So I’ve been trying to make art more often, now that I have a new tablet. The littlest ones are old enough to sit and watch videos while I draw, which means I actually get to focus on my doodles.
I recently discovered the joys of texture brushes. They make painting a lot of little things, like leaves, a lot more pleasant.
I thought it might be nice to try a matte painting tutorial. The one I found turned out to use a lot of stock photos that you have to buy first, and my attempts to Google comparative images was hit and miss. I gave up, but produced this.
However, I learned a few things, I tried my hand at speedpainting a mountain scene. It’s more a study in values and atmospheric perspective than anything–both things I need to study up on.
Here’s the painting I did today, using these cloud brushes for Photoshop. They’re kind of odd and blocky, but they stack well with themselves. It was also fun to paint a dragonish creature there in the foreground. I’m super rusty, though. I need to get back into the swing of art.
So there you have it. My super-productive week. :-p
Today we were menaced by a collared lizard. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.
We had been out for a walk at about 8 AM. In Arizona. When it’s supposed to be (only) 109. (It was 116 yesterday, so I’d say 109 is an improvement.) Anyway, the heat has made the insect population explode. By extension, the lizard population has also exploded. They’re everywhere, lots of different kinds, all looking at you sarcastically as you walk by.
This lovely guy is a Great Basin Collared Lizard. Look at the condescension in his eye.
Anyway, we were walking along one of the nearby washes, which is full of brush and animal life. A good sized collared lizard ran away from us into the bushes as we walked along. Suddenly its mate popped out onto the sidewalk.
He looked like this one. Only with more red. He flattened himself to make himself look bigger, and extended his throat dewlap thing, which I’d only seen iguanas do when afraid or scared. Then he started doing pushups.
This is a display of aggression. He was warning us to leave his territory, he was top lizard, and we were unwanted predators.
I sat and laughed. I mean, getting menaced by a critter the size of my foot is pretty funny. His resolve faded as we walked closer, and he zipped into the bushes again. Poor lizard, I don’t mean to laugh at you, but you’re just so funny.
Now imagine if he was elephant-sized and doing an aggressive display to lurking humans. That right there is a dragon.
I think it would be fun if somebody wrote a story with an actual reptilian dragon that actually exhibited reptile behavior. Imagine the huge dragon basking on a rock in the early morning, watching his domain and hoping a female shows up. 😀 Who shows up to ruin his day? Some irritating dragonslayer. Cue the aggressive head-bobbing and pushups, man!
In Story Engineering, Mr. Brooks talks about the importance of human psychology. He states that a book that gets psychology right will stand out from the crowd.
I started looking around for examples of this. Being a mom, we read oceans of children’s books. I’ve noticed for a while that my favorite books are really old ones, from the 60s and earlier. With the new angle of human psychology in mind, I started looking at them.
And you know, he’s right.
Look at Little Bear, by Elsa Holmelund Minarik.
Little Bear asks for more and more clothes to wear outside because he’s cold in the snow. At the end, his mother takes away all his clothes and shows him his fur coat. “And he was not cold. What do you think of that?”
Or how about Three to Get Ready, by Betty Boegehold and Mary Chalmers.
“George was very sorry. George was very sorry for George. He said, “Gigi’s fish looks better than my fish. Ginger’s fish looks better than my fish. They have a better supper than I have.” So George bit Gigi. He scratched Ginger.”
Each little story in Three to Get Ready is a different exploration of a vice–bad temper, greed, or disobedience. Each vice comes with interesting consequences as some adventure befalls each kitten.
The same with Arnold Lobel’s little books, his most famous being Frog and Toad.
In one book, for example, Toad has a dream that he’s on stage, being famous. Meanwhile his friend, Frog, is in the crowd. Every time Toad does something amazing, Frog shrinks a little more. After a while, Frog is too small to be seen or heard. Toad wakes up in a panic. I’ve posted before about the wonderful story about when Frog and Toad fly a kite.
But there are plenty of others. For instance, Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel, a heartwarming tale about earth works. Or the same author’s book The Little House, (one of my favorites as a kid), a heartwarming story about urban development. The early Berenstein Bears (The Bike Lesson, the Honey Hunt, the Bear’s Picnic) inadvertently says more about marriage than it does about the story. (Seriously. Watch Mama Bear’s face.)
So, I think Larry Brooks is right. We love seeing the outcome of human psychology. It makes for the best stories.
I needed pretty much all of the above, so I checked out the book at the library.
After four chapters, I realized that I would need to buy this book. It is destined to be filled with underlines and sticky notes. I read a few chapters, furiously write things down, then read some more.
Story Engineering takes screenplay writing and applies it to novel writing. To become a successful author, you have to master the six core competencies:
Five: Scene execution
Six: Writing voice
Each item has five or ten chapters devoted to it, along with helpful worksheets to get the juices flowing. For example, at the end of this post is the list of questions for building a character, their backstory, salient characteristics, and arc.
Following his guidelines, I’ve got a rough outline of a tight plot that pleases me very much. The nice thing is, I already knew most of this. It’s an in-depth version of Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants. But this book takes it to an extremely detailed depth.
So if you’re like me with a few books under your belt and you’re looking to up your game, check out Story Engineering. Any tool that lets me write fewer drafts is great, in my opinion!
And now, that character sheet:
What is his backstory, the experiences that programmed how he thinks and feels and acts?
What is his inner demon, and how does it influence decisions and actions in the face of the outer demon?
What does he resent?
What is his drive to get revenge?
How does he feel about himself, and what is the gap between that assessment and how others feel about him?
What is his worldview?
What is your character’s moral compass?
Is he a giver or a taker in life?
To what extent does he adhere to gender roles and stereotypes?
What lessons has he not yet learned in life?
What lessons has he experienced but rejected or failed to learn?
Who are his friends? Are they like for like, or above/below him in intelligence?
What is his social I/Q? Awkward? Eager? Easy? Life of the party? Wallflower? Faking?
Introvert or extrovert? How does this manifest?
What is his secret yearning?
What childhood dream never came true, and why?
What is his religion?
What’s the worst thing he’s ever done?
Does he have secrets or a secret life?
What do his friends/family/employer not know about him?
When, how, why does he hold back/procrastinate?
What has held him back in life?
Who would come to his funeral–or not?
What is the most unlikely or contradictory part about him?
What are his first dimension quirks, habits, and choices?
Why are they in evidence, what are they saying or covering for?
What is the backstory that leads to these choices?
What are the psychological scars that affect his life, and how does this link to backstory?
How strong is he under pressure?
What is his arc over the course of the story? How does he change and grow?
How does he apply that learning toward becoming the catalytic force that drives the denouement of the story?
It was time. Time to write the final Spacetime book. I grimly faced the computer screen, forcing myself to read the first book in the series. I had to reread the whole series in order to write that final book, and I couldn’t put it off any longer.
Except I did. I read Facebook. I watched videos. I chatted to friends. Everything except read the book.
Finally I confronted myself. I usually love to read my own work. Why was this so hard? What was wrong with me?
As I began to answer those questions, I realized what I needed to do.
Spacetime was my “learning to write” books. I experimented. I tried things. I practiced editing. And the books are terrible. Downright awful. I could detail all the ways that they suck, but I’ll spare you.
The point is, I unpublished the whole series this week. As of next month they will be unavailable online any more. It’s been a regular ice pick through the heart.
I still like the characters, though. I feel like I didn’t do them or their world justice. (I even had a review that mourned that the ideas were good, but the execution was lacking.) I’ve been dying to reboot their world as a tightly-written urban fantasy joyride. So I talked it over with my husband, and he agreed.
Spacetime is going away. It’ll be reborn as a trilogy that will be so good, I’ll actually want to read it. Right now the world building is consuming my consciousness. We’re revamping the magic system, combining and rethinking characters, and basically doing all the things I couldn’t do before. Lesson learned: don’t write fantasy books when pregnant/nursing. My brain cells just don’t operate at full capacity.
The five books will be condensed into a trilogy. Here is the rough summary of the new first book:
If you can’t kill them, catch them.
When a wild kelpie rampages through downtown Phoenix, James “Carda” Chase captures it using forbidden space magic. Hired as part of a secret coalition of mages defending Earth, Carda must figure out who is breaking the World Wards and letting monsters through before the wards fall and magic creatures overrun a world unprepared for them.
Yeah, there’s a tiny influence from Monster Hunter International in there.
There was so many ideas in the original Spacetime drafts that got cut, like angeli ascendants, and geomancers, and various other worlds and characters that never saw the spotlight. The original series was closer to superhero fiction than real urban fantasy. Casting it as actual fantasy means fantasy creatures running around our modern world. I get to play with modern applications for magic (like, for instance, powering a car’s engine purely by fire magic). I get to write a character in a codependent relationship with an elemental. My werewolf doesn’t have to be so sciencey anymore–he can just be a dang werewolf.
I’m so excited to write a proper couple of books in this genre. Everything about urban fantasy excites me. Imagine if Harry Potter grew up and roamed Muggle London, beating down magical creatures that threatened to expose the wizarding world to Muggles. That’s urban fantasy. And it’s awesome.
I borrowed this topic from Thrice Read, who did it as part of their Top Five Wednesday theme. I loved the idea of talking about fandoms we’ve loved and abandoned, so here we go:
5. Harry Potter
I started reading Harry Potter when book 4 came out. The controversy over them was raging, and I’d heard both sides of the argument pretty thoroughly. So I picked up the first Harry Potter and the first Redwall (both of which were very popular at the time). Harry was so much more fun than Redwall. My whole family really got into the Harry books, trying to guess what might happen next, trying to guess who the Half-Blood Prince might be, and so on. But after book 7 … I don’t know. I’m done. I still admire the books for being a great story, but that ship has sailed.
4. World of Warcraft
I played WoW with my siblings from the first version onward through the first two expansions. I had a top-level character with epic gear, did Heroic Dungeons and raids … and then I burned out. I had babies and less and less free time. Then the fourth expansion came out, which changed the original game … and I don’t know. I never got into it after that. I still buy a month now and then, but it’s such a time sink, I just can’t get back into it.
3. Doctor Who
I watched a smattering of Doctors 9 and 10, but I started really watching it with 11. And, let’s face it, the story arc for 11 had some real high points. Trying to guess what River Song would do next, and if she would really kill the Doctor? And the whole arc with the Doctor trying to escape his own death at the hands of the Impossible Astronaut? Silence will fall? The crack in the wall? The Weeping Angels? Oh man, it was amazing.
Then the head writer started writing Sherlock instead, and the brilliance faded. The Eleventh Doctor kind of fell by the wayside, his series ending with a whimper. Then the Twelfth Doctor started up, and instead of the dignity I felt the Doctor should have, he was overly silly. I fell off the Doctor Who wagon and never got back on.
2. His Dark Materials
A friend gave me the first book when it was still called Northern Lights (it was changed to the Golden Compass later, which annoyed me, because the alethiometer wasn’t a compass). That first book was AWESOME. Then the second book came out, and it was … well, still good, but where was this all going? Then the third book came out. My friend and I read it … and we never spoke of it again. You don’t split up the main characters and take away their powers at the end, man. Growing up isn’t as horrible as all that. But this book makes adulthood into this horrible, horrible thing. Not to mention all the other … uh … issues this author seemed to have. We’ll leave it at that. Talk about disappointing.
Number 1: The Raven Boys.
I picked up the first book when it came out because I had liked Shiver so much and I wanted to read more of the author’s work. Raven Boys took me on a wild romp with preppy school boys, psychics, a treasure hunt, leylines, ghosts, and all kinds of fantastic magical realism stuff that flirted with real magic. The second book, Dream Thieves, was even better. Then the author started talking on Twitter about the directions she was taking the characters … directions I honestly didn’t think worked for the characters … and then book 4 came out .. and all I had to do was read the reviews. Very disappointed reviews. The big reveal was a bust. The big reversal was flubbed. It was like getting to the ending of LOST and going, “What, did the author run out of ideas or something?”
So there’s my top five no-longer-fandoms. How about you? Do you have any fandoms that you jumped into and then left later on?
I’ve been working hard on the third Malevolent book, Malicious. I’ve almost finished this revision cycle, and the book is awesome. But man, it didn’t start out that way.
I wrote Malcontent and Malicious when I was pregnant with our youngest. She’s seventeen months old now, and I’m just now finishing revisions on Malicious.
Malcontent was easy to write. I knew the conflicts and the villain. But I didn’t know what the heck I was doing with Malicious. The villain changed, the conflict changed, my hero and heroine’s relationship changed. The first draft was me flailing around going, “What am I even writing?”
When I got to the end, the lights came on. I spent the whole book brainstorming my villain. Only when they defeated him did it finally click. Then I had to go back and rewrite swaths of the book to make the villain fit my new understanding. (And a book came out last year that did almost my exact same ending twist. :facepalm:)
So, after pass after pass after pass, the book is finally approaching readability. I’m confident that my editor won’t curl up in the fetal position now.
It’s so weird to finally be finished with this trilogy. I didn’t realize what a huge project it would be when I started out. “Hey, it’s only three books. No problem!”
News flash: writing books is hard. Especially if you want other human beings to read them.
So now I’m in that downtime between projects, unsure what to do with myself. This is compounded by summer vacation setting in. The kids don’t know what to do with themselves. I’m thinking we should sign up for the library’s summer reading program this year. Last year, when it started, the kids book section was empty. I couldn’t figure out why all the books were gone. Surprise! The summer reading program had kicked off. The books were all back a few weeks later.
I’m working through my own TBR pile. Amazing how stuff just accumulates in your Kindle–out of sight, out of mind. Right now I’m reading a shlocky, clunky space opera–but hey, it’s light. I’m also playing some Minecraft mod packs. Amazing how many story ideas you can get from those. Right now I’m learning Thaumcraft, a kind of crazy alchemy pack.
I’m going to read through my Spacetime series, correct the commas and make the dialogue funnier. Then I’ve got to write that fifth book, which is an epic boss fight that wrecks the worlds. I think I need to binge on superhero movies for this one.
Figuring out that Spacetime has more in common with superheroes than with real urban fantasy has been such a relief. Urban fantasy usually features a tough protagonist in an urban setting tracking down fairy tale monsters.
Superhero fantasy involves people with super powers fighting each other. While there can be monsters, they’re more the “victims of science” kinds of monsters. Genetically-engineered mutants, robots, that kind of thing. Superheroes also get away with having aliens. Urban fantasy? Not so much, unless it’s a Men in Black kind of thing.
I also want to write more cozy dragon mysteries. They’re like curling up with a blanket and a mug of hot cocoa. I’ve got a second one nearly finished. I want to write a third one where my little dragon sleuth is hired by a cat, who thinks her mistress has been murdered but can’t prove it. Because this whole series is one long wishful thinking about talking to animals.
So that’s my long ramble about the various projects I’m working on. How about you? Got any projects simmering away?
Recently a lot of writers in my circles have been evaluating their success (or lack thereof) with publishing. Becky Minor, of the Realm Makers Conference, articulated the question this way:
Many of us have the goal of writing stories with Godly underpinnings, even if the Christian values or themes are not overt. We’d love for our stories to reach beyond “preaching to the choir,” so to speak.
What I wonder is this: do such stories actually have a chance of being traditionally published? Or are they more likely to collect rejections for “lacking freshness” (because the story contains moral absolutes), committing cultural appropriation/exploitation (because an author opted to write outside of the typical American churchgoing experience), being misogynistic (a hierarchy of authority might be headed by male members of a society) , or land on the wrong side of any of a number of hot button thou-shalt-nots?
As you ruminate on the strictures of the both the CBA and the ABA worlds, what is really true about the publishing prospects of Judeo-Christian-leaning speculative fiction?
This launched a discussion with all kinds of opinions. One science fiction writer talked about being told that Anne McCaffery is no longer relevant to the genre:
I think they’re likely to collect rejections, and unfortunately it’s not a failing of quality stories or even a measure of what people will buy or read, but a failing of traditional publishing. They’re so committed to secular humanism and the politics that follow with it that there’s no room for heroes anymore. Their sensitivity readers will wash it all out.
The good news is they keep pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable and tolerable to them into a smaller and smaller box. Just last night I had the trad pub crowd on a fake news site railing on me while I was defending Anne McCaffrey, as they called her a “problematic writer”. No joke. There may not be a traditional publishing in 10 years time if they tell most of the reading population that they’re not wanted.
Another person remarked,
The general market is very open to all of the above as long as the story isn’t clearly “message driven” or “preachy”. It’s all about a good story. I just look at all the great LDS authors like Brandon Sanderson who have theology and/or moral underpinnings in their works. Readers in the general market love it. The authors don’t preach, but their worldview is infused in their stories.
And then comes the mic drop.
I think too often these musings are just another layer of excuse. I’m certainly not saying that was Becky’s intent here, but it’s something I do see a lot, particularly in culturally/politically like-minded groups. “This story probably won’t sell because the market blah blah blah it’s out of my hands.” And note that the “other side” is wringing their hands over the identical issue. “I can’t sell my story about my black lesbian abortion doctor because it’s too marginal/controversial.” They have the same experiences of rejection which seem to support that view. Neither end of the bell curve can see the other, only the bump in the middle which appears to be the opposite end. We all think we’re being shut out, when in fact there’s an enormous bump in the middle.
But really, it’s very much in your hands. No, you don’t get to make the final buying decision, that’s all on the editor 🙂 but you are 100% responsible for the submission package you send. And most of the time, that’s about your story, not about you.
And in my observation, it’s not as limiting as described above. The limitations are OURS. If a writer can’t write the difference between a male authority character and misogyny, that’s the problem, rather than a cultural conspiracy. Likewise while there are a few cultural appropriation landmines to avoid, the majority of the market is pretty fair and accessible (I’m super-white, and my last traditional short story did not have a single white character and was set in a country I’ve never visited).
I think much of the time, this is the same emotional response I see in myself to the CBA. It’s not what I know and am comfortable with, so I think it’s constrictive, I find it unwelcoming, and I might call it names. 😉 If we look around this group and are very honest with ourselves, we’ll see we are predominantly white, predominantly Republican, predominantly homeschool, etc. But those tribes have NOTHING to do with Christianity, if we really think about it. To say “I can’t sell because I’m a Christian” is a false oversimplification at very best, while to say “I can’t sell my climate-change-is-a-global-conspiracy story to a hard science mag” may be a more accurate assessment.
We don’t have to “sneak” our worldview in. If it’s really our worldview, it’s already in, wholly permeating our story. But we have to keep in mind what our ultimate message is, too. Is our ultimate theme to convert people to a political view or a change in habits? (Hey, that’s a longstanding literary thing, go right ahead, just don’t pretend it’s your *faith* which is holding you back from publishing success.) Or is our ultimate theme a message of love and hope and spiritual redemption? Because that should carry through regardless of male or female characters, cultural setting, politics, etc.
TL;DR: Don’t confuse politics and faith, don’t assume a lack of sales is relevant to faith, consider Occam’s Razor when guessing at cause of rejection (if 95% of secular stories are rejected, yours might be just rejected too rather than the rejection being a specific anti-Christian response).
(Note: somebody is probably going to read this and interpret that I’m recommending a personal sellout to get sales. That’s absolutely not my point at all. That is in fact the opposite of my point.)
After that, the discussion was pretty much over. I thought it was fascinating–the idea that maybe the problem isn’t publishing. Maybe the problem is us.
It made me really evaluate my own writing. I have a faith-based element in the Malevolent books, and their sales are mediocre. It could also be that the YA paranormal romance genre is a hard sell right now. My cozy dragon mystery, which has no religion at all, but lots of nice people being nice to each other, is selling really well. That “permeating worldview” seems to speak more powerfully than writing a sermon.
(All quotes have had the names removed to protect identities. If you would like your message here removed, drop me a line.)
I’ve been brainstorming up a new Sonic story. I write about one per year, and it makes my fans so happy.
Anyway, as I was figuring out the character arcs for everybody, it dawned on me that the root motive of every last character is some kind of love. And it’s funny, because it’s has almost no romance.
One character loves his sister with this obsession, because she was in stasis for years and has just recently awakened again. He’s extremely jealous of the other characters for having any contact at all with her.
The other characters are fond of the sister, except for one character, who falls in love with her magic. This is bad for him, because the magic is slowly killing him.
All of them love their home island, which has been stolen from them by the bad guy, and they’re struggling to get it back.
As I was pondering this, I started looking at other books. Who else is motivated by love? Harry Potter? (Love of friends and home.) The Railway Children? (Love of family.) Trumpet of the Swan? (Love of family.)
It’s interesting, because I’ve also been plotting out murder mysteries for my dragon cozy series. Murderers are motivated by everything except love: lust, greed, jealousy, pride, anger, and so on. (Is sloth ever a motivation for murder? You’d think a slothful person would be too lazy to kill anyone.)
It’s interesting to see the way things turn out. A bad motive leads to evil actions. A good motive (like love) can lead to good outcomes, except when it doesn’t. (I’m thinking of the necromancer in Malevolent who is obsessed with resurrecting his dead wife.) Or when love of one’s country (patriotism) turns to frenzied conquering of the world.
But when you have selfless, sacrificial love, you get beautiful stories like Linnets and Valerians, which I just finished reading to the kids. Four children get caught up in a series of curses and black magic that surround this little English town. They have to break the curses with the help of friendly animals and good people, who are pitted against the evil animals and people. Their love has to overcome a bitter root of jealousy that has been there for years.
I think the sacrificial love stories are the ones that stick with us the longest. That’s what makes a story beautiful. The nice thing is, it has nothing to do with romance. Oh, it works in romance, too, but love is so much bigger than that.
Villains can be motivated by love, too. Love of self is the easiest one–“I’m better than everybody else so I deserve better treatment/a better spouse/more money/to rule the world.” But what if a villain is motivated by love for a person? That’s why Mr. Freeze from Batman is one of my favorite villains. Everything he does is to try to save his wife, who is frozen in stasis with incurable cancer. The motivation there is fascinating.
So, next time you write a story, see if your characters are motivated by love in some way. Pay attention to movies and TV shows. Who is motivated by love, even if it’s twisted?
Coiled: A Young Adult Mythological Romance from author H. L. Burke and Uncommon Universes Press.
A healing touch. A hideous face. A looming curse.
As the ugly twin to a perfect sister, Princess Laidra lives her life in the shadows—until her parents offer her as bait for a giant serpent.
Her escape attempt leaves her shipwrecked on a secluded island with only one inhabitant: Prince Calen, who lives under a curse. If anyone looks upon him, he turns into a giant serpent. Speaking to him in the darkness, Laidra sees past the monster to Calen’s lonely soul, and she determines to free him from the magic’s hold.
But if Laidra can’t break the curse in time, Calen will become a mindless creature of scales and fangs forever.
A YA mythology/romance that retells the myth of Eros and Psyche with adventure, magic, and true love.
As soon as this book’s idea was posed, I was both excited and dubious. The Eros and Psyche story in all its iterations, whether it be East of the Sun, West of the moon, or the fairytale of the Princess and the Pig, there’s always the point I dislike: when the girl breaks her promise, looks at the guy, and bam, punishment falls. They’re always separated for the rest of the book. The story follows the girl’s quest for redemption, and no matter how awesome the guy was, we don’t see him again until the end.
So I was dubious of how Heidi might handle this story. Her guys are always charming, and I couldn’t see her separating the main characters for half the book.
First, the guy and girl are both under a mirror curse. The girl is ugly, but kind and has healing powers. Her twin sister is beautiful, but cruel. The more cruel/kind they are, the more beautiful/ugly they become.
The twin princes are also under a mirror curse. One becomes a giant serpent if anyone looks at him. The other becomes a serpent if nobody is looking at him.
There’s some interesting fine print in the mirror curses that come to light as the story goes on. The dreaded separation part isn’t as long as I feared, and is actually very logical.
The whole story has a very mythological feel, with gods and demigods roaming around and causing trouble. The story pays lots of tribute to its Greek myth roots, including sirens, gorgons, and dragons.
Ultimately I was satisfied with the way things turned out. The journey of the “bad guy” siblings turn out almost as interestingly as the heroes. And the giant serpent winds up almost endearing by the end.
If you’d like to read a fun new twist on an ancient fairytale, then grab this book. It’s heartwarming!
H. L. Burke
Born in a small town in north central Oregon, H. L. Burke spent most of her childhood around trees and farm animals and was always accompanied by a book. Growing up with epic heroes from Middle Earth and Narnia keeping her company, she also became an incurable romantic.
An addictive personality, she jumped from one fandom to another, being at times completely obsessed with various books, movies, or television series (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Star Trek all took their turns), but she has grown to be what she considers a well-rounded connoisseur of geek culture.
Married to her high school crush who is now a US Marine, she has moved multiple times in her adult life but believes that home is wherever her husband, two daughters, and pets are.