How to Create a Great Setting for Your Fantasy Novel

shutterstock_189557657Creating a believable, compelling setting is a key ingredient in helping readers to immerse themselves in your novel, regardless of the genre. But I believe that in fantasy novels, setting is even more critical. The rules of the world you create must make sense, and often the setting can be a compelling incentive to pick up your story in the first place.

Below are some tips from popular series that have nailed the task of creating a unique, fascinating setting.

Ensure that your setting reinforces the key concepts of your story.
Example: Divergent by Veronica Roth
In Roth’s world, people are split into five factions by personality types. The setting builds upon this concept and enables readers to understand the world better. For example, the people of the Abnegation faction, who value self-sacrifice, live in austere, simple buildings that don’t even have mirrors. The Dauntless, who value courage, live in an underground pit with paths along the sides that have no railings. Anyone could easily plunge to their death with one wrong move. The impact of Roth’s use of setting makes the world instantly feel more believable.

Reveal your setting slowly, letting readers absorb the nuances.
Example: Silo series by Hugh Howey
Howey is a master at leading readers expertly through his imaginative world. When readers are first introduced to the setting in the Silo series, which is an immense, self-sustaining underground building, it isn’t clear exactly how this world functions, or how it came to be. But through the point of view of different characters, the layers are slowly revealed. Readers see how the silo sustains itself, and how the very nature of the different levels of the silo creates divisions between people, and a class system emerges based on how close to the top of the silo people live. It is amazing how quickly the world makes sense, and as additional details are revealed, the setting continues to fascinate.

Hook readers with a mystery about the setting.
Example: The Maze Runner by James Dashner
The setting in The Maze Runner is very simple and contained, but even the characters within the story don’t understand it. The entire world is a small homestead surrounded by a giant maze that the characters can’t escape from. The only way into this world is from an elevator that only goes one way – up. Solving the mystery of who created this world and how to escape is at the crux of the story.

Create a setting that is a fantastic twist on on the real world.
Example: Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
I could point to a number of popular fantasy series for this example, because it’s a device that works well. A favorite of mine is Wicked Lovely, because Marr seamlessly weaves the world of fairies into the world as we know it, and the setting is a key component of making this work. Everyday places deserve a second look for the protagonist, Aislinn, because she is aware that an almost invisible world is overlaid on her own.

Indulge your imagination and don’t be afraid to take risks with your setting.
Example: Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I’m finishing with Harry Potter because Rowling created the most compelling world that I’ve ever encountered in YA fantasy literature. Staircases that move, secret passages, and pictures that talk all make the world feel incredibly fantastical, like imagination come to life. Fantasy-lovers are looking to be immersed in a world that is new and different, so let your imagination run a little wild.

Which fantasy novels do you think have done the best job with setting?


How to Write a Great YA Fantasy or Sci-Fi Book Blurb

shutterstock_94921276It’s ironic, after writing thousands of words to create your novel, that a 100-200 word blurb pitching your baby to potential readers could completely stump you. But that’s exactly how I felt after writing the first two books of The Conjurors Series. I had a ridiculous number of blurb drafts that all seemed cheesy and didn’t do my story justice. So now, as I’m planning to re-release the first book in my series and the second book shortly after, I decided to examine the blurbs of some of my favorite YA fantasy and sci-fi novels.

I was surprised at just how many blurbs for great books didn’t hook me. In a way it was a relief to know that even the pros struggle with describing their masterpieces succinctly. But I did find a number of blurbs that were incredibly compelling, and I analyzed what was working in these cases. Below are the tips that I’ve gleaned from awesome YA fantasy and sci-fi book blurbs.

Tip #1: Echo the tone of your book in your blurb so readers get a sense of how you write.
Example: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor (Blurb: 170 words)
Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages–not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When one of the strangers–beautiful, haunted Akiva–fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

Tip #2: Give readers an accurate sense of the plot of your story, especially if you have compelling but complicated setting or premise.
Example: Divergent, Veronica Roth (Blurb: 213 words)
In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

Debut author Veronica Roth bursts onto the literary scene with the first book in the Divergent series—dystopian thrillers filled with electrifying decisions, heartbreaking betrayals, stunning consequences, and unexpected romance.

Tip #3: Consider writing your blurb in first person (if your story is in first person) so readers can relate to your protagonist.
Example: Delirium, Lauren Oliver (Blurb: 125 words)
Ninety-five days, and then I’ll be safe.

I wonder whether the procedure will hurt.

I want to get it over with.

It’s hard to be patient.

It’s hard not to be afraid while I’m still uncured, though so far the deliria hasn’t touched me yet.

Still, I worry.

They say that in the old days, love drove people to madness.

The deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it and when you don’t.

Lauren Oliver astonished readers with her stunning debut, Before I Fall. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “raw, emotional, and, at times, beautiful. An end as brave as it is heartbreaking.” Her much-awaited second novel fulfills her promise as an exceptionally talented and versatile writer.

Tip #4: Arouse readers’ curiosity with a compelling mystery.
Example: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs (Blurb: 155 words)
A mysterious island.

An abandoned orphanage.

A strange collection of very curious photographs.

It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive. 

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

Tip #5: Draw readers into the romance in your story.
Example: Beautiful Creatures, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (Blurb: 113 words)
Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she’s struggling to conceal her power, and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever.

Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. WhenLena moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.

In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.

Some race to win. Others race to survive.

Tip #6: Expose how high the stakes are for the protagonist.
Example: The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater (Blurb: 166 words)
It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line.
Some riders live.
Others die.
At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.
Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a choice. So she enters the competition – the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.
As she did in her bestselling Shiver trilogy, author Maggie Stiefvater takes us to the breaking point, where both love and life meet their greatest obstacles, and only the strong of heart can survive. The Scorpio Races is an unforgettable reading experience.

Before I embark on the final draft of my blurbs, are there any other great tips that helped you pitch your story to readers?

Best First Sentences in YA Fantasy

shutterstock_123859036Now that I’m writing the ending of the second book in The Conjurors Series, I find myself looking back to the beginning – particularly the very first line of the story. I read a great article in The Atlantic about Stephen King’s approach to writing great first lines – make it an irresistable invitation to continue reading and introduce your style and protagonist. This master of the craft spends weeks and even years perfecting opening lines, and once he does, the rest of the story flows.

But for me, I find that writing a great first line means having a complete grasp of the story as a whole. No matter how detailed my outline is, the story is still nebulous until it’s written. I love to research the “greats” when I’m looking for inspiration, and I thought you might enjoy some of the best first lines from young adult fantasy novels that I encountered on my search.

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.
– Kristin Cashore, Graceling

This is a simple, graceful opening line that introduces the reader to the protagonist with an interesting tidbit about her personality. It also puts the reader in the middle of the action without being confusing or disorienting.

I felt her fear before I heard her screams.
– Richelle Mead, Vampire Academy

An excellent example of an attention-grabber that propels the reader straight into the story.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggghhhhhhh!” His fall seemed to go on forever.
– Jamie Thomson, Dark Lord: The Early Years

We’re smack dab in the middle of action, and the tone is already set for the offbeat humor that is unique to this story.

Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.
– Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

This short sentence both establishes the conversational, first person voice of this series as well as immediately making the reader relate to the protagonist.

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
– Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

A girl and her daemon sneaking around in the dark? Please tell me more!

The demon exploded in a shower of ichor and guts.
– Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel

Starting in the middle of an action scene is a classic way that authors hook readers, to the point where it sometimes feels cliche. But Clare decides to go big or go home with this approach, and it got my heart pumping from the first line.

The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.
– Hugh Howey, Wool
Foreshadowing at its finest. The contast between the squealing children and the prospect of death is riveting, and it also introduces us to the first protagonist of the story.

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
– Maggie Stiefvater, The Scorpio Races

This first line shares some of the characteristics of the first line from Wool, but I loved it even better because of its perfect mystery and simplicty.

Dear Reader, I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant.
– Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning

Lemony Snicket has a very unique tone in his stories, and from the first line of the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, readers can instantly get a sense of it. I also admire the use of reverse psychology. What is it about him warning me away from this horrible book that really makes me want to keep reading?

I am dead, but it’s not so bad. I’ve learned to live with it.
– Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies

One of the best first lines I’ve come across. Readers get an instant sense of both the tone of the writing and the personality of the protagonist. It also introduces us to a unique concept right away. It doesn’t take pages to discover that we’re in a world unlike anything we’ve read about before.

Did I miss any of your favorite YA fantasy first lines?

Adapting The Hero’s Journey for a Heroine

Heroesjourney_svgThe hero’s journey (also called the monomyth), outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, identifies common elements in stories from around the world, particularly myths and quest tales. I’ve been fascinated with the concepts Campbell defined since I first encountered his book, and I immediately wondered how it could be adapted for a heroine.

It has been pointed out by others (Maureen Murdock’s book The Heroine’s Journey and an awesome blog post on the FANgirl blog, for example) that the outline of the hero’s journey is inherently sexist. While I don’t dispute the truth of that argument, as a writer I’m less concerned with analyzing the pattern outlined by Campbell and more interested in how it can make my own stories richer. Being too strict in following each step in a particular order can stifle any good book, and in particular with a heroine, it’s critical to be flexible and adapt this outline to maximize its effectiveness.

Campbell’s pattern is split into three pieces, each with sub steps – the departure, initiation and return. I have found with The Conjurors series that it is helpful to have these three elements as a basic outline for each book as well as the series as a whole. It helps me to keep my thoughts organized and to keep the adventure exciting. Below I walk through how each of these steps can work for a heroine, including examples of modern young adult fantasy heroines who have walked the walk.

The first section, Departure, has five subsections:

The Call to Adventure
The moment when the heroine discovers that something exciting is in store for her is one of my favorite moments to write. Suddenly her world expands and the possibilities seem endless. A great example of a heroine’s call to adventure is in The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, when Puck Connolly realizes that one way to earn the money she needs to support her family is join the incredibly dangerous Scorpio Races as the first girl to ever compete.

Refusal of the Call
As tempting as the new adventure may be, the heroine usually doubts her ability or desire to embark on the incredible journey. This can be an especially powerful step for heroines, who may have more insecurities or a greater sense of duty to parents or even their own children than male heroes. Veronica Roth does a great job with this in Divergent. In this novel, society splits everyone into different factions based on a different virtue. Tris was raised in Abnegation (where everyone is selfless) but has the opportunity to join the Dauntless community (where bravery is cultivated). Leaving her life and family behind is an incredibly difficult choice, and makes the stakes high for her when she takes the leap into a new life.

Supernatural Aid
Of course, there would be no story if the heroine didn’t ultimately accept the adventure thrust upon her. Once she does, there is usually a guide or mentor who gives her advice and help – sometimes even an object that can be used to help her on her quest. Coming up with creative talismans and mentors for a heroine can be incredibly fun. In Amanda Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy, the mentor, Finn Holmes, is also the heroine’s love interest. The dynamic changes between them from as the series progresses so that they are on more equal footing, but early  in the series he is her guide into a new world of magic where she will be a leader.

silhouette2The Crossing of the First Threshold
This is the moment when the heroine leaves the known for the unknown. She leaves behind who she was to embrace who she could be. In Divergent, Tris literally takes a leap of faith and jumps off of a moving train onto a roof, and then off the roof into a hole. She doesn’t know what’s down there, but she knows she’s leaving her old life behind for a new adventure.

Belly of The Whale
Now officially on her quest, the heroine gets her first taste of the danger that she will be facing. Often this can be a threat or a fight that really shows her what her limitations are. We know Katniss is really in the belly of the whale in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games when she enters the arena and all of the competitors begin killing each other as they fight for a pile of food and weapons on the first day of the games. She narrowly escapes being killed herself, and the survival of the fittest begins.

The second section, Initiation, has six subsections:

shutterstock_136940549The Road of Trials
All heroines must undergo trials to prove they are worthy of their quest, and also to get them ready for the journey ahead of them. These tests can be physical tasks, but often they have a deeper meaning for the character and help develop them into a stronger person emotionally as well. In Lauren Oliver’s trilogy, beginning with Delirium, she does a creative job of the road of trials for her heroine, Lena. Lena doesn’t have to face physical tests, but rather emotional trials to open her up to the possibility that love is not a disease, as she has been raised to believe. She opens herself up to friendship and ultimately love, making herself vulnerable and sharing her past and present feelings.

The Meeting With the Goddess
Several of the steps in the Initiation section are particularly geared toward male protagonists, beginning with the meeting with the goddess. This is traditionally about a hero finding the unconditional love of a woman who is worthy to be his companion. But for a heroine, this step can be abstracted, which in my opinion makes it more interesting. The importance of this step is about the heroine realizing the importance of finding a love that is the ultimate inspiration for her adventure. Whether it’s romantic or platonic, it can be the beating heart of story. P.C. and Kristin Cast also used this step in a very different capacity in their House of Night series. The heroine, Zoey, has a literal encounter with the goddess Nyx, who identifies her as special. It is her first clue that she will be different from other vampyres and has an important destiny to fulfill.

Woman as Temptress
This can be a very frustrating step if you take it too literally. For traditional heroes, there will typically be a woman who tempts him to abandon his quest for her, or distracts him from what’s really important. But for the heroine, it doesn’t need to be a man (or woman) or even a sexual distraction. To me, this element is about tempting your heroine to take the easy way out. For Rose in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, she is tempted a number of times. First, she is tempted to have a relationship with Dimitri, even though it would be a major distraction from protecting her best friend. Later, when Dimitri is turned into an evil vampire called Strigoi, she is tempted to abandon her duty to kill him and love him instead.

Atonement with the Father
This is another step that needs some serious reconstruction for a heroine. I think of this step as the heroine’s confrontation with someone who has a lot of power over her. It is time to fight that person and cast of the shackles. Sometimes it can be the big battle with the major villain of the series, but it can also be the person who makes the heroine doubt herself. In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, for example, Katsa, who is gifted with the ability to fight to survive, has been working as her uncle’s thug, killing off his enemies. He manipulates and uses her from a young age, and when she finally announces that she is done doing his bidding by detailing how she would kill every single one of his guards if they all tried to stop her at once, I felt like cheering.

The heroine always has a divine moment separate from her adventure that is a turning point for her. Sometimes it is a brush with death, and other times it is having a moment of peace and clarity where she can regroup and prepare for the final leg of her adventure. Madeleine L’Engle does a great job of doing both with her heroine, Meg, toward the end of A Wrinkle in Time. Meg is nearly killed and left paralyzed when she travels through the Black Thing that represents evil. But her paralysis is cured by a gentle creature she calls “Aunt Beast” who allows Meg to find both physical and mental peace. She needs this moment of emotional stability to face the ultimate evil and rescue her brother from it.

The Ultimate Boon
After facing her demons and conquering the villain, the heroine is rewarded for what she has achieved. For Campbell, this is usually an item or piece of knowledge that his hero is meant to bring back to the rest of humanity. But in modernizing this step for a heroine, the ultimate boon can be the achievement of their heart’s desire, such as love or a new confidence. At the end of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, Aislinn becomes the Summer Queen after facing her greatest fear – becoming fey (fairies), which she has always believed are evil. Ultimately, she risks exile to save a group she has always hated because she knows it is the right thing to do.

The final section, Return, also has six subsections:

Refusal of the Return
After the journey is over, it is natural for the heroine to not be able to imagine returning to regular life. There is a resistance to abandoning the quest even after it is complete. Despite the reluctance with which she started , now she doesn’t want to accept its end. A wonderful example of a refusal to return is in the first of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair. The heroine, Thursday, is pulled into the novel Jane Eyre, where she has to protect the characters from being hurt or killed. But understandably, she loves the story and admires the hero, Mr. Rochester, and even though she knows her return to the real world is necessary and inevitable, she can’t help feeling a pull to the characters she has grown to care about even more than she already did to begin with.

The Magic Flight
Even after the heroine realizes that she must return to reality, the adventure isn’t completely over. The return trip usually includes a few final surprises for the heroine. Marie Lu does an amazing job of the flight in the first of her trilogy, Legend. The heroine, June, has already realized that the boy she thought killed her brother is actually innocent (and she is falling in love with him). Her realization and change of heart is the true climax of the book, but helping him escape is an awesome final adventure as they outwit guards and barely escape after a thrilling chase. Her story isn’t fantasy, so it isn’t a magic flight, but it does an excellent job of adapting this step for a modern heroine.

Rescue from Without
An adventure of this magnitude has to have consequences. Despite her victory, an emotional or physical toll was taken on the heroine. She isn’t able to recuperate on her own. At the end of The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss is almost insane from all of the horror she has witnessed and her grief over losing her sister. But with the help of Peeta, her true love, she is able to reclaim her mind and live her life. The tragedy of what she has experienced doesn’t vanish, but she is able to find some measure of happiness again.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold
Every great adventure must come to an end. But for the heroine, she has been changed, and her return to life as she knows it means bringing with her the knowledge she has gained on her journey. Philip Pullman has a powerful moment of crossing the return threshold for his heroine, Lyra, at the conclusion of the His Dark Materials trilogy. In the context of the story, there are many parallel worlds that are connected by windows. At the end of the story, these windows must all be closed between the different worlds. Lyra and the boy she loves, Will, come from different worlds and must each return to their own in order to live full lives. As a result, when Lyra returns to her world, she is leaving behind the love of her life. It is at once empowering and heartbreaking.

shutterstock_58598566Master of Two Worlds
At the end of the quest the heroine has found a new balance in her life. It may be abstract – a better grasp of how to balance conflicting elements in her life. Or it can be literal, where the heroine is part of both the world she started in at the beginning of her journey as well as the new world that she explored on her adventure. Aislinn in Wicked Lovely is also a great example of being a master of two worlds. She has one foot in the mortal world, and the other with the fey as queen of the summer court. This means balancing her mortal friends and boyfriend (never mind school) with her duties to protect her people. It is a complex opportunity and challenge rolled into one.

Freedom to Live
At the end of the adventure, the heroine is fundamentally changed. She has a confidence in herself and her abilities, and is at peace with the trials she has gone through. She now has the freedom to live and enjoy her life. Katsa in Graceling chooses to live in the woods with the love of her life and ignore the rest of the world. Rose in Vampire Academy is no longer bonded to her friend Lissa, so she can live her own life with her soul mate. Katniss in the Hunger Games has finally left behind the brutality of life before the revolution that she inspired and can have a life and love of her own.

Some of these sections are more difficult to adapt for a heroine than others. I allow myself to ignore certain elements as it suits the story, or radically change them in other cases. Ultimately this is a tool to help you think of new ideas and complications that can make your story more interesting.

Have you ever used the Hero’s Journey as a model for your story? If so, how did it work out for you?

Read It and Weep (Literally)

shutterstock_102844172This week I killed off my first character, ever. It was difficult – even though I wasn’t super attached to him, I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. After all, he was a good guy and under different circumstances maybe he could have lasted for another chapter or two. But after reminding myself that he was, in fact, a figment of my imagination, I was able to focus on the most important part. How to make his death compelling.

What is it that makes death truly gripping in great young adult fantasy writing? I remember crying when Sirius Black and Dumbledore died while reading J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series. And little Prim got a sniffle or two when I read Suzanne CollinsHunger Games trilogy. But I wasn’t sad so much because the characters were gone, but rather because of the emotional toll it took on Harry and Katniss. It was their response that sparked the reaction in me.

Gandalf‘s death in J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings, however, didn’t move me in the same way. He was my favorite character in the series, but when he died I felt more like shrugging than crying. Maybe it was his age. Maybe it was because he died a victor and had led a full life. Of course, then he returns as Gandalf the White, and as happy as I was to see him, I was glad I hadn’t wasted any time grieving for him. So it’s safe to say that you won’t find any of my characters coming back from the grave.

As a reader, I like when an author isn’t afraid to kill off main characters. It makes me feel like no one is safe, which heightens the tension during the action scenes. Now I just have to work on writing the emotion of these moments well.

Do you have any suggestions about things to consider for writing about death in young adult fantasy?

Five Terrifying Young Adult Fantasy Villains

Over the past few weeks I’ve been creating the backstory for the villain of my series, The Conjurors. I want him to be believable, compelling, and frightening. For inspiration, I looked to the masters of young adult fantasy and considered which villains I found most captivating. Below are my top five.

Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling

VoldemortJ.K. Rowling may not be the first author to use Hitler as a model for her super villain, but she is the most creative, in my opinion. Voldemort’s obsession with the purity of the wizard race, combined with his sociopathic childhood, make him both creepy and intensely threatening. Throughout the series no one was safe – not even civilians or children. When he whipped out his wand, my palms would sweat for whoever was at the other end of it. And let’s not forget his snake, Nagini. I think I’d rather submit to “Avada Kedavra” than be eaten by that enormous monster.

Metatron, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

A power-mad angel with almost unlimited powers, Metatron feels undefeatable in the His Dark Materials series. He uses the language of religion to create a dictatorship from heaven, where he can control human’s lives like puppets. Perhaps most chilling of all, he is even more powerful than The Authority, who is god in the series. Throughout the books, I found myself wondering how he could ever be taken down – but it was by his own weakness in the end, not someone more powerful than himself. My one gripe was that the hero and heroine of the story, both children, weren’t the ones to lead him to his doom.

Galbatorix, The Inheritance Cycle, Christopher Paolini

InheritanceCycleCoversUsing the souls of dead dragons to power his magic? Yikes! I have to give Paolini credit for finding one of the most original and sinister ways for a villain to derive his power. Galbatorix is absent for much of the series, but he is always talked about. This makes him more intimidating than if we were encountering him around every corner. And when Eragon does finally encounter the villain of the series, he doesn’t disappoint – he can possess people and, like Metatron, has to defeat himself because he is too powerful to be destroyed by anyone else.

Society, The Giver Quartet, Lois Lowry

TheGiverThe Giver was one of the most fascinating books that I read when I was younger, and Lowry has recently finished the series in 2012 with the final book, Son. In this series, it isn’t one villain who acts as the antagonist of the series, but rather society as a whole. The mob mentality of killing off those who are weak, and a conscious decision to shut off emotions, leads to very cold and clinical assessments of who should live and die. It’s a world where babies who cry too much are killed, having a disability can lead to execution, and it is up to children to be the moral compass for a society that has no idea that it is out of control. In this way the villain of the series is like the hydra – one head is cut off only to be replaced by two more.

Neferet, House of Night, P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

The House of Night series achieved something difficult when they created Neferet, a beautiful, powerful and charismatic vampyre who wants to instigate a war with humans. Part of Neferet’s appeal comes from the fact that she is so likeable at times – for a good part of the series you hope she can be turned around. She also has a great backstory that really makes you feel for her. I thoroughly enjoy a villain who I can sympathize with and isn’t pure evil. When the hero or heroine has to defeat someone they care about on some level, the stakes seem higher.

Did I miss your favorite YA fantasy villain?

Falling in Love on the Page

Picture1I’m writing the second book in my series, The Conjurors, and my main character is falling in love. Writing this in a way that feels real and conveys the power and passion of love when you’re 16 has been exceptionally hard for me to do well. If I keep it too minimal, readers won’t have an emotional investment in the relationship. But take it over the top, and it starts to feel like a cheesy romance novel.

Not to be controversial, but my one gripe with J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter (of which I’m a HUGE fan) was that I never felt invested in Harry and Ginny. Hermione and Ron, I was totally rooting for. But somehow I always felt like Harry deserved a more compelling love story.

At the other extreme, Stephanie Meyer‘s Twilight series hit a nerve with YA girls for the romance, but for the rest of us who were looking for more substance to the world and the action surrounding that story, the series was disappointing.

hungergamesSo how do writers find the right balance? I think that The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins did a great job of weaving a dynamic love triangle with a gripping story. It gave the series an emotional center that made the stakes higher and the consequences more poignant.

What YA books do you think have done an exceptional job with romance?

A Look Back at Children’s Fantasy Classics

Writing for a younger audience as an adult is a tricky business. Granted, I still feel like an 11-year-old kid on the inside, but actual 11 year olds tell me that I am, in fact, a grown woman who should probably not hog the swings at the park. And in my writing, as much as I try to channel my inner child, I know that sometimes I may be missing some of the intense wonder and possibility that most people only feel until a certain age.

Wrinkle in TimeWhen that happens I think back to the fantasy and sci-fi books that drew me in as a child, the ones I read over and over. One series that I loved was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I read them again and again through the years, and every time I would get something new. As an eight year old, I struggled to wrap my brain around the concept but was fascinated by the raw emotions of Meg and her family. At 12 I only cared about the romance between Meg and Calvin. And in high school I was finally able to marvel at the complexity of the world and the characters.

I also loved The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts, where the main character moves things with her mind. She was an outsider (like me) who found friends and mastered her powers to do cool things. I remember logging serious time staring at objects and trying to move them with the power of my thoughts, or trying to have conversations with my friends telepathically.

The series on my shelf that had the most worn spines was The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. The main character was a boy, Taran, but I could completely relate to him. And the world that Alexander created was so rich that you could practically smell the pig pen that Taran had to keep clean. To this day just seeing the covers reminds me of rainy days huddled by a window with a book and nights with a flashlight under the blanket.

PrydainI could go on and on. But these blasts from my past always help me realize that a great fantasy or sci-fi is less about a cool concept or a fascinating world, and more about a character who feels real to a kid. The character can be as smart or powerful as an adult, but they must approach the world with curiosity and hope, and believe that they still have the power to make a difference, even if it is in a small way. And when they do, every kid who reads that story feels for a minute like they might be special too.

What are the books that you read as a child that still inspire you now?