MYC – Two Approaches to Fantasy World Building

  Master Your CraftWelcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Welcome to World Building. Today we continue to examine the humongous topic by looking at two approaches to fantasy world building.

When Gabby & I started talking fantasy world building, we figured out quickly that, while we agreed that character is central to world building, we approached the actual process very differently. Instead of trying to come up with *the* way to build fantasy worlds, we decided to share our different approaches in hopes that you can use some of our techniques in your own writing.

Julie’s Approach:

The first thing I do after I get an idea for a new world is read every comp title I can get my hands on so I know what the tropes are and can either avoid or subvert. Our Writing Cross-Culturally workshop round-up is a mini-course in how to avoid harmful tropes in world building. But I also check the genre tropes section of the TV Tropes Wiki to make sure I’m going into my world building with a good idea of what’s already out there.

Then comes the fun part–brainstorming. I brainstorm both how my story is different from what’s out there AND how it’s the same. This step often happens as part of my messy synopsis so that I can get feedback on the world from my amazing critique partners.

“Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. –Anna Quindlen, Commencement Speech; Mount Holyoke College, May 23, 1999

Then I dive in to primary research. For a mythology-based world (which many of mine are), I read the original epic poems or stories looking for themes. I often take something from the original that I find sexist or racist or otherwise irritating and subvert it in my story. China Mieville’s brilliant UnLunDun is a great example of subverting the typical Chosen One trope, for example, because the Chosen One doesn’t actually end up saving the day.

I also love fantasy world building that includes unexpected mash-ups. Finnish epic poems meet Star Wars. Ugly Duckling plus dragons. Goonies plus sea turtles. Building a world at the intersection of two things you love can give lots of room for creativity and help you bring that something special that Anna Quindlen is talking about in the quote above.

But that’s all pre-writing. What does the actual writing look like? You already learned last week that the ten-page info dump is a no-no and that it’s best to weave in details during scenes with forward action. Probably my most-used world building comment to my clients is: BE SPECIFIC. A platter of meat on the table is so much less evocative then roasted hell-boar basted with clarion berry jam. Even better if the main character’s father was gravely injured on a hell-boar hunt years ago or if the seeking out the clarion berries is a right-of-passage that the main character hopes to participate in soon. Then the details become a way to build character, foreshadowing what is to come, recall backstory, and, ultimately, make the world you’re creating on the page come to life.

The Girl From Everywhere has amazing fantasy world buildingSome recent books that have really vivid fantasy world building include A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.

 

Gabby’s Approach:

I always do character interviews and development first. Then I do a sort-of world interview. At this point, I may have a general plot outline, but I know that as I develop details of the world, it will impact plot and character, and vice versa. There’s triangulation that happens between the three that takes on a life of its own. To build the world, I have a series of questions, some of which I’ve come up with myself, and others which I’ve gleaned from friends, the internet, and workshops.

I have a strong background in environmental science, so I always include details about the weather, the geology, the seasons, and the flora and fauna in my world building. These have impacts on the lives of my characters. For example, I might explore the variety of predators in this world. Is it a creature that might attack my character? Do they travel in packs, like coyotes? Will my character have lingering anxiety that it might eat her cat? I explore food sources. Are there plants that are harvested, or animals that are farmed–what are they and how are they made available?

I go for LOTS of details–everything from the culture and general beliefs or taboos of a world, to the ecosystem, to the clothing and housing. I’d say I might use about a third of this information in the book. If you’re not sure why these sorts of details might be key ingredients, just look at the role of the poisonous berries in The Hunger Games. Whether or not a character would know those berries isn’t just about the world–it’s about the way the character interacts with their world.

To me there are some details that are more emotional and evocative than others, because they’re universal heart-lines. In my mind those are housing, food, and religion/mythology. These three areas inform all of the best, and most emotional parts of our lives. We share food with family (unless we don’t have one, and then we eat alone). We remember our mother’s cooking, the smells and tastes of our childhood. We believe what we’re taught, or we strain against it. A well built world exerts pressure on a character, and can exert opposing pressure in their relationships. A rainy day, with its scent of wet earth, and heavy sky might mean, and evoke, something very different for me, than it does for you.

I research as needed, as I go. Examples might be anything really: tie-ins to an existing creature or mythology, symptoms of respiratory disease, how to cook a hell-boar (nod to Julie), or I may want to know about the dragonfly life cycle to adapt it for a creature of my own. I don’t really start to think about tropes, cliches or sensitivity reading until I’ve got something pretty developed, unless I notice something that gives me pause along the way.

In terms of implementation of the world, I second Julie. SPECIFICS. Really what this is about is that you don’t find the emotional, evocative ties that bind in broad strokes. Painting the world (relaying all the work you just did) feels–well, it doesn’t feel at all. What touches the reader and ties them to your character, and to your world, is the relationship between that character and the world–it’s in the MICRO. It’s in the details. It’s in the freezing cold wind that your character is going to have to go out in to get their sister. It’s in the smell of that dessert, made with special berries that only come out once a year. It’s in the sad lonely song, sung by a man with no ear for music, that everyone knows, but hasn’t heard in years because it was outlawed. The rocks under your feet impact you. They bruise your skin. All of these things are about the world, as interpreted by the character.

Three Times Lucky has amazing fantasy world building Some books that do fantasy world building  really well are: Three Times Lucky, A Year Down Yonder, Icefall, Howl’s Moving Castle, Savvy, and Scorpio Races.

Tune in next week when we will explore world building in science fiction.

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Hiding in the Closet (and other tricks to find writing time in the summer)

Shhh. I’m in the closet with my laptop. Should I mention there’s no air conditioning in this closet. And it’s at least 90 degrees outside. I’m sweating like I’m in a sauna. And the air smells like teen boy sneakers.

Why am I torturing myself? I just want uninterrupted writing time. My kids have been out of school for a whole week already. Every three minutes I’m bombarded with a steady stream of questions.

Does mollusks have one “l” or two?

What color are prison uniforms in Japan?

Did you buy banana peppers?

What time will Dad be home?

Where’s my bathing suit?

Who ate all the ice cream?

Why is there a lion in the front yard?!!!

Yeah, that last one got me moving because believe it or not stranger things have happened in our neighborhood and who’d give up the chance to see a lion prancing through their yard. This time, it was a trick just to swipe some of my chocolate stash. Rrrrroooaaarrr!

The point here is that I’m desperate to be ignored. Is that too much to ask? I’ve EVEN TRIED GETTING UP EARLY. My kids have been waking up before 8am.

“You’re teenagers. GO BACK TO BED!”

I have no choice. I’m running away with my laptop AND ALL THE CHOCOLATE in our house (because I am EVIL). But first, I decided to ask my resourceful friends at The Winged Pen for their best advice on squeezing in writing time.

Jenny (5 and 8): Buy out the entire supply of water balloons at Walmart. Bribe them with food. Lock them in their play room (mostly kidding). Discover that the PS4 game they’ve been fighting over weeks has a multi-player option. Ship them off to grandparents because really that’s the only answer!

Kate (8 and 11): Wear them out! A long walk in the woods or a visit to the pool, water park, or trampoline park in the morning guarantees a few blissful hours of writing in the afternoon while they rest and draw, play with Legos, or read.

Karin (9, 12, 14, and 15): Child labor: Give them jobs/chores and pay them, such as weeding (all four), painting the fireplace bricks with white wash (artsy 15 yr old), walking dog (all four), older ones entertaining wild 9 yr old.

Gabby (9 and 13):  Start their own crafty business. Jewelry making, beading, sewing, bake sales/lemonade stands.Write and illustrate their own book! Could offer to have it bound at the end of the summer.

Julie (11 and 12): Early morning was my only opportunity last summer. I can usually get the two of them going on a board game, a craft project, or some outdoor time and sneak in a little writing time. The good news is that they’re both big readers, so I often write during their reading time too!

Halli (11 and 14): This year I am sending them to a one-week drone day camp. Now that they are older they don’t want to be campers. They are counselors at karate camp, but I’m there too. So it looks like I’ll get one decent week of writing done this summer. Sigh….

Kristi (8, 9, 10 and 12): We just got new beds for the kids and even my 10 and 12 yo have been pitching in creating stuff with the boxes– For us, taking away electronics and giving them challenges like build the tallest thing, etc, has been key this break (it’s only one month for us, so maybe after a few weeks the chaos will break out?)

Rebecca (12 and 14): I don’t need to entertain them. In fact, I’d like to do days at the lake or a museum or the shore, but I already know I’ll just get, “School’s finally done! We just want to relax!” My challenge is that I’ll start writing and need to remember to get my son off the computer, get my daughter to put down the book, and push them out the door for some fresh air and exercise.

Richelle (10, 12,  and 14): We are instituting non-screen hobby time at our house this summer. I told them they need to cultivate interests and I will get them supplies. My oldest is going to teach herself to sew, the 12-year-old is going to paint, and the 10-year-old is baking. My main purpose was to get them off their devices, but I’m hoping it leads to them having their own practices that they enjoy enough to leave me alone for a while!

Gita (15): Sleep-away theater camp. For three weeks.

*All our jaws drop. We turn green with envy and frantically google last-minute sleep-away camps for all our kids.

Sussu (9 and 13): My teenager and my tweenager are learning Autodesk. It’s easy and free and there are lots of tutorials online. They get to model their own Lego kits. The reward? We’ll 3D print the kits when they’re done.

Gita wins for best summer plan, and Sussu wins for most industrious kids. And now I’m feeling even more like a slacker. Thanks to the inspiration from my friends, I’ve figured out where I went wrong. We don’t have a routine. Instead of running away, I’m putting together a plan. On the weekends, we’ll make a schedule for the week and buy any supplies we need. So here’s my routine for the rest of the summer:

  • Get an hour of writing time before they get up. See this post for details!
  • Take them on a short hike or walk
  • Lunch together
  • Reading time/Personal activity time (another hour of writing time for me)
  • Bonding (kid-kid) activity/challenge each day, like a major chore that takes two, or making dessert, helping a neighbor, etc
  • Afternoon game time (me plus the kids), followed by dinner and family time in the evening

Hopefully something in this post will spark you with an idea for how to wrangle some writing time and keep your little darlings busy, and maybe even inspired.

Leave any suggestions you have for keeping kids busy in the summer in the comments, PLEASE!!!!! (Just in case, you know.)

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

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How to Sell to Libraries

You might believe that traditional publishing will give you access to bookstores and libraries. The problem is few publishers offer a sales team. As far as indie authors are concerned, they are left to approach libraries on their own.

In order to figure the details out, I meet with Tamar Kreke (Adult and Technical Services Coordinator) and Kay Webster (Youth Services Coordinator) from Greene County Library. First of all, I would like to say that Tamar has the most amazing collection of glass vases. They fill her office. And I am grateful to Kay for stopping by. They both graciously took the time to answer my questions and send me links. Librarians rock!

Tamar receives about 25 pitches per years, but Kay, who is in charge of children books, rarely gets any attention.They are happy to receive postcards with pitches from indie authors.

There is one thing to keep in mind. In order to approach librarians, you need to understand what they do.

Librarians’ job is to find the best book available to attract more patrons to the library because the more patrons visit the libraries, the more budget they get. You might not see them as such, but libraries are businesses.

No acquisition manager welcomes authors walking in because they feel on the spot.

Also, authors have just a few seconds to pitch their book. Librarians are very busy people.

Do the librarians want to hear how much your book is entertaining? No.

They want to know if your book serves the demand in their branch. They want reviews and third party recommendations to check if people are buying it.

They want to be able to check the book and order with ease. They want to know if your book is available at regular wholesalers like Ingram, Baker & Taylor or Bertram and a hard cover is a plus.

If you can throw in a marketing campaign, your approach might be even more effective. It could be an article in the newspapers or a local radio where you mention your book is available in the local libraries.

You do not need to pitch each library individually though. Reach for the main library’s administrative office, the acquisition staff, or the collection development staff. A postcard with your book, email, a link to Amazon, and tons of reviews are the only things you need for a first contact. The last thing they want is an author dropping off his book or mailing it to them.

 

RESOURCES:

Derek Doepkerd. <http://ebookbestsellersecrets.com/blog-articles/>

Amy Collins. <http://realfastlibrarymarketing.com/>

Marketing to Libraries. 
<http://www.ala.org/tools/libfactsheets/alalibraryfactsheet05>
 9 Profitable Reasons to Sell (or Rent) Your Book to Libraries. 
<https://publicityhound.com/blog/9-reasons-to-sell-to-libraries>

 “Six Strong Benefits of Supporting Your Local Author Community
 in Your Library.”
<http://self-e.libraryjournal.com/>

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Read Sussu’s articles at Novel Without Further Ado or Join me in August for my FREE writing challenge, at: http://sussuchallenge.weebly.com/

 

 

 

What Can We Learn About Character Arc and Pacing from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY II? (Spoiler free)

Photo courtesy of Marvel.com

Months ago, my fourteen-year-old son saw the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy II, and insisted we see it in the theater. We all liked the original movie and the trailer looked good, so on a cloudy, not-too-promising Saturday morning, we planned it as a family outing. By the time we arrived at the theater, my son, my daughter and I were still excited, but my husband looked up at the now-clear sky and said, “If I’d known, I’d have planned a hike.” This was prescient of further differences of opinion.

The movie started out strong, with well-loved characters fighting off an enormous and seemingly invincible alien. The plot moved swiftly, with all the dashing, diving and blasting you’d expect from a science fiction blockbuster. And then, after the first plot point in the story structure was hit, things slowed down for character development. This slowdown was the source of the diverging opinions.

The first movie in franchise, fans among you know, had five beloved characters: Peter, an adventurer who lost his mother to cancer when he was young and has never known his father, Gamora, raised to be the perfect weapon by the antagonist of the first movie, Drax, who lost his entire family to that antagonist, Rocket, a genetically engineered racoon who has never known any more family than Groot, the sentient tree who is his constant companion. To these characters, GOTG II adds Gamora’s sister, Nebula, and Yondu, bandit and father-figure to Peter.

If you are not a GOTG fan, you may have found yourself skimming through that long list of characters, so imagine what happens when the script writers slow down the sci fi special effects and bad-guy bashing to explore the wounds of each of these characters. All seven. In most cases, the characters are paired off so that their wounds could be explored in duos as opposed to seven separate scenes. Still, by the second of these scenes, I leaned over to my husband to whisper, “and now we will pause for character development so that at the end of the movie, we’re satisfied everyone’s issue has been resolved.”

One interesting question is, was this the wrong thing to do? The story structure in the movie was right on target. These scenes highlighting the characters’ wounds and the ones later where they were seen to struggle with the wounds are right out of a lesson on how to build a character arc. They were “correct,” and if we fast forward to the end of the movie, my fourteen-year-old son said the movie was awesome and that he shed a tear at the climax. (If you have a fourteen-year-old son, you know this is some serious praise!) My daughter loved the movie. I thought it was good, though I’d say the character development slowed the movie down too much and was a bit too “on the nose.” My husband thought the movie was lousy. On IMDB, the rating for GOTG II was 8.1, quite high, and tied with the rating of the first movie in the series.

So what lessons should we, as storytellers, should draw from Guardians of the Galaxy II?

Well, as you can see from my title, I left this as a question and welcome discussion in the comments below. I’ll probably rewatch after the movie is out on DVD and think about it some more. But one take-away is that opinions will differ. One person’s response to a movie, like a manuscript sent to an agent or editor, is subjective. My son, daughter and I love these characters, so it would have taken worse script-writing or direction for us to dislike the movie. My husband, on the other hand, was much more swayed by the folly of being in a dark theater on a perfect Spring day.

My second take-away is that character development and character arcs are harder to do well when you have seven characters you’re trying to get an audience to care about. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it makes the job of the screenwriters and director much more difficult. This could be a warning about making your story-telling job harder with multiple point-of-view characters.

My third take-away is for my own writing. I’m in the final stage of revisions for a science fiction action story, luckily one with only two main characters. I’ve gotten feedback on a couple scenes that the flashbacks are too long and not connected to the main story. I keep saying, “but that’s the source of my main character’s wound” and trimming the offending scenes a little. So for me, this movie was really timely – the chance to see ponderous character development from the audience’s point of view. I’m going to be taking another close look at those flashbacks.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts on the character development in Guardians of the Galaxy II!  It might be fun to compare GOTG II to the character development in another blockbuster action film, Suicide Squad. Let me know what you think in the comments!

And if you ‘re interested in other Winged Pen posts on recent movies, check out Michelle Leonard’s thoughts on Everything, Everything!

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

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MYC: Welcome to World Building

  Master Your Craft Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Setting as a Character. For the next few weeks, we will be talking about the humongous and intimidating topic of world building. Today we start by looking at the topic as a whole and how it can be applied to contemporary stories.

At it’s most basic, world building is fun, the height of creativity. Close your eyes and imagine a society as strange and decadent as Panem, the capital in The Hunger Games, or place as real and (to some) familiar as a middle school basketball court. Let your imagination run wild, or keep things simple and true. What will serve as the best backdrop for your characters and action?

  • When is the story happening? Past, present, or future?
  • Where? Small-town, America or a galaxy far, far away?
  • What resources do your characters have at their disposal? Money? Magic? Advanced weapons? Or nothing but their own muscle and ingenuity?
  • What do your characters believe and how does that square or contrast with the beliefs of the society around them?

So why is world-building intimidating? Because if you allow yourself to dream up something spectacular and then take the ten or twenty pages to outline your masterpiece of a world, every critique partner will tell you to delete it and get your plot moving. The hard thing about creating a world isn’t dreaming it up, it’s dropping bits and pieces everywhere in your story, not serving it up in one big chunk.

Let’s look at building the world for a story. There are so many potential areas to consider,  it’s helpful to have a checklist:

  • Geography– environment, terrain, weather, rural/urban setting, natural resources
  • Politics– types/roles of governments, stability, power, laws
  • Society– population, city/town size, diversity, gender/family roles, education, language, architecture, naming conventions
  • Economics– finances, socioeconomic status, cost of living, unemployment, import/export
  • Belief Systems– religion, spirituality, practices, freedom, tolerance
  • Ideas/Cultures– values, dress, arts, heroes, communication, leisure time
  • Technology– types, availability, usage

So how can you avoid the ten-page info-dump? Here are a few hints about slipping your world into the story.

  • Character’s actions
  • Social context
  • Physical descriptions
  • Language/Emotions
  • Names
  • Sensory descriptions – smells, sounds, texture
  • Dialogue

Let’s look, again, at The Hunger Games.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
From The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

In the first paragraph of the book, we learn that Katniss’s family is poor (bare mattress), and we’ll know by the end of the second page that her whole district is. We learn that Prim is important to Katniss. We don’t know what the reaping is, but we know it’s bad and will keep reading to find out more. The trick that Suzanne Collins pulls off so well, is to keep the action moving while you pull the reader about your world. To show the world it in everything the characters see, feel and think.

It is easy to pick out the world building bits in fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction, but what about contemporary stories? On one hand, writers of contemporaries get it easy. The world of their story is the world of the reader, so it’s all out there. That allows some short cuts. On the other hand, ours is a big world. Where does this story take place within it?

Let’s look at the first page of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Dribbling

At the top of the key, I’m
MOVING & GROOVING,
POPping and ROCKING
Why you BUMPING?
Why you LOCKING?
Man, take this THUMPING.
Be careful though,
‘cause now I’m CRUNKing
CrissCROSSING,
FLOSSING
flipping
and my dipping will leave you
S
L
I
P
P
I
N
on the floor, while I
SWOOP
 in
to the finish with a fierce finger roll…
Straight in the hole:
Swoooooooooooosh.
from The Crossover by Kwame Alexander*

The constant movement, slang and trash talk sets the world quickly. A sports game. Did you guess we were on a basketball court before the swoosh? In this world, the young player knows he’s good and wants his opponent to know it too. You may not know much about the character yet, but I bet you’re not imagining this gym is in some fancy prep school. This world building is all done while he’s taking the ball to the net.

Tune in next week when we will explore world building in fantasy. You can also find more information on world building here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4nVDoojTrs
http://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/worldbuilding-101
http://io9.gizmodo.com/7-deadly-sins-of-worldbuilding-998817537

*Apologies to Mr. Alexander. I could not get the formatting of his words nearly as cool as it is in print. See the published novel for the full effect!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.