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Books About Girls: A Clarification

Jan. 31st, 2017 | 03:00 pm

I just saw another post lamenting the silly - but unfortunately common - idea that boys can't be expected to read books about girls, even though girls commonly read books about boys. (In fact, we're often required to, for school.) I've written about this before. So has the excellent Shannon Hale.

It strikes me that part of the issue may be that people have different notions of what "books about girls" or "girl-centric books" are. When we say "it's a problem that boys aren't expected to read books about girls," I think we usually mean "books with female protagonists." At other times, though, "books about girls" may be used to mean "books about the experience of being a girl" or "books designed to appeal to girls" (which usually means they are about romance and/or close female friendships, possibly with a side of fashion and gossip).

This affects the conversation a lot! After all, this:

eight books on a pink background, titles listed later in this post

. . . may turn off a lot of boys. It turns off a lot of girls, too. Others love it. Some boys love these books, too, or would if they felt they were allowed to. The boys and girls who do want to read these books should be able to enjoy them without judgement, but I wouldn't argue for pushing people to read them any more than I would argue for pushing them to read sports books or mysteries. It's nice to at least try it out, to broaden your horizons, but if you don't like it, that's fine.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to a broader idea of "books about girls" that encompasses all books with female protagonists, then you get something more like this:

twenty-five books, titles listed later in this post

These books range from horror to humor, from fantasy to romance. There are mysteries. There is action. There are comics. The settings are different. The tones are different. The protagonists are very different people, with one thing in common: they are female. If that's enough for a reader to say, "ew, girl book, I won't read that" - or for a parent to say "my son won't read that" or a teacher to say "the boys in my class won't read that" - then society, we have a problem.



In case anyone's curious, I'll list the books here. All are books I've read and enjoyed. I went with mostly YA (with one or two MG) both because that's my own reading preference and because kids and teens who are reading these books so often fall victim to this weird genderization of reading preferences.

Graphic One:

1. Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
2. Vanished by E.E. Cooper
3. Ali's Pretty Little Lies by Sara Shepard
4. Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
5. The Selection by Kiera Cass
6. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
7. My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
8. Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

Graphic Two (repeats some books from Graphic One):

1. Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
2. George by Alex Gino
3. Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
4. Smile by Raina Telgemeier
5. Ten by Gretchen McNeil
6. This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
7. Sweet by Emmy Laybourne
8. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
9. Endangered by Lamar Giles
10. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
11. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
12. My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
13. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
14. Ms. Marvel, vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson
15. They All Fall Down by Roxanne St. Claire
16. Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
17. In Real Life by Cory Doctorow
18. Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill
19. Cat Girl's Day Off by Kimberly Pauley
20. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
21. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
22. Adaptation by Malinda Lo
23. Huntress by Malinda Lo (ha, I didn't even realize I had put in two Malinda Lo books - and right next to each other!)
24. The Selection by Kiera Cass
25. Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

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On Dodging the Obvious

Jan. 24th, 2017 | 11:59 am

A somewhat-belated Happy New Year!

corgi with confetti
May you have plenty of occasions for confetti in 2017.

I recently read The Impostor Queen, a YA fantasy by Sarah Fine, and was struck by the importance of copper in the fantasy world where it's set. It made the world - and therefore, the book - feel more unusual and distinctive. Copper isn't as well-known or symbolically loaded as silver or gold, at least in Western storytelling. Indeed, I see it used as a hair color more than as a metal, especially in YA fantasy, where it seems like every other heroine is a redhead.

(My theory on this: authors avoid going with dark hair for their [usually white] heroines, because it might seem common and uninteresting *brunette sigh* and avoid blonde because it sometimes comes off as a shorthand for "is conventionally gorgeous" and they want their protagonist to be relatable and not an obvious beauty queen.)

Returning to the point! Lots of specific elements, from gemstones (e.g. rubies) to animals (e.g. wolves) to flowers (e.g. roses) appear frequently in Western fairy tales. They're rich in symbolism and associations, and can provoke certain feelings or assumptions from the reader just by appearing. This can make them useful in fantasy storytelling, especially if you want a classical fairytale feel. But there's also an opportunity there to make your fantasy world stand out by doing something different.

If your fantasy world is geographically unlike Europe, this will likely be a moot point. If your protagonist grows up in the tropics at the edge of a jungle, she might learn to beware not of wolves or bears but of jaguars. If you've based your setting on China, then your heroine is perhaps less likely to wear rubies than she is to wear jade.

But you can certainly vary these elements even in a story with a generally Europe-like setting (the world of The Impostor Queen gave me a Scandinavian vibe). Maybe your heroine's country doesn't mine rubies, but has large deposits of topaz. Maybe roses aren't their thing, but tulips are. Topaz and tulips have fewer classical associations, at least in Western fantasy, but will likely still be well-known to readers. You could go for something less recognized, like iolite or anemone. These have the advantage of being more of a blank slate, association-wise, and perhaps introducing readers to something new. You'll have to make sure to describe them well, though, as readers may not have a ready mental image of them.

You can include an element like this prominently - like the copper that is used practically everywhere in The Impostor Queen - or as a subtle touch. Think about how common this [metal/gem/animal/flower/etc] is in your fantasy world. Who has it? What is it used for? What does it signify to people?

If you know a good fantasy book that does this, I'd love to hear about it! And while we're on the subject of book recommendations, allow me to give a shout-out to my favorite novel read in 2016, The Goblin Emperor. Fabulous fantasy. What books did you love last year?

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Look, an Art!

Dec. 4th, 2016 | 06:40 pm

Kulfi Kulikov standing in snow

My character Kulfi Kulikov, as drawn by the very talented ArtsyRobo!
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Diverse Books to Add to Your Reading List

Nov. 14th, 2016 | 11:43 am

Sometimes, when the world seems a little scary, you ask yourself: how can I use my powers for good? We all have powers of one kind or another. In addition to writing, it happens that I am a librarian. So here is one of my powers: book recommendations.

Note: Possibly you have encountered the term "own voices" (often seen as a hashtag, #ownvoices). It's become popular in the publishing and reading community. This term refers to books about diverse characters (people of color, LGBTQIA people, people with disabilities, and more) that are written by authors who themselves come from those groups. I, like many, think that a sensitively-written book featuring diverse characters is valuable no matter who writes it, but I also recognize that there is value in (A) the authenticity of a book that draws on personal experience, and (B) promoting the voices of marginalized people, who often have a harder time reaching a mainstream audience than white/straight/cis/ablebodied/etc. people do. So the following list is of "own voices" books.

The world benefits, and we benefit, when we see diverse points of view. Here are some books that can help us do that. These are all books I have personally read and can highly recommend, which means that they skew heavily toward books for teens, though I've included a few other categories. If you're holiday shopping, they make excellent presents!

Picture Books

Just in Case by Yuyi Morales - beautiful book that teaches the alphabet as well as having a charming, sweet story

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña - winner of the 2016 Newbery and a Caldecott Honor book

Little Red Riding Hood by Jerry Pinkney - classic story; rich, gorgeous illustrations

Please Puppy Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee - adorable illustrations; cute story that reads aloud well


Middle Grade Books

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander - exciting basketball-centric story written entirely in hip-hop-esque poems

El Deafo by Cece Bell - funny, cute, and surprisingly informative graphic novel memoir

Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle - sweet novel in verse about a boy who, after his mother goes to jail, goes to live with his uncle and bonds with him and his search-and-rescue dog


Young Adult Books

I've heard people complain about YA books as a whole being too grim and bleak. Some of these books, I admit, are pretty sad and/or scary - and sometimes that intensity and feeling is what you want! (After all, The Fault in Our Stars became a smash hit for a reason.) But for people who could use an uplifting story, I'm tagging some of these in particular as ***Not a Downer!*** Doesn't mean nothing bad happens in them, but it means they are ultimately uplifting and leave you with hope, excitement, and/or other positive feelings.

Ash by Malinda Lo - lovely Cinderella retelling
***Not a Downer!***

Brain Camp by Susan Kim and Faith Erin Hicks - this graphic novel is creepy, but fun-creepy
***Not a Downer!***

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina - thrilling historical fiction set during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when power outages and fires swept NYC while the serial killer Son of Sam terrorized the city
***Not a Downer!***

Fake ID by Lamar Giles - smart, fast-paced thriller
***Not a Downer!***

The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco - a poetically-written, chilling ghost story based on Japanese folklore

Hero by Perry Moore - clever and thoughtful superhero story packed with fantastical action
***Not a Downer!***

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon - absorbing story that shows the aftermath of an incident when a white man shoots a black teen

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth - clever, quietly-powerful story of a boy struggling with poverty and discrimination who discovers that if you let them, your friends can be exactly what you need
***Not a Downer!***

The Living by Matt de la Peña - taut thriller that follows a boy who is working on a cruise ship when a tsunami wrecks it, and the survivors realize that tsunamis are far from the only disaster hitting their world

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson - witty, exciting, utterly fabulous superhero graphic novel series
***Not a Downer!*** Seriously, like, the least downer-y thing ever written

Otherbound by Corrine Duyvis - fantasy with great worldbuilding, tight pacing, and an original premise
***Not a Downer!***

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee - well-researched, well-plotted, well-written historical fiction set in San Francisco during 1906, the year when a deadly earthquake strikes

Pointe by Brandy Colbert - a teenaged ballerina's life is shaken when her childhood best friend, who was kidnapped years ago, is returned

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan - a sort of romantic comedy set in high school; fun and unusual; also deals with bullying/harassment in a positive way
***Not a Downer!***

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp - not for the faint of heart, this powerful story offers the viewpoints of various students during a terrifying school shooting


Adult Books

The Arrival by Shaun Tan - gorgeous, uplifting wordless graphic novel about an immigrant coming to a fantastical new city (great for kids and teens, too!)

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo - I cannot tell you how lyrically beautiful this book, full of Chinese folklore, is, but trust me, it will suck you right into its intricate, fascinating world

House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle - gorgeous storytelling with touches of magical realism



Some resources to check out for further recommendations:

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Seven Great Nonfiction Books for Writers that Aren't About Writing

Oct. 29th, 2016 | 12:40 pm

Writing fiction - even writing fantasy - doesn't mean you make everything up. Does your book have human characters? Does it have animals, plants, stars, diseases, art, wars, pretty much anything that exists in the real world? Then your book will be stronger if you know something about how those things really work. Research: luckily, it's more fun than it sounds.

There are fabulous books out there that are specifically about writing. I especially like The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy by Darin Park and Tom Dullemond. Books like that can boost your craft, for sure. But it's also helpful - and incredibly fascinating - to read other nonfiction that touches on topics relevant to your work. (Bonus: these books make you more interesting to talk to at cocktail parties, and you can recommend them to friends who aren't writers!) The following seven books have illuminated various topics for me, including . . .


1. Food - What the World Eats by Faith D'Aluisio and Peter Menzel
book cover
This book's creators visited dozens of countries all over the world to photograph families with all the food they eat in a week. There's a profile of each family, plus a list of all the food they consume in an average week, including brand names and prices in US dollars. Plus, it has features on things like street food - scorpion on a stick, anyone?


2. Plants, and the Domestication Thereof - The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
book cover
In a breezy, storytelling style, Pollan explores the histories of four plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and the potato.


3. Diseases - Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
book cover
A zoonosis is a disease that crosses over from a nonhuman animal species to infect humans. This book plots the course of several outbreaks that started in animals before jumping to humans. The author also goes to adventurous lengths to meet and speak with people who are on the front lines of zoonosis research.


4. Animals - Mammals by Juliet Clutton-Brock
book cover
Come for the cool photos, stay for the weird facts. This Smithsonian Handbook might just introduce you to your favorite mammal that you'd never heard of. This was where I first learned about binturongs, and life has never been the same.


5. War - The Hutchinson Atlas of Battle Plans: Before and After by John Pimlott
book cover
Clear without being condescending, this book explains significant historical battles and shows the movement of troops using before-and-after maps (hence the title). It profiles battles from all over the world and all through history, each one chosen to emphasize a specific factor, e.g. "smart leadership" or "underestimating the enemy."


6. Nineteenth-Century England - What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool
book cover
Theoretically, this book is intended as a desk reference for people who like to read Victorian fiction. It's a funny, highly readable explanation of the nitty-gritty details of life in England in the 1800s, from the etiquette of fox hunts to the treatment of servants to the currency system.


7. More Things About the Nineteenth Century, and Not Just in England - Everyday Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutcheon
book cover
Does this book overlap some with the last one? Yes. Is it still worth reading, if you're interested in the time period? Absolutely. Interesting and clever, this book has tons of great citations from period documents.


I'm always looking for more great nonfiction books, whether they're relevant to my writing or not. Any recommendations?

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PSA: The Virginia Children's Book Festival is Fabulous

Oct. 18th, 2016 | 10:54 am

This past weekend, the third annual Virginia Children's Book Festival took place on Longwood University campus in Farmville, VA. I'm not affiliated with the festival except as a gleeful, starstruck visitor, but let me tell you: it is the best. They bring in some real rock stars of the writing and illustrating world for panel discussions, presentations, workshops, signings, and more. The local schools know what a great event this is: thousands of schoolkids of all ages are bused in, some from schools more than two hours away.

Oh, and did I mention the part where it's all free?

A few things I got to do at the festival:

  • Listen to Matt de la Peña talk about how he went from reluctant reader to author and Neal Shusterman explain how he develops book series


  • author Matt de la Peña

    author Neal Shusterman

  • Attend a lively, funny panel discussion wherein Rita Williams-Garcia told the story of how she missed the call announcing her third Coretta Scott King award, then waxed enthusiastic about using money made by her books to finally buy a new refrigerator


  • See author/illustrator John Rocco's fantastic presentation on how he makes book covers like the ones he did for the Percy Jackson series


  • Listen to Tim Tingle tell the story - accompanied by music! - of his picture book Crossing Bok Chitto


  • author Tim Tingle

  • Watch a panel of fantastic authors talk about civil rights in children's literature, with the event being held in the historic R.R. Moton museum


  • panel of authors

  • Hear Neal Shusterman and Christy Marx - who created the show Jem and wrote for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe, and more - discuss writing for TV shows and video games


  • Learn about how one writes a Choose Your Own Adventure book from Anson Montgomery, whose late father was a founder of the series


Despite all the classes of schoolkids who get bused in, there are absolutely oppportunities for one-on-one conversations with the authors and illustrators. They'll sign your book, take a photo with you, answer questions, smile patiently while you fangirl at them . . . it's great. If you get the chance to check out this festival, go for it. You'll be glad you did.

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Plus, It Gets You Out of the House!

Sep. 1st, 2016 | 07:25 pm

Here's a cool thing to do: go to author readings. Your public library or your local bookstore might have them, and they're usually free. It's heartening for the author, even if you don't buy their book; it boosts the library's attendance statistics, if it's at a library; and you get to be read to like a kid and entertained. And, if you're a writer who's aiming at publication, you can snag yourself some interesting and useful information.

(Also, for writers scoping out these events, it's fun to feel like you're undercover. Taking notes is a lot cooler when you're "gathering intel" than when you're "attending math class".)

Two days ago, I went to just such an author talk, and I learned all kinds of things! The author, Ralph Hardy, has written a novel that retells the story of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus' dog, Argos.

cover of the book Argos

(FYI: I had never met this author, and have no connection to him, except that I think he's a member of the same SCBWI chapter I am. This post isn't some kind of sneaky advertising, just my observations.)

The audience was almost half kids under fourteen (at my estimate), which is the book's target audience. (And, incidentally, will be the target audience for MY dog-centric middle-grade book, so I was especially interested to see how this reading would go.) Then there was the author, a person sitting at a table with copies of the book for sale, and a library staff member to help run the program.

First off, I took notes on how the reading was organized. Here they are, along with some conclusions I drew:
  • It started at 4:00 p.m. on a Tuesday. If your target audience is mostly kids, make sure they'll be out of school when you do your reading!

  • The author started by introducing himself and his book. He quizzed the kids about Greek mythology (they were GOOD, presumably courtesy of Rick Riordan). He then gave a quick, lively summary of the Trojan War. Know your audience, and know how much background to give them about the book.

  • Next up, Mr. Hardy briefly introduced, then read, two short chapters (the first one and a later one). His introduction included general setup facts for the novel, such as "All the animals can talk to each other, but not to humans." When reading, he would pause to engage the kids in the audience ("Who knows what a 'stag' is?"). Consider not reading for too long. Pick short sections with dramatic endings.

  • He showed us a blown-up version of the cover and talked about getting an international call from the illustrator, who asked, "What does the dog look like?" His answer: "Big, and black, and wolfish, with a white shield on his chest." He was enthusiastic about the cover. (I would be, too!) Visuals are great. So is enthusiasm!

  • He mentioned that the book can potentially tie in with The Odyssey, which kids in North Carolina are required to read in ninth grade. Again, know your target audience.

  • All of this had taken about twenty minutes. He spent the rest of the event - maybe another twenty-five minutes - doing Q&A.


The kids were engaged and interested, if slightly squirmy, which is to be expected for kids that age who just got out of school. But they were very keen on the Q&A. This afforded me another useful learning opportunity: what are some of the questions that middle-school-aged kids might ask an author?

Well, here are the questions they asked. (Unless otherwise noted, these were all asked by kids.)

  1. How long did it take you to write it?

  2. Why did you want to write the book?

  3. Was Argos really a dog in The Odyssey?

  4. Are you going to make a sequel?

  5. What is your writing schedule like? (Asked by an adult - not me!)

  6. What are your other books [that he had mentioned] about? (Also asked by an adult.)

  7. What was your favorite book as a kid?

  8. Do you prefer Greek or Roman mythology?

  9. Have you ever made a comic? (He had mentioned in response to Question 7, that he loved comics.)

  10. [Clarification question about one of the other books he had mentioned]

  11. Do you have any desire to write for adults? (Asked by an adult.)

  12. Have you written books under any other name?


1, 2, 4, and 7 are variations on questions that I've heard authors say they get asked all the time. But it was neat to hear some of the author-specific questions, like 3 and 8.

The audience seemed quite interested in concrete details about publishing. Then again, Mr. Hardy had some pretty interesting ones to share ("There were three rounds of edits. The last one was one sentence: 'Put it in present tense.'"). They also liked fun personal stories, like how the author did a reading at his hometown library, and his ninety-five-year-old kindergarten teacher attended.

A couple of things that interested me perhaps more than the non-writers in the audience:
  • The book is 83,000 words. It's always been acceptable for fantasy to go longer than other genres, but I still feel like the accepted length for MG has gone up in recent years. Thanks, J.K. Rowling!

  • He writes every weekday morning, aiming for between 500 and 1500 words per day.

  • He regrets publishing an earlier book under the name R.K. Hardy. He did it because people advised him that it was wise to obscure your gender to avoid alienating certain readers. Now, though, he sees it as a mistake because people who search his name don't find all of his books.


See? Just a few of the fascinating things you can learn at an author talk. If you've been to any good ones, I'd love to hear about it!

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Let There Be Light!

Jul. 12th, 2016 | 11:18 am

Two more of my No Flying No Tights reviews have just gone live on the site, and one is about a volume of Pokémon manga! (Specifically, Pokémon the Movie: Hoopa and the Clash of Ages.) Topical! Sort of! The other is about the first volume of a bright, poppy new magical-girl series called Zodiac Starforce.

(I've got a lot of reviews up on No Flying No Tights by now! If you're interested, you can see them all here.)

I've spent some time lately thinking about an often-overlooked little element of description: lighting. In contemporary realism, lighting can generally be ignored unless it's unusual. If you don't describe it, readers will assume that it's whatever lighting is typical for the situation in their experience: florescent lights in a classroom, for example. Which is generally fine.

But when you get into fantasy (or historical fiction set in a time before electricity is common), you start to have to ask yourself, "How can my characters see right now?"

If they're outside and it's daytime, the answer is pretty obvious. And if they're outside at night, writers usually remember that their characters need a torch or a lantern or a helpfully bright moon in order to see. But what about indoors? Windows might be small and/or scarce, depending on your setting - is glass expensive? - and all the windows in the world won't provide much light if it's overcast or, you know, night. Besides, most buildings of any size have at least some interior rooms with no windows at all. What do your characters use to see?


photo credit: Macedonia-Sveti Pantelejmon Monastry-Candles and wishes!! via photopin (license)

Popular choices in fantasy include lanterns, chandeliers, torches, braziers, magical light sources, and the evergreen favorite, candles. You also get a certain amount of light from fireplaces, though they won't light a room much on their own. Each of these has its own pros and cons to consider. (Bonus: these can provide opportunities to further develop your characters and your world!) Among them:
  • Most of these items - and their fuel, if applicable - cost money. Can your character afford a lantern? Is she conservative about using candles?

  • Candles can be smoky and, depending on what they're made of, smelly. A poor character may be stuck with stinky tallow candles, while a rich one may have perfumed beeswax candles. Similarly, other flame-based light sources can produce scent, smoky or otherwise. You can throw herbs into a fireplace or brazier.

  • The angle of the light will be different depending on how the source is held or mounted. A light source held low will throw shadows differently from one held high.

  • Most of these cast warm, yellowish light. (Magical light sources, of course, being a possible exception.) The color of the lighting can really set the mood for a scene. Firelight might make a room seem cozy . . . or hellish. It all depends on how you describe it.

  • How much light is cast? A single candle may not illuminate a whole room. Giving the character only a limited pool of light in which she can see shrinks the focus and forces her to discover one part of the room at a time.

  • Some of these light sources are unreliable. Candles sputter and go out. Oil lanterns run out of fuel. Magical light sources may require energy to maintain.

  • The risk of fire spreading is real. Keep it in mind.


Historically, people who could afford it often maximized their light by including mirrors and other reflective surfaces in interior rooms. A candle next to a mirror is MUCH brighter than a candle by itself.

I don't write science fiction, but there must be a whole other set of possibilities and considerations there. What's the lighting like on a spaceship? What do aliens use for light on their home world?

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A Picture is Worth SOME Number of Words, Anyway

May. 31st, 2016 | 10:40 am

You know what's always a good time? Worldbuilding. I like researching what would make sense in a certain situation, and I like brainstorming things that would be cool, and it's satisfying to find the place where the two fit together.

In this instance, I have a population of elves, some of whom are about to appear in the novel I'm working on. I realized I wasn't sure what they should look like exactly. I know what the elves of my fantasy world look like in general terms, but like humans, they vary in traits like build, skin tone, and hair and eye color. For these elves, I wanted to choose traits that would logically evolve in their home environment, a chain of equatorial, volcanic islands. I also wanted them to have a look that evokes fire/ash/smoke, since they are particularly attuned to fire magic.

So, I drew up a couple of possible color schemes:



The first image rather un-subtly suggests fire, with its red-orange overtones. The second image reflects one of the skin tone/hair color combinations found among the humans living on the nearby mainland. The third image is grayer to be reminiscent of ash. The fourth takes into account that these are equatorial islands, so the elves should perhaps be quite dark-skinned. I gave the skin a slightly grayish cast to evoke charcoal and smoke.

Then, some research! The mainland closest to these islands is loosely based, geographically, on India. Turns out the real India actually has an island with an active volcano. It's called Barren Island (gosh, wonder why?), and it's in the Andaman and Nicobar island chain. These islands don't straddle the equator, but they're not too far off.

(The following is Internet research, and I can't guarantee its accuracy. I would DEFINITELY do further research if I were actually writing about the Andamanese people. In this instance, however, I am just trying to determine what people living on an island chain like theirs might plausibly evolve to look like.)

The Andamanese people are comprised of multiple tribes with different languages and cultures, but have some physical characteristics in common. They are typically short and slender, with very dark skin.

The elves of my fantasy world are already short and slender, so that works out nicely. Otherwise, my research nudged me toward the elf design on the far right, the darkest one.

I take this also as an opportunity to subvert some fantasy tropes. These will be very dark-skinned people with red, yellow, or orange eyes (see again: fire imagery). When these traits appear in fantasy, the characters who have them are often sinister, and sometimes outright monsters. (Which has pretty terrible implications vis-a-vis perceptions of dark-skinned people.) These elves are neither sinister nor monstrous, but are generally seen as refined and creative. They are known for their fire magic and their main export, high-end glassware.

Now, I can get back to actual writing, knowing that I'll be better able to describe these elves when they appear. Huzzah!

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The Name Game

May. 23rd, 2016 | 07:18 pm

Most writers will have heard the phrase "cast of thousands." Sometimes it's positive, describing a richly populated world that feels like it has all the human variation of real life. Sometimes it's a criticism of an overpopulated, confusing story that seems to have more characters than it needs. We're often told to simplify - combine characters, don't give unnecessary characters too much description or page time, don't name people if their names aren't important.

There are places to streamline things and keep your character count low. Query letters, for instance. But in other places, it makes sense to name names, even if a character is unimportant to the overall plot.

In real life, we know a lot of people's names, and we use them to think about those people. Or if we don't know names, we use descriptions or our feelings about the people. It might be simplest and most straightforward to describe someone as "a classmate," but who thinks in terms like that? It's not "a classmate asked me for a pencil," it's "Ashley asked me for a pencil." Maybe "Ashley Green" if you don't know her that well and feel a bit more formal. If you don't know her name, it might be "the girl with all the eyeliner" or "a kid from the volleyball team." "Classmate" or "another student" is accurate, but feels like a weird way to describe a specific person you encounter regularly. See also "coworker," "teammate," and other people whose names you'd likely know.

I think writers sometimes fear the "name soup" problem - that there will be too many characters' names, and readers won't know which ones to pay attention to. Which, again, is a concern in query letters, where you have limited space. Because the plot summary in a query may be just a few sentences, it's hard to give important characters the emphasis and weight that lets readers know that these are the ones to remember.

In a novel, though, readers can handle having name-drops that they aren't expected to keep in mind forever, because this happens in real life all the time. Servers introduce themselves at restaurants; you meet people at a conference who you'll never see again; you hear a researcher's name in a news story. Do you remember all those names? Probably not. Does it confuse or bother you to hear them? Probably not.

We often use people's names when we're talking about them in real life, too. It's generally much more realistic to say "Michael and I went to the skate park" rather than "A friend and I went to the skate park," especially if the listener also knows Michael.

Because this is me here, let's have some examples of skillful name-dropping from Harry Potter!

  1. Remember Mr. and Mrs. Mason? If not, don't feel bad. They're "a rich builder and his wife" who have dinner at the Dursley house at the beginning of Book Two. They only matter in that their visit is occasion for Harry to be forced into hiding, at which point Dobby arrives, ruins the dinner party, and gets Harry in trouble. But given that the Dursleys put a lot of planning into this dinner, it would be weird if Rowling had decided to avoid ever using the Masons' names just because they don't have any continued importance to the plot.

  2. The use of characters' names can be delightfully sneaky when it's casual enough that you forget it until later. When Harry meets Cedric Diggory and his father, Mr. Diggory mentions the Lovegoods to Arthur Weasley. It sounds natural - two adults discussing mutual friends or acquaintances Harry doesn't know - and most readers probably forget it quickly, as Harry seems to. Then we meet Luna Lovegood in the next book. Lovegood. Now why does that sound familiar . . . ?

  3. Many of Harry's classmates never do anything of great importance in the books, but we feel we know them because their names pop up every so often. This makes a lot of sense: Hogwarts isn't that big a school, and Harry would know the other kids in his year, and some of the ones older and younger than himself. They're present in his everyday life, and we get a feel for that through dozens of tiny moments that aren't individually important: Lavender Brown answering a question in class, Pansy Parkinson complaining about Hagrid, Dean and Seamus interrupting a sensitive conversation between Harry and his closer friends. Bonus: it doesn't feel like the character came out of nowhere when one of them DOES do something notable, such as start dating Ron.


You can overdo it with names, of course. Too many can be a kind of infodump: the writer has put so much work into building her world and developing every character in it that she doesn't want to leave any out even when including them doesn't feel natural. For instance, in reality, a character who is on a soccer team would likely say, "When I got to practice, the rest of the team was already there," rather than, "When I got to practice, Sarah, Natasha, Alice, Lauren, Karina, Jamini, Melissa, Tenesha, Maya, and Emily were already there." If the book is written in a conversational style, you might pull off naming the whole team in a more intentional way: "When I got to practice, the rest of the team was already there. What you have to know about the Mountain Goats is that only half of us are any good. Specifically, Natasha, Lauren, Karina, Alice, and Jamini, who were running drills when I arrived. Maya's parents make her play, but she hates it. Tenesha only joined the team to support Maya. I convinced Sarah, Melissa, and Emily to join with me, and I'm only playing until I figure out who murdered the team's last coach."

Rather than write a proper conclusion, I leave you with this masterpiece:

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