Category Archives: Writers Groups

Other Worlds: What One Reader Wants in Fantasy Novels

NOTE: In the post below, dated originally in September 2015, a Penworthy member writers about what he/she looks for when reading a fantasy tale. Although this was written last year, it has languished in the “drafts” folder so long that we don’t recall which of us wrote it. 🙂 Therefore, Elizabeth has edited it lightly and added paragraphing, and we hope you enjoy what you read.

A group I’m in has issued a prompt for readers to tell what they’re looking for in fantasy stories. The following three criteria are the main ones by which I judge all the stories I read, regardless of genre. (Readers be advised, this is a long post.)

3) Setting: there are two aspects to this. I care about not only how the setting is built, but also how it feels.

The time and place — the universe, if you will — in which the story is set is not required to obey the real-world laws of science, but it must remain consistent with itself. The rules by which the universe operates must be clearly laid out and then obeyed. Rule-bending and seeming contradictions must be rationally explained.

The world as a place should also give me a feeling that it’s many times bigger than whatever portions we see in the story, just as the real world is so much bigger than the portion any one person can see, visit, or otherwise experience in a single journey or lifetime. Even if the story is set in a place that’s completely “unrealistic”, I want it to feel real enough that I could plan a vacation there (or a detailed escape plan, as the case may be).

2) Storytelling: However the story is told — first, third, or even second-person, past or present tense, fantasy or sci-fi or mystery or any other genre — it must flow smoothly. As with above, there are two sides to this aspect: the mechanical construction and the semi-nebulous “story-feel”.

In regard to mechanics, choppiness and unusual constructions only work if properly and consciously manipulated. Prose is as much an art as poetry, and should be crafted as carefully. Stories should be written in a way that strikes the ear pleasantly when spoken aloud, since a reader hears the story recited in his own voice even if he does not read it aloud. The sound and cadence of a story don’t spring to the forefront of my attention on a casual read-through, but after I’ve finished reading, when I’m trying to analyze why I like or dislike a story, the flow of the words and the flow of the action almost always factor in. The sound of the words affects the image that forms in my mind. The right sound, the right flow, the right imagery: these things can cause the words on the page to fade away, so that what I see is not the words on the page, but the story itself playing out like a movie in my mind.

Concerning feel, the main thing is balance. Action and calm, lightness and seriousness: these should be woven together smoothly and in proper proportion to the type of story. Characters the readers are supposed to take an interest in should all be given enough page time to properly develop, and should all have equal (but distinct) roles in and influences on the outcomes of events. However neatly-constructed the setting, and however beautiful the prose (and however engaging the characters, see Reason 1 below), a story will not be worth a re-read unless it’s actually a good story.

I have no problem with tropes such as the coming-of-age journey, the dashing knight rescuing the fair maiden, or the Chosen One versus the Evil King; however, I’m also drawn to fresh and unusual concepts. But whatever the basic idea, the story must be told in an interesting way. Every scene has to matter, and every situation should be approached in a creative fashion. Even when using tropes, originality is a must, and subverting the expected is especially desirable.

1) Soul: The most important point on my informal mental checklist, the thing that draws me in to a story and keeps me reading, is the people. I want to see characters to whom I can relate. This is one of the most-repeated pieces of writing advice, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Strong characters are the heart and soul of a good story. I can’t love a protagonist unless I can get inside his head, understand what he wants and why, and sympathize with his struggles. Likewise, the villains I love to hate are those whom I understand. Show me what drives a person, and I’ll care about what happens to him.

All of the above is achieved only when an author gives his character a “soul”.  A character must be put together like a real person, with real needs and desires, and flaws that are believably balanced with his good traits. The best character development is accomplished when a person is revealed to the reader slowly: At first, we see just enough to make us interested in the person, but details and histories are revealed slowly, tentatively, much as a real person gradually opens up to a new friend.

When characters are realistic, I cannot help but care about their futures.

When I care, I want to know what happens in the whole story.

Then, even if I never read the book again, even if I forget the title and the author and the characters’ names, a good story will stick with me in the form of people — friends, of a sort — whom I remember for years after.

In summary, here’s a short version of my list, in order.
1) Characters matter the most.
2) Style matters a lot too.
3) World-building also matters.

On a side note, this is the first time I’ve ever put these ideas into words. Funny, how long it can take to put one’s thoughts into shareable form. 🙂

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Penworthy Steps Forward

In an effort to revitalize our outreach to authors, we’ve created a Facebook page — also called Penworthy Press — and will be posting all sorts of encouraging articles and useful information for our fellow writers and artists. Join us!

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Author v. Editor

In response to a request for suggested topics to be included in a book, a conversation thread started in a group on Facebook as writers and editors weighed in with advice about the author/editor working relationship.

KB: “Patience, grasshopper!” Many writers I’ve worked with are first-time authors, and they’re unfamiliar with the process, the back-and-forth of revising, of how long that process can be and how many times a book may need to be proofed, edited for content, re-read from the beginning, etc. They don’t set the book aside for a time and gain a new perspective before working on it again. Rather, no matter my advice or encouragement to wait and do the hard work, they become frustrated and anxious, and often send off their book to publishers or they self-publish long before their work is ready.

EAP: When working with a publisher’s editor, first thing the author should determine (and this is mostly based on feeling) whether the editor/publisher is receptive to ANY form of author’s input and/or objections. If not — well, there’s only two choices for the author: withdraw you book (often not possible) or go with everything the editor wants. If the author feels strongly he/she will not be able to work with the editor, he/she can ask the publisher for book-contract cancellation…

If, however, you are assigned an editor who is ‘willing’ to discuss your (author’s) objections, then you need to choose – and choose wisely here I say – which things you’re going to quibble over… Pick your battles…Then make a case for why you want to keep what the editor wants you to change or delete. 

While most of the editors profess to be working from the Chicago Manual of Style nothing could be further from truth. I’ve yet to meet two editors who agree on placement of commas. So, whatever small punctuation changes the editor wants, go with it… After all is said and done, do the professional thing and thank the editor for all his/her hard work and then do some soul-searching. Do you want to remain with this publisher or find another one or go solo? It’s actually a good place to be.

KB: When I was an editor with a publisher, I was the tough guy who had to tell authors to make significant changes — not because I was trying to make over their work in my image, not because their work was terrible, but because they were writing historical fiction and therefore needed to be true to the eras. One concerned the settling of the American West, and was crammed full of cliched characters and events that were more Hollywood than history. The other book was set in Israel during the occupation by the Roman Empire, and the author tried to turn Herod into a more personable guy than he really was.

So good editors will tell their authors the hard truths, even if those authors cry to me on the phone and later complain to the publisher, as the above two authors did. The first author backed out of her contract, because — in her words — her book was perfect as it was. The second author was going through other stresses in her life that added to her resistance to change, and she cried often, but she eventually made the changes because (I hope) she saw that I had only her best in mind.

I wanted more from these authors than they were willing to give. That, I think, is often a source of contention. The author’s vision (what he thinks he’s written) can be radically different from what the editor actually sees on the page. Therefore, in the author’s mind, the editor is just obtuse and irrational, and in the editor’s mind, the author needs to knuckle down and get it right. Somewhere between them, they can hammer out a pretty darn good novel.

PEH: The manuscript is like the author’s child, and the editor is like a teacher. The same way a teacher improves upon a student by giving him or her knowledge is how an editor works with the manuscript. The teacher is just making that student better.

Questions, suggestions, advice? Continue the conversation in the comments below!

Penworthy Press Presents: Dragon’s Rook by Keanan Brand

The Penworthy Press collective—sounds like a cult, doesn’t it? But we’re just writers, honest!—announces the first book published under our logo:

Dragon’s Rook, book one of The Lost Sword duology by Keanan Brand.
cover art by Suzan Troutt (c2014)
cover art by Suzan Troutt (c2014)

This epic fantasy tells the story of two kingdoms at war. The kings are brothers-in-law—Morfran’s late wife was Damanthus’ sister—but the conflict has nothing to do with family and everything to do with the Territories, a long strip of forest and hills ruled by neither kingdom. The people there govern themselves, but have no standing army.

When Morfran’s soldiers invade, a young shepherd name Gaerbith journeys to the Dissonay capital and begs help of Damanthus to keep the Skardians at bay.

Disson engages Skarda in war, and pushes the invaders out of the Territories and back into the western Plains of Skarda, near the Highlands, a hallowed and feared place where the dead are said to dwell.

When Dragon’s Rook begins, the war is at an impasse. Both sides have lost heavily, and ground has been neither gained nor given in a long while. Gaerbith is now a seasoned soldier and captain of the Fourth Lachmil. His skill in battle has gained him a reputation as possessing magic, but anything special he attributes to the fact that his mother was a Keeper, one of a group of immortals charged with keeping the Great Archive, a storied trove of learning and art that many think is just a myth.

His mother, Uártha, entrusted him with a secret that can only be unlocked when he takes the oath of a Keeper: the hiding place of Azrin, the lost sword of Kel High King, who in ages past slew a Dragon and freed the people.

Yet, even if Gaerbith takes the oath and learns the secret, he can do nothing without Kel High King’s nearest descendant, the only one to whom the sword will answer.

Dragon’s Rook is the name of a cave in Kel Tor near the village of Shea, where a blacksmith lives. He possesses a dagger decorated with the same metal from which Azrin was forged, and he remembers nothing before the day the previous blacksmith found him as a child and took him in as an apprentice.

Kieran Smith and Captain Gaerbith set out on unexpected journeys—the blacksmith to learn who he really is, the soldier to do his duty to a king—and along the way they face great foes, make new allies, gain love or lose it, and must decide whether or not to do the most frightening thing of all: trust their lives to the leading of the Voice.

Dragon’s Rook is currently available as an e-book (visit Keanan’s website or his blog to select which version you prefer), and will be coming soon in paperback.

The cover art and design are by another member of the Penworthy Press collective: artist and writer, Suzan Troutt. She can be found at Gothic Tones blog, at her online jewelry shop, or at Jade’s Journal.

Advance readers have commented favorably on the cadence and detail of the writing, and on the characters, especially the female protagonists. Some readers have selected the story’s quieter moments—not the battles, not the wonders, but the human interactions—as some of their favorites.

Although there are fantasy tropes and archetypes in Dragon’s Rook, there are few mythical creatures—aside from Dragons, there are bloodthirsty giant crows called Nar’ath, invented for this story, but expect no dwarves, elves, ogres, trolls, and the like. The author freely admits to the classical influences of Tolkien, Lewis, folklore, mythology, and the Bible, and built the world of Disson and Skarda on a mix of American and European geography, but weaves a story all his own.

We at Penworthy Press are proud to present this novel to the world. May it and its successors bring joy to their readers for many years to come.

Novel v. Sermon

Last week, I posted this on Facebook:

If you’re a believer of XYZ faith, and you want to preach a sermon, find a pulpit and do so.

If you’re a writer of XYZ faith, tell a story.

Let your faith inform your story if you’d like, and let there be characters who practice that faith, but — please — don’t make folks of other beliefs into caricatures or idiots or villains simply because they believe differently.

And avoid proselytizing. Don’t lure readers with a promise of a good yarn, but then turn the tables on them and present a sermon instead.

They won’t praise you. They’ll distrust you.

There’s not much more to be said, I thought at the time, and that post sums up my thoughts.

Since then, however, this has been kicking around in the back of my mind, like a restless kid shuffling back and forth and playing kickball with rocks because his friends haven’t shown up yet on the playground.

I am a Christian. I am not ashamed of that, nor do I hide it.

Yet, due to other folks’ experience with people sporting the “Christian” label, I am sometimes hesitant to use the word:
1) Will they shut down and refuse to speak with me?
2) Will all their prejudices or poor encounters come rushing to the fore, creating a boundary that doesn’t need to exist?
3) Will they assume that anything and everything I write is a sermon? And do they expect me to start sermonizing right now?
4) What do they think a Christian is? An ignorant backwoods hick who believes in fairy tales? A self-righteous loudmouth? A corrupt individual who uses the gloss of religion to hide his misdeeds? A hypocrite? A prim prude who thinks she’s perfect?
5) Will everything I do or say be measured by their assumptions or misperceptions of what a Christian is, and therefore they will obstruct or impede my endeavors because they’re already predisposed to dislike or misjudge me?

But despite my hesitation — and all those questions zooming through my mind — I declared myself a Christian to a couple fellow writers who are of different mind, and their stories reflect those beliefs and questions, just as my stories reflect mine.

The conversation came about because one writer said she was considering modeling a shady and powerful organization after Christianity and/or the Catholic Church (I forget which precisely — the conversation occurred a few weeks ago). I asked her why, but she really wasn’t sure yet on some of her world-building. Knowing she is an atheist who has had poor experience with some bewilderingly clueless Christians, I cautioned her against turning a religion into a villain simply to jab at its adherents. After all, it’s not original, and it makes her story snarky, ugly-minded, and not the interesting, darkly funny, unusual urban fantasy that we’ve been reading in our writers meetings.

But, let’s be honest, we Christians do ourselves no favors when we puff ourselves up and expect everyone else to operate according to our (flawed) parameters. We do not reflect well on Christ when we flaunt our Bibles but misbehave in public. Or when we writers try to hook readers with the promise of an international spy thriller but we pull the ol’ switcheroo, story suddenly becomes sermon, and everyone is “saved” by the end of the book. Or when only the Christian characters are wise and good and noble. Or when the Christian characters can do no wrong and always make the right decisions.

Wow, are Christian characters often the least interesting ones. And, wow, are the other characters often cut-out caricatures — insulting, shallow versions of reality so we can play the puppet-master and make everything come out just the way we’d like it.

Oh, and God thinks like we do.

It’s the same thing that nonbelieving writers sometimes do: Make God in their own image — or their version of what they think He’s like — and then turn believers into bigoted, wishy-washy, whiny, or arrogant cartoons. *

Such storytelling serves no one but the readers who already agree with XYZ stance. If those readers are your intended audience, then your field is narrow, because it excludes the broader audience of eclectic readers who are willing to entertain good writing and excellent storytelling from various points of view.

I am such a one, and have read books written from worldviews far different from my own, simply because they were well-written stories that spoke to humanity and opened the door to perspectives I had not yet considered.

And yet, to be perfectly frank, I’m not interested in reading books that denigrate rather than entertain. Show people of faith in an honest, compassionate way, and even if they’re the bad guys or just average, flawed human beings, I’ll stick around. Show them as cartoons, as buffoons or criminals simply because of that faith and not because they made bad choices or need help or have other issues,  then I’ll bail. I don’t need to feed my mind and spirit on someone else’s bad attitude, ugly-minded agenda, or personal vendetta. **

Whether we realize it or admit it, whether we are theists or atheists, we write what we know — and what we believe. 

As a fellow writer and reader, I just ask that we consider how we present other points of view, and let’s not rely on just our experiences or our own agendas, but look past them to look through other eyes.

Research, ask questions, conduct interviews, ask why.

Listen. Contemplate.

And then, when we sit down to write, be honest, be compassionate, be real.

We just might find our own perspective has changed.

 

*  Sermons and agendas do not belong only to Christians or people of other faiths. There are political and religious themes in television shows, movies, and novels. For a specific example, I could link to various news stories and blog posts about James Cameron’s film, Avatar, which he admitted is propaganda. However, a Wikipedia article, Themes in Avatar, is a good one-stop source.

** Wesboro Baptist Church, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and others of their ilk use their religious beliefs as a cover, as an excuse to misbehave. That’s a conversation for another time.

Granny, What Big Teeth You Have

Below is a piece of flash fiction written during tonight’s writers meeting. What a blast!

Each person contributed a portion of the premise: An eccentric millionaire lives in the basement of an apartment building, makes duct tape wallets for a hobby, always wears sunglasses (even indoors and at night), looks like an old grandmother, and makes rock-hard cookies.

We had about twenty minutes or so to create our masterpieces. The resulting stories were all over the place, from outright comedies to dark histories.

Mine falls more toward the comedic side. I forgot the duct tape wallets, but included an homage to Tim Hawkins. Enjoy!

What Big Teeth You Have

Damn kids.

I settle the sunglasses on my face and shuffle up the basement steps, rock music growing louder as I near the door leading to the lobby. In my pockets are the cookies I made earlier–hard enough to break a tooth. Or a young punk’s skull.

I unlatch the door and step into the hallway, the muted lights still blinding even through the dark lenses, and I blink, orienting myself. Music–if it can be called that–booms along the corridor and echoes in the lobby.

This is a nice place. Grandaddy built it as a luxury hotel, Uncle turned it into penthouses, and I inherited it after a family– Well, let’s just call it a domestic dispute.

Or a blood feud, if the absolute truth must be told.

Teenagers, the spoiled progeny of wealthy parents, pass around bottles of brandy and single-malt, drape themselves over furniture created by Fifth Avenue clothing designers, or dance to the jungle beats reverberating from the sound system stacked discreetly behind a potted acacia tree in one corner.

I put a hand into the pocket of my housedress and pull out a handful of cookies. “Pardon me,” but my voice is drowned by a howling note that pierces my skull even as it calls to my ancient blood. My ears twitch under the white hair holding them close to my head, and a bristle of hair stands upright along my spine.

Now, now, you mustn’t hurt them, but the cookies are already airborne, hitting their marks with greater accuracy than one might expect from a shaky little old woman like me.

The kids flinch and curse and look around. Blood trickles down one pup’s head, filling the air with its sharp metallic tang.

I grin, showing all my teeth.

Snack time.

c2014, EE

Feedback: More Than Static

Below is a re-blog of a post over on Adventures in Fiction, a blog by Keanan Brand. He discusses feedback he recently received for a story in progress, and decides what he wants more: applause or participation?

Kishi kaisei.
Wake from death and return to life.

Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki.
There are even bugs who eat knotweed.
(To each his own.)

I’ve been developing a short fantasy set in Japan, in an era and a culture about which I know little. That means delving into reading about all manner of topics: honorifics, architecture, food, names, proverbs. I’m tempted to fill the story with Japanese terminology, but I don’t know what’s true to the period and what’s modern. And tossing in every word I learn would overwhelm the plot, and distract or annoy the reader, so I’m backing off, using the literary equivalent of a pinch of salt. A taste, not a stomachful.

An interesting dish — but who wants to eat it?

As with everything I write, I wonder, “Who’d want to read this? Am I writing only for myself? Am I okay with that?”

My reading at the most recent writers meeting was an attempt to answer those questions. I brought my first two thousand words of the Japanese fantasy and invited the other members to tear into it. The story needs to be solid, because it will be competing against other and far better writers, and I want to do my best so there are no regrets if I lose. No excuses.

The group followed along as I read but made few notes on their copies of the pages, which was unexpected. My own copy was littered with notes before the meeting ended. The responses were favorable, the speculations thick and fast, the suggestions and critiques constructive.

It was the most — what’s the word? — refreshing critique session since, well, never.

In a prior group, my speculative stories were met with negativity, so I stopped sharing, stopped asking for feedback. The writer went into hibernation, and only the editor showed up for meetings.

At first, I believed the bad press: “Your stories are too difficult to understand” or “You’re not connecting with your audience.” While that may have been partly true, I came to realize that the audience — certain members of it — were never going to connect. Their understanding of and approach to reading left little room for deviations from their personal expectations: A story must look like this and not that.

With realization came renewed confidence. Nah, the audience didn’t change, but it stopped mattering. I could predict which of my stories they’d like — the more conventional ones — and which would make their eyes glaze and their mouths purse.

A new state and two writers groups later, I’ve landed with a mixed flock of hatchlings, most still in the nest, some just now recognizing their wings, some learning to fly. They’re fearless, though, sharing their earnest romances and troubled life stories, their awkward urban fantasies and sophisticated twisted fairy tales. They tell each other what they like and what they don’t understand, what’s not working and what piques their imagination.

The group works. I can’t explain it, but it works.

Maybe because the nasty black-hat villain Ego hasn’t arrived.

So I shared. They responded. It was good.

People have read my stories in publications, but it doesn’t necessarily occur to readers to contact authors and tell how the story affected them, how it stayed in their minds for days or roamed their dreams at night. How it made them cry, scream, laugh, think.

The response from my fellow writers the other night was like applause at a live play, accompanied by an honest but non-mean-spirited review.

I don’t need flattery or compliments or pats on the head.

As nice as it is, I don’t need applause.

What I crave? Capturing readers’ imaginations to such a degree that they fill in the details I didn’t describe. They journey alongside the characters, and talk to them, emote with them, live through them. The story matters so much to the readers they lose sleep to finish it. They argue with friends over why a character did this or said that. They can’t wait for the next story.

My cousin's son, hamming for the camera, always ready for the laughs and the applause! (c2013, KB)
My cousin’s son, hamming for the camera, always ready for the laughs and the applause! (c2013, KB)

Participation. That’s what I want.

Better than applause any day.