Why the World Needs More Writers…Now

To say we live in a polarizing climate barely scratches the surface of this dung heap of misinformation, bias, and outright stupidity.

I’m not remotely qualified to diagnose this problem, but I feel pretty confident in saying that it goes deeper than politics, religion, and whatever other structures we ascribe ourselves to. I think part of the problem lies somewhere in people’s ability (or lack thereof) to think critically. To reason. To look further than the current situation and see the potential future consequences.

I’m even less qualified to offer a solution than I am to offer a diagnosis, but I’d like to propose something that could help treat the symptoms while we continue to seek out a cure for the actual illness.

It’s writers, of course.

We need more of them, and what I mean by that is that we need more writers to engage, to participate. Why? Firstly, critical thinking is our job. Writing is much more than just putting scratches on paper, it’s delving into problems, not necessarily to solve them, but to explore them. That takes critical thinking skills, and I think we can all agree that those skills are a bit lacking right now.

With some practice, those critical thinking skills can help a writer forge a meaningful story that explores issues. We need more of that. We need less tweets and out-of-context news articles and more novels that delve into problems. Novels have a way of communicating where Twitter, Facebook, and even the media fail. 1984 has seen some attention in recent months, and other books like Farenheit 451, The Feminine Mystique, and Silent Spring all delved into complex problems and spurred thought and action from their readers.

I’m not saying that writers are without bias, because I actually think we’re some of the most biased people out there, but unlike some of our friends on both sides of the aisle, we have the training to make arguments through narrative and novel.

This post may sound like an ego boost for writers, but I hope it’s more of a call to arms. In a world full of senselessness, it’s our place to bring some sense to it. Writers aren’t at all the only ones who can make a difference, but writing is a method of building a better world, of making a difference in some small way, even if it’s simply encouraging consideration and tolerance of other ideas.

To those who already write, don’t stop. Don’t be afraid to push against stereotypes and boundaries. And to those who say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book,” do it. Everyone has something to offer.

As always, thank you for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts below!

Lakerunner Preview

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been able to post for some time now. Even now, I don’t have time to craft the post that you all deserve. So I thought I’d just give you a preview of the novel I’m currently working on. This will likely become my NaNoWriMo project, but I thought I’d get a head start.

Here’s the basic premise: A Western-type story set on a giant lake where cities are built on islands, saloons float between the islands, and steam power is at its pinnacle. Jade Narscel, who has a rare ability that allows her to walk on the water, loses her daughter to kidnappers of a race that lives under the Lake. When the authorities are barred from conducting an investigation, Jade decides to take matters into her own hands.

Without further ado, here is the first chapter of the first draft of Lakerunner. Enjoy!

One.

 

 

Jade walked on the water.

She scanned her surroundings, of course, to make sure the evening patrol wasn’t anywhere nearby. Fortunately, she was sheltered by a large wooden walkway that was bolted to the side of the island and supported by thick wood beams.

Jade looked down at her feet, unable to keep herself from smiling as the water drifting toward the shore moved around her feet. A steady wave of ripples spread away from her. She’d once heard someone say that Lakewalkers never truly touched the water of The Lake, they just exerted a force that held them right at the surface, but not enough force that it broke the surface tension. Jade didn’t care much about the science, she just closed her eyes, took a deep breath of crisp evening air, and relished the rare joy of walking on the water. It happened far too little these days.

“Are we going to get into trouble, mommy?”

Jade turned toward the small voice that had spoken to her. Cerise stood on the shore, looking nervously up at the wood walkways that spread out from the island cliffs above them. Her curly sandy blonde hair, tied back in a ponytail, swayed with the breeze. She turned back to her mother, little brow furrowed in concern.

“I thought you wanted to come out on the water, sweetheart,” Jade said with a soft smile. “Like mommy.”

“I do,” Cerise admitted, looking down at the water lapping at the edges of the rocky shore. Her little toes slowly wiggled up and down nervously. “I just don’t want you to get taken away like Mr. Ernly.”

Jade chuckled. Clyne Ernly was a Lakewalker too, but he was much more…vocal about his opinions surrounding the restrictions placed upon people like he and Jade. The lawmen had already been keeping a close eye on him, so it wasn’t long before he was arrested when he walked out onto The Lake in broad daylight, proudly holding up his middle fingers as the lawmen prepared boats to go out and catch him.

“Mommy’s not going anywhere,” Jade said, holding out a gentle hand toward her daughter. Cerise gripped at the fabric on her light blue dress, staring down at the water with thin lips. She got that look from her father. Once Cerise was finished assessing the situation, and apparently found it satisfactory enough, she looked up at Jade with a cute smile that bordered on mischievous.

Cerise took her mother’s hand and took a few steps off of the dry ground, watching as the water washed over her feet. She looked up at her mother with some disappointment in her eyes. No matter how many times the water passed over her feet, she still hoped that one day, she would step out on the water and would actually step on the water.

“It’s okay,” Jade said with another smile. “You’re still a Lakewalker, see?” She let go of Cerise’s hand and grabbed her just under her armpits. Jade gently lifted her until just the bottoms of her feet were touching the surface of the water.

Cerise took a few tender steps forward, grasping onto her mother’s arms for added support. She walked carefully, letting her toes fall first and then allowing the rest of the foot to slowly drop behind.

“See?” Jade said. “You’re walking!”

“You’re helping me, mommy,” Cerise said without looking up from her gaze locked on the water.

“No I’m not, you’re doing it all by yourself,” Jade said. “I’m just making sure you’re safe.”

Cerise giggled and took a few more steps forward, each footfall more confident than the last. Jade wished she could let go and watch the freedom light up Cerise’s eyes. It was a surreal feeling to be on top of the water, like Jade was defying the very laws of nature. She and Ander had seen if Cerise could Lakewalk not long after she had taken her first steps. After all, that was when Jade’s parents discovered her ability. But Cerise had just stepped into the water as anyone else would.

“I’m Lakewalking, mommy!” Cerise exclaimed, her pitch rising into a high giggle that made Jade’s heart feel lighter. Every time she heard that laugh, every time she saw that smile, every time she knew that Cerise was happy, she felt a joy that she could not explain. She forgot the looming deadline for the new steamship design, forgot about the tax rates that had been growing ever since Kaidell closed its borders to immigrants from the overpopulated Lake. All of the concerns that plagued her throughout the long days disappeared like fog in the sun when she looked at Cerise’s smile.

Jade kept holding onto Cerise as they moved steadily away from the shore, but remained under the shelter of the wide wood walkways above them.

“Why is the water blue, mommy?” Cerise asked, looking out over the surface of The Lake. In the distance, the island city of Eddinstal was a dark silhouette against the bright setting sun.

Jade thought for a moment, trying to recall if she’d ever learned why water was blue. She wasn’t much surprised when nothing boiled to the surface of her memory. She had never had a knack for science.

“I don’t know, sweetheart,” Jade responded. “You may have to ask your dad that one.”

Cerise looked back down at her feet. She moved her right foot in circles and watched as the ripples spread away from her. Still holding on tight, Jade looked back up toward Eddinstal in the distance. To the north, a small ship spewing billows of steam chugged toward the city, probably carrying crops from Calmarone to the northeast. Would those crops be enough to feed all of the people clogging the narrow streets of Eddinstal?

Cerise screamed.

Jade’s attention snapped down to her daughter, wriggling in Jade’s strong grip. Her arms were starting to get tired from holding Cerise above the water. Her daughter was grasping onto Jade’s cream-colored shirt so hard that her nails were digging into Jade’s skin. Cerise’s eyes, wide with fright, darted across the surface of the water.

“What’s wrong?” Jade asked, following her daughter’s gaze but seeing nothing.

“There’s something under the water!” Cerise cried.

“Shhshhshh,” Jade hissed, placing a finger against her lips. The motion brought Cerise’s eyes up to meet her mother’s. Those sweet green eyes were alight with fear. “We have to be quiet, remember?” Jade looked up at the wood walkway above them, expecting the heavy footsteps of a patrol to come passing by. Of course, it would be easy enough for Jade to just drop under the water and act like she was swimming, but it wasn’t that simple. Lakewalking was not something one could just turn off, like a switch. Jade couldn’t go under the water; to her, it was as solid as concrete, though it definitely didn’t feel like concrete.

“It’s just a fish,” Jade said in a more comforting tone, leaning down to give Cerise a gentle kiss on the forehead.

Cerise’s breath slowed down and most of the fear left her eyes. Her furrowed brow dropped back into a line as she looked over the water.

“That was a big fish,” Cerise said.

Jade chuckled. “Do you want to go back?”

Cerise thought for a moment, brow furrowing again in concentration. After a moment, she slowly shook her head. “No…” she said thoughtfully, “but can you carry me?” She looked up at her mother as if ashamed that she was afraid.

Jade smiled and hefted Cerise into the air, prompting another soul-liberating giggle. She set Cerise on her shoulders and her arms sighed in relief. Jade felt Cerise gently grab onto Jade’s hair as Jade took a few more steps farther onto The Lake. They stood just under the edge of the walkway above them. If Jade went out any farther—as much as she wanted to—they would be seen, if not by a lawman, then maybe by someone who delighted in turning in their neighbor. Ms. Lymid would do that if she happened to be out on one of her evening strolls.

“Isn’t it beautiful, Cer?” Jade asked, squinting into the setting sunlight.

“Mm hm,” Cerise said, “The Lake is closing its eyes so it can sleep.”

Jade smiled. “Is that what they taught you at school?”

“No, you told me that, mommy,” Cerise said. Ah, right. One of the many ways that Jade had simplified something complicated when Cerise was younger.

“And what does it mean when The Lake is closing its eyes?”

“That it’s time for us to close our eyes, too,” Cerise quickly responded with confidence. To her, that was a fact, a given.

“That’s right, sweetheart,” Jade responded.

They were silent for a moment, both of them staring out toward the setting sun, even though Jade’s eyes weren’t really focused on anything. Her mind was elsewhere, wondering where Cerise would be standing when she was Jade’s age. She hoped that it would be somewhere comfortable, where she could enjoy beauty like this, whether it was on The Lake or somewhere over the mountains. Jade was much less concerned, though, with where Cerise stood, then how she stood. Were her shoulders drooping from the stress of her life? Or were her eyes alight with optimism and hope? Jade certainly hoped that it was the latter.

“I love you, Cerise,” Jade said as tears began to well in the corners of her eyes.

“I love you too, mommy,” Cerise responded. She patted Jade on the head for emphasis.

What had Jade done to deserve a daughter like Cerise? Certainly she wasn’t so highly favored in the eyes of Varnos that He would grant her such a well-behaved and curious child. Perhaps every parent felt the same.

“There it is!” Cerise hissed, pointing with one hand while still holding onto Jade’s hair with the other.

Jade followed her point to a shape moving in the water, just a few strides ahead of them. That was a big fish. Jade squinted and took a small step closer, craning her neck to get a better view without putting herself in the open. The shape just swam back and forth in a line. Jade had never seen a fish move like that before.

It wasn’t a fish. As it flipped itself around to go back the other direction on its line, Jade saw arms and legs push out to direct itself.

Something grabbed her ankle and pulled forward.

Jade yelped as her foot was pulled out from under her and she crashed to the surface of the water, sending out a series of larger ripples. Cerise screamed just before she was dunked underwater. Jade held tight onto Cerise’s ankles and moved to stand back up, but something pulled her back down. Not something pulling her, but something pulling on Cerise.

In a panic, Jade twisted herself around, still holding onto Cerise, to get a better view of the situation. Just under the surface of the water, Jade saw an arm wrapped around Cerise’s chest. The skin of the arm shimmered in the setting sunlight, almost like the scales of a fish, but not quite.

Jade screamed, holding onto Cerise’s little legs as tight as she could without hurting her daughter. But she could feel herself losing the battle. The abductor was stronger than Jade, even though she could push against the surface of the water for some extra strength.

No matter how strong the abductor was, however, Jade would not let go.

“Help!” Jade screamed, her voice cracking. “Help!” Up above, she heard the sound of boots against the wood and confused voices. “Down here!”

Smack. Something slammed into the side of Jade’s head and stars burst in her vision. It was a fist. Smack again. Her vision blackened at the edges and in a horrifying moment that seemed to slow down time, she felt her grip loosen on Cerise as her consciousness began to fade.

There was a final splash as Cerise’s foot kicked the surface of the water before she was dragged underneath. Her consciousness back in sharp focus, Jade got on her hands and knees and pressed her face right against the water’s surface. Bubbles escaped from Cerise’s mouth as she let out a scream that Jade couldn’t hear. Her eyes were wide with a horrifying fear that made Jade scream out in pain. There was nothing she could do. She slammed her fists against the surface of the water, praying to Varnos—or any god that was listening—that she could breach the surface of the water. Just this once. Just to save her little girl.

But her prayer went unanswered, and Jade could only watch, hands pressed against the water, as Cerise faded into the darkness.

A Writer’s Review of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

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It’s time for another writer’s review! I’ve actually read a few great books since the Words of Radiance review, and there may be some reviews for those in the future, but I really wanted to review The Name of the Wind.

The Name of the Wind is Patrick Rothfuss’ debut novel. From what I understand, he has put years and years of work into this book, continuing to refine it again and again rather than moving onto something else. Let me tell you, I’m glad he didn’t move on. Because The Name of the Wind has some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read, and it’s just plain great. Rothfuss does several things that are out of the ordinary but worked wonderfully, so I’d like to go over a few of those.

Breaking Norms

Before getting to some of the more concrete ways that Rothfuss breaks fantasy norms, I want to talk about this principle generally. One reason that I love fantasy is because it offers so much room for experimentation. Some may say that this freedom actually makes it so fantasy novels should not be considered true literature. I disagree, of course, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Rothfuss introduces a few things that are different from other fantasy novels. The Name of the Wind’s actual plot and structure sticks out first and foremost. This is an origin story. It’s the story of a man who is now an innkeeper, but he hasn’t always been. He’s using this career to hide who he really is; a man who has spoken with gods and has earned titles such as Kingkiller and Bloodless. Legends abound throughout the land about this man, but no one knows what happened to him.

But this isn’t an origin story like you’d normally see it. After all, pretty much any epic fantasy is one long origin story about the main character. No, this is an origin story told directly from the mouth of Kvothe, the legend. He’s telling his story (which makes up the bulk of the plot) to a Chronicler who has searched him out just to record his story. While Kvothe is telling his story, there are also other interesting problems going on in the present day. This offers an interesting juxtaposition quite unique to The Name of the Wind.

While this kind of structure may initially make it seem less exciting since we know that Kvothe is alive and well enough to tell his story, the legends surrounding Kvothe and some other parts of his character that seemed to have changed over time make us curious enough to discover what has made him into this man. Rothfuss has been very careful in how he has used this unique structure.

Character

One great advantage of plot structure is the focus that is places on character. Since the story is told from the mouth of Kvothe, we get a very unique and personal look at him and at other characters. Since Kvothe is telling a story years ahead of when the events actually occurred, we can see how he still feels about these events. We can see what was important enough that he remembers it so vividly in the present day. This design makes Name of the Wind’s perspective even more personal than most first-person POV novels.

Rothfuss has gone to great lengths to make this a very character-driven story, even so much that he deviates from other epic fantasy tropes. In many epic fantasy stories, the main character is engaged in a grand quest that will have an effect on the entire planet (or at least a big part of it). The protagonist is often facing off against trials of epic proportions that test their abilities. This is not really the case in Name of the Wind.

Instead, epic events are sacrificed for character-building events. Don’t get me wrong, there are some cool events that could potentially have very epic proportions in later books (anything involving the Chandrian, for example), but most of these events affect Kvothe much, much more than they affect the rest of the world.

This can be a difficult sacrifice to make, but if done well, it can make for just as engaging of a story. When the stakes are epic and grand in scale, you want the protagonist to succeed so they can save everyone, do what’s right, bring back the balance, etc. But in Name of the Wind, you want Kvothe to succeed because he’s Kvothe. You know what he’s been through, you see him fail through events in the book, and you want to know what becomes of him.

In my opinion, any book, no matter how epic in proportion, should make us want the character to succeed for the sake of the character just as much as for the sake of the world. Writers should make their readers care that much about the characters, and Rothfuss does just that.

Climax

Finally, I find it very interesting what Rothfuss did with the climax. Disclaimer: I will try to keep this portion as spoiler-free as I can, but that’s difficult any time that you’re discussing a climax.

In most fantasy novels, the author prepares the reader for the climax. We often can predict what the climax will likely be pretty early on. After all, a standard plot structure dictates that rising action leads us toward an epic climax.

Once again, however, The Name of the Wind does not give a climax that you would expect. Rather than Kvothe finding the villains he’s been searching for, or something else of that sort, we are given an emotional and awesome climax that you may not expect as a climax, but it hits just like one. You are given the satisfaction that Kvothe reached one of his goals in a way even he didn’t anticipate. This continues to reinforce the fact that The Name of the Wind is much more character-driven than event-driven.

Conclusion

The Name of the Wind is a great, engaging read that makes you want to immediately pick up book two (The Wise Man’s Fear) to find out what is in store for Kvothe. That latter fact alone makes Name of the Wind effective. If a novel makes us care enough about a character that we want to know what happens to them after the final period on the final page, then the author has succeeded.

Rothfuss proves that you can break norms in writing, but if you’re going to do it, do it right. And we can’t just break norms for sake of breaking norms, we have to do it for the sake of the story and for the sake of the characters.

Thanks again for reading! If you have any additional thoughts, please leave a comment and continue this exchange. Happy writing!

 

The End.

Endings. They may be the part of the story that we think about the most. It’s that light at the end of the tunnel that we’re gently (or not-so-gently) coaxing our characters toward. It’s that part of the story that we hope will leave the reader speechless. But what makes a good ending? What will leave the reader satisfied after their eyes pass over that final period?

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Image via Flickr by Hitchster

Brian Klems of Writer’s Digest said it best when he explained that the ending of a story is something that the reader feels. It goes deeper than just getting to the end of the final sentence. If done ineffectively, an ending could leave a reader feeling disappointed and dissonant, like there’s something missing. Stimulating emotional response within readers is something that writers should be very familiar with and it’s something that should be consistent throughout the entire story.

So how do we help the reader feel an ending? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, having just finished another novel, so here are some of my thoughts. As always, please add onto them where you see fit.

The Climax

We could spend much longer discussing the climax of a story, so we’re only going to address it as it relates to the ending of the story. Where an “ending” begins is pretty ambiguous, but it’s probably safe to say that it happens somewhere around the climax of the story. This is the point where all of the rising action has been leading. This is the moment of truth for your hero (or antihero, or whatever).

What is it about a climax that signals the reader that they are coming to the end of the story? Is it because it’s the most epic, action-packed part of the story? I’m looking at you, Marvel. As cool as it is to watch the Avengers wail on some bad guys, it isn’t the action itself that signals the climax, but the fact that we know that fight is the top of the mountain, it’s the point that the characters have been struggling to reach.

No matter what the genre may be, readers can feel the approaching ending when a climax pits the hero against some test (whether that be a physical conflict, a mental or emotional trial, or a difficult decision). We could spend a long time discussing the facets of an effective climax, but for now, we’ll stick to something more definitive rather than descriptive. The climax, or the great test, the height of the rising action, marks the beginning of our ending.

Reader Expectations

Before we get into this section, it’s important to note that a writer will rarely perfectly satisfy every craving that a reader wants in their story. Especially if you’re entrenched in a story with characters that have captured the hearts of your readers, you won’t always do with the story or character what the reader may want done. And that shouldn’t be your focus, either.

As you go throughout a story, you set certain expectations and make certain promises to a reader. You promise that you will eventually answer questions left unanswered earlier in the story. You promise that you will resolve any conflicts, even if they began back at the beginning of the book. The reader expects that you will follow-up on these promises (and many more) somewhere in the ending of your book.

Not all loose ends need to be tied up at the very end. Trying to do so can cause some pacing issues and a potential information overload. But by the end of the story, the reader should be satisfied that many of their expectations have been met. This doesn’t mean that you have to answer every question. We always want to keep the reader interested, curious, and wanting to find the answers. As with any attempt at striking a balance, this can be difficult, but that’s why it’s great to have alpha and beta readers, and writing groups.

In short, keep enough promises and meet enough expectations that your reader feels satisfied and fulfilled, but also leave enough loose ends to keep them wanting more.

Character Development

An ending is just plain unsatisfactory until we see how far the characters have come. We should see, at some point during the climax and/or the resolution how much the hero (and/or others) has learned and grown throughout the process of the story. If we come to the ending and find that our hero hasn’t changed much at all, then we have a static character, and static characters never go very far.

How can we accomplish this? The climax can often end up showcasing something significant that the hero has learned through whatever they may have endured in the story. But it may be even more subtle than something within the climax.

There is a great example of this in the film version of Return of the King. After everything is taken care of in Mordor and Gondor, the hobbits return to The Shire. There is a scene where they are sitting in a pub and all around them, other hobbits are laughing and marveling at a large pumpkin. Frodo and friends all share a look and a toast, and in that moment, we immediately know that these characters have come back changed. They have come home to find everything the same, while everything about them is different.

This is such an effective way of showing character development because there is such contrast between the hobbits of the fellowship and their neighbors (whom the hobbits were much more like before their journey).

This is not the only way to illustrate the character’s development. Somehow, in the end, we just need to see that the hero has come somewhere. Stories are often an escape, but they also show us how we can develop, grow, and overcome challenges. A character who has changed and become stronger often motivates us to face our own challenges.

The End.

Just as in any part of the writing process, there is no one way to write an ending. The story, its tone and content, should influence the kind of ending you write. I think we should all aim to write an ending that our readers can feel, one that they remember and that keeps them coming back for more.

What have you found that makes an effective ending?

Thanks for reading!

 

Which Came First: The Genre or The Plot?

What is one of the first questions you’re asked when someone finds out you’re a writer? Personally, I’m initially asked what I write. For most of my life as a writer, I’ve responded with a vague “I write a little of everything,” which I feel is pretty true. I may normally identify as a fantasy writer, but I’ve also written some dystopian fiction, some science fiction, and even a suspense novel. Why nail myself down to one particular genre?

Once, in a conversation with a professor that I highly respect, I gave my generic answer when he asked what I write. His immediate response was something like, “Well, that isn’t what you would want to tell an agent or a publisher.” His words stuck with me. For so long, I had to stuck to a philosophy that a writer should not have to be “restricted” by a genre or by identifying as a writer solely enveloped in a certain genre.

But you know that dissonance you experience when someone’s logic makes enough sense that it shakes your preconceived notions about reality? That’s what happened here. As much as I hated to admit it, what this professor said made sense. It’s hard enough to market a new writer. Publishers don’t want a jack of all trades, master of none. They’re more likely to want a master of one because they can sell to that audience. The professor finished by saying something like, “Once publishers trust you enough, once you’ve made a name for yourself, then maybe you can branch out into other genres.”

So let’s get to the point. From a publication standpoint, I understand my professor’s logic. I have to say that I’m still on the fence about this debate, but I think it’s significant enough to discuss.

So which comes first: the genre or the plot?

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Image via Flickr by interestedbystandr

In the beginning, there is the idea. An idea so great that it will burst out of your mind and float away into the ether if you don’t get it onto paper. That idea may be as simple as an interesting location, a compelling character, or an engaging theme and message.

After the idea comes the planning. An idea in its early stages is impressionable and even the most seemingly insignificant influences affect the course your idea takes following its embryonic stage. One of the first decisions all writers must make is whether or not they will allow that idea to be first shaped by a genre or a plot.

Naturally, I would argue that plot should always come before genre. The genre should be a means by which the plot is communicated, and whichever genre is chosen to be the vehicle of the plot should be the genre that would most effectively drive the story. In this case, a very basic plot is outlined. This is where a single idea branches out into slightly deeper ideas, but nothing yet deep enough to be called a story.

But this is where it gets fuzzy. This is where it becomes like the whole “chicken and the egg” conundrum. Somewhere early in the process of formulating the plot, the genre seems to manifest itself ex nihilo. Then it starts to seem like the genre was there the whole time and the plot has always been conforming to a genre.

Is that so bad? Should we think of genre as something restrictive? I don’t think so. Early in a writing career, we may feel restricted by a publisher to a certain genre, but does that mean that we’ve lost all creative freedom? No, we just have the chance to do something new, to bring something novel to a type of storytelling. And is a plot weaker if it follows the genre? Again, it likely depends on the situation. A drive to do something different within a genre could lead to the birth of some wonderful ideas.

And in the end, is this discussion completely irrelevant? Does it really matter which comes first? I would say that it is at least worth considering. The only restrictions that can really be placed on an idea can only be placed upon them by the writer themselves. Either way, we would do well to resist thinking of genre as restrictive and instead view it as a means to an end, a vessel carrying the next golden idea.

Now that I’ve yammered on long enough, what are you thoughts? Please feel free to continue this exchange. Should plot or genre come first? Is one more important than the other?

As always, thanks for reading!

 

A Writer’s Review of Words of Radiance By Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance

I’m giving something a shot here, let’s see how it goes.

For some time now, I’ve been considering writing book reviews, but from a writer’s perspective. As any writer knows, you can’t write well without reading often. While reading, writers aren’t only entertained, but it becomes a form of research as well.

Through reading, writers can analyze the storytelling strategies chosen by the author. For example, you may recognize the story structure as a whole, the development of a certain character, the author’s clever twist of a genre stereotype, or even just the author’s style itself. We can learn from these strategies.

We can learn from them, but we shouldn’t copy them. A good writers takes that which has already been done, and does it differently, hopefully better, but at least differently. All of our writing should present something new to the world of fantasy, science fiction, romance, or wherever you find your niche.

So with all of that being said, I would like to review Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance by looking at some of the writing strategies Sanderson applied. I’ll do my best to keep this review spoiler-free, just in case any of you haven’t read it.

Before I get into specifics, I loved this book. Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite fantasy authors, for many reasons, but mainly because I feel that he is doing something very unique in his approach to fantasy and epic fantasy.

Anyway, now that you know that I’m a bit biased, here are three effective writing techniques from Words of Radiance.

1. Magic System

Sanderson is known for crafting interesting and unique magic systems. His Mistborn series introduced readers to the magical arts of allomancy, feruchemy, and hemalurgy, three magic systems based around metal. Another of his books, Warbreaker, had magic that was powered by color.

In Radiance, the second book in The Stormlight Archive, the magic system is not fleshed out for readers as quickly as in other books, since it is an art that has been lost for centuries. In choosing to make this magic just as new to the characters as it is for us, Sanderson has a chance to very naturally reveal different facets of the magic as it is relevant to the story.

I have to be careful how much I talk about Surgebinding (the magic system in Radiance), because the details revealed about the magic are very relevant to important parts of the story. Like most of Sanderson’s magic systems, Surgebinding seems to be a very hard magic system, which means that it has very clear abilities, limits, costs, etc. A hard magic system would contrast with a soft magic system like in Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf can pretty much do whatever he wants and the scope and limits of the magic aren’t clear.

Sanderson’s magic systems effectively teaches writers that everything should have a cost. I’m not saying it’s bad to have a magic system where you can just wave a wand and something wonderful happens, but magic can’t just solve all your character’s problems. Believe me, the characters in Radiance do some jaw-dropping, epic and cool things with their magic, but before all that, they learn the costs and limits of their abilities.

This concept applies to more than just magic. Everything has a cost. Let me repeat that. Everything has a cost. Just like nothing is really ever free in our lives, nothing should ever be free for our characters. Sometimes that cost may be that the character gives up something personal, maybe something that has been motivating them, for something greater. It doesn’t always have to be a physical cost; it may just as well be emotional or spiritual.

2. Character Depth

Now, this point probably seems like a given. Every character, especially in a novel, should have a kind of depth to them. But Sanderson takes this to a whole other level. In Words of Radiance, we get a glimpse into the past of Shallan Davar through a series of flashback chapters. These not only give us information relevant to the story, but it contributes to the reality of a very interesting character.

Through these flashbacks, we learn more about how Shallan developed her personality, her motivation, and we even learn more about the history of her interesting abilities. This is effective not only because it helps create a more personal connection between the reader and Shallan (so that we feel what she feels, understand her motivation, etc.), but it also makes Radiance a very real story.

With depth, characters gain tangibility. When characters gain tangibility, a story becomes more than just words on a page, it becomes a history of people that readers learn to love or hate, or maybe both at different times.

Again, this seems like something that’s kind of a “no duh” to point out, but I think it can be easy, as a writer, to forget that the reader doesn’t know as much about a character as we do. A character must be as real to the reader as they are to us, as much as is necessary for the story, at least. I suppose it’s another one of those balance things: you can’t have too much or too little.

3. Worldbuilding

Ah, worldbuilding. For some writers, it’s the bane of their existence, and for others, it’s a hobby. Especially in epic fantasy, worldbuilding is an extremely important (but also delicate) part of a story. You want to have enough detail that your world feels real, but not so much that you practically suffocate your reader under a puffy pillow of description.

Brandon strikes an effective balance between too much description and too little by describing the world through the lens of the characters. He doesn’t coddle the reader by going into an encyclopedia about everything in the world, but he instead allows the reader to figure it out for themselves as elements are revealed very organically, such as in dialogue or simply in what a character notices or considers.

Also, having different types of characters (a surgeon-turned-soldier, a hardened general, and an aspiring scholar, to name a few) is another organic way to reveal different aspects of the world through the lens of each character. By the end of Radiance, we are finally beginning to get a good picture of the world of Roshar.

Conclusion

I can’t possibly stress enough the benefits of reading as a writer. As an aspiring novelist, I have learned from other authors some of the writing techniques that led to their success. While no one should simply copy another writer, these authors are successful because they take universal principles and place their own spin on them.

Words of Radiance is a great read. If you haven’t picked it up, I definitely recommend it (but of course, if you haven’t, first read Book 1 of the Stormlight Archive, Way of Kings). There are obviously many many many more writing techniques in this novel than the ones I’ve very briefly explored, so if you would like to add to this conversation, feel free to comment and continue this exchange.

 

Why Write?

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Image via Flickr by Nellie0224

After a brief hiatus (AKA school), I’m back. This past year of school has been amazing. Seriously. I think the past six months have contributed more to my writing and my understanding of writing than any other period of my life. I’d like to share some of those thoughts with you.

So why write? I couldn’t count the amount of times that I feel that I’ve been taken less seriously after telling someone that I’m a writer and an English Major. They tend to respond with the raised eyebrows, a slow nod, and “oh, so what are you going to do with that?” Then I sigh and feed their perceived stereotype by telling them that I’ll probably just live at my parent’s house and write novels until one gets picked up.

I’m kidding. I don’t say that.

But those questions have prompted to me to think often about why I write and why writing is important. Any answer to this question is of course subjective, but I think it’s an important question to answer, especially in a society where being a “writer” is not always taken seriously.

The significance of writing is a subject that has been discussed since the times of the Greek philosophers. In my opinion, some very valuable contributions to this discussion have been made by Kenneth Bruffee, who explored how thought is a social construct, or “internalized conversation.” In writing, and thus becoming part of the conversation of mankind, we better understand our own thoughts and create new knowledge.

Bruffee’s ideas stuck out to me because while I don’t know if I’d consider myself a true social constructivist, I do believe that the value of writing goes much deeper than the entertainment value.

To answer the question of why we write, it may be important to ask a simpler question: why do we read? Here, too, the answers will vary. You may read to gain knowledge, to escape from reality, to be inspired, or just because you just plain love to sit down next to the fire and crack open some fresh pages, and you don’t really have some other intrinsic motivation. That’s just fine.

As writers, we should consider these reasons and ask ourselves some follow-up questions. What knowledge could someone gain from my writing and why would they want this knowledge? Why would someone want to escape from reality and how could I help them escape? How can I inspire someone? How can I get someone to fall in love with this book like the countless others they’ve read? And while asking these questions in regards to our audience is vital, we should also ask these questions to ourselves as we write.

Why do I write? I write because it amazes me that no matter what genre we read, whether it be romance, fiction, science fiction, fantasy, or non-fiction, we find someone or something with which we can relate. We find human values and qualities (both good and bad) that transcend worlds, cultures, and eras. I write because I want to attempt to capture those values and qualities. I want to explore what makes us human, while telling an entertaining and engaging story at the same time.

I write because I hope to add some value to this conversation of mankind that is going on all around us, and I believe that all writing should do the same, in one measure or another.

Now, this was a very condensed answer to that question: why write? Novels have been written to answer this question, so an exploration of the entirely topic unfortunately cannot be condensed into a single blog post.

Thank you, friends, for listening to my wandering thoughts. Please feel free, as always, to continue this conversation and answer the question: why write?

Pre-Writing: 3 Basic Pre-Game Steps for Preparing to Write Your Story

NaNoWriMo is coming up fast. For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is to write a novel between November 1st and November 30th, a lofty challenge indeed, but a great way to motivate you to buckle down and get that great idea written.

As I’ve been getting ready for NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d share a few thoughts that have helped me in the steps leading up to writing the actual story. None of these points are the only way to pre-write a story, they’ve just been on my mind as I’ve worked on getting ready for writing this next book.

One of my writing professors once said that writing is the hardest thing anyone can do. Sure, it takes a lot of work to solve a complex math problem or to measure the result of a science experiment, but in both instances, there is a definite, conclusive answer which can be reached by following a formula.

Don’t get me wrong, there are formulas in writing, but often, the writer is the one that must discover the formula, or tailor that formula to themselves. The writer has to create an answer out of infinite possibilities, and then support that with evidence, we call that the story.

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s get to it.

*Note: These steps are not numbered in order of importance

Step 1: Plot Outline

You have a great idea. It’s been mulling around in the ether of your mind for years. You know where you want the story to go, you know the final answer, now you need to come up with the evidence.

There isn’t a right or wrong answer for creating a plot outline. Some writers like to create a specific, step-by-step plot line, from which they do their best not to deviate, while other writers lean toward a kind of ‘discovery writing’, where they have outlined a few major points, but figure out the rest as they write.

No matter which method you prefer, there are a few important things to remember.

Even if you decide to stick to letting the story flow more of its own accord through discovery writing, you’ll still need to identify a few major plot points. At the very least, you must identify points of:

  1. Rising action. This could include character exposition (i.e. getting to know the main and supporting characters), introduction of the tension in the story, and raising questions for the reader which are answered later in the text.
  2. Climax. This is the answer, the moment to which everything has been building up. By the end of the climax, many questions should be answered and many of the reader’s expectations satisfied.
  3. Falling Action/Resolution. This is your conclusion, where you tie up the lose ends and either finish answering the rest of the potential questions, or leave it open enough to keep the reader anticipating the next book.

Step 2: Characters

This is my favorite part of pre-writing.

A story is nothing without characters. These individuals, whether they’re human or inhuman, based on real-life individuals or not, must be created with such a level of detail that they could be real. To the writer, they are real.

You may not tell the reader everything you know about the character, but having a sense of depth into their past, personality, fears, aspirations, strengths, weaknesses, etc., will make them feel real to the reader. We want to read about individuals we can relate to, whether they’re set in a world of fantasy, mystery, or a space opera. When creating a character, the writer has an opportunity to explore what makes one human, the kind of characteristics that transcend time and space.

While you may not plan every single event this character goes through, you’ll want to think through how this character will be different by the end of the story. We want to read about dynamic characters, rather than static. Dynamic characters are changed and shaped by their decisions and experiences, just like any other person.

Stories are about characters. A beautiful, detailed world and an exciting plot aren’t enough to make a story great. It’s well worth it to take time on developing characters.

Step 3: Worldbuilding

This step differs depending on the genre. In a general sense, worldbuilding involves deciding the details related to the physical setting, time period, culture, and history of the environment in which your story will take place.

For example, when I want to write a fantasy story, I know I need to consider what about this world makes it fantastic. This may include fantastic animals, something different about nature or physics, or a magic system. If I want to write a dystopia, I need to make sure I have a believable history which explains why this world is broken. If I’m writing a story set sometime in actual history, I need to make sure I have an accurate understanding of events and places.

Here’s a warning though (and I know how dangerous this can be because I’ve done it plenty of times), don’t get so caught up in worldbuilding that it gets between you and the story. A lot of worldbuilding will take place as you write the story.

So how much is enough? When the world or environment is consistent and believable enough that your story can take place within. A story should drive worldbuilding, not the other way around.

These have been just a few tips that have helped my ideas take shape, but they may not work for everyone, so please be sure to help make this an exchange and share what has helped you in pre-writing your novel.

Thanks for reading!

Struck Speechless

Well friends, the writing, road blocks, editing, and publishing, are finished, and Speechless is available for everyone!

Everyone, that is, with a computer or other device.

With the story being a novella, I felt that self-publishing through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing would be the route to explore for this project (I’ll be posting a piece about the pros and cons of self-publishing, so stay tuned). Even though it’s through a Kindle service, the book can be purchased and read on any electronic device.

Speechless was originally intended to be a three-part novel, with each part following a different character and story, all set in the same dystopian world. As I started to write part 2, I realized really how distinct each character and story was, so I decided to experiment with releasing three separate novellas, for now at least. One day, I’ve considered compiling them into a hard-copy anthology.

So, back to the story. Speechless is set in the dystopian nation of Berough, where the government has outlawed speech, sign language, and written communication, in an effort to create a utopian unity within their nation. This first story set in Berough follows Sim Braxton, a boy whose sister was captured trying to oppose the government and get her voice back. He’s determined to follow her example and join a growing revolution.

I’ll leave the summary at that. Can’t give too many spoilers. This was a fun story to build and write. I got to explore what it would be like to not ever be able to speak, what implications there would be in a ‘perfectly unified’ society. It got me thinking and I hope it gets you thinking too.

Enjoy!

P.S. Feel free to leave any feedback on the book either here or in the ‘Comments’ section on Amazon.

http://www.amazon.com/Speechless-Trilogy-Book-1-ebook/dp/B014IBIK80/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1440685793&sr=1-1&keywords=speechless+michael+scott+walton

Editing: 3 Methods for Transforming an Idea into a Masterpiece

Editing.

There, I said it. Don’t cringe, it’s nothing to be afraid of.

Think of the last time you made brownies. You put together all these great ingredients, and sure, it tastes good to lick the spatula, but how much better do those brownies taste once they’ve been baked? Editing is the baking of a story. It’s what brings a great idea, and great writing, together.

So you’ve finished writing your story. The brownie batter tastes good, but not that good. What does it really mean to edit a story? What did you think of when you saw the first word of this post? Fixing grammar? Throwing in commas to break up run-on sentences? Clicking spell check? Those little fixes are important, but they’re like mixing the brownie batter. It’s important, but other elements, like the temperature, how long it bakes, etc., have a much greater impact on the result.

There have been countless books written on editing, so I’m going to focus on just a  few key elements to keep in mind when putting the finishing touches on your fantastic story. Please feel free to comment and add what editing techniques have changed your good story into a great story.

1. Consistency

Recently, I’ve been editing my latest novella, Speechless. As I was going through the story, I realized that the more I had written, the more I was personally discovering about the story. Some of the history was slightly changed, characters suddenly had something new about them, and so on. Writers often do this. You can only do so much pre-writing before you have to just hold your breath and dive into the story. As a result, you’ll end up discovering new elements of characters, history, and environment, that may differ from something you wrote earlier.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s exciting, as a writer, to discover your own story as you write it. These discoveries, however, need to be linked together to form a realistic feeling of consistency. Whether you’re writing a mystery, or an epic fantasy, the reader needs to feel like your world is real. Consistency of ideas and elements is what brings that sense of reality.

What does it really mean to maintain consistency?

Life has consistency. We may learn more about it every day, but history will always be history. Physics will always be physics. Your friends have traits that don’t usually just change overnight. These are constants that need to be consistent in your story. Names are the same. History is the same. Characters act the same (unless there is a significant event that changes them). Environments are the same.

Remember when you explain something in narrative, or have something explained to your character. You know how annoying it is to have someone constantly telling you the same story. As a writer, you may forget that you’ve explained or introduced something, and may accidentally introduce it a second, third, or fourth time. Readers will notice this. It disturbs consistency.

2. Tone and Mood

Your brownies are starting to smell great. The consistency of the batter was just about perfect, but it’s the baking that really brings out the flavor. Tone and mood are what bring out the power of your story. An author creates tone, which evokes a mood within the reader. When we read, we want to feel something. We want to feel what the character feels. Joy, sadness, dread, anticipation, etc. Words have the power to create emotion, if used correctly.

As you edit your story, pay careful attention to how you feel. There is no reason why you shouldn’t feel the way you want your reader to feel. If you don’t feel the emotion you’re trying to evoke, figure out why. Is there so much description that it takes away from the power of the words? Are your characters showing, not telling, how they feel?

Tone and mood bring a reader into the world, and into the shoes of the characters. They relate the reader to the story, inspire them, and get them thinking. This is where you create the connection between reader and story.

3. Dynamic vs. Static

The brownies are just about done. You’re about to stick in the toothpick, and see if it comes up clean. You’ve read through your story, likely several times, and you’ve picked up on inconsistencies, holes in the story, the tone, and all the little spelling and grammar errors. How do you feel at the end? Was there progression in your story? Did your characters accomplish their goals? Did they grow and develop through their experiences?

Characters are often defined as being either dynamic or static. A dynamic character grows, develops, and learns throughout the story. They progress. A static character doesn’t change much. Their progression is limited compared to the more dynamic characters. Every writer needs to ask if they’ve written a dynamic, or static, story.

A dynamic story leaves a reader feeling satisfied, like they have just completed an exciting, inspiring, motivating, moving, and thought-provoking story. They feel like they’ve progressed and moved from one point to another. This progression brings a sense of satisfaction, that sigh you breathe after reading something inspiring.

You’re brownies are done. They taste great. They’re ready to be shared with family and friends. See? Editing isn’t so bad. There are many methods, other than these three, used to bring a story together. Feel free to add any additional comments or editing tips.

Thanks for the exchange!