Tag Archives: writing

The habits of productive writers #amwriting

I am friends with many productive writers, people who publish two or more good, high-quality books a year. One thing they have in common is discipline. They have a grip on time management. They understand that if you set aside a block time that is just for writing, it becomes less of a chore. It becomes part of your daily routine, habitual. Some writers have office hours, others must carve time outside work and family obligations.

Productivity is relative. I feel productive if I publish one book a year and sell a short story or two.

I write every day, and I also work on other aspects of book production every day. But I am not prolific. I always have several manuscripts in various stages of completion, which is why I can get one out the door every year, even though it takes me four years to write them.

Barbara Cartland dictated over 700 novels, and her secretary typed them up. In 1976  she published 23 novels. I think that’s crazy dedication to the craft, and I don’t have that many ideas, lol! Productivity depends on what you decide you want to achieve for your writing career.

Author Simon Wood writes to an outline. He publishes regularly, but not as often as some authors do. He gets at least one book published every year, sometimes two. Simon keeps to his production schedule, which is why he publishes regularly. He was kind enough to talk about how he plots his novels for my post in September of last year, Author Simon Wood on Plotting. In that post, he offers some awesome advice on how he uses pre-planning to keep the momentum going.

For Indies, writing involves more than just laying words on paper. It requires a work ethic and the commitment to doing the dirty work as well as the fun stuff.

  • We must find time to write,
  • Find editors to work with,
  • Carve out time to make revisions,
  • We format our books,
  • Arrange for cover art,
  • Arrange for tablespace at conventions and book signings, and market promotions and appearances.
  • Purchase swag (I use bookmarks as my business card) to give away, banners to dress up the booth, and make sure we have a reasonable stock of hardcopies of our books to sell at personal appearances. (Yes – we do have to pay for this.)

Each of these tasks requires discipline, sitting down and doing it.

It’s a time consuming business, and while you are doing these things, you aren’t writing. SO that must be fit into the process too.

Goals are good.

Many authors set deadlines, arbitrary dates for each aspect of the book to be finished. Be warned—to achieve your deadlines, you may have to establish firm boundaries to limit incursions into your writing time by friends and family members.

Consider establishing a dedicated working space—someplace where you aren’t bothered by the TV or ambient neighborhood sounds. Also, it should be strictly off limits to others, if possible. This will protect your files.

  • Finish the work, whether it’s a novel or short story.
  • You aren’t productive if you never finish the work.

One final thing I’ve noticed—productive authors are also dedicated readers. As a young adult I read every sci-fi or fantasy novel that came out in paperback, budgeting for books the way others of my acquaintance budgeted for beer. I’ve never stopped reading and researching great literature.

Reading for entertainment is my happy place. In the old days I jonesed for new books by the great ones, Anne McCaffrey, Jack Chalker, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, and Roger Zelazny, reading and rereading them until they were shreds held together with duct tape. Now I have the Kindle eReader and I still read two or three books a week.

Self-discipline and love of reading are common traits that the most productive authors of my acquaintance have in common. Realistic expectations and the ability to set goals and achieve them are also common traits.

We will be talking with two highly productive authors about how they work over the next few posts.

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World building – immediate community #amwriting

We have discussed the larger aspects of world-building – power structures such as religion and politics. We’ve talked about food, and about how word choices convey imagery which contributes to the reader’s visualization of the written world. Now we’re going to examine the immediate world, the community your character lives in.

If I were writing a story starring me as the main character, I would open it with a couple of 50-something empty nesters moving to a small quarry town, twenty miles south of the state capitol.

But what sort of town is this?

Tenino is a bedroom community; the commute isn’t too bad and homes here are affordable, whereas homes in Olympia tend to be quite expensive. This town has a long history of boom and bust; quarrymen, loggers, and farmers settled here.

Timber is no longer big here. Nowadays our town is famous for Wolf Haven International, sandstone art, crafted whiskey, and wine. We still have a few large cattle ranches out on the Violet Prairie, but 5-to-7-acre executive “horse properties,” llama farms, alpaca ranches, goat yoga, and soap-making classes have found fertile ground here. In the early part of the 20th century bootlegging was an industry here (my maternal grandfather) so having the distilleries is the legal continuation of an old tradition.

It’s an isolated town, filled with quirky, wonderful people, and situated in a valley with heavily forested hills on the outskirts. If a fictional story were set in this town, it would feature the same political schisms that divide the rest of our country. There are other tensions. Some families have been here for generations, and  a few don’t appreciate the influx of low-paid state workers buying cookie-cutter tract homes here.

Other than the few local businesses, most people commute to work in Olympia or one of the other surrounding communities.

My street is a stretch of rough blacktop with no sidewalks. It runs east and west, with a fabulous view of Mount Rainier rising at the east end. It is lined with homes on both sides, but it’s divided. A nicely landscaped mobile home park is on the north side of the street, across from my front door. On the south side of the street is the long row of forty stick-built homes, built in 2005 just before the housing bubble crashed. On my side of the street, the row of homes are nearly identical, as there are only two types of floor plans, one for three bedrooms (mine) or the four-bedroom version.

This makes for a seriously boring-looking neighborhood, so for a few years we had the only house with an orange door.

The day we moved into our brand-new home in 2005, two inches of rain fell, making moving a misery. Our new house rose out of a sea of mud and rocks. With a lot of effort, we made a pleasant yard. When the housing bubble burst, many of the people on my side of the street lost their jobs, and their homes went into foreclosure.

For several years, wherever there were two or more empty houses, it looked somewhat like a ghost town. Also, there was a long period when our house was valued at far less than we paid for it, which meant that had we wanted to, we couldn’t sell it.

My town has one grocery store, which carries the basics, but their produce is awful, and you really have to check the pull dates on things like eggs, hummus, and cottage cheese. It’s more affordable to shop in Olympia.

We have a historic district, where the buildings are all built from sandstone quarried at the old quarries. Many of the old buildings are home to antique stores. The masonic lodge is made of Tenino sandstone.

The city park is a pleasant place to go on a hot Saturday afternoon, with a large public swimming pool in one of the flooded quarries.

It’s a nice place, a quiet town with several large Baptist churches, a Catholic church, and a large number of small off-shoot fundamentalist churches. Alas, those of us of the Lutheran persuasion must go to Olympia to find God.

In the morning, birdsong fills the air. Robins, wrens, finches, hummingbirds, crows, Stellar’s jays, mourning doves – the neighborhood is alive with birds.

Odors are important. The meat department at the grocery store smokes their own ribs and other cuts, and the wind carries the scent all over the neighborhood. When they mow the fields at the edge of our town the smell of cut hay fills the air.

During the day when I go outside, I can hear the children playing at the school. In the evening, the neighborhood is filled with the sounds of kids playing in each other’s yards.

Other familiar sounds are the traffic on Highway 507, and the horns sounding from the trains passing at the west end of town. Annoyingly, helicopters from the nearby military base sometimes buzz our town—flying low over our roofs, shaking the houses, rattling dishes in the cupboards.

It’s the perfect setting for a paranormal fantasy or a murder mystery.

Your characters subtly identify with the community they live in. Small town or large city, village or hut in the forest – where they are from shapes how they think, how they see the world. This is true of fantasy and sci-fi stories as well as murder mysteries and thrillers.

Visualize your own community and write a word picture of it. Then visualize the community your characters live in and write a word picture of this imaginary place.

Ambient sounds, odors, places the characters regularly frequent—these form the general environment, the setting of your story. This is the immediate world, the world of community.


Credits and Attributions

Photos and images in this post are from the authors personal collection © Connie Jasperson 2019

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World Building – creating political structures #amwriting

Every society, fantasy, sci-fi, or real-world, must have an overarching political structure—a government of some sort. Humans are tribal – like all primates we are comfortable when we have a hierarchy of decision-makers to guide the tribe.

A simple society might consist of an elder and several trusted advisors.

A more complex society might have a monarch leading a society composed of multiple layers:

Monarch/Royalty

→Nobility

→→Lesser Nobility

→→→Upper Middle Class

→→→→Middle Class

→→→→→Lower Middle Class

→→→→→→Lower Class

→→→→→→→Poorest Class

Every human society, large or small, is divided into layers and classes, whether we want to admit it or not. Change the word “Monarch” to “Mayor,” Governor,” “President,” “Pope,” or “Prime Minister,” and the society they lead falls into the same layers.

This is because someone is always more important, richer, has more power, makes the rules.

The politics of a society are an invisible construct that affects every aspect of a story, even if it isn’t directly addressed. Our characters have a place within that structure. When you know what that place is, you write their story accordingly. If you know your characters’ social caste, you know if they are rich or poor; hungry or well-fed. This will shape them throughout the story:

  • Hunger drives conflict
  • Well-fed could mean a complacent society

Every society has laws, inviolable rules. Breaking these laws has consequences.

Some small tribal societies have unwritten codes of ethics, but they are as firmly enforced as any written laws. When a character goes against the commonly accepted rules, they must face the consequences.

That flouting of civil laws is an opportunity for conflict.

Sometimes I run short of words on a new project but I can’t set it aside. At that point I go deep into the backstory and examine the hidden underpinnings of their society. Little, if any, of this backstory will enter into the finished product. But I have found that when my characters are sure of what their station in society is, I can write their journey with confidence and authority.

I need to know who they are, how they see themselves and their future, and how they fit organically into their world.

One aspect that is a hidden support structure of every fantasy society is the government.  Even if it doesn’t come into the story, take a few moments to examine the political power structure of your world. It’s a good idea to write down a page or so of information detailing the political and monetary structure of the world your characters inhabit.

As I create the political power-structure, I find that the opportunities for creating tension within the story also grow. I keep a list of those ideas so that when I run short on creativity, I have a bit in the bank, so to speak.

However, in order to convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work. Does the government/legal system affect your characters? If not, this exercise is a waste of time, sorry.

  • Who has the power and privilege in that society, and who is the underclass?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • Monarchy, Elected officials, Warlords, Shamans, or what?
  • How do they get that power? Hereditary, elected, military coup?
  • What laws affect your characters or hinder them?
  • How are the governing people perceived? Foolish or wise? Honest or Corrupt?
  • What place does religion have in this society? We examined religion last week in the post Creating Power Structures and Religions.
  • What passes for morality? You only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws, what are the consequences?

One critical aspect of society that governments have control of is money. If you have a fantasy society, design a simple monetary system. Keep it simple, so you don’t contradict yourself over the course of the story.

I use the same system in all three of my fantasy worlds. A Gold is comprised of 10 Silvers. A Silver is comprised of 10 Coppers.

In a sci-fi world, you can get away with using a blanket term like credits. These are easy concepts for a reader to imagine without your having to go into detail. Examples might be:

  • Innkeeper: “A mug of ale is three coppers. No coppers, no ale.”
  • Spaceport pawnbroker: “It’s unregistered. A weapon like this is worth five hundred credits, don’t you agree?”

If you’re writing in a speculative fiction world and you absolutely must use created names for money and positions, make those words simple to read and pronounce, and once you have established them, don’t deviate from them.

Good world building takes the familiar and shapes it into unfamiliar ways. It’s only my opinion, but I suggest you keep to familiar terms for leaders. King/queen, president, mayor, admiral, captain—these are terms that convey an image with no effort on your part. Anything the reader doesn’t have to research is good. If you are too enthusiastic in creating an entire language in order to convey a sense of foreignness, you have gone to a great deal of trouble only to lose the majority of readers.

When you are building a world that only exists on paper, you must be sparing with the space you devote to conveying the social, religious, and political climate of your story.  This is atmosphere. This is knowledge the characters have, but the reader does not.

There is no need to have an introductory chapter describing the laws and moral codes of the religious order of St Anthony, or the political climate of East Berlin in 1962. The way you convey this is to show how these larger societal influences affect your character and his/her ability to resolve their situation.

You show this in small ways, with casual mentions in conversation ONLY when it becomes pertinent, and not through info dumps.

Familiar words convey familiar images. Use them wisely in showing an entire fantasy world. Consider the politics in a medieval setting:

Setting:

  1. the village of Imaginary Junction, in the Barony of Blackthorn.

General atmosphere:

  1. the weather is unseasonably cold

Introduce the protagonist and show him in his situation:

  1. In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is  hiding.

Introduce the antagonist(s):

  1. Soldiers of Baron Blackthorn, whom Sebastian has inadvisably humiliated in a song are searching for him.

Introduce the way politics and power affect the protagonist:

  1. the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian
  2. he is hauled before the angry baron and
  3. thrown into prisonsentenced to hang at dawn.

The bolded words above offer a reader powerful images of both the physical and political world Sebastian lives in. These words are familiar to every reader of fantasy. They convey emotions and a feudal atmosphere without you having to resort to an info dump of the history of Imaginary Junction.

Show the coldness of the alley, show the irate nobleman’s anger, show the wretchedness of the protagonist in prison, show the arrogance of the soldiers. Use familiar terms to convey entire packets of images wherever possible, and they will be unobtrusive, allowing the reader to live the story, to fear the coming dawn as much as Sebastian does.


Image Credits and Attributions:

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540 / Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Enrique VIII de Inglaterra, por Hans Holbein el Joven.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Enrique_VIII_de_Inglaterra,_por_Hans_Holbein_el_Joven.jpg&oldid=344005488 (accessed June 2, 2019

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 2, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Ernst Meyer – A Roman Alley – KMS2097 – Statens Museum for Kunst.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Ernst_Meyer_-_A_Roman_Alley_-_KMS2097_-_Statens_Museum_for_Kunst.jpg&oldid=330745323 (accessed June 2, 2019).

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World Building: Creating Power Structures and Religions #amwriting

ALL societies have an overarching power structure of some sort because someone has to be the leader. Similarly, all smaller segments within societies, from families to business, to churches, to governments have organized leadership structures, even if they aren’t formally described as such.

Power structure: the hierarchy that encompasses the most powerful people in an organization. An overall system of influence between individuals within any selected group of people.

Leader

→Assistant Leader(s)

→ →Assistant(s) to the Assistant Leader(s)

→ → → Middle-Level Clawing-their-way-to-Assistant Assistants

→ → → →Lower-Level-Hoping-to Survive-to-Retirement Assistants

→ → → → →Peons-Who-Do-the-Actual-Work-But-Don’t-Get-to-be-Called-Assistants

Religion rarely is a component of sci-fi but often figures prominently in fantasy work.

This is because a common way to train magic-gifted people is by apprenticeships, religious orders, or a school of some sort.

If you are taking the religious route, how important is the actual worship of the deity(s) in your tale?

Is there one god/goddess or many?

Benevolent or malevolent?

In many historical societies in this world, the Church/Temple was the governing power. The head of the religion was the ruler, and the higher one rose within the religious organization, the more power one had.

SO, in your world, how important is religion to your characters’ journey?

To convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work in the cities and towns, the segments of society outside the church.  Merchants, priests, teachers, healers, thieves—each occupation has a place in the hierarchy.

  • Is religion central to the governance of the society, or is it a peripheral, perhaps nonexistent thing?
  • What segment of society outside the church has the power and privilege, and who is the underclass?
  • How does the underclass live, and what is the role of religion in keeping them in their place?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • What passes for morality? Is sex before marriage taboo? What constitutes murder, and how is it viewed? You only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws, what are the consequences?

If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.

  1. What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
  2. What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
  3. Who has the power?
  4. Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
  5. How does the priesthood interact with the community?
  6. Who can join the priesthood?
  7. Do people want to join the priesthood, or do they fear it? How is the priesthood trained?

In the Tower of Bones series, the overarching government in Neveyah is the Temple of Aeos, which is really a large commune run by mages. Mage-gifted children must be trained, and a school exists for that purpose. Aeos is the Goddess of Hearth and Home, so her style is a gentler, community based kind of religion.

Tauron is the Bull God, who rules the world of Serende, but who wants to be the only god in the universe. Hoping to force Aeos to become his wife, Tauron has attacked and imprisoned Aeos’s husband, the Mountain God Ariend, and has taken half of Ariend’s world. In Tauron’s world, only the strongest are worthy of survival.

Aeos managed to find her husband’s prison and reclaimed half his world, but she can’t undo another god’s work. Thus, her husband’s prison remains a prize in the ongoing war of the gods.

These actions of the deities brought civilization to its knees on the three worlds. At the time of the Tower of Bones series, the worlds have mostly recovered.

When I created the religious power-structure in the Tower of Bones series, the opportunities for creating tension within the story grew exponentially.

As I said, the underlying premise of the story is that the gods are at war. But the imprisonment of Ariend caused the Universe to bar the deities from acting directly against each other ever again.

Thus, their battles are fought through their people, their clergy who are gifted with the ability to use magic.

When one god makes a move that affects the balance of the worlds, the others make a change to counter it and their people are the playing pieces in their great game.

That meant I had two radically different religions to create, that of Aeos, and that of Tauron. Highly structured religion is central to my characters’ worlds of Neveyah and Serende. Their places in their respective societies revolves around their positions within those hierarchies.

But what if your work has no religious element?

On Monday, we will explore creating political power structures.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Carl Pippich Karlskirche Wien.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Carl_Pippich_Karlskirche_Wien.jpg&oldid=234767606 (accessed May 29, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dommersen Gothic cathedral in a medieval city.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dommersen_Gothic_cathedral_in_a_medieval_city.jpg&oldid=319795786 (accessed May 29, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Cole Thomas The Return 1837.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Cole_Thomas_The_Return_1837.jpg&oldid=301862305 (accessed May 29, 2019).

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World building Part 2 – the Commonalities of Need #amwriting

Need shapes the environment and forms an obvious but unobtrusive layer of the world our characters inhabit.

What our characters do for a living, the tools they use, what they must acquire – these things form a layer that grows out of need. This layer shows the reader the level of technology, the society they inhabit, and their standing within that culture. This layer is easy to construct in many ways but can be a stumbling block to the logic of your plot.

First, no matter what genre you are writing in, you must establish the level of technology and stick to it. Do the research and then create your technology.

The Romans had running water, central heating, and toilets in their homes. So did the Minoans. However, all their great architectural creations required human hands to do the physical work. They walked, rode horses, donkeys, or oxen, and were limited to wagons drawn by those same domestic beasts.

In the ordinary environment, cups will be cups, bowls will be bowls. The materials they are made of might be different, but those items will always be the same. Furniture will be similar—people need somewhere to sit or sleep. They need a place to cook and somewhere to store preserved food.

Clothing styles are up to you, but I suggest you keep it simple and don’t wax poetic about it.

Some aspects of a story require planning if you are to keep to the logic of your established world setting.

Characters remain the same, no matter what genre you are writing. Beneath the obvious tropes of a particular genre is a human being. Consider the soldier:

I write fantasy, so the following is an excerpt from a short story written this last year, The Way of the Seventh Door.

Worlds are like clothes. I could drop Jared into any world, and he would still be who he is—a young, hapless schmuck with potential. Genre defines the visuals, but the characters are paper dolls we dress to fit the society we have placed them in. The clothes and world of Soldier Barbie fits Corporate Barbie… and Malibu Barbie… and Star Wars Barbie.

We will take one protagonist and place them in one of three kinds of settings: fantasy, sci fi, or contemporary. As we go, write your own version of this scene.

  • A soldier, your choice of gender, gears up for an impending battle. It will take place on foreign soil and could involve personal, face-to-face combat.
  1. First, we must consider what garments they might wear.
  2. Next, we armor them.
  3. Then we give them weaponry.
  4. Finally, we equip them with some sort of rations and water, as sustenance becomes an issue if a battle stretches for several days.
  5. We do it in one paragraph.

Now let’s put Jared, my luckless protagonist from the previous example into this scenario. Fortunately for the safety of everyone in Neveyah, he isn’t preparing for war, but he does have a mission, and it requires dressing appropriately, and ensuring he has what he might need to complete it:

In any setting, there are certain commonalities with only minor literary differences for soldiers: they all need garments, weapons, armor, and sustenance, and you can use those things to

  1. offer more clues about your character’s personality and
  2. set your protagonist up for a meeting with destiny by inserting clues: white armor, new boots – what could go wrong?

Whether the weapon is a rifle, a sword, or a phaser is dependent on the level of technology you have established.

Logic determines how each need is met. In the case of weapons, within each category there are many varieties of each. Which kind of hand-held weapon your protagonist will use is dependent on their skill level and physical strength as well as what is stocked in the armory.

When it comes to weaponry, if you are writing about them, you need to research them to know what is logically possible. Within each of the three world settings, strength and skill are determining factors—a cutlass is an efficient blade and is much lighter than a claymore. A one-handed blade allows the wielder to carry a shield. A shotgun is much lighter than a machine-gun but is less effective, so be true to the logic and research what might be most useful to your characters and don’t introduce an element that doesn’t fit.

Sci-fi writers—I suggest that for advanced weaponry, you should do the research into theoretical applications of lasers, sonic, and other theoretically possible weapons. Sci fi readers know their science, so if you don’t consider the realities of physics, your work won’t appeal to the people who read in that genre.

For soldiers of any technology level, from Roman to medieval, to contemporary, to futuristic—armor will always consist of the same elements: breast and back plate, shin-guards, vambraces, a helmet of some sort, and maybe a shield. These elements won’t vary much, although the materials they’re made of will differ widely from technology to technology. For the sake of expediency and logic, garments must be close-fitting as they will go under the armor.

Expediency affects logic which affects need. The same is true for any occupation–bookkeeper, lawyer, home-maker–the setting changes from genre to genre, but the fundamental needs for each occupation remain the same.

In every aspect of a world, expediency decides what must be mentioned and how important it is. At times, you must go back to an earlier place and make changes that allow for a certain necessary turn of events.

For instance, in a battle situation, food must be extremely compact, lightweight, and must provide nutrients the soldier needs. Nutrition bars, jerky—battle rations and how the soldier carries them must be considered. How do you fit that into the world building? Casually, with one sentence, a few words.

What basic things do you need in your real-world? You need food, water, clothing, and shelter, and a means of providing those things. Place the character in a room and call it a kitchen, and the reader will immediately imagine a kitchen. Mention the coffeemaker, and the reader’s mind will furnish the cups.

Need manifests in other, more subtle ways.

Do you require a way to communicate with others quickly? Messengers, letters, telephones, social media, or telepathy? Choose a method for long distance communication that fits your technology and stick to it.

If you are writing a sci fi tale, what sort of personal power does that technology confer on the characters? What powers it? What are the limits of that technology, and how do those limits hamper the protagonist? What do they need to acquire to overcome those limitations?

If magic is a part of your world, you must design the way it is used, what powers it, and set rigid limits. Limits create opportunities for both failure and creative thinking.

In all levels of technology, some of what the characters need should be denied to them.

Obstruction offers the opportunity for heroism.

No matter the genre, need and human failure makes the story more real.

Next week, we will explore the commonalities of science and magic and how they are applied to world building.


Credits and Attributions:

Excepts from The Way of the Seventh Door, © Connie J. Jasperson 2019, All Rights Reserved.

Gladys Parker [Public domain] “Mopsy Modes” paper doll published in TV Teens, Vol. 2, No. 9 Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Mopsy Modes – TV Teens, Vol. 2, No. 9.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Mopsy_Modes_-_TV_Teens,_Vol._2,_No._9.jpg&oldid=344503399 (accessed May 21, 2019).

Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0] Japanese Paper Doll, ca. 1897-1898 Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:MET DP147723.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:MET_DP147723.jpg&oldid=305535412 (accessed May 21, 2019).

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Fantasy Food #amwriting

As many of you know, I have been vegan since 2012. However, I write books set in fantasy environments. An important part of world building is including the appropriate food for your level of technology.

I recently read a fantasy book where the author went to a great deal of trouble to give each kind of fruit, bird, or herd beast a different (and in some cases, an unpronounceable) name in “their” language.  This ruined what could have been a great book for me. Every time the protagonists halted on their journey, they pulled some random fruit with a gobbledygook name out of the bag and waxed poetic about it.

For me, Tolkien had it right. When I am reading, I don’t want to have to learn a new language. Fantasy food should be kept to the familiar. Bacon should be bacon, apples should be apples. Food is part of the world building, so it needs to something a reader is familiar with.

During the 1980s, much of the meat I served my family, we raised ourselves. Our chickens were cage free and had good lives, and our sheep were raised using simple, old-style farming methods. I grew up fishing with my father, and I have a first-person understanding of what it takes to put meat, fish, or fowl on the table when a supermarket is not an option. Take my word for this: getting a chicken from the coop to the table is time-consuming, messy, and smelly.

SO – in a medieval setting meat won’t be served every day, and not just because it is a real job to slaughter it. Other, more subtle factors come into play, things that affect the logic of your plot.

In the middle ages, the wool a sheep could produce in its lifetime was of far more value than the meat you might get by slaughtering it. For that reason, lamb was rarely served. The only sheep that made it to the table were usually rams that were being culled from the herd. And chickens were no different because once a chicken is dead, you lose the many meals her eggs would have provided. Cattle were also more valuable alive: cows as milk producers and bulls as oxen, draft animals.

In medieval times, on many estates, it was a felony for commoners in Britain to hunt for game. However, most people were allowed to fish as long as they didn’t take salmon, so fish was on the menu more often than fowl, sheep, or cattle.

Therefore, eels, eggs, grains, and vegetables were easy and figured most prominently on the menu. Pies of all sorts were the fast food of the era.

Wheat was rare and expensive. For that reason, the grains most often found in a peasant’s home were barley, oats, and rye.

Common vegetables in medieval European gardens were leeks, garlic, onions, turnips, rutabagas, cabbages, carrots, peas, beans, cauliflower, squashes, gourds, melons, parsnips, aubergines (eggplants)—the list goes on and on. And fruits? Wikipedia says:

Fruit was popular and could be served fresh, dried, or preserved, and was a common ingredient in many cooked dishes. Since sugar and honey were both expensive, it was common to include many types of fruit in dishes that called for sweeteners of some sort. The fruits of choice in the south were lemons, citrons, bitter oranges (the sweet type was not introduced until several hundred years later), pomegranates, quinces, and grapes. Farther north, apples, pears, plums, and wild strawberries were more common. Figs and dates were eaten all over Europe but remained rather expensive imports in the north.

Even a century ago, the average person didn’t eat meat every day because it was difficult to acquire. To buy it from the butcher, you paid them for their time and labor as well as for the cut of meat. It was not cheap.

For the most part, my characters eat a medieval/agrarian diet. In medieval times, peasants ate more vegetables, grains, fruits, and nuts than the nobility did. The main source of protein would be eggs and cheese. Herbal teas, ale, ciders, and mead were also staples of the commoner’s diet because drinking fresh, unboiled water was unhealthy. Medieval brews were more of a meal than today’s beers.

So, in Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers, when food is mentioned, it’s likely to be oat porridge, soup or stew, ale or cider, or bread and cheese.

Billy is captain of a mercenary company and an innkeeper, and for most of his story he does the cooking. I keep the food simple and don’t make too big a deal out of it. The conversations that happen while he is trying to feed the Rowdies are more important than the food. The food is the backdrop.

For Huw (pronounced Hugh), starvation is his most urgent problem, so food and the difficulties of obtaining it are an integral part of his story at the outset.

Knowing what to feed your people keeps you from introducing jarring components into your narrative. In the world of Neveyah (Tower of Bones), my people have a New World diet. It isn’t really mentioned, but maize and potatoes are important staples as are beans and wild greens.

When it comes to writing about meals, I feel it’s best to concentrate on the conversations. The food should be part of the scenery, a subtle part of world building. The conversations that occur around food are the places where new information can be exchanged, things we need to know to move the story forward,


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Medieval cuisine,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medieval_cuisine&oldid=896980025 (accessed May 14, 2019).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Village Scene with Well,  Josse de Momper and Jan Brueghel II PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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The eight forms of “be” #amwriting

It can take me several years to get a novel out of my head and into print. I write, rewrite, consider it done, and rewrite it again. Why does it take so long to write even a short story? How is it that I can write a short story in a day or two but work on it for years, trying to get it just right?

Prose.

I always begin with an excess of prose—don’t ask me why. It just is.

When I begin a project the words fall out of me in the form of “writers’ shorthand.”

I “tell” myself the story.  Then, after it has sat for a while, I have to take each instance of hokey clichés, lurid description, and nonessential background information and rewrite. All of that bad writing is, for me, a framework to hang the real story on.

I make radical, surgical changes. Sometimes it takes three or four completely new versions of a story before the one that really works emerges.

A few substantive things that might change in the revision process:

  • Character names.
  • Place names.
  • Which character the protagonist actually is.

These changes happen because of logic—if the plot isn’t logical, the story fails.

But also, the prose will undergo major surgery.

I mentioned that a first draft is a “telling” draft. The prose in that draft has to be reshaped so it is a “showing” draft. The big bugaboo my writing group helps me most with is my tendency to not see the passive phrasing in my own work. The area I am working on improving right now is my reliance on the forms of “be.”

Did you know there are eight forms of the word be? I use all of them too regularly, which creates passive phrasing that is seriously difficult for me to detect. Finding and rewriting passive prose is why all my work takes so long to get into its final form. Fortunately, I have a writing group to help me down that path.

These verb forms are insidious because they are necessary. We can’t write without them. However, they are easy to rely on. We can overuse them to tell ourselves the story. In doing so, we  create prose that holds the reader slightly away from the story, making them an observer rather than a participant.

Some literary fiction is written to intentionally make the reader an observer of the human condition. This is work that requires the reader to think about the ideas and events, perhaps even to learn something. Readers deliberately seek out this kind of literature because it is challenging to read.

However, genre work is intended to be an immersive adventure, with active prose that draws the reader into that world. The reader must see the world and the events as if they are the protagonist. Through active prose, the reader becomes a participant. They may learn some things about the human condition, but they won’t consciously realize it and didn’t seek it out.

So, now you know what I am working on improving in my writing journey. The ability to write active prose in a first draft is one some of my favorite authors were born with. Others, like me, must develop it and sometimes it takes me four or five drafts before it’s done right.

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Voice #amwriting

If you write professionally, you develop habits, ways of expressing yourself that “sound” like you. Voice is how you bend the rules and is your fingerprint. For your voice to be compelling and not jarring, you must understand what rules you can break with impunity, and which ones must be obeyed. Knowledge is key—it enables you to craft your work so it says what you want, in the way you want it said.

Most editors will ignore liberties you take with dialogue but will point out habitual errors in the rest of the narrative.

If you work with an editor, you must be willing to explain why you are choosing to flout a particular rule. If you don’t understand the rule to begin with, you can’t defend your position with authority.

This is why I always suggest you buy a good style guide. I like the simplicity and thoroughness of Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation.

If an editor asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author. Explain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand. If you have a concrete reason, your editor will most likely understand.

Repetition of a key word for emphasis is one example of breaking a rule with style.

This is why it’s important to educate yourself. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so, and your work will reflect that confidence.

However, if I am your editor, you must be prepared to break that rule consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

No one is perfect, and even authors who also work as editors need and use editors. Certainly, I have benefited from the editors I have worked with. I began this journey knowing nothing about the mechanics of writing, other than that which I had retained from my school days. Writers who were further along in the craft gave me good advice, and I began growing as a writer.

To go back to what I said in the first paragraph, you must understand what rules you can break with impunity, and which of them must be obeyed. The average reader doesn’t take joy in reading James Joyce’s experimental prose. Alexander Chee can be difficult for an average reader to enjoy. This is because both Joyce and Chee take liberties with punctuation that makes reading their work a real challenge. Some readers are up to that, others not so much.

I will admit, I had to take a class to be able to understand James Joyce’s work, and I did have to resort to the audiobook for Alexander Chee’s work. It’s the hypercritical editor coming out in me, making it difficult for me to set that part of my awareness aside. It’s my job to notice those things.

I can hear you now: these are literary authors, and you are writing genre fantasy fiction or sci-fi. Shall I toss out another name or two?

Tad Williams mixes his styles. His Bobby Dollar series is Paranormal Film Noir: dark, choppy, and reminiscent of Sam Spade. In this series, he seems to be somewhat influenced by the style of crime authors, such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It is a quick read and is commercial in that it is for casual readers.

Yet his fantasy work set in Osten Ard has lusher prose, multiple storylines, dark themes. It is written for serious fantasy readers. The story starts slow, but his powerful writing has generated millions of fans who are thrilled to know he has set more work in that world.

Beginning slow and working up to an epic ending is highly frowned upon in writing groups, but Tad broke that rule and believe me, it works.

George Saunders writes sci-fi and historical fantasy but is considered literary. He has a unique, literary voice because he takes liberties with the rules.  His work reads like a conversation with him, a little crisp and choppy, but intimate.

If you are writing a genre such as fantasy or sci-fi or mystery, I suggest you do not get experimental with your punctuation unless you don’t mind bad reviews. People who look for quick reads for the adventure and romance don’t want experimental. They want an escape; they want prose that doesn’t interfere with the narrative. Run on sentences, commas inserted every place you breathe, or no commas at all—these are flaws that ruin the experience for the casual reader.

Get a good style guide and stop guessing about where the commas go and how to use that ellipsis.  Don’t know if you should use a semicolon or not?

Get a style guide.

Your writing will go faster, and your beta readers will be able to give you better opinions on what reads well and what needs more work.

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Formatting and Submission Guidelines #amwriting

Writing can be a solitary occupation, but as we gain confidence, we join writing groups and larger professional organizations. We become involved in the writing community because writers need to be able to talk about writing with people who understand. Through that network of professional acquaintances, we make connections with more experienced authors, people who are happy to mentor us. The knowledge I have gained about the craft of writing from those generous mentors has been invaluable.

Mentors have much to offer us about the mechanics of writing, such as grammar and industry practices. Also, they will often know of open opportunities our work might be suitable for, publications and anthologies with open calls. It takes courage to submit our work to any kind of contest or publication the first few times, but that is part of the process. We learn by doing.

New and beginning authors sometimes do the craziest things with their manuscripts. If you are serious about writing and submitting short stories, you must follow publisher and contest guidelines in formatting your manuscript before you submit it. No matter how pretty you make that manuscript for your own pleasure, if it doesn’t follow the submission guidelines for the place you are submitting it, you have wasted your time.

Perhaps you feel that the rules shouldn’t apply to you –  it’s your manuscript and by golly, you like the way it looks. It took you forever to make it look that good. Why should you have to take the time to completely reformat your perfectly fine manuscript to fit some stupid set of arbitrary rules no one cares about?

Maybe you don’t care about those rules, but editors and publishers do, and they are the people you want to please. They don’t have time to deal with a manuscript that is justified, single spaced, has block paragraphs, has an extra space between each paragraph, and is in Papyrus font .10.

When the editor of a contest, publication, or anthology opens the call for submissions, they will get hundreds of entries, perhaps thousands. When a call for submissions goes out, their editors will have no time to deal with badly formatted manuscripts.

Publication dates are set well in advance and must be adhered to. Time is always of the essence in the publishing world.

Editors are only one person, and they want to read each and every submission. Unfortunately, out of all those entries some will be great stories that won’t even be read because the author couldn’t be bothered to format the manuscript in the way that the submission rules stated.

Publishers have specific, standardized formatting they want you to use, and these guidelines are clearly posted on their websites. If the first page shows the manuscript is not formatted to industry standards, expediency kicks in. The editor must reject it and move on to the next submission.

Word processing programs are inherently hinky because they are built out of new versions layered over the old versions, and the bugs in the old versions are often still there. This is why some really large formatting issues are nearly impossible to iron out.

And then there is the issue of reasonable effort. It’s time-consuming and difficult enough for a publisher to make a final manuscript of thirty short stories by thirty different authors look good when each submission was formatted correctly. If you have thirty short stories, each formatted differently with random fonts, different paragraph spacing, and different font sizes – you have a nightmare to edit. Even after editing it can take days to make a final compilation manuscript fit for publication.

For the most part, the requirements are basically the same from company to company with minor differences. To make sure your work conforms to the intended recipient’s requirements go to the publication’s website and read the standards they have laid out.

Publications will want your contact information on the upper left of the first page, and your approximate word count on the right. The title should be centered, and the first paragraphs should begin at the halfway point down the first page.

To get your paragraphs and line spacing right, you need to know a few simple tricks for using your word processing program. These tools come with the software and are there to make your documents look as professional as is possible. I have covered how to do that in my post of January 15, 2018, Formatting Short Stories for Submission.

These rules are not only for short stories. Every contest and publication wants the submissions in the same professional format whether it is a printout or an electronic submission.

Too many extra spaces in an electronic document cause the formatting to fail when converted to electronic publishing formats (mobi, epub, etc.) so keep extra spaces to a minimum. Most publishers require manuscripts to be submitted electronically so you will have to go in and remove these tabs. You can do it by following the instructions in my post of March 27, 2019, Formatting Your Paragraphs. If you are not using MS Word or you don’t have a ten key on your keyboard, you may have to do it by hand. It’s a tedious job but do it now, if you have been using the tab key.

You should make sure the font is Times New Roman or Courier .12 font and the body of the manuscript is aligned left.

  1. 1 in. margins
  2. Double-spaced
  3. 1 space after each sentence (NOT 2 as we dinosaurs were taught in typing class)
  4. Each page is numbered in the upper right hand corner
  5. Has formatted indented paragraphs
  6. The header contains the title and author name
  7. The first page contains the author’s mailing address and contact information in the upper left hand corner

Please, if you consider yourself a professional, format your submissions properly. You want to stand out but getting fancy with your final manuscript is not the way to do that—you will be rejected out of hand if you don’t make this effort.

Again, the posts (with screenshots) detailing how to make your manuscript submission ready can be found at these links:

Formatting Your Paragraphs

Formatting Short Stories for Submission

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Plagiarism, Citations and Footnotes #amwriting

I write posts for several other blogs besides Life in the Realm of Fantasy. During the week, I make a note of any interesting topic that might make a good blogpost. Today, the subject of citing sources came up again in conversation, so I am going back to an article I first published here on September 4, 2017.

This post pertains only to blogging. To use copyrighted material in your book, you need to contact the publisher. Follow their guidelines to obtain the right to quote from a published book. This is NOT a simple process, but you must do it if you plan to quote anyone whose work is NOT in the Public Domain.

Plagiarism and quoting are two different things. Plagiarism is lifting entire sections and publishing it as yours. For more on the current scandal emerging in the world of “fast-track” publishing, read this article at the Fussy Librarian. Romance authors discover they’ve been plagiarized.

I always write my posts in a Word document because it is easier for me to edit. Sometimes, there is research involved. When that is the case, I make footnotes at the bottom of my composition document as I go.

So why did I mention making footnotes? Many people think that is just for academic stuff.

It is important to give credit to people whom you quote, whether it is verbatim or paraphrased. When I first began blogging, I didn’t understand the nuts and bolts of citing sources, as I hadn’t really had to do much of that in college. I learned about this by looking things up on the internet.

It’s your legal obligation to cite your sources, but there is a moral one here too. Perhaps you wrote something that other people found useful. Wouldn’t you want to be credited? It’s a rough business, and as we have recently discovered, plagiarism is rife. As ethical people, we must make it our business to not be a part of the problem.

First, let’s talk images:

When we first begin blogging, sourcing images seems easy. You Google your subject and a lot of images pop up. You see one you like, right click on it, copy it, and paste it. The images are on the internet, so it’s free to use them, right?

Not true.

I’ve mentioned this article before, and it bears being referenced here again: The $7,500 Blogging Mistake That Every Blogger Needs to Avoid!

I either make my own images or get them from Creative Commons. An excellent article on using Creative Commons Images can be found here:

I often go to Wikimedia Commons to find Public Domain images. I really like Wikimedia and Wikipedia because they make it easy for you to get the attributions and licensing for each image. Another good source is Allthefreestock.com, where you can find hundreds of free stock photos, music, and many other things for your blog and other projects.

Sometimes I need images I can only get by paying for. For those, I go to Dreamstime or Canstock, and several other reputable sources. For a few dollars, usually only two or three, I then have the right to use the image of my choice, and it’s properly licensed. The proper legal attribution is also there on the seller’s website, clearly written out with the copyright and artist name, so all you need to do is copy and paste it to your footnotes.

I love being able to copy and paste citations, as it saves a little time.

I keep a log of where my images are sourced, who created them, and what I used them in. I also insert the attribution into the image details on my website so that when a mouse hovers over the image, curious readers can go to the source. (In WordPress, you must be on the WP Admin dashboard. Click on the image and go to edit details.) If you can do this, you won’t have to credit them in your footnotes.

We may want to quote another blogger or use the information we have learned from them. Good citations are absolutely critical and can help you build friendships within the writing community.

I recommend you don’t quote too long a passage, or your “quote” could be interpreted as reprinting their entire work. Quote only the pertinent information and cite your source in proper footnotes. The instructions for citing sources follows:

First, I open a document in my word-processing program (I use Word), save it as whatever the title of the post is in that blog’s file folder. I compose my post the way I would write a story.

  • Composing the body of my post in a document rather than the content area of the blog-template here at WordPress allows me to spell check and edit my work first, and I feel more comfortable writing in a document rather than the content-window.

As I work and do research, I keep a log at the bottom of my page, listing what website I found information at, who the author was, the date of publication, and the date I accessed it. I have found the simplest method is the Chicago Manual of Style method:

Purdue OWL Online Writing Lab,  General Model for Citing Books in the Chicago Notes and Bibliography System, Copyright ©1995-2019 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. Website: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/717/03 Accessed Jan 10, 2017

When you quote from Wikipedia, you can click on the ‘cite this page’ link. This can be found in the left-hand column of the page. In fact, the left-hand column of a Wikipedia page is a menu of items about Wikipedia in general, and of that article specifically. ‘Cite this page’ is listed under ‘tools.’ Clicking on this link takes you to a page offering citations for that page in CMOS, APA, or MLA style, whichever suits your need. All you need to do is copy and paste the one you prefer into your footnotes, and your due diligence has been done.

All this information for your footnotes should be inserted at the BOTTOM of your current document, so everything you need for your blog post is all in one place. When my blog article is complete and ready to post, I will insert a line to separate the body of the post from the credits and attribution notes.

When I have sources to cite, readers will see this at the bottom of the post:

Authors should blog about who they are and what they do because they can connect with potential readers that way. Using pictures and quoting good sources makes your blog more interesting and encourages regular readers to follow your blog.

I always think that anytime you can direct curious readers to other websites that might be new to them, we all win.

Photographers and artists are as proud of their work as we are of ours and want to be credited for it. Protect your reputation by giving credit to the authors and artists whose work you use.


Credits and Attributions

Portions of this article and the screenshots first appeared on the Northwest Independent Writers’ Association  Blog in January of 2017, written by Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

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