Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: fantasy

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

It’s me, Cait Reynolds, and I’m going to be brutal here. You’ve been warned. But, honestly, I get a little stabby when I encounter a Mary Sue in a book. Mary Sues are death to fiction, yet they’re more common than head lice in Kindergarten (and about as desirable). For the sake of time today, we will focus on the most common Mary Sue peeve…the Mary Sue Shopping Spree.

What is a Mary Sue Shopping Spree?

It’s wish fulfillment at its worst.

First of all, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the term “Mary Sue,” the best definition is here at Urban Dictionary. But, for our shorthand use, a Mary Sue is an impossibly perfect character.

She’s beautiful (flaming red hair and emerald eyes, for example) and smart (better grades than Hermione Granger but never seems to be in the library). A Mary Sue falls in love with the hero/hero falls in love with her early, often and easily.

What IS a “Mary Sue”?

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

There are all kinds of Mary Sue’s–no genre is safe. Here’s just a sample:

  • Victim Sue! with an impossible streak of bad luck/tragedy/knack for getting kidnapped and/or stalked.
  • Warrior Sue! who has a mouth like a sailor, throws a mean punch, fights like Lara Croft and Bruce Lee’s love child (and probably has a lineage about as weird), and still looks amazing in a ball gown (but doesn’t want to be taken for a sissy girl!).
  • Magic Sue! with similarities to Warrior Sue in that she has unheard of powers that usually get her into trouble (see Victim Sue) until she learns to control them, and then with a wave of her (slender, delicate) hand, saves the day without chipping a nail.
  • Misfit Sue who is the proverbial ugly duckling, except all she needs really is some good conditioner, a fairy godmother, and a gift certificate to Forever21 in order to turn into the hottie that suddenly attracts all the guys.

There are so many issues with Mary Sues, but the single largest Mary Sue staple is—GROANS—the shopping spree.

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

This is the point in a story where everything grinds to a halt so the heroine can get ready for the ball/date/wedding/party/sacred mage ceremony, etc.

You know the kind of scene I’m talking about…but in case you don’t, let’s look at an example.

Mary Sue Goes to the Ball

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Let’s use my favorite Mary Sue stand-in Seraphina to illustrate. Seraphina has had a hard life as a disinherited princess living in hiding in a faux medieval village and secretly training to use her immense magical powers to take back the throne and rid the land of evil.

She finds a way to infiltrate the castle by sneaking into a fancy ball that the king is giving. But, in order to blend in with the crowd, she will need…a ballgown.

What comes next is any combination of the following descriptions:

  • Shopping or gathering all the necessary clothing
  • Hairstyles
  • Dresses
  • Jewelry, and other accessories
  • Makeup (!)

But…it’s not just descriptions. We, the readers, are subjected to descriptions in excruciating detail.

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Also, every character involved in the scene is kind, excited, happy to help with the preparations, and relentlessly cheery. Apparently, there can be no conflict in the dressing room (unless it’s Seraphina objecting to the ‘girly pink’ or ‘frilly’ dress, thereby making a statement of profound strength of character and independence).

We read about sweetheart necklines, bias cuts, skirts that gently flare out, lace gloves, sleeves that come to just above the wrist, silver embroidery patterns of magical runes (or flowers, whatever).

Gritting our teeth, we skim over the part about hair that is piled high with loose curls falling softly around her face, or braids intricately woven with pearls and jeweled flower pins with just a few errant and untamable curls falling softly around her face.

The author beats us over the head with the fact that she only wears a little bit of eyeshadow and lip gloss (WTH? Do they even have lip gloss in faux medieval realms?) because she doesn’t really need any makeup to enhance her natural beauty.

That strangling noise?

It’s us. The readers. Being garroted….

With the heroine’s delicate chain complete with cheesy symbolic pendant (dragon, rose, snake, rune, whatever) because that’s not a dead giveaway to the bad guy(s).

Hey, doesn’t that girl with the opal-eyed dragon pendant that looks like the one that belonged to Queen Margitte look a lot like dead Queen Margitte?.

Also, a general rule of style is to match the formality of jewelry to the formality of the outfit. One doesn’t wear parure with buckskin breeches, and conversely, charm necklaces are not to be worn with ballgowns. (Yes, I just channeled my inner Tim Gunn.)

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Let’s not forget how Seraphina chooses sensible low-heeled slippers as opposed to the…um…lucite platform heels offered by the empty-headed ninnies who only care about boys and clothes.

Because taking time out from pace, tension, plot, and relevance to talk about dressing a character totally doesn’t paint the author as having the emotional range of a fifteen-year-old. 

All joking aside, let’s look a little closer at WHY the Mary Sue Shopping Spree is so problematic.

Go Ahead. Sue Me!

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

It’s not really Seraphina’s fault that the author wants to play out a Cinderella fantasy. Unfortunately, this violates one of KLamb’s most basic rules: NEVER MAKE IT EASY FOR THE CHARACTERS!

Nobody wants to read about everybody being happy, getting along, and things going their way. Can you say, “Snooze-Fest?”

Can you imagine Harry Potter if he’d grown up with his parents alive, been BFFs with Draco Malfoy, and figured out how to vanquish Voldemort without leaving the comfort of Hogwarts?

No, you can’t because no reader would have made it past page TEN. Harry Potter would have been another forgettable character in yet another bad book.

But he isn’t. Why? Harry Potter is legendary because of CONFLICT and seemingly insurmountable odds. Not everything slipping in place as if his life is coated in Teflon.

The same goes for the Cinderella moment. Let’s look at why.

Slumber Party or Plot Point? 

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Getting-ready-for-the-party scenes must obey the rules of fiction just like all the other scenes. Where is the conflict that drives the story? What is the relevance of the getting-ready-for-the-ball scene? Is there any character growth? Are there any obstacles?

If the answer is no, then we need to think twice about putting in a scene like this.

Hemming and Hawing 

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Set aside the sins of over-descriptiveness for a moment. Instead, look at the science of how we read and process the written word. In general, we read at about 200-400 words per minute (cool, non? Read this for more!).

That means that careful description is critical to the FLOW of a reader’s understanding and visualization. If we STALL the flow by making a reader stop and try to visualize EXACTLY what a character is wearing (I’m looking at you, hem lengths and embroidered bodices!), we risk losing the reader’s immersion in our world.

Anachronism Alert!

The Mary Sue Shopping Spree also showcases when an author hasn’t bothered to do his or her homework with either historical research or fantasy world-building (LIP GLOSS???). With historical, this is easily solved with just a modicum of research–and luckily for you, I’m obsessed with historical fashion.

Check me out on Pinterest for a decade-by-decade breakdown of fashion across the centuries (and a WHOLE lot more!).

With fantasy, there’s still no excuse for not considering things like climate, culture, how easy it is to get your hands on expensive clothing, etc. Thinking it through isn’t hard. We just have to do it.

Get Seraphina a Personal Shopper and Move on

All of this isn’t to say that we can’t have a makeover scene now and then. There’s just a better way to do it. Here’s how.

Relevance

Makeover scenes must be relevant to the plot and/or character. For example in my book Downcast, I use a literal shopping spree to reveal Stephanie’s growth as a character, in beginning to make her own choices and tap into her own confidence.

More than that, though, Stephanie’s shopping spree sets up a MAJOR conflict.

In fact, it’s one of the biggest pivot points in the whole plot. Could I have used another ploy to get me there? Sure. But, a teenage girl going to the mall for her 18th birthday is both plausible and appropriate for the context (and the YA genre).

If we’re going to use the shopping spree–be it contemporary, ye olde, or beware hippogriffs! style–always ask three things:

  • Is it relevant? Does it move the plot forward?
  • Will it offer any new clues/information or set the characters up for conflict?
  • Does it reveal and/or conceal anything important about the characters (from each other, the reader, etc.)?

If we can answer yes to all three, then we move to the next step, which is…

Bippity-Boppity BORING!

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

Fairy godmothers way overrated. Why not have the wicked step-sister be the one to have to help get Cinderella ready for the ball? Will the Wal-Mart generic brand wand be up to the challenge of whipping up a ballgown?

Is there a crack in one of the glass slippers? Does the color blue make her look jaundiced? Is anyone willing to tell her that?

What if she really, really wants to wear blue, but the only color the Wal-Mart wand can produce is pink? She has to wear the pink dress. If you transform a pumpkin into a carriage, does it smell like pumpkin on the inside? Is that a good thing? Are the mice unionized?

You get the idea.

The point is the getting-ready-for-the-ball scene should be FULL of delicious difficulties and confectionary conflict. Remember KLamb’s rule: MAKE IT WORSE UNTIL YOU MAKE IT WEIRD. NOTHING COMES EASILY…EVER!

If everyone is happy and excited to help Seraphina get ready for the ball…meh.

What’s the point?

What makes me (reader) want to turn the page? But, if Lady Jordan slips itching powder down Seraphina’s chemise, or the fairy godmother makes an unthinking remark about how to fix the way Seraphina looks a bit puffy…well, NOW we have something to work with!

Give Up Control

Stories That Make Us Stabby: Mary Sue & Why Readers Hate Her - Cait Reynolds

The reader will never, ever, ever be able to picture a gown exactly the way we see it in our mind’s eye. Ever. You can tell me all you want about length and fabric and cut and jewelry. However, it’ll either be too much detail, and I’ll lose track of all of the bits I’m supposed to remember, OR, I will just skim and skip until the plot resumes.

Seriously, we need to give up the idea that our descriptions will ever create an exact picture for the reader. Descriptions are meant to be evocative. They also…yeah, you know what I’m going to say here…wait for it…have to be RELEVANT.

And, yes, here’s another handy checklist to work through to determine if a description is relevant:

  • Is there something unique, interesting, or important about the dress, jewelry, etc.?
  • What is truly different about these clothes for the character and her life experience?
  • Are there smells, textures, or sounds (like bracelets clinking) that are unusually pleasurable or uncomfortable?

For example, for a fantasy genre scene, I might describe Seraphina’s reaction to her ball gown like this:

Her first instinct was to decline the gown. The fine silk and rare lapis-dyed color screamed the kind of wealth she had barely ever encountered, let alone would feel comfortable impersonating. She didn’t dare touch it, afraid that the calluses on her fingers would catch and snag the delicate fabric.

Still, she drew closer, fascinated by the  pattern of dragons in mid-flight picked out in silver thread around the hem. When Lady Jordan gave the skirts an expert–if impatient–flick to smooth the creases, the embroidered dragons looked as if they were truly in flight.

A brisk ‘tsk’ from Lady Jordan jolted Seraphina from the daze of admiration, and she shrank from the disapproving moue on the older woman’s lips.

I would probably also make the dragons mean something or be symbolic in some way, though I might not have Lady Jordan inform Seraphina of that because…well, she doesn’t really like the girl or want to help her, and if she must dress a sow’s ear in a silk purse, then at least she will get some entertainment out of it later when the girl stumbles over the etiquette of the significance of the embroidery.

Because being mean to my characters is what makes it fun for my readers.

And, it has nothing to do with being a sociopath. AT ALL.

Next up…Getting Stabby About the Taylors and Shifters

If you’ve read any of my blog posts here, you know that Taylor is Seraphina’s male counterpart. And, Taylor can often be found in romance novels–especially shifter romances. If you think I’m prickly (and hilarious–admit it, you giggled at this post!) about Mary Sue shopping sprees, just watch me rip into shifters…and how to make them better.

You can even watch me do it LIVE this Friday!

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

Date: Friday, November 3, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Shifter romance is one of the hottest genres in publishing right now. It’s easy, right? You just take a hot guy and have him morph into a wolf…or bear…or…panther…or…

Well, you and the thousands of other shifter romance writers. So, how are readers going to tell your lusty wolf boys apart from another author’s lusty wolf boys? Sure, you can invent clan/pack rules and give your shifters certain features or restrictions.

But, if you want to create unforgettable shifters that will have readers coming back for more, you need to shift your world-building into high gear. (See what I did there with the play on words with ‘shift’? Ha! I’m so funny.)

This class will help you create richer shifter ‘cultures’ by showing you how to:

  • Construct the history of your shifters, and by history, I mean real history
  • Use science (even if you’re not a science person) to add delicious bits of plausibility to your shifters
  • Catch world-building details that create giant gaps in logic that can distract the reader from your story
  • Develop stronger characters by giving them a richer, fuller historical, scientific, and world-building context
  • Drive action and plot twists in unexpected ways using expanded shifter world-building
  • Amp up the romantic and sexual tension using the history and science of your shifters

We are now offering ADVANCED LEVELS for this class. Extra help from an EXPERT.

In a world of a gazillion forgettable shifters, let Cait help you take your shifter to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL.

Shifter GOLD

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

Shifter 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.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER!

Other upcoming WANA classes!

Blurb - Cait Reynolds
BLURB BOSS: Writing Blurbs that SELL BOOKS. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
BRAND BOSS! When Your Name Alone Can Sell. $45 USD. Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
PLOT BOSS: Writing novels readers want to buy! $40 USD. Thurs., Nov. 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Bad Boys. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday, which today means, not just me, Cait Reynolds, but also Kim Alexander! Today, we begin by not only sharing the obligatory Denny Basenji picture, but also ONION! Because who doesn’t need more Onion in their lives? RIGHT?

Denny and Onion. Together at last.

Kim recently came to visit me (okay, she came to visit her brother, but I live in the same state), and we indulged in various shenanigans. Thankfully, none of which resulted in either of us needing bail money. But it is always within the realm of possibilities.

We decided that since have…er…taken up residence on Kristen’s blog and are teaching classes together, it would be good for everyone to know a bit more about us. So, today is a fun post with a Q&A.

So how do you two know each other, anyway?

Kim: We had the same publicist at a now-defunct publishing house! So we spent a lot of time drying each other’s tears. Cait used to like to prank call and pretend she was the New York Times book reviewer, it really brought up my spirits.

Cait: I pretty much knew we were soulmates when she sent me a mug that says, “We go together like drunk and disorderly.” Add in trips to see each other, questionable plans for larceny at Book Expo America every year, and a mutual love of the distillery industry, and well…yeah.

Out on the town. Together. Not committing felonies. At least, none that were detectable.

In a Thunderdome-style-loser-leave-town cage match, who do you see coming out as the victor?

Kim: Well, I’m scrappy, but she’s a lot more aggressive, and she fights dirty. On the other hand, I do store up my rage, and I have a lot stored up.

Cait: I’m just gonna come out and say it. Me. I would win. Don’t let my innocent looks and sunny attitude fool you. I’m a tough OG. I ran a playground gang in second grade.

What’s your favorite historical period to obsess over and why?

Kim: I am all about Dark Ages Europe. If there is the word ‘plague’ in the blurb, I will read it. It was a time (I think) that the walls between the real and unreal were much thinner–maybe because we had far fewer distractions, and life was so uncertain.

Cait: Really? I have to pick one? Whatever! Nobody puts Baby in a corner! I’m going to say France from 1600-1900. That’s right. Multiple time periods. *mic drop.*

What is the name of your pet and what do you actually call said pet?

Kim: Onion is his government name, but we call him Mr. Handsomeness Man, Squeakzilla, My Real Boyfriend, Big Sexy, and Bubba. (He answers to none of the above.)

Cait: Denny Basenji must live with the indignity of being called Bobenny, Smuppy Puppy, Lil’ Poopie, Booberry Banana Face Baby Butt, and Denny M’boops (dictator of a small African country in his mind). He is giving me side eye even as I type this. Oh, and did you know that Kim has a fish? I nearly asphyxiated when I saw this the first time.

What do you think you’d be good at despite having no evidence at all to back you up?

Kim: I feel like I could be excellent at roller derby. I’m low to the ground and I’m good at fighting my way through crowds. Plus, they have cool nicknames, and I am seriously in the market for a nickname.

Cait: I have seriously been worrying about this question for days. Every time I came up with something, I rationalized how I could manufacture evidence to back up my claim. Therefore, I have decided that I would be good at the following: Mars colonist. I’m totally creative and manipulative, and I would have all the other colonists working hard to make sure I survived.

Why do you write fantasy/epic/para/romantic/tentacle?

Kim: I’m much more interested in relationships than battles, so epic fantasy might not be an obvious fit for me. But I am addicted to world building, particularly when it comes to clothing, food, color, jewelry, manners–the things we surround ourselves with that inform who we are. I love the idea of seeing our world through fresh eyes, which my main character gets to do. Also magic!

Cait: I love exploring what it takes to push a character over the edge of disbelief to belief, whether it’s in the paranormal, magic, or the fact that you deserve to be loved. I am fascinated with the transformative power of love in all its forms, from romantic to learning to love yourself.

Our books. You can find them on the “Books” page of this blog!

Tell me about your main character. This will be a startling insight into your personality.

Kim: Are you implying I am a half human/half demon prince who masks his social anxiety with alcohol?

Cait: Well, based on the zombie western Kristen and I are writing, I would have to say there is a bit of me in the 19th century Parisian debutante with social anxiety and agoraphobia, the battle-weary Prussian doctor who is a militant pacifist (because he likes irony), and the sheer cussedness of Zeke the goat.

What can people expect from taking your Fantasy World-Building Classes?

Kim: From me, you’ll learn the value of staring out the window. Not kidding! Most of my worlds are completely invented, so where I do my hardest work is thinking things through. We’ll talk about the stuff that may not immediately occur to you when you sit down to write. Cait has a very different method of approaching her work, which I guess is valid, whatever.

Cait: Kim stares out the window. I’ve literally seen her do it. For me, you’d find me going down a research rabbit hole or making orderly lists and notes of things in my world. That’s how I’ve come to specialize in giving the improbable a hint of the possible, which is what doesn’t just immerse a reader into your world, but pretty much gives them concrete boots and tosses them in the literary east river.

Our three-class bundle. You can also sign up for each class individually, but hey, don’t you WANT all the Cait & Kim you can get?

When you strike it rich and get that JK Rowling theme park money, where will you be found?

Kim: Railay Beach in Thailand. Third hut from the left.

Cait: Venice. In my palazzo. Drinking really, really good espresso.

Desert island book?

Kim: The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which taught me everything I know about writing fantasy, and writing in general.

Cait: The Complete Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson. And, I’d probably try to sneak in my “Life with Jeeves” omnibus by P.G. Wodehouse. Because the storytelling, characterization, and use of language is so masterful in these books, you find something new literally every time you read them.

Building a Better Fantasy World, from Planets to Partying

Kim and I have a lot to say about what goes into creating a fantasy culture. So much, in fact, that we had to break it into three classes, and we are STILL leaving stuff out (though, we’ll probably teach those in October). Anyway, here are some descriptions of the classes for you!


FROM THE GROUND UP: PUTTING THE ‘WORLD’ IN WORLD-BUILDING FOR FANTASY

Instructors: Cait Reynolds and Kim Alexander

Price: $60.00 USD per class or $150.00 USD for 3-class bundle.

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Wednesday, September 13, 2017. 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. EST

So, you’re writing a fantasy novel. That’s great! But before you put the first spell in the Mage’s mouth or the first sword in the princess’s hand, you have to stop, drop, and roll around in the geography of your bold new world. After all, the better you know the lay of the land, the more at home your readers will be.

This class will look at what goes into the world (literally) beneath your character’s feet. Topics include:

  • Distance: you can get there from here, but how long will it take?
  • How’s the weather?
  • Making maps work for you: where do you put the mountains?
  • What’s for sale? Import, export and commodity.
  • Portals, Doors, dimensions and realms–pick one (or more!).

GETTING TO WORK: PROFESSIONS, POLITICS, AND PRODUCTION IN FANTASY WORLD-BUILDING

Instructors: Cait Reynolds Kim Alexander

Price: $60.00 USD per class or $150.00 USD for 3-class bundle.

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Wednesday, September 20, 2017. 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. EST

If you’re working on a fantasy novel, chances are you’ve already decided what the ‘feel’ of your universe will be. This class will help you turn that feeling into a working, fleshed out civilization.

Before we’re done, you’ll know where your world stands in technological advances, what everyone does for a living, and how they get to work every day.

From the wench in the pub to the backup janitor who cleans the jump-drive, everyone’s got to have a gig.

Topics include:

  • Bronze, stone, atom, or magic? Level up!
  • What do you do all day? Putting your characters to work.
  • How did you get here? From feet to flying cars (or monkeys), pick a ride.
  • Do you take plastic? Economics beyond ye olde marketplace.

ROMPS AND REVELS: ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE, AND CULTURE IN FANTASY WORLD-BUILDING

Instructors: Cait Reynolds Kim Alexander

Price: $60.00 USD per class or $150.00 USD for 3-class bundle.

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Wednesday, September 27, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

When a bunch of characters get together, the first thing they’ll do (after slaying the dragon/alien/Elder God) is want to kick back. It’s human(ish) nature!

So let’s explore what the denizens of your fantasy world do on their free time. It can be the serious business of organized religion to the even more serious business of sporting events, to the most serious thing of all–fashion.

In this class, we’ll find out what your characters are reading, what they’re eating, and which team they’re rooting for. Topics include:

  • Celebrity and pop culture – who are the Biebers and Beatles of the world? Why is it important?
  • Ceremony and ritual – religious and/or secular celebrations.
  • What fashion dictates – what your shoes say about you.
  • What is the equivalent of chocolate cake and champagne in your fantasy world, and who gets the first slice?

I love hearing from you!

For the month of September, 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 FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!

Villains & Anti-Heroes: The Characters We Love and Hate. $45.00 USD. Tuesday, September 12, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Hooked: Catching Readers in the First Five Pages. $40.00 USD. Thursday, September 14, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Turn Your Passion Into A Business: Making Money As A Writer. $40.00 USD. Monday, September 25, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Guilty Pleasures: Writing Suspense, Thrillers, and Crime. Tuesday, September 26, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Outside the Box: How to Read More, Write Less, and Up Your Fiction Game. Friday, September 29, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

 

Well, it’s the last day of me, Cait Reynolds, playing “king of the hill” on Kristen’s blog. In honor of this fact, I’d like to begin today’s post by listing out the top five reasons Kristen could be denied re-entry into the United States.

Image courtesy of travelinspiration.com

1. US Customs does not allow you to bring foreign livestock into the country. Kristen coming back counts as Lamb from New Zealand.

2. Kristen mentioned she was suffering from allergies due to pine pollen in New Zealand. This probably counts as smuggling in biological warfare agents.

3. Kristen did not get to see any hobbits. This will trigger a secondary scan of her passport because who doesn’t go to New Zealand and SEE HOBBITS??? Shady AF, if you ask me.

4. The TSA might interpret Kristen’s attempt at the haka as threatening government officials. Or deeply disturbing. Maybe both.

5. Finally, Kristen is coming back full of ideas. This is CLEARLY a threat to national security and must be neutralized immediately. In other words, by sending her back to (some really remote part of) New Zealand where her ideas can’t do much harm.

Maybe I’m just not ready to give this blog back to her. At the very least, you’ll still get to see me on Squatter’s Rights Wednesdays and in my classes. And who knows? Maybe Kristen will travel again (i.e. PLEASE SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD, INVITE KRISTEN TO VISIT!).

To round off my brief stint of world domination, er, substitute blogging, I give you Kim Alexander, here to talk to us about more stuff and things…but mostly stuff.

Frosting, the Snowman…er…Frosty…

Last week we talked about the power of imaginary books – books that characters in novels talk about and read, but don’t really exist.

These imaginary books are a great way to comment on the action taking place in your actual plot, along with a good place to lay down a thick, velvety layer of exposition. So let’s spend some time thinking about imaginary holidays, another excellent place to evenly spread your exposition, taking care that it doesn’t drip down the sides. (I may be watching a lot of the Great British Bakeoff and I’m deeply concerned about a soggy bottom…aren’t we all?)

Only 123 days ‘til Festivus!

Because you’re a person who lives in this world/dimension, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. Festivus, of course, is the invented holiday ‘celebrated’ by George Costanza’s family (and my family, and maybe yours) originally seen on Seinfeld. If I’m honest, though, we enjoy the Sharing of the Grievances all the year ‘round! (It’s December 23rd this year, get the pole ready.)

Invented holidays can come early in your drafts – that is to say, you can decide to throw a party without having all the details of the reason for the party mapped out. That said, eventually you’ll have to answer some questions about secular vs. religious events and what that means for the story at large.

At this point, I suppose it must be said that all holidays are imaginary, in that someone, somewhere thought them up and told their buddies they had a great idea for a day off.

Let’s look at Christmas, for instance. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it’s a state-sponsored consumerist event or a solemn religious occasion, we all know a lot of things associated with Christmas. How much are just things we talk and sing about because we always have? (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a secular Jew who has been collecting glass tree ornaments for many years and LIVES for the day we bring our tree home. Life is a rich tapestry!)

Santa is an elf, right (let’s ignore the whole bit about being a saint for the moment)? But he’s also normal person-sized. And he comes down the chimney. And flying reindeer. And the colors red and green. And turkey, even though we just had it a month prior. Why? Why do we drag trees into our houses? Why would anyone bring myrrh to a manger? What is myrrh? (A few minutes of googling should answer those questions, and also point you in the direction of the sorts of questions you’ll need to ask yourself.)

So if you take a step back and look at Christmas through the lens of writing a fantasy world, you can see it takes up a huge amount of space not only on the calendar (I saw my first ad this week, deep in the lurid heart of August) but in our emotional lives. We all have to make a decision on how to react to the holiday season: celebrate, ignore, mock, love, hate. Even if we consciously avoid it, it’s still making a mark on our behavior. Obviously, your fantasy holiday doesn’t have to have the enormous resonance of the triumvirate of terror that make up Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s, but if you’re bothering to create it, make it have some impact. (I did not include Chanukah because it is awesome and includes fire.)

Caturnalia (hey, it could work!)

Okay, so you’re having a party. It’s in the draft and written on a post-it note. Now it’s time to take a step back and ask what sort of event it will be. This is your chance to shine a light on your created culture and bounce your characters against each other, which is where the fun happens.

Leeloo and Onion would like to propose the holiday of “Caturnalia.” It involves tuna.

What gets your society together? Did they win a war or crown a ruler? Is it a religious event, or is your society a secular one? (Remember that a society is rarely a monoculture while you’re making these decisions.) What about your party? Is it a solemn occasion, or an excuse to drink and dance? Maybe they celebrate writing a song, or the color blue, or cats. (That sounds like a pretty good idea, actually.) You get to dress your characters up and send them to parties, and they either live it up or bitch about being forced to attend – or both.

In my book The Sand Prince, the human world celebrates something called The Quarter Moons Party (they have two moons.) It’s a combination of Independence Day and New Year’s Eve, and it celebrates a great victory and the continued safety of their home city of Mistra. Victory over whom? No one really remembers, and the songs they sing only vaguely allude to ‘locking The Door.’ Everyone wears white and there are special treats you only get once a year. Why? It’s always been that way.

The demons of Eriis who live on the other side of that Door remember it very differently, and when one of them visits the human world, he takes great offense at all the celebration. (He’ll probably appreciate the open bar, though.) Like everything else, an invented holiday is really just another way to explore your characters reactions to each other and to the world around them.

So whether you celebrate Durin’s Day, or First Contact Day, or save up your grievances for Festivus, or are writing up the grocery list for the Labor Day cookout, have a safe and happy one!

About Kim Alexander

Kim Alexander lives in Washington DC where she writes epic fantasy and paranormal romance.  These days she divides her time between writing, rooftop gardening and waiting on her cats.

?Her earlier incarnation co-producing Sirius XM Book Radio gave her a look inside the heads of hundreds of best selling authors, and she’s ready to pass on what she learned. http://kimalexanderonline.com

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For the month of AUGUST, 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 FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!

Villains & Anti-Heroes: The Characters We Love and Hate. $45.00 USD. Tuesday, September 12, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Hooked: Catching Readers in the First Five Pages. $40.00 USD. Thursday, September 14, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Turn Your Passion Into A Business: Making Money As A Writer. $40.00 USD. Monday, September 25, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Guilty Pleasures: Writing Suspense, Thrillers, and Crime. Tuesday, September 26, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Outside the Box: How to Read More, Write Less, and Up Your Fiction Game. Friday, September 29, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

Happy Friday! It’s Cait Reynolds, sitting in for Kristen – who is off GALLIVANTING in New Zealand. We’re not jealous. Or bitter. At. All. Anyway, while the cat’s away, other cats will come in and mark their territory.

Today, I am super excited to bring you Kim Alexander, fantasy writer extraordinaire. If you know anything about me, you know that I am a picky b*tch when it comes to fiction, and there are very few authors that I would go back to the well for, especially when it comes to series. Kim is one of them. Consider this a ‘ground-floor tip’ from me. She’s one to watch.

Kim Alexander and Cait Reynolds at Book Expo America 2017 in New York City. (Also, innocent until proven guilty.)

Encomiums aside, Kim is a master world-builder for fantasy. Today, she is going to talk about something very cool: books within books. This concept is interesting from two perspectives.

The first is the purely commercial aspect of it, (I’m looking at J.K. Rowling and sighing wistfully at the thought of her bank account). Books within books give us a chance to expand a series not just with a ‘back list,’ but with a ‘side list’ of related books.

The second aspect is how it brings the reader deeper into the culture and characters. We read, and we read about characters reading. But to read what they read and understand the impact of that reading…well, that’s a pretty awesome immersion technique. (Bonus points if you unraveled my sentences.)

Before we get to Kim, I need to share a quick programming note: Monday’s blog is going to be the announcement of our September 2017 class schedule. We have new instructors, new classes, and so much more planned!

Now, without further ado…Kim Alexander!

* * *

Traffic, Bilbo Baggins, and espresso (lots of it).

First of all, I have to thank your regularly scheduled squatter Cait who SWORE to me it was okay with Kristen that I take over her page today. Cait, you did tell her, right? RIGHT?

So…hello, friend. I’m Kim Alexander, and I live in DC and write epic fantasy. I used to co-run Sirius XM Book Radio, so I got to interview literally hundreds of authors. When my channel got cancelled, I took everything I learned over those past 5 years and started writing my own books. (I also was an old fashioned radio DJ as a dewy youth, so if you were in South Florida or the Keys you may have heard me kick off another seven song set with Aerosmith coming up after the break. After that I was a traffic reporter for approximately seven thousand years; yes, there was a backup on the beltway; yes, I went up in a helicopter a few times; yes, it was both hard and boring.)

These days, like the rest of us, I mostly start my day in a cold sweat, have a good shower-cry, drink a triple espresso, and do my best to get some work done.

It’s kind of hard to do that last part. Especially when we’re going through a tough time.

I feel pretty confident that I’m not the only one who sometimes needs it all to just stop, just for a few minutes. And there’s no place better to escape than taking solace inside of books.

You know who else is working through some tough times? Almost everyone you’ll meet in those pages. I mean, they wouldn’t be there if things were super, going really well, thanks! If Bilbo just hung around the Shire smoking weed and having parties – no, that’s a bad example, I’d still read that. Okay, if Paul never left Caladan and grew up as a minor noble who never even heard of sandworms, that wouldn’t be much of a story.

So, things go wrong, and then they get wronger. Those stressed, heartsick, lonely, frightened characters – like us – sometimes get away by turning to their favorite imaginary books.

Great books that came from books (and some that didn’t).

I love books within books almost as much as I love footnotes.

Since I’m a weirdo, Lovecraft’s Necronomicon springs to mind as one of my favorites, although I don’t think anyone cracks it open with a cup of tea to relax. I could be wrong – I don’t know your life/allegiance to the Elder Gods.

Harry Potter has dozens of them, of course. Strategically releasing these books not only fed the feeding frenzy of all things Potter, it tided fans over until the release of The Cursed Child and the start of a new movie franchise.

Dune not only has pages of them, but references them liberally throughout the text. I’ve always wanted that thumb sized copy of the Orange Catholic Bible to go along with the ‘I will face my fear’ tattoo I’m going to get one day. Yes, I am way into Dune.

Fictional books have always appealed to me, as much, almost as books of fiction. They are the mystery that can never be solved, they impact our heroes (and villains) without ever showing their faces. It’s up to the author whether or not they want to expose their books-within-books to the light of day. They can be a joke, or a key, or commentary on the action. They add another layer.

They have great power.

I wanted one for myself, or rather, my books.

Not writing a book-within-a-book…then writing it.

In my epic fantasy novel The Sand Prince, my hero, the misfit demon prince Rhuun, finds just such a book – a marvelous story of the adventures of a human man and his friends and enemies on the other side of The Door, the mystical portal separating his own world of Eriis from the human lands of Mistra. The humans are a great mystery to the demons of Eriis, as The Door has been locked in the wake of a disastrous war a generation past. Rhuun is something of a mystery as well, even to himself. He sees something in the human book that resonates with him, and he sees a strange echo of himself in the painting of the human man and woman on the cover of his book. He thinks it’s a documentary, a blueprint to a way of behaving in a world he’s desperate to visit.

He’s mistaken.

Originally, the idea that a lurid, over-the-top, bodice-ripping romance novel would serve as my hero’s guide to the human world was a sort of joke. But then, as things tend to do with us writers, the joke got out of hand and took on a life of its own. I began to seriously consider it.

What if, I asked myself, the only thing Rhuun knows about the human world is what he read in this little book, without context? When he meets Lelet, our relatively modern human heroine, how will she react when he calls her a ‘wench?’ (Pretty much as you’d expect.)

To create my book within a book, I first wrote the epigrams appearing at the beginning of each chapter set in Mistra and taken from the imaginary novel, The Claiming of the Duke. I wanted them to reflect the action in the chapter, and I made the prose of each one more purple than the next.

Then, after The Sand Prince was published, I decided to try and write the whole book.

Since I had one character die twice, several murders, many heaving, creamy, alabaster bosoms, and some fairly ridiculous dialogue, I had a lot of work to do retro-fitting an actual plot with real characters into the twelve or so pages of text I’d already written. It was plotting something that hadn’t even really been pantsed.

I kept almost all (not quite all) of the original epigrams from The Sand Prince. I invented a mysterious dead wife for my Duke, and figured out how to kill off that pesky character who meets his maker twice. I have to confess, I sort of became quite fond of the Duke – to my own surprise – since he’s sort of an alpha-jerk. Only sort of, because even he has hidden and honestly kind of kinky depths.

In fact the most fun I had was sprinkling references to both The Sand Prince and its sequel The Heron Prince into The Claiming of the Duke. We find out why Rhuun picks ‘Moth’ as his name in the human world. If you’ve read those books, you’ll easily find your way through the darkened hallways of the once-great crumbling estate of Gardenhour. If not, welcome to Mistra and I hope you enjoy your introduction to my world within a world inside this book.

Oh! Nearly forgot to mention my inspirations and guiding spirits. Allow me to make your life a better place by introducing you to Leeloo and Onion.

Leeloo, pictured right, is A Lady. Onion, left, is Cattus Gooberus. We like to keep them folded away for neat and easy storage.

Here they are staring in obvious terror at something just above my head. Or an invisible bug. Or air.

So, the cats and I will see you in next month’s classes, and we’ll talk a little more about the ways you can make your fictional fantasy world come to life.

About Kim Alexander

Kim Alexander lives in Washington DC where she writes epic fantasy and paranormal romance.  These days she divides her time between writing, rooftop gardening, and waiting on her cats. ?

Her earlier incarnation co-producing Sirius XM Book Radio gave her a look inside the heads of hundreds of best selling authors, and she’s ready to pass on what she learned.

Kim Alexander Online

 

 

***

For the month of AUGUST, 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).

***

CATCH THE LAST CLASSES FOR AUGUST AND WATCH HERE FOR OUR WHOLE NEW LINE-UP OF SEPTEMBER CLASSES!

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

Blurb - Cait Reynolds
BLURB BOSS: Writing Blurbs that SELL BOOKS. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
BRAND BOSS! When Your Name Alone Can Sell. $45 USD. Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
PLOT BOSS: Writing novels readers want to buy! $40 USD. Thurs., Nov. 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Bad Boys. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

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