Book Trailer

(click on the above link to see the book trailer for The Six and the Crystals of Ialana)

I would appreciate any comments about this trailer since it is the first one I’ve had done. This is all experimental for me at the moment, and I am curious to see what people think about it, or book trailers in general.


In Praise of Friends Who’ll Read Your Manuscripts

Great advice!

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

girl with bookWhen students ask me what my “one piece of advice” is for aspiring writers, it’s usually: Read. But my second piece of advice — something people rarely ask for — is almost as important. That piece of advice: Cultivate a group of friends willing to read your stuff before it’s published.

I recently taught a workshop about writing book proposals, and a professional copyeditor was among my students. This was his advice, too: Don’t turn anything in ever without having at least one other person read it first. Other people can see holes in your work that you can’t. They can point out places where your knowledge and research is overwhelming your ability to see that others won’t understand something. They can tell you, whether you like it or not, when you’re not making a lot of sense to anyone who does not have your brain. (One of the other…

View original post 631 more words

Love to Hate Villains

3D rendered portrait of a reptilian alien.

Who are your favorite villains in fiction? Or movies? Let’s face it, we all love to hate a mustache-twirling villain, or the stereotypical and evil Cruella Deville. I can’t imagine writing a fictional book–or reading one–without at least one real stinker of a character. It would be like eating food with no seasoning. Fortunately, my novels have an unlimited supply of the good, the bad, and many uglies.

In The Six and the Crystals of Ialana, the main villain is an odiferous reptile named Amrafalus. There are no extenuating circumstances for this creature; he lacks even the most basic signs of humanity. Well, he is not human, so one can only expect him to possess the personality of a snake, or a crocodile. Empathy and kindness are not in his vocabulary. He will do whatever is necessary to obtain what he wants without a smidgeon of conscience to guide him. My six protagonists must not allow this creature to reactivate the powerful crystals beneath the citadel in Rhiannon. They are only six, unarmed young people, and Amrafalus has all the power and backing of an army and a navy. How will they escape the manhunt for them that Amrafalus has set into motion?

When we write about evil characters, it is important to realize that no matter how nasty an antagonist may be, he or she always has a weak spot somewhere. A blind spot that does not allow the character to anticipate certain events. In Amrafalus’ case, his blind spot was—oh well, I’m not going to tell you. It would spoil the book, and I would love for you to spot it too!

Crow girl with feather wig and black eyes, real contact lenses and makeup

Another villain I loved to write about is Branwyn. She is in the second book of the series, The Six and the Gardeners of Ialana. Branwyn, or the Raven, as she likes to be called, is completely different to Amrafalus, but she is just as evil and nasty in her way. Branwyn uses deception rather than physical strength. She is a master of manipulation. In today’s terms, she would be called a sociopath: someone who is lacking in conscience and empathy for others. She knows how to manipulate people using her wiles and beauty, and she also possesses considerable psychic skills that allow her to . . . oops! Don’t want to give away too much here! I just want to say that she too has blind spots and you can try to spot those in the book.

How will the six protect themselves from both Amrafalus and Branwyn?

How do you present your villains? Do any of them have any possibility of getting their way, and how are they defeated? What are their blind spots and weaknesses? While we love the uncomplicated villains, it is advisable not to make them too uncomplicated all of the time. Perhaps one of them had a bad childhood, or perhaps they are misunderstood. Or are they? Some doubt will spice up your book and leave the reader wondering!

In presenting your villain(s), there is a fine line the author must walk. Making them too sympathetic, and then killing them off in the last chapter may turn the reader against the book. Making them way too uncomplicated and evil also makes them feel unreal: a Cruella Deville, for example. Although we all love to hate her, she is obviously not a real person and she probably doesn’t remind us of anyone we know–but we all know people who could be just a little like her though, don’t we?

Mix it up: I think the Fantasy genre allows us much more leeway with the villains (Orcs!) than other genres, but it may be a challenge to make them somewhat believable too. I like to have a sampling of the believable, and the well, not so believable–but awfully nasty characters.

Strong Female Characters

The girl with the bow at sunset.

Most writers, thankfully, are now avoiding the cliched damsel in distress character and going for the strong and capable females. I for one am pleased about that, because my female characters all possess strong character traits of some kind. Again, I am not talking about physical strength, although that could be part of it. Strength goes far beyond the muscle-bound hero or spitfire heroine spoiling for a fight. Two of my three main female characters possess the ability to take care of themselves and not depend on males for their survival. One of them does not, but she is strong in other ways, and has other skills. I will discuss her in another post.

Kex is a daring and spirited young girl in The Six and the Crystals of Ialana. She is stubborn, outspoken, and fiercely independent. She relies on her own skills to survive.

In Kex’s clan, girls get married off at an early age, and they have no say in the choice of their husband. Girls are expected to be homemakers and not hunt or develop hunter survival skills as Kex did. Kex’s father had made the unfortunate mistake (or fortunate, as it turned out) to teach his daughter these skills. He also taught her to speak her mind, and to stand up for herself. When it worked against her, and her clan insisted she marry an older man she hated, Kex had little choice but to run away. In her clan, disobedience meant death. I am not encouraging running away for anyone now living in the modern world; things have mostly changed from the days when girls were expected to marry young and their husbands were chosen for them. We have other, legal ways of dealing with adversity at our disposal. Running away in today’s world solves nothing and only makes things worse. It also sets up a mind-set where problems cannot be dealt with in an effective way.

As a writer, I drew on my own memories of running away as a child. I remembered how I packed my little suitcase with some inappropriate items, made myself a sandwich, and went to sit at the bottom of the garden for an hour or two where no one could see me. That was my idea of problem-solving and self-sufficiency. Needless to say, no one ever noticed my absence, and I’d always be home in time for dinner. I grew out of that, eventually, which is good because I would not have made it far beyond the bottom of the garden. Kex did not have the luxury to stick around. Even though she was small and fragile looking she had an inner strength that matched her rawhide bow. I saw Kex as rather Asiatic in appearance, or perhaps Native American. She was typical of the ancient tribes of the Ice Age in the northern hemisphere, but others may see her differently.

Portrait of a young African woman in traditional dress.

Djana, above, is another character who has tremendous fortitude. She is from the fabled city of Rhiannon, but she is not native to that city. Her parents, Holgar and Adne, were imported as slaves by the evil ruler of Rhiannon. However, they escaped the mines where they were sent to work and die, and Holgar became a successful business man in the city.

Djana was brought up in a household of privilege, yet she was not a spoiled debutante like many of her peers. Holgar and Adne had taught her many survival skills, knowing that one day their dream may end. It did, and Djana had to flee the city and make her way across mountains—to where—she did not know.

Djana’s skills were similar to those of Kex, but she also possessed some extra-sensory skills that would be essential to their survival. She does not frighten easily, and faces her fears with tremendous courage. Her strength lies in her ability to survive catastrophic upheaval in her life without falling into self-pity. She faces adversity and deals with it in the best way she knows how.

I see Djana as African in appearance, since her parents were from a part of their world that is much like Africa. I called it “Afarre”.

How do you see your female characters? How do they handle adversity? Could your female character be a role model for teens today, and why? How does their upbringing affect their decision making?

Themes and a Cool Character


Before I get to more bad guys, of which there is no shortage of in my books, I would like to introduce my coolest character, Irusan. At first, he may seem a little scary because he is not human, but actually he is a magical Being. He is a shape-shifter, and in many books shape-shifters can be dicey, but Irusan is as reliable as the rising of the sun. He is a peaceful Being whose only purpose is to be of service to mankind—at least those who desire to bring about peace on Ialana.

Irusan’s natural form is cat-like. He is from an old race of Beings who have evolved beyond human capabilities, and his knowledge of the universal laws that encompass other dimensions as well as the physical is unsurpassed. He becomes the mentor and protector of the Six in my book, The Six and the Crystals of Ialana. He does not only appear in this book, but in its sequels as well. Irusan is an integral part of Ialana, even though he does not reside there: he only visits.

When writing fantasy, we all have our “Wizards”, the characters who are much like Gandalph in the Tolkien books. Irusan is my wizard, but he explains more than Gandalph does about how he does things. Wizardry, in my opinion, is not a secret to be guarded jealously by arcane wizards casting spells in dark dungeons with eye of newt or frog; it is a science that anyone can learn if one puts one’s mind to it. The theme of my books is that nothing is magic, but only appears magical when one does not understand how it works.

Consider this: if one could time travel back to the stone age and show a cave man some of our technology, what would the cave man think? That we are sorcerers, of course. They might fall down and worship us, or attempt to kill us, depending upon how they regard us in the moment according to their beliefs. Irusan states many times that he is no sorcerer, and he explains in easy to understand terms how he accomplishes his magic. Science and magic are not two separate things. They can accommodate each other quite well if only people would be more willing to learn. Irusan is a character who supports the theme of my books, and that is why I feel he is “cool”!

Who is your coolest character, and why?

World Building

Idyllic winter landscape painting old farms in a village

The need to build a world is not always limited to Fantasy or Sci-Fi genres; it could be the world we know and live in today. This blog post is about how to build a fantasy world, since fantasy fiction is mostly what I do, but if your book is about a modern day planet Earth, then some of these points could apply as well.

You have thought of your characters, mapped out your plot (if you are a plot mapper), and you are ready to write. Probably by this stage your fantasy world has a name, and you have a general idea what this world is like, but no specific details about it yet. Stop! Right here. Get out your pencil and some paper, and do a quick sketch (doesn’t have to be fancy) of your world–a map. Is it a planet unlike Earth, or is it a continent somewhere unspecified? As you draw this map, you are placing location names inside the map, roads, rivers, lakes, mountains and general topography. Geography students will love this part. I always had a fascination for maps as a child, and used to pore over them, imagining myself there, in countries and lands I had never been to. This is what you need to do now, only it is your map, and your country, planet or land. You have the say. You also have Google Earth!

What is the climate like? Is it hot and tropical, or cold and Arctic? Is it somewhere in-between, or does it have a little bit of each? In my map of Ialana the continent varies from frigid and Siberian-like in the north, to a relatively milder northern European or American type climate with deciduous forests in the center. From here, Ialana stretches many leagues southwards to the tropical climes. On the eastern shores, it is more Mediterranean-like, much like Spain or southern France. There are two enormous mountain ranges, one that makes up the spine of the continent and effectively divides the land into different political and cultural factions, and another one on the western shores that may resemble the west coast of the American continent. There is also a desert between the mountain range in the center and the western coast.

Do you know how the topography of the land affects your story? What is the culture of your people, the inhabitants or races of your planet or continent? What are the different political systems and how do they interact with each other due to the geography of their locations? All of these, from the history of your world or land to it’s current state, are very important things to consider before you actually write your story. I feel the more detail you have, the more authentic and real your world will become to the reader. Draw pictures, look for photos in magazines or online that will help you get a picture of your world, or study other (existing) countries for inspiration.

The photo depicted above is my idea of what the village of Meadowfield looks like, in winter. It is only an aid to help me remember what type of village some of my characters came from. I found it online ( Readers may actually have a different picture in their minds, and that is okay. We don’t want to control what readers imagine, only assist ourselves as writers to keep it all consistent.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a master at world building. He created a world that had a history, it’s own language (Elvish) that he invented. He became as familiar with his world, Middle Earth, as you or I are familiar with our own bedrooms, or our faces–perhaps even more so. He created Middle Earth in it’s totality before he even began to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. These books were products of his already invented world. Tolkien was the inspiration for many fantasy writers. We have his legacy to thank, and most of us fantasy writers now include maps in our books so that our readers can also become familiar with our fictional worlds.

If you are writing about an existing country on this planet, it is not necessary to put maps into your book, but it would help to be keep a map somewhere of the area you are writing about so that you can refer back to it. Maps are not only useful for the reader but for the writer as well.

What is your fictional world? Do you have a map to share, or a history? How does the topography, climate and resources of your world affect it’s culture, religions or politics?

Villains: are they always totally evil?

cool b-boy in red jacket against black background

Blaidd is my most perplexing character. It is clear, from the beginning, that Blaidd is not quite like the others in the group. He is obviously suspect to the reader, and it comes as no surprise to anyone when he does not fit in with the group’s mission. He is clearly a loose cannon, and it is evident that he is driven by a desire for power that has its origins in another lifetime. He too does not understand what motivates him, except the conviction that he is destined for better things. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a desire for a better life, but in The Six and the Crystals of Ialana Blaidd takes that to a whole new level, seeking power for power’s sake. His desire for ownership of the crystal is overwhelming and drives his every action and thought.

To my own surprise, I discovered I had a sneaking sympathy for Blaidd. Blaidd came from a dysfunctional home, so it was not his fault—(or was it?)—that he turned out the way he did.  I too (like many reviewers and readers) kept hoping that things would change for Blaidd. Whether he does change or not is still to be revealed, and I will not give away here what happens to Blaidd in the future. I will only say that the reader should not give up on this guy, but fasten your seat belt and be prepared for a rough ride through the life of Blaidd.

Do you have a character whom you would love to see grow into a better person? Do you even know if things will change for this character?

In other blog posts this month I will introduce a few more villains from my books. Most are clearly bad to the bone, while others, like Blaidd, may fall into a greyer area. I love writing about them all, from the monstrous to the “still learning” nasties. It is fascinating to explore the mindset of evil and then to see how they may change—or not.

How do you see your characters?

Toned photo of Surprised Boy Portrait at the Park

Who is that surprised looking guy pictured above? I see him as my primary character, Jarah, in “The Six and the Crystals of Ialana” and it’s sequel, “The Six and the Gardeners of Ialana.” As writers, we often develop a strong image in our own minds of our characters: how they look, how they dress, their personalities, etc. down to the smallest detail. When I search for images for my characters it becomes more difficult, since they seldom conform to the images I have in my mind.

The image above came pretty close to how I saw Jarah. Perhaps Jarah had more zits, but I took this image and ran with it. Why did I say Jarah might have zits? Well, in the books, he is often the most hapless character and had so many self-doubts you wanted to shake him and and scream at him to love himself more. He felt inferior to his friends and companions, and did not see himself as having any leadership abilities whatsoever. He thought people laughed at him behind his back. He may well have been right. So why and how on earth did he become the leader of the group of six?

Tristan, another character he interacted with, had far more leadership abilities, and would have made a great leader of the group. He was a trained soldier, he was older, and knew things Jarah did not. Yet somehow Jarah was the Keeper of the Crystal, and as the story progressed had the say about what the group would do or not do. Adain, his close friend, was better looking, and the girls were all more confident than him, so any one of them could have become the group leader.

As I wrote, I realized why Jarah was the one chosen to lead the group, and not one of the others. Sometimes I felt like a secretary, just writing down what the book wanted me to do, and it became evident to me that Jarah had some excellent, but as yet hidden, leadership qualities, and that was why the crystal chose him as its spokesperson and keeper. He possessed humility. True, at times it became a hindrance, but he was able to rise above that without his position going to his head. He possessed a strength of character that, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, uniquely qualified him to hold the crystal without being seduced by it’s power.

Although the other five in the group were also strong characters, they did not have the unique traits Jarah possessed. He was the perfect one to hold the crystal and keep it safe. He faced dangers with fear, but also with courage. He put the needs of the group and the crystal above his own. I realized that leadership is not about physical prowess, bluster, or inflated egos. It is often the quiet one, the one who is a little uncertain and thoughtful, who might make a great leader.

I wonder how many other writers out there are surprised by their characters? A character who might turn out a little differently than expected. A character who grows as the book progresses. It becomes rather like watching a dear friend grow into their potential, and I love it!

How Many Characters Are Too Many?


How many main characters are too many?

In my book, The Six and the Crystals of Ialana, I have seven main characters. Even though the title reflects “six”, the seventh character did not have the same mission as the Six. However, this person played an important role in the progression of the story.

I hoped that readers would not be confused so I introduced the seven slowly, and not all at once. This would give readers the opportunity to get to know them first before the pacing of the story moved too fast for them to keep track. I realize our short term memory has its limitations.

When we write our story and begin to introduce characters, think of it as going to a party with 50-60 people attending, and you know no one there at all. Everybody at the party, except you, know all the other people well. Each person comes up to you and introduces themselves to you. How many names do you remember? Probably only a few. Maybe, by the end of the evening, you’d know several more, but definitely not all.

Think of your reader as that person who is at that party, and show some consideration towards them by not introducing everyone at the same time and expecting them to remember all the names right away. In fantasy writing, this can be especially tricky since we don’t use names like Bill, Mary or Bob, but rather more exotic and often made up names. This puts an added burden on our memory banks!

I also alluded to other characters near the beginning of the book to give a heads up to the reader who they may be encountering later as main players, but did not actually introduce them in person.

If a character plays little to no role in the progression of a story or plot, he or she (or it) must go. If you were the CEO of a company, and you noticed as you came into the office each day, an employee shuffling his or her feet out in the hallway, drinking endless cups of coffee, and interacting with no other employee in a meaningful way, your choice might be obvious. It is the same choice a writer must make–even if this loafing, useless character is much beloved to the writer. It might be a character you always wanted to write about, and you have come to love and know this person like a brother or sister, but they are contributing nothing to the story. If that is the case, find another story to put them in. Make them your main character and give them a role to play, a job to do. Perhaps this employee/character was not given a specific job or purpose. It was not their fault. We can’t blame them. It is your responsibility as a writer to find a job for this person and ensure they do it, even if a small but important one.

I will be writing more about my individual characters in my books in 2015. I will not give away any plot lines or use spoilers, so you will still feel free to read my books and enjoy the twists and turns in the stories. I would like to give my readers the opportunity to get to know my characters as well as I do, but it is not essential to read about them here since I feel the characters in my books do their job well enough. You will not be scratching your head, wondering who the heck “Blaidd” is, and what does he have to do with “Seryn”? You will know, just from reading the book. If you’d like to find out more about them, my blog is the place.