Sacrifice and Hard Work: the Life of Author and Story

I was recently listening to our own Donald Williams give an interview for a podcast. In the course of his talk he was discussing how today we have libraries of information at our finger tips, while in the time of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien they had to work harder to get at things. They had to read books, not just google them.  In doing so, they came to know their books and the ideas in them intimately.  He also mentioned why he thought this resulted in a better education–and this is my paraphrase:

The students I’ve seen who have the deepest insights aren’t necessarily the most intelligent ones. They are the the ones who are moderately intelligent and have to work at things a little more. They get to know what they’re talking about more deeply because they have to spend time with it. Lewis and Tolkien had that advantage, plus they were geniuses!

The more I think about that–this idea of slow, patient, intimate knowledge, acquired through hard work–the more this strikes me.  We have such an emphasis on getting things now and getting them without effort that often times we often resent the idea of having to work for our knowledge.  It comes to us so easily! As a result, we don’t think things through for the simple reason that we’ve been trained to believe that doing so isn’t our responsibility.  Someone else will do it for us.  Information takes the place of understanding and wisdom, and it is supposed to come at the click of a button (i.e. We shouldn’t have to actually read all those books for that paper!  Who does that?!).  We purchase the next big thing just because it’s new and someone said it’s better (Is it? Microsoft Anything, anyone?). We vote for the next politician because he/she promises to give us everything we want (“Trust me!  I have your best interests at heart!  Just don’t ask what you’ll be giving up in return….”).  We are too often satisfied with wading in the tepid, muddy, mosquito filled shallows when, if we pushed farther, we could find the cool depth of a sea the end of whose grandeur we can never see.

It takes work to reach the peak, but the view you find there changes everything!
It takes work to reach the peak, but the view you find there changes everything!

Is it sometimes any different with our fictional worlds?  Are we in such a hurry, so desperately busy, that we just try to reach in and grab what we can before rushing on to the next shiny thing and expect people to praise our work simply because it is our own?  Do we live in our worlds and get to know every rock and pebble like an old friend, as Tolkien did? Do we see them in our mind’s eye so clearly that we get lost in the details of a scene, like Lewis did? If we ourselves don’t take the time to really dwell in our worlds, to speak with our characters, and to understand them as friends and family–if we simply “process” them and spit out fiction as a result–will we ever write anything really worth reading?  Perhaps more importantly, even if it’s worth reading, will it be worth remembering?

I’m afraid not. But therein lies the challenge: Dwelling, abiding, understanding, feeling, etc. on that intimate a level–all of it takes time and is at points uncomfortable. We have to slow down and be willing to work at it. And that is becoming a more and more difficult thing to do. It takes sacrifice. Each opportunity we choose to set aside to write, even if it is just to “live” in our world in a story we know will probably never see light of day, we have to give something else up.

It all comes down to this:  What am I willing to sacrifice so that my world and my creations might more fully live?

Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: The Fuzzies

Here is one of my posts from my Tough Guide to Clichés series!  Because we can never have enough fuzzies…


I’ve really been enjoying my month in Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland and all of the marvelous clichés that she has brought to my attention.  What I think I have learned while writing these (and perhaps, you have, by reading them) is that while there are always cliché ways to present your world and characters, there also just as many ways to avoid or even to utilize those clichés to make our fantasylands better.  An awareness of the stereotypes gives us greater power over our worlds.

And what megalomaniacal, world-building author does not want greater power?

So we’ve covered names, colour-coding, and villains thus far.  I want to touch on something a little smaller, a detail that might not even come into consideration when we are writing.  But when you think about it, it is a little strange.

pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban is a magic cat and Bella is a soulless, power-hungry, would-be villain. I think they both merit a story or two.

The question that Jones presents in one of her entries is this: Where are all the fuzzies?

Specifically, how do animals figure into your storytelling?

First, let’s see what Diana Wynne Jones has to say:

Animals. See Enemy Spies, Food, and Transport.  Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purpose, there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland.  Any other animals you meet will be the result either of Wizard’s Breeding Programme or of Shapeshifting.  You may on the other hand hear things, such as roaring, trampling, and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound effects only, laid on by the Management when it feels the need for a little local colour.

Domestic Animals are as rare as wild Animals.  In most cases their existence can be proved only by deduction.  Thus, sheep must exist, because people wear wool, and so must cattle, as there is usually cheese to eat.  Cats are seen in company with Witches and Crones, often in large numbers, but seldom elsewhere, and there have been sightings also of solitary pigs; possibly in Fantasyland cats are herd animals whereas pigs are not.  Goats are seen oftener (and may even provide the cheese) and dogs are frequent but often rather feral – the arrival of a Tour party at a Village is usually greeted by barking dogs.  Dogs are also kept in numbers by Kings and nobles, where their job is to be scavengers: you throw bones on the floor and the dogs fight for them.  These hounds cannot be kept for hunting (except perhaps for hunting men and Mutant Nasties), as there are no Animals to hunt.

The thoughtful Tourist might like to pause here and consider, since Animals are so rare, what exactly the meat is that the Management puts in its Stew.

Another use for animals: as desks.
My brother demonstrates another use for animals: as desks.

Now, then, let’s talk about the animals.  When I read this, I remember feeling a very twingy sense of concern because my fantasy serial The Holder Wars has fallen prey to exactly this description of animals.  There are horses for “Transportation” and then there are plenty of shapeshifters.  But my land has been peculiarly lacking in pretty much anything else.


But here’s the conundrum: We want to create a world that is realistic and immersive and natural.  On the other hand, we want to tell a story and relate action and dialogue and characterization.  This means we do have to make some choices about what is important to describe and what isn’t.  If I were to write a chase scene through the woods, I wouldn’t stop the narrative for a moment to point out some bluebirds nesting in one of the trees my characters is frantically riding past.  I don’t need to tell the reader everything on Old MacDonald’s farm when my character passes by or stops in, do I?  We do need to have boundaries, and in many ways, it does make sense to only bring up things like animals when they are actually integral in some way to the plot.  Otherwise, the book becomes a ponderous tome of details.

chicken food
Dogs are desks… and chickens are cuddly snacks. This child lives in an interesting world.

And fuzzies just aren’t worth it.

So what do we do with animals?  Of course, we continue to use them in our stories in various ways, whether it is the usual horse transportation or as game to be shot or as magical changelings.  Otherwise, I think we would do well to be aware of any significant gap in our description, such as of a forest or farmland, and where we might add some animals.

It might do us some good to read what Jones has to say about horses as well:

Horses are a breed unique to Fantasyland.  They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest.  Sometimes they do not require food or water.  They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind.  They never otherwise stumble … But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them.  If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a Valley while you talk.  Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are.  Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no Stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings.  It therefore seems probably that they breed by pollination.  This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals.

The same issues apply with horses,  I think, when it comes to description in stories.  If we were to be completely and utterly realistic, we would also be completely and utterly boring.  However, I do like Jones’ point about horses needing rest and the issue of stallions, mares, and geldings.  These are small practicalities that might be worth bringing into consideration.

Unless, of course, your horses do in fact breed by means of pollination, which is another matter entirely.  And I would like to read that story.

belted gallowy
Cow is sad because she is not in a story.

So, what are your thoughts on fuzzies in fantasyland?  Do you think that novels tend to dismiss them too easily or do you think that it is generally a matter of space and practicality?  Do fuzzies matter to you?

StoryBuilder 1.0: Construct Your Magical Land!

Last week, I gifted you all with the perfect character building machine, and now you all have strange and wonderful characters, but nowhere to put them.  That is easily solved.  We will do the same thing this week with world-building.  After all, you can’t have characters without a world.  At least, I don’t think you can.  Maybe you can.  But probably not.

So here is a world-builder.

magic fantasy castle landscapeThe same rules apply.  Choose options from the categories below and make note of your choice so that you can find out what your wonderful world is like at the end of the post.  Once again, if you go for the exciting and unexpected route, you will get exactly what you deserve for such cheekiness.


1. World Theme:

A. Roman
B. European
C. Asian
D. Totally Not Like Any Culture of This World

2. Add Some Landscape (Add any or all of the below):

A. Ancient Forests
B. Vast Fields
C. Grand Mountains
D. Bodies of Water
E. Something Unexpected

3. Local Color (Add any or all of the below):

A. Merchant Guilds
B. Gladiatorial Combat
C. Spy Network
D. Town Idiot
E. Something Unexpected

4. Government Structure

A. Democracy
B. Dictatorship
C. Anarchy
D. Monarchy
E. Something Unexpected

5. Local Wonder of Choice

A. Mysterious
B. Big
C. Ancient
D. Pretty
E. Something Unexpected


Alright, now that you’ve chosen your fantastical and wonderful and totally unique world attributes, you get to find out more details about your world of choice.

1. World Theme:

A. Roman: Welcome to the land of columns and togas and prodigiously prominent noses.  In your world, a very clean and shiny upper class spends its days bathing and talking about politics while the masses engage in bloodthirsty activities just for fun.  Everything is very well organized, but rebellion is simmering… just beneath the surface.  Business as usual.
B. European: Welcome to a totally unique world in which knights ride around castles and citizens herd sheep, farm, and look upon the occupants of castles for protection against roving bands of mercenaries.  Also, there are probably big, fire-breathing dragons.  Possibly trolls under bridges.  Maybe even unicorns, if you’re lucky.  But don’t pet the unicorns.  They bite.
C. Asian: In a land of zen, your world is filled with pagodas and orchids and very tiny gardens filled with sand and small rocks.  Your culture is clean and civil and all conflict takes place discreetly out of sight.  There are probably also dragons lurking around, but they are much more likely to want to sit down and debate philosophy and politics than they are to burn your house to the ground, which is quite useful.  The other supernatural creatures are not so trustworthy.
D. Totally Not Like Any Culture of This World:  In a land of fluffy castles made of flowers, your world floats on a cloud… in space.  The people are friendly… except when their flowers are stolen.  Herein lies most of the conflicts of the citizens, most of whom are fairies, some of whom are bunnies, and a few of whom are small, curmudgeony polar bears.


2. Add Some Landscape (Add any or all of the below):

A. Ancient Forest: This forest has been around since before anyone in your story can remember, or since their great grandparents can remember.  The trees are taller than most palaces and tend to make deep groaning noises as if they are sentient, which they probably are.  Entire societies of mysterious creatures lurk in these woods, some of which friendly, although most are probably not.  No one who gets lost in these woods ever finds their way out… except your characters because they’re special…
B. Vast Fields: Yes, these might just be here to take up space, but they are also useful for riding across at a quick pace, being inconveniently spotted by the enemy because there is no cover, or standing at one end to gaze at a looming destination on the other side.  These vast fields may or may not have names, but they will definitely be important to the plot.
C. Grand Mountains: Inevitably, these will need to be crossed.  Inevitably, there will be snow at the top.  Also inevitably, there will be trolls or carnivorous mountain goats lurking on the precipices.  And a final inevitability: part of the dangerous paths along the edges of these mountains which have been around for thousands of years will give way at exactly the same moment your characters are trying to cross.  Drama abounds in the grand mountains. Don’t forget to name them.
D. Bodies of Water: Whether it is a lake, a river, a sea, or an entire ocean, having a body of water is quite useful.  Like mountains, bodies of water pretty much always have to be crossed.  That is, except when they need to be dived beneath to discover some sort of underwater city.  Magical beings like to rise out of bodies of water, as well.
E. Something Unexpected: Your world is blessed by the incredible presence of an upside down sky-volcano.  Every so often, it likes to spit fire on the unfortunate masses who dare to live beneath it (luckily, this only happens every few hundred years or so, normally at some significant moment in some significant character’s journey to greatness).  No one knows what’s holding the volcano up or how the lava stays inside an upside down volcano.  It is a source of great academic interest – that is, when it’s not exploding and the academics are making a run for it.

3. Local Color (Add any or all of the below):

A. Merchant Guilds: Merchants are useful folk to have around.  They sell things, buy things, and also seem to know what’s going on in the world.  Their leader is usually corrupt, though, so your character should probably not trust him/her, although most characters will end up in the guildmaster’s debt for some reason or another.
B. Gladiatorial Combat: Inevitably, your character will end up in the ring if your world has gladiatorial combat, so be advised and consider some training to lead up to this.  This cultural atrocity will also figure largely into any sort of revolution against the current government.  Gladiators tend to be more than willing to get behind a rebellion and most corrupt leaders never see it coming.
C. Spy Network: These always know what’s going on, always influence what’s going, and always play both or all sides of any conflict.  The leader of the spy network may or may not be trustworthy.  Spies are shady by nature, so even the “good” ones will probably do some pretty nefarious things in the name of “right” which will cause your character all manner of empathetic guilt.
D. Town Idiot: Adding a touch of humor and the occasional, unlooked for insight, a silly character can be humorous, but also very annoying.  Your character (and your readers) might want this character dead, which will make any sort of sacrifice of the character later a little pointless.  These characters work best in small doses.
E. Something Unexpected:  Your character’s nation engages in the epic sport of bear racing.  Bear jockeys are a courageous lot who ride bears and attempt to get them to lumber forward rather than attack each other, their riders, or the audience.  Most races end a bit violently, but the sentimental attachment to bear racing overcomes all massacres.

4. Government Structure

A. Democracy: All for one and one for all!  Everyone has a say, but strangely, no one seems to care.  A handful of people have somehow still managed to take control of the nation.  This is probably important to your plot.
B. Dictatorship: One evil overlord/lady has taken control of the kingdom.  Obviously, one person should not have all this power and it will take a plucky band of freedom fighters to give the kingdom back to the people/rightful ruler(s)/other.  Don’t forget to give the dictator a very tall and dark and impressive tower to rule from, if s/he is into that sort of thing.  As a fun alternative, your dictator could be a friendly, relaxed person who is doing a very nice job keeping the country in line.  This will probably confuse your character a bit, but I’m sure there is someone else evil enough worth overthrowing.
C. Anarchy: No government exists and chaos reigns in this kingdom.  Your character is probably seeking some sort of order in the face of this chaos, fighting against the many petty thugs who have taken over various parts of the country.  There is a slight likelihood that it will be your character who will rise up to lead everyone (although your character is totally not a dictator or anything).
D. Monarchy: All hail the king and/or queen!  It is generally a toss-up whether the monarch is good or evil and this will usually affect the plot.  A strong evil monarch is often a very exciting villain to stand against.  A strong weak monarch is normally under the thumb of an even more evil power-behind-the-throne villain.  A strong good monarch will be a good ally once you convince him/her that the villain is truly Out There.  A weak good monarch should probably just be put in a corner until everything’s taken care of.
E. Something Unexpected: When your kingdom has social or political issues to be dealt with, a small group of chosen officials ascends a low mountain to present its queries to a sort of magical, giant orb which answers questions with “Yes”, “No”, “Quite Likely”,  “Probably Not”, or “Maybe, Ask Again Later”.  Sometimes the orb takes a good shake or two to get an answer out of it and often the answer is extremely unhelpful, but somehow, your country has gotten along alright anyway.  Your character, on the other hand, might object to this process for some odd reason.


5. Local Wonder of Choice

A. Mysterious: A green stone tower that emits a different song each month stands at the center of a field.  Anyone who tries to climb the tower gets about halfway up before being knocked off by a mysterious force, after which the climber begins to sing that same song as the tower incessantly thereafter.  Normally they also end up mysteriously disappearing later, but this may be because people simply can’t stand the singing.
B. Big: A giant, glowing ball hovers over a lake.  It doesn’t do anything.  It’s just really big and glowy.  Someone suggested touching it and everything called them an idiot.  No one seems to have tried.
C. Ancient: A book sits beneath glass in a small room at the back of a library.  It is covered in script from a language lost in the shadows of the past.  Someday… someone will read it. And then Everything Will Change.
D. Pretty:  It’s glorious, colorful, shimmering, and probably magical.  If you wear it, it might kill you.  Most people just gaze at it in awe.  What is it?  Well, no one actually knows, but it’s really pretty.
E. Something Unexpected: People travel from distant lands to stand within the Forest of Bad Riddles.  The trees tell horrible jokes that have no sensible answer, the kind that you can’t get out of your head, that make no sense, and that make you wish that no one had ever told you about the Forest of Bad Riddles or dared you to spend the night there.  Seriously, if your character has any shreds of nobility, burning this forest to ashes will be the first order of business.

Random, yes, but unique, right?  Now you have a world set up with plenty of space to fill in, magical names to provide to geographical features, and a character to drop in the middle of it all.  But you still need a plot, don’t you?  Don’t worry.  That comes next week.

The Best of LHP–A List of Organizing Lists to Help You Write

Originally published by Rachel in May, this post superbly “lists” a few things that can get you started with your writing.

I am not normally a “list” person. I think the term to best describe my thought process is organized chaos.  I like to see the big picture and then explore the details, which ever details that come to mind or interest me the most first.  This has gotten me into trouble as you all can well imagine.  I go to the grocery store I need eggs, milk, butter and a few other odds and ends.  When I get home, I’ve bought even food to last me a week and a half but I have forgotten the butter!

I tend to have the same sort of problem when it comes to writing. I get caught up in the big picture or maybe even just one of the details that I forget other important things. So today I am going to give a list of organizational methods (I am not giving technical names, just sort of a list of ways I use or I have seen others use to keep themselves organized while they write their story/epic novel).

  1. The Outline – this method requires planning (something I lack).  I have several friends who write this way.  They start with the general idea and follow through  outlining events and or moments in the story that are key to the plot.  This outline becomes the backbone for their story.  This does not mean that you necessarily must have the ending in mind when you start your outline but an ending when you’re writing is always helpful.
  2. Mapping out Chronology – this looks and sounds a lot like outlining, but it’s not The Outline. You can Map the Chronology of your story at anytime, while the Outline is something is normally done at the beginning.  Mapping the chronology is a task that makes sure events are following as they should.  I have a difficult time with this one.  I just start writing what inspires me and then about half way through I realize either the events are happening too quickly or they have happened out of order.  In one particular story I knew the character, Denri, needed to get to a particular city.  However I wasn’t sure how she got there.  So, in a stroke of brilliance, I just started to write about her going to the city, how she felt and what was going through her mind.  This created several very involved flashbacks.  Now flashbacks are not bad in and of themselves – they can be very useful at times.  Nonetheless, I discovered as I wrote that I had to rework the chronology.  I needed to make the flashbacks part of the story and not just flashbacks and I needed more time in between events.  Mapping out Chronology is a good way to bring order back to a story and keep it heading in the right direction
  3. Character Files – If you are like me, you may have a plethora of characters and family connections that need to be sorted out.  I have found that OneNote is very helpful for storing all my information regarding my characters.  I have family trees, lists of occupations, and many other social/economical tidbits in this file. It is easy to forget characterizations and family structures particularly if there is any length of time in between writing.  Character files will also help to make sure that you remember what you have said and where you said something about a character.  OneNote, whenever you copy and paste something, will track the source document (did I mention how helpful OneNote has been for me?).
  4. World Building Files – Ok, so everything I said about Character Files applies to World Building Files.  I usually just have a OneNote file for each story I am working on and have different tabs and files with in the document to keep track of characters, world structure, and any other random bits of thoughts I have on the world or the story I am working on.

I know this is a short list, but as I said, I really don’t like lists.  But do you have any suggestions for ways to organize your thoughts and writing?

Happy Writing!

The Best of LHP – The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters: The Professors of Profundity

This post was previously published in June 2013. It was Part 3 in a series of posts on my journey through the Harry Potter series and the lessons the books have taught me.

Good morning, class

I have always enjoyed Rowling’s expansive world. She pulls from various myths, legends, and folktales to create her magical society. I have been thinking about the numerous authors that I have read after Harry Potter jump-started my affinity for reading children’s literature, and three authors stand out as writers who have had a personal impact on my own imagination. Basically, they have taught me everything I know….

Lloyd Alexander

BlackCauldron cvr

I read The Chronicles of Pyrdain at the suggestion of a friend. I completed the first book during February 2011 but was not able to continue the series until the following summer. I was not immediately hooked in the stories like I was Harry Potter, but Alexander is a craftsman of detail and diction, and his enchanting storytelling kept me wanting to continue the story of Taran and his companions. My favorite book of the series is The Black Cauldron, mainly because of its exploration of the conflict between personal glory and self-sacrifice. But what really enchanted me about Alexander is his use of Welsh mythology. From his books, I learned not to fear myth as inspiration, and I began to see the influence of myth on well-received authors like Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling.

Madeleine L’Engle

81IRUqMlS-L._SL1167_I read A Wrinkle in Time in April 2011. I think this book ranks as one of my all-time favorites, and I definitely will be writing more about this book in the future. L’Engle has a different approach to storytelling, as her language seems more accessible to children than Alexander. However, I loved how she combined fantasy, science, religion, and social issues into one mesmerizing story about a young girl who learns to love even if she is not loved back. As I read further works from L’Engle, I began to notice that she uses science frequently in her stories. One might say that science is a “mythology” to L’Engle, and she adapts various theories and statistics to move and shape her worlds.

I think I’m stumbling onto a theme here….

Neil Gaiman

Graveyard BookA conservative children’s literature teacher told me to read The Graveyard Book and see if I would hate it as much as she did. This teacher disliked anything fun (Rowling Gaiman) and stuck to “safe” books like Lewis, L’Engle, and Alexander. Well, reading the book had the opposite effect. It freaked me out a bit (definitely not a book for little eyes), but I could not stop thinking about the story, the characters, and the genius of Gaiman. Really, if you want some good storytelling, pick up an audio recording of Gaiman’s books (make sure it’s read by the author himself) and witness the wonder of his craft. When doing research for a presentation on Gaiman, I found this video about his thoughts on creating the book. It all began with him watching his two-year-old son ride his tricycle around a graveyard. He then began to think of a story with a similar structure to Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and he developed probably one of the most imaginative (and ghoulish) worlds I have ever read. However, Gaiman said he borrowed heavily from Norse, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology to create his universe. He said, however, you have to own the myth–make it yours.

Class Dismissed

Beauty and the Beast: my favorite fairy tale. Perhaps I'll do something with it in the future.
Beauty and the Beast: my favorite fairy tale. Perhaps I’ll do something with it in the future.

So, what did I learn from my favorite authors? First, for many of them, it all began with a picture: for Lewis, a faun carrying parcels and an umbrella through the snow; for Gaiman, watching his son play in a graveyard; for Rowling, a be-speckled boy appeared to her in a metro. Second, almost all of them use myth, or life experience, or observations of their world. Essentially, by taking myth and making it their own, they can create dazzling worlds to fix the characters and action. Thus, the stress of creating something original is gone. Just tell a story, even if it has been told before–only strive to improve it. If anything, you will at least see the mythology you have adopted mold and shape into something unique–something that is yours