A More Textured Story

Stories are not just about the characters on the page. True, they hold the bulk of our attention, but they would not exist outside of the world in which they live. We’re taught as authors that in order to sell the books that we write, we have to have character and conflict.

There are even formulas we are given while attempting to write query letters that focus solely on the character and the plot. But when push comes to shove, a lot of us aren’t reading a novel to see character and plot.

No, we’re there to experience a new culture. We’re there to meet more than just the protagonist, we’re there to see the kind of world that only the author could dream up.

We want to explore big ideas, such as the Trappist system that was just discovered by NASA. How many people are already imagining what it might be like to live there?

I certainly know I am.

But then, I did the same thing with Gliese – which is about 20 light years away from Earth and has several little planets orbiting it.

Gliese became the “shadow of the Big Bad” for my book Tapped. Rather than Earth being the host of civilization, I moved humanity to Gliese and made Earth a backwater town.

I have plans for Gliese. Big plans. Epic plans that I’m excited to implement in the coming novels. (And with Trappist just being discovered and all, you can bet I’ll be finding a way to nudge them into the Tapped series too.)

But beyond exploring new places, novels are also supposed to highlight the complexities of human nature. We read them to help us understand ourselves and the world around us. We just get to do it while jumping from planet to planet or befriending a dragon.

The texture of our stories is what makes them memorable. Harry Potter would not be nearly as memorable without Hogwarts and its talking paintings, moving stairwells, and history. Sure, we got a story about good vs. evil, but we got on broomsticks and with wands.

So how do you create this texture in a novel without info-dumping or making the book so long nobody will dare pick it up?

Well … I can tell you what I do.

I write the first draft.

And I don’t think about how long it is. I just write it. Anything and everything. Flashbacks, lengthy info-dumps, whatever I need to understand the depth of my own story.

And then … I edit.

 

Description – February Round Robin

TOPIC:

Description. What is your saturation point? What is not enough? How do you decide what to include and when to hold back to allow the reader to fill in the blanks? 

With several books under my belt now I’m going to have to admit that … each work is different when it comes to description. I’ve found that Fantasy novels tend to be very description heavy, relying on your ability to craft a picture with words in order for readers to really plant themselves in your work.

However, science fiction tends to be different. Or at least for me it is. While I still have to describe what it’s like to be spelunking through Pluto, it comes off quite different from when I’m describing a character crawling through caves in a fantasy world.

This might be because the basics of Pluto are already given to me by science so I don’t have to reach very far to bring out those descriptions, whereas with a fantasy novel I’m trying to link the reader’s mind with something familiar and yet strange to evoke a unique picture.

Or it might be that the readership is just plain different.

A lot of people read science fiction for the possibilities it inspires and a lot of people read fantasy to escape and immerse into a new world. Which means that description has to be tackled in such a way that you’re giving the reader what they were hunting for.

Here, lemme give two examples …

FANTASY – Torven 

The snow muffled his steps through the wood, chilled the pads on his feet and made the fur on his legs plaster wetly against his skin. An aching stillness was in the forest today, broken only by the whisper of branches high overhead and the distant gurgle of a half frozen stream somewhere to the west of him. He would need to go there soon, it had been too long since he’d had a drink and Torven had been travelling some distance since the morning.

Still he tarried, continuing his lonely trek for several meters before diverting toward the stream. Snow began to drift soundlessly from the sky, catching on the leaves and piling on the ground in large, fat flakes. Some fetched up in the fur on his back but he could not feel them, would not feel them until his body heat finally melted them down to run icy rivulets over his skin.

Being a wolf did have some advantages, he supposed. It would not be as cold for him as it would be if he’d been a man.

SCIENCE FICTION – Debriefing (novelette under construction)(Mild language warning)

“This is bullshit,” Seach said from his bunk.

The tight confines of their transport vessel made his commentary unavoidable and Jorry sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. Thirteen years at war hadn’t managed to temper Seach Barlow’s penchant for insubordination and she was beginning to believe he might never be cured. Her navigation chair squealed as she turned to face him.

The back of the ship consisted of four bunks standing parallel to each other with one small space to walk between them. The low ceiling curved into a semi-circle and one set of thick yellow bracings separated the pilot’s nest from the main hold of the transport. Seach lounged in the top left bunk, one booted foot hanging over the side and she could see his frown through the holographic screen created by his personal computer. His amber eyes glared at the information he was reviewing and her stomach knotted with new worries.

He was reading their new orders.

See how the descriptions differ? The fantasy work is very focused on painting the picture whereas the science fiction gives more of a basic view of where the characters are standing.

Beyond that, we’re also having to look at what’s going on in the scene. If it’s an action scene we obviously don’t want to pause for a lengthy description of what the opposition is wearing. But we also don’t want to be so sparse with our descriptions that the reader doesn’t quite understand what is going on.

For me personally, I try to focus on the character in front of me. The descriptions can’t just be there to look pretty, they have to affect the character too. I’ve found that description says more about character than many people realize because, while I might see the dawn as a sign of hope and inspiration, to a character whose execution has been scheduled for the morning it would be something far more sinister.

This is how I decide what to include and what to take out. If the description doesn’t add to the tone of the character, if it doesn’t somehow reveal something about that character, then I cut it.

Take a look at what some of my fellow authors think about description …

Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Dr. Bob Rich  https://bobrich18.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/description
A.J. Maguire  https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/ (YOU ARE HERE)
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

Character Building

So I’ve been talking a lot about all this world building stuff and it occurs to me that the creation of character is intimately involved in this process. Elizabeth Bennett would not be the character so many women love if not for her house full of sisters, her loud mother, and her bookworm of a father.

Nor would she be the poised, respectful woman that we know if not for the society in which she was brought up.

Claire Fraser from the Outlander series would not be the character we enjoy if she hadn’t survived WWII as a nurse. Nor do I think she could have survived half as well in Jamie Fraser’s life without that experience.

Last week I discussed how I was using both my antagonist and my protagonist to help form the political spectrum of my upcoming fantasy novel Swans. I have a series of questions that I pose regarding how much or little power each of the characters have, where they got that power, and how they can use it.

That’s all plot and world building.

To understand the character, I have to ask the question of why they would or would not use said power.

Example:

Antagonist – Why is he pushing for slavery laws? Beyond what he can gain monetarily, why is he alright with the concept of people owning people?

Well, these two societies have been at war before. He’s seen first hand what can happen when two ultimately similar cultures come to blows and in his mind, keeping one culture enslaved is the lesser of two evils.

What does this tell me as the author?

It tells me he’s a veteran. It tells me he’s lost a lot of people he cared about. And it tells me he never fully approved of the marriage between his cousin (the King) and the Arundan Queen. Which means he has no qualms killing my hero and squashing any claim the Arundan people might have to the throne because, in his eyes, it’s the only way to preserve his own way of life and his own people.

It also tells me that this society is going to have a lot of bitter, frightened people. The division between these two cultures is deep and painful. And it tells me that there will be historical sites, battlefields and such, in the landscape that my characters can cross.

Again, I start with my antagonist. This is a new process for me as I’ve almost always started with the protagonist and built everything around them, but I have to say that it is clearly working. I have a much, much better handle on the plot and what this story is truly about than I normally do at this point in the process.

For any authors out there, I’d highly recommend building from the antagonist first. Keep the protagonist and antagonist side by side in the process. Whatever you ask for one, you need to ask for the other to keep it balanced and, ultimately, to keep the story interesting.

Building a World

It started with a short story, which turned into a novel roughly based around Irish history, which then plummeted straight into an epic high fantasy.

No, seriously, that’s how this whole Swans novel was birthed.

And now I’m smack in the middle of world building for this fantasy novel, which I have to admit is harder than I remember it being.

I remember doing this before, I really do. I even remember liking this part before. I have a whole notebook full of family histories and medieval crests I had drawn up for one of my trunk novels and I distinctly remember having fun with that one.

Today …

Well, I can’t say that I love this part, but I do enjoy little bits of it.

A lot of my concentration has been on the political aspects of the world, which is probably why I am dragging my feet through it. I sincerely dislike politics.

Politics make people ugly.

Just one glance through social media these days and I can prove that statement.

SO …

I decided to try a different twist on political world building.

I’m building it two-fold, from opposite ends of the spectrum. I’ve started with my antagonist, who happens to be in a position of power, and gone through a list of the reasons why he is in power and what that power means he can do by way of plot.

And on the opposite end, I’ve got the poorest of the poor, the seemingly powerless character, and have been listing out the reasons why she is so powerless. What/who took that power and what that leaves her with.

Because this is a new thing for me, and because it seems to be working, I’ve opted to give an example so that any fellow authors out there who are struggling with world building might give it a go. If they want, of course.

The list goes something like this::

Character A – Antagonist. Highest echelon of society. 

Why is he so revered?

This one’s easy, he’s the King’s cousin and with the King’s children missing/presumed dead he stands to inherit the throne.

What does this mean he can do?

Well, he has control of the guards and the prisons. He also has a lot of money, so even if said guards need to be subverted for propriety sake, he can bribe men into working for him.

What can threaten his power/position?

The King’s children coming back would severely cut his power reserves.

If several of the nobles banded together they might be able to sway the King.

What can he do to make sure those threats are never realized?

… Well, this would be getting into PLOT. But you can see how it works.

I think it’s important to note here that I’ve actually started with my antagonist this time instead of my protagonist. Understanding who this man is has given me a stronger hold on the story structure.

The only thing to remember here is that I have to spend an equal amount of time on the protagonists. If I don’t, then I’ll have a terribly lopsided story.

January Round Robin

When I was in the sixth grade my teacher gave us an assignment that would change my life forever. She began by reading an excerpt from a Fantasy where a person was climbing a mountainside, desperate to get to the cave near the summit.

Only then she stopped.

The assignment was simple; we had to write a page and a half continuing the story. What was in the cave? Who is this person climbing and what are they trying to accomplish?

I took to the assignment with zeal, possibilities exploding in my little sixth-grader head as my pencil did the nearest approximation of cursive writing across the page. Only, I couldn’t stop at a page and a half. Before I knew it, I had an entire notebook filled with the adventures of Amanda Call, a princess warrior from a mythical race of beings whose only purpose in life was to complete tasks divvied out to her by her Wizard.

SAM_2191Its title was A Quest of Bravery and I still have it on my bookshelf today. It’s just a little thing and my cursive was atrocious back then, but seeing it always makes me smile. It reminds me of that moment in the sixth grade when I realized that magic really does exist.

That’s the moment I got started with writing and that magic has followed me ever since. I sense it every time I start a new book, all those endless possibilities swirling around in my head until I find the one that needs to be said, the one that highlights something important about what it means to be human.

That’s why I write.

That’s why I can’t stop writing.

Every book teaches me something, be it about the craft of writing itself or about some aspect of humanity that I struggle to grasp. I think that if I ever stopped writing, it would be tantamount to saying I knew everything and had no need to learn more.

So every book becomes a quest for me, a journey that I must take to better understand myself and the world around me. It’s hard work and sometimes I want to quit, but I’ve found that the harder it is, the more rewarding the ending will be.

Check out what got my fellow authors involved in the craft of writing and what helps them move forward!

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
Heather Haven http://heatherhavenstories.com/blog/
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-SK
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Victoria Chatham http://victoriachatham.blogspot.ca
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
A.J. Maguire  https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/  (YOU ARE HERE)
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

Weather and World Building

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So much snow.

It seems that Mother Nature has decided to kick off 2017 with a laugh. My son has not been back to school since leaving for Christmas break and we’re both getting a trifle antsy about that.

I got stuck in the snow twice already and we just got even more, which is just … glorious.

But as with everything, this brings to mind writing problems and techniques. Specifically weather patterns.

Weather has an impact on characters and setting and even plot in a novel so it’s important to pay attention. Currently I’m world building for a novel tentatively titled Swans, which is a High Epic Fantasy … if you want to get technical.

As I was world building I came to a mountain range and at first I envisioned tons and tons of snow because … I’m currently surrounded by the stuff. But then I remembered that scene from Lord of the Rings where they’re climbing the mountain through the snow and Legolas is leaping lightly on his elegant elf feet and snow is matting in Gandalf’s manly beard and …

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Nuisance looking quite unsure about the snow

Yeah.

I think just about every fantasy novel takes a walk through waist deep snow on a summit somewhere.

Well, not every one. But certainly a lot of them. And while it might be a beloved cliche, it’s also something I want to try to avoid. I don’t want readers thinking; Same old, same old. Girl hasn’t got an original thought in her head.

So!

I changed some of the weather patterns for the novel. Not tons, but enough to make it different (I hope).

Problem Characters and How to Negotiate

Since beginning Usurper I have had one character in particular who troubles me; Evaliana Auliere Dyngannon.

Nice long name, I know. She goes by Liana, for obvious reasons. Who wants that mouthful every time you’re being spoken to?

Liana and I constantly have issues, which I know makes me sound insane but I’m an author so I’m allowed. (I hope.) But when push comes to shove, every time I try to write in her point of view I end up hating the scene.

Loathing the scene.

It’s too shallow.

There’s not enough oomph to the character.

I don’t know her the way I know Trenna (her mother) or Nelek (her father) or even Kaden (her brother). She’s this … anomaly outside of her family.

Or inside it, however you want to look at it.

She is … angsty.

And I hate angsty.

Seriously, I avoid angsty with all my power.

But as I’m going through this edit I’ve come to the understanding that … I’m going to have to deal with angst. In order for Liana to be a three dimensional character on the page, she has to be allowed to explain why she’s so … arrrgh! About everything.

So …

I keep her scenes fairly brief.

I just have to. For my own sanity.

Until she grows up and gets over herself, she has a limited word count. (This is part of the reason I don’t do the Young Adult market all that well, can you tell?)

In return, I let her angst all she wants for that limited word count.

And then, once the angst has been written/edited/dealt with in some manner, I get chocolate.

Boom.

Those are my negotiations … with my fictional character … who only lives in my head and on the page …

Yeah, I know how crazy it sounds.