Is That Dragon Really Necessary?

One problem writers sometimes have is when they toss in a story element— such as a dragon in fantasy fiction— that isn’t really integrated with the rest of the story. It’s just something the writer happens to like in fiction, so he throws it in.

But story elements— whether dragons or robots or foreign spies— can’t just stand around looking genre-specific. They must be a part of the story. A dragon may be part of a hero’s quest— he might have to slay the dragon, or trick the dragon, or get the dragon to fall in love with his pet donkey (Shrek reference.)

Sometimes dragons are more than an obstacle for a hero. Think of the Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey, or the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, or the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and son— in all of these, dragons are central to the story. Without dragons, you couldn’t have these stories. Or, at least, they would be utterly different stories.

By now I’m sure I have some writers saying ‘that blogger wants me to take the dragon out and I won’t! I won’t.’ Well, you don’t have to. You just have to know how the dragon fits in to your story and your story’s world.

In some fantasy novels, facing a dragon can be part of a quest. The reader may go through chapters of the quest without knowing for sure there is a dragon in the book— authors don’t have to mention ‘here be dragons’ when they start a fantasy novel in a fantasy world. Now, if the dragon is in contemporary Green Bay, Wisconsin, I’d want to know why. Or if the dragon is a Packers fan. Or something.

Dragons can be central to some stories, as in the three series I mentioned above. Think of these stories as an endless ‘what if’ game. If they had dragons in the Napoleonic wars, how would the dragons be raised? How would they be trained? How would a nation have enough meat to feed hungry war dragons? And so on. Answering all the dragon-questions is almost like a game between author and reader.

Fictional dragons can come in many sorts. The dragons in the Dragon Jouster series are animals, and so cannot speak. Dragons in the Temeraire and Pern series do speak— the Pern dragons telepathically, the Temeraire dragons verbally. The dragons can have different abilities, be different colors, and be at different intelligence levels.

Christian fiction can have a problem with dragons. I have read that some Christians— both Evangelical and Catholic— look on a dragon as a symbol of evil as in the Biblical book of Revelation. But if that is a restriction on a Christian’s ability to write non-evil dragons, then what about writing about nice goats (as in Heidi?) The Bible does speak of the sin goat and separating the sheep from the goats. As a person who has kept actual sheep and actual goats, yeah, sometimes the goats are more ‘sinful,’ or harder to handle. But sheep can be that way, too. And I’ve never heard yet that the Serpent in the Garden of Eden means that a Christian author can’t write a character whose son has a pet snake. So, even though I am a Christian I feel perfectly free to include nice dragons, goats or snakes in a story.

I love dragons. I love stories with dragons. But if the dragon in your fiction doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the story, you may have to make a choice— either lose the dragon, or change the story so the dragon bit of it fits in better with the rest. You are the author— it’s up to you to decide how that will happen.  Happy dragoning!

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#FixThatBlog – Blogging and your WIP

This is a post in the #FixThatBlog series about fixing neglected author blogs, and also the July post in the Insecure Writers’ Support Group blog hop. See, multitasking!

A writer must write. Write on his works-in-progress, and finish first draft and other drafts. But he must also write blog posts so he can build a platform, right? But how do you find the time to do both?

You make the time. Platform-building, in the form of writing your blog posts, and writing your writing-works are both being-a-writer tasks. As are finding agents and traditional publishers, or finding book cover artists and editors-for-hire, depending on whether you are seeking indie writer or traditionally-published writer status.

But it’s tricky. I have a lot of days when I either write blog posts or do work on my WIP. I’ve been trying to schedule a second writing session in my evenings when I usually watch boring crap on television. But due to my health problems and to cheats on my ketogenic ‘lifestyle’ I am too exhausted in the evenings lately to actually do it. I must think of some other solution.

We writers are multi-taskers. We write on our WIPs, but we also go to our day jobs or get our laundry done or cook our meals. And make our bulletproof coffees. There have been cases of writers who took a year’s sabbatical to finally have time for their writing work— and they get even less done than when they were busy with a day job.

I’m not a perfect person on being organized or on Getting-Things-Done. I have Asperger Syndrome (autism spectrum disorder), which can make a person seem like they have attention deficit disorder as far as being organized and getting things done is concerned. And I’m not a spring chicken any more, and so have a set of health problems that cause a lot of fatigue, especially when I don’t watch my diet. So I have to adapt whatever advice I get from books to what works for me.

Days of the week are one ‘organizational’ tool I have. My garbage pickup is on Wednesday, so an important task on Tuesday is getting the garbage gathered and the garbage cart taken to the curb. Since this blog, since my recent small stroke in February, is also replacing a ketogenic diet blog I don’t have time for, I use Thursday as ‘keto day’ on this blog and make keto posts then. The first Wednesday in the month is Insecure Writers Support Group day. Saturday I can write about my cats or critters, and Sunday I can write things related to Christianity.  This gives me a bit of a planning scheme that I can remember.

To learn more about writing and time management, read How to Manage the Time of Your Life by James Scott Bell. (JSB writes a lot of how-to-write books that are very useful, and also writes mystery novels in the Evangelical Christian fiction market.)

To learn more about Getting-Things-Done, pick up  Getting Things Done by David Allen. This book has been found so useful by so many people that it made the book into an actual bestseller— as in ‘New York Times bestseller.’

IWSG folks on Blogger: if you have that ‘prove you are not a robot’ thing enabled, I cannot comment on your blog post. Sorry. It just doesn’t work on my computer and I’m sick of writing comments that don’t get posted so I have stopped trying.

Have you had any conflicts between getting your WIP done and writing your author-blog posts? Or getting your other tasks done? What do you do about the conflict? Have you found a solution that works for you?

Avoiding Deus et Machina Endings

If you regularly read ‘how to write’ books you may have read warnings against having a Deus et machina ending. What is that? It is usually explained as a tradition in ancient Greek theater where the playwright could land the character in a load of trouble the playwright couldn’t fix, and then just use the ‘God from the machine,’ a stage device that made it look like a god-character had taken the troubled character up to heaven and solved all his problems.

Well. I’m skeptical. The little ancient Greek drama I have read is on mythological and legendary stories— stories the audience knew. They would not welcome a divine intervention that wasn’t part of the traditional story! The divine interventions in the stories was expected by the audience, in the same way modern Christian readers of the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels were not surprised by the Second Coming of Christ at the end which did solve the Antichrist problem. (I was not a Christian when I started reading them, but even I expected that ‘Second Coming’ event since book one.)

In your real-world writing life, Deus ex machina as a failed story ending is different from what we might imagine. It does not need to involve God or ‘the gods.’ It usually involves unexpected, surprise help from a powerful source— a king or president, a scientific discovery or a space-alien intervention, whatever.

The problem is not the powerful helper, but in the fact that it is unexpected and a surprise, and that also the main character did nothing to earn it. In our own real lives, we don’t have all our problems solved by a divine miracle or by a president making a visit to our town on our behalf. We usually have to work and suffer to try to fix our problems, and it may not work even then.

Also, real world instances that seem to be possible divine intervention— such as when God allowed the Blessed Mother to appear to Bernadette in Lourdes and the three shepherd children in Fatima— the divine intervention didn’t solve problems but caused them. The Fatima children were even taken to jail and threatened with being boiled alive!

The reason the true Deus ex machina is a bad story ending is that it makes things too easy for our lead character. We don’t enjoy following the adventures of characters that have it all so easy. We like the Harry Potters who are little babies when a major evil wizard tries to kill them, or the Katniss Everdeens who have to volunteer for what seems like certain death in the Hunger Games to save a vulnerable younger sister.

In Mercedes Lackey’s book, Aerie, there is what a cynic might describe as a literal Deus ex machina towards the end. Several Egyptian gods intervene so the main characters won’t be destroyed by an enemy army lead by a monster who was becoming a goddess. But that’s just at the end of the book. The main characters have to go through a lot of struggles and hard work to get to the point where the gods intervene. Mercedes Lackey, having published probably as many as 50 books by the time she wrote Aerie (part of The Dragon Jousters series which I highly recommend, at least to mature readers.) She is too good a writer to put in an actual Deus ex machina ending.

I once read a critique of ‘Christian fiction’ by someone who didn’t seem to have actually read any. He claimed that all Christian fiction has an ending in which a miracle from God solves everything. I have read quite a bit of Christian fiction, both evangelical and Catholic, and I’ve never read a book where a miracle solves anything. To see an example, read the ’Saint Tommy’ series by Catholic author Declan Finn. His character Tommy Nolan is a NYC cop who has been given by God some ‘wonder-working’ abilities like the ability to bilocate and to smell demonic evil. But that doesn’t fix his problems, but makes him a major target of both demon-possessed criminals and of progressive politicians.

In your own writing, you can keep from unintentionally writing a Deus ex machina by richly providing your Lead character with problems. Let him work on the problems with his own efforts. Let him suffer! If he does receive special help, whether divine or otherwise, don’t let that solve the problems for him. Yes, sometimes especially in Christian fiction a character may have to trust in the Lord for something instead of trying to fix it himself, but deciding to trust the Lord is also an action. And your character must act, not just be buffeted between helpful and oppositional forces.

Too Much World-Building!

World-building is a topic of great interest to the science fiction and fantasy author. Rebekah Loper’s book, The A-Zs of Worldbuilding, is a workbook on the many things you might consider during your worldbuilding process. There are also other world-building books out there.

But there is such a thing as too much world-building. It can delay you, sometimes for years, in getting your novel or short story written. It can even substitute for actually writing your WIP! And stories can get bogged down by too much world-building, as in my current WIP where I have to keep stopping myself from explaining about the Important Continent, the Five Elements (geographical divisions of the IC) and the misdeeds of evil King Henricus when these are not part of the current story.

Many rich fantasy and science fiction worlds are not the result of sitting down and doing world-building in advance. They grew over time, as the authors wrote stories set in the world. The world of Darkover by ‘She Who Must Not Be Named’ started off as a single novel trying to reclaim some of the author’s juvenilia, and the success of that story cause ‘SWMNBN’s publisher to ask for another Darkover story, and then another. The ‘Free Amazons’ in early Darkover became the ‘Renunciates’ of later Darkover stories.

So when you are world-building for your next WIP, don’t get bogged down in creating the ancient and medieval history of your world and lists of ancient kings. What do you actually need to get that WIP done? Don’t write a 20-page account of your world’s Weavers’ Guild if no one in your story is a weaver! That just wastes your time.

What do you nned to tell your story? If your main character lives in a small town and stays there, you don’t need to flesh out the kingdom next door, or even the capital city of your character’s kingdom. You just need names for the kingdom and the capital city. If there is ‘magic’ in your world, but none of your characters actually can do magic, you don’t need to work out the details of ‘magical’ lore for your world. If there are spaceships or dragons or portals to other places in your story, you will need to work out the details of that.

You need to create just the right amount of world-building for the story before you start the first draft, or maybe you will create things as you need them. You must remember that the WIP you are obsessing about right now may not be your whole writing career. For your next book, you might have an entirely different world. So don’t get too bogged down in this one.

Exercise: If you have a copy of Rebekah Loper’s book, read it or skim-read it with a notebook at hand. Write down the topics that you will need the most in world-building for your next WIP. After you finish, try to narrow down your list to 3 topics. And then decide what aspects of those three topics are the most needed for your story. Work on those. (How do you work on those? Some writers will write little essays on their world-building topics, others will write these things into their scenes. Do whatever works for the kind of writer you are turning out to be.)


I have received a complaint from the country of Pakistan that my blog post ‘Was Mohammed a False Prophet?’ is blasphemy and ‘hate speech.’ I personally don’t think that asking questions about either Christianity or Islam is ‘hateful’ and that a believer’s faith can actually be strengthened by thinking about these things and seeking answers. I do not intend to take that post or my entire blog down as a result of this complaint. I hope WordPress will respect that.

Back to the 8-Minute Writing Plan

It’s happening again. Even though I intend to work on my WIP every day, I’m not writing every day. I put that writing task down on my daily to-do list right next to the ‘collect eggs from chicken pen’ and ‘wash dishes’ and ‘tend incubator,’ but I’m not actually doing my daily writing on a daily basis.

I have excuses. I’ve always been inconsistent, I have Asperger Syndrome, and I’ve had a recent stroke that messed up my life bigtime. But I should be able to get my writing habit back on track.

A few years ago, I discovered Monica Leonelle’s book, The 8-Minute Writing Habit. I’ve found it a great inspiration. Why 8 minutes? It’s a tiny block of time, even smaller than 10 minutes. It’s kind of hard to say you don’t have 8 minutes for something that’s important to you. And you can tuck in 8 minutes of anything into your day fairly easily.

Monica Leonelle advises that you do your 8 minutes as a timed writing session, or Pomodoro. Write in flow, don’t stop to ponder or to look things up in a dictionary. You can always go back and adjust those things later, when you have words on a page.

It’s good to write down your word counts for each of your 8 minute sessions. In time, you can see if you are increasing your writing speed.

To write more speedily, it helps to plan certain things out ahead of your writing sessions. Create names for characters and places, and keep these names on a list you can reference if you need to while writing. Even if you are a pantser, writing with minimal outline/planning, a few basic plans/ideas before the 8 minute session begins will help you get going and stay in flow.

You want to stay in flow, writing effortlessly, rather than in the state where you stop and start, look things up, get distracted. Do those things in a planning session beforehand or during the rewrite process. ‘Flow,’ in writing, is where you want to be.

Since I tend to trick myself by writing more than 8 minutes at a session, maybe going as long as 2 hours, I am doing a strict 8 minutes at the moment. When the timed session is done, I stop, I check off ‘8 min WIP’ off the to-do list, I write a ‘W’ on my calendar page, and I go do something else. If I want to, I can add another 8 minute session later. Right now I’m just trying to get the 8 minutes done every single day, no matter what distractions present themselves. Like broken wash machines, pregnant cats, escaped sheep— you know, life.

Now, just because I like and recommend Monica Leonelle’s book doesn’t mean I like and practice everything in it. Monica wants me to use a writing app on my cell phone to write stuff in the grocery store. OK, she hasn’t seen my grocery store, and doesn’t know that such behavior wouldn’t be accepted there. And I don’t feel like writing like that, with witnesses, anyway. I write at home on my computer, I might write elsewhere on a legal pad or composition book if I had to, but I prefer not to as that adds more work. I like to write right in my Scrivener (as I am doing at this moment, yes, I write my blog posts on a Scrivener project.)

Do you ever have problems in making your writing habit into a daily event? What has helped you to make it more regular? What hinders you?

What Writers Know that Isn’t So

Writers face a problem that, now in the Internet age, is worse than ever— what we know about writing that just isn’t so. Rumors run through the would-be writer community. The Internet makes them spread faster, and self-publishing makes it possible for even the horribly ignorant to write how-to-write books that contain this misinformation.

These false ideas cover many things. ‘Writing rules’ that just make you more inhibited about writing, since you can’t possibly remember all these arbitrary rules. Bad ideas on how to approach a potential agent, or how to promote your self-published book. Even the idea that you can use a pen name that makes you seem to be another, famous writer.

Where do you go to get more accurate ideas? How-to-write books are not all helpful, especially now that anyone can self-publish one. I find that Writer’s Digest Books publishes how-to-write books that are at least free from the worst howlers. The authors they publish are not all at the same level, however. They may throw out ideas at random that will lead you astray, even if the core message of their books is sound.

Lawrence Block, a mystery writer who also wrote articles on fiction writing for Writer’s Digest magazine and who also wrote how-to-write books, is a sound source on writing information, though dated. He got his start writing short stories for the ‘pulps,’ which no longer exist. But he was for many years a nationally known mystery author and some of his books have been made into movies. Any of his books is a good place to start your quest for writing knowledge.

James Scott Bell is an Evangelical Christian writer, also in the mystery genre, who took Lawrence Block’s place at Writer’s Digest magazine in the fiction writing area. He has written many how-to-write books as well, both from Writer’s Digest Books, and self-published. He gives out a lot of useful information to writers, and is, obviously, not biased against Christians like so many people are today.

Stephen King is a popular Left-Wing horror writer who wrote a book, On Writing. I was at one time a massive Stephen King fan, but I found the book a disappointment. I learned a lot about King’s life, but little about writing lore I didn’t already know. I do know of people who found his book helpful, and I’d imagine you might find a second-hand copy if you look for one.

Jerry B. Jenkins is famous as the author of the Left Behind series (LaHaye was just the theology consultant) and he wrote a book ‘Writing for the Soul’ which is helpful, and not only for writers who, like Jenkins, are Evangelical Christians. Even the most secular of secular writers can find something useful in this book, the same way I, as a Catholic writer, might consult books by secular writers like Lawrence Block.

To evaluate writing books in general, look at the author’s name. Have you ever heard of that author as a fiction writer? If you have, the book is probably worth reading at least once. Famous writing agents and writing teachers who are respected by ‘real’ writers can also contribute to your fund of knowledge.

After you have a fund of writing knowledge from good sources, you can expand your hunt. Even self-published how-to-write authors are not off limits then, because you will be able to discern which advice is good and which is likely to be bunk, or self-serving.

One reason that it’s important to get more writing knowledge is that there are plenty of con artist out there who prey on struggling writers. Google the term ‘vanity press’ to learn more about one of the schemes to make money off of writing ignorance.

Yesterday I discovered that the left-wing social medium Pinterest has chosen to classify prolife material as ‘nudity’ or porn. I have a Pinterest account which I haven’t used in years. I now use it exclusively to post prolife graphics. Find me at: https://www.pinterest.com/nissalovescats/ on Pinterest until they ban me!

 

Doing Research for Fantasy Worldbuilding

Don’t be deceived. Every sort of novel needs worldbuilding. Even in a contemporary novel you have to decide what parts of the contemporary world will be included— and what the interpretation of these parts will be. But it is the writer of fantasy and science fiction that has to do really hardcore worldbuilding— creating a fictional world from the ground up.

Worldbuilding requires research. You can’t get a book that tells you about life on planet Nescianto, because you’ve only just made that planet up. But you can get books that will help you build up that world, by showing you how things have been done in the real world.

The best books to consult are what are sometimes called ‘social histories.’ These books often have the phrase ‘everyday life’ in the title. In my own collection, I have books called: ‘Everyday Life in Ancient Rome,’ ‘China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty,’ and ‘Everyday Life in the Viking Age.’ Look in your local library for such books, and don’t forget to check the children’s section. And it is well to buy a book or two of this nature for your personal writing library.

Which books to consult? If your fantasy world is related to a specific real-world culture, such as medieval England, ancient Egypt or the Viking world, it’s good to study the culture in question closely. Your readers will include people who are keen on that culture— unless you make dumb mistakes because of lack of knowledge. But since you are writing fiction and not a historical essay, it’s also good to read up on a very different culture or two. You may want to have a purist Viking culture in your world— but it helps to think about how other cultures would have done things differently, and you can always use the contrasting culture if you have to create cultures for elves or orcs.

One thing to beware while doing your reading is author opinion. I have a book on everyday life in the American West, and the authoress presumes that all of the women in the West— from whores to respectable women— longed for effective contraceptives as much as if they had been brought up with our modern birth-control mentality. This isn’t true, and when the first church body allowed for the use of ‘birth control’ in some circumstances in 1930, it was very controversial and many people didn’t accept it. There are people today who still don’t accept it! So don’t take author opinions as Gospel truth.

How do you turn the mass of facts in a social history book into the worldbuilding material you need for your world? It helps to go from topic to topic. Rebekah Loper has a workbook out on worldbuilding, ‘The A-Zs of Worldbuilding.’ Use it to get some ideas of what worldbuilding topics you may need to consider. Rebekah Loper’s blog: https://rebekahloper.com/

The important thing about doing research in this way is that it will help prevent you from creating a #MeToo fantasy world that’s just like everybody else’s fantasy world. It will help you create something with its own character that may attract loyal readers.