Captured Moments: A Bird in the Blossoms II

2013 Japan 01 913


This bird lived on Yoshinoyama (吉野山), considered one of the most stunning places to see the cherry blossoms in Japan. That day, there must have been thousands of people from all over on the mountain, enjoying the trees. I’m sure she didn’t know what all the fuss was about.

Giving Depth to a Fictional World

I’m at that point in my writing where the initial thrill of an escalating word count has begun to taper off and I’m starting to think more seriously about what it takes to give depth to the world I’m creating: how to make something fictional seem real.

Map 003

The Map provided in the Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy

  • Making a Map

I haven’t actually done this for my latest story yet, but I’ve done it with others in the past and I find that it gives me more options, as an author, when I’m trying to describe a journey more believably. It also seems to have worked for Tolkien, LeGuin, and McKillip, among others.

Sometimes we may never even encounter a location we put on our map during the course of our story. But we’ll never be at a loss as to where we can go next! Have you ever tried describing where you live to someone?

“I live in North Bend.”

“Oh? Where’s that?”

“Uhm. It’s north. And there’s an ocean to the west. And there’s some plains way to the east but I don’t really know what’s beyond that. And there’s probably something even more north of here but. I’m not sure yet.”

Not only is it unbelievable, it’s boring. You’d be more likely to say:

“It’s east of Puget Sound, parallel with Mercer Island. You can take I-90 East from Seattle past the 405 interchange, but if you reach the Cascade Mountains you’ve gone too far.”

And it doesn’t even matter if you never mention the 405 interchange or Mercer Island ever again. But now it sounds believable.

One of my characters recently started journeying and I’m finding it really difficult to explain where she’s going in a believable way, mostly because I haven’t named anything or given it much thought. I just want to get her from A to B quickly, for now, but I’ll have to go back and edit her travels to make sense later. A map will definitely help, even if it’s only for personal reference.

  • Learning your Jargon

I’ve been told I’m supposed to “write what I know,” and there’s definitely wisdom behind that. If I want to talk about horses, I have a large vocabulary at my disposal, since I rode for years: Saddles, stirrups, bridles, bits, reins, girths and cinches, shoes, farriers, hooves, foundering, and frogs. But right now I’m writing about birds; in fact, a culture that centers around bird interaction. And I don’t know anything about birds.

So I’ve been doing research. Because I can say beak and wing and feather, but having a few more specialty words will lend realism to the characters. If they make their living interacting with birds, they’ll likely know words like tiercel, or remiges, and not have to resort to saying “a male hawk” or “long wing feathers.”

Basically, if we want readers to think our characters sound like they know what they’re talking about, we have to know what we’re talking about. We want to use the same principle when writing about our surroundings. If we put a crowd of busy traders in the background, what are they bartering? Their goods should reflect what would be available given the landscape and time period. Wikipedia is not only informative, it can be inspirational!

  • Constructing a Different Norm

If we come up with a great idea for the new culture, the pitfall I think we, as authors, have to avoid is explaining it. If it’s really normal, if this is the way things are and we expect the reader to believe it, then why distract them by pulling them away from the world they’re in to explain the details?

This is a big challenge for me. Leaving the reader hanging. Dropping a hint and walking away. Making an obscure reference and saying no more. But I’m trying to make it work. For example, a large ceremony took place early in my first chapter, but I hadn’t introduced or developed enough characters to make sitting through a lot of hubbub interesting, so I only mentioned it briefly so I could move along. I’ll get to the importance of it and the order of the proceedings later, when the reader is engaged enough to possibly care.

So those are the three points I’ve been working with. Of course, believable character and plot construction are another animal entirely. Any tips as I struggle through the first couple chapters? I’d love to hear other ideas!

The Happy Consequence of Blogging

A few days ago I stumbled upon an unexpected, but very welcome, consequence of my recent blogging aspirations: I’ve rediscovered my love of writing.

The funny thing is, I hadn’t realized I’d lost it. After all, isn’t writing a blog proof that I was still in love with the craft? But the truth is that besides these blog posts and the occasional email, I hadn’t written much of anything except for a brief writing exercise.

Orchids 005

It was when I responded to my first weekly writing challenge, which was subsequently Freshly Pressed, that I started thinking seriously about writing again. All the positive feedback I received definitely helped reignite my engines. It can be hard to get motivated when you aren’t sure if anyone thinks you’re any good. I even wrote a post about how voice makes for a good writer, which spawned another writing exercise.

But it hasn’t been all internal. I’ve also been watching a thriving writing community toss around ideas, offer each other advice, and put their work out there for the world to see. A brief dialogue between a couple bloggers was a turning point for me. (One of these bloggers was “attending” camp nanowrimo, which I mistakenly believed was a real camp and thought, “what a great idea!”) The conversation went like this:

livingtheredlife says: I have never done nanowrimo, but I have always wanted to try it out. Do you have to work on edits too, or is that something you worry about after?

jodiellewellyn says: Definitely after. It’s all about churning out the 50,000 words. Good or bad.

I’d never heard of such a thing. Writing without editing, what a concept! So the other night I tried it. Just for kicks.

I haven’t been able to stop.

I was totally inspired. Words and ideas and characters just came flying out of nowhere. For the first time in a long time, I’m actually serious about writing to be published again. This is, consequently, why I haven’t been writing any blog posts recently…

But what I find totally awesome about this whole thing is that starting a blog – writing about things I love – has cyclically reignited my love of the things I was writing about. Does this work for others, too? Does blogging about photography and travel re-excite the writer about his picture-taking and his journeying? Based on my own experience, I would imagine so!

What a happy consequence. 🙂

300 Word Exercise: Describing the Mundane

In my post on Finding Your Voice, I suggested a 300 word exercise in which you describe something sitting on the kitchen table in your voice. Never mind characters, never mind plot, just write something in your style, no matter how grandiose or unsuitable for the object. Here’s my version.

Its unpolished form rose stoically from a soft, contrasting surface. The bottom rim was dulled and smudged from overuse, and the length of it reflected shapeless, drained colors as though it were the still, silver facade muddy waters. Near its dark upper lip there were two imperfections where an indelicate keeper had dented it.

A round, black fixture was firmly mounted at the top, with a handle that swept back like the long horns of an animal. The small entrance in the center was clapped shut by an unassuming stopper. By its silence, its imperturbable posture, it seemed to challenge onlookers to question its formidability. It had proven time and again that whatever was sealed within would remain there, safe and unchanged, until called upon.

It was cold to the touch, like something lifeless and forgotten, unaffectionate, but duty-bound to complete its task. The task that no set of human hands could ever hope to accomplish of their own power and vigil, the task that made its existence so necessary: holding back the thrashing, untamable treasure that both gives and takes life, that refuses to be confined and disappears irretrievably once it escapes.

But it was empty, lightweight and dormant. It had been left out, purposeless, away from the barracks where it was usually stored with others of its kind. The others were not all like it, though they served the same function. Some were colorful. Nearly all of them were newer. Some were plastic, some were insulated, some had a mouthpiece and some had a small opening to sip from. And so, depending on the journey and the unique prerequisites for the task, it was not always chosen. But it soldiered on, always at the ready. Always dependable.

Such is the life of an old, stainless steel water bottle.

Stop Writing and Find Your Voice

The writing process, like most artistic mediums, is part conceptual and part cathartic. But it’s also largely technical, and writers spend a lot of time talking about outlines, first, second, and third drafts, editing, character development, solid plots, complicated villains, and flawed heroes. But those aren’t writing skills. Those are storytelling skills. And this is a problem.

Book pages 001

Now I know we need drafts, complex characters, and a good plot. But having those things does not make someone a good writer. I guess it’s sort of like saying, you need brushes, a canvas, and beautiful paints, but having those things won’t make you a great artist.

I have a theory I’d like to explore. And that is that a truly great writer is a result of an awesome voice. Our voice is the style, tenor, and soul of our prose, and establishing it and refining it early gives our work identity. On the very first page, before we introduce our characters, our world, our villain, and our plot, we introduce ourselves. And that makes or breaks our books.

I’ve done a bit of research into this idea (cleverly disguised as recreational reading). Here’s a good example: the first couple paragraphs from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the wonderful Douglas Adams:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.”

Boom. Amazing. No hint of a plot. No glimmer of the characters. Nothing new, no revolutionary concepts we haven’t heard before. But we’re already tickled, entertained, and in love with this author, because he has so eloquently introduced himself to us with his fantastic voice.

His voice is witty, and, I find, purposefully dry, so that when his sentences turn long it feels like ramblings. It’s almost the opposite of poetic: very real, and very easy to read. Its straightforward, unadulterated, and wholly unwhimsical style makes for great sardonic and parodic narrative on “normal” things, like the view of the relationship between money and happiness.

Here’s another good one. These are the opening lines of the second book of the (one and only, the awesome, my favorite:) Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy, by my favorite author, Patricia McKillip:

“In spring, three things came invariably to the house of the King of An: the year’s first shipment of Herun wine, the lords of the Three Portions for the spring council, and an argument.

The spring of the year following the strange disappearance of the Prince of Hed, who had, with the High One’s harpist, vanished like a mist in Isig Pass, the great house with its seven gates and seven white towers seemed to be cracking like a seed pod out of a long, bitter winter of silence and grief. The season dusted the air with green, set patterns of light like inlay on the cold stone floors, and roused restlessness like sap in the deep heart of An, until Raederle of An, standing in Cyone’s garden, which no one had entered for the six months since her death, felt that even the dead of An, their bones plaited with grass roots, must be drumming their fingers in the graves.”

Ok, to be fair, she does introduce her characters here, and she did so even more in the introduction to the first book in the trilogy, which is why I chose to quote from the second book, but it’s still fabulous and I’m going to analyze her voice at you anyway.

Hers is the exact opposite of Adams’. It’s poetic, whimsical, magical, and full of fantasy and wonder. Her prose is almost dizzying. It’s beautiful. She could write three paragraphs describing the dimples on a golf ball and still have my rapt attention. “Roused restlessness like sap”? What does that even mean?! Hers is the sort of voice that must be savored. If you try to rush through her work, she’ll punish you by making sure you don’t understand any of it. And I think it’s fantastic.

Another great is, of course, Tolkien. Is it his detailed maps, the elvish runes in the appendix, or the wide array of characters that gives his world depth? Is it the plot, the villains? I argue, No. It’s his voice. He breathes life into his world by the way he writes, not because of his plot points or his villains, but because when you read his voice you believe it’s real.

And would Middle-Earth be as enchanting if it was written in Douglas Adams voice? I wager it wouldn’t, even though his voice is also great, because our voice must suite our genre and world we’ve built and they just wouldn’t mesh. (I actually read a science fiction book by McKillip, who is definitely a fantasy author, and got the distinct impression it was just a fantasy novel stuck in space, screaming to be plopped down in a nice forest somewhere.)

So perhaps I’ve made my point, maybe I haven’t. But we all know that what distinguishes our storytelling from that of a screenwriter or a musician is the use of the written word, so it’s important to develop not just our storytelling skills, but also our writing skills (note the distinction there). So how do we make our own voice?

Write a sentence. Read it. Read it again. How does it sound? How does it make you feel? Is it beautiful? Does it suite your world, your story, your personality? Read works by your favorite authors. How does your voice compare? It couldn’t and shouldn’t be the same as theirs; it must be yours, so it must be unique!

Here’s an exercise: pick an object sitting on your table and write a description of it in 300 words, in your voice. Make it beautiful. Make that description sing. I don’t care if the object is a dry, cracked pen that needs an ink refill and has lint all stuck on the front of it, make those 300 words sound fantastic and showcase your voice to the world!

I’d love to read your attempts. 🙂

  1. Unleashing Me | 300 Word Exercise: Describing the Mundane
  2. Stressing Out College | The Cure for Literary Laryngitis in 300 Words

Portraits of a Stranger

When I was in Japan last year, I took some amazing photos. Now, I don’t profess to be a fantastic photographer by any means, but when you’re in a country as historically rich and phenomenal as Japan, how can you not come away with great pictures?

Some of my favorite pictures, though, were of strangers. There is a quiet elegance to the Japanese culture that I find so beautiful and endearing, and that made for images that really resonated with me. Who are these people? Where do they come from? What are their struggles? Who are their families? Why do they sit and watch the sakura alone?

The pictures are like unwritten stories. They pique my imagination, and make me feel emotions, probably for no other reason than it captures a portrait of a moment in a stranger’s life.

Watching the sakura in an ancient garden

Capturing a flower cluster

Showing her mother a cherry blossom

Showing her mother a cherry blossom

Putting her shoes back on after walking the tatami halls of an ancient mansion

Putting her shoes back on after walking the tatami halls of an ancient mansion

Moments like these are so inspiring to me. They might produce just 100 words, but what stories could be shaped from them! I wonder what I might have brought back from Japan if I’d brought a pencil instead of a camera…