The compliment


You’re supposed to get compliments from your parents, therefore when you get them they often mean little. I promise that my father is different. He makes his children work for compliments, at least for compliments that mean something. For this reason I turn to him when I need input for my novel. One day I received, no I earned the highest, compliment one ever could from him.

You can’t know what you’re face looks like without a mirror, and you can’t know how good your writing is without a reader’s input.  I have many to thank for such input. Countless writing groups, mentors, friends, and my most of all father.

                My boorish, old, dad, grew up in a woodwork shop, studied chemical engineering at Stevens engineering school, owned his own custom woodworking business, and would later found his machine tool business. His whole life, he had never read any science fiction or fantasy until I started writing it. Indeed, save for a few Ayan Rand novels, and a dump truck load of math and chemistry text books, he has barely read at all. He has seen many movies, but disliked most of them. Science fiction movies have tended to illicit accusations of immaturity from him, and his disbelief would always remain intact. Nevertheless, I would come to rely on him to critique much of my writing.

                I don’t remember exactly how I first approached him about my work.  What I do remember is that he gave me a broacher to an adult education center that had a creative writing class. I secretly rolled my eyes when he suggested I take the class. I didn’t think it was possible to be taught writing. When I suddenly learned I had a talent for poems from this class I decided I wanted him to critique my writing.  

                I had no doubt he would be honest. He was my harshest critic when I lost something or forgotten something.  Even so, my father protested the idea at first. “What are you asking me for? I’m not an English professor, or professional art critic.”

                With a sigh, I explained, “You think most readers are going to be pro art critics? You’re a person with an opinion. That’s all that counts.”

                The very first work I read to him was a poem about the Earth, called our speck. He said he enjoyed it, but could say little else as he never listened to much poetry. This ironically made him an important kind of critic, for his mind wouldn’t be corrupted by society or academia.

                The true test would come when I shared my fantasy work. Since father had difficulty accepting fantasy stories it would prove to be very difficult crafting one that he would like. Still, it was the practice I needed if I hoped to have a fantasy novel that could reach out to the people who didn’t normally read fantasy. In retrospect, it was an overly harsh test for a begging writer.

                Things started well when I wrote a short story about frog people. Dad liked the main character, Cava, who he mistakenly thought was a boy, but found story overly wordy. Together we cut out the parts that could be removed, and the story became acceptable. The nasty criticism came with my inconsistent progress. Though my overall writing ability was improving, sometimes I would still author a story that was confusing, or boring. My father would claim that I wasn’t going to be a good writer after all, and that I should just quit to spare myself suffering. I would then spend all night futility arguing that I could still be a good author, and go back to “suffering”.  At the same time, he didn’t automatically think I was going to be a good author after all, when I wrote a better story.

                Things got only worse when I read my novel to him. The novel is a story that rivaled A Song of Fire and Ice series by George RR Martian. I cannot count how many times he told me to write something smaller, something simpler, and give up on this novel. I always argued otherwise, for the novel was the story of my heart, and I couldn’t part with it. The arguments would last half the night, and the other half of the nights I would simply lie awake.

                I began to conclude that my father’s burden of proof would be impossible to obtain. I was sure that he would never like my writing. Nevertheless I kept reading to him. Then I read chapter five.

                Chapter five of my novel was a short one. It was about a Naga girl, (snake from the waist down, human from the waist up) attempting to escape from the flooding cave she was hiding in. Not an easy task since the cave was like a maze and full of dangerous creatures. When I finished reading the chapter to him, he sighed, and was silent for a moment.

Here it comes, I thought. After another minute he spoke, slowly pausing after some words.

                “What I was going to say is that,… ‘does it really make sense trying to compete to be the guy who paints the sixteenth chapel…When there is so many good artist who would want to do that?’ That’s what I was going to ask you…But not now. That girl in your story was a snake woman…yet somehow you made her…so human. I really worried about her…that she might not make it out. “

                I didn’t know how to react to the compliment, it was so unexpected. I had somehow met my father’s standard. I didn’t think I would ever see the day. I don’t remember but I think I said, “thank you.” Today I still write, and while I live I share my writing with my father.


Lessons of magic.


                After all the mistakes I’ve made I have learned how to make fantasy novels clearer. Here are some techniques I use.

                Firstly I try to make clear with the first sentence that magical things can happen. Perhaps I introduce a character with mystical qualities, like scaly skin, or pointy ears. Or a strange event like a spell being cast, or a bizarre beast flying in. Note that an author need not do anything ostentatious to make it clear that the story is fantasy or sci-fi. It can be something subtle. Maybe an object sparks or a general but cryptic statement is made. If an author does not make it clear that something strange can happen in the story then the reader will be jared from the story when something out of the ordinary occurs.

                The setting and conflict of a story should also be established early in a story. In the first paragraph of a short story, and the first chapter of a novel. The beginning of the story should also be the place of vast description, since the reader doesn’t know anything about what’s going on yet. To compact this description, pick the specific details that force the reader to form the picture you want on their own. To describe a rundown apartment, I mentioned a door falling off its hinges, a mildew smell and a rat scavenging a cockroach. In these three details people can tell the place is rundown, and imagine the rest themselves. To introduce characters I always describe them as they are doing something. I once described a lizard woman, by saying she caressed her egg with a scaly hand.

                Once the beginning of the story sets the author’s preferred emotions, the reader will be more accepting of magic. Still, an author must be careful not to brake the implicit rules that have been accidently set by the author as the reader ‘s attention will be jared again.

These “rules” need not be intentionally created. They are merely the consistency of emotions evoked by the world.
So what if an author has a whole huge, world, complete with new continents, and races, and wants to share it with the readership? If an author just writes a lecture about it then readers will get bored very quickly. My preferred method is to have my main characters be a good cross-section of the world, each hailing from a different part of it. This hints of the diversity of the world without being esoteric. I then introduce more of the world slowly, through the eyes of these characters, who are hopefully sympathetic. If things are felt through good characters people are almost bound to be interested.
Another method that I do not use, but the great author Tolkien did, was staring a story in the part of the fantasy world that is very similar to world of the readers, then moving to the unfamiliar gradually. The Shire, where Tolkien’s the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Series begins, almost perfectly resembled a typical old European or even old American country side. His hobbits could have just as easily been typical farming humans. Only later do the stories move on to more mystical places like Mordor and Lothlorian.
Still another method of touring readers through an author’s world, is by relying on the occasional fantasy troupe. Elves, Dragons, Wizards are just the few of the things that avid fantasy readers will be familiar with. These troupes must be supplemented with something newly invented, or else the story will be cliché, and stale, but without a few of them readers may be alienated. Still another method is just to not have much magic in a story to begin with. This was more or less the method used in George RR Martian’s A Song of Fire and Ice series.
Ultimately an author’s world must be a good balance between the familiar and the fantastic. The more magic, the more novel and perhaps interesting the world, but more magic also means more exposition, which can bore or confuse the reader. Sometimes a preferred balance cannot be realized until an author is well into their book. When I started my Mu series I planned on depicting sorcery, and mystical beings, and dragons, but by page seventy, I realized that I accidently made science too important for the story, so that magic would be unbelievable to my readers. It was just one of those accidental rules.
So this is what I have learned about writing fantasy thus far in my struggles, negative critism and mistakes. I hope it will prove helpful to anyone desiring to write a fantasy novel. Take care.

That first dam chapter.


It’s going to be a short post today.

After many workshops, arguments with family members and sleepless nights, I have become satisfied with all parts of my novel except with the first chapter. The first chapter is the most important part of a book, because, it gets the reader hooked, but my first chapter is a mess. It has too much dialogue, is too long, and introduces too much, yet I can’t fix it, as there is much in it that is good. My first chapter introduces a world and that makes it messy.

When I started the novel, I pledged to keep all chapters under two thousand words. Otherwise the story would not move fast enough and bore readers. The only exceptions were to be important chapters with a lot of action in them, as action would keep the reader hooked even if descriptions of it were long. Though the first chapter qualifies as important, but there is very little action. The only thing that happens is that some characters inadverntly describe and introduce the fantasy world, through dialog, and some cavemen attack. Hardly worth the five thousand words that make it up.

I have consulted with many people to improve the chapter, including two novelist, my creative writing class, workshops, and of course my father. Though the advice has helped make the chapter much clearer, it went from being the thirty-five hundred words to the five thousand words it is now. The worst part is that it doesn’t even introduce everything I desired to introduce. So what do all these words in the chapter do? They introduce one of the main characters, an elf named Arevelion, and make my crocodile people sympathetic. Since people are prejudice against reptiles, I have to use too many words to make my crocodile people, polite, hospitable, and enlightened. This is especially important in later chapters when the crocodile people must engage in war. The reader must feel sympathy for those poor crocodiles or else they won’t be moved by the battle. Indeed, after showing this chapter to well over a dozen people I have encountered only two that said they failed to sympathize with them. Though I take pride in this accomplishment, it also means there is less that I can cut out to improve the flow of the chapter.

For now I have decided to let the chapter sit, and when my writing improves I promise to go back to it. In the mean time I will proceed onward with the story, so at least future chapters will be good.

Driving with a mind Fold: The perils of Staring my fantasy Novel PT 3


Written stories are like microscopes, for human emotion. They can take one deep into a character’s thoughts and feelings therefore allowing a reader to have those same thoughts and same feelings. This was a lesson I would learn with the help of a novelist, but also though painful error of making a world that was simply too large for a book, with things too unfamiliar for readers to understand.

  For well over a decade I was frightened away from writing, because, of my biggest writing mistake. In my senior year of high school my mother edited my first attempts at a science fiction novel. It was so poorly written that it brought my mother to painful ears, and she hesitates to read anything I write to this day. It seemed fiction writing was not my calling. I went to college, studied economics, and tried to forget my science fiction novel. Studying economics brought me pleasure, but the stories would not go away.

                My imagination would suddenly run wild in the midst of my studies, and the work would temporally fall by the wayside. When I graduated I would go back to digesting stories where ever I could find them. Soon I was joining “text based roleplaying games” secretly writing stories with other people. It proved to be effective practice that taught me the power of emotion in writing. The next step was fan fics.

                Other people’s fantasy worlds became so alluring that I had to write stories that took place in them (with their permission of course). The most prominent of these to me was Ashan, the world of Heroes of might and magic V, a strategy video game. The story of Heroes V was a Swiss cheese of plot holes, and had characters that I did not care about at all. The world however was absolutely immersive. The creators of the game painstakingly made a consistent historical narrative for their world, with many magical races, and nations. They also filled with the world with mystical creatures, and beings than I could count. There were elves, Dragons, dwarves, and a whole kingdom of wizards. There were Naga, Orcs, Angels, devils, heroes, and villains. In such a huge world one could imagine a million stories, and so I started writing them. This built my confidence and writing skill. Soon I decided that I would write the story to make my own fantasy world. 

                I was certain that creating a fantasy world was something a person could do while sitting on the toilet, because, there were so many of them. From Lord of the Rings to, Dragon age Origins, to World of Warcraft, stories with fantasy worlds were everywhere, and seemed too cheap to sell at Walmart. The only challenge to me was making sure my world stood out from the swarm. To make sure that my story was not bogged down by clichés found in any “standard Fantasy setting”

                My fantasy world was to have new races, and new beast or at the very least I would barrow folklore from faraway places, like India, Africa and “tribal” South America so my American readers would feel mystified. Instead of the story taking place in an alternative medieval Europe, it would take place in the tropics, and in the future of our world. Sci-fi elements like advanced technology would be introduced to set my story even further apart.  Anything to win the war against cliché.  Inspired by the new world, I put my fingers to the key board, and wrote.  In retrospect there were many warnings I was going down an impossible path. One of which was that Heroes of might and magic V needed five instalments to make its world accessible. The result would be an eruption of frustration.

                I would explode in rage every time someone said they didn’t understand my story. Readers often failed to recall whole paragraphs of what they read, and what they did remember left them scratching their heads.  I pounded tables with wrung hands trying to reach them, but nothing I wrote penetrated to awareness. I knew that I had to do something to communicate to them.  It was only when I attended writing classes at Vermont Technical Collage that I finally met a novelist who agreed to serve as my mentor. Jim (not his real name) went through my work line by line to explain to me the secret of clichés.

                I was informed that while video games are meant to be wide open spaces for players to explore, written stores were best suited for simple narratives, and small, familiar, worlds, so that a writer didn’t have to create entire paragraphs dedicated to explain complexities or the unfamiliar. There are some writers who can make their worlds seem bigger and more alien than they really are.  When Tolken created the world, “Middle Earth” he barrowed heavily from old European folklore because it was familiar to his audience. Hobbits were the one race that was truly Tolken’s creation, but these hobbits lived almost exactly like farmers in the English country side, so they were not alien.

                Without even knowing I had undertaken the grand task of taking a vast video game world and squeezing it into a novel. For a beginner like me, it was overwhelming. Had I known this to be so I would have entered my project with smaller writings first, but it is too late now.  I have come attached to my characters, and thanks to my improved writing so have my few readers. I am committed now. Fortunately there is a way forward. Put pond water under a microscope, and one may see sediment, and bacteria washed in from far a places. One may also see the tiny ecosystem that is a microcosm of every other ecosystem in the world. A book will always be a microscope, but if I zoom in on the right characters and the right events, perhaps I can finally show readers into my own little world.


Driving with a blind fold: the perils of starting my fantasy novel pt 2


The first step to becoming a good fantasy writer is to look into my past and find out why I desired to be one at all.

My past with fantasy began very early. Before I even went to kindergarten I knew of the Chronicles of Narnia, and the Lord of the Rings. I watched animated movies of them both over and over again. These stories were indiscernible for someone so young. It didn’t matter.  What mattered was that these worlds were so full of wonders that I could always be rendered spellbound, no matter how my times I saw them. There were spells, magic makers, and mystical beast of all sorts from giant eagles to dragons. There were beautifully dangerous landscapes, where exciting action and thrilling adventure was at every turn. These worlds were also the source of my very first friends. 
Even if the stories were confusing, the characters were so true that they seemed as real as my own family. I felt their struggles, their pains, their joys, and it felt like we had been through so much together. I wanted to frolic in the forest with Lucy and Tumus, to chat with Bilbo in the shire, or even to make the trek up Mt Doom with Frodo and Samwise. I would go through any hardship to be with them.
I could not stay with my fantasy friends for long, for I would have to be introduced to new worlds, including the real one. Nevertheless, fantasy stories and fantasy worlds continued to enchant me, in movies, in comic books, and especially in video games.

Video games, unlike books and movies, allow one to frolic in the worlds they create. A player can explore a video game world, alter it, and interact with the people in it. This allows a fantasy world to be larger and more immersive than in any book or movie. Few games interested me, but one game managed to enchant me the same way Lucy and Biblo did over a decade earlier: Final Fantasy VII.

The game play was exquisite, and the story was riveting, but what interested me most was the people in it. I quickly befriended Cloud, Berret, Areis, and many other characters, because, this time I was adventuring with them. I wanted to know everything there was to them, and they world they lived in so I could help them on their quest. I felt their joy, their pain, and their sadness when one of the characters was slain. It was after I completed this game that I decided I would be a writer. I was too inspired not to be.

With my overwhelming inspiration I placed my hands on the keyboard, and proceeded to write a mind-numbing, condeluded, piece of crap of a story, that was so incredibly bad that the details of it are never to be spoken of again else my mother cry in agony after hearing of it.

It was a painful first start. It wouldn’t have been as terrible if I only had realized that I never really cared for stories as much I cared about worlds and people, but this is something I would realize after I was well on my way with my journey.

To be continued

Driving with a blind fold: The perils of starting my fantasy novel pt 1


For two years I had dreamed of writing a fantasy story about five rejects founding a civilization. I had been watching my story unfold in my head, seeing it play out over and over again with my mind’s eye. I read other works, wrote several short stories with my novel’s setting, and typed up plans. With my fingers itching, and on the keys  I decided to create the story. I called the file, “The Novel.” I felt more inspired than I had ever been, for my story exploded on to the pages, like a river bursting through the dam, and I strode on confident that my writing was a ground braking, masterful, piece. Only twenty pages in, I had to show my work to someone. I targeted my father, and I sat him down, read my chapters, and he would be the very first person to say to me,

“You don’t actually plan to make money with this writing thing do you?”  It turns out my fantasy novel was an absolute mess, with races no reader could understand, with action that no reader could keep track of, with a plot that made sense to no one but me, and enough grammatical errors to rival the writings of a seventh grader.

There was no bones about it. I was a bad fantasy writer, and as punishment people would advise me to do things that I had already done.

“Vincent, you should make a plan for your story so you have control of it.”

Yes did that already.

“Write short stories to help get ready for longer stories.”

Did that too. I kept getting flustered with the redundant advice, until one day someone told me to do the one thing that I couldn’t.

“Vincent, you should give up on writing this novel. There’s no way you can fix it.” It was clear my novel was a disaster, yet giving up had never once crossed my mind. Indeed, the very thought of not writing it filled me with inexplicable horror. For some reason the novel I was writing was the story I felt compelled to write. I just had to write this story, and I would, but to do so I would have to embark on a long, arduous, journey to find the roots of what was wrong with my fantasy writing. During this quest I would learn of writing techniques that were hidden right in front of me, details of the writing business, the grunt work of writing, and it would all start with a simple grammar class at Vermont Technical Collage. First, however, I must explain just how I had come to love fantasy writing.

To be continued.