World Building – Tolkien or Bust

My map of the Land, created when I was probably 13.

Among fantasy writers, world building is to their work as learning to read is to an education. Foundation.  You cannot really write a rip-roaring fantasy without a world into which to plunge your hapless characters.  By definition world-building includes a land, a culture, a magic system, the rules within that system, and even the history of that world.  It’s the ultimate god-like creation. 

JRR Tolkien set the gold standard for world building, and hopefully we aren’t expected to go to the minute detail to which he reached.  He had a complete history, even to the geologic epochs of his world.  The book Silmarillion reads like the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, and it is just the background sketches for his novels.  He developed languages – note the plural – that make sense and become an integral part of the plots in his work.  Tolkien is to blame for our shared imagery of elves, dwarves and even the hobbits and orcs that he created from scratch.  His world-building is our goal and competition.

How do you follow such footsteps without duplicating or plagiarizing?  I don’t pretend to be the most creative one out there.  I give that to Brandon Sanderson, but I use my own method.  I started the Wise Ones series as a map, way back when I wallowed in my teenage angst.  I drew mountains and forests, rivers and ruins.  I neglected the logic of rivers flowing from the highlands and into the ocean, and eventually needed to change that.  I plopped villages all over the place, without considering the need for a sentient people to live near their resources, like water, or arable land.  I then put a few diamonds all over it, thinking of them as the great cities. Then in grand fashion, the map went in a drawer and I forgot about it.

Later, when I saw the need to take Tiamat, my first character, out of her village and throw her to the wolves, I pulled that map out and sent her on an adventure.  What caused the Wall that cut the Land off from other countries?  Why did Paleone have ruins?  What actually happened at this fortress that it was placed there in the middle of the mountains?  Why would anyone live way-the-heck out there? I didn’t have answers, but Tiamat went from place to place, learning the world in much the same way I did.  She had the adventures, and I created my world in tandem with her.

The magic system of the Land emerged at the same time.  Heart Stones, Name Magic, Wise Ones with their royal clothing and all of the creatures, language, culture and history of the Land has become an adventure in discovery.  That’s why I wrote all nine novels before I published any of them.  I had to develop the world, revealing it to myself in the same way my characters discover it.  I’m the Hobbit on his first trip down the road. 

Of course, you need not utilize my method.  It’s slow, cumbersome and really puts a damper on getting published eventually.  However, I believe you need to find what works for you.  If that means you follow in Tolkien’s well-worn ruts, using elves and dwarves and wizards, please do so. But be on the lookout for a way to put a twist on it or you’ll never distinguish yourself.  Or you can put so many unique patterns into your world-building, you use coins to fly like Brandon Sanderson.  Any way you do it, go down your road with a thrill of discovery and do not look back. Leave a trail of your own.

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Writing Good in a World Gone Bad

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My cousin Raymond’s pen and ink – I told you I come from an artistic family.

During the summer I spend more time on social media than is healthy. However, I justify it because it gives me lots of ideas – for characters, for plots, for whole novels, and even for a blog entry here and there. The other day I read the story of a lady going through McDonald’s. The man behind her was very rudely honking and making other impatient gestures because she was taking a long time to place her order. So, the lady decided she would pay for the rude gentleman behind her.

I paused in the story (as I’m making you pause) to appreciate a simple act of kindness. I was delighted and almost ready to pass the story on to others. Then I read the rest.

When she went to pick up her order at the next window, she demanded his food as well. Her comment was ‘I paid for it, it’s mine’.

I was crushed. If she had paid for it out of an act of generosity, trying to defuse his frustration with the slow line, it would have worked. He would have been surprised, perhaps humbled, and would not have been so rude the next time he was in line. Instead, she only made him angrier and she has added to the rudeness of the world.

I bring this little anecdote out because as an author, I have an audience. Am I teaching them how to do good, or am I adding to the bad in this world with my stories?  I don’t like to write anti-heroes because we are showing that being bad is good. Perhaps a redemption story might break in, but unfortunately that is considered passé. When a movie pits Batman (a troubled good-guy) against Superman (another troubled good-guy) and one of them loses, the whole world loses an opportunity to fight evil and know that good will always triumph.

If you want to know why the world is getting so evil, with shootings and corruption and arguing all the smaller things in the world instead of lifting and highlighting the good that can be done, this is why. If we do not emphasize the being kind to others instead of focusing on the bad, we are adding to the problem. I write good men and women in my books because I do not want my readers to wallow in the bad of the world. I pray other authors will follow my hope.

Find Your Audience – If You’re a Bookworm, You’re Mine

One of my audience, I can tell

The selling books process drives me a bit crazy.  My parents taught me to think of salesmen as one step above drug dealer and one below a pub owner.  My husband, the born salesman who won them over, says you find your audience and then your product.  How do I do that as an author?  How do I know my audience and how do I then give them what they want?  I wrote my books before I ever thought to sell them, let alone, knew my audience.  Who are these illusive people?

After extensive study, I have decided my audience consists of teenage girls who are shy and bookworms.  They are also the grown women who used to be those teenagers like me.  My audience might also include people of all genders who want to escape the tedium of life and how grim it has become.  They are vacationers who want to sit on the empty beach, and not in a crowd of splashing sunbathers.  They are people who secretly want to dress up at a Comic-Con, but probably don’t have the bravery to actually do so.  They are library denizens, bookstore divas and café patrons. They lurk on the internet for the latest and greatest.  I cannot see them as phone-only aficionados who get their news from Twitter.  They might enjoy reading on a Kindle, but not exclusively.  They are a variety of people that have two things in common.

They like fantasy books and they don’t know my books exist.

How do I find them?  I have worked hard on a pitch and gone to every event I could.  Last year I went to the state fair and joined the group of older, self-published authors that go there.  Only one person sold well there.  He had been there every year for two decades selling his latest “Ghost Towns of Oregon” books.  He has been there so long and his books are so good, he has people who come to the fair just to see him and buy the next in the series.  It’s the only event he attends every year and he sells all the books he needs to without ever ‘selling’.

I was the only author standing up, making eye contact, and inviting people into the author’s booth to look at our wares.  Most of the others sat around chatting with each other, reading or doing Sudoku puzzles.  They weren’t connecting with their audience.  I sold out last year after four days of a 13 day event, and in the process, I think I stepped on some toes.

This year I was invited to return, but I also got an email that requested that I not be so aggressive in my salesmanship.  I ‘invaded’ their space and made them uncomfortable.  This year I hope they put me in a corner where my back is to those authors. 

I’m sorry, it doesn’t work that way.  I’d be bored to just sit there and wait to be noticed.  I will make eye-contact with the people just walking by.  I will tell my story to those that might be, in my judgement, fantasy readers.  I will give out my bookmarks to the cranky toddlers in strollers as their parents read the back of my books.  And hopefully I will sell out again and learn even more who are in my audience.  Maybe next year people will come to the fair, just to buy my next book.

The Nature of Talent – Am I the Jackson Pollock of Novelists?

Is this talent or chutzpah?

Have you ever wondered whether it is innate talent or driven practice that leads to artistic success?  Perhaps it’s just sheer good fortune?  I look at Jackson Pollock paintings and think that if I had a big enough canvas, plenty of paint and the prideful brashness to call it art, I could be famous as well.  However, he was at the right time in the right place.  Our society wanted to turn art and all the talented artists on their ear.  They wanted to be able to define beauty in the most ugly way.

So now, let’s apply that ‘talent’ to writing.  Something like 80% of all Americans have said at one time in their lives, “I want to write a book,” or “I’ve got a great novel idea.”  What they’ve got is curiosity and an imagination, just like…well, 80% of the rest of the population.  With the advent of self-publishing, without the gate-keepers known as agents and publishing houses, anyone with a computer, a bit of time and an idea can be the next Jackson Pollock. 

The problem is, you have to get an audience to be in the right place and time.  Unlike Jackson, writers tend to be more introspective and far less brash than him, thinking their work is fine art.  We get to craft each brushstroke we put on paper.  And unlike fine art paintings, people cannot make a judgement by just walking into the library and seeing your book.  They have to open it, dedicate some time, and actually finish your story before they can truly judge the quality of your art.

I’ve seen Jackson Pollock’s work, as well as many of the other modern artists.  It isn’t my cup of tea.  I stopped really respecting painting at about the Impressionist Era.  Writing, as an art, requires more than talent to be witnessed.  And it’s funny, I stopped enjoying Great American Literature at about the same time as the Impressionists gave up their brushes as well.  Why is that?  Is it simply because our society has turned to the ugly and untalented bits of art in more than just painting? What does that say about our society?  Am I one of those novelists that just splashes down some paint and calls it art.  Am I a product of the society I loathe?  What a terrible question to ask of someone who has no faith in herself or the values of our times.  Just food for thought.

Noblebright – Writing Against the Dark

A new sub-genre of Fantasy

I’ve struggled for months with getting my writing labeled properly in Amazon’s many sub-genre lists.  Is it YA (young adult, full of coming of age and firsts like leaving home and surviving on your own)?  No, my characters are adults and have adult problems.  It certainly misses on several middle grade reading levels because for the most part, my characters aren’t going through teenage drama.  Yet it also doesn’t fit in adult. There’s no gratuitous sex or adult drama pieces.  No one is in a marriage or a job they cannot endure a moment longer. So, other than high fantasy, where does it fit?

Enter grimdark.  Grimdark is a sub-genre of urban fantasy that revels in the seedy underbelly of the fantasy world.  Vampires and zombies end up being heroes…anti-heroes.  The protagonist is a despicable person, someone who is unforgivably bad and no one likes him for it.  Grimdark is a genre that is growing in these angry times and I don’t care for it. My Wise Ones don’t fit in there either.  However, having a look at the summaries of Grimdark novels (which I doubt I’d enjoy) I realized there has to be an opposite.  Where are the adult characters battling and not giving in to such a dark future?  That is where my book will fit.

CJ Brightly has coined something called Noblebright – a counter sub-genre to grimdark.  Characters rely on positive values and principles instead of greed and instinct to drive their actions. So noblebright as a sub-genre, does it even exist on Amazon?  Are there people searching for it on Goodreads?  I looked it up and I saw 13 pages of books that sell under the label of noblebright.  I think I’ve found a home.  Now, if only I can make it fit me.

Website Building – An Exercise in Pain

It better be worth it…

One of the least enjoyable things about publishing your book is technology.  Don’t get me wrong; technology is invaluable when writing the book.  I love the freedom of researching on the internet or the ability to write something and delete it without hesitation when you second-guess yourself.  I have this nasty little analogy in my head.  Writing is like sex.  Publishing is like giving birth.  Both require the same equipment as it were, but one involves a whole lot of pleasure and the other, a whole lot of pain.

Take my latest adventures.  I have agreed to set up and work on my sister’s web sites in exchange for her work on my book covers.  Getting into the web site to work on it, as opposed to looking it up on the internet took both of us two hours, two computers and probably three password changes.  Why?  Because they had sold my sister a ‘cover’ domain in the six months since I last worked on it.  She was paying, and she didn’t know this, for a second web address so hers didn’t look like a cheap, purchased one from Shopify or WordPress.  She didn’t know this and so she didn’t relay it to me. 

Then there’s the lack of clear communication, even though I feel like English is pretty easy, given my writing profession.  The term ‘page’ does not mean page, but instead means ‘a list of titles or chapter headings if this was a book, but really does not have any actual value and you cannot tinker with it.’  No, her pages (my definition) are called ‘products’, where I have to do the real work and each one has its own images for a painting and a description.  Then you have to put it in a collection and the collection then has to tie back to a ‘page’ (their definition).  None of this is intuitive.  The term ‘page’ in my blog site is different, so I cannot even use what I’ve learned from delving in one website to help me master another.

When I learned to drive a car, the key, the gears, the peddles and the steering wheel remained consistent no matter the vehicle.  Why can web sites not be the same as well?  The key should not change so I cannot open the door.  The peddles need to remain gas, brake and maybe clutch.  Well, enough grumbling.  I think I’ve got this one done after two day’s grief.  Hopefully Paula will feel that I’ve earned my cover.  And I’ve got a baby to show for my pain.

Book to Book – Whatcha Reading?

Andre’ Norton’s Castle, where I became a queen.

I recently had the opportunity to connect with one of my favorite authors from when I was a kid, Patricia McKillip. Back then writers seemed like these elite, white-tower types who typed in flats in Manhattan and never knew who I was. Guess what? They weren’t. In fact, several of my favorites were fond of quiet, introspective peace. Andre’ Norton, Madeline L’Engel and Ursula Le Guin, George MacDonald. I would not have become an author without delving into their worlds. How did such authors influence me?

When I was fourteen and in the dark of adolescence, I read voraciously. It was an escape from my miserable (I thought) life. The books that stood out to me were all fantasy. Riddlemaster of Hed by Patricia McKillip introduced me to the magic of music and cultural world building. The White Dragon and all the other Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey helped me see how a non-human sentient species integrate into a world. Madeline L’engel’s Wrinkle in Time showed how to merge science fiction, fantasy and moral themes into one whole. I enjoyed David Brin’s Startide Rising, just for the sheer vastness of the universe and alien lives he displayed.

The old saying ‘you write what you read’ is very true. I’ve reread most of those formative books, sometimes yearly. I find it sad that I cannot get my students to read them. Their covers are uncool. The technology in the sci-fi is obsolete. Dragons have grown passé perhaps. Certainly, the language and sentiments of older times, like George McDonald’s Princess and the Goblin, have fallen out fashion.

Some say my books are ‘out of fashion’ as well, because they reflect those older books. I say, we’ve got to get back to those values, the beauty and the spectacle of imagination. Too much is shown and nothing is left for the intellect to grasp. We now see Daniel Radcliff where our own Harry Potter resides. Will readers ever care to read Lord of the Rings without seeing the movies that are mere shadows of what actually happens between the pages? Authors like Tolkien, Wells and Hubbard couldn’t be published nowadays because their books take too long to snatch up the reader and won’t titillate the modern audience.

As an author, I’ve got to adapt. Shorten my sentences. Find the latest, greatest magical creature. Put a few more action sequences in the exposition and rely on dialog to tell the story. I do try to meet that demand, but some of the older imagery still seeps in. I love the feel of a magic door, giving me the sense of wood beneath my fingers. I long to follow a silken thread from a white tower, out into an adventure where my innocence is my only weapon. If you understand those references, you understand me.