Author Interview: ML Spencer

Author ML Spencer is a biology teacher by day and a writer by night. In 2011, she published the first book in her Rhenwars Saga, the award-winning Darkmage, and concluded the pentalogy with Darkfall in 2018. The series “is a sprawling epic set in a morally gray world…[filled with] epic battles, flawed heroes, and a brutal struggle where the triumph of good over evil is never guaranteed.” The complete five-book Rhenwars Saga box set is on sale for 99¢ on Amazon. You’ll find the author on her website at and on Facebook.

At its heart, what is The Rhenwars Saga about?
The Rhenwars Saga is about realizing that one’s own perspective is not the only valid one, and that there may be many others who (not sharing the same world-view as ourselves) might be just as valid as our own. Even our conceptions as seemingly straightforward as good and evil/just vs unjust are actually cultural constructs subject to interpretation and misinterpretation.

What sparked the initial story idea for Darkmage, the first book in the Saga?
I wanted to take a man, tear him down, and rebuild him in the image of those he had spent his life fighting to oppose. And do so in a way that he would seem justified. I wanted him to be guilty of committing the same kind of travesties the “enemy” was despised for, and in doing so showing that there is no right or wrong on a field of battle.

Tell us a little about your main characters. What is it about your protagonist that makes readers connect with him?
My main character is Darien Lauchlin, who finds himself the only surviving mage of the Rhen. It falls to Darien to stop an ancient threat all by himself—and he is nowhere up to the task. He is forced to make a series of impossible choices, giving up a little bit more of his soul each time. Readers connect with him because he’s a man who has been dealt an absolutely horrible hand of cards and does the best he can with them—but his best isn’t anywhere good enough.

How did the series come together?
I wrote Darkmage in 2004 but failed to get it published. It sat around until 2011 when I self-published it. I really had no idea how to market the novel, so it languished on Amazon for several years until I finally started taking the business of writing seriously, wrote more books, and learned how to market. Once I started writing again, the rest of the series came together in just a couple of years.

Of the five books in the series, which one was the most challenging to write, and which was the easiest?
The easiest was Darkmage. That book just flowed out of me—230K words in 40 days! I couldn’t eat or sleep—I just wrote around the clock. The hardest was the last book, Darkfall. It was very hard to tie up all the loose ends in a way that would leave readers feeling satisfied. Of all the books, that took the most planning.

What did you do to make your world, with its social structure and magic system, believable and logical?
I built the world around the themes of the story, creating it mostly as I went along. This worked well, as I was able to use the world to serve the story and not let the worldbuilding drive the plot.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Favorite part was standing at the very end of a long journey and knowing I’d given it my all and did the very best I could do—better than I’d ever thought I was capable of. I had always doubted myself. Looking back at the finished saga was an amazing reaffirmation.

If the stars aligned, what past or present television or movie series would you love to write for (or be involved with in any capacity)?
The Wheel of Time series! If only!

How has your experience as a teacher benefited your fiction writing?
I would say my writing has benefited my teaching more than teaching has benefited my writing. I have been able to take a lot of the skills I’ve picked up as a writer and apply them to the classroom. I can certainly help students write good essays—not bad for a science teacher! And because I studied science, that has helped me in world building. A lot.

Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I wish I would have done more research into what it takes to sell novels before I ever pushed the “publish” button on Amazon. My life would have been a lot easier and I would have saved a LOT of money.

Any writing rituals or something you absolutely need in order to write?
I must read at least a paragraph of some other work to get the wheels lubricated. My favorites are Steven Erikson or Stephen King (must be a Steve thing). Then I’m good to go!

What writing project are you working on now?
I am writing a new series in the same world, set 20 years after the events of The Rhenwars Saga.

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Love Your Writing Journey

There will always be another hill to climb, another goal to reach, a new star to strive for. So learn to love each and every day of your writing journey, no matter how hard it gets. Because success won’t bring you happiness. Joy will. ~ Kristen Kieffer

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Writing Character Emotions Just Got Easier

Surprise, this is the second post in one week for me, but I just wanted to let you know The Emotion Thesaurus (Second Edition) by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is now available.

I received my copy in the mail just a few days ago. If you’re like me, you want to hold a reference book in your hands and (deface it with colored pens or markers or) add sticky notes to the entries you use most often. Prefer a handy eBook to take anywhere? Angela and Becca have that covered as well.

This second edition is more than a new cover. It’s been enhanced and expanded to include 55 new entries and double the teaching material. Now writers can go even deeper when showing their characters’ emotions.

If you want to look into it further, read some of the reviews on Goodreads or find more information here. And if you own the first edition but you’re on the fence about buying the second, check out Jami Gold’s comparison of the two versions.

One more thing I want to share…

Giveaway Alert:

To celebrate the new book and its dedicated readers, Angela and Becca have a great giveaway going on right now: one person will win a free writing retreat, conference, workshop, or professional membership to a writing organization—winner’s choice—up to $500 (US), with some conditions which are listed on the Writers Helping Writers site.

What conference have you dreamed of attending…or would you choose a retreat? Something else? Decisions, decisions!

Enter now, the giveaway ends February 26th.

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What Beginning Writers Misunderstand about Storytelling

Between this blog and the website for SouthWest Writers, I’ve conducted over a hundred interviews in the last few years. The answers I enjoy most involve the writing process, how authors deal with world building and series writing, and what makes their characters likeable.

Authors who have spent dozens of years in the writing trenches, and know enough to teach others, are the ones I wish I could spend hours picking their brains—or attached by umbilical, coaxing the writing life from them (in a gentle, non-vampire way).

One of my favorite questions to ask these experts is: What do many beginning writers misunderstand about telling a story? Here are the best answers to that question from seven authors who often share their writing expertise online, in classroom environments, and/or at conferences.

Michael Backus is an author and creative writing instructor whose fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous print and online publications:

Beginning writers don’t understand how labor intensive a good piece of writing is. Everyone writes differently but most of us do literally dozens of revisions of a piece of writing before we’re done. The other thing I see regularly is confusion over the difference between real life and life in fiction. In fiction, there’s a reason for everything that happens. Like Chekhov’s famous “gun on the mantelpiece” advice—if you create a detail in the beginning of a story, that detail has to play a part somewhere in the story. And beginning writers often struggle with cause and effect, the idea that if something happens in a story (the effect), we need to understand the cause. Things in life often just happen. Things in a story never can. There has to be a reason, and there has to be connection between the major elements of a story.

Sarah Baker writes mystery as S.H. Baker, romance as Sarah Storme, and erotica as Lydia Parks. She has 20 novels, numerous novellas and short stories, and three audiobooks available:

I think many writers who are just starting out do the same things I did: they don’t start in the middle of action, and they feel the need to tell the reader all the backstory. I had the opportunity to work as an acquiring editor at a small press for a short time, and I learned just how quickly you have to grab the editor’s attention. And if you can’t grab an editor’s attention, you won’t be able to grab a reader’s, either. Jumping into a story mid-stride isn’t natural. It takes practice, but it’s very important to do.

Joseph Badal, best-selling and award-winning thriller author, has published dozens of articles and short stories as well as 13 novels split between three series and three standalones:

The biggest failing I see among beginning writers is that they believe all that is necessary to be published and to be successful is to tell a good story. A good story is the minimum requirement for success. But beyond that, the writer must learn that writing is a craft and that honing that craft is a continual process. I had to learn this the hard way. Today, after I finish the first draft of a manuscript, I spend months editing that manuscript (usually 6-8 edits). In the editing process, I challenge the necessity and appropriateness of every word, and make adjustments accordingly. This is a time-consuming, arduous process, but once finished, it adds to the satisfaction of writing.

Melody Groves is a novelist and nonfiction writer whose freelance articles can be found in publications such as American Cowboy, Wild West, True West, and New Mexico Magazine:

[Beginning writers need to understand] that they’re TELLING a story, not educating nor preaching. If a reader learns something, fine. But our job is to spin a tale, put readers in a different place and time from their own. Entertain them. We are entertainers, storytellers, not priests or professors.

As a conference speaker, founder of Fiction University, and an author of fiction and nonfiction, Janice Hardy is one of the busiest writing professionals in the industry:

[A story is] about interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. I’ve read (and written, let’s be honest) plenty of novels that essentially describe how a character does X. There’s never a sense of them figuring things out or solving a problem. It’s “Here’s how the hero kills the evil wizard” not “Here’s how the hero learns to overcome her fears and triumphs over the evil wizard by becoming better in some way.”

Jack Woodville London is a former U.S. Army officer and courtroom lawyer turned award-winning author. He has published nonfiction articles and reference books, as well as short stories and historical novels:

When readers pick up a book they look for three things: what is the story about, who are the characters, and where do I come in? Telling a story is a contract between the storyteller and the audience. The reader has to become invested in the story for it to succeed. To invest readers, the story must be something they can see themselves being a part of. The story must make the reader expect the conflict to come out a certain way and continue reading until the conflict does come out, although not necessarily as expected. The story doesn’t get better with clever phrases and lots of adjectives.

Don Morgan is a versatile author of 13 published novels written under several pen names. As Don Travis, he’s released five mysteries through Dreamspinner Press:

What I find to be the most common misconception for beginners is assuming that the incidents (real or imagined) they choose to put down on paper are as fascinating to others as they are to themselves. While that may or may not be true, it is the manner of the telling that determines whether or not the writing is truly interesting. It’s a simple concept, but so many of us (even experienced writers) have to relearn this each time we sit down at our desk.

What else do you think beginning writers misunderstand about telling stories?

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10 Tips to Conquer a Writing Block Mountain

Writers often slam into a story wall. Sometimes they find a way to scale it and continue to run and dodge through the rest of the obstacle course to reach “The End.”

But sometimes, instead of a wall standing in our path, it’s a mountain range that blocks our progress. We’re backed into a corner. Ideas stop coming. Words shrivel up and die on the page before the ink dries. Maybe we don’t know the characters well enough. Somewhere between the lines we’ve lost our passion for the story. Whatever the reason for the block, it’s a real thing (no matter what others might say), and it happens to most writers sooner or later.

Suggestions abound for busting down writing blocks that don’t involve actual writing, such as drawing a map of the story world, designing a book cover, or compiling a playlist. Switching to another writing project keeps creativity flowing but distracts from the piece that caused the crash-and-burn in the first place.

The following tips focus on keeping you on a path through your current work-in-progress—the one that’s actually giving you grief. Most of these will get your brain to shift gears, help stimulate creativity, and cause you to look at your characters and their story from a different angle.

1. Write in long hand. This is the one I turn to first when I’m stuck. It means an extra step in transcribing your work onto a computer later, but it could be just enough of a change to get you back on the path.

2. Write a scene from a different point of view (POV) character. Try one you haven’t used yet or never thought to use at all—a secondary character, a love interest, the antagonist, the protagonist’s dog, the biggest redwood in the forest. This is especially helpful in understanding how another character feels or will react in a situation.

3. Write flashbacks. Here’s a way to dig deeper into your characters, where they come from, and what shaped their lives. Do this for villains as well as heroes.

4. Switch POV style and rewrite a scene or two—first person instead of third, third person instead of first.

5. Write out-of-order. Who says you have to write chronologically or strictly follow an outline? Whether or not you have a scene busting to be written, give it a go no matter where it falls in the storyline.

6. Having trouble deciding where the plot should go? Take inspiration from the Write-Your-Own-Adventure series. Write more than one course of action and follow the results. This also works if you know the end of your story but not how to get there.

7. Write a scene or chapter only in dialogue. This is a great way to practice your skills and get your brain working on advancing the story in a different way.

8. Change from “showing” to “telling” mode. Author Robin LaFevers suggests this switch “allows you to ‘tell’ the story. You can then go back in and convert it to showing/action based scenes later but being able to ‘tell’ helps you keep moving forward.”

9. Apply writing exercises or prompts to your characters or story. One of my favorites: What do your characters carry in their pockets, and why are these things important to them? A variation asks what a character wears, such as jewelry, as a token of remembrance.

10. Write a dream sequence or nightmare in your protagonist’s POV. This might be helpful if a character is wrestling with making the right decision or doesn’t know how to get out of a predicament—the subconscious often knows exactly what to do.

If just one of these suggestions helps blaze a new trail around the mountain, gives you a better understanding of a character, or reveals where the story is going, it will be worth the time spent deviating from the original plan. You might end up with writing that doesn’t fit in your story, but no writing is a waste of time or energy. It’s all part of the journey to “The End.”

What techniques have you used to find a way around a writing block mountain (or through it, if you like goblins)?

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A Must-have Resource for Writing Character Emotions

For the last month, I’ve been part of a Street Team for Angela and Becca at Writers Helping Writers who will launch a new writing book on February 19th. Because they’re known for showing, not telling, they decided it would be fun to keep the topic of the thesaurus a secret until the book cover reveal…WHICH IS TODAY!

I own every thesaurus Angela and Becca have published, so it’s been hard to keep quiet about this. I’m excited to finally announce that The Emotion Thesaurus Second Edition is coming.

Many of you know (and possibly use) the original Emotion Thesaurus. It released in 2012 and became a go-to resource with its lists of body language, thoughts, and visceral sensations for 75 emotions, making the difficult task of showing character emotion on the page much easier.

Over the years writers have asked Angela and Becca to add more emotions, so the two decided to create a second edition. It contains 55 NEW entries, bringing the total to 130 emotions. In addition, the instructive portion and existing entries have been revamped and expanded.

With the new content, this book is almost DOUBLE THE SIZE of the first one. I love the original Emotion Thesaurus (and all of Angela and Becca’s resources for writers), so I recommend checking out the new book.

Preorder Alert!

This book is available for preorder starting today. You’ll find all the details about the book’s contents by visiting Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books (iTunes), and Indiebound, or by going to Writers Helping Writers. You can also view the full list of emotions included in the new thesaurus.

One last thing…

Angela & Becca have a special gift for writers HERE. If you like free education, stop by and check it out. (It’s only available for a limited time!)

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Goals: Blogging, Books, and Bonekeeping

After weeks of thinking, planning, and scribbling (along with necessary reality checks), I’ve settled on several writing-related goals for the coming year.

Fiction Goals

Major goal: Book one in my dark fantasy series, The Last Bonekeeper, is ready for an editor’s eyes. The draft of book two, after sitting for several months, is waiting for the first round of self-editing. I’m also five chapters into the draft of the final installment in the trilogy. The plan is to indie publish the first book in December, with the others to follow in 2020.

Lesser goal #1: Finish a light-hearted space opera novella I’m currently sharing in a critique group. Rewriting/revising is taking longer than I expected because it’s one of my first completed projects (so it needs a ton of work), but the story and characters are such fun to write I just can’t give up on it. The plan is to indie publish in 2020.

Lesser goal #2: Take the draft of another fun-to-write book through editing and critiquing stages (think: an order of ninja nuns fights an evil brotherhood). The storyline is strong enough to carry a series. The plan is to seek a small traditional publisher in 2020.

Blogging Goals

As part of my goals for 2019, I’ll continue monthly interviews (starting again in February) and posts on writing terms and internet treasure. Revisiting 2018 goals, I’ll also add a comic strip with the help of my 14-year-old granddaughter. And last, sharing my writing will actually happen this year on the blog, alternating between fantasy and sci-fi short stories. Here are the titles and opening paragraphs for a few of them:

“After the Rats”
13…Love and Luck. What better way to acquire both than invite a witch to supper? Wrank snickered as he swiped a rag across the tavern’s polished bar.
13…The last of the day’s light pierced the front window and hit him square in the eyes. He cursed the sun and its reminder of his lack of coin. The tavern and the inn had no canopies to shade its windows, few candles and little lantern oil to burn once he closed the shutters. Canopies, candles, and oil cost coin. Did he have a single copper for any of it? No, but he had a witch coming to sup.

“Eyes of Daze”
13…Lenz slouched in his gelatinous, free-floating pilot’s chair. The journey had been a long one to the third planet in this nondescript solar system. More than half the day had passed, but it would still take several hours to complete his errand once he landed on the surface below.
13…“It’s too bad you can’t remember,” Rolin said from the co-pilot’s seat, his words trailing off as he failed to fight off a yawn. “It would make things a lot easier if you could.” He stretched his tri-clustered arms and legs and dangled them over the armrests.
13…Lenz raised a brow at his friend. He had surmised years ago that Rolin was the result of his mother’s belief that strength and sturdiness were more important than the superficiality of looks, especially on the family’s rock farm. He could think of no other reason for giving Rolin one head, a single huge torso, and three of almost everything else, except brains — unfortunately, he only had one of those.

13…A song pressed through the hollow stump from far below the workroom floor. Not truly a song but Tumbledown’s idea of one. The ancient fae creature couldn’t carry a tune any more than a tax collector could keep honest books.
13…Rawly closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and pushed aside Tumbledown’s croaking in favor of the task at hand.
13…Everything Rawly needed to fix the vicar’s clock lay within reach on the workbench. Gears, weights, and springs glinted in the lantern light from their place in the bottom of a divided tray. A handful of screws, some with heads the size of a jelly-gnat, waited on a cloth nearby. Too many screws to use for one clock, but a few always chose to play on the hard-packed floor after a long day waiting on the bench. Rawly had learned it wasn’t wise to rush the screws or the clocks. Hurrying led to mistakes, and it was never a good thing to make a mistake with time.

“Fair Trade”
13…Yesterday never existed and tomorrow was uncertain, but at least today Saul had a name. He clung to that knowledge the way he held on to the truth the doctor had told him, “Your brain is now partitioned into three sections. One brain, three minds. Yours is the third mind, Saul, the interface. Be patient. It will take time for the other two to find their way to the surface through you. And don’t forget you’re in charge of the doors that open from the other minds. Understand?”
13…Saul understood. Better outside in the fresh air than trapped in a grey-walled room. Better to walk upright with every sense intact than to thrash about in a dark and hollow emptiness.
13…Better than death, a voice whispered from a doorway. Saul nodded and waited, and prepared to shut the door if the voices grew too loud. But this time only silence lingered in response from the other side.

Reading Goals

For me, reading is an important part of reaching an ongoing writing goal of improving my craft. I’ll be reading two to three books a month (maybe more)—one or two in the fantasy/sci-fi genres and one thriller/suspense or historical fiction. I haven’t kept track of my reading in the past, but my guess is I normally finish at least 24 books a year. I’ll also track the number I start but don’t complete. To reach my reading goals I’ll have to snuggle up with a book an hour or two earlier each night, which means saying goodnight to Netflix earlier as well.

What writing or reading goals have you set for yourself this year? What do you need to give up to make sure you meet your goals?

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As someone who’s easily distracted, I understand the need to stay focused on what’s important (and to remind myself of that truth). A companion of that need is remembering to remind myself.

Like so many others at this time of year, I’m in the throes of project planning and goal setting. The new year brings a blank slate, washed clean of last year’s smudges of failure and lost dreams.

It might seem premature to consider the possibility of obstacles. But we all know they’re there, the key is not to let them distract from what’s truly important. Following a roadmap and tracking milestones seems a sure way to reach a destination.

I’ve added Hannah More’s quote – “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal.” – to my daily Remember This list, along with Jack Bickham’s “Writers Write. Everyone else makes excuses.”

It’s a new year full of new days and a blank day-week-month planner waiting to be filled. I’m looking forward to the possibilities, all the lessons to be learned and the trails (wild or tame) waiting to be taken.

How about you?

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Author Interview: JA Andrews

Author JA Andrews juggles time, family life, and aphantasia to write epic fantasy stories in her Keeper Chronicles world where peace-keeping storytellers fight magic with magic. The series includes A Threat of Shadows, book one (2nd edition, 2018) and Pursuit of Shadows, book two (2018), as well as the standalone novel A Keeper’s Tale: The Story of Tomkin and the Dragon (2016)—with more to come. You’ll find Janice on her website and on Facebook.

What sparked the initial story idea for A Threat of Shadows? Did you plan on the first book working into a series?
A Threat of Shadows was actually started in 2008 because my husband had to work out-of-town for a month, and he was bored to death. So I started writing him a scene of a story each day to give him something entertaining to read at night. The first ten-ish chapters of the final book came out of that time. Once he got home, the story was dropped and mostly ignored for the next half-dozen years. But I had developed such a fondness for the characters that I couldn’t quite forget it. After a few writing classes and discovering that indie publishing was becoming more viable and more interesting all the time, I decided to give it a try.

Wrangling those early chapters into the beginning of a novel was a lot of work, and I had a ton to learn about writing stories (I still do), but around 2014 I decided to give this writing thing a chance, and began the (incredibly slow) process of writing and learning and editing and rewriting and wailing in despair and editing again. I finally published it in 2016. As soon as I got into the book I knew I wanted a series about the Keepers.

What do you do to make your magic system logical and believable?
I have a degree in engineering, so to have the magic system be all about manipulating energy felt like a rational thing for me. It doesn’t all work perfectly—because it’s magic—but I get a bit hung up on magic systems that defy the existing laws of physics. Explaining this always makes me feel quite nerdy, and always leads people to ask why I don’t write sci-fi instead. But I think it’s the wonder of the magic that draws me to fantasy. Sci-fi feels too rational. I want a little whimsy in my magic. And some sparkle.

Tell us a little about your main characters and why readers will connect with them. Will those who know you recognize you in any of the characters?
My main characters are Keepers, a very small group of people (one is found about every 7-10 years) who can do magic but are mostly concerned with keeping the history and stories of the country. They’re more bookish than warrior-like. In fact they don’t usually have weapons, and they’re not that much help in a fight. Which is unfortunate as they keep being attacked by dragons. The Keepers are very dedicated to keeping peace in the country and are generally self-sacrificing and noble. In my first book, Keeper Alaric spends the book wrestling with the fact that in an effort to keep his wife from dying, he’s thrown away a lot of those ideals and went to dark places he’d never thought he could go. I do think people can probably see me in most of my characters. I think it’s hard to genuinely write characters if you can’t really sympathize with their desires and their struggles.

How did the first book in the series compare to the second as far as challenges go?
The second book in my series, Pursuit of Shadows, follows a different Keeper than the first, and I really underestimated how hard it would be to write a new character after writing Alaric from book one for almost a decade. The books do intertwine (and it’s a continuation of a larger story arc), but it was hard to learn to write with a new voice.

What does a typical writing session look like for you? Any writing rituals or must-haves to get you started or keep you going?
I have three kids (ages 7, 9, and 12), and I home-school them. So all my good writing happens early in the morning before anyone else is awake. I have a mini-Christmas tree lit up next to my desk, a cup of coffee, and, which is music that’s magical and enhances focus. It’s the greatest thing ever.

Of the three books you’ve written, which one did you enjoy writing the most?
A Keeper’s Tale, without a doubt. It’s a short novel that is a standalone story. Unlike the other two books, which are the first two in a series and spend a lot of time focused on relationships and larger issues (like how we reconcile who we are with who we think we should be), A Keeper’s Tale is basically a romp of an adventure story. It was so much fun to write that it gave me the mistaken idea that all future books would be that easy. If you ask any of my critique partners who listened to my moaning for a year and a half of writing Pursuit of Shadows [written after A Keeper’s Tale], you’ll know that didn’t turn out to be true.

Where does A Keeper’s Tale: The Story of Tomkin and the Dragon fit into the world of The Keepers Chronicles? Do you have plans for more Keeper’s Tales?
The Keepers are storytellers, and the story of Tomkin and the dragon is a well-loved story in their world. It was mentioned more than once in my first book, and so I thought it would be fun to write it out, seeing as how even I didn’t know what the story was about. It turned out to be a really fun tale about a bookish young man who’s finally put in a place to be as heroic as he’s always wanted to be.

I do have plans for more! I wrote a short story called The Black Horn which is another of the Keeper’s stories. It’s published at the back of the expanded second edition of A Threat of Shadows. I have at least one more story that I have vaguely outlined which will probably be novella length and will relate to book three. And I’m sure I’ll have many more. They’re really fun to write, it’s just finding the time to do it!

In an interview with Marc Secchia, you discuss the term “noblebright.” Why does your writing fit in this category? When you write, do you keep in mind that your children or grandchildren will someday read your stories?
Noblebright is a little tricky to describe, but it’s a term that stands opposite of grimdark, which is a bleaker, darker sort of fantasy. Noblebright doesn’t mean that the world is bright and cheery, or that the characters are all good and noble. To me the difference lies in the hope that characters can do something that will make a difference. For instance, if you take a series like Game of Thrones, the entire world is so dark and broken that no character, no matter how much they try, will have a significantly good impact on the world. In contrast, take Lord of the Rings, where a couple little hobbits can sacrifice a lot and manage to defeat a terrible evil. Or a shield maiden of Rohan can kill the king of the Nazgul. Not all of Middle Earth is as cheerful as the Shire, but there’s a hope there that good can prevail in a significant way. To me, that’s noblebright, and it’s definitely the feel in all my writing. I don’t want characters who don’t struggle, because I don’t see that as realistic. I want them to be urged on by the hope that even though it looks bleak, maybe they can bring something good to the world.

And I do keep in mind that my kids will read my books. They’re all excellent readers, and my twelve-year-old reads everything I write. I don’t want to write children’s books, but I want my books to be clean enough that younger readers can read them. At the same time, the books are written for adults and tackle more adult ideas like guilt and loss and loyalty.

Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
I keep finding my characters dealing with who they are compared with who they think they should be. I suppose I should spend some time soul-searching why I keep writing that, lol.

What are the hardest kinds of scenes for you to write?
Descriptions of new places! I have very little visual imagination. When I imagine the story, it’s emotions and sounds and character interaction and dialogue all set in a hazy, vague setting. Unfortunately, most people want a little more setting than that, and when my characters reach a place that’s really important to the story, it takes blood, sweat, and tears (and a lot of editing) to get things right. When all else fails, I personify things. An approaching rainstorm becomes a storm giant striding across the land. Not because I am so very fancy that I thought of it right away, but because I worked on trying to actually describe it for an hour before giving up and slapping some personification on it.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently drafting the final book of the Keeper Chronicles, which I hope to publish next spring.

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3 Fiction Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping

I wince at the memory of using each of these writing “no-no’s” in my early fiction (and critique partners still catch me in the act at times). Data dumping is fun for writers bursting to share their research or hard-wrought descriptions, but it’s a bane for readers who just want to get on with the story. Using filter words is a hard habit to break but one a writer should consider if the goal is to draw a reader closer to a point-of-view character. And head hopping? Let’s just say I’ve worked for weeks to destroy the chaos I brought to one of my first novellas.

This is another in my series of what-I-wish-I’d-known-then posts that include short lists with definitions and links for further reading.

Data Dump (also Information/Info Dump)

“There’s an important balance that has to be struck, between ‘intriguing information about this world’ and ‘overwhelming info dump about this world.’” ~ Stefanie Gaither

A data dump in fiction is an instance where a writer shares too much information (such as backstory, description, or history) all in one place. Coming upon such a weight might prompt a reader to skim a page (or more) until the action resumes. Data dumps also slow down the forward momentum of a story, often stopping it, and usually signal author intrusion. A better approach for a writer is to weave in pertinent information only when a reader needs it.

For more:
Jennie Nash: “Stop Info Dumps Before They Start”
Robert Wood, Standout Books: “How (And When) To Stop Front-Loading Your Story”

Filter Words

Routine use of filter words—saw, heard, looked, felt, etc.—in describing a point-of-view (POV) character’s experience adds a subtle barrier between the character and the reader.

With filters: Jim saw the falcon dive from the crevice and felt a wing graze his cheek as the bird swooped by.
Without filters: The falcon dove from the crevice. A wing grazed Jim’s cheek as the bird swooped by.

According to Janice Hardy, filter words not only distance readers from the POV character, they “remind them they’re reading, explain things that are obvious, and often lead a writer into telling [versus showing] or crafting passive sentences.” Without filter words, the reader “looks through the eyes of the POV character” at the world. With such filters, a reader “looks at the POV character” as the character looks at the world. And, “Remember, your POV is already filtering for you. There’s no need to remind the reader they’re doing it.”

For more:
Janice Hardy, Fiction University: “You’ll Have to Go Through Me: Eliminating Filter Words”

Head Hopping

When a narrative jumps from one character’s POV to another within a paragraph or scene, it’s called head hopping.

Joe Bunting gives the following explanation of why head hopping is discouraged for most genres*: “[W]hen the narrator switches from one character’s thoughts to another’s too quickly, it jars the reader and breaks the intimacy with the scene’s main character. Also, it’s good to give readers ground rules—such as a consistent point of view—for how the storytelling will work, and if we break those ground rules, we can lose the reader’s trust.”

Cynthia VanRooy adds, “Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded that they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.”

Head Hopping vs. Omniscient POV
Head hopping might sound like the same method used to tell a story through an omniscient point of view (the all-knowing, outside narrator), but D. Wallace Peach explains the difference this way: “It comes down to ‘voice.’ Head-hopping acts like an omniscient POV in that the narrator has access to all the character’s thoughts and feelings in a scene. But instead of sharing them in the outside narrator’s voice, in head-hopping, the story hops from one character’s distinctive inner ‘voice’ to another. The result can be disorienting, jarring, or confusing.”

*In the romance genre, head hopping is more acceptable because the reader wants to know how the love interests feel at a particular moment. Romance writers might use multiple POVs within a scene, but separate them by paragraphs to avoid confusion.

For more:
Jodie Renner on Kill Zone Authors: “POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping”
K.M. Weiland, Writers Helping Writers: “Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 62: Head-Hopping POV”

As a writer, have you ever dumped data, overused filter words, or hopped from one head to another? From a reader’s perspective, have any of these writing methods pulled you out of a fictional world?

For more in the 3 Fiction Writing Terms series, check out:
Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory
Arcs, Beats, Blurbs
Foreshadow, MacGuffin, Red Herring
Clichés, Point of View, Suspension of Disbelief

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Posted in Fiction Writing Terms
All who wander are not lost.~ JRR Tolkien

CampNaNoWriMo Winners Badges Apr_Jul 2015
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