Story Challenge of the Week

bauchelain-korbalThomas Aquinas and Jean Porter are swimming around in my brain at the moment. It makes for an interesting combination… overall, I like Aquinas better. He’s rather brilliant, even though I’m not completely sold on some of his ideas. I’ve also found that he presents some ideas that I’ve already settled on, and it’s always nice to have that kind of verification of your thoughts. Thus far, my favorite is the idea that the body is contained within the soul. Aquinas argues that a body is present in anything upon which it has an effect (think Einstein’s field theory… which was essentially first postulated in the twelfth century by a monk… pretty cool, huh?). This, the soul is in the body in that the body in contained entirely within the ‘field’ of effect that the soul creates. Essentially, this is an argument that the body is a manifestation of the soul, the soul is not simply one part of the physical body (see Decartes, who posited that the soul might be contained in the Pineal gland). Anyway, I have a story challenge for you. So, you know the rules. Take your subject and run with it. Write me a story of 1000 words or less and stay on topic. As before, if it’s in any way applicable, you should use this to try to develop your world a little more :).

Your Challenge: Write me a story about plague and pestilence. This could be a historical fiction piece about the black plague, a modern piece that deals with the aids epidemic, or you could actually personify plague or pestilence and write the story from their perspective. I’d actually like to suggest to some intrepid individual to read Steven Erikson’s Korbal Broach and Bauchelain and write a story with personifications of Plague and Pestilence as the central characters in a similar style.

Transitioning Perspectives

minor-characters1-e1342304827186A few years ago I had the distinct pleasure of finding one of my favorite authors on Facebook and friending him. Not following him, not joining his page, but friending the actual man himself. As I was working on my first novel at the time, after I thanked him for his contributions to the written word, and explained how his work had impacted me (I imagine that I must have gushed at the time… most of the people who know me will tell you that I don’t gush…), I asked if he had any advice for new writers. I’ve know plenty of people who would give some pat, simple sounding answer like ‘don’t give up’ or ‘just do your best’ etc. However, this man didn’t. Instead, he gave me a simple piece of advice that has saved my stories time and again. Today, I hope to pass that on to you.

Succinctly stated, what this man told me was that, when he got stuck at some point in his writing, he generally found that the solution to the dilemma lay in his minor characters. Sometimes the block could be removed by simply doing something different with one of the main characters, but often the problem was that a minor character needed to be more fully developed. In developing his minor characters he gave himself pieces to work with that removed the block, and created a deeper, more complete story. I might add that this particular man’s character development is some of the best I’ve ever seen, up there with Marron Shed in Glen Cook’s Shadow’s Linger or Karsa Orlong in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. So, keeping this in mind, how do you actually do that?

Developing minor characters isn’t actually that hard, and there are a few ways to do it, depending on the kind of story your writing. For instance, at the moment I am working on a story that is written from multiple perspectives. For three days now I’ve been stuck on a single scene: writing, deleting, rewriting, deleting, etc because I couldn’t find a perspective that worked. I couldn’t find the right character to tell the story of that scene. Then I did. The key to writing the scene was to keep trying it from the perspective of different characters until I found one that worked.

00311Of course, if the story your writing only has one perspective (say a first person story), this is much more difficult. However, you can still do something similar. When writing a single perspective story you obviously can’t write from the perspective of a minor character. You can’t delve into the character’s thoughts, but you can delve into their motivations through their words and deeds. If you’re having trouble with a scene, try focusing on a different element of that scene, and then building it outwards from there. For instance, if your writing a scene in which two detectives find are examining a crime scene, and you can’t seem to get their dialogue quite right, try beginning with a third party in the conversation. Perhaps the detectives stop to chat with one of the uniformed officers, or with the doorman. Bringing in a minor character adds a new element to the scene that can make it work and can push through a stubborn section of the story that just doesn’t want to work.

If you don’t believe me, try it. The next time you find a scene that you’re struggling with, instead of getting frustrated, shift the focus to a previously minor character, and let the scene develop from there. It might take a few tries to find the right minor character, but once you do you’ll be surprised how quickly and easily the scene develops.

The Woods

Today we have another post from Abbie Brubaker. This one is an interesting take on making a setting element into a character element:

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

My previous post began a series on faerie tale tropes with a deconstruction of the villainess – the evil witch, stepmother, or queen who appears in a number of time-honored stories and can be aptly appropriated for use in your own writing. This week’s focus switches from a character type to a setting: the woods. In faerie tales, the woods are literal forests, natural wildernesses of towering trees and shadowy undergrowth; such regions are somewhat removed from the modern, developed world we live in, but the significant timbre of “the woods” as a concept constitutes a setting in its own right, independent of an arboreal landscape.

Often, the woods act as a mysterious, ominous place, home to any number of bloodthirsty creatures or malevolent forces. Notably, Little Red Riding Hood’s trip through the woods brings her into contact with the wolf who attempts (and, in some versions, succeeds in) the consumption of Red and her grandmother. For Hansel and Gretel, the woods conceal a similarly-intentioned witch. In other cases, however, the woods offer shelter for characters fleeing domestic troubles. In the case of Snow White, the heroine finds sanctuary (however briefly) in the secluded home of the seven dwarves. The lesser-known story of “Brother and Sister” also portrays a forest setting as providing safety for the young protagonists.

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

The woods, then, can be described as a location with some element of danger and enigma, large enough to lose oneself in – for good or for bad. Evil may lie concealed here, but unexpected good as well; the woods are layered and deep, with niches for all manner of folk. Often a journey is associated with this place, a journey to it or through it, sometimes a flight from an abusive home life to anywhere which might be better. A life can be carved out in the woods, if you set your mind to it. There may be predators lurking around the corner, but for the savvy soul, the woods present a varied and vibrant setting to explore or settle into. The woods are not usually a permanent residence, however; they are a place for the young, the in-between, who eventually move on to build a new and happy domestic realm elsewhere.

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Although “the woods” may be incarnated in any number of places, the most prominent correlation is to an urban setting, where a protagonist may encounter villains as menacing as any cannibalistic witch but also may find a safe haven amidst the bustle and daily rigmarole of the city denizens. The essence of the woods is their otherness – which can mean the threat of the unknown or the promise of a break from an unsatisfactory situation. This dichotomy can be written with equal emphasis on both aspects of the setting, or can be weighted in either direction to suit the nature of the story in which it is being employed. A coming-of-age narrative might feature “the woods” as downtown New York City where the hero rents a shoebox apartment to take time away from what seems an oppressive home environment; a thriller might show the opposite take on “the woods,” displaying the dark, crime-riddled underbelly of a futuristic metropolis.

For characters in a faerie tale, the woods are composed of firs and ferns, with perils as likely to be animal as human; the essence of that setting can be transplanted to a more modern story by playing with the elements of menace and refuge beneath the superseding sense of otherness.


(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Tobias say: Abbie isn’t familiar with this particular work, but I think an excellent practical example of this concept would be the Azath houses from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. The Azath are mysterious buildings that seem to connect all of the different realms of Erikson’s world, and perhaps even more beyond those realms. The houses clearly have a being and will all their own and are capable of making choices, and they can serve either as a prison: sometimes imprisoning, and sometimes possibly consuming, even the most powerful of gods. Or as a place of refuge: in Erikson’s world the Azath are possessed of immense, if possibly dormant, power and thus it is impossible to enter one unless the house chooses to allow a person entrance. It is also clear that within the Azath houses time/life/being doesn’t exactly work in the same way. It is apparently impossible for a person to die while inside an Azath house, which allows the houses’ chosen guardians to become effectively immortal. There are also a couple of instances where time is apparently stopped, though it is unclear if time is stopped only within the house, or if time is stopped everywhere, and it is also unclear if it is the house itself that stops time, or a particular character within the given house that stops time. Thus the Azath houses represent the concept of ‘the woods’ that Abbie addresses here quite well, and they also become one of the most interesting setting/character elements in Erikson’s novels.

Fantasy Magic: The Fundamentals

200px-Zywioly01Well, last week Neal started the series on historical systems of magic that I promised a while back, and to compliment him in that I want to write a couple of posts concerning how to start building a system of magic for your fantasy world. If you read a lot of fantasy (and if you’re bothering to read this blog I pretty much assume that either you do, or you have at some point in the past), then you’ve probably noticed that every author has his own take on the way magic works. So, before we do anything else, the first rule in creating a magical system is the same as the first rule in creating a fantasy world: do what you want, just make sure it works. That being said, there are a few thoughts that will help you make sure that you’re creating a magical system that works.

FiveElementsCycleBalanceImbalance_1963535_stdFirst of all, every magical system has rules. Sometimes these rules are extremely (extremely) complicated, and sometimes they’re fairly simple, but just like physics or chemistry, magic always has rules. Just like chemistry or math, those rules are based on fundamental truths. If 2+2 doesn’t equal 4, then you’re calculus equations won’t work out the way they should, even though 2+2=4 is one of the most simply mathematical equations. So, the first thing to do when creating a magical system is to figure out what those principles are. Many authors use the classical elements from Greek culture: earth, water, fire, and air, as the basis of their magical system. Others use the classical Chinese or Japanese elements: water, earth, wood, metal, and fire; and wind, water, earth, fire, and void (spirit, nothingness, etc) respectively. Some of the more complicated authors (such as Steven Erikson) use the fact that history gives us many, many magical systems to create many complicated systems of magic in their own worlds (often vying for followers or authority). Other authors (such as Brandon Sanderson) start from scratch to create their own magical systems (while I’m not a fan of the Mistborn series, the Allomancy that Sanderson created for this world is intriguing).

PeriodicTableWallpaperAs another example, I’m currently working on the magical systems for my new Kalagrosh world, and I really wanted to do something that I’d never done before. So, while I’m far from finished with the system, I have some of the basics. So far, the fundamental forces that magic manipulates are Being, Heat, Force, Psyche, Truth, Void, Earth, Vapor, Gravity, and Soul. Each of these is intended to represent a very broad force that different magicians manipulate in different ways. So, magicians working with healing magic, death magic, shape-changing magic, etc would all be drawing on the power of Being. Similarly, soothsayers, illusionists, and diviners all draw on the power of Truth. Some magical techniques also draw on multiple powers at once, for instance an evil magician may draw on the powers of Being and Soul using binding techniques to bind another person’s ‘self’ to his own ‘self’ and sap his life force, though in doing so he would also sap his victims mind and soul as well, which could lead to complications, unless he learns to manipulate the power of Psyche and also finds somewhere to put the mind and soul of his victim (Earth, Void, or Being magics can all serve for this).

bolAlong with fundamental forces you need to figure out how people manipulate those forces. For instance, Ursula Le Guin used true names as the manner in which mages manipulated the forces of her world. Sanderson requires his Allomancers to consume the metal which allows them to manipulate a particular force. In Kalagrosh there are many ways of manipulating the fundamental forces of the cosmos such as Binding, Drawing, Iconography, Naming, or Knowing (actually, to go along with Neal’s posts on Philosophy in Fiction, the technique of Knowing draws heavily on Kantian epistemology) among others. Each of these techniques is used by different magicians in different ways, and some allow a greater degree of manipulation than others. For instance, Drawing is a primitive technique in which the magician essentially rips apart the fabric of the cosmos and hopes that doing so does what he wants. It is extremely dangerous for the caster, the world, and pretty much everyone around him. The more the caster tries to do with this power, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. On the other hand Naming is a much more advanced form of the technique in which the caster uses his body and a powerful name to filter the force that he draws, thus making it safer for everyone involved.


charlotte tutoringOn another note I want to take a moment to announce a new service that we are going to start providing: Academic and creative tutoring and consultation. Do you have a paper due and need some advice on how to write it? Need help formatting your citations, or learning how to use a source? Perhaps you’re a writer working on a world and you need some help working out the specifics of your world, or you just want someone to run your ideas by? Let me help you. Sessions will be done over skype or Facebook videochat, unless you are in the Lynchburg area, in which case we can meet in person.

10 Minutes: If I can answer your question in ten minutes of less, your session is free.

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2+ Hours: I generally don’t offer sessions over two hours long. This is simply because I have found that after two hours everyone involved needs a break, and time starts getting wasted. I don’t want to charge you for wasted time. However, if you absolutely must have a session over two hours then we can negotiate rates through email. To set up appointments please email me at This information will also appear on the Services page, and payments will be taken through paypal.

In your email please include a general description of the issue that you need help with. If it sounds like something that I simply can’t help you with, then I’ll let you know. Again, I see absolutely no reason to waste your money.

From Here to There: The Space In Between

Shadaan’s conception of Karsa Orlong

Alright, Cassandra’s busy so we’re trading days again.  She’ll be posting on Saturday.  Sorry about all the switching around, but unfortunately that’s what happens when lives become hectic.  Hopefully things will calm down and the schedule will get back to normal eventually.

So, last Saturday I discussed the most basic element of character development: knowing where your characters are going.  However, as another author once told me, ‘knowing the beginning and the end doesn’t make for a story, the story comes in getting from one to the other.’  The same is true in character development.  You have to know where your character starts, and where the character is going, but if that’s all you know, then you don’t have a developing character.  You have a character that makes sudden, massive jumps in emotion, and your readers are going to notice that.

The character of Marron Shed in Glen Cook’s Shadow’s Linger is one of the best examples of character development that I’ve ever seen.  Shed develops subtlely over the course of the novel, so subtlely sometimes that you don’t even realize he’s changing until he does something that is completely congruous with his character, but would have been absolutely antithetical to his character a few chapters before.  Shed does not leap from one point of maturity to another, but develops into a completely different person over the course of the novel.  A couple other great examples of character development, that I’ve probably mentioned before, are Karsa Orlong in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and Father Aillil in Lars Walker’s Year of the Warrior.  All of these are characters that develop slowly, realistically, and wind up becoming completely different people from who they started as.

Father Aillil

So, how does your character get from here to there? That is the million dollar question (sometimes literally), and it’s not an easy question to answer simply because it’s different for every character.  For instance, Marron Shed’s character begins as a coward and develops into a noble man.  However, he does so by first finding his courage in doing some very wicked things, and then finding his virtue.  Karsa Orlong, however, is never a coward.  He begins as a rash, brazen, foolish warrior who develops wisdom, strength, and true confidence through being forced into slavery and servitude.  Where Shed learns courage, Orlong learns loyalty and submission to a greater cause.  Only once he has learned these lessons does he become the man who can lead.

You are the only one who can decide how your characters should and will develop, and what they will develop into.  However, there are some things you can avoid:

Remember that your characters need to develop like real people. That’s usually not a straight path.

1) Don’t force your character.  Remember that characters need to behave like real people.  Your job is to gently guide your character towards the goal you want him to achieve through the course of your novel.  Not to force him into the box you want him to fit in.  Fifty Shades of Grey made exactly this mistake.  In the first chapter of the book the main character, Anastasia, is a virgin who’s never had a boyfriend.  She meets Christian Grey and suddenly she must have him.  By the third chapter of the book, still a virgin, she is willing to let him chain her up and beat her, and willing to discuss even more extreme activities.  Somehow, I don’t buy the leaps that are made to achieve this.

2) Don’t rush.  Remember that people develop at their own rate, and the same is true of characters.  You can’t force a 17 year old to act like a 25 year old.  You can’t force an emotionally immature, cowardly guy to man-up and take the initiative.  You can’t force a woman who isn’t ready for a serious relationship to be ready.  You can’t force fool to be wise.  The same is true of your characters.  They need to develop and mature at their own rate, and you have to let them.  In many ways being an author is like being a parent.  You don’t get to tell your characters, “This is what you should be doing, now shape up and do it!” You have to work with them to make them into the characters you want them to be.  Some are going to be more ornery than others.

If you want to write realistic character development, it wouldn’t hurt to study some psychology and examine how people actually develop.

3) Don’t fake it! This is probably the biggest thing to pay attention to.  Be real with your characters.  Don’t tell your characters what you want them to do, instead get inside their heads and figure out what they would do.  Instead of trying to model the character’s reactions to the events of your story, model the events of your story around the reactions you need your characters to have (to a degree, remember it all has to be realistic).  Also remember that not all of your characters will develop.  We all know someone who’s been a selfish sixteen year old for the past twenty years.  They just never matured, never grew up, and they make everyone’s lives miserable.  Those characters will exist in your story as well.  This doesn’t mean that you have to write characters like this, but remember that your characters have to be real, and that means that some of them might not change, even if you want them to.

There has to be a balance between where you want your story to go, and where you want you characters to go.  Sometimes you’ll run into a situation where an event that is necessary for your story drives one of your characters in the wrong direction.  That happens, so let it happen.  Don’t force the character to be what you want, even when he’s not.  Watch who the character becomes, and if you can guide him back in the direction you want him to go.  If not, then you might have to either change the direction of your character, or change the direction of your story (the former is easier than the latter).

From Here to There: On the Basics of the Development of Character in Fiction

Who your character’s become is up to you.

I love character driven fiction, and good character development is, therefore, a must.  However, there are a lot of books on the market that have poor, or no character development.  For instance, The Dresden Files provides less character development over the course of five novels as I can find in one novel by Lars Walker (The Year of the Warrior) or Glen Cook (Shadows Linger).  One of the greatest costs of the current focus on serial novels is the strong development of character.  When a single character has to last a writer for ten or twelve novels, then he just can’t develop much in any particular novel.  On the other hand, when a character is only needed for a few novels (one to three perhaps), then much more focused character development is possible.  The same is true when a writer has a large number of character.  Stephen Erikson is a good example of this.  His Malazan Book of the Fallen series has thousands of characters, and hundreds of major characters.  Now some of these characters are obviously not the focus of a great deal of character growth and development.  However, when there are hundreds of major characters over the course of ten novels, the author is not relying so much on one character to carry the series.  He can develop each of these characters well consistently, and show their growth, knowing that he doesn’t need them later on.  Some of my favorite characters in the series only appear in one or two books, are strongly developed, and then die or move on.*

The most basic aspect of developing your character is to have a goal.  We’ve given you a number of good posts on how to create a character, but you should also have a goal in mind for every major character you create.  You can start with something as simple as a theme for the character:

Heroes is a show with some truly phenomenal character development.

At the beginning of the story John is childish and naive, but by the end of the story he is capable of making his way in the world (Coming of Age story)

At the beginning of the story Sathra is a selfish, evil person, but by the end of the story he is a noble character (Redemption story)

At the beginning of the story Melchior is single and hopeless, but by the end of the story he has found his true love (Romance story)

There are any number of themes that you can choose for your character, but the key is to know where you want the character to start, and where you want the character to end.  Ideally, you will develop a character profile for what your character is like at the beginning of your book (who he is) and what you want the character to look like at the end of your book (where he is going), but you can probably get away with general themes.

Overall, the first goal of character development has to be know where each character is going, and who each character is going to be by the end of the novel.  For instance, over the last couple of weeks I posted a two part introduction to a new book I’m working on (here and here).  Right now I know who Alanoc is, and I have a fairly good idea of who Drevor is.  I also know who Alanoc is going to be by the end of the novel, but I’m not completely sure who Drevor is going to be (I have an idea, but it’s something I’m still working on).  Knowing who Alanoc is and where he is going as a character is important (he is the main character), but if I don’t figure out where Drevor is going, then I could easily leave him as a flat character who doesn’t develop over the course of the book.  Obviously, this would be bad.  We’ve all ready flat characters, and they aren’t fun. The best authors are those who provide depth and development even in their minor characters.  J.K. Rowling is a good example of this.  While I don’t like how some of her characters develop in the Harry Potter series, she provides strong character development in each of her characters, even the relatively unimportant ones.

No one really stays the same over time.

So, here is your task: choose one of your stories and make a list of the major characters in that story.  Then write out basic tropes for who the character is now, and who you want the character to be by the end of the story.  This could be as simple as ‘An SOB’ to ‘The White Knight’.  If you want to go the extra mile then take two or three of your main characters and write out full character profiles for who they are at the beginning of the story, and who you want them to be by the end of the story.


*Erikson writes Russian novels, and so it is not uncommon for major characters to die and be replaced by other characters.

World Building Part 3: How to Flesh Out Your Geography

A map of people groups in Iran

Alright, a few weeks ago I started a series on world building, and I was originally only planning to do three posts.  I should have known better.  I have already said that every ‘world’, whether a small city or a galactic empire revolves around three factors: People Groups (Cultures, Races, etc), Nations (Political Factions, Power Bodies), and Geography (Mountains, Rivers, Oceans, Stars, etc).  In my last post I talked about beginning to fill in the blanks, and a little about the importance of having a basic outline of all three factors before moving on with any one of them.  Remember that these factors will affect one another, a culture will both affect and be affected by the geography around it (Japan is a prime example), a nation will be shaped by the various cultures it contains.  If you don’t believe me look at Iraq and Iran.  These are two nations whose borders were essentially randomly drawn.  Each contains a set of people groups that do not get along, do not cooperate, and often do their best to kill each other.  This is a profound effect on the stability of each nation, and their ability to act on the world stage.  India is another great example.  India is, perhaps, the most heterogeneous nation on the planet.  There are 15 different native major languages (spoken by over 10 million people in country) in India, and 23 different native languages spoken by over a million people in country. This does not include foreign languages (i.e. English, French, Bulgarian, etc) spoken by tourists or immigrants.  The variety of culture present in India is nothing short of staggering.

So, it is important to have a basic idea of what your world looks like (geography), who lives there (people groups), and of your borders (nations) before you begin to deeply develop any of the above.  Also, depending on your world, don’t feel like you need to have someone living everywhere.  If you’re writing a fantasy world with any kind of ancient (i.e. Non-Medieval or Pre-Roman) style setting you might have great swathes of relatively uninhabited, unclaimed wilderness between your nations.  If your world is very Medieval, then it is likely to be more populated, and claims will be stronger.  The same is true in a sci-fi world.  If you are writing an early sci-fi world in which races are just venturing into the stars then plan on including a large amount of ‘wild space’.  On the other hand, a sci-fi world in which ftl (faster than light) technology has been available for thousands of years (see Star Wars) then unexplored/unclaimed space is probably at a premium.

So, a few things to remember when developing geography:

A map of 13th Century Siena, Italy. The black line shows the city walls.

For Cities:  Remember that not all cities are walled.  When designing your city consider the culture that lives there.  Are they likely to be attacked? Would they fear attack? Are they generally warlike? If any of these is true, then it would be appropriate to give the city walls.  If none of them are true (i.e. if the city is protected by geography or distance, if it is a haven and generally considered neutral, etc) then don’t bother giving the city walls.  Also, remember that city walls are generally built after the city, not before, and usually the city grows beyond them.  If you city is walled, consider it’s age.  The older the city is, the more sets of walls it’s likely to have, and they won’t travel in straight lines.  Walls are built around a living city and generally don’t form a perfect square or circle.  Streets are the same way.  ‘City Planning’ is a relatively new field, and older cities tend to be haphazard in design.  Roads don’t move in straight lines, and often don’t make sense at all.  Sometimes they don’t even go anywhere at all.  Cities are also ‘living’ organisms.  What is currently a high class distract might be a ghetto in fifty years, and what is currently a ghetto might be rebuilt into a shopping district.  Little details like fancy but run-down buildings in the ghetto, or remnant tenement buildings in a nicer district will give your city character, and the feel of a living city.

A map of Erikson’s Seven Cities.

For Continents:  There are a few geographical constants that you MUST remember when making your world.  Straight coastlines are rare, as are perfect curves, and odd shapes (like a spiral).  Coastlines tend to be bumpy, unkempt, and have a lot of small bays and peninsulas.  Mountains cause deserts! Whether will tend toward one side of a mountain range, or another, but generally you don’t have a lot of rain on both sides.  Unless you have rivers running out of your mountain range in both directions then you are probably going to have a desert on one side or the other.  Desert does not mean Sahara! The Nevada desert, Sahara desert, and Gobi desert are three very different places.  Don’t assume that desert means endless sand dunes.  Your continent does not have to have an inland sea! This is something that I had to teach myself.  North America and Asia Minor both have inland seas (i.e. The Great Lakes, The Caspian Sea, The Black Sea, The Dead Sea, etc), but Europe, South America, Africa, and Australia don’t.  So, while your continent might have an inland sea, it doesn’t have to.  Also remember that seas dry up.  Parts of the American west were underwater at some point in the past.  This is something that Steven Erikson does well in his Seven Cities continent.  Always take into account how old your world is when designing your terrain – remember that the older the world is, the more dead civilizations it will have.  Answer the question ‘who lived here before us?’ It’s an important one.

The Milky Way, note the clear spiraling arms and their names.

For Galaxies: Remember that Galaxies are not just giant random clusters of stars.  They have shapes (for instance the Milky Way galaxy has arms that spiral out from a central cluster of stars), and stars tend to be more densely packed at the center of a galaxy than at the rim.  Start by examining some of the galaxies that astronomers have discovered and determining the shape of your galaxy.  Also, remember that stars often come in clusters with a more significant amount of space between clusters than between individual stars in a cluster.  Remember that life could potentially exist in many different forms and not all aliens will be from an Earth-like planet.  You might have an alien race that developed in a gas giant, or one that developed on a frozen planet like Neptune.  Remember that there are many, many types of celestial bodies, from planets to stars, nebulae to black holes, etc.  These should all be represented in your galaxy.

All right, this post is long enough for now.  You probably have a general idea of what you’re looking at now.  Looking forward to next time – these are fun to write.

A Review of Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson

This is definitely a book worth reading!

Midnight Tides is the fifth book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series (I have reviewed the first four here, here, here, and here), and it is also my favorite book of the series (so far).  Midnight Tides works well as a stand alone novel, and (while this is not true for later books), there is no need to read any of the first four books in order to understand the events in Midnight Tides.  Erikson is know for his myriad characters, and in Midnight Tides the author introduces us to an entirely new cast of characters, along with a new continent, new nations, new everything.  In fact, the only relation that Midnight Tides has to the first four novels is the character Trull Sengar (whom readers will remember from House of Chains, and a few characters from the Crimson Guard Mercenaries (who were briefly mentioned in Gardens of the Moon and Memories of Ice).  However, while Midnight Tides can be a stand-alone novel, it isn’t.  Instead Erikson uses the book to introduce the other half of his meta-narrative that is woven throughout the series.  In the first four books we have grown to know, and either love or hate, the Malazan Empire.  In Midnight Tides we are introduced to the Letherii and the Tiste Edur.  To use a valuable cliche, Midnight Tides introduces the other shoe.

Overall: 10/10

Midnight Tides is, simply put, one of the most effective books that I have ever read.  All of the technical details, from writing, to plot, to character, to pacing, are strong, and on top of this the book is filled with a copious amount of social commentary largely focused on the materialistic nature of modern society.  Midnight Tides is also the only novel in which I have ever see economic commentary effectively presented.  While it has been attempted in a few places (Star Trek and Star Wars off the top of my head) it generally comes across as contrived, idealistic, or ridiculous.  Erikson manages to make his points succinct and realistic, while still making them clear, and obvious.

Writing: 9.5/10

Midnight Tides is one of Erikson’s shorter books, and much of the wordiness that causes problems for some readers is not present.  This is not to say that it is a short book, it weighs in at nearly a thousand pages, and is still a monstrous read for most people.

Trull Sengar, as pictured by slaine69, whose page is here.

Characters: 10/10

I love Erikson’s characters, and I’ve never had trouble keeping track of who is who (although I know a number of people who do), so a whole new cast struck me as a wonderfully pleasant surprise.  Characters on both sides of the line, Letherii and Tiste Edur, are well developed, interesting, and each has his or her specific purpose.  My favorite characters in the novel are most definitely Tehol Beddict and his rather incredible man-servant Bugg, who provide some of the best comic relief in the entire series.  My least favorite are Rhulad Sengar and his rather horrific wife.  However, even the characters that I didn’t like are well done.

World: 10/10
Erikson has a gift for developing his worlds within the novel, and the continent of Lether is no exception.  With an entire new land to develop, Erikson is able to recreate some of the ideas in his world, delving into the deeper history of the world and how it became what we have seen in the first four Malazan Novels.  Early on there was some speculation that the events of Midnight Tides took place in another world, or in the distant past of the world of Malaz, but these ideas have now been thoroughly quashed by the contents of later novels.  However, much of the book feels like a look into the history of Erikson’s world, and this will delight many careful readers.

Plot: 10/10

The war between the Tiste Edur and Letheras is a strong plot, and it well formed, developed, and executed.  Erikson is known for complex plots, but this one is fairly simple – though it certainly has twists and turns in its execution.  While the basic plot is simple, there are many subplots that lend complexity to the story and serve to develop each important character very well.

Pacing: 10/10

Erikson’s books are not thrillers, and so you should be ready for the long haul.  However, this book is not nearly as difficult as either Memories of Ice or House of Chains, and this makes it feel like a much faster read.

This is actually an alternate cover, but its such a great picture without the text!

Commentary: 10/10

I love the depth of Erikson’s commentary, and the commentary in Midnight Tides is both excellent, and directly applicable to modern society.  I won’t ruin the story by giving away all of his points, but Erikson has some very strong ideas about current trends in society, religion, and economics that are clearly expressed in Midnight Tides.  While strong social commentary is evident in each of his Malazan novels, Midnight Tides is by far the most obvious.


Midnight Tides is worth reading whether you have followed the series or not.  Honestly, I encourage everyone to read this novel, even if you never think twice about any of Erikson’s other works.  It is both an excellent story, and an excellent source of much needed social criticism.

Write What You… Part 3: Write What You Write

It's true, don't fight criticism - it's good for you.

So, we’ve talked about writing what you know (because, you know…you know it – 😉 I love bad puns), and writing what you are. The last step in finding your voice that I can help you with in making sure that what you write is yours.  One of the worst pieces of criticism that I have ever received was contained in the phrase, ‘I don’t like it, it’s not the way I would write the story.’ This was a reply that I got on a story I wrote a few years ago and sent out to several friends.  Don’t get me wrong, the story was not incredible, and will not see the light of publication without some significant revisions, so this is not me saying ‘my story was perfect, blah, blah, blah.’ However, you can only successfully write the way you write.  It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will never be able to write like anyone but you.  You can grow your writing, expand the scope and breadth of the way you write, but what you write is still going to be written the way you write it.  This really should be obvious, but for some reason most new authors (including myself) miss it – some for longer than others.  The reviewer who gave me this criticism did not provide anything that could help me to improve the story or improve my writing.  Instead the reviewer just said ‘you write the wrong way’ (for you editors and reviewers out there this is one of the worst things that you can say to an author.  Be critical, but keep your criticism constructive.  Remember that you’re job is to help the author make the story better.)

I use this example to say that the way you write is the way you write.  If you have a dry, sardonic style then don’t try to write something that is all fluffy bunnies…you’ll fail.  If you have a fluffy bunny style, then don’t try to write something that is dry and sardonic…again, you’ll fail.  This is not to say that an author can only write one style – some authors can only write one style, some authors can write many styles – but that you shouldn’t let someone else tell you that the way you write is wrong.  Authors have many different styles, and they all have readers that appreciate that style.  J.R.R. Tolkien was very straightforward in his writing, Steven Erikson is much more verbose.  Glen Cook’s writing is simple, gritty, and…I think chewy is a good word to describe it, but don’t ask me exactly what I mean by that because I’m not sure that I can explain.  David Eddings, on the other hand, is much more complicated.

Hehehehe...your shoes are mine..hehehe.

There is no wrong style of writing (however you might need to develop more skill in the mechanics of your writing), you can be dry, wet, short, circular, verbose, gritty, happy, sarcastic, etc.  The key is that it is yours.  Remember that you can’t write like anyone else.  For the longest time I wanted to be able to write like H.P. Lovecraft, or like Stephen King, or even like my friend Melissa (who writes for Lantern Hollow Press), because they are writers that I admire, and they can all do things with their writing that I can’t. However, I can’t write like them any more than they can write like me.  Any one of them might be a better writer than I am, but none of them writes in a better style than I do.  This is because style is not better or worse, just different.

Listen to your reviewers, your friends, and your editors.  They can give you some great advice that will really improve your writing.  Let them help you grow and develop the way you write, but don’t let them convince you that the way you write is bad.  Don’t let them change the way you write.  It’s a fine line, and sometimes it’s hard for people on both sides to tell the difference, but you need to figure out where this line is for you, and then you need to live on it.  Take as much criticism as you can, it will make you better, but you have to know when to accept something, and when to shove it off to the side.

A Review of House of Chains by Steven Erikson

Press on, press on.

Well, I’ve promised you Steven Erikson, and I am delivering you Steven Erikson.  House of Chains is probably the hardest book in the series to get into.  Once you make it past the first three to four hundred pages then the reading gets much easier.  However, the first two hundred plus pages of the book are a painful introduction to Karsa Orlong, one of the best characters in the series – and one of the best examples of character growth that I have ever seen.  That being said, if you don’t hate Karsa in the beginning of this book, then there is something seriously wrong with you.  When you have what amounts to a regular size novel all about a character you hate doing horrible things – well, it makes the book hard to get into.  Honestly, I almost gave up on the series while reading House of Chains because I hated Karsa so much. Now, in Reaper’s Gale, Karsa has become one of my favorite characters.  Like I said, he is an amazing example of character growth.

Overall: 7.0/10

House of Chains is very difficult to get into.  It is also one of the least memorable books of the series (in my opinion).  In fact I think House of Chains is probably my least favorite book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen.  However, it is a necessary book.  House of Chains introduces Karsa Orlong, one of the most important characters in the series, and develops the character of Icarium, another of the most important characters.  House of Chains also ties up many of the plot threads opened in Deadhouse Gates and/or opens new ones to replace them.  All in all, if you are going to read the Malazan Book of the Fallen you have to read House of Chains, and there is a lot to value in this book. However, it is not the most enjoyable book in the series.

Writing: 9.0/10

Erikson’s writing is very wordy again.  However, while I could tell that it was wordy, it didn’t feel as wordy as it actually was…if that makes any sense.  The writing throughout the book is generally strong, and it is difficult to read because of the content, not because of the writing.

Icarium is one of the most important characters in the entire Malazan Book of the Fallen. You will get to know him better in this book.

Characters: 10/10

Alright, let me warn you now.  You will HATE Karsa Orlong in this book.  If you don’t hate him, then you are a very twisted person – and it’s me telling you this, so that should add a little emphasis to it, because I’m pretty twisted already.  However, by the end of this book if you don’t like Karsa, you will at least respect him.  Karsa Orlong is one of the best examples of growth in a character to be found in the fiction market.  The changes that his character goes through are not only completely real/believable, but also extreme. Add to this the fact that some of the best characters (i.e. Fiddler, Iskaral Pust, and Heboric among others) return in this novel, and you have a win in the character department.  While I love Erikson’s characters in general, this novel definitely stands out.

World: 9.0/10

You will see a little bit of Genabackis in House of Chains, but like Deadhouse Gates this novel takes place primarily in the Seven Cities.  Seven Cities is one of my favorite locations in the world of Malaz, but most of House of Chains takes place in the desert, or in Raraku. Because of this, you don’t actually see that much more of the Seven Cities than you do in Deadhouse Gates.  However, you will get a much better picture of what it is like to be a part of the Malazan military.

Plot: 7.0/10

What can I say? House of Chains is pretty much about marching to a war that never happens, and Karsa Orlong turning from an evil S.O.B. badass into an awesome badass.  This novel is necessary to understand the rest of the series, but it is generally about wrapping up old plots and opening new ones.  House of Chains is a transitional novel that would not stand well on its own.

Pacing: 6.0/10

Like Memories of Ice, House of Chains moves back and forth between intense action, and very little action.  When combined with the difficulty of reading Karsa Orlong’ s beginnings, this makes it a novel that is easy to put down.  That being said, it’s worth it to keep going.

Karsa Orlong is another very important character. This book not only introduces him, but is fundamental to his development later in the series.

Commentary: 5.0/10

House of Chains opens a lot of questions, but it doesn’t answer many.  Again, this novel is primarily about character development, and moving the overall plot of the series forward.  However, there is some commentary in it.


While Memories of Ice  was the most difficult book in the series to read, House of Chains is the hardest book in the series to not put down.  It probably doesn’t feel like there should be a difference between these two, but there is.  Memories of Ice is a challenging book that makes you consider your preconceptions.  House of Chains is a painful book, necessarily so, that exposes you to a lot of evil, and then allows you to watch as that evil turns into something good.  While it is very easy to put this book down early on, it gets easier to read as you go – and it is worth it in the end.