Posts Tagged ‘workshop’

nexus Before I do anything at all, I want to wish a HUGE congratulations to Ramez Naam for making the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for his debut science fiction novel NEXUS!  So proud!  So well deserved!

This past Saturday, the Florida chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Orlando Public Library teamed up to present a free half-day writers workshop featuring a panel and break-out sessions with  Jessica Khoury, Jessica Brody, Amy Christine Parker, Christina Farley, Vivi Barnes, J.A. Souders and Anna Banks.   I may be a bit biased, being one of the presenters myself, but it was a great day.

A few people asked about notes for my talk, and I promised to write them up for my blog, thus here they are.  Some of the information here I grabbed from previous posts I’ve done, so there might be parts here that are familiar to some viewers!

The Publishing Process: From Gaining our Attention through Publication

Of course, it all starts with your manuscript, so I want to talk a bit about standing out from the crowd.

First of all, don’t take the easy way out.  Don’t do what’s common or expected.  Don’t do something anyone else can do.  When you’re generating ideas, it’s often a good idea to throw out your first two or three thoughts.  They come quickly and easily because they’re rote.  You’ve seen them and heard them before.  They’ve been done, many times over.  Push yourself beyond those first few ideas.  Challenge yourself.

Come up with something unique, whether it be your character or storyline…or better yet both.  Just as you don’t want your storyline to be predictable or cookie-cutter, you don’t want to people your novel with stereotypes or cardboard characters.  You should know more about your people than ever make it onto the page.  If someone were to ask their favorite ice cream or how long they take in the bathroom, you should be able to answer without thought.

Don’t shy away from tension or true danger.  Your reader needs to truly fear for the emotional or physical wellbeing of your character.  Torture your characters/torture your reader.  It sounds cruel, but it’s honest.  Remember that in every scene there should be something at stake.

What often takes a novel from okay to amazing is the voice.  Your voice, your point of view character, is the lens through which we see the world.  Think of it this way—if you have two children and both told you about the same fight, would it sound the same?  No, it would have a slant…about who was at fault, who started things, who did what to whom.  Some details would make it in and others would be left out.  What words would be used?  Would they be uttered in anger?  In a rush, tumbling over each other?  What would the body language be?  Whoever’s POV we’re in should be distinctive and unique and they should have an angle on things. Everyone has an angle.  (Not necessarily a bad angle.  Someone might give too many chances or see the best in everyone rather than the worst, but his/her personality and experiences will lead him or her to treat an event or individual in a certain way.)

Okay, so we’ve got great stories and great characters.  What else?  Well, great writing, of course.  Your first draft is often just that…drafty.  It should never be the product that goes out the door.  Amy Christine Parker and I did a vlog for YA Rebels on Revisions, which I’ll post below, but here are some quick notes based on beginning mistakes I see time and again:

-Do your best to rid your manuscript of waffle words, like “just,” “only,” “seemed to”.  Also, “she decided,” “he thought,” “she mused”…that sort of thing. Thought tags like this are the equivalent of said-bookisms in dialogue.  (For example: “I hate you!” she shouted angrily.)  Some things are understood and telling them to us is redundant.  Show, don’t tell.  This will make your writing much more immediate.

-Avoid passive voice. For example: Passive: “The door opened to admit her;” Active: “Benny slammed the door open at her knock, shocking her back a step…”  As you can tell, the second option is much more effective.

-Go back over emotional scenes particularly.  Chances are you shied away from the true depth and these need to be further explored now that the full context surrounds them.

-Make sure you have sensory and physiological details where appropriate.  For example, if someone’s running for his/her life or being kissed for the first time, the body will react.  Blood flow will increase or rush to certain parts of the body.  Breathing will change…

-Make sure every scene is told in the right point of view, that of the participant, not the observer.

-If you’ve jigged when you should have jogged and gone down the wrong path with your novel, now is the chance to change that.  You’ll hear many professional writers say that they write two or three books for every one published.  That’s because of how much they throw out and start again or how much is rewritten beyond recognition.  I won’t say that first-drafting is easier, but revisions are where the real work comes in!  (At least for me.)

-Make sure that you’ve revised your work until you can’t stand to look at it anymore.  Then put it away for a few weeks to a month and look again with fresh eyes.  Readers and critique partners are invaluable in this process as well, because they don’t know what you meant to put down on the page.  They only know what’s there, and they can help you discover sections that came out differently than intended or plot points that didn’t come through at all.

-Mantra: Thou shalt send out no manuscript before it’s time.

Next, I discussed the querying process, what an agent does and what a publishing house does for you.  Since I’ve covered these things in previous posts, here are those links:

Finding an Agent

The Role of Agents in the Modern Publishing Landcape

Querying, Part 1

Querying, Part 2

Querying, Part 3

What a Publisher Does (aka It Takes a Village)

Other links you might find helpful that I offered in a hand-out:

My blog

My author website

Knight Agency website

TKA submission guidelines

Association of Authors’ Representatives

The SFWA Writer Beware site

Preditors & Editors



Defining Moments


YA Rebels vlog on Revisions:

It’s a special challenge when creating a new world to which your readers must be introduced (or the changes you’ve made to a familiar one) to do so and maintain a pulse-pounding pace while also developing characters and plot. This can lead to a lot of exposition, which often sounds clunky and inhibits a smooth narrative flow.

One of the best ways to head off info dump is to begin in the right place. If you start the novel too long before the main story so that you can provide set-up and context, you may lose the reader through the lack of immediacy. If you start too in media res, there’s a ton of backstory that you’re going to have to fit in, which will slow down your pacing. This means that you’ve got to choose the moment in time where the key elements that are important to the overarching plot are developing, but early enough in their development that you can provide context before everything goes kablooey. In other words, we have to understand what’s normal before it all goes to hell. Also, we have to care.

That said, there are times where a prologue, which is generally offset in time and sometimes in point of view, from the main storyline might be necessary to provide backstory, but there are right and wrong ways to do this as well. There are almost no hard and fast rules, since if you do anything well enough, you can probably get away with it. However, in general, you don’t want to start with an omniscient narration told from the point of view of some celestial being or star. I would advise you to be careful of starting with a myth, parable or flashback. N.K. Jemisin does this in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but the snippet is short, relevant and personal:

 I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.

Anyone who’s ever awaited the birth of a child, particularly if you’re the one carrying the child knows that you can’t wait for that baby to be born. The fact that any mother would seek to prevent or delay this…it’s huge. Immediately, the reader wants to know why.

However, in general, you want to begin in the present in the voice of one of your main viewpoint characters. It’s a reader expectation that the first person we “meet” is going to be a major storyteller.

Here are some simple says to avoid info dump:

-Don’t introduce characters before they appear (i.e. “Maia prepped mentally for her meeting with President and his aid, who had been hurt in the “police action” of Kentaga in ’34 and as a result bore horrible scars as constant reminders”). It would be so much more powerful to experience her reaction when the aid comes through the door.

-Once a character appears, do not stop your action to give us his or her history, but reveal it through dialogue or context. Remember that body language and vocal cues can teach us as much about a situation as dialogue tags or exposition. For example, in the above interaction, Maia would certainly notice the scars. She might even stare and get caught, which could be a tense or emotional moment during which the aid could tell her of the origin of his war wounds. In other conversations, one character might be clearly deferential or authoritarian or flippant. Whatever the tone, the interaction itself will enlighten us as to the relationship between these characters with much more relevance and interest than simply telling us.

Likewise, while you’ll have to set a scene and give us description of settings, it’s much more immediate to show how the chill air hit the sweat that still clung to her from the sweat lodge, practically turning it to a thin coating of ice than to simply tell us that it was a cold night.

Also, what do your characters take for granted? What do they swear by? Culturally, a curse is generally something which profanes the sacred, taking God’s name in vain, as it were, so there’s a wealth of information in a curse.

Remember that your characters are the lenses through which we learn about events and the world. They’re the storytellers. Thus, unless something is relevant to them at a given moment, they won’t be thinking about it and the reader won’t be hearing about it. We’ll talk more about characters later.

Magic Systems
There are several key elements in developing magical systems.

Reasoning – is your character a supernatural being out of myth and legend? Are his or her powers genetic? Drawn from a special source? Take it from the superheroes – whether your character is a god like Thor or the last of an alien race drawing power from our red sun like Superman, your character’s powers have to come from somewhere.

Limitations- no matter how broad those powers, they must also be finite. A hero or heroine with no weaknesses makes for a very dull story with no suspense, no fear of failure and nothing that’s a true challenge. Even Superman has his kryptonite.

Balance- the powers arrayed against your protagonist(s) must match or even exceed them so that it’s not mere firepower but creativity and ingenuity that overcome.

Internal logic- once you’ve established the rules, you can’t change them without very good reason, set-up and explanation. For example, in my Vamped series, I have traditional vampires who cannot survive the sunlight. However, in the second book, the Feds, who’ve made my teen vamps an offer they can’t refuse, have developed a concoction that will allow them out in the sun for brief periods of time. The catch is, and there should always be a catch, no one is sure exactly how long that is. It’s never been tested, and my vamps are the guinea pigs.

David B. Coe, in the book How to Write Magical Words, suggests that magic should also have a cost. In his Winds of the Forelands series, for example, the magical race is less hearty than their non-magical counterparts, because every spell cast shortens their lifespan. Steven Harper, in Writing the Parnormal Novel, agrees. To quote “Magic rarely comes free. Otherwise, magicians and magical creatures would rule the world. Be sure you’ve chosen appropriate, consistent limits.”

Whatever you choose to do, make sure that you keep a file on your rules and limitations, what each character or creature type can do, etc. It’ll also help to have a cheat sheet for your world, both for your own reference and for your editor and copyeditor if you’re working on a series. I can’t tell you how often authors have depended on their fans to remind them of something they’ve done in book one and forgotten all about by book four. Fans WILL remember, and they’ll call you on it.

I’ll illustrate here a unique magical description in an excerpt taken from Kalayna Price’s Grave Witch:

Releasing my connection to the magic stored in the obsidian ring, I unclasped the thin silver charm bracelet on my wrist and shoved it in my pocket. The extra defenses the charms gave me vanished. The chill of the grave pressed against my mental shields like icy water lapping at the edge of my consciousness. I drew in a deep breath and sank deeper into a trance. The grave essence lifting from the corpses within my circle persisted, thundering against my mind. Beckoning. Taunting. Demanding.

I dropped my shields.

A racking wind rushed through me. The clammy touch of the grave slid against my skin, beneath my flesh.

I opened my eyes.

My vision had narrowed, leaving the world covered in a patina of gray. Flakes of rust covered the stainless steel gurneys on either side of me. The threadbare and tattered linen sheet covering the body on the gurney to my left rippled in the breeze blowing through me. The linoleum floor under my boots had worn away, and the cement beneath it crumbled. Outside the circle, John’s wrinkled jacket was pocked with holes, but he was filled with light, his soul a dazzling shimmer of pale yellow. I looked away.

In the novel, her heroine Alex Craft’s grave sight has limitations: the grave reaches for her, its chill fills her up. It takes her sight awhile to come back, meaning it’s too dangerous for her to drive, and if she uses the sight for too long, she’ll be functionally blind. She has to go about with shields up except when she chooses to use her power.

Part III is here.

For those who’ve asked me whether I was going to post my Worldbuilding Workshop on-line somewhere, here it is at long last!  (The beginning anyway.)  Special thanks to Gerald Blackwell, who redrew the diagram because I couldn’t figure out how to get it to transfer from Word!  Welcome to Part I.  I hope you enjoy.  There is more to come.


Worldbuilding Workshop

Whether you start with characters or conflict, no one and nothing is created in a vacuum. A character will very much be a product of the way he/she was raised, but also what ecology, nutrition, religion, etc. helped form his or her development.

Conflict often comes when an individual or group is at odds with or fighting against what are considered the norms of a society or when cultures clash against each other over ideology (religion), control of resources (ecology) or whatever. And, of course, rarely does it boil down to just one element in opposition, since all are so tied in together.

I’m going to start with that word—conflict. You don’t have a novel without conflict. You don’t have a story or tension or suspense or any of the multitude of things needed to keep the pages turning. If you begin your novel with a character perfectly in tune with her society and the status quo, well, then you don’t really have a story. If, however, you throw a huge monkey wrench into the works—for example, if that same character sees something he or she shouldn’t, maybe a murder or a kidnapping or—maybe he or she starts to question or delve. Or maybe you have a character already on the outs with society—a criminal or a street person or a rebel…. No matter what you’ve got, you need to build a world that stands in the way of the heroes, let’s say, achieving their goals, but also you need a society that’s internally consistent.

So, the first thought you give to worldbuilding will be based on the needs of the story. Is your setting plucked out of history or even the modern world? Is it a space station? An ice planet? A seaport? An alternate New York.

Whatever you choose, your world will have certain challenges, limitations, resources, etc. which will inform the culture.

I’m going to start talking about the Environment, which is to me one of the most pivotal issues in the early development of a culture and hence at the top of my chart. Clearly, people can’t use resources they don’t have and will not develop technologies for which they have no use. At its core, a culture builds on what it has available, creates innovations to ease the burdens of work and do what must be done more efficiently. (As far as other systems, it also develops origin myths and legends to explain the world around it and reinforce the mores of the society. It evolves political systems and laws to govern and settle disputes, separates into family units for protection, affection and shared resources and develops ways of allocating those resources. It also develops common modes of expression so that all of these things can be communicated.)

But back to the Environment: you will not have the same culture develop in a spaceport or seaport as in a desert or island culture. We know based on common sense and experience that a desert or tundra culture will of necessity be nomadic, traveling from one place to another to take advantage of scant resources. Island cultures will probably be caught up with fishing and possibly trade, depending on their placement as regard to trade routes. Here are some things to think about when creating your physical world:

The ecology: consider the climate, the topography, the flora and fauna, soil make-up and water sources.

The demographic features: how big an area does your culture span? What’s the total population? How dense?

Contact: is your culture isolated or does it have contact with other societies? In what capacity – trade, invasion, marriages? What has bled from one society to another? How has this affected the other systems? (Religion and language, particularly, are two things that tend to spread like wildfire.)

On to Technology: what level is your society? Is it Agrarian? Hunting and Gathering? Industrial? This will define not only the actual gadgetry needed and used, but the economy as well, since the concept of wages is absent in many nonindustrial systems. If you’re using our contemporary world for a basis, you may not have to do much development regarding technology, but what if this is a future or post-apocalyptic society? For example, Faith Hunter, in her Rogue Mage series, had to do a lot of research on what would or wouldn’t still function in her alternate version of our world, in which Armageddon has come and gone, complete with plagues, nuclear explosions, and ideologic wars over the meaning of it all. At the end of the devastation (and the opening of the series), only a quarter of the Earth’s population is left behind, along with various powers of Darkness and Light which have fought each other to a stalemate. The only technology that remains is what can be scavenged and repaired, run on limited fuel reserves or powered by the new race of magical beings. It’s fascinating reading and illustrates many of the points I make here regarding worldbuilding, character creation and the development of magical systems.

Religion is often used to explain origins and propagate cultural mores. What’s important? What do people swear by? What do they fear? What are the values your society wants to uphold and how codified are the religious strictures and rituals? There are various kinds of religious beliefs:

Animism – belief that all natural objects are embued with souls

Animatism – belief in mana, a power that permeates the universe and all things and which can be drawn on
Shamanism – belief that special individuals have the power to commune with the supernatural
Ancestor worship –reverence for dead ancestors and belief that the deceased kin have interest in and power over human affairs
Monotheism – the belief in one god
Polytheism – the belief in many gods, which are generally associated with natural phenomena (like the winds or rain) or aspects of life (fertility, childbirth, death)

Rituals are very important to a society. They reinforce the society’s values and mark status changes (rites of passage) and as such can be social as well as religious. A graduation ceremony would be an example of a non-religious ritual. A christening, communion, bar or bat mitzvah and often funerary rights are religious rituals.

While we’re on the subject of religion…does the belief system here play any part in the magic? In other words, is your magic based on the belief in mana, the power in all things? Do your gods actually manifest? Are they really gods? What are their powers? Are they the sources of the powers of the faithful?

How tied in is the religion to your politics? In some cultures, they’re pretty well indistinguishable and in others, religion has been outlawed. In ancient Egypt, for example, Pharaoh wasn’t just a ruler, he was looked on as a divinity on earth. Clearly, politics and religion were intertwined. In others, say in Henry the VIII’s England, they were at odds and fighting each other for power.

• Anarchy – Rule by all/no one.
• Democracy – Majority rule.
• Monarchy – Rule by hereditary leader. Monarchies are one of the oldest political systems, developing from tribal structure with one person the absolute ruler.
• Communism – Rule by all citizens. In theory, classless with common ownership and decision making
• Technocracy – Rule by scientist/intellectuals.
• Republic – Rule by officials elected by a voting public.
• Theocracy – Rule by a representative of a state sponsored religion
• Westminster system – Rule by republic and representative democracy through parliament
• Feudalism -Rule by lord/king with a hierarchy of nobility, vassals and serfs.

Now, in smaller societies, where the cultural unit is band or tribe, there will, of course, be less complex government, like a chief, headman or council.
Remember that societies may also govern through other, more cultural or psychological means, such as shunning, to punish unacceptable behaviors.

Family unit–

There are a lot of things to think about here from whether people may marry as they choose or whether marriages are arranged, whether it’s acceptable to marry within group (endogamy) or without (exogamy) and whether multiple or serial marriages are allowed or encouraged.

What exactly does family mean in your society? Do people tend to group together in nuclear or extended families? Who or what is at the core of your family unit? Often, the more vulnerable a culture is to the vicissitudes of fate, ecological or otherwise, the more people will cluster together in larger family groups for shared security and resources, and for continuity should death or illness strike down one of the contributing members.

Also, while not usual outside of societies in which there’s an unequal proportion of one sex to another, there are historical precedents for polygany, the marriage of one male to two or more women and polyandry, the marriage of one woman to two or more men.

For a truly unique world involving a very different sort of family unit, I recommend David Brin’s Glory Season. In this, he’s created a world founded by women in which they seek to create a new blueprint of humanity. Interestingly, he looked to lizards and aphids as a model. According to his afterward, “During periods of plenty and stability, they self-clone, churning out multiple duplicates like little Xerox machines. But when the good times end, they quickly swing back to old-fashioned sexual mating, creating daughters and sons whose imperfect variety is nature’s mortar of survival.” From this, he posited a society where woman who have established a niche in their society are allowed to establish a clan, which they continue through cloning. However, recognizing the dangers of stagnation, during the summer season children are begat the old fashion way to allow for a wildcard element. Any wildcard (or var, as they’re called) who’s able to create her own niche is subsequently allowed to establish her own clan.

In other words, there’s no reason to stick particularly to any of these pre-established conceptions of familial units and plenty of ideas to draw from outside of humanity.

Social grouping – caste system – I can refer you here to Glory Season here as well, because the clans are like castes, ranked according to the perceived importance of the niche they occupy, and members of one clan cannot decide that they want to join another or do something outside of what they’ve been born into.

This is partially determined by the technological level of the society, of course, but also by resources, ecology and the like. In other words, what’s of value to a culture. The less technological the culture, the less likely it is that there will be any monetary sort of exchange for goods and services. If the group believes in ownership, it’s more likely to be communal, with resources like food divided up by merit, status or need. If there is a bit more specialization in labor – in other words the society is beyond the hunter-gatherer phase – there may be trade or barter. And, of course, we all understand about monetary systems like capitalism and communism.

But, of course, economics goes deeper than the system used. We all know that sometimes the system fails, so part of the world may also be whether the economy is healthy or not. I admit that this may not be a sexy part of worldbuilding, and it’s not one that I tend to take a lot of note of, except when I feel it doesn’t work. When Jonathan Lethem’s first novel, Gun with Occasional Music came out, it had quite the buzz going, but I have to admit that the place where it all fell down for me were the “baby-heads,” parents artificially growing up their kids, mentally anyway. My problem here was that he was creating too much workforce, and it wasn’t as if the society could artificially create jobs for them as well. I grant you, he was purposely creating a dysfunctional society. However, when it came to the economy, I still had a lot of difficulty suspending my disbelief.

Although, of course, your novel will be written in the language your readers will understand, it’s important to have an idea of how the language of your civilization will sound, not only for naming of characters, but because you may introduce new concepts and creatures that will need new designations. Think about language: it’s full of idioms, slang and other things that may not translate from one language to another and may also end up written as your character would actually speak it (whether in that language or a necessarily garbled translation of it).

Steven Harper has some very good advice in Writing the Paranormal novel when it comes to language, and naming in particular. He suggests avoiding the “Apostrophe of Doom” and adds that odd letter combinations which are unpronounceable for your readers will stop them as they try to work it out. I know that many readers mentally skip names that are too complicated, thinking of them by the first letter or syllable of the name. You take a lot of care with your work, you want to make every word count, particularly names, which hold a lot of power, both in folklore and reality to conjure up certain images or expectations based on the cultural zeitgeist.

Cursing, as I mentioned with religion, is also very telling. The example I offer up here is from Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series, where the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Zounds, which is a running together of God’s wounds, would be Billary’s Balls (Billary being one of the main gods of the world).

How is knowledge recorded and passed down from generation to generation? Does your society share language with the lands surrounding them or is there a barrier? Have they come up with a common trade language in order to communicate?

Perhaps your society is so alien that it doesn’t communicate verbally? Or even telepathically. The most alien of all alien societies that I can think of comes from Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which I can highly recommend for those who like their science fiction hard.

Often a shortcut to all this is to use a known culture as a basis. However, make sure if it’s a fantasy world that any changes you make don’t seem inconsistent. It’s always jarring to me to have a Polynesian-based culture with, say, Nordic-sounding names.

If you’re writing in our world, make certain that reactions to the changes (the introduction of magic, for example) make sense. Is it new enough that the law is struggling to keep up? Old and established? If so, how has the culture changed because of it?

To Quote David B. Coe from a post on Magical Words: “Writers often speak of different aspects of our work in a way that makes them sound compartmentalized. We develop characters, we establish setting, we advance our narrative, we sprinkle in healthy doses of action, we write descriptive passages. The truth is, though, that if we handle these things correctly, there is nothing compartmentalized about the result. Character and narrative development feed on one another, propelled forward by those action scenes, and meshing seamlessly with the worldbuilding or research we have done to make our settings come to life.”

In other words, writing is an awful lot like cultural anthropology…you can’t separate out the elements or you lose out. It all needs to work together.

Click here for Part II.