Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Review: Power Elements of Character Development

Writing | Posted by Shannon
Jan 11 2017

What is it that makes a sympathetic hero, a compelling villain, a persuasive and realistic character? I can sum it up for you in one golden word. But you really should read the book for yourself.

Power Elements of Character Development is the second book in the Power Elements of Fiction series, written by Rebecca LuElla Miller. Some time ago I read and reviewed the first book, Power Elements of Story Structure, and I knew then that I wanted to read this one, too. Characters are my favorite part of stories, and I am a writer. I knew I’d enjoy this book about writing characters.

Power Elements of Character Development is only 138 pages long, but it is divided into 45 chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. These chapters organize the book effectively, moving easily over many different facets of characters, their creation, and their overall place in fiction. Minor characters, dialogue, inner conflict, antagonists, character arcs, character death, and what qualities make characters memorable or compelling are all considered.

Most importantly of all, this book emphasizes that characters should drive the story rather than be driven by it, and their actions must, in turn, be driven by – and this is the golden word – motivation. It may be a beginner’s lesson that characters shouldn’t be passive, but even experienced writers can get lost in the blurred distinction between an active character and a reactive one. A character can be very active in his reactions, especially if what he’s reacting to involves live ammunition, but heroes should do more than just respond, and I appreciate how clearly this is established.

I found the emphasis on motivation invaluable, and how it must be present not only as the story’s end goal (what the character ultimately wants) but also as every scene’s purpose (what he is trying to do right now). The insight regarding motivation helps to focus plots and scenes and characters, a prevention and cure of writer’s block.

I enjoyed Power Elements of Character Development as a lucid, concise, broad-ranging review of the creation, use, and role of characters. Its points, especially about motivation, help me to focus and evaluate my own writing. Recommended to writers of all stripes.

 

I invite you to check out Power Elements of Character Development on Goodreads and Amazon, and I highly recommend you visit Becky Miller’s writing blog Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

A Notable Lack

Culture, Literature, Writing | Posted by Shannon
Oct 31 2016

A notable lack in speculative fiction, and one that cuts across the divide between Christian and secular, is that of genuine, fully-realized religion. There may be religious belief and religious feeling; in Christian speculative fiction, there usually is. There may be scraps of religion – vague expressions of faith, a benevolent priest, a fanatic, a cross or a stray invocation of the gods. But genuine religion – religion that possesses a structure, doctrines, holidays, customs, stories and rules, and all the physical artifacts from temples to jewelry? That is rare.

This lack is hardly crippling. Great speculative fiction may exist without practical religion and even be deeply spiritual. Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia exhibit little of religion as it is practiced in actual life and possess spiritual depths rarely matched. Complete religion isn’t necessary. But its scarcity in our novels is a loss.

You may ask, Why Snoopy? And I answer: The other images Google gave me were too ugly.

To gain an idea of the loss, let us consider Halloween, because ’tis the season. There are surely people in this great nation whose favorite holiday is Halloween, and I frankly worry about these people. At best, it’s a half-holiday. There is a version of Halloween for children, and a version for adults, but no version for everyone. As a popular holiday, it makes no pretense of religion or meaning; it has no songs and most Halloween stories could be told without Halloween and probably would be.

And out of even this poor half-holiday you could dig a tale that teaches us who we are. The origin of Halloween is taken to be Samhain, the Celtic holiday that marked the journey of the dead into the otherworld. Ghosts were near on Samhain, too near for anyone’s comfort. The inhuman, both demons and fairies, were also believed to be abroad with power, perhaps because the journey from this world to the next suggested a general weakening of boundaries. A spiritual anarchy hangs about the whole day, and to the extent that there was real belief there must have been real fear.

The Catholic Church later established All Saints Day and All Souls Day, days that commemorate the dead without fear of the dead, or horror of death. It’s long been said – very plausibly, though I admit I all-saints-daydon’t know on what evidence – that the Catholic Church did this to replace Samhain. And Samhain did fade away, leaving only vestiges of customs and superstition where powerful belief once ruled. Yet All Saints Day and All Souls Day never replaced it. These are just days on the church calendar, occasionally observed but never celebrated.

Much can be gleaned from the history of Halloween – the revolution of a civilization changing from one religion to another, humanity’s elemental horror of the dead who do not stay properly dead, the dread of the inhuman, the evolution and mixing of beliefs and practices. It is strange that, although many people believe the saints are happy in heaven and few think ghosts travel on Halloween, Halloween has so much greater a presence than All Saints Day. An empty holiday with concrete practices has more power than a holy day with abstract joy, and we see how instinctively humanity demands, and perhaps even needs, physical expression of spiritual things.

What can be illustrated through a holiday – from the history of a civilization to religious beliefs to fundamental human nature – is extraordinary. Holidays, and all the expressions of a whole and genuine religion, offer a wide and rich opportunity to speculative fiction authors. I don’t demand that they take it, but – well, would you consider it?

Fame is Fugacious

Literature, Writing | Posted by Shannon
Sep 26 2016

Not long ago, I took a vocabulary quiz. In the process of it, I learned two new words, avulse and fugaciousfugacious. It struck me as unfortunate that I would have to look long and hard for an opportunity to use avulse, and I would probably never get a chance to use fugacious at all. They’re just too obscure.

We stand heir to a vast accumulated vocabulary, with words that range from everyday to rarefied to absolutely arcane. This has spawned one of those perpetual debates among writers and editors and agents, and in which readers have their own well-deserved opinions. The never-resolved question is: What words should writers use? What words are too old, too different, too long?

At the heart of the debate is a tension between two competing, legitimate principles. The first principle is that the ultimate aim of writing is to be understood. Far more than self-expression (because then why not just keep it to yourself?), writing is communication. You are not communicating if people cannot understand you.

The second principle is that writing cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Some words are more apt than others, and sometimes the long word or the old word is the one that sings. Although writers should not, on the risk of being obnoxious, consider it their duty to expand their readers’ vocabularies, neither have they failed if they send their readers to the Dictionary.

The tension between these two principles is worked out book by book, sentence by sentence, word by word. There is no universal rule to lay down. I think it worth stating, however, that the thing really to be avoided is not the unknown word but the odd-duck word. These are the words that sound awkward or weird or (perhaps worst of all) funny. These are the words that jolt readers out of a text, and that is something all writers strive devoutly never to do.

Words often drop out of use because language evolves and culture changes, and they don’t fit anymore. Consider the wordoxblood,” a shade of red that is not actually what you would imagine ox blood to be. Ox blood was once used as a pigment in creating dyes and paints. This would explain why oxblood is a dark color, and not the bright red we normally associate with blood: It was originally associated with ox blood that had dried or been mixed with other ingredients or soaked into materials such as wood or leather.

In our own day, when these associations have been lost, oxblood has lost much of its power. Even people who can define the word do not possess the images that first inspired it. Writers develop literary crushes on words, but it is good to consider whether those words, transplanted from the soil where they first grew, will truly thrive.

With most obscure words, the trouble is not dead cultural associations but simply the sound. Some are so unusual, so odd, that your eyes trip over the syllables. Others don’t sound like what they mean. This is the trouble with fugacious. It means fleeting, but to modern ears it only sounds silly, and I would sound silly, too, if I tried to used it (“Fame is fugacious”). Possibly, though, I could play it for humor: “My lunch hour was fugacious.”

By contrast, I have more hope for avulse (“to pull off or tear away forcibly“) because similar, well-known words like repulse and convulse also have vaguely violent meanings. Encountering an unknown word does not, in itself, jar readers out of a book. But the unknown word must flow, must give an impression in tune with its actual meaning. This is why you will not go wrong with words like invidious and deleterious: They sound as bad as they are.

There is a time, Solomon wrote, for everything, and probably a place for every word. No word should be summarily rejected, or uncritically accepted. In a living language, words fade away and sometimes ought to, but it takes a long time for a word to fade beyond all use.

Appendix of Names

Culture, Through the Valley (of Decision), Writing | Posted by Shannon
Aug 11 2015

During the earliest development of The Valley of Decision, I established this pattern of naming: of Gaelic origin, unusual enough that the names would not be common in our own world, but not too unusual. I avoided names like Ruairidh because it just looks too foreign. Who would care to guess how to pronounce it? So I ended with names like Torradan and Artek and Belenus – different, but easy enough.

I made various exceptions to this pattern – none without rhyme or reason, except perhaps naming the capital city of Alamir Ataroth. The rhyme and reason of the other exceptions will become clear.

This appendix is not a dramatis personae, listing the characters of the drama, but a compilation of the origins and meanings of many names in the book. Because of this, and how I began the naming process, there are some notable omissions. Neither Caél nor Keiran, the book’s heroes, appear in this appendix; absent with them are other lesser (but still important!) characters – among them all three lieutenants of the Hosts.

The reason for their absence is this: As part of my preliminary research, I made lists of Gaelic names that struck me as fitting the story. With the exception of the Fays (Fays are always an exception), the earliest-existing characters were named from this list without regard for the name’s meaning. Keiran, Caél, Torradan, Artek, Lachann: the cream of those lists.

Other patterns emerged. A majority of the Fays share names with Celtic deities, and several place-names are just two words with the space between them deleted: the Coldlands, the Wildheath, the Northwood. A few names, such as My’ra, have neither a particular origin nor a particular meaning, but the longer I worked on the story the more I rejected these. Even minor characters like Emain and Labras have names of Gaelic origin, and so of a certain flavor.


Appendix of Names
to
The Valley of Decision


Achadh: A Gaelic place-name meaning ‘field’

Ailill: ‘Elf’; the name of several Irish High Kings

Alaunos: The Celtic god of healing

Ataroth: An obscure Canaanite city conquered by Joshua and Israel

Brandr: A Norse name, meaning sword; Brandr was, after all, an earl of the northern Coldlands

Belenus: ‘Bright, shining one;’ the Celtic god of the sun

Dochraitay: A slightly more phonetic rendering of dochraite, a Gaelic word meaning ‘friendless, oppressed’

Droheda:: A slight alteration of Drogheda, an Irish city cruelly subdued by the English under Oliver Cromwell

Glahs (Forest): Glahs is Gaelic for ‘green’

Hrolfr: Norse, meaning sword

Jarmith: An alteration of the Gaelic name Jarmin, which means German – a foreigner in Ireland, as Jarmith was among the Dochraitay

Kobuld: This elder blacksmith of the Trow was named after the Kobold, a race in German folklore who were said to live in mines and be expert metalworkers

Morrigan: The Celtic goddess of, among other things, war

Muireach: A diminutive form of the Gaelic name Muireadhach, meaning ‘lord, master’; this is the least majestic name owned by a Fay

The Northmen: An old name for the Vikings, on whom the Men of the Coldlands were loosely based

Nuadha: ‘Protector’; the Celtic god of the sea

Sgrios: Gaelic word meaning ‘ruin’

Tullach: A Gaelic place-name meaning ‘little hill’

Volund: Of Norse origin; in legend, the name of a great smith

Sundry

Misc., Writing | Posted by Shannon
Jul 14 2015

As usual when I have trouble alighting on a topic, I’m going to talk about myself today.

This past April I finished the raw draft of The Shameful Years, which I’ve (nearly) re-titled The Time Door. This manuscript has been different, and in some ways more difficult than what I’ve done before. I didn’t quite understand, when I began, what challenges I was setting myself with the premise. I was pleased with the manuscript when I finished it, but as every writer knows, that’s not the gold test.

The Time Door is sci-fi, and the first book of the Eternities series – of which my novella Cards is, to date, the only published work. I have planned Eternities as a series of free-standing novels, each book a complete story and each a significant episode in an imagined history beginning in the middle of the twenty-first century and continuing into the twenty-second.

Such a history holds innumerable stories in potential, and I hope to be mining them for years to come. But not any more this year. I decided, on completion of The Time Door, that I liked it and wanted to write something different, ideally with dragons. After exploring various ideas for a new project, I am now writing about …

A painting emperor. And his half-wild brother. And space pirates.

In this manuscript, I’m taking the characters of the Sons of Tryas series and giving them a much broader drama on a much larger stage. Since spring, I’ve been dividing my writing time between that and editing my raw draft to a polished draft.

Finally on the writing front, a young reader recently gave me this picture. He drew it after reading The Valley of Decision; I recognize the characters, the scene, the quotations. It is incredibly cool to see a moment of my book brought to life by another person. So, with appreciation for the gift that it is, I present the meeting of Keiran, Captain of the Hosts, with Kobuld the elder blacksmith of the Trow, as drawn by Christian.


Express Review: Power Elements of Story Structure

Culture, Writing | Posted by Shannon
Jun 13 2015

Regular readers of this blog – and I appreciate you both, by the way – are no doubt saying to yourselves, “What is an ‘express review’? There has never been an ‘express review’ here before!” And you are absolutely right.

An express review, briefly put, is not a real review at all, but would like to be one when it grows up. It is – and this is the defining quality – too short. I never wrote short reviews until I joined Goodreads, and it is that, and not a shortened attention span due to excessive video games, that has led to this abbreviated review.

So here is my express review of Becky Miller’s Power Elements of Story Structure, which luckily is longer than its own introduction.

But not by much.


In this brief instruction book, Becky Miller examines the ‘bare bones’ of a story – beginnings, middles, and endings, and the basic elements of tension, plot, backstory, and foreshadowing. She carefully defines and explains each of these, and then advises authors how to create them.

This book is spiced with excerpts from contemporary novels and (what is more fun) fairy tales, used for illustration of various points. Becky also weaves in quotations from a plethora of authors, all interesting enough to make the bibliography she provides at the end noteworthy.

A few writing exercises are included. I didn’t do them, actually, but they did make me stop and think. In fact, I paused, throughout the book, to consider it and (I admit it) to evaluate both my most recent manuscript and my newest effort.

Power Elements of Story Structure is written with great clarity and lucidity, cutting a clean line between the lowest common denominator and esoteric heights. Most helpful to new writers, but interesting to any writer who enjoys the study of his craft. I finished wanting to read the next book, Power Elements of Character Development.

And the story of the monkey and the crocodile.


The End.

And that, readers, is an express review. But the question remains – what happened to the monkey? I hope he didn’t get eaten, but fairy tales are vicious like that, sometimes.

New Release: Power Elements Of Character Development

Writing | Posted by Shannon
May 18 2015


Power Elements of Character Development
(book two of The Power Elements of Fiction series)

Rebecca Luella Miller


Power Elements Of Character Development, second in the series Power Elements Of Fiction, offers practical instruction for fiction writers about how to create engaging characters. This manual covers such topics as the character arc, a character’s inner as well as outer goals, qualities that make a character compelling, how character development fits with plot, how setting affects character development, character flaws, character voice, well-developed minor characters, realistic antagonists, and more.

This guide provides helpful reminders to the seasoned author, tips to help the intermediate writer raise the level of his storytelling, and instruction for the beginner. The occasional writing exercises offer writers an opportunity to apply what they are learning to their own works in progress.

Finally, Power Elements Of Character Development includes a list of resources for authors who wish to dig deeper in any given topic.

In total, this manual is a succinct blueprint for fiction writers to create characters that intrigue, entice, and compel readers to follow their story.


Available on Amazon


About the Author

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Rebecca LuElla Miller has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in the 2006 Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. She currently blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

Her editing credits include non-fiction and fiction alike, most notably four titles in the Dragons in Our Midst and Oracle of Fire series by Bryan Davis. You can learn more about her editing services and read her weekly writing tips at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.


Until Tuesday, May 19, Power Elements of Story Structure – the first book of the The Power Elements of Fiction series – is free on Amazon.

The Northmen

Through the Valley (of Decision), Writing | Posted by Shannon
Mar 10 2015

I am bringing down hobgoblins from the mountains, Men from the Coldlands. The Valley of Decision


The Men of the Coldlands were barbarians. That is the first thing to understand. They wore animal skins, sang of their war gods, and knew nothing of letters or runes. They forged bronze rather than iron into weapons, and decorated their chiefs’ tents with colored cloth and animal skulls.

And they were light-haired and light-eyed and fair-skinned, true children of the cold North.

The Men of the Coldlands are loosely based on the pre-Christian Scandinavians. The Roman Empire had conquered the British Isles, bringing civilization by the edge of the sword; many centuries later, long after the Roman Empire had turned to ashes, Winston Churchill declared, “We owe London to Rome.” In time, Christianity followed Rome, and it, too, taught and civilized.

But not in Scandinavia – at least not for centuries yet. The Viking Age began when the Vikings attacked the Holy Island, off the coast of England, from which missionaries had gone into Europe. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that “the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.” At Charlemagne’s court, the scholar Alcuin lamented, “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God.”

Heathen and wretched are minor insults compared to the judgment given by the Muslim scholar Masudi in the tenth century. After describing “the people of the northern quadrant”, with their “excessively white” coloring, he wrote: “The farther they are to the north the more stupid, gross and brutish they are.” Those in the “sixth climate .. are reckoned among the beasts.” (source: Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe)

In L.P. Hartley’s immortally wise words: “The past is a foreign country.”

When I wrote The Valley of Decision, this notion of the pale barbarians from the north guided my characterization of the Men from the Coldlands. I called them the Northmen, an old name for the Vikings, and gave the three chiefs Norse names: Volund (in legend, the name of a great smith), Brandr (meaning sword), and Hrolfr (meaning wolf).

Volund was the leader, and he called Brandr and Hrolfr his earls – a detail inspired, I admit, by the Viking earls of Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. These names were also a kind of inside joke: Hrolfr was the earl who draped himself in the pelt and fangs of a wolf, and when Volund passes the iron sword to Brandr … yes, that was a deliberate pun.

The Northmen had little presence in The Valley of Decision, being the coming stormclouds of the story: growing nearer, darkening the landscape, but not yet here. When I finally made their acquaintance at the end of the book, I wished they had arrived sooner. There was no space left in the story to do justice to the pale barbarians and their collision with the more sophisticated – but still so fallibly human – southern people.

But such unexplored side-paths are what sequels are for.

A Little Thing

Literature, Through the Valley (of Decision), Writing | Posted by Shannon
Feb 09 2015

When I was writing one of the earliest scenes of The Valley of Decision, I came – while hastening to the main point, which was the introduction of Keiran, the Captain of the Hosts – to a bit moment where an officer clears the way for the army’s highest commanders: “Way for the …”

For the what? My first thought was lords of the army; I added to the notebook masters of the army. In the end I chose the latter title. True, both words mean essentially the same thing, but master seemed the less-used. Better, it seemed more visceral; in America, at least, our strongest cultural memory of addressing men as “Master” is of the slave-holding South.

So they – the five highest officers of the military, my principal heroes among them – were masters. I soon extended this principle of address to their society as a whole. I knew the Dochraitay, ruled for as long as they could remember by Belenus, would be a strongly hierarchical society, well inculcated with the idea of mastery. People could be owned. Didn’t Belenus own them?

When you read The Valley of Decision, you can learn a great deal about the characters’ relationships, and their estimation of each other, by what titles they use. Master was not a mere honorific in Dochraitay mouths, but a recognition of the speaker’s inferiority and a pledge of submission. Hence Keiran addressed the Fays, but only the Fays, as master. All the soldiers, even the three lieutenants of the army, called him master in turn. The lesser soldiers called the lieutenants master, and in their own turn assumed their absolute superiority over the Alamiri captive, and so the hierarchy went …

Caél, as the Captain’s right hand, was second in command of the army. It’s telling of his closeness to Keiran that he alone of all the Dochraitay never called him master. It’s telling of his subordinate rank that he frequently addressed Keiran as Captain. By contrast, Keiran never addressed Caél by his own title, though he might refer to him by it when speaking with others.

When dealing with foreign rulers – such as the leaders of Alamir, and even the King of the Others – the Dochraitay used the honorific lord, as their way of paying respect while subtly declaring their own freedom. The Sovereign and the King of the Others were lords because the Dochraitay did not have to obey them.

Even the fact that the Dochraitay incessantly call Jarmith Alamiri or the Alamiri tells its own tale. That was the most salient fact about him. When they referred to him as our Alamiri, it was wholly without sentiment: They meant only “our Alamiri, to keep and to do with as we like”.

My decision, in the beginning, to use masters of the army instead of lords was a little thing; I did not foresee then that I was sounding a note to be sounded again and again, throughout the book. But of such little things stories are made.

A Literary Theory (By Accident)

Literature, Writing | Posted by Shannon
Jan 26 2015

Recently I developed a literary theory on short fiction. This wasn’t intentional. It was a result, rather, of my attempts to escape boredom without having to pay any money.

I do aerobics. Aerobics have been described, not entirely unjustly, as “the ability to withstand enormous amounts of boredom”. I have tried to alleviate the boredom with music, podcasts, interviews, and – what proved best of all – audiobooks. Because I don’t enjoy audiobooks enough to actually pay for them, I use LibriVox, a resource of free audiobooks.

Free, because all the books are out of copyright.

Out of copyright, thus old.

Old, and so often short.

Short fiction was more popular in the old days, before the Age of the Trilogy. It’s an odd paradox that the literary fashion of our time, which demands Instant Hook (“You Had Me At Hello”), can hardly ever let a story end without first prolonging it through several books. On the one hand, the Hook Establishment, ever telling aspiring authors their first paragraph isn’t exciting enough. On the other hand, the ubiquitous series.

Literature of the old school wasn’t like this. It used to be that nobody expected anything truly exciting to happen on the first page, or even in the first chapter. If an author took a hundred pages to set up a story, readers would understand. And yet the days of the long, slow openings were also the time of the short story. A wealth of short stories surround literary monoliths like Moby Dick and War and Peace.

On LibriVox, I’ve found short fiction published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: novellas by George MacDonald, a couple short story collections by E. Nesbit, a handful of sci-fi novellas and anthologies. The sci-fi anthologies especially helped me to see that the heart of a short story is not the characters, or the plot, but a single, pulsing idea.

As I listened to these brief sci-fi stories, I came to see them as expressions of ideas, answers to questions that, never spoken, could eventually be seen: What if Martians invaded Earth disguised as performers in a parade? What if aliens intervened to stop nuclear testing? What if it really were possible to bring bad luck? Could orbiting Earth change a man’s perspective in more ways than one?

Novels are also about ideas, small and large. But the virtue of short stories is that they permit the expression of ideas without the lengthy, elaborate weaving of novels – a sketch to a tapestry. Some ideas would not be given literary life otherwise – because the author lacks the time or interest, or simply because the idea itself cannot carry a long story.

Let me give you an example. Suppose I wanted to write about the Guild of Avenging English Students, a secret organization whose mission is to capture the Hook Establishment and send it through time portals in order to suppress various interminable classics. The ultimate goal would be that no one ever again had to write a paper on Moby Dick, and of course there would be all sorts of dangers, such as the Hook Establishment getting schooled by Tolstoy.

Is this idea worthy of a novel? No. Could it be woven with other ideas to make a novel? Probably not.

But it would be a lark, and in a short story the idea could reach, without exhausting, its potential. That is the beauty of the short story.