Never one to pass up a bargain, I recently attended a free class taught by Trai Cartwright at the Old Town Library on World Building. I don’t write science fiction or fantasy, but since Trai was teaching, I decided to go because a) Trai is hilarious, b) she’s also an effective teacher, and c) I might learn something.
And boy, did I!
World Building isn’t just for sci-fi/fantasy. Any story we tell has to be set somewhere, and that somewhere needs rules. And for some genres, setting is much more than where or when the story takes place.
With Trai’s permission, here’s the low down:
Physical – geography, cities, nations, species, weather, physics, etc. This includes specialized physics, like magic and supernatural phenomenon.
Sensory – looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch.
Social – history, politics, religion, culture, class, language including dialects and slang.
Another aspect of your story is the fundamental 'who' of your character. Think about your protagonist, remembering that the protagonist doesn't automatically mean hero. Your protagonist is the character from whose point of view we experience the story.
How does your main character's position in society influence her motivation?
Is she trying to fix her world, or defend it?
Is she a champion or an outsider?
What is the point of conflict? Her faction versus an opposing faction? Her society versus another world? Her versus a villain from within her own world?
Like any other aspect of writing, for example, backstory, it’s easy to go overboard on World Building. Here’s how a writer can go wrong:
Going into too much detail. You only need to write about the aspects of your world that are pertinent to the story. You might have worked out the genealogy of the ruling class, but unless it’s necessary, your reader will get bored and, GASP, stop reading.
Now thinking about basics and ask yourself:
What do they eat?
Where do they sleep?
Who cleans the toilets?
Why is the ruling class in power?
What drives the economy?
Having an ornate society that has no connection whatsoever to the folks who grow the food/clean the stables/de-frag the photon torpedoes is just not believable. You may not have to cover the minutia, but some exploration can help flesh out your world.
Putting more effort into world-building than in telling a good story. Only Tolkien can get away with that. Include world-building to enrich the story, not to impress your friends.
“Should I add another species to Middle Earth? Flying Monkeys perhaps?”
I am noodling around with a new story. I think I’m going to set it in the 1980s in a small town like the one I grew up in. Should I bother with World Building? Heck, yes. I’ll need to study up on the politics of the times, popular music, social norms.
I doubt I’ll write about politics, but I better have a grasp of the basics from the ’80s to avoid making a mistake, like referring to the Green Party, which wasn’t founded until 2001. Or having my protagonist listen to alternative rock music, which didn’t really go mainstream until the 1990s.
The resurgence of '80s fashions isn't happening fast enough. Who doesn't want to see this make a comeback?
Researching the '80s might sound like a drag, but I also get to dive into the styles, which is going to be totally tubular.
For more on World Building, check out these websites
Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding
Charlie Jan Ander’s The Seven Deadly Sins of World-Building
Amber Mitchell’s Six Tips for World Building in Your Fantasy
Metaphors are a writer’s tool of the trade. We try to create more profound clarity for our readers and open their eyes to our point of view.
They can elevate our writing to soaring heights or anchor our words along with Prometheus.
Nothing delights writers like a metaphor that describes the writing process. They abound like Democratic presidential candidates on the debate stage (not a metaphor).
The most prevalent writing metaphor/simile is the “writing a novel is like giving birth” (again, not a metaphor) trope. As a human being who has delivered three children into the world (two of them back labors) and who has also written four books, I have made no secret how much I hate this particular comparison.
I’d like to point out those three offspring are all still breathing.
The Best One I've Heard Yet.
I’ve put my writing on the back burner the last month or so to tackle a sewing project. Go ahead and scoff, yes, I sew.
When said offspring were young, I made most of their clothes, all of their Halloween costumes, as well as creating a variety of home goods. I haven’t used my machine for several years, and I have a twenty-five-year-old serger never out of the box.
Son 3 moved out, leaving an entire room empty of purpose. It took the blink of an eye to transfer my sewing and craft impedimenta into the space.
After failing to find something to wear to a black-tie, evening wedding, I burned with the drive to make something formal. WTF was I thinking? You know darn good and well what I was thinking, “How hard could it be?”
In returning to a different kind of craft, I’ve finally landed on the perfect writing comparison.
Maybe you took sewing in secondary Home Economics class. You may have made a skirt or a backpack, or something that approximates a skirt or a backpack. You know how to sew a straight seam and how to read a pattern, so you figure you have what it takes to tackle a larger project.
An idea forms. You hunt through pattern books for something similar to your vision. You wander through aisles of fabric choices to customize your design. You have to break out the pattern pieces, cutting them out and ironing them flat so you can cut your fabric for the construction. You cut, you mark, you pin, and somewhere along the line, you start to sew.
I Picked Satin as My First Medium. It’s Like Trying for Dostoevsky on Your First Novel Attempt.
There are so many little steps along the way. Clipping seams, basting, ironing, fitting, and hemming.
You land on some facsimile of a garment and ask for feedback from trusted sources. And when that critique is honest and useful, you open a bottle of wine and salt it with your tears. Okay, that might only be me. And then, you take a pair of scissors to your creation.
I don’t recommend combining those two steps, but let’s face it, is it really a worthwhile project if you don’t breakdown into hysterics at least once?
You have to take a step back and give your brain some space to percolate. Now, you can go back to the project and start to rework the plan.
Not everyone is going to love your final look. That’s a given, but if you’ve nailed your measurements and the fit works, you may have something you aren’t ashamed to wear.
The more you sew, the handier you become at working through those little hitches. The fabric may pucker, your machine tension may need adjustment, and you may have to rip out a seam or two. Or three.
But that’s the process, and THAT is the best metaphor for writing I’ve come across. So, if you are thinking about writing a novel, man, woman, or child, hit the fabric store, pick something to make, and go to it.
You will absolutely discover how difficult it can be.
Let’s talk about sex, baby. Let's talk about you and me. You know you're humming it now, right?
My paying job is to write for the military. I know, the antonym of fiction writing (or is it?). In the course of reading a Navy newsletter, I stumbled upon a story too good to be true.
Never in My Life Would I Put Together Navy and Sky Penis.
Maybe you heard about this story on NPR or it popped up in your news feed. I was reading a Navy newsletter when I came across this photo.
Yes, two bored Navy pilots had sky-written a penis over Whitby Island, Washington, causing a ruckus. I chuckled of course, as one does when you see something silly, juvenile, and utterly engaging. Everybody thinks about sex; young, old, clown, president, pilot. So, how about our fictional characters? If they are above the age of fourteen, I’d say they would too.
What are your character’s boundaries?
In writing sex scenes, we undress our characters both literally and figuratively. When we’re naked, we are authentic, human, and vulnerable. Each one of us has things about our bodies we’d change or are embarrassed about, the same should be true of our characters. Sex in real life is never as it is in fantasy (in case my husband is reading this, it’s super close!) so how does it go in your story?
Recently I took a class about writing good sex scenes. It was graphic, slightly embarrassing, open, raw, and fun. First, the instructor read an excruciatingly awful, very explicit sex scene that was part ice breaker and part “how not to” example—basically a bodice ripper gone off the rails. Then he had us write our own awful sex scene.
My pen hovered not wanting to commit to the assignment. Then I loosened up and had a marvelous time letting the outlandish story flow. I will spare you and your loved ones the details and keep this PG-13 (wouldn’t want NCW to get in trouble with the FCC). I will say it was different from any scene I had ever written before and way more entertaining. I allowed my main character to do and want things that had never occurred to me before, but why not?
Several students read their work out loud, and the instructor used our own work to illustrate good (and not so good) literary techniques. Many found it a cleansing technique for writers to express humiliation and vulnerability in our own characters through writing about sex and perhaps cathartic in unexpected ways.
Don’t name specific body parts i.e., genitals. By using slang or clinical names, the reader is taken out of the story. Use fantasy. Most sex happens in our heads, what do your characters think about when they let their minds wander toward the erotic or forbidden? Don’t be cliché. Let your characters take a surprising turn. If your main character is a bodybuilder, perhaps he likes to luxuriate in a long bubble bath? How about a woman who studies her body in a full-length mirror daily and cries over her breasts that never fed babies but she picks up men at a bar who she can suckle (OK, again I just made that up so don’t judge). What the instructor suggests is to use the topic of sex to let your characters surprise you.
Check out some sex scenes that work.
While I try to avoid generalized statements, I believe there is a strong case for this one. Who else would put themselves through the agony of word counts, shitty first drafts, killing your darlings, receiving criticism with a smile and a thank you and stacks upon stacks of formal rejections. Passion is intrinsic to the craft.
And, while writers are certainly passionate about writing (you know who you are, you Grammar Nazis!), I’ve found that the writing is a secondary passion.
I don’t believe we start out with a desire to put words on paper for their own sake. The words are a tool for something else that drives us. Perhaps you have an experience that we need to share through memoir. Maybe you have a message to offer. Or a good yarn. Or some tips on how to make discount Halloween costumes with common household items.
Whatever the case, you cared about something enough that it spurred you to take up your pen. When you realized your latest draft was a disaster, something motivated you to devise rewrites.
For the past few years, I have been working with the High Plains Library District’s writer in residence. Each year, the library district supports a burgeoning writer to create a masterpiece, get a foot in the door and connect with our library community. Part of the contract is that each writer in residence must put on a library program for the community. A small group of librarians help draw out the writer’s expertise and passion and shape it into a program.
You might picture a series of small writing workshops, and there have been some. But these programs are as diverse as the people who deliver them. We’ve had writers who were passionate about history, slow-cooking, cancer awareness and service animals. Tapping into the minds of these remarkable people is never dull.
During our program planning sessions, we talk very little about the craft. And perhaps that’s just as it should be.
Have you found yourself in a lull lately? Are you struggling to put words on the paper? For many of us, writing is in our blood. We could never not write. But if you get tapped out, maybe it’s time to relocate your original talent.
For me, it’s a love for great storytelling. I was a reader before I ever wrote a word, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Finding Your Passion
Writing with Passion and Purpose
What about you? What was the passion that drove you to pick up a pen?
I have a virtual sticky note on the monitor in my office. It’s a quote from Stephen King:
“Talent is a wonderful thing, but it won’t carry a quitter.”
More than anything lately, it’s what keeps me writing.
Angelina Litvin – Unsplash
I recently sent off my latest screenplay for a professional review. While waiting for the praise, I was sure to get back for it, I worked on my academy awards acceptance speech. I’m sure you’ll all be glad to know that NCW was on the top of my list of those to thank. I worried about whether it would make sense to consider a part-time move to Hollywood because the offers were sure to start rolling in.
Needless to say, this quote from Octavia E. Butler could have been written primarily for me:
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking its good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.”
Faced with a mountain of edits on my masterpiece, this quote from Stephen King is also apropos:
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
Put another way, maybe Papa Ernest Hemingway himself said it best:
Now that the “shitty first draft” is out of the way, I’m back to the story. It’s my favorite thing to do. I’ll finish it and ask my critique partners for input. Then I’ll send it to the professional again.
And again, it probably won’t be ready for awards season, but it will be closer.
That’s the whole point.
Here are some more writing quotes to help you when rewriting is hard:
“One thing that helps is to give me permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.” Lawrence Block
For more quotes on writing and re-writing, check these websites:
Quotes for Writers
18 Motivational Quotes To Bring Out The Writer In You.
Summer is the time to explore new places, correct?
If you are like me, children’s sports schedules usually dictate where our family goes on vacation. Though there was the one time that I had a piece accepted by an anthology based in Ireland, and I simply had to go to County Cork. Twist my arm. Twist it again.
Luckily, my daughter’s softball team plays in pretty towns up and down the Front Range, and adventure-filled places such as Rapid City, South Dakota and Cheyenne, Wyoming. (Umm, don’t tell my husband, but last weekend in between softball games, I bought the cutest 1920s Remington typewriter at an antique shop in Cheyenne.)
There was a tournament in Steamboat Springs.
She and I left Fort Collins on a Wednesday afternoon. We opted to stay in a small town called Hayden, about twenty-five minutes east of Steamboat Springs. Our room, one of three total in the hotel, was situated above the restaurant and bar.
Writing research? As in the explore the internet or visit the quaint local library?
Scotch was sadly not available.
Circumstances called for meeting the beautiful people of Hayden and getting to know them better. I utilized my expert skills inspired by Diana Gabaldon and ordered some Jameson on the rocks.
The woman on the barstool next to me was also sipping whiskey with water. I happened to mention that it wasn’t often I met a woman who enjoyed a good whiskey. In less than two minutes, she had pulled out her cell phone, showed me photos of her children, and introduced me to everyone in the restaurant.
Within the hour, I had received invitations to attend the circus at the fairgrounds the next night, as well as the best insider information as to where to dine and explore in Steamboat Springs.
I learned which high schools had sixty graduates and which had only nine. One woman told me she liked Fort Collins but was scared to get out and do anything when she visited because it was just too big for her.
Perspective. That’s what I gained, for the price of two drams, a shared basket of French fries, and the conversation between total strangers. Plus, I had what was possibly the best spinach salad with a blueberry vinaigrette that I’ve ever tasted.
My daughter and I stopped at a historic dance hall in Wyoming and learned about the art of hay baling from an elderly proprietress over a couple of Heath ice cream bars. She explained how afternoon rains could spoil a whole crop of hay, which the kids would be baling over the next month. I’m tempted to drive back there in July and interview these youngsters regarding their hopes and dreams.
Step outside your comfort zone for an hour or two and call it research. Who knows what you will discover? A whimsical poem? An edgy flash fiction piece? That bit of tricky dialogue that’s been eluding you? Perhaps even the core idea for your next novel?
And if not, at least you might earn the wonderful reward of a new friend.
There’s an adventure out there with your name on it.
For more ideas of summer adventures, check out:
Three Way Travel Makes You a Better Writer
Where do travel writers find inspiration
Back in the 70s, I played guitar in a couple metal bands. I had fun, but I wasn’t any good. These days, I’m trying to teach myself to play blues guitar again (a goal that aligns with my latest writing project). The 45-year layoff taught me two things. First, old fingers suck. Second, there’s a lot to learn about writing from playing guitar.
Bob Denver Was So Much More Than Gilligan.
The best guitarist I ever saw was an unlikely-looking kid (he resembled Bob Denver from the television show, Gilligan’s Island). I won’t mention his name because he still plays bars in northern Colorado. We got together a few times, decades ago, to jam.
I asked him for the secret to crafting a good guitar solo. He said, “Start simple. Play a few licks they’ve heard and expected before you launch off into your crazy stuff. If you give them something they can wrap their heads around to start with, they’ll stick with you.”
For non-musicians, a lick is a stock pattern or phrase that catches the ear.
I've also seen instant bursts of action that require immediate backstory via a clumsy flashback.
I can understand why this sort of thing happens. We've all been told to hook the reader with brilliance in the first six sentences. That's a lot of pressure. Perhaps I can mitigate some of it.
In the hierarchy of imperatives, where you start your story might be more important than how you start. Focus on character and plot. Write the way you speak to ensure your authentic voice is in play.
One of the drawbacks to real life is the absence of a time machine to allow you to correct mistakes after-the-fact. Novel writing comes with a built-in time machine called self-editing. You can go back and change the opening after you finish your book.
In fact, your story’s opening may just be the last thing you should write before finishing the novel. And when you revisit that opening, my advice will still hold true. Start simple.
Let the story unfold—you have miles of pages to go before the end.
Great Opening Lines
Because breaking the rules is the only certain rule of writing. These classic lines don't follow any of my advice. Which of these openings is your favorite?
What if you had almost a month of undistracted writing time? With a private studio. Physically isolated from family and friends. Limited internet access—nearly off the grid except for stimulating conversations over dinner with artists from all over the country, or even the world.
Room, board, and studio provided free of charge. No obligations. Heaven or hell? Could you do it? If so, what would you accomplish? If this sounds like heaven, then perhaps a residency is in your future.
After Hours of Work, Relaxing In The Artist's Lounge.
Last February, I was fortunate to be one of seven resident artists at the Brush Creek Ranch near Saratoga, Wyoming. Funded by the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts (https://www.brushcreekarts.org/), up to eight artists—musicians, visual artists, and writers—are selected each month for a twenty-two-day residency.
Brush Creek isn’t the only opportunity of its kind. An internet search yields hundreds of residencies available to writers. The details differ in what they provide and what they expect, but all have a common underlying objective: give the artists undistracted time to focus on their craft.
A residency of the Brush Creek kind (the limit of my experience) isn’t for everybody. To ensure the artists’ time is undistracted, visitors are discouraged and overnight visitors prohibited.
As noted, internet access is limited by bandwidth and location within the facility, so if your project is research-heavy, you may not realize the full potential of the opportunity. Family, school, and work obligations can be a problem for many.
Brush Creek Artists, February 2019 (l-r), Natalie Obermaier, Johanna Mueller, Ben Ehrlich, Marsha Goldberg, the author, Suzanne Samuels, Robert Strobel.
So if you’ve cleared all those hurdles and are still with me here, then you may be asking, how do I get in?
All residencies have some form of an application process. A typical submission includes a sample of your work, a statement of purpose, character references, and a short bio.
The actual selection process is somewhat opaque, but this is what I know—the jurors change, so a rejection in one application window doesn’t mean you shouldn’t re-apply in the next window.
The work samples are judged blind. Your writing stands on its own merit. For Brush Creek and many others, you do NOT have to be a published author to be awarded a residency. They actively seek ‘emerging’ writers as well as published authors. Character references focus on your ability to get along with a variety of people in a working/living environment.
You probably won't impress with "the space and time to hone my craft." Every artist I spoke to had a specific project—an upcoming gallery opening, a composition to polish, or, as with me, to finish the character arcs and plot development of a second novel.
Both my first novel and my WIP are set in Wyoming. But perhaps you can find common ground with the Foundation’s statement of purpose or philosophy.
Most residency appointments are highly competitive. I slipped through the cracks because I actually wanted a January or February award. Because of work and school schedules, the summer month awards can be super-competitive and harder to land.
The residency experience was one of the most productive and memorable experiences of my life. If the stars align and it fits with your life goals and objectives, I highly recommend you take a shot at it.
We humans like to categorize things: friend or foe, sweet or sour, paper or plastic. When it comes to literature, a book has got to fit into a niche. Not only does it help the library or bookstore know where to shelve the piece, but it also helps the reader, who wants to know just what exactly he or she is getting themselves into.
Thank you for your patience as we get this new system up and running, You can now add comments to blog posts by clicking on the button next to to the post title. Here's a screenshot:
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