Unboxing – The Black Tears of the Serpent

Back when I was a baby writer, I was researching how to protect your work. One of the methods that was suggested to me was mailing your manuscript to yourself in a sealed box via registered mail, and then not opening the box. That way, if someone accused you of fraud or plagiarism, all you had to do was open the box in court, and prove that you had written the manuscript before the date on the registered mail label.

Of course, this is one way to do it, but I’ve since learned that keeping digital drafts with the proper time stamps on them is just as good and takes up less shelf space.

In cleaning out a closet today, I found the one and only manuscript I ever printed out and mailed to myself for safe-keeping. It was mailed December 4th 2006 from Hakata city, Fukuoka-ken, Kyushu, Japan, where I was stationed as an English teacher for a time. I mailed it back to Canada, where my parents put it in the closet with my stuff, and was forgotten about.


Today, I unboxed it, because I was curious, and because there is no real reason to keep the book sealed any more. After all, I’ve already self-published a version of it on Wattpad under the new (and way less emo) title DSRT as Peggy Barnett, and I still have all of my digital drafts (and a double-sided spiral-bound version with editing marks all over it).

As a baby writer, I imagined a whole closet filled with these brown cardboard packages (instead all my working manuscripts are in a filing cabinet, spiral-bound and double sided, and covered with red pen correction marks). It’s a good thing I didn’t do more, because it looks like I paid an arm and a leg to send it to myself from overseas!

This monster is 588 pages, and if I remember correctly, around 300,000 words long. It’s just under 2 1/4 inches thick, single spaced, single sided, and written in Times New Roman 12pt font and tied together with a shoelace. I wrote it between 2002-2007 (the unboxed version didn’t end up being the final draft), and it was the first novel-length work that I had completed that was not fanfiction.


I never shopped this book. At first, it was because I realized it was too long, and that no agent/publisher would take it. I thought I could save it for a second or third book, and offer it to publishers/agents after I had established myself with a debut. After actually writing/editing a second novel in 2007-2009 and publishing said debut book in 2011, however, I realised that my book was too long, too derivative, and a little too… “first book” to shop. Even though I did actually build a pitch package for it.  I never seriously offered it to my first agent, and I’ve never actually mentioned it to my current agent, I believe.

However, for the fun of it I posted it to Wattpad in it’s entirety last year.  Wattpad is the perfect platform for serialization. For meandering but engaging stories. For strange tales, and a young woman’s fantasies made realized, and for the pure imagination of an author’s first fumbling attempt at a book. For something that doesn’t quite fit traditional publishing’s frame of what a good horror-fantasy-historical book ought to be. For something that wasn’t perhaps polished enough for my primary pen name, but something that I had loved intensely for a very long time, and still wanted to share.

Unboxing this book today has been very emotional, and filled me with fond, golden memories of the places and times I wrote this book – in my dorm the first time I had moved away from home; in my room in a shared house with three other girls, where my friends had to sometimes bodily lift me away from my computer so I would go out and have fun with them; in the “fishbowl” computer lab at Brock University; in my shared apartment with my good friend (who later became the famous Eyeless Max); on the plane on my way to Japan; at my desk in the staff office of Kasuga High School; sitting on the tatami floor in my apartment in Tofuro-minami; and with my Writer’s Circle in Fukuoka.

It reminded me of the dreams I had about publishing a historical gothic romance series, about being the next Anne Rice and J.R.R. Tolkien and Diana Gabaldon. It reminded me about how hard I worked on this, writing and rewriting, tweaking. About all the friends I spoke to about it, all the friends I made over it (*coughRuthanneReidcough*), all the doodles and illustrations I made and commissioned for it.

It reminded me of where this all began, my first keen inkling to be a real writer, to be published and read all over the world. And it helped me be grateful and thoughtful about where I am now, showed me how far I’ve come and how much blood, sweat, and tears I’ve poured onto pages.

What a lovely thing to do on the close of 2016. Nearly ten years ago to this day, I mailed this emotional time-capsule to myself.

And I’m so glad that I did.

JM FreyUnboxing – The Black Tears of the Serpent
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Words for Writers: Asexual Characters

I got a question via my Tumblr page about writing asexual characters and loves stories.

Warning! Frank discussions of sex and sexuality below!


EDIT: Apparently I have to make this more clear. No, I am not asexual. No, I don’t know anyone who has self-identified (at least to me) as asexual. No, I don’t hate or fetishize asexuals.  No, I don’t worship Dan Savage; I admire his work and as we all know, all work is inherently problematic. I just included his definition of “GGG” because I feel that it is a good concept to promote.

Yes, I tried my best based on what research and knowledge I have about being asexual. Yes, I am happy to hear from readers about corrections or additions to the information. Yes, I am willing to learn more about the topic, and to help educate my readers as well. Yes, I invite you to write a response to this Nonnie if you feel that you can answer the question, as well. If you fee that you have an excellent, accurate, and more comprehensive information source for Nonnie, then by all means, please, link it. All of us writers would appreciate it.


Big question! Before we get into the answer, a quick primer for readers who might not be familliar with some of the terms I’ll be using on gender, sexual, and romantic orientation:


Gender = the performance of sexual identity, either male or female, which includes conforming to societal norms, expectations, and modes of self-expression for said gender. (i.e. Boys play sports and Girls play House)


Gender Queer = the performance of a sexual identity that is neither all-male or all-female. Usually a mix of gender norms, expectations, and modes of self-expression.

Non-Gendered = the performance of no gender identity at all, or in specific.


Biological sex= presents the genitals of a Male, Female, or a biological combination of either.  “The plumbing”.


Genitals=/=Gender: For example, a biological-male human may not identify gender-male. Just because one’s bits fall into one box, doesn’t mean their mind does too.


Sexual= enjoys the physical act of sex, either with participant(s), or solo stimulation. Desires to have sex and derives satisfaction from sex.


Heterosexual= enjoys/prefers sex with participants of the opposite gender and/or biological sex


Homosexual= enjoys/prefers sex with participants of the same gender and/or biological sex


Bisexual= enjoys/prefers sex with participants of either gender and/or biological sex


Pansexual= enjoys sex with participants of any or all genders and/or biological sexes, etc.


Demisexual = enjoys/prefers sex with participants only after they’ve established a romantic/emotional/intellectual connection with the other participant(s). Uninterested in, or unable to achieve physical satisfaction from strangers or casual acquaintances. (Literally can’t do one-night stands)


Asexual= EDIT (from a submitter): “It is a lack of sexual attraction. It’s about attraction, not behaviour.” Which, I think translates as: Does not experience sexual attraction. Emotionally and intellectually does not enjoy, derives no satisfaction from, or has no interest in the physical act of sex.

This does not mean that sex disgusts or frightens an asexual, just that they have no desire (mentally, emotionally, physically, or a combination of all three) to engage in sex. This also does not mean that they won’t participate in sex at all; some asexuals may choose to engage in some sexual acts with a sexually active partner, because they enjoy the emotional/physical/mental closeness, and/or because they want to be Generous, Giving, and Game. That all depends on your character.(


Grey Ace=Enjoys, desires, and derives satisfaction from some specific aspects of sexual/romantic activity, but not to the extent of a sexual person.


Romantic= the non-physical/sexual part of a relationship. Emotional connection, admiration, affection. Love.


Heteroromantic= falls in love, and desires and derives emotional/mental satisfaction from being in love with someone of the opposite gender.


Homoromantic= falls in love, and desires and derives emotional/mental satisfaction from being in love with someone of the same gender.


Biromantic= falls in love, and desires and derives emotional/mental satisfaction from being in love with someone of the either gender.


Panromantic= falls in love, and desires and derives emotional/mental satisfaction from being in love with someone of any and all genders/mixes of genders/ non-genders.


Aromantic= does not, cannot, or chooses not to fall in love/ express romantic feelings or romantic affection for another person. It’s possible to still want a relationship or connection with another human being while being aromantic. There can be extremely close friendships, marriages, co-parenting, etc.


Notes: Being asexual and/or aromantic does not mean that a person definitively has no desire to be a parent, or to be without very close friends or family.




I don’t know, and I can’t speak for every asexual person, but I assume that someone who is asexual and/or aromantic has the same desires to be close to the person emotionally and physically, to touch, etc. Affection is a universal desire in human animals, and people who do not respond/enjoy sexual stimulus probably still want emotional connection to other people, to be wanted and desired (even if it’s as a friend or family member), to be touched and praised, to be loved and cherished. Obviously the level of the desired contact, and the type of contact (mental, physical, and emotional) will vary by person, and each will have their own levels of comfort, and it will never be a clear cut mix of what, with whom, and how much.


Asexual/aromantic people are not cold fish or androids. They are still human beings, in all our three dimensional, emotionally messy, complicated glory. Someone can be both asexual and homoromantic, or a demisexual grey ace, or any glorious rainbow-saturated mix of all of the above.


So, the quick and dirty answer to your question is – write the romance and the character no differently than you would write it for a character of any other sexual/romantic orientation.


Write it exactly like a regular romance (hetero, homo, bi, or pan) except any and all sexytimes and any physical displays of affection would require Explicit Relationship Negotiation between both parties.  This could be a great character-building moment of dialogue and action, and the lack/misunderstanding of explicit negotiation could offer further moments for plot and character growth. Just… be aware of the Rape As Backstory and Forgiving Sexual Assault tropes. Remember, a non-heteronormative pairing doesn’t excuse sloppy storytelling and poor wordcrafting.


Unless they already know that your asexual character is such, the non-A partner would probably expect that there will eventually be physical contact and sexytimes, as with any other relationship. As their partner becomes more comfortable with them, and levels of consent are achieved, the romance will involve more sexual acts.


(S)he will probably expect to be allowed to hold hands, then progress to linking arms, to hands in back pockets and on the small of backs, leaning against one another on the sofa, outright cuddles on the sofa, being an octopus on the sofa, then kissing, then full-on-snogging, then bases 1 through 3, mutual masturbation, to oral sex, and accumulating in penetrative sex and happy happy orgasms for all!


(EDIT: Of course ALL relationships require consent and boundary negotiation at EVERY level of intimacy.

Nonnie was asking specifically about asexual relationships, so I highlighted the ways asexual relationships may need conversations about boundaries and permissions specifically. But of course all relationships of all kinds, featuring all orientations and genders should be filled with such conversations.

And yes, one can never generalize that for ALL people of a certain orientation absolutely follow a definition or categorization or stereotype. It’s a good place to start when developing a character, but of course the character has to be as wonderfully complicated and full of contradictions, preferences, quirks, traumas, scars, desires, and joys as real people.)



However, at some point in this process, your asexual character will become uncomfortable, the contact will become undesired, and they will not grant their consent to their partner. It’s possible they might “go all the way”, in order to be GGG – but there would probably be a lack of physical sexual enjoyment. This may exhibit as a still-flaccid penis, lack of vaginal lubrication, nipples not peaking, etc.


That’s not to say it was terrible or a sacrifice. It’s possible the asexual character found the encounter emotionally satisfactory even if they didn’t achieve any sexual satisfaction or a climax of any sort.


And how would the non-A partner feel about that? Hurt? Undesirable? Grateful that their A-partner is willing to push their comfort zones to give them sexual satisfaction? Content with the emotional/romantic satisfaction and willing to have a more sparse/non-existent sex life?


How do they negotiate this reality of their relationship? Is the sexual partner allowed to seek sexual, but not emotional fulfilment, elsewhere outside the relationship? Does the A-partner agree to give blowjobs or hand/footjobs? Will the sexual partner frot against the A-partner when (s)he gives him/her a massage? Is it a lot of cuddling and masturbation?


My best suggestion would be this: figure out your asexual character’s romantic inclination, and sexual inclination. Then decide on their romantic and sexual limits. Decide where the line is drawn for them, and why. Figure out whom they form romantic/emotional connections to, and why, and how they show it. Figure out where they say “no, stop” and where they do not give consent. Figure out how they react to another person’s romantic/sexual attention, and what they are willing to experiment with or be GGG about.


With that done, now you have a full understanding of how your asexual character can and will react in romantic/sexual situations with your sexual character, whether (s)he is the pursuer or the pursued.  And once you’ve fleshed out your sexual partner, you’ll also know how (s)he will react when they are asked to change what they’re doing/stop/go not further/understand that their partner is Ace.


From there, I’d say go about establishing the relationship the same way you would any other well written romance.

Best of luck!

(And if anyone would like to offer a correction/addition/addendum to anything above, please do so! I’m no expert, I can only explain things as I best understand them.)

EDIT: Further Resources

Asexuality on Reddit

The Asexual Visibility and Education Network


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



JM FreyWords for Writers: Asexual Characters
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Words for Writers: Triptych & Non-Happy Endings

I received this letter and with the permission of the writer, I’m posting it and my response here.

If you have not yet read Triptych and are leery of spoilers DO NOT READ THIS POST.


Dear Miss Frey

I finished reading Triptych this morning, and it has stuck with me all day. I am not usually sympathetic or empathetic towards characters in text, as they are often nothing more than words on paper to me, but it has been many years (if ever) since I felt this strongly about any novel I’ve read. On Tay’s recommendation (over on Tumblr), I went out and bought the book. Truth be told, I had low expectations coming in, as I tend to stay away from less well-known authors. I am very happy that I made this exception, and you have far outshone my wildest expectations. For that, I thank you.

For the most part, I am not an emotional person, but I felt genuine joy while reading Triptych. I loved the exploration of Kalp’s world, people and personality, as well as our world seen through their eyes. I loved that you made them recognizably humanoid, but distinctly alien in more ways than just their appearance. The way they experience the world around them, and their approach to families and sex. That they are neither prudish, nor childishly naïve on the subject. It’s refreshing to see a world where such a natural thing is not just ignored.

I expected there to be a happy ending. I WANTED there to be a happy ending. I wanted them to go back and fix things. The first time Kalp died, I thought nothing of it. We are so used to dead main characters coming back to life, and you presented a way for that to happen. I expected them to change the outcome. I wanted them to save Kalp and be happy. I wanted more Kalp. I wanted a sequel. That seems unlikely now, and we don’t always get what we want. It made me angry and sad. They then go on to get married ‘properly’ (I assume), as if everything with Kalp wasn’t proper. Wasn’t real. That, too, made me angry and sad. I don’t begrudge you these decisions. Yes, they made me angry, but I’m glad that they did. I shows me that it meant something to me. I savour the moments when literature evokes emotion in me, good or bad.

I would not want to unread Triptych. A selfish part of me wants a different book, but I doubt it would have had the same effect on me if that was the case. I so want more people to share my experience, but much like the bigots in the book, I fear that the subject matter would turn many away without a second glance. I sincerely hope to see more novels from you, but could you please not break our hearts every time? Thank you for writing Triptych. Thank you for sharing it.





Dear [redacted];

Thank you so much for your message, and sorry for my delayed reply. I wasn’t around a computer this weekend.

I’m happy to hear that that Tay’s love of the book infected you. I do understand the reluctance to try out a new author, especially one published with a small press and is virtually unheard of. It’s sometimes easier to stay inside one’s comfort zone, and it’s always especially disappointing to think a book sounds really cool and it turns out to be lame. But sometimes you find a jewel, too – I am lucky in that most of what I read now-a-days is the as-of-yet published work of my friends, or pre-published books from publishers looking for me to give them a great quote for the cover. In that I’m lucky, because I get exposed to all sorts of books that I might not have chosen for myself; many of them I really like, too!

I’m very pleased to hear that I did surpass your expectations. You’re welcome. Thank you for giving me a try.

I am also pleased to hear that you felt genuine joy while reading Triptych; I felt genuine joy writing those parts of the book. They were my favorite to write, just as they seem to be everyone’s favorite to read. (Well, there’s also a scene where Mark makes Basil help with the bailing, but that got cut. I know the hilarity of watching city folk bailing for the first time.)

I loved developing Kalp’s culture. It’s always a bit of a balancing act for me, because I grew up as a writer in the Fanficion community where culture-building in AUs is applauded and consumed voraciously. When I was creating Triptych I had to very consciously restrain myself and trim the excess. As a fanficcer, I know what gaps in the narrative I always wanted to fill (I call it “cultivating a garden between the gaps in the paving stones”), so when I lay the paving stones of my own novels, I always try to leave little gift-gaps to my readers. Hopefully people will decide to cultivate in them soon.

(UHG. SUCH A HARD TIME trying to decide if I should close the big slashy gift-gap in The Untold Tales of Turn or not. It was so stressful! In the end I didn’t, because I originally chose to have that part of the narrative remain off screen for a reason, and as much as I want to write the big slashy get-together story, it must remain off screen for that same reason.)

I understand your upset about the unhappy ending. I originally had a happier ending to the book, but it felt disingenuous. It felt fake. It felt like I was betraying all the pain in the rest of the book, and worse than that, the real-life analogue where people are hate-crimed to death. Those people don’t get to come back. Why should Kalp? It really broke my heart to do that to him (and Gareth), but in the end I feel like it was the right choice.

As for Gwen and Basil getting “proper” married at the end… I hope it came across correctly, but Basil and Gwen did think of their Aglunation as a “proper” marriage. With Kalp dead and their Aglunate broken, they needed to find a way to carry on, to feel like they had something in each other to live for. Instead of being widows, they wanted to affirm their relationship, and that’s why they will get “human” married. It doesn’t erase the Aglunate, any more than a second marriage overwrites someone’s love for the previous spouse, but it gives Basil and Gwen something that is just theirs, something just them to celebrate between them and together. They still love and miss Kalp, and they will never forget Gareth (in my writerly head-cannon they adopted Ogilvey’s daughter) but they needed a way to move on.

And yes, Mark’s inability to really understand what the Aglunate meant and his subsequent request of Basil was meant to make you a little mad. Because even the most understanding of people don’t always totally get it.

It’s good to hear that my writing was able to elicit that sort of emotion in you! Thank you! And yes, I think that if Triptych wasn’t so painful, it wouldn’t have resonated with me, and with other readers so much.

>> I sincerely hope to see more novels from you, but could you please not break our hearts every time?

Oh dear.


Well, the thing is… my friend Ruby Pixel is fond of saying “It’s not a J.M. Frey book unless you gross-sob at least once, and then throw it against the wall.”

So, er… I make no promises? I do have SOME stories that don’t end quite so tragically.

Thanks again for your very thoughtful letter, and I wish you all the best,

–J.M. Frey


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

JM FreyWords for Writers: Triptych & Non-Happy Endings
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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.


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.


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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The Next Big Thing – J.M. Frey

The Next Big Thing: Where Authors talk about what they’re doing next!

I was tagged by Ruthanne Reid, the author of the phenominal The Sundered.

1)What is the working title of your book?

Right now? “Untitled Meta Thing” – that’s the file name, at least.  It’s a book about writing books and telling stories (and what sorts of things happen when the characters you start telling the stories about start becoming self aware) so it is, at least in some sense, a metanovel. Beyond that I have no idea what it’ll be called, which is odd, because usually I know the title from the very beginning. I am a little weirded out about it, but I’m looking forward to brainstorming it with my betas once the book is finished.

I’m toying with just calling it “The Meta” but maybe that’s just a bit too self-indulgent-grad-school?

2)Where did the idea come from for the book?

Partially it came from a dream I had about a weird dictator that I decided I had to try to explore, partially it came from my own personal fear of surgery and knives (doesn’t that just make you want to read it?), and partially from my indefatigable love of how stories are told, and why they’re told that way. I spend a lot of time reading books about books, texts about how narratives are constructed and why people tell stories. The history of storytelling, that sort of thing. So, whenever I get a new idea, I always run it through that research, figure out how I can play with expectations and what sort of story I can tell with the idea that I’ve got.


3)What genre does your book fall under?

This one is the closest to Fantasy I’ve ever done. I’m going for incorporating a lot of those High Fantasy tropes and traditions – the medieval setting, the non-human party members, the swords and the sorcery – but I’m also going to try to mix in the traditional story-logic of Fairy Tales and Aesop’s Fables.

But, as ever, it does fit in with my personal style of writing: Literary-Fiction-Sprinkled-With-Genre-Stuff. I am always more focused more on the character story and the human reaction than the adventure itself when I write.


4)Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’d love to see Mark Gatiss as the lead. My character is a skinny, tall, patently non-heroic hero, and I love the grace and poise with which Gatiss moves and speaks. And I also love how whole heartedly he commits to characters, especially the quirky aspects. It’s his portrayal of both Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock) and Raty (Wind In The Willows) – as well as the way he moves his hands and head in television interviews – that has influenced the way my lead character moves and speaks. It would be really neat to see him close the circle of inspiration and actually portray the character I’m basing on his performances.


5)What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In a world where epic heroes actually exist, the forgotten younger brother of a literal living legend is about to get his chance to show the world what he’s got.

(I don’t like that at all! It’s too action-film! What about the part where he realizes that he’s a character in a book and learns how to use that influence his own agency? Bah! I always find this one-sentence thing too hard! I’m too verbose.)


6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hopefully my agent will like the book and decide to want to shop it. We’ve been back-and-forth-ing about what we think the follow up to the book (and potential trilogy) he’s shopping now, and I think this will be a nice one-off book to do that. We have another one in the works, too, but I sort of realized that it’s a mega mountain of research and while I really want to still write that other one, I want to have something done now, in case we need to pull the first book for revisions. That way he has something else to being to shop while I’m revising.


7)How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Welp, it’s not done yet. I’ve been trying to do about 4000 words a day, with the hopes of being done in Mid September so I can edit it while I’m on a personal trip. It’s just passed the 25k mark. Cheer me on, folks!


8)What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Bookweird by Paul Glenon and Inkheart by Cornelia Funke are the two books that jump to mind immediately, but they’re middle grade and young adult, respectively, and I’m writing an adult market book. It’s probably closer to The World Beyond Sky by Kent Stetson, or The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, or the plays Goodnight Desdemona (Goodmorning, Juliet) by Anne-Marie MacDonald, or Six Characters In Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, or any and all renditions of Don Quixote.

They are all stories about storytelling that tell you a story while teaching you about stories.


9)Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Oh, didn’t we do this question already? Well, I’ll add that this is the first book that I haven’t really told many people about first. Usually I tell the story, verbally, to some friends and family, and tweak it in the telling, until I know where the interesting stuff lies and where I should pursue it. This time I just sat down and started writing. It’s a bit scary, because I never just start without talking to someone else first, but it’s sort of liberating, too, because I have no idea where it’s going next, beyond the ending I’ve already chosen. So, nobody’s really inspired this book, not yet, not unless you count all those abovementioned authors and playwrights, and the people who wrote text books about the history of storytelling… and Mark Gatiss!


10)What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I think people will like it because it’s all about those characters in books that nobody spends any time with – the hero’s little brother, the Sheriff of the Shire who is a plot device and nothing more, the prophetess and the villain’s subordinate. The whole book is about the people books usually ignore, and that’s the most fun for me. I get to take stereotypical backgrounders and flesh them out; I get to tell the part of the story that’s rarely told.

JM FreyThe Next Big Thing – J.M. Frey
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