Thursday, August 22, 2013

Shaping Fantastic Creatures by Shannon Dittemore

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes Trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. Learn more about Shannon at

“I’ll read your manuscript,” she said, “but I should tell you, I’m not a fan of angel stories.”

Not exactly the words I wanted to hear from a prospective agent, especially on the eve of a call with my dream publisher, but I understood her point of view.

Here’s the thing, Holly didn’t pull me from the slush pile. Another agent did that, God bless him. And then he left the agency and all of a sudden the editorial team at Thomas Nelson wanted to talk to me about my manuscript. They wanted to talk to me about Angel Eyes and I hadn’t yet been assigned another agent.

So, Holly! Yes, Holly. She agreed to read my manuscript that night and sit on the call with me the next day, with the above caveat. She did not like angel stories.

“That’s okay,” I said, “I’m not a fan of angel stories either.”

Angel Eyes (book 1)
Silence actually buzzed through the phone line for a moment. “Oh,” she said. “Okay. Well, I’ll talk to you tomorrow then.”

I won’t say that I convinced Holly to like angel stories, because I think she’ll tell you that’s not the case. But the thing is, Angel Eyes isn’t really about angels. And therein you’ll find my advice.

If you’re going to write about creatures that readers already have preconceived notions of, the story has to be bigger than the creature and his plight. It has to say something about the reader. About humanity.

“But I’m writing about vampires (or wolves, or fairies, or purple-bearded zombies),” one might argue.

But you’re not. You’re really not. The good stories, the memorable ones, talk to the reader about themselves. Their feelings. Their emotions. Their world. Truth has to resonate from your pages. The creatures you spotlight are weapons in your arsenal. You must use them wisely.

But how? How does one do that? Here are four things to keep in mind as you write.

1. Be unique. Your vampires don’t have to be just like everyone else’s vampires. Sure, readers expect to see a thread of similarity, but feel free to make adjustments based on your story needs or your own creativity. Now, don’t throw rocks at me, but think about Twilight for a sec. Stephenie Meyer took the idea that vampires suffer in the sunlight and turned it on its head. The sunlight remained a nemesis to Edward and company, but in an entirely different (albeit fancy) way. Meyer rewrote vampires. You have to do that. You have to make your creatures unique. Which leads me to my next point.

Broken Wings (Book 2)
2. Read in your genre. You already know from my little story up there that I’m not a huge fan of angel stories. But, why? Because I’ve read a bunch and found many (not all) of them hard to swallow. I’m a church brat who’s read what the Bible says about angels and (gasp!) actually believe that the Bible is an authority on such creatures. So many of the angel stories out there completely disregard Scripture, and that’s okay. Hear me, that is perfectly okay. We’re writing fiction and those authors have an entirely different set of eyes than I do. They were trying to accomplish something different than I wanted to accomplish. And I learned from their stories just how unique I needed my angels to be in order to reach the end I wanted to reach. The only way I would have ever learned that, was by reading books I did not want to emulate.

3. You need a hook. You just do. Imagine how many angel stories an agent (or a publisher) sees on any given day. You must hook them. In my books, the halo provided that. The halo allows Brielle to see the invisible. That’s unique. That’s different. It opens the door to so many possibilities. In Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Elisa had the Godstone. The Lord of the Rings trilogy had the One Ring. But, it’s not always about enhanced objects. In Jill Williamson’s By Darkness Hid, she actually masters this by including more than one hook. The concept of characters bloodvoicing is introduced as well as a land separated by light and darkness. Both of these, when put to an industry professional or a reader, are intriguing. The trick is to take something unique to the world and the creatures you’ve sculpted and fashion it into a hook. Grab me. Make me want to understand it.

4. Consider the takeaway. Now, you can do this to a lesser extent while you’re drafting, but this is best done, I think, when you’re in the editing phase. When you’re drafting, just get your thoughts on the page. But when you’ve moved onto editing, force yourself to put down the pen, shove away from the computer, take a walk, and ask yourself this question: What do I want readers to take away from my story? Really think about it. If you don’t know, let it percolate for a while, but once you’ve answered that, ask your brilliant self this one: Are the attributes I’ve given my creatures helping or hurting in that regard? Be honest, and then ask yourself one more: What can I adjust, in my creatures’ nature or actions, to bolster the takeaway? And then sit back down and edit with those adjustments in mind.

For the record, Holly decided to take me on as a client. She read Angel Eyes that night, sat on the Thomas Nelson call with me the next day, and when I asked her what she thought of my manuscript, here’s what she said.

“It’s not really about angels, is it? It’s about the supernatural.”

I think you want readers saying the same thing about your books. It’s not really about the creatures. It’s about something else. And that something else will be the very thing that shapes your fantastic creatures and sets them apart from all the rest.

To thank Shannon for visiting us and to support her, we're giving away a copy of Dark Halo! This book is the third and final book in the Angel Eyes trilogy. It's AMAZING! I think you'd all love this series.

Dark Halo (Book 3)
To enter, in the comments, answer this question: If your book has fantastic creatures in it, dig deep and tell us what your story is really about. Or, if you're not writing such a story, tell us which book with fantastical creatures really grabbed you. Tell us the book and the creature(s).

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  1. I haven't written about supernatural creatures yet (I haven't really read many paranormal/supernatural books, either.) I did have a stewing idea for mermaids, in Briton/Wales at about 300AD, and the mermaids were going to have wings, and be telepathic. But I'm pretty sure I can do better than that originality-wise. This is a great post! I really enjoyed it!

  2. As of yet I haven't wrote any stories with any super creatures in them and I've read very few too. After trying to read Halflings I'm prone to agree I don't like angel stories either (sorry to anyone who likes that book, I just couldn't) . But I did read the infernal devices where the main characters are part angel and what not and the thing I liked about them was they still appealed to human nature. The fact that they had angelic power didn't matter much when they could still be broken, scared, kids. The angelic aspect wasn't the fix all for the problem and I really liked that.

  3. Phew! :D At least I'm doing something right! I've been writing a trilogy (mainly) about unicorns, but I completely changed them up. Now they have unique unicorn legends, a pegasus queen, three different kinds of horns, and trolls, elves, and giants as their enemies. I've never seen anything like it in any other fantasy book.

  4. Excellent post! I'm just digging into my most spiritually-overt book yet, with a heroine who can see into the world of angels of demons, so I'm going to be pondering this advice hard. And reading these very-awesome looking books that I've been meaning to get for years... =)

  5. Great post! I've actually been wanting to write an angel book for some time...but I always get worried about the theological aspects and having to check everything against the Bible and the catechism. Maybe GTW could do a post about the pros and cons of writing angel stories...? :)

  6. Thanks for this great post! I've never written a supernatural story before, although I've had an idea for a story about fairies.

  7. I have to thank Catsi for this one. I had an idea a long time ago for these cat-like people called the Nitarks. I wrote a lot on it, but when I read it over I got really discouraged and gave up. Catsi asked to read it, and because of her encouragement, I am now starting a re-write! Thank you Catsi!!!

    Anyway, the true meaning of my story is more of a "everyone's the same, even if they're different" type thing. I'm also trying to point out that, even though that's true, there are good and bad people everywhere, from every group. Even the ones that are supposed to be superior.

  8. I'm writing a story with soul-splitting in it. Is that supernatural? :) I think the meaning of my story is along the lines of sometimes you have to get over yourself, in order to do what's best for other people. My MC learns that lesson the hard way :P Thanks for the awesome post!

  9. My story has Mer-people, fairies, and the like. It's about believing in things beyond your reach, things you would never thought possible.

  10. This is such a helpful post! Thanks Ms Dittemore! :)
    All of my stories have an element of the fantastic in them, but I never want that to take the focus. My current WIP contains "special" characters but it's really about choosing a side and always being a slave to something, good or evil.
    Thanks again for this great post, and thanks Jill and Stephanie for hosting this giveaway!

  11. My story has fantastical creatures, but all my MCs are human. My current WIP is really more about learning to trust God, about pride and how no matter how much good we do, we're not perfect, and about love.

  12. Lovely post Ms.Shannon, I got a lot of ideas from it :) I have read your first two books and really enjoyed them :)

    I do not have any fantastical creatures in my story...not really. But I think that the one that has been the most different and stood out the most would probably be Julie Kagawa's The Immortal Rules series that has rabids (zombie like creatures) and vampires. It looks at the vampires as they rule the world basically and in a very dystopian aspect. The main character is a human who hated vampires who is turned into one and she constantly tries to stay as unvampire as she can. I really liked the feel of the book and how unbloodlustful romancey it was in the typical vampire books. Also it was quite kick butt :)

  13. I read Angel Eyes and LOVED it!! Shannon is a fantastic writer.
    My books don't have any supernatural elements, but one series I read that did was The Chronicles of Narnia. C.S. Lewis did such a great job of making the creatures in those stories believable and so fun!!

    1. Narnia is my fav too!!! it's really cool! I really enjoy how the kids meet all the characters! And great post, Sharon! :)

  14. My story is mainly about a girl who enters a world were people have special powers that are either inherited genetically or are carried around in special stones. This causes her to get too used to relying on her own strength instead of God, so in the end she must take a step of faith--actually a dizzying jump off a cliff to certain doom--to save the world she has become so attached to. I guess the point I want my readers to take away from the story is that you can trust God, because He has a reason for putting you in whatever situation you are in, and He may have given you a special gift you didn't even know about to help you through that hard time.

  15. Is the giveaway international? The dystopian series I'm currently writing each has a different set of characters and most of them have no supernatural or paranormal elements. Excellent tips and I definitely agree about being unique and hooking readers/agents.

    But there is a manuscript I started some time back that involves the children of giants from Genesis coming back to life in modern time and wreaking havoc.

  16. What a GREAT article, Shannon. I'm so excited to have you on Go Teen Writers.

    And I'm not surprised your agent took you on - your writing is gorgeous.

  17. I'm actually writing a semi-steampunk/alternate history/urban fantasy novel that has vampires, but I really wanted to take a 'typical' vampire and do something different with them. They have all the elegance, class, and snark you would expect the normal vampire to have, but instead of drinking blood, they drain energy through skin contact. Every vampire has a hidden phobia and an obsession that can be used against them. The story is centered around Skata, a Lamia Venator (vampire hunter) whose job is not to hunt vampires to kill them, but to ensure the peace between non-human creatures and humans themselves. He's seeking revenge on the vampire who murdered his wife and child and is prejudiced against every non-human creature - until he realizes he can't do everything alone. He befriends an outcast half-breed and an exceedinly annoying vampire to help him unravel the mystery, and I'm hoping what readers will take away is two things, actually. One is the main theme of most my novels - faith. The other is letting go and accepting help from the most unlikely places. Personal and spiritual growth, you might say.

  18. Well I've written about ghosts (not as the protagonist...yet) but the message of the book isn't "don't go into a haunted house it's scary and your camera will explode" -- it's about the MC learning to let go of something that's been bothering her for over a year, learning to trust people but at the same time, to not be gullible, etc. I would say my themes are love, belief and above all, loss. Everyone has lost or looses something during the course of the story.

  19. Well, I fondly call my current WiP That Magical Space Angel Novel, which gives you a hint as to what it's about. My "angels" aren't really angels, or even related to them (God has not inserted himself into this story in a blatantly visible way at all, actually); they're navy-eyed humanoid creatures that can grow wings at will, heal people, and come back from the dead. Oh, and they can also fly in space. (Let it never be said that I listen to the constraints of "genre." The truly crazy thing is that it all makes sense in-world.) The word "angel" is never used in the story--instead I call them Winged Ones. (Let it also never be said that I give my creatures uncreative names.) The fact that protagonist #1 is a Winged One doesn't even have much bearing on the plot. It's simply part of who he is and, although it is a key part of his backstory, he doesn't let it define him. At its heart, TMSAN is about love and friendship and the things that makes those bonds break and the things that heal them. Any Magical Space Angels are just there to focus that theme.

  20. I'm not writing a book like that but I did have a book idea like that. I'm going to work on it after my current project. It wasn't necessarily about fantastic creatures but it's basically about supernatural human beings. The main character was bionic altered as a child and can move objects with her mind.
    Not necessarily a fantastic creature but I guess I was trying to take that whole super hero and villain thing to a new level.
    Thanks for the post!!

  21. Currently I am writing a kind of complex (slight crazy) and enchanting story about resurrection of dragons in the world! :D It actually starts out like a fantasy type world but *spoilers* it is actually a futuristic earth! whoa! But the dragons are also different than say dragons in legends and other fantasy stories b/c they can't talking or mind readers or anything. Their DNA bonds with the human so there's a connection that way (kind of basing off weird sensations twins have b/c of shared DNA and stuff). But it also doesn't just involve castles, knights and kings, but pirates are thrown into the mix, with dragons working on pirate ships too. I haven't read a story involving dragons where pirates are a huge focus, if they are there at all, so I thought it would be an interesting twist to include it. :)

  22. Not sure if this counts but I have a zombie story on the go. It's a zombie apocalypse story but I'm trying not to make it about the zombies. It's more about humanity and fear and how those things mix. What happens to humanity when fear kicks in? Are we all willing to leave a friend behind in fear for our own life? It's also about loss of innocence. There's one girl that everyone tries to protect the entire time. She's hopeful and innocent. When she turns into a zombie, it's as though all innocence is lost. Another thing: an individual's centre. Who we really are. When all is said and done, what will we actually do and why?
    Again I'm not sure is a zombie is a fantastical creature but that's what I've come up with.

  23. I have dragons for my antagonists. After the first draft, I realized they were too cliche. Just mean firebreathers. Anyone can have those. It's an allagorical fantasy, so they represtent satan and his demons. I made it so like this: When Lucifer rebelled and the Maker cast him out of the High Relms, he cursed all dragons to being cold-hearted. So instead of dragons that breathe fire, they breath the oposite of fire. It'll burn you just like fire. Kind of like dry ice, except that it can burn wood and other flammable items like normal fire. The dragons themselves are varying shades of blue/black. I haven't finished fleshing them out yet, but that's what I have so far.

  24. YOU GUYS ARE ALL BRILLIANT! I love reading your story ideas. Jill and Steph, THANK YOU so much for having me on the blog today. I'm crazy honored to be with you all and wish you each the absolute best of luck on your writing journeys.

  25. This is SUCH a good post! I love reading books where the "old" ideas is twisted to be shiny and awesome. I think every book needs that. Like, the answer to the question: "What makes your book different?"
    As for supernatural...I put my fantasy series on the shelf for now, but I did love brainstorming new twists on the same-old-same-old. I had scary horses that ate people. And also eyes like mood rings. And a jungle that also ate people. (Lots of eating happens in my books.)

  26. Okay, cool thing is I just finished reading Angel Eyes yesterday, and I have to agree with Holly. It's about the supernatural. Therein lies the reason I love it. :) (And it's extremely well-written, too. Thanks for this great book, Shannon!)

    So, anyway, I'd love to enter the giveaway! Thanks for having it!
    rachelle (at) rachellerea (dot) com

  27. Thanks so much for the tips and giveaway! We're so glad you joined us!

    Hmmm...I don't typically write fantasy/science fiction type of stories. However, some of my favorite books have great creatures in them. "The Hobbit" or LOTR series are a few books with detailed and believe able characters. The trolls, elves, hobbits, and dragons are so well-depicted and come to life on the page.

  28. Glad Holly gave your book the chance! I bet she's glad, too. Sounds like your story itself has an amazing story behind it.

    And thanks for the great tips! I like to slip superhero elements into all my different stories, sometimes more subtly, sometimes not so much--and I think all these pointers could apply really well to that, too.

  29. My merfolk story is really about the dangers of magic. The magic in my stories almost always (as in hardly ever doesn't) ends up killing the user in some way or other.

    Bryan Davis' Dragons in our Midst series really made me rethink dragons.

  30. I am currently doing a rewrite for my book and I have fantastical creatures in it as well. :) The book sounds so interesting! :D

  31. I love sci-fi and fantasy so I've played with various creatures, everything from aliens to werewolves to mutant talking animals.
    With the mutant animals, one of the things I did was state that their intelligence is because they were engineered with a human mind. This means that they act a lot more like humans than animals and it's a situation where people have to get used to treating these animals as humans.
    In the alien idea, I think I might use the idea of aliens to show some foreign policy related things, as well as take on how humans have made themselves too used to war. By showing the situation partially through an alien's eyes, I can show a different view of the situation.

  32. Ahhh, Shannon Dittemore! This is so cool! I bought Angel Eyes, mmmm, in the spring. (Wow, was it ever good!) So excuse me while I get all thrilled that she's guest-posting at GTW!

    I've never really done much with fantastical creatures in my own books, and it's not a genre I really frequent...(hm, maybe it's time to change that?) CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia is probably my favourite fantasy book, although I hugely enjoyed Harry Potter as well...the fantasy creatures in Rowling's series were really cool. :)

  33. I don't have very many fantastical creatures in my books... except for maybe the humans... hahahaha. Okay. I do have some different creatures of my own, but they aren't the focus of my story at all. I love the Narnia books. C.S. Lewis has fantasy creatures throughout the series- Fledge in Musician's Nephew, Tumnus in Wardrobe, Bree and Hwin in Horse and His Boy, and on and on, even having Jewel the unicorn in Last Battle. These books don't focus entirely on the creatures involved, but on a greater story, and I can really appreciate that.

    Thanks for stopping by Shannon! I don't care for angel books either, but I love Angel Eyes!