Wednesday, September 24, 2014

To Boldly Revise As Others Have Revised Before

One day a while back, I was doing running commentary as I watched the British version of Dancing with the Stars. “It feels a bit careful,” I said of one routine. Len, a judge, echoed me. Another dance more than made up in performance what it lacked in technique. My words… and, uh, Len’s. Another clearly lacked content. “Minimal,” pronounced a judge.

Now, there’s no way I could take a judge’s place. They see plenty I don’t – heel steps and leading with shoulders and sloppy transitions. But I do remember back when I first started watching DWTS, I’d have no idea why the judges didn’t like a performance. Or I might know something was off, but not know what or why.  But hear the judge’s critiques long enough, and you start catching on. You become a more discerning viewer.

Revising is very much like that. Whereas writing – especially for a beginner – might be a very personal act, revision is all about professionalism. Its rocket science and alchemy rolled into one -- a place where theme, voice, character development, plot, premise, tension, pacing, setting, and word choice all have to work. You can – and should – learn about the theory behind all those subjects, but more importantly, you need to know how to apply it.  

When most beginning writers “revise,” the majority of what they do is wordsmithing.  It’s great to prune an adjective here or cut a cliché there but your story almost certainly needs more fundamental work than that. Except, until you get to a certain point in your development, you don’t realize there are bigger problems. This has nothing to do with talent – and everything to with the fact that writing, just like dancing, is a lot more involved than it might seem to the uninitiated – no matter how passionate.

You can only write to the best of your abilities, and revise up to that same ceiling. How do you get better? (And, trust me, everyone can get better. )The same way I became a more perceptive towards ballroom dancing (except, hopefully with a little more intention)… by seeing people who know more than you in action.

Study craft (there are some fantabulous free sites and blogs out there, but it’s worth investing in a craft book or two for efficiency’s and comprehensiveness’s sake… and then investing in one or two   Network with other writers in reputable forums or critique sites.  Make yourself useful to authors who are more experienced than you so they will include you in their groups (a bunch of newbie writers together, while potentially supportive,  can be just a case of the blind leading the blind.) Critique manuscripts, then comb over other people’s critiques of the same piece. What did they notice that you didn’t? How does what you’re reading fit into what you’re learning about the theory of writing? Dissect examples of bad craft along with the good. Just as with questionable dancing, it can be easier to see the mistakes in writing than to notice all the elements involved in flawless technique. And, of course, put your own work out there, and prepare to be humbled… and to come out a much stronger writer from the experience. 
more when those first lessons have sunk in and you’re a master at applying them… and so forth)

After a while you will start seeing issues and strengths you didn’t realize existed, in other’s works and yours. (Oh, what a humbling and exhilarating experience, to go back to an old piece and realize how awful it was… and how much you’ve grown as a writer since then). You’ll see why people say “Writing is revising.” It will stop being about tweaking, and start being great earth-moving goals. Keep that up for long enough and you’ll get to a sweet, sweet place where you can do a good deal of that “revision” – fine-tuning character arcs, tension, etc – before you set a word on the page. But none of that can happen until you take the plunge and learn from those who know more than you.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Worldbuilding As You Go

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how everyone can use a little bit of worldbuilding in their lives. Today, guest blogger author Matt Borgard goes over one unusual approach to worldbuilding.

How much worldbuilding should you do before you start my story? The general advice is to worldbuild a bunch, then drop pieces of it as needed into your story. "It's ESSENTIAL that YOU know all the details of your world," the canard goes. "But it isn't essential that you tell it all to your reader!"

And that's perfectly great advice that works for a lot of people. If you're one of them, rock on. I'd like to suggest the opposite approach, however. Which is to essentially do *no* dedicated worldbuilding.

Many authors, even famous ones, construct stories this way. It's often called being a 'pantser,' as in, writing by the seat of your pants. I thought it might be useful to run through some quick pros and cons of this technique


Organic Worldbuilding

One of the most unrealistic parts of many speculative novels -- fantasy in particular -- is the constructed feel of their worlds. Everything fits together a little too neatly. In the real world, history is never that clear-cut.

Rome's fall was not solely attributable to slavery. It was not caused by lead in the water or moral decay. Some of those things may have contributed, sure, but any historian worth his or her salt would laugh at you if you pointed a finger at any single cause.

By contrast, authors LOVE to give us single events, single Great Men that create huge far reaching consequences -- even thousands of years later. You know those desert warriors? Yeah, their entire culture is based on this conversation these two guys had once. Oh, and you know those nomads who split from the warriors? They split because of this one thing a mage said once, here's the flashback.

In my experience, allowing your world to grow naturally and organically can circumvent the desire to overexplain. Having a history of your cultures is not a bad thing. But being able to draw a tidy line between every single thing a culture or person does or values back to events thousands of years ago is a dangerous one.

Start Your Damn Story

If you have fun worldbuilding, go for it! But if your goal is to produce a workable story, seven years of worldbuilding (yes, this happens) is clearly too much. Most writers recognize this, but many are paralyzed both by the thought of starting the story (which is never as good as it is in your head) or the thought that they haven't planned enough to begin.

Doing literally no worldbuilding resolves this dilemma. You don't have to be worried about how much worldbuilding to do prior to Chapter One, because there's only one answer: none. You don't have to be paralyzed about starting the story, because when you sit your butt in the chair in front of your word processor, there's nothing else you *can* be writing.

To put it another way, if we frame this discussion as a (admittedly simplistic) choice between MAXIMUM WORLDBUILDING and ZERO WORLDBUILDING, the better answer is clearly the latter. Worldbuilding without story is nothing. It's a reference document that no one other than you would be interested in. On the other hand, a story with no plan, with naive worldbuilding, is at the very least a story. And you can mold and shape a story. There's not much you can do with worldbuilding other than using it to start a story ... which you could have already started!

Prioritize What Matters

The maxim that "Character is King" is Creative Writing 101, and though I've had plenty of people argue that it's too simple or limiting, I've yet to see any evidence that it's not true. There are stories with fabulous, engrossing settings, but in every case, it's a character who serves as our liaison to that setting. A castle isn't interesting because of the stones and mortar that serve as its walls; it's interesting because of the kings and queens, princes and princesses, rumors and schemes happening inside.

Starting with a setting forces you to do a fair amount of pre-written worldbuilding. Minimal worldbuilding leads you to focus on character. If you find your stories spend way too much time on setting or plot, and your characters end up bland by comparison, a "no planning" strategy might be exactly what you need.


Lack of Consistency

A lack of foresight leads to some pretty hilarious inconsistencies at the end of your rough draft. Think a small village of seafaring fisherman becoming a metropolis of mountain-dwelling scientists.

Worldbuilding without planning means you're going to have to take a dedicated continuity pass at your rough draft. In effect, worldbuilding in reverse. Instead of taking a "world bible" and making a story from it, you're taking a story and making a world bible.

These inconsistencies can be viewed as a chance to rethink the fundamental assumptions of your story. Often, when I do a lot of planning, I find it hard to imagine the details of my story in any way other than how I've outlined them. Of course this tribe has a quorum government, because that's what I wrote in my outline.

When you happen on an inconsistency, however, your brain ask *why?*. If halfway through, your tribe is suddenly governed by a single dictator, what in the tribe's makeup prompted that? Does it make more sense than the original quorum plan?

You don't truly know your character and setting until you've written in that world. And though it can mean extra work, some inconsistencies here and there can ensure your understanding is reflected in the details of your world.

No Time for Gestation

Sometimes I find that my initial seed of an idea for a story doesn't carry me far enough to get a meaningful story. Like that metaphorical seed, stories need time to grow. Taking time to build your world often doesn't develop your plot or characters directly, but it does give them that many more showers and dog walks to sprout on their own. Jumping right in has the potential to rush this process. A good way to solve this, at least for me, is to have more than one project in the oven at a time. Your mileage may vary.

Setting is in the Passenger Seat

Above, I mentioned that worldbuilding-as-you-go forces you to focus on other aspects of storytelling. And while I maintain that this is advantageous 90% of the time, it can remove some potential in using the world as a natural catalyst for events. It's unlikely that you'll develop a plot because there are mountains in this area of the world, because you might not even know what this region looks like until the minute you write it.

That said, it also gives the freedom to invent the world as needed. Need to slow down your characters' journey so the Big Bad Villain can get to the town first? Give 'em a mountain pass! Of course, now you'll need to make this a mountainous region, with the climate and culture that goes with that. But that's the sort of thing I *love* about organic worldbuilding.


So, should you build your world as you go, with absolutely no preplanning? I certainly think you should give it a try if you haven't before. If it's too scary to try in a longer work, go for a short story! If you're used to compiling an almanac before the first word of your novel, minimal worldbuilding may well give you a newfound sense of freedom and agility.

At the very least, I hope it gives you another option to answer the "how much worldbuilding?" question.

Matt Borgard is a speculative fiction author. You can visit him at

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Character Voice 101

You’ve got a fresh premise. A great, fast-paced plot. A satisfying world. Only problem is, your main character sounds like they could be yanked out of your manuscript and plopped into any random book in your genre and nobody would notice. It’s an all-too-common problem: authors put generic characters through the motions, and end up with forgettable, staid results.  Don’t make your character sound like any ol’ person. Heck, don’t let them sound like any ol’ precocious six-year-old/angsty teen/smart alecky twenty-something/sophisticated spy/etc. Smash those overdone stereotypes and create a person that comes alive on the page.

Before you can do that, you have to appreciate the subtle impact voice has. Pick a character. Any character. Now plop a delicious smoothie in front of them.

“Yum, thanks.”

You are very welcome. “Yum, thanks” is a realistic, adequate response. But let’s provide this character with a family. Give ‘em all smoothies. Now what? Do they all say “Yum, thanks”? Okay, they might, and that might work under certain – humorous or frightening – circumstances. But if everything a character says and does throughout a story is indistinguishable from another character, you’re not going to have a very exciting story. So, returning to our smoothie- perhaps, you might get:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Do we have any rum left?

“Strawberry banana? Dis. Gust. Ing!”

I’m going to have to run three miles after this.

Now we’re getting a glimpse of the different character’s personalities and priorities. Let’s invite the neighbors. Smoothies all around:

Free food. Score!

“Do you have any flaxseed oil? How about stevia?”

Ha! Shelby’s gonna be so ticked she missed this.

“Can I have some more?”

I can’t believe they forgot about Mikey’s allergies again. No, wait. Yes, I can.

“Maybe just a sip.”

Oh, god. Now I’m going to have to invite them over.

“Did you know a strawberry isn’t actually a berry, but an aggregate fruit? And all those seeds on it aren’t seeds at all, but ovaries! It’s kinda gross when you think about it, except we eat plant ovaries all the time, so I suppose it’s really quite normal.”

And these are just characters being offered a smoothie. People react in different ways. Given the same stimulus, they notice and value different things. Their thoughts and spoken words form different speech patterns. They are as varied as fingerprints, snowflakes, or… people.

Your character should be the same way. Why? It’s just good story-telling. Anything less is boring… and dishonest. A story doesn’t have to be true, but it should be honest. And when readers encounter an honest story, realistically told, they find it easier to slip into that world, to keep turning and turning and turning the pages. And in the end, that is your goal.

Okay, you’re sold – rich characters are important. But…how?

It boils down being thoughtful. Now, there’s power in fast drafting (the only good draft is a finished draft), so if all the nuances aren’t coming to you at the get-go that’s fine.  But at some point, you need to carve out the details. And that means: 

  •   Giving your character unusual life experiences: So many characters move. So many live in everyone-knows-your-business towns. So many are writers or artists. So many are orphans. And yet huge swaths of possibility lay undiscovered. Which isn’t to say you can’t do one or more of those things, but make sure you bring some fresh perspective into it, too. 
  •  Understanding your characters: This might begin with a character sheet, a biography, a journal entry from your character’s point of view, or just some plain old rumination. Whatever your system is, you need to know your character – not just their age, occupation, and looks, but their passion, world view, personality, reaction to change and adversity, etc. The more nuanced an understanding you have of your characters, the more authentically – and distinctively – they can interact on the page. 
  •   Wielding your words: This is where showing, instead of telling, becomes crucial. Any character can be angry. But one might experience a hot rush of blood and tears while another set his jaw while another punches a wall. Collectively, all these decisions regarding dialog and action add up to a rich picture of a complex character.

And, of course, the final way to help you create better characters is to read and read, and examine what makes other great characters work on the written page. Share some of your favorite book characters below, and tell us why they stand out to you – and have fun writing.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Worldbuilding 101

By Ella Kennen

You’ve got your plot and your characters, now all you need is a time and place to put them in motion. That’s where worldbuilding comes in – think of it as the book version of a movie set or the props and backdrop at a theater.

When people think of worldbuilding, their thoughts often turn to sci-fi and fantasy, where entire worlds – and beyond – can actually be created from the imagination. Alternate time lines? Check. New species? Of course. Strange customs and exotic traditions? Great. People can spend months or even years building their story bibles to help keep details consistent from story to story.

But worldbuilding is for everyone. Sure, that gazillion-dollar blockbuster has a list of CGI animators more populated than some zip codes, but even the “simplest” movie has settings – a restaurant, a car, a bedroom – that help immerse the viewer into the world of the movie.  The same thing applies to books. Even if the only thing you ever write is contemporary realistic fiction, you’ve got to think of the setting: Is the school cafeteria an anarchist wonderland, a clique-filled warzone, or a particularly draconian prison? Is the main character’s bedroom uncharacteristically messy, uncharacteristically clean, or purposefully cramped? These little choices – urban or suburban; fast food joint or coffee shop; parking lot or basketball court – not only help create the ambiance, but affect the characters’ worldviews and choices.

Whether you’re creating an epic fantasy, a gritty coming of age tale, or a zany picture book, purposeful world-building can make a difference. Here are some pointers to get you started:

Remember, the story is king.

The world exists to serve the story, not the other way around. No matter how amazing, unique, or detailed your world is, it must be there to support the story, not take the focus away from it.

Yes, the nugget from your story can come from a “what if…” idea. What if sheep were barbers? (I’d like to see that manuscript, by the way!) What if dragons had to save a dying breed of elves? What if a hurricane destroyed your town? But once you’ve had that bit of inspiration, you need to hone in on characters, conflict, and plot.

Starting a story with detailed description of setting, or stopping the narrative to explain some custom or native history is a very common problem – and one that will get your manuscript rejected. Instead, you must weave details seamlessly into your story, so that they add rich supporting detail.

Don’t necessarily go with your first thought.

There’s a reason pop culture is called pop culture… it’s popular. That means, vast quantities of us see and are affected or inspired by the same events and ideas. And many of those ideas trickle into manuscripts. The only problem? Other people are using those very same ideas, resulting in tragically similar stories. Think beyond the obvious and then, possibly, think beyond that. Don’t go with the craziest idea you can think of just for the sake of being different, but do go with the idea that’s worth exploring because it hasn’t been done before.

Be consistent.

Play by the rules of your own world. If the action takes place in the middle of a city, don’t make your main character’s “secret place” the large meadow behind the yard. If, in your world, cavemen have computers (another story I’d like to see!), ponder whether it would make sense for them to communicate by signal fire.

Don’t be overly convenient.

Worldbuilding gives you superhuman powers… but with great power comes, well, you know. Thou shalt not write in some contrived fix purely to get your characters out of dire straits. Thou shall not create little messenger moths and great people-carrying eagles when your characters are facing volcanic doom. Weave them into the entire storyline or don’t weave them at all.

Have fun.

The care and energy you take with your world comes through in your writing – and that’s a wonderful thing.