Writer’s Wednesday: An inspired Setting

Setting is something I struggle to write. Not the nuts and bolts of description, but the actual setting of a story. There are so many little things in the real world that bring it to life, and it’s damnably hard to capture those in a novel. Some authors are excellent at it, and I’ve come to believe (more and more) that an inspired setting equals a better book.

There are several basic ways to approach settings. To some extent, all fictional settings are fantastical extrapolation. Historical fiction tends to be less so, and sci-fi and epic fantasy can have entirely fabricated settings. It’s a spectrum of how much or little the author cares to extrapolate or invent or blend the real world into their setting. At some point, though, setting has to be based on something real, whether it be a scientific idea or historical facts.

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I’m currently working my way through the Long Earth series that’s authored jointly by Steven Baxter and Terry Pratchett (RIP). The premise is that humans learn how to ‘step’ between an infinite number of multiverses (Earths, in the first several novels), and the books deal with how this changes the various human societies. The first book is an adventure travelogue, which is a decent stand alone if you decide you don’t want to read the remainder of the series. Both Pratchett and Baxter have this knack of taking scientific and fantastical concepts and creating settings that drive the story forward. (Note: this series feels more in line with Baxter’s work than Pratchett’s, which is understandable.) In The Long Earth, the plot is the setting. The idea of an infinite number of worlds drives everything forward, and there could’ve been a different character per chapter, and it would’ve worked. The thing is, I didn’t necessarily care for the characters in The Long Earth. This is something a friend mentioned about the novel: they didn’t like the characters.

And yet, they finished the novel and loved it.

That seems to dash against the character-centered storytelling wisdom that gets passed around. That doesn’t mean that the characters in The Long Earth series are poorly written characters or that they don’t do the things characters are supposed to do in a novel. They have goals and passions; they’re well-rounded people, but they’re not the main draw of the novel. They don’t drive the plot. The setting does.

Yes, you can cheat and say that the setting is a character, but it’s not. (I loved Lost, but ‘the island is a character’ schlock that got thrown around there was equally idiotic.) There are fundamentally different ways a setting and a character are portrayed. A setting doesn’t have hobbies or interests or desires. A setting just is. Characters can’t reason with a setting (most of the time…), and that’s a source of conflict. Characters can reason with other characters (again, most of the time…), which is also conflict, but they’re different. A setting conflict is man verses nature, which makes the story different than man verses man. There are usually elements of both in a story, and that’s certainly true of The Long Earth, but a major focus of the novel is the man verses nature aspect, and the man verses man plots kind of dragged the story down for me.

I love backpacking. There’s something implacable about the natural world that humbles and challenges you. That’s different than how you deal with difficult people in your life. The setting matters. It’s not arbitrary, and if you’re writing fantasy, that’s doubly so. I’ll save my geography and fantasy map rants for another day, but you can have a very small geographic area as your setting and make it feel huge if you understand the realities of a complex setting.

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The picture above is my all time favorite hiking photo (my boyfriend took it because he has a better eye for composition than I’ll ever have). Every time I look at it, I feel what it was like to eat lunch in that meadow. I remember the glacial waterfall that’s out of scene. I know how close we were to crossing a mountain pass. The were realities of that moment–exhaustion, relaxation, and wonder–that compose the basis of why I love to go into the outdoors. That picture is like a good setting: it takes something real and turns it into something fantastical.

Ultimately, setting is mood. Adding a character can’t change the entire tone of a novel the way swapping the setting can. This is why things get set IN SPACE. The tone is changed, old is new, and a heightened level of conflict and interest is found.

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God’s Play Blog Tour Round Up

The God’s Play blog tour finished up last week. It was a lot of work (and a lot of fun!) to finally have this happen, and here’s a master list of the blogs that hosted the book and my favorite highlights of what they said about it.

Overall I enjoyed this book. A nice read, great writing and the story will keep you interested throughout. The fantasy was done well and the author didn’t over do it on the genre. I liked that, and would read more from the author!

Lovely Reads

Lynn weaves together a variety of mythologies in an original fashion and writes top-notch character interaction.  The few domestic scenes are particularly well done.  She even manages to weave in flashbacks fairly organically.

In Bed With Books

This is a creative story blending paranormal, fantasy and mythology together into an interesting albeit simplistic plot.

I’m A Voracious Reader

The idea of shapeshifters isn’t a really unique one, but I felt that with the Veil and the links with the mythology, it was a much more unique take on the shapeshifter genre. Since I read a lot of Egyptian and Greek mythology-based books, I recognized a lot of the links that there were in this book.

-Sarah, via GoodReads

Once things got going, I read this book in one sitting. Toby and William are great characters. They are perfect opposites to each other. The start of their “relationship” is biased only on Toby wanting revenge for his mother’s death, and William just wants to get rid of someone from his past who wronged him as well as many other shifters.

Pages to Explore

My Guest Posts:

To Sally Forth

We Do Write

What Happened to The Wallflower

Matthew Graybosch

Lili Lost in A Book

Diane’s Book Blog

Nightwolf’s Corner

Writer’s Wednesday: On opting out of NaNoWriMo

It’s time for the most sacred holiday among writers: National Novel Writing Month. Every year, the writing community comes together and pounds out millions (maybe billions) of words worldwide, all in service of finishing their novels. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is a simple: write 50,000 words (or the entire first draft of your novel, which ever comes first) in a month. The main goal behind NaNoWriMo is to discipline yourself to write everyday, no matter what distractions there are in life. Writing first! Writer’s write! Art harder!

We live in an age of constant gratification and distraction. I get it: lots of things threaten to take priority in life. Loved ones, waitressing shifts, going for a run, Steam sales, the new season of Korra…shhh, shhh I understand. I’m here for you. It’s not easy making time for creativity. Are there valid reasons to do NaNoWriMo? Yes, and here are a few:

  • Writing community. Twitter and the NaNo boards are going to be JUMPING with people frothing at the mouth to talk about their new novel this month. THEY WILL BE SO EXCITED to post word count (always word count!), discuss characters, dissect plot…all of the things we writers never have enough people on earth to talk about. (Hey, it’s why I started this blog!)
  • Discipline. Making time for writing is hard. Developing productive habits and getting in a rhythm is something you’ve got to learn, homefries, if you’re going to write things or just get things done in general. NaNoWriMo can and absolutely will teach you how long a scene should be, how many hours it takes before you want to bash your head into a wall, and most importantly, how to write consistently.
  • Getting shit done. This is a corollary to the point above, but if you’re stuck on an idea, NaNo it out. Don’t let your little brain nugget rot away. Get it out there, see what it is on paper, and move on.
  • Transitioning into a new genre. Want to experiment with writing erotica or Westerns? Never written a space opera? DO IT NOW. NaNo is the time for experimentation. Make it happen!

Still the best comic about NaNo

However, I will not be doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I’m here to talk to those of you writers who feel like you’re going to be sitting on the sidelines twiddling your metaphorical thumbs this year. I’ve done NaNo; I even ‘won’ NaNo. I’m not participating this year. Gasp! Writing Sacrilege! Wait, wait, before you click away, let me tell you my experience with NaNo, and then lay out some reasons why it’s perfectly okay to opt out of NaNoWriMo and be the black sheep of the writing community.

When I did NaNo, I had a project that was partially finished, but it needed to be rewritten from the beginning. The idea changed a lot when I started to write it (this is a common theme with my writing…), and it needed demolished completely for it to be a better story. This was several years ago, and I’d known friends who did NaNo the previous year. I checked out the website and thought, ‘Why not? Need to get this crap done someday. Why not today?’ I made my account, popped open a new Word document, and stared to pound it out. I’d written ~75k by the end of the month, and in December, I finished the new first draft. And I realized the story sucked. Hard. Even after editing, it was all over the place and just not the right story for me to tell. So I shelved it and started new projects, which never would’ve been possible until I faced the cold, hard truth about that particular story.

The 1st of November for many writers.

Am I staying away from NaNo because I wrote a bad novel using that method? Maybe, but it helped me discover things about my writing, and one of those things is that I’m just not a NaNo type person. I can pound out the words with the best of them. My PR (personal record) for words written in a single day is 15,000. My PR for fastest rough draft was 88,000 words in 10 days, with multiple days of sustained 10,000 words per day to make that happen. Getting the word count down was never the problem for me; if that’s an issue for you, NaNo will teach you how to Art Hard.

How many novels are conceived.

That said, there really is something to all the frilly talk about the ‘creative process.’ Sometimes, what that means, is not writing. Ideas are like good wine: they need time to ferment in your head. I have to tell myself the story I want to write about half a dozen different ways before I write it down. If you’ve got an idea, and you think its ripe, write it down. Do NaNo and finish; make the dream real. But here are some reasons to bench yourself during NaNoWriMo:

  • You’ve just finished a big project. I’m coming off a marathon of a writing streak from August, September, and October. Any writing I do during November is going to be more intermittent. Word count isn’t going to be a priority if I sit down and drabble out some stories.
  • You’re working on other art. Maybe it’s not conducive to the NaNo format.
  • Real life takes priority. November might be The Month From Hell for you to write your novel, even if it’s ready to meet the page. The good news is there’s a NaNo something just about every month now, so don’t feel pressured into November if it sucks for you. Hey, my birthday’s in November, and I still don’t know why my parents picked this month. (Hint: look at where Valentine’s Day is on the calender. Yes, this turned into a sex joke.)
  • You’ve got your own writing groove.
  • You don’t feel particularly inclined to participate in the NaNo specific writing community.

There are probably more reasons why you should or shouldn’t participate in NaNoWriMo, but I’m just listing some of them that have been prominent for me and those I know who’ve done NaNo. The idea of always writing, always being on point and ready to sell yourself, is so pervasive in creative culture today. Sometimes, you need to turn that off to reconnect with yourself and your stories. At least, this has been true for me. This isn’t a popular opinion, but when I turn that nebulous thing on to write, it’s like an atom bomb blowing up in my head. It’s powerful, but I can’t sustain that kind of energy indefinitely. The smart asses among you will say ‘build a nuclear plant, duh’, but that’s more like editing for me than rough draft writing. The power is there, but in a more controlled way. So write if you have to write, edit if you need to edit, and let your ideas get delicious in your head. Whatever it takes, and remember, if you’re doing NaNo or not: you’re not alone.

The 10 Day Rough Draft

Ksenia Anske has a wonderful post up about how to write a rough draft in 20 days. I think 20 days is a very realistic goal for the average rough draft, honestly, and she makes great points about how she does this with every book. Her process in drafting that vital first run at a story is similar to the one I use for most of my stories. The post got me thinking about my PR for rough draft writing: I wrote the first draft of my 88k adult urban fantasy that got me picked as an alternate in Pitch Wars last year in 10 days.

This is how it felt to finish that story, too.

This is how it felt to finish that story, too.

Pick up your jaws, fellow writers. I wanted to share with you how I did this because, even for my fast fingers, it was an anomaly. I’ve been working on the sequels to that book, and they haven’t come as fast or furious to me. This hasn’t ultimately been a problem because 4000-6000 words a day gets the job done just fine. But let’s dive into my PR (personal record) for rough drafting, shall we?

  • It was first love. That’s ultimately how I ended up sustaining several days of writing 10,000+ words. I was more excited about writing than I had ever been since I was a wee little one churning out original fiction without a care in my parent’s basement on our old Dell PC circa 2000. I wrote and wrote and wrote without regard for who would see this work or how good even I ultimately thought it was. And I loved every minute of it. This was how this rough draft was for me. I told myself a story I needed to write, and I loved it.
  • I had an outline that I knew would work for me. I make these 8 point flow chart style outlines, and that took me through the entire story. I fleshed out the finer details for the chapters as I went along. I planned about a fourth of the book at a time, then wrote for 2-3 days, then at the end of that section, I planned the next fourth for the next 2-3 days…you get the idea. But that master outline? It kept me grounded.
  • My characters had a single phrase to sum up their life philosophy, and I expanded them from there. I’m not sure this was ultimately the best way to write these characters, but it helped me keep them consistent during the first draft.
  • Speaking of characters, the three main characters and the relationships and plot between them was something I conceived long ago. I scribbled the basic idea down in a notebook, and that was a life saver! Keep a writing notebook! DO IT. You want to keep a log of these story nuggets. I don’t have a full story for every single one of the things I’ve written in that book, and I probably never will, but there are several basic ideas in there I keep mulling over and coming back to. This story was one of those ideas, and keeping the names of the main characters and the title on hand was a life-saver when I did eventually sit down to write this behemoth.

  • The notebook was crucial in another way: I needed two more HUGE plot ideas for me to make this story happen, and those came almost two years after the initial idea I had about these three characters. But when they did? I knew exactly where they fit. The thought process was literally, ‘Well, this could be X character’s back story, and they could do Y job…and thing Z could be part of the world building…STORY TIME!’ Well, not quite. I told myself several versions of this story before I wrote it down, and I got so excited about the one version that I committed it to an outline and wrote the thing.
  • Notice how much writing I didn‘t do? This story lived a lot in my head before I made it real on paper. I needed to tell this story to myself in several different iterations before I found a version I loved (and I’m STILL working on that version). Could I have drafted an earlier version of this story? Sure. Would I have loved it the way I did when I finally wrote it? Nope. There’s a lot to be said about writing everyday, Art Harder, and grinding things out, but there’s also something to be said about creative fallow periods. Letting this idea develop while I worked on other stories (hey there, God’s Play!) was crucial for finding the version of this project I really loved. I didn’t force it, collecting the pieces as I figured them out. I’m still doing that, but if I hadn’t given myself time with the characters and the world-building initially, I’m 100% sure I would’ve written myself into a corner like I do when I jump into a project a bit too soon before I know it’s ready just to write something for the sake of getting the words down. It helps to get the words down, but having something half-baked does bother me, and it’s always a thrill to be able to tell the complete story to myself when I do write it.

  • I had tunnel vision. Someone could’ve snapped their fingers in front of my face–I wouldn’t have blinked while I was daydreaming up scenes and plots for this. I was obsessed and kept grinding out more plot because I couldn’t put my own story down; the words were flowing like booze at an open bar, and who doesn’t love one of those?
  • This story? Not perfect. The rewrite involved chancing the tense of the book from present to past, which was a HUGE pain, but necessary to make this story work. The third draft? It’s involving a bigger, more momentous chance than that! (This is because I’ve written the 2 sequels since then and realized there were things that needed to change in the first 1/3 of the book to make the entire series work.) But while writing the initial draft, I didn’t care if it was crap or not. I was on the roller coaster of insanity with my characters, and I was freaking exhausted and proud when I got off.

How I feel about my stories.

There’s not really a process here, but if you’re dreading the rough draft or ragging on yourself for not writing enough, I understand. But planning and patience can result in a killer story. This is ultimately what this book taught me: keep good records and give myself time to tell the story I want. Because that story? That’s the story I’ll love.

Let something like this sit. For months. You have to pull away from a story you love this much or else you won’t see it’s flaws. That part is hard for me, honestly, but after a month and a half, I made the changes I needed to make before submitting it to Pitch Wars. Now, I’m reworking it again, and I’m hoping you guys get to see it in 2015!

The story is in the retelling

As a writer, I am obsessed with being original; this thorn in my brain to have new ideas, better ideas. To be unique. Just like everyone else.

No one else has a pair of these, right?

This is why it’s a kindness that I read this article. I’m going to quote it because this is an post about unoriginal ideas.

Yes, the muggles are just like the terrible adults of Roald Dahl fiction; the foul-tasting magical candies come right out of a Monty Python skit; and wearing a horcrux that must be destroyed while worrying about its own corrupting influence on your soul sounds a lot like Tolkien’s one ring to rule them all. But those elements are not why people like Harry Potter. Instead, the Harry Potter universe is filled with rules that are constantly broken in the interest of equity. Time and time again, Harry and all the likable characters of Hogwarts break the letter of the law to fulfill the spirit of the law. The best kind of wish fulfillment made all the better by the intensity of the defeated evil.

Indeed, compare Frodo’s trip to Mordor while wearing a corrupting ring with Harry Potter’s wearing of the horcrux. Frodo knows that carrying the ring is his burden. That it cannot be passed to another. Although Harry is facing an evil as great as Frodo’s, he shares the burden by altering the wearing of the horcrux between his two companions. Yes, the similarities are apparent, but it’s the distinction that holds Harry Potter’s specific charm.

J.K. Rowling taught me that using influences in a novel is a lot like using sampling in music. It’s absolutely fine to lift riffs and hooks from other songs as long as they are referential building blocks of your work instead of being the appeal of your work. For example, the “When Doves Cry” sample is the only good part of MC Hammer’s “Pray.” The “Under Pressure” riff is the only good part of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.” But take a song like “Jackass” by Beck, built around a sampled loop from Them’s “It’s All Over, Baby Blue.” It stands completely on its own terms.

Rowling liberated me so much that when I wrote my serialized novella Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, I had great fun incorporating elements from Douglas Adams, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Dennis Lehane, Chuck Palahniuk, George Orwell, David Bowie, George Romero and Scott Kosar, confident they were only cultural shortcuts enriching the story instead of stealing its individuality. So yeah, sorry, J.K. I was wrong.

There is no original idea, only memorable expressions of an idea. When I think of the most memorable books I’ve read, they all play by these rules. Even the books we consider original draw on ancient mythology and cultural tropes. You have to use them because they are in your head. They are literally part of you. This is why tvtropes exists! You can never get away from them unless you live in a hut in the Canadian wilderness after wiping your brain clean in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but with all of society instead of one person.

This obsession with originality gives me headaches, quite literally. It stunts my writing productivity, and maybe it’s at the center of the bundle of fear all of us carry around inside. But that fear? All it needs is to take a breath, and the knots that keep me tied and unproductive untangle. I can breath. I can explore and find influences. I can begin to push barriers and find my style, my voice. This is why I made a concerted effort to try and write more ‘reactionary’ pieces in my blog. I want to focus on analysis and understanding and not throwing out grand, wild ideas. I need to understand before I can use those ideas. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever write anything with some original posturing, and I tie up ideas and themes with my own conclusions.

The cliche goes that the story is in the telling. What you mean is what you say, just as you’re defined by what you do. It’s how you work ideas together, mold plot, and live your life. What we take for originality might be the ability to push past the wad of fears and all consuming duties and distractions of daily life. The people we remember are those who have shouted long and hard enough for their ideas to break into our minds. There is no original idea, only memorable expressions of an idea.

And because I love this video, here is J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech from Harvard circa 2008.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

Female friends: the untapped resource for fixing ‘Mary Sues’ in fiction

I just read this piece on why Comic Book Girl considers Mary Sue sexist. Here, a Mary Sue is defined, explained, and the controversy is outlined:

Wish fulfillment characters have been around since the beginning of time. The good guys tend to win, get the girl and have everything fall into place for them. It’s only when women started doing it that it became a problem.

TV Tropes on the origin of Mary Sue:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment.

Notice the strange emphasis on female here. TV Tropes goes on to say that is took a long time for the male counterpart “Marty Stu” to be used. “Most fanfic writers are girls” is given as the reason. So when women dominate a genre, that means people are on close watch, ready to scorn any wish fulfillment they may engage in. This term could only originate if the default was female.

In fact, one of the CONTROVERSIES listed on the TV Tropes page is if a male sue is even possible. That’s right, it’s impossible to have an idealizied male character. Men are already the ideal.

As woman who writes fiction, I’ve come across this term. The Mary Sue term is why I refer to Stephanie Meyer as ‘the richest fanfic author in the world.’ Her character, Bella, is Meyer’s wish fulfillment writ-large. I think, though, female wish fulfillment is worth talking about in fantasy and sci-fi. What do women really want? Even in good fantasy, women’s wants are often seen through a male lens.

Usually, women are described as wanting love or wanting to settle down. There is nothing at all wrong with a women being in a relationship or being a love interest, but the problem is women are usually reduced to this single trait. It’s over looked that male characters also want a lover, but they’re allowed to pursue other interests and be more than the Love Interest. Women, however, usually have to take the one dimensional role. The problem is, women are also humans who have multiple identities as they go through life. Women can’t relate to just being one thing. Yes, women want love, but so do men because they just keep getting in relationships with women! Women who want love also want other things, and to keep them as Love Interests just makes for a boring story.

In the interest to move away from women only being portrayed as a love interest, authors tend to make her a ‘modern woman’ who is independent and wants a career over anything else. The 180 swing away from the love interest is also problematic for a whole host of reasons. Usually, the woman wants lots of unattached sex instead of a relationship. She embodies a lot of masculine traits, and she often has no female friends because she’s described as being ‘better’ than other women. Do you see the problem yet? This version of a woman character is still a male wish fulfillment, but just a different type. Men want ‘exceptional’ women, so she can’t just be any woman. While this version of a character is typically cooler than a woman who is strictly a love interest, she’s off putting to women readers because women cannot relate to her.

What would ultimate female wish fulfillment look like? I would say it looks nothing like the hyper-modern woman or the love interest. These are just examples of male wish fulfillment for what they want women to be like. I would say that female wish fulfillment is embracing some level of femininity. I don’t mean you should have your action hero sitting around and applying nail polish before a battle, but I do think she should have female friends. Women liking women is one of the under rated ways women characters become real and fully realized in fiction. One of the greatest ways to strengthen female characters and your credibility with writing for women is to have your female characters be genuine friends with other women. Don’t have them competing all the time with other women and don’t have them focus on men all the time. Women who like women may be the greatest way to break down the Mary Sue stereotype. No one is too perfect or too flawed to have friends. Hell, even Avatar’s crazy princess Azula had two female friends, and part of the reason she went crazy was because she lost her friends. One of the reasons I adored Azula’s character is that it shouldn’t have worked. The pretty, super villain princess has been done so many times. It’s the worst form of the hyper-modern women, but give her some female companions, and she doesn’t seem like such an exception, even if Azula is still the most powerful of her companions.

Is Mary Sue a sexist concept? Is there a heroine version of Azula that exists? I think the idea of Mary Sue isn’t going away, but we should take it out of the wish fulfillment realm and have it mean “an idealized version of the author or an unrealistic character.” I think men can be Mary Sues, but we accept that version of male characters in our culture. (Should we? That’s another post all together.) I think there are many super heroines who already exist that could be even more epic if they had friends. Wonder Woman can still be the most powerful woman around, make love to super sexy heroes, and defeat the bad guys. But she’d be a better character if she worked with some other women to get the job done.