I’m always excited to introduce a new author to my readers, so it’s a pleasure to welcome new novelist Dana Li as a guest blogger. Her first novel, The Vermillion Riddle, released in March, gave her a graduate course in the craft of writing, and she’s here today to share lessons learned in writing speculative fiction.
Fantasy and science fiction were the first genres to really hook me on stories. When I felt the itch to start writing my own, I naturally wanted to tell the fantastical, epic kind of tales that captivated me. Turns out, it takes more than a burst of enthusiasm or inspiration to finish writing a novel, let alone one where I’m building an entire world. My writing endeavors began in fanfiction, and honestly, I think that’s a great place to start – I was playing in someone else’s sandbox, with an already defined world and characters. Leveling up to writing original speculative fiction was hard: I needed to build the world from scratch, and introduce characters that would win readers over. I published my first fantasy novel, The Vermilion Riddle, this year, and it’s been a long but worthwhile journey. These are just some of the lessons I learned along the way!
Create the characters that inspire you.
Even if you’re writing in a different world with different rules and reality, you want readers to connect with your characters. As a reader, the fantasy and sci-fi stories I loved most were largely due to the memorable characters. They’re relatable, yet brushed with strokes of heroism. In a fantasy, we get to send characters on epic adventures and have them face seemingly insurmountable trials. Take advantage of this! It’s an opportunity to tell stories with a lot of heart, showcasing qualities like courage, loyalty, and nobility. The stakes are high – let the characters rise to meet the challenges. These are the moments that stay with readers for a long time.
Commit to extra world-building.
For The Vermilion Riddle, I created a calendar, map, and thought through the political and religious system. Not all of it was critical to the plot, but having it at my fingertips to reference in a passing remark or description enriched the story. It makes readers feel like there really is an entire world hovering in the background, and there’s more history, geography, and lore to explore beyond the confines of this particular story. Just don’t hit readers with a deluge of information. They shouldn’t need to read a primer on your magical system as a prerequisite to understanding your novel. Let them uncover bits and pieces of how things work as the story progresses.
Don’t sacrifice the plot for the sake of being preachy.
Most speculative fiction has a point, or a moral behind the story. As a Christian, telling a good story is not the same as preaching a sermon. We’re not writing a theological treatise; we’re seeking to tell good, thought-provoking stories as Christians, and our worldview will display itself in how we portray good and evil, the nature of humanity, and more. We also don’t want to gloss over the reality that we’re plagued by sin and a broken world, and not all stories wrap up with a bow and happily ever after. Good stories will face the darkness and acknowledge our brokenness, but reject nihilism. Our stories may not talk about Christ and the cross explicitly, but let’s show that good prevails against evil, life has dignity and value, and our hope is not in vain.
Thank you so much for all the wonderful advice! Learn more about her debut novel and how to connect with Dana below.
“To enter Faerie’s blessed demesne
four secrets must be found:
the land unbound by time and space
opens only to the one who knows
the Light, the Song, and Mortal Gate.”
In the sheltered town of Carmel, women do not have a future outside of a good marriage. That future is threatened when Leah Edwards’ father gambles away the family’s livelihood and estate. She and her sisters must hurry to find husbands. Then August Fox, a Guardian from Cariath, comes to town and purchases a supposedly haunted manor. Charged to keep the peace between mortals and Faerie, the Guardians are the stuff of legend. After he stuns her with a marriage proposal, Leah reluctantly journeys to Cariath, discovering there is more to August and the legends than she guessed.
Nimrod and his Oath-breakers betrayed the Guardians, seeking to solve an ancient riddle that would unlock the Faerie realm. Not all his followers share his desire for conquest. Benedict Fox, his second-in-command, has different motives. But as he continues fulfilling Nimrod’s plan, Benedict hurtles towards a choice between saving his family and settling a personal vendetta.
For Leah, August, and their allies, it is a race against time to solve the ancient riddle before the Oath-breakers, and reunite the Guardians to save the mortal realm. The war is never really over, and this time, the battle lines cut through blood ties and brotherhood.
Dana Li is a software product manager by day, and a novelist by night. She holds an MS in management science and engineering from Stanford University and a BS in computer science from USC, but she’s always been better at writing stories than code. Her writing misadventures began with a dozen now-deleted Star Wars fanfiction tales. She loves good fantasy/sci-fi, classy cuisines, and roller coasters (but not all at once). Dana currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and The Vermilion Riddle is her first novel.