Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Blog Mash-up

For today’s post, I wanted to share three articles from blogs that I think are pretty darned interesting. I’ve given you the headlines and a sample of the article, and I strongly hope you click through and give the rest of the article a read. I don’t think you’ll regret it!

I hope you enjoy them!

Paul

The Faceless Villain: What to do When Your Bad Guy Isn’t a Person

In a lot of stories (especially genre novels) the antagonist is a physical being that can be fought against. But what do you do when your antag is something to overcome, like depression, or a self-destructive streak? Technically, there’s nothing plotting against your protagonist for them to fight. It’s a personal situation or flaw holding them back. These stories are a little tougher to write. 

Read the rest of the article HERE on The Other Side of the Story.

How To Write – And Deliver – Killer Speeches
For two years or whatever, I blogged three times a week about publicity, speechwriting, public relations and scandals for The New York Times’about.com.  If you are an author, actor, director, politician, professional athlete, rock star, user of social media or otherwise in the public eye, THESE POSTS ARE USEFUL TO YOU. If you live in an ice cave, you can safely ignore all this stuff and go back to tanning that elk hide.
Six Ways to Beat The Blogging Blahs
We all go through times when we wake up in the morning, take one look at the clock, and pull the covers back over our heads wishing we could spend the day cocooned away from the world.We have those days (or weeks!) when it’s hard enough to force ourselves out of bed, much less make ourselves sit down in front of our laptops and try to come up with something witty and interesting to say on our blogs.
Did you come across any awesome blogs or articles this week that you’d love to share? Or perhaps you posted one on your own blog that you’re particularly proud of? Please share them in the comments below – I’d love to see what you’re reading.

Which Genre Is It, Anyway?

Fantasy vs. Science Fiction All books need to be classified, for it tells book sellers – and readers – where a book belongs. If you go into a book store, a quick glance at the aisles tells you that it is imperative for a book to fall into a certain genre. Often, fantasy and science-fiction are grouped together in one big section, which can make it a challenge in searching out a specific sub-genre of literature. But when we submit our work to agents, it’s important to have the right genre classification.

Why? Because the agent needs to know how they are going to sell the book. If we say that our book is a “young adult, middle grade, high fantasy, space opera, steampunk set in Victorian-era Mars,” an agent will likely give it a pass – because they will be unable to sell the book to a publishing house (and chances are, such a book would be a bizarre mess.)

It can be confusing knowing where to place your book. As such, it is important to fully understand the genre. To help with that, I’ve done a little work for you and defined some of the sub-genres of both fantasy and science fiction, with a little note on classification. I hope it helps!

Fantasy:

Epic Fantasy: Arguably the father of all fantasy, epic fantasy is a genre where the protagonists must save the world, typically from some malevolent, evil antagonist. They typically fight the final battle between good and evil, conquer evil nations, overthrow evil overlords, or even face off with the gods themselves. Often times, epic fantasy and high fantasy are considered interchangeable, but there is a subtle difference. J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan fall under the heading of epic fantasy.

High Fantasy: Closely related to epic fantasy, the high fantasy genre typically has just as much world building as its epic counterpart, but the difference is in the scope of the story. High fantasy typically involves stories that are more personal in nature, perhaps more limited to the needs and desires of a single protagonist, rather than a group. He or she is focused on a single antagonist, rather than on a global/end-of-world event. Typically, by the end of the story, our protagonist has attained his or her goals, but the rest of the world is generally unaffected and continues on as though nothing had happened. Often, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels are considered to be high fantasy.

Urban Fantasy: Sometimes referred to as contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy is typically set in the real world, such as Earth, and is often in the present day. Magic still plays a pivotal role, and, as such, is not to be confused with science fiction. Guy Gavriel Kay has some urban fantasy in his oeuvre.

Sword and Sorcery: Sword and sorcery fantasy involves stories that are typically smaller in size with less emphasis on world building and more time spent on action. Think of dungeon-crawls, where the protagonists must fight off the hordes of evil on a quest for his or her goal. Xena: Warrior Princess would be a good example of a sword and sorcery type fantasy.

Dark Fantasy: Dark fantasy isn’t necessarily ‘scary’ or ‘horrific’ fantasy, but rather it is typically a story where the protagonist fails to win. They may involve antiheroes rather than heroes, and the stories are often set in worlds where evil has triumphed over good. Sometimes they are set in dystopian or post-apocalyptic worlds. H. P. Lovecraft is well known as a dark fantasy author.

Historical Fantasy: Often set in the historical real world, urban fantasy includes magical elements set in historical eras. Susanna Clarke is an example of a historical fantasy author.

Erotic Fantasy: Also known as fantasy romance, erotic fantasy tends to have a lot of sex and/or romance as central drive for the plot. The Sleeping Beauty” novels by A. N. Roquelaure – a pseudonym of Anne Rice – are examples of erotic fantasy.

Science Fiction:

Hard Science Fiction: With a heavy dose of science, hard science fiction is perhaps one of the more challenging genres to write in. The author must have a solid understanding of scientific fact so that their futuristic science is wholly plausible. Asimov is considered the grandfather of hard science fiction.

Space Opera: This tends to be a fun genre, with less focus on scientific fact with perhaps more liberal, fantastical elements. There can be hard science and military science fiction in this genre, but it leans heavily on the fiction side. George Lucas is a good example of a space opera author.

Steampunk: Steampunk is typically a very specific type of historical fiction, where more modern technology is set within classical historical eras. For instance, you’ll often have mechanized gizmos and gadgets in a Victorian-era world. The new Sherlock Holmes movies lean towards steampunk, as well as novelists such as Cherie Priest.

Classification:

We typically don’t need to classify when a novel is suited for an adult audience. It is assumed that all literature can be read and appreciated by adult readers. Adult fantasy and science fiction tends to allow for more sex, romance and graphic violence, with a more sophisticated point of view.

Young Adult: The primary distinction here is that the protagonist tends to be close to the age of the reader (typically 13-17). If you visit the young adult section of the book store, you’ll see that it has exploded in popularity. It is interesting to note that young girls tend to be the target demographic for these stories, although the popularity of these stories is growing among young teen boys. Suzanne Collins, of Hunger Games fame, is a good example of a young-adult (YA) author.

Middle Grade: These are books intended toward kids ages eight to twelve (also known as ‘tweens’). They are starting to make decisions on the types of stories they’re interested in reading, and typically the protagonists are of a similar age to the reader. There is typically very little – if any – sexual content, although there is definitely action and conflict. Janice Hardy is a good example of a middle-grade (MG) author.

Have I missed any major sub-genres? And was this helpful in making sense of the differing genres? If so, please include your thoughts in the comments below. Note that literary agents and publishing houses may disagree, and that these are only guidelines.

Geeking Out: From Gamer to Writer

I have mentioned before that I’m a bit of a geek.

Growing up, I spent countless hours playing, administrating, and running MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons). These were the text-based roleplaying games where I would whittle away my hours, interacting with people around the world by playing at being a Druid, a secret magic user, a nefarious rogue, a troubled artist, a religious Warband leader, and a powerful manipulator of the elements who had a huge distrust of authority. I spent countless hours developing skills that have proven exceptionally useful in my writing. I’d like to share some of that experience and those skills with you here today, and put forth my argument that certain types of gaming can be a writer’s greatest gift.

Character Planning. When we begin a roleplaying game, we have to think about the history of our character. Or rather, we do if we hope to create a solid character that will have longevity in the world. This involves figuring out who our parents might be, what are our religious beliefs, which gods or goddess we might like and dislike, what is our skill set, what events in our youth might have shaped our attitude and outlook in life, and what our aspirations are – our super-objectives that drive us through the world.

Druid

How would you describe her in words?

How do we feel about other nationalities/races/religions? What style of clothing do we choose to wear? What is our economic status, and how will we interact or move through the world?

Asking these questions help create the dynamic, interesting characters people will want to interact with and include in their roleplaying world.

And the same questions apply to planning our protagonists and antagonists and indeed our secondary and tertiary characters. The more fleshed-out a character appears to be, the more seamlessly they fit into the world. It creates a subtle impact, and readers pick up on it. The characters will have attitudes, personality, prejudices, and allegiances. This will affect how they move through and interact with the world. It creates for a more immersive storytelling experience.

Writing and Reading Descriptions. When I administered and ran MUDs, my duties included building the descriptions of rooms, objects, and monsters. As a player, my duties included describing my character for others to see and read the world around me. I had to examine how others described themselves, what the rooms and areas we played in looked like, and whether there might useful clues we might devise from the world around us.

On some MUDs, the descriptions are pretty limited. They are stunted, do nothing to further our understanding of the world, and are often times laughable. The same can be said about a good deal of gamers out there. But when you come across the players who have good descriptions and the MUDs where a true atmosphere has been evoked in the way everything has been described… Well, it is thrilling.

Now, I don’t mean to brag, but I can write some killer descriptions. Pages of them, if need be. Unfortunately, this usually causes problems, and I end up spending time paring the descriptions down in order to ensure that they drive the atmosphere forward, rather than bog the reader down and create obstacles to the enjoyment of the story.

Personally, I like to rely on descriptions that involve a sensory experience. Our senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell all help immerse the reader into the world. Often times, though, less is more – and this becomes crucial with writing strong stories.

Atmosphere can take center stage

Atmosphere can take center stage

There are moments where the atmosphere or locale needs to take center stage, where an anticipated character gets the opportunity to wow the reader with their carefully put-together attire. We just need be careful that it doesn’t add obstacles to the enjoyment of the story.

World Building. When I began designing my MUD, The Towers of Jadri, I started from scratch. I had a common look-and-feel in mind, as I wanted to create a unified world for my players to immerse themselves in.

I built dozens of areas – likely 80% or more of the playable zones on the MUD – for the characters to explore and live in. I spent countless of hours writing help files for players to be able to read to further understand the culture, history, and abilities. I’d even pay players in the form of special in-game points to go through all the game’s commands in search of missing help files, or scanning the current help files for things of interest which could be elaborated upon to assist in the understanding of the world.

Ultimately, I don’t know whether the players appreciated the several hundred help files that the MUD had. However, when I stop by other MUDs, I am often dumbfounded by how non-user friendly they seem to be – simply because I am unable to get the answers to the questions I have in order to successfully develop the depth of my character.

Now, the hours I spent fleshing out the world served another useful purpose, as I still have those areas and help files. Since the Towers of Jadri was a MUD set in my world, everything I built – from rooms and objects to monsters and help files – furthered my own understanding of the world, the history, the nations, races, special and magical abilities, etc. This was serious world-building, and as a result I believe that when my stories are read, there is a sense of full immersion into the richness of the world. My beta readers seem to agree.

Okay, it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn a little bit, and I apologize. I’m proud of the world I created, and I often find myself a little blown away by the fact that, 15 years later, the game I created has turned into an honest-to-goodness book. It’s allowed for me to create a fully-realized world where the metaphysics and history make sense, where the way people interact with each other is plausible, and where the stories have become quite easy for me to share.

How has your involvement in gaming helped develop your craft and the stories you tell? Have you had any special experiences that have led to your worlds being fully immersive and highly developed? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below – it’s pretty nifty hearing how other people came to develop their worlds.

Book Review: The Girl in the Steel Corset

Every now and then, I will be posting book reviews on my blog. I know this can be challenging, as we all have personal tastes. What rings true for me might be in complete opposition to your own experience. This is 100% okay, and I welcome differing opinions.

That being said, I hope to use these reviews as an opportunity to explore where novels did or did not succeed.  These are the lessons I took, and, with a little luck, they might be helpful in your own work.

The Girl in the Steel Corset, by Kady Cross.

This young adult novel is a steampunk adventure. It has received a lot of praise, sales, and even an award or two. It has a sexy cover, its title evokes the popularity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the premise is pretty neat. I was excited to give it a read.

From the back-cover blurb:

“When a young lord tries to take advantage of Finley, she fights back. And wins. But no normal Victorian girl has a darker side that makes her capable of knocking out a full-grown man with one punch…

Only Griffin King sees the magical darkness inside her that says she’s special, says she’s one of them. The orphaned duke takes her in from the gaslit streets against the wishes of his band of misfits: Emily, who has her own special abilities and an unrequited love for Sam, who is part robot; and Jasper, an American cowboy with a shadowy secret.

Griffin’s investigating a criminal called The Machinist, the mastermind behind several recent crimes by automatons. Finley thinks she can help – and finally be a part of something, finally fit in.

But the Machinist wants to tear Griff’s little company of strays apart, and it isn’t long before trust is tested on all sides. At least Finley knows whose side she’s on – even if it seems no one believes her.”

The novel is published by Harlequin Teen, and I will acknowledge that I am not the target demographic. That’s okay. Good stories can have universal appeal, but sometimes they target a specific group of people. That being said, we should be able to appreciate aspects of the story – characters, plot, atmosphere – regardless of the genre.

A cursory scan of the reviews on-line suggested that a number of readers have thoroughly enjoyed this book, so I acknowledge I may be in the minority in my opinion. But the story didn’t sit as well with me. I’d like to explore the reasons why as an opportunity to learn.

I struggled with the plot. I felt like I was never given a real sense of the antagonist. Right from the get-go, we’re given the impression that perhaps it’s one guy. But after a single scene, he is all but forgotten. We’re given a hint that this other fellow named The Machinist might be the antagonist, but he seems so much on the periphery that it is hard to believe he’s truly important to the story. At the half-way point of the book, I was still at a loss for a clear antagonist, and that’s problematic.

The lesson: It is important to establish the stakes of the antagonist as early as possible. We need someone to be worried about – someone that will pose a threat to the survival and well-being of the protagonists, the characters we’re going to root for. If the protagonists aren’t in jeopardy, how can we become thoroughly invested in the story?

Some novels manage to accomplish a subtle antagonist – someone who doesn’t clearly jump out as “the bad guy.” And please note, an antagonist doesn’t need to be “the bad guy.” They simply need to provide the conflict – the challenge – to the success of the protagonist. And without strong, clear conflict, it becomes difficult to invest.

The story had multiple points-of-view. I found this problematic. The story starts off by introducing us to the protagonist, Finley. But after one scene, we jump into another point of view. And then another. I never really got a true enough sense of the characters to care about them long enough to give their perspective up, and this proved problematic.

The lesson: If we’re going to use multiple point-of-views, it is worth-while to ensure the reader develops an attachment to the character – roots for them, wants them to succeed – before we dive into another. Multiple points-of-view can succeed and be highly effective, but I think it occurs in situations where we’re truly invested in the heart and soul – the ambitions, challenges, and humanity – of the character.

The editing posed a problem. It may be a matter of personal taste, but I felt this book could have used a little more massaging. Several scenes felt clunky. There were run-on-sentences – which I acknowledge can be used to drive tension, to up the ante, as it were – but unfortunately it often came across as grammatically flawed. There were also instances where a simple re-ordering of sentences would have done WONDERS for the scene… and other instances where sentences could have been cut to help drive the story – the action, the plot – forward.

The lesson: Be diligent. Challenge sentences every step of the way. Does it further the story? Does it add to the atmosphere? How about the pace? Editing can be tedious, but 99% of the time it’s what makes your story sing. Janice Hardy has numerous excellent articles on editing, and if you choose to invest the time, it will take your novel to the next level. I highly recommend her blog.

The Girl in the Steel Corset was a fairly easy read. It didn’t bore me to tears, and I managed to move through it fairly quickly. I’d actually love to see the film version of this book, and I hope that we’re given the opportunity. For the book, however, I simply felt that with a few little tweaks, it could have gone from an acceptable story to an incredible story.

I encourage you to see for yourself.

Have you read this book? What were your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with any of my observations? Please share your opinions in the comments below – I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Love What You Write: The Challenge of Short Stories

I’ve decided to answer a call-for-submissions for a short story anthology.

The anthology in question is Tesseracts 16: Parnassus Unbound. It’s being produced by Calgary publishing firm EDGE/Tesseracts Books, and, to quote the website:

“Submissions should focus on art, music, literature and cultural elements which are integral to the story. This anthology will reflect as broad a spectrum of stories as possible; highlighting unique styles and manners.”

Sounds like a cool opportunity to write a nifty fantasy short story, doesn’t it? I thought so, too. I never thought it was going to be so challenging, though.

My first task was to figure out the “trick” to writing short stories. As it turns out, it’s the same as writing any story – only shorter. Go figure.

I did come across a couple of tips, though:

Every word counts. Make sure that every sentence either furthers plot, action, character, or world building. Any sentence that doesn’t touch on one – or more – of the above points needs to be revisited. Or else, you’re hooped.

Story structure is key. You know: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, denoument/resolution. All that jazz. It can be 3-act, 5-point, or 7-point structure – whichever you prefer – but stick to a tried-and-true structure, and you’ll be fine.

But what I wasn’t expecting?

Being given limitations / restrictions as guidelines can complicate things.

This blew my mind. As an actor, I love restrictions. The more restrictions you give me, the more creative I get. For instance, if I tell you to get up and improvise a 15-minute monologue, chances are you’ll soil yourself and stammer and mumble aimlessly. It would be a traumatic experience for all involved.

However, if I tell you to improvise a 15-minute monologue as a young girl who goes looking for her run-away dog and comes across a mysterious triangular-shaped stone that transports her to a world of talking plants where she must go on an adventure to find the Paramion Seed, granting her the special elemental powers needed to return home…

Chances are you’ll succeed.

I thought the same thing would happen with this short story. It has very specific (although definitely not simplistic) limitations, and limitations are the key to creativity.

And limitations can be awesome.

But they can also be limiting.

I am working on building a specific, marketable product: the fantasy world I created. I plan on writing 30+ novels that take place in this world, because I know it so well. I’ve literally spent decades and tens of tens of housands of hours developing the world. I know it inside and out, and I love it. I love it to bits.

So naturally, I wanted to write a short story set in this world.

Correction: I wanted to write a short story – that would be selected for this anthology – set in this world.

But the requirements / theme of the anthology? Now there’s a fly in the mimosa.

I dove head first into the first idea that came to mind, and wrote 2500 words. I challenged myself and learned a lot about telling vs. showing, and I played with some narrative techniques I was looking to explore.  But ultimately, the required theme of the submission became a gimmick, rather than a central core value of the story. In that way, it was a fail.

So I did a little more research, and came across some essential advice:

Write what you love.

I think this is an important message that we all must take home. We should always write what we love. Sure, we sometimes have to write things we’re not too gung-ho about, but I think it is imperative that we find something to love. We need to force ourselves to find it. Growth will happen as a result, and isn’t that the saving grace of the “art” of writing? I think so.

I am happy to say that I’ve started a new short story and I’ve written 1,600 words. I still have a ways to go, but I’m digging it, and I am looking forward to continuing to work on it. Whether it’ll succeed and be published in this anthology, I do not know. But I do know that I’ll have loved every moment of that, and at the end of the day, that is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

How often do you write for specific competitions, anthologies, or markets? Do you find it challenging, or an awesome opportunity to push yourself and grow as an artist? What are some tips and tricks you’ve developed along the way when it comes to writing short stories? Please share your wisdom in the comments below – we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Worth a Look: Rebecca Berto & Larry Brooks

Today, I want to introduce you to a woman named Rebecca Berto. She is a young writer and editor living in Australia, and she hosts a blog called Novel Girl where she offers up clear advice on writing, a smattering of comprehensive book reviews and author interviews.

And what’s more, she’s done a ton of work on amassing valuable tools that I have certainly found useful in developing my craft.

In particular, she highlights the skills she learned from Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering. Larry’s book is definitely on my wishlist, as it sounds like it’s loaded with incredible tools and resources.

As I approach my own craft of writing, Larry’s site Storyfix and Rebecca’s blog have been very educational, and I recommend them both.

Story structure is one of those elusive things that a lot of novice writers don’t think about – and judging from a couple of disappointing published short stories and a 500-page YA novel I’ve read recently, it might be something a few published authors don’t think about, either. Most, however, do – and it becomes quickly apparent as to why.

We’re given a very brief overview of it in high school, and then it quickly drops to the back-burner, never to be thought of again. I will admit that when I wrote my first novel, structure was the last thing to pop into my mind. But I guarantee you that through the editing process, it resurfaced and I paid special attention to the various elements that make for good structure in a story. The fixes were sometimes a challenge, but definitely worth-while.

The following three links are from Rebecca’s site, highlighting her understanding of Larry’s technique.

The Best Advice I’ve Learned on Story Structure: Part 1 – Setup

The Best Advice I’ve Learned on Story Structure: Part 2 – Plot Point 1

The Best Advice I’ve Learned on Story Structure: Part 3 – Midpoint & Second / Third Plot Points

What are your favorite sites for writing technique? Are there any books on the craft of writing that you view as your proverbial “bible”? Please share them in the comments below – I’d love to take a peek at them.

Becoming a Master – 10,000 Hours to Master Your Craft

Malcolm Gladwell writes some fantastic books. My favorites include Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point.

In Outliers, Gladwell introduces a concept:

It takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something.

10,000 hours of investment in your drawing skills will lead to a level of mastery. 10,000 hours of the study of the history of Venice will likely make you an honest-to-goodness expert in the field. This makes sense to me, even though life can’t always follow the rules of a formula. But it’s a good general guideline.

So let’s do the math:

  • 10,000 hours / 365 days (1 year) = 27.5 hours/day (Impossible!)
  • 10,000 hours / 1095 days (3 years) = 9.1 hours/day (Possible, but exhausting)
  • 10,000 hours / 2190 days (6 years) = 4.6 hours / day (More likely)

Interesting to think about, isn’t it?

How many hours a day do you spend honing your craft?

To be a good writer involves an investment of time. This is where formal education does come in hand. It forces us to invest the time required to improve our skills. Additionally, we get feedback, critique, and hopefully some encouragement along the way. We gain a formal understanding, and pick up numerous tips and tricks. We’re more likely to develop faster than we would on our own.

But not all of us have pursued this sort of formal training.

I didn’t. I have 7 years of university under my belt, but it was divided between a 4-year BA degree in Psychology and Philosophy and a 3-year BFA degree in Acting. Sure, I did a lot of writing in both programs, but nowhere near the 10,000 hours needed to become a master.

However, there’s another component aside from education: practical experience. We can’t discount that. Any work – be it reading, writing, critiquing, or editing – definitely counts.

Lately, I’ve been reading tons of articles, books, and blogs about the craft of writing. I’ve learned a great deal and it’s really changed the way I approach my craft. I know there’s still so much for me to learn, and I am actively pursuing my own practical experience and training. Some days I’m discouraged, feeling like I’m so far behind. But then, when I look at what I’ve accomplished over the past 15 years, I realize I’m exactly on target.

As mentioned in my last post, I started playing online text-based roleplaying games when I was 13. In the gaming world, they’re called Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs. They had no graphics, no fancy special effects or sounds. They relied wholly on imagination, and that made them both powerful and engaging.

I am afraid to calculate how many hours I logged on MUDs over the course of the 10 years I spent playing, administering, and running them.

I started out as a player and eventually became a staff member. I helped police the game, assisted with problems, resolve bugs, and even add content. I would also help encourage role-play by planning quests and special events for some or all of the players to participate in, and these events involved storytelling in its purest form.

Now, I know for a fact I logged well over 10,000 hours. It might be close to 30,000 (or more) – but let’s not concern ourselves too much with that. And not all of my hours were spent writing, but a good portion of them were. I cannot deny that my involvement in running and administering MUDs helped develop my craft.

My journey might not be conventional, but it definitely had worth.

How about for yourself? What unconventional methods helped develop your craft? Do you have a unique journey that led you to writing? During a typical day, do you find opportunities to focus and develop your skill? I’d love to hear your stories, so please feel free to share them in the comments below.

A Journey to Storytelling

I have been a writer – a storyteller – since I was 13 years old.

When I was younger, I struggled at school in English. It was never my forte. In fact, in grade 5 I believe my grade in English might have been a D.

I never had much interest in books. In a heated spar with my 15-year old sister, she once lobbed the word “illiterate” at me because I only read Calvin & Hobbes. (Note my surprize when, after obtaining a degree in Psychology and Philosophy and re-reading Calvin & Hobbes, I was blown away by the profundity of Bill Watterson’s work. It likely had a major influence on my post-secondary academic pursuits.)

At my family’s cottage on the 13th summer of my youth, I was introduced to the world of Fantasy by a neighbor. He spoke to me of fantasy books and of these incredible on-line, text-based roleplaying games called MUDs – Multi-User Dungeons. We were playing badminton on the green grass, overlooking the blue waters of the lake, and my world exploded with the possibility of playing an elf, dwarf, orc, or troll, a warrior, mage, thief, or cleric.

It changed everything.

I began playing MUDs that September, logging on to the local FreeNet through our old 2400-baud modem. My parent s were worried, for their only son was beginning to explore the mysterious “cyberspace,” and these MUDs weren’t the typical pastime of 13-year-old boys.

If you’ve never played a MUD before, allow me to give an overview.

MUDs are 100% text-based. There are no graphics, no special effects to seduce and entertain you. Sometimes, you’ll find color (and at the time, this was the most impressive aspect of some MUDs.) You would create a character and decide what race, class, and moral alignment that character might have. You’d pick your skill sets and your preferred weapon, and you’d be thrown into the game full-force. You created a character – a role – that you would play in the adventures and storytelling – the role-play – that you’d encounter.

Rooms had descriptions, with objects you could obtain and equip. There were channels to chat on, areas to travel through, and guilds to join. There were players from around the world, sharing in the game at any given time. People and monsters were strings of texts you could look at, interact with. If you felt bold, and if the MUD allowed it, you could even fight them.

And to me, it was incredible.

I jumped head-first into the realm of MUDs, beginning originally on a mud called MadROM (because the neighbor at my cottage played there.) It was here that I met one special woman whom I am still in correspondence with today. Indeed, she is the sole inspiration behind the character of Ischade in my first book, In the Shadows of the Dawn.

My parents were understandably concerned. Their son was suddenly a full-time online “gamer.” I spent anywhere from 3-14 hours a day playing on MUDs. My parents tried to limit my online time, but when faced with my logic – “Would you rather I sit in front of the TV for 14 hours?” – it was a near-impossible task to persuade me otherwise. I claimed my homework was always complete, and that it wouldn’t get in the way of my schooling. My report card would ultimately be the deciding factor.

Fast forward to midterms and an A+ in English, and I was victorious.

MUDs also launched me into a world of exploration. Philosophy and religion became avid interests of mine. I was introduced to the world of Fantasy, and the “illiterate” 13-year old was suddenly reading Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, Mercedes Lackey, and Terry Goodkind.

It also introduced me to the world of storytelling and roleplaying. It is here, I believe, that my passion for theatre – for the performing arts – and for writing – the telling of stories – was born.

I am grateful for MUDs and for summers at the cottage.

They have undeniably shaped who I am.

Why did you first begin telling stories? What form did they take, and with whom did you share them? Did your passion for storytelling dictate aspects of your life or career? Share your journey in the comments below – I’d love to hear about it.

Public vs. Private – Adding Layers To Your Scenes

Sometimes, when we’re writing a scene, we run into difficulties. Something just isn’t working. It might be a tone thing, or an atmosphere thing, but it’s often difficult to pin point.

As a professional actor, when I approach script analysis,  I always examine the nature of “public vs. private.” People – and characters – behave differently depending on circumstances and setting. What costs us nothing in a private setting suddenly costs us everything in a public setting. And by looking at whether a scene is public or private, there are so many conclusions we can draw – conclusions that increase the stakes and amp up the drama of any given scene.

If we look at our own lives, we also see that this is true. At home – with our family – we have a different persona than we do when we’re out in public, or when we’re at work, at church, or with our grandparents, etc.

From a voice, speech, and text point of view (which I teach to theatre students at a college), we call this “code shifting.” The type of language we use – the tone of voice, the pitch, cadence, and vocabulary – changes depending on the given circumstance and the people we’re choosing to engage. It’s an extremely important tool for cracking a scene, and I believe it can be a useful tool for writers, too.

As an example: When we’re talking with our loved ones, we behave differently than if we were, say, in an interview, or purchasing a car or home. We adopt different a persona depending on our circumstances and the nature of the relationship with the people we’re currently engaging – and with who might be watching.

And if we think about our comfort zones vs. moments of discomfort (i.e. traveling to a foreign country), we are definitely aware of the difference in our behavior.  As an aspect of the human condition, it’s an incredible opportunity for adding conflict to our scenes, and I encourage you to examine it in your own work.

I think it’s important for us, as writers, to consider the impact of the private vs. the public.

When we encounter a scene where things aren’t working, one of the tools we can draw upon is to consider the relationship dynamic between the characters. Is this a private moment, behind closed doors? Or are we in a public setting, where the status and relationship of the characters come into play? What’s at stake in the scene, and do the stakes change whether the scene happens privately or publically?

Perhaps we’ve planned some important moments of character development or revelation, yet they don’t seem as effective as we imagine them in our minds. So what if the scene becomes public, rather than private?

The way the characters choose to interact with one another shifts, and we receive an added level of conflict: the personal vs. public persona. What happens when it’s pushed to the limits? What happens if  the limitations of personal code break down, and a character unleashes everything they’re feeling – every little complaint, concern, and issue they might be having?

The impact definitely changes.

Consider how your scenes might change depending on whether it’s a two-hander scene in a private study, or a scene that happens at a party, or in a crowded marketplace.

What was once a somewhat decent outburst of emotion becomes a horrific train wreck, with very public ramification and personal implication possible.

And who doesn’t enjoy watching a train wreck?

Have you ever encountered a scene where you’ve examined the nature of private vs. public? How did it change your scene? Are there scenes in your work where this technique might serve you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Alchemic Nameology – The Challenge of Fantasy Names

When reading or writing fantasy, we’re often faced with the challenge of character names. Some names roll off the tongue, while others trip us up and become recurring problems throughout the duration of the text.

There’s an expectation in the fantasy genre for names to sound a little heightened – a little more exotic – and if a name is too common, it’s scoffed at and frowned upon. If it’s too complex and missing vowels, it’s equally dismissed as distancing. So we must find the right balance.

Some family friends recently read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Stieg Larson’s subsequent books, and most of them commented on the challenge of keeping track of all the similar-sounding names. Far too many character names began with the same letter, or had nearly identical construction with l’s and j’s and b’s. I know I’ve seen similar problems in some fantasy novels (particularly those involving a non-humanoid race), so I understand the complaint.

The names just don’t work. Or rather, they create obstacles for the enjoyment of the story – and that’s never a good thing.

During the beta reads of my novel, I, too, received some feedback that two character names sounded too alike, and it became a challenge keeping track of who’s who.

Both were secondary – or perhaps tertiary – characters, and they appeared in the same locale. In a couple of instances, I even made the mistake of typing the wrong character name – which definitely added to the confusion. In case you were curious, the names were Corella and Corinna. I’ve since changed Corella to something else.

Part of the problem stems from how our brains read English text. Our brains don’t read every single letter. They’re highly efficient (or perhaps lazy) so they try to make sense of the word based on an image-capture of the word. The order of the letters within the word doesn’t seem to matter – the brain gets a “hit,” makes sense of it, and moves on. If you’d like to see for yourself, check out this example at Help.com.

On the flip side of the coin, readers would also comment on a name sounding “too common” – that it would take them out of the mythic realm and send them crashing back to the real world.

We’ve likely all encountered some characters with unpronounceable names, or names that simply roll poorly off the tongue. There has to be a balance. But what is it, and what’s a writer to do?

Fantasy Faction posted an article back in September, 2011, called What’s In A Fantasy Name?, and they brought up some valid observations.

“The temptation is to develop names that are imaginative and unique to the created landscape. That’s a great idea but remember to keep the names pronounceable. Imagine someone reading your work aloud. Will the names detract from the flow of the story? A short common name can often allow for a character’s formal title to be a little more imaginative.”

So how do we go about choosing a name?

Some authors choose historic names or names from mythology, and tweak them – changing the vowel sounds, adding in additional letters here and there, etc. Some will scour foreign-language dictionaries or documents, looking for names that have a specific meaning in another language. Others will seek out names with sounds that evoke the character personality – or the base stereotype or archetype they’re trying to conjure. These are all valid tools, and can lead to some wonderful names.

For me, I look for names that suit the style of my writing. Some cultures in my world have very specific name constructions (and name lineage), while others are vowel-heavy. And as a voice, speech, and text specialist in the theatre, I understand the impact of vowel and consonant sounds, so I tend to make use of them to help underscore or produce meaning. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it falls flat. But for the most part, I’m always game to tweak the names until they’re just right.

Have you ever encountered names which turn you off? What are some examples of overly complex names? If you’re a writer, how do you choose your name – and how much does that name define the character for you? Would you be heart-broken if a publisher asked you to change the character name? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.