Guest Post by JD Byrne
Good fantasy has to be realistic.
Wait, what? I mean, that’s pretty counterintuitive, isn’t it. The whole point of fantasy is that you can make up anything you want. Whereas its close relation science fiction has to deal with, well, science, fantasy is only limited by the imagination of its writer. So why worry about it being realistic?
One reason is that it’s practical. Unless you’re writing something really avant garde and creating a different world from the ground up, even the most fantastic stories take place in a world that looks a lot like ours. Middle Earth may have hobbits, dwarves, and orcs, but it still has a world that works basically like ours - people need to eat and sleep, have to figure out ways to get from one point to another, and figure out how to get along with each other. All of those things are rooted in our experiences of our real world. After all, you can’t have a second breakfast without a concept of breakfast, right?
Another reason is that details matter when it comes to the most important part of speculative fiction - suspension of disbelief. In fantasy, more so than science fiction, the author is basically asking readers to trust them, to come along with whatever weird stuff is going to happen just because. Still, there are things, little details, in any story that can kick a reader right out of a state of disbelief (I’ve written before about what I call “flying snowman” moments, after a John Scalzi blog post). Maybe your fantasy heroes are riding horses into battle after they rode 100 miles in two days without any mention of food, water, or rest. For some readers that might kick them out of the story.
It’s not that you can’t have something in your fantasy world that does the job of a horse but doesn’t need rest or nutrition, but you have to build that up on its own. There’s a difference between getting a fantasy element “wrong” - if such a thing is possible - and getting mundane real world details that are still relevant to your world wrong. A two-foot tall pixie probably can’t wield a five-foot long steel sword, but who says the sword has to be made of steel? It doesn’t, but you need to lay the foundation for that. It’s sort of like the old saw about learning the rules before you can break them - you need to know why you’re doing it differently and consider whether it’s worth it.
While research is necessary to write good fantasy, it doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, sometimes doing the research can open ways to deepen your world and help make the story better. Let me share a couple of examples where that’s happened to me.
In my novel The Water Road a pair of characters are out in the woods searching for a mythical city in the trees when they’re set upon by bandits. One of them, Rurek, takes an arrow in the leg from the bandit leader, Spider. I never intended the wound to be fatal, so once it was in Rurek’s leg I had to figure out how to get it out. I’m so glad I did some research rather than just going with my gut. Turns out how to deal with an arrow wound is largely dependent on the kind of arrowhead is involved and there are some really nasty ones out there, ones designed to inflict maximum damage if taken out incorrectly.
That made me think - what kind of arrow would a guy like Spider use? It made me drill deeper into the character than I had initially. He only shows up for this scene, after all, and was hardly that important in the grand scheme of things. But using an arrow designed to do maximum harm, particularly to someone who would react as I had (pull the damned thing out!), is precisely the kind of guy he was. The research allowed me to complicate Rurek’s situation even further (and allow a new, important character, to show some knowledge and skill) and give some idea of just what an evil person Spider was.
In my short story “The Destiny Engine” (which you can only get by signing up for my mailing list), the main character has a massive steampunk contraption that, he says, can see a person’s other possible futures. He has to input data into the machine at some point, so I initially had him sitting down at a typewriter-style keyboard. A beta reader wondered whether such keyboards were in wide use in late 19th-century Wyoming where the story was set.
I looked into it and, as it turns out, keyboards were a thing back then, but they hadn’t standardized into anything like we know today. Instead, there was a wide range of size, design, and functionality. I found a picture of one that was basically a brass globe with keys sticking out the top on long stalks, so typing on it looked kind of like giving a robot a scalp massage. So while it wouldn’t have been wrong to put my main character in that story in front of something that looked like a typewriter, how much cooler was it to have him manipulating a brass robot skull!
Since research is important for writing fantasy, what’s the best way to go about it? There are several options, depending on what it is you need to know.
First, you can draw on your own knowledge of whatever area it is you need to research. That’s kind of cheating, but a knowledge base is a knowledge base, regardless of where it comes from. When it came time to write the battle scenes in The Endless Hills (the second part of The Water Road trilogy) I fell back on the reading I’d done my entire life about battles from various conflicts in the 18th and 19th centuries. I looked up a couple of things, but it was to confirm more than learn from scratch.
This is as good a place as any to amplify a piece of advice I’ve heard almost every writer give - that to be a good writer, you need to be a serious reader. I’d expand that to say it’s important for writers of fiction to read a lot of nonfiction, too, to learn about the world around them. Not only do you broaden that internal knowledge base you can use while writing, sometimes history or science or whatever can provide some pretty good fuel for future stories.
A second good place to go for research is other writers. Writers each bring their own experience and knowledge to the table, which can be a powerful resource to tap into. The example I gave above of needing to know how to get an arrow out? When I went to Google to find the answer the first result it returned to was to a subsection of a writers’ forum where people shared their expertise. Writers tend to be a helpful bunch, so make the most of what those around you know.
Third, you can take advantage of the knowledge of experts in whatever field you’re looking into. Sci-fi writers routinely consult with physicists, rocket scientists, and the like in order to get the science in their stories right (or at least plausible). Fantasy writers can do the same. Setting a story in a world that’s based on feudal Japan? Find the nearest college or university that teaches Japanese history and reach out to the professor. They might be happy to talk to someone about their subject who is writing a novel about it.
Finally, when it comes to research, there’s always the option to hit the books, whether literally or electronically. Google is great, but be skeptical of sources and weigh competing information carefully. Books are even better, if you’ve got access to a good library somewhere close. You can even go and spent time in places that inspire the world you’re building. Want to set a story in a castle - go visit one! It’s easier said than done, of course, but it can be done.
Research sounds a lot like work and sometimes it is. Sometimes you’ll find out things that torpedo an idea or a particular story element. More often, you’ll shore up your own world, deepen you characters, and maybe even find something to spark your creativity even further. It’s worth the effort and your readers will thank you.
JD Byrne was born and raised around Charleston, West Virginia, before spending seven years in Morgantown getting degrees in history and law from West Virginia University. He's practiced law for more than 15 years, writing briefs where he has to stick to real facts and real law. In his fiction, he gets to make up the facts, take or leave the law, and let his imagination run wild. He lives outside Charleston with his wife and the two cutest Chihuahuas the world has ever seen.
There's no "real" blog post this week, and for that I apologize. It's more of a "here's what I've been doing recently, tune in next week for the regularly scheduled bullshit." It's also the answer to the "hey, why isn't there a new video on the YouTube channel this month" question.
Well, for starters, I got sick. Yay.
It's nothing serious. There hasn't even been vomit involved. But it's sucking the life and energy out of me like a vampire. Part of it is likely the weather. In Minnesota, it's finally stopped snowing and started raining. It's that chilly, almost-hail type of rain, too, the kind that almost guarantees spending the day inside with kleenex and blankets. Also that rain is going to be freezing, melting, and re-freezing a few times over the weekend, and the snow created massive potholes that we now have to avoid, which is going to turn driving into a hellish level of Mario Kart.
The other part of the illness probably has something to do with the fact that I've taken to working seven days a week every other week thanks to two of my three jobs.
Or it could just be something one of my roommates coughed on me. They've been sick a lot recently, as well.
In short, it's just been a good time all around.
All right, enough about that illness and rain nonsense. Let's get to the fun stuff.
What I've been writing:
There's some other stuff, too. A paranormal novella for Less Than Three Press that got rejected and needs editing. My own novel involving wolves with wings and telepathy on another planet that's just been outlined. A novella series involving vampires that's being pushed on the backburner. But right now Green Snake and Homestead are the important ones.
What I'm reading:
The next book review will be Words of Radiance, the second book of The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson. (You can read my review of the first book, Way of Kings, here.)
Could I have chosen to read one of the other books on my shelf that are all less than 1200 pages? Yes, absolutely.
Was I able to resist buying Words of Radiance when I saw it in the bookstore and started reading it right away? Of course not.
So that's about it. I've got a bunch of guest posts and interviews with a bunch of very talented writers lined up for you guys, as well. But if there's a particular topic you want me to cover, then please let me know in the comments, or you can contact me directly.
The next YouTube channel will be Dynamic Duos and literary foils.
Right now I'm going to take a nap, because--joy!--it's raining again, and I'm still a little sick.
See you next week!
Today we'll be interviewing the Canadian science fiction novelist Zachry Wheeler, author of Transient. According to Amazon, it's basically about vampire spies in the future. (Paranormal sci-fi?) I have not had the opportunity to read any of his works yet, but after this interview, I'm thinking I need to change that.
What cool and exciting things have been happening in your life recently?
I was recently invited to give a presentation on Writing From Book to Film at the annual Dublin Writers Conference in Ireland. I am a regular on the convention circuit where I give presentations on numerous topics, but this will be the first time that I cross an ocean to give a talk. I have visited Dublin many times and love the city, so I am very excited to return on a business trip.
The reason I am giving the presentation ties directly into another exciting thing that happened. My novel Transient is currently in development with Voltage Pictures (The Hurt Locker, Dallas Buyers Club) to become a feature film. I have been very active in the process, which is quite rare from an author perspective. I have even edited the script, which gives me a screenwriting credit on the movie.
The whole experience has opened numerous doors in the industry where I now serve as a script doctor for other projects. As a result, my other series Max and the Multiverse is in the beginning stages of being adapted for television.
Wow! Living the author's dream of seeing their work go on the big screen! (Well, it's a dream for some of others. For others, it's a nightmare, but it looks like you'll be making sure the abomination of the Percy Jackson movies doesn't happen to Transient.)
Is your recent book part of a series? If so, can you tell us a bit about where the story is heading?
My most recently published book would be Max and the Banjo Ferret, which is Book Three of my Max and the Multiverse sci-fi comedy series. I have also published a short story since then entitled The Item of Monumental Importance, which takes place between the first two books.
As far as the series arch goes, I have managed to reach a resting point with the completion of the third book. There is still plenty more story to tell and I plan to continue the series for many books to come, but I am no longer leaving readers on a cliffhanger ending.
Aw, but cliffhangers are so fun! They're the best way to torture readers.
Can you tell us about what you're currently working on?
I had started a spin-off series for Max and the Multiverse and wrote a large chunk of the initial draft, but the project ended up sidelined in favor of the Transient sequel. This was mostly due to the first book getting selected for the Prime Reading program at Amazon. The spike in popularity has renewed interest in the sequel, hence the refocus. I had already outlined the next two books, so it was just a matter of getting to work. I am finishing up the first draft and hope to be editing very soon.
What did you edit out of your book?
When I wrote the initial drafts of Transient, much of it read like a technical manual about vampire biology. The material was interesting to me, but it significantly bogged down the story. It was my first book and I had no idea what I was doing, but after years of editing and revising, I learned that most of the backstory was superfluous. I ended up trimming a novella’s worth of material from the final draft. And for those who have read the book, that’s where the “recon” sections came from. They allowed me to maintain pace while doling out important details.
So, basically, editing the exposition. The bane of so many authors.
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else required for your creative process?
Definitely a night owl, but my writing times are largely sporadic. I write at all hours, usually after I work through the current narrative arch, no matter what time that may be. As far as necessities go, I need coffee and silence. I don’t see how writers keep their concentration with music playing. I can get yanked out of the process by a car horn off in the distance.
Funny! I just started a habit of playing classical music on my laptop while working. Now I can't live without that white noise. (Probably because it tunes out all the annoying car horns.)
Do you have complete control over your characters or do they ever control you?
I would say a little bit of both. For the most part, I can steer my characters in the directions I need them to go. But every now and then, the narrative will shift course because someone needed something that I hadn’t foreseen.
A lot of authors are frustrated by readers who don’t understand how important reviews are. What would you say to a reader who doesn’t think his or her review matters?
It pains me to admit that ratings and reviews are absolutely critical to the success of every writer, especially indie authors. It helps to view ratings as reputation currency, the cred we use in order to get seen and promoted. I will often soften the request by saying that reviews don’t need to be complicated, just a sentence or two is perfectly fine. It’s the ratings that are most important.
Good advice. I sometimes hear, "You shouldn't write for reviews. You should write for your heart and soul."
Okay, but I need to eat...
Do you have any advice for new authors?
(Deer in headlights.) Holy hell, where to start. If I had to boil it down to a single bit of wisdom, it would be to temper your expectations. Writing is the easy part. Getting it polished, published, and promoted is where the real work begins. I would say that publishing a book is 10% writing and 90% other crap you never wanted to do.
If you could have a dinner with one fictional person, who would it be? Why?
Rust Cohle from True Detective. My worldview is largely misanthropic, but not in a debilitative way. No other fictional character has ever captured my intrigue like Rust, who mirrored my own views on life, the universe, and everything. I would love to pick his brain over a dinner conversation.
If you could go to any fictional world, where would you go? Why?
Pretty much any world in which humans have colonized space. My one enduring dream to leave this planet and explore the cosmos. You know those “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore” memes? Yeah, that’s me every day.
Hey, you might get your wish! According to scientists, this planet is toast unless we get our act together.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
I spent a decade in the music industry before I started writing as my primary outlet. I fronted several rock bands in the past and released four studio albums. I have always pursued some sort of creative endeavor, but never thought that it would be writing, which fits my personality much better these days. I just don’t have the energy to jump around the stage anymore. And for anyone interested, you can check out my old acts online: The Mayhematic and Sydewynder.
You're getting old, Zach. ;P
Thank you for coming onto my blog!
Brainstorming new blog post ideas
For serious bloggers, the general rule of thumb is to have your blog posts planned out at least a month in advance. (Others will argue at least six months, but those tend to be the full-timers.) This limits the amount of frenzied writing, sloppy editing, and hair-fraying panic that can accompany writing. This is great in theory. But life has a bad habit of cluttering our schedules, and before you know it, that glorious time period where all of your posts are planned out, written ahead of time, and scheduled in advance has run out, and we're left scrambling to throw together a last-minute blog post to satisfy our readers.
Or maybe you're new to blogging, haven't even set up the website yet, and are frozen in terror because, what? You're supposed to do this every week if you want a following? More? Where do you even start?
Worry not, friends! Like so many other bloggers online, I am writing this post to help you answer that very question. When you're staring down the white screen of death, dreading the impending deadline, how do you come up with a juicy topic that will satisfy your readers?
I actually struggled with this question myself. Minutes before writing this very post. And several more times throughout my blogging career. Procrastination is a fine art, lovelies, one that I have mastered. As such, there are several tips that you can use.
Tip #1: Keep an Ongoing List
Earlier this week, I looked at my calendar with despair. At the end of 2018, I had planned out three months of blog posts. Three! And not just posts for this blog, but also for my monthly column The Bitch Shelf at Luna Station Quarterly, as well as my YouTube channel. I'd even been writing book reviews and writing tutorials weeks in advance to buy more time to work on the videos and stories.
But now that time was gone, and I hadn't refreshed the buffer zone. I now had to come up with a completely new topic, and I had to do it now if I wanted time to actually write the damn thing.
Luckily, I plan for such emergencies. I also have the habit of writing down every thought that goes through my head. Which is why I keep an ongoing list of potential blog posts in my journal.
For me, this list is divided in two parts: topics on how to write, and commentary on the SFF genre. Obviously I also do book reviews, too, but as I write those down as soon as I close the book and then schedule them as needed, they don't need to be listed.
Some topics never leave the list, because they can be written over and over again. My "Top Ten Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books" or "Favorite Horror Movies for Halloween" are constantly changing as I consume more media. I can bust those out every few months and they'll never grow old. Lists are an old favorite of bloggers for this very reason.
Other topics can really only be done once or twice (like "How to Come Up with Your Next Blog Post") before your audience gets bored, so it's important to keep this list up to date! Keep your journal handy wherever you go, especially if you're browsing your chosen topic online. If you're writing a blog about fishing, and you see a YouTuber give bad tackling advice to their audience, write down what that topic is so you can write a post about it later. Or if you read a post that brushes on a particular subject but doesn't really get into it as deeply as it should, write that down and come back to it later.
Ideas can come out of nowhere: random conversations with friends and family, reading a fantasy book and thinking Man, this author doesn't know shit about characterization, or even just going for a walk outside and suddenly getting hit with an idea while listening to Imagine Dragons. Keep a list. Keep it close. And when you're in a bind and need a blog idea fast, you'll have a bunch of options to choose from.
Tip #2: Ask!
Even if you don't have an established audience, you can always find people to just ask for ideas, or better yet, ask them what they want to read about. Facebook groups are my personal favorite.
Never be afraid to tell your readers that you've been hit with writer's block and need their help. In fact, readers love it. I know I do. Some of my favorite YouTubers are constantly putting up surveys asking "Which video do you want me to do next" with a variety of topics to choose from. It's great for the audience, because we get to actively participate and feel like we're being heard and cared about by someone we look up to. And it's great for the creator, because they get an insight into what their audience wants them to talk about.
You can also ask your readers at the end of each post something along the lines of "Let me know what other topics you'd like me to cover" or "Feel free to ask me any questions you have about XYZ!" This will be another source of potential blog posts that you know you readers will want to read about, because they're literally asking for it!
Tip #3: Interviews & Guest Posts
Interviews and guest posts with other bloggers (or authors if you're a book blogger, or parents if you're a parenting blogger, or whatever niche you're in) are helpful for a variety of reasons. One is simply sharing audiences. Guest posts can be key to building your audience, as you're basically using someone else's established blog as a springboard. You can go on their site with their regular traffic and talk about your blog, or you can invite them on your blog for a spike of traffic in the hopes that the new readers will stick around long enough to sign up for your newsletter. (This happened after I interviewed my mother, Maryjanice Davidson.)
But there's another reason that interviews and guest posts are a good idea, and that is strategic laziness. Once you've secured an interview/guest post to appear on your blog, your work is pretty much done. The other writer is the one who has to do all the heavy lifting! Once they send it to you, it's just a matter of minor editing, copy, and paste.
If you run a weekly blog like I do, this means that you get a whole other week to figure out what the next post is going to be, or in my case, quickly finish reading a book so I can review it in time. And like the ongoing list of blog post ideas, if you collect enough interviews and guest posts, you can store them away for emergencies or schedule them for busier weeks, thus giving you some breathing room while also keeping your readers satisfied. Plus you get a network connection and you're promoting a fellow blogger. Everyone wins!
Tip #4: If All Else Fails: Re-Publish
Republishing old blog posts is an underrated skill that a lot of bloggers forget about. So long as the post is old enough--at least four months minimum--then chances are your readers don't remember it and/or didn't even read it because of all the other stuff cluttering their email and social media feed. (That sounded pessimistic and vaguely insulting. Sorry.) It's perfectly acceptable to take an old post, dust it off with some minor updates and edits, and re-publish it.
As a matter of fact, I had planned on doing just that for the most recent Bitch Shelf article "Superhero Movies that Fight Toxic Masculinity." Originally, I was going to give them one of my first posts on this site, "Toxic Masculinity in Superhero Movies." But the thing is, LSQ has a pretty strict word count with its columnists, and my old post proved to be too long. I couldn't cut it down to size without losing vital information, so instead I focused on one part of the post: the ending. I had ended that post with a handful of superhero movies that, at the time, were the only ones I knew that actively fought or defied toxic masculinity. This was before Black Panther, Incredibles 2, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse came out.
So now I had a much more positive, better idea for an article that was better suited to the word count and got new information that hadn't been available two years ago. It took about fifteen minutes to write and send to LSQ--along with a second, panicked email a while later, because I had originally forgotten that Spider-Verse was a thing.
But other Bitch Shelf articles, especially the earlier ones, are copied almost directly from older posts. And that's totally fine! You can do that so long as you're careful with it.
What are some ways that you (or a friend of yours) come up with blog post ideas at the last minute? Let me know in the comments!
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, book one of the Stormlight Archive
No spoilers. (Promise.)
This was a 1,200 page monster that I just could not put down. Which is impressive considering the fact that I had no idea what was going on for the first two hundred pages. It's not that Sanderson introduced too many people and concepts at one time--he didn't. The pacing of this story and the exposition are excellent. It's just that there's so much going on, so many characters in a world that is so unique and alien that it's a lot to digest. But if you can get through those first two hundred pages, then you're all set. And trust me, it's worth it. This book is absolutely stunning.
My attention was drawn to this series by one of my favorite YouTubers, Hello Future Me. In addition to being a super-geek, he also does some writing videos (which is why he's mentioned in my For Writers page). It was during one of these videos--I forget which one--that he mentioned the world-building of the Stormlight Archive.
In addition to the unique geography, Roshar also has a social structure I had never seen before. It's a pseudo-patriarchy that is extremely binary, nothing new there. But while men are pushed toward "masculine" traits such as leadership, military, labor, et cetera, the women have their own equally important "feminine" traits, such as architecture, science, engineering. Reading is, in and of itself, a feminine art. None of the men in this story--Kaladin, Dalinar, the king--know how to read! It's hilarious, but it also launches women into leadership roles themselves, as they're the advisors and creators of their society.
This, of course, begs the question: what about the people of the LGBT+ community? So far there has been no mention of same-sex relationship or genderqueer people, and I will be disappointed but unsurprised if that holds true for books two and three. But if, by chance, Sanderson has added them, then I imagine they'd be facing a lot of social adversity.
On a related note: romantic subplots are near non-existent! There's one with Dalinar and the king's widowed mother that's a little cliched, but it serves as some character development for Dalinar and introduces another awesome woman to the story. Even though he uses the word "beautiful" to describe her way too much. (We get it! You think she's hot! Maybe focus on some other traits, or at least pick up a thesaurus to mix it up a little.)
The story, at first, seems to be everywhere. It doesn't help that the novel is chopped up into parts that are divided by short stories. These stories seem random (except the ones about the Assassin in White, as he's very important despite his minor appearances), but they are very helpful in establishing the world itself and the political and social rules that influence the main characters. When one of the short stories includes a couple of scientists studying a type of magic, that type of magic becomes very important later in the book. A couple of servants talk about a mysterious woman who specializes in another type of magic, she ends up being the answer to a mystery that plagues one of the main characters. It's a very handy type of exposition.
After about two or four hundred pages, you see how all the different threads--Kaladin, Dalinar, Shallan, the Assassin--all start to weave together. There is some predictability; it's not like Game of Thrones where you have almost no clue which main character is going to get slaughtered next. But it's the good kind of predictability, the kind that drags out the tension. (Oh no, one of the major characters is in critical danger in the climax of the story, and only this other major character can save them, but only if they get over the major internal issues that have plagued them the whole book...WHY IS THIS TAKING A WHOLE CHAPTER. GO GO GO!)
It helps that all of these characters are very different from each other. Kaladin and Dalinar are probably the tropiest (most trope?) of the bunch, being the depressed hero with rotten luck and the super strict yet kind lord, but they're still extremely engaging. I cared about them, I worried about them, I cried with them through all their ups and downs. (Although, content warning, Kaladin seriously contemplates suicide relatively early in the book, and references it a few times later.) Shallan is a walking mystery; despite hundreds of pages we still know very little about her, and her last few chapters only raise more questions. Hell, the last fifty pages were dedicated to raising more questions and leaving cliffhangers, which is why as soon as I can, I'm purchasing book two.
Well played, Sanderson. Well played.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
No spoilers. (Promise.)
I've read and reviewed one of Nnedi Okorafor's other books before: her short sci-fi novel Lagoon about mystical aliens touching down in Nigeria. I was enraptured by her storytelling, and when I found out she had other books--many of them bestsellers--I added all of them to my wishlist, and had the opportunity to purchase Who Fears Death thanks to a Barnes & Noble gift card I got for Christmas. I had high expectations for Who Fears Death because of everything I'd heard, both about it and about Okorafor herself.
And I was not disappointed.
It's rare--or at least, rare for me in my little corner of America--to find popular SFF books that have a post-apocalyptic or fantasy setting outside of the U.S., or even Europe. So the setting itself of a fantastical, post-apocalyptic Africa was intriguing to me. I wish Okorafor had gone into just what, exactly the apocalypse was that completely reshaped the world and set up whole new religions and ethnicities, or even just the history of the world in general. We're given the religious version that everyone is told growing up and that main character Onye has little respect for, but not a definitive This is what happened, and this is why the world works this way now. But that's probably just the history major in me.
The magic system used is very unique and interesting. It's a soft magic system, which is the kind that basically allows the author to make it up as they go along (kind of like Tolkien or Game of Thrones), compared to the hard magic system where the rules are explained and strictly adhered to (i.e. Avatar: the Last Airbender and Fullmetal Alchemist). But while Onye and the other sorcerers' powers are many and varied, there's no deux ex machina that goes on. She still has limitations, especially in the beginning when she has no control.
The story itself starts out pretty slow. Onye is obviously very special and eventually has to set out to topple the unjust system of oppression and war that her mother's people is subjected to. But she and her friends don't start their journey until halfway through the book. The first half is Onye coming to terms with who and what she is (for the most part, at least), worldbuilding, and describing the struggles and conflicts between Onye, her mother, and everyone around them. So even though the pacing of the overarching story is very slow, there's still a lot that goes on that kept me turning the pages.
Oh, and in case you didn't get the hint from the book description, this story is not something to flippantly give to children. More on this later.
There are a lot of characters here. While the entire story is told in first person point of view by Onye, she runs into a lot of characters. There's her beau, Mwita, another sorcerer who knows more about magic but isn't as powerful as she is and functions as team healer. She has three best girlfriends, her mentors, her mother, her stepfather, and of course, her rapist father. Who is a real piece of work. Just...wow.
All of these characters are deeply flawed. Onye has some severe anger issues that are a direct result of how horribly her society treats her and her mother, leading her to do several things that she almost immediately regrets. The friends she sets out on her journey with turn out to be less than ideal travel companions, given that half of them abandon the quest out of fear. (Though the one that sticks around, while not magical in any way, is a total badass.) Mwita himself has some inferiority complexes. I mentioned that he's not as powerful as Onye is, and while it's clear that these two characters deeply love and go to great lengths for each other, Mwita has some sexist views that come out every now and then. He believes that he should be the sorcerer while Onye hangs back as the healer. Needless to say, this is a bit of a conflict between the two of them.
In addition to expert storytelling, captivating worldbuilding, and engaging characters, Okorafor also weaves in several themes throughout this story. And when I say several, I mean all of them. I thought I was impressed by how many topics she was able to cover in Lagoon, but that's nothing compared to when she has an extra three hundred pages to play around with. Who Fears Death unflinchingly talks about rape, war, slavery, genital mutilation, misogyny, racism, religion and tradition used as tools of oppression, love, hope, death, and probably a dozen others that I missed in my first reading or just can't think of right now.
Bottom line, this is an amazing book. It is a bold, beautiful story that deserves to be on bookshelves everywhere.
How to write a romance that's already started rolling
Romantic subplots (or rom-subs, as I call them) are a huge part of speculative fiction, or any kind of fiction, really. We can't go two feet without stumbling into a pair of characters making out. I've complained about it before, and will continue to complain about it in the future, because it's often poorly handled. I've even written a few articles on the matter to help fellow authors with their rom-subs (see, How to Write a Romantic Subplot Parts One and Two, as well as How NOT to Write a Romantic Subplot).
But for this post, we're going to focus on a very specific breed of rom-subs today: the part of the relationship that comes after "The Big Kiss." We all know this moment. After several episodes/hours/books of flirting, bickering, and saving each others' lives, the characters finally--finally!--acknowledge that they want to be in a romantic relationship and make out properly for the first time.
And this is where the majority of romantic subplots end. All of the writing goes into setting up the relationship between our leading man and leading lady, and then...we don't get to actually see the relationship. Which is kind of a bummer. Because it feels like we go through all this work and turmoil without any reward.
And as a writer, I get it. Creating a relationship is a lot more exciting and dramatic than maintaining one. However, for the purposes of sequels, second acts, and just for my own peace of mind, we're going to be looking at how relationships are written after they're actually...you know, relationships. Rather than the will-they, won't-they nonsense.
But before we begin, I'm going to level with you: I am probably the last person in the world who should be writing this blog post. Not only am I still relatively new to published writing, but my own personal love life is pretty much non-existent. I didn't date in high school and only had one S.O. in college (and we broke up after less than a year). And most of the time, even though I am now getting back into dating, I usually have little to no interest in romance. So I know that I am far from an expert in building and maintaining romantic relationships in real life, and real life is the building blocks of fictional life.
However, I can tell you how any type of relationship looks in a story, including how one is done so well that even I think Wow, that looks really cool and realistic. So today, an attempt is made. Whether or not it's actually helpful to your writing, you decide.
SFF Characters Suck at Relationships
The first book (or movie, or season, whatever) ended with not only the villain defeated and the day saved, but also with the author's OTP kissing and starting a romantic relationship. It's now book two, and what's one of the characters' main problems? Their relationship is failing! Oh, no!
Seriously. Writers tend to have a really hard time writing functional relationships. The characters are having major problems that one of the characters has to confide in their bestie about (Nyota Uhura and Spock from the Star Trek reboots), or they've even broken up (General Leia and Han Solo in Star Wars: the Force Awakens). Sometimes, this makes sense. Not every relationship is destined for a fairy tale ending. Real life doesn't work like that, and neither should fiction.
But this problem is everywhere. Almost every romantic subplot that gets to continue from The Big Kiss runs into huge issues. And even when they don't, even when everything is fine, we rarely get to see the two characters actually do the relationship thing.
Look at Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in MCU. They start a relationship in Iron Man 2 and have some issues that they get to overcome in Iron Man 3, which is great. But then the next time we hear of their rom-sub is in Civil War, where Tony tells Steve Rogers that he and Pepper are "taking a break." Which is usually code for "breaking up or on the verge of doing so." This comes out of nowhere, since, while she doesn't make an appearance in Age of Ultron, it is established that she and Tony are still going strong. And THEN, the next time we hear from them in Spiderman: Homecoming, they're apparently back together again and Tony's proposing to her, which she accepts. Then in Infinity War, Tony's talking about possibly having kids!
Now don't get me wrong: I would much rather watch big explosions and ass-kicking in a superhero movie than dedicate an hour to the romantic subplot. But at the same time, you can't just skip over huge chunks of a character's life and relationship with others and expect everyone else to be able to follow along. You'll just give your readers whiplash. You're the writer. You have to write the damn thing.
Writing the Relationship
Because my life experience has left me woefully unprepared for this kind of thing, I'm going to be pulling from two stories that do manage to do the relationship thing very, very well: Avatar: the Last Airbender, and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson / Heroes of Olympus / Trials of Apollo series. (Minor spoilers for all of them.)
The ATLA show was the set-up for the romantic subplot between several characters, which are then explored in the comics that take place a year after the war. (If you haven't read those yet, please do. They're awesome.) Zuko and Mai do end up breaking up, and while Sokka and Suki seem fine on the surface I personally have been getting the vibe that there are some issues brewing. But Katara and Aang's relationship has been golden. They've continued to travel the world to bring peace and balance to the four nations, and have of course run into several obstacles and issues. Many Fire Nation colonists don't want to leave their Earth Kingdom homes. Aang's trying to preserve Air Nomad culture despite being the only living airbender. The South Pole is trying to modernize to keep up with the rest of the world, which grates on Katara.
But through all this chaos, just like all the chaos that happened in the show, Katara and Aang are there for each other. They continue to support one another and watch each other's backs. Only this time there's a bit more kissing and they call each other "sweetie." (Which I personally have a soft spot for because that's what my parents call each other. It's really cute. Fight me.)
Then we have Rick Riordan's books. Again, there are a ton of relationships because he went a little overboard in Heroes of Olympus, in my opinion. Piper and Jason, we find out in Trials of Apollo, did break up, but they're still friends. Nico and Will continue to be sickeningly adorable, dorky, and snarky. Leo and Calypso are still figuring it out but have managed to weather the first major test to their relationship: surviving a quest with a de-godified Apollo.
But of course, the main couple is Percy and Annabeth. They got together at the very end of the original Percy Jackson series, and despite that one hiccup where Percy was missing and amnesiac for eight months (because Hera is a bitch), their relationship has continued to be solid. They continue to fight bad guys. They continue to snark at each other and occasionally argue. They continue to lead the other demigods on crazy adventures and almost die.
Now, this piece of advice and personal wisdom I'm about to give is probably extremely obvious. Especially to experienced authors. But as I've said, most writers seem to be bizarrely incapable of writing the relationship after it gets started, so it needs to be said.
The common thread between these stories is simple: the characters in the relationship continue to be themselves. They don't act any differently other than the fact that they trust and rely on each other a little more. At least, the successful ones do. Part of the reason Zuko and Mai didn't work out is because Zuko didn't confide in her, or anybody, as the pressure of being Fire Lord started to get to him.
Basically, your characters are always themselves. They just get a little extra spice in their life now that they have a significant other. If they get lost in their relationship or start acting like a completely different character, then they probably shouldn't be in that relationship at all.
For an in-depth look at rom-subs as a whole, check out Overly Sarcastic Productions' video here.
DZA Marie's personal favorite romantic subplots in sci-fi and fantasy
Ah, early February. Living in Minnesota, I can see why Hallmark decided this was the prime time to start a romantic holiday: it's too cold outside to do anything other than snuggle with your significant other. (-50 degree windchill. Thanks, climate change.)
Now obviously, in the spirit of the holiday, the next couple of blog posts and this month's video will be relationship-oriented. However, I do not read romance novels. I read romance fanfiction, but in my movies and published novels I vastly prefer hard sci-fi and fantasy. Luckily (or unluckily, as this month's YouTube video will argue) you cannot open an SFF book or movie without there being at least a 95% chance of a romantic subplot popping up. And while most of them are very annoying and have no place in the story at all, some of them are downright adorable.
So, I have gathered a list of my personal favorite romantic subplots in the sci-fi, fantasy and superhero genres. They're not really in any particular order, and the biggest qualification is it has to make me go "Awwww" with a bare minimum of eye-rolling.
Nakia & T'Challa (Black Panther)
Most blockbuster movies with romantic subplots--especially superhero movies--tend to either ignore the woman's growth and character development, or make said growth and development all about the love and romance she bares for the hero.
This is not the case with Black Panther. Nakia is a fully fleshed-out badass who doesn't have so much of a narrative arc so much as the moral of, "Bitch, you should have listened to me from the start. Would've saved you a lot of trouble and Killmonger wouldn't have had a chance."
Also noteworthy is the fact that, at the time the movie starts, Nakia and T'Challa are exes. And while it's clear that T'Challa still has strong feelings for her, he does not whine and cry about it. They both act like adults, both respect each other, and they have a strong friendship that they then use to re-build their romance. (While they never go into it, I'm pretty sure the break-up came from clashing ideologies and world paths. Nakia wanted to go out and save the world, T'Challa wanted to hide behind his vibranium walls. That's not going to create a very stable relationship.)
Rapunzel & Eugene (Tangled)
Disney has several really good relationships, especially in recent years: Tiana and Prince Naveen, Kristophe and Anna, Mulan and Captain Shang...but my favorite is Rapunzel and Eugene (a.k.a. Flynn Rider). A lot of it has to do with Eugene's character development. Rapunzel manages to influence and change him into a better person, without going out of her way to "save" him. In fact, no romance starts until most of this change happens. At the same time, Eugene helps and encourages Rapunzel into taking charge of her own destiny.
Then there's the fact that Disney broke its own "married within three days of meeting each other" rule in order to clearly state that Eugene and Rapunzel didn't get married until years after the fact. Rushed marriages rarely work. Cinderella and Prince Charming probably got divorced three months after their wedding. But Rapunzel and Eugene? That's going to last forever.
Also, "You were my new dream." *cries*
Will Solace & Nico di Angelo (Percy Jackson series)
This relationship doesn't actually get started until the very, very end of The Blood of Olympus (book five in the Heroes of Olympus series), and we only see pieces of it in the first Trials of Apollo book. It's utterly adorable and one of the few romantic subplots that I really, really want to see more of.
This one gets points for being an LGBT relationship rather than the usual hetero stuff, without it being such a big freaking deal. We find out Nico is gay and had a crush on Percy in House of Hades, both of which he tried to ruthlessly squash down (the kid's from the 1930s, so it was definitely ones of those yikes moments for him). Blood of Olympus is him not only coming to terms with his sexuality, but also coming to terms with who he is as a person. You see, the son of Hades has had it in his head for a long time that nobody likes him, people are scared of him, everyone will be much happier if he just stays away, et cetera. But, by the end of Blood of Olympus, he's come to realize that while some people may be a little scared and even freaked out by him, nobody actually hates him. He can have friends. He can even have a boyfriend. And that's exactly what he gets.
Will Solace doesn't get nearly as much character development. He just kind of pops up and calls Nico out on all of his shit, and then enables bad behavior and rule-breaking when they start dating. So if there was one thing I'd change about this relationship, it'd be more insight into Will's frame of mind.
Edward & Winry (Fullmetal Alchemist)
(Please note: I'm going off of the manga and the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Not the anime that's just Fullmetal Alchemist. Yes, they are very different.)
This one is kind of weird. Primarily because, while both characters admit to themselves that they have a crush on the other, they never get to the point where they're actually dating before the end of the story. But while we're not entirely sure how they would act in a romantic relationship with each other, we still get a pretty good idea. Edward would continue to be an obnoxious (short) badass, while Winry would call out his obnoxiousness, fix his metal limb when he breaks it, and also be badass.
One of my favorite moments between these two is during Winry's breakdown, when she meets Scar and realizes he was the one who killed her parents. Edward has to stop her from trying to kill him, largely because he knows that she'd never forgive herself for it, even if that execution is arguably well-earned. It's a moment that shows that these two have each other's backs and bring out the best in each other.
Tormund & Brienne (Game of Thrones)
Fun fact: the show's writers never intended for Tormund or Brienne to be interested in each other at all. This was purely the actors and how they interacted with each other without any dialogue in season six. The writers saw that and thought, "Welp, guess this is going to be a thing," and wrote it into season seven (and hopefully season eight!).
Tormund is obviously head-over-heels in love with Brienne. She, on the other hand, does not seem to return his affections at all. But I'm really hoping she'll change her mind, and here's why: Brienne has been scorned all her life because she's not beautiful, she's good with weapons, and she doesn't take anyone's shit. She's grown up in a society that idealizes the women who are pretty, demure, obedient, et cetera. Worse, she's learned that any time a man does show interest in her, he's just making fun of her, or (in the case of the books) trying to win a bet.
Tormund, on the other hand, did not grow up in that society. In wildling culture (for the most part), the women are encouraged to be big, strong fighters just like the men. No wonder Tormund fell in love at first sight: Brienne is a powerfully-built, amazing fighter who's smart. That is the ideal wildling bride. And hopefully, Brienne will realize that all of the aspects that make southern men hate her are exactly what draws Tormund to her and return his affections.
Aang & Katara (Avatar: the Last Airbender)
I am not going to get into the Zutara debate. We're sticking with canon here. (And frankly, I prefer Katara and Zuko as really good friends. He need more friends than girlfriends.)
All of ATLA's relationships (all of ATLA's everything) are really great: Suki and Sokka, Sokka and Yue, Zuko and Mai...but the one that the writers spent the most time on is, of course, Aang and Katara.
For a kids' show (well, "kids' show," just like Pixar is "kids' movies"), their relationship moves at glacial speed, even though it's obvious that Aang's harbored a crush on Katara since the first episode. And while Katara loves him as a friend, she seems pretty oblivious to the romantic side and doesn't seem to reciprocate for a long time. We get a little "did they kiss, they probably kissed" moment in season two, but they don't have a first actual kiss until the Day of Black Sun in season three. And how does Katara react?
She slaps the "pause" button like a whack-a-mole because they're in the middle of a war and she doesn't have time for this shit, a decision that Aang--after some minor protest--respects. He doesn't persistently nag her, or keep flirting with her, or spite-date someone else in the hopes that she'll get jealous. He gives her space to work things out, and doesn't make another move until she instigates.
Also, in the post-series comics, they call each other sweetie. And my parents call each other sweetie. It's just really cute.
Bob & Helen Parr (The Incredibles)
This relationship is so strong it can handle all of Bob's issues in two consecutive movies. First his overwhelming desire to relive the glory days of his superhero youth, and second his jealousy at Helen being able to do that before him. There's obviously a lot of character development that happens with him--and he would've gotten a divorce at the end of the first movie if there wasn't--but if their relationship and commitment to each other had been any weaker than it was, then they wouldn't have lasted.
Also, these movies get huge props for having the main romantic subplot center around a married couple that have been together for fifteen years. Most romances happen when the two characters are pining for each other and trying to start a relationship, or at the height of "maximum drama" (someone cheated, they just broke up, et cetera). While their relationship has to weather some storms, the relationship itself is not the storm, if that makes sense. There's the minor blip where Helen thinks Bob is cheating on her with Mirage, but for the most part, all the problems they face in The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2 stem from Bob's personal issues and bad guys trying to destroy the world. Which is a good thing, because everyone knows that beating up the villain of the week is great couples' therapy.
What's the best romantic subplot you've ever seen/read in a sci-fi/fantasy/superhero story? Let me know in the comments so I can check it out!
I should give a quick update before I let Shannon from Read & Reels take over. A couple of weeks ago I got a second job working at Panera Bread as a delivery woman (well, technically it's my third job; my full-time position is PCA/job coach for people with disabilities, writing is my second job, and now this). At the same time, a bunch of other stuff happened this month:
In the middle of all of this, I realized yesterday, Shit! I need to blog this week, too!
Guest post to the rescue!
Unlike me, Shannon O. apparently has her life way more in order, and managed to not only finish reading a book, but write a review for it, too. Please enjoy while I go out and buy a much-needed planner.
"Slithers" by W. W. Mortensen: Book Review
Thank you so much for having me on your blog! It’s so awesome! Seriously, everyone needs to be reading it!
Today I thought I’d share a review of a Sci-Fi Horror I read recently, called Slithers by W.W. Mortensen!
There are so many things to like about Slither! Perfect setting, a tense atmosphere, wrought with fear, great writing, and good pacing. See what I mean, LOTS of things to like. That said, the ending is so huge and complex, I feel the author should have dedicated more time to explaining it better. I mean, I get the gist, but with such existential ideas to contemplate, readers would benefit from a more thorough conclusion.
This is the first book by Mortensen that I've read, and this one didn't put me off. On the contrary, I'm quite intrigued by his other titles, especially Eight. He's clearly very talented and based on the mood he creates in this story alone, I'm more than keen to read more.
Some other things worth mentioning: I loved all the creepy crawlies in this story. They very much reminded me of King's creatures in The Mist, which is high praise because that is one of my favourite short stories, and the gory scenes were also brilliant! I just loved how vivid and descriptive they were, so well done sir. Ugh... I'm shuddering just thinking about some of them.
Ultimately, I think the theme is about the universal question "What if?", and Slithers is an original, and entertaining approach to answering it. It may not be for everyone but many of you will really enjoy it!
Rating... B or 3.75 Gooey Truck Drivers out of 5!
Thanks again for letting me share on DZA today, it warms my heart to see so many amazing blogs like yours dedicated to Horror and Science Fiction!
Shannon O. (a.k.a. Shanannigans)
Blogger & Publicist
Yay, Shannon! I am definitely adding this to my reading list.
Be sure to visit her blog Reads & Reels. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Thoughts on Netflix's new horror movie Bird Box
I finally got around to watching Bird Box last week. Alone. At night. In my windy apartment.
Word of advice: don't do that.
While there was a bit of type-casting going on, the acting was great, the script was amazing, and the movie itself was pretty cool. For those of you who don't know: Bird Box is a Netflix movie based off of a book of the same name. It's a post-apocalyptic monster story where, if you look directly at the creatures taking over our planet, you commit violent suicide. (So, trigger warning.)
One of the biggest complaints of this movie is that we never see the monsters themselves. Which is a stupid complaint, because that's the whole point of the movie. The creatures take the form of your worst fear, biggest regret, greatest source of grief, and enhances those feelings so much that you immediately commit suicide. That's the true horror of it: a formless, shapeshifting beast that only wants you dead.
Well. Most people dead.
There were some issues I had with this movie. Perks of having a B.A. in social justice: I have issues with every movie. And you get to hear about them. :)
One of Bird Box's problems is its treatment of people with severe mental health problems. The way mental health is (inaccurately, terribly) portrayed in horror movies deserves its own blog post, like this one, and this one. So I'm going to try to make this brief.
While most people in Bird Box die once they see the creatures, there is a small percentage who do not. Instead, they praise the creatures' beauty and force other people to look at them. And who else are these people but the criminally insane.
I get it. The creatures may be deadly, but once you learn how to navigate with a blindfold and ignore the fact that the creatures can mimic the voices of your dead loved ones, you're pretty much good to go. The movie needs another, more corporeal threat to endanger and kill off some of the characters. But if you're going to use people with severe mental health issues as your villain, then make at least one of them your protagonist. Show us a person with severe depression who's highly triggered by the mass suicides going on around them and needs to find some reason to keep going. Or someone with schizophrenia who regularly hallucinates and might have some insight in how to navigate the creatures' tricks.
There were some of the other horror movie tropes. While there was a refreshing lack of stupid horror movie mistakes, there was the fact that the only two people of color--both black men--end up getting killed. Er, killing themselves. Both in suitably self-sacrificing, badass moments. But let's face it: unless the movie is being directed by Jordan Peele, the black guys almost never make it to the end.
My final issue with Bird Box involves a big-ass spoiler. So if you haven't seen it and want to, then I am going to direct you to my newsletter signup, and my Patreon page. If you would like to see more blog posts, as well as YouTube videos on my channel and published works, then please consider becoming a patron. You'll also get access to exclusive content such as sneak peaks, giveaways, and surveys.
Okay, self-promo over. Spoiler ahead.
At the end of the movie, Malorie and her kids manage to get to sanctuary in the middle of the woods, at a building that turns out to have been a school for the blind.
This, obviously, makes sense, and I first thought it was pretty clever. Of course people who are physically, completely blind will have a natural advantage over creatures that require you to see them. In our sight-centered society, we often forget about these folks. So the fact that they got to play saviors was kind of cool.
But then I thought, Hold on. Why are we only hearing about these people now? This movie takes place over five years. You're telling me that the remnants of the U.S. military didn't think to recruit these guys to seek out survivors? Or that the ninety-year-old war veteran who lost her sight a few years ago isn't wandering around her home city making sure her idiot sighted neighbors have the food the water they need to survive? Or that there's a little blind boy foraging for food for his friends and family?
While a part of me is glad that the movie at least added the blind community in a positive way, it annoys me that people with disabilities only appear to serve the able-bodied people's stories. The only reason the school for the blind appeared in Bird Box at all is because Malorie needed somewhere to end her story. And I get that the whole movie is, ultimately, her story, but the fact is this happens with any movie that isn't exclusively about disability, with only a handful of exceptions. And that's just not right.
So, yeah. Bird Box is a great way to kill a couple of hours and a good horror movie. But in the grand scheme of things, it's nothing special, and nothing new.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!