Story Worlds


Pondering the possibilities

You get better at writing by taking a good, hard, look at what you don’t do well, right? I found something I want to get better at.

During the novel-revision process I’ve discovered that I can dive into a story and have people (interesting people, I hope) do thing (interesting things, I hope) and discover that everything is happening in a white room…or maybe out in some kind of unspecified outdoor spot. For me, the problem is the same whether I’m writing about real world settings or imaginary ones.

I may always have to go back and flesh out the setting; there are many writers that work that way. However, as long as I continue to do some pre-writing and outlining–which I prefer, especially for novels–I  might as well get a jump on setting. So I started to ask myself some questions. There’s a lot of help out there on the interwebs and elsewhere with research and world-building. Almost too much. To keep it manageable, I decided to start from scratch with my own way to approach world-building and research. Once I can handle these relatively simple questions, I might be able to move on and sample some of the wisdom that’s out there.

My questions began like this: What do I absolutely need to figure out before I start writing?

  1. Where do people live? How many of them live in one place, and what are their houses like, from richest to poorest (if they have such distinctions, or any notion of some folks being more elite or worthy than others)?
  2. What do people wear? How do climate, social mores, occupations, religious beliefs, and class distinctions lead to variations in dress?
  3. What do people eat? Is there a particular culinary tradition associated with their culture, and if they are aware of other cultures, how would they characterize the differences? What is their special (holiday, for example) food like, compared to everyday food?
  4. What local resources—animal, vegetable, and mineral, magical—help determine answers to questions about shelter, clothing, and food?
  5. How is society organized? Are people in tribes, city-states, nations? How are people’s settlements arranged? Who is in charge? How are disputes arbitrated, both within the community and with other communities?
  6. How do people acquire things? What kind of trade occurs, both within the community and with other communities?
  7. What common occupations exist? What kinds of things will my main characters do, and are their occupations typical, or unusual?

Okay, that just might be enough to start with. Going forward, these are questions I plan to address early on. It’s got to be better than plunging into my next story world only to discover someone forgot to fill the pool!

#EndJapaneseElves: An extremely belated con report

In May of 2014, I attended WisCon38, the annual feminist science fiction convention. In addition to feminism, WisCon is concerned with justice and equality in all forms, particularly as they manifest in science fiction and fantasy – the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world isn’t, but could be. One of my favorite panels was called “Not All Aliens Act Japanese: Writing Exotic Cultures Without Exotifying Real Ones,” featuring Diana M. Pho, editor at Tor books and multicultural Steampunk activist; N. K. Jemisin, author of two outstanding fantasy series and one of WisCon’s guests of honor; and authors Eleanor A. Arnason, Emily Jiang, and author and editor Sophie Werely. They offered some great discussion and advice, and as I look forward to this year’s WisCon, I’d like to share some of that with you.

As the panelists pointed out, it’s very difficult – maybe impossible – to make up something out of whole cloth. Most fantasy worlds are based, however loosely, on something from the real world. This isn’t bad – after all, it’d be hard for a reader to get a grip on the story if there was nothing familiar for them to latch onto, either. But it does mean that we as writers must tread carefully when treading on someone else’s culture.

The more you know about different cultures, human and otherwise (Eleanor Arnason once created a culture using African hairless mole-rats as a basis), the better off you’ll be when creating a culture of your own – but remember that there are no human cultures that exist in complete isolation. One group of people interacts with another one, and they both change. Similarly, all cultures have a history, events and circumstances which have changed them over time: culture is never frozen.

Culture is also not always consistent. America is often described as a Christian nation, for instance, but there are plenty of non-Christians who live here, and exactly what “Christian nation” actually means is a matter of much debate. Emily Jiang discussed the importance of individuals within the culture – is your particular character a conformist or a rebel? How they interact with their own culture can help you to describe both of them at the same time, but it will change the picture your readers get as well.

While building a foreign world can seem intimidating, Sophie Werely quoted Nalo Hopkinson, writer and instructor of the “Writing the Other” course, who says that the reader will trust the writer’s unshaking confidence and authority – sometimes just diving in will pull people along with you. Character, too, is always a good starting point – people love other people, and will follow them into exceedingly strange places.

N.K. Jemisin pointed out that this is also the best way to do diversity in fiction. Empathy, she said, is the crucial difference between real and superficial diversity, and our culture does not emphasize empathy with everyone equally. “We are all capable of comprehending each other,” she said, we just don’t always try very hard. Werely emphasized that what publishers are pushing for is for the marketplace as a whole to become more diverse, not necessarily each and every book – no one wants to read a checklist.

When asked how to avoid cultural appropriation, Jiang reminded the audience that no culture is a monolith, and everyone who is a part of it or has a stake in it will not necessarily have the same opinions. What’s fine with one person might offend someone else. Understanding the significance of a particular thing to the culture overall is a huge part of being respectful. Werely also emphasized that many reactions people have to cultural borrowing or appropriation are less about the specific thing done in that instance and more about the overall shape of the culture – cultures who have suffered oppression are more likely to be sensitive about even the most well-intentioned gestures.

From a marketing standpoint, truly unique worlds seem to do better in science fiction – Jemisin recounted the difficulty she had with selling her Dreamblood duology, which is fantasy based on Egyptian culture. She wasn’t able to sell it until she’d established success with her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series, which has a more traditional fantasy setting.

Diana Pho also mentioned that there’s another aspect to all this, and that’s how you handle criticism once it’s all finished and out there – and there will definitely be criticism. Arnason mentioned the research she’s been doing on Iceland, saying she’s been reading about it her whole life and she still doesn’t know enough to write about it, and she’s come to terms with the fact that some Icelanders will read her work and be sarcastic about how she got it wrong and that’s okay. What it comes down to, she said, is the oldest question there is in writing: is it okay to write about anyone other than yourself?

Jemisin and Arnason both agreed, though, that there is only one good response when you’re criticized for doing something wrong, being insensitive, or falling into a hurtful stereotype: “Thank you for telling me what I did wrong.” Try to learn from your mistake, try never to do it again, and never, never defend something you did that hurt someone else.


Registration is now open for WisCon39 at the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, May 22-25, 2015. If this sounds like the kind of thing you’d love to spend a long weekend doing, I’d love to see you there!

Writing energy boost # 1—Ink & Blood


When one of our writing meetup members—I’ll call him Rafe*—mentioned that he was planning to participate in an Ink & Blood writing duel, my first question was “what’s that?” followed closely by my second: “why would you ever do it?”

Answer the First: Ink & Blood/Chicago holds writing duels at G-Mart Comic Books on the third Saturday of most—if not all—months. Writers are paired off and given a writing prompt and ten minutes to write something based on it. At the end, the winner is decided by audience vote. Heckling, Rafe said, is encouraged.

Answer the Second: Why, I asked Rafe, would anyone volunteer to write something off the top of their heads in front of other people, only to be heckled? And how does the “loser” feel once the winner is declared? He shrugged. “It’s a good exercise.” He’d done it before, and had not been declared the winner; he still planned to do it again. I decided I had to see this for myself.

The Event

BK keeps one eye on the TV schedule during college football season (the Vols were on TV the night of October 18), so I begged Cookie to go with me. As she’s the definition of a good sport, she not only agreed, she drove. The duels started at 8 p.m. There were costumes (because, you know, October). There were also masks. I got the impression there might be masks even if it wasn’t October. Writers were identified by such catchy monikers as Writer A, Writer B, Writer C, etc.

There was also beer, which was pretty much free, though they did accept contributions for it. I’ve discovered a stout I like: New Holland Brewing Company’s Oatmeal Stout. But that’s beside the point. The point is: writing duels. You’re still wondering how they work.

Two writers sat at laptops behind a large screen so the audience couldn’t see them. In front of this masking screen were two monitors, each linked to one of the writers’ laptops. Also in front of the screen stood the evening’s emcee. The emcee’s job was to get the audience riled up and to elicit writing prompts from the crowd. It being the Halloween-themed event, there were many prompts along the lines of blood and graveyards and ghosts. The emcee would choose one, and the writing would commence.

Three preliminary match-ups ran, after which we drank (more) beer and voted for the writers we wanted to see in the final round. Then there was a costume contest. The winner was ghost in a white tuxedo and top hat, wearing a monocle. (S)he looked fabulous!

One of the writers who made it to the final round had written a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style narrative in the first round, which simply begged for audience response. Great tactic. The other writer did an excellent job sticking to the topic and finished her writing with a flourish which tied everything together in a satisfying way.

For this final round, each writer ran true to form. The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure writer wrote in that style again, while the other writer went for unity and stuck the landing.

The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style was fun, but when the same writer did it again, it felt gimmicky to me. If the second writer had a gimmick, it was artistic unity. I always like that, so she got my vote. I know this writer was a woman because in the end she won and came out front to claim her accolades. All the writers were good, though. She might have been the named winner, but I wouldn’t call any of the others losers.

On the topic of heckling

When Rafe first described the event, I told him I couldn’t imagine participating in a writer’s duel on account of the heckling. He said it didn’t bother him and afterwards I understood why. The audience behavior didn’t seem exactly like heckling. It was more like egging the writers on and offering “helpful” suggestions, like “don’t correct your typos!”

The advice not to correct typos came in particularly handy in one instance. The writer had one character offer another character a cup of cider and then wrote that there was a strange odder coming from the cup.

A few people called out variations of “don’t drink the cider!” (assuming the writer meant odor rather than odder), but some more ironic audience members said things like “What kind of otter? River or sea? That must be one big cup of cider, if it’ll hold an otter!”

The writer used these comments to advantage, explaining in subsequent paragraphs that the creature in the cup was a miniature sea otter, and so adorable that many people preferred to call it an “awwwder.”

I can now see how heckling, if you’d call it that, could energize a writer. I’m thinking of giving writers’ duels a try. After November. Because as we all know, November is National Writing Month, and I’m woefully underprepared.

However, events like Ink & Blood duels have really pumped some writing energy into me lately. I’m definitely writing more than I have for a while.

I’ll talk about my other writing energy boosts in upcoming posts. We’ll need that because, you know. November.