Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cloak and Sword Woman:

© 2006 by Guest Author P. June Diehl (reprint with permission)

Strong character development is a must, and beyond that, fantasy readers want (and need) multi-level female fantasy heroines. Want to write a fantasy book that sells? Then you need a strong female lead character, as she can make or break your story.

She’s beautiful, intelligent, and not afraid to get her hands dirty. She’s the cloak and sword woman, even if she doesn’t own a cloak or know how to swing a sword.

Creating the Fantasy Heroine

Your heroine must be a balanced character to make her believable. Determine her strengths and weaknesses. What does she love? What are her fears? What are her hopes and dreams? Her secrets? What does she dread?

So, what other characteristics belong to your cloak and sword woman? Here’s a list to help you get started.

  • She knows how to get things done; she’s resourceful. She has fears, but strong will, circumstances, or something else propels for onward. In moving forward, she sometimes creates problems.
  • Your cloak and sword woman doesn’t wait for things to happen to her; she goes forth and actively seeks her destiny. She is proactive. This can be good or bad, as she might misjudge the consequences of her actions.
  • The fantasy heroine is strong of will and soul. She uses her inner resources to the best of her abilities, fighting through her fears. On the other side, she needs to recognize when and how to ask for help.
  • She loves, but tends to fear giving or receiving love. Maybe she holds back because of a fear of being hurt or betrayed, but the love is there, and in the course of the story, the love matures.
  • She’s passionate. Bottom line: She grows into a woman who knows what she wants and gets what she goes after, whether she’s facing an evil monster or dealing with a loved one. This aspect of your heroine can also lead her down paths where she will either dig herself out or need to ask or find help in doing so.
  • Your heroine is fallible. Who isn’t? If your cloak and sword woman didn’t make an occasional mistake, who would want to read her story? She makes errors and misjudgments, and learns to admit when she is wrong. Many times her errors result from her passions, but she never blames others, learning that she’s the one who creates her destiny.
  • She can be physically or emotionally wounded, but limit this as too much makes her appear weak. When she is wounded, the heroine will push or fight through her pain, seeing options and taking a course of action. She doesn’t sit by and wait for others to act. In the bleakest moments, there is opportunity for her to learn and grow.

Self-Actualized Fantasy Heroine

The cloak and sword woman takes charge of her destiny. From the beginning, the reader is aware that she is headed in this direction on a subconscious level. By the end of the novel the fantasy heroine is self-actualized.

The fantasy heroine has immediate and long range needs and goals, driven by her passions. The conflicts come at her from within and without. She battles demons on all levels, and in the process, she grows.

Allow your readers to experience her feelings and thoughts, her dreams and fears. Re-read fantasy novels in which you admire the heroine. What has the author done in the story to make you care about the heroine? Strive to develop the same qualities in your own character.

Give life to your cloak and sword female fantasy character. Bestow upon her a life that suits her destiny and dreams. In doing this, you will give your readers exactly what they want. A character they care about, relate to and grow with.

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P. June Diehl is the author of The Magic & the Mundane: A Guide for the Writer’s Journey and working on a second book for writers. Her short stories, articles, and poetry have been published in print and online. June works as a writing teacher/mentor at Pearls of Writing and Writers Village University. She is the Editorial Director and a Senior Editor at Virtual Tales, and a Lead Editor with ePress-Online.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Show Not Tell

As a new fantasy writer, I stared at the critique. My mentor's words struck me. Show this. I thought I was showing. What did she mean? As writers, it's important to know the difference between showing and telling. Today, as an author and editor, I regularly meet writers who confuse the issue. In this article, I present a quick checklist to activate your writing, moving it from passive telling to active showing. Use this list to test your manuscript and eliminate passive telling language.

Emotional Expression:

Show emotion. Whether it's a flushed face, or a slammed car door, body language and facial expressions show emotion. Passive language tells the reader what to think.

Tell: "I'm not putting up with it," he said angrily.

Show: He slammed his fist against the table. "I'm not putting up with it."

Avoid the use of modifiers like the word angrily that tell the reader what to think. Even the use of a word like hissed in the speech tag modify the dialog by telling the reader how it is said. Instead, use strong verbs or beats to show the reader the emotion.

Descriptions For Character and Setting:

Have you blended character description a little at a time like an ingredient to a favorite recipe? Or, have you heaped a load of description in one paragraph and created a lump of facts clumped in one place. Consider how you learn about things in life. If a person walks in a room, do you think: That woman wearing the green dress has eyes that match and long blond hair falling across her shoulders. She walks like a gazelle and everyone in the rooms seems to notice her.

No, that's not how we process information. When you add character and scenic description, too many details added at one time bog the story down and tend to tell rather than show like the example above. Description dumps do not follow the way we perceive information.

Readers want a forward moving tempo. Keep the pace active with verbiage that lures them to wonder what happens next. Incorporate detail naturally within the story. Notice the difference:

The woman's green dress shimmered under low canister lighting. She slipped through the crowded room with the grace of a gazelle and stopped at the rich mahogany desk. Her blond hair draped across her shoulders as she flipped her head, turned and looked at me. Her eyes reflected the color of her dress. I smiled. Everyone in the room stopped.

Telling description stops the action. Showing the description makes it part of the natural flow. Include description in dialog and action to make it real.

Dumping Background Information:

Much like heaping description in large portions, writers may be tempted to use dialog to include large doses of information and facts they want the reader to know. Do this sparingly. If details don't have relevance within the context of the conversation these facts tell the reader information that should be gleaned in a more natural way. When dialog becomes an unnatural information dump, it stops the action and the reader loses the feel of an exchange between characters. It removes the reader from the scene, and becomes an explanation of what the author wants the reader to know.

Long character speeches used to show off hours of research (including interesting facts) need to flow unpretentiously. If piles of content do nothing to move the story along, it's time to cut it.

Repeating What the Character Knows

Search dialog for repeated information. Sometimes in an effort to be sure the reader understands what's happening, writers repeat information. Two things need to be considered. First, if you wrote it right the first time, the reader understands. Second, if you repeat it as if the reader didn't understand, you're insulting their ability to grasp the details.

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Check out Pumping Your Muse. The prompts included in this creative writing book challenge the imagination to take new direction and if followed to the conclusion of the book, provide a detailed outline along with completed scenes and developed characters for one novel, as well as a solid start for a second novel.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Beyond the Fifth Gate by Donna Sundblad

I'm happy to announce that my second fantasy novel was released yesterday at Fictionwise and should be up at Amazon by the end of the month.

This book originated while I was writing Windwalker as I used the writing prompts and exercises found in Pumping Your Muse. The Flip Side exercise required me to take an existing scene and flip one or more details. As a result, my first female protagonist was born. Little did I know that she'd grow into such an interesting character who faces the challenge of not only traveling through five portals into strange worlds. Developing different world that are somehow connected challenged me, but as it came together I enjoyed the thrill of creation. To limit my time in these worlds, her quest had to be completed within seven days -- before the planets move out of alignment.

Here's a peek into her world and the circumstances that set her on the path to save her people.

Chapter 1

Elita sat at her father's feet among a small group of locals meeting within a tiny cottage nestled in the rolling foothills. His finger traced the words on the ancient scroll. "Did you hear me? Listen to these words," he repeated in his teaching voice. "It doesn't say we who live in the country will be exempt. It says, 'Every town and village,' and that means us. We can't hide from the widespread 'increase in evil propensities.' I've heard they've taken over the cities and it's just a matter of time ... We have to fight back while we have the chance."

* * * *

A few of the men and women who had gathered in the small room nodded. Others looked with blank expressions out the windows facing north as if studying the nearby mountains. Elita stifled a yawn. The other children no longer attended. She wanted to ask what propensities were, but from the looks on the adult faces now was not the time. Not everyone had patience for her questions, and some thought she was too young to participate at all at times like this.

Too young. The very words irked her. After all, at age 12 she was only three years from marrying. Not that she knew anybody who wanted to marry her. Things had changed so much since the mantids' arrival. Her father restricted her comings and goings. He believed the mantids were trying to take over the world. It was their fault she had to sit through these teaching times without a playmate. Her father insisted that the prophecies be handed to the next generation to prepare them to recognize and fight the evil presence.

"The Chosen One," he said looking up at an invisible presence with a hint of awe, "will save our world." He placed his hand on Elita's head and smiled.

Torkel, their closest neighbor, from a farm five miles down the road, shifted on his hard chair next to the fireplace. "How will we know who this Chosen One is? What is the sign so that we will not be misled?"

"Good question." Elita's father looked down into her eyes. "Elita, would you like to answer Torkel's question?"

Elita glanced at the floorboards and pulled in a deep breath, but nodded. She looked at the men and women gathered with them. Some were friends, others strangers. "We'll know by the alignment of the five planets." She glanced toward her father who tipped his head for her to go on. He knew this aspect of the prophecies fascinated her. "Kamali will appear in the east marking the first gate. The Chosen One will see his light and has one week to travel through all five mystical gates and return to our world. Upon their return, the Chosen will carry with them something from each gate. Something to save us..." She looked to her father for affirmation.

"Thank you, Elita."

Her chest swelled with pride, and he turned his attention back to his guests. "Those living in the time of the alignment will know who the Chosen One is. It's not important that we know now, unless..." He leaned and stared into the sky through the window. "No, I don't see anything other than our sun setting in the sky, and it tells me it's getting late."

A few of the people chuckled. Elita shifted her weight on the wooden floor and rubbed her knees through her trousers. Her mother walked into the room balancing a tray of crisp sweets and bent to offer one to her husband.

He plucked one of the honey-sweetened treats from the tray and while her mother served the others, her father snuck his crisp into his daughter's hand. She sat up a little straighter and sucked the golden treat. It lasted so much longer that way.

The people exchanged farewells at the door until the last of them left the small family to the peace Elita enjoyed. The size of the gatherings had diminished over the last couple of years. It hurt her father so she didn't talk about it. Many called him a fanatic.

"Elita, you did well this evening. Before our next meeting, I'd like you to make a list of the prophecies you know." Her father walked across the small square room to rekindle the fire in the fireplace.

Elita's heart dropped. Not another child in the province has to complete assignments like this. It's not fair. "Why can't I just tell you?"

He brushed soot from his hands and propped them on his thighs as he knelt before the growing fire. "Very well, what can you tell me?" He placed a log on the flame.

"Well..." She played with the dark braid draped over her shoulder. "There will be deceit, lying and criminal activity."

"Very good. And what do you think that means?"

She shrugged. "I guess it means by the time the conjunction of the planets happens this world won't be a very nice place to live. Is that why you want to fight back?"

Elita's mother looked at her father and swallowed hard. She wiped her hands on her apron out of nervous habit.

"Can I ask a question?" Elita asked.

"Of course, and please sit in the chair." He pointed.

She scurried to the chair and sat while searching for the right words. "It's ... well ... there's five planets and five gates, right?"

"That's correct."

"And there's seven days to complete the journey?"

"That's correct."

"Here's what I don't understand. Why is it seven days when there are only five gates?"

"That's a good question, a perfect example of how people misread the prophecy. It is true there are five gates and five planets. However, when the planets align it marks the fact that the Chosen One will have seven days to make it through all five gates. What if it takes three days to find the first gate? How many days are left?"

The realization of her father's words brought new understanding. "You mean if they don't see Kamali's light for the first three days they only have four days left to make it through all the gates?"

"That's right." He nodded. "And once the Chosen One enters that first gateway there is no turning back. The gate closes. It's a one-way journey."

"That's scary. The Chosen One will have to be brave."

"Another thing to realize is that if there isn't faith enough to see Kamali, the alignment of the planets will come and go without the journey taking place."

"Part of me hopes that none of this happens until I'm old."

Elita's mother chuckled. "I know what you mean." She patted the seat beside her and Elita moved to sit beside her mother, who started to unbraid her long hair.

Her father shook his head. "It's not about us. It's about all of mankind."

In her heart, Elita trusted the prophecies, but they also scared her.

"Why would people miss the coming of Kamali? He is to shine like a bright light in the east."

"Those who are not looking for him will not see him."

Her mother brushed her hair. "Go to the well and wash while I set dinner on the table."

Elita stepped into the twilight and wandered to the well at the back of the clearing. A cacophony of birds called to one another as the sun slid toward the horizon. I love this. She missed being outside, riding her horse freely and hunting with her bow. Even though she'd never seen a mantid, part of her already hated them. It was their fault she had to stay with her parents all the time.

The cool water refreshed her. She dried her face on her sleeve when an odd sense of foreboding stopped her. Silence. Not a bird or cricket sounded. She hurried toward the cottage, the crunch of long grass beneath her feet. Smoke scented the air. In the distance she saw the glow of a large fire. The village!

She turned the corner to the front of the cottage and skidded to a stop. Large ugly creatures hunched to fit through the door. They stepped outside dragging her parents with them. "Father!" she ran toward him when something cool and hard clamped her forearm and scraped her skin as she struggled to free herself.

The diminishing sun highlighted the horror on her mother's face. Her usually happy eyes widened with fear.

The mantid dragged Elita toward a cart without a horse or oxen hitched to draw it. A large cage filled with young people lay on the bed of the cart. She kicked and screamed, but to no avail. The monster threw her into the cage. She stumbled and landed face-to-face with a boy; his red-rimmed eyes stared at her blankly. Elita scrambled to her feet, pressed her face to the bars and stretched her arm toward her parents. "Mother! Father!"

Her mother broke free and ran to the cart; her fingers grasped Elita's and held tight. "Elita, do not forget..." Four mantids rushed toward them. One of them ripped her mother's hand from hers and yanked her mother to the ground where two others dragged her toward her father.

"What are they doing?" Elita's voice tore at her throat. "Father! Father help me! Don't let them take me!"

Her father struggled against the mantid, but they outnumbered him. They blocked his way like an armored wall. He shouted over them. "Elita, the oracle is the answer--" A sharp sickle-shaped mantid claw clamped around her father's bicep cutting his words short. His arm dropped to the earth with a sickening thud. Blood spewed across his shirt, shot into the mantid's face and sprayed her mother's tunic. Her father's eyes rolled, and he crumpled to the ground.

Stunned, Elita shrank to the floor of the cage. Evil propensities. The cage-cart moved under its own power further into the country. At each home, the mantids collected the young. Her eyes drifted from face to face in the dim light and then to the sky. She prayed to Kamali hoping to see the planets appear. Instead only the moon climbed into the sky. How could she get free and help her parents? For now, in her mind, she did the last assignment her father had given her. He'd be proud of her. Mentally she made a list of the prophecies she knew.

The sun melted into the horizon. An eerie twilight cast elongated shadows across the crying children. Elita looked away from the misery; an emptiness sought to fill her. She watched the sun disappear and wrapped her arm around the little girl beside her. Beyond the horizon dawns a new beginning. That was her mother's favorite prophecy and now she claimed it as hers. It gave her a little hope. The wheels of the mechanical cart churned up a cloud of dust. Elita closed her eyes and prayed to Kamali. Her father's words echoed in her mind. "It's not about us. It's about all of mankind."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Social Classes in Sword and Sorcery

Medieval life within the manor setting: a perfect study in not only how people lived, but also how social classes related to one another. High fantasy writers weave such medieval historical bits with imaginative threads to create new, unique and fantastic realities. Here magical swords sing, knights fight ogres, evil sorcerers cast spells, and dragons with many heads haunt the land. The magic also allows a poor man with integrity to change his world. However, before we get to the magic, it's important to know the history.

During King Richard's reign, every man's goal was to own land. The strongest warrior became lord of conquered land and reigned over the manor in service to the king. A great lord might have several manors under his charge.

A Self-sufficient Manor

A manor functioned like a self-sufficient country. It usually incorporated open lands like meadows, woods, fields, rivers, and pastures for livestock and farming as well as a mill (sometimes small enough to be run by one person) to grind grain into flour, an oven, wine press, and church.

The castle where the lord of the manor lived worked like the capital of the self-contained manor. Within his castle walls, skilled craftsmen worked as paid servants. This included bakers, carpenters, millers, smiths, leather workers, etc. For their services, this skilled labor force received payment. Pay included money, food and lodging. For writers of fantasy, this scenario opens the door to a variety of plots as the mixture of families and social classes lived under one roof.


Poorer peasants worked the lord's farms. In return for their hard work, they received strips of land on which they raised crops to feed their own families. Under the feudal system, these poor peasants lived as members of a class of partially-free persons known as villeins. Villeins held positions as serfs with respect to their lord. However, they maintained rights and privileges of freemen in their dealings with others.

Villeins lived in huts made of mud and wattle. These huts more often than not consisted of two rooms. Thatched roofs protected occupants from the elements and one window (known as the wind's eye) lit the typical villein's hut. Fire burned on a stone slab situated in the middle of the earthen floor for warmth and cooking.

Onions, dried herbs, and strips of meat hung from rafters, while tools used in service to the lord perched along the walls. Villeins paid taxes in the form of produce raised on the strip of land provided by the lord, while also working in service to the lord at jobs such as repairing bridges and roads about two or three days a week.

Villeins lived under a set of strict rules, one being the fact they could not leave the manor without the lord's permission. This restriction may seem unfair by today's standards, but remember the lord allowed the peasants to live on his land as a way to provide for the family. It was an agreement. Villeins lived on this strip of land, and had a garden, house, livestock and tools. The harder a villein worked, the better off his situation would be. However, social class and structure many times trapped worthy people in a mundane existence, while raising others less deserving to a life of opulence.

Manor Life Under the Feudal System

Manor life under the feudal system provides a rich history for the fantasy writer to tap into. Consider the wealth of possibilities. A young villein who hates farming may escape life in the manor and strike out on his own, or he may work hard and buy his freedom. He could even join a band of outlaws that live in the forest, such as in Robin Hood.

In Howard Pyle's Men of Iron a lord is accused of treason and lives in refuge in the sanctuary of a church for years. His son becomes a page and squire and redeems the family name. On the other hand, consider the footloose hooligan pulling a prank in Robert E. Howard's Gates of the Empire who flees to the Holy Land to avoid the consequences. Fantasy stories based on life in the manor are fraught with interesting characters and provide a variety of plot choices set in a unique social structure and quaint locale. Add a daub of magic and ta-da, you've created sword and sorcery high fantasy.

Monday, September 1, 2008

My Next Fantasy Novel: Beyond the Fifth Gate

I'm getting excited. My young adult fantasy novel, Beyond the Fifth Gate, is due out in September. I held the proof print in my hands this week for the first time and I'm reading through it one more time. I thought I'd share the cover art here today to whet your appetite for more, but I only have it in PDF version so you'll all have to wait. As soon as I have a jpg, I'll let you all have a peek. The yellowish sky and purple planet in the background are perfect for the story. I'm currently taking pre-orders. If you'd like a signed copy you can put your name on the pre-order list by emailing dsundblad(at) Place BTFG in the subject line.

About Beyond the Fifth Gate:

Elita awakens from a nightmare in which she struggles as a 12-year-old against an insectoid race that carries her into captivity. Now twelve years later, her reality is one of forced labor. She lives in a hive complex where humans are forbidden to speak, write or read. The promise of freedom swells when the prophetic conjunction of five planets marks the long-awaited Kamali's Cycle. But first, as the Chosen, she must travel through five mystical gates during the planets' conjunction and return to Haldis with items key to that freedom. Elita follows Kamali's light into a cave in the eastern foothills. The portal closes behind her, and the first gate opens to a one way quest into strange worlds and a race to collect what she needs from beyond each gate to free her people before time runs out. How will she know what to take from world to world?