How the Written Universe Works – Warping Time #amwriting

In cosmology, the concept of space-time combines space and time into a single abstract universe. Apparently, we all move through time. Here on earth, time either passes us, or we pass the time. It’s all relative (Einstein humor) to how fast you are going and a lot of sub-atomic particle stuff I can’t really take the time to explain here, and you aren’t interested in anyway.

How the written universe works - warping time.Time interests me because I mostly write fantasy, although I write contemporary short fiction and poetry. Fantasy, and all speculative fiction, relies heavily on worldbuilding, and managing time is a facet of that skill.

But all genres, including contemporary and literary, require worldbuilding. Every story, true or fiction, is set SOMEWHERE, either in this world we are familiar with or in an alternate fantasy universe.

When I begin writing a book, I create a stylesheet in a spreadsheet program like Google Sheets or Excel for the universe, a workbook that has a page devoted to a glossary for that world, and a page for the calendar of events. A calendar is an essential tool that helps you with pacing and consistency.

  • Calendars are good for pacing, as they keep the events moving along the story arc.
  • They ensure you allow enough time to reasonably accomplish large tasks, enabling a reader to suspend their disbelief.
  • They ensure you don’t inadvertently jump from season to season in your visuals surrounding the characters.

So, for me, the calendar is a device that keeps the events happening logically.

Picture2HERE is where I confess my great regret: in 2008, a lunar calendar seemed like a good thing while creating my first world.

  • Thirteen months, twenty-eight days each,
  • one extra day at the end of the year,
  • a Holy Day on the winter solstice. They have two Holy Days and a big party every four years.

That arrangement of thirteen months is actually quite easy to work with. Where it becomes difficult is in the choices we made in naming things. You know how planning meetings are–ideas tossed at the wall like spaghetti and seeing what sticks.

We were just beginning to design the game, and while I had the plot and the synopsis, I didn’t have some details of the universe and the world figured out. So, in a burst of creative predictability, I went astrological in naming the months, to give the player a feeling of familiarity.

  • Caprica, Aquas, Piscus, (winter).
  • Arese, Taura, Geminis (spring)
  • Lunne, Leonid, Virga (summer)
  • Libre, Scorpius, Saggitus (harvest)
  • Holy Month (begins winter). Holy Day falls at the end of this thirteenth month, occurring on the winter solstice. The premise of the game was the War of the Gods, so religion is central.

strange thoughts 2In an even worse bout of predictability, I went with the names we currently use when I named the days, only I twisted them a bit and gave them the actual Norse god’s name. (The gods and goddesses of Neveyah are not Norse.)

That choice is an example of how what seems like a good idea at the time, may not be.

  1. Lunaday
  2. Tyrsday
  3. Odensday
  4. Torsday
  5. Frosday
  6. Sunnaday – this is the confusing day, as it falls where Saturday is in our normal calendar.
  7. Restday

One thing I did right was sticking to a twenty-four-hour day. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep things simple when we are worldbuilding. Simple things are less likely to add to the chaos when the plot gets complicated.

That game was never built for several reasons, but I retained the rights to my work. I took my maps and the storyline and wrote Mountains of the Moon, an epic portal fantasy. That story was the genesis of an entire series set at various points along the timeline of that universe.

I couldn’t get that story out of my head and onto paper fast enough—it obsessed me. As I wrote, the calendar I had invented for the RPG was incorporated into the world of Neveyah, and now it is canon.

Time can be an abstract thing when we are writing the first draft of a story where many events must occur. Things are accomplished in too short a period to be logical, or we take too long.

Calendars are maps of time. They turn the abstract concept into an image we can understand.

Even though I regret how I named the days in Mountains of the Moon, my characters progress through their space-time continuum at a rate I can comprehend. I can move events forward or back in time by looking at and updating their calendar. The sequence of events forming the plot arc remains believable.

calendarI LEARNED from my mistakes – the timeline for the Billy’s Revenge 3-book series, Huw the Bard, Billy Ninefingers, and Julian Lackland, uses the familiar calendar we use today.

I heartily suggest you stick to a simple calendar. That is the advice I would give any new writer—stick to something close to the calendar we’re familiar with and don’t get too fancy.

Next up: Time and Distance – how calendars and rudimentary maps work together to keep the plot moving and believable.

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#FineArtFriday: Twilight Confidences by Cecilia Beaux 1888 (revisited)

Twilight_Confidences_by_Cecilia_BeauxTwilight Confidences by Cecilia Beaux  (1855–1942)

Date: 1888

Medium:  oil on canvas

Dimensions: 23 1/2 x 28 inches, 59.7 x 71.1 cm

Inscriptions: Signed and dated: Cecilia Beaux

What I love about this painting:

There is an honesty, a real sense of intimacy depicted here. The feeling of sisterhood between the two women is conveyed across the years. One holds an object with a personal meaning. She tells the other something about that object, something she feels she may be judged for. The other takes in what she has been told and accepts it for what it is.

About this painting via Wikimedia Commons:  

Cecilia Beaux was a leading figure and portrait painter and one of the few distinguished and highly recognized women artists of her time in America. Her figures are frequently compared to Sargent’s, but her style relates also to other international leaders of late-19th Century portraiture, including Anders Zorn, Giuseppe Boldini, Carolus-Duran and William Merritt Chase. She was born and lived mostly in Philadelphia, traveling frequently to Europe, especially France from a young age, and exhibited widely in Paris, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere. Her first acclaimed work, Les Derniers jours d’enfance, a mother and child composition, was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1887, and Beaux followed it there the next year, spending the summer of 1888 at the art colony at Concarneau in Brittany. Here she painted her remarkable Twilight Confidences of 1888, preceded by numerous studies, which are in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Lost for many years, this much admired canvas is Beaux’s first major exercise in plein-air painting, in which the figures and the seascape are artfully and exquisitely juxtaposed, and sunlight permeates the whole composition.


Credits and Attributions:

Twilight Confidences, Cecilia Beaux, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Twilight Confidences by Cecilia Beaux.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Twilight_Confidences_by_Cecilia_Beaux.jpg&oldid=355146645 (accessed April 16, 2021).

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How the Written Universe Works: Structure of the Cosmos part 2 – expanding into a series #amwriting

Monday’s post opened the discussion of the multi-book series. Readers of fantasy and sci-fi enjoy reading multiple-book series. They don’t want to let go of the story when they are invested in a character.

How the written universe works - multibook series1Thus, it makes sense to consider whether your story is complex enough to hold up well across a series.

Today, we’re going deeper into planning. A series takes two forms.

  1. The infinite series of standalone stories. Some feature a particular group of characters, but others might feature a different protagonist. They are all set in a particular world, whether they follow one protagonist or several. The installments may feature different characters and often jump around in that universe’s historical timeline. Think Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series or L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Recluce
  2. The finite series – a multi-volume series of books covering one group’s efforts to achieve a single epic goal. Think Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time

I ended up with my current multi-book series when I was at the 60,000-word point of my first draft. That is the point where I realized the story wouldn’t fit into one 90,000-word book. In fact, it will likely top out at 250,000 words after editing.

Because I am an indie, I need to keep my production costs in mind. The pandemic will end someday and purchasing stock for a book that runs 250,000 words will be excruciating once I begin going to book fairs or signings again. Not only that, the cost of formatting a book that size and having a cover made will break the bank here at Casa del Jasperson.

How do I know this? Experience.

A book that is 135,000 words long costs me $6.80 in its paper form. Purchasing stock for book fairs or signings becomes a worry. Not only that, in its paper form, it must sell through Amazon for not less than $17.99. They set the minimum price based on the options you choose at the time of publication.

So, I panic. It’s tough enough to squeeze all the costs of publishing a book of 90,000 words in length, when you are working with a normal family budget. This is an expensive business.

The best option for me is to write the whole thing and then break the book in half or thirds, creating a series that I will publish a month apart. The costs are the same in the long run, but the size of each book is far more manageable for a reader and spreads production costs over a longer period.

When I arrive at the 50,000-word mark, I go to my outline and see where I am in the projected story arc and timeline. Can I tell this tale in one book? If not, will it work in two?

Then, once I know how many books it will take, I decide what event will be the first finale, a satisfying stopping point for a reader. Even though several threads are left dangling at the end of each installment, the final event of each book must be a real, satisfying finish, or the reader will feel cheated.

dylan moran quote TIMEIf you are done with your first draft and are just now realizing your novel could be the beginning of a saga, you should consider making notes as to what the future holds for your crew beyond the end. Otherwise, you may find yourself writing a continuation of book one, but with no goal, no purpose.

I follow several fantasy and sci-fi authors who write sagas, where the story of that world is told from multiple characters’ points of view. Each protagonist lives at different points in time, and each one is unique, detailing watershed events in the history of that world.

I also follow several mystery series featuring the cases solved by one detective. The Richard Jury series by Martha Grimes encompasses 25 books, each one different. Recurring characters in the series include his neighbors in his Islington flat, personnel at his New Scotland Yard office, and friends of his sidekick, Melrose Plant, in the Northamptonshire village of (fictional) Long Piddleton.

If you decide more than one book will be set in that universe, you should consider creating a page in your storyboard that notes the timeline and events for each book. Specifically, note what order each novel takes place in the history of that world. You don’t have to go nuts. Just write a brief description for your use.

projected series Aelfrid FireswordSo, for a saga you might want to draw up an overall story arc for the entire series. For a standalone book featuring a recurring character, you likely won’t need to have an all-encompassing projected arc.

However, you would be wise to storyboard each book and note the dates of certain events, so you don’t contradict yourself, and so that a protagonist born in 1981 in book one doesn’t accidentally get younger as time goes on.

Next week we will look at creating a calendar for stories set a fictional world. We will look at some of my failures and see why simpler usually is better.

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How the Written Universe Works: Structure of the Cosmos – Designing a Series #amwriting

The universe is vast, but the further we look toward the outermost edges, the more we see the overall structure, the way patterns are repeated across the enormity.

How the written universe works - multibook series1Think about it – the universe contains all we can measure and know, all of space and time and their contents, including planets, stars, galaxies, and all forms of matter and energy. It likes balls and spirals and has a structure that repeats itself. This is reflected in the shape and behavior of the smallest particles to the largest quasars.

The universe began.

We don’t exactly know how it began, but we are here, so it must have started somehow. The universe emerged from somewhere as an infinitely small singularity, so named because it is singularly unexplainable.

From that unfathomable beginning, a mysterious dark energy pushes things apart, expanding the cosmos to what we see as the observable universe. And on the sub-galactic level, we who live on this rocky island in the center of that vast sea of space and time go about our lives, having no effect whatsoever on the universe at large.

WilliamBlakeInfinityAndEternityLIRF05072022First off, no matter our conscious thoughts regarding the universe and God, writers don’t exist in reality. We exist in what we think reality is, and collectively, we create it as we go along, for good or ill.

No matter the genre, whether it is fiction, non-fiction, a textbook, or a technical manual – books are universes, static and frozen at a finite point for us to read and ponder their meanings.

Books begin with an idea, the singularity that bursts into existence. As it grows, the universe that is that proto-book takes on a recognizable shape.

A projected series featuring the lives of people set in a unique world is a cosmos unto itself. It is the story of that universe, told over the course of several books.

Many people are blinded by the quasars of inspiration, can’t conceive of that universe’s structure, and can’t imagine how the molecules of inspiration can become a universe. The brilliance of that first revelation blinds them to how attainable it is.

intellegent_designLIRF05072022But if you make a map of what you can see, your own intelligent design, you can create your series of books with less struggle.

First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This takes a little time and is relaxing, a matter of sitting in a tranquil place with a pen and pad of paper and visualizing the singular idea of the story.

As I ponder that idea, finite events will come to me. I write them down, and they become major plot points. By the time I have to go back to other household tasks, my notes will have the rough shape of the story, in only five to ten handwritten lines.

A current work in progress takes place in a world I began writing in in 2008. This subseries began on a sunny day, while sitting on my back porch, watching the scrub jays, and laughing at their avian marital squabbles.

Out of nowhere, an idea went nova, and I wrote it down. These are my very first notes for the first book in that subseries, copied word for word from my yellow notepad:

  • A shaman. A person with a life like everyone else. They make mistakes, but they learn from them.

That led to another thought:

  • Divorced, single parent, struggles to be a good father to his son. What is his line of work?

  • A blacksmith who creates a magic sword. Who cares for his son while he works?

And that last thought led to my contemplating his family. “Who is his support group?”

  • His grandfather, father, and brother.

  • How do they come into the story?

My protagonist starts page one as divorced. I asked myself, “Does romance wait in the wings?”

  • Why this woman, and who is she in her own right? Where is she, and why does he have to go there?

  • She is highly respected, a woman with some power. Healing? He’s a shaman, so his reason for going there must be something spiritual.

  • Vision quest at someplace dangerous and difficult. Atop a mountain?

I contemplated those few notes for several days, during which I began creating a stylesheet/storyboard. I noted each random idea, which eventually became scenes I could visualize.

That’s when my imagination took over. The God-view zoomed in until I could see the story at the atomic level, and the words flowed.

WilliamBlakeImaginationLIRF05072022As I wrote, the outline for that first book took its shape. The written universe is in constant flux, and the storyboard records the changes and keeps the fabric of time from warping.

First, I decided how many words I intended for the novel’s length and divided that into fourths. I took those fourths and turned them into acts. I wanted to keep it at about 90,000 words, so this is how I planned the arc to go:

Act 1: 10,000 words, the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

Acts 2 and 3: 60,000 words. Two major hiccups, combined to form the novel’s center, starting at the first plot point or the inciting incident. The tension grows to a mid-point confrontation. We show the hero’s dire condition and how they deal with it. By act 4, there is no going back, no changing course.

Act 4: 20,000 words: Resolution. We try to end the misery in a way that feels good and rewards the reader for staying with the story. It must end as if it were a standalone novel, but a minor sub-thread will be left unfinished. That sub-thread is the real core of the two-book series.

storyArcLIRF10032021Once I have decided the proposed length, I know where the turning points are and what should happen at each. The outline ensures an arc to both the overall story and the characters’ personal growth.

This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

I have mentioned before that I use a spreadsheet program to outline my projects, but you can use a notebook or anything that works for you. You can do this by drawing columns on paper by hand or using post-it notes on a whiteboard or sticking them to the wall. Some people use a dedicated writer’s program like Scrivener.

Everyone thinks differently, so there is no one perfect way to create that fits everyone.

A storyboard/stylesheet should have a separate page for the glossary to ensure consistency. I wrote a post on creating a stylesheet, a.k.a. storyboard, for little or no cost, and the link is here: Designing the Story.

The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009.

Excerpt from World of Neveyah Storyboard Glossary,

As we add to it, the written universe is constantly expanding. Sometimes, we have to adjust our ideas of how many words we will end up with, in total. The cosmos is a violent place. Even if we begin with a plan, we never really know how a story will go until we have written it. The outline keeps us mindful of the story arc and ensures the action doesn’t stall.

Try to get into the habit of writing new words every day. When you write every day, you develop strengths and knowledge of the craft. Give yourself the gift of half an hour of private writing time every day.

You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you try.

Again, the post discussing making a cost-free storyboard/stylesheet is Designing the Story.

I think you’ll find a storyboard is a valuable tool.

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#FineArtFriday: The Gondoliers’ Siesta, John Singer Sargent 1904 (revisited)

The Gondoliers’ Siesta, John Singer Sargent 1904  

Artist: John Singer Sargent  (1856–1925)

Title: English: Gondoliers’ Siesta

Date: circa 1904

Medium: watercolor

Dimensions: 35.6 x 50.8 cm

Collection: Private collection, courtesy of Adelson Galleries

Current location: New York

Source/Photographer   Beyeler Foundation

What I Love About this Painting:

John Singer Sargent shows us a moment in time, set in Venice of 1904. It is an image capturing the heat of midday and the well-deserved rest of two men whose lives are spent on the water. They are well-employed, earning a good living by ferrying passengers from one end of town to another. During their heyday as a means of public transports, teams of four men would share ownership of a gondola — three oarsmen (gondoliers) and a fourth person, primarily shore based and responsible for the booking and administration of the gondola (Il Rosso Riserva).

About Singer’s Watercolors, via Wikipedia:

During Sargent’s long career, he painted more than 2,000 watercolors, roving from the English countryside to Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida. Each destination offered pictorial stimulation and treasure. Even at his leisure, in escaping the pressures of the portrait studio, he painted with restless intensity, often painting from morning until night.

His hundreds of watercolors of Venice are especially notable, many done from the perspective of a gondola. His colors were sometimes extremely vivid and as one reviewer noted, “Everything is given with the intensity of a dream.” In the Middle East and North Africa Sargent painted Bedouins, goatherds, and fisherman. In the last decade of his life, he produced many watercolors in Maine, Florida, and in the American West, of fauna, flora, and native peoples.

With his watercolors, Sargent was able to indulge his earliest artistic inclinations for nature, architecture, exotic peoples, and noble mountain landscapes. And it is in some of his late works where one senses Sargent painting most purely for himself. His watercolors were executed with a joyful fluidness. He also painted extensively family, friends, gardens, and fountains. In watercolors, he playfully portrayed his friends and family dressed in Orientalist costume, relaxing in brightly lit landscapes that allowed for a more vivid palette and experimental handling than did his commissions (The Chess Game, 1906). His first major solo exhibit of watercolor works was at the Carfax Gallery in London in 1905. In 1909, he exhibited eighty-six watercolors in New York City, eighty-three of which were bought by the Brooklyn Museum. Evan Charteris wrote in 1927:

To live with Sargent’s water-colours is to live with sunshine captured and held, with the luster of a bright and legible world, ‘the refluent shade’ and ‘the Ambient ardours of the noon.’

Although not generally accorded the critical respect given Winslow Homer, perhaps America’s greatest watercolorist, scholarship has revealed that Sargent was fluent in the entire range of opaque and transparent watercolor technique, including the methods used by Homer.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

John Singer Sargent born January 12, 1856 – died April 14, 1925, was an American expatriate artist, considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation” for his evocations of Edwardian-era luxury. He created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.

He was born in Florence to American parents, and trained in Paris before moving to London, living most of his life in Europe. He enjoyed international acclaim as a portrait painter. An early submission to the Paris Salon in the 1880s, his Portrait of Madame X, was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter in Paris, but instead resulted in scandal. During the next year following the scandal, Sargent departed for England where he continued a successful career as a portrait artist.

From the beginning, Sargent’s work is characterized by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, which in later years inspired admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality. His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism. In later life Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work, and devoted much of his energy to mural painting and working en plein air. Art historians generally ignored “society” artists such as Sargent until the late 20th century.

Sargent’s early enthusiasm was for landscapes, not portraiture, as evidenced by his voluminous sketches full of mountains, seascapes, and buildings. Carolus-Duran’s expertise in portraiture finally influenced Sargent in that direction. Commissions for history paintings were still considered more prestigious, but were much harder to get. Portrait painting, on the other hand, was the best way of promoting an art career, getting exhibited in the Salon, and gaining commissions to earn a livelihood.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:John Singer Sargent, Gondoliers’ Siesta.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:John_Singer_Sargent,_Gondoliers%E2%80%99_Siesta.jpg&oldid=149791025 (accessed May 22, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “John Singer Sargent,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Singer_Sargent&oldid=956888160 (accessed May 22, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “Gondola,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gondola&oldid=950230627 (accessed May 22, 2020).

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How the Written Universe Works – the Physics of Magic part 2, Empaths #amwriting

Our universe is a mysterious, stunning place. One conundrum that has occupied scientists for decades is the observable fact that our universe has more matter and energy than it should.

Wikipedia says: In physical cosmology and astronomydark energy is an unknown form of energy that affects the universe on the largest scales. The first observational evidence for its existence came from measurements of supernovas, which showed that the universe does not expand at a constant rate; rather, the universe’s expansion is accelerating. [1]

How the written universe works - empathy1In other words, something we can’t see or measure is out there, shaping our known universe. For lack of a better term, scientists refer to it as “dark matter” and “dark energy.”

In some fantasy universes, empathic magic is an unseen, unmeasurable force that enables healing, foresight, mindreading, and possibly, gifts of prophecy. We can’t see or measure it, but how we write it affects our narratives’ shape and believability.

This force is the dark energy of a fantasy universe. And because we are the creators, we can establish rules for how that energy works.

It’s magic, so who needs rules? We do. Otherwise, believability goes out the window.

Rules of magic create limitations, requiring the characters to work harder. We care more about their struggle. But there is a more obvious reason: consistency.

Perhaps in chapter one, you have a mage who can’t use the element of lightning when it’s raining, implying that water impedes his lightning abilities. A reader will assume he can’t use lightning while swimming down a river in chapter 56 when he’s escaping.

Empath_definitionLIRF05012022Unless your story is set in a school (such as the Harry Potter books are), magic, healing, or empathy are gifts that only one or two main characters should be given if you want your narrative to remain believable. You must establish the rules of your universe, creating parameters that will limit what empaths can do.

Limits create tension, and tension keeps the reader reading. When too many people are given superior powers, you make things too easy.

In literature, empathic gifts are a form of magic and should be treated as a science. If an empathic gift has entered your narrative, ask yourself these questions:

What sort of empathic gift does your character have: emotion reading, mind reading, healing, or foresight?

  • How common or rare is this gift?
  • How did they discover they had it?
  • What can they do with it?
  • What can they NOT do with it?
  • Is there formal training for gifts like theirs?
  • What happens to people who use their empathy to abuse others?
  • Has society made laws regulating how empaths are trained and controlled?

Now, let’s talk about the characters themselves. What are their views of how their talents should be used?

  • How important is human life?
  • How is using their talent to commit murder punished?
  • How do they view betrayal, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice?
  • What effect does drunkenness have on them?
  • What is their personal moral code?
  • How important is it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?
  • How many people can they control at one time?
  • What actions are seen as crimes by society?
  • How are they discovered, and what is the punishment?
  • Who tries and convicts empaths who go rogue?

This brings me to the final concept we must consider about personal power. What constrains an empath from seizing power?

Empathy-2-LIRF05012022In real life, if a person had the kind of power that our fictional empaths wield, we would hope they were noble, compassionate, and above all, respectful of other people’s wish for privacy. One would want them to be circumspect and never rummage in people’s minds uninvited.

We have looked at the folks we hope are the good guys. So now, we come to the flip side. If an empath has gone rogue, what is their kryptonite? How can the heroes prevail if there is no weakness or way to negate an enemy’s powers?

In Mountains of the Moon, an herb – silf – blocks mages and healers from sensing their gifts. It is used against the heroes, unfortunately, which raises the tension.

SO, how about healing?

  • What spells and abilities do healers have?
  • Are they better at healing animals than people or vice versa?

Some good spells for people with healing ability might be the ability to ease pain or put a patient to sleep.

We need to talk about self-defense. Can healers in your universe use swords or other melee weapons or firearms? Sleep is a spell that could be used against a predator or aggressor.

How close might they have to be to make the spell work?

In your universe, how does empathic healing work? A story is more interesting when people have varying degrees of fighting skills, and the same is true with magic and empathy. Design the system so that some are able to do more healing than others.

When they are healing on a cellular level, how will you describe it? Some authors describe the act of healing as evil-looking lights changing to a healthier color. Others describe healing as angry looking threads that must be untangled. Still others describe it as a feeling of evil that must be smoothed away.

Or, you don’t have to be too descriptive. It’s up to you.

Plot-exists-to-reveal-characterWhat does healing cost the healer? Does it exhaust them? Does some of the healing magic come from the patient? Do they need to sleep afterward?

These are logic questions other fantasy authors have contemplated and employed in their work.

One other thing to ask your story is this: can empaths also use battle magic? And can battle mages also be healers? Either way, if not, why not?

If you make rules and then choose to have one character who is an exception, why is she the exception?

It might be good to read how some other authors handle empathic gifts and magic. Here are two fantasy books that feature telepathy, healing, and magic:

Arrows of the Queen (Heralds of Valdemar Book 1) by Mercedes Lackey (3-book series, with other books set in that world.)

Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr. (book one of a 22-book series)


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Dark energy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dark_energy&oldid=1084333120 (accessed May 1, 2022).

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How the Written Universe Works – the Physics of Magic part 1 #amwriting

In all my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels, the enemy has access to equal or better science or magic. The story is about how the characters overcome the limitations of their science, magic, or superpower and succeed in their quest.

How the written universe works magic and superpowers1Magic should exist as an underlying, invisible layer of your written universe, the way gravity exists in reality. We know gravity works and accept it as a part of daily life.

Magic should operate with the same limitations that, say, light photons have. Photons can do some things, and they cannot do others.

Your story won’t contradict itself if you establish the known physics of magic before you begin using and abusing it.

As a confirmed lover of all things fantasy, I read a great deal of both indie and traditionally published work. Both sides of the publishing industry are guilty of publishing novels that aren’t well thought out.

Inconsistencies in the magic system are usually only one aspect of a poorly planned world. It’s easy to tell when an author doesn’t consider the possible contradictions that might emerge as the story progresses.

When the magic is mushy, the rest of the setting reads as if they just wrote whatever came into their head and didn’t check for logic or do much revising.

If all the typos are edited out of the manuscript, and the characters are brilliant and engaging, the author might be able to carry it off. Unfortunately, mushy magic or science usually results in a book I can’t recommend.

We have several things to consider in designing a story where magic and superpowers are fundamental plot elements.

magicFirst, the ability to use magic is either learned through spells, an inherent gift, or both. Your world should establish which kind of path you are taking at the outset.

  • Magic is not science as we know it but should be logical and rooted in solid theories.

As a reader, I can suspend my disbelief if magic is only possible when certain conditions have been met. The most believable magic occurs when the author creates a system that regulates what the characters can do.

Magic is believable if the number of people who can use it is restricted, how it can be used is limited, and most mages are constrained to one or two kinds of magic. It becomes more believable if only certain mages can use every type of magic.

Why restrict your beloved main character’s abilities? No one has all the skills in real life, no matter how good they are at their job.

lute-clip-artConsider musicians. A person who wins international piano competitions most likely won’t be a virtuoso at brass instruments.

This is because virtuosity requires hours of practice on one thing, working on the most minor details of technique and tone. That kind of intense focus doesn’t leave room for branching into other areas of music.

Magicians and wizards should develop skills and abilities the way musicians do. Virtuosity requires complete dedication and focus. Some are naturally talented but without practice they never rise to the top.

Magic becomes believable if the physics of magic define what each kind of magic can do.

Those rules should define the conditions under which magic works. The same physics should explain why it won’t work if those conditions are not met.

Are you writing a book that features magic? I have a few questions that you may want to consider:

Are there some conditions under which the magic will not work? Is the damage magic can do as a weapon, or is the healing it can perform somehow limited?

Does the mage or healer pay a physical/emotional price for using or abusing magic? Is the learning curve steep and sometimes lethal?

When you answer the above questions, you create the Science of Magic.

So, what about superpowers? Aren’t they magic?

Superpowers are both science and something that may seem like magic, but they are not. Think Spiderman. His abilities are conferred on him by a scientific experiment that goes wrong.

scienceLike science and magic, superpowers are believable when they are limited in what they can do.

If you haven’t considered the challenges your characters must overcome when learning to wield their magic/superpower, now is a good time to do it.

  • Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
  • If so, why?
  • How does their inability affect their companions?
  • How is their self-confidence affected by this inability?
  • Do the companions face learning curves too?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their abilities?

These limits are the roadblocks to success, and overcoming those roadblocks is what the story is all about. The struggle forces the characters out of their comfortable environment.

The roadblocks you put up force them to be creative, and through that creativity, your characters become more than they believe they are. The reader becomes invested in the outcome of the story.

The next post in this series will delve into powers that are familiar tropes of fantasy: healing and telepathy.

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#FineArtFriday: Officer and Laughing Girl by Johannes Vermeer circa 1657

Johannes_Vermeer_-_Officer_and_Laughing_Girl_-_Google_Art_Project

Artist: Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)

Title: Officer and Laughing Girl

Genre: genre art

Date: circa 1657

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: height: 50.5 cm (19.8 in); width: 46 cm (18.1 in)

Collection: The Frick Collection

What I love about this painting:

Vermeer paints a story for us. He shows us a courting couple, a modestly dressed young woman seated opposite a young officer. Is this the home of her parents?

It is clearly not a tavern, as she has a crystal wine glass, which taverns wouldn’t have. Another clue to her social status is the map on the wall behind her, indicating her family may be merchants. Taverns rarely displayed maps as they were expensive.

Our girl is dwarfed by the map and also by the large man, whose face we don’t see, as he is captivated by her. Yet though she is physically smaller than her companion, she is not made small in this painting. Indeed, she has a large presence; her personality and smile have power, speaking to us across the centuries.

The light falls gently though the open window, illuminating the woman, bathing the scene with that quality Vermeer recreated so brilliantly.

Some male art critics suggest that the position of her hand indicates a less savory transaction is occurring here, but I feel they are wrong. Her hair is completely covered. She is not dressed provocatively, nor are they shown in a tavern or brothel. Her hand is shown as if gesturing in conversation, a natural gesture.

I think that nasty kind of interpretation is the result of a Victorian-era male art critic prejudice against women in art, dismissing them as morally corrupt. That sort of attitude poisons art interpretation at all levels. Maybe traditional critics need to look at paintings such as this with a fresh eye and see what is actually there: a young woman talking to a young man, seated in a corner at a table, most likely in full view of her middleclass parents.

Vermeer paints us a story of courtship within the bounds of society, of two people with middleclass values who are clearly attracted to each other. Will they be married? I like to think so.

The model for the woman in this painting was most likely Vermeer’s wife, and the dress she wears appears in other domestic scenes painted by Vermeer, as does the window and the table.

About Johannes Vermeer, the Master of Light (from Wikipedia)

Johannes Vermeer (October 1632 – December 1675) was a Dutch painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime but evidently was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings.

Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, and frequently used very expensive pigments. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.

Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes. “Almost all his paintings are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft; they show the same furniture and decorations in various arrangements and they often portray the same people, mostly women.”

He was recognized during his lifetime in Delft and The Hague, but his modest celebrity gave way to obscurity after his death. He was barely mentioned in Arnold Houbraken‘s major source book on 17th-century Dutch painting (Grand Theatre of Dutch Painters and Women Artists), and was thus omitted from subsequent surveys of Dutch art for nearly two centuries. In the 19th century, Vermeer was rediscovered by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who published an essay attributing 66 pictures to him, although only 34 paintings are universally attributed to him today. Since that time, Vermeer’s reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. [1]


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Johannes Vermeer – De Soldaat en het Lachende Meisje – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Johannes_Vermeer_-_De_Soldaat_en_het_Lachende_Meisje_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=617576363 (accessed April 29, 2022).

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Johannes Vermeer,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Johannes_Vermeer&oldid=1082091616 (accessed April 29, 2022).

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How the Written Universe Works part 6 – modifiers, descriptors, and quantifiers #amwriting

The written universe can seem like a cold, unfriendly place to new writers. At first, it is difficult to find other writers, and we wonder if we are alone in the universe. When we finally are able to see across the void, we discover writing groups in our local area.

How the written universe works 6We are not alone. We are part of a vast cosmos of authors much like us, some far more advanced and others less so.

At times, we wonder if our star will ever shine as brightly as theirs.

We attend groups and submit our best work. In the beginning, we feel bombarded with reprimands, x-rays highlighting our beloved narrative’s flaws.

  • Show it, don’t tell it.
  • Simplify, simplify.
  • Don’t write so many long sentences.
  • Don’t be vague—get to the point.
  • Don’t use “ten-dollar words.”
  • Cut the modifiers—they muck up your narrative.

These comments are painful but necessary. This knowledge enables us to produce work our readers will find enjoyable.

However, all rules can be taken to an extreme. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. The most important rules are:

  • Trust yourself,
  • Trust your reader.
  • Be consistent.
  • Write what you want to read.

We must understand how to balance mechanics and grammar and other obvious rules and still write with our own voice and style.

Participating in a critique group requires delicacy and dedication. It also involves restraint and the ability to allow other authors to write their own work. A group shouldn’t micromanage a manuscript, as too much input and direction can remove the author’s unique voice from a piece.

One of the admonitions we regularly hear refers to the number of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) we might habitually use. As writers, we all want to be accepted and have others like our work, but we must write from the heart. That means using modifiers, descriptors, or quantifiers when they are needed.

Chuck Wendig, in his post The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, says,

And so the advice really should be, don’t use adverbs or adjectives when they sound awkward, or when they fail to tell us something that we need to know. [1]

When we read, we see that certain words and phrases don’t add to the narrative and only serve to increase wordiness. These words hamper our ability to suspend our disbelief when used too freely.

These words fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly and out of my voluntary control. During NaNoWriMo, I don’t self-edit as I go because, at that point, I’m just trying to get the story down. The second and third drafts are where I shape my grammar and phrasing.

modifying-conjunctions-04262022Modifiers change, clarify, qualify, or limit a particular word in a sentence to add emphasis, explanation, or detail. We also use them as conjunctions to connect thoughts: “otherwise,” “then,” “besides.”

Descriptors: Adverbs and adjectives, known as descriptors, are helper nouns or verbs, words that help describe other words. However, they can be reviled by writing groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

Many descriptors are easy to spot as they often end with the letters “ly.” When I begin revising a first draft, I do a global search for the letters “ly,” and a list will pop up in my left margin. My manuscript will become a mass of yellow highlighted words.

It’s a daunting task, but I look at each instance and see how they fit into that context. If a word or phrase weakens the narrative, I change or remove it.

Quantifiers: abstract nouns (or noun phrases) meant to convey a vague number or impression, such as: very, a great deal of, a good deal of, a lot, many, much. The important word there is abstract, which shows a thought or idea that doesn’t have a physical or concrete existence.

Removing descriptors and quantifiers often strengthens the prose by eliminating the sense of vagueness. If they are necessary, I leave them. As Chuck Wendig said, words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are also adverbs.

I don’t see myself reading a book written with no adverbs whatsoever.

Sometimes I feel married to a particular passage. Even so, certain words and phrases don’t add to the narrative and only serve to increase the wordiness. Used too freely, they make the story seem unreal, and that is something we don’t want. These are known as “weed words.”

Before I bother a professional editor with my work, I seek out the words I would flag as an editor, making what is called a “global search.”

Caution: if you are hasty or impatient, a global search can be dangerous. This is a boring, time-consuming task. Don’t take shortcuts. If you panic and choose to “Replace All,” you risk ruining your work.

The word “very” is a quantifier. It attracts abuse in writing groups and writers’ chat rooms and is considered a weed word.

Perhaps you decide to simply eliminate every instance of the word “very” because you have discovered you overuse it. You open the navigation pane and the advanced search dialog box. Next, you don’t key anything in the “Replace With” box, thinking this will eliminate the problem.

Before you click “replace all,” consider three common words that have the letters v-e-r-y in their makeup:

  • Every
  • Everyone
  • Everything

A hard truth about weed words is that they are often components of larger words.

Examine the context. Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? You may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word when speaking.

However, if you have used “actually” to describe an object, it’s probably unnecessary.

Context is everything. Take the time to look at each example of the offending words and change them individually. You have already spent a year or more writing that novel. Why not take a few days to do the job right?

There is no quick way to do this. Every aspect of editing must be done with the human eye, patience, and attention to detail.

weak-words-LIRF04262022Feel free to copy the above image and save it to your files as a .png or .jpeg, and also the modifiers as connectors image, above right.

As I have mentioned before, editing programs are available, some free, and some for an annual fee. Your word processing program has spell check, which can help or hinder you. Grammarly is an editing program I use for checking my own work. Unfortunately, these programs are unable to see the context of the work they are analyzing.

We define context as the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect. 

A person with limited knowledge of grammar and mechanics won’t benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. This is because these programs operate by algorithms and finite rules.

The program will often strongly suggest you insert an unneeded article or change a word to one that is clearly not the right one for that situation. I recommend investing in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. Look things up and learn how grammar works.

I don’t mind taking the time to visit each problem and resolve them one at a time. I see this as part of my job, just what an author does to make sure her work is finished to the best of her ability.

>>><<

PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

How the Written universe works part 1: the connecting particle 

How the Written universe works part 2: the physics of conversation 

How the Written Universe Works part 3: Lay, Lie, Laid

How the Written Universe Works part 4: Relativity and Possessives 

How the Written Universe Works part 5: ellipsis, em dash, hyphen, semicolon 

Credits and Attributions:

[1] The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, by Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds,  The Ramble, http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2017/12/12/the-danger-of-writing-advice-from-industry-professionals/  ©2017. Accessed 25 April 2022.

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How the Written Universe Works: ellipsis, em dash, hyphen, semicolon #amwriting

Much of my blog revolves around grammar and the mechanics of writing, the fundamental force that holds the written universe together. Grammar is gravity, and punctuation is the interdimensional traffic signal, ensuring our words don’t get jammed up and wreck the spacecraft that is our prose.

How the written universe works 1Authors need to understand the rules of how the language we write in works. When we are just starting out, we might have a grip on the basics, but we don’t understand how or when to use the rare punctuations.

So, what about these rare beasts? First up is the ellipsis, the mysterious symbol we all love.

I recommend against using too many ellipses because many authors use them incorrectly or inconsistently.

This is because ellipses are not punctuation and shouldn’t be used as such. They symbolize omitted words and are not punctuation. When the conversation trails off, you must add ending punctuation.

Apples…more apples, rotten, lying on the ground. But I have no apple tree, so where did they…?

Hyphens are not always necessary. If the meaning of a compound adjective is apparent when written as two separate words, a hyphen is not needed.

  • bus stop

If its meaning is understood when written as one word and common usage writes it as one word, again a hyphen is unnecessary.

  • afternoon
  • windshield

Some combinations of “self” must have a hyphen:

  • self-editing
  • self-promotion

Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways. One kind of dash we frequently use is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ UK usage often employs the en dash in the place of the em dash.

En dashes join two numbers written numerically and not spelled, in US usage.

  • 1950 – 1951

To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side. When you hit the space bar after the second word, the en dash will lengthen a little, making it slightly longer than a hyphen.

Em dashes are the width of an “m” and are the gateway to a terrible addiction. To make one, key a word, don’t hit the spacebar but do hit the hyphen key twice, then key another word and then hit the spacebar: (word+hyphen+hyphen+word+space) word—word.

Authors and editors become habituated to using em dashes without thinking. After a while, the author types a word, and the little finger hits that hyphen key twice whenever the mind pauses—then types another word and bam!—em dash. Too many em dashes—like salt—ruin the flavor of the prose.

It often works best to rephrase things a little and use a comma or a period. I try to only use em dashes for emphasis, and only rarely.

interrobangThis bring us to creative punctuation, such as the symbol “!?.” An exclamation point followed by a question mark, these mutant morsels of madness are called “interrobangs.”

Editors working in the publishing industry will tell you that the interrobang is not an accepted form of punctuation for anything but comic books, graphic novels, manga, and possibly, text messages to your BFF.

Think about it. Comic book authors are limited to the words they can fit onto a panel and still leave room for the art. They must show events and emotions by combining pictures with as few words as possible to tell the story.

Writers of comics frequently employ creative punctuation to express as much as possible with few words. Interrobangs are a shorthand for the reader. They convey the emotions of shock and surprise without words.

Interrobangs are inappropriate in any other genre. It’s your narrative, so you will do as you see fit. However, more than one punctuation mark at the end of a sentence is not accepted in the literature of any genre but comic books. Interrobangs are a writing habit the professional writer will avoid if they want to be taken seriously.

Semicolons memeThe semicolon. This joining punctuation is not complicated once you know the one rule about when to use semicolons:

  1. If you join two clauses with a semicolon, each clause must be a complete sentence, and they must relate to each other. In other words, they must be two short sentences expanding on ONE idea.

I drive a red Corvette, and we like it. Rover rides shotgun

I drive a red Corvette; we like it. Rover rides shotgun.

I drive a red Corvette and we like it, but Rover rides shotgun.

We don’t separate all three clauses with a comma in the first two examples because that creates a comma splice. The first sentence is one whole idea: they drive a red car that they like. The second sentence is an entirely different thought: the dog likes to sit in the passenger seat.

The comma splice is a dead giveaway that the author isn’t well versed in grammar. Microsoft’s editor app sometimes tells us to use a comma to join two independent clauses when they don’t relate to each other. Microsoft is wrong.

In my opinion, the third example is the best. Conjunctions and a comma join the three independent clauses, and they flow smoothly.

Colons are rarely used in narrative prose but are common in how-to guides. Their purpose is to lead off lists of items or tips.

So, how do we separate independent clauses, words that can stand on their own as a sentence, with proper punctuation instead of ellipses or hyphens? We use coordinating conjunctions.

A comma should be used before these conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, and so to separate two independent clauses. They are called coordinating conjunctions because they join two elements of equal importance.

However, we don’t always automatically use a comma before the word “and.” This is where it gets confusing.

comma or apostropheCompound sentences combine two separate ideas (clauses) into one compact package. A comma should be placed before a conjunction only if it is at the beginning of an independent clause. So, use the comma before the conjunction (and, but, or) if the clauses are standalone sentences. If one of them is not a standalone sentence, it is a dependent clause, and you do not add the comma.

Take these two sentences: She is a great basketball player. She prefers swimming.

  1. If we combine them this way, we add a comma: She is a great basketball player, but she prefers swimming.
  2. If we combine them this way, we don’t: She is a great basketball player but prefers swimming.

The omission of one pronoun makes the difference. In my opinion, it’s a better sentence.

Readers expect words to flow a certain way, but no author gets it right all the time. If you choose to break a grammatical rule, be consistent about it. Authors must know the rules to break them with style.

Most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing. You must do it deliberately and do it consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

Craft your work to make it say what you mean, in the way you want it said. Sometimes you will use commas in places where they ordinarily aren’t used. You will do this to make things clear. Conversely, you will omit them for the same reason.

If the editor you hired asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author.

Raymond chandler quote split infinitivesExplain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand, and your editor will most likely understand. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so.

Most good editors will do as you ask, but you must be prepared to break that rule consistently.

Much of what we consider powerful writing violates a number of grammar rules, but the author broke that rule in every sentence. Once the reader gets the feel for the author’s style, they don’t notice it.

I always think we are better for having read their work.


Previous posts in this series:

How the Written universe works part 1: the connecting particle 

How the Written universe works part 2: the physics of conversation 

How the Written Universe Works part 3: Lay, Lie, Laid

How the Written Universe Works part 4: Relativity and Possessives #amwriting

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