Women in Fiction, Part Two

On Monday, I posted an interview with one of my favourite Indie authors, Lindsay Buroker. The focus was women in fiction, and when I first wrote up the post, I thought of dividing it into two posts so I could comment on it without making it too long. But Buroker was so great I didn’t want to break it up–so we’ll discuss the ideas today instead.

There were some great comments in the last post, so let’s look at those first. The common theme was that Buroker’s lead character, Amaranthe, is able to stand out as a strong woman despite being surrounded by men. In fact, there are fewer female characters in the series compared to men, which is reflective of the society/World Buroker has built.
I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, being surrounded by men and rising above them as a natural leader helps make Amaranthe a strong character. There’s a juxtaposition that works very well to highlight her qualities, and it’s mentioned several times that she lives in a male dominated society (though it’s obviously changing). In this sense, having a strong female character means something more–she’s strong in the face of patriarchy, in spite of it.
The flip side is that this juxtaposition only works because of the generally male oriented society in which we live. Amaranthe stands out so well because we don’t always expect a strong female character. In a real world example, it’s often news when a woman is elected to public office, because it’s normally men who fill that role. But the fact that it’s news is bothersome to an extent, and shows the inequality of the system. Highlighting a woman’s strength of character because one would normally expect a man in that role betrays a certain prejudice–we shouldn’t need that opposition to celebrate a woman’s strength. But it’s a double edged sword: if we don’t highlight that comparison, people won’t necessarily take note of it, and nothing changes.

I don’t mean this as a critique of Buroker’s characterisation of Amaranthe, of course–it’s not the author’s fault, and as noted in Monday’s interview, the character wasn’t written as an explicit feminist commentary. And, really, this is where Buroker should be applauded most: Amaranthe isn’t a strong female character because that’s a statement the author wanted to make–she’s strong because that’s who she is. I think that is the kind of strong female character we need in fiction–books, movies or otherwise. Strong women who are written that way without pretence, who are paragons just because they are. I think there’s a certain “societal expectation” sometimes that women should be  vulnerable or emotional and that men should be stoic and heroic, but those are imaginary lines that should be crossed more often.

Another great example of this kind of characterisation is J. M. Ney-Grimm. Her Norse-flavoured tales feature many strong women, and in fact the main culture portrayed in the books is a matriarchy. Again, it’s obvious that this isn’t done to make some sort of feminist statement, but because that’s what Ney-Grimm wanted to write. The genuine intent for both authors was to write the story they wanted to tell, and the fact that they end up with such strong female characters is just icing on the cake.

I think this is the kind of characterisation of women we need more of in literature and entertainment. Which brings me to my next point: the way women are generally portrayed in fiction. As Buroker says in the interview, strong characters often come off as bossy or super-heroic–there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. The polar opposite–as seen in the new Star Trek movie–are women who are ostensibly powerful or intelligent, but end up needing to be saved by the male protagonists. Or, worse, women treated as sex symbols. There’s a particularly gratuitous scene in Star Trek where Carol Marcus is shown in her underwear for no reason (except to demonstrate that Kirk is a lascivious womaniser). J. J. Abrams has admitted that the scene was unnecessary, attempting to defend it by pointing out that Kirk is shown barely clothed as well. The missed point is that this contributes to Kirk’s character, while it does nothing at all for Marcus. This kind of sexualisation “for the sake of it” is rampant in entertainment, enough that it’s not always seen as a problem. Of course, this is a generalisation, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark.

In the end, this is a very large issue with many layers and ramifications. I’m by no means an expert, and couldn’t pretend to come to any conclusion here–but I think it’s certainly worth the discussion. I think that writers like Buroker and Ney-Grimm are well on track in the way they represent women, and should be seen as examples to follow. And, really, that attitude should extend to homosexuality, race, age, and what have you–people are as they are, and their differences shouldn’t be the reason for their character, nor exploited as a statement. Of course, it’s a lot more complex than that, but it’s a start.

So, what do you think?

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How to Bake a Cake–or a Story

Choc-o-late Cake Please, by Darwin Bell c/o Flikr

It’s no secret that I’ve been in a bit of a creative slump lately. I’ve got lots of great ideas, and was charging full speed ahead with them in an ambitious project–but it’s since fallen flat. There are many reasons for this, some of which I’ve talked about here, but reasons aren’t solutions. In that respect, I’m spinning my tires somewhat. You can’t correct a problem until you know why you failed in the first place, so I’ve put my mind to why I’ve stalled.

Writing a story is like baking. You have to have the right ingredients, throw them in at the right times and in the right quantities. Sometimes you even need to let it “rise” a while before you start fine tuning it. And if you bake it too long (i.e. work it to death), it’ll end up as a burnt lump of gross. The thing is, every writer has their own recipe–and most writers are convinced that their recipe is the best. Many of them are right–it works for them–but there are lots of writers out there who haven’t figured out their recipe yet. Finding it is just part of the writing process.

Fortunately, it’s gotten easier. With the advent of Indie Publishing, we have an amazing community of like-minded people who (instead of competing with each other for reader’s dollars) are happy to help each other find their way. I came across one such person recently, after reading a fantastic article on his blog: Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept by Larry Brooks over at Storyfix.com.

Go read the post–it’s an important thing for writers to read. It was a revelation for my own Tapestry Project; it crumbled under its own weight, although I can’t figure out exactly why (except that I’ve crammed too many ideas in there). This post made me take a second look at what I’ve written–and lo and behold, I found a major issue. I don’t have a concept.

This is like baking a cake without a recipe. If you’re not a great baker, you’re going to get hopelessly lost as you try to find your way.

Brooks boils it down to one thing: if your story doesn’t have a concept, it’s not going to work. It seems unilateral, but that’s because having a concept is such a crucial part of any story. And, importantly, a concept is different from an idea, which, incidentally, was all I had with Tapestry. As he says in the article, an idea is a place to start, but “not until it transcends the simplicity of a singular arena or theme or character, and moves toward the unspooling of conflict-driven dramatic tension” does it become a concept. What does this mean?

Your story isn’t just a narrative, a collection of “stuff that happens.” And if it is, it won’t be very engaging. Brooks has a clear description for this kind of writing: episodic. TV shows and serials get away with this because it’s the nature of their format–they’re supposed to wrap up a simple dramatic question each week, then move on to the next. An episode has a plot and a theme, but not necessarily a concept.

A concept addresses the dramatic tension that arises from plot and theme. If the theme the why the story should matter to the reader, the concept is how that gets across. If the plot is the path the reader follows, your concept are signposts along the way. Without a unifying concept, your story ends up as a jumble of details and thing that sounded better in your mind than they are on paper.

I won’t reiterate the article, where Brooks nails down a concept much more clearly than I could, and tells you how to develop one from a neat idea. But I do want to touch on one really important point he makes: at the root of your concept are three crucial questions. If you can’t answer these concisely, you probably need to do some thinking before you put words to paper:

  1. What is your hero’s core goal?
    If your main character doesn’t have anything to do, why are you bothering to write about it? Even Anton Chekov–who was famous for writing plays in which nothing really happens–had a goal for his characters. This is your hero’s journey, the quest–the plot.
  2. What opposes that goal, and why?
    Of course, every story needs an antagonist. Whether it’s the hero’s nemesis, the environment, or himself, the core conflict of the story is arguably more important than the hero’s attempt to overcome it.
  3. What’s at stake?
    I talk a lot about stakes. They’re crucial. Last week I mentioned that Harry Potter’s climactic battle didn’t have high stakes because Harry was never at any conceivable (literary) risk. The conflict was there, but I didn’t think the stakes were. The result was a long series of really great books that, to me, ended with a whimper.

Okay, so that all sounds like writing 101, and you’re probably well familiar with these points. But I bring them up because answering them will give you your concept. Separately, they’re essential elements of a story, but I don’t know how often people look at the interplay between them–I know I’ve failed to do that until now. They’re just ingredients; you still need a decent recipe to make the final product palatable. Looking forward, these are the three questions I’m going to ask myself before I start writing.

One more thing: Brooks keeps a blog, as linked above, but he also works as a sort of literary consultant. His blog is called Storyfix for a reason: he helps people overcome the deficiencies and problems in their work in the hopes of ending up with a more solid final product. I was lucky enough to get a look at his $100 questionnaire (there’s also a $35 version), and it’s very detailed. He’s looking at each core component of your story–some of which you may not even have considered–and guiding you to a cohesive environment for those components to live in. but, I’ll let him put it in his own words: you can find out more here. You can also find him on twitter.

Tune in next week for another Indie Review, and a new experiment I’m trying to breathe new life into my writing!

If you Love Them…

Ruby Sparks

This weekend, my wife and I watched a delightful movie called Ruby Sparks. It has a fun premise: a writer struggling to complete (well, start) the follow-up to his wildly successful first novel creates a character straight out of his dreams–and somehow makes her real. Ruby is everything he’s written down, and he’s able to change her simply by starting a new page. It reminded me a lot of Stranger Than Fiction,though from the opposite angle (and, frankly, more well done). As people who watch movies, we enjoyed it; it poses some interesting ethical questions, and it’s well written and produced.

But as a writer, it really got me thinking.

What writer wouldn’t want to be able to converse with their characters in the flesh? What would it mean to the story you’re crafting? How much more developed would your characters be if you could take them out for a coffee interview? Sounds like a pretty interesting opportunity.

But this movie isn’t really about a writer whose character becomes real. It’s about a writer who gets so attached to his character that he can’t distinguish her as such–she becomes a girlfriend and lover, instead, and he even stops “writer her” for a time because of it. The result, of course, is that he sets aside his work, only developing her character/story when it suits him to do so (watch it for specifics–no spoilers here). The movie treats this in a very literal way, but there’s an unspoken metaphor underlying the film: what happens when you get too attached to an ideal?

In the movie, Ruby starts to grow on her own, according to the backstory and personality Calvin has “written into” her. A natural way for a character to develop; I think we’ve all had characters run amok in our stories once they have enough steam of their own, as it were. But she grows in unexpected ways, so the prime conflict of the movie becomes Calvin trying to mold her into his perfect woman. Again, lots of ethical questions and considerations here, but the point is that Ruby isn’t what he expects, and those expectations cause a lot of trouble.

It all got me to thinking: what happens when we, as writers, make up a character that doesn’t perform to expectations? Or, worse, what happens when they do, and we grow so attached to them that we refuse to let them take risks?

Superman is an excellent example. A character written by so many different writers that he’s less a character than an icon; the ideal of who Superman is has become so entrenched that any deviation is a bombshell. Anyone remember when Superman died? Personally I don’t like Superman, but I hung onto that story with every page. It was an important moment in the character’s arc, and his sacrifice epitomized everything he stood for. Then, he came back, and everything was ruined.
Superman dying was a watershed moment for the character–but his return negated that. Suddenly death can’t even raise the stakes. But why bring him back at all? Because it would be ridiculous to actually kill of Superman and leave him dead and gone–he’s too well loved.

Getting attached to a character can be dangerous. When they don’t live up to your expectations, you can end up disappointing, sure, but often they’ll surprise you in other ways that make up for it. At the least, when a character takes you in an unexpected directions, it’s often a sign that the story needed to go there anyway (in my opinion). But if you’re so attached to your character that you can’t see them take risks, you’re in trouble. Suddenly they become invincible like Superman, and you can’t (or won’t) raise the stakes enough to put them into real danger. Which means they won’t grow, and they won’t learn.

I felt that Harry Potter fell into this trap, to an extent. Yes, he learned a lot about life and friendship along the seven book journey, but there was never really any doubt that he’d end up winning. The stakes seemed high because everyone else was at risk–but Harry never truly was, and because of that I felt he was one of the least interesting characters in the books. But that’s my own opinion.
Star Trek–as much as I love my Star Trek–is bad for this too. You know that the bridge crew is going to survive every away mission, and that no matter how many Romulans or Jem-Hadar they’re facing against, they’re going to pull a rabbit out of their hat and get away on top. It’s even become a running joke–only the “Redshirts” are ever in real danger. Although I love watching these stories, I know there’s no danger to Kirk or Picard, and so they’re less interesting to me too.

But you can’t write every main character with the intent to die, can you? Well, on the other end of the spectrum is George R. R. Martin–if you haven’t read the Song of Ice and Fire series, I’ll just recommend you don’t fall too fond of anyone in particular. He’s a master of high stakes, but he gets away with it because there are so many well developed characters in his books. They’re almost cannon fodder. What’s better is that he revisits even the characters who die–if not literally, their memories haunt the rest of the series.
And there are other ways to invoke serious risk on your characters. Another Star Trek example: one of the best episodes of any of the series is In the Pale Moonlight form Deep Space Nine’s sixth season. Captain Ben Sisko has to make a deal with the devil in order to win a protracted war. The episode is told in flashback, so you know he’s at no physical risk–but the stakes are incredibly high. He’s breaking regulations, breaching ethics, and going against everything he believes in, all for the greater good–and he’s not even sure it was all worth it. The conflict here isn’t any tangible risk; it’s that he’s done something that will live with him the rest of his life, something he may not be able to forgive himself for–and what’s worse, it’s all off the record, and he can’t tell anyone about it. This one episode developed his character substantially.

In the end, we as writers need to realize that our characters are not just our creations–they belong to the reader as much as to us. It’s easy to write a character that you grow attached to, and it sounds almost callous to say that you have to put them in harm’s way for your story to be interesting. But the reader will see it differently: the characters who play it safe and take no great risks fall to the background; they become extras without conflict. A writer who really loves their characters will make them march through Hell–and the reader will love you for it.

A Different Tapestry: The Kobo Arc

A little over a year ago, I bought myself a Kobo Touch e-reader. I’ve been using it, on average, close to two hours a day since then–it’s easily one of the most useful electronic devices I’ve ever invested in. Which is why it was so disappointing when it crashed last week.

I was sending emails back and forth to Kobo Customer Care for the better part of the week, trying all sorts of tricks to get it working again–but sadly, it had run its course. With the amount of use it’s gotten, I can’t say I’m surprised! Kobo was very helpful, although in the end, nothing could be done–and unfortunately, I had just gone over warranty.

So on Saturday, I decided to bite the bullet and replace my Kobo. While I was at it, I took the opportunity to upgrade to the Kobo Arc. And I couldn’t be more pleased with the choice.

The Kobo Arc, while still primarily an e-reader, is really a tablet with a reading focus. It’s stock Android, but Kobo had given it a custom UI called Tapestries (the irony is not lost on me!). Essentially, these amount to folders in which you can organize your apps and media–in practise, it’s an excellent tool for the Indie Writer.

It works something like Pinterest. You can ‘pin’ almost anything to a Tapestry–apps, webpages, pictures, books, you name it. You can pin something to multiple Tapestries, and even nest them within one another. They appear on your home screen with an image of the last item you used–so for example, if I was just in the Kobo store and go back to the main screen, I’ll see the icon for the store at the front of my Reading Tapestry. The Kobo learns which apps you use most, and pushes them to the top, where they’re easy to find.

But it goes deeper than that. As with all Kobos, you can highlight passages in a book and make annotations. This is a feature I used often on my Touch, as it’s a great help to research. I often found myself comparing annotations; I’d make a note in one book, then open another and compare passages to get a more rounded view of whatever topic I was studying. But it was cumbersome. You needed to close the book you were working on, then open another and sift through the annotations until you found the one you wanted. A lot more convenient than paging through actual books, but still not exactly simple.
So the really awesome bit about the Kobo Arc is that you can pin these highlighted passages. I’ve created a Tapestry called Research which sits in my Reading folder; when I open it, I have all of my annotations in one spot. Each shows as a small snippet of text, and tapping on it opens the book to that page of the book. It couldn’t be easier.

Even better, you can still pin images and other items into that Tapestry–which means I can also pin images from my Pinterest boards. This makes Tapestries a robust feature for writers–I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of how useful this can be.

Because the Arc runs on Android, there are thousands of useful apps you can download, many of which are free. The Arc comes pre-loaded with Pinterest, which I’ve already found useful. It also has Twitter, which will make it easy to follow fellow Indie Writers–and much easier to follow the links they post than using my phone (and, incidentally, I can pin their blog posts or tweets to Tapestries as well). There’s a Goodreads app, and I’ve found a neat RSS reader called Pulse with which I can follow Indie blogs. There’s a score of Memo apps, some of which can be dictated to; Evernote is a popular choice for writers, though I’ve personally never found it useful. I found a few word processors too, though I can’t imagine they’d be useful for the Arc unless I were to get a separate keyboard–at which point I might as well use my computer.
There are also  WordPress and Wikipedia apps, though apparently they’re not compatible with the Arc.

The Arc is also great for browsing the internet. It comes with the stock Android browser and with Chrome–but Firefox is available too. And of course, any pages or images you bring up can be pinned to Tapestries as well. I’m very happy with this feature, as my phone–a Blackberry Torch–shows dismal performance when opening webpages, and I’m not always at a computer when I want to look something up. The Kobo Touch had a browser as well, but it was eternally stuck in Beta, and it was pretty slow. My focus for the Arc isn’t surfing the ‘net, but as a writer’s tool, bringing up webpages for research or shopping for books is going to be dead simple.

And that brings us to the reason I bought this device in the first place–the Reading Experience. We’ll get into details on Wednesday, so stay tuned for that!

And, as promised, I’ll be writing a weekly Indie Review starting next Monday with Lorne Oliver’s Red Island. He’s posted the first chapter on his website, so go give it a look!

Pinning Him Down–Pinterest and Character Development

Frankenstein’s Monster, by DerrickT c/o Flikr

Today I thought I’d continue my exploration of Pinterest with a post about Character Development. I’ve wanted to talk about characters in writing for a while, and eventually plan to do a series–so this seemed like a good place to start.

My first impression of Pinterest after a couple day’s use is that it’s best for…well, impressions. As writers, we’re in the business of creation, and that means we’re always keeping an eye out for inspiration which can come from anywhere. It’s tempting to use too much of something that inspires you–but that’s a topic for another post.

The way to get around this–in my opinion, anyway–is to cast a wider net, as it were. Use Pinterest to gather images from a large range; don’t collect a bunch of pictures and videos that are too alike, and don’t be afraid to spread out beyond the subject of the board. What you want is something like a Scatter Plot. You’ll have a certain number of images that relate to one another, but you’ll have enough on either side of the range that it can develop into your own unique idea.

Anyway, back to impressions. I think this sort of strategy is going to be most useful in two areas: developing a setting, and developing a character. Neither should have real-world counterparts (unless your story is set in a detailed real setting), so you want to have a wide-ranging impression. I think this can be most effective with characters, because the best characters are the ones that are multifaceted. You want to have a character that would look like a scatter plot if they were graphed out.

To that end, I’ve started two boards which I’ll use to develop two of my main characters: Alkut and Ahbinzur. Take a look.

Alkut

Alkut is the main villain in my Tapestry Project. He’s is a Page to the court of the Emperor Tauri, recently deceased. The Yziman Empire wishes to establish a trade agreement with their rivals, the Toral–an initiative planned by Tauri. The Emperor’s heir is no statesman, and so much of the negotiations fall to Alkut.

He’s a remarkably handsome man and very charismatic. His equivalent in the Tarot is the King of Wands; he knows how to take action, has a fierce temper and will, and tends to consume what he touches. I’ve included several different versions of the King of Wands, each with subtly different iconography that help me round out his character.
His defining characteristic is his yellow eyes. Most of the Ozym are pale and have little natural colour. There are a few Ozym who have yellow eyes, but they’re washed out or indicate sickness. Alkut’s eyes, on the other hand, shine with an otherworldly vibrancy. A lot of my board so far consists of different yellow eyes, and I’ve even deleted several pictures I thought didn’t work. I like one in particular: a picture of a young boy with bright yellow eyes. There’s an innocence and peace to the face that offsets his eyes nicely–he looks older and wiser than he is, and his gaze is hypnotic.
Because he’s a villain, I wanted some pictures that reflect his personality. He’s evil, through and through (though I’m brainstorming some redeeming qualities so he’s not flat). I chose a few pictures of frightening or spooky figures; these won’t be used to describe him, but they give me something to look at as I’m thinking of his mannerisms. In this sense, they truly are pictures of impression.
Finally, I included a picture of a spotted salamander. That creature is the Elemental of Fire, and in my story a mage working with a particular element will often have such a creature as a familiar. Alkut’s familiar, however, is a dragon, and I want it to have a slamander-esque form. So I’ve also found some neat pictures of Hypsognathus and Eryops, early dinosaurs with that kind of structure. The Hypsognathus Skull is particularly evocative.

Ahbinzur

In Tapestry, the Toral are ruled by a Queen, who is in turn advised by the Hierophantic Caste. The Caste is ruled by the Stewards, four mages who each look after their element. Ahbinzur has been newly elected to be the Steward of the Aether, but immediately notices the decadence and hypocrisy latent in the Caste. She wants to strike a blow for True Faith, and though her actions may be devastating, they’re for the greater good. As such, she correlates nicely to the Queen of Swords, who looks out for Justice and Truth at all costs.
I’ve included several images of the Queen of Swords in her board, each with different iconography. I particularly like the Crowley version–this is a deck I work with often. That image is the Biblical Judith, who seduced Holofernes, then killed him in order to free her people. She went to great lengths and suffered much for the Greater Good–and so does Ahbinzur.
Her element being Air, I wanted to find images that have a flowing, sort of ethereal quality to them. The meditating maiden is particularly nice. I also included an image that evokes her namesake, Binah–the third Sephirot on the Tree of Life–which represents knowledge and understanding. She has a clarity of vision that most of her Order lack, which is exactly why she’s taken it upon herself to reform her Order. Yet there’s a certain innocence about her. She’s young and inexperienced, and there’s a hint of doubt in her. The image of a fairy by the pond evokes this; there’s mischief there, but more so, there is uncertainty.
The Elemental of Air is a Sylph. This is a creature normally appearing something like a fairy, which doesn’t really fit into my world–so I’ve been trying to find something analagous. In searching Pinterest for Sylphs, I came across several beautiful birds. The Long Tailed Sylph, fittingly, is a real hummingbird native to South America. While my world is a fantasy one, I’m not going crazy with imaginary creatures, so it was an epiphany to find an actual creature I could use here. Ahbinzur’s familiar is a retinue of Sylphs, which she can communicate with and who follow her instructions.
There’s a dragon for each element, and the Aether is no exception. When thinking of what form this creature should take, I looked at pictures of Chinese Dragons, and learned of the Azure Dragon, a Chinese contellation. This fits perfectly, as the dragon lives in the sky, flows with the currents of air, and has a sinuous appearance. I imagine the Aetherdrake being born of smoke, striking fast, and floating away on the breeze before it can be struck in kind.

So there we have it. These “character sketches” can help flesh out my characters in a grand way–and I’m learning new things about them as I browse. So far I think it’s a great way to build characters–you should give it a try!

ROW 80 and the Tarot

The Fool–beginning of all journeys.

I’ve got another update for Round of Words in 80 Days–but it’s a small one. Unfortunately, I haven’t made a whole lot of progress since Sunday; not in terms of words written, anyway. Maybe around 300.

But, I haven’t been idle. I’ve been researching, and that’s something I’d like to talk about today.

My Tapestry project, as I’ve explained before, is structured into three phases. What I haven’t revealed yet is that the entire project is based on a larger overall structure–the Tarot. For those who may not know, the Tarot is a card-based system of divination* that’s been around for several hundred (some say thousands, though that’s a tenuous claim) years. I won’t go into the history of the Tarot here, though there’s a great book about the subject.

A bit of backstory: I’ve been reading Tarot for nearly a decade, but I’ve always had trouble memorizing the meanings of each card. When I did readings, I usually did them with a book in hand–which doesn’t make for a very confident result. Nevertheless, people seemed to enjoy my readings, so I continued.

About a year ago, I realized that the reason I was having trouble figuring out the meanings of the cards was because I was researching them too much. Everyone has a different way to interpret the cards, and it gets confusing if you’re trying to decide amongst several different interpretations, all of which claim they’re more accurate. I realized that Tarot isn’t about hard and fast meanings–it’s about intuition. When I stopped “learning” about the cards, I quite suddenly found myself able to give accurate readings without a reference book.

What does this have to do with Tapestry? This project is, in part, a way to familiarize myself with the deeper structure of the Tarot.

There are three phases of the project, and each corresponds (roughly) to a part of the Tarot. Phase one follows the ideas behind the Court cards; phase two will follow the pips (or minor arcana,) and phase three–the big one–is structured after the Major Arcana. This final bit of the project was actually the part that started me off; I’ve always wanted to write an allegorical “hero’s journey” type book patterned on the Major Arcana, which is essentially a story of spiritual development from Fool to Enlightenment.

Anyway. Right now my research is focusing on the court cards. I know, I said above that research isn’t getting me anywhere in understanding the Tarot–but this is different. By comparing the accepted meanings from several different sources, studying the actual cards from various decks I use, and intuitively learning to understand the archetypes behind them, I’m beginning to get a general sense of each card. Each chapter in phase one will center around a particular character, and my research will help guide the development of that character.

Now, I should stress that I’m not turning the Tarot into a story. I don’t have sixteen characters (the number of court cards) in phase one. Ohmel, introduced as the Knight in the Court of Sand, also appears as the Knight in the other three courts. My main villain, Alkut, appears as the Page of Sand as well as the King of Rain, and possibly the Knight of Tinder. The characters are still my own, and won’t be held fast to the archetypes I discover in the tarot; instead, I like to think of them as being “coloured by the cards.”

So this week has been spend researching and thinking about the Court of Rain. In this part of the story the Queen of the Toral and her retinue deal with the fallout of the Ozym’s trade proposal–understanding that it is very likely a prelude to war. This is a suit interested in intuition and feeling, so it promises to be an emotionally charged entry, which I hope will pull the reader in, and help them make strong connections to the characters. Next up is Court of Slyphs.

You’ll notice that I’m not titling my stories directly after the Tarot; that’s because the story isn’t about the Tarot, just inspired by it. Breifly, here are the correlations:

  • Court of Sand = Suit of Pentacles (or Coins), which deals with Earthly, practical matters.
  • Court of Rain = Suit of Cups, as explained above.
  • Court of Slyphs = Suit of Swords, dealing with thought and logic.
  • Court of Tinder = Suit of Wands, which is about action and movement.

And there we are! How’s everyone else doing with ROW80 this week?

*I want to clarify that I don’t believe the Tarot can actually tell the future. Rather, I consider it an Oracle that can help give advice by revealing things we may already know, but aren’t paying attention to.

Image by snowqueen1426, c/o Flikr.

Research

The best days are not planned

The best days are not planned by Marcus Hansson via Flikr

I was going to use today’s post to talk about cover design, but I haven’t had time to do any work on my own cover this week. So we’ll save that for Monday.

Instead, I want to touch on one of my favorite parts of writing: research. Here’s five important notes about doing research effectively:

1. Sources

This is the big one. To do effective research, you need effective sources–and you need to be discretionary when you select them. For starters, don’t rely on Wikipedia.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great resource–but it’s not a reliable source. Wikipedia is edited by the general public. While most of the time people will have a vested interest in their contributions–and thus are reasonably accurate–there’s no way for you to know how reliable the contributor is. Maybe they think they know a lot more than they do, or maybe they don’t have an objective viewpoint (see below). Maybe they’re outright lying–there are tons of people who vandalize Wikipedia pages. It’s a great place to start, but you shouldn’t stop your research there.

Instead, you should look for Primary or Secondary sources. A Primary source is an original material, an eyewitness account, or something that was written as an event occurred. For example, if you’re researching Ancient Greek Philosophy, you should be reading Plato and Aristotle’s original works. Quite literally, you go to the source of the topic. This is where you’ll find the most accurate and relevant information.

Then, follow up with your secondary sources. These are commentaries on primary sources. A book written by a philosophy professor discussing the subtext of Plato’s Timaeus, for example. These are valuable sources as well, because they involve interpretation and opinions of the topic in question, and can give you a deeper understanding of the topic. Most of the time, you’ll find many more secondary sources than primary ones, though the primary sources are generally more important.

2.Follow the Leads

This is my favorite part of research. You read your primary source, and the author cites another work–so you look it up. You read that work, and it references another primary source you hadn’t considered. That source mentions your primary source as well, but looks at it from a different angle. Put all three together, and you get a comprehensive “three dimensional” picture of your topic.

Following the lead of a topic can be thrilling. It’s like a treasure hunt. Sources have a way of revealing secrets, or teasing you with ideas that never occurred to you before. It may be that in following the leads in a source, you find a completely different topic that fills a hole or answers a question. Or sometimes the leads go nowhere, and you learn nothing you need to know for your writing. But it’s still a fun trip.

A great example comes from University. I was researching my favorite Shakespeare play, Titus Andronicus, for a paper about the cycle of revenge as presented in the play. For those who don’t know the story, there’s a character named Aaron, who has a baby son; Aaron is captured and executed, but not before his rival Lucius swears to bring up the baby as if it were his own. This is a typical Shakespearean resolution for a protagonist, and completes the cycle of violence.

All very well and good. But in researching, I read a throw-away comment about the BBC Television production of Titus, in which Lucius kills the child anyway. Now it’s a completely different play. I watched the BBC video, and ended up writing a completely different paper, theorizing that this ending makes more sense in the context of Shakespeare’s Senecan influences…but that’s a long story. Suffice it to say, following the lead was the best thing I could have done for that paper.

3. Citation and Credit

This is an easy one. Don’t steal someone else’s work. Even worse is to pretend that you came up with the idea on your own. At best, you’ll draw the ire of the original author; at worst, you’ll be accused of plagiarism. Always reference your sources.

For fiction, this is a bit more relaxed. In a non-fiction book there are specific protocols for citation; in fiction, you don’t need to bother with footnotes and indices. But you should mention your research in a forward or acknowledgements section. Or you could include a “further reading” section which mentioned that these were the books you found helpful in researching your work. You could even give a metaphorical nod by dropping the author’s name in the book itself. Just make sure to give credit where credit’s due.

4. Objectivity and Facets

Another important thing about research is casting a wide net. Don’t go to just one Primary Source (although sometimes there is only one). Read as much as you can from different sources and authors–especially if they have conflicting viewpoints.

That may seem counter productive. Why would you want to read something that’s the opposite of what you read last week? That’ll only confuse you, right? Wrong. What it will do is give you some breathing space, an excuse to step back and come up with your own conclusions about what you’ve read.

If you read three books that claim Mars once had salty oceans and can only find one book that says it was as dry in the past as it is now, you’ve learned two very important things: that the “dry hypothesis” is no longer accepted, or is in the scientific fringe, and that someone out there has a reason to believe the scientific consensus is wrong. Then you ask why that person thinks it’s wrong, and suddenly you have a much more vibrant picture of your topic than you had before.

If everyone agrees on every facet of your topic, it’s not very interesting. Facts are facts, but they don’t paint a picture. You want to find the disagreements; these will lead you to more questions which will breathe life into the topic.

Objectivity is very important here, though. The person who wrote that Mars has always been dry? Maybe he’s writing for a right wing newsletter who believes that the space program is a waste of taxpayer money and wants to dissuade people from finding a reason to go to Mars. If someone writes a scathing attack on a scientific idea without providing any evidence of their own, maybe they have a vested interest in protecting their religious beliefs. (See Dawin vs Creationism…which we will not get into here).

It doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong in these instances; what matters is why they’re writing what they’re writing. If they’re not being objective, it’s probably not a good source.

5.Fact vs Opinion

Which leads into fact vs opinion. When you’re researching, you almost always want to exclusively look for facts. Opinions are fine, but they change from person to person; if you base your research on someone’s specific opinion, it won’t be believable.

This is a can of worms, though, and you have to be careful. Many people will pass off their opinion as fact, and get up in arms if you challenge it. It’s something you really just need to get a feel for, and a lot of it has to do with the objectivity of the author. The bottom line is that your research needs a solid foundation, and you can’t build that on a series of ideas that differ from person to person.

But that’s just my opinion.

How do you do your research? Do you focus on it a lot, or just do enough that you can write comfortably about your topic? Tell us about your research in the comments!

A World of Your Own: Worldbuilding part 3.

So we’ve touched on the importance of world building for any story–now it’s time to talk about creating your own fantasy worlds.
This is something I’m genuinely interested in, but have never really looked into until recently. The first novel I’d planned–started more than ten years ago and never completed–took place on a created world I called Gi. It had its own mythology, races, geography, and system for magic. I created it from the ground up, but I never had a process for doing so–I just did it. And because of that, there are numerous inconsistencies.
Now, I’m trying to rebuild that world in anticipation of the “Universe” I want to create as a setting for novels and short stories. The Astrologers–featured on earlier posts on this blog–is the first in this revamped world.
But how does one go about creating a whole new world? As you can imagine, it’s not too different from world building a non-speculative universe, as described in my last post. The difference here is that you have a lot more leeway in what you create, and how everything fits together.
That, however, creates an issue: the more freedom you have in creating your world, the easier it is to develop inconsistencies, as I did. It’s easier to forget a small detail you mentioned several stories ago, or give a character a name that doesn’t really fit into their culture. An especially important danger is changing something major part way through your project (i.e. ‘retconning,’), and forgetting to also change all the little things it affects.

Again, consistency is the most important thing!

So, of course, the main thing is being consistent. However creative your universe is, it should be self consistent. Your people behave a certain way; the geography makes scientific sense; characters of the same race share cultural values, language, and attitudes. World building is a large project, but as long as you’re being consistent, it’s not really that difficult.

What’s different?

The easiest step to take from there is to decide how your world is different from the real world. Does it involve magic, and if so, how does it work? Is this a completely different planet, or are you using Earth as a “template” and changing details? Dos the history of your world follow a similar pattern as our own? Are there comparable social groups? What sort of natural resources are important, and are they different from what we find on Earth? They say you have to know the rules before you can break them, and it’s the same idea here: start with what you know, and go from there.

How different?

This is where you can start getting really creative. Once you know the similarities between our world and your created world, you can start to take liberties. Really, you can go crazy here; the idea is to create something entirely unique, so the more creative you are, the better. You don’t have to think up the details right now, just the major points. In fact, getting mired in details is where I got into trouble with Gi as explained above: I wanted to add all these neat little examples of my creativity that it eventually collapsed upon itself because there was no unifying structure beneath them. So this step should be more conceptual than practical: decide what you want to accomplish with your world, what it will mean to the story, and how you can go about accomplishing that.

Details, details, details…

This is where the job gets challenging–though not difficult, as this should still be fun! There are a lot of websites around that can help you figure out what details to include, and to what extent. Maybe your story centres around a sociopolitical climate–so the variety of food people grow isn’t all that important. Perhaps you want to develop a deeply intricate religious culture, so mythology and theology should be key points of research for you. Or maybe you want to just write a hack and slash adventure, so thinking about politics or religion or history is needless.
But there are certain things you should generally be thinking about, without which you’re not really building a world in the first place. I’d say the most important–and the place to start–is your map. ProFantasy.com has a great suite of software that can help with this; it’s not cheap, but there is a free trial that can get you a quick ‘n dirty map. Or, draw your own.

The next most important piece of the puzzle is who populates the world. Are they humans? Elves, dwarves or orcs? Something entirely different? These are the characters in your story, so get all the details set down early. This is where you’ll thing about languages, culture, mores, history, recreational activities, societal taboos…and so on. You could go really deep here, to the point of creating detailed anthropological histories if your people or creating a language from scratch–and the deeper you go, the more involving the world will be. Just remember to be consistent!

After that, there are a lot of smaller details to think of. What’s the climate? Flora and fauna? Popular entertainment? Important cultural concepts? This is where the world really comes alive. One recent example I can think of is from the special features of the Game of Thrones DVDs, where they talk about creating the Dothraki language. They started by accepting that horses were crucial to their cultural identity, and developed the language around that concept. They ended up with a rich language that made cultural sense.

These details are also where you can get absolutely lost. Keep your notes tidy, and organized. When you come up with a new idea, edit it until you’re sure it fits in the world–and if it doesn’t, rework it until it does. If you need to change a pre-existing concept to allow for a new idea that would otherwise contradict it, make sure you erase it completely, or allow for an explanation if inconsistencies arise.

There are tons of resources for world building online, so for more information, I’d reccomend a Google search. But to start you off, here are a few great ones:

  • 30 Days of World Building: This is a step by stepguide that promises, as the title says, to help create a new world in 30 days. It’s a comprehensive list of things to think about–comprehensive enough that there are some steps you may not need, depending on how detailed you want to be. But definitely worth checking out. You can also download the guide for free in ePub, MOBI or PDF format.
  • Fantasy World Building Questions: This website breaks the creation process down into a series of categories, such as Geography, People and Customs, and Commerce. It’s a solid list, and by going through it all you will end up with a nice comprehensive world.
  • Paeter’s Brain: Free Worldbuilding Tools: A quick post about world building from a Role Playing Game perspective. It includes links to a couple wikis about various RPG settings, which could be good inspiration for your own world. There’s also a link for a town generator, and a city map generator.
  • Speaking of RPGs, I’m a big fan, and a member of a website called Myth Weavers. They have some great tools to help DMs build their own worlds; here’s an example of the wiki. Now, you may be asking yourself why this matters if you’re writing a novel–but really, most of the process is the same. A DM has to create a cohesive world for his players to play in. In fact, building a solid world is in their absolute best interests: because each of their players has a mind of their own, they’ll test the limits of the world in every way possible. A writer would do well to follow the DMs example.

That’s it for today, and for this mini-series on world building. But don’t worry: this is a topic we’ll come back to again, I’m sure. My created world is in something of a crisis, and will need some heavy work–and what better place to troubleshoot the process than a blog about writing and publishing?

In the meantime, if you have any other resources or ideas on world building, please share in the comments below!

Creating the Real World: World Building part 2.

So let’s say there are two types of world building: that for speculative fiction, and for non-speculative fiction. Fantasy and science fiction worlds are the easy choice when it comes to world building, because you can make up as much or as little as you want–as long as you’re consistent, it’s all open. But let’s leave that for our next entry. Today, we’ll talk about building a world in a non-speculative universe.

What do I mean by non-speculative? Anything that’s rooted in the “real world,” and bound by the rules of this world. Most of our fiction seems to live here, and though world building in different genres (historical fiction vs romance vs thriller) will have different processes, there are a few things that remain the same.
There’s a ton of information online about how to build your world–much of it differing from other how to’s. Everyone will have their own process, and in the end how you get there doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re consistent.
Holly Lisle puts it well on her website, Holly Lisle: Writer:

“You’re worldbuilding…when you create some guidelines about the place in which your story takes place or about the people who inhabit the place in order to maintain consistency within the story and add a feeling of verisimilitude to your work.”

The examples she gives at the top of the page are great: world building can be as simple as deciding a bedroom is on the first floor of the house, and making sure a character doesn’t refer to it as being on the second.

Now, in speculative fiction, all the cards are on the table and you can do what you want. You don’t have to obey the laws of physics or even logic, though consistency is still key. In non-speculative fiction, there are more restrictions. With all that in mind, here are a few basic guidelines for world building in a non-speculative story:

1. Consistency is the Most Important Thing.

Not to beat a dead horse, but if your character states she’s never been to Europe at the beginning of the story, she shouldn’t mention later on that the turning point in her life was seeing the Mona Lisa in person. It seems like a glaring mistake, easy to avoid, but it’s really all too common–and it simply looks messy. It appears as though you don’t care about the story, or forgot to impart some crucial piece of information that explains something–or worse, that you didn’t edit very carefully, if at all. This actually happens a lot in modern popular fiction/movies/etc. They’re called Plot Holes, and if your story is riddled with them, you’ll appear lazy.

2. Your Setting is a Character Too.

You can’t have a story without a setting. And this may seem redundant in an article which is about defining your setting, but it can’t be stressed enough: you need to know everything important about where your story takes place. This is especially important with non-speculative fiction, where even the smallest incorrect details can pull a reader out of the story. Setting your story in Texas during Christmas will have a much different feel than putting the same plot in mid-summer Orlando. Medieval and Modern-Day Paris will have different effects on your characters and their decisions. The easy way to get this right is by thinking of your setting as another character in the story. Ask yourself the same questions you would about your characters: how does the plot affect them? Will their temperament of mood effect the plot? Do they have secrets that will be revealed by the plot? How does the setting evoke conflict from the other characters? If you’re a writer, your characters are your bread and butter, and you’ll do a lot of work on them–do the same with your setting, and your world building is half done.

3. What’s the Same?

Decide what in your world is the same as the real world. In non-speculative fiction, this is going to mean things like the Laws of Physics, the location of cities and countries, the colour of the sky, and the animals that inhabit the region. Go out of your way to decide what’s similar between your world and reality; this will give readers something to relate to in your story. More importantly for this discussion, it “roots” your story. Deciding on these details is also going to bring your reader more deeply into the world. And this is a place where the little details matter a lot. Hemmingway was a master at this; I remember reading a short story of his that described his breakfast in so much wonderful detail that I can barely imagine having my eggs without pepper anymore. I can’t even remember the story title, but I remember the world he built for it. With non-speculative fiction, a lot of the world building is done for you. There are certain things that won’t be different–or, if they are, you have built in conflict and plot points. Which brings us to…

4. What is Different?

This is where you’ll find the “juice” of your setting. Even in a non-speculative world, your setting should stand out a bit from reality. This doesn’t need to break suspension of disbelief or bring your story into the realm of speculative fiction, but there should be something that’s more interesting about your setting than the real world. Dan Brown’s Angles and Demons and The Lost Symbol are great examples of this. He’s using real world cities and exploring them in great detail–but he’s also adding details that are fictionalized to make the story more interesting and add an air of conspiracy. Deciding on what is different between your setting and its real world equivalent will give the reader a reason to care about your setting. Which leads into the last point:

5. Why Bother?

One of the most important things I’ve learned about writing was from a teacher who told me to ask myself: “why today?” What is it about this particular day for your story? If the answer is “nothing,” why are you writing about it? Make it something, that’s a lot more interesting. World Building should work the same way; why does your story take place here? Can your entire story be lifted up and transplanted into a different setting with no alterations to the plot? That’s not very engaging. Your plot doesn’t have to be dependant on the setting, but your setting should matter to the plot. If it doesn’t, it’s the same as reading about a character who does absolutely nothing of note: boring.

So building a world in a non-speculative genre has some limitations, yes–but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Even if it’s as simple as sitting down and doing a “character sketch” for your setting, you’ll be creating something more engaging for the reader–and saving yourself the trouble of lots of constructive editing when you realize that the setting doesn’t make sense.

Do you have any tips to add about world building in the real world? Tell me about them! Next time: World Building for Speculative Fiction.

World Building, part 1: Why Bother?

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about World Building.
When I first heard this term, I figured that it wasn’t relevant to writing unless you were literally building your own setting–as you would in a fantasy or certain science fiction. New races of characters, unique religions, fanciful creatures, maybe a new language, that sort of thing. But the more I thought of it the more I realized that world building isn’t about creating a totally new world at all–it’s really about creating a cohesive and consistent setting for your characters and story to live in. Although the term normally applies to speculative fiction, I think it’s a necessary part of writing in any genre.

I started thinking about world building when I began fleshing out an idea I had for a novel, many years ago. It began with reading about the theories of Richard Hoagland, who believes that the supposed face on Mars was built by an ancient civilization on that planet. (If you haven’t seen the pictures, go here; NASA has photographed the same area more recently, conclusively showing that it’s not a face–but that’s outside the scope of this article.)
It made me think: if a civilization did exist on Mars, what would drive them to build a giant face? As I was also reading a lot of mythology at the time, I immediately thought it would have to be for religious reasons. I created a mythology for this fictional civilization, and eventually had the workings of a novel.
In creating that world, I started with the mythology and cosmology. That gave me a cultural foundation. Then I drew a map, which turned out to feature three distinct geographical areas–which led me to create three races. The geography of each continent informed their individual cultures–the resource starved Ozym, for example, had to fight for their survival, and thus developed a violent martial culture. And so on. I ended up with what seemed to be a nice, cohesive world.
Then the novel got set aside. I picked it up again years later–and set it aside again after several months. I had four or five false starts before I realized the problem: I could never finish the book because every time I started anew, I brought in all these new ideas. I thought I was developing the “world” of the book, but really I was muddling it. It had collapsed under its own weight, because it wasn’t consistent. By then, making it consistent seemed such a large job that I set it aside once more, convincing myself that I didn’t have time during my University years.

Now I’m ready to start planning for it again. I still have that foundation, but have decided to pare it down to the beginning, and start with a more or less clean slate. What’s more, I want to let the world develop more organically, which I plan to do by first writing a series of short stories in this setting, and seeing where it goes. The Astrologers–which you can find posted in a rough draft in previous posts here–is the first.
But how do I keep from having the same problem as before? I think the main issue was that I was always adding what I thought were cool ideas. This time, I need to concentrate on what the story of the world is going to be about. There’s no sense having flashy plot points or cultural idiosyncrasies if they don’t make sense–or have a definite purpose–in the World.  I’m reminded of Anton Chekov’s shotgun effect: he said that if you introduce a shotgun in the first scene of your play, someone had better use it by the end. Otherwise, why bother including it?
So my first rule of world building is that every piece of the puzzle has to fit–and not only that, it has to make internal sense. It’ll be like editing; if you find a character that doesn’t add to to overall story or theme, you cut it. The same goes for world building.

And that’s why I said above that world building is important for all genres, not just speculative fiction. Are you writing a story set in 1912 New York? Fine, make sure you don’t mention Babe Ruth playing for the Yankees–he was traded in 1918. Is your novel about the Napoleonic Wars? Having a knowledge of the French language will add a great amount of depth. A sociopolitical thriller in Ancient Rome? Keep in mind that slavery was not only condoned, but expected of certain classes. Knowing your World–whether you create it yourself or not–is crucial to writing a good story. If you don’t have an accurate setting for your characters to play in, it won’t seem real. Or, worse, people will pick up on inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and will be pulled out of the story while they try to imagine why you didn’t do your research.

I’ll be writing more on world building as I learn more about the process, so stay tuned!