Worldcon in T-minus 10, 9, 8…

So I just finished packing for Worldcon, including 4 apples, 1 lb ginger snaps, and enough PBJ material to last the weekend (because fast food is disgusting and expensive).  I’ll be leaving tomorrow at 6:30 am with Cavan to pick up Logan in Orem, then meet up with Eric in Eagle Mountain and head out for Reno, hopefully before 7:30.

This will be my first time at Worldcon, and I’m pretty stoked!  It looks pretty freaking huge–Charlie sent me the PDF of the pocket program, and it had maybe twenty times the number of rooms for panels, workshops…man, it’s going to be hard not to get lost.  Also, I don’t think they’ll be giving away free books like at World Fantasy, though I’ll keep an eye out for whatever I can find!

I don’t have any specific goals, but here is what I would like to do:

  • Meet up with the other Utah writers (there are a lot of us!).
  • Network with other indie writers and book bloggers.
  • Gather as much info on ebooks and the publishing industry as possible.
  • Discover up-and-coming short fiction markets and what they’re looking for.
  • Gauge the general zeitgeist of the science fiction & fantasy community.
  • Throw something at Brandon.
  • Have fun!

That’s just about it.  See you in Reno!

Guest post: Developing Characters in a Fantasy Setting

Nathan Major is a friend and fellow writing who, like me, has taken the epublishing route for his first novel, Paradise Seekers. I met him through our mutual friend Charlie at Brandon Sanderson’s English 318 class.  His book is pretty good; I’m only partway through it right now, but he’s playing with some interesting fantasy concepts and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how he pulls it off.

I recently appeared on his blog with a guest post on how I develop my characters; for his appearance here, I decided to throw the question back at him.  Like a true fantasy author, he answered it with a multi-part epic that is probably only the first installment of a trilogy.  He makes some good points, though, and it’s definitely worth reading (and not just for the snarkiness, heh).

On a tangentially related note, I also appeared recently on Charlie’s blog with a post on ebook formatting and book DIY.  When you’re finished here, be sure to check it out!

And now, I give you Nathan Major…


When you think of fantasy, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Mystical worlds populated with elves, dwarfs, and other magical races? Kingdoms and castles, dark lords and noble heroes? Perhaps you entertain a world that is more supernatural and more interesting than our own, one that would allow you to escape to its enchanted forests and sweeping vistas.

The fantasy genre differs from other forms of fiction (except perhaps science fiction) in that the worlds they take place in tend to be the stars of the stories. Middle-earth and Prydain. Oz and Earthsea. And within these worlds, a classic clash of good vs evil is expected. The characters and story can often take a backseat, with many authors spending years of their lives crafting the perfect magic system, most precise system of fantastical government, and the means to make their elves the best damn elves you’ve ever seen.

This drives me crazy.

I’ve been reading fantasy my entire life, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I got fed up with the whole thing. I loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but as I dug deeper and picked up more modern fantasy, it all seemed to start blending together. Here is our noble hero, beating the odds to fight against a nameless, oft-hidden dark lord. Here is his spunky princess sidekick slash love interest, his old mentor who dies in act two, and the hardened warrior with a dark secret. While not all books contained these tropes, the main issue still persisted: I wasn’t seeing any new characters.

That was actually what drove me to writing. After reading through a particularly popular fantasy book that was also atrociously generic, I remember tossing the book on the couch and thinking, “I could do better than this!” So I set out to try my damnedest to write a fantasy novel that, yes, was in a fantastic worlds that we wish we could live in, but was populated by people just as interesting and well-developed as the world.

Since I’m severely ADHD, I’m going to break this up into a few key ideas that (hopefully) will get my point across. These aren’t just applicable to fantasy, but it’ll be my main focus.

1) Plan your characters first, before you plan the world.

Simple enough, right? When speaking with most other fantasy authors on the subject of brainstorming, the first things they say are, “Oh, I got the coolest idea for a magic system!” or “This world is going to be amazing…it’s made entirely out of White Chedder Cheese-its!” To which I say, “Ok, but what’s the story? And who are the people influenced by the story?” This is usually met with a, “I don’t know, I’ll figure it out later!” Then I defriend them on Facebook and pretend they never existed.

Ok, so the last part was an exaggeration. But the point still stands: you may have the greatest world ever devised, but so do map-makers, and theirs looks better. What is actually in the book is the plot and the characters, and the world is just what it takes place in. You might have the greatest appendix ever at the end explaining how the Haku-Bula Wolf Tribe’s language is actually a combination of grunts and Swedish, but that doesn’t matter to the average reader. Figure that stuff out after you’ve got a story, because it’s less important.

2) Don’t fall into cliches.

This is a hard one, as discovered by me when writing my third book, Where Gods and Mortals Dance. If you’ll excuse a moment of self-indulgence, when writing this book I had a female princess as the main character. She was a strong character, but due to circumstances beyond her control she was thrust into a situation that was almost impossible for her to fix. I remember trying to design her as strong but still fragile, as parts of her past haunted her and made her ability to rule difficult.

Then I took her to writing group, where the group was divided. Half said she was the, “generic, strong, masculine princess who takes charge,” and the other half felt she was the “weak, needy, spoiled princess” who has everything done for her.

It frustrated me, but also proved a point.

I was relying on two cliches and stereotypes to design my character. I drew from both in an attempt to be original, but that didn’t work. This happens all the time in fantasy. We have the old warrior, somehow inferior to our spunky young farmhand who picked up a weapon for the first time yesterday. We have a dark lord who never actually does any fighting or has any coherent plans, he just sort of sits on his throne of skulls and knives (which is probably black and on fire) and waits for farmhands to come and kill him.

Even in the most original novels, these cliches can become evident. They might not be as blatant as the ones said above, but keep them in mind when writing. Your book doesn’t have to star a teenager. It could star a forty-year-old man who wants to save the world. There doesn’t have to be a Dark Lord at all; the enemy could be something completely different. Stay the hell away from elves, dwarfs, or anything that Tolkien used. And taking Orcs, changing them slightly, and calling them “Orks” doesn’t count as being original, it counts as being a cop-out. Fight the cliché. Make your characters deep and unique.

3) Remember: Everyone is a hero in their own story

Sympathetic villains are a rarity in fantasy. Most of the time we have a group that is distinctly bad, and a group that is distinctly good. You can usually tell by how they live. If they live in trees, clouds, or anything that communes with nature: good. If they live in filth, a swamp, or basically anywhere that looks like it’s under the constant duress of a smoke-machine: evil. Usually bad-guy motives are just “they are bad and hate the good guys,” which is a freaking awful excuse. Oh, and don’t get me started on the “he’s insane, that’s why he wants to destroy the world!” villains. That’s the biggest cop-out of them all and if you use it I want to punch you in the face right now. You are cheapening your characters and your story to make things easier for you. Here’s a revelation: good books aren’t easy. It took Tolkien how long to craft the novel that essentially invented modern fantasy? I’m not saying you should take two decades to make your book, but you should at least have to take more than one sentence to describe your villain’s motives.

The best part about the above expression (which is probably my motto when it comes to developing characters) is that it changes the way you look at your book. Life isn’t black and white: it’s a whole lot of gray. You might see something in black and white, but if you were given a chance to enter someone else’s head, perhaps your view would switch entirely. Nothing is scarier than a completely sane, totally competent villain whose goals just so happen to be the exact opposite of our hero’s. In fact, it makes the reader uncomfortable, because many of them will no longer know who to root for. If you are doing it right, your villain’s motives and values should be just as convincing as the hero’s, which means the reader should be second-guessing their loyalties throughout the book. It makes for a hell of an engaging read, let me tell you.

But this little ditty isn’t just for main characters. Side characters also need to be their own heroes. Sam didn’t just tag along with Frodo because it was a fun thing to do. He knew what had to be done (probably even better than Frodo) and fulfilled that personal quest. Your side characters need to have their own motives and motivations, depth and personality. Don’t’ drag them to Mt. Doom with the only reason being “because the hero was heading that direction anyway.” They should be just as deep (or at least close to the level of depth) as your hero. Make them interesting, and your reader will love them even more.

4) For your characters to be successful, you must know them better than they know themselves

Wow, that’s a long one, and it is sort of off the theme of “broad, overgeneralizing statements” that these bullet points have been so far. At any rate, I’ll try and be brief with this one because it seems self-explanatory.

I have a friend author who, upon designing a character, takes an online “100 questions personality test.” While I’m not saying this is the “go-to” answer for everybody, it can be an extremely helpful tool in understanding a character better. What do they like to eat? What is their taste in women (or men)? If they magically appeared in our world and wanted to hang out, what would you do? These are questions that’ll maybe never be addressed in the story, but you should know these answers. If a character has a name and is in the book for more than a single chapter, you should know everything about them.

This can be hard work, especially if you like having a billion characters. But even if you just have one or two, you really need to be in their heads. Know them. Be them. Imagine them in other situations besides in your novel. And once you really understand what makes your spunky farmhand tick, then you’ll be able to write him in both a convincing and believable way.

5) Write characters you’d like to read about

Figured I’d end this on a simple one. It’s very easy when writing to get the rose-tinted glasses put on, and all of a sudden everything in your book seems perfect. Your characters are a little cliched, but whose aren’t? Your dark lord doesn’t really have a idiom, but he does have a badass axe carved from the ashen bones of the long-lost race of dragons. Who wouldn’t like this book?

Take a step back and think. And if you can’t think of yourself, think of me. A cynical, jaded red-head who writes fantasy only because most of the fantasy currently out there pisses him off. I am your audience. I am biased, blatant, and unbelievably good looking. What would I say?

If you know your characters (see #4!), and you know them well enough then this step shouldn’t be an issue. You’ll like them regardless, because any author gets attached to a character they know every aspect of. In my current novel, Effulgent Corruption, one of the viewpoint characters is complete scum. My initial development of him was a murderous, rampaging madman whose only reason for existence was to kill and destroy. However, as I dug deeper and began to understand the character, he became sympathetic. I realized the man’s goals, what emotional pains he’s been through, and what hurts him now. I knew who he relied on, and what parts of himself he hated.

He quickly became my favorite character.

This should happen with you. You should love your villains, and hope that, should this whole “world-saving hero” thing blow over, their goals will be accomplished. Your side characters should be entertaining and fun, people you’d want to hang out with, just like your hero does. You should know everybody and at least have a shred of sympathy for them. Then, you’ll have great characters.

This, of course, isn’t a complete guide to developing good fantasy characters. Hell, it isn’t really even a very specific one. But I’m almost 100% sure that, should you take these ideas to heart, you can beat the odds and write a fantasy novel that is as interesting in its ideas about elven politics as it is with its elaborate, three-dimensional characters. Fantasy as a genre deserves better, and you (yes, you!) can be the one to do it. So go forth, young author, and write the epic that will shake the Barnes and Nobles across the land!

Plus, it’ll increase your chances that I’ll actually read it, which is a perk in and of itself.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Nathan Major

Tag and such

So my cousin Angela tagged me in this cross-linking truth-or-dare blog game, and it looks fun so I figured I’d participate.  Here goes:

Do you think you’re hot?

I suffer from no illusions as to my ability (or rather, lack thereof) to carnally attract the opposite sex.  That’s not to say I’m ugly, but when you apply the Pareto principle to dating (and let’s be honest, it’s really more of a 90/10 split), I don’t make the cut.

And you know what?  I’m fine with that.  Because it only takes one…

What is  your current desktop wallpaper?

This glorious image from APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day).  It’s enough to make me want to move to Iceland, and that’s saying something.

When was the last time you ate chicken?

I made some awesome fajitas last week, and the chicken was on sale at Maceys.  I always cook my own chicken; I hate the precooked frozen stuff.

What were you thinking as you were doing this?

Who comes up with these things anyway?  Hmm, I wonder if I could start one…

Do you have nicknames?

I have two internet screen names, which are probably the only nicknames of mine that are still in use (besides the ones people use behind my back).  The first is “onelowerlight,” and it’s all over the place.  The second I use only on deviant art and a certain fan-fiction site, and it is and shall remain a closely guarded secret.

Tag eight blogger friends…

Alright, let’s do this.  LEEERRROYYY…

Gods, Witches, Space & Stars
Kate in Katy
Myself as Written
One Modern Mormon
Not A Villain (technically a webcomic not a blog, but hey she’s an old friend)
سفريات أنثون

Who’s listed as number one?

My old writing friend Laura, who just got back from an LDS mission in Armenia.  Has a lot of interesting and insightful things to say, such as her last post on the difference between strong female characters who are independent vs. strong female characters who are interdependent.

Say something about number five.

Sarah is one of my little sisters, and she just had a baby!  Also, she worked for a couple years in a survivalist-oriented wilderness therapy program, and knows how to make traps, kill and eat animals, and make fire with sticks and a bow.  Oh, and she’s also hilarious.  If I’m ever stranded on a desert island, she’s my first pick for who I’d want with me.

How did you get to know number three?

Chuck?  I think she showed up at a writing group meeting when I was VP of Quark.  She was never really active in the club, but we also took Sanderson’s 318 class a couple times and went to CONduit in 2008 together.  Meh; she’s alright, I guess (jk!).

How about number four?

(who comes up with these questions?)

Mykle is my geekiest brother in law, at least in terms of books and sf&f fandom (linux, that would be Danny).  He married Sarah two months after meeting her and I think it was the best decision either of them ever made.  He doesn’t blog much, but when he does, it’s always thoughtful and interesting.

Leave a message for number six

Thanks Kindal for the feedback on Worlds Away! Blunt as always but quite helpful.

Leave a lovey-dovey message for number two

For my sister?? Ewwwww…

Seriously Kate, I love your blog.  And you have the freaking cutest daughter on the face of the planet.  Thanks for making me an uncle!

Do number seven and number eight have any similarities?

Yes, in fact.  Aneeka (no. 7) spent a couple years teaching English in Japan; Anthon (no. 8 ) hasn’t spent more than a week or two in the same place (or more than a month or two on the same continent) for the last two years.  Let me just say, I am in awe of these world travelers and hope to do likewise at some point in the future.

That’s it folks.  At least I have chicken.

Update on things

Revised the first chapter of Mercenary Savior today.  I will probably revise it a couple more times before this draft is finished, but at least I’ve done it once.

For some reason, most of my alpha readers didn’t give me too many comments to work with.  I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but in practical terms it means I’m mostly on my own.  Still waiting for some to get back to me, though.

Last week, I wrote the prologue, where as a young woman Danica returns to her home only to find her family massacred by hired thugs.  It was…surprisingly dark.  Charlie liked it, though, so that’s a good thing.

Charlie also complimented me on my prose, saying that it improves every time she reads something of mine.  That’s a pleasant surprise, since I certainly don’t notice any difference–but then again, I’m so close to my own writing that improvement is hard to see.  Good to know that my craft is getting better, not getting worse.  Thanks!

Last week, I realized that I didn’t have any submissions out for Genesis Earth. None at all.  I sent out a query on Saturday, but it was surprisingly difficult.  Submitting is definitely not my strongest point; I really need to work on that.

In unrelated news, I’m flying home tomorrow to spend the week with my parents.  I asked to come home for my birthday present; my mom’s health insurance through her work covers me until September, but only in Massachusetts.  Since I haven’t had a dental checkup in years, I figured it would be good to get that done.  Also, it’s a nice break and a chance to see my folks.  I’m looking forward to it.

Let’s see, what else is going on?  Oh!  The Kepler Mission announced a press conference for Thursday to discuss “an intriguing star system” they recently discovered.  Needless to say, I can hardly wait!

Also, no less than 6 fellow quarkies are moving in to my apartment complex this next semester.  Six!  And they’re all girls!  If Baggins old place was Bag End, and his new place is Rivendell, our complex is freaking Minas Tirith.  And we’re forming a dinner group, too!  This next year is going to be awesome.

And that’s just about it for what’s new in my world.  I came just shy of 4k in Mercenary Savior today, and I hope to keep that up (or do more) until I get a new job.  For now, let me leave you with this EPIC chipophone presentation from lft.  8-bit music ftw!

I’m published!

That’s right–my first published story just came out in issue 58 of The Leading Edge.  I am happy to say that after three years of formally pursuing my career as a writer, I am now a published author!

The story is titled Decision LZ1527, and it’s about a guy asking a girl out on a date–as told from the point of view of the little men inside his head piloting his body like a starship. I really like the tagline in the table of contents: “A man, a woman, and a whole crew of matchmakers.”

Full disclosure: I submitted this story after I joined the staff as a volunteer slushpile reader.  Most of the editors for this issue are pretty good friends of mine (including the Production Director, who’s one of my most trusted alpha readers).  I submitted it under a pseudonym, however, so most of the staff didn’t know it was mine until after they’d accepted it.

The Leading Edge is known for the excellent quality of its illustrations, and I’m happy to say that I lucked out with with the artist the editors picked for my story!  Josh McGill is a graphic designer and aspiring children’s book illustrator.  He’s done art for issues 53 and 55 of The Leading Edge. The picture on the right is the one he did for the front page of my story.  I must say, I’m impressed!

The Leading Edge is a semi-professional small press science fiction and fantasy magazine affiliated with BYU.  It’s been in publication since the early 80s, when Marion K. “Doc” Smith’s famous “class that wouldn’t die” got together and started it, along with Quark and LTUE.  If you would like to support the magazine (and read my story!) you can purchase a copy of issue 58 at the following link:

Issue 58: “Redemption Songs”

Lot’s of people dream about getting published, but it takes a lot of hard work and rejection to actually make it happen.  As writers, though, we tend to be harder on ourselves than we ought to be.  It took almost four years for Decision LZ1527 to find its way into print, but it did.  That’s enough to make the rest of the process worth it.

Let’s hope it’s the first of many!