Posts Tagged ‘Worldbuilding


when it all comes back around

First off, my official website and blog are live! Yay! More Rachel than you could ever want, but hey, there’s free chapters of my books, so there’s compensation!

In the meanwhile, when I’m not wasting time making the links on my blog the right shade of orange, I’m slogging through novel 4. I’ve posted about middles before, but seriously, it’s the worst part of any novel for me. In the beginning everything is shiny. I always know how my novels start! And at the end, you’ve got climax fever and everything’s exploding, plenty of action to drive you along. But the middle is where you’ve got all those pesky details to nail down between point A and point Awesome-it’s-the-end. I’ve never really been a details person, and so middles are where I flounder. Lately, however, I’ve realized what I think may be a fundamental truth about series writing that’s making things easier. It goes like this: though I’m on book 4 of 5, there are several things I still don’t know about the series. I have some ideas about how things will go, but I don’t have scene by scene breakdowns or anything. Still, I’m not worried. You see, all though my books, through the 4 middles I’ve now written, I’ve been dropping threads for myself. Mentioning little things about the world that may have had no real bearing on the story that was happening right then, but they added flavor and, as I get closer and closer to the point where I have to tie everything together, they provide much needed spots for the knots to go.

To give an example, my husband watches a lot of Stargate SG1. Like, a lot a lot, I think he’s on season 11. One of the things he’s constantly raving to me about the show is how it will use things from waaay back, like season 1, as major plot points for later. When he first told me this, I was so impressed. What amazing foresight those writers had! Dropping hints so early about things that become important later! It’s genius! But, now that I’m managing the book equivalent of a five season show, I am slightly less dazzled, because I’m doing the same thing. See, I didn’t know I was going to be writing five books, and I’m pretty sure the SG1 writer team didn’t know they were going to be making 11 seasons of the show. I will bet cash money they didn’t sit around in the writing room in season 1 saying “Ok, be sure to lay out all these hints for season 6, 9, 10, and 12” any more than I looked at my draft for book 1 thinking “Ok, I’ve got to put down all these clues for book 4…” No, I was thinking (and I’m pretty sure the Stargate team was as well) “I will make this story interesting my world deep by throwing in all this cool shit!” And low and behold, when more story was requested, that cool shit, all the interesting asides and chance comments on the world, then became vital future plot points.

Once I realized this about my own fiction and Stargate, I started seeing it everywhere. That’s because it works both for the writer and the audience. People, especially fiction readers, loooove finding patterns. They love it when something mentioned in book 1 becomes the key plot turn in book 4. As a reader, it makes you feel smart, special, like you and the author are in on some awesome secret. Everyone likes feeling special. Even better, they remember that awesome thing you mentioned in book 1 as soon as it becomes important in book 3 and feel very clever for doing so, but they don’t remember the 5 other cool hints you dropped around the one you used. It’s like the opposite of the Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech. People remember the good bits, and the ones that never really took are interred with your bones.

From an ego standpoint, I would like to think that some alligator brain in the bottom of my subconscious had everything planned from the beginning. Maybe it did, but so far as my conscious mind is concerned, I’ve always tended to treat my novels like soup pots. Anything that could possibly make the soup better without ruining the flavor goes in. It is often sheer serendipity that later, when I’m stuck in a middle with no idea how I’m going to jump this plot hole, I look back and there’s my answer, danging from the loose ends of book 2. Sometimes you just have to throw it all in and see what sticks.

So, do you ever notice/participate in this phenomenon?

PS: Has anyone else encountered this monstrosity? (har har useewhutididthere) Seriously, though, you tell me. Is this a victory for the popularity of urban fantasy or the embarrassing, corporate cash-out tail end? I am both strangely attracted and utterly repelled.


if you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory

I have not posted in a long time, and I offer a solid dogeza in apology (see below).

So my series, starting with The Spirit Thief, comes out on October 1, followed by The Spirit Rebellion in November and The Spirit Eater in December. So many books! But don’t they make such a lovely little set? Anyway, while all this is going on, I am busy at work on Book 4 in the Legend of Eli Monpress, and I am running into some interesting situations. See, back when I wrote the Spirit Thief, I knew it was the first in the series, but I didn’t actually know much about the series other than how it ended, which was very far from where it began. Over the course of three books I’ve had to get a lot more specific and detailed.  This has caused a few problems because I’ve never written a series before and I was wholly unprepared for the level and amount of detail I ended up having to keep track of. Thousands of little decisions made over years of writing that have to be kept in mind because, in the world of the books, they are now history, irrefutable, and completely un-fudge-able should I find them inconvenient later down the line.

Some of this was alleviated by my wiki, especially the dry, bookkeeping kind of detail, but more and more as I dig into book 4 I find myself face to face with decisions I made about my characters months or years ago, and worse, decisions I made and now don’t remember making. I remember hearing a story about J.K. Rowling writing her later HP books and having to go into bookstores to buy the earlier ones to check things because she didn’t remember what she’d written. At the time I first heard this, I thought it was stupid. What kind of author doesn’t remember what she writes? But I own Ms. Rowling an apology, because I’m now in the same boat (albeit a far smaller, less grand boat). I have an ARC of the Spirit Thief on my desk at all times that I use to constantly check things, and search is my favorite feature in Word. But as my story grows, the process of self checking gets trickier and trickier. But though I do check all the time, I often find that, especially for things like character decisions (who did what when), my first intuition is the right one. I’ve been wondering lately why this is. Does some deep part of me remember? Am I clairvoyant? That would be nice, but I think the actual reason if far simpler and, by extension, more reliable.

One of my favorite ladies ever, Judge Judy, always says that if you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory. Tuns out this is equally applicable whether you’re suing your neighbor over a fence on TV or writing fiction. My characters are the most interesting part of writing for me, and I put a great deal of thought and consideration into keeping them true to themselves. Sometimes this has the unfortunate side effect of characters bucking the plot when it asks them to do something they wouldn’t do, but while that can be annoying (read catastrophic while it’s happening), I think my books have always been better for it. But another lovely, unforeseen side effect of this is that, by staying true to my characters, telling the truth of my people, as it were, I don’t have to have a good memory about what they’ve done in the novels. I just think of the situation in question and I know how they would have reacted, even if I can’t remember exactly how I wrote it.

What have I learned from all this? That it’s worth the time to really know your characters for practical reasons as well as artistic ones. Because sometimes you end up writing a fourth book when you only really expected to write one, and you should always build on a firm foundation. Especially if you’re like me and Diet Coke has eaten your memory and you need all the help you can get.

Mmmmm… diet coke…


The powerless power

A year or so ago I read the quote from Helen Mirren. It was her answer in response to an interview question about growing older and trying to avoid the “sexy” label:

“I’m still trying to wriggle out from under that label. […] Being a sexual object is mortifying and irritating, yet it’s giving you power–an awful power that you’ve done nothing to deserve, a powerless power. I think some young women fall in love with that power, and it’s really objectifying. And when it starts falling away, it’s an incredible relief.”

Nora’s post on objectification got me thinking about this again. It’s one of my favorite concepts – the powerless power, the power others give you, but that you yourself neither own or control. The quote is talking about sexual power, particularly the over sexualization of very young women, barely more than girls, that our culture thrives on. We take these lovely girls and give them power, media power, money, attention, and then wonder why the sixteen-year-old can’t handle it.

Of course, stars are a bad example, they had to have some kind of talent to get where they are. But think of girls you knew in high school, the really pretty ones. Think about all the women whose main talent in life is being lovely, because being lovely got them everywhere they wanted to be. Who these women might have been with out the free ride of good genes, we’ll never know. But, we all know what happens when their beauty starts to slip, and the power fades away. Several billion dollar industries are funded by women trying to salvage their beauty, and the power tied to it, from the ravages of time, but in the end, it’s futile, because the power was never theirs to begin with. It was always given to them for reasons outside their control, and love of power you do not control is the most dangerous obsession of all.

Which brings me back to fantasy. Fantasy novels are full of people clinging to powerless power, which, in fantasy worlds (places which tend to be populated by kings and born magicians)  encompasses a lot more than just sexual objectification. Tons of fantasies (mine included) have people born with strong, innate magical power. It’s like winning the genetic lotto, you came out an archmagus while your brother got the large nose. Or take the prince, born into fantastic power by virtue of primogenitor. Both of these are powers the person holding them did nothing to obtain. The prince didn’t struggle to better himself, win the hearts of the people, and claim throne. He didn’t even take it by force, at the head of a conquering army. Similarly, the born mage may have to train so as not to blow themselves up, but with that much power she probably didn’t have to work very hard to be at the top of the heap, magically speaking.

It’s not uncommon for a fantasy to be full of people born into power, be it royalty, magical powers, inheritors of some great artifact of a lost age, chosen child of a god, etc., etc., I am endlessly amazed at how decent most authors depict these folks turning out. Compare your average fantasy land princess to anyone an American tabloid would call a “princess,” one saves the kingdom by teaming up with the unlikeliest of companions, the other is up to her nose in cocaine. This is a gross generalization on both counts, but you get my drift. We like our fantasy MCs powerful and good, but when that power comes from anywhere but their own hard work, especially if it comes at birth, you’ve got to take into account how that power warped a young mind notoriously unable to responsibly deal with power on that scale or risk creating a cardboard character.

It all goes back to my post waaaay long ago about letting people be people. If you have individuals born into great power, most of them won’t handle it well, because it’s not their power. It’s power they were given through no deserving of their own, and though you don’t generally age out of great magical ability, I don’t imagine most child prodigy wizards would end up any better than child prodigy actors. Of course, this is where the clever author could start turning things in interesting directions. How many times in fantasy have we seen the young boy born with terrible power, who, though a loving foster parent (since his own are dead, natch), learns to fear and control his own magic and then goes on to do wonderful things. It’s going to take a lot of originality to sell that plot. However, how interesting could it be to have that same child mage become world famous as a magical prodigy, and then lose his power? Everything he’d been handed by life would vanish, and he’d be left with what precious little he’d done for himself. What lengths would he go through to get it back? How would he support his magical coke habit? What if magic itself was addictive (and you know it would be, once you’ve had world shaping power at your fingers, life can never be the same), how would he deal with the withdrawl?

Everything comes down understanding the difference between power a person earns and power they are given. Knowledge, skills, friendship, determination built on your own goals, magic you learned through hard trial, these are real powers, earned, not given, and can not be taken away. But powerless power, especially when it comes at a young age, is never truly the character’s own. Because of this, I think powerless power can be one of the most volatile and interesting elements in a story. Provided, of course, your characters react to it like people, and not like train cars on the plot railroad.


Beating back blocks with knowledge!

Thanks to my unscientific poll last week, I learned that lots of you are of a writerly persuasion. That’s awesome, because now, I don’t have to fret about boring you to death by sharing some of my incredibly nerdy nerd tools!

When I’m writing, one of the things I do over and over again is answer character questions. You know, all those online “10 Character Creation Questions” quizzes that proliferate on writing sites. I do this because 1) they’re fun, and 2)  when I get stuck writing, it’s almost always because I don’t know something I need to know. Sometimes it’s a plot point or world building thing that I haven’t thought through, but, 9 times out of 10, I’m stumped because I don’t know my character well enough, and as a result I’m accidentally trying to make them do something they either wouldn’t do at all, or wouldn’t do in that way. Through trial and error, I’ve found that the fastest way to combat this problem is to ask them questions. Preferably on the subject at hand, but, if I’m really stuck, anything will do. I just ask questions until I stumble onto the solution to my problem. 

I get stuck a lot, so I’ve done a lot of character creation question sheets. Lately, however, it’s been frustrating, because most character sheets are set up as if this is the first time you’ve ever thought about your characters. They ask you basic things like “what’s you name?” or “who were your parents?”  But I’m on my second book with these people. I need something meatier, something that reaches a little further than “what was your most traumatic experience?”

Fortunately, I’m married to a super awesome man. My husband makes and runs role playing games for our circle of friends, and he’s constantly creating tools for them. A while ago, when I was lying on the floor bemoaning my book (a weekly occurance), he gave me a list of questions he’d written up for his players in an attempt to get deeper characters out of them. I loved it, and I’ve used it as a staple for all my characters ever since.

So, for your edification and enjoyment, I’m posting it here. Think of it as a short supplement to other character creation sheets.  I hope you find it useful, and if you think of any awesome questions to add, please let me know!!

Continue reading ‘Beating back blocks with knowledge!’


Wikis. Awesome.

So I’ve mentioned wikis a few times here, more than enough to establish my love for them, I’m sure. And since Margaret gave me an excuse, (BLAME HER) I’m going to tell you why they are made of awesomesauce

So, what is a wiki?

You’re all probably familiar with wikis. Who hasn’t gone to Wikipedia to win an argument with some obscure bit of knowledge? But online encyclopedia is only one use of a wiki. A wiki is simply a medium for storing and organizing information online through a series of interlinking, categorized, editable web pages. You can use wikis to store pretty much anything you need to, even worldbuilding.

Why Worldbuild on a Wiki? 

Like pretty much ever author ever, I love to worldbuild. When I was in highschool, I filled notebook after notebook with sprawling, amazingly detailed histories of places that didn’t exist, relationship for characters who didn’t have worlds, all kinds of neat stuff. But information written on notebooks is hardly safe. They get damaged, they were hard to search through should I ever actually want to use any of the information I’d written down, and they got lost constantly. In fact, only two survive at this point. Almost as soon as I got serious about writing, I knew I needed something better.

So I moved all my paper rambling to word documents. Here, at least, things wouldn’t get lost barring catastrophic hard drive failure. But while the medium was technically different, the problems were still the same. My worlds were broken up on hundreds of tiny, cryptically named files spread over two computers and a laptop. Things I jotted down when inspiration hit me, then saved and forgot about. I tried dumping everything in one file, but that quickly dissolved into an unmanageable mess of words piled on top of each other.

By the time I’d finished my first novel, I was done with random disorganization. I needed structure, order, and I needed it to be always accessible so stupid things like not having the right file wouldn’t slam the breaks on writing that was hard enough already.

Enter the wiki. Wikis don’t demand order, but they encourage and inspire it because it’s just so easy to be organized. I’ll start on the front page with a few large categories: characters, geography, politics, timeline, and often a category for random cool scenes I think up but don’t know where to put yet, because hey, plot is still a million miles away. Each of these categories becomes a link, an empty link that I can follow and create a new page. Now my one page wiki has six pages, and each of those six pages can spider off. Characters, for example, would have three lists right off the bat: protagonists, antagonists, and others. Each of these names becomes a link that I can click and fill in and, the best part, link to other characters. If I have a brother and sister pair, each of their pages links to the other. Same with a romantically involved couple, or a pair of moral enemies. Wikis show relationships, and for writers, that means relationships between people, organizations, places, political groups, magical schools, everything. By the time I’ve copy-pasted all my random worldbuilding from my files (because I still use word for little things, and by the time I’m ready for a wiki, I’ve often got tons of little documents in desperate need of order), I’ve got a sprawling net of interconnected pages showing the same information, only now it’s all interrelated, allowing me to trace a character’s influence through the wiki. Better still, a wiki will show you where your worldbuilding is thin. If your protagonist has a million links going off her page, but your antagonist (or worse, the love interest) only has two, then you know right there who needs a little love and thought.

Perhaps the best of all is that wikis support those random flashes of intuition. If I wake up in the middle of the night KNOWING how this guy waaaaaaay over there is somehow vital to the climax of the plot, I can fire up my laptop, log in to my wiki, and start making connections. Maybe he’s involved in the shadowy conspiracy? (Link to shadowy conspiracy) Maybe he uses this little known school of magic? (Link to school of magic). And best of all, the links don’t even have to GO anywhere! Maybe you haven’t even invented the little know school of magic, so what? Leave the link blank and fill it in later. But the wiki still shows the connection, and that’s where a wiki truly shines. It lets you connect all those disparate thoughts into an online network of easily accessible, easily editable pages. Plus (since you’re the only one using it), your wiki can be as spoiler-happy, messy, and incomplete as you want. And it doesn’t stop at text. I can add pictures, upload scans of maps, links to outside sources, anything I want. And it’s all there, all the time, accessible from anywhere that has internet, and safer than I could ever make it (the guys who run my commercial server certainly back up more than I do).

If your eyes glazed over during that wall of text, let me sum up: WIKIS: THERE IS NO LOSE!

Ok ok, Rachel, you can stop foaming at the mouth, it’s gross and disturbing. Anyway, all that sounds pretty cool, so how do I get a wiki?

Getting a wiki set up is very simple. There are tons of free ones out there, ranging from the simple to the robust, and almost all are open source. If you’re shopping around, Wikipedia provides a comprehensive list (complete with features, requirements, and links) of currently available wiki programs.

Since freeware wikis are generally made by geeks in their spare time, quality varies wildly. Personally, I like Dokuwiki because it’s easy, light, well documented, well supported, reasonably pretty, and doesn’t require any kind of database support to run. Almost all wikis require a server, because a wiki is a webpage at its heart, but some are made to run locally on your machine, meaning all you need is a computer. Of course, a local wiki wouldn’t be available online, so you’d lose some awesomeness, but it would be completely free, so there’s a bonus. Still, if you’re already paying for webspace, throwing up a wiki won’t cost you anything. The software is free and tiny, and even fully filled in, your wiki file is likely to be one of the smallest on your server. I have fifteen wikis hosted on my silly little cheap domain right now, and all together they take up less room then one of the portfolio downloads for my graphic arts day job.

Once you’ve found your wiki, simply follow the instructions in the readme file and you’re good to go.

If all this convinced you to at least give a wiki a try, especially if you were considering one of those overpriced writer software packages, then my work here is done. Let me know how it works out for you, and happy worldbuilding!