How to avoid cultural appropriation when writing historically-influenced fantasy stories

Hello, internet. I have another slightly philosophical post for you today.

Following up from my last post, I’m trying to force myself back into the habit of writing a solid 500 words every day. I currently have two book concepts in the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to work on both of at the same time. I might have to drop down to one if juggling two books proves to be too much of a hassle, but at the moment I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to hop between worlds, or to focus exclusively on one project for a while if I’m having trouble with the other. It also means that I can’t use the excuse of ‘book problems’ to slack off from writing.

One of the projects that I’m working on is a continuation of the story that I shared with you last month, set in a fantasy world that shares a lot of parallels with 19th century Europe. I’m essentially taking the Crimean War (the original one in the 1850s, not the more recent Crimean conflict) and adapting it into fantasy, with fantasy analogues for most of the belligerent factions and major events of the war.  This is a fun concept and I’ve been enjoying the process of fleshing it out into a complete story. But a while ago I started to wonder if there were some awkward problems with the initial concept.

My story features a large empire which resembles an industrialised, centralised version of Sauron’s empire from the Tolkien legendarium. In the events of the story, this empire plays the same role that the Russian Empire played in the Crimean War. Due to events that occurred before the start of the narrative, the orc empire is at war with an alliance of other nations who have landed an invasion force on the empire’s shores and laid siege to an ancient city. These events are intentionally similar to the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol, and the allied forces are fairly transparent fantasy analogues of Britain and France. But I’m concerned that my story might have unintentional racial undertones if the Russian Empire is ‘replaced’ by orcs, whilst the British remain mostly human. I’m not trying to use my story as a piece of anti-Russian political commentary and I’d hate for any Russian readers to think that I was comparing them to orcs, at least in the common cultural understanding of what an ‘orc’ is like.

Orc
Boo

My own depiction of orcs is quite sympathetic, but that’s the sort of nuance that might not make much of a difference to someone who’s angry with me for appropriating Russian history.

Other writers tell me that I worry too much about this sort of thing, but I think it’s very important for authors to consider that their work can have unintended cultural aftershocks. Even if I’m only intending to write a harmless swashbuckling fantasy novel, it still has the potential to cause offence, and that’s not something that I want to do. Some people roll their eyes at ‘political correctness’, but for me being PC just means ‘wanting to upset the smallest number of people that I possibly can’, and I don’t want to belittle or dismiss things that are hurtful to other groups of people. I’ve read enough to know that turning someone’s culture or history into a piece of set dressing in a fantasy novel can be very hurtful. Just today, JK Rowling has come under fire for appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new short story. You only have to look at the responses from Navajo Americans to see why they are upset, and why this isn’t something that Rowling should have done. Navajo writer Brian Young wrote “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”  The people of Russia aren’t a marginalised people who survived colonisation, but the same principal applies. I’m taking part of Russian history – a war in which many Russians lost their lives – and using it as the inspiration for a fictional war in which their sacrifices will be attributed to inhuman fantasy creatures.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that writers in my situation can do to make their writing more culturally sensitive. The most obvious way is to avoid homogeneous depictions of any factions or races within my fantasy world. A lot of fantasy writing doesn’t do this very well, and it’s hardly surprising, when we’re all just following the example set by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein’s orcs and goblins are uniformly nasty, brutish, savage, and deformed. His humans are mostly noble warriors, with a few odious exceptions. His elves are mostly wise and fair. His dwarves are mostly avaricious and argumentative. This obviously isn’t very representative of reality: “racial attributes” are the stuff of tabletop roleplaying, not real life or nuanced fiction. I’m going to do my best to present orcs as nuanced characters rather than savages. I’m planning to present many of our own cultural stereotypes about orcs to be racist misconceptions. When we think of ‘orc’ we think of the caricatures from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptations – slimy savages with foul habits and no morals, who are born out of holes in the ground. I’m going to present this image as propaganda. Ordinary soldiers in my story will believe these things about the orcs as well, the same way that soldiers always believe their enemies to be murderers and rapists who roast babies on spits, but these ordinary soldiers will find out that they’re wrong. One of the things I want to say with this story is that misconceptions and generalisations of other cultures can lead to unnecessary suffering, and I hope that message  is enough to make amends to any Russians who might be upset by my initial decision to replace them with orcs.

Another step that I can take to make things more realistic is to diversify all of the factions in my own story. Different factions in fantasy novels are often divided along racial lines – there’s not much overlap between different races and political entities – but this has never been the case in real world history. If the armies in my story are made up of human and orc soldiers, it would reinforce a lot of unhealthy colonial attitudes that still linger in our cultural subconscious, which I’ve talked about this before in a previous post. To combat this, I can make sure that each army has a varied racial makeup: the allied army has humans, but it also has dwarves, gnomes, half-giants, reptilians, or whatever other interesting fantasy races that I want to throw into the melting pot. The opposing army has orcs, but it also has humans. This doesn’t just increase the cultural sensitivity of my writing, it also makes both armies much more interesting, and much more realistic: a ragtag, multi-ethnic army with a diverse racial makeup is much more fun than an army made up entirely of orcs or humans.

 

I’m running out of space, but I hope I’ve made you think about how you can avoid cultural appropriation and racial homogeneity in your own writing. If you want to read more, there are lots of places that you can go online to educate yourself about the issues. Tumblr is a good place to start: blogs like Writing with Color are a great resource for finding out how to handle these concerns sensitively, and also a great place to go and remind yourself of exactly why authors should be so careful to avoid cultural appropriation: the team there are very eloquent at setting out the issues, and they are very quick to inform you if they think your story concepts contain anything problematic.

That’s all from me today, and I’ll see you on Sunday!

6 Plots in Search of a Novel

Fellow writers, I find myself facing a quandary. Usually when I write, whether it be short stories or longer projects, I have one all-consuming idea that I work on until it’s finished (or the well of plots runs dry). I tend to be extremely single-minded when I write; though I can do other projects, such as working on the Star Trek role-playing game I do with Tom, when it comes to my own stories, I take them one at a time. Not out of choice, mind you. My brain just can’t handle multiple primary plots at one time. At least, that’s how it used to be. *cue ominous music* I currently find myself with an entire stampede of plot ideas all running through my head at once, which is quite irritating, as I am trying very hard to work on my novel. All the different plots are rolling around, begging and pleading to be written, and worse, they’re getting mixed up with each other. It’s the book version of “I’m My Own Grandpa” in my head; all the related plots are intermarrying and producing strange hybrids that make my head hurt when I try to make sense of them. It’s impeding my writing, but I haven’t found a way to get around it. Have any of you ever had this problem? Do you have any tips or suggestions for me to sort out all of this nonsense and get back to my writing, but perhaps without losing some of the other ideas that might prove fruitful in the future?

This is what it feels like in my head right now.
This is what it feels like in my head right now.

Adapting our imaginations into prose

Hello, internet!

I’m slightly frazzled from travelling, so today’s post might be a little disjointed.

After several weeks of intense travelling (and sleeping off my intense jetlag) I’ve finally got myself back into a healthy sleeping pattern where I actually see some daylight now and then, and I’ve found that – perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s really benefiting my writing. I sat down this morning determined to begin a fresh new draft of my book and I shot straight out of the starting blocks, writing 1,000 words and only stopping because I had to go and buy myself a shiny new phone.

I’m back now, with my shiny new phone successfully purchased, and I find myself eager to get back to writing. This is almost a novelty, because I’ve had a few weeks of fairly intense writer’s block, where I’ve been asking myself a lot of crippling existential questions about my writing and my desire to make a career as a writer, and it’s been tying me up and stopping me from getting any words down on the page.

I think there are a few factors which have renewed my creativity, as well as just having a healthier sleeping schedule. One was all of the advice and inspiration that I got from attending NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. It’s only now, with all of my travelling done, that I’m really finding time to apply all of the lessons that I learned to my own writing. Mostly the authors speaking at NerdCon just reaffirmed a valuable lesson that I already knew, but had perhaps forgotten: every writer, even your favourite writer, sucked to begin with. All of the great writers in history began with a crappy first draft, which probably didn’t even get published after they’d rewritten it into a well-polished final draft, but the only way they eventually got published was by writing, and writing, and rewriting, and rewriting. As Maureen Johnson always says, as an aspiring writer, you have to “give yourself permission to suck”. You have to abandon the idea that you’re going to like what you write, at least at first. The only way to get good is to be bad, and then improve.

Sucking at something

I find that advice very empowering, so whenever I get a fresh dose of it, I’m always raring to go and write pages and pages of my crappy first draft without worrying about the quality, which is exactly what young aspiring writers should be doing.

As well as that, though, I think I’ve stumbled across another important lesson, in my recent writing.

I’m really enjoying the latest redraft of my story, which I’ve only just embarked upon, but as I get it down onto the page, I can’t help but shake my head at how different it is from how I originally imagined the story, when I first envisioned the book and the world it’s set in, about two years ago. I like this new envisioning of my book, and more importantly I think it’s the ‘easiest’ incarnation of my world that I’ve ever come up with, in terms of how well the plot and characters melt down into a story that I can actually tell. It’s more malleable, and less troublesome to mould into scenes and plot arcs, linked by a consistent narrative, which of course are all of the essential bare-bones elements of a story that can eventually be turned into a book.

That doesn’t change the fact that the book is very different from the one I was writing a year ago, or even six months ago. The narrative voice is very different, the events have changed sequence dramatically, characters who were in the background have moved into the foreground and vice versa, the technology that they use has regressed by about a century in terms of it’s level of advancement, and I have introduced some explicitly supernatural elements that were completely absent in earlier drafts. All of these changes have made it easier for me to write, and easier to actually tell the story, but they have moved the book further and further from my original conception of the story and the world that it takes place in. And I’m completely okay with that.

I think when authors first conceive of a fantasy world, and think it out, their original idea can be a very beautiful thing. Perhaps that’s fantasy at it’s purest – when it is just mere fantasy, in a writer’s head. But it’s a mistake to think that the world in our heads at the moment of conception is going to be exactly the same world that appears on the page once we’ve finally written the world into prose. The world you’ve created has to be filtered through you if it wants to get into print, where other people can experience it, and you’re an imperfect vessel for that transition. You can’t just open the floodgates and let it pour out unchanged or undiluted. You’re a human being with wants and needs and time constraints and bills to pay, and ultimately you have to change the shape of the world you’ve created so that it’s easy to draw out of yourself as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s no good having a vast, wonderful and expansive fantasy world in your head if you find it impossible to turn into a story which you can actually write: if you can’t mould it into a format that will actually flow through your fingers and out onto the page. Ultimately, I think writability must come first, before any kind of integrity to our original vision. Sacrifices must be made to get the world out of our heads and onto the page.

In short, the important thing is to create a faithful prose adaptation of whatever fantasy world exists in our heads, the same way that a movie director would try to create a faithful cinematic adaptation of a fantasy world that exists in prose. There’s a certain nobility to preserving our original idea as much as possible…but it can be a useless nobility, if our goal is to get published. Sometimes characters must be swapped around, plots must be truncated or rearranged, and extrenuous dragons must be mercilessly excised, in order to make a book writeable. And, for that matter, publishable.

What are your thoughts?

Anatomy of a writing course

Hello, internet!

Last week I posted a brief, muffled endorsement of the Arvon Foundation and their very fine writing courses, from beneath the proverbial bedclothes under which I’d crawled until I recovered from the substantial hangover that I’d accrued during the week. Now I think I owe it to all of you, and indeed to the Arvon Foundation, to go into some more detail. This post will probably end up being much longer, but I hope it gives you an idea of what it’s like to attend a residential writing course, so that you can decide for yourselves whether it would be a good investment for you.

I decided a fair while ago that if I was going to take this writing malarkey seriously (and give potential employers the impression that I was taking it seriously), I was going to have to do one or both of two things: get a short story published in a fantasy anthology (I’m still working on that one), and/or attend a creative writing course. At the time, I thought about it mostly as CV padding: in my ill-deserved arrogance, I assumed that there wasn’t much that a writing course could teach me about the art of writing which I wouldn’t already know. How wrong I was.

It’s funny how these things come about. A few months ago, I did an internship with an academic publishing company, and I found out that their chief book editor was an aspiring writer, far further down the line than I was in terms of having prepared her manuscript, and gauged interest from a few agents and publishers. I sat down for a short conversation with her where I asked her about her experiences as a writer and hungrily jotted down almost every word she said, not caring about the vague awkwardness of the meeting – a mere intern ruthlessly grilling one of the senior editors of the company – so long as I gleaned a few useful morsels of advice out of it. She said a lot of interesting things about her writing habits and the best day-job to pursue if I wanted to become a full-time writer, but the most useful thing she said was “do a creative writing course.” She’d attended one herself, and she had only the most glowing praise for Arvon, the company who’d orchestrated it. I was initially sceptical, but I was surprised to learn that Arvon had a writing centre only about an hour’s drive from where I live. She’d gone to the same centre herself. And when she told me about how much it had boosted her confidence as a writer, I started to come around to the idea.

It was only recently that I booked the course. I paid the £750, filed the absence form at work, and was called into the manager’s office a day or two later to be told “Well, seeing as you’re off on your holidays soon enough, we thought we’d best give you the bad news now.”  So when I turned up on the doorstep of the Hurst, Arvon’s writing centre in Craven Arms, it was in a slightly more advanced state of unemployment than I’d been anticipating. But the beautiful venue helped me to forget about my redundancy pretty quickly.

House

The Hurst was once the home of the English playwright John Osborne, famous for originating the ‘Angry Young Man’ movement in British literature. I confess to never having read any of his work, but after living in his house for a week I can at least attest that he had good taste in architecture and interior decorating. There was also no WiFi and no mobile phone signal. This came as no surprise to me, having lived in the wilds of the Shropshire countryside for most of my teenaged life, but it did make me think about how a writing course in an isolated mansion would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery. I will be logging that idea away for if I ever want to write a quick best-seller.

Fortunately, nobody died (A sentence which I’m sure Arvon will be plastering all over their promotional material if they read this review). The first night consisted solely of getting to know the other writers on the course, along with the authors who’d be tutoring us over the course of the week. Arvon has a colourful carousel of different authors who they bring in for different courses throughout the year, and my tutors were Christopher Wakling and Anjali Joseph, authors of some very fine works of contemporary literature. The other writers on the course were from all walks of life: there were practicing journalists, one or two graduates doing slightly better than me in the world of employment, a few full-time mothers, and a brace of happy retirees looking to polish off their books now that they were free of the trammels of the daily grind.

Upon arrival, I felt a little like I’d misunderstood the brief of the course. It had been advertised to writers with a “work in progress”, and I’d taken this to mean writers past the point of embarkation, still moulding the first drafts of their book and viewing publication as a distant dream rather than an imminent possibility. I turned out to be in the minority. Most of the people on the course had completed their first draft, and many of them had consulted with agents, gaining the accolade of having their manuscripts rejected, or even published, albeit in languages other than English. I was far behind – but this didn’t end up mattering as much as I thought it would.

On the first night we also had to think ahead about when we wanted to schedule one-on-one meetings with the tutors. I booked a tutorial on the first full day of the course, and realised only towards the end of the evening – once I’d already had my fill of complementary wine – that I hadn’t written a synopsis for the tutors to read, or compiled 3,000 words of my first draft into a presentable sample. I retired to my room (well-furnished with an en-suite bathroom and vintage writing desk) and tried to gather my addled wits together and rattle off a short summary of the book I was trying to write. Easy, I thought.

Or perhaps not so easy
Or perhaps not…

I was amazed how difficult I found it to sum up my book in just under a page. Having never submitted a manuscript before, writing a summary was something that I’d never had to do. I stayed up until long past midnight agonising over the synopsis, alternately worrying that the whole concept for my book was completely juvenile, or thinking “these literary snobs aren’t going to appreciate good fantasy when they see it.” In retrospect, having to write a synopsis for my tutors was good practice in of itself for whenever I come around to making submissions, but I didn’t see that at the time. I eventually wrote a fairly apologetic synopsis and went to bed feeling like a sham writer who’d signed up for a course that wasn’t going to be of any help. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I got up early the next morning, printed off the previous night’s desperate efforts, left them on the designated tutor’s shelf on an upstairs bookcase, and went down to breakfast. From there on in, things improved drastically.

The course lasted four days, and each day had roughly the same schedule. We all got up early and helped ourselves to breakfast in the communal kitchen, chatting about whether we’d got any writing done the night before, and hoping to sit near one of the tutors in case they let slip a few esoteric secrets of how to become a successful author whilst it was still early and they hadn’t quite gotten their guard up. Then we went straight into tutorial sessions that lasted until lunch.

The sessions had a different theme every day, progressing chronologically through the writing process – starting with openings and first lines, moving on to characterisation and pacing, and ending up with editing and how to get your work published. If I tried to cram all of the stuff I learned into a single post then you’d be reading for days, but it was all very insightful and practical advice, conveyed by two very talented teachers. It ranged from technical lessons in prose and structure to general discussions about how to maintain the levels of self-confidence that any author needs to see their book through to completion. We did five-minute writing exercises to try and bring extra life and depth to our characters, and then if we wanted to we could read them out to the group, letting everyone get a flavour of the kind of book that everyone else was writing. All in all, the sessions were as fun as they were informative. On one morning we ventured out a little way into the grounds of the Hurst and strolled around looking like we’d escaped from a rehabilitation centre for romantic poets, trying to capture the sublimity of the English countryside in prose. Which proved a little difficult, given the pervading scent of manure.

English countryside
A glimpse of my native Shropshire countryside

The grounds were open to us throughout the week, meaning we could go and stroll through them as much as we liked during the afternoons, which were left free for us to spend time writing or doing whatever we pleased. A few writers made regular pilgrimages to the pub in the nearest village, whilst I personally found it hard to resist rifling through Arvon’s expansive library. Given the huge amount of books on site, the paltry half-shelf devoted to fantasy and science fiction seemed a little bit of an afterthought, but they did have Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King, which I’d never had the pleasure of reading before. I can recommend the whole of the Shattered Sea series. Even if Abercrombie did basically steal my world-map, the fiend.

Half a King
Read this! It’s good!

Others took the retreat more seriously and bolted themselves away in their rooms every afternoon, only coming out for meetings with the tutors. We were given twenty-minutes of one-on-one time with each of the tutors, which might not seem like a lot, but it proved to be more than enough. 3,000 words and a synopsis is what any agent or publisher will expect when a new author is submitting their work, and it was enough material for the tutors to get a good sense of my work and give me detailed feedback. I got to guide the discussion as much as they did, and Chris Wakling went out of his way to address my concerns about the characterisation of my narrator, being kind enough to look at several different drafts of the opening page of my book and help me decide which narrative voice was best. Anjali helped me in unexpected ways by giving me a few plot and character ideas from Indian history, which has always been a huge source of inspiration for my writing. One of the things she mentioned gave me the germ of an idea for an entire book, which will hopefully come midway through the series I’m writing. Between nailing down my narrative voice and figuring out the plot for a whole book, I’d say the one-on-ones by themselves were worth the price of the whole course.

One of the other things that made the week truly worthwhile was the atmosphere of communal living, which really came to a head during the evenings. The writers took turns cooking dinner for everyone else in groups of four, under the watchful gaze of the site staff, without whom we probably would have set the place on fire or poured whole jars of chilli powder into the risotto or heaven knows what else. Everyone came together at 19:00 to eat, and then moved to the lounge, where we sat around and heard different readings on each night: first from the tutors, them from a guest speaker (ours was David Whitehouse, author of Bed), and then from the favourite authors of every writer on the course (in my case it was, of course, the late Sir Terry). Finally, on the last night, we read out five minute excerpts of our own work. The sheer variety of good writing in the room was staggering, covering genres all the way from political thrillers to romantic comedy to bold experiments in writing about people with mental illness. And each of the readings was followed by hours of discussion, lasting well past midnight, full of the kind of off-the-cuff inspiration which had me scrabbling for my notebook and underlining things with an urgency that seemed a little excessive when I tried to make sense of my notes the morning after, unhelped by the fact that wine had been flowing by the bottle since before we sat down to dinner.

Carnage
An example of the kind of heady carnage wreaked when writers are given alcohol and left unsupervised

I should probably add a brief disclaimer that the liberal consumption of alcohol was by no means mandatory or even encouraged during the week. I can recommend the course even to the strictest teetotallers. The organisers made us all aware on the first night that there was a local wine merchant who would be taking our orders if we wanted, allowing us to stock up based upon our personal estimates of how much we would be drinking during the course of the week. Naturally, some of us ended up making bigger estimates than others. There was a full spectrum of imbibement from total abstinence to the kind of indulgence that Ernest Hemingway might have been proud of, perpetrated mainly by myself and one of the tutors. (Although being the youngest attendee and thus having the biggest ability to bounce back from hangovers, I was probably the worst). Most of the writers went to bed at a respectable hour every evening and probably benefited from it by being clear-headed and fully awake for the 9 o’clock tutorials. I was not among their number. And indeed, on the last night, I stayed up with a dedicated core of other writers until 05:00 in the morning, meaning I had to be woken up by the site staff at 10:30 AM to be told that all of the other writers had left and my father was waiting in the car park to pick me up.

For me, that by itself is the mark of a very good week. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether a writing course sounds worth your time and money, even without all the drunken revelry, but I can heartily recommend it.


If you want to replicate my experience exactly, spending a week among fellow souls with excellent tuition and facilities in the heart of English countryside, pay a visit to the Arvon website and book yourself in on a course!

“She’s My What?!”: Discovering Character Relationships

Yeah, you know where this is going.
Yeah, you know where this is going.

Character dynamics are a tricky business. I was working on my novel earlier, and I had two characters, who hadn’t previously interacted, about to meet. As I wrote the lead-in, there was something…off about the character whose point of view I was writing from. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, but beneath his annoyed scowl and general irreverent attitude towards the situation he was currently in, something strange was going on. Rather than try to figure it out, I decided to keep writing and just see what happened. The scene progressed, the door opened, the two characters came face-to-face, and my narrator took in his first impressions of her, and then I suddenly tuned back in at the moment he was thinking “…because she’s my sister.”

Wait, what?

Nothing has ever stopped me dead in my tracks during a writing spree as much as that little revelation did. Were it not for the fact that I never wrote any sexual tension into their relationship, I am certain that my stupefaction would have rivaled that of George Lucas when he suddenly realized 3/4 of the way through filming The Empire Strikes Back that the male and female leads were siblings.

“Really, guys?” I grumbled in an attractively sulky manner while still maintaining an air of authoritative pique. “You couldn’t have told me this earlier?”

Both of them shrugged, smirked, and told me it was on a need-to-know basis and I didn’t need to know until they officially met on the page. Brats.

Stop smirking, guys.
Stop smirking, guys.

Anyways, the point is that not knowing every detail of your characters’ relationships with each other isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I visualized both of these characters, they had a strictly businesslike interaction based on their duties and social interactions within their caste. The moment they met on paper, though, the relationship changed and there’s now some really interesting tension that adds depth to both of them…and, as I realized while I was working on the next chapter, not only fixes a plot problem I’d been worrying over, but also, through their interactions, revealed a great deal more about the social hierarchies and history of the society than even I was aware of, and I’d been working on world-building for months at that point. As weird or annoying as it may be when you randomly discover such important information as family or relationship connections that far into writing (I’d hit just over 10,000 words at that point), and even if it turns some of your plot ideas upside down (which it did for me), letting some of your character relationships develop naturally and reveal themselves to you on their own can be both fun and beneficial for your story. Since this incident, I’ve had one more surprise familial connection jump up out of nowhere between to highly unlikely characters, but again, it’s solved more problems than it’s caused, and it’s been quite an adventure  figuring out all the political, social, and interpersonal ramifications of this new relationship. If you have any stories of similar discoveries, I’d love to hear about them! In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out how my main characters are going to react to this latest tabloidesque revelation.

Discovering Worldbuilding

Worlds are complicated.
Worlds are complicated.

As I mentioned a year or so ago, I really hate worldbuilding. It’s hard for me because it requires a great deal of external description and intricate details. It also stresses me out because my ideas change so much as I write that when I change one thing (say, the name of a country), I have to go back through everything and change each instance, plus comb through each detail to ensure it lines up with my new vision. Frankly, it’s stressful, and it annoys me. As a result, I’ve never undertaken a large creative project, such as a novel, because the genres I write in necessitate a lot of worldbuilding and description and other such things. I avoided it like the plague, actually. However, now that I’ve finally started my first novel, a dystopian sci-fantasy sort of thing, I’ve had to reevaluate my stance on the whole idea. Today, I want to talk about how I’m learning to worldbuild, and how that process is working (or not) for me.

I have some writer friends who do the majority of their worldbuilding before they even sit down to write the story. That method, however, doesn’t work for me; as I mentioned above, my ideas change too much as I write for me to be comfortable with committing to a world before I begin to put my characters in it. What I’m doing for this project, instead, is to take the very basic idea of the world that pops into my head when the plot outline does, and scribble it down in a notepad somewhere. When I started my novel, I only knew two things about the world: the class divisions and the factor that distinguishes my world from any other dystopia (not that I’m going to tell y’all what it is. I don’t do spoilers, least of all for my own novel). I held very firmly to those two notions, as they were what separated all of my characters into their different groups. That was my starting place for the world, and that was all I worried about when I began to write.

Basically, imagine starting with this, and no idea what their surroundings look like.
Basically, imagine starting with this, and no idea what their surroundings look like.

As I wrote the prologue, more pieces of the world started to appear, without me ever having to think them through. Characters from two separate castes were represented in that scene, and as I began to write their dialogue, I suddenly understood how both classes generally viewed and spoke to each other, as well as the history behind their preconceptions of each other. When the violent weather changed the direction of the scene and brought new characters in, I realized what the geography of the world had to be – where everyone lived and why they had to live in those places, and what the commerce system would be like. After I finished writing the prologue, I took some time to write down the new elements of the world that I now understood. The puzzle pieces slowly started fitting together.

The history of my world was a little bit harder and revealed itself differently. I spent long hours agonizing over how the world got into the post-apocalyptic/dystopian state it’s currently in. I didn’t know what the motivations between the central conflict were, how the classes ended up being divided the way they were, or the details behind the powers the members of one particular class display. Eventually, I ended up unable to write any further into my first main chapter because I couldn’t get any characters to explain anything to me. A few nights ago, I had some really bad insomnia, but instead of getting on my computer or reading, like I normally would, I spent about 5 hours just laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and talking to myself about the history of my new world. I started with where my characters are now, and, taking what I had already discovered, started working backwards through the timeline to figure out what happened in the past. As I went through that process, more and more details started showing themselves to me, and next thing I knew, I’d arrived at the zero point: the point in the timeline where everything relevant to my plot began. And suddenly, I knew exactly what had happened. I talked it through the next morning with my patient proofreader, Tom, and he liked where everything is headed. We checked it against what I already had, and everything lined up very nicely 😀 Once I’d written that down, my writing mojo came back, and I got right back into my chapter writing.

I’m still learning new facets of my world as I continue to write, and some minor elements are changing (particularly name structure – I’m really bad at that), but more the most part, I’ve learned how to cope with and understand the elements as they reveal themselves. Some parts I have to put a lot of effort into, but others unfold naturally. Regardless, worldbuilding isn’t as painful as it has been in the past, and I think I finally found the method combination that works for me 🙂 I hope it was helpful to some of you! What other methods do y’all use?

Writing and Awesome Opportunities

The masterAs most of you know, I finished my MA degree a couple weeks ago (you may now all call me The Master), and since leaving school, the long job hunt continues. At the beginning of May, I put in an application for an internship with a company in Pennsylvania. The internship looked pretty awesome: lots of writing, work from home (no relocation needed), set my own hours, etc. It specified unpaid, but hey, internships are great resume builders, right? And it keeps me writing. Anyway, I wasn’t expecting to get it because those things are competitive, but I sent in my Resume and CV anyway. They contacted me for a Skype interview the following day, and the interviewer talked to me about my experience. He was really impressed with the wide variety of writing I do, as I have several academic publications, two theses, several non-academic publications, editing/proofreading experience, creative writing, and, actually, this blog. He looked over some of my posts for The Art of Writing, and he loved it. He said it was a unique and interesting addition to my varied resume and it spoke to my writing experience in various mediums. So, I got hired on the spot! It’s unpaid, but he said there’s a good chance of getting a full-time job out of it in three months if my performance reviews are high enough, which is pretty exciting. The moral of the story is: writing is awesome and it opens many windows for you that you may not be aware of. Varied writing is the key; if I’d only done academic writing or creative writing or what have you, he wouldn’t have found my resume interesting. So keep writing, try new avenues of wordcrafting, and see where it takes you!

Experiments are fun and necessary

I was published for the first time. It happened last week Wednesday through a Facebook post. “We’re on Amazon.” I figured this couldn’t refer to a trip to the great river or rain forest, palling around with jaguars and dinosaurs, if you believe Professor Challenger’s account. There was no trip on the books, and surely I would have been invited for my intuitive and manly nature. I mean the hair on my chest and back? I could totally pass for a gorilla in a life or death situation where it was required I was mistaken as one of their own.

Anyway, I realized it was the anthology, and we were on the website, Amazon. What a remarkable piece of technology. I sat in the van, with my grandparents and parents, about to leave my brother’s call day, when I mumbled, “Oh, I’ve been published.” This caused a whirlwind of sorts, but it’s neither here nor there. What’s important is what I wrote for the anthology.

While agonizing over what I would contribute to this pot of fledgling authors, many of which can only claim the mantle of author now that they were put into an anthology, such as myself, I was reading stories from India. They were beautiful, enchanting, filled with descriptors and impossible events. There were talking birds which took their revenge on evil owls. Jackals made fools of lions until exposed and subsequently eaten. The endings consisted of all the mortals realizing they’re gods, and ascending back to heaven after fixing some fault in the past.

So I decided I wanted to experiment. I was going to write an Indian myth. It was criticized. I’ll level with you, the majority of modern readers do not like mythologies because they’re filled with tropes, deus ex machina, gods, beautiful people, and perfect endings. Aside from the Ramayana. What was that, Sita? “My husband can’t just accept things? Fine! The earth is going to swallow me and you’ll never marry me. Thanks for rescuing me from the demon king so I can willingly be swallowed by the earth.” If I were Rama, I’d go off with the bear and monkey and drink myself into a stupor. I bet you’re at least marginally curious about what any of that means. It’s a good read.

Technically Thai, but this is their depiction of the Ramayana. I know you want to read it. It's free online. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana#/media/File:Wat_phra_keaw_ramayana_fresco.jpg
Technically Thai, but this is their depiction of the Ramayana. I know you want to read it. It’s free online.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana#/media/File:Wat_phra_keaw_ramayana_fresco.jpg

Anyway, the point is I experimented. It wasn’t necessarily appreciated by all. In fact about 15% of the story was not appreciated by any. But it’s a little like baseball spring training, where pitchers can have abysmal ERAs. You’re throwing the same pitch not to strike out the batter, but to perfect the pitch. I wrote an experimental piece as much to entertain as I did to grow and learn. What I got out of mimicking Indian mythology was a much stronger sense of description.

I experiment in most of my stories and world building. I use old mythologies to teach me concepts and techniques. Each culture teaches me something new, often ideas that we don’t really dabble in anymore. Funny story, it’s unique if no one’s really used it in 1500 years.

While you don’t need to experiment for the rest of your life, I do highly suggest you experiment. Find a writer and copy them, but in your way. Even make it publication quality. Go for it.

What experimentation have you committed? Where are your influences? What have they taught you?

Also, please do look into purchasing the anthology I was fortunate enough to be a part of. The writers are all young. Many of us, this is our first story. But more important than checking out our author pages, is that the money goes towards the World Literacy Foundation. There’s even a cute video of children reading around the world. I think the companies we are publishing through get a 30% cut, more on the physical copy, but the rest goes straight to helping people read in a global economy where reading is critical for high end employment.

If you want to pay full price, Amazon is a great place to get it. Not dinosaurs, but books. There are also dinosaur books.

For those who are a little more frugal, you have two options, both available until May 31, 2015.

For digital, go to the link and put in code VB87J for 25% off.

For physical, go to the link and put in code TGERED9J for 25% off.

Please do leave reviews on the site, and thank you for your patronage. More importantly, thank you on behalf of all those kids who will learn to read because of your contributions.

Brainstorming Tips: Be Thankful

So, it’s Thanksgiving time, and I couldn’t be happier. I have a week off from work, I’m in the middle on the North Carolina mountains with my boyfriend’s family, and I get to sleep in as long as I want every morning. Pretty much paradise for this exhausted educator and thesis writer. Anyway, I often have trouble doing any creative writing during this part of the holiday season because I’m so worn out that I can’t think of anything to write, and since I only have a week, it’s difficult to rest up enough to let the ideas come along on their own in time. I do have a little trick I do to both get myself in the holiday spirit AND in the mood to write: I write out a “thankful” list. Most people do around this time of year, but I don’t just do the generic “family, friends, and work” sort of thing. I get as detailed as I possibly can with about 25 events (major or minor) that have happened this year and 15-20 objects and/or people I’m thankful for, and I leave an anecdote with each one. Usually, at least one of those write-ups on my list will spark an idea, and off I go to write. So here’s a couple examples from my list this year:

1) Thankful for: My boyfriend. Anecdote: He always tries to get me to attempt new things; this semester, he’s wanted me to go to a football game because he loves sports and I have never so much as seen 5 minutes of a football event. I agreed to go, rather begrudgingly, but the home football games for my school’s team never lined up quite right with my schedule. The day we finally got to go was the last home game of the season, and it was ridiculously cold outside (about 30 degrees). We were there early, so we got bobbleheads of the school’s mascot, and pretty nice ones at that. I still don’t know what to do with mine, but who cares? So anyway, we sat in the student section, and it was kind of ridiculous. I had no idea what was going on (why is it called football when their feet don’t come in contact with the ball?), particularly since the game kept getting stopped every 5 seconds, and it was so cold. Boyfriend told me we could go after the first quarter, but I had promised him I would stay until the half, so I said I would wait. He laughed at me for being stubborn and bet that I would give up. Me being me, that taunting made me even more stubborn. So despite the teasing and the ridiculous cold as it got darker and darker, I stayed put until the whistle blew to mark the end of the second quarter. We both ran for the nearest building and sat in there for 2 hours to warm up. I still have no idea how football works, but I’m thankful for having that experience with my boyfriend because it made him very happy I was willing to try it, and it brought out his more playful side (he really likes teasing me when I’m being stubborn). It was a good day, despite the cold and confusion. football1

23) Thankful for: my spice cabinet. Anecdote: I was in a car accident a couple months ago, and the vehicle swerved quite a bit after the initial impact before we finally stopped. I was in the back seat and got thrown around a little; I later went to the hospital and I was diagnosed with bad whiplash. Anyway, when the car first stopped, my head hurt really badly, and I was dizzy and kind of freaked out. The police and an ambulance were there, and we all had to get out. Despite everything going on, all I could think about was finding my salt and pepper shakers…I’d brought dinner in my bag, and with it I’d brought along my black peppercorn grinder and my expensive sea salt. They fell out of the bag when the accident occurred, and I remember being terribly worried that I wouldn’t find them before the tow truck came and took the van away. I actually had one of my friends crawl around the car looking for them – she obliged me and found them, and I was at peace despite the fact that we were stranded on the side of a road in the dark out in the backwoods somewhere. None of that mattered because I had my salt and pepper, and I was greatly thankful for it.

I don’t know where I’ll go with these things creatively, but I’m already starting to get some ideas. In almost every case, I start off with the item or person in question, and end up somewhere in my anecdote that I hadn’t even considered. It helps me not only remember things to be thankful for, but also remember occurrences to bring into my stories, and it’s quite inspiring. So what are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

Separating Fiction from Academia: Word Choice and Tone

200474875-001It’s November, which means that I am in the midst of approximately 50000 papers and my thesis. My desk is strewn with research, hefty literary tomes, and my MLA handbook. In other words, my brain is in full-blown academic writing mode. I think in complex syntax and $500 dollar words, and analyze everything I see and hear. Everything I write, even a Facebook post, sounds like a term paper in my head. Unfortunately, this also carries over into my creative writing. I try to write dialogue, but every character sounds like they’re writing research papers, submitting articles for publication in The Modern Language Review, or reading Dostoevsky. The tone of every story is also ridiculously pretentious and stuffy…it all sounds like something Ann Radcliffe would have written. My current struggle is figuring out how to switch between modes so that I can work on my creative writing even during my busy research weeks. The only way I’ve discovered so far is completely shutting off the academic side of my brain by watching some ridiculous TV show (Gossip Girl, anyone?), and then I can switch into my creative mode. The only problem is that I often have difficulty getting back into the mood to write my thesis or other major literary type things…it can take hours to return to the right mindset, which is very frustrating. Still, it scratches an itch for now. Any suggestions? Anyone else have this issue?