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The Art and Writing of Laura Jennings

Mark of the Conifer Preview: Chapter 1

Chapter 1: The Nest

The wind through the ancient sequoias reeked of smoke.

The titanic trees cast enormous bands of deep purple shadow, half-cloaked in dead, brown needles. Dawn seeped along the red-gold of their bark. Curls of fern withered by merciless heat sheltered in the shadows, waiting, still and parched, for the long overdue rainy season.

Amid the light, a shadow darted. Palm leaves rattled at its passing.

An adult male raptor ran swift and silent through the trees.

He was a giant. From the tip of his narrow snout to the tip of his tail, he was the largest of his kind. His scales broke into small, feathery hairs, covering him in a brilliant coat of metallic bronze. The short protofeathers grew longer on his forelimbs, covering his three-fingered paws in a mantle shaped like wings.

The sight of such an impressive animal sent the tiny mammals of the forest scurrying for their holes. This was the time of his kind, and this was the home of his clan.

The great male dipped under the archway of a sequoia root, crossed a fall of tangled branches with breathtaking agility, and sprang high onto a fallen log in the middle of a clearing.

He scanned the trees for a moment before lifting a leg to nip at his heel. The inside of each hind foot carried a sickle-shaped retractable claw.

Sighing breezes crackled a mass of brown cycads, cutting the sing of insects into silence. The male stopped, the crest of feathers at the back of his head hackling in alarm. The air felt thick, hazy with the drought, and he tasted ash. But there was no rising plume, no flame that he could see.

He clapped his jaws in uncertainty, berating himself. A wiser hunter would not flinch from strange sounds and smells. A stronger warrior would not cower from them like a hatchling.

But he was only Lightstep of the Tahrap clan.

In the morning raiment, he spread his forepaws and lifted his head.

“Sol,” he whispered. “Mother of Time. Give us strength.”

Sol hung above him, a blinding, radiant disc in a cloudless blue sky. Lightstep felt Her warmth and lifted his head to Her.

“Tell us what we must do, Goddess. My newborn chicks hunger, my mate frets. We need rain, Goddess. Whatever you ask of me in return, I will give it for the sake of my clan.”

They were honest words, but Lightstep was still afraid. Sol was as brutal as She was kind.

Ferns shifted, and Lightstep turned his head at the arrival of another clan member.

A young juvenile stumbled out of the trees, tripping over a broken branch. His half-grown crest began at his snout, a moptop of gold with a stray sliver of green. “Ow! Lightstep! I want to go back now!”

Lightstep glowered at Greenfeather. He hadn’t expected to gain a lazy juvenile and the responsibility of training him when he’d won his mate in a dance. Greenfeather fancied himself the brother of the clan’s Crested, and therefore free of any obligation to honor or law. And though Lightstep’s authority over other males was absolute, and Brightquill could never interfere, killing Greenfeather would disappoint his mate.

Greenfeather shook dead needles from his coat. “I’m thirsty.”

Lightstep closed his eyes again, resuming the warrior’s stance of prayer: forepaws folded at his sides, head bowed, tail up. He ignored Greenfeather’s fidgeting.

“Lightstep?”

Lightstep sighed without opening his eyes. “What, Greenfeather?”

“Can we go back now?”

“Our Crested sent us here to search this forest for danger.”

“Yes, well, I’ve done that. Can we go back?”

“A good warrior praises Sol.”

Greenfeather sighed. “Yes, I’ve done that, too. I’m thirsty.”

Lightstep ended his prayer and sprang off the fallen log. “The territory markers need to be refreshed.”

Greenfeather brightened at that, and trotted along behind Lightstep towards the edge of clan ground. Lightstep watched him bungling along behind, and hoped he could teach him something of Sol’s law that would stick in his empty, fool skull.

At the edge of the trees, Lightstep sniffed the strange, heavy air.

“This is how a warrior leaves his mark,” Lightstep said.

Near a young tree, Lightstep reared up, drawing his claws down the trunk. He ripped deep, leaving scores that bled sap. He thrilled at the splintering cracks, rubbing the glands beneath his jaw on the scratchy bark.

“In the name of Sol, I mark this ground for the clan of Tahrap.”

He stepped back, and at his nod, Greenfeather ran to find another tree.

Lightstep folded his long forelimbs and grasping claws against his sides, the palm of each forepaw facing each other. He combed the soft, furry protofeathers, trying to convince himself that nits nibbled beneath his skin and not trepidation.

He moved on to rake the ground with his hindpaws and squatted to leave his dung mark.

When he finished, he saw Greenfeather from the corner of his eye. The young hunter had found a tree, and was reaching as high as he could to score it.

Higher than Lightstep’s marks.

Lightstep executed a spectacular leap out of the ferns. He twisted and nearly landed on top of Greenfeather, who fell over himself trying to get out of the way. Lightstep flipped Greenfeather and pinned him with one hook-clawed foot.

“You think this is how droemar behave?” Lightstep hissed, using the name for their own kind, the running hunters. “You’re too cowardly to flaunt disrespect at your sister, so you’ll try it with me?”

“No, no!” Greenfeather cringed. “I just … I wanted to see what it felt like!”

Lightstep seethed. “You are not Crested! The clan does not even recognize you as warrior!”

You don’t recognize me as warrior!” Greenfeather said.

Lightstep hissed. “That is because you know nothing of what it means to be droemar! How dare you try taking the honor without being worthy of it? If you ever flout clan law like that again, I’ll kill you, Greenfeather. ”

“All right! All right, Lightstep.” Greenfeather flinched, peeking at him sideways with a sulk in his voice.

Lightstep sighed, releasing Greenfeather. “Don’t even bother marking.”

Greenfeather’s jaws fell open in outrage. He picked himself up in silence.

Lightstep headed back towards the nest. He wanted to ignore his fear, ignore Greenfeather’s bitterness, and curl up beside his mate and eggs. But he couldn’t. How could he call himself worthy of Sol’s light if he did?

He stopped in the forest and looked back.

Greenfeather swatted at flies and blundered into a low-hanging branch.

“Greenfeather. Come here.”

The young droemar approached, his crest alert and wary.

“Listen.” Lightstep closed his eyes.

Around the valley, in the distance, far off hoots and moans sounded from the herds that Lightstep’s clan hunted and honored.

“What is it?” Greenfeather said.

“Those are the children of Sol. Creatures of honor that keep Her law and know Her name. Like us.”

Greenfeather sighed. “So?”

“When we walk with Sol, it is not an easy thing, Greenfeather. But the burden of honor is worth carrying, when all of Her children respect and celebrate you as their warrior.”

Greenfeather stood at Lightstep’s shoulder, and he thought he saw the young droemar’s eyes soften.

A shriek tore through the forest.

It raised every feather on Lightstep’s back.

It shook the dying needles from the trees, a scream of unspeakable agony and terrible loss. A cry that begged for mercy from something too horrible to be endured any longer.

“What is that?” Greenfeather cried.

“Come!” Lightstep leaped into the undergrowth.

Dried ferns, desiccated bundles of fan-shaped gingko, and shriveled vines carpeted the ground. He found a path cutting through them and sped up, ignoring the ferns slapping his muzzle. The wrenching, strangled cry turned the iron of his courage to rust. As he raced towards it, a terrible stink rose. Thick, rotten, and oozing corruption.

Headed towards the nest.

Heart in his throat, Lightstep ran faster. Nothing must get past him, for the sake of his mate and eggs.

He spotted a dark shape through the leaves. A crunch, then the sound of a heavy body falling and rolling downhill. With a final crunch of dead bracken, everything went still.

Terror seized Lightstep’s limbs and he skidded to a halt.

“It’s a monster!” Greenfeather caught up to him. “It’s a monster, Lightstep, let’s go back—“

His voice drowned out as the thing screamed and screamed.

“We stand firm against things unnatural to Sol!” Lightstep barked in Greenfeather’s ear. “We kill anything that threatens the clan!”

But he forced himself to take those last few steps.

The undergrowth dropped away into a clearing.

Below him lay a grazer. A small head narrowed into a wide, heavy beak meant for stripping ferns. Its neck swept into sharp shoulders and a fat, stiff tail.

Its hide blistered on its shoulders, and burst into a ruin of blackened flesh. It sagged on its belly, tongue lolling, and the terrible smoke-stench rolled off of it in waves. Flies feasted on the awful wounds in clouds, worms rolling in pockets of flesh.

“Sol’s light,” Greenfeather swore behind Lightstep.

Lightstep gaped. To treat a fellow creature in such a way was anathema. A child of Sol was entitled to the protections of Her laws.

“Let’s run away, Lightstep,” Greenfeather said. “It’s cursed!”

The grazer’s eyes rolled in their sockets, and amazingly, it screamed the deafening bellow again.

“Cease! Cease, brother!” Lightstep cried, unable to bear the sound. “We are here.” He took a few tentative steps down the slope and felt his stomach roll at the stench. “I am Lightstep, warrior of the Tahrap—”

“End me,” the grazer rasped. It choked, and a few wriggling worms fell from its beak. “I have renounced Sol.”

Lightstep froze and hissed. “We are not bound by honor to end your suffering if you are a lawbreaker! We will leave you here for the flies!”

“I was forced,” the grazer wheezed, “to curse Her. Please. I renounced Her in the most terrible ways. The only way back is … through a warrior of Sol.” It coughed again, spewing worms across the ground. “Please … Kill me with your sacred claw and then run, droemar.”

“Who did this?” Lightstep came closer. “Who forced you?”

She ordered it. She’s coming. You must end me and then run, run as far and fast as you can. The fire in her breath,” the grazer said. “Burned me.”

“Whose fire?”

For pity’s sake, droemar.

“Yes, I shall!” Among droemar, the killing claw was sacred.  A killing claw’s promise was death, for no droemar sheathed their claw without blood upon it. Lightstep placed the tip of it on the grazer’s neck. “Just tell me who did this to you! I will seek justice for you!”

“You cannot seek justice,” the grazer stared up, blinded by pain, “from a child of the Dragon Kings.”

Lightstep stared at him. The Dragon Kings were the firstborn of Sol, creatures in stories that had risen up against Her and tried to destroy Her. It made no sense.

“The war against Sol is rising,” the grazer cried.

“Shut up!” Greenfeather shrieked.

The sky darkened.

“Look! Look!” The grazer screamed.

Lightstep flinched back. In the half-done morning, somehow, Sol’s light failed.

The grazer thrashed. “RUN!”

Lightstep kicked. The keen, maintained edge of his killing claw cut through skin, fat, muscle, bone, and the stem of nerves at the base of the grazer’s skull. The head dropped. It would suffer no more.

“What’s happening?” Greenfeather cried.

“I don’t know!” Lightstep said. “Back to the nests! Hurry!”

They abandoned the body, plunging into the forest. Lightstep pulled ahead, dashing through the unnatural darkness. The nesting site lay beyond a large copse, upon a flat-topped rise in the foothills of the valley.

Lightstep bounded up the last stretch of rocky path, springing onto and over a fall of dead redwood.

Two nests piled in the shady undergrowth opposite the deadfall, covered with leaves and soft moss. The long, squarish eggs within had nestled against the soft bellyskin of the droemar day and night. Now, white shards littered the ground, and two tiny hatchlings curled beside their mother.

Brightquill, Crested of the Tahrap, leader of the clan, hunched over the nests, hissing in fear at the dimming sky. Like Sol brooding her young, she covered the sprawl of the nest with her feathered limbs, hiding her day-old daughters. Lawbreakers, egg-stealers and thieves, had plagued the clan until only three of their young remained.

Cradled by the rise and fall of the sleeping hatchlings, one last mottled egg shared their warmth in the moss. If it did not hatch soon, it would be pummeled and expelled from the nest by its sisters.

“Brightquill!”

“Lightstep!” She nuzzled him, her body tense. “What’s happening?”

Lightstep bowed, a quiet croon vibrating in his throat. “Something is wrong with Sol.”

Greenfeather whined. “If She dies, we’re all—”

“Be quiet!” Lightstep snarled.

The force of his authority sent Greenfeather to the ground on his belly.

The chicks stirred. Lightstep’s daughters squealed for meat, their hides and bellies covered in downy fuzz.

Lightstep put his head between them and the last egg. He withstood their clumsy kicks and needle-sharp claws as Brightquill tended them.

The sky grew darker.

Greenfeather screeched an alarm-call.

Sol’s brilliant circle hung in the sky. Something dark trespassed upon Her, blocking the light. No longer a circle, but a sickle, a perversion of night coming just a few hours after dawn.

As the morning went dark, the droemar clan huddled together, whispering in fear.

“We are Her warriors,” Brightquill said, calm despite her quivering. “She has always protected us, and She will not fail us now. Greenfeather, let us pray.”

Lightstep’s dry tongue fumbled over the words. But after a few falters, he led the clan in the time-honored plea of protection.

 

Sol
First
and Last
Mother of Time
The Eternal Dragon
Unending light
Suffer and overcome

So we may live

 

A sudden, wet crack made Lightstep spring sideways.

In the hazy gloom, it took him a moment to recognize the egg.

Heaving outward, and crackling back in, the egg shuddered. Just then, the light in the sky flared. Brilliant rays ringed the dark circle against Sol. Beads of light burned in a halo of red-gold fire.

The egg broke. A small, gasping muzzle cracked outwards. The next moment, a leg kicked through, and with a shudder, a tiny male heaved his way out into the world. He took a deep breath and squealed.

Brightquill began to lick him clean. Lightstep watched. A male! A son to call his own.

Breathless, the droemar waited. In the dusk of an eerie second dawn, Lightstep could see his newborn son lifting his paws up towards his mother.

The shadows of the day fell back.

“Sol fights!” Greenfeather called.

Lightstep erupted into screams and whoops of exhilaration. He sprang up onto boulders and urged his Goddess on. In the distance, other trumpets echoed the entreaty.

Brightquill guarded her hatchlings as the light strengthened. Soon, the haze lifted, and the resplendence of morning returned to its bright, golden glory.

The children of Sol celebrated with faraway cries and bellows. Lightstep sagged with relief, resting his muzzle against a tree branch.

They were saved.

“Don’t touch it, Brightquill!” Greenfeather snapped.

Lightstep whirled, expecting an enemy.

Greenfeather stalked towards his sister, teeth bared.

“What are you talking about, brother?” Brightquill said.

“Born in the shadow of Sol! He’s cursed. Lightstep, or a Dragon King reborn; something unnatural! You said we kill what’s unnatural! It’s our duty as a clan, isn’t it?”

Lightstep’s fear paralyzed him. Had he not been worthy of Sol’s protection and blessing? Was his hatchling a twisted creature, born in the blight of darkness?

Brightquill dropped low to protect the hatchling with a growl. “Get back.”

Seeing Greenfeather stalk Brightquill and his tiny son, Lightstep’s terror exploded into fury. “Stay away from them!

He slammed Greenfeather to the ground, snarling.

Greenfeather cringed, defiant. “Sister! That hatchling could be anything! It needs to die!”

Brightquill picked up the squalling hatchling by the neck.

No!” Lightstep could not go against his Crested’s will, but seeing Brightquill kill one of their hatchlings would be more than he could bear.

But Brightquill laid the newborn on the ground. “Look.”

The hatchling wriggled onto his back to receive his mother’s caresses. In the reborn shine, Lightstep glimpsed a spot on his son’s chest.

The mark on the hatchling’s chest was no small mottling or striping. Emblazoned in black before them was a conifer, layers of small, scale-like shingles unfolding in a perfect oval shape. The symbol of Sol’s law, Her love, and Her sacrifice.

“Not cursed,” Brightquill said. “Not cursed at all!”

Lightstep stumbled over to nuzzle Brightquill.

Greenfeather sputtered. “A conifer marks a death,” he said. “Whose death? Ours? It could still be a Dragon King; whatever it is, let some other clan deal with it, not us!”

Lightstep could not stand anymore. He turned on Greenfeather and bit his throat. Greenfeather screeched, lifted off his feet. Lightstep pinned him against a rock and raised his killing claw. Greenfeather screamed.

“Lightstep, you will not kill my brother.” Brightquill’s voice cut through the haze of Lightstep’s rage.

He shook, itching to bury his claw in flesh and kick. “You ask me to sheathe my claw?”

“The dishonor of putting away your claw unbloodied is less than that of killing one of your own clan! Do as I say!”

Lightstep stepped back and bowed his head. “Yes, Crested.”

“Now come here. Both of you.”

Greenfeather limped to his sister, wary of Lightstep’s glare.

“Now you, Lightstep, greet your son. And you, Greenfeather, greet your nephew.”

Lightstep nuzzled the tiny newborn hatchling. Hesitant, Greenfeather did the same. No droemar could resist the lure of their greatest triumph, of young successfully brought into the world, and soon even Greenfeather purred over the trio of chicks.

Thunder cracked, and this time the whole clan flinched. Clouds, at long last, boiled up from the east. Soon they covered Sol as warm drops of rain began to fall. Drowning the dry season at last.

Lightstep hastened to aid Brightquill in covering the hatchlings.

“Strange storm, all of a sudden,” Greenfeathered muttered, with a suspicious look at the new male.

Lightstep snarled at him, and sent his idiot nephew to stay warm and dry alone. He shuddered, weary, and rested his head against the shoulder of his mate and Crested.

Brightquill gave him small nips beneath his jaw. “Rest. You have done very well, warrior.”

“I can’t,” he said. He forced himself to stand.

“Why not?” Brightquill reached out a paw to stop him from turning away.

Lightstep shook his head. “I will tell you later. But I must find a conifer.”

Brightquill silently let him go. Nothing and no one interfered with the most sacred of Sol’s rites.

The dead grazer lay in the clearing where it had fallen. Not even lawbreakers had touched the foul body. Lightstep hunted for an unbroken conifer among the water-starved forest, soaked and shivering by the time he tucked it against the grazer’s chest.

“I am sorry, brother,” he said. “For what you saw and suffered. I give you this conifer, so the Eternal Mother will know you were good and honorable, and welcome you with open arms.”

He sat in the falling rain, thinking  of the grazer’s cries, of the worms and rot as it screamed. Its eyes had never once seen him, just the horrors it escaped.

He shivered.

The wind blew warm and wet, with no scent but pine and the fresh earth. The rains washed his fear away. And when night came again, and Sol girded herself for battle in red and gold fires, Lightstep curled up against Brightquill, his daughters, and his son.

His son!

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Mark of the Conifer

So, I’m finally screwing my courage to the sticking place and trying a Kickstarter. It will be for my YA dinosaur epic Mark of the Conifer.

Hatched beneath a solar eclipse, the young raptor warrior Sunstrike enters the world in the shadow of Sol— the goddess of the dinosaurs. Sunstrike is devoted to Sol’s holy law and takes pride in keeping the Pact, the sacrificial regard between hunters and hunted.

But the balance of nature is destroyed, and darkness spreads over the land in the shadow of the Empress Charr, a vicious tyrant bent on ruling the North American Cretaceous. Her conquering regime carries a strange and terrifying magic: the knowledge of fire.

His faith in Sol shattered, Sunstrike sets out on an extraordinary quest for justice. When he becomes the protector of the last free herd, he faces challenges to his honor, his courage, and the lives of his friends that will reveal a terrifying destiny.

Sunstrike must face the Empress, even as his dreams foretell that to fail will mean the end of the world — and to win will mean the ultimate sacrifice.

 

If you’d like to get official updates and so on, the Facebook page is here.

Official start date is Sept 1st!

5 Tips On Fantasy World-Building, Part 1

World-building, for me, is one of the biggest things about fantasy. It has, in many cases, saved a book from sucking. Conversely, poor world-building can drag a brilliant plot and excellent characterization down. What is world-building? It is consistency of logic and the new rules that you introduce as part of the story. Easy to say, hard to do. World-building, in good fantasy, more often than not, provides some kind of critical plot point. (If it doesn’t, that’s okay, but really good fantasy usually takes an established rule and gives it story stakes.)
Examples? Phillip Pullman establishes the rule of daemons in his His Dark Materials trilogy, so that by the end of Book 1, when someone grabs another character’s daemon, it horrifies the reader. Because it was so heavily established that touching another person’s daemon was anathema, forbidden even in battle, a betrayal of a cultural value. Another, different, example is in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy, with the seven bells of necromancy consistently behaving as they are described: the bell Ranna always puts someone to sleep; it never does anything different.
This is a two part series, but the first part will be an overview. For the most part, I build my races and worlds through a series of questionnaires. Over the years I’ve narrowed things down quite a bit, to about 10-15 questions. But if you’re looking for a good place to start, Googling world-building questions will help you discover more about your race/culture than you ever wanted to know.

1. Laws and boundaries need to have some kind of ramification for the characters. This rule is at the top, because it’s the one I see broken the most often. People take the time to establisha brooding council, an evil king, a cadre of badass soldiers, or what have you, and the characters skip right past them. A country that cuts the hand off of every thief? The hero steals indiscriminately, without fail, every time, and always has. A mansion guarded by the biggest, baddest bunch of guards the world has ever seen? Well, the hero and friends send a grappling hook over the wall and climbs on up. Mostly, this happens because someone is giving detail to a world, but not willing to explore it further because it’s inconvenient to the plot. After all, you want your heroes to confront the evil chancellor in the mansion, because that’s a much more interesting scene than killing guards. As tempting as it is to write an anti-hero who plays by his own rules, please keep in mind that societies have rules for a reason, and it’s very, very difficult to survive on your own outside of them. A sub-problem of this is having a very strict society, like, say Victorian England, and having a product of that society flout its rules without consequences. If a woman decided to throw off her corset, get drunk, and cavort nakedly in the street in Victorian England, I can’t even begin to tell you how badly she’d be beaten. But a lot of people write the sassy heroine with a smart mouth because it’s more fun. This bugs the crap out of me. I hate seeing an established society that a “speshul” hero is allowed to give the middle finger to. Not only are you moving into Mary Sue territory, but you’re also passing up a prime opportunity for conflict. Show me a hero struggling to operate within a society he doesn’t necessarily agree with, and I’ll show you a hero with reader sympathy.

2. If “Oh, my God” exists, I want to know why. Religion is one of the major driving forces in the real world, especially the further back in history you go. It’s influenced politics, war, and economy, whether you like it or no. Examining religion and its place in your fantasy world is very important, because a world made of atheists is going to have just as many rules and regulations as a world of a thousand gods. Whether your God or gods exist isn’t necessarily important, but the way the culture treats them is. Even in our world, an atheist says “Oh, my God” when he’s freaked, because there is a cultural backdrop behind the exclamation; our culture has religion in droves. If there are no established gods, talk of an afterworld, or even a chat about metaphysics, and someone says “Oh, my God”, it makes my brain short circuit. Where did this God come from? Is it just the one? Is he mad at you for taking his name in vain, or just his priests? Are there priests!? Either find something else for them to say, or establish that there is religion somewhere. Religion is so closely tied with cultural values that to overlook it, whether because you hate it or are attempting to be PC (see Rule 3), odds are that someone, somewhere, in your fantasy world looked up at the sky and said, “Why are we here and what happens after we die?” Differing religions, naturally, make for great conflict. Especially if the gods are real. Keep religion in mind when you’re world-building, because it’s a massive piece of the puzzle. This doesn’t mean you have to go on author tract about it, or even make it a major part of your story, but allow it to be part of the backdrop.

3. Politically correct is not a necessity. Pressure from contemporary cultural norms encourage things like equality, fair trials, and not being racist. Unfortunately, it’s only been in the last hundred years that crap like that has actually become the norm. Women could vote before black people could sit in a restaurant next to whites. Before that, you could put up a sign that said “No Irish”, and before that, you could work children in factories for 16 hours straight for ten cents a day. Before that? A lord owned your ass and the asses of your kids and great-grandkids, and could throw you off your land to starve for getting mud on his doublet. Before that? Well, you were just on your own to keep marauding barbarians off your mud farm. Even Ancient Greece and Rome treated their woman pretty bad, and don’t even get me started on stuff like the handicapped or mentally disabled. The Middle Ages are looked upon with a highly romantic air, and don’t let that stop you from writing in it, but do a tiny bit of research, please. I love the Middle Ages because it was so different; I love how they made bows, and glass, and built cathedrals. I don’t need to see peasant women being treated as valuable member of society, because they weren’t; I know it and you know it. Again, that these societies, by our contemporary standards, were unfair gives a lot of opportunity for conflict. Don’t skip over it. You need not emphasize in the other direction, like in Monty Python, but show us your world, the dirty and the clean. The good and the bad. It’ll make it more believable, and if you don’t, odds are you’re in cliche’ territory with all the other morons.

4. Warfare drives technology; in fantasy, magic would do the exact same thing. A lot of people seem to forget this. If there are people out there who can throw fireballs, I can just about guarantee you that there’s a king out there, with a lot of gold, that he’s willing to throw at their feet in order to burn his enemies. And if the fireball throwers refuse, well, they have families, don’t they? Or, if they’re too dangerous to be allowed to live, a king with an army wouldn’t mind trying to wipe them out. And maybe capturing some of their kids, so the kids can be raised to be fireball-throwers for the king. It applies to just about everything. Invisibility? Shapeshifting? Talking with animals? Espionage. Teleportation? Flying? Sneak attack. Energy blasts? Dragon-summoning? Head of the army. I never understood how Paolini’s so-called golden age of Dragon Riders wasn’t really some kind of military junta, especially since punishment for things like murder and theft would be meted out by flying, scaly death tanks. I mean, maybe your wizard is the one in charge. Magic and what it can do has to be considered very carefully, because it has huge ramifications. Magic is power, and power is everything. Just ask businessman and politicians, and look at what they do with it. I hate seeing heroes with super-awesome destructive powers, who A) never get blackmailed, bribed, or asked to do some fireworks by the folk in charge, B) never get mobbed by people or towns who are terrified of what they can do, or C) imprisoned for blowing shit up. This goes double for someone whose powers haven’t been seen in a thousand years, were responsible for the death of a civilization, or mentioned as having a hand in the end of an age/world by a prophecy. Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series treats very powerful magic in a realistic way, because the main character becomes embroiled in squabbling factions that each want part of her power. Same with the concept behind X-Men. Don’t just give your hero abilities and go with it; examine what kind of ramifications that kind of power would have. I mean, if people freak out about a gun in an office building or high school, imagine how they’d react to fireballs …

5. How people get food must be examined. Many fantasy writers overpopulate their worlds, not just with a human and elven and dwarven populations, but with massive, immortal dragons, marching orc hordes, and perverted centaurs. First of all, starving people = not fun. Ask anyone who saw or wrote about the French Revolution. In fact, riots in Rome were a big reason why bread and circuses was developed to keep the people happy. If a populace is well-fed and entertained, it’s less likely to riot on you. Conversely, a town under siege usually breaks because it runs out of food, in many cases after they’ve eaten the horses, dogs, cats, rats, and the dead. One such town gave their guy in charge to Genghis Kahn, because he wanted to keep fighting and they didn’t because their families were starving to death. Long story short, I have no idea how Sauron kept all those Uruk-Hai fed. Conversely, if you have a so-called evil king, who is willing to let Urgals- er, I mean, orcs, march all over the place raping and burning, pretty soon you’re going to have a pissed off population. And I don’t mean an indignant population, I mean a “I’m so hungry I’ll throw myself on a knight in plate mail for the chance to eat his horse” population. Same goes for dragons, who, if they’re bigger than elephants or even some whales, would have to eat meat. Meat was a rarity for peasants, who saw it maybe a couple of times a month if they were lucky. Sooner or later, if no one has anything to eat, it all breaks down. The ones in charge may live, but a lot of people are going to die. The aftermath of the Black Plague saw famine on a scale so massive that harvests literally rotted in the fields. So, if you have marauding hordes, tectonic plates shifting in a matter of seconds, reality torn asunder, earthquakes, or dragon attacks, you’d better show me what kind of aftermath occurs. Again, story stakes and conflict come in here, but don’t just have it for the sake of the hero. Show us the world the hero is defending and why, and we’ll be much happier.

SNOW DAY!

Okay, so, this last Sunday, the weather was absolutely beautiful and perfect. 70 degrees, a warm breeze, the first breath of spring in Texas.
I should’ve known that meant a blue screamer in less than 48 hours.
So, yeah. By Tuesday, we got the first snow I’ve had since I moved to Liberty Hill, about 3-4 inches of crisp, perfect powder. (Most of the time we just get ice, which isn’t as fun, but it still shuts down schools and places like Fort Hood.) Not unusual weather for Texas, really; if it’s not high summer or dead winter, it can’t make up its mind.
Anyway, it was a blast. The most fun I’ve had in ages, and totally worth missing class. When my alarm went off at 8:30 I looked outside and was like “No way I’m risking some other driver taking me off the road.” I called my next door neighbor, excited as a 10 year old at Christmas; she was a little bewildered. But it didn’t stop her daughter from coming over at 10 AM to make a snowman! Meanwhile, I took Piker outside for his first snow, and chucked the cats outside to see their reaction.
The day progressed as follows:
A) My car got a lot of snow piled on it.
B) The river behind my house did not freeze, but it was still cool to see the snow falling into it.
C) We made a snowman!
D) Piker, in the later part of the day, ate snow after we tried to get him to pull us in harness. It didn’t take, but it was fun.
E) We left a trail through my front yard after making the snowman.
G) After the dog failed to pull us, my next-door neighbor fired up her lawnmower and pulled us around on plastic lids from the horse-feed cans. Super old fashioned redneck fun! (I fell off.)

And then we all went inside to eat Pocky and drink hot chocolate. My camera ran out of batteries twice, so I didn’t get nearly as many pictures as I wanted, but I did get a lot of videos of Piker with the galloping sillies, trying to find snowballs while my cat Ptolemy sulks. Schools closed around 10AM, except my college, which wasn’t until noon. But only 6 people showed up to class anyway. More fool them, says I, sometimes the day is all the richer for its rarity.

5 Tips on POV

I’ve gotten a couple of questions that relate to POV lately, so I thought I’d sling up 5 tips on it (Point of View.)  Narrative mode, or Point of View, is the vantage point by which an author exposes his plot to the audience.  Got that?  It’s how your plot is given over to the reader.  So that’s your golden rule of POV: if the POV isn’t moving the plot along in some way, shape, or form, then don’t use it.  You’re wasting your time and your reader’s.
I won’t really touch on the POV types, since Google is your friend, but I will say that I write in third person limited, so this little entry is going to focus mostly on that.  That means that I go into the thought and feelings of a single character in a given scene, and it’s what I have the most experience in.  A lot of people are attracted to First Person (it uses “I” all the time), which is good to start writing in.  I can’t even begin to fathom the difficulty of doing third person omniscient, in which the thoughts and feelings of every character in a scene are conveyed to the reader.  It happens, but it’s very hard to pull off, and the authors who can do it are, to me, literary gods.  I shall sacrifice a goat in their honor and hunt down the heretics that are attempting third person omniscient by accident and failing miserably.
Anyway, these are five handy rules that I’ve noticed a lot of young writers disregard.

1.  Description is colored by POV. Man, is this ever at the top of my list.  I read stuff where a magic-wielding teenager goes into a room and gives us a top-to-bottom rundown of every object in the room, military-report style.  Even when they have ADHD and are running from a vampire.  I’m sorry, realistically, even a calm, bored teenager probably wouldn’t notice that much stuff.  My obligatory Paolini-bashing is about to ensue: Farm boy Eragon uses words that he as an illiterate peasant wouldn’t know, let alone spell, but it doesn’t stop him from using flowery purple-prose every chance he gets.  Doing this comes across as false, and breaks the reader out of the world.  Also, if someone likes a place, you’re going to get an entirely different POV description than you would from someone who’s miserable being there.  Also, optimists describe a prison cell in a different manner from a pessimist.  An ex-Navy SEAL spy is going to notice different things than a toked-up frat boy.  If a teenager doesn’t care, then the POV should reflect that description i.e., “It was some ratty little room” and move on. This can fall into that natural pitfall of a writer attempting to tell too much, but description is too often treated as this boring necessity when it should be a tool to shape story and character.

2. POV should provide characterization. This ties in closely with the first rule, but it’s still a separate one.  What a character notices and thinks about something should reflect their character.  This is a nifty tool for showing, not telling.  If someone walks into a bank and regards a perfectly nice bank teller as antagonistic, it says something about their character and their current state.  If a beautiful spring day is described as sucky and miserable, it does the same thing.  Perception is nine-tenths reality, after all, and you owe it to your reader to allow them to draw their own conclusions about a character.  When this rule is disregarded, it’s why stale and static description comes across as so tedious for reader and writer.  (On that same note, super happy perfectionists describing something is probably not a good POV, because we’ll all just end up wanting to punch them in the face because everything’s so perfect.  I’m looking at <i>you</i> Mary Sue!)  Look at your scene and ask yourself what your character would think of it.  Would they like it?  Hate it?  Be too distracted by something else to even bother?  What would they focus on?  A naturalist is going to notice trees much more than an urban socialite, who might focus on the bugs swarming her high heels.  Showing how characters describe and react to their surroundings is much better than objective statements like “The demon was evil!”

3.  Establish a POV in the first place! Granted, this should be rule one, but I thought it was kinda obvious.  However, a lot of people start out with a sorta POV, and then drift and dribble into other skins after a couple of pages or so.  It’s like they get bored with the character they’re in, or got distracted by what some other character thinks, and kind of swim between the two.  It’s not quite dropping us off a cliff, but more like pouring fog over your reader.  If you find yourself asking “Who’s the hero?” you’ve stumbled into this territory.  Here there be dragons.  A lot of times this is a result of a story lacking plot or a decisive character arc, or just plain lack of planning and attention on the part of the writer.  Sometimes it’s easy to fix, sometime it’s not. (Are you starting to see why a protagonist has to be so interesting yet?)  Give us a POV and stick with it.  If you find other characters butting in with their thoughts and feelings, you may want to switch legitimately to their POV, or, heck, make the story theirs.  Stranger things have happened.

4.  Signal a switch in POV. Holy crap, I can’t tell you how often this doesn’t happen.  I make a sound when I inexplicably find myself in another character’s skin.  It’s something akin to “Buh!?” shortly followed by another sound: <i>click</i>.  That’s the sound of me closing a webpage.  (<i>Fwap</i> applies when I’m throwing a book, but I’m usually pretty careful with my choice of books, so it doesn’t happen that often.  But the Internet-!)  Again, third person omniscient is really hard to pull off, but a lot of people end up doing it just because they forget their road markers.  We were in Tim’s head five lines ago, but now we’re in Sasuke’s, because this Naruto/Monty Python fanfic was a train wreck we should’ve seen coming by the subject matter alone.  Regardless, if you switch without warning, you’re going to lose your reader.  We don’t like it, and we don’t think you’re clever.  In fact, we’re wondering how the hell we ended up here.  A break in text, usually with a little # or * dealie, will let us know that we are about to go to someone else’s skin.  Chapter breaks are also acceptable. (George R. R. Martin does it all the time, and look at how many POVs he’s got!)  Stick with your POV as you establish it and warn us when we’re about to switch.

5. POV should provide voice. Voice is a big selling point, at least according to the last SCBWI lecture I went to.  Editors and agents want to know about voice, the unique POV your writing provides.  Voice is usually the only thing one has to stand on when it comes to pitching or insisting that your book is unlike any ever seen.  If you’re following the above rules, then you should be approaching the territory of an individual voice.  Back to Paolini, if he’d written honestly about a real farm boy finding a dragon’s egg, and really pushed his voice, I guarantee he would not have half as many anti-fans as he does.  (Or be responsible for those mass librarian suicides I read about a while back.)  Voice is honesty, the truth of your story, and if you attempt to obfuscate it or Mary Sue it, we will reject it.  Readers want an intimate connection, a story that reflects their own truths: heartbreak, joy, triumph, whatever.  POV is the tool that provides us with that connection, and voice resonates the loudest.  Think about why your story is being told from a particular POV, and when approaching a scene, whose voice would be most interesting to see it from.  Examples of good voice:  Pride of Baghdad, To Kill A Mockingbird, Push by Sapphire, and Because of Winn-Dixie.

Illustration Interview and Splash Page

The totally awesome Mark Mitchell interviewed me about my Dardunah character art and attending ACC’s Video Game development classes. I daresay he captured me quite well!  Go show him some love HERE.

Also, I have finally hit upon a wicked-cool style for my urban YA fantasy novel, Daemonfire.  Behold the splash page:

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I’ll be updating when I can, just to garner some interest for the thing.  I’m currently fiddling with a Flash website design after completing some training in Flash, so I’ll let you know how that goes, too.

Fantasy? You’ve Got Your Work Cut Out For You

So at my last SCBWI meeting, we had a presentation on how to increase your book’s marketability.  It applied for both query pitches and for those already published.  There was definitely some good advice in there, like “think like a teacher” and “think of it as Pandering 101.”  Some other good tips:

*Indicate a marketing platform in your query; even one sentence helps

*Come up with a teaching guide and market to history and world culture classes

*Use your network and get endorsements from fellow writers/illustrators/field professionals

*Look for clubs and societies willing to offer awards for your book.  Find a “hub” and push the book on it

*Get postcards and mass mail things at the beginning of the school year.  Libraries may purchase the book, or possibly invite you for a visit if you indicate you’re open for it.

Good knowledge, all.  But, these were all middle or YA historical, animal, or contemporary fiction.  Things that easily slip into the niche of school.  But me, being a fantasy author, raised my hand and voiced my one pressing question: “What if you’re writing things like fantasy, sci-fi, or horror?  None of those genres lend themselves to the whole school thing very well.”

The lecturer blinked and said, “Fantasy?  Well, you’ve got you’re work cut out for you.”  That was kind of it.  She moved on to the finer points of how having a variety of food in your stories can help you find that marketing niche.

So … fantasy can’t be taken seriously from an educational standpoint?  What a downer.  I mean, I have to admit even in professional writing circles, fantasy feels like “Oh, you write fantasy?  That’s so neat.”  Neat meaning “cute” or some other four letter word.  I got the gist of what she was saying, and I know it can be applied to the fantasy genre, I’m just dismayed that so-called “make-believe” genres were so easily dismissed out of hand.  That’s not to say schools wouldn’t have their own similar bias, too, but I’d like to point out that the fantasy writers who don’t abide by the “A Wizard Did It” rule do their research.  Lots of it.

I myself have done extensive reading on medieval horse breeds, their armor, and their training, which would allow me to market to historical societies, ren faires, and equine conventions.   I know about the Mongols, about how war dogs were used, successful battle tactics, medieval weaponry and black power weapons, and a LOT of mythology and history.  But because I use it in fantastic context, it can’t be taken seriously?  I don’t believe that.  And I don’t think anyone else writing should, either.  The same tactics mentioned above can be used; just like everything else, you can find your hub.

I guess you should just be prepared for more resistance than usual.

Placing the Stars

Well, here I am.  My first blog.  I decided to start it to blog about writing and illustration, mostly, to perhaps keep a record of my own attempts at getting published.  Here are a few examples of my illustration work:

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You can find a lot more by clicking on my icon and heading on over to DeviantArt, a much more informal place for me to draw and rant.

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