If the pandemic really is winding down, I’m nervous…

extreme close up photo of frightened eyes
Photo by samer daboul on Pexels.com

A sinking thought occurred to me tonight:

It means we can do things, like conventions and conferences in person again. I’m not exactly a shrinking violet, but I’ve gotten used to interacting at a distance. Generally six feet or more apart.

While the idea of attending writers conferences, meeting other authors, editors, and agents is on my to do list, it isn’t in first place. Zoom calls have been my forte for over two years. I even learned how to applaud on zoom finally!

An end to quarantines and self-isolation may be a good thing for all of us, but like any social situation it will require adjustments. Those may be great things in the long run. Just don’t expect me to come running for the festivities right away.

Writing my truth…

Silence isn’t always golden…

For me, writing fiction wasn’t taught, it’s something I’m learning. It’s an ongoing process of revision, trial and error – in fact, too many errors. While I’m sure there are other paths out there, in my experience, the best thing any teacher ever did for my writing was get out of the way, and let me stumble along to the finish line.

The American educational system, such as it is, doesn’t excel at teaching new writers. They may be good at the mechanical aspects of grammar, they are even good at curating good books to read, but building worlds populated by original characters is beyond the scope of any class I ever sat through, including creative writing classes.

I’m sure there are many fine MFA programs out there that could have made a difference in my development. That was not my path, and I can’t speak to that. What I can say as one of the, botched and bungled” writers without that background is that I have learned to write without it. The torture I endured on my path was all self-inflicted, and it left marks I still carry in my prose.

 Writing what’s on my mind, even when it’s unpopular.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with writing what’s on my mind. Not my imagination, but my personal opinion. The characters I breathe life into are a reflection of me, but they seldom share my opinions to any great degree. Even the most noble or heroic thoughts in my stories are lofty ideals that I’d hope to embrace if the situation arose.

But that isn’t what I’m getting at. An outlook on life is one thing, choices in the heat of the moment are another, but cherished opinions unchallenged by time and circumstance are where most humans live. How I feel about race, sex, and creed are vital parts of who I am. I don’t write about any of them.

Or at least, I don’t go out of my way to share that. I should though, even if my opinions aren’t especially controversial. Not that every story needs every bit of who I am in it, but someone who reads one of my stories should have a good idea of where I stand. Up until now, I’ve used the iceberg method to imply my opinions. Avoiding expressing my opinions to avoid offense is itself offensive. I have to stand for what I believe in, and it should show on the page.

A lesson from Huckleberry Finn

When I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, I’d recently moved from North Carolina to Iowa. Scenes and subjects in the story felt markedly different to me than the other kids in my class. That didn’t stop me from pointing out those differences, and I hope everyone around me benefitted in some way from hearing a different perspective.

Writing now, in light of memories like Huck Finn, has taken on a more urgent meaning. The subjects I want to tackle in my work are more complex, and those nuances weren’t something I felt confident I had the skill to articulate. But I can’t wait forever to write uncomfortable truths. Sometimes, writing them out helps me untangle my emotions and express my opinions more accurately. No matter what those opinions may be.

Words can make a difference!

On smaller US Navy ships, commissioned officers eat their meals in a wardroom, senior enlisted officers eat in the Chief’s mess, while everyone else eats in a common messdeck. The last ship I served on, the USS Connolly, was no different. But one day, a few sailors decided to carve out a section of seating in the messdecks that only paygrade E-6 could sit at. They called it the First Class mess, and wouldn’t let anyone else sit there.

This didn’t go over well with me. So, I wrote a satirical story about the grumpy old men who wanted to sit alone. One of my friends thought the story was better than I did, and passed out a few copies, one of which went under the Captain’s door. He also didn’t think much of the arrangements and summarily canceled the First Class mess citing my story while he made the announcement to the crew.

I should have kept that grumpy lesson in mind.

Since I got serious about writing I’ve concentrated on world building, memorable characters, and craft (too often leaving craft for last). Along the way, while developing my unique voice, I decided on more than one occasion to avoid topics that were controversial. Limiting any need to address ideas that might alienate my fledgling audience. That sounds foolish even as I write it out. That voice on the page isn’t authentic if I avoid controversy for fear of offending people.

Not writing what I believe drained some of the life from my writing. Learning to include my opinion, even if it’s unpopular, only aids my clarity and composition. I’m the only voice like mine in the wilderness, stifling it hurts me and my tribe as they search for a voice that resonates with them. It’s easy to forget others will read my work and be inspired (or revolted) by what they read. Both are legitimate responses and writing to limit the one is a detriment to the other.

I’m doing my best to write my truth, but it might be messy, just like life.

The Gods no longer walk among us…

nativity painting of people inside a dome

So much like the world we know…

Eliantha is a world similar to Earth. In our world at the end of the last ice-age, humans banded together in larger and larger groups to form urban centers supported by agriculture. None of that happened over night, and geographically it was spread out over hundreds (in some cases, thousands) of years. Eliantha also saw people band together, but it was far different for them.

Rather than an ice-age, Eliantha experienced the arrival of Gods from the Heavenly Realms. These immortal beings brought knowledge, civilization, and magic with them. They found mortals living in the world already, but found them sadly lacking the traits they wanted. So they meddled. New peoples arose and were cast off, as the Gods sought out better subjects. While most of these people perished, some managed to survive without the succor of the Gods.

All that glitters…

After the arrival of the Gods, came the demons and devils who had pursued them. Clawing their way into Eliantha from the Nether Realms, the most foul beings assailed the mortal world. They were cast back into the hells they came from by the Immortals who had adopted Eliantha as their home. But there was great suffering from the war the two forces waged. Some of that suffering went unheeded, but the remnants of mortal tribes rebuilt their shattered world.

For their part, the Gods ruled Eliantha, and many wonders flourished. Demi-gods rallied mortals to their causes. Many different tribes spread out across the world and prospered. Grand cities and wonders sprang up in testament to the influence of Immortal grace and power. But not every heart thrilled at the glory of the Gods. Often capricious or uncaring of mortal woes, the Gods allowed suffering and injustice as often as they relieved it.

Power comes in many forms…

The great equalizer was magic. Mortals learned to wield magic, and taught their children. Generations passed on what they had learned and grew stronger than the ones who came before them. While no mere mortal was a match for the power of a God, a hundred mortals could stand against them, and they did. Mages all over the world found ways to bind their deities from interfering in mortal affairs.

Many ages came and went, but eventually, the Gods power waned, and they were banished from Eliantha altogether. Their influence is far from what it once was, but they can still make their presence felt. Gone are the days of maidens taken by a lustful immortal, cities no longer cower from threats of doom from their impiety, but gone too are many of the gifts once bestowed upon thankful worshippers.

Magic glitters, too…

Now the Gods are all but silent. Humans have pushed back or outlived most of the magical creatures from ages past. Those few who remain are incorporated into the very fabric of daily life. Magic in general, has lost its luster. But still, magic, and the Gods themselves are not so distant as many wish to believe. Nor are the immortal enemies of the Gods, demons and devils still plot and scheme in the Nether Realms.

These ancient foes have launched a new campaign against a world that hardly believes Immortals exist. The danger has never been greater, but those who would stand against evil have few of the tools that once held the Nether Realms at bay. Eliantha will need new champions, new weapons, and long forgotten knowledge to defend their world. Will the demons prove too powerful, or will the Gods overcome their banishment to intercede? Can the poor misbegotten mortals find any other option?

Evil in mortal form may be the deadliest kind of magic.

Writing is more than fun and games…

close up photography of yellow green red and brown plastic cones on white lined surface

Enjoy the journey.

Writing should be fun, if I’m going to spend hours at a time doing something as intense as writing can be, it should be enjoyable. But fun isn’t all writing should be either. There are as many reasons to write and ways of experiencing the act as there are people who write. That’s part of the brilliance of writing from my perspective. As the Vulcans say, “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.”

If my message is going to reach an audience, my writing has to be more than fun for me. It has to be readable, fun for others, and my meaning has to translate from the words on the page to my readers’ minds. That takes more than fun and games, it takes time and practice. For me, it also took a critique group.

Writing isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

Learning to write well takes more than talent, inclination, and good grammar. All of those things are helpful, necessary even. But none of them take the place of practice with feedback from other writers who are on a similar writing journey. Uncle Bob and your next door neighbor might both have great experience with reading and writing, but if they aren’t writing fiction for publication their helpful suggestions are as likely to be wrong as helpful.

For me, finding a critique group of fellow fiction writers has meant the difference between hobby writing, and writing to publish. It wasn’t fun and games either. Learning to my chagrin, that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was hurt. Accepting feedback about how I wrote, and what I was writing was soul crushing.

None of that feedback was meant to hurt, although my ego screamed and gnashed its teeth to the contrary. It was meant to make me a better writer. Which is why I encourage everyone who is serious about writing to find a critique group.

I thought my first submissions to the group I’ve been with for the past few years were gleaming pearls of literary excellence. Those stories and chapters were not excellent, but I had no prior experience working with other authors. I had to learn to let go of a lifetime of writing crutches, uninformed ideas, and bad habits. All of which was no small effort, I assure you.

They don’t teach this stuff in school.

Outside of a Fine Arts program, or maybe some modern online workshops, there is little discussion of how to write fiction, especially novel-length fiction. Most new writers, myself included, have to work through mastering aspects of craft that make our work stand out from the crowd of aspiring writers.

Good grammar doesn’t teach you to show instead of tell (or when telling fits the narrative better). Sustaining an individual Point of View instead of hopping from one head to another doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Grounding dialogue in the physical space where my scene takes place is not common discourse outside of writing circles. I had plenty of talent for writing (pardon my remaining ego), but nothing beats the experience of having your words torn apart and put back together by a more experienced writer. It’s humbling to say the least.

Writing stagnates in a vacuum.

A critique group (online or in person) is essential to improving my work. Not only does working with a group of other writers hone my craft, it shows me things I would never see otherwise. Each perspective in the group is different from mine, and each brings observations about my work that I could not make otherwise. Likewise, reading their work opens my eyes in ways I could not imagine either.

The members of my critique group write stories I would not. They prefer genres I don’t write. And although the stories are decidedly outside of my interests, the techniques they use are the same. I am able to see beyond the genre into the mechanics of the story, and in the process, recognize when they do something I have done (good or bad) before. As much benefit as I get from their critique of my work, I benefit even more from critiquing their work.

If you are serious about taking your writing beyond the hobbyist level, I cannot recommend strongly enough, get into a critique group. Preferably one organized to promote improved storytelling, led by experienced authors. The wrong critique group can do lasting damage to new writers, so be sure the emphasis is on improving all aspects of your work, not just grammar or one writer’s minor pet peeves.

Whatever you do, keep on writing!

A change of pace – “Earth”

stormy sea waving near rocky cliff

A mountain is rising from a turbulent sea.

Bold and striking, yet enigmatic and puzzling.

The mountain is immense, and has many towering peaks.

It has many valleys, some dark and some bright.

There are grim granite visages shrouded in mist,

And sparkling crystalline profiles dancing in splendor.

The chaotic sea pounds at the mountain side.

Each day the ocean erodes a little more rock.

Wind, rain, and wave pummel its stone contours.

To the mountain, the pounding is nothing.

For the mountain has a molten, expanding core.

Each day the mountain grows larger and taller.

New rock strengthens the mountain side,

And its immensity surges tenfold.

Eruptions and earthquakes may topple its summits.

To the mountain, such a loss means nothing.

As new and higher pinnacles thrust up beyond the old.

The ramparts may crumble, the valleys may be filled in,

But the mountain by its very nature continues to grow.

The mountain is rising from a turbulent sea.

The mountain is you, it is us, it is me.

Introducing my newest setting: The Crossroads of Eliantha

brown tomb

Eliantha is a world much like ours, but in our history myths of the Gods interfering were only stories handed down to explain things our ancestors didn’t understand. In Eliantha, the Gods were very real, and very dangerous. They introduced the people of Eliantha to a wide range of knowledge, from survival skills and agriculture, to writing and the arts. They also introduced them to magic and making war.

This world has seen incredible beauty, and tragic brutality. Great cities and vibrant cultures have developed and been toppled by incomprehensible forces. Gods have raised up mortals and immortals alike. While more malevolent forces have broken and twisted countless lives to feed their fiendish desires. But all that was in the past.

The Golden Age is long forgotten…

Magic is in retreat. The Gods no longer walk among the inhabitants of Eliantha. All over the world, creatures of magic have diminished, died out, or disappeared. Humans have adapted to this changing world, and prospered. Now, something has unsettled the Gods once again, despite their tenuous connection to the world.

While many humans scurry about learning the natural world, there are still those who delve into the mystic arts. Magical lore is far from extinct, and ever-curious humans scour the globe for remnants of magical power. Their searching has led some of them down forbidden paths, some relics and arcane knowledge was meant to remain undisturbed. Now there will be a reckoning even the Gods tried to avoid.

Eliantha is no longer home to Immortals

This is the backdrop for the stories of the Heralds. Chosen to represent the remaining Immortals who still care for their worshippers, as they make one last effort to save Eliantha. For all its faults and tribulations, it remains a world so like ours, but so utterly different. The Heralds must reach the Crossroads, where the Gods went into exile after their last war. But there are many obstacles between them and their goal.

Not everyone wants the world to go on. A diabolical conspiracy is afoot to sacrifice millions of souls to see a new Eliantha born from the ashes of the old. The unsuspecting Heralds have no idea these conspirators await them. The chosen ones scramble towards the crossroads like lambs to the slaughter. The Gods may never get the chance to intervene.

An update on “Chantrelle”

An angel gone too soon…

In December I entered a short story I called “Chantrelle” into the Vocal+ Fiction Awards competition. Today I learned that out of over 13,000 entries, my story was chosen as a finalist! Even if I’m not selected to win my category, I already feel like I’ve won. Impostor syndrome can eat away at a writer’s confidence, and too often the only cure is outside encouragement.

Friends and family can tell me how wonderful my words are on the page. But until you hear that from other writers and editors, that vacuum is fertile soil for doubt to grow. Chantrelle reaching the finalist round in this competition has been confirmation that my efforts at improving my craft have paid off. I took the time to thank my critique group for showing me areas I could improve, so that I don’t continue to repeat the same novice mistakes.

If you’ve read “Chantrelle” or Jerry Farmer’s story “Bridgewater Bingo” on Vocal, I sincerely thank you. If you’d like to check either one out I’ve included the links above. My plan is to share more short stories on Vocal, and to shop others to magazines. My dad always said, “People love a winner.” So expect me to share my wins here as often as I can.

The slump I was in over the holidays is over…

green leafed tree

Words are flowing from my fingertips again!

I struggled to finish “Chantrelle” before the deadline for the Vocal+ fiction awards. Honestly, I’d been struggling to write much of anything since Thanksgiving. The mental block I had going on has passed, or I’ve pulled out of it. Either way, I’m polishing up a new story, set in a new world I built to write an Epic Fantasy novel.

As a part of the contest drive I’m pushing myself to undertake, I’ve written and planned out a number of interlocking short stories set in this new Earth-like world. This first short story is an introduction to a corner of that world far away from the events of the longer narrative.

I’ve also outlined a novel set in this world, and both stories will converge through a few more short stories in the pages of that outlined novel. For now, I’ll only say the story I’m finishing up is a fun quick read, but it shows this corner of the world before opening in scope to show the ripple effects of the main story.

New worlds are taking shape…

I’m excited to dive into a totally different world with a different magic system. It has a history of Gods and Goddesses who once walked this world with mortals, and a retreat of those immortals and the magic they breathed into their world. Don’t be too sad, magic still exists, but in the face of losing so much, there are some efforts to conserve what is left.

Instead of the main story, I’d like to share a bit of Aleera’s part in the short story. She and her older cousin are part of a clan of semi-nomadic peoples living in what outsiders call the Great Witch Wood. Appropriately named for the covens of witches who defend what they call the forest. It is home to the last three Sylvan Ladies, and they are the true power behind the witches and the druid clans who live there.

All of the clans, covens, and the Ladies worship the Earth Mother, Vanna. She is an ancient Goddess who once had a much wider following throughout the world. Even in these latter days where the Immortals have withdrawn from the world, Vanna still makes her will known to the people of the forest. Aleera and her cousin learn that firsthand…

Stay tuned for more updates!

Why reading is (still) fundamental.

couple reading a book together

Reading is a topic I should spend more time with on this blog, but too often, I put more emphasis on writing. As important as honing my craft may be, reading plays a huge role in my creative process. Reading not only informs me, it guides my inner editor, and provides the framework for every writing project I undertake. I’ll try to keep this brief but here are three points to consider.

Reading shows me what other writers do.

That doesn’t mean I’ll copy what I see (although it can creep into my thought process). It does mean that I’m informed about my genre, and how other writers approach topics that I will write about. Sometimes other authors show me a great way to share an idea, describe a scene, or portray a character. I’ll take all the help I can get.

Reading is like working out for my brain. I exercise neurons by consuming information. Whether that is a copy of Critias & Timaeus, poems by Bronte, or the rambling narrative of On Writing, my writing will improve by feeding my brain a variety of subjects. Too often, I’ve see (or have been guilty of) staying in the comfort zone of my preferred genre. I wouldn’t understand with nearly as much depth or context without other writer’s works to give me context.

Reading shows me what not to do.

Equally important, other authors can show me things that don’t work. This is as true when I read outside of my genre (often even more so) than when I read the kinds of stories I write. Because craft transcends the type of story an author tells (or shows), it can be easier to see flaws (and successes) when I read a romance story, a detective thriller, or passages from a memoir.

A stumble in bringing a novel to conclusion, missed opportunities in a narrative, or an unsatisfying character arc are easier for me to see in someone else’s writing. In general, I’m too close to my work to be objective about it. I suppose that’s why the Gods invented critique groups. A fresh set of eyes has saved me from myself more times than I can count.

Reading fills my creative well with possibility.

The most obvious thing reading does is expand my horizons. I can see beyond what I can imagine through the works of other authors. There may not be any new thing under the sun, but I have yet to see every old thing either. Reading is the only way to appreciate the vast conglomeration of history, literature, and works of art that came before me. My paltry addition to that mountain of the written word will likely be less than a footnote, but I can’t hope to achieve that without knowing something about my predecessors.

The other facet of that is the pure joy of finding voices that resonate with me. Thoreau, Poe, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Strunk & White, and a thousand other voices that struck a chord with me live on in the words I string together. Without reading beyond my genre, no new chords can join the symphony in my mind. Just the thought of stilling those unheard voices fills me with sadness.

So read.

I may not write about it enough, but reading is just as crucial to writing as practicing foreshadowing, grounding your dialogue in the setting, or raising the stakes for your characters. Conflict is meaningless without context. One of the best ways I know to build those added layers is by being informed enough to weave them into my stories, whether by allusion or directly referencing works integral to modern literary culture.

Creativity is great, until it gets in the way of writing.

abstract colorful background of night star

One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever got was, “Write what you know.” Which is great advice, especially when you’re first learning how to write. Experience is a great teacher, and an authentic voice is impossible to craft without real knowledge of your subject matter. At the same time, I was a high school student. What I knew would hardly have made for entertaining stories.

Twenty years later, when I started to write science fiction and fantasy, I realized writing what you know is a double edged sword. I still try to write what I know, the relationships between people. How people act and react in different situations is equally important. But I use my imagination as much as I do my lived experience.

I write what I don’t know too.

I’ve never seen a dragon in real life, or watched an alien delegation sue for peace against a human adversary. But I have written about both. What I know has informed those scenes, but my creativity has to fill in the blanks. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. I couldn’t write speculative fiction without both imagination and experience.

The problem for me, is leaning too heavily into my creative impulse. I can (and have) spent hours (or days) developing a world for my story to occupy. Characters come to life based on the world I created. And the plot I outline is at least in part dictated by the world and characters who populate it. All of this is driven by creativity, but as I’ve said many times, creativity without substance is futile.

The circle is now complete…

The best stories, characters, and settings regardless of how original or creative they may be also feel real to the readers. The best way I know to do that is by crafting believable scenes with relatable characters. I use what I know to wrap the fantastic elements of my stories in terms my audience can identify immediately.

No matter how original or creative I feel my work may be, I also know there is no new thing under the sun. Twists and turns aside, stories follow patterns, and those patterns are timeless. I may invent a new character, scenario, or setting that is unique. But ultimately, some college student in a creative writing class could classify it with no help from me at all.

2021 in review:

times square new york

I hope those of you who celebrate Christmas, Hanukah and the like enjoyed yourselves. Here we are over two years into a pandemic. Who could’ve expected that? I could go on about how vaccines and boosters changed this year from last year, but I’ll try and stick to my writing instead. In 2021 I wrote a lot, even if my NaNoWriMo didn’t go the way I’d planned.

2021 started with a few short stories, and I’ve finished it with a few more. Speaking of short stories, if you haven’t read Chantrelle over on Vocal – please check it out! Chantrelle is in the running for the Vocal+ Fiction Awards, so a few reads (along with likes and subscribes if you’re so inclined) will go a long way in helping me out there.

Besides short stories, I also finished editing Fantastic America and did a lot of pitching and querying for it. Querying is a tough gig, but I hope I learned enough from the process to move my manuscripts to agents who will appreciate the stories I have to tell. Hope springs eternal, after all.

I also finished a personal challenge this year to write 365 consecutive posts here on my page. Even with a few bouts of illness, I was able to pull it off. The result has been infrequent posting ever since, but one of the challenges I’ll take on for 2022 is to post every week. Maybe twice a week if I have more to say.

Long story short (I seem to be writing more short stories than anything lately), I’m still writing. There are more writing contests coming up and I’m busy creating worlds, characters and plots for readers to enjoy in those. I’m definitely not where I’d hoped to be, but I’m not discouraged by that either. I have to keep learning and trying new things.

New Years is upon us, I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2022!

Quick update: I’m still writing!

classic close up draw expensive

NaNoWriMo is coming to an end, but my writing is far from over. I have so much to write, and with the holidays, so little time. Not having a schedule to keep to with this blog has been a big help. Although a year ago I was so hyper focused, that I couldn’t imagine the luxury being untethered would give me.

I have a bunch of short stories put together, and both Fantastic America and Midwestern Magicians to edit. With all that on my plate and a house full of grandkids, the work is going slowly, but it is still going. See you in the funny pages- Happy Holidays!

My NaNoWrimMo has been derailed…

accident black and white care catastrophe

I gave myself permission to be free.

Life threw several curveballs at me at once in the past two weeks. A year ago I might not have let that stop my writing at all. This year, I made a conscious choice to step back and put my family ahead of my writing goals for the month. That isn’t to say I won’t pick right up where I left off. The holidays are coming, and I intend to enjoy every minute of family, friends, and fun during the bleak onset of winter here in the Midwest. But I have to write, as long as I’m physically and mentally able.

For the few who noticed, I didn’t even post here last week. That was another conscious choice I made. For the first time in over a year, I didn’t care if my search rank dropped, my traffic slowed, or if I even visited the page myself. It was refreshing and freeing. I doubt I’ll take too many breaks like that, but knowing I could walk away if I need to gave me a greater sense of self-determination.

Expect to see more from me, but I may skip a post here or there.

NaNoWriMo is in full swing…

book opened on white surface selective focus photography

I got off to a rocky start this year, but now I’m focused and excited about picking the story back up. I’ll keep this short so I can get back to work. I’ve got Alex and Liz to get together in the midpoint of Midwestern Magicians. The real fun parts are about to happen, I’ll keep you posted as my progress continues.

One Last Thought On World Building

world map illustration

Story is more important than Setting.

This is one of the most valuable insights I ever learned as a new writer. No matter how incredible my world may be, how intricate and wondrous the characters, or how thoroughly amazing it feels to me, showing it off without purpose is a failure of my imagination. At best, the story will be little more than a travelogue for an imaginary world. At worst, it flaunts my lack of ability to fully realize the world I spent so much time building. The world should stay in the background for the story my characters and their conflicts bring to life.

This doesn’t mean I skimp on description or details. Those elements should serve the needs of the story, not dominate my narrative. Amazing depictions of imaginary worlds captivate us because they mold the action, or add to the emotional impact of a story. I don’t love Tar Valon because of the White Tower, but because Egwene rose to Amyrlin and repaired the breach in the divided Tower. The Mississippi isn’t a fond part of my memories of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it was dangerous, but because Huck and Jim faced those dangers together.

Effort without purpose is wasted time.

World Building takes a good deal of time and effort. For me, it’s a layered process that includes rewriting sections of the world for the needs of the story. But at each point in the process, each decision as I weave the world together, the story always takes precedence. The coolest idea I’ve ever had won’t make it into a story if it doesn’t serve to bring the audience closer to the characters or conflict.

The opposite is also true, great ideas often propel conflict and deepen our grasp of characters. Luke didn’t want to be a moisture farmer, but he couldn’t abandon his aunt and uncle after all they’d done for him. The Poltergeist wouldn’t have even bothered Carol Ann if the Freeling family’s new house wasn’t built on a cemetery. The story is my focus, not my elaborate setting. No matter how much I love it or how excited I am to show it off to my readers.

I have a terrible writing problem.

person writing on a notebook beside macbook

A problem that isn’t really that bad…

One that I’m sure many writers would love to have. I have too many stories clamoring to get on the page. Choosing which of my children I should give literary birth to first is exhausting. Let me clarify, I’m not complaining about having too much to write, but which story to focus on. I have chapters outlined for Gari on Torthal, dozens of short stories set in the Magic Unleashed series, and a novel worth of material for Ailish from the Centriole. That doesn’t even include old material I want to revisit from The Renegade Galaxy series or older books that I was never confident enough to write.

I’ve already committed to writing the second half of Midwestern Magicians for Nanowrimo in just over a week, but I’d really like to take a stab at a short story between now and then. I’ve had this quandary for days now. The clock is ticking and my sudden paralysis may mean no new material before November. I don’t consider this writers block (something I don’t believe in…) but I can see how hard it can be to overcome self imposed restrictions.

Others suffer in silence, too.

My problem isn’t unique. I’ve lost track of how many writer friends or blog posts I’ve read about deciding where to start or what story to write first. If I’m really honest with myself (harder than it sounds for me) the problem isn’t just organization, but emotional attachment. I can get obsessive when it comes to getting into my characters’ heads, and living a slice of their life. Maybe that is my real hold back, getting too into their space before I settle in to Alex and Liz throughout November.

All is not lost if I don’t write a new story, and I’m well aware that this whole episode is just me beating myself up over something trivial. There are plenty of stories to write, and plenty of time to write them. The problem is entirely a creation of my inner monologue gone awry. “You’re not doing enough. Use your gifts. Don’t squander your time,” repeats in my mind. Eventually, that has an impact, and I guess I’m feeling that right now.

Brighter days are coming.

A month or so from now when I have a second completed book in my series, I won’t think twice about this problem. Today I just needed to vent, and this blog is the perfect outlet for that. My apologies for a rant that might have been better off playing out in my head. Then again, how many other authors out there can relate to this, or need to hear that it will be alright even if the word count drops to zero for a while? I’m not here to judge, just sharing my thoughts as the cold dreary days of winter settle in.

World-Building 101 for Sci-fi, Fantasy, and more.

earth wallpaper
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One approach to building immersive worlds:

I do a lot of world-building for my writing. Truth be told, I do a lot of world-building because it’s fun for me. It’s been a while since I did an in-depth world-building post, so here goes. This post won’t be a template or outline for building a world, just my thoughts on various parts of the process and why I enjoy it.

First, some background: In the mid-eighties, I was a kid without other kids to play with in my neighborhood. There was no internet yet, so I didn’t have any social networks to scroll through either. Oh, the humanity! I spent a lot of time looking over maps. From Rand-McNally’s American road atlas to National Geographic maps to just about any paper map I could find, I even decorated my walls with maps for a while.

Besides maps, I also spent several years devouring books and modules from the Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game. One of the standout books in my mind was called the Book of Ultimate Powers. Together these books gave my fertile imagination a chance to explore ideas I’d seen in movies, TV, and comic books. Some of them were hits, others definite misses, but it gave me a lifelong fascination with mixing and matching ideas to make something new.

I built worlds with animal-human hybrids, magical realms that barely followed the laws of physics (even with my poor understanding of physics). I also dabbled in science fiction settings that were strange and new to me. Eventually, I gave up on the Marvel approach and started making worlds and characters without their template, and that is where things took off.

Getting Serious

 My first foray into world-building without marvel was the science fiction universe that eventually became the basis for my Renegade Galaxy short stories. I flailed around in the process for years off and on while I was on active duty. I also spent some time more methodically creating a fantasy world more along the lines of Tolkien and The Silmarillion. Bouncing back and forth between those worlds for a decade made them both rich and diverse.

The process I developed over that time allows me to build a world in days that might have taken a decade back then. I’ll just get to the good stuff now that I’ve shared how I developed this process. My method took twenty years to develop, so there were lots of false starts, failed experiments, and a few shining triumphs along the way. If you can avoid the problems and only pick up the good parts, I may save you some headaches I endured.

I have to start somewhere.

First things first, I decide the kind of concept the story requires. What kind of story am I telling? Is this a novel-length story, something shorter, or a format without those kinds of rules like a D&D campaign? Each may require tweaking the process or limiting the scope of world-building.

Next, I determine the setting. Is this story science fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal, or something else?. Is the story set in some version of the real world, or does it require a mixture of elements? There are as many settings available as there are minds to imagine them. My decisions shape the rest of my process. Hopefully, your process and mine, no matter how similar, produce wildly different but equally valid results. As long as your story maintains internal consistency, I think your readers will be willing to give you a pass on minor details.

Once I know the kind of story I want to tell and have a vague idea of the setting, it’s time to make this world more concrete (whether they have developed concrete or not). To do that, I branch out into one of two directions. If geography (on a single planet) or interstellar distances will play a key role (among stories with more than one world), I draw a rough map of what I want to include. This map allows me to set up different regions, biomes, geological processes, ocean currents, weather systems, and regional climates that may have affected civilizations or societal developments.

Alternatively, change up the sequence.

The other route is to outline the nations and regions without a map. I draw a map of some kind in virtually every world I build, with the rare exception of real world based stories where I can use Google Earth or actual paper maps. (You see why I mentioned maps earlier. The circle is now complete.) This outline focuses on large-scale conflicts between groups and identifies places I may want to map out in more detail later.

At this point, whichever route I took, I now complete the other (map or macro-lens outline). From here, I drill down to cities, landmarks, historical backstory and flesh out the basic ideas I started in the last step. I want to know the types of governments involved, who makes decisions in this world, and what motivates their interest. If they are pertinent to the story, religions, economic factors, trade routes (and information flow) between groups, military organizations (like Starfleet or the Order of Radiant Knights), population numbers, technology levels, infrastructure, and other social institutions come into play here. Unique magic systems or speculative technologies also start to take shape at this stage.

Have you noticed anyone missing?

All of this comes before I flesh out a single character for the story. But, I’ve had ideas for characters first and built worlds around them, too. If all the pieces come together in the end, the world-building sequence is mainly irrelevant to me. Although going another route may cause me to rewrite as I go, which is never a bad thing, in my eyes at least.

I’ll point out here that none of this is set in stone. The decisions I make about one element of the world may influence others in unforeseen ways. That is all good stuff. Make your world unique but consistent. (Or don’t – it’s your world, your rules!)

By now, I have a pretty good handle on the kind of world where the story will take place. I generally use some of this information to build the characters who will populate the story, but not always the POV character(s) yet. Is my setting one of a guild economy? Maybe my character is working for (or against) a guild. Perhaps they are part of a religion I developed, either on the run from overzealous clerics or trying to return artifacts central to their theology. A prince from a neighboring country may have run off with a woman (or man) to start some version of the Trojan War.

It all comes down to how you use what you’ve got.

Whatever the story, I want to weave all the world-building work into the story to make the characters come to life. Sharing that backstory without an info-dump of how I developed the character is the tricky part for me. I spent so much time building this incredible world, and I don’t want to let it sit idly while my characters stare intently at each other across the room. Ideally, they have poignant dialogue amid the ruins of a fallen city because their goal was last seen in that city, informed by all that world-building that finally makes sense to the reader as the scenes unfold.

Being from a specific place should inform the reader, not bludgeon them with how incredible that region may be. In other words, as much effort as I put into world-building, it should complement the characters that inhabit my pages. Some are cooler than others, of course, just like the real world.

Ultimately, readers want characters they can sympathize with, who do extraordinary (or ordinary) things that they will likely never do in real life. The emotional connection to those characters keeps your readers turning pages and coming back for more stories. If the setting has depth, adds to the story, and comes alive in your pages, they may fall in love with your world as much as any character.

November is NaNoWriMo.

person writing on the notebook

What a year, huh?

With NaNoWriMo just around the corner, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on writing a novel. Last October, I finished writing the rough draft for my first novel, Fantastic America, The Magic Unleashed. Last November, I started the second book in that series, Midwestern Magicians, to keep the momentum going. I got over 50,000 words written in that month, or just over halfway through my outline. Book two has been sitting unfinished ever since as I concentrated on short stories, querying (UGH!), and working on my website, The Sorcerer’s Realm.

This November, I’ll be dusting Magicians off and finishing what I started. To accomplish this task, I’ll be using the same tried and true methods I’ve used in the past. Outlining (or at least updating my existing outline), lots of late-night writing marathons (which I love), and gauging my progress each night as I go. Again, my target is around 50,000 words, which is the target for many NaNoWriMo projects. Some nights I may write 3,000 words, some nights 1,000, or maybe I go on a bender and hit 5,000 words. Some days I may only hit 500 words, but as long as I even out, in the end, my goal is easily in reach.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of time to work each night. Some writers struggle to get an hour or less to write each night. It is still possible to write a novel at that rate, it may take longer, but it is doable. I talked to lots of writers who ‘steal’ fifteen minutes here or there to write between their job, family, and other commitments. For me, writing comes down to how much I want the next story to make it to the page. If I believe in the idea, I have to see it through. Not every story works the way I intend it to, but I learn from failure more often than success.

One Chapter at a Time.

My approach to writing a novel is relatively simple (to me). I research the topics I know I’ll need to tackle to write, locations, time periods, cultural references, technologies, or anything that might come up in a scene or backstory. Then I outline the chapters as I see them in my head. Once there is a beginning, middle, and end, I write them out as I imagined them. Sometimes the order changes, ideas develop as I write, or change to fit the story better, which means editing later. But in the first pass, everything goes into the sandbox. I fill it up as I go and worry about revision later. I have to get material on the page to shape it afterward.

Sometimes, I read other authors complaining about editing getting in the way of finishing their novels. There can be lots of reasons they don’t finish, but one I don’t need in my way is editing before the rough draft is done. I’ve edited Fantastic America at least six times now and likely will again before it gets published. Editing and writing are different parts of the same process.

Don’t Get Lost in Research.

It is easy to lose track of what I should be writing while researching. Rabbit holes are very tempting, as I love discovering new information (and sometimes revisiting familiar information). The goal of research is to add authenticity to your writing, or at least to avoid insincerity. Writing what you know is a maxim for a reason.

You don’t have to become an expert in every nuance of a topic. Some elements of a story don’t require more than a cursory familiarity with a subject. It’s up to each of us to decide how much research ends up in a story. Ultimately, what the reader needs to know is all that is important. I’ve spent over an hour on research that only made an informed sentence or two in a story more than once.

Write the story. Research can be fun, bit stay focused on your goal. You can always embellish later if your research paid off with a new way to show a scene, add backstory for a character or share important information about a location. None of that is as important as putting the scenes from your head down on the pages.

Stay On Target

Like the rebels skimming the trench on the Death Star, I have a target when I write. Last November, it was 50,000 words in a month. It is much the same this year, though I will review what I already have written to inform my efforts this year. Having a goal, whether it’s the word count, a certain number of scenes, or some other target, makes writing towards that goal easier (for me, at least). So decide what goal you want to reach and cut it into smaller, achievable steps. Breaking down a larger goal makes reaching it appear less intimidating (if it’s intimidating at all).

After all the prep work, there is only one last ingredient necessary for success. Consistently show up to write. Whether you have a quiet time devoted to writing, sit down with a laptop at a coffee shop, or take a notebook to your favorite cozy spot outside, you have to put in the work. I enjoy writing. Creating a novel would sound like torture if I didn’t like world-building, character development, dialogue, and other storytelling ingredients.

The challenge of weaving all those parts into a coherent narrative is what keeps me coming back to the keyboard. Showing a reader the world I’ve created, introducing the characters who populate it, and displaying their struggles brings me joy even when hardly anyone reads my words. Of course, I want to share those worlds and characters with other people, but the joy of creation is as important to me as views, sales, or accolades.

NaNoWriMo is a chance to dig into the worlds, characters, and conflicts I love. Authors all over will be huddling together or seeking solitude to create new novels this November. I’ll be one of them, and I hope someday, the fruit of my labors are on a shelf in a bookstore for readers to enjoy. I can’t ask for much more than that, but I wouldn’t mind a TV series or movie adaptation before shuffling off this mortal coil. Dream big!