Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Challenge of Writing Fantasy

Picking a Genre

I've proudly used the word "fantasy" in the title of this post, but really I'm not sure that I'm actually writing fantasy. If anything, my book would be considered an "urban fantasy" because it takes place in our modern world, but I don't know enough about the criteria for defining a book as "urban fantasy" to be sure. All I know is my book takes place in our world, but there's magic. Sometimes the setting and the characters seem a bit too mundane to really fit the label "fantasy", but I don't know what else to call it. It's definitely paranormal, but it's not a mystery. It's not romance. It's not horror. It's not a thriller. It's dark fiction set in today's world, but there are people who know about and can use magic. Urban fantasy? Maybe. If anyone has a better label feel free to tell me in a comment.

Previous Experience With Paranormal Fiction

As the title of this post implies, I have encountered some challenges while writing this new book. These challenges surprise me because paranormal fiction is something that usually comes out of me with ease. I had very little difficulty writing Amelia's Children, despite the fact that it contains paranormal elements. I've tried analyzing the difference between that book and my new one, and here is what I have concluded. All of the supernatural elements in Amelia's Children have to do with psychic powers. Psychic powers are easy to write about because the rules are simple. The powers are something a character is born with, so there is no backstory regarding how, exactly, the character acquired these abilities. The powers manifest themselves in a limited number of ways. Either a character can tell the future, or he can read people's minds, or he can manipulate the world around him with his mind. Often there is a combination of these elements, but the elements themselves are relatively simple. And usually the characters themselves don't fully understand what's happening, so the author can keep things shrouded in mystery and not have to worry about doing the research necessary to explain the mechanism behind the powers. Unless that's part of the story. But it wasn't part of Amelia's Children, so in order to write I didn't need to think about, for example, whether psychic people have a different brain structure than normal people, or whether there's a specific gene that codes for the various manifestations of the powers. My characters never found out these things, so I never had to figure them out.

When You Write About Magic

Magic is different. The characters have to understand it in order to use it, which means the author has to understand it as well. Of course a character can try to use the magic without fully understanding it but anyone who has ever read fantasy knows that using magic without knowing what you're doing often has unintended consequences. The author has to know what those consequences are. And while there are stories about people being born with magic, often the power is acquired, in which case an author must explain how the magic was discovered. Even in stories where characters are born with it, still there is a learning curve. As I said above, using it without understanding it has unintended consequences. So characters must learn to use it, and the author must learn how to write that.

The Challenge of World-Building

I'm not writing epic fantasy. I'm not writing a fairy tale. I'm not writing about portals to magical lands. On the surface it looks like my book requires very little world-building, but looks can be deceiving. Because there is magic in my story, there has to be world-building. You see, when you write about magic you are writing about a world that follows different rules from those our own world follows. It is your responsibility as the author to make up those rules. All of them. And then everything, literally everything, that happens in your story must follow those rules. No exceptions.

Problems occur when you think you have all the rules worked out, but you don't. So you may be two thirds of the way through your book when you realize, "Oh yeah, I haven't found a way to explain that yet." So you worry and fuss over it until you have a new rule, which you enthusiastically insert into your story. But before you can happily continue writing you have to go back through everything you've already written and make sure you haven't contradicted yourself somewhere along the way. And if you find that you have contradicted yourself, you have to find a way to fix the problem. And the solution has to follow the rules of the world you are building.

The Unique Challenge of My Book

My book has presented me with a number of challenges, but one in particular that I'm struggling with is the question of how to solve the main problem in the story and defeat the bad guys. Obviously it has to have a magical solution, but what kind of magical solution? When I first started the book I agonized over this until I finally decided that one of my main characters has to die. I didn't like that answer because I want my characters to live happily ever after, but it seemed the most logical way. Really, it seemed to be the only way. So I decided. A character was going to die. And not just any character, but one of the three primary characters. So I went back to my writing with that ending in mind. Then I started to question it.

It happened yesterday. I was thinking about the story and how it should end. I was thinking that there really were no solutions to the problem that did not involve this particular character dying. And then I thought of one. The first thing I did was test this new solution against the rule system I've constructed for my story. It fits. Then I looked at it in terms of emotional impact. Yep, there'd still be an emotional impact. It wouldn't be quite as tragic as having one of my precious main characters die, but it would still be intense. It could work.

This should have been good news, but it wasn't. Yes, I have a way to save my character, but I also have to decide which ending I'm going to use. Should I save my character? Or should I stick to my original solution and let the character die? I still have a little while before I have to make my decision, but I'm probably going to agonize over it right up until that point.

The Possible Benefit of Indecision

I'm trying to look at this as a good thing. Really, it is a good thing. If even I don't know if my character will survive the book, there's no way the audience will know while they're reading it. So there's an unpredictable element here that could really work to my advantage. Doesn't make deciding any easier, though.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

My Lenten Journey, Part 5: What I Didn't Give Up

A Lofty Ideal

Every year when Lent comes I look forward to the quiet of a house with no television. I look forward to the extra time I have when I'm not perpetually sitting with my eyes glued to the set. But I look forward to other things too. Every year I dream of completely revolutionizing my life during the Lenten season. I want to free myself completely from my dependence on the material world and live a life of pure simplicity. I want to do this. I never actually achieve it.

The Dryer

I have a dream that one day I will get rid of my dryer altogether and only dry my laundry on the line. I do try do hang out my clothes as often as possible in the summer when running the dryer and the air conditioner at the same time seems counter-intuitive, but I'm far from being ready to live without it entirely. I was hoping that this year during Lent, at least, I would find the resolve to ditch the dryer, if only for a few weeks. It didn't happen. The fact is using the dryer is convenient while using the clothesline is...well...not. When there are places to go and people to dress and there are no clean socks in the house, I've got to get them washed and dried as quickly as possible. There are some situations in which a clothesline will simply not suffice. I dream, though, that one day I will find within myself the discipline to dry my clothes exclusively on the line. One day. Maybe.

Prepackaged Food

Everyone knows homemade food is healthier. Even if you're eating homemade junk food, it's still better than something that comes wrapped in plastic. As I was preparing myself mentally and spiritually for the start of Lent this year I thought to myself that I wanted to try to make all my food from scratch. Even snack foods. It didn't happen. Most of this has to do with time. I like cooking, but other aspects of my life often demand so much attention that there is little time leftover for preparing food. And the actual preparation time is not the only concern. There's also cleanup that needs to be considered. The more complex the recipe, the more dishes that need to be washed later. This takes time. Time that I usually don't have. Or, if I'm honest, time that I'd rather spend doing something else. And there's also the fact that when I really get motivated to cook I tend to go a little crazy with it, which more often than not causes me to put on weight, something I try to avoid if I can. But again, maybe I'll be able to pull this off one day. Maybe.

The Car

Oh, how I have dreamed of having a lifestyle that does not require me to own a car. The reality is that I do not live in an area where that is possible. Basically, if I gave up my car I'd have to give up grocery shopping because the store is a little far for walking. It might not be too bad a bike ride, if the store weren't located on a highway where I don't think I'd feel safe riding. But even if I could walk or cycle to the grocery store, there are other things I would have to give up if I gave up my car. My job for one. My dance classes and my children's dance classes for another. Trips to the library. The list goes on and on. No, the car is not something I could give up, not considering where and how I live. But maybe one day. Maybe.

Paying It Forward

You may have picked up on the fact that I'm a bit of an environmentalist. Much of my desire to eliminate these things from my life stems from a desire to create a cleaner world. Lesson my impact. Shrink my carbon footprint. Leave this world in better shape than it was in when I entered it. I do my best, but sometimes I fail. I guess this is where the spiritual side of Lent comes in, as I remember that God knows we are not perfect, but he chooses to love us anyway.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

My Lenten Journey, Part 4: The Keurig

A Confession

Alright, gotta come clean here. I didn't actually give up the Keurig for Lent. If you read my post entitled Counting My Blessings then you know that I stopped using the Keurig in favor of my stovetop Moka pot several weeks before Lent began. However, there is a spiritual element to this, so I'm counting it as a part of my Lenten journey.

A Mountaintop Experience

There must be something about the mountains. It's where my husband always wants to go for vacation. I have dreams of relaxing on sandy beaches or soaking up the culture of some faraway country, but he's happy as long as there's a rustic cabin and a nice view. In fact, if he goes too long without visiting the mountains, he starts to feel restless, and we know it's time to take another mountain trip.

I frequently resist when he suggests this, thinking to myself, "we've already been there. Can't we go somewhere else?" Often we do go somewhere else, but every few years we have to go see some mountains, and when we do I begin to understand what it is that pulls my husband there again and again.

More so than any other place I have ever been, the mountains seem to have a calming effect on my soul. They make me crave simplicity in my life, in a world where things can so easily become overwhelmingly complex. This craving for simplicity is what prompted me to stop drinking Keurig coffee. Back in the fall we took a mini-vacation up to the mountains. We actually brought the Keurig with us (my husband is spoiled now and doesn't like any other kind of coffee), but I chose to make my coffee in the drip coffee maker provided in our cabin. I can't exactly remember my reasoning now but I know it had something to do with saving money as well as being more environmentally friendly. Let's face it, K-cups create an awful lot of waste. So I was thinking in the back of my mind that avoiding the Keurig is a way to do something good for our family and the world as a whole. It was the truly horrendous taste of the coffee made in the drip machine that prompted me to switch to homemade espresso when we returned from our trip.

Closer to God

Are mountains really closer to God? They reach up into the sky...up to where we imagine God to be...but do they actually reach up to God? Is it even possible to know where God is? Don't most people of faith believe God is everywhere? If God is everywhere, then the mountains are no closer to him than any other place on earth. But still, there's something about those mountains. The Bible itself acknowledges this. Where did Moses meet with God? On a mountaintop. Where did the transfiguration occur? On a mountaintop. Great things, it seems, happen on mountaintops. I know a change happens in my heart every time I come near one. Giving up the Keurig may sound trivial, and in reality it is, but it is just one manifestation of the inner peace I feel after I come down from the mountain. And that inner peace is not trivial. That inner peace is powerful.

Paying it Forward

I've been writing about how I struggle with this aspect of Lenten discipline, but I'm working to make that better. I've found a way to turn my avoidance of the Keurig into a way to give back. My church collects donations for a local food bank, so I've decided that whenever I buy my inexpensive non-Keurig coffee, I will spend the money that I save on food that I will then donate to this ministry. It's small, I know, but I'm trying.