It’s DBW’s First Anniversary! Have Your Say on Changes for Year Two

Dear readers,

It’s now been a year since I started blogging on Doorway Between Worlds. When I first started this journey, I had a vague hope that somebody out there would read my posts (and maybe even enjoy them). Everything that has happened since then has far exceeded my expectations, and it’s all thanks to you!

Ignis Brunensis 2010, Noctiluca Germany by Vojta JahodaThis past year has been an incredible experience. What started as an experiment in writing creative posts to help others with communication has evolved into a wonderfully collaborative effort. I have met so many wonderful people. I have participated in fascinating conversations that have sparked new ideas and brought new energy to my writing.

Thank you for being such an amazing community of readers. Next month’s 26 alphabet posts for the April A to Z Blogging Challenge are dedicated to you. 🙂

So what’s happening after April? Here’s where I need your help.

Those of you who have followed for a while know that the focus of the blog has changed a bit over time. I’ve expanded the types of posts I have written about to try and meet the needs of my readers while keeping myself motivated to write.

Once the April challenge is over, I’m thinking about further changes to DBW. And I want to hear what you think. If you’d like to help me plan for a successful second year, please take a couple of minutes to answer today’s four poll questions.

With gratitude,

Sue

***

Picture by Vojta Jahoda, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Have other ideas for what you’d like to see? Please share!

Away, White Witch!

“The White Witch? Who is she?”

“Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”

– The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I’ll admit it. I am tired of winter right now. February is the cruelest month as far as I’m concerned, and this particular February has been one of the worst. Feeling trapped indoors makes me want to snap at people. Many people are blaming Elsa for our horrible weather, but I know the real story. We’ve clearly run afoul of the White Witch from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

For those who don’t know the story, the White Witch subjects the magical land of Narnia to a perpetual winter in an attempt to rule over everyone. All the Narnians live in fear of her. She gets angry when contradicted and turns the offenders to stone. The Narnians don’t dare speak up against her.

Mr. Tumnus

“We must go as quietly as we can,” said Mr. Tumnus. The whole wood is full of her spies. Even some of the trees are on her side.”

Winter is a time when we all get grumpy. But that’s no excuse to start blasting people at the least sign of disagreement. Thankfully, we have a better role model in Lucy.

In the story, all four Pevensie children eventually take up the fight against the White Witch. But my favourite character has always been Lucy. Lucy is forthright and courageous. She tells the truth, no matter how unpopular.

On a day when the children are exploring the house because they are trapped inside by the rain (what I wouldn’t give for some lovely rain right now, rather than snowstorms!), Lucy discovers the country of Narnia by journeying through a wardrobe. When she tells her siblings about it, they don’t believe her. They try to convince her she is mistaken. But she refuses to say anything but the truth, regardless of the consequences.

When I first read this story as a child, I wanted to be like Lucy. Then I grew up and had to deal with Lucies that argued with me in the dead of winter. That’s when the White Witch starts coming out.

Sometimes it’s difficult to deal with people who have a different opinion from you. Especially when they don’t back down. But they are telling the truth as they see it. Rather than being grumpy about it, I try to appreciate the strength of their convictions. When I am at my best, I show my appreciation for their willingness to express their views.

Both The White Witch and Lucy believe they are in the right. Which one would I rather be today?

I say: Away, White Witch!

Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path.

“This is no thaw,” said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. “This is Spring.”

***

Image from the movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Do you have a Lucy in your life who argues with you? How do you deal with it? And how are you handling this winter weather? Better than me, I hope!

Conversation Corner with Dylan Hearn, Author of The Transcendence Trilogy

When I first came across sci-fi author Dylan Hearn’s blog Suffolk Scribblings, I was immediately impressed with the vibrant community feeling I found in the comments. This was a place where people felt engaged. As I continued to follow his blog, I discovered that Dylan provides great support to the writing community through his insightful posts and his “pay it forward” support of indie publications. I asked Dylan if he would be willing to share his thoughts about writing and community with DBW readers. Here is our conversation about desire and opportunity, world-building, reader engagement, and electronica.

On your About page, you state that you are an author, and that “it has taken me a while to admit this.” How did you get started on your writing journey? What was holding you back?

When I was younger I had two loves, reading and music. I’ve always enjoyed reading. According to my mother I started when I was three years old and I don’t believe a day has gone by since that I haven’t had a book (or more recently a Kindle) in my hand. It was the same with music. I’ve sung since I was able to talk and got heavily involved in choirs at school. It came easily to me.

Writing was a little different. I loved writing at school — and even won some prizes for my work — but it took me a long time to appreciate the value of hard work. My stories would always start off well but end quickly because I’d get bored with the idea and want to finish things off. Eventually my writing subsided as I focussed on things that came more easily.

The other thing to bear in mind is that growing up in rural Suffolk, to working class parents, the thought of having a career in the arts was completely alien. It was something ‘other people’ did. Rather than ‘waste my time’ with writing, I left school at 16 and went out to work to earn money.

Dylan Hearn

Dylan Hearn

In the intervening years I carried on with my music to meet my creative needs, playing in bands in the south-east of England. I also worked my way up in my company, moving around the UK and then Europe. I worked with lots of people from different backgrounds and realised that what was possible to achieve in life had nothing to do with background but all to do with desire and talent.

After 25 years working for the same company, predominantly in marketing, I took voluntary redundancy. For the first time since I was 16 I had the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do with my life. It didn’t take long before the thought of writing a novel took hold. By this point I’d learnt the value of hard work. I’d never lost my love of the written word and had in fact honed my writing over years of crafting communication, so the challenge of writing a novel appealed. That important combination of desire, opportunity, and appetite for work was finally in place.

I can recall a lot of my own stories that never got properly finished. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy blogging so much – it’s a chance to tell really short stories, and fit them around the rest of life’s obligations. I’m glad you got that opportunity to return to one of your first loves, and that it all came together for you! It’s so easy to lose our dreams.

You’ve mentioned on your blog that you love science fiction, but that you never set out to write in that genre. What inspired you to write your first novel, Second Chance, as a sci-fi dystopian thriller? What attracted you to the sci-fi genre?

I’d challenged myself to write a novel, but had no idea what to write about. For years I’d toyed with the idea of writing a fantasy novel. The Hobbit was the book that first got me hooked on reading, and that love for fantasy has stayed with me ever since. My book shelves are full of the greats of fantasy, from the classics by JRR Tolkien, Raymond E Feist, David Eddings, Robin Hobb, Anne McCaffrey and Guy Gavriel Kay through to the darker novels of George R R Martin, Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie. The problem was, I had such a deep knowledge of the genre I wasn’t sure if I could think of anything new, and I didn’t want to write a poorer, derivative version of what was already there.

So I started thinking about what I was interested in. I enjoy politics and current affairs and have a deep rooted love of technology. I’ve always been interested in psychology and understanding what makes us who we are. I knew writing a book would be a long slog. I wasn’t afraid as I’d been involved in projects in the past that were delivered over years rather than months, but I also knew I needed to have something more to what I’d written than just the story itself. The best way of doing that was to use the story to explore questions nagging away at the back of my mind.

As soon as that mental leap was made, it made sense to write a science fiction novel.

For me, the best science fiction has at its heart the exploration of an idea. Whether that’s the origins of mankind (2001), the challenge of living on other worlds (Red Mars), or how to extend life (Frankenstein). One of the idea seeds for Second Chance was around politics and the democratic system. I questioned whether the current trend for focussing on the short term in politics, and in business for that matter, gave us the platform to deal with the big issues like climate change. And if not, what could? By setting my novel in the near future, I could extrapolate out (and exaggerate) trends that are happening today and take them to logical end points. Science fiction gave me a way of talking about what’s happening in today’s world without directly talking about what’s happening today.

At the same time, I didn’t want to write about an apocalyptic future. I have great belief in humanity’s ability to make the right calls. We may take our time but we usually get there in the end, so I wanted to write about a world that had pulled back from the brink. More interesting for me was how we did it and what sacrifices had to be made in order to do so.

That’s one of the things I loved about Second Chance – the examination of those moral grey areas through the perspectives of the four main characters. I also loved how the world they are grappling with is gradually revealed through the actions of the characters, rather than through set pieces of exposition. World building is such a critical aspect of science fiction – too much detail and you bore readers, too little and you frustrate them. How did you decide what information to include, and when, to effectively communicate the setting?

Before writing Second Chance I spent a few months looking at what is happening in our world today, what things have changed since my childhood and what is completely different. Because Second Chance is set in the near future, and because humanity had pulled back from the brink, as opposed to lived through, an apocalyptic scenario, I knew I didn’t want to create a world radically altered from our own. I made a conscious decision not to change social behaviours, which at the most basic level haven’t altered in millennia, but to look at emergent technologies happening today to see their likely impact on the future. In this I was heavily influenced by the film Children of Men, based on the book by PD James. I loved how it blended in much that was familiar and then almost shocked the audience with technology far outstripping what we understand today. It just rang true. I realised this is how our world today would look to someone from the Victorian era. They would recognise the clothes we wear and much of what we do socially, but being able to access the world’s information from an object you carry in your pocket would blow their mind.

My first draft of Second Chance included lots of this research and lots of description and came in at 130,000 words. It was enormous. It was only when I came back to read it after putting it away for a few months that I realised much of what I’d written wasn’t needed. There were great swathes of backstory, information and description that were redundant. I’d needed them to help develop the world but they weren’t needed for the story.

As a reader, I’m not a great fan of large passages of description. I prefer books where an author includes the bare minimum and trusts the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. I break up the description across a scene, gradually filling in detail without being too obtrusive. I am also very careful not to over-describe new technologies. I never say how a pod (a form of transportation) is powered, what it is made of, or even if it has wheels. I deliberately describe the doors “peeling open”, to give the reader a feeling of difference, but never how it works.

For this particular novel, I had another reason for taking a minimalist approach. Second Chance is written from the POV of a group of characters whose lives are split between the digital and the real world. This digital immersion means their focus on the real world is lessened. They are too distracted to take in detail like we (especially writers) possibly would. I only broadened the description in the latter stages of the book when real world events become too big to ignore.

Once I’d culled the ‘boring bits’ my book came in at 80,000 words. It’s then you have to rely on your beta readers to let you know when you’ve gone too far, either by not giving enough description or accidentally culling information crucial to the plot. It’s one of the biggest challenges in writing a book, because you know everything. It’s easy to assume you’ve conveyed key information when in reality it’s missing. Beta readers (along with editors) are absolutely essential to getting this process right. By the time I’d made my alterations based on beta reader feedback, despite further tightening of my prose, Second Chance eventually came in at 86,000 words.

I think you and your support team did a great job preserving the thread of the plot while allowing for some mystery. When I read Second Chance, I kept feeling like I was just on the edge of understanding things, and I didn’t want to put the book down!

When you talked about the characters’ lives being split between the digital world and the real world, it made me think about how much time people spend on social media in the real world today, and the many things that are competing for their attention. Given this environment, I imagine it was a bit challenging to gather an audience for your work. How did you engage your readers? Do you have any tips for DBW readers who are trying to build an audience?  

When people first start out on social media, especially writers looking to build a platform of readers, it’s tempting to continually promote your book or books, but it’s a big mistake. It’s called social media for a reason. These systems were created to allow people to connect and interact with other people. The problem is, because it’s online, many people behave completely differently than they would in similar situations in real life.

Say an old school friend you hadn’t seen for years held a party at their house and when you arrived you realised it was full of people you didn’t know. It would be a daunting situation for many of us. Now in that situation, how many people would walk in saying, “I’ve written a book. Buy my book, it’s on special offer. It’s a great story. 5-stars on Amazon. Buy my book!” You just wouldn’t do it, or if you did you’d end up standing alone in the corner fairly quickly, but that’s what many do on social media all the time.

You need to build relationships with people, one at a time, and as any dating expert will tell you, the best way of attracting someone is to show an active interest in them. Ask questions. Listen to what they are saying. Don’t just broadcast, engage. If you do talk about yourself, do it in a way that’s entertaining, engaging, but most importantly, natural. It’s very easy to detect when people are being false, or are engaging with you in order to sell you something.

With blogging, the most popular posts I’ve written have been those people can relate to. I write a lot about writing but not how to write. If people want to learn the writing craft there are much better qualified folk around than me. I tend to talk about life as a writer, self-publishing, editing — often seriously, but sometimes with a little humour. I also buy and read a lot of indie books and promote those I enjoy. It’s my way of paying something back to the supportive indie community.

One of the things I rarely do is actively promote my own books. I may share a nice review somebody else has written, and have once or twice run promotions (and I do leave a little promo at the end of my blog posts about my mailing list), but I don’t shove my books down people’s throats.

That’s not to say you can’t gain sales over social media, but the majority of people need to get to know you first, before they’re willing to have a look at what you’ve written.

I had to laugh at the image of someone running around at a party shouting “buy my book.” That type of behaviour is certainly out there on social media. I like the philosophy put forward in a great book called Your Network is Your Net Worth (by Porter Gale) – “Give Give Get.” That’s really what it’s all about.

Speaking of relationship-building, I feel like I’ve gotten to know you a lot better through this interview. I didn’t know, for example, that music was such a large part of your life. I’m a piano player myself, and music has been a great source of energy for me, almost like a form of meditation. Before we wrap this up, I’m curious – do you still play in a band? Do you listen to music as you write? What type of music do you enjoy?

I’m afraid I don’t play in a band any more. What with writing, working, having a family with young children and some voluntary work I do, there just isn’t the time. It’s a shame, though, as I really miss playing live. I’ve not completely let go, however. I have a good friend who plays in a number of bands, runs a recording studio and arranges regular live gigs, and he often persuades me to do things with him. Most recently he asked me to sing backing vocals and develop a few harmonies for his latest track. You can listen to it at https://thegoodyearsband.bandcamp.com/track/run  or even buy the track if you like it enough!

There was one lesson I learned while being in a band that is just as appropriate for writing. You have to put yourself to one side and concentrate on what’s right for the song. It might have a riff that’s boring to play, or lyrics which are monotonous, or a beat that’s not particularly challenging, but you sacrifice your own interest or feeling in order to play a great song because it’s the song that’s king. It’s the same with writing. As Bill Clinton may have once said, “it’s the story, stupid.” I continually review what I’ve written in terms of what’s best for the story. I’m not precious about what I’ve written at all. If deleting a phrase, paragraph or even whole chapters improves a story, then I’ll do it regardless of how much effort it took to write them in the first place. I’ve just come to the conclusion with my current draft that a large part of one character’s journey isn’t necessary to be experienced — we just need to see the before and after. It works for the book but it means deleting four chapters, well over a week’s work.

My personal music tastes are really varied. I’ve always loved film scores, not so much those with a strong melody (like those by John Williams) but those that convey atmosphere and emotion. One of my favourites is the soundtrack to The Thin Red Line by Hans Zimmer, especially the journey to the line. Beautiful.

I have an abiding love for alternative music. Anything with discordant guitars, interesting song structures or just bags of energy will get me going. I’m a great believer that the music you listen to in your late teens stays with you for life. For me, I can listen to songs from bands like Radiohead, Ride, Nirvana, Blur, Pavement, and Elbow that are now twenty years old and they still sound as fresh today as they did then. That said, I’ve become a lot more open to all types of music, from electronica to modern classical, Americana to a good old pop song.

When I write, I can’t listen to music. I get easily distracted and find song lyrics mysteriously appearing in my text. That said, I use music a lot to get into the mood of a scene. I see writing as very similar to acting — you have to get into the heads of your characters. Sometimes this can be difficult when you’ve just dropped your kids off to school and you have to come home, sit down (with a cup of tea) and write an emotionally charged scene. I’ll use music then to help me slip into the right mood.

While I don’t normally talk about my personal thoughts on characters or scenes for fear of altering the picture readers have built in their own minds, I’ll share one example of a track I used. The final scenes of Second Chance were written against a backdrop of the song “Angel” by Massive Attack. If Second Chance was made into a film, I’d love to see this used as the story reaches its climax.

I can’t write with music on, either. I keep getting absorbed into the song. 🙂

And that’s a perfect song for the end of Second Chance. Thanks for sharing it. And thanks for sharing all your thoughts on writing and community with my readers!

***

Image courtesy of Dylan Hearn

For those of you who are interested in checking out Dylan’s debut novel Second Chance, you can find it here.

Do you have a question for Dylan, or a comment on our interview? Please continue the conversation below. We’d love to chat with you!

Expressing Love: Easier in Fiction Than in Real Life?

Valentine’s Day is coming up, and I started thinking about how difficult it can be to communicate love. Of course we love our family and friends, but do we talk a lot about how much they mean to us?

We know a casual “I love you” tossed out while leaving for work isn’t enough. And yet we often hesitate to put our love into meaningful words, taking refuge in silent hugs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with hugs, mind you. I wouldn’t want to live without those!)

Maybe this is why I enjoy how love is portrayed in fiction. All the best aspects of love come out in a good story. (And I don’t just mean romantic love, although I admit to watching the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice more times than is probably healthy.)

Heroes in fantasy and sci-fi stories are expected to show courage in the face of evil. So it’s not surprising that they are also brave enough to express their true feelings. There are so many places in my favourite films where this happens.

There are the characters who demonstrate their selflessness:

As you wish.

– Westley to his true love Buttercup, The Princess Bride

And there are the characters who don’t hesitate to tell others how much they love them:

I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.

– Frodo Baggins to his companion Samwise Gamgee at Mount Doom, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Best of all, there are the characters who recognize that love is a partnership, and that we need to support each other:

You take care of me, Simon. You’ve always taken care of me. My turn.

– River Tam to her injured brother Simon Tam in the face of overwhelming odds, Serenity

This Valentine’s Day, I want to let all my loved ones know how glad I am that they are in my life. It’s definitely time to say it out loud.

And to all my dear readers, I hope you have a wonderful Valentine’s Day with your own loved ones.

I leave you with one of my favourite expressions of love from xkcd:

xkcd everything

***

Happy Valentine’s Day! What’s your favourite moment of love in fiction? What expressions of love do you think are wonderful?

DBW Review: On Writing Well by William Zinsser

I’m always on the lookout for great writing resources. After seeing On Writing Well praised by several authors I respect, I knew I had to take a read through it.

On Writing WellOn Writing Well was first published in 1976, and it continues to be a popular guide for writing non-fiction. This book has been updated and republished several times. I reviewed the 30th anniversary edition, which includes an additional chapter on writing family history and memoir.

Author William Zinsser is a journalist and non-fiction writer who has taught writing for many years. He brings his teaching experience to life in this book, which is divided into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes.

Under Principles, he discusses how to make your writing clear and simple and connect effectively with your audience.

The Methods section contains short segments dealing with specific concerns, such as creating a good lead and making your writing more active.

The largest section of the book is Forms, where he provides advice on how to write different types of non-fiction: interviews, travel articles, memoirs, science and technology articles, business documents, sports reports, arts criticism, and humour.

The final section, Attitudes, takes a look at how writers should approach the writing process.

What I Liked

What I liked most about this book is Zinsser’s writing style. His voice is warm, knowledgeable, and witty. There were several places in the book where he made me laugh out loud. This is a smooth read that welcomes the reader in and provides useful advice. Zinsser states that his “four articles of faith” in writing are clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity (p. 171). He certainly practices what he preaches within the pages of this book.

Here’s one of his passages that made me laugh:

Today as many as four or five concept nouns will attach themselves to each other, like a molecule chain. Here’s a brilliant specimen I recently found: “Communication facilitation skills development intervention.” Not a person in sight, or a working verb. I think it’s a program to help students write better. (p. 76)

I found Zinsser’s emphasis on the human element in non-fiction writing persuasive and refreshing. A lot of other how-to books describe the technical details of writing but don’t connect these with the personal interests of both the writer and the audience. He tells stories from his years of writing and teaching to explain his principles, and provides substantial text samples from different writers to illustrate his points. All of these things helped me absorb the advice that he provides.

The section about the different forms of non-fiction writing was enlightening. I found myself intrigued by all the content, even on topics that I would never write about, like sports. Zinsser walks you through each type of writing and provides helpful examples that show how his writing principles apply.

One quote in particular sticks with me: “Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.” (p. 147)

What Could Be Better

If you’re looking for a book that goes into detail on writing technique, this is not the resource for you. Zinsser states in his introduction that he sees this book as a complement to a work like The Elements of Style, and not something to replace it. He does include short segments of writing advice in a chapter called “Bits & Pieces,” but these segments feel scattered because he does do not go into enough depth. I felt that this chapter should have been either expanded or removed.

As you might expect from a book that is over 35 years old, some of the samples and related observations are a bit dated. It would have been interesting to see his principles being applied to more current writers. This is a small quibble, however, and is counterbalanced by the fascinating historical detail that permeates his writing.

In modern resource books, it’s common to have checklists or pages that summarize the key points. These are missing here. I would have loved to have these kinds of takeaways included in the book.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

Since this book is focused on non-fiction, I wasn’t expecting to find much in the way of sci-fi/fantasy content. I do feel that his advice on writing is general enough that it can be applied to any genre.

There were a couple of sci-fi references in this book that I found amusing, especially because they are used to illustrate negative writing habits. One example is when Zinsser talks about writing bad leads:

Speaking of everybody else’s lead, there are many categories I’ll be glad never to see again. One is the future archaeologist: “When some future archaeologist stumbles on the remains of our civilization, what will he make of the jukebox?” I’m tired of him already and he’s not even here. (p. 59)

Zinsser also talks about corporate jargon being “language out of Star Trek” (p.175). I found this point surprising because I don’t tend to think of sci-fi references as jargon. That’s because it’s my jargon. (It’s amazing how blind we can be to our own biases.)

Verdict

I can see why this book has retained its popularity. This was an absorbing read that provided encouragement, entertainment, and helpful information. Any writer, whether they specialize in fiction or non-fiction, will find this a useful read. I was impressed enough by this work that I am planning on reading another of Zinsser’s books, Writing About Your Life. We’ll see how it measures up!

***

If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? Do you have any other book recommendations for writers of non-fiction? Which non-fiction forms do you write, and what do you find the most challenging about them?

Conversation Corner with Brenna Layne, YA Fantasy Writer

I discovered fantasy writer Brenna Layne through her lyrical and insightful blog posts. When Brenna writes, she puts her heart into every word. She also has a wonderful sense of humour that never fails to lift me up. Her posts are written so beautifully that I admit to suffering from bouts of envy.

Brenna Layne

On finding out that Brenna is a teacher and an ESL tutor as well as a writer, I wanted to know about her thoughts on writing and communication. I asked her if she would share her experiences with DBW readers. To my delight, she said yes! Here is our conversation about writing, teaching, connections, and the importance of dragons.

I love your About page, and how you describe your transition from teaching eighth graders to reviving your own eighth grade dream of writing a novel. How did your teaching experiences trigger your desire to write?

As I translated Beowulf by lantern light during a power outage in the middle of a freezing Illinois winter, I kept feeling a disconnect—not with the literature itself, but with the idea of myself in a PhD program. I’m sort of a perpetual student, so it was hard to set my PhD dreams aside, but I realized as a teaching assistant that I enjoyed live students better than dead languages.

In a serendipitous moment, a friend told me that the independent school near my hometown in Virginia where he taught needed an English teacher. I interviewed and ended up teaching eighth grade lit, high school lit, and an intensive creative writing workshop. There were three students in that class; they’d been clamoring for a creative writing course for years, and somebody figured that the new teacher might as well do it. Those three students were amazing—they were committed yet playful, studious yet wildly creative, and so deeply passionate about writing that they inspired me to pick up the novel I’d laid aside years ago. It felt hypocritical to ask them to write if I wasn’t writing.

Their enthusiasm was a powerful reminder of another reason I became a PhD dropout—because I was so in love with the stories I read that I couldn’t be truly scholarly about them. I didn’t want to analyze Beowulf, I wanted to inhabit it, to flop down in it like a kid in the snow and play with it. I’ve always loved writing, but being around those three students was the catalyst that transformed me from a wannabe writer to an actual one—and I think it has everything to do with play, with that intense kind of absorption in imagination that we’re capable of when we’re young.

It’s wonderful being around imaginative kids. And I know what you mean about wanting to inhabit the story rather than analyze it. That’s one of the reasons I decided not to pursue my own PhD in English. I also found that academia tended to dismiss the value of genre fiction, which I loved. What attracts you to the fantasy genre? What do you see as its purpose?

My gut reaction to this question is to say: DRAGONS. IT IS ALL ABOUT THE DRAGONS.

However, it is astonishingly not, in fact, only about the dragons. I remember walking on the beach at the Outer Banks with my artist sister when we were in college. When we were kids, I wrote stories about dragons. She wrote Star Wars fanfiction before fanfic was even a “thing.” We started talking about fantasy and sci-fi and the connections and differences between them. We had this huge, geeky mutual epiphany when we realized that science fiction is about what it means to be human, while fantasy is about what it means to be an individual. By those criteria, we decided that Star Wars is actually fantasy with the trappings of science fiction.

And then, just a few months ago, I had a conversation with my writer brother (yeah, my siblings and I are not super-practical in our career choices) about how neither one of us can seem to write anything without incorporating a magical element. We had a joint nerdpiphany in which we realized that we need that magic, that it helps us to explain the world as it is, with all its mystery and terrible beauty. For both of us, magic is a lens that makes sense, because it captures something about reality that is otherwise inexpressible.

I think that for me, fantasy resonates because there is so much more to the human experience than what’s visible and even comprehensible. Possibly the earliest emotion I can recall is this beyond-verbal sense of yearning, this sense of feeling impelled toward something to which I couldn’t put a name. I was drawn to writers like C. S. Lewis and Tolkien whose works came closer than anything else to naming that unnameable something. For me, the best fantasy uses the trappings of the unbelievable, the impossible, in an attempt to articulate the unspeakable, to make sense of the unknowable. That’s the philosophical purpose, I think, which writers like Ursula K. LeGuin accomplish so brilliantly and profoundly.

Then, of course, fantasy is just plain fun. It’s an escape in a way that realistic literature can never be. As humans, we’re hardwired to strive beyond the limits of the possible, so it makes sense that we’d enjoy stories of impossible things.

That “sense of yearning” you describe perfectly captures my feelings as a child reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time. I think a lot of young people are attracted to the fantasy genre because it provides a sense of purpose and meaning that they have not yet grasped in the real world. You write for young adults—how do you reach out and provide them with what they are looking for? What kinds of things do you grapple with when writing for this audience?

I’m not sure that I think really consciously about writing for young adults. I just write the characters whose voices speak in my head. They happen to usually be adults. I tried my hand at drafting an adult fantasy novel last November during National Novel Writing Month, and it felt incredibly surreal. I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure how to write adult main characters because I still don’t feel like an adult. I just turned 38, and I feel like for the first time in my life, I have a sense of who I am. I’ve had time to percolate all my young adult experiences and I understand them better now. I don’t understand my adult experiences yet; I’m so much in the thick of them.

I think YA resonates with adults as well as young adults because young adults are so fiercely involved in the process of becoming. We all are, constantly, but during our formative years that metamorphosis happens so quickly, like a surging tide, that it’s immediately recognizable. It’s dramatic and unmistakable, and we’re filled with all these messy yearnings and emotions that at least on some level, society allows and even encourages. We encourage young adults to “find themselves,” to figure themselves out, in a way that we don’t with adults. But we are all always becoming, and so I think when we read stories about this time in our lives, it resonates deeply with us. We see ourselves in them—our younger selves, the selves we can observe from a sort of affectionate distance.

So I don’t think I necessarily write with young adults in mind as an audience. I write the stories I need to tell, and write them as well as I can. I think some writers have a tendency to “write down” to young adults, and I really appreciate the ones who don’t. Maggie Stiefvater comes to mind—her prose is intelligent, her vocabulary poetic. Lia Francesca Block crafts this gorgeous, archetypal-feeling prose that reads like magical realism, like the kind of literature that stuffy grownup people describe as “serious.” I think the way to write for young adults is to read books for young adults and immerse yourself in all the ways it can be done. The thing not to do is to write down to them, to stereotype them, to discount their experiences as somehow trivial or juvenile. They’re not. When we’re children and teens, we’re doing some of the most vital work of our lives. For me, writing YA is a way to honor that.

This makes me think of the Harry Potter series, which had substantial adult readership even though it was marketed as children’s fiction. I’ve never understood people who think that fantasy stories are only for the young. I think it’s great that you’re writing YA fiction for a broad audience. What are you working on currently?

I used to be a very monogamous kind of writer—I would write ONE THING until it was completely finished—if anything really ever is finished. But I’ve morphed into this crazy scattered kind of writer who’s got about a zillion irons in the fire. So right now, I’ve got several different things going on.

I almost finished drafting a new novel in November, during National Novel Writing Month. It’s a fantasy strongly inspired by my love of medieval women’s writing. I’ve been reading Julian of Norwich and the letters of Abelard and Heloise, and imagining a world in which anchorites have magical powers. The story itself is about a girl who has been raised to become an anchorite who serves a monastic group of wizards. When their home is attacked and burned, she’s the lone survivor, and has to choose whether to give up or to go out into the world by herself and try to reinvent herself outside the security of the cloister walls. Of course she leaves (because it wouldn’t be much of a story if she just laid down and died), and it’s not until she’s beyond the boundaries of everything known and safe that she begins to discover her own power—and why it’s been hidden from her all her life.

I’ve also been working on getting feedback on a novel I wrote a few years ago. This one’s about a girl raised as a boy who’s trained to become a warrior. She’s been a fun character to hang out with; she has a very literal fight-or-flight response. When she’s upset, she either runs until she’s exhausted, or punches someone in the face. Not my typical main character, so it’s been interesting getting inside her head. As research for this one, I took a broadsword class last spring. It was so awesome that for Mother’s Day, I asked my guys to build me a pell—a sort of practice dummy—and I’m getting some sparring gear for Christmas. So writing definitely bleeds over into my “real” life in some amusing ways.

I’m also percolating some story ideas, and I have a full manuscript out on request to an agent. So basically that means that I have no fingernails and I check my email about a million times a day. It’s funny how much the submissions process brings me back to high school. The whole process of trying to impress an agent makes me feel like I’m sixteen again, desperately hoping that someone will ask me to the prom. At least I don’t have to buy a fluffy dress for this. But in high school, I didn’t have to write anybody a one-page letter explaining why I would be the best prom date ever.

I took a set of fencing classes once and had to give it up because it was killing my knees. Working with the broadsword sounds like more fun. I can think of a few things I’d like to pretend I’m hacking at while practicing, including writing critics. Is it just me, or is it harder to write a short piece selling your work than to write an entire novel? How do you tackle writing that one-page letter?

YES. The query letter nearly KILLED me. I got very grouchy during the months it took me to hone the darned thing. My husband could probably tell you how much time I spent slouching around the house, mumbling things like, “If I could have summed the whole thing up in a page, I wouldn’t have written the flipping novel in the first place, now would I??” It’s so, so difficult to take an entire book you’ve spent months or even years crafting and polishing and then condense the whole thing down into a glorified paragraph.

And then there’s that pesky bio paragraph. As an unpublished writer, I don’t have any creds to speak of, so that paragraph was at least mercifully short. The contemporary YA fantasy I have out on submission now is a retelling of an old Scottish ballad. I’ve set it in the rural South, and so it seemed relevant to mention that I grew up in the rural South. I also mentioned that I spent three years as a dorm parent for fifty teenage girls at a boarding school, since that gave me a lot of insight into the teenage psyche (as if my own teen years were not awkwardly vivid enough still).

But really, the hard part of the letter is that summary/teaser bit. It has to grab the agent’s attention, sum the plot up neatly, and offer a sample of your best writing. That’s a tall order for a one page letter, and I think a lot of writers spend more time honing and perfecting that letter than they might on an entire chapter of a book. Of course, it’s possible I’m doing it all wrong……

It sounds like a great approach to me. I wish you all the best in getting a positive response to your carefully crafted work of art! Before we wrap up our interview, I wanted to ask you about one of your other hats: your job as an ESL tutor. Can you tell me a little about how you became a tutor? What kinds of challenges do your ESL students face, and how do you help them?

I taught English at an independent school for three years. In the third year, I gave birth to my first son. I finished up the school year and decided to stay home with him. Not long after, I began tutoring at the same school part time. With a growing international student boarding population, there were a lot of ESL students of varying skill levels. Some needed extra help with reading and writing.

At first, tutoring was a way to maintain a sense of professional connection, and to supplement my family’s income while getting out into the real world a bit. I quickly grew to love it even more than teaching—it’s all the bits of teaching I love (helping students, engaging with ideas) and none of the bits I didn’t (classroom management, grading, paperwork). I also love the close connections I forge with students. I think they teach me much, much more than I teach them, though I try to be useful. 🙂

I’ve worked with students on everything from research skills to college applications to time management, but most of my students are teens from Korea and China who struggle with English as a second (or third) language. I find that the first thing I need to do is to connect—to find something that lights them up.

With one student, it was food. As soon as I asked her about missing Chinese food, this otherwise quiet kid poured out a torrent of praise for her mom’s cooking. We ended up going grocery shopping and then cooked a huge Chinese meal. In the process, she got to navigate the labels in the grocery store, and order me around as her sous-chef—all of which pushed her English skills.

With another student, it was animals. She asked me to bring my dog to our session one day because she missed her dog at home. So my dog has some tutoring experience on her resume now, too.

I think that connection is the most important thing—to show my students that I care about who they are, and then to engage them with that. With students from Korea and China, the tutoring dynamic is interesting because often those students’ educational experiences back home were very different from the Western system. They spend incredibly long hours in school and on homework, and much of the time they’re being lectured to and memorizing facts. It’s a big transition for many of them to come to the States, where teachers emphasize active participation and discussion. Helping my students navigate the American educational system, with its foreign (to them) emphases on citation and participation, is another huge part of what I do.

I could keep talking about this, I’m realizing. For me, the most important part of tutoring has been how it has changed me. I’m in awe of these young teens who travel across the world to a completely foreign culture to study. They’re incredibly brave. I can’t imagine doing that as a fourteen or fifteen-year-old. The kids I work with are a constant reminder that growth only happens when we push the boundaries of our own comfort—a lesson I’m constantly learning with my writing as well.

I think your students are incredibly brave, too. It’s amazing how much we can learn from the experiences of others. I know I learned a lot from my students in my days as a piano teacher.

And I have certainly learned a lot from you. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with DBW readers today!

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For more about Brenna, I encourage you to read her blog.

(Photo of Brenna courtesy of Brenna Layne)

To all my valued readers: This is my first interview on Doorway Between Worlds, and I welcome your feedback. Would you like to read more interviews? Or not? What types of topics would you like me to cover in any future conversations?

DBW Review: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

I’m taking a course in substantive editing, so I’ve been immersing myself in books on storytelling. Today’s DBW Review is about a helpful book called Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks.

Story Engineering by Larry BrooksI’ve read several books describing how to write great stories, and many of them fail to deliver. They focus on providing lists of what not to do. This is all well and good, but not positive or useful for someone who is trying to learn what they should do. Larry Brooks has written a comprehensive book on what he calls the six core competencies to build a successful story. Four of them are the basic elements of a story: concept, character, theme, and story structure (plot).  The remaining two are narrative skills: scene execution and writing voice. For each competency, Brooks goes into detail to describe why it is important, how to execute it, and where it fits in with the other competencies. For those who want to learn more about Larry Brooks, you can visit his website Storyfix.

What I Liked

One of the things I liked was how Brooks works hard at relating all of the parts together, rather than providing separate laundry lists of items to consider. Each section builds on the next, until you feel like you have a full grasp of the entire process.

The sections themselves are covered in a great level of depth. The section on character, for example, describes the three dimensions of character, how to create backstory, interior vs. exterior conflict, crafting a character arc, and many other topics. I honed in on this section because I enjoy character-driven stories. I had to laugh when he called me out for this in a part called “Character Is Not Story”:

More than one writing guru and established writer has described the essence of storytelling as character-focused […] But that’s like saying the essence of baseball is pitching, the essence of music is singing, the essence of medicine is diagnosis, and the essence of cooking is salt and pepper. It’s not wrong, it’s just not right enough. Because there is so much more to consider. (p. 58)

He then goes on to relate character to all of the other elements in a deft fashion that is both convincing and helpful. Brooks has an engaging writing style that helps to carry his messages forward.

I know I’ll be referring back to this book often.

What Could Be Better

The first twenty-eight pages of this book introduce the six core competencies and Brooks’s approach for his storytelling model. This section contains repetitive sales pitches on why his model works better than other models. It also includes several references to Stephen King’s On Writing and why none of us should follow his advice. (In a nutshell: because we don’t have an instinctive grasp of storytelling principles like he does after his many years of reading and writing.) I liked On Writing, so I felt my hackles rise every time this point came up. Even if I understood his point.

Brooks also spends too much time throughout the book on planners vs. pantsers. He often points out how story pantsers can benefit from his approach, even if they don’t like to spend a lot of time outlining. (For those who are not familiar with the term, a pantser is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. This contrasts with a planner, who likes to plan ahead before writing a story.)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

I have yet to read a great storytelling guide written by a sci-fi/fantasy writer. (Suggestions, anyone?) As a fan of the genre, this is so disappointing. Brooks writes thrillers, and uses this genre for a lot of his examples. The only sci-fi reference in this book is to the movie Avatar, where Brooks describes James Cameron’s use of backstory to build the main character.

Verdict

This is a solid resource on storytelling that is worth multiple reads. Whether you are a writer/editor of fiction or simply a person who enjoys reading stories, you will find a lot of valuable information here. Highly recommended.

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For those of you who have read up on storytelling, what is your favourite resource, and why? If you’ve read Story Engineering, what did you think? And for you readers out there (which I should hope is all of you), what do you pay attention to the most? Character, theme, or plot?