Tag Archives: #writetip

Worldbuilding part 1: Climate and How We Acquire Food #amwriting

When we sit down to write fiction, no matter what genre, we must consider two aspects of worldbuilding: food and how the climate affects what is served for our fictional meals.

WritingCraftWorldbuildingEvery fantasy world has a setting, and that environment has a climate. Certain climates limit the variety of foods available.

First, let’s look at real life. You can’t create a believable fantasy unless you have some idea of reality.

We had a normal June this year, with only one day rising into the 90s and the rest almost (but not quite) as they should be: overcast, rainy, and cool. Climate-wise, we Pacific Northwesterners usually have similar weather as those of you in Wales or England.


United States National Weather Service via Twitter

Last year in June 2021, we had an unprecedented heat wave that killed much of our locally produced crops. How did that heat wave affect crop production here in the Pacific Northwest?

Wikipedia says:

Farms experienced serious losses, as the heat wave baked the fruits and berries or otherwise destroyed the crop and the drought conditions worsened.

10 million pounds of fruit a day were being harvested in the Pacific Northwest at the time the heat wave struck. Farmers in Eastern Washington, facing a loss of the cherry and blueberry crop, sent workers into orchards at night to avoid the heat in the day.

The British Columbia provincial fruit growers’ association estimated that 50 to 70 percent of the cherry crop was damaged, effectively “cooked” in the orchards.

Raspberry and blackberry farms in the Lower Mainland, Oregon and Washington also endured losses. In Whatcom County, Washington, which produces four-fifths of raspberries in the United States, estimates varied from quarter to half of the harvest; elsewhere, they went as high as 80-90%. Lettuce producers in the Okanagan Valley also reported crop losses, and so did those who grew Christmas trees and apples. [1]

This year, 2022, June had an overabundance of rain, but I didn’t complain because the memories of last year’s heat wave were still too strong. However, the excessive rain and lack of sunshine impacted our spring and early summer crops.

An article by Mai Hoang for Crosscut News (June 15, 2022) says:

This year, the cold and wet spring stunted the development of many cherries, leading to what looks to be the smallest crop of Northwest sweet cherries in nearly a decade. [2]

If I were writing a speculative fiction story set in Earth’s near future, I would look at current agricultural technology to see what is possible and to gauge future trends. After all, climate change is happening and must be accounted for, even in futuristic fiction.

Apples 8-25-2013We know from bitter experience that weather affects the food we produce and influences what is available in grocery stores. Abnormal heat waves across temperate states, category 4 hurricanes along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, and category 4 tornadoes down the center of the US and Canada, and even deep freezes in Texas and the deep south have been our lot in the last five years.

We humans must adapt our agriculture to withstand our increasingly unpredictable climate if we hope to survive. And, our fiction must reflect it, whether it is set in the current times or a not-too-distant future.

In real life, a new trend in agriculture is occurring. Farmers in Europe and Canada are increasingly turning to greenhouse agriculture, from small, owner-operated farms to industrial farms. Greenhouses in these countries reliably supply seasonal produce year-round, with far less need for chemical pesticides and highly efficient water use.

The Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019, tells us that the Canadian greenhouse vegetable sector is the largest and fastest-growing segment of Canadian horticulture. Greenhouse farming produces agricultural products in self-contained ‘controlled environments’ with systems supplying heat, water, and nutrients and often employing artificial lighting (in addition to sunlight) to nourish the plants. [3]

Wikipedia tells us: Greenhouses may be used to overcome shortcomings in the growing qualities of a piece of land, such as a short growing season or poor light levels, and they can thereby improve food production in marginal environments. Shade houses are used specifically to provide shade in hot, dry climates.

As they may enable certain crops to be grown throughout the year, greenhouses are increasingly important in the food supply of high-latitude countries. One of the largest complexes in the world is in AlmeríaAndalucíaSpain, where greenhouses cover almost 200 km2 (49,000 acres).

The Netherlands has some of the largest greenhouses in the world with around 4,000 greenhouse enterprises that operate over 9,000 hectares of greenhouses and employ some 150,000 workers. [4]

Lost_Country_Life_HartleyOnce you have decided your historical era, terrain, and overall climate, research similar areas of the real world to see how weather affects their approach to agriculture and animal husbandry. Look into the past to discover ancient agricultural methods to see how low-tech cultures fed their large populations:

Wikipedia says this about Incan Agriculture: Farmers usually had many different, scattered plots of land on which they planted a variety of crops. If one or more crops failed, others might be productive. In many areas of the Andes, farmers, communities, and the Inca state constructed agricultural terraces to increase the amount of arable land. [5]

Are you writing a narrative set in our current or near-future world? Post-apocalyptic stories often feature food shortages, detailing how starvation leads to civil unrest, making life unsafe for those clinging to their homeland. Refugees are driven to seek better lands where they may not be welcomed. This, in turn, often leads to more civil unrest.

Historical fiction must also be true to the type of food available in that area and era. Many common foods we now consume anywhere in the world were only available in South America, or in Europe, or in Asia, or in Africa. It wasn’t until after the time of Columbus that the cultivation and propagation of many now-common foods began to travel all over the world.

avacado dinner saladAlso, if your story is set in a particular era, how plentiful was food at that time? Famines occurring all across Europe and Asia over the last two-thousand years are well documented. Egyptian, Incan, and Mayan history is also fairly well documented so do the research.

Weather is a driving force in our real world. Rain, heat, storm, or drought—weather in its many forms destroys homes, destroys crops, and costs us billions of dollars annually.

How it affects our food supply is not just news for television. It is a reality our governments must consider if they hope to stave off civil unrest in the future. Subsidizing greenhouse agriculture could help resolve future food insecurity and make the best use of limited water resources.

Cucumbers waiting to become picklesWe have witnessed monumental changes since the turn of the millennium. We know California teeters on the edge of disaster, that a water shortage threatens the lives of millions, as well as one of the largest agriculture industries in the US.

Food and water insecurity leads to volatile politics.

Sit and think about your world, about the climate and how it affects the society you are writing about. Let your mind wander with no apparent destination. You will be amazed at what a mind technically at rest can come up with when it’s allowed to roam.

How well will your fiction hold up in two decades? Will you have the foresight of those who founded the genre of speculative fiction? Will you write another Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451? How much will you get right?

Build detail into your world in a separate document from your manuscript. Blend what you know about the real world into it. Write out all the details that will never make it into your story.

When you can see your written world as clearly as that which exists outside your windows, that vision will come across in your writing. The food they so casually serve, a meal that involves less than a paragraph, will be a part of the scenery. It won’t jar a knowledgeable reader out of the narrative.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors. 2021 Western North America heat wave [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2022 Jul 1, 03:55 UTC [cited 2022 Jul 2]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=2021_Western_North_America_heat_wave&oldid=1095905315. (Accessed July 2, 2022.)

[2] Quote: NW cherry crop this year may be the smallest in nearly a decade, Mai Hoang June 15, 2022, ©2022 Cascade Public Media. All Rights Reserved. https://crosscut.com/news/2022/06/nw-cherry-crop-year-may-be-smallest-nearly-decade (accessed July 2, 2022). Fair Use.

[3] Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019, Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019 – agriculture.canada.ca updated, 2020-12-30. (Accessed July 2, 2022).

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Greenhouse,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Greenhouse&oldid=1095255341 (accessed July 2, 2022).

[5] Wikipedia contributors, “Incan agriculture,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Incan_agriculture&oldid=1095070716 (accessed July 2, 2022).


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How the Written Universe Works: Theme #amwriting

Epic Fantasy is often dark in tone and always epic in scope. It usually explores the struggle against supernatural, evil forces.

how the universe works themeTad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn is a classic Epic Fantasy series. Many of the themes and tropes he explores are rooted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. However, Williams took those themes and tropes down a darker, more violent path, laying bare the evil and the good of which humanity is capable.

This trilogy revolves around a schism in the family of the late king, Prester John. That enmity drives the larger narrative. In this 3-book series, the underpinning theme is the circle of life represented through birth, growth, degeneration, and death. A prominent theme driving the action is the family dynamics, warped by lies and secrets kept across three generations.

The other fundamental themes are the hero’s journey and coming of age. Both Simon (the kitchen boy turned hero) and Miriamele (the princess turned hero) are driven by these themes, as are Jiriki and Binabik to a certain extent.

I’ve mentioned before that theme is the backbone of the story. It’s an idea, a thread that winds through a plot arc and connects events that would otherwise appear random.

Themes are often polarized, good vs. evil, faith vs. doubt, fate vs. free will, human vs. nature,

Epic fantasy novels, being longer in word count than other genres, leaves room in the plot for multiple themes to appear. This creates opportunities for the subplots to add depth, revealing the backstory without an info dump.

Polarity is a fundamental aspect of the inferential layer of a story.

The inferential layer is the unspoken, the knowledge a reader gains by extrapolation, interpretation, and reasoning. It is the layer that requires the reader to think. Polarity guides the reader as they make sense of the clues.

300px-The_Dragonbone_ChairWhen the story opens with the first novel, The Dragonbone Chair, events show the royal family is fraught with violent emotions, creating conflict. King Prester John’s sons, Elias and Josua, appear to be the center of a storm that will destroy Osten Ard.

In any story that explores the relationships within a family as part of the larger narrative, we begin with the circle of life.

Hubris is another theme that drives the plot and is expressed in the character of the apparent antagonist, Pryrates. Hubris refers to excessive self-confidence and the terrible decisions that arise from it.

This conflict allows Williams to employ the subtheme of chaos and stability. Evil is portrayed by taking this theme to an extreme: Pryrates enables Elias’s possession by the true antagonist, the Storm King.

Williams also riffs on the Hero’s Journey, the bonds of friendship, and the gray area between good and evil—moral ambiguity.

A crucial consideration in planning a fantasy novel is plot structure or how the story is arranged. As in all works, the central underlying theme is introduced in the early pages and supports the plot through to the end.

Subthemes are introduced and combined with the main theme to create a backbone for the story. Without that backbone, the narrative can wander all over the place, and readers will lose interest.

The hero’s journey is a theme that allows authors to employ the subthemes of brother/sisterhood and love of family. These concepts are heavily featured in the books that inspired me, so they find their way into my writing.

Tad Williams supported his themes by adding these layers to his narrative:

  • character studies
  • allegories
  • imagery

These three layers are driven by the central themes and advance the story arc.

Williams’s large cast of characters is portrayed as if they are real people. They are a mix of good and bad at the same time. Some lean more toward good, others toward bad. Either way, he has them act and react with good, logical intentions. Each desperately wants what they think they deserve.

Green_Angel_Tower_P1By the end of the third book, To Green Angel Tower, Williams has employed the theme of Truth vs. Falsehoods to completely corrupt the Circle of Life theme. All the characters – the antagonists and the protagonists – deceive themselves about their own motives.

Regardless of their race, they share some characteristics with humans. Each character hides the truths they can’t face behind other, more palatable truths.

I always think that inserting a whiff of human frailty into a character makes them more interesting, more relatable.

Memory Sorrow and Thorn is considered a cornerstone of modern epic fantasy. This is because in the early 1980s, when Tad Williams began writing this trilogy, he took traditional themes and tropes and applied his original angle to them, along with modern prose and phrasing. He took each of the themes binding his narrative together and went one step farther, adding a hint of horror.

The horror would have been gratuitous if he hadn’t supported his narrative so well with all the themes and subthemes. Williams was inspired by Tolkien, and in turn, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn has inspired countless authors.

Your assignment: on a new document, pick a theme from the following list, create a character or two, and write two paragraphs exploring that theme.

  • plot is the frame upon which the themes of a story are supportedFate vs. free will
  • Faith vs. doubt
  • Good vs. evil
  • Greed
  • Hubris
  • Humanity vs. nature
  • Justice
  • Lust for Power
  • Pursuit of Love
  • Revenge
  • Sacrificial Love
  • Survival against the odds
  • War

All genres are made specific by the tropes that define them. Epic fantasy shares some tropes with high fantasy.

It often includes elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.

My next post will discuss the tropes featured in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy and how the themes we’ve discussed support them.


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How the Written Universe Works: 7 Rules of Construction #amwriting

Words, carefully chosen and arranged with care, have the power to bring your writing to life.

7 rules of constructionWe who write because we love words spend a great deal of time framing what our words say. We choose some words above others because they say what we mean more precisely, or they color our prose with the right emotion.

We take our chosen words and bind them into small packets we call sentences. We take those sentences and build paragraphs, which become novels.

The author’s job is to understand how the grammar of their native language works. The great authors use those rules to energize their prose.

However, when it comes to word choices, some things are universal to the best work in all genres, from literary fiction and poetry to sci-fi and fantasy, to thrillers and cozy mysteries, or even Romance.

The world is in a state of flux—money is tight. In the US, the cost of getting a university education is prohibitive, with students incurring massive debt that follows them for years afterward. Some people have the luxury and the desire to seek a degree in writing.

Others must rely on self-education. To that end, here are seven rules professional writing programs teach about sentence and paragraph construction.

One: Verbs—we choose words with power. In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and carry more power.

Verbs are power words. Fluff words and obscure words used too freely are kryptonite, sapping the strength from our prose.

Use Active ProseTwo: Placement of verbs in the sentence can strengthen or weaken it.

  • Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
  • Nouns followed by verbs make active prose.

I ran toward danger, never away.

Three: Parallel construction smooths awkward phrasing. When two or more ideas are compared in one sentence, each clause should use the same grammatical structure. They are parallel, and the reader isn’t jarred by them, absorbing what is said naturally.

What parallelism means can be shown by a quote attributed to Julius Caesar, who used the phrase “I came; I saw; I conquered” in a letter to the Roman Senate after he had achieved a quick victory in the Battle of Zela. Caesar gives equal importance to the different ideas of arriving, seeing, and conquering.

Buddha quoteFour: Contrast—In literature, we use contrast to describe the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence. The blue sun burned like fire, but the ever-present wind chilled me.

Five: Similes show the resemblances between two things through the use of words such as “like” and “as.” The blue sun burned like fire.

Similes differ from metaphors, which suggest something “is” something else. The pale moon shone, a lamp in the sky that comforted me.

Six: Deliberate repetition used occasionally emphasizes emotion and atmosphere but doesn’t increase wordiness.

  • Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
  • Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
  • Repetition of words or phrases in the opposite sense.
  • Repetition of words broken by some other words.
  • Repetition of the same words at the end and start of a sentence.
  • Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
  • Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
  • Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
  • Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
  • Repetition at both the end and beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
  • Repetition is a construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause.

Every book is a quotation, and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prose and Poetry. [1]

alliterationSeven: Alliteration is the occurrence of the same letter (or sound) at the beginning of successive words, such as the familiar tongue-twister: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Alliteration lends a poetic feeling to passages and enhances the atmosphere of a given scene without creating wordiness.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, (The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe 1845) [2]

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees, (Birches, by Robert Frost 1916) [3]

The way we habitually construct our prose is our voice, and that voice determines the impact of our work. Different readers have widely different tastes, but no one enjoys bad writing.

Constructing our work to fit the market we are writing for is crucial to finding readers. However, all readers want to find good writing and are attracted to work that tells a story with atmosphere and emotion.

Neil_Gaiman_QuoteActive phrasing generates emotion. Sometimes, using similes, repetition, and alliteration in subtle applications enhances the worldbuilding without beating your reader over the head.

We all know worldbuilding must be organic and natural, but we don’t all know how to achieve it. Subtle application of these seven rules will empower your worldbuilding. The casual reader will be immersed but unaware of the mechanics. They won’t realize why the work is powerful.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works. Published in 1904. Vol. VIII. Letters and Social Aims, VI. Quotation and Originality, Bartleby.com, accessed (June 11, 2022)

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “The Raven,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Raven&oldid=908701892 (accessed June 11, 2022).

[3] Wikipedia contributors, “Birches (poem),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Birches_(poem)&oldid=886359747 (accessed June 11, 2022).


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How the Written Universe Works: Choreographing Disaster #amwriting

The most powerful books in the Western Canon of Great Literature explore the human experience. Drama, heartache, disaster, and violence are the backdrop against which our lives play out.

Buddha quoteReaders connect with these stories across generations and across the centuries because the fundamental concerns of human life aren’t unique to one society, one technological era, or one point in time.

In my last post, we touched upon choreographing violence, but didn’t discuss some of the root causes. Violence often follows disaster.

Some disasters are caused by the cyclical ebb and flow of weather patterns, and others are the effects of human activity.

  • Possible effects of famine: food deprivation leads to starvation and disease.
  • Possible effects of severe drought: droughts lead to wildfires, famines, and pandemics.

Drought and famine feed societal unrest:

  • Lust for power: The bullies rise to the top, inciting their followers to violence against those perceived as weaker.
  • Lust for wealth: Bully warlords may mount an armed invasion to steal resources a neighboring society has acquired.

Even a slight lowering of the standard of living can feed civil unrest.

One disaster we may all face at some point is famine. Hunger exists in this world, and while many worthwhile charities do their best to alleviate it, famine is an enemy that takes no prisoners.

On a human level, hunger affects a person forever after. People can survive on very little, and unfortunately, many do. To have only enough food to keep you alive forms a person in a singular way. Their physical growth will be less than that of a well-nourished person, and their worldview is narrower. They have no energy to spare for anything beyond their day-to-day existence.

Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilværelsen_1889Acquiring food becomes their first priority. Having a surplus of food becomes a reason to celebrate. To go without adequate food for any length of time changes a person and makes one determined to never go hungry again.

Unfortunately, for some, their desire to be well-fed will lead them to make choices that challenge the accepted morality of those who are not hungry.

Droughts often cause famines and worse. To go without water is to die. Thirst is a more immediate pain than hunger. The human animal can survive for up to three weeks without food but only three to four days without water. Rarely, one might survive up to a week.

Even brackish water must taste sweet when one suffers from a lack of potable water. And when one is without food, foods they would consider repugnant under other circumstances will fill their belly.

Look at the continual strife in third-world countries (not Ukraine, which is different and not a third-world country). You will see how long-term droughts have precipitated widespread famine, leading to civil unrest. Gang wars are fought over the right to own a water source, and these conflicts can erupt into revolution.

We forget this when we have plenty to eat and never have to worry if we will have water in our faucet as long as we can pay the bills.

But if we learn anything from the empty grocery store shelves in 2020 and the current supply chain crisis, it is that our well-fed lives are perched on a one-legged ladder.

Disaster on a wide scale can and will happen. But what of those small tragedies people face each day, deeply personal catastrophes, which only they are experiencing? These are also the seeds of a good story.

ContrastsLove and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—the eternal themes of tragedy and resolution. Hardship contrasted against ease provides the story with texture, turning a wall of “bland” into something worth reading.

In real life, everything seems to be going along well. Life is good, calm, and peaceful. Then the tornado hits, the wildfire comes through, or the tidal wave—whatever the tool nature uses to destroy you, it decimates your home, your community, leaving you and your neighbors with nothing.

Then we must deal with the aftermath, cleaning up, searching for belongings, and searching for loved ones. This kind of disaster cuts deep into a person’s psyche.

Severe weather, fires, famines, and floods are terrible to live through, and many harrowing stories emerge from these experiences. Stories of apocalyptic catastrophes resonate because disaster drives humanity to bigger and better things, and those who survive and rise above it become heroes.

However, disasters regularly happen on what seems an unimportant level to people who have resources.

Consider the situation of a single mother working two part-time jobs. If she lives in my town, she lives where there is no public transportation. Other cities in my county have access to public transit, but not my community.

She struggles to pay for fuel, but what if her car breaks down? How will she get to work? All her money goes to fuel, childcare, rent, and utilities. What little she has left after those bills are paid goes to food.

She has no resources and no way to pay to repair her car. Without her car, she will lose both jobs. That is a profoundly personal disaster, one she and her children might not recover from.

How would you write her story?

Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883We writers must make our words count. We have to show the comfort zone in the moments leading up to the disaster, not too much, but just enough to show what will soon be lost.

Then, we have to bring on the disaster and write it logically so that the events make sense. We can’t tell the story. We must show it as if we were painters—and we have to inject real, believable emotion into the experience.

Open a new document and save it to your background file. Describe the disaster in great detail. Then save and walk away from it. Let that scene rest and move on to something else. When you return to it, re-read it, and see what you can cut and condense and still have the bones of the action. Use verbs and power words and go light on descriptors.

The window shatters, and I stare, dumbstruck. A two-by-four impales itself in the wall beside David amid a slow-motion shower of glass shards. The wind roars, tearing the door from my hand and slamming it shut.

Verbs in that scene are: stare, impales, shower, roars, tearing, slamming. Show the bones of the event by using verbs with powerful visuals, and the reader’s mind will fill in the rest.

Once the events are in order, we must show the aftermath of the calamity and the roadblocks they must overcome to recovery. We add the characters’ real-time reactions and emotions. Finally, we must leave our characters in a place of comparative happiness and security.

Employing contrast—ease against hardship—gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. When an author makes good use of courage in the face of personal disasters, readers think about the story and those characters long after it has ended.


Struggle for Survival by Christian Krohg, 1889, oil on canvas.  Now hanging in the National Gallery of Norway. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christian Krohg-Kampen for tilværelsen 1889.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilv%C3%A6relsen_1889.jpg&oldid=301415583 (accessed June 7, 2022)

Fatigued Minstrels, by Augustus Edwin Mulready, 1883, oil on canvas. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Augustus Edwin Mulready Fatigued Minstrels 1883.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883.jpg&oldid=335802594 (accessed June 7, 2022)


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How the Written Universe Works: Choreographing Violence #amwriting

In most genres, whether it’s mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, or horror, the characters are forced to do a certain amount of fighting. However, scenes involving physical action can become a wall of mindless mayhem.

toolsScenes of conflict are crucial to the advancement of the story. They should be inserted into the novel as if one were staging a pivotal scene in a film.

For my own planning purposes, I have four levels of conflict, ranked by the escalation of action and the broadness of the conflict.

Level 1 – Quarrel – interpersonal disagreements, disputes, angry words, shouting, everyone walks away.

Level 2 – Skirmish – 1 to 5 combatants total, with one-on-one physical violence. Minor wounds, everyone walks away.

Level 3 – Melee – small gangs or squads clash, some combatants are seriously wounded, and someone may die.

Level 4 – War – full-on battle, many combatants, each side attempting to annihilate the other.

level 1 confrontation LIRF06052022If you have no experience with combat or fighting, you don’t understand the limits of a normal athlete’s physical abilities. So, you must do the research. Think of how the human body works in reality. If your character knees a foe in the jaw, how is it possible?

Are you really going to go into that much detail to explain how Joe slapped Mary and then bent down for whatever reason, and Mary kneed him in the jaw?

I suggest you don’t include that particular assault because a knee to the jaw is a weird move if both combatants are standing. If Mary has a blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do, she could have clocked him with her foot, but not her knee.

level 2 skirmish LIRF06052022If you don’t show how such a strange hit could happen, the reader will say, “That’s impossible.” It’s a risky choice though, because going into that kind of detail bores the heck out of our readers. Our readers mind will fill in the details and if it’s confusing, they may stop reading.

We must consider what is physically possible and what is not.

After the action is laid down, the next step is fine-tuning it. The reactions and responses of your characters are what make the experience feel authentic to the reader. After you have established that Joe was somehow hit in the jaw, what happened next? Did it knock him out?

Many authors get hung up on the technical side of each fight—how they were dressed, what weapons they had, and so on.

level 3 melee LIRF06052022Don’t do this for every incident. After they are armed and armored as much as they are going to be the first time, just have them meet the enemy, skirmish, and continue on. The reader already knows what armor and weapons they had.

The fight must advance the story.

  • Ask yourself why the quarrel happened.
  • What is the purpose of injecting that conflict into the narrative?
  • And once you establish that the fight happened, did you foreshadow it well enough, or does it seem gratuitous?

level 4 war LIRF06052022In real life, conflict happens on a sliding scale. It begins with a disagreement and escalates to an all-out war. While my outline will have a note alerting me to the level of conflict that must happen, I choreograph my fights to reflect that sliding level of intensity.

Billy Ninefingers begins with a level 1 quarrel that escalates to a level 2 fight. Billy’s sword hand is wounded. Besides the fact Billy is seriously injured in this opening fight, which is the inciting incident and core plot point of the book, I had two other goals with that fight scene:

  1. I needed to show how the Bastard is jealous and acts on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind.
  2. In the resolution of that scene, I demonstrated that Billy, even with his life in ruins, has a sense of fair play.

Just as physical attacks are in real life, Billy’s confrontation with the Bastard was over in less than a minute. From personal fistfights to waging war, actual combat is quick, bloody, and brutal.

Author-thoughtsPerson-to-person combat doesn’t stretch for hours because no matter how well trained a fighter is, no one has that kind of strength.

Skirmishes may happen in bursts that take place over a length of time, but there are pauses between clashes, allowing the combatants to briefly rest and get their breath.

It may feel like an hour is passing while you are in the middle of each clash, but in reality, each one-on-one fight only lasts a few minutes. At that point, even the strongest fighters are exhausted. Exhausted people make mistakes, and someone will be injured or die.

I suggest that for your own purposes, you map your violence out. Describe it for yourself as you would a journey. On a background document, write every slap and curse word. Write every hack and slash or gunshot, and make sure each occurs at its proper point in the melee.

Then walk away from it. Let that scene rest and move on to something else. When you return to it, ask yourself how many blows and hits your characters have taken.

combat - fencing LIRF06052022A typical fencing match goes until one has scored 15 hits on their opponent, and that match lasts nine minutes or less. Ask yourself how your fighter can survive the injuries that such blows would leave them with in real combat.

They most likely couldn’t.

Combatants block and defend as much as they attack. For the author, acting out each skirmish ensures that the moves are reasonable and make sense. But you aren’t done writing that scene just because the hacking, slashing, and gunshots are on paper.

Open a new document, take what you have already choreographed and consolidate it. While a war will justify ten paragraphs of description, a skirmish won’t. Write a one or two paragraph narrative that hits the high points and end it.

In each quarrel, we have to consider that every character in the fight is, and must remain, a unique individual. There should be no blurring of personalities, which can happen when an author focuses too intently on the action of the fight scene.

It’s a lot of work, but I go back to the first part of that section and make sure the character’s reactions are portrayed so the reader can suspend their disbelief.

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021I try to show this discreetly by sitting back and visualizing the scene after the choreography is laid on paper. I replay it in my mind as if I were a witness to the events and look for each combatant’s facial expressions and reactions.

The strongest reactions get briefly mentioned in the story, the responses that push the plot forward. The other reactions are witnessed but given less prominence, becoming part of the scenery.

When I choreograph a fight, I think of it as if I were composing a conversation. In our literary conversations, we paint the impression of their individuality without boring the reader with insignificant details.

We must approach the fight scene the same way. I keep it concise and linear when it comes to fighting, as drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears. Just the facts, the immediate emotional impact, and we move on to the recovery scene.

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Excalibur, London Film Museum, via Wikipedia

While it feels chaotic to those who are involved, violence is orderly and happens in a sequence of actions within a fundamental framework of order.

They block, dodge, hack and slash or shoot – the swiftness of the event and the emotional impact of the violence do the work of conveying the overwhelming sense of chaos.

My next post will examine how to choreograph personal disasters.


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How the Written Universe Works: The Inciting Incident #amwriting

Whether we show it in the prologue or the opening chapter, the first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story. The universe that is our story begins expanding at that moment.

the inciting incidentThe first incident has a domino effect. More events occur, pushing the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. Fear of death, fear of loss, fear of financial disaster, fear of losing a loved one—terror is subjective and deeply personal.

I love stories about good people solving terrible problems, but I want them to mean something.

While I have experienced violent situations, I’ve also faced many things that shook my world but didn’t threaten my physical safety.

Arguments and confrontations are chaotic, leaving us wondering what just happened. We want to convey that sense of chaos in writing, but we must consider the reader. Readers want to see the scene and understand what they just read. We must design every action scene to ensure they fit naturally into a narrative from the first incident onwards.

The threat and looming disaster must be made clear to the reader at the outset. Nebulous threats mean nothing in real life, although they cause a lot of stress in our daily lives.

Those vague threats might be the harbinger of what is to come in a book, but they only work if the danger materializes quickly and the roadblocks to happiness soon become apparent.

Resolving disaster is the story. Hold the solution just out of reach for the following ¾ of the narrative. Every time we nearly have it fixed, we don’t, and things get worse.

The arc of the story begins with the first event, the inciting incident. The story’s arc occurs because the characters keep reaching for a resolution but can’t quite grasp it. Every attempt is blocked somehow.


The One Ring, Peter J. Yost, CC BY-SA 4.0

The characters reap the rewards of minor successes but not the golden ring. Those small rewards keep hope alive and keep the reader involved.

If the first problem was taken care of too quickly, why? What sort of trap was laid, and why did the characters take the bait?

If we do this right, we will move our readers emotionally and they will remain invested in our book.

I mentioned that confrontations are chaotic. It’s our job to control that chaos and make a narrative out of it. Nothing upsets a reader more than a book where the author contradicts something that was said or that happened before.

I choreograph action sequences, which can take a little time. Each character’s reactions must be portrayed in such a way the reader doesn’t say, “He wouldn’t do that.”

In real life, people don’t all react the same way. So, our characters can’t all be superheroes in a fight scene. It’s easy to lose the characters’ individuality in the jumble of actions that a confrontation is.

If your violence is war, go to history and see how battles were waged historically. Any war will do, but let’s say you are writing an account of a soldier’s experiences in modern warfare. Go to the Battle of the Bulgealso known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive.


US Army Center for Military History, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve used this battle as an example before because it was a pivotal point in World War II, and the placement of all the forces on both sides is well documented.

Also, one of my uncles fought and was wounded in that battle. Uncle Don came home with a metal plate in his head. American forces endured most of the attack, suffering their highest casualties of any operation during the war.

But you can look at any historical battle. Just remember that even though your book may explore a real soldier’s experiences, you are still writing a fantasy. The past is just hearsay, stories written by the victors. The future is a rumor that may not happen. The only moment that happens for sure is this moment, that moment you experience now.

Our characters exist in their own now, and the inciting incident kicks off their story. Perhaps the soldier’s inciting incident occurs when they join the army. From that point on, the actions and reactions of our soldiers must be logical even amidst the chaos of battle, or the reader will skip over that scene and possibly put the book down.

We make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be) through physical actions and conversational interactions. In the early part of the story, each scene should illuminate the characters’ motives. The reader must gain information at the same time as the protagonist does.

toolsHowever, the reader has an edge—they will be offered clues from the antagonists’ side, which the characters don’t know. The antagonist’s actions will affect the plot in the future. Even if the antagonist isn’t an overt enemy at the outset, the readers’ knowledge creates a sense of unease, a subliminal worry that things will go wrong.

Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is essential. This knowledge raises the stakes, increasing the tension.

Next week, we will look at ways to choreograph confrontations and violent encounters.


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The Business Side of the Business – Choosing your Publishing Path

Authors just starting out, either Indie or traditionally published, rarely earn enough royalties to support their families. Regardless of the path you choose, if your spouse makes enough to support you in your early days, you can devote more time to advancing your career.

Its a BusinessBut not every author has that option.

Before you embark on either path, consider this: publishers, large and small, don’t waste budgets promoting work by unknown authors the way they do the few who have risen to the ranks of their guaranteed bestseller lists.

You will do the work of getting your name out there regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not.

So, what are the perks of going traditional if you’re an unknown? Why go to the trouble of wooing an agent and trying to court a publisher? Even today, an air of ‘respectability’ clings to those who are traditionally published.

The traditional publishing industry does offer incentives to those who get their foot in the door. Once you are in their flock, you have an editor who works with you personally. Most of the time, you can forge a good working relationship with this editor.

Conversely, Indies must find an independent editor and pay them out of their own pocket.

While the traditional publisher may not treat a new author the way they do their highest sellers, they may dedicate a small budget to marketing your work with newspaper ads, or swag posters for bookstores to place as decoration. That small amount will be more money than you might be able to pay as an Indie.

Traditional publishers have contracts with markets like Target, Walmart, Costco, airports, and grocery store chains. That is a huge thing, assuming your publisher considers your work worthy of such a commitment on their part.

However, your first book most likely won’t see the inside of a Walmart right away. The publisher’s confidence must be earned. You can expect to find your work on the slow track for a while as the publisher tests the water and sees how well your work sells through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

These are all valid reasons for attempting to go the traditional route.

However, there are equally valid reasons for going Indie. Your book will be published. If you seek a book contract, you must pass a gauntlet of gatekeepers: literary agents, acquisition editors, editorial committees, and publishing-house CEOs.

These people must answer to the international conglomerates that actually own most American publishing companies. This is why you are most likely to be stopped by a rejection letter.

It’s not the quality of your work. It’s the publishers’ perception of what the reading market will purchase and what it means to the accountants, who in turn must answer to their shareholders.

As an Indie, you may not be a bestseller, but you’ll make more money on what you do sell.

McLaine_Pond_In_July_©_2018_ConnieJJapsersonIn most standard book contracts, royalty terms for authors are terrible, and this is especially true for eBook sales. Most eBooks are sold through online retailers like Amazon. If you’re a traditionally published author and your publisher priced your eBook at $9.99, this is how the Amazon numbers break out. No matter what you think of Amazon, it is still the Big Fish in the Publishing and Bookselling Pond:

  1. Amazon takes 30% of the list price, leaving about $7.00 for the publisher, agent, and you to split.
  2. The publisher will keep 75% of that $7.00, or $5.25.
  3. The publisher will pay you 25% of that $7.00—just $1.75.
  4. You then must pay your agent her 15% commission—or 26 cents.
  5. You net just $1.49 on each $9.99 eBook sale. This is assuming your publisher honestly reports your sales and royalties, and in my personal experience, a few small publishers do not.

Unfortunately, traditional publishers usually charge far more than $9.99 for eBooks, charging more than they do for paperbacks in their effort to keep eBook sales down and drive paper sales.

If you self-publish your eBook at that same price, for each sale of your $9.99 eBook, Amazon takes its 30%, leaving you $7.00. I don’t recommend such a high eBook price, but at  $4.99 or even $2.99, you stand to sell books and make a decent profit.

You’ll receive royalties sooner. When a publisher accepts your book, he offers you an advance against sales. These are often paid in installments stretched out over long periods and are tied directly to how well or how poorly your book is doing in real market time. Publishers report sales and pay royalties slowly, as royalty statements are usually issued semiannually. Your royalty checks arrive later, so you can’t rely on this income until you have become an established author in their world.

Conversely, most eBook distributors like Draft2Digital, Barnes & Noble, and print-on-demand services such as Amazon KDP, report your sales virtually. Best of all, they pay your royalties monthly, with just a sixty-day lag from the day sales began.

Finally, and from my point of view, most importantly: You retain all rights to your work.

Legacy book contracts are a terrible danger zone for the author. The sheer complexity of negotiating a contract can be confusing and intimidating. I recommend you hire a lawyer specializing in literary contracts or risk unwittingly signing away secondary and subsidiary rights to your work forever.

Please, read this article, A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever, published on the Authors Guild website on July 28, 2015. It is an eye-opening look at the industry and its practices.

Now we arrive at marketing. As I said before, you must do the work of getting your name out there regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not. You must still work your day job to feed your family.

Being an indie author or being published by a small press means you are on your own as far as getting the word out about your books. Even some traditionally published authors find that if they want their books seen at a convention, they must pay for the table, find their own hotel accommodations, and pay their own way there.

You pay upfront for your book stocks if you are an indie.

If you are traditionally published, the costs of your stock are deducted from future royalties. Publishing houses are not charities, so you will pay for stocking and restocking your inventory either way you choose.

If you choose the indie path, you pay for editing, beta reading, and proofreading. You will also need a graphic designer for book covers and should seek professional formatting services to create the files for your paperback book.

lute-clip-artHowever, to be considered for a traditional contract, you should hire an editor, beta reader, and proofreader to ensure the manuscript you submit to an agent or editor demonstrates your ability to turn out a good, professional product.

Either way, it’s a business, and you must factor these costs into your budget.

Both paths are reasonable in today’s market. There are positive rationales for choosing either direction, as well as negatives. You will have to work hard no matter which path you choose.

The publishing path is a critical choice for an author to make and is one we shouldn’t make lightly. A decision that affects your career as strongly as this deserves deep consideration of the many pros and cons.


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The Business Side of the Business: conferences and conventions #amwriting

If you are a regular here at Life in the Realm of Fantasy, you may have seen my two-part series on the business side of being an author. If not, and if you are interested, I will put the links to those articles at the bottom of this post.

Its a BusinessRegardless of your publishing path, you must budget for certain things. You can’t expect your royalties to pay for them early in your career – and many award-winning authors must still work at their day jobs to pay their bills.

But conferences and conventions are one way to meet agents and editors. Also, if you have a table at sci-fi and fantasy fan conventions (or whatever your genre), you will meet readers and create a fanbase for your work.

No author, indie or traditionally published, can live on their royalties at first, so attending conferences requires planning, possibly up to a year in advance. I suggest you work with your budget and set aside the money for conventions and seminars.

I do have some ways to keep your costs down.

First: Join the association offering the conference, as members get reduced conference fees and many other perks all year long. Take advantage of the early-bird discount if you can. I belong to three writers’ associations, and each one offers something I can use all year long.

Second: Does your library system offer occasional seminars by local authors? If it is a public library, these will likely be free.

Third: Use the internet – google “writers’ conferences in my area.” If you can find a local one, you can eat food that fits your dietary needs and sleep at home, which means you only pay for the conference itself.

Fourth: If you are planning to attend a large convention or conference where you will need to stay in a hotel, take simple foods that can be prepared without a stove, and which are filling. Being vegan, I tend to be an accomplished hotel-room chef, as most coffee bars don’t offer many plant-based options. While that bias is changing, I still go prepared.

road tripConferences are an extension of the self-education process. I have discovered so much about the craft of writing, the genres I write in, and the publishing industry as a whole—things I could only learn from other authors. I gained an extended professional network by joining The Pacific Northwest Writers Association in 2011 and going to their annual conferences.

This last weekend, I attended the first of three conferences I have budgeted for 2022. The Science-fiction & Fantasy Author’s Association held the 2022 Nebula Conference this last weekend. It was a virtual conference again this year, so my only cost was the conference fee itself. That cost was quite reasonable because I took advantage of both my membership discount and the early bird discount.

The Nebula Conference is normally held in Southern California, and I am not a happy flyer, so a virtual conference was optimal for me. I may not attend in person again. However, since SFWA is a global association of professional science fiction and fantasy authors, their conferences will also be available in virtual form from here on out.

The following two conferences I have scheduled will be in September and are in-person events. The first, Southwest Washington Writers Conference (SWWC), is local enough that I can commute from my home. The last one for this year is Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) in the Seattle area. It’s a 70-mile commute, so I will stay in the hotel. September is the start of virus season, so I expect many people (like me) will wear masks at both events.

Me working in a starbucks, through the fishbowl, copyright Dan Riffero 2013

Me writing in a Seattle Starbucks, taken through a fish tank. I was the big fish in that tank! Photo by Dan Riffero.

As a small fish in a very big ocean, attending these two local conferences puts me in contact with other authors and industry professionals. The attending authors are people I don’t usually come into contact with as they hail from all over Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia.

I always attend as many panels and workshops as I can fit into my schedule. I do this because the seminars offered at each of the three conferences have taught me as much about the craft as about the business of writing.

This weekend at the Nebula Conference, I attended many outstanding panel discussions by famous authors. All the authors on the panels were people who have achieved success, and they shared their insights on current trends in the publishing industry.

My favorite seminar out of all those stellar panels was the one discussing Speculative Fiction Poetry, which was held on Sunday morning. I have always written poetry and love reading it. Many spec fic poets are experimenting with sestinas, which (thanks to the pandemic) became my new favorite poetic form to write in during lockdown. Trying to adhere to a strict structural form challenges my creativity and forces me to grow in all areas of writing craft.

ICountMyself-FriendsSometimes I am invited to participate in panels or offer a workshop, and I can share my experiences with others. Either way, I learn things. In September, I will be on a panel with Lee French, Johanna Flynn, and Ellen King Rice at SWWC, talking about what we wished we had known when we first began writing professionally.

I feel honored (and a bit intimidated) to be a part of this group as they are award-winning writers. But more than that, they are women whose work I enjoy and respect. But facing your fear of public speaking is part of what growing your career entails – putting yourself out there, learning what you can, and sharing what you know.

Two previous posts on the Business side of the Business:

The Business Sequence for Writers, guest post by Ellen King Rice #writerlife | Life in the Realm of Fantasy (conniejjasperson.com)

The Business Side of the Business, part 2: Inventory #writerlife | Life in the Realm of Fantasy (conniejjasperson.com)


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How the Written Universe Works: Time, Maps, and Project Management #amwriting

Scope creep (aka project creep, requirement creep, or kitchen sink syndrome) in project management refers to the changes and continuous (or uncontrolled) growth of a project. This can occur at any point after the project commences.

ProjectManagementLIRF05232021The plan or design is submitted to the client, who likes it. A mockup of the first iteration is submitted to the client, who still likes it, but … their needs have changed a little, and a new adjustment must be incorporated.

Project creep sometimes occurs because we fail to envision and raise potential issues at the outset. Then, situations arise that are out of our control, and which affect production.

Everything takes longer than we thought it would.

We compound the problem by failing to evaluate new requests before approving them, not assessing whether fulfilling these add-ons is even feasible. At some point we must face the unpleasant truth.

These errors and oversights will either kill the entire project or alter it beyond recognition.

Requirement creep occurs when the project’s original scope is brilliant but nebulous, which is how novels are born – a glorious idea that isn’t fully formed but exponentially grows as we write.

dylan moran quote TIMEBooks are one area where project creep is not only appreciated but encouraged. Stories are particularly prone to this continual expansion of the original ideas. Short stories grow into novellas and then into novels, becoming a series of books.

Nothing upsets a reader more than a book where the author contradicts something that has gone before. The storyboard is one visible, easy-to-comprehend way to keep on top of project creep. When creating a story, one must manage both time and distance, a difficult task.

Oh, as you are writing, you think you have it all straight in your head.

But as a child who has ever told a lie knows—stories grow and evolve in the telling. Eventually, it looks nothing like the way it started out.

Even on the surface, writing fiction is complex. Authors who want to take their books from idea to paperback must become project managers.

We don’t consciously think about this, but organizational skills are critical because we want the story to flow easily from scene to scene. This is why successful authors are project managers, even if they don’t realize it.

toolsThe first aspect of this is to Identify your Project Goals – create a rudimentary outline with names, who they are in relation to the protagonist, and decide who is telling the story. Remember, your story is your invention. Some inventions are in development for years before they get to market. Others are complete and ready to market in a relatively short time. Regardless of your production timeline, this is where project management skills really come into play.

I use a phased (or staged) approach. This method breaks down and manages the work through a series of distinct steps to be completed.

  1. Concept: The Brilliant Idea. Make a note of that idea, so you don’t forget it.
  2. The Planning Phase: create a raw outline. Some people don’t need this step, but I do.
  3. The Construction Phase—writing the first draft from beginning to the end and continuing through multiple drafts.
  4. Monitoring and Controlling—This is where you build quality into your product.

Write the basic story. Build your storyboard/stylesheet and note the changes you make as you go. See my post on stylesheets/storyboard’s here: Self-editing: Ensuring Consistency.

  1. Find beta readers and heed their concerns in the rewrites. Take the manuscript through as many drafts as you must, to have the novel you envisioned.
  2. Employ a good line editor to ensure consistency in the quality of your product.
  3. Find reliable proofreaders. (Your writing group is an invaluable resource.)

Completion or Closing—Employ a cover designer if you are going indie.

    1. Find an agent if you are taking the traditional route.
    2. Employ a professional formatter for the print version if you are going indie.
    3. Court a publisher if you are taking the traditional route.

Maps and calendars are essential tools for the author, no matter what genre you are writing in. Regardless of how you create your stylesheet/storyboard, I suggest you include these elements:

  1. GLOSSARY – A list of names and invented words as they arise, all spelled the way you want them.
  2. MAPS – nothing fancy, just something rudimentary to show you the layout of the world.
  3. CALENDAR of events – especially important if the characters must travel.

A fourth thing your stylesheet/storyboard could include is the rough outline of your projected story arc. This is a good tool for fantasy authors because we invent entire worlds, religions, and magic systems. We don’t want to contradict ourselves.

sample-of-rough-sketched-mapYour map doesn’t have to be fancy – all you need are some lines and scribbles telling you all the essential things, like which direction is north and what certain towns are named. Use a pencil, to easily update your map if something changes during revisions.

If you aren’t artistic and want a nice map later, your scribbled map will enable a map artist to provide you with a beautiful and accurate product. You will have a map that contains the information needed for readers to enjoy your book.

If your story takes place in the real world, use Google Maps, and print out a copy for your reference, or scan a map into your storyboard.

You need to know how the land looks to your characters, mountains, lakes, oceans, etc. You also need to know what lies to the north, south, east, and west. You should have some notion of where rivers and forests are relative to towns because those landmarks will be mentioned at some point.

Readers remember the smallest details and use them to visualize the world they are reading about. This is why you need some idea of distances and how long it takes to travel using the common mode of transportation.

calendarTime can get a little mushy when we are winging it through a manuscript. A calendar gives us a realistic view of how long it takes to travel from point A to point B, or how much time it will take to complete a task.

It helps to know what season your events occur in, as foliage changes with the seasons and weather is a part of worldbuilding.

The map shows the terrain your story takes place on, and weather can affect the terrain. Your characters will interact with their environment in different ways, depending on the season and the weather.

Project management is a vital tool for the author. Maps and calendars are the author’s project management tools. They work together to help you visualize your story. They enable you to manage time and distance in a logical way that doesn’t intrude into the reader’s awareness.

And that is important.

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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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