Category Archives: Your Writing Career

No man is an island

No man is an Island

(Guest post by Gama Ray Martinez)

“No man is an island entire of itself.”

John Donne wrote those famous words almost four hundred years ago. With very few exceptions, they are as true in fiction as they are in life. Keep in mind that most stories are from the point of view of the hero, and for the vast majority of stories, you know the hero is going to triumph in the end. That’s not why you read the story. We read the story to find out what the hero is going to have to go through to get that victory. what price are they going to have to pay? Usually, the very first price is who they are. The character at the end of the story is not the same as the character in the beginning. They’ve often lost their innocence. They have changed, and they have changed those around them. No here is this most apparent than in their closest friendships. There are a couple of ways to do this. The one that I’ve found the most success with is finding what your main character lacks.

In my recently completed Pharim War series, the main character, Jez, has two strong relationships. The first is Osmund, one of the first people he meets when he goes away to magic school. Throughout the first book, Jez discovers strange powers inside of himself that indicate he may not be entirely human. Osmund, an exile because of his own partially inhuman heritage, has already been through that. By the end of the first book, the pair are inseparable. By the end of the second, not only have they accepted their inhuman side. They have embraced it. Through the rest of the series, their conversations with each other often inspire awe and fear in others, not because they are not entirely human, but rather because of the adventures their inhuman side has led them too. What they can casually discuss with each other, no one else can understand. That leads to scenes like this, if the fifth book of the series.

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“Fine,” Jez said, “but the question still stands. Can’t we just go and face Sharim’s army ourselves?”

Fina smirked. “And how many demon armies have you faced?”

“Two,” Jez said without hesitation. Then, he glanced at Osmund. “Do you think that time in the beast men’s valley counts? I mean those animals were possessed.”

“True, but we didn’t really fight them. That was all the beast men. You did battle that giant lake monster, though.”

Jez shook his head. “That wasn’t a demon.” He smiled and looked at Fina. “Just two.”

Lina groaned. “You two are hopeless.”

For a second, Fina just stared at them. Then, he threw back his head and laughed. “For a moment, I forgot who I was talking to.”

***

The air of casualness with which they speak of something so amazing is a quality that characterizes their relationship throughout the series.

Jez’s second important relationship is with Lina. Lina actually started as an antagonist, of sorts. She was the rich spoiled daughter of a noble, and she hated Jez, essentially for being a commoner. It was only in the second book when I explored the noble class of the world of the Pharim War that I found the depth of her character. Throughout the series, she, more and more, represented Jez’s link to his human side. The more he had to embrace his other half, the more precious his human side became to the point where he makes sacrifices for her that he would make for no one else. Of course, it works both way. Just as she is Jez’s, and to a lesser extent Osmund’s, link to humanity, their relationships with her serve as a catalyst in Lina’s life that allows her to see that just because someone isn’t noble doesn’t make them of less value. In short, she helps them be human, and they help her be humane.

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Gama Ray Martinez lives in Salt Lake City area and collects weapons in case he ever needs to supply a medieval battalion. He greatly resents when work or other real life things get in the way of writing. He secretly dreams of one day slaying a dragon in single combat and doesn’t believe in letting pesky little things like reality stand in the way of dreams. He has recently completed the Pharim War, a series about angels and is working on The Nylean Chronicles, a series about unicorns.

With a little help… from my friends

(Guest post from Helen Savore)

Friendship, especially in the form of the companion is a key role in fiction. We’ve spent the whole month talking about the iconic greats, and discovering some new exemplars too. The companion does so much for our protagonist, providing support, knowledge, assistance, even generating sympathy for our readers.

In some stories, they help define the protagonist. Multiple perspectives in a story gives us different takes on a plot, but what about different views of our people? You don’t even need to do this through pov, the friend’s words and action, even filtered through our protagonist, can still provide a rich message to the reader. Sometimes we get so deep into the struggles of our leading person we need that reminder to come up for air and see there might be different takes on this situation.

Friendships are also a great way to introduce characters, either as the story starts, or coming in later. With friendships there’s an assumed history. When written right, it’s clear through every action, every word, every movement. In ensemble pieces you don’t have a lot of time to get to know your characters, so every scene has to do double duty. I’m not just meeting you, I’m learning about other folk too. Think how Danny and Rusty assemble the crew in Ocean’s Eleven. No one says hello. Each approach is unique, showing us their relationships, which teaches us about each of them. As Basher puts it “It’s good to be working with proper villains again.”

Then there’s the opposite. In a more lonely work, singleton stories, at least one form of companion gives us insight into our protagonist, gives them someone to share with. One of my favorite stories is The Hero and the Crown, but I admit McKinely writes a lonely story. As a classical introvert on the edges of my peer group, Aerin is an attractive character, but I’m not sure this beloved story would be bearable without her beloved Talat. (Don’t you dare tell me horses cannot be friends!) Even though he can’t strictly speak, that horse can communicate. Through his actions, and reactions to Aerin, we come to empathize with this DragonKiller from before the legends.

Another interesting case is the Legend of Zelda franchise. Though wonderfully puzzling and iconic the earliest incarnations didn’t have a lot of story, but this changed over time. With Breath of the Wild’s release my husband and I have been debating what are the best games. As a storyteller, that aspect obviously ranks high for me compared to others (don’t worry, I love my dungeons challenges too), but that lead us to question: what makes the best Zelda story?

Video game characters, are sometimes designed to be a blank slate sometimes to allow the player to become the character more easily. Link is one of our most classic silent protagonists, so without words how do we then empathize with a character? A premise might get us to start reading a story, or playing a game, but it’s the journey of our characters that keeps us going. Yeah Link returns constantly to the main settlement in some games, or passes through different villages and meets folk. However it’s only in the games where he consistently is meeting the same people that we really get a better feel for Link himself, and the struggles of the people Hyrule. We get a better feel of what we’re fighting for, not just to vanquish Ganon once again (because he always comes back!). Where is this stronger than in the stories where he has a companion? The companion serves a game mechanic of assisting the player, but provides us a voice, and an opinion on Link’s actions. It gives us someone to share the journey with.

In developing my own work, Tales of the Faerie Forge, I have races of beings that don’t age. As long as they aren’t broken they’ll continue to live. But I didn’t want them to exist in a perpetual stasis, and part of that was making sure they could continue to grow, and evolve. This meant establishing a culture with changing relationships, since people are so defined by who we are with. This is no pledge to a partner for life. Often it’s a deep friendship, so they form an alloy amidst each other for a time. But it can be reforged with others as they grow

I’ve shared some of mine, but who are your favorite companions in fiction? How do they compliment our protagonists?

***

Helen Savore writes fantastical worlds filled with a mixture of modern and medieval settings. She explores stories loosely based on Arthurian legends, secretly wishing that King Arthur would return to pull the world from the brink of darkness. An engineer by day, and a gamer when time allows, this paper ninja writes, reads, plays with pen-and-paper RPGs and folds origami. It’s not surprising that her stories are filled with unexpected folds and twists that blend seamlessly with reality.
Learn more about Helen’s stories over at Oberon’s Forge Press

Three’s Company, But Six is a Crowd

Writing critique groups are like blogs. They both tend to start with vows of seriousness and dedication. They launch with vigor and excitement, but eventually slow and become work. Life gets complicated (as it always does) and priorities change. First one deadline is missed. Then two. Then all of them. Most often, people in the group wander away, and unless there is a constant flow of new blood, the collective falls apart. Though plentiful, most fail within a year.

However, decay and disbandment are not inevitable, just common. I’ve contributed to half a dozen blogs or critique groups over the years. Only two have continued to this day. First is the Fictorians. Second is my current critique group, which has been going strong for over two years and has helped us all grow as authors. So, what makes these two groups successful, whereas the others failed?

The key factor, I think, is ensuring the group is the right size for what it is trying to accomplish. Groups that are too small may fail to meet their goals because the work overwhelms the members. There are simply not enough people to carry the load. Another common pitfall that I’ve observed is the tendency of small groups to synchronize into a group think. There needs to be enough diversity of thought and experience to keep things interesting and productive. So why then not take a “the more, the merrier” approach? Wouldn’t a group open to the public be preferable?

Frankly not, in my experience. It’s a matter of the time and reliability of the individuals involved. Nobody’s time is infinite, so any meeting that is too large must inevitably splinter into smaller groups to allow for practical critique. Secondly, large groups inherently diffuse personal responsibility. Why, after all, does any one member need to meet their writing goals for the week or read the other members’ submissions? Surely someone else will do it. Finally, the larger the group, the more likely there will be conflicts of personality that sour the tone of the meetings. Writers put ourselves on display in our fiction. We must trust those we turn to for critique or we will not be open to their help.

Take as an example my first two critique groups. With seven and eight members respectively, reading everyone else’s submissions became a chore and seriously impinged on my writing time. The critique we offered was often superficial and therefore not terribly useful. The second major problem that killed these groups was that we were never able to meet face to face. We tried to use a private forum to bridge the gap, but that medium destroyed accountability and it wasn’t long before people stopped posting.

My current critique group calls ourselves “the League” and consists of three members. Though we may seem too small, our size makes us flexible and familiar. Though we live in different cities, we meet face to face each week via video conferencing. When one of us has something come up on the normal meeting date, we can usually find an alternative time. This maintains accountability, which has been my only reason for making keyboard time some weeks. Because we are friends, we trust and value one another. We understand each other well enough to know what our fellow authors are thinking and can therefore offer deep, constructive criticism. Furthermore, we are comfortable enough with one another to engage in productive conflict, pushing each other to be better.

Also key to the success of the League is that we have been able to adapt the group to our changing needs. We started by performing weekly writing challenges. At that point, we three needed something to get us writing consistently, and it worked. For a time. After a few months, we all grew bored and frustrated, yearning to get to actual fiction. We three are novelists at heart, after all, and 1,000 word challenges weren’t promoting our goals of becoming published authors. So one meeting we discussed the problem and decided to change our focus to be prewriting new books in tandem.

For a while, this vein worked for us. However, we eventually found ourselves bogged down and struggling with making consistent progress. Another discussion led us to take David Farland’s Story Puzzle class as a trio. The class was fantastic, but even better because we took it together.

We all received extremely positive feedback from Dave on our assignments. NOT because we were particularly brilliant, but rather because we discussed his lessons and workshopped the exercises before sending them to him. I firmly believe that we three got more out of the class because we took it with friends.

My critique group has found a size and a strategy that works for us. Though every writing journey is unique, none of us is in it alone. I would highly encourage any aspiring author to find a group of like minds to help them take their craft to the next level. Like writing itself, critique groups require dedication, time, trust, and most of all the ability to grow and change.

Cultivating Friendships Through Congeniality, Luck, and Coercion (If Necessary)

(Guest post by Alex P Berg)

Writing is kind of a lonely business. For those of us who are lucky enough to write full time, existence mostly consists of sitting in front of a keyboard, tapping away while sipping on caffeinated brews and drowning out whatever’s going on behind us with a pair of cheap headphones. While we may know oodles of people, most of them tend to be of the imaginary variety, and we can’t really call almost any of them friends. Not after what we’ve put them through.

I think this is one of the reasons depression tends to run high among authors. We isolate ourselves, keep everything bottled up inside until it eventually flows out through our brains and fingers and onto the page. This is one of the reasons having friendships is so important, to be able to share experiences and trials and tribulations with others, to give empathy and to receive sympathy—and for the record, only friendships with living, breathing individuals count.

But I’m a writer, you say. I burn when sunlight touches me, I prefer to cuddle with things made out of paper, and I’d rather hide in a closet than engage people in conversation. How do I cultivate productive friendships?

It’s difficult, to be sure. But one thing that helps is to engage with other writers. They’re not quite as scary as real people. You can find them in local writer’s groups, or if you’re feeling frisky, head to a writing conference. That’s how I met a number of the fine folks in the Fictorians, and through the magic of the internet, we can still communicate after the conference is but a distant memory.

Which brings me to point number two. Social media is a great way to cultivate friendships, and without getting within touching or sneezing range of people. Perfect! And while you might think that you need to leave the safety of your writing hovel to make those friends in the first place, au contraire! Sometimes a friend introduces you to another online friend. Sometimes an individual approaches you on social media out of the blue. If you’re congenial and chatty, sometimes those acquaintances turn into friends. I’ve made several that way who I’ve yet to meet in real life.

So friendships can be good for mental and emotional health, but let’s not forget that those same friendships can be lucrative, too. Those friends I’ve met at conferences and online have over time approached me about taking part in book bundles, boxed sets, book launch parties, blog tours, and more, and I’ve learned countless useful tidbits of information from them about everything from writing craft to marketing to web design.

Just remember that for any friendship to work, the benefit can’t be one sided. You have to give as good as you get, Not necessarily in terms of knowledge or financial opportunity but in terms of overall human value. Nobody likes a grouch! So be personable, be honest, be outgoing, be funny. Offer people help when you can, and when they offer it in return, thank them—a shocking concept, I know. But mostly, be friendly, and with luck, you’ll cultivate some great friendships that can help you both with your career and your daily life.

And if that fails, spy on them and blackmail them into doing your bidding.

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Bio: Alex P. Berg is a fantasy, sci-fi, and mystery writer, a nuclear engineer, and a heavy metal enthusiast. His best-selling Daggers & Steele series combines snappy homicide cops and snarky humor with mystery, intrigue, and a healthy dose of the supernatural. Connect with him at www.alexpberg.com.