Lessons Learned in Writing Speculative Fiction

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

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. 

You can follow Dana on Instagram and Facebook, or learn more about her work at www.penandfire.com

The Importance of Readers

I started this month’s theme which focused on readers with a guest post, “The Importance of Fiction,” on author M. Liz Boyle’s site, and decided to conclude with the importance of readers. The importance of readers to an author can’t be overstated or underestimated. In fact, it’s readers that turn a writer into an author.

We Begin as Writers

God made me a writer. I was born with a writer’s mind. If I never published any work, I’d still be a writer. But an author is different. I thought an author is someone who is paid for her writing. And I think that’s the popular definition. But a writer becomes an author when he writes for a reader and then shares that work with her. That ability to share takes both courage and generosity.

When I began writing as a kid, it was because I had to. Writing on odds bits of homework got me through some very boring, trying years in junior high and high school. When I began working on a novel, I had the attitude that this was a magnificent work of fiction and the whole world would fall in love with. I wrote to please myself. That’s fine if I never wanted to publish. Most writers would find it difficult to write fiction they hate or nonfiction they aren’t interested in. But if that’s a writer’s only attitude and publication is his goal, he will run into trouble.

Because I was so sure my first novel was fantastic, I didn’t think other people’s criticism was valid, so I had no need to make revisions unless I spotted problems. I knew what story I wanted to tell, and readers were going to enjoy it exactly as I did. I’m sure you’re not surprised to learn that first novel was never published.

We May Become Authors

When I finally began to realize my writing needed major renovations to get published, I accepted advice more readily, and my writing improved. This is where the courage comes in. A writer has to have the courage to admit she doesn’t know everything about this art and needs to seek instruction.

My writing also improved when I kept future readers in mind, which in the beginning, I found overwhelming. I’m a small-town person. I like rural life and getting to know a few people well. When I do writing workshops, I like small groups rather than large ones. So the idea of writing for a large audience seemed impossible. I had to imagine my audience as just a few readers, such as my beta readers, who were friends.

As I wrote with these readers in mind, my storytelling improved because I was being generous. If I felt a reader wouldn’t understand a section, I’d work it until the meaning was crystal clear because I hate entering a scene and getting lost. I’d add a line or a confrontation because I hoped readers would enjoy it. I rewrote the ending of my novel three times because I wanted readers to be rewarded for making it to the climax of a newbie author’s first book.

When I had the opportunity to publish my fiction, I again had to have courage and generosity. The courage to let my work come under the judgement of strangers, and the generosity to allow those strangers to draw their own enjoyment or meaning from my work, not necessarily what I meant for them to find. Any time a writer does that, inviting the reader to complete the artistic process of writing, whether the work is published and bought by millions or shared with a few friends, he or she is an author.

Let me know what is the importance of readers to your writing.

Final Advice on Writing Endings

It’s appropriate for my final post of the year on the final day of the year to be about final advice on writing endings. This advice comes from three YA authors, Jill Williamson, Stephanie Morrill, and Shannon Dittemore, in their recently released book Go Teen Writers: Write Your Novel. I finally received my copy once Amazon figured out that I didn’t live in Maryland. The advice these ladies offer on how to craft endings is worth the price of the book alone.

There’s no single way to craft an ending, and each author offers different approaches. Ms. Williamson discusses “the five-step finale”. Ms. Morrill uses the ending of Frozen to illustrate certain concepts and give tips on when to use an epilogue. I particularly like the section by Ms. Williamson entitled “Make Your Main Character Integral to Saving the Day.”

One of my biggest gripes about YA books is when I feel cheated because the main character is sidelined at the climax. I’ve followed the teen through the roller coaster of the plot, rooting for them through all their battles, only to have some adult character save them during the finale.

The questions the authors pose in this section are ones I’ve wrestled with as I’ve shaped the ending of my YA mystery, such as how to make the climax exciting and surprising but not shocking and the denouement satisfying. One way is look back at what you have built throughout my story. Ms. Williamson calls this bringing the story full circle. I’ve been calling it echoing. I need to echo themes I’ve woven into my story at the end.

And this is what I’ve gotten out of one chapter. If you need writing advice, check out Go Teen Writer: Write Your Novel. For more tips on writing endings, visit my blog post, “The Three Key Elements of an Ending”.

Any final thoughts on how to write endings or stories with great ones?

Go Teen Writers: Write Your Novel

Very excited to provide an interview with the three YA authors who’ve recently released their book, Go Teen Writers: Write Your Novel by Stephanie Morrill, Jill Williamson, and Shannon Dittemore. I reviewed Go Teen Writers: Edit Your Novel by Ms. Morrill and Ms. Williamson in November. Be sure to check out their contest in the meme above!

What is the most challenging part of the writing craft for you?

Jill: Getting the first draft completed. I like writing first drafts for about two days, then I’m dying to be done. It sometimes just feels like I’ll never finish. And sometimes it’s just really hard work because I’m still trying to discover my characters and my story. It’s so much more fun for me when I’m done with all that and I can focus on making the story the very best it can be. Once I know all my characters deeply and understand their motivation, that’s the fun part for me.

I hear you, Jill. I had to fight through the last fifty pages of my first draft for the YA mystery I wrote this year.

Shan: Moving in and out of my story. Like you, I have many roles to play: Mom. Wife. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Every day requires something different from me. If I had my preference, I’d focus on one thing at a time–a storyteller until the book is done, and then a mom–but life isn’t like that. I have to be a storyteller alongside all these other roles, and that takes its toll on me. It can make staying in my story difficult, and it can make being present with my friends and family a challenge. I work on it constantly.

Yes, I find it hard to balance all those roles and to know when writing should supersede the others.

Stephanie: I always run into trouble after the 50% mark in my first draft. Endings are tough for me, so I often get a bit panicky after the midpoint.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as an author?

Stephanie: Talking about my books has often been a struggle for me. I would much rather bewriting or editing books than marketing them! For my strength, I’m pretty disciplined with my writing time. If it’s time to write, that’s what I’m doing. (Mostly.)

Jill: I struggle with literary prose. With making things sound beautiful and profound. I’m just not that kind of writer, and some days it bothers me. I’ll spend an hour trying to rewrite one section that is bothering me. I think one of my strengths is dialogue. Natural dialogue has always come easily to me, but once I know my characters, I really know what they’d say and what they wouldn’t say. This is another reason why I enjoy the editing stage so much. I really enjoy tweaking dialogue to make it just right.

Shan: This question is always tricky. We don’t always see ourselves objectively, but the things that come most naturally to me are voice, worldbuilding, and character development. I have to work harder at things like plot and structure. Part of this is because I discovery write so much, but I’m always looking for ways to improve.

What craft issue was your greatest roadblock early on, and how did you overcome it?

Shan: My process is always evolving. As a discovery writer, plot is something that develops organically for me, but it was a very messy part of my writing early on. It’s still messy, to be honest, but I’m better at controlling the chaos these days. I’ve tried my hand at various tools and I know what works for me and what doesn’t. While I’m loathe to fully plot out a story, I’ve learned to give myself landmarks to shoot for, and that helps me move through a manuscript much more directly.

Stephanie: Figuring out what ideas could sustain an entire novel and what couldn’t. The best thing I did to overcome that was FINISH BOOKS. Once I pushed myself to write beyond the first few chapters and make it through to the end, I began to understand what kind of ideas were big enough for a novel.

Jill: Showing vs. Telling. I just did not know what people meant by that! It took me a very long time to understand the difference. And even once I could understand it finally, learning not to write that way was another hurdle. I just needed hours and hours of practice, but I wanted it to happen much faster than the time I was putting in working on my craft. Overcoming it, however, simply took time. I had to write and write and rewrite and rewrite until I started to figure it out. Until it started to become natural.

I was so frustrated with this aspect of writing, too, until I read Understanding Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy

If you could go back to the beginning of your writing journey and give yourself advice, what would say?

Stephanie: Write what you want to write. When I first started pursuing publication, I wanted to write impressive novels that you would study in English class. Literary fiction. But I had zero ideas for literary fiction, and I don’t really enjoy reading it that much either! I wanted to write that because it seemed impressive, which isn’t a great reason. I wanted to write young adult fiction just out of love for the stories themselves.

Jill: Trust your gut. There were several times when I didn’t think something was a good idea for my career, but I trusted other people instead. Turned out that I was right. I knew my market. I knew my audience. And I knew how my stories would be received. I wish I would have trusted my instincts and not given in to pressure from others. Once you’ve been in publishing a while, you need to trust your gut. Not every opportunity needs to be pursued. Think carefully about your own goals and make careful choices.

Shan: My answer to this question changes frequently, but one thing I’d want rookie writer Shannon to know is that writing stories is, in itself, a reward. Writers do this job for all sorts of reasons. I began to pursue writing as a career because I wanted a work-from-home job that satisfied my creative itch. And while it hasn’t made me rich financially just yet, storytelling has met some financial needs, but more than that, it has been the catalyst for growth in my own life. As I try and fail alongside my characters, I learn and I change and I am so grateful for that experience.

That’s been my experience, Shan. Being able to create is so satisfying. And it also has brought me a better understanding of my Heavenly Father.

I’m so glad I could post this Q & A! Writing can be a lonely art, so it’s wonderful to hear how other writers deal with the problems I face.

******

Stephanie Morrill, Jill Williamson, and Shannon Dittemore have written a combined 30+speculative, contemporary, and historical novels for young adults. Since 2010 their critically acclaimed website, GoTeenWriters.com, has offered honesty, community, and encouragement to teens (and not-so-teen) writers working to improve their craft. When not writing, blogging, or mom-ing, they can be found hanging out with young writers at conferences or wherever chocolate is being given away. 

Writing Tp — The Writer’s Journey: Small Steps

This blog post is not for the people who leap out of bed every day ready to take on the world. It is not for the people who face a challenge with eagerness and a certainty that they are up to the fight.

No. This blog post is for the people who hear the 6 a.m. alarm and wonder how they are going to get their feet to swing onto the floor. It’s for the people who face a challenge withe a groan and a certainty that one more problem in their lives will do them in.

I am very much a member of the latter group. I don’t do major changes or challenges well. But since they will come after me anyway, I’ve learned a very important lesson: small steps.

We are halfway through the school year. When the alarm rings in my ear, I hit it and consider the next two hours for getting kids ready for school. The though is overwhelming. So I’ve coached myself to say, “All you have to do is get up. Just get out of bed. That’s all you have to do.” Once I get my momentum going, I can work through the run to school.

When I was told I needed to build a social media platform to get published, I sank into despair. I’d never done social media personally, let alone professionally. So I started small. I got on Facebook and started a blog on writing tips. For four months, I wrote content for my blog before I let people know it existed. I experimented with topics, adding writing prompts, and deleting others. I eventually branched out onto Instagram, and I’m still learning how to use it well.

But if I had gone into platform-building with the idea that I had to construct a skyscraper as fast as I could when I’d never even slapped together a hut, I probably would have given up.

Right now, I’me trying to write a YA mystery novel that’s a sequel to my short story, “A Rose from the Ashes.” I’ve written a novel before, but that was when I was single and I wrote it over years. I want to get the novel finished as quickly as I can. But unlike a short story, I can work for hours and feel like I’ve accomplished nothing.

So I’m taking small steps. I wrote in long hand my first draft of my first chapter, typed it, reviewed it, sent it to my critique partner, got her responses, and I’m reviewing it again. I’ll get one chapter in good shape and move to the next. Each small step takes me closer to my goal.

What challenges have you overcome by taking small steps?

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