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Fantasy Genre: The Spectrum of Magic

The Fantasy Genre

Fantasy magic

The Spectrum of Magic

 Many things separate the fantasy genre from other genres, the variety of characters – dragons, fairies, elves, dwarves, etc. – talking trees, or mystical locations, but none are as important as the magical system that you use.

As you create a magical system, there are acceptable patterns that you may follow. Remember to create a system unique to your story and always consistent.  Adam Johnson writes about magical systems and how to create them.


Hard magic, Soft magic, and the Middleground.


Soft Magic:

Soft magic is an underlying force that isn’t quite explained. An Example is The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien never really explains the way his magic works so, we are left with a sense of wonderment and feeling like there is powerful energy at work in the background. He executes this well because he doesn’t use magic to solve the character’s problems. He doesn’t just have Gandolf teleport Frodo to Mount Doom because that wouldn’t make any sense to the reader and would subsequently make the magic and by extension, the whole story, seem weaker.

Soft magic can be a great tool for creating a sense of wonderment in your world. However, you must be careful in how you use it. When creating a soft magic system, you should do it in a way that just supports the characters and the feel of the story. You should not use magic to solve problems in a soft magic system. If you do, it will feel like you’re creating new rules for each situation to give your character a way out. That gets old really fast. Often, in soft magic, Spells won’t turn out the way the character intended them to. If something completely unexpected happens, that the character didn’t see coming, that’s ok because the reader didn’t see it coming either. So, in Soft magic, the Magic system should be there to support the ambiance of the story, not advance the plot. Unless the magic causes problems for the character, then, it’s perfect for the plot.


Hard Magic:

Hard magic is where the author lays out the rules and applications for the reader. This is done so the reader can have fun and feel like a part of the magic. It also allows the author to come up with all kinds of tricks and twists within their magic system. These are my favorite types of systems to write. They allow me to have fun creating the system. As a reader, I love understanding the inner-workings of a magic system and seeing what the author comes up with and if it seems comprehensive to the rules set forth.

If you think of it in superhero terms, You are introduced to your hero then you are introduced to their powers. Once you know what their powers are, you already have a great idea of what they can do and what their limits are. From there the author can use those abilities to come up with a whole host of abilities that remain within that power set. Each new ability that makes sense will excite the reader and give them a greater sense of realism.


The Middle Ground:

The Middle ground is creating a balance between those two ends of the spectrum. It means giving your reader a good idea of what to expect while still maintaining a sense of wonder within the world. The Harry Potter series is a perfect example of a great middle ground magic system. Ms. Rowling gives us some general guidelines to how her magic works. We know that they need a wand and that they need to know the correct incantations. Those rules stay pretty consistent throughout the series but, She also adds new rules and new applications of magic in each book. This allows her to retain a great sense of wonderment over all. So, each individual book stays very consistent with the rules that have been introduced in that book. This means that her whole series was somewhat soft magic but, each individual book was hard magic. This created a wonderful balance that is a blast to read and easy to get lost in.


 Traditional Forms of Magic

  • Abjuration: The power to protect/heal.

The school of Abjuration is focused on defensive and healing powers. The can create physical and magical barriers such as walls and force fields. The create glyphs and wards to protect an area or person. Glyphs and wards have an incredible range of effects and intensities. They are activated by an enemy crossing into it or passing through it. Once activated, a ward will release the effect that has been stored in it. It can be anything from trapping the enemy to transporting them to another dimension, even instant death.

Abjurers also have potent healing magic. This can range from healing minor cuts to restoring entire limbs. Depending on your magic system, Abjurers can even bring the dead back to life.

Feats include:

  • Defense Powers
  • Force-Field Generation
  • Healing


  • Conjuration: The power to transport living and non-living things.

Conjuration is a craft that requires a great deal of Studying and research. There are several applications of this magic but, The primary way it’s used is for summoning. Summoning is The act of pulling a Creature/Demon or Entity from their realm or their home and transporting them right in front of the mage. Summoning can work a few different ways as well. The creature summoned can be under complete control of the mage, The creature could just attack whatever he sees, and the mage has no control. The Summoner must draw pentacles on the ground. One for themselves and one to contain the creature. From there, the summoner will employ tactics to either strike a deal with the creature or torture them until they agree to help.

Regardless of the tactic, the summoner must always be wary. The creature summoned is not happy to be pulled away from home and usually, want to kill the summoner. So great lengths are taken to ensure the casters safety and the creatures cooperation.

Summoners can also use their power to open portals to different destinations.

Feats Include:

  • Creation
  • Summoning
  • Teleportation


  • Divination: The power to gain information.

Divination is the school of magic that focuses on gathering information, viewing, and probability. A mage that uses Divination is often called a Diviner. Let’s say you encounter a new situation or machine. You have to experience the situation to figure out what will work and what won’t. After you learn how it works, you’ll start to learn why it works as well. A Diviner can skip those steps by looking at a situation and automatically seeing all the various outcomes for the situation.Divination can also be used to make predictions.

With the Aid of a crystal or a scrying glass, a Diviner can Watch things happen in real time as if he were there. powerful practitioners of the craft can even read thoughts from Far away.

  • Extrasensory Perception
  • Magic Sensing


  • Enchantment: The power to influence the minds/emotions.

Note:  This is the magical application of enchantment on another living being. Enchantment of objects follows a different set of rules and can have limitless outcomes.

Enchantment is the ability to control someone’s mind or their emotions. Enchantments can come in many forms but, it is important to note that it does not include possession of a host’s body. The Enchanter can only control the mind and the body, not enter it. Enchanters use this power to make people perform tasks or to tip the odds of a situation in their favor. It is sort of like hypnosis in a sense. In Star Wars, Jedi’s use a form of Enchantment that they call “The Jedi mind trick.” It is a strong power of suggestion that essentially brainwashes the subject. This can also be used for interrogation and the extraction of information.

Feats include:

  • Invocation
  • Mental Manipulation
  • Emotional Manipulation


  • Evocation: The power to control the forces of Nature for a variety of effects.

Evocation is the practice of Calling forth energies to work for you. It can be summoning fireballs or affecting the energies in your own environment to achieve things like telekinesis. In the hands of an experienced wizard, the school of Evocation can be used to cause tremendous damage. Users of Evocation can call forth lightning and projectiles of concentrated magic energy.

  • Animate/Reanimation
  • Elemental Manipulation
  • Energy Manipulation
  • Telekinesis


  • Illusion: The power to create illusions.

Illusionists are often overlooked and thought of as being weak. This is not the case at all. Being able to trick the mind is an incredibly powerful tool. Creating illusions is pretty self-explanatory. The caster creates a vision of something that’s not really there. Seems simple right? The Illusionist, however, can be incredibly deceptive and has the ability to get themselves in and out of virtually any situation. The only downside for them is that their illusions must be real enough to fool even the most perceptive of people. If someone is very sharp mentally, they can see through the illusion for what it really is.

Some feats include:

  • Disappearing
  • Illusive Appearance
  • Psychosomatic Illusion
  • Subjective Reality: create illusions that become partially real.


Necromancy: The power to manipulate the forces of Death.

Necromancy is often regarded as the darkest of dark arts. Many of the spells and rituals require some or all of someone’s life force. So, you either have to drain them or kill them to gain the catalyst you need for power. Necromancers are obsessed with power and will stop at nothing to become more powerful. The ultimate goal of any necromancer is to become immortal. Necromancers can raise the dead from their graves and control legions of them depending on their strength and ability. They can speak with the dead and gain control over the undead, i.e., a powerful necromancer could control a vampire, but an extremely powerful vampire isn’t likely able to be controlled. If a necromancer becomes extremely powerful in his lifetime, he has a chance to come back to life as a lich after he dies.

Some Feats include:

  • Immortality
  • Undead Manipulation
  • Skin/bone grafting


  • Transmutation: The power to transform living or non-living

Transmutation is the ability to transform one thing into another whether the subject is living or not. Granted, as with anything else, there are varying degrees of difficulty. It’s one thing to turn a cup into a pencil but, quite another to turn a person into a plate.This can be used a wide variety of ways.

Some feats include:

  • Elemental Transmutation
  • Shapeshifting


Contemporary Magic

  • Blood Magic


The mage uses his own blood as a source of power. Blood mages can achieve incredible feats and perform incredible acts of power, all of which are considerably gruesome. The blood mage typically performs a ritual or speaks an incantation to build up the magical energy then, they cut themselves to release the magic along with their blood. So, essentially they pay for magic with their blood or their life force.

Blood Mages can also Twist and bend the blood of another to cause excruciating pain or to control them like puppets on a string. This type of magic is typically considered evil or taboo even in the most diverse of fantasy worlds.

As you create your magic system, remember that the desired goal is for your reader to suspend reality and engage in your world. Provide them with a structure that makes your magic plausible, and they will want to inhabit your world.




Article was written by Adam Johnson for Writer Unite! Workshop




Adam Johnson

Since Adam Johnson was a child, he had an insatiable craving for a great story. Whether movies, comic books, TV, he was hooked on the story. An invitation to play Dungeons and Dragons led Adam to write a backstory of one of the characters, and the desire to write fantasy was born. When not writing high fantasy, Adam is restaurant management and a tattoo artist. He also serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.


Fantasy Genre: Fantasy Worlds –  Creating Imagination

Fantasy Worlds – Creating Imagination

Fantasy world

“The muse in charge of fantasy wears good, sensible shoes.”
― Lloyd Alexander


As a writer of fantasy, you are in control of your reader’s imagination. No other genre allows a writer to create a world for a story to exist in impossible ways. Consider a cloud city in science fiction story. Science fiction can suspend reality to a point, but the events, spaceships, and weapons involved require that there be some grounding in the laws of physics as we know them to be plausible. Those floating cities need anti-gravity machines to exist. Not so in fantasy, magic makes the cities float.

That is not to say that rules do not exist when world building in the fantasy genre. As discussed in a previous article, the magic selected or created for the story must have rules that are followed to be plausible.

Where to begin? You should begin with the plot of your story and your characters. Consider the adventures your character will have throughout the story and then imagine you are the reader. Where would you want the story to unfold? Let’s start with the basics.

The World

Your story can exist anywhere. Create an entire world, a hidden realm, or a magical world existing within a mortal world. The sky can be orange, the grass purple or crystal, the possibilities are endless.

Build your world by considering the following:

  • Time Period: Is your adventure in an ancient realm or a modern world? Much of the rest of your decisions regarding the world you create will be influenced by the time period you set it in. Agrarian, industrial or technological? Don’t forget to determine their calender.
  • Where do your characters live, forest, mountain, valley, desert? Near a river or an ocean?
  • Cold, hot, temperate. Does it rain or snow or is there endless heat? Are there major storms, with lightning, thunder, torrential rains, typhoons, whirlwinds? Or is the climate stable… perhaps due to magic?
  • Inhabitants: Describe your characters. Color of hair, eyes, how they move. Decide the clothing they wear. What is their language and is there more than one language spoken? What is their diet?
  • Flora and fauna: What animals exit? Are they used for food, burden, transportation, or recreation? Determine the trees, grasses, flowers, agricultural plants.
  • Dwellings: Do they live in wooden or mud huts, stone houses, or palaces, suburbs or the city. Single-family units or tribes?
  • How do they educate the population or those with magical skills?
  • What is their social and family structures? Their beliefs? How do they interact with each other? How do they care for the sick? How do they entertain themselves? Do they have common values or are they in conflict? Are they militaristic or passive?
  • History: How did their civilization evolve. Has magic always been a part of the world? What races of magical beings have been lost or still exist. If more than one realm, are they at war?
  • Employment: Do they trade or barter? How do people make a living? How are they compensated?
  • Transportation: Do they travel via magic, or beast, or in a mechanical vehicle?

Adam Johnson writes about the aspects of world building that often get overlooked.

Your world can be as fantastic as you want it to be. Never limit yourself when creating your world. However, you should start with physics that mirror our own. Meaning, gravity functions the same. Unless, your setting is an alien world but, the physics of that world must be consistent with what we understand about physics. This will keep the world at least somewhat familiar to the reader, making them more comfortable.

Consistency is key to plausibility. If you have made changes to your world, they cannot become an afterthought. Your world and your characters must be consistent, and any changes must be apparent and have solid reasoning for the change. Things should function as much like our world as it can while retaining the details that make your world special. (Such as the wizarding world of Harry Potter. The wizarding world had its own rules but, they were all consistent. Also, that world was hidden from the human world to show the difference and allow our minds to be more open to the concepts that she introduced after.)

It is your world but, it is not just about you. Your world should be somewhere that other people would want to live in. This means that your world should be so immersive that once the reader is finished, they are scrambling to find anything that will put them back in that world. It doesn’t just have to be friendly, it can be a treacherous world that no-one wants to find themselves in but, if you really capture that world in all its glory, the reader will be begging to come back.

Remember to ask yourself, who am I writing this for? Let’s not fool ourselves, we write stories because we love weaving a tale. There’s a story that we want to see come to life, and we take it upon ourselves to craft the story. With that being said, there is always an audience that we are writing for.


By Adam Johnson and Deborah Ratliff



Quotations from an article written by Adam Johnson for the Facebook group Writers Unite!



Since Adam Johnson was a child, he had an insatiable craving for a great story. Whether movies, comic books, TV, he was hooked on the story. An invitation to play Dungeons and Dragons led Adam to write a backstory of one of the characters, and the desire to write fantasy was born. When not writing high fantasy, Adam is restaurant chain management and a tattoo artist. He also serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.

Deborah Ratliff is a Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A lifelong mystery fan, her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published soon and a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. She has also written numerous articles on writing. Deborah serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.


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Fantasy Genre: Characters Verisimilitude


Fantasy character

Fantasy Characters: Verisimilitude

Since we are discussing characters, let’s talk about the most important tool an author can utilize when dealing with character development…


Verisimilitude, defined as the appearance of being true or real, is the author’s ability to make the character seem real. “How do I make my characters seem real,” you might ask. Your character should seem just as real to you as your best friend. You should know them like you know yourself. Make them unique, give them quirks, flaws, and traits. Give them jobs, families, and friends. To truly convey your character in a way that seems real, you must understand who that character is. Deborah has been kind enough to cover your crucial character types and some of the traits that make your characters stand out from the rest so, let’s dig a little deeper into the character’s and how detailing their profession can add considerable depth to a character.


Professions: In literature as a whole, people love reading about work, especially if it’s a job that they have been exposed to. This is just as important to a fantasy novel. You may not be able to write about jobs that are directly identifiable with the reader. Let’s face it unless it’s an Urban Fantasy, your Protagonist won’t be working behind the counter of a local McDonald’s.

However, you can still add a sense of realism to the professions included in your fantasy. Do some research into jobs that were held hundreds of years ago. Compare what you know about fantasy to what they were doing in the real world. We all know what a blacksmith is but, do you know what a quartermaster is? Do you know about the smithing process? The heat treat and the quench of the blade are crucial to the hardness, and its ability to keep an edge. It’s adding small detail like this into your work that really makes your story stand out. It also gives you credibility with the reader. Trust me, if talking about a profession that actually exists in the real world you want to have your facts straight. Being an author means opening yourself to constant scrutiny by your peers and the public. They will be all too happy to point out any mistakes you have in your details. This is not meant to discourage you but, to help you add the sense of realism that readers are looking for when they want to totally immerse themselves in your world.

What about professions that don’t exist in the real world? No, your protagonist won’t be working the drive-thru but, they might be an apprentice to a wizard or a master of potions. They could be a demon hunter, or maybe they are something we’ve never seen before. Regardless of the profession, all professions have rules and a lifestyle that comes with it. Compare your profession to real-world professions and find similarities. Find common complaints that your character might have about the work. Maybe your character absolutely loves his job but, doesn’t make a great living doing it. Put yourself in their shoes and see what they would be doing on a day to day basis. Would a sorcerer’s apprentice just hold things and watch his master perform magic? No! He would have to have detailed knowledge of the spell components his master needs and the properties of each. He would be charged with keeping the wizard’s study clean and organized. He would file all the books and scrolls for his master as well as run errands as needed. Again, it’s the small details that you add that make a profound impact on the immersive nature of your world.

Can you overdo it? Of course, you can! You don’t want to add small details to every little thing that your reader encounters in your book, or you’ll end up with a 2,000-page tome with step by step instructions on everything from blacksmithing to knitting. Details are important but, it’s the finesse that they are delivered with that make an author stand out. Your characters, your world is completely your own. You should know as much as you possibly can about them to deliver a real experience of suspended disbelief.







Since Adam Johnson was a child, he had an insatiable craving for a great story. Whether movies, comic books, TV, he was hooked on the story. An invitation to play Dungeons and Dragons led Adam to write a backstory of one of the characters, and the desire to write fantasy was born. When not writing high fantasy, Adam is restaurant management and a tattoo artist. He also serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.

Writers Unite!:

The Fantasy Genre: Characters

The Fantasy Genre

Fantasy character

Fantasy Characters


“just because a mage wears the black robes does not make him evil.” 
― Margaret Weis


Fantasy characters. The moment we begin to think about them I suspect images of characters from our favorite books, movies, or cartoons begin to rise from our memories. Could be a witch or wizard, a dragon or troll, a superhero or an evil stepmother that reminds us of our favorite story. The question is not which character we remember but why. What characteristics of a fantasy character makes them memorable?

Fantasy stories are rarely simple. They are an incredible tale of the impossible told on an epic scale. With such a grand story there must be characters that are equally majestic. They form the core of your story and the conduit to complete the quest.

Overall, our main characters, the protagonist, and antagonist regardless of genre are the hooks we use to draw our readers into our realm. If we don’t provide a character that a reader can identify with the reader loses interest. In a fantasy, while there may be several main characters, the focus will always be on the one character who faces the ultimate conflict. Secondary characters also hold a very important role in the story. In addition to providing support for the main character, they carry subplot arcs to drive the story to its conclusion.

The Protagonist

The most important character in any story is the protagonist. If your reader does not identify with the protagonist, the quality of the story and other characters won’t matter. It is imperative to capture your reader’s heart for them to become engaged.

The protagonist is the hero, and in fantasy as in other genres, this character should possess the strength of soul and determination. Their commitment to the story’s goal and how they deal with conflict and obstacles in their path drives the narrative. Your hero should be flawed, hold secrets, be at times uncertain and afraid. The more human and ordinary the character is the more endeared they become to the reader.

Fantasy adds another level to the protagonist’s abilities, magic. Decide how your character will reveal their powers or skills or react to magic if they do not have powers. Is this quest the hero’s destiny or was he drawn in by accident? Does your character have a dark side, something that must be quelled to complete their task?

This is fantasy. Allow the magical tone of your story to flow through your protagonist.

The Antagonist

Ah, the evil genius. But should your antagonist be entirely evil? The answer is no. It is easy to assign only vile characteristics to a villain. Resist the temptation. As you give your protagonist flaws, give your villain some qualities that your reader can identify with as well. Remember, the villain thinks his motivation is correct. By giving your villain a reason for his evil ways, you bring depth to his actions. Weaving the villain into the lives of the protagonist and his sidekicks also strengthens the power of the antagonist to create greater conflict.

Secondary Characters

There will be sidekicks. There must be sidekicks. They provide a support network and are needed to show the human and vulnerable side of your hero. These characters may not always be physically with the protagonist, but they are an integral part of the story. In fantasy, the variety of characters is boundless and the more imaginative, the more interest for your readers. Think Muggles and Hobbits and dragons and begin to create.

Among the secondary characters you will find the following:

Best Friend: A single secondary character who is a confidant, loyal to a fault, someone, who would give their life for the hero. To create a stronger bond between hero and best friend add depth by disagreement, estrangement, competitiveness, or humor. Placing the best friend in mortal danger often provides the catalyst for the hero to grow and face the conflicts ahead.

Mentor: A classic figure in fantasy, the mentor gives guidance and educates the hero as he follows his destiny. The mentor, who may have magical powers or wisdom, could be someone familiar or a stranger, the relationship strained or close. At some point in the story for the hero to prove they have grown and no longer need their mentor, there could be an emotional parting of the ways.

Romantic Interest: We all love a good romance, and the fantasy genre is no different. A love interest also humanizes the protagonist, adding another layer to the hero’s vulnerability. Often a romantic partner can serve to challenge the hero to remain committed to the quest despite whatever adversities are encountered. Do not make the romance larger than life or it will overshadow the ultimate quest, keep the relationship grounded and real.

 In truth, these characters minus a magic spell or two, are characters found in any genre. The differences are often in the minute details. Be inventive, allow some characters not to be traditional. Never lose sight of the world you have created and allow your characters to reveal the magic it holds to your readers.




Deborah Ratliff is a Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A lifelong mystery fan, her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published soon and a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. She has also written numerous articles on writing. Deborah serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.


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WU! Workshop: Fantasy Genre

Fantasy genre 1


The Fantasy Genre


According to “Cliffnotes,” Fantasy fiction is a genre of writing in which the plot could not happen in real life (as we know it, at least).

As “Cliffnotes” is wont to do, a very succinct description. Factual but an injustice to this wonderous genre. The very word conjures up mysterious adventures, characters, creatures and most of all magic. Fantasy is a tale about the impossible.

The fantasy genre is part of speculative fiction which includes science fiction, superhero fiction, and horror/paranormal fiction. These speculative subsets differ from fantasy in one major component, plausibility. The characteristics of these genres need to reflect a familiar world. We measure the concept of space travel against our knowledge of physics. To have a superhero character, people of “normal” abilities must exist. Fantasy does not need that restriction. Trees can talk. Horses can fly. And magic exists.

Neil Gaiman in Stories: All New Tails writes, “I love the word ‘fantasy’… but I love it for the almost infinite room it gives an author to play: an infinite playroom, of a sort, in which the only boundaries are those of the imagination.” 

Fantasy need not be realistic. However, there are common characteristics that must be present.

Characteristics of the Fantasy Genre 

  • Magic: Fantasy must include a system of magic and that system have established rules that are followed. This element of the story alone separates fantasy from other genres. Creating a unique magical system is one way to set a story apart from others. Remember, magic is a character in your story, create a memorable one.
  • Characters: The development of characters, while very important in all genres, is paramount in fantasy. The scope of a fantasy story lends itself to larger than life characters and to quite a few of them. While you will always have your hero and evil villain, you may have many main characters and strong secondary characters to drive the story.
  • The Challenge: The core of your story is the challenge facing your characters. Conflicts that both drive them toward and keeps them from their goals create tension and interest in your reader. With an extensive cast of characters, conflict can be internal, between friends or between enemies. To create a cohesive story, there should be one arcing storyline which includes all your characters striving for the same goal.
  • Environment: Where does your story exist? When you create your imaginary world consider its terrain, flora and fauna, its social structure, educational systems, entertainment, military, and how it is governed. The more intricate you construct your world, the more drawn your reader will be to it.

In addition to these basic characteristics, fantasy also has many sub-genres, each of which brings unique characteristics of their own. Marcy Kennedy compiled a list of the most popular fantasy subgenres on her webpage,

Fantasy Sub-genres:

Historical Fantasy – Historical fantasy takes place in a recognizable historical time period and in a real-world location. This sub-genre encompasses things like the King Arthur legends and Robin Hood. It’s more about how the author plays with history, myth, and legend than it is about magic.

Epic Fantasy – Epic fantasies are what most people think of when they hear “fantasy.” They’re defined by a large cast of characters, multiple POVs, and complex plots. They’re set in a fictional world, and the plot often revolves around the rise and fall of kingdoms. The ultimate epic fantasies are George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Urban Fantasy – First of all, urban fantasy is set in a primarily, well, urban/city setting. You can’t set your fantasy in a medieval-esque pastoral setting and call it “urban fantasy.” It’s darker, grittier than most other fantasy, and you’ll usually find it populated with demons, vampires, werewolves, witches (not the Harry Potter kind), or zombies. Kelly Gay’s The Better Part of Darkness is an urban fantasy example. Urban fantasy is often confused with paranormal romance. While they can and do often have blurry lines, the best way to tell them apart is to ask if the core conflict is about two people falling in love. If the main focus of the story is on the relationship, then it’s a paranormal romance. If the main focus of the story is somewhere else, on some other conflict, even if it has a romantic subplot, it’s still an urban fantasy.

Superhero Fantasy – Secret identities, superhuman powers, and villains who are more than a little unhinged are part of what makes superhero fantasy so much fun. Superhero movies like X-Men, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, and Captain America are all great examples of this genre.

Traditional Fantasy – Traditional fantasy is basically a teeny, tiny epic fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world (i.e., not our world) like epic fantasy, but it has a smaller cast of characters, fewer POV characters, and a plot that focuses more on a single character (or small group) and their unique struggle than on the creation or destruction of worlds/kingdoms. Magic in some form is usually a key element of traditional fantasy. A classic traditional fantasy is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

The fraternal twin sister of traditional fantasy is sword and sorcery, where the plot focuses more on the swashbuckling adventures and daring doos of the main character than on the magical elements. In other respects, they’re the same. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is an iconic sword and sorcery fantasy.

Contemporary Fantasy – This sub-genre of fantasy sets the story in our modern-day world (as opposed to historical fantasy) and, although they can have dark elements to them, they also aim to give their reader a sense of joy and wonder. Contemporary fantasies often involve a “world within a world.” If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books, you’ve read contemporary fantasy. (Urban fantasy is actually a sub-genre of this sub-genre, but it’s easier to consider it as its own sub-genre. Confused yet?)

Alternate History – Don’t let its name fool you. Alternate history plots actually usually fall into the fantasy genre rather than the historical fiction genre because at some point in time the history of the story world diverged from the history of our world. What if the Nazis won World War II? That became the inspiration for The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. Depending on the focus of alternate history plots, they can also be categorized as science fiction.


Regardless of the type of fantasy that you choose to write, remember the world you are entering is full of magic, wonder, and the impossible. It is your job to take your reader there with you.




Deborah Ratliff is a Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A lifelong mystery fan, her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published soon and a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. She has also written numerous articles on writing. Deborah serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.

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 “People who cannot distinguish between good and bad language, or who regard the distinction as unimportant, are unlikely to think carefully about anything else.” 

― B.R. Myers


When I was in elementary school, I cheated. I cheated when I was forced to participate in spelling bees. A pastime it seemed my teachers thought was the most fun a student could have. I didn’t. And no, I did not write words on my palms or sneak a peek at the teacher’s word list. I purposely misspelled words that I knew how to spell so I could stop playing.

Spelling was never fun. Science was fun. Spelling was tedious, science was exciting. The quicker we got through the English lesson, the quicker I could do a science experiment.

I managed to get by with my little scheme for a while but never try to outwit a teacher, it rarely works. She caught on, and I had to play without missing words she knew I could spell.

The truth is I did well in English and literature, but my focus was elsewhere, my loves in school were science and chorus. Consequently, my knowledge and skills in grammar arrived by rote, not by interest. I should have been wiser.

Grammar is the foundation of communication. Without proper grammar, our thoughts cannot be expressed except as incoherent ramblings or incorrect meaning. I learned the hard way that grammar mattered in all aspects of life.

As a college freshman majoring in a science discipline, I took my first exam in Microbiology 101, my major. I was certain I had done well, plus there were ten bonus points. When I arrived at the class lab the day following the test, the lab instructor informed me that my professor wanted to see me.

Entering Dr. Weaver’s cramped, dark office crowded with antique scientific equipment, I was petrified. Maybe I hadn’t done as well as I thought. He motioned for me to sit and then handed me my exam. I had gotten a score of 103. Relief washed over me, then concern. What had I gotten incorrect? I knew the material.

Dr. Weaver noticed my confusion and smiled, a rare thing for him to do. He told me that I had done very well, but he wanted to discuss what I had not done well. Spelling. He had circled a few scientific words but told me he did not count off for spelling those words during the first semester, everyone misspelled names of bacteria. I misspelled seven common words, and he took a point off for each one.

He explained that while I had an excellent grasp of the subject matter, I needed to understand that how I presented my thoughts would influence how people perceived my credibility. Words matter, and the grammar used to structure those words matter too.

Let’s look at one of the classic examples of how grammar affects the meaning of sentences.

“Let’s eat grandpa” vs. “Let’s eat, grandpa.”

I doubt anyone doesn’t see the issues with the lack of a comma in the first sentence. The reasons for proper grammar are obvious.


General Reasons to Practice Good Grammar

In general, proper grammar is essential to communication, which, as stated earlier, is vital to all facets of life. The above example concerning grandpa shows how we emphasize ideas conveys meaning. For our thoughts to be understood, they must be conveyed with clarity and precision.

In business or social situations, first impressions are important. We are often warned ‘not to judge a book by its cover,’ an idiom that cautions us not to judge people by their appearance when first meeting them. First impressions no matter how hard we strive to be unbiased do matter. Whether the first time someone meets you is in person or via the written word, how you communicate with them is a sign of your intellect and education.

Proper communication also provides credibility, crucial as you build a career or a personal relationship.


Grammar for the Writer

Ask writers for their pet peeves about grammar and the list is endless. Confused words, dangling participles, incorrect verb tenses, their vs. they’re vs. there are among the errors cited. Yet, ask these same writers if grammar is important when writing and the results can be confusing. The answer is often no.

One of the components of writing is referred to as the writer’s voice. According to the website Pub(lishing) Crawl, “The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). Voice can be thought of in terms of the uniqueness of a vocal voice machine.”

This definition is why there are conflicts over how writers perceive grammar. We develop a unique manner of presenting our work. The voice we present to the world is ours and ours alone and at times, to impart our personalities we may break the rules. We may write a sentence of a single word or offer a fragment of a sentence for emphasis. Poetic license allows us to depart from convention.

A bit of liberty in writing complete sentences for emphasis is one thing, but we have discussed that grammar increases clarity of meaning and raises our credibility. These two concepts, one writing correctly and the other taking poetic license, seem diametrically opposed yet remain an issue of contention among writers.

My opinion is that dialogue can be written as people talk, in slang, in sentence fragments, keeping grammar deviations to a minimum. The narrative of a story, however, should follow proper grammar.

As important as these general reasons for using good grammar are there are specific reasons for writers to understand the value of communication.

  • The ‘experts’ who offer writing advice suggest that we write our first draft without concern about grammar or sentence structure. We should write to get the story out. Errors can be corrected on subsequent edits. I disagree. I think we should make a habit of using correct grammar from the beginning. The editing process is difficult enough without adding to issues that can be dealt with as you write.
  • You will be offering your manuscript for review by beta readers, editors, agents, and publishers. The novice writer with little experience needs to establish credibility. Sending a manuscript for evaluation with punctuation and spelling errors and poorly constructed sentences will not instill the confidence necessary to be taken seriously. That is not to say that any writer, regardless of experience, should submit a badly written manuscript at any time. They should not.
  • Many of us write simply for the pleasure of writing. The art of weaving words into a story brings a great deal of satisfaction. I suspect, however, that we also write for the pleasure of others. If we want our readers to become engrossed in our stories, root for our heroes, then give them a well-written book. If it isn’t well-written, it will be left unread.
  • The last reason to practice good grammar, respect for yourself. Writing a novel is not an easy task, but if you make an effort to create a well-written and well-crafted novel the results will be worth the time.

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” 

― Dorothy Parker




WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART Six: Building your world


“One of my challenges [as a writer] is to make sure that I’m giving the reader details that the character cares about rather than details that I care about. I’d say that’s key to world-building.” 

― Jessica Andersen


One of the joys of reading, and there are many, is becoming lost in the world the author has created. One moment you can be in your familiar environment and the next, transported to an alien world, a medieval village, or a busy city street in present day. My favorite quote about writing is one by the author of The Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R. R. Martin,  A Dance with Dragons

A thousand lives. Indeed, we can live a thousand lives within wonderful and unique environments created in a writer’s imagination.

One of the most important aspects of writing a novel is presenting the world in which the story takes place. Often the setting a writer creates provides the framework for a story, but at times can be an integral part of the plot. Offering a detailed world that your character will inhabit enhances your reader’s enjoyment.

There are three basic world building categories, the Imaginary World, the Alternate Reality World, and the Real World.

The Imaginary World:

The most common world building takes place in the fantasy and science fiction genres. Two of the most famous worlds created in these genres are Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Two different worlds, both complex and memorable and totally alien to the world we live in, yet as we will discuss later in this article, elements of the familiar remains.

Your first step in creating your world is envisioning the society you want to portray. Once you establish that concept, it is time to create your world. The number one rule I try to follow when writing is to keep my story plausible. To do that when you are creating a world you need to establish familiar characteristics.

Let us use a science fiction story as a model and consider some questions to identify your world.

  • Where are you in the universe? Are you in a binary sun system or on a moon? Is there a nebula filling your sky?
  • What is the climate? Is your planet arid or covered in vast oceans?
  • What do the inhabitants look like? What do they eat? What are their values, their customs, their clothing styles?
  • Describe their government systems. Are the people agrarians or industrialized?
  • Do they value education? Do they love music and art?
  • Are they peaceful or warlike?

There are many sites online that provide templates with questions like the ones above to help you define your world. Remember, however, that many of the elements that you choose for your world should not appear in your story unless pivotal to the plot. Focus on the aspects that drive your story and add other pertinent descriptions as warranted.

The fantasy and sci-fi genres can also collide with reality, and one of the most popular examples is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Set in England, both the modern-day world and a magical realm exist together. The contrast between reality and fantasy allows the reader to relate to the story.

“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.”

― M. John Harrison


The Alternate Reality World:

Another type of world building is creating alternate realities. Dystopian and Utopian novels, subgenres of science fiction, and alternate history falls into the alternate reality category. These stories occur in recognizable environments where a single event changes the path of history.

The what-if scenario of alternate reality fiction explores the mistakes and the triumphs of mankind’s history, offering insight into what could have happened if reality had taken a different path.

  • What would have happened if the outcomes of the World Wars had been different?
  • What would the consequences have been if certain evolutionary events had not occurred?
  • What if aliens had visited or a climate altering asteroid hit the planet?

What is extremely important in this category of world-building is the establishment of historical references. If you are going write about the outcome of a World War, you must do the research and know the facts about the war to the point where you make that change. Following that event, you should maintain as much reality as you can to add credibility to the story.

Dystopian, utopian, and post- apocalyptic fiction has become very popular with many written in the young-adult genre. These stories take place after a major catastrophe or event has occurred leading to totalitarian or environmentally degraded systems or in the case of a utopian society, idealistic. While most of these stories will reference the catastrophe that befell the society but in the case of some stories, the events are at times never revealed. As the writer, you should decide how much information you give or keep from your reader and how it will affect your story.


The Real World:

All other genres fall into this category. This is the world as we know it. You choose a real location for your stories often for a certain ambiance or familiarity that you want to convey. The more familiar you are with a location, the small town you grew up in, where you went to college, or a place where you lived for many years, the easier it will be to transport your reader into the environment.

You have choices, you can set your story in a real locale or a fictitious town using the knowledge of the community. When using real communities, the use of accurate landmarks offers reference points for your reader to gain a sense of place. It is advisable not to use the names of commercial enterprises or professional services to protect privacy.

If you choose a locale you are not familiar with, say you want to set a story in Colorado at a ski resort, but you have never been skiing, then you must research the area. The optimal way to conduct research is to pack your bags and visit the location, but that is not always practical. Fortunately, we now have at our fingertips the magic of search engines on the Internet. Use those search engines, use YouTube, use Google Earth’s street view to explore the setting. It might not be the same as being there, but these invaluable tools allow you to describe the story to your readers and make them feel as if they are there.

A note about historical novels, readers of this genre are often very well versed in the era they enjoy reading about. It is imperative that you research such things as clothing, food, transportation, music, mores, weaponry, vocabulary, any nuance of your story. If you cannot verify an item or word, etc. you wish to write about, do not mention it. It will only discredit your work.


World building provides the canvas for your story, but you should remember that your setting is as important as the story and characters that you create. In some novels, you may need only the sense of an urban setting or a small-town ambiance, for another, you may need the power and danger of a mountainous terrain or the vastness of a stormy ocean. Regardless, give your reader what you see, hear, taste and smell when you think about the locale you have chosen and how that makes you feel. Do not tell, show, be descriptive, let them smell the fresh bread from the bakery, feel the cold, icy snow, hear the sirens or the dogs barking.

Balance these three components, story, characters, and setting, and you will capture your reader’s imagination.


“I’m not going to tell you how to start a bug-powered vehicle, I’m just going to put you inside one with somebody who knows how, and send you off on a ride.” 

― Kameron HurleyLightspeed Magazine, October 2013



WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART Five: Creating Unforgettable Characters

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing


A playwright in a local writing group I attend posed an interesting question. He wanted to know what the group thought attracted readers to read the same authors repeatedly. The consensus reached was that we return to our favorite authors because they give us characters we identify with, cheer for and care about.

Think about a series of books you are fond of and consider what brings you back every time that author publishes a new novel. I’m certain the genre is appealing and likely the author writes well and is entertaining, but many authors are as well. I think one of the main reasons we favor certain authors is the characters they create.

Harry Bosch, Jack Ryan, Kay Scarpetta, Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Pitt, Eve Dallas, Travis McGee.

These characters and countless others are part of our lexicon. They become important to us and remain with us long after we have read the first or the last novel of the series. My father handed me my first John D. McDonald book featuring the character Travis McGee when I was sixteen, telling me I would learn about life from McDonald’s words. I cannot tell you how many times I have read each of the twenty-one novels in the Travis McGee series over the years. A self-identified beach bum and salvage operator, McGee was more than that. He was a believer in justice, respected women, hated drugs and drug dealers, greed, and corruption. A modern-day Robin Hood who helped those who could not fight the system, a characteristic of many of the characters we embrace.

As a mystery writer, many of the names I have listed above are old friends, and while I do realize they are not real, their familiarity from novel to novel allows that suspension of belief we need to immerse ourselves in fiction. These authors make their characters unforgettable and so should we.

First Impressions

The first time we meet anyone we form an immediate impression, despite knowing we should not judge a person until we get to know them better. But we do, and your reader will form an opinion of your characters when they first meet.

As we discussed in Part Four of our series, “Plotting Your Story,” you should introduce your main character, or protagonist, as soon as possible in your first chapter. If you want the reader to become engaged in the story and read until the end, then make your protagonist compelling. Give your readers a reason to like the character, to feel empathy for them, for their plight.

You should introduce your main character quickly and important supporting characters within the first chapter, even if only by name, not appearance. Your protagonist should be alluded to even if not present in the first chapter. Let your readers see who they are rooting for and who they are not.


Types of Characters in a Story:


The Protagonist

Your story revolves around this character and your readers’ interest will, as well. As we discussed, you must define them clearly and quickly. This character is your story, he/she must define the plot and be the focus of the central action of the story. The conflict that exists in the story is what this character must face and ultimately make a choice on how to deal with. Put you protagonist in peril throughout the story to involve the reader in their plight.


The Antagonist

The villain is the foil for your protagonist and the source of their conflict. Introduce the antagonist early as you would your protagonist. However, you may introduce their evil deeds first and, dependent on the genre you are writing in, have them appear in the story or reveal their identity as the antagonist at an appropriate time.


Secondary Characters

All character’s other than your protagonist and antagonist fall into this category. These characters can play a pivotal role in the story or serve a role in a transitional scene, a clerk or service technician, a doctor, any role you need. The role of side-kick falls into this category, and these characters need development to convey the level of importance they carry in a story. Keep in mind, even the most mundane of characters is an opportunity to enrich your story. A taxi driver might appear briefly in one scene, but you have the choice to make that character memorable.


“There are no hundred percent heroes.” — Travis McGee, Cinnamon Skin, 1982, by John D. MacDonald

Making Your Characters Unforgettable:

  • Appearance: As you write your characters, no doubt you will know exactly what they look like. The question is how much of that description do you impart to your readers. There are two schools of thought, describe your characters the way you want your reader to see them or allow your reader to imagine them as they choose. Whatever you decide, do not throw out an ingredient list identifying characteristics. Incorporate those characteristics into dialogue or the character’s internal dialogue as your story unfolds. If you do intend on revealing hair color or any other feature, do so within the first chapter. If you tell your reader in chapter five, your character is a brunette, and your reader thinks redhead, their connection with the character could be destroyed.
  • Background: Your characters origins, place of birth, ethnic background, ancestry, education, career choices, sports participation, hobbies, etc. can all play a role in their development. What did their parents do for a living, what unusual events occurred to impact their lives, what childhood pets did they have, all impact who they are.
  • Communication: How do they interact with people? Is he friendly, curt, argumentative? Do they have an accent, special words, or phrases that they use that shows their personality and makes them unique? What does their voice sound like? What is their internal thought processes?
  • Relationships: How do they interact with family and friends? Do they make friends easily, are they awkward in social situations? Do they genuinely like people, are they shy?
  • Goals: Decide what do your characters want. What are the goals, desires, need that you should address in your novel to move the story to its conclusion. Stories are based on conflict, and you need to show how that conflict interferes with their goals and how to resolve the issue.
  • Flaws: Do remember that your characters do not need to be perfect. While Hollywood prescribes that all characters must be handsome or beautiful, the fact is real life doesn’t look like that. Give your MC a scar, have them throw a temper tantrum, have them drink too much or hate dogs or apple pie. Let them complain about their weight or their cousins. Make them real people.


There are some things to avoid.

  • All those classic boys/girls next door, the dumb sidekick, the brave solitary cowboy, doting mothers, rough Marine drill sergeants, all those stereotypes we have come to expect, don’t use them. Do not write the expected, give your reader a character that is unique.
  • Do not create simple characters. Give them dimension. You have a cast of characters that should be interesting. While you will focus on developing your main characters and those secondary characters that are important to the story arc, don’t forget to humanize your minor characters. Make them stand out, give them a funny line or a unique attribute. If you cannot make them real, don’t use them as placeholders to take you to the next scene, cut them from the story.


How do you create these characters?

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

― William Faulkner

Story coaches and experts will tell you that writing a character biography down to shoe size and favorite dessert along with a list of books they’re read is the only way to properly develop your characters. There are numerous character development sheet templates available online if you choose to microscopically dissect their personalities. There are some authors who write a multi-page biography before they commence writing their novel.

Then there are writers like me. I think of my story arc, imagine the character, give them a name and start typing. They will tell me their likes and dislikes as we experience the story together.

Again, as in all things writing related, choose what works for you. The main thing is to remember to create multidimensional main and secondary characters that enrich your stories and propel the plot to its conclusion.


“I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn’t exist.”

― Berkeley Breathed



Chris Coling: Designing a Quality Book Cover

Host note: In our continuing series of information on the writing process, we offer this thoughtful and informative article on designing a quality book cover.


Hi, my name is Chris Coling and I’m one of the moderators for the writing group Writers Unite! I would like to promote a discussion about one of the most important parts of presenting your work to the public, namely the cover.

My writing name is Colin Gee, and I publish through Amazon on Kindle, and in paper through Createspace.

My credentials for this discussion are limited to being a relatively successful self-publisher who has been complimented on his covers; nothing more.

Admittedly, I spent quite some time on getting the concept correct [in my mind at least], involving research online and in bookshops, as well as driving my graphics man mad with tinkering.

The cover of your work is the first point of contact with a potential reader, and I believe an author should think long and hard about making sure that the initial contact draws the readers in, rather than pushes them away.

In my opinion, the cover is there to provide a strong visual clue as to the contents. I’ve seen books where the cover is a meaningless something that defies description. To me, no matter how nice it looks, or how much time it took to make, if it doesn’t offer up something about the contents of your work, it’s a waste of time.

I suspect most of us will start with the picture/graphic, against which we intend to set the other information.

This can be a dangerous area, as many images are legal minefields waiting to catch the unwary author.

My experience was helped by the genre in which I write, as there are many public domain photographs that are suitable. I also took my own photos and adapted them for purpose. Clearly, if you do that, then you know you are safe and sound and will not risk some legal interference later on down the line. Whatever you choose as your base graphic, exercise care and caution. That also applies to any other graphics you lay over the top.

Make sure you make the appropriate acknowledgments if you are using a work that is gratis, as some simply require that the owner/author be cited.

Having selected the right graphic, you can tinker with the presentation. Again, some pictures require that you record your alterations to the original.

You may decide to select a portion of a picture, rather than use the whole. It is important to remember that picture quality is very important and I would advise sticking to the original ratios to get the best display. If you cherry-pick a portion of a picture and then enlarge it, unless it is a super-duper HD image, you will lose definition.

In my case, the initial tinkering simply involved adding some colour to a B&W image. This also fitted in with my plan of using B&W images with coloured flags throughout, from different nations, using each cover to indicate which particular nation was the main protagonist within that book or was most central to the current story.

Perversely, that also backfired on me later in the series and my whole plan nearly fell apart. More of that down the page.

Adding extra images as overlays is no problem, provided you do it right. For my second book, my bro and I worked with some tank images, and trying to get the image quality the same as the picture on which they were mounted was a nightmare. I’m actually never really sure if we truly nailed it. If you’re just putting an object on the original, it’s less of a problem, but if you’re trying to incorporate an overlay into the original image, it certainly is. Be careful here.

My titles to date are all chess terms, and I use chess as a back theme on all the covers, by fading a chessboard down from the top. Chess is an important game to the Russians, which also helps create a certain feeling. I also incorporate a red chess piece. Red has a clear and unavoidable association within my chosen genre. More of the piece later.
Clearly, text style is a major decision for you.

My research in bookshops quickly led me down the road of solid gold text. There was simply too much of it on display to ignore. Plus, I actually liked it. At the time you read this, there may be a different style favoured.

I did decide to have more than one text type on the cover, but again, the research showed that was a reasonable decision, so long as everything was legible and there was no confusion between font styles.

The layout suggested itself and followed reasonably conventional lines.

Title in large text at the top, followed by smaller text with the series info and author name, or vice versa for some of the titles. This may not work for your book, and you can see a number of different presentations on Amazon or in bookstores.

With the text, if you elect for a solid gold as I did, it clearly risks obstructing something in the image you may wish to fall under the reader’s eye, so setting out your letters is important. Remember, with publishers like Createspace, there is a gutter zone into which you may not place any cover text. It’s simple enough to launch their cover creator and experiment with that.

The decision to state that each book was part of a series was one I never foresaw as having any issues. It seemed quite reasonable to me. However, some of my feedback on ‘Opening Moves’ suggested that had a reader known it was a series of books, they would not have bought the first one. Weird of course, as it stated clearly in the synopsis and on the cover that they were a series, but interesting from the point of view that some people don’t want to read a series of books. None the less, to my mind, it’s fair to let a potential reader know.

During all of this layout work, I tended to have a mind towards the rest of the series.
To me, certain uniformity draws the series together. I would keep the same/similar font, text positioning, style, and the chess hints throughout, so whatever I decided for the first cover had to be a style that transferred easily to those that followed.

One thing that bugged me during my research was the extensive use of flowery fonts by some authors, many of whose books were traditionally published. Yes, some look very nice indeed, but I would suggest that, if a potential reader cannot read the cover without deep study at close quarters, then you will already have lost the cover browser type reader who, put simply, will move on as they are unable to understand the basic words of your title.

Back to the chess piece. It’s a red queen. It’s also damaged. It was a major clue to the overall story, hidden in plain sight. I think that it wasn’t until book six came out that someone asked the question.

I incorporated the chess piece in the text [in the main,] occasionally in some other way. A bit-part character in book one is a Soviet intelligence officer who was wounded in the left foot. She, in the guise of the Red Queen, was sat on the front cover for the entire series. Whilst it was a risk, it certainly built up the ‘you’re a sneaky swine, Gee’ kudos with my fan base. Such things may not be for you, indeed you may not have a story that supports similar efforts, but I enjoyed doing it, and the one I got over on thousands of readers. Perhaps that was nothing more than hubris on my part?

One way I was very fortunate was in having a graphics man in the family, namely my brother, Jason. It might have been easy to just accept something, in order not to annoy someone who had already invested hours in doing something for you free of charge, but I always felt it was worth getting right. The forbearance he showed in doing a whole piece of work again, simply to move something a fraction of a millimetre, was astounding.

I hope you are similarly fortunate, but my point is, do not let the cover go forward until it is, in your opinion, the best it can be. I reiterate, your cover is the first point of contact and therefore your best chance of hooking a potential reader in.
Back to the flags. I used a national flag on each cover, placing them on roads or rivers, each conforming to the lines of the original photo. It worked well and without problems, until I place the US flag on a road, over which US soldiers were running and a US tank was advancing.

Fortunately, I tend to post the covers in advance on my sites. There were rumbles about using the US flag in such a way, and having men trample on it. There had been no contrary views when using the Tricoleur, the German flag and others previously. Suddenly I was faced with a possible destruction of my overall flag plan. Fortunately, the books had just moved to the forming of NATO, so I thought on my feet and used the NATO flag instead, which was considered acceptable. I guess the lesson there is that, despite your best laid plans, there is always something that lies in wait to bite you in the backside. I was very lucky to get away with it. I’ve attached the US version of the cover so you can see what the fuss was about.

The spine is important if your book is to be sold through an outlet, less so if sold through Createspace or similar, and completely unnecessary if sold as an e-book. I simply used different colours and text displays on my Createspace offerings, alternating between a dark and light colour spine, and contrasting text. I wanted the name and author to be clear and easily read.

The rear cover has no worth in an e-book, but is clearly important for Createspace and bookshop sales. Remember to leave space in your design for the barcode, and remember the gutter policy of the company you are using!

I have tended to use the synopsis placed online in Amazon as the text for the back cover. Seems reasonable to me. A word of caution on the picture you choose to go underneath that text. The writing is likely to be smaller so the picture cannot be too busy, or words will risk getting lost. The pictures I have employed have supported the general theme of the book in question, but have never been intended to do anything other than form a relevant backdrop to the text that describes the book’s contents. I have only ever used B&W photos on the rear covers, again to conform to the overall theme, and to make sure the text is clear and readable. I’ve included a single example to show you exactly what I mean.

You will now have a cover that you think is wonderful and extremely fantastic. Congratulations….. but….. Hold your horses, kemo sabay!

Show it to people you don’t know, without them knowing it’s yours. Friends and family can be notoriously unreliable when it comes to honestly and sincerity of feedback. I know from personal experience. Get opinions and listen to the criticisms. If you don’t get any of that, I will be very surprised. Someone may see something very basic that you, in your glee, have missed.

Please don’t let pride get in the way here. If someone else spotted it, take it on the chin and be happy that you have a better cover because of it.

Hopefully, by the end of your journey, you will then have a cover that is everything you hoped for, and that will entrap potential readers with its message.

If I have managed to give you some ideas, then that is great. If I’ve bored you to death, I apologise. This would have been 2077 words towards my latest tome… err 2085
Just remember to make good choices, and the best of luck with your covers.

Do feel free to critique my covers and destroy them openly! I’ll cope.

These are the covers of the books that are presently out. I include an example of a rear cover for your information, and the US flag version of ‘Initiative’ that was never used.




Chris Coling is a retired firefighter and currently works at the local hospital. A part-time writer, he is presently working on his eighth and last book in an alternate-history series, with other ideas waiting in the wings. He writes for himself in the first instance but also enjoys the fact that his books are now read widely. He resides in England.

Writing Your First Novel Part Four: Plotting Your Story Idea


Sing to me, Oh Muse… “

— Ode to the Courage of a Child by Nicola Berardi: Father of Alexey

The muse.

Greek mythology tells of the Nine Muses, deities that served as the inspiration for writers, artists, and philosophers. The word muse derives from the Greek word “mosis” which means to “desire and wish.” Ancient writers would call on the muses as they began to write and to this day Muses are symbolic of “inspiration and artistic creation.”

Writers often joke about their “muse,” but I suspect each of us secretly likes that soft voice only we can hear urging us to write. In truth, our inspirations are triggered by anything and everything we observe or imagine.

Now, that your muse has spoken. The question is what do you do with the story idea swirling in your head?

In Part Three of our series, we discussed developing your story by beginning to write without a plan or creating your storyline by planning it out or plotting it. Deciding what your story is about is not the same as structuring the novel. In Part Four, we are going to examine how to put the pieces of your story together.

Story vs. Plot:

First, let’s discuss story vs. plot. For many novice writers, the difference between these two terms is unclear. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plot as the “the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work).”  A story is told in a series of scenarios, or events, interacting sequentially.

Director Martin Scorsese offers the following explanation of story vs. plot:

“The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” … Perhaps, in film, a plot could be said to be the sequence of (causally related) events that make up the narrative. The plot…it is what happens. Jul 29, 2014

Stories are about the characters’ conflicts or goals. It is important to introduce the protagonist, or main character to your readers quickly, I suggest the first page, to establish a rapport. If your readers like and identify with your character, they will be interested in reading to the conclusion of your story. We will be discussing character development in the next installment of this series, but clearly, developing plot and character go hand in hand. If you outline first, once you have fleshed out your characters, add their important elements to your plan.

As a mystery writer, I respect my readers’ need to have a murder victim within the first few pages. I introduce my antagonist within the first chapter, no later than the second chapter, as I establish clues. It is imperative, regardless of genre that you keep the small nuances of your genre in mind. While it is a writer’s desire to be innovative, it is also important to remember why your reader loves the genre you write in. Don’t disappoint them.

Story Structure:

One of the most touted methods of creating a plot in the writing world is the three-act structure, or the five or seven-act structure.  The problem is stories do not occur in three acts. Three or more acts evolved as far back as the days of Aristotle from natural stopping points within a story to provide intermission for the audience.  While there is a lot of information and instruction on this method of developing a story plot, the truth is stories are not built on any number of acts. They are crafted by identifying the conflict the story is based on, and the action needed to resolve the conflict.

There is some confusion with the three-act method with how the plots within a story unfold. There is a beginning, middle and ending of a story but they flow from each other and are not specific acts.

The Beginning

The beginning section is traditionally used for exposition, the literary term for providing character information, backstory, any information that is pertinent to the story. (We will discuss how to present this information in a future installment of this series.)  You must establish your story, introduce your characters and reveal conflict that forces your protagonist to act. The catalyst for your story should be revealed in this section, murder, the discovery of a secret, a broken romance, whatever conflict your main character must overcome.

The Middle

The middle of the story is where many novice writers lose focus. Often nicknamed the “saggy middle,” it is the portion of the book where it is imperative to keep the reader engaged. Rising action regarding the story’s conflicts should drive this section of the book. A series of issues, some resolved, some not are presented, and the pace should vary. Give your reader time to catch their breath, a constant roller coaster ride will only serve to tire them.

In this middle section, your goal is to move the story on to its conclusion. Conflict should rise, the characters should be placed in further jeopardy. At least one main action scene along with smaller events should be driving the story, leading your character toward the total disruption of their goals or desires.

The Ending

The ending is where the conflict or goal of the main character is broken and then resolved. Never make it easy for your protagonist to reach their desired outcome. Place them in physical or emotional harm’s way, bringing them to the brink, then redeem them at the conclusion. The last scene of your book should (if you choose) reveal the aftermath of the story as you return them to a normal life.


While we strive to be original and innovative in our writing, we need to remember that there are reasons we are governed by laws. Rules and regulations keep chaos at bay in the courthouse, Congress, or on the road. Writing rules, while not rigid, keep your novels from becoming chaotic. Following a tried and true structure provides you reader with an expected ‘friend,’ allowing their emotions to rise and fall as your unique storytelling draws them in.


Up next:  Writing Your First Novel  Part Five: Developing Memorable Characters