I had another writing question come up recently, asked by a friend of mine, this time about fantasy fiction.
The question was, “In fantasy, is there any other climax/last scene than the one where the good guy goes into an all out battle against the bad guy?”
I started thinking about it, and ruminating over the examples the friend who asked the question gave, along with the fantasy stories I’d read.
And my friend was right.
In nearly every example, the climax involves an epic battle between the hero and the villain, which often involves an all-out war between good and evil.
Star Wars–Luke vs. Darth Vader, Rebels vs. Empire, Rebels vs. Death Star.
Harry Potter–Harry vs. Villain of the Book, ultimately culminating in Harry vs. Voldemort.
The Wheel of Time–Rand vs. The Dark One, Aes Sedai vs. Black Ajah, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys.
The Hobbit–Good Guys vs. Smaug, Good Guys vs. Orcs
Lord of the Rings–Frodo vs. Gollum, Fellowship vs. Sauron’s Army, Good Armies vs. Bad Armies.
The Librarian–The Librarian vs. Whatever Evil Person or Group is trying to recover the Object of Power for their own gain.
Think of all the good fantasy stories you’ve read, and you’ll probably come up with one or two exceptions, but for the most part, they follow a fairly standard arc, involving a quest of some sort (sometimes for a specific object of power, sometimes to a specific location, sometimes to accomplish a specific task), and culminating in an epic battle scene. And this is true across various brands of fantasy, as well, like dystopian and some sci-fi.
The reason for this is that fantasy deals so heavily in allegory. In a fantasy world you have the freedom to explore all the “what-if” factors that you’re thinking about. Dystopian fiction often features an oppressive government. “What if this particular ideology were allowed to grow and the government took this thinking to the extreme? What would that world look like? And what would the hero have to do to combat it?”
Fantasy usually involves an extreme level of ultimate power and oppression. There is an evil dictator who wants to rule the world, keeping all peoples and races under his thumb, like Sauron. These dictators want what they want, and don’t care who it hurts in the process. Power. Dominance. Luxury. Often, this dictator exemplifies pure Evil.
It is up to the hero to thwart the villain’s evil plot. Usually it’s some type of underdog character–a moisture farmer on an obscure desert planet, a hobbit, a band of merry outlaws. The hero exemplifies all that is good and pure and true. Friendship. Loyalty. Freedom. While the individual character may have strengths and weaknesses, what they represent is pure Good.
Therefore, since there is usually a fairly epic good-vs-evil quest, that scene of the good guy defeating the bad guy is fairly standard-issue in most cases.
These tropes have their individual flair, of course.
One of my clients asked me my opinion on self-publishing, and whether or not I thought it was a good way for a newer author to go.
This is a question most writers will deal with at some point, unless they happen to be absurdly lucky and sell to a big publisher on their first try. Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing is an ongoing topic of debate. There are pros and cons to both.
The problem with self-publishing is that literally anyone can self-publish. Thus, you have a lot of people who write really bad stuff (whether story-wise, grammar- and spelling-wise, or whatever else) and publish it. It used to be where you had to go through a self-publishing company, so you still had that problem, but it was only people with $3000 (or so) to spare who produced really bad books.
With the development of Print on Demand technology, and companies like CreateSpace (there are tons of others, but that’s the most well-known and biggest, primarily because they’re linked to Amazon which is the largest book distributor), setting up a book is free, and all you have to pay for is to have the books themselves printed, which only costs roughly $3/book, so it’s cheap, and thus way more accessible for way more people. And so you have way more people producing really bad books.
Therefore, self-publishing has developed a bad reputation. The general conception is that if you’re self-published, it means you weren’t good enough to be traditionally published, which may or may not be true.
In addition to the general poor reputation of self-published books, you also have a much more difficult time selling your book. Most bookstores won’t take self-published books, and neither will many libraries. Libraries differ, so the library in your area might be willing to stock them, and they might have certain guidelines for doing so. The Phoenix Public Library System, which is where I live, doesn’t do self-published at all. You may be able to find some indie book stores that would be willing to take self-pubbed books on consignment, but again, that means doing a lot of legwork in order to find those places, and you may or may not generate sales that way. So you have to have a really good platform in order to generate sales, and a really good book in order to get people to talk about it and share it with their friends.
On the plus side, you have complete creative control. You get to decide what your cover looks like, what story elements you keep (whereas a traditional publisher may ask you to change things), and so on. You also get to keep all your royalties, so you make more per book than you would if you were sharing that profit with a publisher and an agent.
Traditional publishing, on the other hand, has many benefits. There’s usually a professional cover, a professional edit, a marketing budget, an advance of some sort, and the ability to get your books on shelves in actual bookstores where people shop.
Unfortunately, it’s really hard to get published with a major publisher. Most publishers won’t even look at a manuscript from an unagented writer, so before you can even start trying, you have to get an agent. Most agents receive hundreds of submissions per week, so you have to really stand out from the crowd to get noticed. Then, if you manage to sign with an agent, they have to go through the same steps with the publisher. And the whole industry is very subjective. What one person loves, another hates. Or they may love it, but it might not be what they’re looking for or what’s selling well, etc. Publishers are businesses, and they have to make money, so they aren’t going to take on projects that aren’t likely to make a lot of money. So the percentage of writers who get published by big, traditional publishers is extremely small.
Now, there are many small, indie publishers cropping up. Those have some of the pros and cons of each. You’re more likely to get a better cover (but check the website and see what else they’ve produced–some indie publishers have really low-quality cover designs), a professional edit (but again, they may hire someone who says they’re an editor but doesn’t have experience in fiction, so doesn’t really know what to look for as far as story structure and plot lines–you have to do the legwork and read some of the books they’ve produced and talk to some of their authors about their experience), so even though they’re a “real” publisher, you might not get what you’re hoping for as far as quality. Also, they may have a better shot at getting your books into bookstores, but not necessarily. You will still have to do a lot of the work on marketing and promoting and advertising. Their royalty plans tend to be better than bigger companies, and you don’t necessarily need an agent to submit to them.
So, all that to say, it’s really a personal choice. You have to weigh the pros and cons of each option and decide which things are most important to you and which you’re willing to sacrifice. Are you willing to invest years and years in improving your craft, attending conferences, meeting and wooing agents, waiting, etc., for the chance that you might eventually get published (which even then is not a guarantee of success)? Or would you rather get your book out there and do the work of marketing in order to make it successful, knowing you likely will never have the same level of success in terms of book numbers ?
Either way, you have to have a really good product. If your book stinks, you’re not going to get it in front of an agent or editor, and if you self-publish, you’re not going to sell many copies, because the people who buy it won’t recommend it to their friends. This usually involves some level of professional editing, whichever way you decide. Professional editing can mean the difference between a mediocre product and a really compelling story.
Self-publishing is a very viable option, and one many people are turning to. It takes a lot of work, but you have the potential to make it work. I think if you’re going to do it, you need to do it well. Put the very best product you can out there. For me personally, I self-published my short story collection/novella, The Heir. I had it professionally edited. I paid for a professional cover. And I’ve had a moderate amount of success as far as sales. However, I’m still working toward traditional publishing for my novels. If you’re going to self-publish, make sure you don’t put out a poor-quality product. Learn the craft. Get a good editor. Get a good cover. Make it something you’re proud of, not something you just threw together hoping to make a quick buck.
Do you have any questions? Leave them in the comments or contact me, and I’ll answer them!
I’ve been looking for ways to expand my platform, and of course one thing that is totally necessary for a writer is to have a solid social media presence. I keep up with Facebook and blogging, but I don’t do much else.
But I’ve been realizing that I need to up my game a little bit in order to stay current with the times.
Unrelated to this thought process, I spent some time several weeks ago expressing my creativity in a different way. I did some sewing. I made my kids stuffed animals. Bigs didn’t want one, and Nano is too little to appreciate it, but I let Littles, Tiny, and Micro each pick some material off my shelf and tell me what custom stuffed animal they wanted.
Littles found some faux fur and decided on a Wooly Mammoth. Tiny found some shiny white cloth and asked for an Ice Dragon. And Micro found some camouflage material and wanted a Camo Sea Turtle.
Then I had another idea. My boys make stop-motion videos using Legos and post them on YouTube, and I thought, how fun would it be to do something similar with my dragon!
And, as a bonus, this would be a way for me to up my social media presence in a fun, unique way.
I came up with some ideas for videos, but there was one problem.
My dragon didn’t have a name.
How could she be a YouTube star if she didn’t have a name?
It couldn’t be just any name. After all, this was a custom purple dragon with a future in showbiz. An ordinary name just wouldn’t do. But I couldn’t decide on one that really fit her, so she went nameless for a long time.
I took her on vacation with me. My family drove from Phoenix to Oregon, where my hubby’s family lives, then he and I left the kids with his mom and sister, and flew to Hawaii for my boss Ben Wolf’s wedding. While we were there, my good friend Sarah Grimm started calling the dragon Yridessa, pronounced like iridescent (although the spelling was not yet determined at that time).
It stuck. And so, Yridessa the Dragon was born.
Come check out her videos, and please, if you enjoy them, like, share, and comment! It would make Yridessa very happy to know you enjoyed them.
Crutch Words are words that a particular author uses frequently in their work. Most authors have them. They’re different for everyone. Some people also have crutch phrases and crutch sentence structures.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a particular word, phrase, or sentence structure, but if you use any one thing too often, it starts to sound repetitive.
For example, next time you’re in church and someone prays, count the number of times they say the word “just” or “Lord” or “Father” and so on. You’ll start to see how people rely on standard words and phrases to fill gaps and propel their words along, without really saying anything. The same is true in writing. Almost all of us have something we overuse, and almost none of us know what that is until we start looking for it, or, better yet, have someone point it out to us. Once we see it, we can’t unsee it, and we become much more aware of when we’re using those things.
For example, one piece of writing advice is to use strong words instead of adjectives or adverbs. So, instead of saying “beautiful,” you might say “stunning.” This is good advice—unless you only ever say “stunning” throughout your manuscript. If you have a stunning woman wearing a stunning dress looking out over a stunning vista at a stunning sunset, very soon the word “stunning” will lose its impact.
This applies across every aspect of writing, including actions, descriptions, conversations, and so on. If you have a character who rubs his nose when he’s nervous, and you use rubbing his nose as an action tag more than a few times, it gets boring and repetitive. If you use the word “small” to describe a dog and then again to describe a car a few lines later, and then again to describe the way the character says something, as in “a small voice,” the reader will catch that repetition and it will draw them out of the story. If you have a character who likes to tell people his opinion, and then follows it up with, “Just saying,” you can convey that he’s a little bit of a know-it-all by throwing that line in sporadically. Putting it in every time he has a line will overuse it and annoy your reader.
For me, I had a crutch sentence structure. Beginning with an action, I launch into another action or explanation of the action.
“Running from the shadow, she turned and glanced over her shoulder.”
“Taking the stairs two at a time, she raced to the third floor.”
Now, there is nothing wrong with this sentence structure, and when used sparingly can add variety to bland writing. When I had every other paragraph (or more!) starting this way, however, it gave my prose a formulaic feel.
Some people use short sentences. Choppy sentences. They’re quick. Snappy. Direct. This can be very effective when you have a fast-paced action scene and you want to convey a sense of urgency. However, if your entire novel is written this way, it will feel incomplete.
Other people tend toward long, flowery sentences, which go into great detail to describe the setting and the character and the action, and which give a lot of information, but which, though grammatically correct, tend to go on too long, which can confuse readers and typically is very boring to read. Long, descriptive sentences here and there can help with pacing and giving necessary information, but when every sentence has three or four points, it’s easy to get lost.
In short, mix it up. Ask someone to read your work and highlight any time you use a particular word (or phrase or structure) more than three or four times in a chapter. Experiment with other ways to phrase things. Use a thesaurus to find synonyms that you can use instead. Switch between long sentences and short ones, between dialogue tags and action tags, between plain, straightforward sentences and eloquent, poetic phrases.
Figure out which words, phrases, and sentence structures are your crutches, and come up with new ways to convey the same information so your work doesn’t sound repetitive and therefore boring. Mixing it up will help to engage your reader and keep them turning pages.
Plot First versus Character First is another style preference for writers. When you first come up with a story idea, what do you think of first? Do you think of all the epic plot twists and intrigue, or do you think of the complexity of your main character, with his backstory and his favorite music and his hopes and dreams?
Where you start in your creation process is usually indicative of what type of writer you are. If you tend to write really deep, complex characters, and then figure out a plot around them in order for them to have something to do, you’re probably a character-first writer.
If, on the other hand, you start with an idea for a scene or a plot twist or a concept and then have to come up with characters to play the parts, you’re probably a plot-first writer.
Again, there is no right way or wrong way to start out. Your natural tendencies are often your greatest strengths, so it’s a great jumping-off point to start where your inclinations lead.
However, as with most things, the easiest thing to do is what you already know how to do, so plot-first writers tend to develop ever more engaging plots, but end up with flat, uninteresting characters who don’t grow or change over the course of the story, while character-first writers tend to have deeply developed and relatable characters who wander aimlessly along the pages of the book without really doing or accomplishing anything.
The best stories have a balance of both plot and character. So, whichever way you tend toward naturally, it is essential to learn the opposite.
There are many great writing craft books on both subjects, so I won’t go into great detail here, but here are some of the basics.
Your plot must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is sometimes referred to as the “Three Act Structure,” but there are variations on the theme and some methods have more parts to them. However, this basic principle of beginning, middle, and end is fairly universal.
The beginning is where you introduce your character and the goal your character is trying to reach. In Miss Congeniality, the goal is to stop the bomber who is threatening the pageant. So, in the beginning we are introduced to the FBI agent and we see the ultimate goal—stopping the bomber.
The middle is where the bulk of your story takes place. This is where the plot takes shape. Something has to happen. There needs to be some sort of obstacle that the hero must overcome.
Obviously, the plot depends largely on what genre you’re writing in, but all stories must have some sort of conflict. Conflict is what drives a story. If it’s a romance, then there must be some factor (or multiple factors) that keep the heroine from the hero. In a sci-fi story, the spaceship could have mechanical failures that keep the hero from reaching his destination, or the ship might be taken over by hostile aliens. In a suspense or action story, the bad buy might sabotage everything the hero is working toward, and the hero’s life might be in danger.
In the middle of your story, you have all the factors that tie in to prevent your hero from reaching his goal all coming at the hero, one after the other, forcing him to try harder, move faster, do better, and so on, all leading up to the climax.
The climax is the make-it-or-break-it moment, the part that the rest of the story has been leading up to. Will she tell him how she feels or will she chicken out and decide to just be friends? Will he defuse the bomb before it goes off or will he run the other direction and get as far away from the blast as possible? Will she outsmart her attacker and get the upper hand, ultimately defeating him, or will she fail?
Finally, you have the end. This is where the plot is resolved, for better or for worse, and the story is wrapped up.
If you think of your story as a mountain, the beginning is the flat area before you actually begin hiking. The middle is where you start the trek upwards, encountering obstacles and overcoming roadblocks, until you get to the peak. The peak is the climax, where you’ve either made it successfully or where you turn back and decide it’s not worth the effort. Once you reach the peak, then you come down the other side, having successfully completed your quest.
This mountain journey is called the plot arc, and every story must have one. If you are a character-first writer, consider carefully whether your story has all the elements, or whether your character wanders aimlessly around the foothills without ever reaching the peak.
Characters are as diverse as people are. No two look alike. There may be similarities, as in physical attributes, backgrounds, tastes, and so on, but every character is unique. However, bringing those characters to life is not an easy task. Many times, characters on the page react to their situations or let the plot carry them along. Creating a character is creating a person. A person who carries baggage from a past that shapes the way he thinks. A person who has a worldview and a frame of reference for how she interprets her surroundings. A person with a distinct personality who tends toward logic or emotion, who tends to be either more creative or more analytical, who tends to be more shy or more outgoing.
The more deeply you develop your character, the more he or she will behave like a real person, and thus the more relatable he or she will be.
There are many tools you can use to help you with character development. The Meyers-Briggs personality test (or any other personality profile), psychology textbooks, character profile charts, and so on. Understanding people is the key to understanding your characters and why they react the way they do in certain situations.
There are two main things to keep in mind as you develop your character.
The first is consistency. Your character must behave in line with the way you’ve created her, and if she doesn’t, there had better be a good reason for it. For example, if your character is a type-A control freak who organizes her socks and has lists and charts for everything that goes on in her life, then when her artistic, go-with-the-flow friend suggests they drop everything and go on a spontaneous road trip, your character is going to have a very hard time saying yes.
Now, if your story is about your character learning to let go and finding out it’s okay not to be in control all the time, then there has to be a good reason for her to take the step in the first place.
Your reader will know if something your hero does is out of character for them. You can’t have a person who is honest to a fault tell a white lie to save his own skin, and you can’t have a vegan enjoying a nice, juicy burger. Your reader will immediately lose respect for your character, and be upset because “he would never do that!”
The more thought you put into developing your character, her backstory, her personality, and her quirks, the more those elements will bring her to life on the page.
The second thing to remember is that your character must grow or change in some way. The experience of living through the plot must have an impact on his life and choices. It shouldn’t change his personality, it should just help him learn something new and apply it going forward.
This is called the character arc. The character arc doesn’t have to be deep or momentous, but it does have to occur. Your character needs to be able to look back on the events that occurred in the book and see how it had purpose in her life, how she’ll be a little more relaxed, open herself to the unexpected a little more, be a little nicer to those less fortunate, be a little braver in the face of fear, and so on.
Often, the character arc coincides with the plot arc. The two have a symbiotic relationship, and one can’t happen without the other.
The character can’t solve the mystery until he learns to really listen to people, but it’s the act of searching out clues that enables him to listen to the meaning behind the words not just the words themselves so he can really hear, which gives him the facts he needs to put the clues together to solve the mystery.
The plot can also serve as a platform to force change. If your character has a paralyzing fear of heights, then in order to reach the peak and come down the other side of the plot mountain, she will need to climb up the telephone pole despite her fear. The stakes need to be high enough that she has no option but to face her fear, because giving up would have consequences that are even more dire than vertigo that could make her fall to her death.
As I’ve shown, a good story needs a balance between plot and character, and those two elements combine to create an engaging, memorable story. Study both, but spend more time working to develop whichever style is not your natural inclination, in order to create that balance between the two.
I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to participate in the cover reveal for my good friend Amy’s book, Rebirth.
Well, it’s that time! The book is now available!
And on that note, I’d love to give you some more information.
Back Cover Copy:
Liz Brantley has a gift she wants to return.
Able to see and fight demonic forces, she has spent her life alone, battling the minions of hell bent on her destruction, running from the God who gave her this curse. Drawn to her abilities, the demon Markus unleashes havoc on her hometown and pulls Liz further into the throes of battle.
She’s desperate for a normal life. When she meets a mysterious man who seems unaware of the mystical realm that haunts her, the life she’s always wanted moves within reach. But her slice of normal slips from her grasp when an old flame, Ryland Vaughn, reappears with secrets of his own. Secrets that will alter her destiny.
Torn between two worlds, Liz is caught in an ancient war between good and evil.And she isn’t sure which side to choose.
I really love this story.
The action is intense and exciting. Fight scenes that are realistic and make you wonder who will win, non-stop danger and intrigue, and twists that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The spiritual realm is brought to life in a real and tangible way.
The characters are believable and relatable, and I could feel the tension and frustration that Liz felt as she made her decisions. Despite being battle-hardened and bitter, Liz has a soft side that makes you want her to have everything she wants in life. Especially Ryland. The tension between Liz and Ryland is palpable, and their relationship is…well, you’ll have to read it to find out how it turns out.
I highly recommend this book. You won’t regret it.
“An action-packed tale of classic good versus evil from the depths of human despair and heights of God’s grace. Filled with romance, betrayal, love, loss and ultimate triumph.”
—Tosca Lee, New York Times bestselling author of Legend of Sheba
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/1So45GY
Pantsers and Plotters: This refers to your particular style, whether you prefer to write “by the seat of your pants,” making things up as you go along (pantser), or whether you prefer to create a detailed outline of your characters and plot arc before ever beginning to write the story itself (plotter).
There are those who will advocate for one method above the other, insisting that one or the other is the better way to write, but in truth, there are pros and cons to both methods.
Pantsers are the people who make up the story as they go along. They start with an idea for a plot or a character and the story evolves around that idea. Pantsers tend to have more freedom because their story evolves as they go along, leaving room for plot twists and added characters or character deaths or all kinds of things they didn’t see coming when they first had the idea.
Pantsers listen to the story and follow it where it wants to go. These are the people who talk about characters making decisions on their own and doing things the author didn’t expect them to do.
The downside of this is that it typically takes more revision and editing because there are often inconsistencies that come along with making a story up as you go along.
Pantsers also have a greater risk of writer’s block, because if they don’t know where the story is going to end up, they don’t know what has to happen along the way.
Plotters, on the other hand, plan out in great detail the story and character arcs, making extensive outlines to plan where the story will go and what will happen.
Plotters tend to be more detail-oriented and structured. They like to know as much about the story before they start writing the actual scenes as possible. The more information they can put into the outline, the better. They tend to write very fast, because they know exactly what each scene should contain and what they want to accomplish.
They know where the lines are for each act, and how they’re going to get from here to there.
Plotting takes a lot of time, but when plotters actually get to the writing itself, they tend to work fast, because they don’t have to work out any kinks or plot holes.
This helps to minimize the risk of plot holes and tangents, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the story to evolve. Thus, if a plot detour does present itself, it’s much harder to work into the story, because the outline changes and there may be things that need to be rewritten in order to make the new thread work.
There is no right or wrong way to write. More than anything, it comes down to a choice based on personality and preference. Most writers naturally lean toward one style over the other. If you strongly prefer one, don’t try to force yourself to write the other way because someone has told you it’s better.
That said, it’s still a good idea to try something new and stretch your writing abilities. If you’re naturally a pantser, try writing using an outline, even if it’s a basic one. You may find it helps you to fill in details and avoid plot holes.
If you’re naturally inclined to plot everything out beforehand, try writing something completely off the cuff, and just allow yourself to follow the story.
Incorporating styles and disciplines that aren’t your natural tendencies will help you stretch your writing craft and ultimately make you a better writer. You may adopt those styles, or you may decide they don’t work for you, and either is fine. But having tried them will give you a better idea of what does and doesn’t work for you.