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Review: Sands by Kevin L. Nielsen

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Kevin Nielsen is a friend of mine from LTUE and the Utah writing community. He recently put out a novel, the first in a YA series through a local small press based in Provo called Future House Publishing, and I’ve been eager to pick it up. I loved this book, and I’m very excited to talk about it on the blog today.

In Sands, a young girl named Lhaurel has a stubborn, independent nature that often gets her into trouble when her free spirit clashes with her clan’s strict gender-role traditions. They live in a harsh, sandy desert landscape ruled by chauvinism and volatile inter-clan conflicts. When she commits a desperate act of rebellion–taking up a sword, as a woman, to save her friend’s life–her clan leaves her behind as food fodder for giant sand serpents called “genesauri” (which may or may not have been bioengineered to thwart an enemy of war in the not-so-distant past). An egalitarian clan of mystics has been watching her for many years and rescues her from this terrible fate to train in swordsmanship and break into her own powers. As things progress, it becomes clear that something, or someone, has triggered an early migration of genesauri and may be drawing them toward a barrier of magnetic rock surrounding an oasis that normally repulses them–toward the clans gathering there for refuge. And Lhaurel’s abilities make her something far more powerful and dangerous than what any of the other mystics first anticipated.

Nielsen has created an intriguing magical post-apocalyptic universe through the eyes of a strong female character, beautiful descriptions, well-placed action, and wholesome storytelling. Sands is a delightful adventure. The audiobook narrator, Tanya Eby, was a perfect fit for voicing the characters in this book and wonderful to listen to. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the audio narration, and I highly recommend it!

You can check out Sands here at Audible: http://www.audible.com/pd/Teens/Sands-Audiobook/B01B8JLXRK

Or here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B012CB4S66

Or here at Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/sands-kevin-l-nielsen/1122630603.

His second book, Storms, is also available here: http://www.amazon.com/Storms-Sharani-Book-Kevin-Nielsen-ebook/dp/B019X32RZU.

Conferences, Workshops, Conventions, and Events for Utah Writers

I’m pleased to hear that my friends who attended LTUE had a wonderful experience and are hungry for more opportunities just like it, where they can sit in on writing panels or get workshop-style feedback. While LTUE is unique in many ways, there are other events where you can follow your favorite local authors on panels and learn more about the craft and business of writing in Utah. Here are a few that I recommend looking into:

Salt Lake Comic Con/FanXperience is broader in scope with panel topics and activities ranging from cosplay, to fandom, to movies. While the feel of a fan convention is very different from that of a writing conference, there have always been quite a few panels on writing and creativity (I suspect I’ll be on a few): http://saltlakecomiccon.com

Write Here in Ephraim is an inexpensive workshop style conference about the same price as LTUE coming up in April (April 22-23):
http://writehereinephraim.com

For those interested in learning more about writing horror, the World Horror Convention, a professional writing conference with panels, workshops, pitch sessions, and more very cool stuff, will be in Provo at the end of April as well (April 28-May 1): http://www.whc2016.org/home.html

For those interested in writing children’s, middle grade, or YA fiction, there is the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference (June 13-17):
http://www.wifyr.com

LDS Storymakers is another workshop style writing conference (they fill up fast and may be out of room for this year–but check again next year):
http://ldstorymakersconference.com

Superstars Writing Seminar has also passed for this year, but their 2016 MP3s are available, and there’s always next year: http://superstarswriting.com

Some authors like David Farland and Orson Scott Card also offer individual workshops:
https://mystorydoctor.com/live-workshops-2/ (David Farland’s workshops)

Following Pioneer Book, local libraries, or your favorite local authors and publishers on social media is a good way to learn about free events where authors may read from their books, give presentations on things related to craft or stories they’ve published, and answer questions. (The Utah Horror Writers Association may be doing some presentations at the Provo Library in the month leading up to World Horror Con). These can also be decent networking opportunities.

Joining a writing organization, like the HWA or the LUW (League of Utah Writers), or participating in NaNoWriMo can help you find resources to get mentoring or find writing groups to join. (Check out LUW’s Spring Into Books event coming May 28th:
https://luwoc.com/2016/02/04/spring-into-books-2016/)

For students, BYU and UVU have writing clubs and take volunteers to read through slush submissions to their speculative fiction magazines. They can help you find resources and teach you how to give and receive feedback on fiction. (www.leadingedgemagazine.com, https://www.facebook.com/warp.weave.uvu)

Outside of Utah, there’s the SFWA conference, numerous comic conventions, and the Clarion science fiction and fantasy workshop to name some good things to look into.
http://clarion.ucsd.edu

This should give budding Utah authors some great places to go learn more and get their creative juices flowing.

Recommended Read: “The Marshmallow Test” By Walter Mischel

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LDS general authority Dieter F. Uchtdorf referenced the self-control studies described in The Marshmallow Test in his talk on patience at a session of General Conference several years ago. When I found out the researcher, Walter Mischel, wrote a book, I was eager to add the audio version to my library and delve into more of the details.

The Marshmallow Test involves the debate of nature vs. nurture in shaping who we are and what we become. How much of our behavior and abilities is driven by pre-wired traits or environmentally imposed conditions, and how does self-control play into our success? Why do some who are wildly successful in the public sphere fail to carry that level of discipline and impulse regulation to other aspects of their lives? Further, how can we take a more active approach as a society to prevent delequency and help individuals who struggle with various impulse-control or mental illness related issues, and how do we raise children who thrive and give back to their communities in their chosen pursuits?

Children appear to develop some blend of two philosophies about their abilities at a young age. They believe that they are good at something because they were born that way, or because external factors converged in their favor (“I’m doing a good job coloring in the lines today because this is a good crayon”). Or they believe that they can become good at something if they work at it and learn how. This book takes into account that environment and genetic predisposition–which are largely outside an individual’s control–play a vital role in childhood development, as well as shaping our personal attitudes and outlook on life from an early age. What we believe about ourselves, our needs, and our abilities has a major impact on what we do.

As sophisticated, socially cooperative creatures, we evolved a primal hot system for survival, and a cognitive cool system for handling long-term social and environmental complexities. The impulsive hot system gives us the adrenaline rush we need to escape predators, rescue our kin, or defend ourselves from others who want to steal from us or cause us harm. We snag food that tastes good when calories might be scarce, we pursue sex when we’re lonely or eager (a mechanism for gratification and passing on our genes), and we seek immediate relief for symptoms of pain rather than treating root causes, and so forth. The cool system gives us the ability to self-distract and distance ourselves from these impulses, to frame them in a broader, strategic, rational context.

Mischel suggests that self-control skills are malleable. His observations bolster a school of thought in which most people can learn greater mastery and rewire their thinking in many areas, including relationships, overcoming addictions, focusing at school, and respecting the laws, rights, and dignities of others. This is given that they have a desire to learn or to change.

Balancing the hot and cool systems is also vital to our well being and success. Engaging the cool system too much can deprive us of zest and motivation, while an easily triggered hot system can lead to rash decision making and physical aliments such as elevated blood pressure. Either can engender anti-social and self-destructive behavior. Being able to put off immediate gratification for greater future rewards also involves trust. If we do not trust that someone is going to come through on future promises, or that a delay in what is immediately available to us is to our benefit, it becomes reasonably impractical to wait to take advantage of some opportunities.

I love this book because Mischel’s research and conclusions ring true to me, and to my own world views on life, biology, and psychology. I highly recommend it. While we don’t get to pick many of our challenges in life, and we can’t control everything we feel, everything the world tell us about ourselves, or the way others respond to us, we can control what we think and do about it. We have the power to make our own choices and to change our minds, and we have a huge impact on how others perceive their own abilities and self-worth through our words and actions. We will grow the more we reach out to each other in constructive ways and strive to exercise our inherent capacity to learn.

You can listen to The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control here on Audible: http://www.audible.com/pd/Science-Technology/The-Marshmallow-Test-Audiobook/B00N9E4YWY

Or buy it here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Marshmallow-Test-Mastering-Self-Control/dp/0316230871.

12 Basic Writing Tips

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I once volunteered as an assistant editor at Leading Edge Magazine, a semi-professional, student-run science fiction and fantasy magazine at BYU. My job was to read what we called the submissions “slush pile,” providing the authors we reviewed both highlights and constructive criticism while also hunting for stories we thought would work well for the magazine. This was a very good experience for me as it taught me how to give feedback to other writers and how to improve my own work. As we’re well into National Novel Writing Month, and I have a number of friends endeavoring to complete a novel for first time who have asked me for advice, I’ve put together this list of twelve tips addressing challenges common to new writers.

    1. Every story uses three basic elements: Plot, Setting, and Character. Knowing the elements of story is the first step to building one. Plot is the tension-driven structure or scaffolding of event sequences that drives the story forward. Setting (sometimes called milieu) is the physical backdrop that grounds your world spatially and temporally, and provides atmosphere. Characters are the human element, the agents we attach or respond to emotionally who make the plot and setting relevant, providing us with a reason to care about what happens next. Many new writers have a tendency to neglect plot or setting in particular. They may show characters doing mundane tasks in meticulous detail without any tension to move things forward, or put characters on the run without enough details about the setting to help the reader visualize or connect to where that character is going or why it seems important. More rarely, some writers will describe their magical world in textbook terms without giving us a character to connect with. You don’t have to have each element of story figured out perfectly before you begin writing, and you don’t have to flesh them all out completely as you go, but all three are essential ingredients that make stories tick. Knowing the elements of story will make it easier to assess where your story lacks concreteness and what you might do to make it more coherent.
    2. Begin your story with a scene. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell,” this is exactly what scene creation is all about. It’s common for beginning authors to write summaries about their world or about things the character does, “telling” their readers what happens instead of “showing.” Writing, like other art, is about capturing and exploring emotions. While figuring out the mechanics of your magic system and deriving background on your character may be important for you to map your story, the ultimate presentation needs to provide readers with a rich emotional experience rather than a mechanical one to feel engaging and satisfying. In accomplishing this, you will likely not present every detail of your planning explicitly.
    3. Use the five senses and internal emotions to describe the scene as the main character interacts with it. This is how you “show” instead of “tell,” how you go about painting an emotionally rich scene. When we read a phrase like “the boy leapt from his family’s sedan and bounded barefoot through the soft, warm grass, chasing the bitter-sweet fragrance of his uncle’s orange grove all the way to the front door,” the parts of our brains associated with moving our feet, and the physical sensations of touch and smell or taste literally activate as though we are actually running through that orange grove ourselves. Within the physical descriptions are other layers of emotion that reveal things about this boy’s personal feelings and relationships in the moment, as well as what conflicts we might expect to encounter as the scene and story progress.
    4. Explore a conflict rather than an idea. Conflict is the core aspect of a plot, and the engine that drives a story forward. If there ain’t no trouble, there ain’t no story.
    5. Have both tangible and intangible conflicts. Some authors call these “external” and “internal” conflicts respectively. My sciencey brain sometimes trips up on these terms because someone with a bullet lodged in their gut or a bad case of indigestion is actually experiencing an “external” conflict despite the fact their wound or suppressed flatulence is technically a physically internal issue. Tangible (external) conflicts might include hunting for buried treasure or rescuing a child who has fallen in a river. Intangible conflicts deal with emotions and relationships, and might include resolving bitter differences with an enemy or overcoming one’s fear of drowning. Good stories need and use both to create a) an interesting plot (the tangible aspect) and b) an emotionally interesting journey (the intangible aspect).
    6. Decide what your characters want and why they can’t have it (until the end). Every story boils down to one central plot or “main plot.” Main plots, and lesser, diverging subplots which provide contrast and depth in conjunction with the main plot, consist of some combination of intangible and tangible conflicts that persist throughout the story. Many authors like to think of their main plot in terms of one, and only one, central goal or thing their protagonist wants, and the obstacles or conflicts that will arise to keep them from getting what they want until the climax. You don’t have to begin your story with your main conflict or plot sequence, but you certainly can. In the three-act structure, the main plot conflict is usually sparked toward the end of Act I, signaling a shift that sets your character on their journey to change, answer, or achieve that one thing. While most stories will have only one main plot, short stories will usually have only one subplot in addition (or none if it’s really short), while novels might have two or three, or more, in addition to the main plot.
    7. Use try-fail cycles. I consider try-fail cycles the basic mechanism of compelling plot structure. After the main conflict has been initiated in Act I, and the main character’s goals have switched gears to focus on getting what they want that they can’t have because something has gotten in the way, he or she should make multiple attempts to solve the problem or overcome obstacles before he or she finally succeeds. After each try-fail attempt, the problem should grow, expanding in scope to affect more people, compounding in its effects, raising the stakes, and putting more strain on you characters. Having at least three try-fail cycles, climaxing, and resolving the story after the third attempt, works best. (See this article for a great discussion on the Rule of Three).
    8. Make your characters proactive. Assess whether your hero or protagonist is being chased from plot point to plot point by one bad circumstance or incident after another, or whether he is actively making choices and compromises that get him into deeper and deeper trouble until the story climaxes. Characters feel more realistic and dynamic when they are proactive agents of their plight rather than passive puppets of fate and other people’s actions.
    9. Open your scene with two or more characters interacting with each other. I gleaned this advice from David Farland at a conference where he talked about what he looks for in the stories that he picks to be finalists in the Writers of the Future contest. Because characters provide the emotional attachment (or distance) between the audience and the events of the story, it’s much easier to create conflict and to make a scene emotionally relevant if two or more people are proactively engaging with each other in some situation. Avoid an opening with one person sitting alone, eating her serial, and thinking about how sad, happy, bored, amazing, etc. she is until some outside force stimulates her to take action.
    10. Make the weirdness in your world relatable. This is another place the five senses can help make your fantasy world both imaginative and comprehensible as well as emotionally relevant, although any creative combination of the familiar with the strange image or character you’re trying to create will work well. Have an alien creature you want to describe? In Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he uses a variety of familiar analogs to describe the alien things replacing people in town, including seed pods, minted coins, and wax figures. What about a steampunk airship battle? A little research on the environment and culture aboard an eighteenth century European sea ship would probably work quite well–just substitute the motion of the sea for fighter-jet turbulence and you’re set.
    11. Let your characters act natural. Take a close look at the actions and especially the dialogue of your characters. Ask yourself whether this is what you’d expect someone to say or do in real life, or how you’d expect them to reasonably act given the circumstances. Even if they’re living in a bizarre world that works very differently from our own, your characters are still human (this includes the non-human characters we personify in some way). Readers will be disappointed if the characters who already know the backstory describe past events to each other like actors in a TV commercial trying to get you to buy some weird new brand of bleach that will change your life for just $19.99 plus shipping and handling, or they do something the plot requires but is totally out of character for their previously demonstrated personality.
    12. Avoid purple prose. Beginning writers will sometimes focus on making descriptions pretty and ornate, or pretentiously poetic, rather than on telling a good story. This is called “purple prose.” Purple prose distracts the reader from the story by making all the story elements feel contrived and over the top. Remember that having good plot structure, an interesting character, and a well-suited, well-integrated setting are what make stories meaningful and entertaining. Focus on what’s important. Keep descriptions simple and real.

To finish today’s post, here is a list of my favorite books and websites on writing, plotting, and story craft. You can also find links to the websites on my sidebar.

Books:

Online Resources: