolkien started writing for school magazines). However, the key to creating a great magical system is in the conflict that arises from a unique premise.

With that in mind, here is my code of magical development:

The author god must know the truth

 Problems can arise when a writer is exploring a magical system while writing. It’s fine as far as it goes, but this exploratory approach requires major editing and you shouldn’t start publishing until you know your magical system to its very core.

Creative Commons image by Shock2006 of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Shock2006 of flickr.com

I’m going to use some examples from my contemporary fantasy series here, not because I think mine is the best or because I want to force it down your throat, but because one can only really write about the behind the scenes methods of an author from first-hand experience. I spent many years, testing out different scenarios in my imagination before writing and this resulted in a logically sound and yet deceptively simple scheme.

In the long forgotten past, a very negative magical work was created and it took over the wills of its human creators. The negative magic itself became a living entity—the Addin. The Addin desires absolute power over humanity and it gains it through usurping the wills of individuals and using them as pawns. Many of the political, economic and social leaders of today’s world are in fact controlled by the Addin. No human being can resist Addin domination for long, if they are specifically targeted. Most people don’t even know it exists and think that simple greed and corruption account for any abuses of power and the destructive tendencies of their leaders.

The world I created for The Kyrennei Series is eerily similar to the real world and that has been the key to its impact on readers who find the Addin frighteningly plausible. That’s part of the magical system of this world and while the main characters don’t entirely understand it even within the first few books of the series, my understanding of it as the author keeps the series consistent and gives the story a connection to authentic emotions.

Know the Source

Magic has to come from somewhere or something in your world. Your characters may not know where it comes from, but you should. Is it from the gods or pulled from the life force around the magic user or from the energy of the universe or from something else?

I never spell this out in The Kyrennei Series but essentially magic comes from primal life force or energy. It operates on another plane of reality that can affect physical reality in certain ways. Emotion is also energy. The intensity that goes into the use of magic matters and the Addin, of course, operates primarily through the usurpation of the emotions of others.

This was important for me to understand as an author even though the characters didn’t get into the theoretical basis of magic in their world. It has implications for the way magic works. The Addin steals the power of human beings by usurping their emotions. But there are people that the Addin cannot take over. They are the Kyrennei, a non-human race that lived on earth long ago, but the Addin was able to annihilate them fourteen centuries ago because they were smaller and physically weaker than humans. Still, before they died the last Kyrennei mages set a magical process in motion that hid the genome of the Kyrennei within the DNA of certain humans. When the Kyrennei thus return from extinction after centuries of absence it is their power to resist the Addin and their other abilities with energy and emotion that matter. And the details of this premise fit together nicely because they are rooted in the source of magic itself.

Know the limits

Just as magic should have a source, it must have limits. If it didn’t have limits, there would be nothing stopping anyone with magic from getting everything they want and ruling the world. And that would make for a boring story. Limits equal conflict and conflict is good for fiction.

The limit may be as simple as a Cold War between magic users, such as “I can sense your magic, so if you try to kill me in order to control the world without competition, I’ll vaporize you just as you vaporize me.” There’s conflict there, even if the magic is otherwise limitless, but that would make for a very inflexible conflict.

Creative Commons image by Shadowgate

Creative Commons image by Shadowgate

Here again your characters don’t necessarily know the limits of magic in their world. Or you might have some fully informed magical scholars. But the “author god” should know the limits. What can magic do? What can it not do? Is it limited by space and time? Is it difficult to learn or limited to only some talented magic users? Is it theoretically possible for magic users to read minds, live forever, change anything into anything, bring back the dead, put out the sun or drive the planet like a space ship? If they can’t do these things and much more, your magic isn’t limitless. And you need to know where those limits are.

Often the outer limits of magic will not be firm, however. Some types of magic may be stronger than others, some magic users may be able to do more and certain devices, substances or rituals may be able to push the limits of magic. Again, the “author god” must know what is possible and what determines the abilities of magic users.

As an example, in The Kyrennei Series, the question of why the magic users don’t rule the world is answered. One group of them does rule. They exterminated the other group of magic users partly because that group resisted their control of the wills of normal humans. Even so, the ruling group does not use their power without limit. When they usurp a person’s will they make that person one of the elite group of magic users as well and thus they must share power with that person from that time forward (even though they will be a loyal follower of their patron’s goals). This is why the Addin doesn’t yet control everyone in the world. They are the wolves and wolves need sheep. If they eat all the sheep, they will have no one to rule over and no more sheep to eat. As such, there are certain limits on Addin, power but individuals sometimes stretch these limits. And there can be controversy, even among the Addin about how much is too much use of power.

On the other hand, the protagonists in the Kyrennei Series initially know little about the limits of magic as most of their magic has been suppressed for centuries. A key moment comes when Aranka Miko, the first Kyrennei to take her true form in modern times shows a group of resistance fighters that she has abilities unknown for centuries. Even then, any magic beyond the terrible power of the Addin and the simple power of the Kyrennei to resist the Addin seems very limited indeed. But eventually the Kyrennei find that their physical weakness is balanced by greater magical strength than anyone dreamed.

Apply basic logic and be consistent… mostly

You may hate logic and believe that consistency is for fools (and you may even have a fun plot). However, you are likely to have a lot of unhappy readers (and a few angry ones). Not all readers insist on logical consistency but many in fantasy and science fiction genres do.

As a reader, I’m not a zealot (in that I don’t go to great lengths to try to find logical inconsistencies in books I read). But I am like most fantasy readers in that obvious issues simply distract me from the story and take me out of the “fictive dream” (that state in which you are feeling and experiencing the story with the characters). And whether your genre is fantasy or any other sort of fiction, it’s a mortal sin for a writer to boot the reader out of this dream state. It’s what makes readers put books down for a minute… or indefinitely. Don’t do it.

As long as you keep the reader feeling and experiencing the story, other writerly sins will often be forgiven and forgotten. And an underlying sense of reality and consistency is crucial to keeping the reader engaged.

How does that apply to developing magical systems? Magic is supposed to be illogical, right?

Yes and no. Magic is supposed to go beyond science. You can rewrite the rules of science. But you must still have rules. Gravity is a “rule” that keeps us from floating away into space and the rules of magic keep the reader firmly on the ground in your fantasy world.

There are rules about what magic can and cannot do. You make the rules. Then you play by them. Make sure that if magic can’t do something in chapter one there is a darned good reason if it can do it in chapter eight (and visa versa). If you give your main character the ability to magically transport themselves, you’re going to have to give a good reason for how they get stuck in any dangerous situation that your plot requires. Why wouldn’t they just teleport themselves away? Whatever magic you give your characters they have to actually use it when in need, unless there are specific reasons why they can’t.  

In addition, if everyone can do magic in your fictional world, there must be a good reason if they don’t use it all the time (perhaps it is tiring or comes at some other price). If magic users can transform any substance or creature into another substance or creature, your magic users should never be poor. They could just transform dirt into gold. In fact gold would be as worthless as dirt. In a world with lots of transformation magic, no one should be hungry. But make sure you know if any magical transformations are permanent or not. Eating bread that turns back into rocks after an hour might be a bad idea.

So, consistency is good.

Creative Commons image by  Hans Splinter

Creative Commons image by  Hans Splinter

But… too much consistency can be a problem. If every use of magic always works exactly the same and is always successful, you’ll be giving up a great source of suspense for your plot. It often works best if magical ability isn’t absolute or well understood by the characters and magic doesn’t always work. This adds conflict, suspense and interest to the story. But again, the author must understand why the magic works in some instances and not in others, even if the characters are dismayed and confused.

Another common logical blunder occurs when writers set up the belief that magic takes a lifetime to learn. Magic users are invariably very old in such tales, until the main character arrives (usually an adolescent) who is supposed to learn magic. But the adolescent usually masters magic in a matter of weeks or months and soon exceeds the abilities of his or her teachers. This isn’t just a tired plotline. It’s also a logical inconsistency. David Eddings actually pulled this off in his Belgariad series, but it wasn’t nearly so tired a plotline when he did it (and his version is still among the best).

More importantly, he dealt with the logical inconsistencies. First, the talented adolescent was the answer to a prophecy and expected to be far stronger in magic than everyone else. Second, it did take him a few years (not weeks) to get to be really good. Third, the reason most magic users were ancient was that the talent for magic in Eddings’ world is exceedingly rare, so by the time the main character was born all the other magic users had grown very old. And fourth, even when the amazingly strong adolescent had come into his power, he still needed to consult with his technically weaker but more experienced teachers on a lot of issues, so it was still clear that he was strong but inexperienced.

Magic should not be THE key to the plot

Here’s an interesting irony for you. Fantasy must have some sort of magic to be fantasy and yet it isn’t a good idea to make magic the key to resolving your plot problem. The crux of fiction is a conflict or a problem that the main characters must solve. But fantasy writers shouldn’t just “magic away” the problem.

For example, if you have a young adventurer faced with an evil tyrant of great power in your story and the young adventurer must rescue someone, escape from somewhere, retrieve an important object or win a battle resulting in freedom from oppression (or one of the many other things that such adventurers do in fantasy books), it is inadvisable to simply say that your young adventurer learned a new magical skill and “bam!” the evil tyrant is sidelined or dead. This makes for a boring story and a poor ending, even if the rest of the plot is great.

Unlike most of the other rules in my code of magic, this one is often broken by commercial fantasy writers and sometimes stories that break this rule even have a moderate amount of success. However, you should note that the most successful fantasy does follow this rule. Harry Potter wins through moral fortitude, loyalty to friends and family and inner freedom of spirit, not because his patronus is just stronger. Frodo wins with only incidental use of magical items (like cloaks) by stamina, undergoing hardship and the final moral victory over the temptation of power.

The thing that makes these stories work is that the characters had to change in order to win. If Frodo had to climb Mount Doom on the first day of the Fellowship of the Ring, he would have failed. Harry Potter too. Maya Gardener in the second trilogy of the Kyrennei Series is frozen in fear in the beginning. It is only through many trials and experiences that she comes to choose her own path and stand up to aggression when it counts most.

That’s because magic, as important as it is to fantasy stories, cannot be “the magic bullet” of the plot. Magic is a tool in fantasy, but stories driven by changing characters facing obstacles with inner strength will always win the day.

When fantasy invades your reality: In search of a definition for urban fantasy

FantasyCon is more than half-way over and the challenge of introducing the sub-genres in a blog post has come round to...

Wait a minute. That can't be right...

Me?

I have been set a task by with wizards of FantasyCon--a quest that appears impossible at the outset—to define “urban fantasy” and make it stand out as a genre. But as with the heroines of all good fantasy I must give it my best shot.

Unlike those genres that can trace their lineage to Beowolf, this is a new phenomenon, having taken root in the 1990s. Among the authors who have staked the territory most clearly are Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files), Laurell K. Hamilton (Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter), Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere), Kevin Hearne (The Iron Druid Chronicles) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter). And that diversity alone ought to give you some idea of the long odds on my quest.

It is often said that urban fantasy is simply urban, that its entire claim to fame is in the fact that it's set in cities and towns. But many other fantasy stories are set in cities past and present, and that doesn’t make such stories “urban fantasy.” Most urban fantasy is based in an industrialized or post-industrial setting and as a natural consequence it is mostly urban (because so is most of the population in such societies). And yet sometimes the story is about the fact that characters are forced out of the urban world to hide in what is left of the wilderness.

So, I’ll take another tack here. Urban fantasy isn’t only about setting. It’s a contemporary and urban form of mundane fantasy. The excellent genre-definition site bestfantasybooks.com defines “mundane fantasy” by saying it will not satisfy readers who primarily want to escape from mundane reality. Instead, “if perhaps you want to find a bit of fantasy within the mundane, maybe this sub-genre will be for you.”

And that is where urban fantasy shines. Of all fantasy genres, urban fantasy is the most close to home. A good urban fantasy tale should send shivers down your spine and make you think reality might just change the next time you step outside your door. It should cause you to look at the impassive faces on the subway during your morning commute and think, “Yes, I can see where it comes from.” It should hint that something inexplicable could happen at any moment in a banal industrial cityscape. It should transform the alleyways of a small, ordinary town into a setting for the terrible and wondrous.

In short, if high fantasy let’s you escape from your life while you read, urban fantasy captures you and invades your thoughts even when you are not reading.

Most urban fantasy is set on earth in modern or nearly modern times. It often either begins with a character who believes they live in the mundane world or with a character who must hide magic from those who don’t know about it. Its setting is important because it should mirror something very real and familiar in order to draw the reader into a web of “what if” questions that render the fantasy eerily plausible.

While all children know that Harry Potter’s magic isn’t real, they love the idea that a magical world is hiding in the city streets all around them, that a secret world could be just between the railway platforms or out the back of a local bookshop. And urban fantasy isn’t just for children and young adults.

Another way that some have tried to pigeonhole urban fantasy has been to say that it is shallow and lacking in social substance. This comes from a few popular associations but often they are misleading and belong as much to other genres as they do to urban fantasy. And look again even at Harry Potter. It may be a children’s series but the social and moral commentary run deep beyond what is usually preached at children.

Urban fantasy may not be famous for attacking huge societal issues or epic struggles yet, but I believe this is only because the other side of urban fantasy, where it connects with sci-fi fantasy, social sci fi and dystopian genres has been insufficiently explored. The defining factor in urban fantasy is its ability to seep into the reader’s world rather than forcing the reader to suspend disbelief. It poses a danger to those who have difficulty separating fantasy and reality because it mixes the two so well. It is no surprise that many urban fantasy narratives include an urban bookstore as a crucial location, given that bookstores are one place we can guarantee readers frequent. It is therefore easy for the urban fantasy writer to grab the reader’s reality with such a setting and slurp them down the rabbit hole.

Urban fantasy has the potential to be a deep literary and social genre precisely because of how it intersects with reality. There’s a wealth of possibility to explore in this sub-genre. It is a new genre and as such its depths have yet to be explored. The bestfantasybooks.com definition reads, “Urban Fantasy doesn't play by the rules.”

Join me at Virtual FantasyCon

Friday, November 6 is Urban Friday at Virtual FantasyCon, the online convention that brings all the awesomeness of the fantasy freak fests of old to the comfort of your own screen. I'll be there hosting a game where you come up with and solve fantasy-related rhyming riddles to win an Amazon gift certificate. Join me for some light and relaxing fun to round out your Friday.

Insight into Young Adult Fantasy - a guest post

On Sunday, Nov. 8, Virtual FantasyCon will tackle young adult fantasy, and in this guest post, Cheryl S. Mackey digs into the genre and outlines the rules of the game for writers and what readers can expect.

Young adult isn't just for the younger crowd. Like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, it can appeal to a wide range of ages. The reason it is called "YA" is due to the themes and the appropriate content. Great YA books often become classics for all ages. Cheryl clarifies these issues for writers and readers alike. 

Take it away Cheryl S. Mackey.

An Insight into Young Adult Fantasy

Young adult fantasy is a genre readily enjoyed by readers of all ages despite its name. Just look at recent books that have shot to stardom like the Harry Potter series, or The Hunger Games, or The Mortal Instruments. Books for teens have exploded into the limelight, turning adults into rabid fans as well. However, at the heart of the genre the themes relating to the lives of young adults, even in a fantasy setting, is key.

Like any genre there are pros and cons to it and those may differ depending on if you are a reader or an author, or both. A big pro would be the amount of material out there. There are a lot of YA fantasy books. Also, a lot of variety if you add in the sub or side genres and then you have reading gold.  A big con… this also gives authors and readers a lot to wade in and through to either find the right book or have your book found.

Readers can expect a lot of variety and there are two different takes on what angle YA fantasy (or even other genres… mystery, horror, supernatural, you name it) can approach the reader. Both approaches work well on their own merits. Either you can make the characters teens, like Harry Potter, and have their coming of age antics spur character and plot growth, or you can make the book readable by teens (think age appropriate themes, PG13), but have the characters more mature…act, react, and behave in far more adult scenarios (Think The Hunger Games). Of course, there is no 100% black and white on this, but most if not all books I’ve read fall into either of these angles. The commonality between them, especially in a fantasy setting, appears to be the slower march along the plot and a lighter introduction of details. You won’t find ten pages describing a chair in a house in YA anything. Teens, and even adults, just might not have the patience/attention span. Even The Hobbit may be too wordy for some of today’s teens.

Meshing the young adult themes with fantasy themes is richly rewarding for both the author and the reader. Fantasy by definition, has no boundaries. If you can imagine it, you can write or read it. Zombies, aliens, angels, witches, dystopian society, you name it, are all accessible to YA readers in a fantasy setting (for clarity, fantasy can also be linked to science fiction! Think Star Wars). However, when I study the YA fantasy books popular today I’ve noticed another binding element, realism.

Realistic fantasy has nothing to do with the idea that everything in the book must be real. There are loads of people who’d love to pet a unicorn, but not seen that yet. Realism in fantasy has everything to do with taking that fantasy world, whatever it is, and making it plausible, a seamless integration of the reader into the unreal world. This means fleshing out a world/universe to great detail, yet getting it across to the reader in ten pages or less (remember the chair?). Culture, religions, environment, races, music, writing, architecture, science, history, you name it. This is a difficult job for a YA fantasy author. The good ones do it very well and the great ones make rabid fans out of everyone. 

Realism must also apply to characters and sliding into stereotypes and clichés is a pit of no return. Is it out there? Yes. Is it avoidable? Yes. Is it always realistic to avoid it? Nope. It’s up to the YA fantasy author to walk that line and walk it well so that the stereotypes and clichés do not overpower the plot and characters to the point of eye rolling and mic dropping. A great example of a stereotype that worked well is Hermione in Harry Potter as the nerdy-fact-bookish geek. Her role in Harry Potter was obvious. Give Harry (and the other ‘good guys’) the means to an end. Rowling kept Hermione from being eye roll worthy by giving her other roles to fill and other needs as a character. She evolved into a strong, independent, woman that could kick serious butt as well as memorize all the spells Ron needed for class.

Another side of realism is just how real to portray teens when they are the main characters/focus of the story. Drugs. Sex. Alcohol. Abuse. Gangs. Lies. Foul language. Cheating, etc. No one, even teens, denies those exist in our world. Some read fantasy to escape those realities and some read those realities because that is what can and does happen with teens in our world. There is a subtle divide on just how far to portray reality, especially in other genres and it is up to the reader and author to decide where the line is to be drawn. Should realistic portrayals of cultural and societal behaviors exist. Yes. Should it be forced onto a reader or author who doesn’t want it? No. Know that including such realisms is a personal choice as an author, and depending on what type of fantasy you are writing, it might not even be an issue.

In the end, YA fantasy is a thriving, vital part of the bookish world. The genre fills a need of teens (and adults) for age, character, and plot appropriate stories in a fantastical, but believable setting.

About Cheryl S. Mackey

Cheryl lives in Southern California with her husband and two sons. Her books The Unknown Sun and The Immortals parts 1 and 2 are both young adult fantasy and available at Amazon.

She has a MFA in Creative Writing and enjoys games, reading and, of course, writing.  She currently has a flash fiction story published online at The Prompt Magazine.

Her favorite genres to write and read is YA Fantasy closely followed by YA Paranormal and she would love to dabble in Sci Fi, Steam Punk, and Dystopian.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

So, what makes Paranormal... paranomal? - a guest post

Monday, Nov. 2 is Paranormal Monday at Virtual FantasyCon. It's the place to meet authors, artists and bloggers who delight in ghosts, vampires and other things that go bump... in broad daylight half the time. Just as with the other days of FantasyCon there are games to be played and prizes to be won. I'm wondering if I could win the cosplay competition for this day by dressing up as an invisible character.

Probably not. But I have an expert on hand with a guest post from prolific science fiction and fantasy author Jonathan Yañez to explain what exactly it is that makes paranormal the genre of the strange and unexplained. 

Take it away Jonathan.

In an age when writer's are asked to place their work in a specific genre, which genre do we choose? Just to name a few genres we have; paranormal, dystopian, steampunk, fantasy, science fiction, supernatural, epic fantasy, etc... There seems to be an army of option all bleeding into one another and making for a confusing decision. I'll spend the next few paragraphs giving you a better idea on what defines the paranormal genre and separates it from all the others.

First the actual definition of paranormal as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

PARANORMAL - very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world."Still not super clear, right?

As writers I think we have done a better job by narrowing in on a more thorough answer. Novels tagged as paranormal have been written in our modern day world with the introduction of paranormal elements such as; werewolves, vampires, witches, angels, ghosts, and so on. Examples of books that fall in the paranormal range could be Twilight (a paranormal romance) or The Mortal Instruments Series.The aspect that makes this genre so different and unique is the freedom to mix our everyday lives with the fantastical. It twists what we know and turns everything we take as ordinary on its head. It makes us ask questions like, "what if?" and challenges us to reimagine what we thought we knew.

About Jonathan Yañez

Jonathan Yañez is the author of over a dozen fantasy and science fiction novels. His works include, The Elite Series, The Nephilim Chronicles, Thrive, Bad Land, Steam and Shadows and The DeCadia Code. He has been both traditionally and independently published with his works being adapted into; ebook, print, audiobook and even optioned for film.

You can connect with him by clicking the following links to his website, facebook page or twitter account; jonathan-yanez.comFacebook or Twitter.

http://www.jonathan-yanez.com

https://twitter.com/JonathanAYanez

http://www.facebook.com/JonathanYanezAuthor

Thanks for that clarification Jonathan.

Bookworms, I hope to see you at Virtual FantasyCon next week, exploring and enjoying wild stories among the booths. You can find Paranormal Monday here.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.