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Writing Tips for Writing Fantasy​​

Writing Fantasy - Printsasia Blog  Aug 11, 2011

To trope or not to trope, that is the question. What is a trope, you might ask? Tropes are the classical elements that define a story as fantasy. Most publishers today are looking for something “different”, a new magical system or a bizarre monster-villain. You know the kind of books I’m talking about. I like those kinds of books, I do, but like many die-hard fantasy readers, what I truly love are well-written stories steeped in the classical fantasy tropes. I yearn to dawn burnished armor, greaves and gorget and gauntlet, and to take up a sword and fight for love and justice, for kingdoms and crowns. To ride a foam-flecked mare through a moonlit forest in a desperate bid for escape. To weave sticky strands of politics with the Spider Queen in the hopes of snaring a traitor. To discover a sanctuary of knowledge where all the hallways are jewel-bright with calligraphy, every wall echoing with prophesies. To ride through a vivid land of towering castles and mysterious mists, where all the sunsets are crimson-red, the star-strewn nights are cobalt-blue, and the summer fields are malachite-green. And beneath it all, I want a tale well told, a tapestry brimming with complex characters, each with their own motives and aspirations. I want a story bursting with plot twists that evoke surprise and wonder. And woven beneath it all, I want themes that pluck the heartstrings and challenge the mind. This is the epic fantasy that I love to read; this is the epic fantasy that I strive to write. The Steel Queen is the first book in The Silk & Steel Saga. In a medieval world of forgotten magic, mortals are lured to the chessboard of the gods where an epic struggle of lives, loves and crowns hang in the balance, yet few understand the rules. You'll empathize with the good and pray they prevail but you'll truly feast on the bad who are utterly compelling. 

Choose your words wisely - Blog for Willamette Writers 2011

Fantasy immerses the reader in another world, a world of wonder, of magic, or of malice. A writer’s job is to not only create that world but to sell it. Words are our paint brushes, our weapons of choice, but how many writers chose their words to create a sense of time? I’ll share one of my tricks with you. My book, The Steel Queen, is set in a medieval world, so I prefer to use words that date back to the 12th century. Whenever I reach for the Thesaurus, I do a check on my choice of words to learn their age. For example, the queen uses her beauty to manipulate the men of her court, but manipulate is too modern a word, originating in the 19th century. Instead of “manipulate”, a Thesaurus will offer the choice of dupe, deceive, beguile, fool, delude. But which of these are the oldest? Can you guess? My Webster’s dictionary tells me that dupe is from the 17th century, fool (the verb) is from the 16th, delude is from the 15th, beguile is from the 13th and deceive is from the 13th. So beguile and deceive are the best fit to evoke the time period of my saga. I chose beguile because it is more unusual and has a pleasing alliteration with beauty. “The Queen of Lanverness used beauty to beguile, spies to ensnare, and gold, always gold, to tempt, to trap, to control.” Choose your words wisely, for they create the very feel of your world. 

Creating the Fantasy World of Erdhe - Blog for Rising Shadows - Jan 2012

In terms of writing fantasy, I’ve always believed that world building is just as important as character building. From the very first page of The Silk & Steel Saga, I strove to create a land steeped in mystery and brimming with wonder. I longed to create kingdoms where my readers can’t wait to peer around the next corner, to discover sun-drenched castles shimmering in deep green moats. To explore sanctuaries of knowledge, where all the walls are jewel-bright with calligraphy, every hall echoing with prophecy, every phrase ringing with destiny.  
But it takes more than just a vivid imagination to create a successful world. Everything needs to be layered with history and meaning. As a writer, I strive to breathe life into my settings so that they interact with the characters and the plots, almost becoming characters themselves. 
To bring my settings to life, I draw on my travels around the world. We once visited Chartres Cathedral in France where an Oxford professor gave free lectures interpreting the peerless stonework and stained glass windows. The artwork of the great cathedrals was in many ways the “newspaper” of its era. The professor “read” the windows and the elaborate stone carvings, explaining the biblical meanings as well as the more subtle comments on the rulers and politics of the times. I was so taken with these lectures that I was determined to give the same meaning to the architecture of Erdhe. One of the best examples of this is in chapter 27 of The Steel Queen. When Steffan arrives in Coronth, he first visits the great temple and “reads” the architecture to gain a better understanding of the Pontifax and the Flame God. “Crossing the threshold, Steffan felt the chill of stone-cloistered shadows. The ceiling soared overhead, but instead of being light and airy, it captured smoke and darkness. A vault of gloom pressed down as if trying to drive him to his knees.” I want my readers to walk into the temple with Steffan, to feel the stone-hewed malevolence of the Flame God. 
But world building is much more than just architecture, it is also about commerce and culture, religion and history. The kingdoms of Erdhe are steeped in history. In the deep forest, Kath and her companions stumble across ancient ruins overgrown with ivy. Some ruins are benign, nothing more than tumbled stones, while others hide potent secrets. Kath soon learns that the past has a way of influencing the present, that we forget the past at our peril. 
Another important dimension of Erdhe are its pockets of forgotten peoples. Overlooked and often persecuted, these forgotten people develop unique counter cultures that seem strange and mysterious at first contact. An example of this can be found on the Isle of Souls, where the council of mystics uses a shocking test to confirm their fortunetellers. Those who succeed gain ‘spirit hands’ for the lintels of their shops…while those who fail pay in flesh and blood. Borrowed from the mystics of India, this trial is the type of cultural detail that gives the Isle of Souls a sense of depth and realism. 
In this short post, I can only give you the smallest taste of Erdhe. Building a medieval fantasy world is like weaving a complex tapestry, but instead of using crimson and gold, the colors are architecture, religion, commerce and culture. I hope you will visit the kingdoms of Erdhe and the books of The Silk & Steel Saga. 

Brand Your Cover Artwork - Blog for Willamette Writers Jan 2012

If you are a writer who has also become a publisher, you’re suddenly making decisions about your covers. Consider “branding” your cover artwork.
What is branding? “Branding” is defined as the process of creating a unique identity for the product in the consumer’s mind. Creating a successful brand is the holy grail of modern marketing. It is also the hallmark of a successful author. 
Publishers have often tried to “brand” themselves but it has never worked. People do not go to stores and ask for books published by TOR or Dell or any other publishing house, but they do ask for books by specific authors. These authors have established expectations with their readers regarding their Voice, their storytelling, and their genre…in other words they’ve created a brand. Once readers discover an author they like, they usually come back for more. Success breeds success and branding helps spread your success to all of your products.
In addition to following brand-named authors, consumers also continue to judge books by their covers. So why not apply the power of branding to the design of your cover? The goal is to obtain instant image recognition, to have the consumer instantly identify the book as belonging to you (even before they read your name).
As an author seeking to amplify your success, you can brand your cover artwork by following four simple rules:
1.    Use the same style of font for all of your covers
2.    Use the same size of font for all of your covers
3.    Use the same location for your name and title on all of your covers
4.    Choose artwork that clearly reflects your genre
These simple rules will enable you to use different cover artists and still achieve a sense of branding. For example, I have published three books in the fantasy genre using two different cover artists, an award-winning artist from Australia (Greg Bridges) and an up and coming graphic artist from Oregon (Peggy Lowe). If you go on Amazon or Barnes & Noble and enter my name (Karen Azinger) in the search engine, you’ll pull up the covers of my three books. Even though the artists are different, the common font size, common font style, and common font placement, make these books seem like they belong to the same author. I’ve branded my covers. 
In these lean times, publishers and authors have little money for advertizing. So why not follow these simple rules to brand your cover artwork. By creating a successful brand you can help amplify your success as a writer. 

The Power of Backstory - Guest Post for Speculative Salon May 28, 2012

reating great fantasy is equal parts world building and character building. Characters are the true heart of any story. The deeper and more complex the characters, the more soul-catching the story will be. We all love to read about brilliantly strategic queens, dauntless knights, corrupt kings, and scheming princes, for it is the characters who sweep us away on tides of emotion. They make us weep for loves lost, shock us with betrayals, and thrill us when crowns are won or lost, but none of this happens unless the reader truly cares for the characters. So how does an author create characters that are both fascinating and believable? One way is by creating a compelling backstory. 

Backstory is essentially the character’s background, but for literary purposes it is far more than just the character’s place of birth, his family status, or his schooling. To create a powerful backstory, a writer needs to give his characters emotional landmarks. It is the triumphs and the scars of life that forge the very soul of the character. These emotional landmarks steer the character’s choices like a relentless compass. They give the character hidden depths and make them believable and intriguing. One of the best examples of a powerful backstory is Professor Snape in Harry Potter. Until Snape’s background is revealed, he is a riddle to the readers, a character who seems to serve both the Light and the Dark. Snape’s abiding love for Lilly explains all his actions, all his difficult choices. Everything makes sense in the light of the reveal. 

But creating a great backstory can have its risks. Once a writer constructs a detailed backstory, they often feel compelled to spill the beans and tell everything to the reader. Too much backstory will strangle a book to death, choking the story with meaningless detail and tiresome flashbacks. Backstory should be like an iceberg, with most of it hidden below the surface. It is only when the reader draws close to the character that they look down and see what lurks beneath…the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

I’ll tell you a secret about backstory…it’s a secret! Who doesn’t love a good secret? Secrets are delicious story questions. The more secrets your characters have the more they will tantalize your readers. Give your characters lost loves, or thwarted ambitions, unfulfilled dreams, secret fears, or skeletons in their closet. Writing in the fantasy genre provides authors with iridescent dimensions that other genres don’t have. Rare magical talents, secret skills, or royal bloodlines are often hidden in the backstory of fantasy characters. But no matter the genre, backstory provides powerful questions that weave beneath the plot and draw the reader through the story. 

In my epic fantasy, The Silk & Steel Saga, you’ll find characters with secret pasts, hidden powers, suppressed loves, shocking bloodlines, and buried crimes. From the brilliant Queen Liandra, to the seductive Priestess, to the cunning Lord Raven, you’ll empathize with the good and pray they prevail but you truly feast on the bad who are utterly compelling. 

By using backstory, authors can create intriguing, multi-dimensional characters that pull readers into their books and keep them coming back for more. 

Include Holidays in your Writing - For Red Tash Guest Author Post Nov 14, 2012

The holidays are coming! The holidays are coming! Stockings are hung by the chimney, gingerbread cookies come fresh-baked from the oven, mistletoe decks the doorway, golden light glows from the menorah, the kinara candles are set on the table, bells ring on street corners, a crèche stands beneath the tree, and presents gleam in bright paper. Smiles are more sincere and greetings fill the air. No matter how you celebrate the holidays, they are bursting with symbolism and celebration and life. From the dawn of time, mankind has celebrated holidays with feasts, and kinship, and deep beliefs. Anticipation builds as the date approaches. Presents are hidden, feasts are laid, trees are decked, and festivities abound. The holidays hum with excitement, reflecting our cultures, our customs, our beliefs, our relationships, and even our hopes and dreams. 

In real life, holidays are a cultural treasure trove, a milestone in the year, a memory forever cherished, so why leave them out of your writing? Writers should use holidays as golden opportunities to portray cultures, religion, and even relationships. Create holiday traditions that reflect your world and showcase your characters. Your stories will be all the richer for including holidays. 

In my epic fantasy, The Silk & Steel Saga, I’ve included two holidays in the first and fourth books, using them in very different ways. In The Steel Queen, my characters enjoy the Feast of Midwinter, a celebration of the winter solstice, a time of kinship and gift giving. By tradition they exchange yulecakes. “Individual gingerbread cakes, no larger than the palm of the hand conveyed a heartfelt wish for the new year. Yulecakes came in four shapes, a diamond for wealth and prosperity, a circle for peace and harmony, a star for fame and success, and a heart for love and happiness. The cake’s shape expressed the wish and the coin baked inside expressed the nature of the relationship. Copper coins were used for new friends and acquaintances while silver coins were meant for good friends, light lovers, and distant relatives. Gold coins were reserved for close family members and life-long friends. Gold coins also symbolized true love.” Imagine the anticipation when two lovers exchange yulecakes for the first time. What color coin lies nestled within their heart-shaped yulecakes? Will the two coins be the same? 

In The Poison Priestess, the fourth book of The Silk & Steel Saga, a holiday is put to a more sinister purpose. Royal Nachte is a time of revelry and feasting, the night when all of Navarre celebrates a dukedom raised to a kingdom. But the holiday of one kingdom can be the opportunity of another. While the wine flows and the people make merry, a well-planned attack is launched in the dead of night. I don’t want to give too much away here, but you can see how holidays can be woven into plots, becoming pivotal events.

Advice to Indie Authors - Blog for Speculative Salon, posted Nov 12, 2012

Ten years ago I embarked on the dream of becoming a published author. In February of 2009, I landed a contract with a major international publisher offering a five figure deal for my epic fantasy saga. Sound the trumpets and send up the fireworks, I’d beaten the odds and won the lotto! I was over the moon with joy, but after three short months the dream devolved into a complete nightmare. After two torturous years, I reclaimed the full rights to my saga, escaped from the major publisher, and formed my own company. To date I’ve published the first three books of The Silk & Steel Saga, (The Steel Queen, The Flame Priest, The Skeleton King, and soon to be published, The Poison Priestess) as well as a collection of short stories entitled The Assassin’s Tear. My books are getting great reviews, I have awesome fans around the world, and I can honestly say I’m thrilled to be in control of my own destiny.

Having experienced both sides of the publishing business, I thought I’d pass on some hard-won tips to other indie authors. 

First and foremost, you need to write the very best book you can. An essential element of good writing is getting feedback from critique groups, from alpha and beta readers, and from professional editors. The more ‘eyeballs’ you get on your work, the better. Search for alpha readers in your neighborhood, at parties, at coffee shops, at bookstores, or even on-line. I had fifteen alpha/beta readers for my first book and they gave me invaluable feedback. Some of them became my biggest fans.

Secondly, the sooner you start promoting your book, the better. Authors need to build an audience before their book is published. This might sound like putting the cart before the horse, but major publishers promote their authors for over a year in advance. If it’s important for the majors then it’s absolutely critical for indie publishers. For The Steel Queen, I started two years in advance with Facebook and then progressed to a website and other forms of social media. Be creative, be entertaining, and use the social network to spread the word.

A picture is still worth a thousand words…that’s why covers are crucial. Eye-catching artwork, even when reduced to a postage-stamp size, is the very best marketing tool an indie author has. A cover is your calling card on Amazon, on Facebook, on your website, so make sure it’s a great one. Covers should look professional and they should reflect your genre with a single glance. Commission your cover as soon as possible so you have it for advance marketing. Get the most out of your covers by branding their designs, so all your books are easily recognizable. 

Word-of-mouth is still king when it comes to selling books, so encourage your readers to write and post reviews. The best gift a reader can give an author is a review, but indie publishers also need professional reviews. Search for book reviewers on-line and offer them a complimentary copy for an honest review. Unfortunately major publishers are also chasing reviews, so they flood established reviewers with their own books (my publisher was going to send 50 advance copies just to Amazon US reviewers!). Since most reviewers are swamped, indie publishers often need to discover new emerging reviewers. Once a review is posted, multiply its value by spreading links through the web.  

Most likely ninety percent of your sales will be e-books, but spend the extra time and money to publish your books in a print format. Don’t miss out on the thrill of actually hold your book in your hands, and you’ll need paperback copies for many professional reviewers and for Goodreads giveaways. 

And last, but not least, keep writing. The more good books you publish, the greater your chance of success. Write a saga or a series and publish new books at regular intervals. Keep writing good books and your audience will multiply. Best of luck to you!