Archive for the 'Worldbuilding' Category

21
Jun
10

Like most human interactions, it’s all about power

Gah, sorry about the lack of posts. I have no real excuses, life has been about the same level of busy as always. I can only chalk it up to the fact that I’m starting a new novel, and whenever that happens I suddenly have nothing to say. SO, let’s switch the subject entirely and talk about that other other new novel I’m thinking about writing (only once I finish all my contracted work, but of course!)

So I’m thinking about a new novel, and it has a romantic plot as its central element. Well, actually I’m thinking about 5 or 6 new novels, and they all have romantic plots (new ideas are not a problem writers have, it seems). The trouble is that, traditionally, I tend to fail at romantic plots. I can do sword fights pretty darn well, I think. Cliffhangers, no problem. Same for political tension, magical apocalypses, so on and so forth. But romantic tension? Not so much. I just can’t hear it in my head like I can other things, and it drives me nuts.  I love love stories. I’ve never been a romance reader, but I eat books up when they have tasty romantic twists (see Reason #354 why I love Nora’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, aka “Can I have a Nahadoth?”). So why can’t I ever seem to write one?

I was thinking about this a lot this weekend (ok, I was being emo about it a lot this weekend), and in the course of boo-hooing, I realized something. Looking back at all my books where I tried and failed to write romance, I was writing the wrong heroes. All of my heroes were guys I’d love in real life – nice, clever, responsible, talented, earnest young men with pretty faces. But that’s not what I want in my romances. If I look at the love stories I love, we get a very different type of hero. So I sat down to take an inventory — what turns my crank in a leading man? To start, I made a list:

  • Mr. Darcy (Austen, P&p)
  • Jareth the Goblin King (Labyrinth)
  • Wolverine (X-Men)
  • Nahadoth (above mentioned 100k kingdoms)
  • Alucard (Hellsing)
  • Mr. Thorton (North & South)

I could go on, but you get the point and I need to stop swooning. The next question is: what do these men have in common? I mean, Mr. Darcy and Wolverine? Jareth and anybody? Other than Jareth, they’re all dark haired, but I think that’s more coincidence than any marked preference on my part. So, what? I ruminated on this for a while and then smacked myself, because the answer was staring me in the face. It’s power. All of these men have great power in their own ways. They all have different kinds of power, Mr.Darcy and Mr. Thorton have money and status, Alucard and Wolverine are inhuman combat monsters, and Nahadoth and Jareth are otherworldly gods (Naha literally, Jareth more or less). All of these men can be very cruel with their powers, and most are, but they can also all be won over by an intelligent, determined woman who doesn’t care about their power and can not be won by it. That’s the angle I go for, apparently. Powerful men humbled by love.

Once I figured this out, I started scrapping my heroes. They were nice boys, but they weren’t leading man material. They just couldn’t hold up their end of the conflict. They were too nice, too good, too earnest. There wasn’t enough danger. The new heroes were much, much more messed up, and way more interesting. Soon as I got that in hand, the stories suddenly snapped into place.

Once again I learn the fundamental lesson of writer’s block: It’s not that I can’t do it, it’s just that I don’t understand it yet. Once I understand it, everything falls into place.

So, does anyone else have a type of hero they gravitate towards, or am I just weird?

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24
May
10

keeping the balls in the air

A few days late, but I was overwhelmed this weekend launching my website! www.rachelaaron.net! This is also why my first three blog entries are magic district cross posts, no time to write three new ones! But I promise there will be new and unique content forthcoming. In the meanwhile, enjoy the pretty rollovers!

Everyone knows the famous Checkov quote, “If there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third.” It’s one of the best bits of writing advice I’ve ever heard, but in my line of work, writing adventure fantasy, I’ve had to make a few adjustments… “If there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third, then fired again in the fifth. By act 9 they should have morphed into cannons, and by act 13 the main character will be dual wielding them as planet destroying deathstars with hilts.”

Ok, that’s a little over the top, but hopefully you get my point. Lots of times my stories start with a magical system, some new and interesting way for the world to work. As soon as I have this in mind, I start working on a way to break it (or letting my husband break it for me). I think of this as player character testing. You know in role playing games how players will exploit every tiny trick of the system to get more power? I think this is the natural human reaction to constraints, which is what all systems are at their roots – power limitations. So when I get my characters and sit them down in a new world, the first thing I do is try to think how they will break the system, or at least abuse it horribly. It’s the best sign they’re acting like people and not like cardboard.

The down side of this is that with every new book, things get a little more out of hand. Characters need progression — new challenges, bigger stakes. Those secret power dueling pistols you showed in book 1 are old hat by book 3. You have to go bigger, cleverer, and the threat has to get bigger as well. And if you start big, like I did, then when you reach book 4, where I am now, things are REALLY big. That’s why I thank any power who’s listening that I made a plan at the start of this. So while things will get up to universe altering changes by book 5, hopefully they won’t get stupid.

That’s my biggest fear, really. I’ve seen so many series that start off amazing and just get stupid at the end, mostly because the characters have outgrown their world. They’re simply too powerful, nothing’s a challenge anymore. So I deliberately set my power scale at the very beginning in the hopes of avoiding this problem. I wanted big, dangerous, flashy, interesting, but not unbelievable. The important thing is that I haven’t left my main set of powers, my dueling pistols. Sure they’ve gotten bigger and crazier, but I haven’t had to change the rules of my world to accommodate my now very powerful, late series characters, and I never intend to.

Of course, we’ve still got 1 more book to go…

19
Apr
10

100%, 100%

Today I thought I would talk about something it took me 3 novels to learn in the hopes that I can make other people’s lives easier.  I’m a pretty cautious person. I hate gambling, I hate using things if I only have a few left, I hate taking a risk with my money or time or valuables. This caution unfortunately transmits into writing. Say I’m writing a novel, and suddenly I have this great idea. Like, amazing idea, an idea that can carry a series. What do I do with this idea? Or say I had a fantastic world secret. I’d drop tiny hints, never show my hand. Used to be, whenever my brain tossed these gems my way, I would save them, play it safe. After all, I don’t want to put all my ideas in one basket, or tip my secrets too soon.

Back when I was first submitting The Spirit Thief, the criticism I got the most often was that I needed more. More secrets, more world, more cool stuff. This was very hard for me. I had so much cool stuff for the book, but I was holding onto it. After all, these were amazing ideas/secrets, I needed time to set them up properly, I couldn’t just waste them on the first book in a series! But as I got the same criticism over and over again, I finally realized that, if I wanted to WRITE all those books I was saving ideas for, I’d have to make THIS book a lot cooler. So I threw caution to the wind (or, more accurately, released my deathgrip on caution slowly and painfully before lightly placing it on the window sill) and went all in. I stuffed every cool idea I could into The Spirit Thief. I dropped big hints at the world secrets, laid everything out like a Sunday Las Vegas Buffet, lobster and all.

And it worked. Suddenly, everyone really liked my book. They wanted to read more, and so I got a chance to write a second book. And even better, despite all the ideas I crammed into the first book, I still had plenty of awesome secrets and ideas.

What I’m trying to say is that, unlike most everything else in the world, writing does not benefit from caution. Ideas are not a finite resource. In fact, the more secrets and ideas you use, the more you have. Readers read to be entertained, so give them everything. Give them fireworks and grand drama and lobster and the whole three ring circus. Don’t hold back with your novels, don’t save your ideas for later.  Spend them. Use everything you have like you’ll never write another book again. It doesn’t matter, you’ll have more ideas, better ideas. But to really write a book that will thrill and surprise, you can not be conservative or cautious. You have to give 100%, 100% of the time, because that’s what readers deserve. You are an entertainer, and whether you’re working a sidewalk or the Luxor, you have to give every performance everything you’ve got.

Break a leg!

07
Apr
10

Exposition on a need-to-know basis

Exposition can be one of those things that drives me bananas, especially in the last few stages of revision, when I know everything about the story and can’t understand why no one else sees it. (This is also the part where I usually inform my husband that they called me mad, mad I tell you, but he’s used to that.)  It’s also a problem that’s particularly thorny for science fiction and fantasy writers, since we’ve got to introduce an entire world to the reader without bringing the story screeching to a halt.

It’s possible for large lumps of exposition to work — the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy runs on this, and it wouldn’t be the same without those asides — but writers are usually told to stay away from the infodump. For good reason; nothing kicks me out of a story faster than two pages of dry history before the action even happens. But dropping a reader in medias res can also backfire, especially if so much is going on that the reader’s left in the dust. I don’t often put down books that frustrate me in this way, but there have been a few that left a very bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the book.

The crux of it, for me at least, is balancing what the reader needs to know, what the reader already knows, and what will slow down the story. The first part’s easy to stumble over, especially in first drafts, because usually by that point I’ve come up with so much backstory and worldbuilding details that I just really want to share them all! I worked so much on it, why not add that twelve-page summary of Character X’s family history? (Well, because twelve pages will not make anyone care more about Character X, but will probably make anyone who did care stop.) I’ve poked fun at myself about this, such as in “A Serpent in the Gears,” where Charles stops himself from giving “the full explanation of merged versus autonomous citizenry and the Aaris monarchic system.” And yes, I’d actually written the full explanation in the first draft, changing it to that little jab when I realized what I was doing.

But this also works the other way (and this is often something I have to go back and fix in revisions, particularly in the Evie novels); there are certain things the reader needs to know early on, so that later events will have the significance needed. Building a mystery, particularly from a tight first-person perspective, involves a lot of this sort of information seeding, especially the kind where the reader doesn’t notice that they’ve got a vital piece of information yet.

On the other side of the equation is deciding what the reader already knows. Some of this is easy — if I’ve just made up the entire town of Thanapont and its rituals concerning the dead, then no reader is going to know a damned thing about it, and I can elaborate as much as I like (within reason; see below). But stories that are partly set in a recognizable world, or that draw on established mythology, are more difficult. This is where I often have trouble, especially if I’m playing off of a folktale as in “Goosegirl” or “Sparking Anger.” I tend to write my first drafts as if all of my readers will be familiar with my source material, and only later realize that I’ve made it completely incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t familiar with that source. The temptation to pause for a lecture is strong here as well, because at this point I’m usually so enamored with what I’ve learned that I want to show all my research.

This can also trip me up with some cultural expectations; if making a reference to “the happiest place on earth” is important to discovering the mystery, then I’m assuming everyone knows I’m talking about Disney World. Or, for another example, that everyone will know what the Curse of the Bambino was supposed to be. I often have to go back and decide what assumptions I’m making about my readers and what information I’ll need to provide. (In terms of serials, it’s another matter entirely — how much does the reader need to know about Evie from book to book? I’m still learning my way around this problem, and as I start in on revisions to Soul Hunt I’ll see how well I’ve tackled it.)

When I’m trying to write exposition, these are the two factors that come into play — but neither is as important as whether it will slow the story down. I try to do a lot of weaving exposition in around everything else (in the worst case, this can result in pausing a fight scene to discuss technique, which aaaargh drives me crazy and is why I don’t watch a lot of shonen anime.) And when working from a tight first-person perspective, if my narrator doesn’t know something, then I either have to show her learning it or use her ignorance as something for the reader to notice. For that matter, if she does know an important piece of exposition, then finding an excuse for her to remark on it becomes a new problem. There’s less of the “as you know, Bob” issue here and more of a “as I know, reader,” neither of which works well.

What exposition works for you? What knocks you out of the story, or makes you start skimming through in hopes of getting back to the action? Are there stories where the lack of exposition frustrated you? And, most importantly, what kind of exposition will make you stop reading?

04
Feb
10

Vamps with a pulse and why/how writers make world building decisions

After finishing reading my first book,Once Bitten, a non-writing friend struck up a conversation about the book and during the course of it asked why, if my vampires didn’t breathe, did they have a pulse? I state in the book that a vampire’s lungs are vestigial, but it is also mentioned that their hearts still beat. She was curious if there was vampire lore to support those facts, or if it was just a suspension of belief kind of thing. I think I probably overwhelmed her with my answer, but I thought it was a really great question because the issue was wrapped in so much world building that I most likely could never fully explain it in the book without copping out and having a character lecture (not going to happen). After the fact, I thought it would make a really great blog topic because it gives a lot of insight into how my logic flows as I’m world building. (And yes, the post title is a little deceptive because I can’t actually promise to reveal how all writers make world building decisions, just how I do.)

Before I go into how I ended up with non-breathing vamps with pulses, let’s take a brief look at how the body works:
Normally the heart pumps blood through the body to nourish cells. At the lungs, the blood is infused with oxygen, which attaches to the iron in the blood and is distributed through the body. Nutrients are picked up in the intestines. Cells use the oxygen and nutrients and add carbon dioxide and waste to the blood. The carbon dioxide is released in the lungs and the waste is filtered in the kidneys. The heart is a giant muscle that creates enough pressure to push the blood through these various locations so that all of the above occurs in a continuous cycle. (That’s a simplistic explanation, but go with me.)

In classic vampire lore, piercing or removing the heart was often considered the only way to kill a vampire permanently. I decided to interpret this as the heart being important and in use. After all, why would the destruction of the heart kill the vampire if the heart wasn’t doing anything? (Yes, other writers have come up with their own lore to explain that. This one is mine, and I decided the heart should function.) So, knowing my vamps had beating hearts, I had to decide what other body functions would still be occurring.

I knew I didn’t want my vamps to have to breathe because many places a vampire can ensure is light-proof would have very limited oxygen supplies. Plus, the main purpose of the lungs is infusing oxygen in the blood. If my vamps are unaging, their cells do not go through the same cycles and do not need oxygen. But, I also realized my vamps would need the ability to draw breath if they wanted because speech is dependent on vibrations as air passes the vocal cords. Also, without breathing, my characters couldn’t smell anything. So, I decided that during the change, the lungs would become vestigial. They serve no overall purpose in the body, they are just sacks to store air so the vamp can speak. (This means a vamp would give great CPR because their lungs are full of oxygen as they don’t convert it to carbon dioxide. LOL)

Okay, so the lungs don’t do much. Back to that beating heart. Why is it beating?

My vamps can’t consume food, so most of their digestive track has been altered and rendered useless. But they do drink blood and they need that blood to survive. A starving vamps basically deflates and becomes sicklier and sicklier looking. The blood they drink nourishes and gives power to the body. What better way to move this blood around the body than with an organ that is one strong muscle and already does this anyway?

With that decision, I realized that most major vessels needed to be rerouted to the stomach. In the stomach, the blood that is consumed is absorbed into the vampire’s system. The heart then pumps this empowering blood around the body. Because the vampire is not aging, not dying, there is no reason to filter waste or carbon dioxide out of the blood, so the heart just keeps pumping the blood through the body, allowing it to be used as needed. As the blood is used, the amount pumping through the body is reduced and the ‘need’, the ‘hunger’, for more will begin. If the vampire doesn’t feed, the reduced amount of blood will cause the veins and vessels to shrink down, some veins may be temporarily shut down, allowing the vamp to conserve the life giving blood for the most important parts of the body. This causes the sallow, sickly look of a starving vamp and a persistent chill in the body.

The decision to have a pulse and circulating blood further helped my world building because I wanted the exchange of blood to be important. If the blood isn’t pumping, it’s much harder to bleed. Also, my vamps are sexy, and in my opinion, warm bodies with a pulse are sexier than cold ones without. ^_^

And that, is the basic logic of how I ended up with vampires with a pulse. There are further complications to my vamps’ systems, but those I do reveal in the story as Kita (my main character) learns them, so I won’t share here. I hope you found this to be an entertaining ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at my world building process.

Have a great Thursday everyone!

**Please note that I have neither a degree in biology nor physiology, so all of this is based on my understanding and a simplification of how body functions work.

25
Sep
09

“If the people aren’t doing anything cool the book is dumb.”

The quote in the title actually comes from here and is truly one of those “out of the mouths of babes” moments. Spoken, I’m sure, in tones of disgusted superiority by an irate third grader. It’s now going up on my list of writing quotes I keep on my desk, right under Hemmingway’s “Those who say they want to be writers, and aren’t writing, don’t,” bringing my list of writing quotes to… two.

But I couldn’t not add it, because it’s simply too true to ignore. Books where the characters aren’t doing something cool, suck! They’re boring, and boring, more than bad writing, annoying characters, or thin world building, is the death of a novel.

Now, of course, cool means different things to different people, or different things to the same person through different books. One person may think explosions are awesome, another may think startling and numinous revelations about the tangled knot of family life are the bee’s knees, but it doesn’t really matter.  Cool is cool, you’ll know it when you see it. Cool is, basically, what keeps people interested in writing – the imaginative touches, the scenes you have to tell your friends about, the things that make you put down the book and go “damn, that was cool.”

When I first wrote the novel that became The Spirit Thief, the main complaint was that it was too thin. People liked the characters and the action, but there just wasn’t enough there. So, bit by stumbling bit, I started adding things that I hoped would make people cackle, or go “OOOOOH!” Looking back, I was adding cool. Sure I did other things, I ratcheted up the tension and took out some navel gazing, but mostly I was stuffing the novel full of cool happenings like a thanksgiving turkey. The more I added, the more people liked my book, and the more I liked my book.

For sure, a novel is more than coolness. You need all that other stuff like plot and characters and whatnot. But I’ve put down so many books that were well written simply because I got bored. It wasn’t the story’s fault, it was going along just fine, but there just wasn’t enough cool to keep me interested. Cool is like salt. No one wants to eat straight salt, but even the most delicious food is bland without it (and quickly ruined gratuitous overuse).

Maybe I have a short attention span, to give up on decent books because I get bored, but I’m not too different from your average reader in that, I think. When I read, I want to be entertained. I want to read about cool people doing cool things. I want to be excited, to call my husband and read him a passage over the phone because it was SO COOL. Of course, a book doesn’t have to have that level of cool for me to like it a lot, but it has to have some, or else it’s just people doing stuff.

Still, books that overflow with coolness are the books that stay on my shelf and never get resold. Those are the books I tell my friends about, and those are the books I try to write. I don’t know if I succeed, as I said, cool is a pretty subjective thing. But, then again, if there was a solid recipe for cool I could share on this blog, we’d all be millionaires. All we can do is keep trying to make our books as interesting and cool as possible, and hopefully, other people will agree.

27
Aug
09

The Research Readers Don’t See

I often get asked — generally by writers from other literary traditions, like creative nonfiction or mystery or thrillers — whether I do research, as a fantasy writer, or whether I just make it all up.

This question flummoxes me, and it also tells me just how (poorly) these people regard fantasy. Or maybe it’s not that they have a poor regard for it; maybe it’s that they have no regard for it, and they’re speaking out of ignorance. Maybe they genuinely don’t understand what goes into writing a typical fantasy novel. So at the risk of stating the obvious for the fantasy writers/readers in our audience, let me answer that question here.

Of course I do research. I do a metric ton of it.
Continue reading ‘The Research Readers Don’t See’