Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

OhmygoshitisWednesdayandthatmeansitistimeforMEEEEE!!!!! In other words, it’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday with me, Cait Reynolds. Today, I’m going to talk about the fact that there is nothing new under the sun.

And, by that, I mean that every variation of story has been told before. Every culture from every time period has its version of Cinderella, its Aladdin or Jack, its greedy kings and tricky old witches. No matter how many magical mice, talking mirrors, or transportation-challenged pumpkins dress up the tale, every story has at its heart the most basic, most fundamental truths about the human condition and human relationships.

Denny Basenji doing his imitation of a wise crone. His cryptic advice to the hero/heroine: “Only peanut butter can help you now.”

Myths and fairytales appeal to our innocence, our belief in justice, and our sense of history. The fact that most of them have happy endings doesn’t hurt, either. The past two years have seen a kind of renaissance in retellings and modern interpretations of these classic stories. A handful have been very well done. The rest have been inconsistent efforts that show very little thought and research has been put into understanding the nature of both mythology and fairytales and how to translate them into contemporary settings.

Celebrity Death Match: Myths vs. Fairytales

So, is there a difference between the two?

Absolutely, and it goes beyond their definitions. But, let’s start with definitions for the sake of clarity.

From merriam-webster.com:

Fairytale:

  • a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (such as fairies, wizards, and goblins)
  • a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending

Myth

  • a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon
  • parable, allegory
  • a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone

Here are some other differences between fairytales and myths:

  • Myths are not obligated to have a happy ending;
  • Fairytales do not have to have a moral or philosophical agenda;
  • Myths are often closely tied to world creation stories, religion, and attempts to explain natural phenomenon prior to scientific understanding;
  • It is understood that fairytales have never been believed to be real, whereas myths were frequently accepted as fact.

There are more differences and finer distinctions, but I’ll just add in one more. You can always tell it’s a real fairytale because people/animals/magical creatures are cheerful and sing when doing housework.

Research is a Myth…or is it a Fairytale?

Okay, so say we have this great idea retelling ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ We’ve seen the Disney movies, and we are happily humming ‘Be our Guest’ as we open the blank Word document. We know the story cold, and we may or may not have a picture of Luke Evans as Gaston tucked away on Pinterest.

We are ready to start writing. Except, we aren’t.

If all we are doing is using the movie as our guide, we have missed out on the fact that the historical fairytale has variations that include a father who was a merchant, a sudden loss of fortune, two wicked sisters, and a pretty sharp lesson about the costs of indecision and not keeping your word. If we haven’t done any research, we wouldn’t know that the the fairytale actually has origins (at least in Western culture) in the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, or that another lesser-known fairytale – ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’ – spun out from that myth.

It may seem silly to do research on something that is fundamentally untrue and is by nature fluid and adaptable to time period and culture. Yet, without knowing about the people who wrote the stories, the system of beliefs that the myths came from, and the history of the time when a particular variation was recorded, we are losing out on a chance to delve into subtleties, textures, interpretations, and details that take a retelling from blasé to blazing.

One of the topics I cover in my Once Upon a Plot class is how to go about researching a myth or fairytale, what to pursue, what to set aside, and how to analyze the story in a more complex, contextual way.

World-Building for ‘Then’ and ‘Now’

When we do a retelling, one of the first things we have to decide is the setting. Will it be contemporary? Will it be historical? Will it be futuristic, steampunk, or some medieval-ish time?

This impacts what characters we decide to use, the deeper intricacies and devices of the plot, and the way we represent significant objects from the myth or fairytale (is that a pumpkin or a Porsche?). This is also, sadly, where most writers tend to take short-cuts. They use the generic ‘faux-medieval’ setting that is a haphazard mishmash of culture, technology, and clothing, or they set the tale in today’s world, not really thinking through the implications for characters, decisions, and objects.

A lot of writers use the ‘timeless’ setting in order to avoid doing historical research or any real world-building. Ideas for behavior, costumes, servants, food, castles come from whatever historical drama is on at the time (I’m looking at you, ‘Reign,’ ‘The Tudors,’ ‘The White Queen,’ and ‘The Borgias’). While those medieval-renaissance-ish shows do provide a lot of striking visuals and demonstrate how to make archaic-sounding dialogue accessible to modern listeners/readers, they are NOT to be used for world-building. Ever.

Even for fairytales and myths.

As writers, we are responsible for creating our own worlds, and it is our obligation to the reader to provide a setting that is detailed, well thought-out, and consistent.

Here are just a few of the questions writers should ask when picking a ‘timeless’ setting:

  • What is the level of technology, industry, medicine, and transportation?
  • What is the political structure of the ‘kingdom’?
  • What kind of social mobility or stratification exists within the ‘kingdom’?
  • What is the kingdom’s primary religion? Are there secondary religions? Competing or conflicting faiths? Holidays and celebrations?
  • What is the geography, geology, and climate?
  • What is the overall cultural feel (i.e. generic British, generic Scandinavian, generic Central European, generic Mediterranean?)

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for a timeless setting. If we choose a contemporary setting, that brings a whole other set of issues into consideration, including normalizing any magical abilities within a greater social context, secrets vs. open practices, modern equivalents of historical objects or accessories, and how to maintain a character’s original attitude, purpose, and decisions while grounding him or her realistically in the here-and-now.

Bibbity Bobbity BOOYAH

You guessed it. I’m teaching a class on this very topic. All the details below!

Once Upon a Plot: Retelling Myths & Fairytales

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45 USD Standard

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: WEDNESDAY, August 9, 2017, 7:00 p.m. EST – 9:00 p.m. EST

Myths and fairytales are as fundamental to human existence as communication itself. We grow up hearing these stories, being formed by them, and often rebelling against them.

One of the hottest trends in publishing right now is bringing these stories back and giving them new life with creative interpretations and retellings. Done right, a retelling can capture the public imagination, give us new insights into our society and ourselves, and sweep us away to a time and place where everything, including justice and happy endings, is possible.

Done wrong? A retelling is nothing more than a yawn-worthy yarn full of two-dimensional characters floundering through an unremarkable story with a bland, generic setting.

This class will cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • How to research a myth or fairytale, from origins to variations;
  • How to analyze in order to develop a deeper, richer understanding of the stories;
  • How to pick out the key elements, from characters and attitudes, to objects and settings;
  • Creating contemporary settings for retellings that are accurate, believable, and flexible enough to accommodate ‘magic’;
  • Creating ‘timeless’ settings that are unique, consistent, and immersive.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

GOLD PACKAGE

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story.

PLATINUM PACKAGE

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and bonus worksheets. These worksheets will efficiently guide you through in-depth world-building and research, providing you with consistency for your writing and an excellent reference/style sheet for your editor and proofreader.

REGISTER NOW!

About the Instructor

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes. 

 

 

****And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! So scroll down and sign up!

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

 

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World August 11th $45 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Baby It’s Hot in Here—Writing Erotica & High Heat Sex Scenes August 4th $45 General/ $90 GOLD/$150 Platinum

Classes with MOI!

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Elements of Literary—How to Write Character-Driven Stories August 3rd $40

Beyond Planet X, Monsters & Chainsaws–Mastering Speculative Fiction August 10th $35

Classes with Award-Winning Author Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Method Acting for Writers—How to Write Deep POV August 1st $85 (two-week intensive class & lifetime access)

Beyond Lipstick & Swords—Writing Strong Female Characters September 9th $40

On Friday, we explored how shame is the beating heart of great fiction, how probing the shadow sides of human nature is what can separate the mundane from the magnificent.

All fiction has its place. Some fiction is purely fun and escape and the world needs more fun and feel good. Certain books are simply a holodeck to get away from the mundanities of life, the overwhelming pressures of being an adult (kids, laundry, bills, car repairs). They serve as a place of rest and we all could use more of that!

But that isn’t all fiction.

Many writers (myself included) desire to go far deeper with our fiction, explore wounds and human issues, poke and prod at larger social dilemmas using the narrative form to expose that which is diseased and show it can be overcome. Speculative fiction is an excellent outlet for this. This genre offers a myriad of ways to help us mere humans face all the stuff we fear the most.

I am breaking out of my comfort zone and now offering new classes specifically for the genres I love and read the most. In August I have a class on Speculative Fiction and one on Character-Driven Stories (which includes but is not limited to literary fiction and can greatly enhance genre fiction) before I leave for New Zealand to keynote.

Why did I pick these two to start with? These are my favorite kinds of books to read, which means I’ve read a lot of these kinds of stories.  I also find it fascinating how (believe it or not) great speculative fiction has a lot more in common with literary than one might believe.

What is Speculative Fiction?

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes but it not necessarily limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror, utopian, dystopian, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction.

Basically, all the weird stuff.

(And forgive me because today we are using seriously broad strokes.)

But what makes the difference between the laughable 1950s science fiction matinees and the long-forgotten pulp fiction versus the works of Philip K.Dick? What makes The Road literature even though it’s a post-apocalyptic novella? Why is Heart-Shaped Box or Wool so deeply disturbing and simultaneously resonant?

Why do star-packed big-budget films like Jupiter Ascending fizzle? Yet Blade Runner is a science fiction staple worthy of being remade for the newest generations to enjoy?

Plot

It’s easy to dismiss speculative fiction as escapist fluff and some of it is. But, when we look to the great speculative fiction, we see the authors are disguising explosive social commentary within narrative so it can be viewed and experienced behind the safety-glass/containment field of story.

By using story, we writers place the reader into this world then (hopefully) generate empathy that is impossible to create any other way. I’ve seen the movie I, Robot countless times and I bawl EVERY time during this scene.

Yeah this is me…

Stepford Wives was a commentary on the women’s liberation movement. Animal Farm was a treatise on socialism and the dangers of groupthink. The peril that comes with handing over too much power to those who claim to have noble and benevolent intentions without asking the hard questions.

Brave New World was Huxley’s stab at a culture propelled by temporary highs, unlimited choices and instant gratification while rejecting that which endured (love, family, marriage), because that which lasted required time, sacrifice and work. He showed us an eerily accurate picture of what society could become if we were not vigilant…and is now probably rolling in his grave.

*Makes note to write story about Huxley haunting Instagram*

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was Philip K. Dick’s commentary on artificial intelligence and just because we can play God, should we? What sort of moral implications are involved? These are issues we are now facing for real, that are no longer fiction and we are being tasked with the tough questions.

Is it wise to create and sell sex robots that come with a “frigid” setting? What happens when we extend the logic of this? Blade Runner. We get Blade Runner. Also a bizarre escalation/reinvention of the previously mentioned Stepford Wives.

All these great science breakthroughs that float across our newsfeed are now fertile ground for new and possibly even better stories that prod the science with ethical dilemmas.

We show the world it’s upside down and maybe even ways to right it.

I believe that the great speculative fiction writers have always been the conscience of culture, the voice that whispers things like, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” Or, “This really is a big deal and can go ugly really easily.”

Horror does a lot of that as well. Good horror writers tap into the subconscious angst and gives it a face. What happens when society is allowed to continue to devalue human life? When mobs are handed permission to call the shots? Let’s chat about this after watching The Purge.

To Make it BIGGER, Make it Smaller

When we care about everything, we care about nothing. Additionally, the human mind can’t truly grasp the loss of a billion lives. It doesn’t resonate because it can’t compute.

Thus the great spec-fic plots make the big small. We tell a small story of one person or a group of people as it plays out on the far larger stage. World War Z anyone?

This is why so many Hollywood movies about asteroids hitting the planet fizzle while The Road simply guts us.

Not All Big Stories are Big

Sometimes speculative fiction isn’t addressing something big, rather it dives into the intimate and deeply personal. Heart-Shaped Box is about a vengeful ghost out to destroy an aging rock star and anyone he loves. While the supernatural elements are terrifying, what is so beautiful and moving about this story is how the characters are forced to face and conquer inner demons they would have been happy to bury if not running for their lives.

The human story is what elevates this from a forgettable scary book into a work that prods at the deep dark places of the characters (and by extension the reader).

Character

Writing speculative fiction is really tough. It has a lot in common with literary in that it can turn preachy or fall flat so easily. Too many writers get fixated on world-building, when world-building is backdrop and can never substitute for story.

Spec-fic is tough and I swear it is the souffle of fiction. If we aren’t careful and look away one second? Yeah.

Plot of course matters in that we need a core story problem to drive the story, but characters are vastly important (possibly even more important). We must develop multi-dimensional characters with flaws and problems to set on this adventure because gizmos, gadgets, spaceships, magic, chainsaws, gore and ghosts alone are not a story.

We don’t need a bigger asteroid…we need a better story. Story is what is going to rattle the cage, not the two-ton spider. More blood or teeth won’t scare us and won’t change us.

In a world where we are overwhelmed with doom and gloom, where any debate on-line easily devolves into ranting, I think spec-fic is more important than ever in human history. Story is the place where the armor goes off and the heart is exposed and then able to be changed, fixed, remolded, and softened.

What are your thoughts? Do you love horror? Dystopian? Science fiction? What are your favorites? I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU! What makes spec-fic great? Or fall flat? What are your pet peeves?

I love speculative fiction, even though it took about 4 years to figure out what other writers meant by “speculative fiction.” I am a horror and science fiction JUNKIE. And I love the good stuff, the stories that poke and prod and that people can’t help talking about, debating, discussing in a way no Facebook rant-fest can. Which, again, is why I am thrilled to be offering a new class on it!

****And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! So scroll down and sign up!

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Baby It’s Hot in Here—Writing Erotica & High Heat Sex Scenes August 4th $45 General/ $90 GOLD/$150 Platinum

Classes with MOI!

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Elements of Literary—How to Write Character-Driven Stories August 3rd $40

Beyond Planet X, Monsters & Chainsaws–Mastering Speculative Fiction August 10th $35

Classes with Award-Winning Author Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Method Acting for Writers—How to Write Deep POV August 1st $85 (two-week intensive class & lifetime access)

Beyond Lipstick & Swords—Writing Strong Female Characters September 9th $40

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of frankieleon

I read a ridiculous amount of novels and I’m very picky, namely because I have the attention span of a fruit fly with a crack habit. Like most modern readers, it takes a lot to grab then keep my attention.

Most books I end up putting down or returning to Audible for another. There are books I finish then forget. Most are meh. Good way to kill time not much more. But then there are the ones that stick, the stories I never grow tired of reading and rereading and recommending and as you can see, I have very eclectic taste.

Some of my fondest loves are Heart-Shaped BoxBig, Little LiesAmerican Gods, Prisoner of Hell Gate, The Joy Luck Club, Luckiest Girl Alivethe Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer, and anything written by Fredik Backman Britt Marie Was Here being my favorite.

Yet what do all these great stories have in common? Why do they make me laugh and cry and cheer? What is so cathartic about these books?

Shame.

Deep, profound, gut-wrenching and very identifiable shame.

The content of this blog is actually from a guest post I did for Rachel Thompson. But I think it’s a valuable lesson, especially for the new writers who haven’t yet developed the rhino skin to dare to be vulnerable themselves, let alone with their characters.

So I shall go first….

Back in 2002 when I finally made the decision to become a novelist, I had no idea what kind of a personal journey I’d signed up for. In fact that could make an entire book—okay series of books—in and of itself.

When I started writing I was not a very nice person (and that’s putting it mildly). I was angry, self-centered, bitter, undisciplined, and immature. But I did have great hair so it wasn’t a total loss.

In short? I was a jerk.

Often though, the trouble with jerks is they are the only ones unaware they are jerks. Kind of like that movie The Sixth Sense.

I see jerks. Everywhere. Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re a jerk.

Yeah, that was me. It was everyone else. Everyone else was responsible for ***insert emotion/problem/drama here***.

And maybe this isn’t a very useful post for you because you’re all wonderful, perfectly adjusted individuals who rescue kittens when you’re not knitting onesies for cold baby goats. But maybe what I have to say today can help…a friend 😉 .

Shame

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Alan Levine

I did not come from a healthy family. Scratch that. I was born in The Jerry Springer Show Reality TV Edition. As a kid I didn’t know it was not normal to have screaming fights lasting hours every day. That sane people didn’t kick in doors, throw things or constantly threaten a) abandonment b) suicide c) divorce.

As a kid, I only partially grasped why I wasn’t allowed to play with other kids in the neighborhood. I was a straight A student and a teacher’s dream pupil…but every parent on the street walled their kid off from me like I carried Ebola.

Eventually my parents divorced and my father decided it would be fun to just you know, disappear for two years without so much as a word as to whether he was even alive. Child support?

That’s funny.

My poor mom did the best that she could, but by the time I hit middle school we lived on spaghetti because it was cheap and lived in unending fear the power would be cut off. I wore thrift store clothes and Toys for Tots supplied my Christmas gifts.

I got bounced home to home and in the process switched schools a total of ten times; five times just in high school. And it was strange. It was like every school came standard with a gaggle of Queen Bees WASPs ready to skewer me with their stingers over and over and over.

What was even worse were the teachers (probably Queen WASPs in their high school heydays) who joined in the “fun” of tearing me apart. In fact, I had nightmares about one particular teacher well into my 30s.

No place. No person was safe.

The harder I tried to appease the WASPs in school and home, the more I was stung. I was a bleeding ruined wreck.

I’m fairly certain to this day that I am the reason for the current Texas truancy laws. I’d skip and take refuge in the library. Books didn’t care that I only owned two pairs of pants and four shirts.

Eventually, I dropped out of high school…twice.

The only thing that kept me from getting a GED and being done with it was I’d always wanted to be in the military. I longed for structure and order and hell I was used to being yelled at and called worthless. Perfect fit!

But, in the 90s, you couldn’t get into the military without an actual high school diploma, so groans I had to go back. I was nineteen years old in an English class of fourteen-year-olds. Talk about a slice of humble pie.

Yet, to survive, I learned two key defense mechanisms. One, I became funny. Being funny works, it’s sort of like peeing yourself so no one eats you. High five! My possum friend! But when funny wouldn’t work? I became MEAN.

I’d always wanted to be a writer from the time I hadn’t even nailed down the entire alphabet song. I was good with words and after years of using them to flatter and pacify? I realized that didn’t work on bullies.

So I whipped out my whetstone and sharpened my words to a razor’s edge that rivaled any Samurai sword.

I truly believe that those who are born to be writers—good writers—have an almost preternatural power for observation. We very literally see what others don’t or even can’t. This meant I could meet a person (enemy) and instantly know every perfect pain point.

Thus, when I went for someone, I didn’t waste time. I went for their heart, for the thing they thought they’d buried so deep, hidden where no one could see.

And I’d carve it out and show it to them—still beating—in my hand.

If my tormenters were unwilling like me, they would by God fear me.

Of course while this worked to make the WASPs keep a nice and respectful distance, it also isolated me. Regular, nice people also were afraid of me and in my mind? I didn’t care. Being alone was safer. People always left anyway. Best not to care.

So why am I talking about all of this other than hey, FREE THERAPY!

When I became a writer and my goal was to become a novelist, I had to face who I’d become. Being a jerk made me a lousy writer.

My first novel (which of course I thought was perfect) sucked. But why was it so bad? Okay that is actually a loooooong list. But the main reason is that all my characters were “perfect.”

They were everything I had always wanted to be. My MC was tall and beautiful and eerily resembled Angelina Jolie and she had mad fighting skills and spoke 42 languages and Zzzzzzzzzzz.

Over and over I tried new stories and same deal. Why were all my stories boring the paint off the walls?

The reason? All great stories are birthed from SHAME.

I finally understood that I’d fashioned so much armor around myself cobbled together with self-delusion, B.S. glitter and flat out lies, that I couldn’t be vulnerable. I didn’t know how to be.

Until I acknowledged I was a jerk, I couldn’t start understanding WHY I was a jerk so I could heal those parts and then…change.

I didn’t know I was a jerk because I was deeply and profoundly ashamed.

Fiction as Therapy

To be a great author, we must understand this core truth…

Readers don’t connect to perfection; they connect to flaws. We aren’t telling stories to perfect people, we are telling them to lost and broken and hurting people who can pick up a book and by GOD at least there is one frigging place in the world where the good guy wins and bad people get what they deserve.

We writers must understand who we really are if we want to resonate with readers.

Writers are dealers of justice.

Because here’s the deal. We live in reality where the popular girl who tormented the poor kids in high school didn’t get what she deserved and never will.

No. She married rich. Then as a “stay at home mom”—with a full-time housekeeper and au pair—went on to start a home-based company selling non-GMO organic vegan nail decorations made from fair trade coconut oil.

And she made millions, because of course she did!

She spends every Spring Break in Vail, summers in Europe, and never loses one moment of sleep over the young girls she emotionally ravaged, has not a singular care for the self-esteems she plundered. She doesn’t even recall her victim’s names just hopes the pathetic little lemmings buy her nail wraps.

We all know villains like her exist in real life, certainly did in mine. And in real life, she gets away with her crimes…but in fiction? This is the place she has no power. Her looks, money and family connections mean nothing. In story, she can be held accountable for what she’s done.

But here we are talking plot. Now?

Character Arc

What about the protagonist? Because a protagonist ambushing the mean girl of high school and feeding her through a wood chipper FARGO style, while morbidly interesting, is not a story.

The story is always with the hero. Outward defeat of said villain is not enough. That is only half of the recipe for a perfect story.

How does the protagonist face this villain and finally change? How can she evolve to a point where she can finally say that crucial line?

You have no power over me.

She must not only defeat the villain, she must also face and defeat her own shame.

She must do the very thing that all of us—in real life—must do to find peace. To heal.

Facing Shame & Taming the Jerk

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kenny Louie.

When I came to a point I realized I needed to face and explore my shame in order to write something people might like to read? I will admit it. I was a total chicken and too broke for “real” therapy. So I did what many writers do, I put it into story.

At the end of May, I released my debut fiction The Devil’s Dance and it IS a fiction. The plot is, at least. But I used my MC Romi to work through a lot of places where I felt shame, in order to expose then overcome them.

Like Romi, I grew up ashamed of where I’d come from, desperate to fit in, to be accepted. Trying WAY too hard. No matter what I achieved, I felt like a fraud, a poseur.

There is a real reason I use a lot of Breakfast at Tiffany’s references in the book. Holly Golightly in the iconic Turner Classic beginning is standing in front of Tiffany’s staring at all the beautiful things she desires. But she’s an outsider peering in through an impenetrable wall of glass. No matter what she looks like on the outside, it is the inside that must change. Romi’s journey is the same.

And Romi’s journey looks a hell of a lot like mine sans drug cartels.

But a really interesting thing happened when I wrote this story. I learned a lot about me. By placing my shame in a fictional setting, it was less frightening. It lost its power over me. I found that as I understood Romi, I understood me. I began healing and one day realized my armor was falling away like the husk of a cocoon no longer needed.

Because fiction helped me face shame, it helped me learn to be vulnerable and in being vulnerable I became a better writer and a better person.

Soooo….

I was joking earlier about y’all being perfect, though I am pretty sure some of you really are knitting onesies for cold baby goats. I finally mastered the potholder.

I do know many of you have your own wounds, probably a lot of them far worse than mine. Yet I think we can keep going around the same mountain over and over. If we miss the linchpin of why we’re hurting—SHAME—we can’t heal. It’s putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound and we’re walking around bleeding all over the place with no clue why we’re drawing sharks. Additionally, we will be too afraid to write characters with any depth and end up with Literary Barbies, not literature.

All I can say is that the road isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. And I have a secret to tell you. You’re much stronger than you realize 😉 .

I love hearing from you! What are your thoughts? What are some wounds you’ve dealt with via fiction? Do you struggle making your characters flawed or even vulnerable? Did you learn to use words as weapons? Have you struggled with the weight of your emotional armor? What is your story?

****And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! So scroll down and sign up!

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

  

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Baby It’s Hot in Here—Writing Erotica & High Heat Sex Scenes August 4th $45 General/ $90 GOLD/$150 Platinum

Classes with MOI!

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Award-Winning Author Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Method Acting for Writers—How to Write Deep POV August 1st $85 (two-week intensive class & lifetime access)

Beyond Lipstick & Swords—Writing Strong Female Characters September 9th $40

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday! I’m back, along with Denny Basenji, opinions on words, and a new haircut.

Also, I do know that I owe everyone my freshman year high school photo. I will post that on Friday. *pinky swear*

So, today, I’m talking about world-building for epic fantasy and science fiction. Of course, there are specifics to each genre that could merit their own blog post (and will eventually get their own blog posts), but for today, I want to talk about what they both have in common, especially when it comes to creating a world that is paradoxically both alien and familiar, comfortable and unpredictable, and just as human as you or I – tentacles notwithstanding.

Two Peas in an Alien Pod

Why are epic fantasy and science fiction similar, you ask? Well, let’s start with the most fundamental problem both face. It’s a misconception on the part of writers that regularly drives me to call upon the holy, withering powers of the Red Pen of Wrath.

 

The problem is this: a premise is not a plot.

I am just as guilty as anyone when it comes to this. I would get the coolest idea for an epic fantasy story with dragons, or a magical sword, or…or…a shy, downtrodden young girl who comes into her magical inheritance and has to save the world. Or, even worse…a space opera or an oppressive alien society bent on conquering a post-apocalyptic Earth…

You get the idea. And, that’s all it is. An idea. It’s a premise, a setting, the faintest concept sketch of a backdrop. It is not a plot. While the plot and characters are shaped by the world we build, we must first have a firm idea of the actual story we want to tell before we go indulging in literal flights of fantasy.

The best, most enduring, and most powerful epic fantasy and science fiction tell stories that are rooted in deep philosophical and ethical questions about how humanity (no matter what the species “we” are in the story) makes choices when pushed at warp speed into a magical corner.

A premise is great, but what is the burning reason why we need to write this story using this setting? If we can answer this question, then we are on the right track and are good to keep going with our world-building.

Culture Shock

Let’s just put it out there from the get-go.

Fantasy that uses the ‘faux medieval fallback’ is lame. Worse, it’s lazy, and I am not going to waste the precious hours of my life reading that crap. If an author can’t be bothered to build a world that goes beyond throwing in some Lord-of-the-Rings-style magic into ‘The Princess Bride,’ then, I can’t be bothered with his or her book.

Science fiction that so blatantly ignores human nature is also lame to the point where it can undermine the believability of an entire premise. For example – and yes, this is going to be controversial, and don’t flame me if I got it wrong because this is based on a memory from years and years and years ago – when I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and Captain Picard said that we had evolved beyond the need for money, I laughed. And then, I got mad. Seriously??? I don’t care if it’s dollars or hotel points on Risa, you cannot convince me that given the nature of the personal and psychological problems the TNG cast dealt with demonstrated that humanity had evolved beyond our basic competitive biological nature. We would need some serious genetic rewiring in order to let go of our need to gather and accumulate resources. When I could forget that little issue, sure, the whole premise was great. When I couldn’t? It was like a bad itch with no ideological cortisone to hand.

The absence of technology does not mean a society has to be simplistic with two-dimensional characters like the mustache-twirling villain or the reluctant young hero with chronic self-esteem issues. Conversely, the presence of technology doesn’t automatically cancel out all of society’s more complex, sticky social issues.

Good world-building in these genres should be an uncomfortable process. It should poke and prod at the difficult questions we tend to avoid on an everyday basis. We know we are doing it right when we feel a kind of culture shock, just like when we wake up at 3:00 a.m. in a strange hotel room on the first night of a trip to a foreign country. Sure, it’s a bed and a room, but something about it just feels fundamentally different, no matter how much it is the same.

The More Things Change

When we are creating a future or fantasy world, we obviously have to cover all the bases of politics, religion, education, economics, industry, regionality, food, etc. It’s the kind of exercise in thinking, imagination, and logic that forces us to play every idea six moves out to see if it still works and what else it might effect. However, almost more important than the differences we create are the similarities that we keep.

Not everything needs to be changed and/or renamed. That’s not world-building. That’s complication, not complexity. It’s also the biggest and easiest trap for us to fall into.

A world that is over-complicated and needlessly different puts and keeps distance between the story and the reader, and that’s not even dipping a scaly alien toe into the issues of character development.

So, how do we determine what needs to be changed? Some of it comes from the necessities of the plot, and some of if comes from the implications of physical realities of the setting itself (Dune is a great example of this). At the end of the day, though, we need to ask ourselves some basic questions every time we want to change something:

  • Is it relevant to shaping the character’s personality, motivations, and decisions?
  • Is it necessary to the plot on a macro or micro level as a source of conflict?
  • Can it be used as a stressor to up the tension or accelerate the pace?
The Sand Prince by Kim Alexander

One of the absolutely best examples of this that I have recently read is Kim Alexander’s The Sand Prince. It’s not just epic fantasy and an astoundingly exquisite example of world-building. It’s a riveting, meaningful story with characters I identify with and have come to care about deeply. If you read it (and you should), look at the way she uses food and colors to drive home desperation, hopelessness, anger, and stress. That’s just one small way she uses details to up the stakes for her characters and relentlessly drive the story toward its riveting climax.

And on the Seventh Day, Cait Taught a Class

If you’re feeling exhausted and perhaps even a little overwhelmed by this post, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Even God needed to rest on the seventh day, proving once again that world-building is hard.

However, even God had a system for creation, and I am teaching a tiny, pale version of that on Friday, July 28, 2017 from 7:00-9:00 p.m.

Class Title: Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $35 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY July 28th, 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

Science Fiction and Epic Fantasy are the double agents of the literary world. They simultaneously provide exotic escapism while at the same time serving as a ruthless mirror of contemporary society.

Whether it’s magic or technology, these genres bend rules and toy with the impossible.

However, it is also perilously easy to fall into the trap of bending every rule to make it easy for yourself, your plot, and your characters. When the fantastic becomes too fantastical, your world begins to lose its magic, and readers begin to distance themselves from the emotional impact of the actual story.

This class will cover a wide range of topics, including:

– Etymology: If you are going to make up names for people, places, food, customs, magic/technology, etc., you need to understand the fundamental rules of creating language.

– What’s normal and carries over from our world/time and doesn’t need description vs what is different and should be described

– How much magic or science do you have to know in order to build your world effectively?

– How to keep it real: tips and tricks for keeping your characters relatable to readers, even if they have tentacles/magical powers/chip implants.

– Spotting tired tropes and DOING BETTER. Make your fiction unique. No retreads! “Oh no, not another young, timid girl who becomes magical/laser-wielding social warrior!”

In a world of a gazillion forgettable fantasies and sci-fi stories, let Cait help you take your WORLD & STORY to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL. When world building is done right? Fans will be BEGGING to do fan fiction with the worlds you create.

World Building GOLD

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story. 

World Building PLATINUM

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and bonus worksheets. These worksheets will efficiently guide you through in-depth world-building and research, providing you with consistency for your writing and an excellent reference/style sheet for your editor and proofreader.

Register Here!

***

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Image courtesy of Rune E.’s generosity via Flickr Creative Commons

Ah personal vows. I’m big on those and one core vow I made several years ago was to seek out the best of the best. Locate talent, nurture it, then share it with you guys. I’m passionate about mastery. Mastery however requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice is we cannot do all things. We need to let go. Knowing that, I made it my personal mission (and my company W.A.N.A. International’s mission) to recruit those who were masters of THEIR realms.

My motto? If I am the smartest person in the room, I’ve done something horribly wrong.

Many of you have already had the pleasure of taking a class with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds. If not? She has a whole list of classes coming up (listed below). Today, however, another master is here to share her gifts with us today.

Lisa Hall-Wilson is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the honor to work with. She taught me Facebook 😀 . But she’s also an unbelievable craft teacher so I’m handing today’s post over to her for an amazing lesson about the power of vows….

***

The beautiful image courtesy of the generous Candida.Performa via Flickr Creative Commons

Want to raise the stakes for your character through internal conflict? Deep POV is a great technique to bring out this tension because it allows the reader deep into the character’s psyche and allows for an intense examination of their motivations and morals.

Drawing a line in the sand, giving your character a personal vow, can create the kind of inner turmoil that drives a character to outrageous page-turning decisions and mistakes. Vows also give insight into backstory and help define character voice.

I love that scene from the Fellowship Of The Ring where Gandalf screams at the Balrog: “You shall not pass!” Awesome. That was a game changer scene, it ratcheted up the conflict several notches. Gandalf went to the ultimate extreme to make sure that Balrog did not pursue the rest of the Fellowship.

Does your main character have a line in the sand, a personal boundary past which they will not cross? Great!

Now go shove them off the cliff.

*Note: Not every character does or should have a personal vow. It adds a layer of complexity that requires skill with characterization to pull off well because a vow should influence a character’s motivations and morals, but it’s rarely their main story goal.*

Ever whispered a vow in the dark of the night, tears streaming down your cheeks? Maybe you were caught in the middle of a messy divorce. Maybe you experienced a trauma of some sort, the kind that haunts you – and down deep inside you made yourself a promise so that hurt never happens again:

I will never…

Image via Ryan Vaarsi’s generosity courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Everyone has a line in the sand, a secret vow. No matter what else happens, this is one inviolable line they will not cross. Most people, at some point, make several of these vows, some innocuous, some more serious.

Some people make these vows consciously and others are completely unaware of these personal vows. We are more committed to some vows than others. Some vows are made to prevent a past hurt or harm from being repeated (I’ll never date a drug lord again), and some vows are harmful and need to go (I will never weigh over 100 pounds).

Pushed Beyond All Limits

Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter novel Blue Moon uses a really great personal vow as a story element. Anita Blake has several rules or lines in the sand which have been firmly established in previous books in the series, but she is forced to violate one rule after another. It started off innocently enough, Blake is uncomfortable, she’s not happy, but she can shake it off.

As the novel continues, Blake faces escalating circumstances. Some of her compromises haunt her, change her (and not always for the better) and she has to figure out how to live with that. Blake ends up back-tracking and…well, go read it. I couldn’t put it down.

But the reverse can also work.

I loved the movie Law Abiding Citizen with Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx. At the beginning of the movie, Foxx’s lawyer character comes across as a good guy, but someone willing to cut corners to achieve what he saw as the greater good. Butler’s character creatively, and rather gruesomely, pushes Foxx to the point where he has to dig in and say here and no farther.

By the end of the movie, Foxx sees the problem with cutting certain corners and draws a line in the sand: I will never make a deal with a murderer ever again.

Complexity

Image courtesy of Joana Coccarelli’s generosity via Flickr Creative Commons

Vows are hard to pull off in simple plots. These lines in the sand are often in addition to a character’s main goal in the story. For instance, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind vows: “As God is my witness, I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again…” Scarlett’s conscious goal for the story though is to be with Ashley Wilkes. *shakes head – never understood that* That’s what she schemes for, dreams about, etc.

Her unconscious goal is to have the love of a man who can make her feel secure (ahh – see the built-in tension there when what she’s pursuing won’t get her what she really wants). She isn’t even aware of this internal conflict until the end of the book when Ashley finally becomes available and she realizes it’s actually Rhett she wants. Rhett Butler is the one who makes her feel secure (she talks about how he comforts her in the night after a bad dream, etc), but now Rhett’s gone.

However, Scarlett never went hungry again. Her preoccupation with money caused a lot of problems for her, because she confused money with security. It’s easy to see how that vow added tension and conflict for her character.

The Writer’s Dilemma

Image courtesy of the generosity of Benbenben11 via Flckr Creative Commons

The problem with this story element is that a reader might lose respect if a character breaks ALL of their personal vows. For a character to remain worth cheering for, if a line in the sand has been defined, at some point the character has to stand their ground no matter what it costs them.

There may be gray areas of their vow they compromise on, there may be some backtracking. They may make a vow part way through the story as Scarlett does. Maybe the character needs to give up a harmful or unrealistic vow. Regardless, these vows strongly influence the character’s motivations and desires heading into the big main conflict. If they don’t, I’d question whether they need to be there.

Personal vows are one way to add compelling conflict, but it requires an intensely personal POV.

I’m teaching a two-week intensive on Method Acting For Writers: Learn How To Write Deep POV starting August 1st. This is just one appendix lesson from that class. I’m offering a WANA-only price for this course.

What are some of your favorite literary vows or lines in the sand?

I’m also teaching a class on Facebook, so you can learn what to post so readers respond on July 22 and a new class on September 9 on creating strong female characters. Check out those classes!


***

THANK YOU LISA!

Talk to us! We love hearing from you. Well, I do, namely because I am lonely and y’all are seriously interesting. What vows have you made? Good or bad or dumb?

I’ve done all of the above, and have particularly excelled in bad and dumb vows (but I’m much better now 🙂 ). Seriously, I think one of my greatest strengths is I am loyal, but sometimes being loyal is just being epically stupid when you’re loyal to the wrong people, ideas, goals etc.

For instance, I vowed I wouldn’t give up on my first novel. Took 5 years to see I actually didn’t even HAVE a novel so that was a seriously stupid vow. Remember what I always tell you guys, Persistence looks a lot like stupid. Sometimes it IS hard to tell.

And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY!

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

 

  

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40