Welcome my special guest, Dina Von Lowenkaft, author of the young adult romantic fantasy, Dragon Fire, just released by Twilight Times Books.
Dina is the Regional Adviser for SCBWI’s (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Belgian Chapter and she’s here today to chat about Dragon Fire and her writing.
Thank you! Unlike many authors I didn’t always know I wanted to write and I explored many other art forms first. One of my long time passions is painting, and people say it shows in my writing which is very visual. I have, however, always written ‘on the side’ — but it wasn’t until 2007 that I decided I wanted to commit myself to writing. My first serious effort was a middle grade novel, but I quickly came to understand that the issues I like to write about (figuring out who you are, your place in society, falling in love, finding your own voice etc.) are actually all YA themes. And since I have always been an avid reader, with a penchant for fantasy and series, writing fantasy was what came naturally. In fact, I never even questioned it.
Did you have a mentor who encouraged you?
No. But I do have a wonderful group of crit partners that I met through SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They have been a wonderful source of support, inspiration and guidance. I wouldn’t be where I am today as a writer without them!
Did you have any struggles or difficulties when you started writing?
When I first started writing I was on a permanent high. I love the creative process and building worlds is something I have always enjoyed, even as a kid playing with my friends. It wasn’t until I started looking into how to get published that I realized just how much craft I was lacking. So that was a bit of a jolt, but I persevered and took classes. It was a fellow online class member who told me about SCBWI and that was a major turning point for me as a writer. Writing is a solitary process and a lot of hard work, so having a group of writing friends that all support each other is essential.
What was your inspiration for Dragon Fire?
Wow. I’m not sure. Since Dragon Fire is the second book in that particular world (the first never got published), I need to go back… I wanted to write a book about two lovers who couldn’t be together because of their families, which then turned into two separate communities. From the desire to push the two groups far enough apart, and raise the stakes for the characters, I began developing two species, one became the Draak, a group of shapeshifting dragons who can manipulate matter and are very emotional, the other became the Elythia, angle-like beings who have gone the other way and can turn into light and are highly intellectual. Being a lover of series, I had imagined this story over the course of 4 books. When my first manuscript garnered no interest, even after several re-writes, I knew there was no point in writing the second book, but yet I wanted to stay in the world that I had come to love. So I pulled out a subplot from my vision of the second book and wrote that — and that subplot, the story of the shapeshifting dragon Rakan and the human Anna, became Dragon Fire.
Your world building is rich and fascinating, and you have written some articles on the subject. What are your top three tips for world building?
Not sure I can boil it down to three! But here are a few I find important:
1. Make sure you have considered the impact of past events, be they natural or man (dragon) made, on your characters. For example, in Dragon Fire, Rakan has grown up isolated because of the disastrous outcome of a previous war and is therefore already an outsider in the Draak community. This means he is not trusted by the others and he must prove himself to be accepted. But it also allows him to perceive what the other Draak don’t see: the value of humans as beings — and not just as toys to be played with or used for target practice.
2. Make sure your characters are in a situation that has inherent conflict. For example, make your world value something that your main character either believes or comes to believe is morally wrong. This way, whether he/she does what is expected of him/her or not, they will be conflicted about it and that tension will make your world feel more real.
3.N ever hesitate to develop backstories for all of your characters, even if it won’t (and shouldn’t) come out in the book. The clearer you are on each and every character’s motivation in every scene, the more complex — and realistic — will be each character’s reaction. Dragon Fire was originally a subplot that then got pulled out of another manuscript. Without a very clear idea of Rakan and Anna’s story, Dragon Fire wouldn’t exist today.
4. Write things down. If you are building a complete world, things will get complicated quickly. One thing that helped me keep track of my increasingly complex world of Draak and Elythia was to take an old fashioned phone book that was divided into 20+ parts and convert each part into a topic. The first half was for the Elythia, the second for the Draak. In it I had topics such as ‘Draak crests’, ‘Ways to kill an Elythia’, ‘Names and their meanings’, ‘Myths of origination’, ‘Elythian hierarchy’, etc. And, yes, every once in a while I would have to go back and check if what I was writing actually fit what I had created — for example, I once had a major confusion going on between bronze and copper crests, do in part to a switch I made halfway through writing the book. But having my structured book of scribbles, I was able to figure out why I had changed it to copper (bronze is an alloy, copper is an element) and change it throughout the manuscript.
5. And last, but not least, trust yourself and your world. Your world will change and evolve as you write your story. Explore all new options but only keep those that fit — even if it means changing something throughout the manuscript. This happened to me with my Eythian hierarchy and how it affected who could mind-speak with another Elythian (only higher ranking Elythians can initiate the contact). This may seem minor, but it underscores the rigid hierarchy that Elythians subscribe to. And it meant I had to go back and check each and every conversation to make sure it followed this rule.
If you are interested in reading more about my views on world building, I have written two articles for Savvy Authors.com on the subject and will publish two more.
The Challenge of Creating a Believable World
Part One: Building Your Foundation in the Physical Realm
The Challenge of Creating a Believable World
Part Two: The Inhabitants of Your World
Or contact me via my website. I always love to interact with fellow writers and readers!
Do you have any plotting secrets? Do you use index cards or special software?
I have tried both — and I prefer paper. I like to see the story arc in a glance, at any time. After writing a 160,000 word first book without a clear plot outline I quickly understood that I needed something more than a vague idea of where the story was going. Now, I plot enough to have a scene by scene skeleton of the book, but otherwise leave the details vague — that way I have a mix of structure and creative freedom that works for me.
What do you tell your muse when she refuses to collaborate?
I usually ask her what I have done wrong. I find that every time I get stuck, it’s because I have taken a character in a wrong direction, so I go back and try to figure out where I went off track.
Many writers experience a vague anxiety before they sit down to write. Can you relate to this?
I have to admit my writing style is a bit different from most. I write too much, and all my problems are in cutting back, keeping things tight, limiting the number of characters or subplots. In fact, all my characters could get their own books, it’s just how my mind works. So I don’t get anxious, just excited. I do, however, get anxiety about marketing my book, and I certainly know how uncomfortable that is! And yet you have to push through it and do it. So I imagine it’s the same feeling, just in a different spot.
Do you have a writing schedule? Do you set yourself weekly goals for your writing?
I like to know where I am headed, so even before I had external deadlines, I would give myself goals. At the moment, with all the other demands on my time, I only have half an hour a day to write. But past goals have ranged from 1,000 words/day to a complete ms (range 80-100k) in second draft form in four months.
How do you celebrate the completion of a novel?
Hmm — which completion? The first draft? The revision? The edits? The proof copy? There are so many stages to completing a book, and each one is a big accomplishment. The first time I finished writing a manuscript, I danced around the house and my husband insisted on taking me out to dinner. For the next book, I knew just how much work there was still left to do. Especially since the first one didn’t get published. So I still felt excited and jumped a little, but it wasn’t the same feeling as with the first manuscript. My husband, however, always insists on taking me out to dinner whenever I finish a manuscript, get a contract, have my first sale — and if I refuse, he goes and gets a bottle of champagne!
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
There are two things that I love equally. One, feeling the world I am creating come alive as I am writing the book. Two, and most importantly, when a reader e-mails me ‘I love, love, loved your book!’
Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?
I’d love to hear back from you!