Freewrite: Titanfall

Recently, I’ve hit a roadblock with my main stories, as I’ve gotten a bit bogged down in the world building and plot crafting, so today I decided to do a small freewrite to get my creative juices flowing.

Titanfall is the working title for a story idea I’ve been playing with for a few months now. The genre is a sort of apocalyptic/sci-fi mix.

Backstory:
Roughly 50 years prior, the world fell into a third world war which spanned nearly 3 decades. Toward what would become the end of the war, a swarm of hostile creatures of unknown origin descended upon the earth. Greatly resembling dinosaurs, these creatures came to be called dragons. Their appearance was followed shortly by even deadlier monsters, many the size of small cities, which came to be called titans. Human civilization was reduced to small pockets of refugees, and many of these small bands began to doubt that there might be any other survivors.

Shortly after the appearance of the titans, an event known as Titanfall, a young boy was found unconscious in the path of one of the beasts. His identity and origin a mystery, the young boy soon claimed the name of Nox, meaning “night,” and made it his mission to discover the truth behind the bringers of the apocalypse.


The Beginning

A thick mist hung heavy over the gnarled trees that spanned the near horizon, the greyish red light of dawn casting an eerie glow against the dismal landscape. In the distance, a large, dark form could be seen traipsing slowly along an unmarked path, its ribbed back arching above the treetops which shook with each lumbering step. Nothing else broke the silence.

From where he stood on the crumbling concrete steps of an old church building, a young man of about 16 watched the dark form disappear into the grey curtain stretched along the horizon, keen hazel eyes silently mapping its path. He jumped at a light touch at his elbow.

“Is everything alright, Nox?”

The visitor was a young girl of about 12. Her long black hair was pulled back into a braid, and she looked up at the teen with worried, pale blue eyes.

“Yeah, it’s fine, Emma. You shouldn’t be out here, though. We never know when a dragon or titan might show up.”

“As if this old dump would be any match for a titan,” the girl snipped back, crossing her arms over her chest.

Nox sighed, then patted her head before turning back to the door.

“I can’t argue that,” he responded. “But anyway, come inside already. I could use some help with breakfast.”

—–

“You were watching the titans again, weren’t you?”

Nox paused at the question, staring absently into the skillet of sizzling potatoes in front of him.

“You know me too well,” he answered at length, his hand coming to rest on the hilt of the sword at his hip.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

Emma’s countenance sank with her voice as she uttered the words.

“It scares me when you do that. You always look like you’re about to leave.”

Nox cast his gaze away at this, his shoulders slumping slightly. Emma seemed to notice this, and quickly she dropped the knife she had been using to slice mushrooms with, rushing to grab Nox by the arm.

“Nox, you’re not really…thinking…”

“Yeah…”

“Why?!”

The young man cringed at the pain in the girl’s voice.

“I’m sorry, Emma. But I can’t help it. I want to know who I am, and the titans are my only lead.”

“You’re Nox! You’re my friend! What else do you need to know?”

Emma was crying now.

“I’ve already lost my brother. Why do I have to lose you, too?”

A pain constricted around Nox’s heart as he watched the girl sob, and quietly he pulled her into a tight hug.

“I wouldn’t be gone forever, you know. I just want to figure out where I come from. You know where they found me, in the path of a titan. I don’t have any memory of where I’m from, but how could I have been such a young kid and survived an encounter with a titan? I can’t stop thinking about it. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to rest until I find answers to my questions. You understand, don’t you?”

Emma’s grip on his shirt tightened, but her sobs had died down some by now.

At this, Nox stood back slightly, leaning down to look her in the eye.

“You’ve seen me fight off dragons, and you know I would never intentionally put myself in harm’s way without reason. It would just be a short journey. And it’s not like you’re alone here. The headmistress is here to take care of you. You’ve got the guards to protect you, and the other orphans to spend time with. I’m not the only person in this compound.”

“You’re the only Nox, though.”

The girl averted her eyes as she spoke, her cheeks flushing a slight pink.

Nox laughed at this.

“True. I don’t know that the world could handle more than one of me.”

“The headmistress won’t be happy.”

“She doesn’t need to know. And anyway, it’s not like we’re prisoners, exactly.”

For a moment, silence fell over the room. Only the sound of the potatoes sizzling on the stove nearby broke the stillness.

Then, after a time, Emma crossed her arms over her chest and asked quietly, “When do you leave?”

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Best Seller vs. Classic

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As a relatively inexperienced writer, and one who is very much in need of practice and knowledge, the topic of what makes the difference between a good book and a great book is one of great interest to me.

Ask any writer what they think makes a great book and they will have their own personalized list of do’s and do not’s. Sometimes, these pieces of advice are similar or even the same to those of other writers. Start the story off with a hook. Avoid adverbs. Show, don’t tell. Balance tension and release. Use the word “said” in your dialogue for a change (I drove my mentor batty by using almost any other word but “said” following my dialogue).

All good advice, mind you, but what might hook you as the author may or may not hook your reader, and the show-tell/tension-release concepts can be difficult to measure. And in any case, writing is as much personal style as it is rules. So where do you draw the line, and how do you measure the quality of your work?

And then there’s something else that I’ve noticed. There are great books, and then there are great books. What’s the difference? The best way I can think to describe the difference is with the Best Seller vs. Classic concept. And no, I don’t just mean A Tale of Two Cities or Pride & Prejudice.

The fact of the matter is, just because a book is a best seller doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll become a classic. And just because it is a classic, that doesn’t mean it’ll be a best seller. This is why you’ve probably heard of (or maybe even read) C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (published in 1950; not a best seller) but maybe haven’t heard of Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites (also published in 1950; was a best seller that year).

One was a momentary fad; the other has withstood the test of time.

So what’s the difference? Why is it that a book popular in its moment can be so easily forgotten, while another can be seemingly obscure yet be remembered decades, or even centuries, after its publication?

A quick search for “Characteristics of a classic story” lead to a variety of basic descriptors. There’s longevity (duh); language (they coin new expressions or phrases that stick); originality and freshness (but there are plenty of best sellers that could fit that bill). The two things that stood out to me the most, however, are these: classic stories (a) focus on something that is essential to being human and (b) are so reflecting of the culture in which they are written that they become a beacon of that culture as time goes on.

Think of the classics that you are familiar with. Maybe it’s Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which explores not only the culture of the era but also the concepts of human pride and superficial judgement of others. Maybe it’s Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which at once covers the brutality of the French Revolution and the concept of human redemption. There are also Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (revolutionary France and the consequences of revenge), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (showing the brutal reality of slavery in America and exploring human value and what it truly means to be a moral individual), and Dante’s Inferno (reflecting both classic literature and religious thought in his time while also exploring the concept of sin).

Even some of the more modern stories (including movies) could be considered classics (although many might argue otherwise). The Lion King is a story that brings the wilds of Africa to life while simultaneously touching on the concept of leadership and justice. Mulan is remembered both for its portrayal of 5th/6th century China along with its promotion of equality and friendship. Gone with the Wind portrays the events of the American Civil War while also exploring themes such as the cost of war, the reality of change, and the positives and negatives of personal strength and self-reliance.

Though a bit different from what are known as true “Classics,” both old and modern stories that are well-beloved are remembered for more than just the action and excitement. They delve deep into the human mind and bring to light both social and psychological issues present not just in their time but throughout human history.

The website booksmakeadifference.com asked of their readers: “What makes a book worth reading?”

Here are some of my favorite responses:

I search for the content. Something that makes me learn something.

A good book is a treasure trove of humanity so that no matter how often you open a page and start reading, there is still something new to be discovered.

A great book is not only going to have a good story, but it is going to be written well. But sometimes a good book has to do more with what the reader needs at that given time in his or her life. The books I read while going through my divorce may not fall into the normal classification of a “good” book, but it was what I needed at that time in my life and I may therefore classify it as a good book.

The moral of the story (at least from my perspective)? Good writing is great. Catching the reader’s interest is mandatory. But touching the reader’s soul? That is what makes a Classic.

The Challenge of Book 2

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Back when I first started writing The Four Stars, there were a lot of things I never could have imagined. First and foremost, I never imagined that it would take not only a second but a third book to finish the story out; secondly, I never thought I’d ever be completely rewriting the stories after a 90 degree learning curve from my time in college; and on top of all that, I never thought it would take me 3-ish years to get to chapter 2 of the rewrite of The Secret of Erris.

I have to admit, I haven’t done much writing in those 3 years. Part of that has been simple adult life. Between work and other life commitments, I just haven’t figured out how to prioritize and find the time to sit down and write. There are other things, too, though. In college, I got spoiled to having access to a community of writers who would encourage and inspire me every time we met. Writing groups still exist outside of college, but I have discovered that they are few and far between, and they only meet on days that I can’t attend the meetings. And then there’s the real kicker: I just don’t have the confidence in my ability that I once had. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” After going for a while without writing, I have, at the very least, lost my confidence, if not my skill.

My life has settled down a lot recently (I’m married now, and I live a lot closer to where I work), and so in attempting to get myself back into gear for the umpteenth time since I published the second edition of The Four Stars, I have started reading more articles on writing.

The most recent article I have read – “Writing a Trilogy: Essential Tips for crafting a Three-Part Series” by Dan Koboldt – really hit home for me.

As Koboldt explains in his article, the first book of a trilogy is the easy part. It may not seem that way at first. After all, you’re building a world and a group of characters from the ground up. But the first book has no commitments. You have no rules to break yet because none have been established. You have no events or facts to remember yet because none have been revealed. You have no characters to present accurately because they haven’t been born yet. There are no time commitments, no reader expectations, no pressures.

Then comes the second book. Your world has been established. Your readers and characters have met. The next part of the story is waiting to unfold.

Now when writing, you have a whole new set of challenges. First, you have to remember what happened in the last book. Heaven forbid you’re like me and wait 3+ years to get this party started.

Then, you have to write the characters accurately. For a new writer, this may sound easy, until you realize that characters inevitably take on a life of their own, so the character you thought you were writing at the beginning of Book 1 may very well not be the same character by the beginning of Book 2. And your readers expect consistency.

And then there’s the whole plot issue. Book 2 is both a story in and of itself and a continuation of the plot from Book 1. And somehow, you have to balance both, while simultaneously setting up the story for Book 3.

Then, to top it all off, there are expectations of excellence. I think that, for me, that’s where it really gets me. I got a lot of positive feedback from the rewrite of The Four Stars. Now I’ve got to deliver on The Secret of Erris. And there’s always that risk that I will fail. Koboldt calls it the “sophomore slump,” or the “struggle to replicate the same magic in a second volume.” Being the perfectionist that I am, the fear of failing to deliver is crippling.

Luckily for me (and others like me), there are writers out there willing to share their wisdom, and for the formula of the second book in a trilogy, Koboldt puts it this way:

 When writing a trilogy, you need to continue the story from book one while escalating everything—conflict, tension and stakes—to pull readers along to the finale. Yet book two also needs to provide some satisfaction to readers. It requires a delicate balancing act, because you can’t get to the big ending until book three.

Since part one of a trilogy usually ends in a triumph, part two often features the antagonist’s devastating counterstroke. Look at The Empire Strikes Back, the second movie in the original Star Wars trilogy. The plucky rebels have won a major victory, but they still face a powerful enemy. This becomes apparent almost right away with the Empire’s destruction of the rebel base. We love the heroes, but they’re facing setback after setback. The wonderful dramatic tension that results from this is something to emulate when you’re writing a second installment.

It seems silly now, but despite my husband being a major Star Wars fan, I had never thought to sit down and analyze how the trilogies in the series were done. I don’t know that my writing will ever be Star Wars or Lord of the Rings quality, but at least this gives me something to visualize. And hopefully, as I study the classics and begin practicing my writing again, I’ll start to improve and be able to deliver a Book 2 equal to its predecessor.

 

External Link: 4 Timeless Writing Tips from ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ Author Madeleine L’Engle

Back in 1962, Madeleine L’Engle gifted children everywhere with her sci-fi fantasy classic A Wrinkle in Time. The book became a classic and continues to be enjoyed by young readers with over 10 million copies sold. On March 9, Disney is releasing a movie, based on the book, starring big names like Oprah, Chris Pine and Reese Witherspoon.

Like so many writers, L’Engle had a hard time finding a publisher. The book didn’t fit neatly into a genre category, and the concepts in the story were way ahead of their time. There were elements of quantum physics, the problem of evil, and it has a young female protagonist in a science fiction book, which was pretty much unheard of at that time. Aside from the content, she believed her troubles were also because people underestimate children. “They think you have to write differently,” she said. “You don’t. You just have to tell a story.”

In all, 26 different publishers rejected A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle had almost given up when she was introduced to John C. Farrar of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Although his publishing company did not publish children’s books at the time, he liked her book and published it with the caveat that the author should not expect much public reaction. She, in turn, had it added to her contract that the company could have the rights to the book forever, anywhere in the universe, except the Andromeda galaxy.

During her lifetime, L’Engle published over 60 books for children and adults. Read on to learn four powerful lessons from her experiences and expertise.

Read more at Writer’s Digest.

External Link: Writers Who Don’t Read

At the New Yorker Book Bench Macy Halford recently posed an important question: “What is wanting to write without wanting to read like? It’s imperative that we figure it out, because Giraldi’s right: It’s both crazy and prevalent among budding writers.” She was echoing a question asked by debut novelist William Giraldi who in the course of teaching writing at Boston University has noticed a growing number of aspiring writers disinclined to read. This unfortunate trend inspired an open-ended analogy:

Wanting to write without wanting to read is like wanting to ____ without wanting to ____.

The New Yorker commenterati — unsurprisingly, a clever bunch — came up with some great analogies but none of them touched on the bigger question: How can anyone claim to be interested in writing without being serious about reading? If Giraldi’s observation rings true across teenagers and 20-somethings then what does this say about culture at large?

Read more at Salon.com.

Short Story: On the Hunt

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while may have noticed by now that my writing comes and goes. (Yay, adult life). Recently I’ve started a new endeavor to not only get myself writing but to get myself back into the groove of some old (and some not so old) stories that I do at some point want to finish. And to do that, I’ve devised a sort of game.

I have composed a list of the 15 books/series I still would like to finish some day, each with a list of the most important main and side characters. Using a random number generator, I select first the series, then the character, then the age of the character, then the genre of the short story, and then the length, which ranges from 100-500 words. I think it’s really helping me get a good grasp on the characters, and should make the stories go smoother as I write them.

That being said, here’s the first one I’ve done. The story this is from is called Chain Master, a fantasy story in which the main character has the power to move between interconnected dimensions, known as the Enigami Chain, and kill a specific type of magic monster known as a morgrim. (More on that later, tho).

This short story is based when the main character, Eva, is a young teen (probably about 15), back before she left her birth dimension, Earth, and before she discovered her magic powers.


“Look there! On a lonely hillside stands the ruins of an ancient city, where monsters slumber, guarding vast amounts of treasure!”

Quickly I darted behind a brick wall, my makeshift sword clasped firmly in my hands. The rough surface of the bricks behind me pressed into my back, catching on the fabric of the long shirt I wore and scraping against the leather belt fastened around my middle.

I drew in a deep breath then, taking in the scents and sounds of the world around me, of grass, and trees, and animals. A bird chirped from its perch on a nearby tree branch, cocking its little head at me, as though wondering what I was doing. It seemed oblivious to the danger that rested so close at hand. I raised a cautious finger to my lips, trying to silence the little creature before me, if not for my sake than for its own. The movement seemed to startle the bird, however, and quickly it flew off into the distant horizon.

“Well, I will not be startled so,” I declared under my breath, tightening my grip on my weapon of choice before glancing around the corner of the wall behind which I hid.

I took in one more breath before stealthily slipping out from my hiding spot and behind a nearby bush.

Slowly, quietly I edged my way forward, my eyes always focused on the unsuspecting target before me. Then at last, when I had finally come within range of my goal, I darted out into the open, pointing my makeshift sword at the creature before me.

“Your days of villainy and gluttony are at an end, foul monster!” I declared, brandishing my weapon for emphasis. “I will retake these ruins for the residents of this fair land!”

A pair of languid green-gold eyes turned toward me then, clearly unconcerned.

“Meow.”

I sighed at the response, then lowered the stick in my hand.

“You were supposed to at least jump a little.”

The creature before me, an orange-furred tabby cat, twitched its ears unconcernedly before returning to grooming itself.

“Very well,” I said, returning to my earlier charade before raising my makeshift sword again. “If you will not surrender, then I must drive you from this land by force!”

No sooner had I said this, however, then the sound of my mother’s voice caught my ear.

“Eva Darlene Claine!”

I jumped.

Uh-oh. Full-name alert. Death was imminent.

“You’re a decade too old for that make-believe nonsense!” my mother continued. “Now get your hide in here and finish your homework!”

I let out a dramatic sigh before reluctantly dropping my stick.

“So long, sweet freedom.”

I paused one more time to look at the cat who was now eyeing me closely.

“Well,” I added then, grinning broadly as I scooped the little creature up in my arms, eliciting a squeak of protest in the process. “If I have to go to the dungeon, I’m taking you with me.”