When I first saw the movie Dragonheart as a kid, something in me clicked into place, because that is exactly the way I pictured dragons. No matter what books I read or games I played that sort of missed the mark, to me, finally, someone got it right. I feel a similar kindred soul for The Redwood Rebel--this is the book that got fantasy right.
From the very beginning, the settings, the conflicts, the personalities all began to rise out of the mist like Avalon. You won't be flooded with three pages of descriptions like the dusty classics, but you won't be floundering to figure out what the room looks like either, or when this character acquired a glass in their hand. The magic is explained in such a way that you could feel yourself using your own. You learn more about a particular type while the character does, and though it's not perfect—how does one conjure up solid objects like chairs and clothes, anyway?--it isn't limitless and unexplained.
I admire the characters right away. The protagonist Naomi is ferocious when a situation calls for it, loyal and heartbroken for her home, genial with people who give her the benefit of the doubt, and doesn't react out of nothing. My favorite part about her is how she balances being proud with being humble; she values herself and her boundaries, but will also reconsider and readjust when she's wrong. Her companions along the journey are also intriguing, lively, and relatable. They are as vibrant and unique within their races as they are mixed among each other, and it's a treat to be able to agree with both sides of an argument because the character's motives are so well-defined.
Speaking of motives, that of the villains can hold water as well. They don't seek destruction for the sake of it, but for the sake of their own gains. They have desires of their own and vary in the ways they wish to achieve them. I especially enjoyed reading about the harpies and how their bloodthirsty ways were driven by biology as well as allegiance.
My absolute favorite part, however, was the worldbuilding. There are three main areas described in the book, and all so uniquely defined in geography and culture that I could imagine them in ways similar to our own countries on Earth, without being restricted by my associations with those countries. The lands in Redwood Rebel are very different from each other, and I feel almost as though I had visited them all just by the way they were discussed, even though it has only taken place in one so far. The way the locations work together makes perfect sense based on their weather and landscapes and the way civilizations trade. The backgrounds of each character vary for their countries too—you can tell that a character's decisions and feelings are motivated in part by their upbringing and surroundings, as well as by their own attributes. Culture influences each character but doesn't limit them to only understanding one belief. To further praise it, a location's beliefs could be argued for oppression or against it, depending on how tightly someone held it to their own interpretations, just like complex beliefs in real life.
Adventure scenes were clear and rallying, making me want to join the fight. There were times where the action was less than roiling, and many conversations or thoughtful paragraphs took longer than perhaps they should've (there is some telling rather than showing), but the insight they offered did help, and I never found myself bored enough to put it down. In fact I'm reading it a second time right now, and I haven't skimmed once.
Overall, I found the plot engaging and wondered several times how they would get out of a predicament. I was consistently curious throughout the tale and being rewarded in later chapters for my observations. There was a variation of race and viewpoint exhibited by the characters, which is something novels need more of. Conflict tripped things up nicely well into the story, so that nothing came easily and every action had a consequence or a reaction. This is a thoroughly well-crafted book, the kind that will get passed around and bought for friends' birthdays and requested at libraries because it contains everything modern readers are looking for, and nothing they can do without.
This is the book your “castles, dragons, and actual diversity” side has been craving.
So every so often a story comes along that I've really enjoyed, yet it gets a lot of flak for weird reasons. I like to explore these reasons but it devastates me when something that I care very much about gets no appreciation. Some things I can let slide; Sucker Punch is not one of them.
Allow me to address five major complaints that I've read (mild spoilers within):
Writer's Block is a blanket phrase that covers anything getting in the way of a good creative session. Sometimes people can't find the motivation to stop other actions and sit down; others are already sitting with a pencil or keyboard at their hands and struggle to proceed. Distractions come in the form of staring out the window or taking up chores or avoiding work for play altogether, and this doesn't even count the qualities that depression or anxiety can bring to the table. I'm sure I don't have to explain this to anyone, though—if you're here, if you write, you probably knew all of this. Maybe something came to mind immediately. What's your most common reason for claiming writer's block?
I wish I had all the answers. I want to help everyone who reads this punch their way through that block, and it would be great if I could put it away forever myself. The best thing I can do is throw down a lot of possible solutions and ask you to try them if you think they might help, and to crack open a discussion here for us to all help each other.
Perhaps experiencing writer's block myself is not the best time to write this article...or perhaps that makes it more honest.
So, first off, what's stopping you? Is it internal or external blocks? Knowing this obviously changes how you can react, so it's helpful to spend a few moments on introspection. Know yourself and all that.
External causes could be a range of excuses from “I just don't have time” to “I don't have the space or tools I need” to…? It's basically anything outside of your control, influenced by other people or your surroundings, which makes it difficult (but not impossible) to combat. Be honest with yourself. When you say you don't have time, is there any way around the time you're spending? I'm all for prioritizing your family and your personal health, but is there time between that? Even a few minutes helps. Don't psych yourself out by thinking you have to block out hours at a time to write, and that you're ruined if you just can't find that much time. Cities are built one brick, one beam, at a time. Books are built by sentences.
Take the time to stack sentences in between stirring dinner, or on your lunch break at work, or as you're winding down before bed. If you have kids, you can have homework sessions together where you're writing as they're doing their assignments. (Honestly, that'll probably help them hate it less if they see that you're working diligently too.) If you're in school and have a heavy course load, treat your writing as breaks where you make the rules in your own fictional world. It's a lot more fun than stuff you have to do. And if you're spending hours online or catching up on shows and your dashboards and news feeds and you “can't find the time,” then look at it this way...That just shows you want to play more than you want to write. And that is totally okay. Life is short and we should find ways to enjoy it. I will never make you feel guilty for that. Just assess what you want to do, and if you'd rather browse the internet, then browse, and if you decide you'd rather write, then...well...you know the first thing that has to take a backseat is your other past times. It's okay. It'll be temporary.
I'll address the space/tools concern very briefly, because I feel like this complaint doesn't require as much tact: if you have a computer with any type of word processor, or if you have pens and paper, then that's all you need. People have written books for centuries on just the basics. Be glad you don't have to chisel into stone and clay tablets. There are a lot of costly programs that people like to write on (Scrivener comes to mind), and they might help with organization and making the project more fun for you, but don't get yourself locked into the thought that it's necessary to write with. That won't hold you back if you're really into your story.
Internal blocks are all mental. It's all about you and fighting with yourself. Don't worry—a lot of great stories are about the protagonist fighting yourself, so you're in good company. These tend to be issues of self-esteem, not as a person but as a writer specifically. Doubts such as “what if it's not original?” or “what if no one else thinks it's good?” have brought us all down at times. Most of these are answered in general by equipping some sass. The best answer is, “who cares?” Try it out yourself! If it helps you push past your fear and write, then it's the right answer, because I suspect that what stops most of us from becoming published is that we don't get ourselves far enough to try.
In more detail, if you're afraid your story idea has been done to death, then take a look at some spinoffs and revamps that Hollywood is coming out with. A lot of stories have the same general plot (there are some sources that claim there are only six plots in existence, but I'm not sure I agree), but it's the details of each plot that make a story that readers get attached to. Twists, clever characters, and memorable lines are way more important than if you're telling a story that's been told before. It's the way you're telling it that makes all the difference.
And what if no one thinks it's good? Eh...maybe some people won't. But someone will. Maybe a lot of people. Maybe you love it, and you're enough. Maybe it's not very good yet but it's getting there, and the only way to forge those great writing skills is by practicing, getting the not-as-good stuff out of the way first. Or maybe you've been writing ever since you were little! You're probably better than you think. And if nothing else...remember that there are some terribly written books out there that have not only been finished, published, and widely read, but are considered in many ways a success. Just keep improving. I believe in you!
If you struggle to continue because you don't know what to write next, that one's a lot more complex. Still not impossible though. Think it through, or talk it through with someone who's good at helping you detangle. Are you having trouble continuing because you're stuck on a plot point? Then work backwards, and figure out what in your plot stopped working, or add something new to get it through, or get to know your characters and their potential reactions better, or, maybe, delete the scene and do something else altogether. It's your story, you don't have to be stuck by any of it! Kind of a powerful feeling, huh?
On another note, if you don't know what to write next because you're out of ideas, consider doodling or brainstorming as to all the different paths it might take next. You're sure to find your way out of this block because, again, it's your world, anything can happen. Research and creative input help too. Sometimes we're stuck because we've poured everything into the book, and ingested nothing new to keep it going. You can get more inspiration from real conversations you overhear or something you see, stuff which can't be experienced staring at a blank document. Get back out into the world. Observe. Blend story elements you've always wanted to use and bring it to life as something new.
And, if you know what you want to happen and you just don't know how to get it there, then feel free to angrily write how frustrating it is to not know how to word things, or why your characters aren't budging. Uh, writing is one of the few professions in which it's accepted and encouraged that you'll be talking to yourself, so take advantage of that. At some point you'll talk yourself straight into an epiphany and impress yourself with how you had the answers all along.
Finally, if you are beating yourself up over it, if you're anxious and blue and can barely get out of bed or just can't get it together to write...that would be the time to let it go. Cut yourself some slack, take care of yourself and the things you need to be healthy, physically and mentally and everything else. Your writing will be waiting for you when you get back, and it'll be a lot more welcoming then, too.
So a few weeks ago I posted about some things I wanted to do on this site to prepare myself (and future passerby readers) for NaNoWriMo. Then life got busy, as it tends to do, and I felt guilty, which is my typical response, which made me anxious about doing anything.
Some of you will relate to that train of thought, and some of you won't. I'm okay with either. But this is a reminder for me that plans change, and that resisting it causes me undue stress. I'm going to be flexible with it. Now I'm thinking...maybe I won't announce what I'm going to do. Maybe I'll just do it, and surprise everyone when I post!
In much the same vein, it's come to my attention that NaNoWriMo isn't working for me this year. It's a very encouraging, buck-wild, words-to-the-wind sort of writing celebration and I've enjoyed it for years in succession, but I should be willing to let it go if it doesn't work for me. "Kill your darlings" should apply to challenges and tactics as well as scenes. And so far in writing my second draft, I've realized that speeding through isn't what gets my best work, or my best mood. My morale has dropped in trying to race. I don't like the material I'm facing at the end of the day. It's not the best I can do because half the time I'm pleased with my first draft (which in part was written years ago) and copying sentences of that straight over, when I've actually gotten better since then. It's like how hanging out with childhood friends can make you revert to the language and attitudes you used to use together. I like it so much I've forgotten the skills I've gained to improve it.
Previously I figured I could read my first draft alongside my new one and make changes as I went. I'm doing that, and cutting out sentences or whole scenes that I deem unnecessary, but when it comes to structuring the sentences, it's terribly simplistic. (Much like this post, but hey, I'm baring my soul here.) A longsuffering writing buddy pointed out how much better my new snippets have been compared to my old ones, and honestly, I WANT to keep improving. I don't want to get stuck in the mire. And most of all, I want to see it for myself. How much better can I write when my old work isn't holding me back?
So I don't want to rewrite Three to a Seat; I want to rebuild it. Better, stronger, and slower.
Do you feel that? Besides the change in the temperature, I mean. And besides the Halloween decorations and the delightful pumpkin-flavored everythings. I'm talking about October, the month when NaNoWriMoers are buckling their seatbelts, checking their supplies, and hovering over their dashboards with anxiety and anticipation.
You might have heard of NaNoWriMo before. It's National Novel Writing Month and it happens in November (although there are "camps" in April and July in case you miss it); it's basically a global self-imposed challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in only a month. It sounds insane but it helps a lot of people get past that fear of bad writing, because...well, it's a first draft, it's supposed to be bad. And while some people are already published authors who fear no drafts, NaNoWriMo is what makes that okay for the rest of us.
It's something I've been looking forward to every year since I started in 2011, with a solitary satisfaction as well as an online community who supports your every struggle. We're all in this together. And this year, I'm going to be bending the rules (again) to use the excitement to begin and complete my second draft of Three to a Seat.
In addition, I'm going to scatter a few posts across the month of October to offer some guidance for anyone looking to participate this year. I've thoughts of a list of my top most helpful writing books, some ideas for creative outlines for people who hate outlines, and things like that. October is typically the month for preparing yourself for the exciting and grueling task ahead, so I want to address that from several angles. If there's anything you want to see specifically, please let me know!
In November I'll be focused on writing myself, but I have plans to answer a 30-day questionnaire in regards to my novel in order to build up some suspense and hopefully pique your interests, readers! For any questions I can't answer (due to spoiling key plot points) I'll post scraps of the story that I particularly enjoyed. Keep an eye out for new posts soon and remember, the sky is never the limit!
But wait, responses!
I've decided to make replies as posts so as to avoid any confusion in the comments (since comments are saved as whatever name you use, rather than by login, there'd be no way to differentiate my comments from readers who happen to have the same name, you see). So here goes!
Ems: Thank you! I completely agree; criticism can feel like a punch and it's hard to find something positive in it, even if it's meant well. Writing is one of the most personal things we can do--actually, probably anything creative is personal. You kind of have to pour some of yourself into whatever you're making. Good luck with that struggle!
Stew: You're welcome, and thank you for such a thoughtful comment! We're told to write for ourselves first, but it's hard not to think that someday, someone else might read it, and who knows what they'll say. I tried to address the variety of responses we can get from fanfiction (and I imagine it's similar for published books!) so I'm glad you found it helpful. You're awesome too!
Unlike just about every book ever, I actually agreed with the cover quote praising this one. It says "Fire Bringer does for deer what Watership Down did for rabbits," and if it meant giving poignant insight to their social order, hosting imaginative anthropomorphism, and making the reader utterly appalled at how they wage war against each other, then yeah, I'd have to agree with that.
Fire Bringer is one of those amazing books that turns something I normally hate (prophecy stories) into something I forgive and adore, and it does this by giving life to the main character as he struggles against what his fate implies. I get his frustration, I cheer along his journey, I want with every ounce of me for these characters to make it. And as much as I like the protagonist, the side characters shine just as strongly. The character arcs were so well handled that the reluctant eye-rolling/mocking friend grew up to be the one I got attached to the most. And the does in this book are handled with true understanding of inner strength--the mothers make sacrifices of love for their children, the queen shows resilience in the face of tyrants, and the youngest does outsmart enemy bucks with the sharpest antlers when they can't go head to head. None of them sacrifice their emotional connectivity for brute strength, but they are all strong.
It's a great approach to a species which has an obvious gender imbalance, and it leaves the author able to focus on true expression of qualities such as honor, optimism, and loyalty. There's wilderness here too, and that isn't lost even in moments where natural enemies are temporary accomplices. He shows the difficulty in any opposing animals to remain near each other, and it keeps it from feeling too contrived or Disney-like. ("But Dad, don't we eat the antelope?" Yeah, we do, and don't you forget it.)
Fire Bringer is a solid, enthralling book if you're looking for anything with great story, characters, and descriptives. There's not a complaint I have about it so I'm glad I found it when I did. I recommend it to anyone, but especially people who believe that animals hold more personality than they're given credit for.
Fanfiction can be a tough break. It's throwing your work into the lake of the internet with no guarantee what you'll get back. The internet's not always the friendliest place--that whole "without face or consequence" thing can bring out the worst in people--but there's a lot to gain from that kind of environment, too. There's a lot to learn from that no matter how other people respond, and because it was a great place for me to start, I wanted to discuss it here.
There's a chance you'll get nothing back at all. No comments, no reblogs, no movement in the slightest. In that case, you may learn to write for yourself instead of for them. In fact, learn that anyway. Since you have to do the work alone long before anyone sees it, writing is a self-motivated sort of hobby, so you should enjoy it to keep yourself going.
There's a chance you'll get nice, quick messages, in which case you could be encouraged to keep going. You might even make some friends; if messages are long it's because they have a lot to say, and it's a good bet you have that in common (since you're taking the time to write the story and all). If somebody does say something positive, maybe try asking them specifics, such as what they liked best. And if you see someone who comments frequently, consider asking them to beta read your work before you post it--they'll have the excitement of reading your work early, and you'll have the benefit of tweaking the parts that need fixing before anyone else points it out.
There's also the chance you'll get some negative feedback, in which case you'll either develop a thicker skin if it's useless hate (an all-too-important skill for the real world), or, if you're lucky enough to get constructive criticism, you can make leaps and bounds in improvement.
Sound crazy? Let me elaborate.
It is NEVER easy to hear something negative about your work, but if someone takes the time to explain what you're lacking (especially if they can be decent about it), then they're actually doing you a favor. Truth is they could've closed out of your story at any time, but they didn't, so resist the urge to dismiss it (even though it hurts, I know. Writing is personal.). The rest of the time we either have to beg or pay for editing. Just as we all have strengths, we also all have skills that need improvement, so if you get negative feedback on something, take a couple deep breaths and look at it again. Is there anything in there that could be true? Or even if you think it's not, it might be worth looking into for an ego boost or to widen your scope. Say someone comments that your story lacked in conflict, or maybe the way the characters spoke to each other was dull, or maybe you had some great ideas but it would come through better if your spelling improved. Any of these things can be looked up for free on the internet. Read up on a few rules, or tagged posts on writing resource sites, or even books at the library! You'll learn something that makes your next story even stronger, and that can't be a bad thing no matter who you are.
The best thing about fanfiction is that it's a free way to get your writing out there, and it starts you off by practicing with a make-believe world that's already established and well-known. You don't have to focus on building characters from the ground up because they're already there, which leaves you all the time in the world to study how a good story is told.
And if anybody ever makes light of it, don't worry. Not only is it a harmless hobby, but if you want to be a writer someday, then it's basically on-the-job training. You're ahead of the curve!
Carrie is a burgeoning writer in North America. She thinks about stories 23/7 because everyone needs some time off. She enjoys apples, giving and receiving feedback, and couch-fort gaming with loved ones.