Tag: writing (Page 2 of 4)

What I Learned From My Second Manuscript

Nicole Wilson is back with more of her sage advice. Previously, she shared her lessons from writing a first manuscript. This time she talks about her second.

Late last year, I wrote a blog post on what I learned from writing my first manuscript. Since then, I have gone through most of the editing process for Deception–the manuscript that blog post is based on–and begun the marketing process (query letters, synopses, sample chapters, oh my!). I’ve also written the first draft of my second novel, The Grudge. Here are a few things that I’ve learned in writing that second manuscript.

Writing well is still hard. Sigh Deep down, I think I’d hoped that after conquering that first manuscript, magical words that would make agents and editors come knocking my door down would flow from my fingertips effortlessly. Sadly, that is not what happened. I haven’t had one single agent or editor even say hi. In fact, I think writing The Grudge was harder than Deception. Probably because I expected it to be easier, and because The Grudge is about 20K words longer than Deception was at this stage. That’s an extra full month of writing for me. Long time to gruelingly trudge out every word.

Character outlines are a God-send. I wrote a blog post on the importance of character profiles, but I didn’t start using character profiles until halfway through Deception. Oh my gosh. Writing the full manuscript with a simple packet for each character made life so much easier. No more game-time decisions that affected other parts of the manuscript.

Research first. I don’t typically do a lot of research for my stories (none of my short stories required any research), but The Grudge dealt heavily with a lot of topics I wasn’t familiar with: Volgan Germans, Unmanned Ground Vehicles, and robotic tanks are just some of them. Before I started writing, I did internet research on all of them, printed out several pages, and had them handy for my writing. That way, I didn’t spend thirty minutes searching for the right information and another two hours getting lost down the rabbit hole of clicking on links that looked interesting.

And, if you do nothing else before you start writing, back up your outline! Back up your outline. Oh yeah, and back up your outline. I had one of the worst days of my writing career when I misplaced my scene cards. I keep a stack of an index card per scene, handwritten, bound with a binder clip while I’m writing. Not very big. Easy to lose, I learned. I couldn’t find them in my backpack one Friday. Convinced I’d left them at work, I didn’t think much of it until I got to work on Monday and couldn’t find them there either. I was devastated. Over halfway through with my novel, I’d lost about 25 cards that I hadn’t yet typed. That’s a whole lot of lost words. I was lucky. My husband found them under our stove (courtesy of one of our cats). But I went straight home and scanned them all into my computer. Lesson learned.

Read the rest…

Nicole Wilson spends her days planning for disasters and her nights writing about them. She lives in a small apartment with her husband and two cats, all who contribute to her writing endeavors. Nicole has written many books and short stories and is at work on more. Three of the short stories have been published online, which you can find on her website at www.nicolewilsonauthor.com

Obscure Folklore and Inspiration

One of my favorite quotes goes something like, “a writer is just someone who has trained his mind to misbehave.” I love that. Storytellers take bits and pieces from all the things we know and mash them around to create something new and cool.

For those of us who write fantasy, this means we have a wide buffet to choose from. Still, it can take some work to find those little-known bits of awesome. I’ve done some of the legwork for you. Here are a couple articles about obscure fairy tales and mythological creatures.

  • http://screenrant.com/grimm-fairy-tales-movies/
  • http://listverse.com/2013/03/16/10-unusual-little-known-fairy-tales/
  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maria-tatar/10-lesserknown-fairy-tale_b_6755354.html
  • http://www.wonderslist.com/lesser-known-folklore-creatures/

Share your own in the comments below.

(Five) Elements of a Good Title

Let’s be honest, when you pick up a book the first or second thing you experience is the title, and nine times out of ten, that is as far as you get. Along with the cover art, a title really is the most important aspect of a book-to-be-sold. This applies to authors in traditional publishing, indie publishing, or any form of hybrid. Even if you are a superstar at Random House, you will have to compete with every other book and do an insane amount of promotion if you want your story to get the limelight it deserves.

So, why do we think so little about the title? We should be intentional, right?

Well, I have done a little research, talked to some authors, and dissected a number of titles to see if I could find some common keys to successful title for novels. Here are my (very unscientific) findings.

1. Keep It Short

Shorter titles are easier to remember. Unless the book is a marketed in a very specific way to reflect classic titles (like those with multiple subtitles), keep it to a few words at most. People have a lot to remember and they are bombarded with media. The only way they will remember is if the title is memorable.

2. Rhythm Matters

Think of a title as a short song or micro-poem. These are things that stick with us, that line of a song that we can’t get out of our head. Why? Alliteration. Rhythm. Soft and hard sounds working in concert. When the Crickets Cry mixes soft “w” sounds with the double “c” sounds. When a title is lyrical, it will stick with us.

3. Juxtaposition

Think of a title as an opening line when asking someone out. You have exactly one chance to convince them to keep talking to you. People love intrigue. People want puzzles to figure out. If a title creates a question in their mind, they are likely to (at least) read the cover to see what the question even is. Use juxtaposition for this, setting two thing against each other that don’t normally seem connected. Also, consider words that evoke images. I love Daughter of Smoke and Bone as a title. How can you not see an image with those words and wonder, “what’s that all about?”

4. Must be Relevant to the Book

Moving into more “business” concerns, the title must represent the book. People know what they like and are always on the lookout for something that piques their interest. So, if you book is a murder mystery, the title should represent that to attract those readers. A title “Summertime With Daises” doesn’t conjure images of back-alley investigations, does it. The title is the very first contract with your reader. They want to know what the story is, and that you can deliver on your promises.

Also, consider your brand. You may not write hundreds of books, but even one book constitutes a brand. How does the title represent your future works? Can you create a hook that ties them together?

5. Think of Promotion and Search Engines

I wish this wasn’t the case, but its important. You will have to compete for a spot in the myriad of noise bombarding us every day. Think of your novel as a search term. I even go as far as to look up Google Adwords Search Terms to see which terms are most searched for. If you can piggy-back on some of these coveted terms the better. Do a quick search for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) tips. You’d be amazed how many apply to novel titles, as well.

And that’s all I have for now. As I come across more, I will share the love 🙂

Be sure to comment below.

Successful Queries

As Reema and I near the end of process for Allyson Darke, we are looking forward to the next step: sending it out to agents.

The publishing world has changed in the last ten years, allowing authors a wide array of publishing options. We have decided that we want to fight the uphill struggle and take Allyson through traditional publishing channels. That carries with it a lot of doubt and hard work. We have to find an agent, sell to editors, rewrite a thousand times, and render all these beautiful images. But we are excited about it.

The first step on that path is agenting and that requires the worlds best query letter. As we work on our query package, I will bring you lessons, tips, and resources.

The first resource is a link to the absolute best query letter guide I have found. Sure, there are a lot of “do” and “don’t” books out there, and you should read them all. But, this is a list of actual query letters from authors with comments from the agents about what caught there attention.

Seriously. Read this.


Learning from Phantom Hearts

I have finished another draft Phantom Hearts, my intimate/epic steampunk-fantasy with a love story twist. This is a project that has a special love-hate place in my heart. I wrote my first draft several years ago while taking it through an excellent writer’s group ten pages at a time. It was my first writer’s group and one of my first (serious) attempts at a marketable novel. I was in love with the idea, characters, world, and plot, but I hadn’t yet found my voice, my style, or my process.

Needless to say I wrote 80,000 words and learned 100,000 things.

Now I’m getting ready to take Phantom Hearts back to the drawing board. Back to square two (or three) from what I had once thought was a finished/polished manuscript. What happened? I stepped away from it to write Allyson Darke (which actually is entering its polish phase) and a couple other projects. Now that I am opening it back up, I struggled with a lot of things that just didn’t seem to set right with me. More importantly, I gave it to a few objective readers and they had a lot of the same sort of feedback. My first reaction was to be depressed, quit writing, and throw the manuscript away.

Thank God for wives who believe in you 😉

I put it away again, this time for a few weeks. I thought long and hard about what the feedback was saying and what I was feeling. I came to several conclusions about the story, and more importantly about me and my writing.

I wanted to share those lessons.

1. Write Something You Would Read

At some point in the first drafts, I started immersing myself into markets. That’s not to say that I was trying to ride the wave of some fad, but I wanted to know what core elements were working, what weren’t, and where my story fit. Unfortunately, I got so carried away with it that I subconsciously changed my story, shoving in more and more elements from disparate sources to make it more “marketable.” I pulled a lot of elements from stories I wouldn’t even read myself!

Bottom line: if you wouldn’t read it, you won’t write it well.

2. Don’t Emulate Your Favorite Authors (sad-face)

When I stared writing Phantom Hearts I was just going by instinct and telling a story I thought I would like to read. About half-way through the draft, I started reading The Daughter of Smoke and Bone and fell in love with it. Without even realizing what I had done, I twisted my story to fit that story — and they were very different at their cores. Smoke and Bone was beautiful, well-written, emotional, and just left me awe-struck. I wanted to write like that. I HAD to write like that.

Except that I don’t write like that. It’s not just because of my lack of experience, but because I am not Laini Taylor. When I tried, I failed.

I’m not saying don’t learn from your favorite authors. I’m just saying don’t be them. Mix and mash with your own sense of style and story.

3. Set a Contract With Your Reader and Stick To It

The last point flows into this one. Everyone who read my manuscript gave feedback that boiled down to “the first half is awesome, the second half is different.” They were right. The first part was action packed, fast, emotional, and kind of terse. The second half (about my Daughter of Smoke and Bone phase) was slower, lovey-er, and (tried to be) richer in wordplay. They didn’t match. They felt like two different books.

It’s been said that a midpoint should be a turning point that twists the story in two. I agree it should alter the goal of the protagonist and up the stakes. However, in those opening pages, you set a contract with your reader. This is what kind of story you can expect.

You have to stick to that contract.

Where I go from now.

I’m back at the drawing board again. Now that I’ve realized I tried to turn my story into a bunch of things its not, I can strip that fat and tone it into an awesome story.

And I’m really excited!

Be true to yourself. I know it’s cheesy.  But its the truth.

(Five-ish) Steps to a Creative, Mixed Media, Interactive Story

I talk a lot about different ideas for mixed-media, interactive stories, but how do we actually create something. What are the steps? What does the  process look like? Is this really something I can do?

Yes. Let me show you.

From step one.

1. Inspiration

The most common question at any book signing is “where do you get your ideas?” That is a subject for about a thousand books on its own, and to begin this walk through of telling mixed-media, interactive stories, it may be a bit beyond our scope. We will start with one of the most time-honored launching pads: the writing prompt.

I have a copy of The Amazing Story Generator which I have used to concoct the following three scenes.

  • Penniless after a failed business venture, an old lady with twenty cats solves a ten-year-old murder
  • After a monthlong fast, a North Korean scientist forgets to mail an important letter
  • While on a second honeymoon, a small town mayor is initiated into a secret cult

And from here, we construct a story.

2. Story

I chose those three, bizarrely disconnected plot lines on purpose. My stories always begin with scenes, characters, or emotional moments. Interesting bits of news or questions that I connect to personally. Then, I ask question to connect these bits into a functioning story. The above prompts are not really connected at all, but we can create connections and birth a beautiful story.

Story Fundamentals

Let’s begin by understanding what a story is and has, at least for our purposes. At its most basic level, a hero’s life is at balance in their world, ordinary as it is for them. Something happens to knock that balance out of whack and sends that hero on some sort of quest to set the world to rights again. Along the way, lots of things try to stop the hero, and a few things (like mentors) will be the hero’s aid. Even more important, our hero grows. They begin with a want (to set the world right again), a wound (something bad that keeps them from growing), and a need (to be get past the wound). The story takes the hero through the growth. They are not the same at the end, and neither is the world, but this new world is in balance, at least for the hero.

Yes, that’s all from my treatment on the Hero’s Journey, and (to me) the simplest structure to create powerful stories. I’m using it here as a sort-of-formula. Normally, I’m not that rigid, but this is a blog post, after all.

Questions to Construct Stories

Now that we know what we’re aiming for, how can we connect those above prompts? Well, in a virtually infinite number of ways. Here is how my questioning path led to a story outline.

  • Is the important letter connected to the murder? Yes, the letter was an last minute cancellation of a contract assassination.
  • Why was the scientist wanting to assassinate someone in the first place? Obviously because they were rivals in some secret government research.  He changed his mind when, after his fast, he believed his god spoke to him in a vision. Now, I’m changing my prompt from “forgets to mail” to “fails to mail”.
  • So, what stops the scientist from mailing the letter? The secret cult also wants the rival dead, so they dispose of the scientist and let the hit man take care of the rival.
  • Why does the secret cult care? They are an old order that believes they must protect the world from abomination of medicine. Both scientists were working on advanced genetics.
  • The secret cult uses mind control serum to indoctrinate their members.
  • That means that the small town-mayor is going to be the villian of our story. He is recruited by the cult to dispatch of the cat lady, because the cat-lady is stumbling upon the truth.
  • What is the cat-lady’s wound and growth? She is scared of being independent and has been relying on others to get her through. She learns that she can take care of herself — and others. The wound, her son passed away from an infection years ago. She couldn’t save him. She isn’t capable. Not great, but it’ll work.

And I can keep going. Suffice it to say, that works out enough plot for this post.

The Treatment

Now that I have the connections, lets fashion it into a short description of the story for our purposes. Remember the story fundamentals. Our hero will be the cat lady and our villain will be the secret cult that is manipulating the small-town mayor.

Beth spends her days at home, dreaming of ways to become independent. Of ways to stop needing to rely on others. Of taking care of herself as she once had. But, she is too afraid. What if she can’t? What if others rely on her? What if she lets them down? Her latest hopes were dashed when a business venture — that she invested everything she had into — fell through. Not just fell through: the CEO of the company died suddenly and the headquarters were destroyed, taking all of the research with it and bankrupting the entire process. The genetics lab was promising to enhance vision, reflexes, and memory. Now, it’s all gone.

Normally Beth would just wallow in her misery. But she’s through wallowing. She does some more digging and finds that there have been lots of similar incidents from around the world. Then she remembers the story her father told her. Of when he was a boy and his father (a North Korean Scientist) was murdered. She still has the last letter her grandfather meant to send. It’s never been opened. Now is the time.

The letter describes a secret cult that will stop at nothing to “preserve the human race from medicine.” Fascinated, Beth digs some more. The cult, every watching for those who may know its secrets, discovers her and recruits a small-town mayor who is sympathetic to their cause and on a second honeymoon nearby. They drug him and brainwash him to go after Beth.

A lot of stuff happens in the middle. You know: mystery, intrigue, blah, blah, blah.

In the end, Beth and the Mayor (who we will call Roger) must rely on each other to defeat and expose the cult. Beth’s growth is complete when (in the final climax) she surrenders any control and relies totally on Roger. That doesn’t make her weak, or helpless, or a loser. And, she realizes that she is capable.

Of course, they save the world.

Wow, what a weird story, right? In any case, its enough to start splitting it into mixed-media and interactive bits.

3-4. Mixed-Media, Interactive Awesomeness

Our mantra is “don’t do anything for novelty sake.” That said, what parts of this story would best be told in which mediums? Well, you could definitely have a journal from the North Korean scientist with all his clues and suspicions. Images, sketches, very visual. For that matter, a few audio recordings would be great two.

Beth’s story would best be done in narrative prose so we can get inside her mind and really grow with her. Ditto with Roger’s storyline, but maybe a touch less.

What about the person Roger is on a second-honeymoon with? If Roger is sneaking away to get at Beth, that would make Roger’s wife pretty suspicious. Let’s give her a smartphone and have her do her own investigation, snapping pictures and taking videos to tell that part of the story. That isn’t just a gimmick. Images in that way produce great suspense as the audience must decide what in the image is important and what is not. The author can do amazing things with misdirection

As far as interactivity goes, I like the idea of making the journal interactive. Let’s give the audience the ability to explore the journal and piece the mystery together herself.

That leaves us with a novel that alternates between photographs, novel prose, and printed journal entries alongside an interactive journal. And, for the fun of it, a hidden track where one of Beth’s cats narrate the story through a feline POV.

5. Collaboration and Awesomeness

That’s a lot. More than I could do myself, admittedly. I would start, as I have, with a fleshed out draft all in text. In it, I would break the scenes into photos, prose, or journal and describe what the photos show and the journal says. Once I have my story more-less perfect, I can approach others to help flesh it out. Working together, we are stronger.

I will talk more about my format experiments in a later post.

For now, I hope you were able to follow this and see that, even from bizarre beginnings, a mixed-media, interactive story is possible. Think what you could do with an actually good idea.

Comments, please. What’s your process?

Hero’s Journey: A Review

This post is part of a series exploring the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell studied hundreds of world-wide myths, finding patterns to virtually any story. This basic framework gives the stories we tell a universal, timeless appeal and resonate deeply with our audiences. This series is not about a “five steps to perfect stories” method, nor does it claim a best way to tell stories.  Today, we review what we’ve talked about so far.

Check out the rest of the series and a compare different versions of the Hero’s Journey

Just like a good story, this series has reached its “midpoint,” that is twisting point where the second half is almost a different story than the first. Up until now, this Hero’s Journey series has focused on the mechanics of the journey. What are the stages? Who are the characters? What is the world? Basically, what makes up the Hero’s Journey?

We are about to jump into the how, and I’m pretty excited about it. We are going to work together through a story from beginning to end and see exactly what it takes (and how simple it is) to create a journey. Finally, we’ll talk about some practical tips (18 in all) to make the journey interesting, memorable, and personal.

But Before We Go There

Let’s review what we’ve seen so far. The most basic

At its most basic, a story has three elements: Character, Plot, and Setting. A person (not necessarily human) doing stuff in a place and time. That’s all the hero’s journey is, one way to describe that person doing that stuff in that place and time. What makes the Journey special is its seeming universiality (why can’t that be a word?)

The Hero”™s Journey is one way to weave characters, plot, and setting. It is not the only way. It may not be the best way. The magic of the Hero’s Journey arises from its primality; its universal basicness. Joseph Campbell spent his lifetime investigating myths from all around the world, distilling patterns he found from all civilizations into some common principles. Carl Jung, a prominant psychologist, built upon this these patterns by likening this journey to facets found deep in the human psyche and cultural memories.  This isn”™t some kooky metaphysical idea, it”™s basic psychology. – Series Home

To break down the journey into a sentence: “A hero is at home in the ordinary world until something happens to unbalance her reality, leaving the hero to enter the special world on a quest to set the world in balance again which can only happen by confronting the Shadow.”

Though I originally posted them in a different order, lets go through that definition of a story in a hero’s journey way.


Characters allow storytellers to explore how different people react to different situations. Even deeper than all that, though: Characters are what the audience identify with. – Major Archetypes

There are to kinds of players in a typical Hero’s Journey: Major Archetypes and Minor Archetypes. Major archetypes are those that are necessary for the journey to work. You need a hero, a mentor, a shadow, and a herald of some kind. The Hero is the main character who actually goes on the quest to set the world in balance again. Along the way, the hero grows. They have some flaw they overcome. This growth is paramount to any good story.

The Mentor is a character (or circumstance, interestingly enough) that guide the hero part of the way. Maybe they’ve been down the road before or posses some knowledge or gift the hero will need. The Shadow actively tries to stop the hero from succeeding. This shadow can be an external enemy (Darth Vader) or an internal foe (self-doubt). The Herald calls the hero off on the adventure. Many times the herald may be the mentor, or not even a character as such.

Minor Archetypes fill out your cast. They have a relationship with the hero, even if (in the story) they have to connection. These characters reflect the hero by bringing out a specific facet of the hero’s character, counterpoint the hero by showing what the hero “could be” if circumstances were different, and aid the hero, most especially in growth. Minor Archetypes lists several common character types, and there are limitless more.

Mixing and matching these basic functions into more specific characters can be a blast. Han Solo in Star Wars, for instance, is an ally, a mercenary, a ranger, and a redeemed. The more creative you get, the further from cliche you will find yourself.


Archetypes are powerful characters because most anyone can identify with most any archetype at some point in their life. Archetypes are broad types that we all encountered in life, and (whether we like to admit it or not) have portrayed at some point. Each of us has been a Mentor. We”™ve all felt like the Hero going the road alone. We”™ve even been the Shadow trying to hinder another, though we never think of ourselves as evil. Even with minor archetypes, this is true. I”™ve been a trickster, a shape shifter, an ally and (yes) the wicked-step-mother. – Major Archetypes


Having all the greatest characters mean nothing if they don’t do stuff. The plot is the most defined part of the Hero’s Journey, and there have been a million books and articles discussing it. The point of this series is not to make that a million and one, but to simplify it a little. Let’s break the Journey down into five steps:

The Hero and the Ordinary World, Broken

In the ordinary world, all is well”¦or at least all is ordinary for our hero. This first phase of the story introduces our hero and his world, and gives our audience something to connect with the main character. Then it happens. Something causes the world to be thrown into chaos. This may be literal (plague, war, the ring of power is found) as in many epics. Or, it may be much more personal (the hero meets the girl of his dreams, a parent falls ill or dies, or the next-door neighbors begin the secret club). Whatever the event, intentional or not, the hero must step out into the special world. – Plot I

The Hero and the Quest

Now that the hero is on the road towards a goal, they meet Allies, Shadows, Tricksters, or whatever your heart desires. Just make your Hero work to get where they”™re going, and never let them get anything easily. The basic principles are 1.) Characters crave stability (or what they perceive is stability), and 2.) They will do the least amount of work possible to acheive it.

Really, the quest is wide open. Have fun. For those who want more structure, check out Writer”™s Journey and Joseph Campbell”™s original Hero”™s Journey.

The Hero and the Passion

At some point (usually around the middle of the story), the Quest becomes more than a Quest to the hero. It becomes a passion, a drive, an obsession. This is no longer, “lets save the princess so she”™ll reward us.” Now it”™s, “we have to ““ and will ““ save the princess no matter the cost.” This is the point of no return for the Hero.

Often, this turning point has something to do with the Shadow. It may also be the point the Hero starts to realize the unconscious need and becomes less focused on the conscious  want. This scene has to be powerful, because from here to the next part (which is the climax) things have to get dire for the Hero — as dire as you can make them. This passion is what will carry them through.

The Hero and the Moment

It all comes down to this. This is the climax. This is the Moment the Hero faces her worst fear, the most powerful adversary, the greatest challenge. This is almost always faced alone. This should also be the moment of change in the Hero”™s character arc. Lastly, many of the most powerful stories involve a resurrection of some kind.

The Hero and the Repercussions

Believe it or not, the character does not have to get what they want ““ but they do have to get they need, that is their growth.  Whether it is a happy, sad, or bitter-sweet ending, the Hero is no longer the same. And, they have made their way into another ordinary world. This will not be the same ordinary world they began in (though it may be similar). It will, however, be ordinary to the Hero. Things are settled now. – Plot III


Our characters are doing stuff, but where? The setting is just as important as the characters and plot.

In this deeply-powerful, hero-centric way of storytelling everything is connected to the main character. The plot is determined by their choices, the secondary characters are archetypes that fill psychological functions, the hero’s growth is the bones of the tale. Setting is also connected to the hero in the same way that minor archetypes are; by reflecting, counterpointing, challenging or aiding, and adding believability to the protagonist. – The Hero’s Three Worlds

The importance of a well-constructed, internally consistent world cannot be overstated. And, this isn’t just important for fantasy. Wherever you ground your story, the world is a part of it and must be completely fleshed out.

In the case of the Hero’s Journey, it can be said that there are three worlds. The ordinary world is where the hero starts out. It is in balance, she knows her place in the world, everything is ordinary (at least to her). The special world is the world of the quest. While it doesn’t have to be fantastic, it does have to be different. The remade world is the world after the climax. In balance again, but not quite the same.

All Done

Phew…that was a longer post than I like to write, but I wanted to lay out the entire journey in a snapshot because we are about to put it to the test to create three different stories running in parallel: a fantasy, a romantic comedy, and an intimate drama. Just to prove it works. Stick around!

Types of Fantasy Stories

Earlier this week, I posted about Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic. Continuing on that theme, I wanted to explore the different kinds of fantasy stories. First, let me be clear: I am not a fan of lists or concepts that claim to boil everything down to 12 easy steps. Those things may have a certain place in life, but I feel that reducing the complexities of the world to an even number people can count to using hands and feet is more a marketing scheme than anything else.

Okay, not that my little sermon is out of the way. While this isn’t a post about a limited number of ways to write a story, it is a helpful way to be intentional in the stories we tell. Knowing what you are trying to say is half the battle, the other half being to say it.

I found when crafting plots for my novels, that I needed to understand my own boundaries in order to be consistent. Not to say that I pinned myself in. Quite the opposite. Once I learned how my worlds worked, I was about to make them work with my characters, scenes, and awesome ideas. For me, the most important step was to see what kind of story I was writing.

This was especially important while rewritng a novel call Mississippi Secrets. The story seemed to fall flat to me, more mimicking other things I had read than being anything truly original. Once I took a step back and tried to see where it would sit on shelves, I noticed that it was a blend of several different things. That was great! But, I could not have gotten there until I knew what else existed.

Here is the list I have cultivated over the years. Different types of fantasy stories.

Worlds Upon Worlds

This list describes different worlds for each type of fantasy story. A world is the entire context for the story including history, geography, culture,  and the like.

  • “This world” does not necessarily mean Earth. What it means is the same basic context as the reader (which is Earth, I assume).
  • “Other world” is a totally separate planet or existence that is not connected to our reality at all.
  • A third “alternate world” would be some sort of alternate reality. That is, “what if” stories (what if the South had won the Civil War?).
  • Lastly, “past world” would be anything before the current context of the reader.

Also, building on Brandon Sanderson:

  • Hard Magic – Magic/technology has well defined rules that the audience understands.
  • Soft Magic – Magic/technology has unclear or vague rules, or none at all. This allows for a greater sense of wonder to be attained for the reader

Fantasy, unbound

High Fantasy, Other world

High fantasy describes magic that is deeply integrated into the fabric of the world and affects virtually every aspect of it. Other world means that it is a world totally out of the context of the reader, though there must some some kind of parallel for the reader to understand what is happening.

Most often, in Sanderson’s terms, these stories would tend towards Hard Magic.

The best example of high fantasy, other world is The Lord of the Rings.

Low Fantasy, This World

Low fantasy implies that magical things may happen, but they are not so widespread that the entire culture has been altered by them. This world means that it happens in a context that the reader thoroughly understands and (more less) lives in. These stories include the child who can pull magical tricks on their nanny, or the nanny who uses magic to teach the children (Mary Poppins). In most cases, this is very Soft Magic.

Secret Society, This world

This is one of my favorite types of fantasy stories. Think Harry Potter. In these cases, we are squarely in this world, but find that there is another, secretly hidden world all around us for magical folk. These may be wizards, or demigods, or vampires, or whatever. In each instance, these secret societies run parallel to our own reality and ofter intersect at points in history. So, some member of the secret society may have been a famous historical figure. In almost all cases I have seen, the protagonist must (in some way) juggle living in both our world and the secret realm.

Mythology, This World

Similarly (often extending) the secret society is the idea that some mythological force (gods, demons, angels, etc) are still active all around us. While this could include so many of the “fairy tales are actually true and still going on around us” stories, I would tend to make a distinction between mythology and folklore. Many books have been written on this, but to make it simple: mythology explains the world (gods make storms), folklore colors the world (fairies are entertaining).

Folklore, This World

Because I made the above distinction, I felt obligated to include this. The above applies 🙂

Generic, Non-World

These are hard to pull off, but incredibly satisfying. When you are able to concoct a world that is enough like our context but lacking specifics that lead the reader to wonder “are they in our world or not?” Lemony Snicket did a great job with this. Often, these stories take place in “the city” or “the country” or some other vague location.

Paranormal or Spiritual, This World

In these cases, the “afterworld” or “spiritual realm” bleeds into our current context. Psychics, mediums, ghosts, and telepaths often fit here.

Crossover, Two Worlds

In Narnia the children cross from our world into another. This may be the most staple type of fantasy story, and often the easiest to write if you are first starting out. Why? Because you can have a main character who needs to have the rules of the new world explained — just like your reader will.

Mix and Match an Elixir

Like the greatest alchemists, the best stories will mix and match elements from these different types. I may do some follow up posts on this idea in the future.

For now, I challenge you to take a look at your current manuscript, favorite story, or best idea and see where it may fit. Then look at others of that same ilk. What are the rules? How did that writer pull it off? How can you do it differently?

Brandon Sanderson and Magic

In this week dedicated to fantasy writing and world-building, it is only right to start with a look at a master. Brandon Sanderson is one of the greatest world builders of our time, not only because his works are imaginative and well-executed, but because they are consistent, thought out, and deceptively simple. To achieve this, he has devised his Three Laws of Magic, which cover the ground rules for creating magical systems in fantasy works.

The following is shamelessly pulled from Wikipedia, which in this case, offers a fantastic summary. Read the rest on wikipedia.org or brandonsanderson.com

Sanderson’s First Law

“An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”[25]

While originally created as a rule for magic systems in fantasy novels, Sanderson has specified that this law need not apply just to fantasy, but is also applicable to science fiction. This Law was originally defined in Sanderson’s online essay “Sanderson’s First Law”.[25] In the essay he qualifies the two extremes1 of design as being:

Hard Magic
Magic/technology has well defined rules that the audience understands. As a result, one can use this to solve conflict more easily as the capabilities are cleanly defined. Sanderson classifies this as “Hard Magic”. C.L. Wilson in her essay Worldbuilding 101 – Making Magic[26] advocated this method of creation, stating, “…create your rules, then follow them.”
Soft Magic
Magic/technology has unclear or vague rules, or none at all. This allows for a greater sense of wonder to be attained for the reader, but the ability to solve problems without resorting to deus ex machina decreases. Sanderson classifies this as “Soft Magic”. Lawrence Watt-Evans specifically advised “The trick is to be a benevolent and consistent deity, not one who pulls miracles out of a hat as needed”[27]

Sanderson’s Second Law

“Limitations > Powers”[25]

Or in other words, a character’s weaknesses are more interesting than his or her abilities. It was initially set down in Episode 14 of the podcast Writing Excuses.[28]2

John Brown, likewise looked to Sanderson’s work in his own essay involving magic systems, noting “What are the ramifications and conflicts of using it?”[29] Patricia Wrede likewise noted several issues on this topic ranging from magic suppressing other technologies, to how a magic might affect farming.[30][31]

In explaining the second law, Sanderson references the magic system of Superman, claiming that Superman’s powers are not what make him interesting, but his limits, specifically his vulnerability to kryptonite and the code of ethics he received from his parents.

Sanderson’s Third Law

“Expand what you already have before you add something new.”[32]

The Third Law implies that the writer should go deeper with worldbuilding before going wider.

Sanderson points out that magic does not take place in a vacuum, a good magic system should be interconnected with the world around it. It is related to the ecology, religion, economics, warfare, and politics of the world it inhabits. The job of the author is to think further than the reader about the ramifications of the magic system. If magic can turn mud into diamonds, that has an effect on the value of diamonds. Sanderson states that readers of genre fiction are interested not just in the magic system but how the world and characters will be different because of the magic.[33]

Quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brandon_Sanderson#Sanderson.27s_Laws

Five and a Half Useful Archetypes: The Classics

Last week, I threw about 37 practical tips for using archetypes in your stories. I also told you that I would start compiling a master list of archtypes. Well, let it never be said that I don’t follow through. Here is the beginning of that master list. I have started with about five, and I will continue to add to this list and update this post as time goes on.

What’s the deal with the half archetype? As I said before, archetypes feel like stereotypes because they are shallow, one-sided characters filled with characteristics instead of contradictions. One of the easiest ways to battle this is to mix archetypes into a single character. For instance, a Mentor who is also a Trickster. That’s the half archetypes. Each time I update this, I will detail some new archetypes and give one example (the half) of how you could mix two of these archetypes.

A note on how I compile this list. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of theorists, artists, pyschologists, and others who have searched for archetypes and found them everywhere. Some of the most popular include Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Dramatica, and Michael Hauge. There are also archetypes hidden in places like astrological signs, the Chinese zodiac, and Maya calendar. This series will draw from all these places and keep them in one reference.

Finally, let’s remember why archetypes work. We have all been there. We can empathize with these characters, and often fantasize about what it would be like to be them.

These archetypes are some of the more popular (and vanilla or overused) character types. That doesn’t mean you can’t make them interesting, just be aware that we’ve seen all these over and over. Mix and match and flesh them out to make something interesting. Even if these are used a lot, they are still foundational.

1. Lovable Rogue

From tvtropes.com:

A person who breaks the law, for their own personal profit, but is nice enough and charming enough to allow the audience to root for them, especially if they don’t kill or otherwise seriously harm anyone. It helps that none of their victims are anyone we know or that they’ve made sure the audience knew they were jerks, which makes it “okay” to steal from them.

The Lovable Rogue is right up there with anti-hero’s, gentleman thief, and scoundrels. They have themselves in mind first. They fight for their own gain. If someone else happens to benefit, that’s great. Don’t mistake this attitude for lack of direction, though. The Lovable Rogue has a compass, a code, that that follow strictly.

At the heart of this archetype is the idea that “the rules don’t apply to me” or even more that “the rules don’t apply to this situation.” They aren’t evil. They aren’t bad. They aren’t trying to hurt anyone. They are just trying to get by. And, probably due to some trauma in the past, they feel like the institution (be it government, family, society, whatever) has failed them. No one else is looking out for them, so they are justified in doing what they must to look after themselves.

That is why this archetype resonates with us. We’ve all been there: lost in the system, failed by the school, a victim of some injustice. In someway, we’ve been let down. No one else looked out for us. So, we dreamed about what it would be like to look after ourselves. The lovable rogue is also special and confident. We all wish we were that confident.

Often, the Lovable Rogue will actually end up doing good for others, but you knew that.

2. Salty Old Soldier

The old soldier has been there and seen that, and has the badass scars to prove it. He or she has been through every war, seen every combat, and has lived to fight and keep on fighting. That is not to say they haven’t been damaged by the struggle. They are cynical, don’t make friends, and deal with a hatred of the enemy that borders on psychotic. The Salty Old Soldier is a complex character. Even with all the conflict they’ve seen, they never shy from a fight. Always in the thick of things, this character is typically the backbone of whatever unit, though rarely in the lead.

Moving on from a military situation, this character type can be used in any situation where there is conflict (and what story doesn’t have conflict). The defining mark is that they Salty Old Soldier has been there and is always ready to go there again. Not particularly likable, but a great source for mentoring and seasoning.

3. Wise Old Soldier

In many ways, this is the yin to the yang of the Salty Old Soldier. He to has been there through countless battles and survived, even thrived, in the conflict. However, the Wise Old Soldier has a calmer, more reflective personality. They see the conflict not as an outlet for their anger, but as an exercise in discipline, mind, and soul. Often, this character truly believes in the cause, whereas the Salty Old Soldier believes in conflict (or cannot escape it). This is your stereotypical (though not accurate) Zenified Samurai.

Don’t mistake the disciple and balance for weakness. The Wise Old Soldier is lethal and unmatched in the conflict. More of often than not, they will go out of their way to train or care for the younger soldiers. Also a great source of mentoring. Again, does not have to be used in war.

4. The Girl Back Home

There have been many recent twists on this age-old archetype. Traditionally, this is a female character who pines away and struggles at home as the hero is off on an adventure. In more modern times, this character has become stronger, living an adventure of her own as her partner is fighting a different (but no more intense) battle.

In all reality, “The Girl Back Home” is a lot more flexible than that. Think about why we use archetypes: We have all been there. How often have we been unable to help in some situation? How many times have we had to see someone else fight our battles? Or, how often have we been forced to do the work for two when the other is off on their own.

This can be a powerful, dramatic element for the adventurer as well. The reason he or she fights. Often, this archetype does not have to be a romantic woman or spouse back home. Children work just as well. As do the elderly.

5. The Book Nerd

This archetype is a writer’s best friend, especially in any situation where you are entering into a world or setting unfamiliar to the reader. J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) said it best (and I paraphrase): “Whenever I have to tell the reader something, I put it in Hermoine’s mouth. We can just assume she read it somewhere.” But, this character is more than just a repository for information. Often the most identifiable character, the Book Nerd strikes a chord with the part of us that wants to understand how the universe works, and find our place it it. Furthermore, most often, they are somewhat socially outcast for pursuing this part of themselves further than the norm.

How many of us have been belittled in the same way?

The Book Nerd is often a seemingly weak character who actually has a lot of strength. That, also, is an identifying point. Use the Book Nerd carefully, though. It is easy to fall into stereotypes or use the Book Nerd as an easy out for exposition instead of find a better way for the reader to discover information.

And a Half.

As promised, let’s look at how we can build a character by mixing archetypes. In this case, let’s do something really unexpected and create the “Lovable Book Nerd Rogue.”

Characteristics of our Lovable Rogue

  • Outside Society
  • Selfish
  • Charming
  • A hidden, good heart
  • Component and confident
  • Damaged

Characteristics of our Book Nerd

  • Curious
  • Shy
  • Outside Society
  • A good heart
  • Damaged
  • Intelligent

Already we see some commonalities and contradictions. Both are damaged, live outside society, and have good hearts. Contradictions exist, too. One is shy, the other confident. Contradictions make better characters. So, it looks like our new character will struggle between acting or being confident while really feeling inadequate around people. They will also be cunning and intelligent and well-read, though perhaps downplay that aspect of them.

Just to put me out of my comfort zone, an non-fantasy example:

Jenna is a political journalist New York City who has made a career by exposing scandals. No one is safe, though. She will expose anyone, and isn’t afraid to break the rules to find her source. She is charming, daring, salty, and hard as a rock in her business-casual suite, wining and dining and manipulating some of the most powerful men in the city. She was a victim of some scandal years ago, but the perpetrator made it away scott free. Now, she hunts everyone.

In public.

Her private moments, though? Poetry at a small coffee house in Brooklyn. A chance to unwind and forget about cover-ups and conspiracies. Hey, we all need a break from ourselves, right? 

I’m not sure where this story would go, but its an example of how to mix two archtypes. Keep an eye out, this is just the first post compiling a list of archetypes.

Some of My Sources





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