Introducing Fidget

Here’s a sketch of one of the characters in the new book I’m working on.

I posted a photo of this sketch a few weeks ago and one of my old students, Dona, commented that her hair should be blue (which might have something to do with her own hair color). I ultimately decided against blue, just because one of the other characters in the book is very blueish.

However, Dona’s suggestion sparked something else in mind to do with this character, and now I’m happy to report that her hair is an integral part of her character, and the humor in the story.



Scintillating Settings: Tip #3 for improving fictional spaces


I’m at the part of the program with my creative writing students in which I’ve been really pushing them to improve their descriptions. You can check out Tip #1 and Tip #2 in other posts, and here is Tip #3 . . .

Tip 3: Show the setting from a character’s perspective

Like the other tips, I suppose this one might seem kind of obvious. But it’s not always the case with my younger writers, so I like to remind them of this tried and proven technique.

What I tell my students is this: Essentially, our characters are the cameras through which the readers experience our worlds, so describe a new setting through their eyes. Too many times we can default to technical descriptions of settings. While these descriptions might be accurate, they don’t do much for adding emotion to a scene. By describing a setting through a character’s feelings, thoughts, and reactions, we can draw on that excellent notion of showing instead of telling a story

Below are some examples from the book I am just putting the final touches on, Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen. In this scene, my main character, Kendra, and her companions have been sailing through the skies in their airship and have at long last discovered the mystical place known as The City on the Storm.


This version was okay. But just okay. I decided I wanted to slow down the pace of the scene (this is an important end to a journey) and wanted it to have a bit more “wonder.” I decided the best way to do this was having more of a connection to Kendra’s thoughts and emotions.


I think the final (or what is close to final) version turned out much better!

By the way, here’s another map I found in one of my student’s brainstorming journal . . . they don’t always show them to me, but I can ferret them out when I snoop. And they are wonderful!


In the eye of The Nerdado

I spent Saturday at the Vancouver Fan Expo—or as my fellow author, kc dyer, and I referred to it as, The Nerdado.

We meant it in a loving way. kc and I have travelled a lot together, to conferences and camps, and we are used to being the ones who stand out and shine. In this case, we knew we couldn’t compete with all the wonderful costumes, so we didn’t try. We just wen toni our civvies.

We enjoyed all the shops and stalls in the exhibition hall, as well as the Q&A we attended with Billy Boyd, one of the hobbits from The Lord of the Rings. It was actually quite interesting to see how Mr. Boyd handled the crowd and all the queries. As a speaker and presenter, I found some inspiration!

There were many other celebrities at the event, including Ray Park (Darth Maul from Star Wars), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter), John Delancie (Q from Star Trek), and Charisma Carpenter and Elisha Dushku (both from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but we only got to see most of them from afar.

Here are some of the photos of some of the wonderful displays and costumes.











Keys to inspiration

I love old stuff. You know, stuff made out of wood and metal. Stuff that feels real. Stuff that feels heavy with story.

That’s why I try to bring as much real stuff to my creative writing classes as possible. In this day of digital everything, I think these sorts of old relics have even more impact.

Below, are some photos of a recent class we delivered on creative writing. It was just an introductory “taster” so we decided to have each kid pull an ancient key from a bag and then imagine what it would open.

As always, the ideas were varied and wonderful. Some chose to open doors. Others chose containers, like magical boxes and treasure chests. And some chose robots or other mechanical creatures.






As an added bonus, we let them keep the key.


Of course, I have lots of keys in my own books. They just simply invite mystery, wonder, and adventure. The second book in my Kendra Kandlestar series, The Door to Unger, featured a strange character known as Crumpit the key master. Here’s my illustration of him:

He was a dwarf who knew the secret route to the underground kingdom of the dwarf and wore all the keys he needed to use to open all the doors along the way.







Scintillating Settings: Tip #2 for improving fictional spaces

cam_dyn_mapSince I’ve been working intensively the last couple of weeks with my creative writing students on improving their approach to setting, I decided to share some of those thoughts on this blog.

Last week, I talked about the basic necessity of understanding your setting. Once you’ve got an understanding of your physical space, you can then move on to the next stop


Tip #2: Describe your setting emotionally

Ultimately, this is the difference between saying: “The gray building was fifty stories high” versus “The building towered above them, gray and ominous.”

I think the most important thing is to understand WHAT should be described. So many times, I have drilled it into my students’ heads to add more description that they often end up going too far. They describe the smallest details . . . usually the ones that we all take for granted in everyday life.

For example, I’ve read long paragraphs about a character opening a door. Such a description includes everything from looking at the door, putting the hand on the doorknob, turning that doorknob, pushing the door, and then entering the room.

Now, this might be interesting if we were reading a horror story or a suspenseful thriller, but my students usually give me these scenes just to describe a character coming home from school. While they have achieved a high degree of technical accomplishment in these passages, the description doesn’t do anything in the way of moving the reader.

The general rule for myself (and one I try to communicate to my students) is this: describe it only if it impacts the plot, the character, or the mood of the scene. Then, once you’ve identified what needs description, then express it with emotion.

There are no rules for how you can bring emotion to a scene. Most writers, I think, do it instinctively. But when I struggle in my own writing, I always fall back on the basics: using figurative language, employing the five senses, and peering inside the heart and mind of the characters in the scene.

I think using the five senses is particularly important. We are so accustomed to thinking visually, but really the sounds, smells, and temperature of a room can really add a lot to any scene.

During a recent reorganization of my studio, I found this old version of my manuscript for Kendra Kandlestar and the Door to Unger. The circle around the opening paragraph of the chapter shows me that I wasn’t happy with my description of the setting. The opposite page shows my handwritten attempt to improve it.


Below is a scene that one of my students recently reworked to improve his setting. His first draft of this chapter was void of any description at all. He had simply said that his character entered a shed.

Now check it out:

I turned the handle and the rusted hinges creaked as the door opened with clouds of dust puffing. Inside was what I expected. Tools and farming implements. Paints and brushes. Insects and mice. I shivered and a cold sweat dripped down on my face. I walked inside and my stomach did loop-de-loops. Something dragged me inwards. Not physically, but mentally, like a magnet to magnet.

There is so much mood and emotion in this scene. We, the readers, know something magical is about to happen. We’re invested!

My next tip on setting will focus on drawing on the power of characters to help emphasize a setting.

A new ingredient for the magic potions kit

After reviewing the recipe sheets from my magic potions workshop, and seeing how colorfully splattered they were, I decided that we need a bit more variation in the kit.

After a bit of work, I was able to track down some “Black of Night.” This ingredient will have to be used sparingly . . . but it will good for any young Wiz Kid who wants to brew something particularly nasty.



The great studio revitalization project, part 1

One of my spring projects (apart from trying to finish the first complete draft of a new book) has been to revitalize my studio. It’s a bit of a wizard’s den, stacked with books, action figures, and supplies . . . but what it has always lacked is color. I never had time to paint the walls when I first moved in, and then I just got entrenched in work. So they have remained white for years.

I decided to change that this year. The problem is that I’m not remotely handy. I once severely injured myself changing a light bulb (true story). So I decided not to be too ambitious. I would just  concentrate on ONE main wall and try to turn it into something glorious.

Of course, one thing has led to another, and instead of spending dozens of dollars, I’ve now spent hundreds.

Oh well.

I haven’t finished yet, but I thought I would show the progress of it.

Stage 1 was probably the most difficult. I have the habit of taping drawings, sketches, and plot outlines directly to my wall, so I had to remove years of sticky residue before I could even get to the stage of having a blank canvas:



Next, came the painting . . . I chose fireworks orange, to give some more warmth and heat to the room.






So now I still have a blank canvas . . . it just happens to be orange instead of white. I’m having some custom-made box-shelves built, so I just have to wait until they are completed before I decorate the wall. In the meantime, I’ve started collecting some of the things that will be displayed there:


Famously, I’m obsessed with doors, so I’ve decided to put up some photos of my favorite doorways. Then, a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I happened upon this shop that specializes in coffee table using old doors and window shutters. I instantly wanted one. The only problem, is that I knew it would be a useless enterprise to buy such a thing for the studio. I would just end up piling books on top of it. So I talked to the owner and he’s going to convert one of the tables into a trunk for me so that (hopefully) I won’t put junk on the shutter, but underneath it.

This is the shutter I’ve chosen, which is quite old, and comes from India:


More photos to come once I’ve got everything up!

Scintillating Settings: Tip #1 for improving fictional spaces

sketchbook_znmapsHaving just finished delivering a workshop on setting, I thought I would share some of the outcomes on my blog.

I find that one of the chronic problems in my young writers’ pieces is a failure to clearly depict setting. They often leave it out completely, or describe it with zero emotion. As their editor, I end up fumbling through their scenes, struggling for clues as to where the characters are physically located. Often the only clue I’m given is through dialogue, which is pretty much akin to watching an episode of Game of Thrones without the picture.

So I came up with a few handy tips for my students, sort of a hierarchy of how to improve setting description, step-by-step.

I thought I would share them here, starting with . . .


Tip 1: Understand your setting

It seems obvious, but I find this is a common problem in a lot of writing. If you, the author, don’t understand your setting, how can you accurately describe it?

There are a few ways to solve this problem. One way is to base your setting on a real place that you know inside out. So much the better if you can go to the place and walk through it, recording it with photographs and notes.

Of course, if you’re like me, and you’re making up worlds like the Land of Een or The Rumble Pit, then you can’t always do that. (Though, come to think of it, I did do a walk through of the gladiator pit at Verulamium for Rumble Pit inspiration.)

What you can do is build a model (or diorama). This can be a long and complicated process, but if you have the energy and inclination, it can also be indispensible. And, sometimes, building helps those distant corners of your mind subconsciously truck away at your story.

The simplest way, however, to achieve a strong understanding of the spaces within your book is through making quick sketches or diagrams.

I do this constantly. These quick little sketches really help me figure out the mechanics of a scene. I posted some of my sketches in a recent post, but I thought I would post a few more that I’ve worked on recently.

This is a sketch of an apartment that is featured in a new book I’m working on:


It was important for me to understand where the rooms were positioned so that as I wrote the scenes there, it all made logical sense. For example, I have a character who must be able to peer out of his bedroom door and see both the main door to the apartment and to the living room.

This is a sketch of another environment in this new project. This environment is quite complex, so I’ve done several sketches and diagrams of it. Here’s one of my very first rough sketches:


And here’s a final, computerized diagram. I tend to work on this every couple of days, so it has been changing a lot as I work on the manuscript.


By the way, here are a few of the sketches that my students have come up with for their fictional places . . .




In the coming days, I’ll post my next suggestion for helping to craft better settings.