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.

Comment

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.

The Magic Within - A guest post on fairy tales

On Thursday, Nov. 5 the virtual fantasy convention FantasyCon will focus on fairy-tale-inspired fantasy. It's a delightful--though not always light--sub-genre and made all the more whimsical by author Rick Haynes, who was chosen to define it with a blog post. I'm hosting the FantasyCon sub-genre posts here to give readers a little taste of the magic in each type of fantasy. After reading  Rick Haynes's post, you'll be itching to find something with a touch of old, primal magic.

Take it away Rick Haynes

Fairy-tales ... from me?

After all, I mainly write medieval fantasy. And where would I start?

At the beginning, I suppose. But of course, didn’t we love to hear fairy-tales from our parents?

When I was small, my dad told me a different story every night, and every single one came from his own imagination. Looking back I realise how many were inspired by fairy-tales.

With the vivid imagination of a small boy, I had dreams of standing in front of the fire-breathing dragon and slaying it with one slash of my huge sword. Dad even made me a wooden one. And what about Jack and the Beanstalk? I loved it, but my mum was none too pleased when I cut down her giant sunflower.

Of course fairy-tales were told many, many, years before I emerged into the world.

Take the classic story of Little Red Riding Hood as an example. This tale was originally dated back to the 17th century. But latest research has suggested that it could be over 2600 years old, because a similar tale has been found in China. The only differences being that the main protagonist was a small boy and the wolf was replaced with a tiger.

Now that is amazing, for stories from that time, and for centuries afterwards, were never written down. Whilst subtle alterations have occurred and the tales have evolved over time, the basic story has endured.Not long after my father read me that story I met a large Alsatian in our street. I took one look before running all the way home, screaming wolf at the top of my voice. When my mother introduced me to the neighbour’s new dog and he licked me to death, I realised the difference between fiction and truth. I think I slept better that night.

And I still smile at the memory.

One of the most prolific writers of his era was Hans Christian Andersen, yet he is more famous for his wonderful fairy-tales; my favourite being - The Ugly Duckling. What a great tale, and with a nice moral. You can be ugly but you can change, and become beautiful. I’ve always believed that the story should not be taken too literally, as I am sure that he perceived that beauty could be found on the inside as well as the outside.

So, what do we expect from our fairy-tales?

Like any other story we demand a beginning, middle, and an ending, preferably a happy one: anything to keep us interested all the way through. But we don’t always get what we want, do we? And even then it’s not enough, is it?

We want, no, demand more, don’t we? 

We want a princess or three, evil villains, brave princes and dragons with long tales and sharp teeth. And we wish for, elves, imps, dwarves, orcs, and fairies; not forgetting bucketfuls of fairy-dust. For you can’t have a fairytale without fairy-dust, can you?

With all the characters leaping from the pages our fantasies soar like an eagle, and all boundaries disappear in a trice.I wonder what would happen if we could bottle up the power of a child’s imagination. The mind boggles with the possibilities.

We love fairy-stories, and even though the tales get bigger in the telling, we pass them on to our children, and our grandchildren. We never worry about the effect on our young because we know that the tales never hurt us. 

And as we see the magic in their eyes, we remember. Because fairy-tales will never die as long as we continue to allow the magic of the words to flow from generation to generation.And as a teller of tales, I should know ... shouldn’t I?

About Rick Haynes

I was born way back before time meant anything. One zillion reincarnations later, I think I know who I am, but I am prepared for a second opinion. I have always enjoyed medieval fantasy tales.

Once I started, I could never put them down, often reading them into the early hours. I found myself living the characters that jumped out from the pages, and I always hoped that one day I could create my own world, full of vile creatures and true heroes. And after the passing of too many seasons I finally began to remove the ideas from my head and commence writing.Several fantasy short stories arrived, and I found that the ideas came along quicker than I could type. My Drabbles also received a dose of fantasy magic, yet in the background, the dream of a novel grew.It has taken many a month to produce a story that had lain dormant for so many years. Evil Never Dies - professionally edited - is my first novel and is a classic tale of good and evil set against a backdrop of green lands, snowy mountains and dusty plains. I show the horrors of war, as well as the loyalty, love and fears of all those involved. I believe that all men are flawed, and I leave it to my readers, to decide whether I have succeeded in showing their strengths and weaknesses, their compassion and cruelty. For war brings out the best and the worst in even the gentlest of men. 

I have let my mind wander freely over the words, and I hope that you will enjoy your trip into the world of my imagination.

http://profnexus.wix.com/rickhaynes

A publisher's view of fantasy - Guest Interview

I will be a panelist and have a booth at the mammoth virtual fantasy convention FantasyCon coming up (November 1 - 8). This is a new kind of book-lover's event. The kind of nerdy conventions that hard-core fans used to spend thousands to attend can now be had by anyone with an internet connection. There will be fantasy games with real prizes (money, books and swag). There will also be at least 200 real authors to meet and a ton of free and discounted books to explore. It will truly be a fantasy paradise. 

Each day of FantasyCon is devoted to a sub-genre of fantasy. And some who aren't fanatical about fantasy might not even know what some of them are. To gear up for the event then, I am going to host a series of guest posts from FantasyCon authors clarifying the different sub-genres over the next few days. First, however, I am going to post an interview with another kind of FantasyCon participant--a publisher.

Please welcome Carly McCracken of Crimson Cloak Publishing. And thank you for joining us today, Carly.

1. From a publisher’s point of view, how would FantasyCon help you and the authors in your company?

FantasyCon helps by making more people than we would normally have access to, aware of us, our books, our authors, our brand, and our mission.

2. Can you see online events as part of an author’s role in the writing world?

Absolutely!  Authors need to continually put themselves in the public's (and potential customers’) eye.  This is just one more way to achieve that!  Plus it has its advantages.  For instance, an author doesn't have to actually LEAVE his home, his family, his life to participate, and he/she can potentially reach a MUCH bigger audience.

3. What do you look for in a good fantasy and sci-fi manuscript?

It MUST have good story flow.  You know, the kind that keeps you interested through almost every step of the entire book.  It should have a well-rounded story, built with interesting and memorable characters.  It doesn't have to be action-packed to accomplish this either!  A good plot, characters that seem to come to life, and good dialog around a campfire can accomplish this as well as a good action scene.  It SHOULD have some action somewhere, though.  :)

4. This genre is filled with an abundance of sub-genres. In your opinion, what is the future of fantasy and sci-fi? How does this genre stand up against the many other genres in the industry?

Wow, that's a tough question.  My personal favorite is Sci-Fi/Fantasy.  I think this genre has the biggest possibilities, but even a good children's book is enjoyable if written well.  The future is hard to predict at any time, but I don't think many parts of Fantasy Genre will suffer.  They have been around a long time, and I think they will continue to interest people.  I think there are a lot more people interested in Fantasy than any others.  The only one that probably compares would be self-help books.  Those get a lot of sales too.  For good reason.  

5. What draws you to fantasy and sci-fi, both as a reader and a publisher?

I love a good story.  I love aliens, and space, and time, and magic.  I love interesting characters.  I love ghosts, and anything paranormal.  It's all so fascinating, and different from the mundane stuff we deal with every day.  I think that is what draws me (and most others) in.  The escape from reality.  We can imagine we are the character, or there with the character, and we can experience things we wouldn't be able to otherwise.

6. Can you offer some advice to fantasy or sci-fi writers in the community about manuscript to publishing?

Not much more than I have already said.  You need to keep your story moving.  If it flat-lines, you need to look at why, and either remove what is causing it, or try re-writing it.  Also, be open to re-writes.  A lot of authors get married to their work.  While this is a WONDERFUL quality that will help you sell books (enthusiasm for one's own work will draw people), you don't want to be SO married that you aren't willing to listen to your editor.  Editors DO know what they are doing, otherwise they probably wouldn't have their job.  So please be open-minded, and be willing to work with your editor on re-writing parts of your story that might need this.  You do NOT want the reader to lose interest in your book.  Usually once lost, they will put the book down, and never pick it up again.  Another thing you don't want to do is over-complicate your story.  If you do this, you will make your book hard/frustrating to read, and that will lose you potential sales, or a good review.  One bad review can do 10x more damage to your sales/reputation than the good that 10 good reviews do.

The dystopia of today's popularity cult: The Kyrennei premise part 1

There's the high school cafeteria with its ironclad rules about who sits where--tables for the gamers, the emos, the jocks or the geeks among the boys and for the girls the clusters around this or that social magnet. Just about everyone has been there. If you're lucky you might fit in with one group or another or at least squeeze through relatively unnoticed. A few actually thrive in this acrid environment. And some are torn to bits.

Creative Commons  image by Autoskabar of Flickr

Creative Commons image by Autoskabar of Flickr

On one particular gray Tuesday, there's a girl sitting on the steps leading to an upper level. She's alone - as always. She has a pad of paper and colored pencils and she's practicing drawing lines of perspective, capturing the crazy, obtuse angles of the modern cafeteria.

Does she bother the groups at the tables?

She sits there every day in the same spot. She is weird. At first she tried to talk to people, but she looks a bit different and she won't play along. She won't dress the way you are supposed to. She won't wear makeup or not in the right ways. She never pays attention to what was in style. She doesn't make small talk. She talks about why things are the way they are in the Arctic and what happened in a book more than about the other girls.

Yes, she bothers people. 

A couple of the guys catch a nerdy kid with glasses at the top of the stairs. He should have been paying attention. Never should have walked by them. He knew he should take the other stairs to avoid them, but he was in a hurry. He bothers them too. He doesn't give them their due.

So, they grab him and hurl him down the stairs. He crashes into the girl's back, scattering her colored pencils, shattering them into pieces, pulverizing the delicate cores within. They'll be useless now.

She saved for those pencils. There's no way she can afford a new set. But that isn't even the important part. They were her lifeline, the way she survived the hell of this place, the disdain and the shame. Now her lifeline is broken.

She believes the boy jumped on her from the stairs to taunt her, and in a split second brain chemistry flips and years of isolation coalesce into rage. 

She grabs the boy's hair at the tender nape of his neck in her left fist and pounds him with her right fist. Again and again. She sees white, not red. She hears only her own ragged breath. She doesn't scream but her face holds such intensity that they leave her alone for a while after that.

She knows that she has failed again. She played right into their hands. The crying, beaten boy wasn't the attacker. They should have been allies.

We left such things behind in high school. Didn't we? 

I hoped so. Once. But then I discovered Mommy cliques. When you're a mother with small children, you need other mothers. You need companionship with those who understand and the occasional conversation of multi-syllabic words. And you need playdates so your toddlers don't drive you crazy. But if you thought high school had cliques... watch out! 

Mommy cliques are a tad more sophisticated, but the rules are still pretty much the same. The ammunition is still fashion, makeup and small talk, but you have to add in home decor, flashy birthday parties, magazine-quality Pinterest photos of crafts and cooking, kids fashions, kids behavior, parenting styles, how early you potty-trained and how well you can talk about it all without seeming to brag too blatantly. 

The stakes are the same - inclusion or exclusion, street cred or isolation.

Does this mean that men get it easier? Maybe. But both men and women have to run the race for "success" in academia and then in career. Men have to dress the part too. If you don't, it's your loss. You can't blame anyone but yourself. Sure, the fashions are arbitrary, but only geeks can differ and they can only differ in certain ways. 

Creative Commons  image by Martinak15 of Flickr

Creative Commons image by Martinak15 of Flickr

A random perusal of my Facebook feed shows that it isn't just mommies who didn't leave the social rat race behind in high school. Everything is measured in "likes" these days. I've been studying a lot about effective online business, but I still can't figure out how "likes" help exactly - except that they give that street cred. It's essentially the same thing as having the popular kids give you a considering look and an oh-so-minuscule nod to show that you are allowed to sit in their vicinity.

Except "likes" have the illusion of democracy. They make it appear that the more you have the more people must really support you.

I inadvertently ran a small experiment on "likes" recently. I was trying to choose between two possibilities for the new logo of my dystopian fantasy series and I posted it to various groups asking for gut reactions. In every group there would be one enthusiast who would pipe up quickly and give their answer, either  "right" or "left." The first time this happened I was thrilled. The first person chose "right" and that was the option I secretly favored. There followed a stream of agreement, "right," "right," "yes, right's the best," a dozen or more responses. I was vindicated! 

But then I looked at another group. There the first person to answer had said "left" and the whole string of replies had agreed that the left-hand choice was the better one. Out of six different groups, the responses were about even, but they always followed the leader, like little ducks... or lemmings. 

What I learned from this is that "likes" are far from democratic. What is popular is popular because of how people follow the leaders, not because of popular appeal or true support. I call it "the cult of popularity," but I might as well call it a "cult of power."

Political organization, social structures and economic entities all use it and the underlying psychology isn't that different from high school cliques.

I just read an article about a blind citizen detained by US border patrol between Montreal and New York because the way his pupils were dilated looked suspicious. He and his friends laughed and the border patrol was incensed. "You think US Customs and Immigration is a joke?" they bellowed. Then he was subjected to hours of intimidation and interrogation. The guy's eyes "bothered" those with power. His failure to "play the game" of mild intimidation bothered them even more. 

Does nothing ever change? Are humans just wired to ostracize - to pick sides, pick out and pick on? When will those who are bullied stand up together instead of fighting one another? Will bystanders ever wake up and say enough is enough? 

For as long as there have been poets and bards and storytellers by the fire, some of us have tackled these questions with stories. That's why I wrote The Kyrennei Series. It started there in the lunchroom in high school. I watched the florescent lights and escaped from purgatory by making up characters, names, places and fantasies.  

The story is dark because it comes from that darkness. But it's also essentially the anatomy of hope. First, how can you survive? How do you struggle and hang on to those who stand by you? Then how do you choose your own path no matter how hard you're pushed down? How do you use the power you have - great or small - to make something meaningful? 

I'm going to write a few posts about the premise of the Kyrennei series. This is the first. The Soul and the Seed is a story that faces the human desires to to build cults of popularity and reject difference head on. 

I love your comments on these posts! Do you thrive in the social rat race? What do you think would happen if the cult of popularity literally ruled the world? 

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Must all modern female heroines be unbelievably strong, fearless and invincible?

Maya Gardener is a college student with practical dreams. She's a dutiful daughter, attending church even when she goes away to Michigan Tech. But she doesn't feel like she belongs--not at church, not with the sororities on campus, not with her parents nor anywhere else. She assumes that's because she is both adopted and biracial in a country where the rift between black and white is widening.

And yet that's the least of her troubles. Shadowy authorities are trying to track her down, authorizing "lethal force" to capture her. A guy she thought she liked turned into a maniac, shot up the university and kidnapped her. Maya has good reason to be frightened. Most of us would be.  

"But she isn't like Katniss of the Hunger Games!" a friend who is also a prolific author protested.

"That's true,"  I answered. "She isn't Katniss... or Tris of Divergent for that matter. Her name doesn't even end in 'iss' as seems required of best-selling modern heroines.  But more importantly, she is more like a real woman." 

"But who wants to read about regular old people who aren't superhuman?" my colleague argued. "I want to escape into a fantasy world when I read, not experience a life that is even more miserable as my own." 

"It's easier to fully enter the world of the story, if the characters are like real people." I tried to explain but I wasn't entirely invested in the argument. "Katniss and Tris will always win. You know that from the outset. They don't give me a sense of hope, because I always knew they were in a class apart, superheroes, who I can never measure up to." 

My correspondent wasn't convinced and neither was I. We simply disagree. And readers are bound to disagree as much as writers on this issue. 

Aranka Miko, the heroine of the initial trilogy of The Kyrennei Series, has been compared to Katniss and Tris on occasion. She is feisty. She gets hit with bad stuff and she bounces back. The minute she has a spare breath, she is ready to help rescue others in a similar predicament, regardless of the danger to herself. She stands up to torture and refuses to surrender valuable information to the bitter end.

And there is a kind of hope in that. We need strong heroes and heroines.

As readers, we recognize the strength and courage it takes for the character to survive and even fight back in the face of enormous evil. But how difficult is the path of such a heroine really when she begins with tenacity and ferocity as her strengths? And what can she really do for the world, when you get right down to it? She brought a flicker of hope, but unless the author (ahem) engineers a series of extremely unrealistic events (as some authors have... no naming names here), Aranka won't be able to bring down the powers of tyranny alone. 

To do that, it will take something more than tenacity and ferocity. It will take the kind of strength our own world is in such dire need of.

That kind of strength comes from a real battle within. Deep and authentic hope comes from the understanding that even those of us who do not start out as superheroes, who are small, terrified, wounded and broken can choose our own path in the face of the most horrendous odds. The battle is within us as much as on the outside. 

And that is why Maya Gardner is the heroine of Code of the Outcast (Book 4) of The Kyrennei Series. She is like most of us. She isn't particularly strong or fast or good with a bow. She avoids fighting and conflicts. She freezes up in a crisis. But within her she carries a hidden potential, a spark of something waiting to bloom. If only she can reach out and choose her own path when most of her choices have been taken away. 

Then we would have hope in the darkness of our own world as well. When the choices are hard and uncertain, choosing your own path is an act of great courage.

I love your comments on these posts! What is your favorite type of hero or heroine? Share this article using the icon below and find out what your friends think.

Code of the Outcast (Book 4 of the Kyrennei Series) is out!

Code of the Outcast, the long-awaited next installment in the series, is now live on Amazon. This book departs a bit from the first three, focusing on new characters, but it is more of the desperate adventure in the world ruled by the Addin. The series is best if read in order. If you're new to it and looking for a gripping read, try The Soul and the Seed.

Please don't be shy and drop a review of Code of the Outcast on Amazon. Reviews matter. They don't need to be long or convoluted, but they're a big part of what keeps your favorite authors writing. 

Here's the story

When a masked gunman barges into a university acoustic-dynamics class and abducts Maya Gardener, she knows she has to fight for her life. But her supposed rescuers may want her dead, and the kidnapper insists that the world as Maya knows it is a lie.

It’s present-day America and society is as dysfunctional as always. Democracy and even the “freedom to shop” is a sham. A powerful elite wields clandestine control over human will to maintain hegemony in every aspect of modern life. 

It’s been that way for a thousand years, but today there are finally a handful of people who might possess the power to resist and to shield others… if they only knew how. Maya isn’t a fighter by nature, but the random chance of genetics chose her and now she’ll have to learn to help herself and others. 

She was always an outsider—trapped in the borderlands between races, cultures and families. Now she’s hunted through the biting cold of a Wisconsin winter, and the only thing that holds her body and soul together is her love for Kai Linden, the fierce-eyed musician and comp-sci major who claims there is one place she truly belongs.  Read more.

What's in a word? "Outcast"

"You must think the whole world is against you. Why else would you write about an outcast?" 

That was one interesting reaction to the upcoming publication of the fourth book in The Kyrennei Series, entitled Code of the Outcast.  (I'm beginning to like criticism. It provides good blog fodder.)

Obviously the word "outcast" stirs up some intense emotions. I'm well aware of it. For some, that word has more gut-punch power than the worst curse words. It isn't a word we say or hear very often, but it's between the lines a lot. 

I wrote about the issue of a community shunning a person, making him an outcast, because I believe that it's the duty of writers and artists to open up the dark corners of society and the mind.

Whatever is too painful to touch directly, we must touch and try to heal with stories. For centuries that has been our role. Where the healing of doctors cannot go, where the words of public figures dare not go, artists and writers should go. 

And no, the world isn't "against me." The world is very troubled and mostly doesn't know I exist. And that is quite difficult enough for anyone to cope with. 

Code of the Outcast is the fourth book in a series. Even though this book starts with new characters, you will probably still enjoy it more if you start from The Soul and the Seed (Book 1). For those who know the series, this book is a bit of an answer to a lot of reader questions, wondering about what happens to those who don't have the protection of the legendary fighters of J. Company.

The answer isn't always pretty. And yet there is something of great value here. 

Code of the Outcast begins with a person facing the realization that he and only he can make a difference, save a life... change the world. Yet in order to do it he must commit violence and take the consequences. 

We float through so much of our life in numbness because most of the time there is very little we can do to change the terrible things that happen in the world. We hear about them at a distance and we can only write letters to politicians and protest. We can't really change it. 

But there are moments when you can.

Such a moment will usually not come when you expect it or come at a convenient time. But there are moments when one person can make a great difference. Code of the Outcast is essentially the story of one of those moments and the two people it uprooted and turned into outcasts.

You don't get to change the world without sacrifice and in this case the sacrifice is just that - to be shunned and lose home and family forever. Could you make such a choice, if it would save the life of a person you cared about? 

Is this a worthy topic for a novel? Comment using the icon on the lower left. And please share this post with your friends using the icon on the lower right. :)

Time to order Book 4 of The Kyrennei Series

Code of the Outcast is now available for preorder as a Kindle ebook. Until July 1 it will be on sale for 99 cents. Then the price will gradually go up until it's $3.99 like the other books on publication day (JUly 7). It's both cheaper and a boost to the series if you preorder now and have the book delivered to your Kindle on July 7. 

If you haven't read The Soul and the Seed (Book 1 of The Kyrennei Series), it's recommended that you start there.

The paperback book and other ebook formats will be up soon. 

If you need a read-for-review or pre-release copy either in the Kindle format or another ebook format,  send me an email. 

Free books!

If you think you might like my books or have read one of them but not the rest, here's your chance to get a free book. Join my hearth-side email circle, where readers get an occasional email with links to my blog posts plus a sort of virtual cup of tea. And you get a free ebook. Here's how:

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here
  2. Then look at The Soul and the Seed (or check the Books by the Fire tab to find the next book in the series if you've already read that one.) 
  3.  Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Violence in fiction and the concept of deep hope

Violence in real life is brutal, traumatizing and usually over before you have a chance to think or react. 

I've been mercifully fortunate to undergo only a few incidents of real violence or narrowly averted violence in my life.  I was once grabbed by a man in a dark, deserted street, but I managed to trick him into believing that I had friends in the doorway of a nearby building, so that he let go of me for a second. And I had fast feet.

As a journalist during the conflicts in the Balkans, I often saw the aftermath of violence, but only rarely was I in the middle of it. One terrifying night in the summer of 2001, I ran for my life through dark deserted streets to escape from a mob firing automatic weapons. When I was finally able to get indoors, a man who was out of his head with terror leaped on me and tried to sexually assault me. I fought him off and then had to lay on the floor of a room while bullets whizzed by the open windows and pinged off of the gutters just a few feet away.

Those experiences have given me an idea of what real violence is like, and the discrepancy between that reality and the way violence is usually portrayed in books and movies is often disturbing. Before I had those experiences I found gratuitous violence in fiction to be merely boring. Violence that is divorced from emotion and real human reactions of shock and trauma felt meaningless. After my experiences in conflict areas, it feels both meaningless and disrespectful, dismissive of the experiences of those who have undergone far worse than I have.

Arie's rules of fictional violence

I am reasonably tough and I wasn't traumatized by my experiences. I'm not all that disturbed by reading violence. But I usually avoid books that seem to be primarily about violence.

And yet my books have fictional violence in them. My contemporary fantasy The Kyrennei Series has even been called a thriller by reviewers, due to the violent content. 

Let me lay it out clearly then. I don't write violence the way 80 to 90 percent of action and thriller books are written. Here are my rules of violence in fiction:

  • The violence in a good thriller isn’t where the greatest suspense is. The suspense is in our emotions about the characters.
  • And yet the violence must be integral to the plot. It should not be an aside just stuck in there to titillate. 
  • Violent scenes should be brutal, even traumatic, and avoided when possible by both the characters and writers alike.
  • Violent scenes should not be entirely pleasant even for the reader. Making it purely entertaining is a betrayal. 

That said, there are times when you can’t avoid violence in fiction. And it is better to have it out there than in real life. The story must be told. And The Kyrennei Series is a hard and desperate story. It’s fiction—even fantasy—on the literal plane. And yet there is a deeper level of reality where this story is true. And that truth has to be told. Even when it’s hard.

The road to deep hope leads through darkness

A reader recently told me that my books are like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a great book, and at first I was simply pleased to be favorably compared to an awesome author. But then I realized that The Road is categorized as literary fiction, not popular dystopia. I've been categorizing my books with things like The Hunger Games, not with literary dystopia. 

So, how in the world is The Soul and the Seed like The Road?  

They are in wildly different settings after all. The Road is in a grim, future in a destroyed world where people resort to cannibalism to survive. The Soul and the Seed is set solidly in the present. The dystopia is inherent in today’s socially harsh and physically unsustainable society… with one fatal twist that isn’t even apparent on the surface. 

The similarity is more in the way that violence, despair and emotion are dealt with. Much of the violence in popular urban fantasy and dystopia is “justified” and almost enjoyable to read.

And the violence in my books isn’t fun. It’s all too real. 

Why read it then?

To the readers of books like The Road or The Soul and the Seed, it’s partly the authentic spirit of the people that keeps you glued to the page. It's also the burning questions we carry inside whether we read this sort of thing or not. 

How do we live with despair? How do you go on through anything, no matter how terrible and gut-wrenching? Is hope just wishful thinking?

Authentic answers to these questions have always come hard. But they can be answered in bits and pieces--in the gentleness of a person forced to fight, in the need that binds the strong and the weak together, in the fact that you still seek life and comfort amid horrific circumstances, in the play of children in wartime, in the courage those who know they cannot win..

If you don’t have the darkness--real darkness--true and desperate, how can you have an story about hope?

I wanted to write about these things, but I also wanted to do it in a gripping story without the tiniest whiff of moralistic preaching. I am as much a seeker as the reader. The story is there to sweep you away to another reality while simultaneously making you question your own world, to terrify you and help you feel deeply.

And it may just help you find hope. Or not. Depending. But it will grip you and make you fall in love with the characters, regardless.

An example from The Soul and the Seed

Let me put it technically. The Soul and the Seed has three or four incidents of violence in it, depending on if you count hearing violence at a distance or not. That’s not a peaceful book. But it isn’t that much violence when compared to a book like The Hunger Games, which is (after the first third) essentially a sequence of violent incidents.

And yet readers who have read both The Hunger Games and The Soul and the Seed will often say the latter is scarier and more intense. People who can read about teenagers slaughtering each other in The Hunger Games, sometimes find The Kyrennei Series to be “too much.”

And that's how it goes. a writer can't please everyone. If I want the reader to feel hope deeply, I have to make the reader feel pain deeply as well.

The only problem is with telling readers that. I want to give fair warning about the violence in the series. And yet violence isn’t at the core of the story. There are other readers who find modern fiction too violent who will actually like The Soul and the Seed better than The Hunger Games. Which is more "intense" or "violent" Is to some degree subjective and bases on what kind of violence the reader is prepared to handle.

Sometimes a thing is described best by saying what it is not. I liked the idea of The Hunger Games up until the middle of the first book. But then the violence became mechanical. The emotion slid into melodrama, even though it didn't need to. By the third book the violence read like the description of a video game. It wasn’t painful to read. It was a game.

Not everything must be painful, but if you want real hope, it is likely that getting to it will hurt.

And that is what The Kyrennei Series does. It goes for real hope. Hope that doesn’t pull any punches. And it is wrenching to get there.

Books for 99 cents

Code of the Outcast (Book 4 of The Kyrennei Series) will be published on July 7. As of today, it is available for preorder. For just a few days you can get it for 99 cents. Next week the price goes up to $2.99 and then to $3.99 when it's published on July 7.

Book 3 of the series, The Taken and the Free, is on sale this week at 99 cents too, for the last time. Time to get your summer reading. 

Free books!

If you think you might like my books or have read one of them but not the rest, I have a special offer going. Join my hearth-side email circle, where readers get an occasional email with links to my blog posts plus a sort of virtual cup of tea. And you get a free ebook. Here's how:

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here
  2. Then look at the books under the Arie's Books tab at the top of the page and pick the book you want. (It's highly recommended that you read the books in order and the first book is The Soul and the Seed. But if you've already read the first book, here's your chance to get the second for free. ) 
  3. Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Note: If you are already subscribed to the Hearth-side Email Circle, you can also get a free book. Reply to the latest By the Hearth email and let me know which one you want.

How can a reader find the ideal book when all the descriptions sound the same?

Am I the only reader who finds that book descriptions have started to sound way too similar? 

On the back of every novel you see it. Action! Drama! Intensity! Guy in pursuit! Girl in despair! Snappy prose! One- or two-word descriptions by celebrities. "Fantastic!" "A masterpiece!" 

How do you tell which book you will really like? 

I don't know about you, but I don't have nearly as much time to read as I would like. I get frustrated when I pick up book after book and read a third of the way in and find that it really isn't my thing. Half the time it's not even poorly written. It just doesn't have the atmosphere I like or I don't care about the stoic characters.  

That's because readers are diverse. Some readers like physical action. Others prefer wrenching emotions. Some can’t stand the internal tension but are fine with violence. Some insist on sex scenes. Others can do without the details. Some books are harshly literary and others are more cozy. And those are issues that mostly cross genres and are true regardless of specific themes. 

So, why is it that it is so hard to tell what the heart and soul of a book will be like from the description?

Here are a few reasons:

  1. The description can only be 100 to 150 words or about a dozen sentences. There are only so many combinations of grammatical sentences possible. 
  2. There are rules. The writer must present who the main character is and what their problem or goal is immediately. It's not just the industry standard. That part makes good sense for readers too.
  3. The blurb has to give an indication of genre and the major themes and that takes up most of the space.
  4. And then few blurbs ever say what the book is not. No one is going to advertise a book by saying it isn't intelligent, even if it's definitely NOT literary fiction. And no mystery writer will say their book isn't suspenseful, even if the truth is that it's pretty cozy and the suspense is at a minimum.
  5. If there is violence in the book, this will often be made clear but no one will ever tell you that it is gratuitous, video-game-style violence. Every violent thriller or dystopian novel will insist that it is gritty and realistic--employing characters with heart, even when its main character is a stock tough guy who leaps, shoots and dashes through the pages. 

So, there are some legitimate reasons for the look-alike cover blurbs. But what is a reader to do? I love good fantasy and I like contemporary thrillers, but I don't like gratuitous violence and those genres are often filled with it. I enjoy historical fiction but I prefer a story with a casual tone and characters from everyday life rather than momentous language and well-known figures of history. I can read virtually any genre as long as it is neither too dry and literary nor too brainless. I barely know how to describe the humor I like. How can I find books that will actually suit my taste?  

And worse yet, how do I as an author give readers a feel for the heart and soul of my books in the space of a blurb?

My first book (The Soul and the Seed) starts with a teenage girl imprisoned in a laboratory by doctors with nefarious motives. Given that, it's hard to convey that this is not a story about teenage angst. There is violence in the story. I wouldn't leave that out of the description, because some people really don't want to read any violence of any kind and this is pretty heavy-duty intense stuff. Yet the story isn't primarily about violence. Most important of all, it's hard to convey the close, confiding tone of the story--like a friend telling you about their harrowing experiences--let alone the sense of magical realism, the deep connections to characters or how a book that is so dark can be primarily about hope. 

I follow all the blurb-writing rules and I'm not a terrible writer (at least I'm told I can string sentences together with some semblance of art) and what comes out?

Action! Drama! Intensity! Girl in despair! Guy to the rescue! 

Ah, I see the problem that all those other authors have while trying to describe their books when I'm the reader. My book is NOT like all most of those books. They are all vastly different. But in a blurb on the back cover it is very hard to get that across.

I love to hear from you. Feel free to comment using the bubble on the lower left. What are your frustrations as a reader? Do you agree that book blurbs are all the same?  Do you have any tips for how to decode which ones will suit you? Do you ever pick up a book, thinking it is going to be your thing and it isn't? Or do you ever randomly discover a fantastic book behind a description that didn't do it justice? 

Free books!

The publication of my fourth book is coming up. To celebrate, I'm going to give every new subscriber to my hearth-side email circle a free ebook. If you've looked at The Soul and the Seed and been curious or if you've read part of the series and haven't gotten around to reading the rest, now is your chance to do so for free. 

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here. That's where you get links to my latest blog posts as well as the occasional virtual cup of tea. There's no spam, thanks to the excellent security of Mailchimp. 
  2. Then look at the books under the Arie's Books tab at the top of the page and pick the book you want. (It's highly recommended that you read the books in order and the first book is The Soul and the Seed. But if you've already read the first book, here's your chance to get the second for free. ) 
  3. Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Kindle, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Note: If you are already subscribed to the Hearth-side Email Circle, you can also get a free book. Reply to the latest By the Hearth email and let me know which one you want.

Unique, detailed settings galore: Real super secret trick of the trade # 3

This tip is obvious on first inspection but using it to its full potential is an art form

How long do you spend drawing maps and sketching out buildings? Most writers either spend a lot of time on this or their settings are sorely lacking in detail. I've drawn my share of maps and sketched quite a few buildings, but there is a shortcut that will get you there a lot faster. It will do a few other things besides. And you already know what it is and have probably used it many times for other purposes. 

GoogleMaps and GoogleEarth

Here's a short list of the things I use either GoogleMaps or GoogleEarth for while writing and the reasons why one or both is almost always open on my desktop:

Imabe by  Simon Ledingham of the Geographic Project Collection

Imabe by Simon Ledingham of the Geographic Project Collection

1. Real settings: If you are writing about a setting in the real world, it's pretty obvious that you're going to want to have a map and pictures of it handy while you write out your first draft and when you edit. You've got to get distances right and check for street names, but you also want to include details of the landscape and buildings. If you're writing about a real location, even if you have been there, open up GoogleMaps and refresh your memory. You'd be surprised how many more details reemerge when you see the landscape around your location. You know the key to getting your reader engrossed in the story is often in the use of sensory details. Take a look at the pictures and if you've been in a place with similar plants and climate, remember how it smelled. What would that city street feel and sound like? I write a lot of scenes in real places because even though my books are fantasy, they're set in the contemporary world and the realism of the settings adds to the plausibility and suspense of the story.

2. Fantasy settings: But I've written fantasy locations as well and GoogleMaps is just as good for that. There is no need to draw a map from scratch and fill in every detail even if your world is complete fantasy. Use GoogleMaps like a template. Is your world desert? Fine. Find a large desert and use the distances, types of rock formations, water sources and habitations to make a realistic map of your world. Change a few things and voila, you've got a fantasy desert with a lot more detail than you could generate on your own. As you describe your character's movements, use the close views on GoogleEarth to grab details of the landscape. Need a cityscape? The same can be done. Look at the street view and imagine how the city of your fantasy world would be different. But choose a part of a city that is at least close and that way you'll have the basic layout already.

3. Planning action scenes: At one point I knew I needed a bridge. It had to be a two-lane freeway with not much in terms of railings, so that one of my characters could leap off in desperation. And it had to be high enough for that to be dangerous but not high enough to make survival impossible. And it had to have at least a low wall in the center for my other characters to take cover behind in a gun battle. I assumed I was going to have to choose a river and invent my  own bridge, but I actually found the perfect real-world bridge in Portland, Oregon on GoogleMaps and once I had a real bridge coordinating the scene realistically and plotting the aftermath was relatively easy. Even if the building, street, mountain, bay or bridge that you choose for your scene isn't in the location you say it is or is really pure fantasy, choose a look-alike location on GoogleEarth, get into the detail mode and imagine your scene on location. The details and the physical movement of action scenes will go much more smoothly.

4. Coordinating distance, time and plot:  If your plot requires characters moving from one location to another and arriving at a particular time, let alone if more than one group must move and arrive at the same time, you need to plot the movements and time on a map. (I know you may think your scene is simple enough to avoid this step, but please take it from someone who tried that a lot of times and had to backtrack every time due to a need for details. If you plot the movements on a map, you will have a much easier time keeping details accurate and evocative.) You can do this by hand but is is grueling. Better, grab an area with enough similarity to your fictional setting on GoogleMaps and plot the movements there. Are your fantasy heroes on foot through the Great Kierlap Mountains and the villains racing on horses across the plains of Umthrak both heading for the city of Fallem? There are plenty of mountains and plains that intersect with a city in the real world. And you can get distance and time estimates for travel on foot as well as by bicycle and car. (Google, would you please add horses!) Note that distances and time on foot will still be calculated based on roads. But this actually helps a great deal. Even in a world of wilderness, your characters won't be going in a straight line. They'll be following winding trails or at least the bottoms of canyons. Use the time and distance calculations as a guide and adjust appropriately. This helps to keep estimates of time and distance realistic and to keep directions consistent over long plot sequences.

5. Easy variety and detail in dwellings and other buildings: When you're using GoogleEarth and GoogleMaps, don't forget that most buildings can be transferred to another location in your imagination. If you need a medieval castle in your landscape, go find one. A real one. If it is partly in ruins or you simple don't like part of it, change it, and sketch a new one. But having a real one to look at from the air before hand will be immensely helpful in making your castle realistic. You may also not need anything out of the ordinary. Maybe you just need a suburban house but you want to describe it well. You could use your house, if you live in the right neighborhood, but what about the next book? You could also make up all those details, but you're going to start repeating yourself eventually. GoogleMaps provides you with endless possibilities of buildings to describe. And when you're writing about imaginary locations, you can use any building and keep a 3D picture of it handy on your desktop for evoking detail and planning scenes.

Note 1: You'll notice that I use GoogleMaps and GoogleEarth almost interchangeably. They aren't exactly the same. GoogleMaps.com is  a website and you can use from any kind of internet connect. GoogleEarth is a program that you can download onto your computer. The basic version is free. I find it easier to find locations and get directions and estimate distance and time on GoogleMaps. I find GoogleEarth has better access to street view and more photographs of specific places. Obviously they are really the same thing but I use both. You could probably get by with on or the other depending on how complex your setting isl

Note 2:  Just in case anyone misunderstands this, I am not suggesting that you should copy Google's maps to make your own map. Don't plagiarize. This is not about making a map to put in your book. This is about using a working and interactive map to plan out the details of your scenes and plot. If you need to draw a map to put in your book, that's another process entirely. You can draw a map, hire someone or buy software that will help you draw realistic maps.

Featured: The Wanderer's Guide to Dragon Keeping

This week's featured author on the Goodreads PFDR board is Ashley O'Melia of Illinois. Her biography isn't very revealing, although she does claim to have written her first story at five years old. But the big thing about this author is her book The Wanderer's Guide to Dragon Keeping. I've had this book on my "want to read" list for awhile now and I'm really hoping that being featured author for the week will inspire her to hold a sale because otherwise her Amazon Kindle price is a bit steep by indie standards ($5.99, especially for a slim little book of 170 pages). Still, I want to read this book because that is just an awesome title. (Why can't I seem to come up with titles that good? Titles are my Achilles's heel in writing.) And secondly this is one book where the description is as good as the title: 

"Welcome to The Wanderer’s Guide to Dragon Keeping. You no doubt have stumbled upon this book due to a great need, whether realized or otherwise. You are a very select individual, placed in a very exclusive position of responsibility. Dragon keeping is not for the faint of heart. Aubrey Goodknight is alone. Orphaned at a young age, she long ago stopped believing in the fantasies and mythical creatures she had so loved as a child. When she’s diagnosed with breast cancer, she’s certain things couldn’t be more desolate. That is, until she stumbles across The Wanderer’s Guide to Dragon Keeping, which changes her life completely. Raising a baby dragon in a modern, non-magical world isn’t a challenge she’s sure she’s up to. Now, Aubrey must learn that seeing isn’t always believing, but believing can be the most powerful kind of magic."

See what I mean. If you don't want to read this book, you're either not a fantasy fan or you're made of wood. If you're brave enough, go get it HERE.  

O'Melia has also published some books of poetry and other stories. You can see the full list on Goodreads.

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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.

Teen fantasy and angst-ridden romance

This week's featured author on the Goodreads PFDR board is younger and well connected with a lot of the teenage world. She's Australian author Kia Carrington-Russell. She started writing when she was fifteen and says that her "warped and strange dreams" gave her a fantastic new world. 

Her Three Immortal Blades series is about a teenage girl who has the ability to erect a sort of force field or shield around herself. There are some bad guys around that "shielders" like her have to fight and they mix about as well as bleach and red clothes, i.e. there's a lot of red lost. 

One reviewer sums it up this way: "If you like Young Adult Fantasy, with a touch of angst ridden semi-romance that never quite gets fulfilled - then this series is worth your attention"

I should mention that this is yet another teenage fantasy romance in which the heroine must choose between two boyfriends. 

You can find Possession of My Soul (Book 1 of the Three Immortal Blades series) HERE.

And then Possession of My Heart (Book 2 of the Three Immortal Blades series) 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.

Indie urban fantasy - good stories, rough edges and all

This week's featured author on the Goodreads PFDR forum is Canadian author Jennifer R. McDonald. She's an example of one of the many hardworking independent authors out there, not only writing as authors used to be expected to but dealing with cover design, editing, formatting and marketing of books all at the same time. McDonald does it all but writing a good yarn is still probably her stronger suit. The covers of her Vielwalker trilogy look like self-published covers. The reviews are enthusiastic for the meat of the stories, while conceding that the books could be more professionally presented. 

The question here is what your priorities are as a reader. If what you primarily want is an endless supply of the good reading, then you can find that with independent authors, rough edges and all. 

Here is a quote from a review by Heather Blair for Into the Veil, the first book in McDonald's trilogy featuring a teenage girl who possesses a rare and dangerous ability to walk betweent he worlds of the living and the dead: "I am getting hooked on indie books, and Into the Veil is a perfect example of why. The book starts out engaging, but just a little rough, a little awkward, mirroring the teenager it portrays... This book gets better and better as it moves along and the last third is guaranteed to keep your nose glued to your Kindle. Lyric is one of the absolutely best female characters I have ever read. She is strong and fragile, stubborn and full of heart. In other words, completely real and you will be completely absorbed in her story. Yes, there are grammatical errors scattered liberally through the book, but they are no more than a small irritation once the story gets going."

You can find Jennifer R. McDonald's books at the following links:

Into the Veil (Veilwalker Trilogy #1)

Through the Gloom (Veilwalker Trilogy #2)

Across the Blood Red River (Veilwalker Trilogy #3)

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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.