A few days ago, I posted I would answer any writing questions you had, and today is that day. Thank you to all who posed questions. I had fun answering them, and I hope they help.
Do you have a method for coming up with names for countries/places in fantasy?
If the name doesn’t come to me, I wait until I know the topography, geography, or what the land is known for. Then I search through specific words in different languages and usually combine a few. For example, Marteris in The Redwyn Chronicles is so named because mare means “water” in numerous different languages. I took the first three letters and slapped on a suffix.
How do you deal with magic in a Christian fantasy?
When it comes to magic, you’re going to find readers fall into two categories: those who hate it and those who are fine with it. There is a common misconception that every fantasy book must have magic, and that’s simply not true. There is a specific genre called Kingdom Fantasy, which is nonmagical fantasy.
In my opinion, there are two acceptable ways to portray magic. One, to have it be a literal gift from God, and two, to address it the way Donita K. Paul does, where it points back to Him. I can’t really explain her method, as it’s pure ingeniousness, so I’m just going to tell you to go read her Dragonkeeper books.
What are your tips on creating fascinating storyworlds?
Have fun! Be zany. What seems odd to us could be normal for your characters. Think about the small things. Do they know what cows are? Do they have pet lions? Do they live in the desert and have never seen the ocean? Do they primarily reside underground? Do different lands have different physical features and characteristics? Even a few minor things can create a host of unique differences. In The Redwyn Chronicles, they’re all human, but Veerhamers only have blond/e and red hair and aren’t known for their fighting skills. Marterises are both black and white and enjoy fish. Frilorans live in the mountains, and Halthdurnites are called wolfmen because they raise and hunt with wolves. Small things, really, but they make each group unique.
What’s your advice on how to create a fantasy story that’s low on magic but still inspires wonder?
One of the most common fantasy-related fallacies is you need magic.
And this is coming from a nonmagical fantasy author.
You can use worldbuilding to inspire wonder. Breathtaking scenery, a solid plot, and a good faith element are all you need to strike the hearts of your readers. There is wonder in our world, and it’s not hard to miss. Capitalize on that. When I look outside, I’m amazed by the thick wall of snowflakes, which bring them them a sense of peace and wonder when the wind’s not howling. Trekking through the mountains, dwarfed by lodgepole pines swaying in the breeze evokes an emotion I cannot name. Rising early in the morning and walking down to look at the mountain lake on a cold day enables you to see the fog either rolling in or drifting away over far hills and trees.
Just as there’s wonder and beauty in everyday life, so can there be in your nonmagical fantasy story. Take the everyday. Take a meadowlark’s melody, the rustle of leaves in the wind, or the gentle plunking of rain, and incorporate that. Your readers will comprehend it even better because they’ve likely experienced that themselves.
Where do you draw inspiration for your worlds?
I draw inspiration from everywhere. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interrupted my sister, whether she’s snarking at me or being a goof, with an idea. Half of the ideas in my idea document are from her, and she inspired a certain character in Shattered Reflection. You can gather inspiration from the outdoors, from scrolling Pinterest, from exercising and listening to music, to studying historical events.
How truly important is it to make the world unique and never-been-done-before?
You need at least one unique element, but that can come from your plot. Unless you have the inspiration, or the plot calls for it, don’t spend hours worrying over creating a “never-been-done” world.
How can I take inspiration from other cultures to make a congruent world that doesn’t feel like it was mismatched and totally random?
This is one of the funnest aspects of worldbuilding. You can take Romanesque culture and plop it in the desert. Take African culture and put them in the mountains or on the beach. Of course, if fish is big in an African culture and they live in the desert, then you’d have to eliminate that to make it congruent, but there is a ton of maneuverability with this.
What sources do you prefer to use and would recommend (i.e sites/books/etc?)
The Inside Scoop by Janet Kolobel Grant and Wendy Lawton is fantastic, and the Emotion Thesauri are great too. I have a list of free resources here and joining a group like Writer’s Vision helps too. Plus, you can always ask other authors for advice. Other than that, I haven’t really “delved into the sources”. What I know is garnered from years of reading and studying how other authors write, worldbuild, craft characters, etc. But there are a lot of writing resources out there.
What are your best tips for worldbuilding? How do you normally approach creating a fantasy world?
How do you narrow the focus down/simplify things to make worldbuilding manageable?
Some of my above answers work into this. I’d say know the faith and if they have Bibles or not, use small elements to create unique places and people, and think about our world and what makes different areas unique. Focus on geography, leadership/government (royalty, republic, clans, tribes, whatever), and what weather and terrain come with that geography. Probably the tip I place most emphasis on is to not feel like you have to know every aspect. You’ll know more for some worlds than others, and that’s fine.
As for creating a fantasy world, there are two different steps you can take. One is to print out and fill in a form you can find online; there are many different ones. Some go so far as to ask what jokes are unique to that land/world. The other is the method I take. I make a list of imports, exports, faith, leadership, government, what the people look like, and clothing styles.
Different things work for different writers, so don’t place yourself in a box. Explore and see what jives best with your writing personality.
FAITH IN FANTASY
How do you make a fantasy story that isn’t preachy but still has Christian themes?
Actually, the “preachier” a book is, the more I laud it, but I understand the question. Interspersing prayers, like when they’re grateful for or scared of something, makes it natural, as does if they have daily devotions or go to church or have questions about their faith. Have your character(s) approach it like you would. That’s be best method I’ve found. What happens in real life are often the best methods for addressing faith in fiction. Don’t shy from having those faith talks, where your character(s) speak with a trusted mentor or pastor, but you don’t need to have it be half of every chapter. Do remember that “preachy” has a different level and meaning to everyone. The most important thing is to not shy from including your faith and to strive to honor God with every chapter you write.
How does one incorporate Christianity into a fictional world without it becoming stuffy/formulaic?
“Stuffy/Formulaic” can mean two different things:
One, those rote prayers you hear in certain churches and the “feelings” only garbage infecting the modern church and worship.
Two, the despicable, abominable lie that “too much Christianity” is off-putting.
Stay away from the first one. That’s unbiblical in so many ways.
But the second? Okay, I understand. You don’t want a sermon taking up half the book. But to call a redemption theme, a lot of prayers, or heavy reliance upon a character’s faith stuffy or too much? That is a bald-faced lie the enemy uses to dissuade Christian writers from pouring all of their heart and faith into a book.
Yes, have it be natural. Base if off your own faith walk. But, as a Christian writer, our mission should be to present the Gospel and proclaim our faith in our books. Nothing more. Nothing less. To quote from an Aaron Shust song, “Everything I say and do, let it be all for You.” Some books will have more faith content than others, and that’s okay. Your book isn’t less Christian if it doesn’t have a salvific theme.
But never, ever buy into that atrocious, deplorable, wretched lie that you need to water down your faith or not include too much because it will “offend” others. Christians who complain about “too much faith” in books will answer for their disdain for the Word. Let your faith pour out. Let it be natural. And never let the world or other readers dictate what is too much.
After all, you’re not writing for them. You’re writing for Him and Him alone.
How can you write a book with Christian themes that doesn’t only appeal to Christians?
I’m unsure if this question addresses “clean” fiction only or Christian fiction that unbelievers will want to read.
If you’re writing Christian fiction you want unbelievers to want to read as well, all I can tell you is God alone determines who reads your books, whether that’s believers or unbelievers. A lot of “clean” readers are willing to read Christian books, even if they themselves are not part of the flock. It’s kind of a crossover.
RELATING TO CHARACTERS
What are your favorite ways to add depth to a character?
You can add depth to characters by studying those around you. On the surface and during first interactions/impressions, people can appear single-facted. But everyone has a motivator, everyone has a dream, everyone has been shaped by past pain and disappointments. Knowing at least two of those, in regards to your character, will help add depth. I also, personally, find a character song for them. Doing this can really help you figure out your character’s struggles, yearnings, and fears. Bottom of a Heartbreak by Needtobreathe is Denton Yindell’s, and I must say it is totally him. Whenever you are having a hard time writing that character, you can return to that character song, and it will provide inspiration.
Do you usually use Pinterest to find a character (picture wise)? Or do you think of a name first, THEN picture someone in your head or find a picture that fits what you’re thinking of?
Both, honestly. It all depends on the character and if they’ve already come with a name. Don’t allow an either/or method to trip you up. Both can work equally well.
Sometimes I know a character’s place in my book, but not their name or appearance, and I’ll go looking to see on Pinterest if I can find what they look like, then seek a name to fit the look. Other times they come with a name, or I find a name, and then go looking for their appearance. And yet other times I have a name and find what the character looks like, but it doesn’t fit the name. So I change the name. That’s what happened to Marcus in The Shattered Lands. I had a picture of how I envisioned him looking like, but it didn’t match the current name, which was Grayson. So I changed his name.
Naming a character can be quite the complicated process.
What are your tips for writing a character whose arc spans a whole series?
Make them grow slowly and have something they need to overcome in each book until their character arc is complete in the final book.
Do your characters determine the plot, or do you build them based off of the plot?
Every author is different, but the outcome is usually the same. So whatever’s coming to you in that regard, go with it.
I begin with building them based off the plot, but they usually go their own way by a quarter of the book. It’s inevitable unless you’re one of the few authors who can wrangle your characters into compliance to what you already have in mind.
What’s your process for figuring out a character’s backstory?
I base it off the plot. An idea comes, then I determine which characters need to be incorporated, then what placed them there in the first place.
Do you have any tips for writing complex villains (especially on how to balance their humanity with their badness?)
I would advise you to understand your villain’s motivation. Is it greed? Anger? Revenge? And do they have a family? A prized pet? A hobby they enjoy? Even those who desire world-domination have one of those three things. Don’t water down their evil, but give them a driving force.
When other people are editing your work, how do you know when is too much? Like how to know that you aren’t using your original tone and voice as an author?
This is a good question, and definitely one you should keep in mind whenever you hire an editor.
A good editor’s job is not to eliminate or alter your voice; it is to help you improve by pointing out flaws (e.g. if you need to use more conjunctions in lieu of a bunch of short sentences). I would say too much/trying to alter your voice is when they’re attempting to have you completely “recreate” your story. Not missing scenes or whatnot, but a complete re-mastering of how you string together words and impart emotion.
Now, on the flip side, editors are paid to tell you if something’s not working. For instance, there is a common “acceptance” of this style of writing: “I sat up. Groaned.” That is an extremely amateurish and poor style for a variety of reasons, so if the editor is telling you to stop that, then heed their wisdom. They’re only trying to help you avoid a catastrophic writing pitfall in this instance.
In short, everyone has their own voice. If you think an editor is telling you how to completely change your voice, pray, read their suggestions with fresh eyes, and get input from someone who knows your writing well—like a family member or close beta.
What are your best tips for editing? What do you do to not get overwhelmed by the editing process? Any and all tips are greatly appreciated!
Take it slow and steady on editing. You’ll need to do multiple phases and rounds, but don’t let that irritate you too much (because editing is aggravating). Leave yourself plenty of time if you can, at least two, three months, so you don’t rush. Here’s a list of different types of edits, so you can see what you need to do in each.
How long do you recommend a draft sitting before diving into edits?
The optimal time is three to four months so you “forget” the story and are able to see it with fresh eyes. Sometimes even longer is better.
What are the main questions you focus on when doing developmental edits on books?
As defined by Mountain Peak Edits & Design, Developmental Editing,
Focuses at the broad range, or “big picture” of your writing project.
- General plot and character inconsistencies
- Lagging areas – also known as a stalemate and if your writing is going 15 mph in a 45 mph zone. Basically, if your writing is too slow for the plot.
- Chapters and paragraphs to see if they’re the right length and location based on the general flow of your story.
- Flow – I look for potholes and speed bumps in your writing.
- General syntax and grammar – if you have a pet word or consistently misuse or misunderstand homophones.
So you need to ask yourself 1) are there any inconsistencies, 2) does anything feel slow and if so, does it require alteration or elimination 3) does this chapter need to be combined with another or separated into two, 4) are any sentences choppy, and 5) is there a word or phrase you have adopted as your favorite word or phrase?
How do you know when to cut out a scene?
Cutting a scene is like removing your own limb. It hurts.
You’ll know when to cut if the scene just doesn’t fit, is nice to read but doesn’t go anywhere, or if your alpha and beta readers tell you it needs to go.
What are some good free fantasy fonts?
I will always recommend Cinzel. It is a font for all genres. Classy, but adaptable no matter the cover. There are two primary versions of Cinzel: Cinzel and Cinzel Decorative. The issue with Cinzel Decorative is it can easily become too much, as it contains extra tags and flourishes. The first letters in the author name on this book cover are in Cinzel Decorative, and the author name on this book cover is in regular Cinzel. You can mix and match for an elegant, yet classy combination, or strictly stick to Cinzel.
Where do you look for images (of people, landscapes, etc.) to use for covers? Any copyright stuff we should know about?
The two stock sites I use are Adobe and Shutterstock. These are not free and you will have to pay, but if you’re seriously into cover design, one or the other is worth it. My primary go-to is Adobe, where I have a subscription. Better to pay $320 a year (this is why covers cost at least $50) than $70 an image. That can turn terribly pricey when I sometimes use pieces from three different models for a “final” outcome.
Yes. Violating copywrite policies is called copyright infringement, and can land you in serious trouble. Be extremely careful if you take images from Pexels or Pixabay. In fact, aside from vectors, I wouldn’t recommend it if you can help it. Always research copyright laws when you are looking at a site that’s not Adobe, Shutterstock, or one of the other image-purchase sites.
Do you have some sort of app you use to design covers? I would love to get into that as a hobby, but I’m not sure what sort of app or service to use…
I personally use Picmonkey. It’s not “high-end” like Adobe Photoshop, but it’s a solid near high-end that doesn’t cost as much and is so much easier to use.
Now, the type of covers you’re interested in designing determines whether you should go with Canva or a design program like Picmonkey.
In Canva, you can create what I call “cutsey” covers, like the Imagine Anthology. They’re nice covers, but definitely a certain niche that fits only a certain type of book. When it fits, they’re adorable. So if your book falls into that niche, go with Canva.
If you’re looking for a design program where you can blend, shadow, recolor/dye, brighten, darken, tint, and more, then you’ll want to go with Picmonkey. Kimberly Burkhardt’s cover for Apple of His Eye (also designed by yours truly), is an example of dying, positioning, shadowing, and brightening. I dyed the model’s hair, put a slight yellow tint to her so she looked like she was in the sun, shadowed the grass behind her to create realism, and positioned her to the side before making it look like she was actually in the grass and not pasted on over it.
So it all depends on what look you’re going for. Both Picmonkey and Canva have their place.
Did you have to take classes to learn how to design a cover?
No, you don’t. While many advise it, you don’t need to. In fact, these days, the more you can stay away from colleges, the better off you are.
What are the “rules” for choosing fonts that work together?
The rule of thumb is no more than two fonts on the cover. Now, on the back cover you should use a legible font for the blurb. I prefer Lora, but chances are I won’t use Lora on the front. If you do use two fonts, do not make both of them gorgeous and calligraphic. That reduces legibility and makes it difficult for people to read. One Serif font and one calligraphic if you do decide to combine. Sans serif typically doesn’t go well with fiction, although certain fonts in that font family can work. So stick with Serif.
What do you wish you had known when first starting to design a cover?
I wish I had known that a good cover takes time. Slapping font on a background usually doesn’t create a quality cover others will want to buy.
What’s your process for designing a cover from scratch?
It begins with inspiration. If I’m making a premade, I usually concoct an idea when I’m scrolling through images and see a model and background I think would look good together. If you’re creating a cover for yourself, the first few things to ask are what/who do you want on the front, what colors convey the mood of your story, and what font and font placement would look best. I usually work on the model first (swap ‘n chops, clothing coloring, hair dye, etc.) before bringing in the background, but that’s a personal preference and every designer will be different.
What’s one big mistake you newbie cover designers make, and how can they fix it?
Just one mistake? I would say poor font selection. If you want to negatively mark yourself as an indie author, use scrawling font for your name. On the book title, that works sometimes. But not your name. Use clear, professional fonts like Cinzel and don’t have it be microscopic and tucked in a corner. Please don’t do that.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you notice in cover designs?
Aside from the above answer, size comparison and scale are the major issues I notice. Babies are not as big as the adults in real life, nor are they just happily floating above the grass. This drives me up the wall and then some, and my family is subjected to my rants whenever I see that error. It doesn’t look good. Ensure you take time and pour care and refinement into your cover.
Make sure the heads, if you do chop ‘n swaps, are the correct size, and not too big or small. If something is “closer” to the reader, then it will be bigger. (So a wagon in the background is smaller than the woman in the foreground.) Make sure heads don’t look like they’re on backward. Make sure hands aren’t too big/small. Also make sure you make the garments as modest and era-appropriate as possible.
What publishing companies have you used for your books? Do you recommend any for those seeking publication for the first time (aka, me)?
I actually self-publish. Now, my story in Seize the Love is published by Abbigail Harris’ company, but as far as I know, it’s not accepting submissions except through her Seize the World anthologies.
If you’re looking for traditional publishers, you can try Enclave and Ambassador International. To my knowledge, they’re the only two real ones who accept Christian unagented submissions, unless you write historical romance and want to look at Wild Hearts (but you’d need a huge platform for that).
I’m not going into much detail on this quite yet, but there is a Christian fantasy anthology publisher in the works. If all goes according to plan this year, there will be another group to which you can submit your novellas for theme-specific collections.
Collections and anthologies are a good way to start out. My first published work is A Past to Bear, which is featured in Whitstead Harvestide. I didn’t have to pay for the cover, but I had to go through the edits they wanted and learn how to promote. It was fun.
Sooooo I have a subplot in between a fantasy setting- from friends to lovers, and none of the actual plot can progress until they get into a relationship. How do I write a natural, realistic progression, that’s clean, not cliche, and concise enough so that it still remains the subplot?
Ah, one of my favorite tropes! I would recommend to have any subplots supporting the plot, and likewise, to have the plot affect the subplot. Do occurrences draw them together? How do those occurrences affect both subplot and overarching plot? Cliche can be good in some ways, so I wouldn’t direct too much worry that way. You can always go back in and clean it up/switch it, if you feel the need.
In Shattered Reflection, Breac and Layree (spoiler to those who’ve not yet read it), end up together. Their romance is a subplot, and they go from wary allies to friends to more. The feelings need to grow as the story progresses and they need to exhibit those changing feelings through their actions and words. Breac makes Layree a sword, something he wouldn’t do for anyone but his family (and he is an awkward bean at best, so that kind of said what he couldn’t figure out how to speak). Let their actions be in tune with the plot, and let the overall plot help guide the subplot.
I hope that helped. I know what to say in my head, but my fingers get in the way.
What advice would you give an author who is just starting a blog?
Publish book reviews, participate in cover reveals, and comment on others’ blogs. Not because it gains you something, but because it’s the nice and right thing to do. It will take time to build your platform, but don’t get discouraged. It took me seven years to reach one hundred subscribers on this blog. Actively seek connections (which I didn’t do) and be willing to help celebrate others’ victories and accomplishments.
How do you keep motivation while writing on a deadline?
I have a contract with Amazon, and breaking that contract would destroy my writing for the next year, so that is the driving motivator.
For normal people who don’t work themselves into corners, preorders, awaiting readers, and the eagerness to get your baby out to the world are usually the primary motivators.
What is your favorite thing about writing fairytale retellings?
My favorite things are infusing in faith and exceeding the typical plots and boundaries of retellings. I have absolutely nothing against traditional retellings, in fact, I enjoy reading them. But there’s something thrilling about putting logic where there’s originally magic, expanding the plot, and making it more. No one thought a Snow Queen retelling could be written without magic, but it’s quite possible, and I immensely enjoyed delving into the medical aspect. Putting more to the Cinderella retelling, IRON, was fantastically fun as well.
What are your best tips for writing retellings?
My first tip is to add something unique. Yes, yes, we all know Cinderella gets locked up. A unique element could be changing where she gets locked up (or he, in Carter’s case). Don’t be afraid to go beyond the usual. Make your world incorporate the retelling, not your retelling incorporate the world. Things are still happening when the fairytale is going on.
What are your tips for narrowing down on a certain aesthetic for a website?
When considering an aesthetic, you need to examine your platform and genres you write. If you pen suspense, you’ll not be wanting flowery and romantic. You’ll want bold, solid colors, like navy or forest green paired with white or gray. If you’re into romance, you’ll want muted pastels, perhaps with a floral or delicate design. Neither of those aesthetics work for my platform, so I have fantasy mountains, since I write fantasy. It’s all in your platform and what you write. Your aesthetic needs to match your primary genre.
Was any of that information helpful? If you have more questions, please feel free to drop them in the comment section!
What aesthetic fits you? What’s your favorite genre to read and/or write?
15 thoughts on “Writing Q&A”
Wow, super informative post. Thanks so much for this, Madi! (It’s like a mini-lecture series on how to write good fantasy. Me needs this. 🙂 )
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“Mini-lecture series.” XD So happy it helped! ❤
Epic answers! I’m going to have to use Cinzel on a cover in the near future!
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Thanks! Yes, Cinzel is, in my opinion, pretty much the best font to exist.
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This is SO helpful, Madi!!! Those world-building tips especially were much needed. I don’t know why I put these self-imposed rules and limits on myself when it comes to fantasy, lol. 😂 It should be FUN! So thank you for that! XD
And for the website aesthetic, I’m getting a good vision of what mine would ideally look like. It requires some more thinking because I don’t exclusively write one specific genre, so I’m kind of combining the elements that my fantasy, historical, and romance share to create something unique from that.
Thank you for all this solid advice!
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Yeah…those self-imposed rules and limits can strangle your writing. (Totally not glaring at KEY right now.) Yes! It should be!
I can’t wait to see what you come up with for your site!
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This is AMAZING and SO helpful!!! Thank you for answering all these questions!!! I will be using all your advice! I loved reading all your answers! I especially loved what you said about writing retellings! I LOVE retellings and am currently in the works of outlining a retelling and this is all going to be so helpful to my writing! Thanks again for writing this!
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Yay! Ooh, what are you retelling? Yes, they’re so much fun.
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They are so much fun!!! I’m currently working on a Ruth retelling (with sprinklings of a few fairytales)! I’ve always loved the story of Ruth and have been so inspired by her. One day this story of her (a retelling) started to form in my mind and it keeps growing!! I’m really excited about it! ☺️
I am also LOVING IRON! It is so good and I absolutely love Carter and Char together! 😍
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I enjoyed reading this! The worldbuilding advice was especially helpful. I appreciated your point about making genuine connections with other bloggers, too.
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Thank you! Yes, it’s so important. Not only can they offer community, but also advice if you have any questions.
I love Cinzel! I use it for my blog a lot. Great answers, Madi!
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Yes! Come to think of it, I do too. XD
Thanks so much for answering our questions, Madi! I enjoyed reading your tips and hearing your thoughts 🙂
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Thanks for asking them! Hope the answers will help.
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