HowTo

Words for Writers: Getting Started

Today I’m going to answer some questions. I find that I get these questions asked of me frequently, and they all sort of go together, so I figured I ought to address them all in one blog post.

 

1)      How did you become a writer?

 

I began writing fanfic when I was about eleven. Eventually started to write original stories. I did NaNoWriMo for a few years before I produced a manuscript that I thought was worth starting to shop around. My story at this point is quite traditional – I finished and polished the manuscript, wrote a query letter and beta’d/edited/polished it just as much as the novel. Then I made an Excel file of all the agents and publishers that accepted unsolicited submissions that I thought I would like to work with. Then I began querying them, one by one. As each rejection letter came back, I revised my query and the manuscript based on the advice I received from them (if any).

 

However, at the same time, I was networking. I went to book launches, made friends with local authors, and went to a lot of science fiction conventions. At one such convention, a literary SF/F con in Toronto, I brought copies of my pitch and query letter, just in case. Good thing I did, because I met the woman who eventually became to acquiring editor at a room party. We got to talking, she asked about my book, I was able to tell her about it and show her the pitch. (Of course, I didn’t know she was an editor when I did so or I might have been very nervous!)

 

She asked for me to send her the full, which I did, and after I worked on some revisions she requested, she asked to sign the book to Dragon Moon Press. I agreed, and in April 2011 the book came out.

 

In the end, the querying wasn’t what got me the contract. However, the querying process helped me improve my pitch and my query letter, so it was professional and persuasive when DMP saw it.

 

So, yes, I was in the right place at the right time, and I met the right person. But when that moment was gifted to me, I was fully prepared for it. The book was finished, I’d written my query letters, my one-page synopsis, some marketing ideas, my bio, and a pitch. I had a website, some short stories published, and a sense of what kind of writer I wanted to be.

 

In short, when opportunity knocked, I was able to open the door with my trousers up.

 

2)      Do you have any advice on how I can become a writer?

 

Write. A lot.

Read. A lot.

Show your writing to people. A lot.

Hone your craft. A lot.

Write more. A lot.

 

(I wrote, like, a bazillion words of fanfic from the age of 11 to 28, and posted most of it online. Trust me, there is no trial-by-fire like the anonymous commenters on one’s ficblog/ff.n. I began my first original novel at 19. My first novel took 8 years to complete. The second took one and I haven’t finished editing it yet. My third took about 6 months to write and 3 years to edit and sell. I was doing most of this simultaneously, along with a BA and then an MA.)

 

3)      Do you work with a beta reading group/writers circle/critique partner?

 

Always.

 

After I’ve finished a new manuscript, I  give it about a week to cool off. Then I do an extensive re-read and polish. Then I send the completed manuscript to at least three or four people and I collate their feedback when it comes. Once I’ve read and organized all of their feedback – paying special attention to where their comments overlap – I begin draft 2.  I also send my books to my Mum, but that’s because she’s a ruthless typo-hunter. And if something isn’t working, Mum says so. She doesn’t “that’s nice dear” me, and I love her to bits for it.

 

4)      Can I be in your beta reading group/writers circle/critique partner?

 

Sorry, but no. I’ve worked hard to find a group of people with whom I can work and on whom I can rely (and whose work I enjoy helping them polish and edit). I’m afraid I’m just not seeking to expand the group. I’ve found a balance that works for me; it’s up to you to find something that works for you.

 

5)      How do I find a beta reading group/writers circle/critique partner?

 

I found my beta group through a few avenues – when I was on the JET Programme in Japan, those of us English Speakers who were doing NaNoWriMo in my province got together once a week and we turned into a critique group after NaNo was over. I’ve become critique partners with some of my publisher-siblings, and also with some friends I made back when I was still writing fanfic, and with people I jelled with in my university playwriting and short story classes. I collected my circle quite organically.

 

If you want to build your own circle, check out your local NaNoWriMo regional chat rooms or forums; put an ad in the student newspaper or newsletter; talk to the fanficcers in your circle; start or join a Facebook group; join MSFV’s Critique Partner Speed Dating; attend local book launches and network with other new writers in attendance; check out the notice boards in the local book store or talk to the owner about if they know some authors looking for an addition to their group; join a local writing group (check out the activity boards at your local rec centre, library, community hall, etc.); join a continuing education writing class; take a writing class in university; go to local literary conventions and hang out in the bar/café to talk with other writers; attend critique events or matchups at conventions; go to local geek pub nights or trivia nights, or other such meet-ups and talk to other writers; apply to and attend writers retreats.

 

In short – be proactive and network. Eventually you’ll find the people you mesh with!

 

Also, don’t be disheartened if you agree to work with someone and you find you can’t. Finding a great critique partner is like finding your spouse – sometimes you have to edit with some frogs before you find your prince(ess). Just part ways amiably and burn no bridges, and things should be fine.

 

6)      Can you read my story and give me feedback?

 

Again, sadly no. I used to be able to say yes, but I’m afraid the constraints and demands on my writing time have grown such that I cannot take on extra responsibilities. I wish I could, but if I have to choose between getting my work done and reading yours, I have to work on mine. I hope you find a great critique partner of your own to work with!

 

7)      How do I get published?

 

When people ask this, they are usually really asking for me to share the Secret Magic Trick of Becoming a Published Author.

 

I’m afraid there isn’t a Secret Magic Trick of Becoming a Published Author.

 

There is one way and one way only to Become a Published Author, and it is this:

 

  • Write a book.
  • Polish the ever loving crap out of it
  • Send it out to beta readers / critique partners and get their advice.
  • Edit your book based on said advice.
  • Polish the ever loving crap out of it
  • Send it back out to your betas/critique partners.
  • Edit your book based on said advice.
  • Polish the ever loving crap out of it.
  • Write an incredible query letter. Polish the ever loving crap out of it.
  • Decide if you want to go the a)big-pub route, the b)small-pub route, or the c)self-pub route.
    • If A:
      • Research agents in writing guides and on sites like DuoTrope, Absolute Write, or by figuring out the agents of authors that you admite/whose work resembles yours.
      • Very politely and very professionally query said agents based on their individual and specific submission guidelines.
      • Make any revisions and polishes they recommend in their rejection letters/requests for revisions.
      • Continue with the above until one of them agrees to represent you, or until you’ve run out of options and nobody has agreed to represent you or your manuscript
      • Start a new manuscript and start from point 1.
  • If B:
    • Research small press publishers in published writing guides, on sites like DuoTrope, Absolute Write, etc. or by figuring out the publishers of authors that you admire/whose work resembles yours.
    • Very politely and very professionally query said publishers based on their individual and specific submission guidelines.
    • Make any revisions and polishes they recommend in their rejection letters/requests for revisions.
    • Continue with the above until one of them agrees to publish your manuscript, or until you’ve run out of options and nobody has agreed to take manuscript
    • Start a new manuscript and start from point 1.

If C:

  • Research self-pub options and companies and go with the one that you feel is safest, most reliable, and most suitable for your needs.
  • Work with an excellent and professional editor to polish the manuscript again; preferably someone with a good CV. Be prepared to pay for this. It’s totally worth it.
  • Design or hire a designer to do your marketing/cover/etc.

Then:

  • Work with your acquiring editor / professionally hired editor to get the book ready for the typesetter/publication.
  • Sign and adhere to your contract.
  • Do all the stuff you need to do for marketing, wait an agonizing bunch of time for the book’s release date.
  • Ta da! Published!*

 

*Expect this to be a 2-20 year process.

 

Okay, so I apologize for being a bit blunt and glib there, but that’s really the truth of it. You write a great book, you find someone to publish it, and it gets published. There’s no secret, no back door, no short cut. You have to write a great book and someone has to agree to publish it, or you choose to publish it yourself. Either is fine – it’s just what you choose.

 

And if the book you write isn’t great, then you write a new book, start all over again, and see if people want that one.  And if that one doesn’t sell, you do it again.

 

This is a process that you might have to do over and over until something sticks – like an Olympic diver learning how to enter the water without a splash, it takes dozens, perhaps hundreds of attempts to get it right.

 

Also – bribing agents/publishers will not work. If anything, sending a box of cookies with your manuscript will just make the agent/publisher wig out and think you’re a weirdo, or a pain in the arse who can’t read the query submission rules and therefore is not worth working with. Gifts are not appropriate until such a time that you HAVE a relationship with that agent/publisher/editor. Neither are extras. Neither are bribes. Neither is begging for special compensation or special treatment. Neither is ignoring the submission/query guidelines.

 

YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL. If your book isn’t good enough to stand on its own merit, then it’s not good enough to publish. Period.

 

If it helps: Triptych was the third book I’d written. The first two I shopped a little bit and then put in the morgue when it was clear they weren’t going to get any bites and that I wasn’t on the level of writing that I wanted to be at yet. Triptych accumulated thirty-four rejections (with very few requests to read the full manuscript) before Dragon Moon Press decided to read it. Even then it was rejected conditionally; there were lots of edits the editor wanted me to do before I was to resubmit. So, even my first victory wasn’t effortless or like some magical fairy tale. It took lots of hard work and sixty-four drafts before the book was ready to be seen by the public. And I wouldn’t trade in a second of it.

 

I hope this blog post has been helpful for you, and not too harsh!

 

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Getting Started
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Gadgets, Goggles, and The Doctor

Elightenment, the Doctor Who Information Network FanZine, has an article by me on Doctor Who and Steampunk in issue 168! Order your copy here.

Sneak Preview:

The Gadgets, The Goggles, and The TARDIS

Or

Why Doctor Who is Steampunk

            There have been arguments back and forth – especially since the Moffat-era TARDIS desktop theme change – about whether or not Doctor Who qualifies as Steampunk. To my mind, it does… ish.

I don’t think of Steampunk as a genre (as genres require tropes and recognizable narrative patterns), but rather as an aesthetic. And as such, Doctor Who is Steampunk. But only as much as it is sometimes Western, and sometimes Soap Opera, and sometimes Psychological Thriller, and sometimes Fantasy. The appeal of Doctor Who is that from week to week, the style and the type of stories being told vary in tone and narrative arc.  It is never just one kind of programme, and is instead a glorious mishmash. Which is in and of itself, very Steampunk.

But what is the Steampunk Aesthetic and why do I think Doctor Who is one of the best examples of Steampunk on television? Pithily called “yesterday’s future, today!”, Steampunk art (literature, music, visual, textile, etc) envisions a future that has collapsed onto a re-imagined Victorian past, or an alternate world where the Victorian era technology and society has held on.  Sometimes these contain alternate history, or “path not taken” moments: Revisionist, or Fictionalized history.  Steampunk allows for technology and historical events to be shuffled together and bent like a deck of playing cards.

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are oftimes cited when discussing early Steampunk (which is inaccurate, as they are of the era, not writing about it nostalgically), but a quick way to get a grasp on Steampunk is to think of three films: Wild Wild West, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Suckerpunch. (Leaving aside the quality of said films). Current popular Steampunk novels include The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, the Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfield, the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest, and The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress.

Steampunk doesn’t really have any hard and fast rules (hence my argument that it is not a genre), but Dr. Mike “The Steampunk Scholar” Perschon posits that to be Steampunk, an art piece must include:  technofantasy (or technology that requires an element of the impossible to function), neo-Victorianism (a celebration of the Victorian era, and Empire, though this time with an awareness of the problematics of the era), and Retrofuturism (the way the past viewed the future, or more important in Steampunk, how we think the past viewed the future.)  These three features, in any combination and amount, is what Perschon says “constitutes the Steampunk aesthetic … Steampunk is the glass – and while some might not like the analogue of an empty vessel for their ostensible subculture or lifestyle, keep in mind that you can put whatever you like in that glass – art, film, or lifestyle – and Steampunk it.”

And Doctor Who does this inexplicably well.

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To read the rest, order your copy of issue 168 of Enlightenment here.

 

JM FreyGadgets, Goggles, and The Doctor
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Words for Writers: World-Building, Culture-Building, Character-Building, and Finding The Story

When people come to me for story-telling advice, I often ask them to narrate to me the story they’re trying to tell. I find it helps, for me at least, to narrate the whole story out loud for a friend so that I can see what parts I gravitate to, which scenes I find important enough to linger on and which ones I skip, and which moments make my audiences’ eyes widen or makes them frown, or makes them tune out.

However, when I ask this of others, especially those really struggling with their novels, I often find myself at the receiving end of world-building info dumps:

“See, there’s this world where plants are alive, and some of them can even talk. Like, roses sing everything they say and nobody likes roses because even though they smell sweet they’re real assholes and they’re kinda shrill. And then oak trees…” etc.

This isn’t a bad thing, per se. I listen to everything they have to say about the world, but I usually have to follow up with something like:

“Well that sounds like a fascinating reality you’re constructing, but where’s the story? Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Who are we following and why? And why should I, the reader, care? You have to make me care about the character I’m following.”

Many writers are so stuck on the world their creating that they forget that a story is supposed to be about a protagonist who goes on a journey to get something they want and grows or changes along the way. This usually also includes an antagonist whose desires or motivations get in the way of the protagonist achieving their own. That is the basic plot of any novel, and if you don’t have a person you’re following, then you don’t have a story, no matter how awesome or detailed the world you’ve created is.

(I’m going to assume you know that I mean that there is no one right way to do the above: the protagonist can be a flower, an elf, a toy, a human, etc. The journey can be emotional, physical, metaphorical, etc. You get what I mean.)

So what does that mean? This means that, while you are world-building, you also have to character-build – you need to focus on one or a group of people and tell the story about them and not about the world itself.

How do you do that? Some people find it easier to start with the character and build the world based on what you need that character to be like, and to do, the nature and the nurture of the character’s history. Some people find it easier to build the world and then pick one of the people out of their world to focus on.

There is no right and wrong way to do it, but don’t forget to do it. The character is the one that the story is about, not the world.

(Remember: The protagonist is Harry Potter, not Hogwarts and the Wizarding World.)

But I can’t tell you how to do that; that’s something you have to do for yourself, for your own book. All I can tell you to do is to remember it.

I can, however, tell you how I do it.  Usually I start with the character.

What gender is this character? What sex? What age? What class? What race? What ethnicity? What kind of story do I want to tell? A high-fantasy quest narrative? An emotional literary fiction tale about love and loss? A science fiction action adventure?  What sort of person do they have to be to fit that kind of story? What is it that the character wants and how is the character going to work to get it? Who or what is going to get in their way and how will they deal with being denied what they want? How will they overcome this obstacle? What do they fear most, above all else, and what would happen if they were to be forced to endure the thing they fear? Why do they fear that thing, what’s the socio-economic reason? Why does this person need to be my protagonist, the person the novel follows, and not say, his or her sibling, or neighbour, or oppressor, or slave, or pet cat?

In answering these questions, I usually begin to have to world-build alongside this. I have to know why my character fears X instead of Y, and what that means in the scope of their culture and upbringing. For example, in the novel my agent is currently shopping, my heroine fears confinement most – she’s claustrophobic, hates cages and the dark. Why? Because she loves the sky, open spaces, flight, and travel. She’s from a nomad culture and to her home is where she has room to breathe among nature and the gods they worship, not in a choked up, sterile, technology-crammed city.

Oops – look what I just did there: world-building. Actually, what I really was doing is culture-building.

Nomad culture, believe in a pantheon of gods who need free air to travel about, love light and fear the dark.  Why? What’s the history of that? What  myths and stories did she learn at her grandmother’s knee? And what sorts of foods does this mean her people eat? What are their staples? What sorts of clothes does being a nomad mean she needs to wear – what does her clothing need to protect her against?  Where do they travel and what’s the climate like in those places?

And, if this is two hundred years on from when her people were last nomads and have settled into cities (which they have), then what traditions did they preserve and which ones did they chuck? What part of her life harkens back to that nomad lifestyle?

In telling the story of a character, you are automatically telling the story of the world they live in. If it is a world rich in tradition, stories, and understanding, then you can learn about the world at large by spending time in your character’s smaller world. Macrocosim via microcosim.

Who a person is and what they want are very much imbedded in the hegemony of the culture in which they were raised. That means, you, as the writer, should probably have some idea of that culture not only on a grand worldbuilding scale, but how it directly affected the growth and values of your character.  Yes, know the mechanics and the principals of the world at large, but also those of the neighbourhood that your character grew up in.

I find that when a writer has considered all of this, it shines through on the page, and the characters are more compelling, more in-depth, and more interesting to spend time with. Think of your favourite characters, and then think of what you know of their childhoods, their parents, the food they prefer and the entertainment they like. This makes them accessible, because we all have preferences and things we fear and like, too. This makes for an attractive character that people want to spend time with (even if they’re an anti-hero), and with whom the reader grows comfortable.

Then it’s easy to want to spend time with them, to want to invest 400 pages worth of reading about this character and their journey.

Usually when I begin to worldbuild-via-characterbuilding, I decide three things:

 1)      What sorts of things does my protagonist wear? What do the people around him/her wear and the people below and above him/her in class/station/career/etc. wear? What do they wear lounging around at home, and what do they wear at their most fancy? What kind of fabrics are most clothes made of? Are there some colours or fabrics that certain people cannot or do not wear? Why? How much does it cost to buy premade clothing? To make your own? What’s more expensive, bespoke or off the rack? What part of the body is it considered lewed not to cover? What part of the body does everyone display with no thought? Why that part and not another?

2)      What sorts of things does my protagonist eat? Does (s)he grow their own food? Where do they buy it and does it cost a lot? Are there foods that are imported or exported? What sort of climate do they live in and what kind of agriculture does that allow them to have? Can they afford to buy exotic foods? What is their staple grain? What was their childhood treat? Is the water safe to drink? If not, what do they drink instead?

3)      What sorts of swear words and jargon does my protagonist use? Swear words are an important gateway to worldbuiding because they are usually, in most cultures, blasphemies or oaths. In English we say, “Goddamn it!” or “Jesus Christ!” or, in Quebec we say, “Tabernac!”, which each originate in Christianity. So what kind of religion does your world have and how can someone blaspheme? Or, if no religion, what is considered sacred, holy, and virtuous? In Harry Potter they say, “Merlin’s shorts!”, which means that Merlin himself was revered. Jargon comes from shortcuts in speech, metaphors and similes that have been reduced to just a few words. In my novel The Skylark’s Song, my protagonists’ people, the Sealies, are considered a burden on the society that they live among, the Benne. The Benne call Sealies “ticks” or “leeches”, blood-drinking insects better for squishing than spending time with. The Sealies call the Benne “scrubbed up cows”, docile farm animals that are led around by their nose rings like cleaned-up cattle at an auction house, useless and stupid. What sorts of sayings might have come about in your world, and why? How and when are they used? Are there certain segments of the population that use different idioms and jargon than others?

Once I have these three things in place, I feel like I have enough of a basis for my culture to begin the story. My protagonists’ habits and preferences will fill out the rest of the world for me as I go, and I can use what I’ve decided about his/her world to explain why he or she does some of the things they do.  For example, in The Skylark’s Song, my protagonist takes her tea clear with honey. This is because she is a Sealie, and most Sealies keep hives in their back gardens because they cannot afford to buy refined sugar. I don’t go into huge detail in the book about the socio-economic background of why the Sealies can’t, and why they moved to honey (mostly because before they settled in Saskwyia they were a nomad culture and it was easy to put a hive on a wagon and have the bees follow along after you), or any of that. But I do make the honey a bone of ethnic contention between my protagonist and her sugar-preferring coworkers.

While worldbuilding, don’t forget that you must also culture-build. To help, ask yourself these questions:

–          Who is the least priviledged, most oppressed, most agency-denied peoples in your world? Why are they so? Can you tell a story from the point of view of these people?

–          Who is the most priviedged, the least oppressed or the ones doign the oppressing? Why are they doing it, why are they where they are? Can you tell a story from the point of view of these people?

–          Where are the class/race/religion/ethnic tensions? Can you tell a story set firmly in the middle of that mire?

–          How does courtship play out? Who chases and who is chased? How many people are involved in a marriage, and what is the legal definition of a marriage?  Are they arranged? By whom, and when, and why? If not, why not?

–          What is the explanation for love? Does your culture have love? Why? Why not? Do they let love dictate their relationships or hierarchies?

–          How are children conceived? Sex, magic, medicine? How are children reared? What is the tradition around birthing children? Who is present, and who is excluded? What is the medical explanation for pregnancies happen? The mystical? To whom do children belong? Whose responsibility is it to raise them and educate them? At what age are they considered adults? Do they have to perform some task or reach some milestone to be considered independent and in charge of their own agency? Does it differ between sexes or genders or ethnicities?

–          Can people own other people? Is there slavery? Are a specific group of people considered non-persons? What does the law have to say about this versus tradition? Can people become un-owned by another? By what method?

–          How many genders and biological sexes does your culture acknowledge? What is the traditional explanation for this? The medical? Is there a taboo surrounding some of these, either individually or in combination?

–          What do these people do for fun? Do they consume intoxicants or hallucinigenics? Do they partake in sex for fun instead of just procreation?  Do they enjoy music, or theatre, or literature? Do they have sporting events? Is the entertainment government sanctioned? Is it illegal? Is it underground? Is it just free?

–          How is their society ruled? Who makes the laws and who upholds them? How are they decided? Is it a monarchy? A democracy? A dictatorship? How is the one or ones who ruled addressed? Thought of? Are their feared or loved and why? Does it matter? Is there a revolution or a war happening or on the horizon? Who is fighting it and what are their aims?

–          What happens to people who break the rules? Are they punished? How? When? Why?

–          How are people rewarded? What sorts of things are they rewarded for, and what do they gain? Money? Fame? Things? A title?

–          What do people think of property and possessions? Who owns what? Does anyone own anything? Is money used, or a barter system? What things are precious, and can be exchanged for other things? Is it metals, or stones, or paper representations of wealth? Is it animals, or land, or in trading boy-children?

–          What do people think of animals? Do they have souls? Are they reared for labour and food, or is their no animal husbandry? Are people vegetarian? Are they vegan? Why or why not? Do they use animal skins and things like milk and honey? Do they wait for animals to die naturally and then use their carcasses?  Do they not use animals for anything at all? Why do they think animals exist? Do they believe animals have souls?

–          Do they believe in souls, gods, or some sort of higher power? What do they believe happens to them when they die? Is there some part of them that lives on in some fashion or does the meat of their bodies just die and go rotten?

–          Are they hunted by anyone? Are your people livestock themselves? Or outcasts?

 

Another great way to worldbuild is by talking about things the protagonist doesn’t understand. Much of the protagonist’s beliefs and way of life can be exposed by having them stuck in a place where their beliefs and way of life don’t match those of the people around them. What confuses your protagonist. What offends them? What shocks or startles them? What happens that makes them think, “Oh, that’s a much better way of doing it than the way my people do it!” What new food delights them, and which disgusts them? What fashion seems indecent or prudish?

Consider: in Triptych, Kalp teaches the reader a lot about the life he lived and the world he came from by describing the things about modern western culture on Earth that he doesn’t understand.  He doesn’t understand why he can’t enjoy cooking if he aligns male, or why he must take up a sporting team to support. He doesn’t like shoes, doesn’t understand “cheers!” and the bedroom furniture we use hurts his back.  What does that tell you about gender roles, clothing, language, and dwellings on his world? In Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, we learn a lot about Lessa’s home life by how she reacts to the strangeness of the Dragonriders and the Weyr in which she is taken to live. McCaffrey also gives us snatches of a folksong, which tells a history of the Weyrs and the Dragonriders without pummeling us with the facts.

Lastly, my advice for you is to keep all these musings and thoughts, reasons and descriptions somewhere that is outside of the Manuscript. I put mine on a giant chalkboard that hangs in my living room, in plain view of the sofa that I prefer to write on. That way it’s out there and I don’t feel the need to infodump in the book.

This way I have it all in one place, easy to read at a glance, and ready to remind me what I’ve decided. It’s also easily added to or changed.

And above all, don’t info dump. It is the story that is paramount when writing a novel, not the world. No matter how cool a thing you invented for your world may be, if it doesn’t serve the story, don’t waste pages describing it. It’s boring. It slows down the plot. It gets in the way.

I mean, we all love Lord of the Rings, but the history gets in the way of the story a lot. Tolkien wrote a history text book with a plot, instead of a novel. I can appreciate what he did, the academic exercise of it, the characters he created, but it wasn’t until Peter Jackson excised a lot of the history in the book and just told the story of the Fellowship and Frodo that I actually had my imagination grasped by Tolkien’s creation.

Think of it this way: good world/culture-building serves the plot. If something has to stop – some action, some conversation, so journey – so that someone has to explain something (even if that someone is you, the narrator/writer) then it is probably not necessary and can be cut. You can tell us that information, but find an engaging, active way to do so that keeps the story rolling.

I do this because a) I believe my audience is intelligent enough to infer the latter without me having to beat them around the head with the facts, and b) putting it the latter was is boring. It’s simply not good storytelling.

To close, let me sum up:

Don’t write a text book. Write a novel about a person and let that person’s life give all the clues about their culture the reader needs to understand the world in which they live.

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And now, I’ll leave you with some great worldbuilding:

 

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

 

What have we learned? That our protagonist is a hobbit. We don’t know what hobbits are yet, but they live underground and they like comfort, and probably, based on what was said about the sandy holes, plush furniture and good meals. I can also infer, because I assume he’s going to be the protagonist, this hobbit is human-esque, as readers prefer to read about creatures that resemble them.

So the world: Some sort of fantasy land, with creatures that we don’t know, but who greatly resemble us in that they want comfort, safety, and good meals.

 

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledge that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or  views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of someone one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “Have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

 

What have we learned? That this is going to be a book about marriage, and potentially comical. That we are in a neighbourhood with grand estates that are up for rent, and that a woman named Mrs. Bennet – potentially the wife of landed gentry, as she is called a “lady” – must have some daughters that need marrying off.

So the World: Classist England, and probably in the past when wives addressed their husbands with their family names. Most likely going to focus on a country neighbourhood with families of unwed girls, and a rich neighbour in a good estate for rent.

 

The Bogart by Susan Cooper

The little boat crept closer, over the grey-green water of the loch. Tommy could hear the slow creaking of the oarlocks, and see the white hair of the lean old man bent over the oars. His father said the MacDevon was one hundred years old, but Tommy had never had the courage to ask if it were true. The MacDevon was a clan chief, the last of his line, and you didn’t ask a clan cheif a question like that.

“Good Day, Mr. MacDevon.” He caught the bow of the dinghy as it crunched into the small stones of the beach. This was a weekly ritual: the old man’s shopping trip from the island of Castle Keep.

 

What have learned? That there is an old man who lives in a castle on an island in a loch; we are probably in Scotland, and that there is a young boy who helps the old man. We know that it must be closer to modern times, if the clan is died out and The MacDevon is the last of his line. We also know that the old man mustn’t be wealthy, because he only owns an old dinghy that he has to row himself, and he has no one to send on his shopping errands.

So the World: Run down castle in modern Scotland where the clan chief is old but respected by the locals, and is possibly thought of as a quaint relic.

 

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

One morning, when Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be.

The tree was standing alone in a sheltered part of the slope. To the untrained eye, the casual passer-by, it probably just looked like a normal tree. But Artemis’ eye was far from untrained, and she ran through this part of the Hampsted Heath every day. This tree was a newcomer: it had not been there yesterday.

[…]

“Hello,” she said.

There was a long silence.

“Hello,” said Artemis again.

“Are you talking to me?” said the tree. It had a faint Australian accent.

“Yes,” said Artemis. “I am Artemis.” IF the tree experienced any recognition, it didn’t show it. “I’m the goddess of hunting and chastity,” said Artemis.

Another silence. Then the tree said, “I’m Kate. I work in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs.”

[…]

“So,” said the tree in a more conversational tone. “You’re the goddess of hunting and chastity, then?”

“Yes,” said Artemis. “And of the moon, and several other things. Artemis.” She put a little emphasis on her name. It still hurt when mortals didn’t know it.

“I didn’t know where was a goddess of hunting and chastity and the moon,” confessed the tree. “I thought there was just the on God. Of everything. Or, actually, to be honest, I thought there was no God at all. No offence.”

“None taken,” said Artemis. Unbelievers were always preferable to heritics.

“I have to say, you don’t look much like a goddess, though,” added the tree.

“And what does a goddess look like, exactly, said Artemis, a sharpness entering her voice.

“I don’t know,” said the tree, a little nervously. “Shouldn’t you be wearing a toga or something? Or a laurel wreath?”

“You mean, not a tracksuit,” said Artemis.

“Pretty much,” admitted the tree.

“Times change,” said Artemis.

 

What have we learned? Whew, lots to unpack in this one. Artemis the goddess is a character, possibly the protagonist, and she’s real. It’s modern London, because of Hamsted Heath, Goldman Sachs, and the tracksuit. But the girl was turned into a tree, in the same manner that Laurel was turned into a tree when she fled Apollo in the ancient Greek myths. Also, the tree didn’t know Artemis, so this isn’t a world where the gods are known as anything beyond the stuff of stories.

So the World: Modern London, filled with ancient Gods who live and work and play in the city, but aren’t worshipped or known to the populace in general. The rules of ancient Myths still apply, but this isn’t generally known. The gods are a bit perturbed to be forgotten, but have modernized themselves along with the rest of the world.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

 

JM FreyWords for Writers: World-Building, Culture-Building, Character-Building, and Finding The Story
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Words for Writers: Bidding Farewell

This weekend, I am in mourning.

Time of birth had been somewhere in the spring of 2007; the time of death was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, July 26th 2012 while hunched over my much-dog eared and highlighted copy of Jane Austen for Dummies.

Yes, that was the moment that I realized that the manuscript I had been working on for nearly five years was dead. And just like for every other death I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing, the swift realization was followed by an even swifter sucker punch to the gut.

That was it. It was over.

I curled over the book, pressed my forehead against the spine, and cried.

Because this manuscript? This novel I’d written and was fact-checking with Dummies? That manuscript was unsalvageable.

What happened?

Well, this book was meant to be one of those kinds of books that is a revisionist history without changing any history whatsoever. The steel frame of 100% historical accurate events was the mold, and the story itself was melted plastic that I had pushed through the cracks to ooze out the bottom. It was meant to be one of those books that you read for the fictional story, and then when looked up the historical persons and events, realized it was completely plausible that the story had happened, even if there was time travel and science fiction.

Only the frame, I realized, was the wrong shape. I had messed up somewhere four years ago, messed up again on both research trips to England; I had gotten one itty bitty number wrong (1805 instead of 1804) and it had shattered the plastic of my story. There was no way to take the steel frame away and reposition the plastic segments without cracking the whole book apart.

The book was dead.

Now, before you try to tell me that there’s always a way to shift things and muddle, please understand that I filled a whole notebook and several hours worth of conversations with friends and fellow writers. And there are cheats, there are always cheats, but I didn’t want to cheat.

The whole point of this book is that there weren’t going to be any cheats. It was going to be all right and plausible and yet completely fantastic and impossible.

So getting this one thing wrong, this one major thing, completely destroyed the rest of the novel. The time line was thrown entirely out of whack, and no matter how much tetris or jenga I play with the plot, I cannot make the shattered pieces of plastic fit the frame any more.

This was especially hurtful and frustrating to me as I had already had a discussion with my agent about the book and he had said that while it was a fine manuscript, he wasn’t interested in shopping it. I wasn’t trying to revise it to make him change his mind, but because I thought the story was still worth fighting for, still worth improving, and that if the book was in great shape I could put it away for a while until someone asked me if I had a romance novel to shop.

I had also mentioned it to some important folks in NYC whose interest had been piqued, so I felt like I was not only witnessing the death of my novel, but that I was in some way betraying the confidence these other people had in my work. That I had let them down.

That, I think, was the worst part of it of all.

I felt like a miserable, utter failure. I still do, a little.

So what now? What does one do now, when something you’ve worked so hard on suddenly becomes non-viable? How do you, as an author, handle actually giving up on a story?

The first thing I did was open a very good bottle of wine, sit out on my deck, and brood. I filled notebooks with possible cheats, but disliked every single one of them. I called my ever faithful beta reader and hashed it out with her, and we came to the same conclusion: unsalvageable. I spoke to an author friend: unsalvageable.

I am frankly still flailing emotionally. I had two very rough nights, one filled with horrendous nightmares about how none of the books I ever produce again will be good and that I’ve used up my life’s allotment of ideas.

The only way, it seemed, to be able to get over this decision to bury the book was to treat it like an actual person who had passed away. After all, we writers really do emotionally connect with our novels as if they were people. We cherish the characters and the worlds, we take pride in the moments and fight with the errors. We spend years thinking about, thinking through, thinking around our books.

Books take up real estate – emotionally, mentally, physically.

To have to give up a book is, very much, no different from having to safe farewell forever to a loved one.

To that end, here is the Kubler-Ross model of the Five Stages of Grief:

Denial – like me, you’ll probably be stunned and horrified when you realize that this book is done. It is gone, and not in a good way, where it’s heading off to an agent or editor. It will never be read, it will never be cherished, and it will never leave your home. You’ll rage, you’ll wail, you’ll have a very tough few nights.

Anger – and then you’ll be mad. Angry that you screwed up the research so very badly, angry at your beta readers when they told you that it was a good book (even though it’s not their fault that it’s not working, and they may have genuinely enjoyed it; that’s why it’s called irrational anger), angry at the book for not being better, angry at the world for forcing you to give up.

Bargaining – then you’ll start to try to find away around it. Changing plot points, switching characters, telling the book from a different POV or starting period, anything, anything to not have to give up on it.

Depression – but of course, none of that will work. Because if it worked, then it wouldn’t be a dead book, would it? So you’ll cry. You’ll hurt. You’ll feel terrible and probably walk around like a zombie. People will say, “it’s just a book” and you’ll hate them a little bit for not understanding. It wasn’t a book, it was a tiny spark of life and you are the one who had to smother that flame.

Acceptance – In the end, it will suck and it will hurt, but you will come to the realization that putting the book away will be good for you and your career. The book just isn’t working, just isn’t good enough, and to focus on something that is working, you have to sacrifice this one. It will be okay. Your world didn’t end because you had to let go. It’s just fine. You will always hold a warm spot in your heart for that book, those characters, that world, and in the end, at least you hold it.

In the end, I’m sad to see this story get put away in the box under my bed labelled “morgue”.  But I also feel lighter, because truthfully, this book wasn’t working. It never really was working. I got some fabulous feedback from some fantastic beta readers (James Bow among them; what a swell guy! Especially since he’s pretty much the antithesis of this book’s target demographic and apparently loved it.) but I never really could seem to get it to work.

The characters were never quite on (though I loved my version of Captain Francis Austen), the plot contrivances never quite natural enough. It was like the plastic fit, but not comfortably.

So what now?  Now, the book goes away, possibly forever. Maybe in a few years I’ll dig the research out again and start from scratch, re-read the whole set of articles and texts that inspired the novel to begin with and try to make a go of writing a whole new book.

In the meantime, I will mine the corpse for great scenes, imagery, and lines to feed my new manuscripts. I started a brand new novel a few days ago, and I think I can use some of the scenes from the dead book in this one.

Possibly, if someone invites me to an appropriately-themed anthology, I will revive the concept as a short story.

For now, I will make my farewells and move on to other projects.

And who knows, perhaps, just perhaps in a few years, I might release the original novel as a freebie for a laugh. “It’s a good book,” I’ll say. “Shame that it’s dead. Enjoy the zombie goodness.”

I am still in a rough place. I am not over this book, not yet. I don’t know when I will be. But I know that it was a far braver, harder thing to do to acknowledge to myself that the book wasn’t working, couldn’t work, and to accept that and put it away. Far, far better than flogging a book that no one could ever accept or sell, a book that I insisted to myself, to my agent, to editors and publishers and the reading public was good when it wasn’t, it simply just wasn’t.

And it’s tough. And it sucks. But in the end, it will make you feel better, feel proud, and feel ready for the next hurdle of being a professional writer.

Words from Other Writers On Mourning Your Book:

I asked: How do you deal with realising your book is dead? When should you abandon a book?

Nikki Faith Fuller‏ (@Myth_Girl): When you no longer feel like you *have* to do it. And it’s not an abandoning, but a letting to 🙂

August C. Bourré‏ (@FishSauce): Never abandon anything forever. Bits can be used, or it can take a new shape, but don’t see that as abandoning.

Gethin Jones (‏@gethinmorgan): When it stops being fun!

Fingers Delaurus: Look at George Lucas. Ponder. THAT should motivate to lock the thing away when your editor says it’s done 🙂

Victoria De Capua Campbell: Take a holiday. Distance.

Adam Shaftoe: Strip it for short story fodder.  Remember that this will not be the last thing you will ever write. Find a take away from the experience that will let you improve on the next project.

K.W. Ramsey‏ (@KWRamsey): It’s never abandoned. It’s just put on the back burner until the answer appears or I die, whichever comes first

Gillian Leitch‏ (@gilliandoctor): From the ashes something beautiful will come out- lost, but not forgotten, and lessons learned.

Rob St-Martin When opening the file (or notebook or whatever) doesn’t excite me, drains me dry just thinking about it, and I dread the sight of it, it’s time to stuff it in the archives and move on. Whatever good that can be salvaged from it will be, one day. Just not right away. Time will offer the emotional distance required to deal with it.

Derwin Mak Similar to what Rob says: when it isn’t fun to work on the story anymore. However, exhaustion doesn’t equal fun. On both my novels, there were times when I was exhausted, but I was still enjoying it.  As to what to do with it later, parts of it can wind up in future stories.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Bidding Farewell
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Words for Writers: Don’t Stop. Don’t Ever Stop.

Writing is a hard, hard thing. It is a solitary thing. It is a thing where all of the work is done in places that are unseen, so the value of said work is sometimes forgotten. People can pick up a book and have no thought at all for the hours, tears, papercuts, giggles, and long, back-pain inducing hours it took to create it.

They have no concept of the blurring vision, the PTSD fear of the red pen, the simple joy in the way your agent holds your hand when you’re freaking out over an offer, and the sheer thrill of seeing your book clutched close by someone reading it on the subway. People forget that while they can consume a novel in a weekend, that was probably four years of your life, where you were probably obsessively thinking about it every time you got the chance.

So when I get mail like this, it pleases me to no end, because this tells me that all those hours, those tears, those paper cuts, those aches, those giggles and those obsessions are known, appreciated, and respected. Also, because mail like this is also great advice for ALL writers, I have been given permission to share it:

Congratulations times a thousand on publishing your debut novel. That’s beautiful, wonderful, amazing. You did it. You damn well did it. I don’t know you, but I know that writing’s hard, it’s always hard to do this thing in silence and on your own, so congratulations on damn well doing it. Whew. I hope you’re writing book two/three/four now. Right now. Good lord, full steam ahead JM, full steam ahead.

I understand what it takes to get where you are: Not stopping. Everyone wants to have written; few want to write. That you already have so many books lined up—I cheer louder! That’s the other thing few get: Don’t stop don’t stop don’t stop. If not this book then the next one, if not that one then the one after…simply don’t stop writing and you’ll get there.

(These kind words and excellent advice come from Atlinmerrick)

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

 

JM FreyWords for Writers: Don’t Stop. Don’t Ever Stop.
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