Archive for category writing tips
On November 2nd, war is coming. My superhero novel Don’t Be a Hero will be flying onto digital shelves in one month’s time. I anticipate it will be up fastest in ebook formats on Amazon Kindle, Kobo, and Smashwords. Over the following couple of weeks it will also show up on Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes & Noble’s Nook store, and in print paperback. A few advanced reader copies are already winging their way to some book bloggers, so hopefully I’ll have some reviews to share with you. (Incidentally, if you’re a book blogger or a reviewer and you’d like to review Don’t Be a Hero, send me an email at email@example.com)
I’m really excited about this release. The idea for this book came about far back in the mists of time, in those heady prehistoric days known as October 2011. I was a young man then, bursting with enthusiasm and hope, not the jaded old grizzly bear I’ve become. I’d been on one of my regular superhero kicks, consuming any piece of media I could get my hands on that had someone in spandex on the cover. As usual, I was loving it. And I noticed something about what I was reading and viewing. The stories were overwhelmingly centered around America and American characters. Sure, there was the occasional British comic thrown in, but the rest of the world was largely unexplored. I took that as a challenge. I wanted to throw in a little bit of myself and my Kiwi culture into the superhero genre. And more than that, I just wanted to write my own superhero universe. Because, really, how cool it that?
Over the next few weeks, the beginnings of a story and a few characters began to form in my mind. I decided I wanted a retro feel for this novel, something that was both dark and filled with flashing neon lights at the same time. A world that looks like the covers of old pulp sci fi novels, with rocket engines strapped to everything. Naturally, I call it “rocketpunk” (trademarked, patent pending). I decided to set the novel in an alternate history version of 1969 New Zealand. The first superheroes appeared during the second world war and changed the world forever. After nearly two decades of protecting the world, superheroes lost public support and began to come under increasing scrutiny. But not all superhumans are willing to lie down and accept their fate…
Into this world my characters were born. Most of the time I craft my characters slowly, building them block by block. But this time, many of them sprang into my head nearly fully formed. This was the case with my protagonist, the shadow-shifter Spook, also known as Niobe Ishii. Spook used to stand back-to-back with some of the greatest heroes of her time. Now she makes a living as a private detective, living on the fringes of society, doing the jobs no one else can. Spook and her partner, the wood-manipulating Carpenter, are the last of a dying breed. But the world still needs heroes, whether it wants them or not. The appearance of the first new supercriminal in a decade is about to prove that.
With my heroes in mind, I began to outline the story. I wrote scene descriptions on index cards, taped them to my wall, shifted them round, tossed out scenes, added new ones. I built up the skeleton of the story and began to fill in the details from there. I’m an outliner—I always like to know where I’m going before I start writing the story proper. So I paced back and forth in front of my wall of index cards for days, working it all out. Every story changes when I actually sit down to write it, no matter how much I outline it before that. That’s inevitable. But, to use a cliché, I like to have a strong foundation before I start building.
Finally, I was ready. I sat down at the keyboard, opened my writing program of choice (Scrivener), and got to work. Life kicked my butt a couple of times, taking away my writing time or draining my energy. Sometimes life’s a dick like that. But sometime around the end of February, the first draft was done at around 120,000 words. Cue giddy laughter and collapsing with a brain that felt like soup.
But, of course, the story wasn’t ready yet. After some time off, and with the feedback of alpha readers, I began my self-editing pass. After that it went to the editor for more structural and line edits, making sure the story worked. Then several proofreading passes. In the meantime, I was organizing cover design and writing other stories as well as dealing with real life. Until finally it was ready. We spent a little while formatting for print and ebook. And that brings us to now.
A year in the making, and now only one month to go until the novel is out there. But the story doesn’t end with this novel. From the start, I wanted this world to be like Astro City Down Under. Decades of history to explore, billions of individuals, thousands of heroes and villains and everyone in between. I have one upcoming novelette set in the Atomverse, and a whole lot more stories running through my head. More than I could ever possibly hope to write. So I should probably stop rambling here and get cracking.
November 2nd. Mark it on your calendars. If anyone still has actual calendars. Or sign up for the mailing list and I’ll email you when it’s available. It’s more convenient than a Bat signal, and it even works on cloudless nights.
See you all in a month.
I won’t lie; one of the main reasons I write fantasy is the chance to build new cultures, creatures, and worlds. Don’t listen to the naysayers; playing God is awesome.
Of course, one of the most important parts of world-building is creating a map for your brand new world. I’ve spent many an hour lovingly stroking maps at the start of fantasy books. There’s just something about a good map that makes the whole world come alive. (Ironically, my favourite map is actually not from an entirely different world. The map in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan is freaking magnificent.)
For my debut novel, THE CONVERTED, I never got past a sketched map in the back of my notebook, and no map has yet been added to the ebook. If and when I write additional stories in the same world I will probably come up with something a bit more concrete and make it available.
But since I am publishing the draft of FALSE GODS as an online serial as I write, I decided it would be wise to have a map available to assist people as they read. I considered just going with a rough sketch, but that wouldn’t do the world justice, so I decided to dust off my meagre Photoshop skills and see what I could come up with. Here’s the finished result (click for a bigger picture):
In this post I’ll talk about how I came to this point. I won’t do a full tutorial at this stage, because half the time I was just screwing around trying to get stuff to look right, but I’ll give you a look at my process.
Before I even start writing, I like to have an idea of the geography. By far the best tool I have found for this is Fractal Terrains. This nifty software allows you to randomise an entire world, and it will calculate altitudes, climate, and dozens of other variables. You can then tweak the world as you choose, until you get something you’re happy with. The demo version is available here, so go check it out.
The continent I chose to use for FALSE GODS is shown below:
As awesome as Fractal Terrains is, I like to do much of my brainstorming and world creation on paper. Being too lazy to actually print out a copy of the map, I just put a piece of paper on my computer screen and traced the image. You are free to do something less weird.
The next step was to add in cities, regions, borders, rivers, and anything else important to the story. It wasn’t until after I’d done this that I actually began writing the story. By now I had a fair idea of the geography, in addition to the other world-building I’d already done.
Then it was time to make the proper map. As mentioned above, my Photoshop skills are limited, so I turned to the interwebs for aid. Cartographer’s Guild is a website for map-making enthusiasts, and they have numerous tutorials on their discussion forums. There are some incredibly beautiful maps on the site, and I encourage you to check them out if you’re interested in making your own map.
Using one of the tutorials so generously provided, and a fair amount of trial-and-error and slamming my head into the keyboard, I got something I was happy with.
I played with the saturation of the image and overlaid a folded paper texture to grunge the whole thing up a bit. Then I was done!
It didn’t take nearly as long as I’d feared to make something I’m pleased with. More importantly, it was fun.
What do you guys think? How do you make your fantasy maps?
This week I’ve taken my first dive into the huge septic tank known in writing circles as Query Hell. I’m taking a staggered approach, with around 8-10 queries for THE CONVERTED floating around at any one time. When rejections come in, I’ll fire off a query to the next agent on my list.
So to distract myself from obsessively refreshing my Gmail every 30 seconds (even when I live on the other side of the world from the agents I’m querying and there’s not much chance they’d be reviewing queries at 3am) I decided to write a blog post on self-editing, since that’s been consuming most of my non-university time in the last few weeks.
In my first draft, I take a NaNoWriMo-like approach. Vomit the words onto the page, finish the story, and only then go back and edit. In practice, it’s not quite so easy. I often have fights with my inner-editor where he tries to convince me that I need to find the right word RIGHT FUCKING NOW. Kicking the inner-editor to the curb takes a lot of mental acrobatics for me, but I will never be one of those people who can disable their backspace key. It would drive me nuts.
Anyway, onto the editing itself. First point: self-editing can be hard. It can also be fun, but trying to critically evaluate your own story is like trying to drive at night when it’s raining and the windscreen is fogged up and a wasp is attacking you in the eyes. Spotting the bits of your work that shine and the bits that need to be cut out with a scalpel and the bits that need to be acquainted with my friend, the Molotov cocktail, is tricky.
The oft-given advice is to put the manuscript away for a period of time (suggestions range from a couple of weeks to six months or so). This works for me, although I rarely put the editing off for longer than two or three weeks. During this time, I let my girlfriend read the first draft and offer her criticisms. I realise this is heresy in some circles, but it works for me. My first drafts are usually clean enough and lean enough that the general story and character arcs are all in place, even if the prose itself needs an angle grinder taken to it. So my lovely girlfriend asks questions, tells me what characters she likes and dislikes, how the setting works, and so on. I write all these down without (much) arguing and let them percolate.
When the two weeks or so are up, I pull out the manuscript. Now, I’ve heard a lot of comments around that you MUST read the manuscript on paper. That’s not how it works for me. Perhaps since I’m a bit younger than some of the people giving this advice, I’m more comfortable with reading my novel on a screen. Also, I’m a poor student, so spending money on ink and paper makes it harder to fund my instant-noodle diet. Though I write my novel in WriteMonkey, I read it in Word. I use Word’s comment feature to make comments as I read through. These comments might be anything from emotional responses to the text, pointing out repeated story devices, inconsistencies, or things I need to add or cut. I don’t let myself fix anything at this stage.
While I’m doing this, I also like to re-read my copy of Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I love that book like it’s my mother.
Once I’ve read through the novel I have a good big-picture view of it. I will then start writing additional scenes or extra dialogue or description or whatever the story needs. I don’t focus on the prose itself yet. I bounce ideas off my girlfriend, and the plot holes get shored up.
Now is when the polishing comes. I go through line-by-line, reading aloud to myself (with music playing so my flatmates can’t hear me). This helps me catch repetition, problems with flow, strange word choices and so on. It also makes it easier for me to pick up typos. At this stage I tend to read the chapters out of order so I don’t get caught up in the story and forget to focus on the words.
And then it’s done! Well, it would be, if I would ever stop tinkering. But at some stage I have to force myself to put aside the novel and declare it completed. If I don’t, I’ll keep changing bits and pieces forever, and never get around to sending it out.
So that’s my approach to editing my own work. It won’t work for everyone, but it seems to do ok for me. These aren’t immutable rules. Every novel I write is edited in a slightly different way, but this is my basic outline. And it can even be fun!
Well, these agents aren’t going to query themselves. Happy writing!
I thought I’d kick off my blog with a discussion about world-building. I was going to title this post “World-Building in Fantasy”, but of course, world-building isn’t exclusive to speculative fiction novels. Even if your manuscript is set in your current time, in your current town or city, you still need to build up the sub-cultures your characters inhabit, the places they spend their time, and work out how the world drives the story.
I say this because in any work of fiction, the world shouldn’t just be a background setting, like some painted backdrop your characters walk around in front of. The world shapes your characters, and your characters shape their world. So even in a highly character-driven story, the world will be an important part of the story, even if your readers don’t notice it. Nail down those details, work out how the world, your plot, and your characters interact, and your story will be much richer and more believable.
For the rest of this post, I’m mostly going to be discussing world-building in fantasy (and to a lesser degree, SF. Not because SF doesn’t need bucket-loads of world-building thrown in, it usually does, but just because of my personal bent towards fantasy.) For myself, a fictional world usually starts with a single idea or spark. It might be something I see in a movie, or read on a blog, or hear in a lecture theatre. You can get ideas from damn near anywhere, as long as you have the idea receiver in your brain tuned in. You might get a story idea first, but for me I usually begin to develop a world first, then work out what stories could be told in it.
For example, the world for my next WIP came from a mash-up of ideas from:
1) a dream I had about a leather-coated train travelling through snowy mountain passes and
2) another idea in my notebook surrounding a natural environment that had been damaged by a technologically advanced colonising force trying to pass themselves off to the natives as gods or magicians.
The world began to grow because I kept asking questions. Why is the train leather-coated? Maybe when the “magicians” tried to demonstrate their powers, they accidentally released a toxin into the environment that rapidly corrodes metal. Machines and metal weapons would be useless, unless adequately protected.
What is the nature of this toxin? Is it chemical? Biological? Airborne? Waterborne? Ah ha, perhaps it is an airborne biological agent, which is why the train can only operate high in the mountain passes. It’s too cold and too high for the spores or whatever to significantly affect the train.
As you continue to ask yourself these questions, more details come to light. Then you can ask yourself about the implications of these new developments on the world, and so on. As you come up with new ideas, feel free to chuck them into the mix and see if they mesh well. If so, great! If not, write it down in your ideas notebook for another story. This process is fluid; things can and should be shifted around, questioned, added to or eliminated. You may even change the entire plotline of the novel. That’s fine. Go with it. It’s still early stages.
All right, so you’ve got yourself a nice little world developing. While I’m working on this, I like to start thinking about how the people or other creatures of this world fit in. The world I’m using in my example is fairly forbidding, so humans would be confined to settlements in places where the effects of the biological toxin are less marked. How are these settlements formed? Are they independent city-states, or part of an empire? Ruled by committee or by a ruthless overlord, crushing all beneath his leather-covered boot? How do the common people view their lot in life? Do they resent their leaders, hate their environment? Are they oppressed, or free to do as they choose? What does a normal person do for a job?
When you start getting into the practical side of your civilisations, the most important things to think about are often the essentials of life. Food, water, shelter. Who controls the food supply? He who controls the food, controls the people. Is water easy to come by, or is it a precious commodity? Do people gather together in skyscrapers for shelter, or are they nomads, sleeping under the stars?
One of my favourite podcasts for thoughts on this is the Writing Excuses podcast: Writing Practical Fantasy. Check it out.
So now you’ve got the practical side of your society sorted out, it’s time to consider other aspects. Culture is essential in any society. Culture is not something foreign, it is something that every single one of us has, whether we realise it or not. A white, middle-class person has a culture just as a tribesman in an undiscovered tribe in South America has culture. Understanding how your society’s culture operates and how it affects your characters is essential. This can be as wide-ranging as the ways in which a family is formed (nuclear family? polyamory? matriarchal?), to the ways religions interacts with the population and with each other. Was your culture formed after generations of isolation, or were dozens of different cultures thrust together, trading and assimilating each others’ cultural quirks?
These are just a few questions I ask myself early in the world-building process. If you want a great list of things to consider in your world-building, I recommend the SFWA World-building resources. They ask you to think about things we’ve talked about here, along with many others.
About now, many writers (me included) fall prey to world-builders’ disease. Somewhere around the time you’re working out the evolutionary history of the algae in the pond outside the Chief Mage’s tower and the meaning of the name of the King’s auntie’s third cousin’s pet rock, you realise you should probably stop all this world building and actually WRITE THE DAMN BOOK. So put all that world-building into a handy folder and get started. It’s ok if you don’t have every aspect of the world worked out. Really.
Just fake it.
You heard me. Details are the key. Your readers don’t want to read everything you created in your world. They want to read a story about characters. If you provide enough detail to make that world seem real and interesting, they will be happy.
So get your butt in that chair and build that world. Then stop building that world, and get stuck into the real work.