Rubber band

I just got back from the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to attend, it’s largely a series of in-depth panels carried out over the course of a couple days. I like to think about it as more theory crafting as opposed to word crafting. It’s a great place for authors, fans, editors, and reviewers to all intermingle and talk about books and the industry we love. Oh, and the occasional agent shows up there too from time to time.

Anyway, I always come out fresh with ideas, brain going a mile a minute. In one panel we talked about monsters and another the role of ports in fantasy settings. So, there’s a pretty broad range there.

So many kernels of stories and characters tend to start bouncing around my brain after each one. I’ve actually written a number of short stories based on ideas from these panels and included many elements into manuscripts I’ve been working on at the time. This was my third WFC so I considered myself old guard by now.

As you can imagine in a convention about writing, tropes are often brought up from panel to panel. More importantly, the inversion of tropes and the tropes to avoid at all cost get brought up a lot. So while I’m buzzing with excitement, I’m also shaking with anxiety. For every idea I want to write, I feel like someone somewhere has some warning of what I should avoid if I go down that route. It becomes a balancing act of trying to do what I want, but then try and make it fresh, while also appealing to the publishing industry at large. So it’s like do what I want, but then don’t do what I want. That’s pretty much the crux of the whole industry, right?

Well, what I decided by the end was that I was worrying too much. Why limit myself at the idea stage already? I’m a career coach by day and I often get students coming to me who’ve cut themselves off from options for whatever reason, usually out of fear of failure. I always tell them to just apply and see what happens. Let the universe give you your choices and then figure out the best path. When those choices are limitless, of course its overwhelming. But say you’ve applied to 20 jobs and 3 of them get back to you for interviews, well then you’re potentially choosing between 1 and 3 as opposed to 1 and 20. That’s much more manageable. I really need to take my own advice.

So yes, there are tropes and characteristics I should avoid if I want my work to stand out, but ultimately, I want to write something I’m excited about. Yes, I want others to like it, but I’m my first reader. If I don’t like it, why would someone else?

I’m going to let those kernels percolate for a while. They’re definitely over the fire. I know my next book is in there somewhere. How about I just apply a little elbow grease to all of those ideas to see what works and then go back and figure out how to make it fresh?

Boy that sounds like a great idea. I wonder who thought of that. He sounds like a pretty smart guy.

Advertisements

Worldbuilding at Work

I’ve recently come back to my idea about a mystery beneath the sea. The main reason I abandoned the concept is that the more I untangled the knot I’d given myself, the less I liked the answers. I was interested in the deep. The mystery. An alien environment. The claustrophobic dark.

But I ended up with a spaceship and UFO conspiracy theories. Don’t get me wrong. Both of those things are awesome, they’re just not what I wanted to write about.

So, I’ve come back.

The problem before is that I had to invent technology to make it work. So the further I got in explaining things, the deeper into science fiction it ended up. I like Sci-Fi. I wanted to write Sci-Fi. But there was a reason why I wanted my story to take place on our planet.

The more stuff I had to make up to explain what I wanted to tell, the further I got from the kind of realism I wanted to tell. If it got too techy, then the deep, dark ocean lost some of its charm. I wanted it to remain this alien landscape of its own. Yes, I know what I said above about being on OUR planet, but you know what I mean. These were some of the original drawing points.

Rather than invent a future, I looked the past.

I started with the image of a brass-helmeted deep sea diver. What is that world like? When were those in use?

A little investigating gave me a date range. I then set a date post WWI. This limits my technology but not the sense of wonder.

It’s like have you ever seen the movie The Shape of Water? So minor, minor spoiler, but the only explanation for the fishman is that he was found during some guy’s trip in the Amazon. Okay, similar time period to WWI and for some reason that explanation totally works in that context. The viewer knows no such creature existed in the Amazon then or now, but we allow it. There’s room for wonder and imagination. Now if a movie today tried to pull that off, we’d all be like “yeah right!” That’s because we know so much more of the world now.

In my head I call this “Indiana Jonesing” it. You make the story a little more dated and you can pretty much claim whatever you want. Artifact? Secret society? Fishman? Sure. Roll with it. We romanticize the past anyway, let’s fantasize it too.

Back to my point: Using the WWI backdrop gives me what I want. My diving imagery, technological limitations, and wiggle room to include some fantastic elements.

I don’t have a plot yet, but I’ve come up with a couple of characters. Someone’s got to do that diving. Maybe a grizzled frogman suffering PTSD from the war? How about a trauma surgeon too? Who knows? There’s so much material now to mine for content. It’s exciting to be working on it again.

I still don’t have a plot or many of the details, but it doesn’t matter. Those ideas will come.

The point is, this is an exercise anyone can do for story generation. All it takes is a single image or feeling. Start unpacking that image. Explore it. Mine it.

It can get overwhelming trying to come up with characters, a setting, and relevant plot details all at the same time. Oh, and it’s also probably impossible too. So don’t bother!

Find something you love and follow the threads once you start unravelling it. You’ll soon see that it’s not a sweater at all, but more of a spider web. Okay, I’m losing the metaphor here, but I think you see where I’m going with this.

The beauty of writing is that yes we put words on a page, but we need to tell stories to do that. Coming up with a new story is half the fun. I’ve got this one cooking now next to half a dozen others. Something will hatch and let me know when it’s finished (more mixed metaphors).

If not, I’ll just keep following those threads to a new one.

Honorifics

I’m writing an eastern inspired fantasy novel right now and I’ve run head first into a lack of honorifics. I don’t want to use the typical Lord and Lady stuff. I want it unique to my world. But what I’ve come up with on the fly is getting muddled. So, here’s some of that public “workshopping” in action I talked about oh so long ago and a peek inside my head.

The magic system in this book is based on tattoos made from the blood of spirits that grant the bearer special abilities. Out of context that sounds kind of bonkers, but roll with me here, people.

There’s also a clan system which I am calling “houses.” Although, the more I think about that, the less I like it. But that’s its own thing …

Anyway, we have houses made up of what would be the royal families. I’m calling them the Kin. The next sphere out, so these are the people who marry in, retainers, etc. are called the Kith. Now I need something for servants/helpers/etc.

I ALSO need honorifics/ something for the way the serving class refers to the higher class:

“Your Kinship?”

“Lady-Kin?”

See, that just sounds weird?

I suppose that if the royals have the most and best tattoos then that could be the modifier. Since this all comes back to blood, I immediately vetoed referring to the more powerful people in the kingdom as the “Blooded ones”. It sounds cool at first, but Lady of the Blood kind of evokes menstruation, right? Nothing wrong with that, but my book isn’t about it and I don’t want to mix metaphors and end up muddling things further.

So, maybe art is the way to go.

“Yes, Painted One.”

“It shall be so, Marked One.”

“As you command, Illustratedness.”

I think art is working here. I still don’t really know what to call the servants other than servants. I think “Painted One” has a nice ring to it. Now all I have to do is find a way to make “Illustratedness” less of a mouthful.

Flat Stanley

While working on the outline for “Of the Blood” (working title for my new fantasy book), I ran into a character problem. I had this POV character that I needed. Well, I wanted her to exist too. I realized I’d been counting on her more for what she represented to the story and not actually for who she was. She had all the warning signs of being a flat character, but it was worse because I realized I knew nothing about her. She wasn’t even an actual character yet.

This gave me pause. There are plenty more detailed outliners that myself, but I can’t write anything without knowing where I’m going. Or in this case, who I’m writing about. So, I needed to find a way to make her more than a character serving the plot.

How to do it?

Talk to a hundred writers and you’ll get a hundred answers. For me, I first looked at her world. Who is she in relation to her family? Her hierarchy in the clan?

This book has a pseudo matriarchal society at its core so mothers and their daughters are pretty important. Well, my character was the fifth daughter, so how important is she really? Close to power, but not really holding any. I can run with that.

Then it was asking myself what does she want? I couldn’t answer the grander question of what is her purpose in relation to overcoming personal flaw and all that, but how about on a smaller scale. Okay, she’s the fifth daughter of a royal house, what does somebody do with that?

Respect. I’m running with the theme of her wanting the respect of those around her. She feels like she has to live up to this shadow and is going out of her way to do it.

It’s a little cliché, but the fun part about being a writer is recognizing that. She wants respect, but me, Writer Dan, knows she needs something else. I’m not entirely sure what that is yet, but I know it’ll tie into her purpose. It’s the thing that’ll make her feel whole.

So the beginning of her arc will be chasing artificial situations and trying too hard to win the respect of others. That’s also something I can work with. It gives me a nice foundation for her character to build from. As the story progresses, I’ll start massaging that into better growth.

Coming up with that was about an afternoon’s worth of thoughtful reflection. Just writing down some questions and answers and seeing what made sense. I wasn’t focusing on the plot or anything else to do with the book. I was just trying to figure out who was this person I was creating in a realistic fashion. Doing it that way is a much more organic approach to the eventual conflicts.

There’s still a long road to go, but for now, though, it’s a heck of a lot better than a character whose only function is serving plot POV.

Blackhat Noodle Scratcher

My new book is going to have a space ship in it.

Oh? That’s not enough for you? You want more? Kidding.

But yes, it will involve the exploration of a downed spaceship. One that’s crashed onto our planet and has been forgotten about for decades. I wanted to tie it into real-world UFO studies/history and thought it would be cool to have a UFO conspiracist (is it still a conspiracy if it’s real? Advocate maybe?) character to help explain all of that to unfamiliar readers. This character can rattle off case studies and sightings. That kind of thing.

One big problem, though. Aside from the Roswell crash, I didn’t know any of the other major ones. So I started researching.

First off, I found this amazing resource here, aptly titled Best UFO Resources. It’s been a godsend of information all painstakingly catalogued and organized.

I just got through UFOs: What to Do an internal document published by the RAND corporation and the Rockefeller-sponsored UFO Briefing Document – The best available evidence and I gotta tell you, this is fascinating stuff!

Growing up, we’ve always been interested in UFOs and the paranormal in my house so this was very much going home again for me. What I didn’t realize was just how much information was really out there.

Some of these cases are really well documented and the sightings were seen by many, many people. So whatever it was, something happened. It’s incredible to read about how the agendas of the organizations specifically created to investigate this stuff ended up changing over the years. Take project Blue Book for instance. That was the Air Force’s designated UFO research group but it eventually turned into a smear campaign against the very thing it was supposed to be investigating. That’s probably a book in itself.

Anyway, as I’m working on my own world building for the book I’m going to write, I’m struck with a few weird inconsistencies.

So even with the mountain of reports and anecdotal evidence I’m reading, I still can’t help but think of the Fermi paradox. If the math says there should be other intelligent life out there, where are they?

Then we get into the sightings reported in this UFO research. If extraterrestrials have been visiting Earth for some time to study us why are the ships so different? There’s some frequent shapes in the sightings but saucers, orbs, cylinders, and triangles all strike me as very different craft. So are these the same species with different kinds of tech?

I mean a B-52 Bomber doesn’t look like a helicopter but there’s still SOME design consistency.

So what’s up with the different ships? Are they all different races? In which case, that means that multiple races are all interested in Earth of some reason either A. independently of each other or B. as part of some larger conglomeration. But if that was the case, why so many? Wouldn’t one report back be enough to satisfy that coalition group?

Maybe I’m answering my own question here. If different races keep visiting us as evidenced by the different designs of their craft, then that means they aren’t working together BUT they’re all interested in something about our planet.

I wonder what that is.

These are the kinds of questions I need to figure out for my new book if I’m going to make any headway with it.

New Beginning

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything in a while . I kind of dropped off the map after NaNoWriMo. I finished Altered Egos and wrote another short story and then … then I got busy with other writing endeavors.

I’ve been struggling with what to do with this blog for some time now. I like it but lately – well not lately, lately – I feel like I have to have a blog instead of actively wanting a blog. I think that ultimately stems from me not knowing what to post.

It’s hard. As an aspiring writer, I do a lot of writing but I feel really weird about giving any actual writing advice. I mean I haven’t made it, so who am I to tell anyone else what to do. It’s like the blind leading the blind. Especially when I’m neck deep in another novel, I don’t always want to create a blog post about something or pull my focus away to write some random piece of flash fiction to just have content. When I’m writing a novel, for those four or five months, that’s all I work on. That doesn’t leave me with a lot of other talking points.

So I’ve come to a decision.

You know how they describe world building like an iceberg? The reader only sees ten percent of it and the author knows so much more? That’s what I’m going to do here. Sort of.

I’ll still write the occasional funny or weird story from my personal life and some random short fiction when the mood strikes, but more often than not now, I’m going to use the blog as sort of a workshopping space. It’ll be a place where I can talk about my research and give some insight into characters, plot, setting, and general world stuff. It’ll be useful for me to explore this content and hopefully it’ll be interesting for you to read too.

It may not help you become a better writer, but it’ll be insight into my process.

I think doing that will make this blog more meaningful for me. I mean, my name is on the title after all. But more than that, as you know, there are only so many hours in the day. If I have writing time, I usually devote that time to novel work. Pulling focus only hurts me in the long run. But I think this new approach will solve that. It’ll give me freedom to explore and brainstorm and I’ll post the findings.

You can read this all as a new mission statement going forward. Let’s see how this works, shall we? Hope you enjoy the ride.