Saturday, May 19, 2018

Don't Leave Change to Chance

[image mine; edited with Portra and BeFunky]

I attended a college graduation this week. It was strange to see a new batch of students on the very stage on which I stood a year ago!

For the more recent readers here, my post-high school life thus far looks like this:

  • Spent a year looking for a job
  • Found a retail position and just worked for a year
  • Went to the aforementioned college (while still working part-time on the side) where I completed a nine-month program that focuses on building leaders who are strong in their faith and also successful in the business world
  • And most recently, completed my first year of a business diploma (yep, still working in the meantime)

Anyway, life progression aside, seeing a new class graduate made me realize how fast time moves! Something the valedictorian said in her speech stuck out to me:

"Don't leave change to chance."

Something like this leadership program is only as valuable as the effort a student puts into it. Simply attending won't do a blessed thing. The same goes for a multitude of other opportunities for learning. A powerful book, a thought-provoking blog post, the wisdom of a mentor, a challenge before you, a mind-numbing job, a sandpaper person*, an informative class. All of these have the potential to mold you, change you, and catapult you to a higher level of life, but only if you do your part.

*None of us shall name names, but we all know these individuals--abrasive, prickly, uncomfortable-to-be-around people whose role in your life is to smooth your rough edges.

What is our part?

We are constantly processing information. I don't know enough science to go into the cognitive details, but your brain filters a CRAZY amount of data all the time. You discard what is unimportant, routine, and involuntary in order to function, since your focus is incredibly narrow. How does a magician fool an audience? Misdirection. If you're watching one hand wave the scarf over here, you won't see the other hand reach for the card over there. It takes concentrated effort to ignore the flashy new things your brain deems as "important" in order to focus on a crucial but mundane detail.

How often do you read or hear something and think, "Wow, that was good. I need to remember that." And then . . . don't? Yeah, me too. I don't even remember what I had for lunch yesterday. It wasn't important.

Okay, so what am I getting at? We've covered grads, brains, and magicians, oh my!

The point is this. You want to change. So do I. But we leave transformation to chance most of the time. We sit around waiting for a golden key to fall into our lap, for Gandalf to knock on our door, for someone to invent a USB port in the back of our skulls so that we can download new skills. But it doesn't work that way.

Proverbs 2 talks about pursuing wisdom (personified throughout the book as a woman), and it uses a lot of action verbs.

  • Accept what I am telling you
  • Store my counsel deep within you
  • Listen for Lady Wisdom
  • Attune your ears to her
  • Engage your mind
  • Cry out for insight
  • Beg for understanding
  • Sift through the clamor of everything around you
  • Seek wisdom
  • Search for it
  • Grasp what it means
  • Discover knowledge

And here's what this wisdom will do for you.

With this wisdom you will be able to choose the right road, seek justice, and decide what is good and fair because wisdom will penetrate deep within and knowledge will become a good friend to your soul. (Proverbs 2: 9-10, the Voice translation)

 It goes on to say that sound judgment will stand guard over you, and wisdom will keep you away from wrong paths. I don't know about you, but I could use a good dose of wisdom in my life. But it won't come to me by chance. Neither will true change.

This is our part: to take responsibility for our own growth, to seek wisdom, to listen, to reflect, to apply.

Start small. To think of changing your entire life from the ground up is overwhelming. Instead, pick one habit to replace. When you're studying, pick out one thing you can apply right now. When you step into an environment that encourages change, use it. Seek, store, discover. Sift through the clamor. Fall in love with change. Fall in love with the pursuit of wisdom. Involve God on the journey, too. He gives wisdom without finding fault in you.

It's been said that the clearest memories are made by repetition or strong emotion. Once you've grasped a nugget of wisdom, don't let it go! Find ways to repeat it to yourself, whether it's leaving notes around the house or setting a reminder on your phone or learning the discipline of reflection. Attach emotions to it if you can. Envision what your life could be like if you applied that little lesson; paint the most vivid picture you can.

And then act. The quickest way to get something from your head to your heart is to start moving your hands and feet.

What's something small you want to change this week? Don't leave it to chance.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Holes in the Literary World Part 1 - Realism in Fantasy

Thanks to the response on the recent Beautiful People post, we're launching another blog series! This one is on five of the holes in the literary world that I'd like to see filled. (Credit goes to the lovely Arielle of The Splendor Falls on Castle Walls and Intuitive Writing Guide for suggesting this.)

The first point we're tackling today is realism, specifically in speculative fiction. "Wait just a dragon-blessed minute," you might be thinking. "The very reason I read speculative fiction is to get away from boring reality. If you make fantasy or sci-fi realistic, will you obliterate every dragon and spaceship entirely?"

To that I say, "No."

Because I agree, one reason we love speculative fiction is the otherworldliness of it all! I love dragons! I love superheroes and tech that doesn't really exist. I love quests and kingdoms and new worlds and magic and everything else that comes with these genres. And I love these things so much that when I read about them, I want to be able to suspend my disbelief long enough to fully enjoy the story. I want to forget that Narnia's not really at the back of the wardrobe. I want to forget that superheroes aren't actually blazing over New York. I want to believe just for a few hundred pages that elementals can shape lightning with their hands, dragons rule the skies, and a portal could suck me into another realm at any minute.

That's what I mean by realism. Not an absence of wonder, but a means of grounding a story so that my mind is free to wonder.

Here are just a few ways that can be achieved. Keep in mind this is opinion time--these are things that help me personally to connect to a story (regardless of genre, actually), but your list might look a bit different!

1. I want all my senses engaged.

This is particularly important for fantasy, or any book that introduces a new world. Fantasy readers want to be immersed. For the duration of the book, they want to live and breathe a new place. But even the most amazing worldbuilding falls flat if the reader feels like a spectator, rather than like he's inside that world right alongside the characters. Using the five senses is one of the easiest ways to make such a connection.

I want the story details to be deftly painted--neither overwritten to the point of eyeball exhaustion, nor skimmed over with barely a glance. I'd rather not wade through pages of exposition on what a single setting looks like, but neither do I want to encounter "White Room Syndrome." It's a bothersome thing when visual details are so lacking that it feels as if the characters are talking heads floating in a white room.)

[via Pinterest]

I want to see the thunderclouds roiling, the sun beaming through a dusty windowpane, the moss growing like skirts around massive oak trees, the unraveling hem of a peasant's cloak, the dents and scratches in a knight's shield.

I want to hear the characters' voices, the ambient background noises, the clamor of battle, the patter of rain on the roof, the snap of a log in the fire, the rush of wings.

I want to feel the aching muscles after a long day's ride, the damp rock of a cavern wall, the electric tingle of portal jumping, the swaying of a precarious rope bridge, the blistering flames springing from my hand with only a word.

I want to taste and smell the rain in the air, the smoke of a burning building, the butter melting into fresh bread, the acrid scent of a witch's brew, the coppery blood when I'm punched in the teeth.

In short, I want to feel like I'm there.

Some books that succeeded in this:

  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater // I can't recommend the entire series due to the amount of language and some worldview disagreement, but she is marvelous at conveying setting and atmosphere.
  • The Tales of Goldstone Wood series by Anne Elisabeth Stengl // Incredible depth and scope! Even though it's written in an omniscient point of view, I can see and feel everything.
  • Wither by Savannah Jezowski // Part of the Five Enchanted Roses anthology. Very immersive and engaging.

2. I want the emotions to pop.

This is where so many books fall short. Maybe I'm just particular about how I like my characters, but the number one thing I look for is connection. I don't want to just feel like I'm walking the same dusty road or smelling the same ancient library as they are--I want to smile with their joy, weep with their sorrow, cringe at their pain. I want my pulse to race. I want my breath to catch. I want to feel a laugh rising in my chest.

In fact, I think the lack of realistic emotions is one reason speculative tropes feel so . . . well, cliché. Like two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs with little more than tradition to prop them up. But that also means there's an incredible opportunity to breathe fresh live into those well-worn tropes with grounded, relatable emotions and reactions!

[via Pinterest]
You're the chosen one? Great. What does that feel like? Actually? The crushing pressure, the crippling self-doubt, the spine-tingling excitement . . . You're alienated from your friends and family. You're elevated to a spot of high publicity, usually in very short order. A whole kingdom, or perhaps a whole world, is riding on your shoulders. You're probably not ready for the task ahead of you. Oh, and guess what? You're probably sixteen and haven't even figured out high school. I want to experience that chaotic spectrum of emotions!

You're a superhero? Love it! Let me feel what it's like to discover your powers, to live a double life, to save the very world that critiques and condemns you, to accept a role you never asked for.

You're fighting an epic fantasy battle? Okay, put me on the battlefield. Let's hear the chaos and see the carnage, utterly stripped of the soaring musical soundtracks and nicely choreographed movements. Let's feel the desperation, the animalistic actions mixed with startling humanity. Do it tastefully, but show me the heartbreak of war. And don't forget to show me the damaging emotional aftereffects.

I could go on and on! Basically, what I'm looking for is real humans within the strangeness of spec fic. I'll believe your dragons are real if I can believe in the living, breathing, thinking, feeling people in their midst.

Some books that succeeded:

  • A Time to Die by Nadine Brandes // I felt Parvin's ups and downs so deeply. One of the most thought-provoking books I've read.
  • Eye of the Oracle by Bryan Davis // Despite the fact that this sweeping story covers entire centuries, I felt all of the major characters' struggles.
  • The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer // Every character is well-drawn, and each point of view is arresting and immediate. Cinder in particular offers a deep perspective.

3. I want to the world to be beautifully balanced.

Yes, I want some fabulous worldbuilding! Give me convincing cultures and subcultures, populated by believable people, anchored in a world that's so tightly woven it seems as if it's always spun on its axis. Give me realistic politics where nothing is as black and white as we wish it were. Give me geography that makes sense. Give me history that builds upon itself and affects the current storyworld. Give me realistic prejudices, worldviews, values, fears, and desires that spring naturally from the world you've created. Give me something that has meaning, something nearly as textured and intricate as our own planet earth.

There are books, particularly in fantasy, that feel as if they're checking off a series of worldbuilding boxes. Like the author took a template* and divided everything into little boxes. Each individual box is cool, but none of them work together cohesively. They're cogs on a wheel, but each are different sizes, so when the wheels start turning, the story jolts. And suddenly I'm a spectator again--or worse, a critic with a red pen.

*By the by, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using templates! I've done it! They're great for helping a writer beef up the parts of their storyworld they tend to neglect.

What I'm looking for is a story where all the moving parts fit together, and each element affects all the others. For example, if we look at a fictional kingdom's geography, that aspect alone should play a crucial role in:

  • natural resources, exports, and imports
  • political position
  • global influence or lack thereof
  • culture
  • dress
  • food
  • history
  • wars
  • etc.

Are they landlocked? Do they have access to other countries? How rich are they in resources? Which ones? Are these resources scarce in other parts of the world? How does the climate affect what the people wear, eat, and do? What parts of the country's geography are strategic advantages or disadvantages? How has that impacted wars fought on their soil? Who are their geographic neighbors? Are they on good terms? Do mountains or oceans separate them from each other? There's so much to delve into based on a single aspect of worldbuilding!

But the book doesn't have to show all of this "on screen." That would get rather dry and boring pretty quickly. And because the book is a work of fiction, the author could spend the rest of his or her life developing a single world and never getting around to writing the story that's supposed to take place in it! So I'm certainly not asking for a set of encyclopaedias about every made-up world. I just want the slice of the world I see on the page to be cohesive and natural.

Some books that succeeded:

  • The Tales of Goldstone Wood series by Anne Elisabeth Stengl
  • The Auralia Thread series by Jeffrey Overstreet
  • The Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark

In short, I'd love to see more speculative fiction that immerses me in a believable world and makes me truly feel with the characters.

There are many, many wonderful books that do some or all three points on this list, and I've shared only a few of them! I hope this literary hole continues to be filled in the future. Yes, it's a pretty tall order. But it's possible.

And as a side note, it's important to take into account that not all books are trying to do the same things (which could be a whole 'nother post on its own!), so not every book will hit all of these points with the same amount of gusto, nor do they automatically need to.

But at the end of the day, if a novel can make me feel deeply connected to the characters and solidly anchored in their world, I will probably scream my happiness from the rooftops! That's the kind of fiction I'm hungry for!

Okay, your turn! What's something you see lacking in the world of books? Is there anything you'd add to this list? Oh, and hit me up with your realistic speculative fiction recommendations! (That's a mouthful.)

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Subplots and Storylines - April 2018

(I almost wrote Subplots and Services. What even? Is that some kind of shop offering services for authors struggling with their plots? Do book mechanics work there? "Yup, not to worry, Mr. Author. Your subplot about the orphan hero just needed a little tune-up.")

(. . . I don't know where my brain goes sometimes, to be honest.)

Parenthetical intro aside, hello! How is everyone? It's crazy to think that a third of the year has whooshed by already. But I'm not too sad because it's finally summer break! The snow has melted at last and it's looking like spring out there.

Blogging nearly fell by the wayside during April, since college was incredibly busy with projects wrapping up, quizzes being crammed in, and final exams happening. Now that year one of business school is done, I'm free for the summer! College was a lot of hard work, but I don't regret it--rather, I'm excited about where this new knowledge might take me in the future.

In other news . . .

  • I bought my flights to and from Realm Makers, so that's another item to check off the list!
  • Two family members plus a grandma had birthdays in April, which amounted to much celebrating and good food.
  • During exam week, I went on a spontaneous cleaning spree and also reorganized my bookshelves. Such a satisfying feeling!

That's about it for life-y stuff, really. School swallowed everything! But I did manage to watch and read a few things.

Screen Subplots

Once Upon a Time season 4 and 6

I think I watched only two or three episodes all month, but season 6 is improving, I'd say!

Piglet's Big Movie

I still love the Hundred Acre Wood, you guys, and I don't plan to ever grow out of it. This here is one of my favorite Pooh movies. It's so precious! Piglet just wants to be important enough to be useful. When he goes missing, his friends set out to find him. Being the brilliant fluffbrains they are, they decide Piglet's scrapbook can show them where he is. As they go along, the memories inside remind them of all the ways Piglet has helped in the past. It's rather sweet.

My only quibble is that I got my DVD secondhand, and because it's scratched, it skips my favorite line: "Kanga, is that a fish in that tree?"

I'm a kid at heart, all right?

Avengers: Infinity War

I AM NOT OKAY. NOT OKAY AT ALL. But I loooooved the movie! It was completely epic and well worth going to the theater for! Marvel's been building up to this for years, so it's payoff time--and wow, they delivered. (I didn't get enough of certain characters, but there were a lot of them sharing the screen, so that's understandable. And some of them may get more attention in the fourth Avengers movie.) I'm zipping my lips and not saying anything more right now, since . . . you know . . . #thanosdemandsyoursilence. Maybe I'll talk more about it once it comes out on DVD/Blu-ray.

Page Storylines

The Returning // Rachelle Dekker

I started this one in March and it took me a couple weeks to finish, thanks to schoolwork. Reading a book too slowly tends to skew my perception of it, but I'll try to present balanced thoughts.

Firstly, I didn't feel as connected to the heroine, Elise, as I was expecting to (partially because of my reading pace), and there were too many secondary characters to keep track of. The group dynamic would have been a lot stronger had the cast been smaller or been introduced more gradually.

That being said, there were some truly beautiful scenes that nearly moved me to tears, particularly one that took place in a hospital. With a strong theme centered around identity, this book approached the topic in a thoughtful, refreshing way. References to God were a little vague--referring mostly to "He," "the light," and sometimes "the Father"--but from the right vantage point, it's easy to see how Dekker is referring to the immense love and power living in us through Christ.

Speaking of which, I was hoping she would finally clarify who Aaron's character is supposed to represent, but she didn't. It's unclear whether he is an allegorical image of Jesus, a regular human being, or a prophet-like character similar to John the Baptist. I'm all for writing outside the box, but in this case, I'm not even sure where the box is.

There were parts I liked in The Returning, don't get me wrong. But this didn't feel like the strongest book in the trilogy, which is unfortunate, seeing as it's the finale. You can check out my review on Goodreads for a few more thoughts. Wavering between 3.5 and 4 stars on this one.

Tears of a Dragon // Bryan Davis

Of all four Dragons in Our Midst books, this is the one I remembered the least plot-wise. So it was rather fun to return to it and refresh my memory! This time around, I especially appreciated how Bryan Davis concluded the series. If I didn't know there were eight more books following DIOM, I would be content with this ending. It's solid and satisfying. (But there are definitely a few things that make me very glad the story continues in Oracles of Fire!)

The main characters of Tears of a Dragon have all grown and changed significantly since the first book, and it shows. Elements introduced earlier gain greater importance as resurrected dragons face off with the Watchers, and Billy and Bonnie seek to free several key characters from another dimension called Dragon's Rest. The core story thread, Billy's relationship with his father, becomes even more compelling here too. I just love these characters so much!

And that ending . . . it still brought tears to my eyes, even though I've read it a few times! 5 stars all the way!

(I know I've been talking about Dragons in Our Midst in every S&S post this year, since I'm rereading it, but would you guys be interested in a spotlight post on the series? With it fresh in my memory, I feel it would be fitting to pay tribute to something that's been such a big influence on me.)

The Story Peddler // Lindsay A. Franklin

I fangirled over this brand new novel earlier this week! If you missed it, you can see my review HERE. 5 stars!

Written Subplots

Eheheh . . . heh . . .


Not much to see here at all. Like I said. Final exams. They are a black hole.

But I did submit a flash fiction piece to Splickety, which I mentioned last month as something I wanted to do. It wasn't chosen, but I'll write another flash fiction and try again! Truth be told, this little 600-some word story has the glimmerings of an entire novel* behind it, so it wasn't a waste.

*Something along the lines of Jennifer Nielsen's Ascendance trilogy, but a little darker and with a stronger fantasy vibe. Very twisty. Very stabby.

Right at the end of April, I also managed to compile beta feedback on a few more chapters of The Brightest Thread. Just chapters 16 through 18, though. It's fun to relive the story through my beta readers' eyes.

Happy May, my friends!

How was your April? Read anything wonderful? Students, are you slogging through your last stretch of school? (You can do it! I'm sending you reviving unicorns and memory-enhancing wizard brews!) Do we need Subplots and Services to be a real shop or what?! And tell me honestly, would you like a spotlight post on Dragons in Our Midst?