Friday, December 9, 2016

14 Signs That You Are Turning Into a Writer

Becoming a writer is a lot like joining a fandom. You think, "Oh, hey. This looks fun. I'll give it a shot!" Then, before you know it, you're sucked into a brand new world full of crazy ideas, sad stories, and insane people. And there's no way out.

Becoming a writer isn't really something you do, it's something you catch. Like the measles. Except there isn't a cure, and you'll spend half of your time wishing there was and the other half you'll spend having the time of your life.

That being said, it can be a nasty shock to wake up in the morning as a Writer. It'd be nice if you could ease into it, right? Spot the symptoms so you have time to prepare.

Well, luckily you can. All you have to do is learn to read the stars and watch for signs of impending writing. Or, if you're lazy, you can just read the below list:
14 Signs That You Are Turning Into a Writer
1. You drink caffeine. All of the caffeine. Most writers take theirs in the form of coffee, though some (like myself) prefer black tea. You may consume energy drinks, but it's generally understood to be more writerly if you're sipping something warm from a mug rather than chugging liquid from a can. Using some kind of cool or nerdy mug is optional, but recommended.

2. You know tons of words, but mispronounce a large fraction of them. Because you've read tons of novels and puttered at creating your own, you have a brain full of interesting words. You know how to spell words like "beneficence," "sophist," and "jocoseness," but you settle for easier synonyms when speaking because what are the chances that you'll say them correctly?

3. You suffer from crippling self doubt. Questioning yourself, your talents, and your reason for existence upon a regular basis is just part of your routine. But...

4. You keep grasping at your dreams anyway. Because you have a story inside of you and you think maybe, just maybe, somebody might need to read it someday. And that's reason enough to keep trying to write, right? Right??

5. You like to eavesdrop. There's no shame in this. Unless you get caught. Or try to blackmail somebody with information you overheard. In which case: Yes. Shame on you. Shame on your cow. But, generally, eavesdropping and people watching is enjoyable to you. People say the most interesting things and can provide multiple sparks of inspiration.

6. Your people skills are questionable. Listening in on conversations? Yes please! Actually being part of a conversation? Ew. I mean, sure. You can get along with people and even pass yourself off as a regular human being. But sometimes you have to reign yourself in. Like when somebody asks, "Oh, do you like to read?" and you have to say, "Oh, yeah. I really do." Rather than screaming, "jieoajdoajo;a! YES. YES!! I have a ton of bookshelves and a kindle and I read all of the time and do you like this book? You do?? Oh my gosh! That character is the BEST!" You'd probably yell all of this while imitating an excited Merida.
Unfortunately, that reaction tends to make people slowly inch away from you and towards a phone, so you've had to cut back. Some people just can't handle awesomeness.

7. You see stories everywhere. And I mean everywhere. On the street corner, driving along the freeway, watching the trees wave in the breeze, seeing a pretty rock on the ground. The world is full of stories and they're all shouting for your attention.

8. You tend to space out a lot. Which is unfortunate. Because then you'll have missed that important piece of information you professor just gave out. Or you'll find your friend has come the end of their story and is asking you "So, what should I do?" and you have to figure out how to worm your way out of the situation. But sometimes your brain is more exciting than your external surroundings. However...

9. When you pay attention, you pay attention. When you aren't being distracted by something else, you are a good listener and a good observer. Like Sherlock Holmes level of attention to detail. Because who knows? There might be a good story in this somewhere.

10. You like wikipedia. Okay, so maybe you're one of the few people who knows about armadillo girdled lizards or the history of gun powder. But that information may come in handy one day. Operative word being "may." And even if if it doesn't, it's still fascinating.

11. People around you ask for help writing things or spelling things. Because you have "writer" stamped all over you and everyone except for yourself recognizes your flair for words.

12. You are either very organized or very not-organized. There is a place for everything and everything is in it's place. You probably have an organizer and multiple journals. Outlines appeal to you, as do spreadsheets and carefully managed time. OR: your room is in chaos, you have sticky notes stuck to random walls, and ideas written on the palm of your hand. You live like a hippy and schedules and order kill your soul. I'm the latter, just in case you can't tell from the state of my room:

13. You are obsessed with odd things. When you like something, you like something all. the. way. You obsess and get absurdly excited, usually over things that other people don't get. Like a minor character from an obscure series. Or Chopin's etudes. Of the Valar from LOTR. Or all things related to Batman '66. Or sans serif font. Or Itty Bittys. You like them. Maybe they're weird, but you like them and they make you happy, so who cares if you go a bit overboard?

14. You love stories. A lot. Books, movies, songs. You spend your time delving into them, trying to learn, soak up new ideas, go on adventures, feel that spark of something excited and happy inside that pops up whenever you're around a good tale.

If you identify with an alarming amount of these, then you're probably turning into a Writer....Or have already become one. At least now you know.

Don't try to argue with me. Don't talk like one of them. You're not. Even if you'd like to be. We both know it's the truth. It's time to stop trying to fit yourself into the "non-writer" box. Let it go.

I'm not gonna lie about the ramifications of this discovery. Friends don't lie. So here's the truth: Being a writer is hard. And scary.

And completely and utterly awesome.

You have a story and a voice like no other. So go for it. Complete the metamorphosis. I may be biased, but the grass is greener over here. In fact, it's not even green. It's all sorts of beautiful colors, and it always smells like dew and sunshine. And there are unicorns. So come on over. We're excited to have you.

Related articles:
10 Things Nobody Tells You About Being A Writer...Until It's Too Late
10 Reasons Why Writers Aren't The Weird Ones
Inside the Creative's Mind: 9 Things You Should Know

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Friday, December 2, 2016

Why Not All Prologues Are Evil (And How to Write A Good One)

Prologues should be like John the Baptist. Awesome, intriguing, paving the way for an even greater written work.

But most of the time they aren't. They're more like those dreaded "Previously on" pieces of dialogue that come before a TV show that you usually end up forwarding through.

Prologues have accumulated a lot of hate over the years. People say they're too boring. They're info dumping. They're not necessary, they're too long, they're too short, they're outdated, annoying, they lower your chances of publication by 394%.

Pffft. You're not actually going to listen to those fools, are you? I bet they're the same people who laughed at Edison and said that the Guardians of the Galaxy was going to be stupid.
Hannah Heath: Why Not All Prologues Are Evil (And How to Write A Good One)
Allow me to explain to you all of the brilliant things about prologues:
  1. They set the mood and background of the story. It allows you to set the mood and the style of your world, people, society, conflict, etc by giving information in a way that is different from what you could have done with just a chapter. If you don't go overkill and drown your reader in backstory, this is a great capability to have. 
  2. They allow you to write from a different time period. You can set your prologue several years in the past, which is not as easy to do if your opening pages are within a chapter. This can help you set the stage. 
  3. They allow you to write from a different point of view. This lends a flexibility to the story, as it allows you to tell what is going on in a place (or a character's head) that is not generally accessible when using another POV. 
  4. They can tease the reader into the story. You can showcase your awesome style, give bits and pieces of your world away, and show your readers glances of the coming plot and conflict. Prologues are a great way to build tension and understanding of the story right out of the gate. 
I personally have always loved a good prologue. If you're thinking of using one in your book, or perhaps already have one but are thinking of backing out because of all of the stigma surrounding them, then you're in the right place. I don't care if everybody is looking at something in your story and screaming: 
I don't care if it's not popular. All that matters to me is whether of not it can make a good story. Prologues can and do. So don't listen to the naysayers. Follow me. I can show you the ways of the prologue, and how to craft one that readers will enjoy: 

1. Ask yourself whether you need it. Is this prologue necessary? What are you going to use it for? Is it something that can't be placed in chapter form (or sprinkled throughout several chapters) in a pleasing manner? Make sure you need it. Once you have decided that your book needs it, then it doesn't matter if the publishing and writing industry is telling you to change, to move your prologue to the trash. It is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, no. You move.

2. Decide exactly what it is you need in your prologue before writing. Do not sit down at that keyboard before having chosen exactly what information it is you are going to put in your prologue. It needs to be relevant to the story, it needs to be interesting, and it needs to make your readers care. So keep your information concise, clear, and cool. Alliterations are optional. 

3. Remember that your prologue can have dialogue. I'm not sure why this is, but many prologues are utterly void of dialogue. They don't have to be. In fact, dialogue can keep your prologue from being one of those scary blocks of text with very few spaces. Just keep the dialogue natural and allow it to have subtleties and nuances. 

4. Try to keep it short. Traditionally, prologues are kept under five pages. If your prologue is extremely long, people may get bored and wonder when the "real story" begins. Also, if it's long it's possible that you are info-dumping, which is a massive no. So try to keep it brief. If you need it longer and know you can do it without being boring or monologuing or breaking tip #2, then okay. I will cheer you on. 

5. Don't be afraid to write it from your villain's POV. Yep. I said it. You can open your book with a prologue, and you can open it from your villain's POV. Break two rules at once! Yay! Join the rebellion.
Think about it: It will help with your villain's complexity and it's a good way to convey tension and the conflict to come. I'm not saying you need to open your book with your villain, but if you feel so inclined, then full speed ahead! 

6. Don't you dare info dump. Don't even think about it. If you do, you will become part of the group of writers who are responsible for all of the prologue-haters out there. You will make the lives of us good-prologue-writers infinitely more difficult. Nobody will publish your book, nobody will read it. You will be rejected by your readers, the publishing industry, your fellow writers who you've made life hard for. We will hunt you down and drive you out. You will find yourself huddled beneath a bridge, coffee-less and wifi-less and cursing your stupidity. Sounds bad, right? That's because it is. So don't info dump. Thank you. 

7. Pull out all the stops. You know how you read about the importance of writing a really, really good first chapter? The same rule applies to prologues, only multiplied by ten. Because prologues are considered bad, you need to do everything in your power to prove that wrong. Write beautifully. Be intriguing. Craft your prologue with flair.
Make ever sentence necessary, make every paragraph flow, make the prologue your masterpiece. 

8. Go watch some movies and read a good prologue. Prologues are abundant in movies, and many of them are very well done. Marvel does some darn good prologues, as did The Fellowship of the Ring, The Dark Knight, Fiddler on the Roof, John Carter. Go study them, see what techniques are used, notice what works and what doesn't. Then try to apply that to your writing. You can also read some well-done prologues. My personal favorite is from The Name of the Wind. It's what made me fall in love with the book. 

9. Write it as a prologue and title it Chapter 1. I know it seems weird, and it certainly doesn't work for every prologue. In fact, I'm not even recommending that most people do this. However, if it works with your book and if you're afraid of people skipping your prologue simply because it's titled "prologue," then it's worth a shot. This is what J.K. Rowling did in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Don't believe me? Go read it. It is 100% a prologue: It takes place years before the story begins, gives valuable background information, and is written from a different POV than the rest of the series. It is a chapter in name only. But it works. Test this idea out. If it fits, feel free to run with it. Your book. Your rules. 

Prologues can be amazing. They can be beautiful and well-written and a wonderful set up for the rest of the book. Don't be afraid of them.

Still not sure if you should put a prologue in your story? Leave a comment below with questions, concerns, or your own tips for writing a killer prologue! And don't forget to tell me about some of the best prologues you've ever read!

Related articles:
The 10 Commandments of Writing
8 Tips for Developing a Strong Theme in Your Novel
Why Writers Should Strive to be More Like Batman

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Tea with Tumnus from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Sardines on Toast, Madeira Cake, and Tea

Every time I go somewhere new, I always have the urge to check for closets and wardrobes for Narnia.

I grew up reading Narnia. I have the entire boxed set, complete with the advertising stickers saying "Soon to be a major motion picture." My siblings and I read them so many times that the spines are cracked and some pages are fighting for liberation.
Because they're favorites of mine, and because I always associate The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Christmas time, I decided to make it my book of the month for this November.

Which means I got to do a recipe inspired by said book. Which means I chose to do the Tea with Tumnus scene.

Which means I got to have over my favorite friend/writer/Tea with Tumnus expert: Susannah Metzler. Who has a blog called...that's right. Tea with Tumnus.
Her blog is completely awesome. She writes about writing, movies, books, filmscores, and pretty much any other awesome or nerdy thing that comes into her brilliant mind.

If you are not following her blog, you are making a terrible decision. Like, somebody-from-the-future-travels-back-in-time-to-warn-you terrible decision. So go follow her. Do not continue reading this post until you have followed her. Have you done it? Good. Onward! For Aslan!

I'm pretty sure we all know the plot of this book. If not, let me summarize:

A young, adventurous girl named Lucy stumbles through a wardrobe and into Narnia, a world frozen in eternal winter by the White Witch. The great lion Aslan has vanished, the people of Narnia live in fear, and there is always snow, but no Christmas. The rest of Lucy's siblings: Peter, Susan, and Edmund make their way into Narnia, but one of them is ensnared in the White Witch's web of power and deceit. All hope seems lost, but the return of Aslan brings about the beginning of great change...but at what cost to the great lion himself?

Both Susannah and myself are huge C.S. Lewis fans. We devoured the books as children and now, as writers, we look up to the author. There's something special about a book that young people read before growing up to become authors themselves. It pushes us to write harder, think deeper, to look back at what those books did for us as children and, in turn, want to be the author that propels other people into the world of writing and reading and magic. To Susannah and I, Narnia is one such series of books.

Needless to say, we were pretty excited about doing this Tea with Tumnus scene. We both got out our cameras. My Mom and I ran out to our local DAV to buy tea cups because I actually didn't own any and we all know that you can't do a post about a British book if you are void of tea cups. Susannah pulled out her British accent and I pulled out my recipes and we got to work.
In the Tea with Tumnus scene, Tumnus lays out a delicious-sounding table of food for Lucy: Sardines on toast, soft boiled eggs, buttered toast, sugar-topped cake, and tea. I decided that the sugar-topped cake could possibly be madeira cake, an English sponge cake often eaten with tea. And we also made pickled red onions to go with the sardines, because, honestly, eating sardines with just bread seemed a bit gross.
Susannah was really great about bearing with me and my recipe-making. When I do these posts I never really have an exact recipe in mind. I things. And hope it tastes good. Which means there was a lot of wandering around the kitchen, me asking Susannah "Do you think this will work?" and us looking at each other, shrugging, and saying something along the lines of "It should be fine" or "Yeah, I don't think it will matter."

And it all turned out beautifully. Here, let me show you:

Sardines on Toast
Ingredients for pickled onions: 

  • 1 red onion, peeled, cut in half, and sliced
  • 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 3/4 cup of a mixture of vinegar. We use a mixture of red wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar. Because apple cider vinegar is good for you. But you can use white vinegar if you'd like. 
  • 3 tablespoons of cane sugar. I didn't use my beloved coconut sugar because I think it would have given the pickles a weird molasses taste. 
  • 1 teaspoon of peppercorn
  • 1 clove of garlic, halved 

1. In a sauce pan, saute the red onions in the tablespoon of red wine vinegar and olive oil. Don't let the onions brown. You just want them to soften. This takes about 5 minutes. Also, don't put your face over the pan while cooking. You'll burn your eyes. 

2. In a saucepan, bring the vinegar mixture, sugar, and peppercorns to a boil until the sugar is dissolved. 

3. Put the red onions in a mason jar along with the halved garlic. Now pour your vinegar over the onions. Let this sit for about an hour and voila! Ready to go! 

They turned out really well. I think they should be able to store for about a week in the refrigerator, but I'm not sure. Susannah and I made them on Saturday and they were polished off by Monday. 

Now you simply toast some bread (we used sourdough), open a can of sardines (which I understand sounds completely wrong, but just trust us), and put them on the bread, topping with the pickles. Awesome. 

Madeira Cake 
This was an interesting recipe to develop because all of the other recipes I used as springboards were British and thus used ounces and grams. Also, English cooks seem to use a lot of "caster sugar." Which apparently is just fine white sugar, but with a Britified name. Who knew? Not me. 

  • 1 cup of spelt, sifted. Spelt is an ancient, nutritious whole grain that has less gluten than modern wheat. 
  • 1 teaspoon of baking powder
  • 2/3 of a cup cane sugar. Again, I had to forsake my precious coconut sugar because it is too coarse and brown-sugar tasting for more delicate baked goods like madeira cake. 
  • 6 ounces of butter. We're both writers who are handicapped when it comes to math, but we were able to figure out how much of an 8.8 oz stick of butter we should use to get 6 oz. We're so smart.
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon of orange zest 
  • 1 drop of orange essential oil, and one drop only. This stuff is very strong, so you don't want to overdo it. 

1. In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until creamed (thoroughly mixed together and slightly stiff and, well...creamed). Once creamed, beat in one egg at a time. Next, add the orange oil and zest. Stir in the spelt and baking powder. The mixture should be neither runny nor doughy. 
2. Oil a spring form pan or cake tin. Pour in the cake batter. Place in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until the top is slightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

3. Allow to cool so that it's just warm, then dust with powdered sugar. It should be noted that the pan was still hot when we tried to dust it with sugar, which meant that Susannah was holding it with cumbersome oven mitts. It almost met a sad ending with the floor. So that's why you need to let it cool before trying to take it out of the spring form pan. 

Anyway, look how pretty it is: 
Soft boiled eggs

Or dippy eggs. Whatever you want to call them. All you do is bring water to a boil, then lower it to a simmer, add your eggs, and cook for 5 minutes. When the 5 minutes are up, immediately run under cool water. 

Next, use the blunt side of a butter knife to crack along the top of the egg, then remove the top. That simple. If you Google "How to make soft-boiled eggs" you will come across about forty two different ways to do it. So, if you like another method, go for it. 

Now make yourself your favorite type of tea. Susannah brought over organic Earl Grey tea and we drank it in our fancy tea cups. Very classy. 
As I needed pictures for this blog post, and because Susannah is an awesome photographer, we did a food photoshoot and ended up eating our meal semi-cold. But it doesn't matter, because it still tasted great and, more importantly, we got some awesome pictures:
I even got a shot of the photographer in her natural habitat: 
After photos, we demolished the food. 
It was just that good. We decided that the pickled onions were definitely something we would eat on a regular basis, thought the madeira cake was the best thing ever, and discovered the joys of Irish breakfast tea. I think if we had laid out this food next to a cozy fireplace, Lucy wouldn't have known that Tumnus didn't make it.  

Needless to say, we had a blast. All thanks to good food, C.S. Lewis, and friendship. Three of the best things on the face of the planet. 

Have you read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? What is your favorite book from the Narnia series? Favorite C.S. Lewis novel? Please leave a comment below! And don't forget to follow Susannah's blog, twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads. You don't want to disturb that time traveler, do you?

Related articles: 
Gluten and Dairy Free Seed-cake, Apple-tart, and Nut Round Recipes Inspired by The Hobbit by J.R.R. TolkienPumpkin Juice Inspired by J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsGluten-Free Orange And Clove Scone Inspired by G.K. Chesterton

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Friday, November 18, 2016

Darkness in Fiction: 7 Tips for Writing Dark Stories

I enjoy dark stories. I like reading about characters that struggle, worlds on the brink of destruction and in need of saving, words that go into the deep, little-seen parts of the soul. I like writing them, too.

And that's why I'm so disturbed by what darkness in fiction has turned into. It seems like each year the books get darker and darker, and each year they become more and more abused by authors who don't seem to understand (or care about) the ramifications of their words.

As a writer and lover of stories with a dark side, I'd like to point out what makes a dark story good with the hopes that we can get away from the current "Darkness without meaning" trend that's running around like a rabid dog (*cough* or a certain DC director who thought it would be a good idea to turn a certain character into a murderer *cough* *cough*). So here it is: 7 tips for writing a dark story that's not just a black hole of death and depression and strangled puppies.
Darkness in Fiction: 7 Tips for Writing Dark Stories
1. The darkness must have meaning to it. This is the most important thing to remember about writing a dark piece of fiction. Do you know what it is that makes dark stories so good? The light in them. That may seem a bit counterintuitive, but it's not. Just stop and think about it for a second. Why do we like dark characters like Loki and Snape? Because we see broken people struggling against the world (and themselves). We see them fighting (or having the potential to fight) to make themselves better. Why do we like dystopian novels? Because we get to see a world or a people rebel and work hard to get out of the darkness. We like reading about characters combating tough situations because it inspires us and shows us that we can work through our problems, too. That's what makes darkness in fiction so alluring. Not the darkness, but what people can glimpse on the other side. The meaning, the purpose, the light. So if you're only going to listen to one thing said in this post, listen to this: Make sure there is a reason and a purpose behind the darkness in your story. Ask yourself: What are you trying to say? What do you want your readers to learn? Make it your goal to show the world something through the darkness.

2. Dark does not mean twisted, brutal, or gory. Keep that locked up in your mind. It's important. You don't have to have a guy cut people up with a chainsaw to make a story dark. Or a story told from the POV of a schizophrenic sadist. You do not have to stoop to gallons of blood and gore and general disturbedness (Don't start with me. My blog, my words) to make a story dark. So before you decide to stuff a fridge with dead people to set the mood for your story, think again. Try for some cleverness or subtlety and, well...

3. Try using a light mood. That's right. Dark stories can have a lightness to them. Your characters are allowed to joke. Your writing style is allowed to be funny. Your world can have rainbows and flowers and candy in it. You don't have to go overboard with it if it doesn't fit the story, but you also shouldn't be going full-on Dementor, either. Take The Book Thief, for example. It's told from Death's POV, which you'd think would make it extremely morbid. But it doesn't because Zusak gave Death a certain sense of humor and put in several funny scenes featuring Rudy's antics, while also weaving a dark, touching, and profound story. It's possible, it works, and it saves your readers from feeling like they're being drowned in dead dreams, children's tears, and a world void of chocolate.

4. Dark settings are not an excuse for lack of morals. You know of what I speak. The apocalyptic books where the teens decide it's okay to run off and have sex because hey, they'll all be dead soon, so it doesn't really matter. Or the fantasy worlds where the "heroes" kill people without a thought because this is war and those are just faceless characters. Seriously? No. Tough situations do not allow bad behavior. Which character do you want to read about: The one who's trying hard to do what's right even when everything is wrong? Or the one that's just going with the flow because everything's gone to hell already, so why bother? Which of these characters do you think is helpful and inspiring? And which is extremely damaging? Think about what it is you are writing. Words have impact and meaning. Do not abuse that.

5. "And they all died" is not a necessary ending. Some stories can end this way if that is their natural course, but don't just do it in an attempt to devastate your readers or the one living character. Death and unnecessary darkness does not make a good book.

6. Go deep and complex with your characters. This is something you should be doing with all kinds of stories, but it is especially important when it comes to dark stories. People don't make sense under normal circumstances. We are walking paradoxes, natural hypocrites, and a mixture of everything that is both right and wrong with the world we live in. This becomes more and more apparent when we're put under stress. Reflect this in your story. Your heroes do not have to be 100% good, nor your villains 100% evil. They each should have goals, contradictions, character flaws, deep, dark secrets, and admirable traits. This adds a realism that is an important component to dark stories.

7. Everything does not need to be wrapped up nicely at the end. The world is messy. It often doesn't make sense. There are questions we cannot answer and problems we cannot solve (or even fathom). Don't feel like you need to have an answer and solution to all of the darkness in your story. You need to have a point and something your readers can take away from it, yes. But you don't need to answer the question to life, the universe, and everything. All that really matters is that the characters find a way out of the darkness...or at least find a way to live within it.

If you're looking for good examples of good dark stories, I have a list.
In no particular order: A Monster Calls, Frankenstein, Dracula UntoldThe Knife of Never Letting GoThe Book Thief, The Patriot, 1984Crime and Punishment, PandoraHearts, The Dark Knight, Maus I and II, Wool, The Pearl, Gladiator, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Dark Knight Returns, I Am LegendHarry Potter, Lord of the Flies, The Grey, The Children of HurinLord of the Rings (both the books and movies had some dark elements to them)Okay, so maybe Harry Potter isn't particularly dark, but it has some semi-dark characters that I think were expertly handled (Snape, Draco Malfoy).

Also, shameless plug: Skies of Dripping Gold is a good dark story, too. And no, I didn't just write this entire post so I could say that. I promise.

If you want more, let me know. If you disagree with any of them, let me know. If you want to add some to the list, let me know. Basically, if you have anything at all to say about this post, let me know. I love receiving comments!

Related articles:
The Importance of Asking Why: 4 Questions You Should Ask Yourself as a Writer
Why There's No Such Thing As "Just A Story" 
Keeping it Classy: When is it OK to Use Profanity in Your Fiction Writing

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Friday, November 11, 2016

9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)

Has anyone else here noticed that forests always show up in fantasy novels? I have. It seems that almost every fantasy book I've ever read is either set in a forest or has characters that spend a large amount of time living in or traveling through a forest.

Incidentally, these forests are generally made up of only trees and, if the writer is feeling really creative, or wants to scrape up their character a bit, this large group of trees may also have "bramble."

Occasionally you get a mountain or two, generally some kind of rebel base with treacherous paths. And maybe a forest at the base. Because forests are the lifeblood of fantasy novels.
9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)
But what about tundras, guys? Or deserts? Or meadows? Or beaches or prairies, wetlands, glaciers, jungles, rice terraces, vales? What about those? Why don't those ever make it into books?

Stop the descriptive setting discrimination! Kill your forestcentricity. If you find yourself in the middle of building a fantasy world, stop and think about what you want to world to look like. Do you want it to be one big mess of forests, with the occasional mountain and river? Or do you want it to be a developed world with interesting terrains for your character to traverse?

If you said yes to the latter, here are some interesting and underused settings to use in your fantasy novel:

1. Karsts
A karst is a landscape formed from the erosion of limestone (or other soluble stone), producing underground rivers, towers, caves, and sinkholes. They're quite beautiful, and can exist both inland and right on (or in) an ocean or lake: 
They can be dangerous, as sometimes the ground can be eroding right beneath you and you won't even know it. People fall through the ground or get their houses sucked into a massive rabbit hole. On the upside, they're great for spelunking. I'm sure Lucius Fox could set you up. 

2. Cold Deserts
We all know about sandy, windy, hot deserts. But what about cold deserts? Technically, a desert isn't just a dry, hot place. It's defined as a barren area of land with harsh living conditions and very little precipitation. That's right, folks. Antarctica is a desert. That being said, cold deserts aren't necessarily just miles and miles of ice and snow. They can have sturdy shrubs, wildflowers, and lichen, among other things. Take a look: 

3. Tropical Rainforests
I'm always surprised at how anything tropics-related never make it into fantasy novels. I think it has to do with the fact that many fantasy books are eurocentric, a topic that A.Z. Anthony wrote about here (don't forget to follow his blog while you're over there. It's great). But, honestly, tropical rainforests are beautiful. I'm not including pictures because there were too many gorgeous ones and I couldn't decide which to put in. Also, I'm pretty sure we've all heard of tropical rainforests. If not, go google it. 

4. Salt Flats
Large areas of flat land covered in salt, this is one of the parts of our world that looks like it might belong on another planet: 
Think of the economical impact this could have in a fictional world. Forget the kingdom with the jewel mines. Think how powerful a king would be if he monopolized the largest salt flats in the world. Salt could become a type of currency. Pretty interesting, right? 

5. Wetlands
Generally, these show up in books as massive bogs full of dead people and flies that like to eat hobbit. While they can be dangerous, they can also be beautiful. 
In a fictional world, a wetland could be a very prosperous area where special foods are grown. But sure, they could also be the place where all your exiles are cast into. 

6. Archipelagos
This, to me, was one of my favorite parts of The Wizards of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Wizards running around islands and sailing boats? Yes, please! Not only are archipelagos beautiful, but they have a vast array of interesting creatures: fish, sharks, corals, sea stars, gulls. It's also worth noting that some peoples prefer to live near an archipelago, but not actually on them. Which means they live in boats or houses anchored off shore. Think of the possibilities:  
If you have time and are searching for writing inspiration, look up the Bajau Laut. They're actual sea nomads. It's amazing. 

7. Tundras
A region where the sub soil is always frozen or semi-frozen. There are no trees and, because of how windy tundras generally are, all of the plants grow very low to the ground. 
The tundra that I've been to (Glacier National Park in Montana) had beautiful little flowers all over the place, along with very short grass. And marmots. Don't forget about the marmots. 

8. Mesas, Buttes, Hoodoos, and Spires
I don't know exactly what category these fall into. What? I only pretend to know everything. But, regardless of what geological subset they belong to, these are amazing. They're stunning soft rock formations carved out by wind or water, and can often be vibrant reds. Utah has some amazing ones that I've seen in person, but they can be found all over the world. 
Look up Zion National Park, specifically Angels Landing and The Narrows. That place is possibly the most gorgeous place I've been to date. I can't begin to explain to you how many story ideas it holds. So go look at pictures...or, if possible, visit it. 

9. Mangroves
These are really, really cool. It's a tidal habitat comprised of mangrove trees, which are trees that have roots both above and below ground, forming dense thickets. 
Not only could they make interesting houses, but I imagine they'd be a good way to drown people: stick 'em beneath the roots and wait for the tide to rise. What? I'm a writer. It's my job to think of stuff like that. Also, this is my way of making people think twice before leaving me angry comments. Just kidding. 

There are many, many other beautiful places to draw from. Steppes, dunes, mud flats, lava domes, glaciers, vales, many different kinds of mountains, deltas. Look them up. 

My point isn't that you can't have forests in your fantasy novels. However, you should take some time to think about the world around you. It's vast and gorgeous and complex in so many different ways. Don't you want that reflected in your fantasy world? A unique descriptive setting is a great way to do this. 

What do you think? Of all the settings listed above, which was your favorite? Which of them do you have in your book or will probably put in your book? I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

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Friday, November 4, 2016

Why Writers Should Strive to be More Like Batman

Every writer has somebody who has inspired them to write. Often they're others authors: J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien...and all the other great writers who all seem to have initials in their names. We strive to be like them, to study their methods, draw strength from their journeys.

Which is all well and admirable. But you know who we should really be trying to be more like in our writing careers? 


You think I'm joking? I'm not. I'm being dead serious. Or at least as serious as I can be when blogging. Which ranges from about 42% serious to 9 and 3/4 out of 10. 

But back to Batman. Why should we be more like Batman? What parts of his personality should writers work towards? Let me tell you: 
Why Writers Should Strive to be More Like Batman
Have Batman-level self-control
Put that chocolate down and listen to what I'm saying. Have self-control. Discipline yourself and your writing. If Batman can spend his life fighting insane criminals without breaking his one rule, then you can get off of Netflix and write that story of yours. If Bruce Wayne can decide to dedicate his nights to dressing up like a bat and cleaning up Gotham, you can dedicate half an hour out of your day to doing some writing. Cosplaying as a scary animal is optional. Not wearing hockey pants is mandatory. 

Turn everything to your advantage 
You have an hour long commute to work? Bring a tape recorder and outline your next book. Your internet is down for the week? Take the time to go outside and gain inspiration from nature. You have a chronic disease that makes it hard to write? Use it as fuel for a story. Your kids won't leave you alone? Put them to work building a batcave. Every problem you have is something you can use. Take advantage. If something is standing in the way of your writing, you simply walk up behind it and stab it in the heart (If you didn't read that in Liam Neeson's voice, you're reading this wrong). Plan for each problem that's blocking you from writing and find a way to work around it. Your plans should have plans. In fact, you should have a plan for when there is no plan:

Have the "Because I'm Batman!" mentality
So you're having writers block. Or you think your writing couldn't ever possibly get published because you don't have the talent or the time or the energy. You're not about to let that stop you, are you? No. Do you know why? Because you're Batman! Errr. Wait. Because you' You are the only one who can write this story (except for Batman...I bet he has your novel stuffed away in his utility belt somewhere). You may not have the words now, but keep at it and you will. You may not be published now, but keep at it and you will. You may not have a Batmobile now, but keep at it and you will. Why? Because you're you. You are awesome and you are determined and you will let nothing stand in your way. That's all the logic you need. You can make it through the rest of your problems using a utility belt and sheer pigheaded self-confidence: 
This is called the "Because I'm Batman!" mentality, and it has served me well. Or, more accurately, the "Because I'm [insert your name here]!" mentality. Use it. It works. 

Be the writer the world deserves
I've heard from so many writer who think that they'll never get published because their writing isn't mainstream. They think they have to follow the trend or get left behind. Don't do this. Don't be that writer. Be the writer the world deserves, even if it's not the one they think they need right now. So write that book of yours without the sexy teenage love triangle. Pitch your novel that centers around deep, philosophical thoughts. Don't be afraid to be a writer with morals or a writer who puts meaning behind their words.  It doesn't matter if people don't understand what you're doing. Besides, how bad can this possibly go? It's not as if the GCPD are going to come after you. So don't let the world define what kind of a writer you are. Just be the one you know you should be. Speaking of which...

Be willing to work long and hard
Writing a good story takes a long time. It can be lonely. It can be hard. It often goes without recognition. In fact, it's a lot like being a vigilante. Except it doesn't generally involve archnemeses or near-death encounters...unless we're talking about that time when your computer crashed and you ran out of caffeine. Anyway, stop complaining about your writer's block on twitter. Did you ever hear Batman complain? No. So follow his lead and get down to work.

Appreciate your
If you are fortunate enough to have an awesome British butler, then appreciate to him, too. Just as Batman would be nothing without Alfred, you are nothing without your readers. Remember it. Thank them, treat them well, and keep any green-haired psychos with crowbars away from them. 

The best thing about Batman is that he never gives up. He fights an uphill battle for his entire life on several different fronts: fixing Gotham, keeping his friends alive, maintaining his sanity, sticking to his one rule. He goes through every imaginable ordeal and just keeps coming back. He survived multiple deaths of loved ones, that one comic where he became Zebra Batman...
Just...don't ask.
kept fighting when he had to wear an entire exoskeleton just to walk...
From Kingdom Come by Mark Waid
broke his back multiple times to climb out of the Pit, and was even able to get rid of that bomb back in 1966. And that's just to name a few.

So maybe your story will get rejected by a ton of publishers. Maybe you'll get a few 1-star reviews. Maybe you really aren't any good at any of this writing stuff. But you'll never know if you don't keep trying, will you? So, when you fall, just learn to pick yourself back up again, shake your fist at the sky, scream "I'm [insert your name here]!" in a gravelly voice, and get back to work.

So what do you think? Are you willing to work hard to become a better, stronger, smarter, more Batman-y writer? That's what I'm doing. Who's with me?

Don't forget to tell me about your favorite Batman moment in the comment section below!

Related articles:
Why There's No Such Thing As "Just A Story"
5 Steps to Fighting Off Writer's Insecurity
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Friday, October 28, 2016

November Cakes Inspired by Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races

Have you ever had the feeling that you're being followed? I have. All of the time.

Specifically, I always feel that I'm being followed by books. I'll go months with a single book stalking me. It shows up in my Goodreads feed, in ads in the sidebars of all the website I visit, in the window of my local Barnes and Noble. People who follow me tweet me about it, and people I follow review it. Everywhere I turn I see the book and I know there is no escape.

My most most recent experience with this was The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. It would not stop following me, so I finally took the time to look it up. I found out it was about the racing of magical, ferocious, deadly-fast water horses and I knew we were destined to be.

The Scorpio Races. It happens ever November. The men of Thisby gallop their water horses along the beach, trying to make it across the finish line without losing control and being drowned by their steeds.

Sean Kendrick, a boy of 19, has won the races four years on a water horse that is owned by another but can only be controlled by him. He speaks little and keeps his thoughts close. He has one goal and means to focus all he has on attaining it: One day he means to own the horse that he has won so many races on. This year may be his chance.

Puck Connolly has no interest in water horses or the Scorpio Races: If it weren’t for those two things, her parents might still be alive. But fate doesn’t seem to care about her opinion: Either she rides in and wins the Scorpio Races or she loses their house, her horse, and at least one of her brothers.

So she enters the competition and becomes the first girl to ride in the Races….And the only person to ride it on a normal horse.

Some riders will survive. Some riders will die. Both Puck and Sean are aiming far higher than that. They mean to win, but only one of them can seize the title.

This is one of the more brilliant novels I've read this year. Maggie Stiefvater's writing made me stare at her creation and think, "THIS. This is how writing should be." Strong, beautiful, thought-provoking. 

Her character development is amazing, the sibling relationships portrayed in an accurate and sweet way, the world-building perfect, the man-eating water horses both fascinating and frightening, and the prose intensely energetic and vivid. If you want to read my full review of this novel (which you really should, since I have a lot more to say about this book, but can't fit it all here), then you can check out my review on Constant Collectible, a geek website I write for. 

You know what else I really loved about this book? The food. More precisely: The November cakes. 
Described as small, warm cakes dripping with honey, every time they were mentioned I ended up getting hungry. If you've read this book, you know exactly what I'm talking about. 

I set out to make these delicious-sounding November cakes and discovered that the author herself actually developed a recipe for them. But, after looking over the recipe, I decided that I didn't want to  use it because 1) It used yeast, and I'm too impatient for that 2) It had too much sugar for my taste (They still look amazing, though).

So here's me making Puck proud by my rebellious ways and making my version of November cakes: 
November Cakes Inspired by Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races

Ingredients for the cake: 
  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1/4 cup of brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of baking powder 
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon. Cinnamon goes in everything. I know I say this every time I do a recipe, but seriously. Cinnamon. Use it. I'm just going to keep repeating this until I brainwash you all into my love of this amazing spice. 
  • 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg
  • 5 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup of rice milk (or regular milk, if you drink that stuff. I'm not judging, but...EW.)
  • Zest from one medium orange 
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Say hello to my little friend:
     I recently discovered Mexican vanilla and have been putting it in everything. It's amazing. 
Ingredients for filling: 
  • 5 tablespoons of soft or melted butter
  • 1 tablespoon of orange juice
Ingredients for glaze: 
  • 5 tablespoons of butter. As you can see from the frequency of butter in this recipe, I've had to turn off the Nutrition major part of my brain while making these cakes. But it's worth it. 
  • 1/2 cup of honey
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla
  • pinch of salt
1. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Cut in 5 tablespoons of butter into the flour mixture. You can use a fancy pastry cutter or two forks. Or you can stab the mixture repeatedly with a knife while muttering, "Dieee! Dieee!" ANYWAY, using your chosen method, cut the butter into the flour mixture until the butter pieces are the size of peas.

2. In a measuring cup, mix together the rice milk, vanilla, and orange zest. Pour into the flour mixture and stir until the flour begins to hold together. 

3. On a floured surface (as in, a surface that is not your floor...just to be clear), knead this dough out a few times. Let it sit for a few minutes while you butter the inside of a muffin tin. Then tear off small pieces of the dough, roll them into balls, and place them in the tins. Only fill each tin up about half way. 

4. In a small bowl, mix together the soft butter and orange juice.
Put a little bit in each muffin tin, spreading it evenly across the dough. 

5. Fill the muffin tins up with the remainder of the dough. Place in a 350 degree oven and bake for 10 minutes or until cooked through (if a knife poked into it's center comes out clean, it's done). 
Note: The recipe actually makes 12 cakes, not 6. I only used half of the dough here just in case my oven went rogue and burned  everything up, as it is fond of doing.
6. While the muffins are cooking, combine all ingredients for the glaze in a medium saucepan. Place on high while waiting for the sugar to dissolve, then lower to medium heat, stirring constantly. Once it starts to boil, lower the heat to a simmer for a minute or so before taking it off the heat. It should be a sticky glaze that will coat the back of a spoon. 

7. Once the cakes have cooled enough to handle, dip them in the glaze and let rest for a few minutes to allow the glaze to set. 

You can eat them by themselves or with buttered and salted tea. Which sounds gross and is what the antagonist drinks, so maybe just do regular tea.

This is the kind of yummy, sticky food you eat on a rainy weekend while curled up with a good book...preferably The Scorpio Races. 
I cannot recommend The Scorpio Races enough. Read this book for the amazing prose, the simple yet breathtaking plot, the great characterization, and the heart-warming sibling relationships. The Scorpio Races also gets points for being a YA novel with a romance that didn't make me want to claw my eyes out. The only way this book could be better is if Batman was in it. But not everything can be perfect, I suppose.

Have you read The Scorpio Races? Tell me about your favorite aspect! And, if you're a fan of Stiefvater, please let me know which of her books I should read next.

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