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.

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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.

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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

My Blog is Having an Identity Crisis

I read some advice from a seasoned blogger today:

“Step away from your computer and really consider what describes you and your writing. Be you in your blog name; be you in your blog.”

It really got me thinking about why I’m writing. I’m not writing for commercial purposes. I’m not writing for a particular person or audience. At the risk of sounding selfish, I’m writing for me. I’m trying to discover myself, organize my thoughts, and put myself out there for the world to see.

I think it boils down to half social rebellion and half self-administered therapy.

So “Be an Amazing Wife” has become “Unleashing Me.” Because while I do want to become an amazing wife, I think what I’m writing about – and the reason I’m writing – is really less about my identity as a wife and more about my identity as… well, me. The human. And the more I wrote the less that name seems to move with me.

Unleashing Me, on the other hand, was the pen name I chose for myself. So whether I continue to write posts about vegan recipes, or happiness, or fiction, the identity of the blog will be deeply tied with my identity. So whatever changes I go through and whatever changes the blog goes through, the name can stay. I’ll be me in my blog name, and me in my blog. 🙂

The URL will change eventually. But I haven’t decided if I want my own domain yet, so. Stay tuned I guess.

The Inescapable Nature of Self-Expression

You write about yourself, whether you want to or not. And that’s enlightening. But it’s also inconvenient.

Of course in the context of blogging that’s not really a surprise. But it was when I recently finished a fictional 500 word exercise that I was blown away by this seemingly benign discovery.

We all know that when we write, glimmers of ourselves appear in our characters. Maybe it’s a physical feature, a habit, a passion of theirs, a mannerism, a flaw. But in general we mostly believe that these characters are unique and when we write we create by pulling from many places, not just from within. I don’t think that’s as true as we like to think.

Here’s the enlightening part:

My 500 word exercise was on loneliness. I didn’t think I particularly identified with the character, her world, or her predicament. But reading the finished product triggered a deep introspective response. A veil had been lifted.

I was lonely.

The number of parallels I instantly drew to my own circumstances was shocking. I had subconsciously put so many of my own feelings into the story; feelings I didn’t even know I had been feeling. It was as though a very quiet, forgotten piece of myself was trying to express itself to me.

I hadn’t realized I was lonely, much like the pilot in the story doesn’t fully appreciate how sad and isolated her situation is. And yet I was able to encapsulate an expression of loneliness so effortlessly through a part of me I had suppressed. I was reminded of common introspective tools, such as writing letters to yourself or keeping a diary, in which you try to express your feelings, and which are often very revealing. But this blew me away. Instead of trying to write about what was bothering me, to help sort it out or make sense of it, my mind had used my creative outlet to let me know what I wasn’t acknowledging. And I imagine the same is true of pretty much any creative outlet.

When I read what I write, now, I don’t want to just read to edit. I don’t want to just look for bad grammar, spelling, and tense. I want to look for messages I’ve secretly written to myself, messages that offer a little more insight into the “me” I’ve been ignoring.

Which brings me to the slightly inconvenient part:

Sometimes we’re sharing a part of ourselves with the outside world we weren’t even aware existed. And sometimes sharing ourselves that openly can be uncomfortable. But I say we should embrace that discomfort, that vulnerability. That inconvenience. Because while it can be unsettling to be open and visible, it’s also how we endear ourselves to others, and where true relationships transcend acquaintance.

I write so that my inner voice can speak. But from now on I’m also going to listen to it.

500 Word Exercise: Loneliness

500 Word Exercise – Loneliness

A small vessel drifted with its strange pilot through the last leg of the abyss – that’s what they called it, the expanse between the distant clusters where there was no starlight. Finally, a spark lit a faint spangle in the distance. And where there was light, there was contact. Her HUD activated on cue. One of their faces – only slightly disproportionate, for her liking, only slightly blue, only slightly alien – inconsiderately blocked out her spangle.

There were no words, of course, only expectation. They were telepathic by nature, and though they occasionally used vocal codes when sensitive information transmitted through traditional neural networks might be intercepted, they found the entire process of spoken languages clumsy and unpleasant, and certainly not civilized.

There was no “How are you today?” or “Did you have a safe journey?” as she used her cybernetic enhancements to transmit the identification engrams they had stored in her vastly inferior brain. They said electronic, organic, or verbal means of identification were too easily counterfeited, and using them was out of the question. So they dug out a sector of her face and skull and replaced it with something better.

The slightly blue, slightly alien face processed the information without blinking, and then gave a polite nod and was gone. She was alone, except for the faint, flickering spangle. She mused, as she engaged the engines towards their space, that she had actually been alone for quite some time. She was one of the Remnant, and they were so scattered that they rarely crossed paths anymore. In a generation or two her species would no doubt be extinct, which didn’t bother her too terribly. Besides her own mother and someone she’d seen at a distance in the spaceport, she hadn’t actually met any other Remnants.

But she did miss speaking. It was such a wondrous, fulfilling experience to express her feelings for someone else to hear. Her cybernetic enhancements were supposed to allow her to do so the way the others did, but unfortunately her vastly inferior brain couldn’t fully utilize the technology. So communication was limited. When they had to convey information, it needed to be so simplified to be processed that any semblance of cordiality or emotion was completely lost. It was so tedious to them that they rarely attempted communication anymore. And they had no concept of written language, and scoffed when the Remnants offered to teach them, especially since it would require actually learning the Remnants’ limited language. Thoughts were so much more efficient and transcended the boundaries of language, they said.

Perhaps that was the most disappointing part of it all. They could learn her language, if they wanted. They could speak to her, nourish her with sounds that meant something, if they desired. She could not learn their ways, their mind powers. And so she was lonely. But sometimes she hummed, or talked to her ship when it misbehaved, or when it was good. Because she was lonely.

Why Comments From Celebrities and Improved Stats are Bad for Your Blog

I’ve only been blogging for nine days, and I’ve already been infected. So I’m going to take a step back for a second. Have a reflective moment.

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I started a blog because I was discovering things about myself. I also love to write, and I thought organizing all these discoveries in writing might help me stay focused, maintain perspective, and maybe, just maybe, help someone else who is going through something similar, if they happen to stumble upon it while surfing the vast expanse of the internet. I wrote my little About blurb and my First Post, and I was happy.

It was fun. It felt fulfilling, having something I wrote sitting there for the world to gaze upon in its completed form. (Like so many other aspiring writers, I have about four thousand incomplete novels in my hard-drive somewhere.) So then I made my first mistake. I decided to Google how to write a successful blog. Just out of curiosity, of course.

Find a niche. That was what it said. Immediately, I started to criticize the little blog I had built. What kind of niche was this? And now I was stuck writing inside it? I didn’t like the name. By now I had written my fourth post and I thought, this information is good for more than just women aspiring to be great wives. Is leaving a title like “Be An Amazing Wife” going to isolate other readers who don’t have that goal? So I changed the subtext to, “And Other Worthwhile Goals,” which was actually probably for the better.

But the infection had already started. It got worse when I wrote a post about my ugly quiche. I linked to a TED Talk by Shawn Achor, who does amazing, fantastic, inspiring work. I was surprised, elated, and a little bouncy when I saw he had actually commented on my post.

This started a horrible cascade. I was so excited that someone had read my blog – and not just any someone, but a famous, celebrity-type someone that I admired! So of course I had to share the link on Facebook. I went from having zero readers to having over 40. And then a funny thing happened. The number of readers dropped off – which was to be expected; they weren’t devoted readers, they had just clicked a link. But the funny thing was how I missed those big, nameless, faceless numbers.

It happened again when I wrote about vegan food in the Tofurky post. I garnered a few likes and follows from it and was pleased. I guess that makes sense, it meant that people appreciated my work. Or that they were trying to artificially boost their own traffic. But either way I liked getting the notifications in my inbox that someone thought my post was pretty awesome. So I published another post on a different topic. But the same thing didn’t happen. There was no attention. So I made the next post about eating less meat as well.

Is the problem evident?

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It started with a teapot and happiness, but it was turning into a wild goose chase for likes and follows. It started with me expressing myself and writing about my journey, but now I was out to write what I thought might get attention. I felt like Nintendo when they abandoned the goodness of the N64 and the Gamecube and came out with the Wii and DS games like Brain Age. I wasn’t true to me, I was looking for a wider audience no matter who it was or what they wanted. Apparently, this is not an uncommon phenomenon.

And seriously, why do I care? I thought this was a personal project, about growth, about discovery, about sharing. When did it change?

I think somewhere around day two or three.

But happily I was able to diagnose the issue early, and my prognosis is good. I’m already using more I’s and me’s and less you’s and we’s. Because who is you? Who is we? Is anyone reading this? Well if so, I hope you can enjoy this the way it is, because trying to change it to suite the tastes of others is, apparently, making me sick.