New Dragons, Zombies & Aliens Podcast
The Hero's Journey
This month's podcast is all about story structure. Specifically, the Hero's Journey.
Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera
Book Review (no spoilers)
Dealing in Dreams is a very unique, intimate dystopian/post-apocalyptic YA novel. Several tropes get turned on their head, and we get a good look at how beauty can be found in even the worst of circumstances.
Nalah--who usually goes by the name Chief Rocka--is born into the brutally violent matriarchal Mega City, where seven-year-old girls are recruited into military camps and teenagers being beaten to death is the norm. It's a TERF's* paradise, and Nalah has swallowed the lies fed to her hook, line and sinker.
We get a handful of very distinct, diverse characters. Each crew has a maximum of five members, and Nalah encounters maybe half a dozen more named characters in her journey. Several of these characters fall into the LGBTQ+ category, including a genderfluid singer who has several things to say about how Mega City is structured. Nalah interacts with all of them, getting more angry and confused as their lives directly contradict what she's been told by Mega City.
Everything is told through Nalah's points of first, in first person. This means she dominates the prose, and the whole novel is told in short, direct, punchy sentences. There's hardly any metaphors and no flowery prose because that's not how Nalah talks. She's direct and to the point.
Nalah herself is a contradictory character. She's a gang leader, which makes her violent and cut-throat. But she's also got a softer side as she tries to protect her crew and bring all of them to the Towers so they can all have a better life. She's shrewd and calculating, as she has to maneuver a couple of political situations on top of everything else, but her goals and dreams are plain for everyone to see.
Most dystopians have a problem in that they put their characters in only one or two types situations, thus limiting how many different sides of a character the reader gets to see. Rivera circumvents this problem by putting Nalah in several different situations: in a physical fight, negotiating a ransom, relaxing in a bathhouse/strip club, in the presence of her hero, in the presence of her blood relatives, winning, failing, everything.
Honestly, my only serious complaint about this novel is that the resolution was too long. After the climax, it needed only two chapters, max: immediate fall-out and recovery. But the story itself is a difficult one to end, so I'm not torn up about it. Rivera did not write a traditional dystopian novel where the spunky group of protagonists work to topple the evil overlord and put someone else in charge. That's not the central conflict, and it's not what we as readers are necessarily waiting to happen. The core of the story is entirely on Nalah: can she accept the reality of the world, and can she keep her crew safe?
I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys YA dystopians, but is tired of all the whitewashing (everyone here is Latino), the unrealistically sudden end to all-powerful authoritarian regimes (doesn't happen), and/or tiring romantic subplots that take up too many pages (there is none where Nalah is concerned).
*TERF: stands for "Transgender-Exclusive Radical Feminist." Basically, they're transphobes who pretend to be feminists.
Anna Stephens is the author of the fantasy grimdark Godblind trilogy from the UK. She's come onto the blog to write about what exactly goes into writing a trilogy without going insane.
Note: her post has been edited for clarification.
On Finishing a Trilogy - or Attempting To
I’ve recently completed my debut epic fantasy/grimdark series – the Godblind trilogy.
I say recently – it’s published in the UK and Commonwealth on 5 September, so in fact I finished it at the start of the year and then just had copy-edits and proofreading to complete. That said, it feels as if I’ve only just finished it, and I think that’s mostly because it’s still sitting there in my head, poking my brain with a stick and making unhelpful suggestions like “why don’t you rewrite chapter 7?” and “but what if he lived instead?”
Writing a book is tough – I think we all know that. Writing a trilogy is…well, the logical answer is three times as tough, but it doesn’t quite work out like that. Most days it felt 30 times as tough; others it felt only a third as tough. But one thing is certain: when it comes to that last book, you better get it right. You better find every last one of those dozens of plot threads and throw-away comments and surmises and write them to a satisfying conclusion. Because if you don’t, there will always, always be an eagle-eyed reader who gets in touch – probably publicly on social media – to tell you what you’ve missed.
Aside from the little details, there is, of course, the rather larger issues and challenges of the main and sub-plots, not just the story but all the stories woven through it. Not just the hero’s quest but their character development and inner journey. Not just who wins, but how and why – and what it means for the world and all your named and unnamed secondary characters.
The more I think about it, the more astonished I am that – according to my publishers, at least (review copies are yet to go out at the time of writing this) – I’ve managed to pull it off. But it was not easy.
Getting a publishing contract for my debut novel, Godblind, was a dream come true. Having spent a good 13 years perfecting that – or making it as good as I could; we still went through a few rounds of edits – it was a pretty terrifying proposition to discover I had only nine months to write Darksoul, the sequel. And, in the end, while I did draft it in time, it needed so much work that my publication date was pushed back a few months so that I could work with my editors to refine the plot and pacing issues – of which there were many. Second book syndrome is real and it is ugly.
It’s so ugly, in fact, that when I came to draft book 3, Bloodchild, I had a major crisis of confidence. I’d spent some time convinced I’d torpedoed my writing career before it even got off the ground, that Darksoul had been such a disaster from the publishers’ perspective – not the final product or the sales, but the amount of work they had to do with me – so all of a sudden I decided I had no idea how to end the trilogy. I knew what needed to happen, but I didn’t have a clue how to get there. I was paralyzed with doubt for weeks – and the countdown to my deadline was ticking ever louder in my ears, which didn’t help.
Eventually I started to write and there were days, even weeks, when I galloped along and everything was going brilliantly. Other times when every paragraph had to be dragged kicking and screaming from my brain. It was the difficulty of writing a novel plus the anxiety of finishing the trilogy off with the right impact, the right outcome for the characters, the story, the world.
And when the draft was done, I had exactly zero idea if it was any good. That’s not an exaggeration. It was 143,000 words and I couldn’t have told you if any of them were good. I simply didn’t know: that second book crisis of confidence had lingered into the third and didn’t seem to be inclined to leave. The only way I was going to know if it was good was if someone else told me it was – I didn’t trust my own judgment.
(Aside: do I sound as crazy to you as I do to myself? What a fruitcake.)
So, anyway, what did I do about this crisis?
The biggest thing is that I admitted it. I spoke to my family and a few clever and supportive friends. I ranted about my lack of ability and how I’d ruined my lifelong dream, about how I’d never get another publishing deal. I had a couple of tearful breakdowns.
I also sent it to my agent and got some brilliant feedback and suggestions for changes. It was just the right mix of praise and critique and it told me that I was, in fact, on the right path and it was, after all, a good book. And so I reread the draft and then rewrote it, incorporating a lot of my agent’s feedback and refining the rest of it so that it better fitted in with where I saw the story ending. And it was better. I could see straight away it was better. Knowing that gave me the impetus to send it off the publishers and my editors.
And then it was time to wait again. And while I was waiting, I continued working on a new book. That’s the thing with publishing: you’re constantly leap-frogging between projects. Here I am, doing promo work for Bloodchild (well, this is supposed to be promo, though I suspect I’m just making myself sound like a crazy person) while at the same time waiting to hear back on a new project AND writing the second installment of that new project.
Last year, I was building on the success of Godblind by promoting Darksoul while drafting Bloodchild. The book you’re promoting is always at least one book before the one you’re currently working on; it gets rather confusing at times.
When my first round of edits for Bloodchild came back I was terrified. The email sat in my inbox unopened for four hours while I paced up and down and chewed my nails and contemplated cracking open the gin. It was going to be another Darksoul; I knew it.
Sure, there was work to be done and stuff that needed to be changed, but the edits were extremely positive. Perhaps I had learnt all the lessons inherent in second book syndrome after all. Maybe I really could do this, be a trilogy author!
There were still a couple of small battles to be had over character arcs and the number of living and dead main protagonists (I had to sacrifice one to save another; it was like choosing which of your dogs to give away. Monstrous), but in all, I’d been on the right path and done a bloody good job. And yes, perhaps that sounds arrogant, but one thing I have learnt from all this is to have at least a little faith in myself. It wavers on occasion, but if I don’t think I’m any good, I’ll never get the draft into my agent’s hands, let alone anyone else’s.
Fast forward four months and the book is done: edited; copy-edited; proofread. The next time I see it will be in its final form, out of the chrysalis and spreading its red-soaked wings. And I couldn’t be prouder. It’s been a tough road, but one that I know I’m very privileged to be able to walk. Not everyone gets a publishing deal. Not everyone gets the levels of support I’ve had. Believe me, I know I’m lucky.
The Emotional Fallout
Not that it ends there, of course. Oh, no. That would be too easy.
I’ve spent at least 15 years with these characters. They’ve been, without hyperbole, both friends and family to me – yes, even the terrible, evil ones. And now I have to say goodbye, not just to the ones who didn’t survive to the end of the trilogy, but to all of them. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that once I handed back the proofread and knew that that was it that I went through a period of mourning. (Again, fruitcake. I know).
But to know that I don’t get to hang out with my buddies anymore, that I don’t get to hear Ash’s jokes or Tara’s terrible ideas, Rillirin’s earnest and burgeoning self-belief, Crys’s reluctant heroism, makes me genuinely sad.
I guess the only thing I can do now is wish them well and go on an adventure with some new friends and family. It feels a bit like a betrayal, but as much as I could write their shenanigans and romances and escapades forever, it’s time to move on. Time to challenge myself with something new, something broader and different and other.
Time to get stuck into my next series. I wonder how hard this one will be.
Anna Stephens is the author of the Godblind trilogy, the final book Bloodchild having been released in September of 2019. Translation deals for French, German, Dutch, Polish and Czechoslovakian versions have all been agreed.
A literature graduate from the Open University, Anna loves all things speculative, from books to film to TV, including classic Hammer and Universal horror films, as well as the chameleon genius of David Bowie.
As a beginner in Historical European Martial Arts, with a focus on Italian longsword, and a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, she’s no stranger to the feeling of being punched (or stabbed) in the face, which is more help than you would expect when writing fight scenes.
The Tyrant's Tomb: Book 4 of The Trials of Apollo
Note: while there are no spoilers for The Tyrant's Tomb in this post, there are spoilers for book three, The Burning Maze. You can read the spoiler-free review for book three here.
Is there really anything new I need to write? My love for Rick Riordan and The Trials of Apollo series is well-documented on this site. The Tyrant's Tomb came out a few months ago and once again, he nailed it.
It looks like Apollo's narrative arc and character development is almost complete. In Book One, he went from I am the most amazing thing in the cosmos to eh, I guess I have some work to do. In Book Two, he moves on to huh, looks like I've made some pretty big mistakes. And while his scope of compassion and empathy had gradually increased thanks in large part to his friendship with Meg, it exploded with the death of Jason Grace in Book Three.
This book, unsurprisingly, deals with the immediate aftermath. Apollo and Meg take Jason's body to New Rome for funerary rites and deal with the fallout. For Apollo specifically, it's a heaping dose of guilt and self-loathing. He blames himself for Jason's death. It gets worse as he explicitly runs into more demons from his past: a prophet he cursed, a minor god he bullied, and an ex-girlfriend he had killed. Whereas in previous books he brushed those events off as part of his I'm a god, they're mortals schtick, here he fully understands the scope of his actions and what a dick he really was.
What packs an emotional punch is that he's not a dick anymore, meaning he's essentially already learned his lesson but he still has to face consequences. And while he kind of deserves it, at this point the majority of his allies are thinking that he's been through enough and it'd be great if they could save the world without all this extra drama. Apollo has also been reflecting on why he acted the way he did, and a lot of it stems from Zeus's abusive parenting. While he never uses it as an excuse (especially not with Meg around), it's going to make for a very interesting confrontation in Book Five.
On top of that, there are several parts in The Tyrant's Tomb where he straight-up believes he's going to die, and he's okay with it so long as his friends are safe. So basically, his character arc is 90% complete, as no self-respecting YA hero can call themselves a protagonist without at least one heroic act of self-sacrifice.
There is one bone I have to pick with this particular book. When Riordan killed off Jason in The Burning Maze, he set the precedent that almost any character could die. Not Apollo, as he's the main character and also the narrator; probably not Meg since she has an unresolved arc; and not Percy because then his fans would straight-up murder him. But any of Apollo's allies could get a sword in the back just like Jason did, including the other Seven.
Several minors characters do die in the epic battle at the end of The Tyrant's Tomb, more than one delivering an emotional gut-punch on the way out, but none of the major characters die with them. There's one who should have died, but they turn out okay because magic. Not quick-thinking on their part, not because someone else saved them, not even because of sheer dumb luck. They're saved via ill-defined magic and the power of narrative theme.
As a writer, I understand. Riordan wants to give us a break after Jason, and this way we have the chance to get all the rest of the Seven--plus Reyna, the Hunters, and Nico--together in Book Five. But as a reader, I feel cheated. Fake-out deaths are hard to do right, especially since they're usually only there to emotionally manipulate the reader. While the whole reason we read books is to be emotionally manipulated, this one fell just a little short off the mark.
On top of that, it seems like Riordan forgot about Hazel's powers over the Mist. You know, those illusion-like abilities that she spent a good chunk of The Heroes of Olympus series learning and using? I can think of at least two major instances where she could have at least tried to use them. They wouldn't have had to work, even a quick throwaway line like "they have some sort of anti-Mist enchantment" would have sufficed. But it's never mentioned.
That said, it's still an amazing book, an amazing series, and I'm once again counting the days to Riordan's next release. Because I need to see Nero die, more demigods be awesome, and Apollo tell Zeus that while he's grateful for this experience, this whole thing was messed up.
Ah, nothing like coming out of a long hiatus with a meticulously planned video, only for your software program to screw you over, forcing you to redo your entire format 48 hours before your arbitrary, self-imposed deadline.
After quite a bit of thought--in between all the swearing and crying--I've decided that every video will now be in podcast format.
Today we're looking on literary antiheroes: how to write them, some common misconceptions and mistakes, and a case study of Thank You For Smoking.
Tell me your favorite antiheroes in the comments! I'm always looking to expand my reading and watchlist.
So. You know how I said the temporary hiatus will only last a few weeks while I get my life back on track, and then completely dropped off the grid for several months?
Yeah. Shit happens.
The good news is I finally got a new job--my first managerial position, believe it or not--that does not require me to work a second job to make ends meet, and also allows me to have a life outside of my 9-to-5. Hurray!
I've started training and am currently building a backlog of blog posts to make running this site a little easier. In addition to this blog, I'll be returning to YouTube as well.
I will not be doing two blog posts a week. We're just going to start with the regular once-a-week posts (probably on Friday, but that might change), occasionally mixing it up with an interview or guest post.
In the meantime, I've joined Instagram! You can follow me here.
Thank you for your patience, guys. I'll see you in January!
Hey guys! So, I'm supposed to be posting another author interview here, but I've decided to put the blog on a temporary hiatus. (No more than a couple of weeks.)
The reason for this is because I'm moving, looking for a new job, exhausted from finishing the first draft of a sci-fi novel, a
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
No Spoilers! (Promise)
Usually books that feature an author and/or historian tend to present a very romanticized, unrealistic version of it. They're all Indiana Jones tromping around in jungles and getting into fist fights, or effortlessly cranking out manuscript after manuscript and never even heard of writer's block. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, they're washed-up alcoholics writing about how joy is fleeting and that death comes for us all.
Carrie McClelland is a bit of an ideal writer, in that she can afford to go bouncing around Europe without worrying about the hole in her finances. But otherwise, she's spot-on. She buries herself in books, letters, and articles in order to get every detail of her historical novel right. The first quarter of the book is her being unable to even start the damn manuscript because writer's block is a bitch. Her sleep schedule is a mess--in part because of the whole ancestral memory thing slowly driving her insane, but mostly because of the writing. She subsists almost entirely on coffee and ramen noodles. In short, I've rarely found myself more represented as a writer in any media, even if Carrie has much more of a pantser style than my planner style of writing.
But while I appreciate Carrie, her ancestor/fictional character Sophia is much more interesting, in part because her story is more interesting and the actual focus of the book. But don't worry, you'll never get confused. While Carrie and Sophia's stories echo each other in many ways, Kearsley uses both stylistic and POV differences to make it easy to tell when you're switching from one to the other. If it's first person POV and modern lingo, it's Carrie's story. If it's third person POV with long, antiquated sentences, we're dealing with Sophia.
The idea of ancestral memory is an interesting one, and its affects on Carrie have some unique story points. She goes from denial to acceptance quickly, thanks to the mountain of evidence put before her, but refuses to tell anyone else except on a need-to-know basis because she's very well aware of how insane it all sounds. While originally the memories affect her only as she's working on her book, they quickly consume the rest of her life, resulting in her almost falling off a cliff at one point because her Sophia-memory tells her the foot path leads one way when it actually goes another.
Despite what the back cover would have you believe, the politics and international drama is mostly background noise. And while it does have an impact on the story, the main focus of Carrie and Sophia's stories is very small scale and intimate. It is a romance novel, after all, so the primary focus is going to be Sophia's relationship with Moray and Carrie's with Graham. And while I personally think both relationships move a little too fast, they're both realistic, engaging, and natural. Sophia's is especially marked with hardship, given that she falls for a soldier in the middle of a war, and he, of course, gets sent out to fight.
Also, slight trigger warning: there is an attempted sexual assault about three quarters of the way through. It lasts about a page before she's rescued, but it does exist.
Here's how good this book is: it manages to cram in two--two!--love triangles and still keep me interested. It helps that everyone acts like adults about the whole thing, keeping the tropey ridiculousness to a minimum. And while Sophia's resolution is a little far fetched...it's romance, and by the time I got there I really wanted her to have a happy ending.
So if nothing else, the characterization, accurate-if-ideal portrayal of how an author works, and a surprisingly good plot twist are all good reasons to read The Winter Sea if you want to read a fantasy that doesn't scream fantasy. Or if you want a historical romance with a twist.
Margret Treiber resides in Southwest Florida and is employed as a Systems Analyst. When she is not working with technology and writing speculative fiction, she helps her birds break things for her spouse to fix.
Her short fiction has appeared in a number of publications. Links to her short fiction, novel and upcoming work can be found on her website at http://www.the-margret.com.
Interview with Margaret Treiber
What cool and exciting things have been happening in your life recently?
I was fortunate enough to be included in the anthology Challenge Accepted: A Charity Anthology which benefits the Special Olympics.
Is your recent book part of a series? If so, can you tell us a bit about where the story is heading?
My lasted collection, "Japanese Robots Love to Dance" is a rough prequel to "Sleepy Time for Captain Eris." The stories take place in a fairly dystopian near-future with superpowered individuals and a few AIs. I plan to add more stories and characters in future installments. Most of my characters are flawed antiheroes.
Can you tell us about what you're currently working on?
Currently, I'm working on a novel which I can't identify. What I mean is that this thing built up in my head, until I had no choice to write it. I'm not sure what it is, but it takes place in a space fleet with strange undisciplined people. I'm in editing now. Maybe I'll figure it out soon.
Do you write under a pen name? If so, can you tell us why?
Nope, well, er, I do have one I once wrote cell phone porn under. Yeah, I figured it needed to exist. It's called "Your Outlet or Mine." It's pretty bad.
Have you ever written characters that you truly despise? Why or why not?
Nope. I write complicated broken people. Some I really don't like, but I have pity on them. They all have reason for being asshats.
What do you like best about the books you read? What do you like least?
I like humor, sympathetic characters, and plots that don't make me want to kill myself at the end. I can appreciate a bad ending, but I don't like feeling worse about life than my baseline if I can avoid it.
What is your biggest pet peeve in storytelling?
Present tense and third person narration.
Really? I'll steer you clear of my Homestead Hunts stories, then...
Were you “born to write” or did you discover your passion for writing later in life?
I started as a kid, wrote through college, quit in my twenties and started again in my late forties. I lost a lot of time.
Where did the idea of your story come from?
Some weird place in my head. All of a sudden, something generates in my consciousness and won't stop screaming at me until I write it. I'll get very depressed if I'm unable to get it out, but then I feel really empty after I do.
What did you edit out of your book?
Usually the smut. I write it. It embarrasses me. I take it out.
If you were to write a non-fiction book, what might it be about? Why?
Not clicking on things in email and pissing off your IT department.
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?
I'm an "anytime I can fit it in" kind of writer. As long as people don't screw with me, I can write almost anywhere. All I need is a comfortable word processor and keyboard. But there is a high incidence of people screwing with me. I also can't write when I'm sleeping. I can come up with plots in my sleep though.
Do you have complete control over your characters or do they ever control you?
It's a mixed bag. Some of them are me.
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's like getting a bad review at work by your boss. Your career can be sunk and as a result, you make less money and your reputation suffers. Only in this scenario, everyone on the internet is that boss who can destroy your career.
What kind of impact do you want your book(s) to have on readers?
I want them to be entertained. I don't expect them to achieve enlightenment or personal growth. I just would like them to enjoy the read.
What, in your opinion, is the worst mistake an author can make?
Give up. Hold onto your dream.
Do you have any advice for new authors?
Prepare for rejection, but know we all suffer through it.
If you could have a dinner with one fictional person, who would it be? Why?
Kahn, because I suddenly feel fatigued.
If you could go to any fictional world, where would you go? Why?
The "Venture Brothers" universe. I belong there and would hench for life.
If you could have one (real life) skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be? Why? How would you use it?
Being fearless. I let my fears hold me back too much. If I were fearless, I would take more chances and achieve my goals or fail with grace.
If you could have one magical ability/superpower, what would it be? How would you use it?
There are so many good ones. Definitely NOT telepathy. Yuck. Flight's cool but so limited. Super strength/invulnerability, awesome, but not me. Maybe something like telekinesis. I think I would dig smacking people with random objects.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
I don't have a police record.
What are three things you think we can all do to make the world a better place?
1) Don't be asses to our people. Remember their life is as shitty as yours is.
2) Give people the benefit of the doubt. They may not have meant to obnoxious.
3) Feed your coworkers. They are hungry.
What creature is better: dragons, zombies, or aliens?
Definitely aliens. Dragons hang out with stupid elves and zombies need a freakin clue.
Minor spoilers for every version of Fullmetal Alchemist.
So you want to write a fantasy story. As a fantasy and sci-fi author, I heartily endorse this.
Fantasy is a huge genre, encompassing a ton of tropes, subgenres, and rules. But a near-universal trait of fantasy is the use of magic. I mean, if a story doesn't have magic, can it even really be considered fantasy?
But writing magic is a bit daunting. So much has already been done, how do you stand out? What rules should you put in your magic system to make it interesting but not constricting? How do you make it fit with the rest of your world?
Those are all big questions, and each of them probably deserves its own blog post. But we're going to tackle all of them here, so buckle up.
Hard vs. Soft
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!