Moderate Your Lingering

the outside of the Hobbit's homeI’m reading The Fellowship of the Ring right now. No big deal for a sci-fi/fantasy geek, right? Well, the crazy thing is I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings before. I don’t even know how this happened. How did I go through life this way? I’m the kind of guy who knows the difference between a halfling, a hobbit, and a kender. Everyone should read through Tolkien at least once. So I’m making things right, starting now. And I have some thoughts about what we can learn from Tolkien as aspiring authors.

I’m not gonna lie—reading Tolkien is slow going for me. I just blew through all three books in The Magicians trilogy, which was like super-fast brain candy compared to Tolkien’s literary pot roast (damn hobbits, making me think of food all the time). I loved The Magicians by the way, including the Syfy show, and I might write about Lev Grossman’s incredible world-building in another post. But back to Tolkien.

Tolkien likes to linger. I don’t know how many pages I just read of Tom Bombadil singing and dancing along the river Withywindle. And the hobbits are always eating (hot soup and cold meat with blackberry tart and buttered bread!), which makes me hungry. I can’t sit through a long reading of Tolkien without wanting to heat up some Ellio’s Pizza or Hot Pockets or something, but maybe that’s a personal problem.

Anyway, the fantasy genre is rife with notorious lingerers. George R.R. Martin, “The American Tolkien,” comes to mind. But the prevailing wisdom for new writers is to keep the story moving. The fantasy setting and the fact that you can get away with a higher word count is not an excuse to spend a million years dancing in the Old Forest.

I see this a lot in writing groups with aspiring fantasy authors. Everyone wants to produce huge tomes with lots of lingering. And I get it, I do. It’s exciting! You’ve created this awesome world, and you want your characters to spend tons of time making their way along the winding Withywindle, listening to Tom Bombadil and his wife singing their songs and telling their tales and preparing bread and fresh cheese for hobbits. I’m not saying to cut out your Tom Bombadil completely. Just make sure you’re applying the rules of good writing, even to the lingering. Is this going to pay off for the reader at some point in the future? Does it have some value greater than “look at how cool this place is?” Keep the story moving!

Some lingering is okay; you just have to find the sweet spot. Writing can be a self-indulgent activity, and I think that’s where some of the temptation to linger comes from. Moderate yourself, and your future agent and editor will most certainly thank you.

Now excuse me, I’m going to preheat my oven.

Photo by Andres Iga on Unsplash

Anxiety

A box that says "Deposit fear, hurt ad worries here."“I have anxiety,” said every writer ever. I know, it’s pretty much a given. Writing and anxiety go together in a chicken-and-egg kind of way. I don’t know if one causes the other, but I do know that people who worry are master storytellers (like when you go over every permutation of “what if” on the broken record player inside your head).

I get really, really nervous about a lot of things (no duh, said everyone who ever met me). And I used to be extremely fearful of putting my writing out there. Not only was I afraid that people were going to judge my writing, I was afraid that they were going to judge me personally. “What kind of a person would write something like this?” the phantoms in my head would ask. But just because I’m writing about a character who’s obsessive-compulsive, that doesn’t mean that I’m counting the number of times I washed my hands today (just kidding, too many to count). And not that it should matter what people think of me anyway, but you know how it is when you worry. You just do. And while I still worry that people might judge my writing, I don’t worry anymore about them judging me. I stopped worrying about that after I wrote Awakenings: Eight Tales of Erotic Adventure from Two Amazing Worlds.

Yes, a person who worries incessantly about what other people think of him wrote a book of erotic fiction and put it up on Amazon. Frisky wizards, sexy aliens, that book has a little bit of everything in it. It’s crazy. It’s shocking and funny, too. And it was a blast to write. It doesn’t reflect on who I am as a person, except that I have a certain sense of humor. And do you know what happened when I released Awakenings?

Almost nothing. Now, I’m not talking about sales, though it’s probably no secret that I’m not a New York Times Best-Selling Author. I’m talking about personally. Even though I used a pen name, people knew. Of course, they knew, I told them! And those of them that read it liked it, or at least they said they did. People who weren’t into sexy stories knew about the content and just didn’t read it, and we even stayed friends! A few people on the internet seemed to like it, too. And that was it.

Let me give a little context here about the specific anxiety-story that I was telling myself. I was raised in a fundamentalist evangelical situation. I’m talking about the earth is 5000 years old, masturbation is a sin, being gay is a sin, premarital sex is a sin, playing Dungeons and Dragons is a sin, pretty much everything is a sin type of community. And I just knew they would find out what I wrote. I was waiting for a group of church elders to knock on my door one day and give me a come-to-Jesus talk (Lord knows it wouldn’t be the first time). But it never happened. No hate mail. Nothing. Maybe somewhere someone is praying for my soul, but if they are, I am unaware. And the feeling is liberating.

Awakenings came out a few years ago. I wrote erotic science-fiction and fantasy and no one judged me as a person, or if they did, they kept it to themselves! It was scary at first, but I’m over it now. And when I write stuff these days, I don’t worry about it anymore. Except, you know, that it might suck. But that’s a topic for another day. At least I’m not afraid to write what I feel like writing, and I think that’s important. You may not think it’s fun to write sexy stories like I do, but I’ll bet there’s something that you’ve been holding back. And you might be surprised that nothing really happens when you finally let it out.

 

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/search/fear?photo=M5-v6gGwoj4

“American Gods” Keeps it Simple

WARNING: Contains Spoilers for the American Gods book and Starz show

An angel in a field of grass holding a knife

American Gods, a Starz show based on the book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, is a complicated show with a simple premise: gods grow in power through belief. The more people believe in a god, the more powerful he or she becomes. This notion predicates the entire world of American Gods. But the show is full of mystery, slowly revealing the truth about the many characters, each of which seems to be more clever than the last. You’ve got the cunning Odin, who is desperately trying to convince the protagonist Shadow Moon to believe; new gods like Media and Technical Boy; and a host of other characters, like the surly Czernobog and the Zorya sisters, who appear to be Eastern European immigrants living in Chicago but are actually the Slavic god of death and goddesses of the stars. Things get more complicated every week, and I love it. I wait religiously for Sunday to come so I can watch the new episode. And even though there are a ton of stories being simultaneously told, it all works because of the foundation. We can learn a lot about world-building from stories like this one.

The idea that gods gain power from the belief of their followers is not a novel one. I immediately am reminded of the Trojan War myth, with Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena all screaming, “Pick me!” to an unlucky Paris. I even encountered it once in a Dungeons and Dragons story. This idea works because it is simple; it’s a great foundation to build a world upon. Obviously, Neil Gaiman thought so. And even a weird, complicated world like that of American Gods follows logically from this one simple premise. If the basis of a god’s power—and even their existence—is based on belief, then where you have believers, you have gods. A place like America, with immigrants bringing their gods from every corner of the world—now that’s where things can get interesting. There will have to be new gods, too, based on the new beliefs that we hold in the 21st century. And of course, the gods, old and new, are going to crave belief from humans. Now you’ve got a world and the basis of a story.

I know that many writers have ideas like this one brewing somewhere in the deep recesses of their brains, or perhaps filed away somewhere in a dusty bit of gray matter. I’m not suggesting you use this idea, but as an aside, I believe that an idea can spawn as many stories as there are people to write them. Maybe you’ve been in a writing class where you’ve been given a simple prompt, and then everyone reads what they wrote. Give a group of writers an idea like this one, and you’ll get as many different stories as there are seats in the room. You could create a fantasy world where various gods are mounting crusades to forcibly convert believers, or a sci-fi world where some modern god like the Mormon version of Jesus suddenly manifests in outer space because a critical mass of believers was finally reached, causing the religion spread to billions of people living in hundreds of colony worlds. With one simple idea, you can build a world, and a story, too.

Try it!

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/angel-knife-nature-flash-clouds-749625/

World Building: The Dreaming

I would often get the following advice from writing coach and thefeistywriter.com founder, Marni Freedman, especially when I was feeling stressed, flustered, and blocked-up in my creative process: take some time to dream. And, of course, it’s great advice and something that I feel like I used to be good at, before I actually became a writer (but more on that some other time). I want to write about the dreaming, because it’s important and it’s something that we often overlook, especially as we get older, and life gets in the way of us exploring our creativity.

A great way to dream that specifically relates to your world-building is to place yourself in your novel. I know that writers have been doing this since Neanderthals were etching charcoal fanfic on the walls of their caves, but sometimes it’s worth remembering those things that seemed to come so naturally to us when we were just baby writers. Dreaming lets you get inside your world from your own point of view (no messy unreliable narrators to worry about) and gives you a chance to explore.

I usually create a persona to delve into my writing, and you might want to try this, too. Maybe you want to be like Melisandre from Game of Thrones, or like Q from Star Trek. I prefer to cast “myself” as someone superhuman so that I don’t die. The worlds we build as writers can be scary, and I’m not about to go running around a place I’ve created without the ability to cast a magic shield or blink into another realm. Save the problem-solving for my actual characters; I’m just there to hang out.

Now you can travel in your world and really explore. Sit down with your characters and read their fortunes in the campfire. Eat the food they’ve made. Do battle with your main antagonist using your Red Lady magic. Maybe you’re writing sci-fi, and you’re an outer-space trickster god who’s posing as a spice merchant and has a chance encounter with your protagonist at a docking station. Let yourself go. Be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do, as long as you’re paying attention to your world while you’re doing it.

It’s up to you if you want to take notes on this kind of stuff. Obviously, you’re not going to use other people’s characters in your work (unless you are writing fanfic, I guess), but it’s safe to write down what you’ve discovered about your world and your own characters in the process. In fact, that’s the whole point!

So get out there and dream! Finding time, though…that’s the Holy Grail of writers everywhere. If you’ve got that one figured out, feel free to drop me a line. I’ll be here, dreaming about dreaming.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://unsplash.com/collections/342769/dream?photo=rMmibFe4czY

What I Learned about World-Building and Writing from Dungeons and Dragons

Earth as seen from spaceWhen I was a young lad, I dreamed of playing Dungeons and Dragons. I would sit for hours on the basement floor making up adventures with a starter set I got for Christmas, moving goblins and characters of my creation through the same dungeon over and over. Yeah, of course, I had a few nerdy friends who I could have tried to talk to about it, but I didn’t dare. Attending a Christian school meant that the mere mention of Dungeons and Dragons could get me sent to the principal’s office, where at the very least I’d have to write an essay about demonic possession and ritual suicide. Since I’m a grown-up now, with only a moderate fear of Lucifer’s machinations, I recently dove right in to run my very first D & D game with real people. Here are three awesome things that I learned about writing through my experience.


Plug-n-Play World Building

I DMed (played the role of the dungeon master) a module called “Curse of Strahd,” which placed the players in a pseudo-Transylvania type realm full of vampires, werewolves, and other nasties. Obviously, this meant that the D&D writers and game designers had done most of the legwork for me. But, as a DM, I was still free to add stuff of my own. This reminded me a lot of world-building in novel writing. You create a world with a theme (or, in this case, a world full of lugubrious people and angry undead was created for me), and, if your theme is solid, you can add stuff to flesh it out. I added a fighting pit, for example, but I made it a dreary, bleak fighting pit, full of desperate fighters, captive monsters, crude pine benches, and tattered heraldry. If you’re writing a novel, you can add things that fit with your theme, even if it feels a bit piecemeal, until you have a fully fleshed-out world.

Chekhov’s Quasit

The principle of setting up a character or an idea for a grand slam later is an old one in writing. I saw this in action when I created a side quest for the players to explore involving a warehouse of tea leaves that were being fermented with demon blood. A quasit (a tiny demon, basically a chaotic-aligned version of an imp) was playing henchman to the big bad. I did this funny voice and everything, but I couldn’t get the party’s warlock to take the quasit as a familiar. So I had him vanish for a few weeks and brought him back in a big way. It turned out the quasit had made himself busy whispering to an evil noblewoman, urging her to plan a grand ritual for the sole purpose of impressing the party’s warlock. It was a huge success, and the players loved it—the little quasit was part of the party, too! This illustrated the power of introducing something and then bringing it back later in a big way.

The Little Things

This is one of my favorite points to write about it. The little things really, really matter; this is true in Dungeons and Dragons and in writing your novel. I have been amazed at the close attention that players pay to detail. Of course, most of the time it’s because they’re searching for treasure, but they don’t miss anything. The players will remember a monster’s last words, or what kind of sword was mounted on the wall in the villain’s sitting room, or what spells the crazy wizard cast when he showed up unexpectedly to lend a hand. This created perfect opportunities to set up Chekhov’s Quasits in Dungeons and Dragons, but it also translates to world-building in your novel, because you need to pay attention to these details—your readers definitely will.

One day soon I’d like to create my own D&D game instead of using a module, even though the Curse of Strahd has been tons of fun. I’ll report back on if creating a world from scratch for a group of gamers helped my writing. If you’re not a fan of games like D&D, perhaps there are other venues to practice world-building outside of writing? I’ll have to think about that, too.

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/collections/427360/proposal-essay-visual-pitch?photo=rTZW4f02zY8

World-building: Getting Outside of Your Genre

vintage cookbook, spoon and spicesOnce, during a read and critique, a fellow writer shared that he loved the way I described food. I can’t remember what food I had described, but being a writer (writers never forget things said about our writing, be they bad or good), I sure remember the compliment. And I remember the short story, too—it was about a gray alien who crash-landed on earth and was being treated at a hospital for his injuries and other ailments. It wasn’t a story about food; it just had a good description of food in it. And the thing is—and here’s the point of this little anecdote—is that I had been reading cookbooks at the time. My wife and I were making some dietary changes, and since I love to cook, I had just sort of been reading whatever stuff about food that I could get my hands on. And it automatically just translated right into my writing, giving life to an old bit of advice: read outside your genre. Of course, this applies to our world-building, too.

It’s not easy to force yourself to get outside your genre. We tend to stick with what we like. And it’s not just reading, either. TV, movies, video games, hobbies, the places we go, the people we talk to—all of this stuff can impact our writing and give way to inspiration and new ideas, but all of it can stagnate as well. Here are some tips to help get out of your genre and get some fresh ideas.

Read outside your genre. This was easier back in the day when we could go to actual bookstores and browse. I find that that electronic-everything tends to enforce our current thinking (how many times today have you seen a suggestion of what you may like based on your recent activity). If you can get to a real bookstore, do it! Go to the mystery section, or the religion section, or even the cooking section. If going to a bookstore is out of the question, just pick a genre that you normally don’t read (like romance, or young adult) and check out some blogs to see what’s current. Or browse a list of classics. You can even do this on Netflix; try watching some shows that you normally wouldn’t. You never know when inspiration may strike.

Go somewhere new. Another easier-said-than-done bit of advice, I find that looking at new places or doing new things helps with the world-building process. Most of us can’t up and leave to an exotic locale (and if you can, I’m super jealous), but there’s usually stuff right around that we can check out that might be new or interesting. Browse a new shop, go for a walk in the park you’ve never been to, or check out an exhibit or take a guided tour of a local historic site.

Talk to someone. We often get entrenched in our thinking because we are surrounded by the same people day in and day out. So mix it up and reach out to someone different. It could be a young person or an old person, a person with different political beliefs, whoever! Go visit. Reach out to someone online. Listen to what people have to say. Your writing will be better for it.

Ideas are kind of like viruses. They spread easily when the conditions are right, but they won’t spread at all if you seal yourself off inside of a bubble. Break out of your genre, and you’ll be getting compliments on the worlds you create in unexpected ways.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/cook-cookbook-page-benefit-from-1375797/

World-Building: Don’t Pants It! A.K.A. The Butterfly Effect

Old-fashioned photo of man with tennis racket wearing white pantsThere’s a lot of talk, especially when NaNoWriMo comes around, about “planning versus pantsing.” To put it succinctly, planning is having a solid outline before you start, while pantsing is just the opposite—writing your novel by the seat of your pants, figuring things out on the fly! Of course, most writers employ a mix of both styles, and that’s perfectly fine. But, as it relates to world-building, I’ve got some words of wisdom about pantsing it( that come from bitter experience). Don’t do it!

Last month, I was working on a novel about a beetle prince who had embarked on a quest to save his kingdom from a hive of evil wasps. Things were going great—I was producing a few thousand words per week—until I needed to put some clothes on one of the beetles (yeah, beetles wear clothes—get your mind out of the gutter). But then, I couldn’t figure out what the beetles would be wearing, in part because I hadn’t thought about the types of trees and plants that were going to be in the forest. Did the beetles weave garments from silk that they collected in the woods? Or from some kind of plant fiber? I didn’t know. So I got frustrated, panicking about what else I was unclear on, and before long, I was super depressed over my inability to figure out if the beetles would be making wine out of mulberries or raspberries. Those damn raspberries. I lost a good two weeks of work because of this, and in the end, I decided that it would be better to start over with a more wholly developed world. I buried my draft, another victim of the pants.

A poorly-planned world can have a butterfly effect on your novel. It’s okay to pants it when it comes to certain events in the story, like how you might suddenly decide that, even though your character just killed the giant hydra, she still needs to work out some internal stuff about how she was abandoned by her father as she recuperates at the goblin chieftain’s hut. That’s helpful—your pantsing just added another layer to your story. But world-building works the opposite way. If you’ve just decided that the goblins in your story eat rat stew every night and you know your character hates rats, you’re going to have to stop and go back to the first time she stayed at the goblin village and re-address it. Retroactively making these changes will make you want to pull your hair out during editing, and that should be the least of your concerns. Like what happened to me, you could end up missing significant details that are too crucial to overlook, and no writer wants to have to stop in the middle of a good writing flow to figure this stuff out. Yeah, it happens, but it’s a quagmire that’s best avoided.

You’re not going to think of every detail in your initial world-building. But, the more you nail down, the fewer headaches you’ll have when you’re writing. Allow yourself to dream before you start writing. I’ve got some tips on dreaming, so check back next time.

Photo credit: http://nos.twnsnd.co/image/142743323579

Building Worlds with Confidence (Even if You’re Faking It)

Man on the moon planting American flagYou’re sitting at a cheap fold-up table at one of those New York City writing conventions across from a hipster literary agent who’s twenty years younger than you. He wields too much power for someone who uses mustache grease in 2016, but you’ll be damned if you’re not about to pitch the hell out of your newly completed furry vampire novel (think Bunnicula meets Fifty Shades). There’s only one problem–your nerves–and you’ve already tripped yourself up on something you haven’t even said yet. You know it’s coming out of your mouth, something about a “niche market,” but you suddenly doubt how to pronounce the word “niche.” Does it rhyme with itch? How about beach? Or is it pronounced like Nietzsche? No, that last one is definitely wrong. Unless it’s the new hipster pronunciation.

You decide you’re not going to let one word ruin your pitch. You summon up all of the confidence you can muster and go for it:

“I know furry vampire erotica is a niche market, but I’ve already got a large Tumblr following,” you say. You end up pronouncing “niche” to rhyme with “beach,” because it’s nicer to say than “itch.”

“I’ll take a look,” Michael Cera-lite says, nodding at you. He takes your manuscript and doesn’t even bat an eyelash at your pronunciation choice. You’ll never know his stance on the rhymes with itch v. beach debate, but you certainly learn his stance on furry vampire erotica when he emails you two weeks later (not topical enough…please!).

And before your next pitch slam, you even remember to look up how to pronounce the word “niche,” and find out that the pronunciation you chose was the less common of the two. But hipster agent was none the wiser because you spoke with confidence.

And that’s the whole point. A word spoken with confidence, even if spoken somewhat incorrectly, will usually be successfully received by the audience. It’s human nature to follow things done confidently, even if incorrectly (just ask a Trump supporter), and the same holds true for creating a world in your writing.

I see too much sci-fi and fantasy writing that seems to doubt itself and ends up reading like a giant explanation of what the author wants the world to be. It may not even be a bad world—it’s just that, as a reader, I don’t need or want all of that explaining. Dive into the world with confidence and let the readers figure out the rules as they go. For example:

Knight-Captain Alaurel had mounted her battle bug within minutes of hearing the long, low chimes of the watchtower bells. Chomper stood taller than a dwarf when walking on all six, and Alaurel knew exactly how imposing she looked to the village children with her lance in hand and her sword at her back. She kicked Chomper’s sides with her boots, the light chain of her armor rustling against his hard carapace, and they began to charge out of town. Let the orcs come, she thought. She and Chomper would be ready.

In this cheesy little bit, we learn a bunch of stuff about a world where a female knight rides a giant bug into combat against invading orcs. The weirdest part, of course, is that she rides a bug instead of a horse (in my mind it is a giant beetle, though it could be a different bug, and this could be described later). But I treated the bug exactly as if it were a horse. I didn’t spend any extra time explaining. I didn’t say, “Alaurel lives in a world where finding a giant bug was as common as finding a cow munching grass,” because I had confidence in the world I was building, even if it wasn’t fleshed out yet.

Always be confident in the world you are building, even if you have to fake it a little bit. Your characters and your readers will thank you.

Photo Credit: http://nos.twnsnd.co/image/125765431290

“Westworld’s” Gun Problem

 

 

 

revolver-1558139-westworld

 

(Warning: contains minor spoilers)

When HBO’s Westworld first aired, my wife and I (who had been waiting to see if it lived up to the hype, like many others who are prepping for life in a post-Game-of-Thrones world), immediately checked out the first two episodes. I was pleasantly surprised (having not seen the original movie, I had no expectations going in), and of course, as we do these days, I immediately jumped on the internet to have other people tell me what to think—oops, I mean to check out what other people were saying about the show that I’d just enjoyed. And while there was a mix of the expected positive feedback and I-hate-J.J. Abrams criticism, what stood out to me was the sheer amount of forum threads dedicated to Westworld’s gun problem. It seemed like it was the only thing the folks on IMDB and Reddit wanted to talk about. This brings me to my point about world-building and those pesky little details that matter so much.

Here’s a great new show that people should be buzzing about—but instead, much of the talk is dedicated to a few things that, admittedly, don’t make a whole lot of sense. Can guests kill other guests? How is a place with shoot-outs and hookers family friendly? And how do those damn guns work? The last question was particularly sticky for many viewers. Over and over, viewers took to the internet to voice their confusion. This is human nature. Whether we’re reading a book or watching a movie or TV show, we tend to get obsessed with things that don’t make sense, even little things. Which is why it’s so important for writers—especially new writers—to pay attention to these details and get them right when building our worlds.

The robotic hosts in Westworld aren’t supposed to be able to kill guests. And since it’s the Wild West and everybody is packing a six-shooter or long gun, the way the writers handled this problem was to make the bullets not harm the guests. In the original movie, the solution was to have the guns sense body heat (apparently the robots run cooler than humans), but in the show, it seems that the bullets are “technomagically” advanced enough to tell whether it’s a person or a machine. Do the bullets trigger a fleshy explosion when they touch a robot? Do they somehow self-implode harmlessly when near human skin? What happens if a host shoots a vase and the glass shatters and gouges a human in the eye?

Viewers of the show became somewhat obsessed with this topic which took away from what should have been a more positive discussion of the show. The acting is good with a few famous names (look for James Marsden playing Kenny from South Park’s Wild West forefather, and Sir Anthony Hopkins playing definitely-not-Hannibal-Lecter) and some great lesser-known actors, too. There are interesting mysteries to be solved (who is the Man in Black?) and lots of gun-slinging action. We shouldn’t be obsessed with how the guns work (disclaimer: as of this writing the series isn’t over, and maybe they’ll explain things later, but it will be too late for the initial buzz), but we are, and that’s the power of the little things.

Now, I’m not saying these details will be the show’s undoing. Westworld will be fine. It has a massive budget, famous writers, and a cushy spot on HBO as the Game of Thrones heir-apparent. It can weather a few mistakes. But the rest of us aren’t so lucky. We need to be really, really careful of our little things. We need to get our details right and pay attention to what our first readers are confused about, because when we hand our draft to the agent or editor, we don’t want them to get distracted by these things and miss how awesome our world and our story actually are.

Photo credit: pixabay.com/en/revolver-gun-western-gun-vector-1558139/