Friday, December 19, 2014

Graspable Challenges

Today's reader question is: "Do you think novice writers should attempt 'bigger' complex novels in the early years of their writing to grow their experiences, or try pursuing simpler, more straightforward projects that have more potential for success?"

Great question! And one requiring a fairly complex answer.

Let me put forth the disclaimer right now that I don't pretend to be a guru of all writing knowledge. So please don't take this post featuring my opinions as me trying to preach gospel truth. These are simply my opinions based on my experiences, and while I do believe there is value and truth to be had from my words, I also believe this is a big issue that deserves to be researched and considered from many angles.

So, that being said . . . let me move on to stating my opinions and experiences!

For starters, I think my title for this post is a pretty good description of my opinion: Graspable Challenges. Writers need to challenge themselves. Every book a writer tackles--be they new writers or experienced--needs to be a challenge. You cannot expect to grow in your abilities if you never step outside your comfort zone.

That being said, there is little point in tackling a challenge that is truly beyond your reach.

Personal experience: When I was in high school, I began developing the idea for what eventually became the book Dragonwitch. However, when I was in high school I was sheltered, immature, inexperienced, naive. I had never suffered heartbreak. I had never suffered a major disappoint or the destruction of a dream. I had little to no personal experience with people who had suffered heartbreak, disappointment, or the destruction of a dream. I was well-read and well-grounded in all the theory of human sin and human foibles. But my own experiences were so limited, so small, that I could not write a story like Dragonwitch with any authenticity. With any heart.

When I tried to write it, the character of the Dragonwitch herself was evil. Nothing but pure evil. She was two-dimensional. She was scary but really not all that scary because she was generic. She was based on theoretical ideas. She was not based on experience.

But fast-forward approximately ten years . . . and by then I had experienced heartbreak. I had experienced devastation. I had experienced the destruction of dreams, betrayal, disillusionment. I had experienced true anger at God, the pain of feeling abandoned. I had experienced grace, renewal, revival. I had learned about brokenness that doesn't fully heal but that can be made into something new and powerful. In ten years, my range of experiences was so drastically changed. And not just personal experiences! I had also spent time getting to know and love people with much deeper scars, who had suffered deeper hurt. I had learned what makes them tick, what drives, influences, and motivates them.

I learned about the commonality of sin--not in theory but in truth.Yes, I had been raised with the knowledge that "all of have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." I understood it intellectually. But I had to experience it personally before it could become a truth I could write with authenticity.

All that to say, I could not have written Dragonwitch without first gaining life experience. I could not have written any one of my published novels, for that matter!

But what does that mean as far as finding graspable challenges?

Readers of my work will often note the differences between a book like Dragonwitch and my debut novel, Heartless. By comparison, Heartless is a very simple story. It was also a story which, at the age of 21,  I had the experience and ability to actually write, as opposed to Dragonwitch . . . even though I had been wanting to write Dragonwitch for many years, while Heartless was a brand new idea.

Heartless has its own level of authenticity and complexity, but it was a graspable challenge for me at the time. I had written novels before but never anything professional. Heartless taught me how to write professionally. I cut my teeth on that manuscript. It was challenging enough to force me to grow--and full of enough personal experience to ring with authenticity--but it wasn't too complex.

And after I wrote Heartless, I moved on to something more difficult in Veiled Rose. Then I took a few more steps up with Moonblood. Each book I have written has been bigger, harder, more complex; but each book, from Heartless on, begins with a foundation of authenticity.

This is what I think should be the goal of aspiring young novelists--authenticity. Write what you can write with truth. If your experiences are limited, that's all right! You can still write authentically based on the experiences you have. When I was in high school, my most successful writing projects were not the epic fantasies that eventually turned into Goldstone Wood . . . they were the simpler stories (none of them publishable!) dealing with things that I could write with truth: like insecurity, self-doubt, jealousy, family issues, future aspirations.

Now does this mean I am advocating the "write what you know" maxim? Not really. I mean, yes, I do think writers should write what they know, but that doesn't mean you can only write about characters who live in circumstances exactly like yours. Tackle exciting new settings and genres! But make them real. Write real people who live in space, or on the Western frontier, or who sail the seven seas, or who battle dragons. You'll be surprised how much more vivid and real and alive your stories will be if you people them with characters you can write truthfully. Even if that means, temporarily at least, that your stories are "simpler" than you originally intended.

So what are your thoughts on this topic? Anything you'd like to add? Have you ever tackled a story that was too far beyond your abilities?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Short Question - Short Answer

Today's short question for which I will provide a short answer is . . . "I've been wondering for a while now how it was that Eanrin came to be blind. Will we be told of his story soon or sometime in the far future?"

Oh, Lumé. This question is so difficult for me to answer.

The story of how Eanrin loses his eyes is one of the most important, central themes in the series simply because it so profoundly affects one of the most important and beloved characters. It is a storyline that has been carefully in the works since before Heartless was published. There have been hints about it dropped in Moonblood and so much foreshadowing for it in all of the other stories. It's a plot point I promise I have not forgotten and will not skip! You, dear readers, will get this tale and all its gory tragedy in full one day.

But will it be sooner or later? That is the difficulty.

You see, following the release of Poison Crown, I plan to take a short break from writing the Goldstone Wood series. (And I will tell you right now, don't count on getting the story of how Eanrin loses his eyes in Poison Crown. There are a dozen or more revelations and connections happening in this book, but that's not likely to be one of them.)

What do I mean by a short break? I mean I am tentatively planning to let the series rest for a few years (no more than three or four) while I work on other, simpler projects. Such as the Super Secret Project. And another project that has been brewing over this last year that I really want a chance to write.

This is partly for my own health. Each of the Goldstone Wood novels is an incredible creative effort, and as the series gets bigger and more complex, the books themselves get bigger and more complex. I need to be careful I don't burn out, and that means slowing down a little bit. And taking a break. Not a break from writing--I don't think I could do that anymore than I could take a break from breathing--but a break from this enormous series that has been consuming my creative life for the last eight years and more.

Anyway, I hope this isn't a depressing answer to all of you! A break from Goldstone Wood will be nothing more than a break. I cannot imagine ever being truly done writing this series and fully intend to tell every single one of the stories in my head. Just maybe not at the same crazy pace that I've been these last few years.

And I really think you guys are going to like the Super Secret Project and its connected series. And this new project I plan to tackle in the next year . . . Oh my! It's so much fun, I can't wait to share more about it! (Want a hint about this new one? It may or may not involve good dragons . . . .)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Creative Writing and College Life

This young writer asked me to blog an answer to the following question: "As an English Lit. student, how did you find the time to practice your creative story writing (that is supposing that you did)? Did you attempt to keep up with personal writing along with the academic, or did you wait till you finished?"

Great question, and a pertinent one for all of you college students currently coming up on the last weeks of the semester . . .

I did practice some creative writing while in college, but not much to be honest. There were creative writing opportunities afforded through various classes. I remember writing one Art History paper in the form of a short story . . . I covered all of the material I was supposed to, hitting every note and demonstrating depth of understanding for the material. I just did it as fiction. It was a bit of a dare to say the least (and something I had to okay with my teacher in advance!), but he ended up loving it, and I got an excellent grade.

I was also part of touring drama team my sophomore year, and we wrote a lot of our own material. I wrote a skit based on the Bible story about the woman caught in adultery who is brought before Jesus as the townsfolk threaten to stone her. It was intense, and definitely a different form of storytelling for me. A great creative writing experience.

I took a poetry class, which was excellent, and which had a much more profound influence on my work than I ever expected. I am not nor ever will be a skilled poet. But our professor gave us weekly assignments to write different types of poems, most of which I based on Goldstone Wood story lines and themes. This gave me a fun opportunity to dip my toe back into my imaginative world even while focusing on my academic world. And it taught me quite a lot about how to approach poetry.

During my college years I wrote "The Hymn of Hymlumé," which features in Moonblood, the "I saw her standing on a hill" poem which features in Veiled Rose, "Eanrin's Lullaby" which features in Starflower, and several more. None of these were written specifically for my poetry class, but they were definitely inspired by what I was learning at the time!

I took two creative writing classes while in college, one in my sophomore year, one in my junior year. I can honestly say I didn't find them helpful. Not for the sort of creative writing I wanted to explore. I got good grades, and my professors for both classes were complimentary of my work and style. But I didn't feel either challenged or inspired by either of them. (Which was not the fault of my professors! Let me just put that out there. And this is not to say that students shouldn't take creative writing classes in college and learn what they can from them.)

That being said, the original short story version of Starflower was written for the first of those two classes. It had been put down in notation form during high school, and I revisited those notes while coming up with short story ideas for class. It was called Imraldera and the Wolf Lord, and I thought it was absolutely the most dreadfully written thing on the planet when I first pounded it out! But a handful of girls on my hall read it and gave me fantastically encouraging feedback. So I went ahead and submitted it, and got fantastically encouraging feedback from my professor as well. Thus, while for the most part I don't consider those classes particularly bright spots in my writerly career, that one moment was encouraging.

Altogether the creative writing classes were not particularly useful. The actual literature classes, however, were invaluable! Completely worth every hour I spent both in class and pouring over the material outside of class. While I wasn't actively writing much during this period of my life, I was learning so much about good writing and good reading, developing skills and mental processes that continue to be vital parts of my day-to-day working life.

For the most part, my personal creative writing had to take a back burner to academics. That isn't to say that I ignored my stories entirely, but . . . I had to focus on other priorities. Was it a little hard to let my writing sit for so long? Not really. Sometimes I missed it, yes, but I knew that I was pursuing the very best preparation possible for the career I wanted. I was learning about great literature and what made it great. I was learning about authors and how they thought and worked and functioned. Every class I took, I took with the idea that "This will improve my writing . . . somehow!"

In the end, I sat down and wrote Heartless the summer after I finished college. The rest, as they say, is history . . .

Friday, December 12, 2014

On the Topic of Pen Names

This young novelist asked me to blog an answer to her simple question: "Pen Names: Use or not to use?"

 Well, the truth is, this is something each author needs to decide for her- or himself, and there are a quite a number of factors that might go into making this decision. But I'll ramble on about a few of my own thoughts, and maybe it'll help!

One thing a writer toying with the idea of a pen name needs to keep in mind is branding. By this I mean the marketing necessity of having your name (real or assumed) associated with your brand of story. Whatever that brand may be! You want to build a reputation in the writing world for writing certain types of work.

Some would say a brand is a genre. For instance, Diana Wynn Jones wrote fantasy, so her name is branded as that of a fantasy novelist. Isaac Asimov wrote science fiction, and his name is branded as that of a sci-fi novelist. When readers hear one of those names--Diana Wynn Jones or Isaac Asimov--they immediately associate them with their specific brand.

But a very talented author, such as Diana Wynn Jones, will develop a much more specific brand beyond mere genre. Readers of Diana Wynn Jones don't hear her name and immediately think "fantasy." They hear her name and immediately think--Quirky. Curious. Humerous. Real magic. Sharp tempers and quick wits. Classical themes. Topsy-Turvy. Unpredictable . . .

Her name is so well established, so well branded, that her loyal readers will run out to grab a book of hers without knowing the plot, without reading an excerpt, without even seeing the cover. There's no need! She's Diana Wynn Jones.

She couldn't have done that without her name.

The point is not whether or not she kept her real name or assumed a pen name. The point is that she stuck to her name. She didn't write all her various crazy series under a variety of pen names. She kept her name associated with her work.

All that to say, if you do choose a pen name, be certain it's one you want to keep using for years to come! Because if you want to establish a brand--a trusted name which will encourage your readers to buy on the strength of your name alone--you've got to stick to one.

Now, are there occasions when you might actually want to switch names? Sure. There are always exceptions to the rule. For instance, if you've been writing sweet contemporary romances for years and you suddenly want to jump into sci-fi . . . well, you'll probably want to shift names along with genres. Your established contemporary romance readers will only be disappointed by a jump to sci-fi, and those readers who wouldn't dream of touching a contemporary romance also won't bother to give your sci-fi a try.

Smaller genre jumps, however, won't require name changes. For instance, if you wrote romances with a touch of suspense and now you're moving into straight-up suspense, there's no need to a name change. Or if you've been writing sci-fi and you want to switch to fantasy. Those are both still Speculative Fiction, and readers of the one genre aren't as likely to be turned off by the other.

It all depends on whether or not your new series and genre is still serving to build your established brand. If you're still writing in the same voice and style but with a slightly different sort of setting, you are still writing your brand. If you are attempting an all-new voice and style along with an all-new setting and genre, that means you might have several brands in play.

I recently was considering this question in light of one of the secret projects I have developing. (Not the Super Secret project, which is already written. No, this is a different secret project which is in the early stages of development and of which I hope to tell you more in the coming year.)  It's a bit of a shift for me, and I wondered if it would be so much of a shift that I would need a new name to go with it. But ultimately, after much discussion with the Rooglewood Press folks, we decided that it's still enough like my established brand to keep my current writing name. While I hope to see this new project bring in a broader reading audience, it's still something my established readers are likely to enjoy. So for now the plan is to keep my name.

I don't have any cut-and-dried answers. As far as privacy is concerned, I wouldn't worry about it too much. I write under my maiden name rather than my married name, but lots and lots of folks figure it out (and friend me on facebook!), so it's not like it creates that much of a barrier. And most of the authors I know write under their real names (my own mother, for instance). Unless you are undercover, in witness protection, or just so desperately, painfully shy that the idea of meeting new people through your writing career sends you scurrying under the bed in terror . . . I wouldn't worry about a pen name for privacy reasons.

Is any of that saying that you shouldn't use a pen name? No indeed. I'm not against them by any means. If you want to use a pen name just because you want to use a pen name, I say, "Go for it!" The above are merely considerations you might want to mull over while deciding.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do any of you publish under pen names? If so, what led you to make this decision?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Short Question - Short Answer

Today's short question from a blog reader is: "Are you planning to do a Red Riding Hood creative writing contest?"

For those of you who don't know what she means by this question, I have been working with Rooglewood Press to host writing contests based on retellings of famous fairy tales. The first one, Five Glass Slippers, was hosted last year, and the five contest winners were published in one beautiful volume for your enjoyment. This year, we are hosting a contest based on "Beauty and the Beast." You can learn more about that contest on the Rooglewood Press page. Five Enchanted Roses is scheduled to release next summer.

And, on June 1, we will be announcing the third annual contest based on another famous and well-loved fairy tale. What will that fairy tale be?

Well . . . I can't tell you.

Nor can I tell you whether or not we'll end up doing "Red Riding Hood" specifically. You see, it's all part of the suspense and surprise, not knowing what's coming! It's part of the fairness as well. All of the potential contestants have six months to come up with a story based on the tale selected. If I let anyone know what the story might be in advance, that's giving an unnecessary advantage to that writer!

I will say that we are planning (as of right now) to host five of these contests. And all five fairy tales have been selected, and a certain amount of work has even been done on each of their cover designs. They are all very well-known tales and will, we at Rooglewood Press believe, make for wonderful retellings.

So sorry my answer has to be a non-answer! But I really do think you will all be happy with the tales we pick. And if you're not happy, hopefully you'll be able to come up with variations for them that will make you happy. That is, after all, half the fun . . .

Monday, December 8, 2014

Making Good Use of Mythology

Today's reader question pertains to my Spring 2014 release, Shadow Hand. This reader asks: "Did you get your idea of Cren Cru from the Irish deity Crom Cruach?"

 For those of you who have not read Shadow Hand, Cren Cru features as the primary villain of that tale. And . . . otherwise you probably shouldn't read this post for fear of spoilers, which would be a shame. But that is your choice!

Crom Cruach is an ancient Irish deity--an angry, gory, violent deity, propitiated by firstborn sacrifice. One of the possible interpretations of the name "Crom Cruach" is "crooked one of the mound." The deity is personified as a golden image surrounded by twelve gold figures, though one 9th century source describes the central gold figure being surrounded by twelve bronze statues. One famous story about Crom Cruach tells of a High King, Tigernmas, who died along with three quarters of the men of Ireland while worshiping Crom Cruach.

So you who have read Shadow Hand can easily see where certain ideas for  Cren Cru came from. The name "crooked one of the mound" inspired the idea of Cren Cru (a disembodied and personality-less entity) appearing in the form of a mound. The twelve figures in gold or bronze inspired the idea of twelve warriors serving Cren Cru, carrying bronze stones. The firstborn sacrifice led to Cren Cru's demand to be given the firstborn of each nation in which he appears. And, of course, the king dying while worshiping his evil god led to the idea of the twelve warriors killing one another (four at a time) as a final, devout act of worship. Even the thorn-clad appearance of Cren Cru's mound stemmed from this image I saw of Crom Cruach as the horned beast.

There, however, is where inspiration ended and imagination took over. The storyline of Meadhbh was my own invention, though she was loosely inspired by Queen Medb (also of Irish mythology). The origin of Cren Cru and his assuming of other lost souls in order to create an identity was mine, as is his lost wandering in search of a new home. The notion of "living land" is not a new one by any means, but the form Cren Cru takes as the lost soul of a nation is relatively unique.

Ultimately, Cren Cru is a splice of many ideas coming together into something new. He is an excellent example of my favorite part of writing fantasy: the reuse and re-imagining of classic mythology. Shadow Hand boasts several examples of this sort of mythological recycling, including Cren Cru and triune "goddess" Nidawi the Everblooming. Neither of these figures are exact replicas of their sources but are similar enough to make the reader sense that elusive familiarity . . . which somehow makes these characters feel both more real and more original all at the same time.

There is no genre that allows better for this kind of creativity. For this linking back through ancient history to touch fingers with the imaginative minds of the past and, in so doing, to create something new and exciting. This is what the great fantasy writers have been doing for ages--since Tolkien, since MacDonald, since Shakespeare, since Mallory, since the poet who first sang Beowulf to his enthralled audience.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Rohan's Menu Challenge!

So my handsome husband and I have started playing a new game.

Have any of you ever seen the cooking show Chopped? It's pretty fun. Contestants are given mystery baskets with four seemingly-random ingredients and challenged to make various dishes--appetizer, entrée, and dessert--from those ingredients. I'm not a particularly inspired cook, but I enjoy watching the show now and then.

Anyway, I saw it a few weeks ago, and I was watching these contestant chefs scrambling around in the kitchen, and I thought to myself . . . Rohan could do that!

Of the two of us, my husband is much more the inspired cook. I can cook, and I do most of the cooking in our household out of necessity, but it's not something I particularly enjoy. Rohan, however, cooks for the pure pleasure of it and almost always comes up with something amazing and creative.

So Rohan agreed to play a game with me, and I think you all might enjoy getting in on the action. Every other Sunday evening, I am giving him a list of four mystery ingredients. Then he has one week to come up with a meal featuring these four ingredients, which he presents to me the Sunday after. Not quite as crazy-intense as the timed competition featured on Chopped, but definitely entertaining in its own right!

Here are the challenges he has conquered so far . . . .

Week 1: Salmon Filet, Chard, Hoisin Sauce, and Mini KitKat Bars. (This was right after Halloween, and we had a surplus of KitKats due to a lack of trick-or-treaters.)

A pretty challenging list to start with, wouldn't you agree? And here is what he created.

That is a steamed salmon filet served with an orange pepper hoisin sauce over a bed of sauteed chard tossed with a chocolate-orange vinaigrette. Also, a potato/chard stem pancake, crusted in KitKat wafer crumbs.

Um . . . is he not brilliant? I will say the best part of this whole dish was the potato/chard pancake, which was crispy on the outside, soft and savory on the inside. We decided that there was a little too much sweet going on, so he remade the dish the next day, cutting out all the KitKat elements. It was better then. KitKats were just a crazy ingredient to work with! But those pancakes . . . those are going to become a regular on the Drakenheath dining room table, I'm thinking.

Following this success, I gave him his next list of ingredients.

Week 2: Dried Apricots, Cornish Game Hens, Collard Greens, Wasabi Peas.

Another crazy basket! And yet again, my husband rose to the challenge, presenting me one week later with this . . .
 This is a roasted Cornish Game Hen stuffed with an apricot, andouille sausage, and wild rice medley, served with a sweet and tangy apricot glaze. And on the side you have collard green chips crusted with crumbed wasabi peas.

The element that looks weirdest here are those collard green chips. But I have to tell you, they were completely addicting! They had a crunch like a potato chip and the flavor of wasabi peas . . . but the roasting process cut out that crazy kick that wasabi can have, leaving just the delicious flavor behind. I would never in a million years have thought of turning the collard greens into chips! I was tremendously impressed. The apricot glaze was pretty much to die for as well.

Yes. He really is a talented cook.

This week, he's been mulling over the new list of ingredients, getting ready to make the meal over this weekend.

Week 3: Wonton Wrappers, Whole Artichoke, Rotisserie Chicken, and Canned Cranberry Sauce.

I am SO excited to see what he comes up with this time!

If you would like to participate in Rohan's Menu Challenge, feel free to leave ingredient ideas in the comments below, and I will use them to create each week's new challenge. Be certain they are ingredients we can readily access . . . nothing too crazy. And, if you are of a cookerly mind, you are also welcome to tackle a week's featured ingredients for yourself and let us know your results!