The Winter Wonterland creative writing camp

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It’s a wrap! I just finished leading a two-day writing camp with author Kallie George for the Creative Writing for Children Society (CWC). The theme was “Winter Wonderland,” focusing all on holiday or winter-themed stories.

At CWC, we do a lot of book production. Students write, edit, and illustrate, and then we take all of their work and publish it in the form of beautiful anthologies or individual books. Everything looks pretty professional. But for this specific camp, we decided to have our students make one-of-a-kind books done by hand.

Part of the inspiration for this idea came from the fact that both Kallie and I used to make our own books when we were kids, often giving them to family members as presents. I grew before computers and printers, so my books were pretty wretched, as you can see by the holiday story I wrote when I was ten or eleven . . .

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The books Kallie wrote as a child, by comparison, were much more professional in their appearance (it kind of helped that her dad had a friend who was a professional printer!):

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In any case, we decided it would be fun to revisit this this type of book development, so we printed off blank booklets for the kids. We just didn’t let them start writing in them right away. First, we had them complete a brainstorming worksheet, and then write a rough draft on normal lined paper.

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Over the course of the camp, we also gave them several other activities, just to keep their creative juices flowing. One of our favorites was the “black out” poem, in which the students took famous Christmas tales and identified certain words to make up their own poems (they then have to black out all the rejected words).

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We also had them write concrete poetry, which they could turn into tree ornaments. I was pleased that there were a few Santa Yodas!

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These small activities gave the students a break from the bigger project of creating their own holiday books. In truth, many of them didn’t quite finish their books, but they still have a couple of days until Christmas if they want to stick them in loved one’s stocking. Here are some photos of their projects in progress:

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Our final activity of the camp was to have each of the students design a “terrible” gift and then write an advertisement to sell it. This was a fun way to end the weekend, as we had each of the students present their commercial. There were some great “terrible” ideas, such as dull pencils (in case you don’t want to poke yourself), square balls (in case you are scared of your balls bouncing too high), and a doll with a spike for its head (it helps your child learn to play with something dangerous).

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Crafting a Kingdom – Part 4: Symbols

In my continuing blog series on world building, I’m devoting this week’s post to iconography. Every world has symbols that show up in a variety of ways. Some are obvious, like flags, seals, or crests, while others are less obvious, such as the color of a uniform, or the shape of a door knocker. The more you can think about iconography, the more texture you can add to a world.

In my opinion, there are two things to keep in mind here. The first is to make sure your symbols match the culture you are assigning them too. To give an extreme and obvious example, you wouldn’t assign a star or a rainbow to a warrior culture. But you can also think of this in more subtle means.

For instance, in my Kendra Kandlestar series, the Eens are a peaceful, timid, and humble people. When I was first designing the Elder Stone, the political center of the land, I envisaged it as a tall and palatial structure. I quickly realized that this didn’t match their culture. They were a people more likely to hide than to boast, so the final design ended up looking more like a natural rock.

Elder Stone concept.

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As such, the Eens don’t have a flag or a crest of arms; these things are too ostentatious for them. But they do have a lot of symbols that work their way into their daily life. First of all, each Een (except for many of the animals) wears braids, which is an homage to their founder, Leemus Longbraids. And then there are the magical shapes, such as stars, moons, and bells, that find their ways into their fashion. Animal shapes and faces, especially those of owls, can be found in Een architecture or even in their pottery, which is due to the fact that Eens have a strong connection to nature.

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Of course, most fantasy worlds incorporate some sort of iconography, which especially comes out in illustrations. I always loved the “Z” embedded within the “O” that can be found throughout the Land of Oz:

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Narnia, of course, is all about the symbol of Aslan.

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A story like Watership down has symbols too. There are the different scratches or “marks” given to the rabbits in the warren of Efrafra. The marks denote which rabbits are slaves and which ones are members of the Owlsa (the ruling rabbits).

Hogwarts school in Harry Potter makes extensive use of colours and symbols. Any fan will quickly recite to you the colours and symbol of each house in the school, which is illustrated on the wonderful coat of arms:

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These are the types of details that bring much delight to readers, and I like to think that authors should take great delight in creating them. In fact, I often have my students start their world creation process by creating symbols. A fun project is to start with a coat of arms. As students consider the types of colors and symbols they want to include in their worlds (their stories), then they begin to instinctively develop culture.

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The other benefit of working with symbols is that it can also be a way for the creator to show (rather than tell) the difference between cultures within a story. Just as competing sports teams have different logos, separate societies should be marked by their symbols.

Above, I described some of the symbols the Eens have incorporated into their culture. Their sworn enemies, the troll-like Ungers, use quite a different set of motifs. Mostly, their symbols are very sharp, reflecting their tusks, claws, and teeth. Even their drums are tusk shaped and their war paint also features many sharp-edged symbols.

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In the next and final post in this series, I’ll discuss myth building.

A fun time for all, Yoda Yulefest is

Last night we hosted our annual holiday part, Yoda Yulefest, a time for all the geeks to skitter out of their dark corners, rub their eyes at the bright holiday lights, and embrace in some festive cheer.

We’ve been hosting this for a number of years, and it keeps seeming to get bigger and better, with new decorations and entertainments. This year, in addition to kc dyer‘s annual reading of “Twas the Night Before Yoda Yuletide” we performed a group reading of Shakespeare’s Star Wars, Verily, A New Hope, by Ian Doescher. Marcie prepared the scripts and directed the reading.

Here are some of the photos of our decorations, and from the evening . . .

Our interactive R2D2 TRIED to be festive, though his hat kept falling off every time he crossed the floor.

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Speaking of R2D2, check out Marcie’s new toque:

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Crochet seems to be a theme of Yoda Yulefest. Our favorite new gift was a little crocheted Yoda that was delivered to us by our friend, Emily. Amazing!

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He goes perfectly with the Ewok we were given last year:

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Here’s the girls enjoying some “Yoda Soda.”

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Plenty of Yoda cookies to go around.

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I spent WAY too long making these snowflakes. (The patterns are designed by Anthony Herrera; you can check them out here.)

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Best costume goes to author Diane Haynes:

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Some of the geeks were playing the X-Wing  miniature game. I didn’t play because I was too busy making Yoda Soda.

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Here’s the soundtrack for the evening’s festivities, Christmas in the Stars, featuring such classic tunes as “What Can You Get a Wookie for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb)”
and “R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

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The lightsabers were hung by the chimney with care:

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And here’s just a few more decorations around the house . . .

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Well, I can sum of the evening by quoting my friend and author, James McCann: “Best. Yoda Yuletide. Ever.”

Writing the script for the Box of Whispers trailer

With the release of the new edition for Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers, I decided to develop a new book trailer. I was originally hoping someone else could take on the project, but the truth of the matter is that the hardest part of making a trailer isn’t animating the pictures or finding the music—it’s coming up with the script. So once that was done, I realized I might as well tackle the rest of the project myself.

I wrote four or five separate versions of the script and storyboard before finally settling on one that I felt best captured the spirit of the book. Here’s some of the pages from the most recent version of my storyboard script. As you can see by my scribbles and doodles, it was an ongoing process. As the script evolved, I began dropping in snapshots of scenes so that I could better keep track of my ideas and clearly communicate them to others, like my editor.

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There never was a final script. I made a few key changes and rearrangements once I was working on the final trailer. This wasn’t so much about changing overall concepts, but realizing that I needed to reorder some of the scenes.

Here’s the final result:

Crafting a Kingdom – Part 3: Rule of Law

71_cair_paravelCair Paravel wasn’t built in a day, so another week passes, and so here comes another entry in my continuing series on world building. This week, we’re discussing politics.

Sound dry? Fans of Game of Thrones will disagree! In that series, the whole plot revolves around who will rule the fictional dominion created by author George R.R. Martin.

However, even if your plot isn’t going to revolve around the political intrigue of your created world, it’s still important that you know how it operates, because, one way or the other, it will impact your characters. And if it doesn’t, you probably need to go back and do a little more building to make sure your world is more real and believable.

Some of the questions you want to ask about the political structure of your fictional world:

How is the land ruled? A singular person (king, queen, president)? Or is it by a council?

How are rulers selected? Are they born into power, or are they appointed or elected?

What are the important laws?

Are there punishments for breaking the law? If so, what?

What are the laws based on? Keeping peace? Are they meant to keep people safe (like in the Land of Oz), or to keep them in line (like in Lois Lowry’s The Giver)?

* * *

winter_woodsongCouncils or multiple rulers seem popular in fictional worlds. Narnia famously had two kings and two queens (well, after Jadis the white witch was ousted). Harry Potter’s world is run by a ministry of magic, while Hogwarts is run by a single headmaster (Dumbledore), with the students organized into four competing houses. In Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Despereaux, there is a council of thirteen mice while in Richard Adams’s Watership Down there is a Chief Rabbit that is protected by the Owsla, traditionally a group of the physically strongest rabbits. The Star Wars universe has a council of twelve Jedi, harkening back to the tradition of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. In my Kendra Kandlestar books, there is a council of seven elders with the Eldest of the Elders holding the most prominent position. The council isn’t elected, but rather nominated, which does end up causing some problems for them (a bit more about that below).

This leads us to the important question of how people are picked or “assigned” in a fictional world. J.K. Rowling had great fun with this when it came to how students are sorted into their houses at Hogwarts. I love this doodle of Rowling’s brainstorming:

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It shows she considered a variety of options. Eventually, of course, she went with the sorting hat singing a song. (You’ve got to love her doodle of the sorting hat! One thing that I’ve noticed about so many fantasy writers is that they are quite artistic, even if they aren’t illustrators. They seem to sketch and doodle their way to success.)

When it comes to creating rules for a kingdom, I always like to guide my students with the following principle: Create a set of rules that will cause your protagonist problems. If you do a good job of this, then your character will be forced to break the rules and, Voilà! Instant problem, instant plot generation.

In Tale of Despereaux, for example, there is a whole series of rules that the mice should live by, such as mice shall nibble paper, mice shall be afraid of humans, and so forth. Little Despereaux, of course, breaks them all. These rules are paralleled in the upper, human world, where the king has decreed that all rats are outlawed and soup (or anything to do with the making or eating of soup—even spoons) are banished. Because characters break the rules, they are forced to deal with consequences and repercussions that propel the plot forward.

Of course, rules can change as the plot progress. In Kendra Kandlestar, the malevolent wizard, Burdock Brown, wheedles his way onto the Council of Elders and pushes everyone else of merit out so that, soon, he’s the one in power. He ends up creating all sorts of laws that directly impact Kendra, not the least of which is sealing the magic curtain of Een (at exactly the time she needs to leave) and confiscating all wands. Eventually, Kendra’s Uncle Griffinskitch is imprisoned and Kendra and her two companions become fugitives:

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 (If you ask me, Honest Oki is still cute, even when drawn to look like a villain.)

I’ve actually used this activity with many of my writing students to help them create conflict in their stories. Nothing gets a plot going like a good old act of injustice!

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Here’s one more that I just have to show because it vilifies ME. (Yes, I’m often the villain in my students’ stories!)

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I’ve been focusing this post on political rules, but it’s worth mentioning that this topic also implies to rules of magic. The most difficult part of writing high fantasy, in my opinion, is making sure your rules of magic make sense. Otherwise, just anything can happen at any time, and you end up with an instant remedy to any plot problem. It’s important to know the rules (and costs, if you like) for how characters can use magic.

In my Kendra Kandlestar series, only some of the Een people can use magic, and these are the ones who are trained as wizards or sorceresses. The magic is within them, but it is channeled and amplified by their wands or staffs of Eenwood. The Eenwood is a magical wood, still alive, and it grows with the user as he or she grows in magical wisdom. The Eens also have Kazah stones, which help them catch glimpses of the past (or a glimmer of the future).

Crafting a kingdom – Part 2: Culture

Jamboreen - final illustrationI’ve been inspired to blog about some of my thoughts on world building because of all the work I’ve been doing with my creative writing students lately. Last week, I talked about setting. This week I thought I would focus on culture.

This is a difficult aspect of world-building to tackle because it’s such a complicated thing in the real world. Sure, every society has a particular culture, but so does each community, school, and family unit. So, you have to consider all of these things when you create your own world.

Some of the questions you want to ask about the culture of your fictional world:

What languages are spoken?

What is the fashion like?

What types of jobs do the people have?

What transportation do they use?

What traditions and holidays are celebrated?
(The illustration at the top of this page depicts the biggest holiday in my fictional Land of Een: Jamboreen)

What food do they eat?

What do they do for fun?

The main thing here is to realize that everything is up for grabs. Don’t assume that your fictional world is a mirror of ours. It might be, but if you’re writing a fantasy story, then I feel that’s a lazy default. Readers of fantasy typically want to escape this world and explore a different one—and that means the author has to build something special and unusual.

Simply put, don’t assume that your world has the same beliefs, holidays, or even natural structure. For example, I really love what George R.R. Martin did with Game of Thrones—he made the seasons follow a completely different time cycle. In his world, summer and winter each last for years. And one only has to think of some of the delightful foods that the characters of Harry Potter can find in Diagon Alley or the village of Hogsmeade. These little details make for a rich reader experience.

When you start to think about all the nooks and crannies to explore in a world, it can be overwhelming. My advice is to start by brainstorming and generating lists—of everything. This includes names, foods, magical spells . . . anything that you know needs to be a special part of your world.

I’m a dedicated list-maker. I make lists for all sorts of things. Most of the time I’m the only one you can read them, but that’s okay, since they are only meant for me anyway. As a case in point, here’s a page from my sketchbook showing some of the items for sale in the market town of Trader’s Folly, which is featured in my upcoming Kendra Kandlestar book.

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I find that this process indispensible. These lists give me fuel, and help get me thinking about a story. I can spend ten minutes here and there on these things and by the time I actually get to the writing part, I don’t have to suddenly stop and wonder what the details are—I’ve already figured them out. Or, if I get to a part of the story and realize I don’t have the details, then I skip that part, knowing that I have to go back and do that groundwork.

I recommend starting with something that seems mundane, and making it exciting. Food is a perfect example. I’ve had a lot of fun inventing food in my Kendra Kandlestar books. Some of the foods that the Eens eat are rather pedestrian, like carrot soup (Kendra Kandlestar’s favourite meal), but others have a bit more “pop”: fudgery pie, squibbles and pip, glum pudding, and Een cake.

Fashion is another area to explore. I always enjoyed the fashion in the Land of Oz. In that world, each country within the land is physically a different color, and so directly effects what the citizen to wear. For example, the Munchkin Land is blue—the grass, the trees, and all the houses. (Of course, I’m referring to the original book series, not the movie). This means that the Munchkins dress all in blue, from their boots to their tunics and frocks, to their pointed hats. Because Dorothy is wearing a white and blue checkered frock, the Munchkins assume she is a friendly witch because she is wearing their color (blue) and the color of a good witch (white).

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In the Land of Een, the main thing about their fashion is that all the Eens wear braids (well, except the animals). There is an important reason for this; it’s done to honor a famous figure in their history, Leemus Longbraids. He was the wizard who first built the magic curtain in Een to protect them from the outside world. Many Eens wear simple braids, but then there are those characters like Kendra, and her mother, who wear more interesting configurations.

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Another interesting aspect of a world is language. There are some true masters of this out there. Tolkien, of course, invented an Elvish language, and Richard Adams in Watership Down invented a “lapine” glossary.

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You don’t always have to invent a new language though. You can just invent a style or accent. My favorite author, Terry Pratchett, does this to great effect, especially in his Tiffany Aching series, in which the Wee Free Men speak in a Scottish accent and have a particular lingo that not only brings their society to life, but also adds a lot of humor.

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For Kendra Kandlestar, I have a few different saying that the Eens say, such as “Days of Een.” I had the most fun, however, with inventing a speech pattern for the monster creatures. The Ungers, for example, speak with “zums” and “zees”, so that a typical sentence might look like: “Youzum! Youzum no gozum therezum!” It’s meant to be difficult for Kendra to understand—and for the reader too. But my reaction from the kids is that they love this sort of language (I’ve heard stories from parents and teachers of kids walking around and speaking only in “Unger”).

There are many other aspects of culture I could discuss, but the final thing I wanted to mention in this category is transportation. My characters mostly use their feet (though my one character, Effryn Hagglehorn, rides a giant snail). My favorite example of unusual transportation can be found in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. In his re-imagining of World War I, the allies use genetically-manipulated animals as transportation, such as the giant, floating whale-ship. But I mostly like his idea that the society doesn’t use wheels as the basis for locomotion, but legs. This is a photo I took of Mr. Westerfeld’s presentation that I attended a few years ago:

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The photo on the right is a motorcycle that was built with legs instead of wheels; Mr. Westerfeld showed this to his illustrator, Keith Thompson, and you can see the resulting illustration on the left. Imagine: a whole world with vehicles based on legs!

I thought I would end this post with just a few photos of the world-building work done by my students.

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In the next post, I’ll talk about another important element of world building: Rules of law.