Creating fantasy fiction worlds – there are worlds inside

From the moment I decided to concentrate on fiction, my fantasy world started coming together. With every piece of writing in the world, the places became characters in the stories. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the places started taking on a life of their own; they were not quite the Seattle I live in, nor the San Juan islands I’ve sailed through on weekends. The Australian outback is subtly different to actual places I’ve been, or more properly, the places are an amalgam of more than one single place, tinted by memory and overlaid with a magical patina that is their very own. The Suzzalo annex in downtown Seattle is a place that might be, an organic outgrowth of the very real Suzzalo Library at the University of Washington with which I am so familiar. I wonder if all magical worlds start off that way? Do they come to live in the intersections between the real and the imaginary, taking on the nature of something that is rooted in the world?

There are places I’ve visited in books by favorite authors that are as real to me as cities I’ve traveled to physically. The London of Sherlock Holmes is not quite the London of my visit in 2006, nor yet the London of Phileas Fogg, Mary Poppins, nor yet even the London of 007. They rug shoulders like restless cats, overlapping like a puzzle, yet each version of London remains its own unique world. Our urban fantasy worlds begin with the world we can touch. As it should be. And then they depart for places unknown and as yet undiscovered.

In building a whole ‘world’, it helps to have the bones of the familiar to act as a bridge. The magical systems need to be grounded in the familiar everyday things, with rules that are internally consistent. Traveling from one place to another may be via walking, public transport, a vehicle or by stepping through a doorway between places in this world or between separate pocket universes, each world behaving with its own rules. The covenant with readers is to make the worlds internally consistent, predictable in some sense, and imbued with the magic that advances the sense of place and the journey of the characters who move through the spaces in that particular world.

In the Storybook tales with living libraries and pocket universes, the City of Seattle is in the World of Form, with rules or conventions that prevent casual magic coming to the attention of people or the authorities. Our magical beings are flying ‘under the radar’ and if luck should accrue to these ‘Others’ more often that most people experience, then that magic might be overlooked. Yet we do see our characters zipping about through portals, avoiding planes and customs officials. The magic to deflect attention is well developed, as is the magic of illusion and manipulation. The ‘Others’ are shape shifters, though not in an obvious fashion. No horror movie transformations in the world where humans live – as an author, I chose to constrict that ability in this world, at least where people are looking. The rules will, of course, be broken. There will be challenges to order. Chaos will enter in. Our characters may be revealed to a select few, or discovered by sinister government agencies as dictated by the story. That’s one of the things that makes urban fantasy so interesting, that we do not know what may happen next. The fantastical blends with the normal in delightful ways.

This weekend I’m building some new environments for my world, a few new villains, some allies whose worlds are not yet known to my protagonist. Should be loads of fun. My first step is to scrapbook images that look and feel like the places. Pencil sketches, word sketches, montages from imagination.

When inspiration fails

What to do when inspiration fails? I have a deadline for a short story looming, with a character who doesn’t know how to get from here to there. To increase the beats, I need a challenge to throw at my protagonist that isn’t a trope. I suppose I could use a trope (evil family member, random attack by killer cyborg, getting in the way of an assassination/hacker attempt, love/hate interest) but that seems kind of lame in context of the story. What to do? I could go with the tried and true Vorkosigan method – full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes – but it’s an urban fantasy where there are no evil government agencies standing by to act as a backdrop. I have two days to go – ideas from the gallery gratefully accepted.

  • My main character is sixteen, a mage, and a web designer
  • She’s being asked to skin a web site and add some magic to it | someone else is doing the security
  • Some something gets thrown at her as a challenge (not the web site)

Maybe it’s the security person? Maybe there’s a cyber attack? Maybe I torment her with new magic waking up inside her? Security person ends up being a cute guy? Better yet – a cute girl.

Thoughts?

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Book jacket marketing

Is it better off being red? I say that because of something a friend said once. He was working in a technical book shop at the time. He claimed their marketing boffins had worked out that they sold 8% more copies of any text book with a red jacket. I’ve been wondering if that might translate to advice for designing fiction and nonfiction book jackets as well.

When I look at fantasy covers, most of them are playing with the idea of ‘hot’ by portraying semi-naked men or women (or both) on the covers. In addition, there’s often flames, or warm tones to contrast against a dark and shadowy background. Not red exactly, but heading in that direction.

Jackets for non-fiction grab your attention with neon colors, often orange and yellow or red, though there’s a good splash of acid green or neon green vying for eyeballs. The nonfiction works boast geometric shapes, diamonds and hard edges, plus more text than anyone other than an SEO guru would want to share. Don’t get me wrong … those key words help in the search algorithms on Amazon … the words work, but they sure are ugly.

It’s a balancing act. You want just enough information to satisfy the rules for sub-titles, which include a requirement to have all those words on the cover before putting them in the form on amazon. But maybe the color also makes an impact. It’s worth a bit of research. I think I’ll count the covers with red on them in the top amazon categories I’m interested in and see if that might be worth considering as a strategy. Sharing with you here to see what you think about the idea.

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Working with Scrivener

I was new to Scrivener for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November last year. I had previously written in Word, however that had a tendency to make it hard to keep all the folders and files together. Scrivener changed all that. Suddenly I could write a novel, a short story and keep character sheets and notes all in the one place. I could add images and place notes in much the same way I’d done in one-note, and then decide what I wanted to export later.

It didn’t come for free or without a learning curve. That’s where the course on using Scrivener came in handy. It’s called “Learn Scrivener Fast” from Joseph Michael . Why learn it all on my own when I could take a tutorial to learn how the experts did it. Now this isn’t intended to be a push to buy the product, though I do think it’s great. If you think you can intuit your way into the best method on your own, knock yourself out. Personally, while I like to make how-to stuff, I rarely follow the directions exactly. So yes, there’s bits in the course you may not want. I encourage you to skip around and only do the bits you want to use. Sooner or later, the other bits will be there for you. All I want to say is that it saved me oodles of time and headaches.

The main thing I do with a Scrivener project is determine what the overarching world is.

  • Start with the project name
  • Change the name of the Chapters to the Sections I want
  • Start a side ‘section’ for related stories (which I inevitably have)
  • Make a bunch of text files inside the sections for scenes I know I’ll want to write
  • Then add text scenes before and after those known scenes
  • Make a set of character files
  • Then start making notes to myself over in the right
  • I use a corkboard to see the scenes all together – and drag and drop them into a different order

Then I start writing just about anywhere, sometimes at the start, though usually it’s the first scene where the action is. Then I just keep adding scenes as I go. Sooner or later, I’ll pop back out and make an outline – that means more scenes get layered in, though those are just a ‘stub’ with the outline of what will happen in them. I leave the stub in place until that scene gets written. I’ve been known to just stub in a scene and then keep going onto the next thing. I can always come back to it later or lose it if it’s not needed.

In November, I found that I was writing short stories that are back story for the main character, at the same time as I was writing book two. It should bother me to be writing at two very different points in time but it was fine. Each day, I’d just decide what I wanted to write and the variety made it less likely I’d get stuck. On days when I didn’t want to write anything in the stories, I spent my writing time outlining or building character sheets instead. When neither of those appealed, I edited something my partner wrote in his stories or wrote blog posts for one of my other blogs. That way I generally got 2000 to 5000 words a day some way or another.

I’d love to hear some of the ways others use Scrivener. Go ahead and use the comments section to add thoughts.

Happy writing – Ria

Remembering character information

By the end of book 1 – Library of Time – I had about 30 names to remember. It helped that I picked most of them with a botanical theme in mind as that gave me some clues to remember the names. However, what really helped was creating character sheets in scrivener.

There’s a location in scrivener, down at the bottom left part of the screen, that says ‘Characters’. Inside you can add a page for each character, or group of characters, by location, and fill in some information about them. This is super helpful when coming to write the next chapter or even the next book. Some of the things I add for each character are:

  1. Name of the character
  2. Their nickname, if any
  3. What they look like – I try to find a stock photo, illustration or actor who looks a bit like them
  4. Where are they from?
  5. Where are they living?
  6. Character sketch
    What motivates them? Their character (solemn, quirky, tricky, mischievous, lazy etc)
  7. What do they bring to the plot?
  8. How do they act when startled? When angry? When challenged?
  9. Their favorite color (shows up in colors they wear)
  10. Special abilities and role in the story

For what they look like, I don’t intend to cut and paste descriptions; that would be tacky and repetitive. However, I do want to know their hair and eye color, skin tone, general appearance and wardrobe. A friend said that characters need an ‘eye patch’, that is a particular element that identifies them to readers. Remember the ‘cigarette man’ from the X Files? James Bond’s tuxedo or his martini – shaken, not stirred? It can be subtle, but needs to be there. I remember reading a Kay Hooper novel back in the 1980’s – even now, I can tell you about the contents of a character’s purse, including the large-animal leash and tranquilizer gun.

Where a character comes from informs me about how they will act in a situation in the future. I want to jot down what they love, what they hate, what riles them and the kind of music they like to listen to. I may not use all of it in the story now, but in subsequent tales, those elements get sprinkled in to make the character more real.

What do you add to your own character sheets?

Writing process – top 10 ways of finding grammar errors

Grammar errors are one of the most pesky things to eradicate in the writing process. Scrivener doesn’t find grammar mistakes, and while MS Word is pretty good at finding normal passive errors, it fails to recognize idiom. Language is changing. Sentences can and often do start with ‘and, but, or, though’ in colloquial use.wordsForBooks

If you’re like me, when you write the first draft you don’t pay any attention to the rules. Well, truth to tell, rules are hardly ever my best thing. I tend to think in fragments; that means some of my characters share this trait. Enough said.

Even in a blog, the sentence construction is not a slave to the Oxford English way of writing. Be a bit boring if it was. However, the unintentional grammar error is the bane of a writer’s existence. It’s just fine to break rules on purpose, so long as you know your purpose. Richard Morgan stood the grammar rules on their collective head in Altered Carbon. His more stream-of-consciousness writing included sentence fragments much of the time. None of that made it difficult to read. Instead, it made his protagonist much more sympathetic. So how do I find those errors in the editing process? I have a few tips and tricks to share.

  1. Walk away from the writing for a couple of days to give yourself some distance
  2. Print it out and keep a highlighting pen handy to mark the pieces to come back to
  3. Read it out loud to a friend. The tongue will trip over phrases that aren’t quite right
  4. Do an editing pass with track-changes on
  5. Try turning it upside down – for those of us who can read that way, the comma and grammar errors jump out
  6. Do an editing pass just for dialog.
  7. Use Find / Replace to fix issues like quote plus period (“. wrong) rather than period plus quote (.” correct)
  8. Write with a manual of style handy – look up stuff that you know you get wrong
  9. Replace instances of passive voice (often uses words that end in y) with active voice (often ends in ‘ed’)
  10. Relax about it. No matter how many times you edit, someone will disagree with your choices

I hope some of these prove helpful. Please share the tips and tricks you have found work for you.