Monday, August 29, 2011

Project Report 3 Water/Stone/Light: Places to go

The map is going to change as I expand my idea of the story.

Work on this story is going very well. The little pieces are starting to fall together into larger, more coherent sections. The land itself (as you can see from the map) is taking shape. Things may still change on the map, though. I'm not quite done with it. For instance, all the city names are borrowed from Assyria right now. They are likely to change or at least mutate a bit (just as Tygen mutated from Egypt).

By putting in the major cities and indicating a few of the smaller villages, stockades, towers, etc., I now know how things have to work. Arratta is not only in the north, but also in a climate and terrain much different from the rest of the land. There is the great water fall where the river begins, a lake, and even trees, which are lacking in the lowlands.

This makes Arrata a rather powerful local power, and under less control by the lowland capital of Kish. They are cooperative, though. Lower Tygen supplies food and stands between them and the sea. Traders want Arrata wood. They need to maintain friendly conditions with the lowlands to keep the river open and navigable for them.

Or else they need to take over.

The people of Arrata are not of the same stock as those of the lowlands, though over the last 1000 years, they have intermarried -- especially in the nobility. Lady Nahid, the King's younger sister, married the Lord of Arrata. He died in battle. She's ambitious.

This area is strongly associated with the Temple of Water and tends toward matriarch households.

The lowlands has a number of large cities and several villages. The cities -- moving north to South -- are Isin, Lagash, Kish (Capital), Eshnanna, and Tibira. Tibira had been on the bay, but over a thousand years much of that land has filled in and now the city sits several miles from the coast.

The lowland cities are in a state of constant mistrust and defense against each other. Control of the river (and the canals that water the crops), is a continual battle. Isin, in the northern section, has extensive orchards and tends to want more of the water than they might really need, sometimes creating dams and small lakes and ponds. In most years, this isn't a big problem, but if there is less snowmelt, then the lowlands can experience drought. If that goes on for many years, the orchards die out and the desert encroaches from the west.

It's a precarious balance, all centered on the river and water.

Lagash is in constant disagreement with Isin over boundary lines. Isin claims all the orchards, but Lagash has held on to as section in the south, and there are often skirmishes at this point. Lagash has also taken over the control of a smaller village on the other side of the river which has its own small orchard. The villagers are ambivalent about this control. It does give them protection from river marauders (which many believe are from Isin). However, Lagash controls their government and they are no longer allowed to sell crops on their own.

Kish is the largest city in Tygen and the only one with extensive building on both sides of the river. It became the capital about two hundred years ago and has held control, even though the royal family has changed. When the battle between Kish and Tibira took place over control of Tygen, many villages between Lagash and Kish sided with Tibira. When the war was finished, Kish destroyed all the villages (except the one on the far bank that sided with them), leveled the land and planted crops. Many of the disposed went to live in Kish, which is one of the reasons the city is so large.

Between Kish and Tibira is Eshnunna, the ancient holy city. The three priesthoods rule here, and no one would ever try to attack the city. They are tolerant of outside aggression, but they have been known to step in. Even the king is careful not to cross the line with them.

The last major town to the south is Tibira, the former capital. Once a graceful, huge city, it is dying back to little more than a fish port town, though the statues, temples and other signs of the former glory still draw a number of people. Tourism, in fact, may soon outstrip the fish market -- for which everyone in town will be very happy.

The land between Tibira and the bay is swampy, snake and rat infested and dangerous. However, it is also a good source for waterfowl, which is mostly shipped to the palace in Kish and goes for a good price at the docks.

There are other dangerous creatures in the swamps. It is also a hideout for criminals hoping to escape to foreign lands. They float down stream and if they survive, they hide out in the swamp until a chance comes to reach the outer bay and perhaps find transport to the Island kingdom not far away.

Only the really desperate will try this.

At the mouth of the bay are two military posts, one on each side of the opening to the river. The bay itself is a dangerous place of rocks, changing currents and tangled plants. Some say there is a sea monster that dwells there and helps guard the secret entrance to the river. Whether true or not, no one reaches that opening without guides.

There are a few fishing villages along the shore line. A ship comes out from the river entrance once a day and collects the fish at the nearest small village. From there, it is transported up to Eshnunna where it is sorted. Some are dried. Others are sent on to the other cities, mostly Kish.

The largest section of Tygen is actually the Eastern desert. This is a higher plateau rising above the river valley and the lowlands along the coasts. The plateau rises some 3000 feet (about half a mile) above the lowlands with a steep escarpment all along the edges until it melds into the highlands in the north. There are few really easy places to climb

This is a Hamada type desert -- high plateau, rocky outcroppings and very little sand. There are areas of artesian springs, mostly in the northern area where they are fed by snow melt. There are also some areas where enough dirt has accumulated to get a bit of scrub brush growth, which the nomads (who tend to live around the wells and the outskirts of the area) have started using for feeding stock.

None of the river people know much about the Eastern Desert. The only time they traverse it is through The Way, a wide path cut into the desert that leads from the area of Kish all the way to The Barbarian Gate, which was the only pass from the north into Tygen before magic pulled down the mountains and sealed it shut 1000 years ago. There are three towers guarding The Way and ten wells dug into the path.

To the west of the river valley is a wide expanse of badlands -- a maze of stone cut by wind and erosion. Beyond that is the seemingly endless golden sands of the Western Wastes. There are rumors of treasure hidden in the badlands, but few people who go in ever come out.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Zette's Take: Read Nonfiction

This isn't school work

You know the saying: Write what you know.

Well the truth is you should write what you can learn, and learn everything that interests you.

I hear things from other writers that sometimes drive me crazy and this is one of the big ones: I don't want to read nonfiction because I'm out of school. I hated study then, so why do it now? It's boring. Why should I bother when I can just pick up a few things I need on the Internet?

So these people only go to look for things that occur to them. Yes, you can get a lot of research done on the Internet. However, by pursuing only things of the moment, they limit their searches to whatever links happen to connect to it. Don't they truly want to learn something new? Okay, so what they're probably really saying is that they don't want to work to learn something new. Sometimes I think people use the Internet for an excuse not to have to think very hard at all. And there they are, grabbing the same easy facts as everyone else.

You should pursue learning things even when you don't need some information right at that moment. The more you learn, the better material you'll have to call upon when you start writing. If nothing else, you'll have better questions to ask when you go Internet hopping. The more you know, the more complex you can make the background for your stories.

Nor can you get everything you need from shows and movies. You may get a feel and a glimpse -- but you can't get the depth, not for every piece you will ever write. While there are some great history pieces out there, too, they are limited in scope by their small allotment of time. And unless you are taking notes, you're not going to remember it all anyway. They're great for quick flashes of inspiration, but you need more depth.

Books are still the better choice for in-depth learning. You can, in fact, pick up a number of interesting history ebooks for the Nook (and I assume Kindle) for little or (quite literally) nothing. Even if you don't have a Nook or Kindle, you can still read these books on your computer.

Besides, the people who run away from this sort of thing because of school are confusing the joy of learning things with the regiment and testing of school work. This is not the same thing. You get to choose whatever interests you, study as much or as little as you like, and you will never be tested. Unless you are writing historical fiction (in which case you better love the idea of learning and research), you don't have to worry if you miss a key date for a battle or can't tell Akkadians from Assyrians.

There is no test. You are not reading to memorize science equations (jot them down if you need them for your story), and there will be no pop quiz on the order of Norman and Angevin kings.

So, what's the point?

Go to the source, rather than other fiction

You know how you hear that every idea has already been done? It's true, of course, but you can still sidestep the most obvious ones by going to the bedrock source of many ideas -- nonfiction books.

But you write fantasy! You don't care about history or science.

Yes, actually, you do. Not history as the series of events that happened, but you might do well to study how kingdoms managed to supply cities, how peasants built houses and why horses were not used for plowing until relatively recently. There is far more to history than a series of dated events. There is also the story of how everyone lived, surviving from day-to-day in an often hostile environment.

If you like fantasy fiction based in Egypt, don't get your ideas for Egypt from the fiction books you've read. Go to the library (or an online source for full books) and find a book on the subject. This doesn't have to be a huge, scholarly tome with so many footnotes you lose track of the text. I've found books aimed at teens often give me the basic facts I need before I do any deeper study. Even if you aren't writing about Egypt itself, but rather some river-based civilization, it doesn't hurt to find out how things worked. Not just building pyramids, but the day-to-day life of people. What recourse did they have when things went bad? Who was the local representative of government, and how much control did that person have?

How did they build boats in a land with virtually no trees? Will your river kingdom have papyrus, or will you resort to clay for important documents, such as they used in other river kingdoms?

Stone Age? Chalcolithic? Bronze? What does that mean for weapons and personal adornment? Where did they get their metals?

I suppose some of you are thinking this is too much work to research. It's not. These are not questions I thought up to research, but rather questions that occurred to me while I was recently reading about Ancient Egypt and happened to be thinking of it as a backdrop to a new story.

Reading nonfiction gives you new ideas and better understanding of backgrounds. You won't use everything you learn, but you will find that you can make your world seem more real, whether that's Ancient Egypt or Victorian England.

It's amazing how just a little tidbit of information can turn into a huge story. An army disappeared into the desert? Someone fled from the Egyptian court when he backed the wrong person?

Want to create interesting new dragons? Go read some books on lizards and snakes. Stop squirming. What do you think dragons are, after all? You might add in some avian studies if you have flying dragons, especially if you want to get that mass to wing size ratio right.

Pick up a book or two on weather. There's something you can use in almost any story, and knowing the signs of an upcoming major storm might be just the sort of thing you want as a warning for your people. Do you know what kinds of clouds appear when? What causes monsoons?

What does the role of weather patterns play in your society? What would it take to change the pattern? How far would a drought reach in your terrain? What? You don't know the terrain in your world's area, other than a few descriptions of mountains in the west and ocean in the east?

Do you know how to tell the difference between a mountain valley that was created by a glacier rather than one created by a river, when neither glacier or river are any longer present? Why should that matter?

Well imagine your characters seeking a lost, forgotten city. But they can't find the river valley they need as a check point along the bit of map they have. The rivers have all dried up in this area and the terrain changed. Then one of the group realizes the valley they are following was made by a glacier, not a river. They're in the wrong area.

How can she tell? Glaciers leave U shaped valleys and rivers leave V shaped ones (among other things, of course). This is just a little something you can add to the story to make it different from others. Every bit of info you learn goes towards building better stories, even if you don't use the information right away.

Plethora of new ideas everywhere

You can get ideas anywhere, of course. They're out there at every turn, if you open your eyes to them. The trouble is closing them again afterwards, because you can become inundated with new story ideas every day -- which plainly will not help.

This is about attitude. Really, everything in writing is about attitude, and this is no different. I have to believe you want to tell the best story possible. To do so you need to know things. Many things. They need to pile up in your brain and grow, mutate and attach themselves to other ideas and suddenly blossom into something wondrous.

This doesn't mean you won't get ideas from shows, books, music, etc. What it does mean is you can quickly expand those ideas in ways that create something different and reaches beyond the source of the idea.

Learn to adapt to what you want to write

The hardest part seems to be to learn to adapt what you read to your work. People often see nonfiction as 'set-in-stone' facts which they can't manipulate, at least for history and science. It's very hard to break that mindset, and yet fiction writers do it all the time without considering it. They manipulate the real world and yet have trouble considering something already settled as history. They can't see how to drag a little piece out of the bigger picture to add to something entirely different.

The truth is this takes two things: (1) Practice (2) Willingness to adapt and change things within your own story idea.

The first is easy. Once you get the knack of reading nonfiction and thinking about what you can do with it, the rest comes easy.

The second can prove to be harder. Many people don't want to change their ideas once something comes to them. They see the world around their characters and think that's good enough, without exploring what more they could add or change. Or, as I often hear, they're writing in the real world and don't need to look at anything else.

Really? What do you know about the various cultures present in your own neighborhood. We have people from Somali, Mexico, Native Americans and various flavors of European descendants. In my block we have single mothers, gay couple (until they recently moved) and a divorced race car driver. I can guarantee that we do not all share the same culture and once inside those front doors, you might be surprised by the changes. Don't you think you could use that in your book? Give it a bit of diversity?

What do you know about how the police work? Fire department? Library? School? Not just the outer coating that we all see, but what happens when specific problems arise.

Not genre specific

Also remember that very little you read in nonfiction is genre-specific. Some of the high-tech science might only be good for science fiction or thrillers, but anything else is adaptable. You may not use it in the way you first see it, though.

That's all right. Add the tidbits of information into your brain and let them move around and make associations with other odds and ends you've collected. No learning is wasted. Oh and if you want another good reason to continue to learn things, I read a report that says people who pursue learning throughout life are less susceptible to Alzheimer's disease. You'll be doing yourself and the people who love you a favor by keeping your brain active.

Reading nonfiction is a way to expand your writing horizons. And isn't that what we all really want?

(I have purposely left books specifically about writing off this list. You should read those, too -- but most of you already do!)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Are you my reader?

Who are my readers? If you are one of them, I'd like to hear from you!

But maybe you don't know. Let me see if I can answer a few questions.  I've been thinking about this for a few days. Discussions about genre, age groups and other writing and reading questions over the last few weeks have made me try to define who I am writing for . . . and this turns out not to be so easy.

I write mostly science fiction and fantasy, both epic and urban. I also write some contemporary stories, including a few for young adults.

Okay, that's the easy part.

It doesn't tell you a thing about my writing though. With that list I could be any number of writers who cover the same sorts of things. So what makes me different? What makes my work my own?

Well, yes, that comes down to how I tell the stories. It's a combination of my style and my plots. It's what interests me and draws me, as opposed to what interests and draws a different writer.

What I truly write are adventures. Not romances, not thrillers (except in the way all adventures are) and not horror. There is often a mystery involved. My characters are facing odds and tackling problems they really aren't ready for, even when they think they are. I generally like a bit of humor in my stories. Sometimes a lot of humor. Humor, of course, is subjective, so that might be the part of my writing which will least appeal to you.

One of my quirks is that I don't believe you have to stop having adventures when you are no longer a teen. These day its seems that if you want to read a straightforward adventure story, you will most likely find it in the young adult section . . . which means the main characters are going to be teens. I love writing YA stories, but I get annoyed with the idea that you can't cross over this line and write the same sort of stories for adults. Sometimes I want my main character to be older than eighteen but still have an adventure and learn something about life! Sometimes I want them to be people who have some experience in life, who are in positions of power, and who have to make decisions they never thought they would. And sometimes I like stories where adults finally realize they still have to grow up.

Along the same line, I don't believe that every single book aimed at adults has to have sex in it. I am not opposed to such books, but I just don't believe they're all an adult ever wants to read. I know I don't. I have had a long standing rule: If I pick up a book that says it's a science fiction story about betrayal and the attack of ruthless aliens, I want the story to be about how the humans win (or lose) and not have those actions relegated to second place since the story really focuses on how long it takes the captain to get the pretty ambassador into bed with him and what they do there. The love story might be part of the overall story, but I do not want it to be the prime focus unless I specifically look for such a story.

So, you can guess what kind of stories I write. I am not trying to be the next Hemmingway. I don't write to change the world with my writing or become the next big literary giant. I write to share adventures with people who might enjoy them.

Are you looking for Andre Norton adventures in a Laurell K. Hamilton market? You might enjoy some of my work.

Kat Among the Pigeons:

Katlyn is a member of a fae clan whose job is to stand the line between human and magical lands, a secret she has trouble hiding from her new human boyfriend even before she unexpectedly finds the fate of the world in her hands.

She isn't magically strong, and unlike other fae who understand all animals, she only caught birds and cats -- not a good combination. However, when she isn't able to reach other fae for help, Kat and her boyfriend frantically fight the enemy with the aid of a lazy tom cat, an African gray parrot who only speaks in verse, and a wise-cracking cockatiel with a bad attitude.

She's trying very hard not to think the world is doomed.

Ada Nish Pura:

Fighter Pilot Marcus Trevor is the only survivor of a treacherous attack against the star ship on which he served. Injured and alone, he must take refuge on the world of Kailani, a place of vast stretches of water and where a large portion of the population is genetically adapted to living in the sea.

With the enemy taking over this mineral rich world, Marcus must work with the locals while waiting for help to return. And it is here that he learns the true meaning of civilization and honor.

Ada = Decision

Nish = No

Pura = Return

Sometimes there is no going back.

No Beast So Fierce:

. . Oh yes, werewolves, vampires -- and worse -- are out in the stars with the rest of humanity. However, we're more subtle about our presence these days. Humans no longer believe in the old myths and sometimes that makes them easy prey, as vampires quickly learned. Many people had disappeared in Terra Nova lately. I'd heard about it in coffee shops and hotels; the places where humans gather to gossip and pretend they aren't worried. They didn't know what they faced or how to fight it and that left the vampires to prey as they wanted. They were getting bold.

The vampires hadn't counted on me, though.

Someone has to stand between the monsters and the humans.

You can find more of my work here:

Notice: After August, the price of the novels is going up from $1.99 to $2.99. Novellas will be $1.99 and short stories $0.99. This is the time to buy my novels if you are at all interested.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Where I got my latest idea: Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour/2

Without thinking about this month's question, I had already posted a bit about my current idea. I'm doing a series of reports on how this particular story grows (or story setting -- I think I see far more than a single piece for this one). You can find it here. You can, in fact, see all the posts for the Water/Stone/Light project by clicking on the label in the right hand column.
Since the new project is so well documented already, I'm going to look at a couple older pieces and where those ideas came from.
How do I get ideas? How do writers not get ideas? They're everywhere.
Once, while coming back from the bookstore with Russ, I was glancing through a book about important Greek women. I read a little piece to Russ and said "I can see an entire book in that paragraph."
He laughed and said I could find a story in street signs.

About six blocks later:
Me -- I have it.
Russ -- Have what?
Me -- It's a trilogy. The first book is Caution: Children at Play. That's the story of a young man's childhood in a poor part of town and of his dreams to get out and how he starts pushing that way, breaking away from friends and family.
Book 2 is Do Not Enter about his growing power in a company that he eventually takes over, and his ruthlessness as he pushes it to the top and makes a fortune, whatever the cost to friends, lovers and business partners.
Book 3 is Dead End when he has grown older and finally realizes all it has cost him to make his fortune and decides to make amends before he dies.

At the next stop sign Russ hit me over the head with the book.

I never wrote that trilogy. I rarely write contemporary stories, but the idea has always stayed with me. Simple idea: it would take a lot more than those easy answers to make it into anything interesting, of course. But it does show that if you open yourself to ideas, you can find them. The mass of plot bunnies are everywhere, waiting to swarm. You just have to find the ones that will actually work for you.

What about ones I have written? Silky (and the rest of the trilogy) came directly from a book titled Disraeli, A Picture of the Victorian Age by Andre Maurois (the Hamish Miles translation). The moment I finished the book I knew I wanted to write the story about a young man in a position of power where he never should have been because of his background. You can clearly see the direct line from the book to Silky.

A seven volume history of World War I by General March led to a science fiction epic called Vita's Vengeance. The link is not so easily seen this time, except that the novel is a story of war and a fight for survival.

Reading the 13 volumes of the Grizmek Encyclopedia of Life brought so many new ideas I can't even begin to track most of them. I do know that some information about lizards and birds worked its way into the creation of The Dragon Clans for A Plague of Rats. Imagining them led to the rest of the book.

Reading Greek plays brought on Xenation: Draw the Line, a science fiction novel about an ancient and abandoned alien station and the humans (and others) trying to figure it out. There is a hint of where this idea was born in the opening quote:
There hath gone up a cry from earth, a groaning for the fall
Of things of old renown and shapes majestical
Prometheus Bound, Aechylus

Just that line set up the tone for me of something ancient, forgotten . . . and dangerous.

I found the idea for Beware the Wrath of Bunny Hunter while doing a test picture for some new computer generated models from so I could do the week's newsletter.  You can see the picture and the first draft opening here.
Not all my stories are so easy to pin down. Many come from ideas melding together for a period of time, growing in the back of my mind until something finally takes shape and I see a vision of a new story.

There are ideas everywhere. I get many of mine in nonfiction reading because I would rather go to the source than borrow from other fiction, but that doesn't mean reading a good fiction book or watching a good show doesn't give me yet more ideas.

Once you open your mind to seeing ideas in the world, it's hard to turn it back off . . . But I can tell you I am never bored and I always have something to write.

If you want to get to read about nearly twenty other writers and find out what's on their nightstands, check out the Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour.   Be sure to read tomorrow's post by Sharon Kemmerer

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Project Report 2 Water/Stone/Light: The shape of their world

A talented writer with a gift for world building...
C J Cherryh

When she wrote that blurb for one of my short publications from Yard Dog Press (no longer in print, though the blurb also appears on Farstep Station), I felt both overjoyed and worried. I had been an ardent fan of Cherryh's work for decades. The mere thought that she would write the blurb had me dancing around the house for days. (Much to the consternation of the cats.) I still get that surge of joy when I read it.

However, with a line like that came the knowledge I could never again 'wing it' on the longer works. I'd always done some world building, but now I became even more interested in creating the worlds. And I found that I love it even more.

Characters are what draw me to a story. My first vision of a story is almost always a character in trouble. I then unravel the who and why, and along the way I start building the where.

In the case of Water/Stone/Light the characters came in a sort of odd way, but there they were, a group facing an as yet undefined problem. I'm starting to see the trouble more clearly. The truth is that while I am writing these out as separate things for the posts (characters, world building, plot), they all tend to happen at the same time, with a touch of this here and a little of that there. I always make certain I have paper to do notes.

I have barely started the world building part. My current reading material, Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 1 Part 2, influenced a great deal of my basic considerations. This volume covers a great deal of early middle-eastern history, and has a huge section on Egyptian history.

I do not intend for this to be Egypt, but there are some basics I can borrow from that land (and from nearly any other river-based civilization of ancient times). The first thing is that I want Tygen to be secluded but not cut off entirely (note some Egyptian letters in the name-- easy for me to remember the basics, though I may later change the name later).

Everything I create at this point is subject to change. Once I get farther into both world building and plotting, I may find that some aspects of my world need to change to better work in the story I want to tell. This is not a real world. I control it.

A very high mountain range lies to the north. There was a pass through it, but a thousand years ago, mages and gods pulled the mountains down to save Tygen from something dangerous on the other side. This also destroyed the source of a second river in Tygen and left a considerable part of the eastern lands in desert. (And this means there are cities buried beneath the sands with treasures -- some of them dangerous. Think about those mages and the mountains.)

The western lands are akin to the Badlands of South Dakota. Once ocean it is now areas of carved sandstone in a maze where a person can easily get lost . Lots of places to hide things there. If you can get through, you will find youself at a narrow, inland sea and straight into the ocean with more desert across the shore. Not a lot of reason to go there.

The south border is the sea proper, with scrublands and marginal areas for herds to the east near the shores (but given to violent weather). The river ends in a delta and marsh, which stretches for miles and hides the entrance to the river. This has purposely been kept wild, both for the abundant waterfowl and other creatures, but also to keep the aggressive islanders not far from the coast from invading.

The shoreline is dangerous. The destruction of the pass had repercussions all along the area, with parts of the land dropping into the sea leaving dangerous rocks and currents and no good harbors at all.

The ships of this time are not very sturdy and anyone who does sea voyages hugs the coast -- and avoids the marsh heading into Tygen where they can get mired and lost. The people of Tygen patrol the marsh and there are very few craft they let through to the river entrance, which is also guarded by magic. There is a rumor of a sea monster at their call living in the delta. The people of Tygen do not take to the sea, but they do import a few luxuries. Foreign trade is the prerogative of the royalty.

The river craft are either made of reeds (in the lowlands) or wood (the northern highlands).

The river itself is called Life. A newborn child, no matter what the gender or station, is cleaned in the river of Life. When you die, you go to the desert and death. (Being Exiled to the desert is a death sentence with only a slim chance of survival, though there are a few nomadic tribes, mostly along the edges of the scrublands and the coast.

The few people who leave Tygen always take a sealed and blessed vial of water with them.

And that's it for today. I have some things worked up on the basics of the pantheon and just a whisper of work on the magic systems.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Zette's Take: Problems with openings

Openings are not set in stone

This is the first thing people need to realize when they start a book: Openings can, and should, change if they need to. I have often heard people saying how they can't possibly go on until they have the beginning of the story perfect. And some of them, of course, never go on. Others go on, then find all the work they'd done is useless because something drastic changed in the story. They become disillusioned, seeing all the hard work done for nothing. So some of these people never finish, either.

There are often problems with the idea of trying to write the perfect first scene, some of which are especially difficult problems for pansters (those who don't do any pre planning for the story). They often don't know where the story is going and where it will end, so by the time they get there the opening may not fit with what they create along the way.

Stories begin with a question for the reader. It is not always an obviously stated one, but in general it can be summed up with 'How is what happening here going to affect the character by the end?' This is a question implicit in the opening setting and actions. What is going on? What do the characters hope to gain? Whatever is indicated in the opening has to be settled by the end of the novel, even if it is not the truly most important part of the tale.

By the end of the story, you will also have cleared up any obvious mystery from the opening. If the story starts with someone found murdered, by the end the murder is solved. If it starts with someone wondering if she's going insane, we'll know the answer at the end. The question can be subtle and widespread, a feeling of impending change. In fact, the question, can be anything. The opening scene is going to set up this question for the reader who is going to be asking 'why' from the moment he or she starts reading.

Seems straightforward. So why would it fail?

Because stories, even the ones which are carefully outlined, often morph during the writing. You should be ready for some changes and welcome them when they really do make a better story. And that means you have to be prepared to sacrifice your opening for something new, too.

Say you start the story with the tale of a woman holding on to a ranch. You set it up with loving and perfect detail, introducing her and her problems and then going on . . . but a ways into the story, you realize she really isn't the focus of the story. The true, interesting story is about her son who is torn between his love of the ranch and a longing to be a doctor. You start leaning more and more to the son's POV about life on the ranch, etc. He becomes the main character.

Your opening no longer fits the rest of your story. While the woman is still part of the tale, she is no longer the focus. You might be able to rework it so that the focus includes the son. You might scrap it for an entirely new opening, with the son in some sort of situation. Holding on to the ranch is now a secondary focus rather than the main one and his inner conflict has become what drives the story.

Your opening needs to reflect the core of the story. There is nothing more annoying to me (and quite a few others) than to read an opening about an interesting character only to learn this isn't the person the story is about. Too often I suspect a case where the author had worked so hard on the opening that he or she could not bear to part with it, even when it no longer truly worked.

Now it may be that the extra work you take with the opening is your way of setting the story in your head. That's good and if it works for you, then you need to stick with it. But measure the 'does it work' factor against two things:

1. Do you finish the story?

2. Does the opening still work as well for the finished story as the one you first imagined you were going to write?

You may find the story starts at the wrong place

This is a problem I often have. I start too early, before the real tale gets going. I try to include too much backstory before the true current story gets started. Early history of the character can more easily be doled out in bits and pieces during the story. For instance, in my novel Silky, I had originally begun with his capture by slavers. This meant covering a long ocean journey, sold on the market, years in captivity with a carelessly cruel master . . . but as the first publisher of the novel pointed out, the story truly began the moment Silky stepped forward to save someone's life. Silky even had to tell about his early life to new people, so the backstory was already in place.


It was a moment of true writer-illumination. This didn't mean it immediately stopped me from starting too early, though. Quite often, with the story in your head, it's impossible to tell where to start until you can see it in place. I have discovered a good side to starting too early, though. By the time I do get to the true story, I have a real feel for the characters and situation, rather than that often painful first few pages where nothing feels quite right. I don't worry about starting too early, but I do take a close look and hope, by the final draft, I have chosen the right spot.

If you work too hard you can be unwilling to change later

As I mentioned earlier, a big problem with trying to get the opening perfect is that you may not be willing to rework it again later. And even if you are, think about all the time you've wasted which could have been spent working on the parts of the book that are going to matter.

This can be true at any stage of the story, though I see it more often in the openings.

Don't be afraid to leave things you are unsure about until the end of the first draft. And whatever you do, don't let yourself believe that the first draft is going to be perfect, no matter how much time you take with it. Don't fear or despise editing. It's part of the life of a real writer. Being pretentious and artsy about your work is not going to make it better -- you have to be prepared to work. Imagination is the most important part of being a writer, but it is not the only aspect a writer must cultivate. Without the willingness to work at making your prose the best it can be -- which means rewrites, editing and whatever else might be necessary -- imagination is useless.

If you need to learn how to better write POV, then apply yourself to that work. If you have to learn grammar, make the time to study it. No one is born knowing either and while some people might have a better aptitude for some aspects of writing and catch on faster, they aren't the only ones who have learned.

Be open to change

Yes, I am repeating this from an earlier post. Don't be afraid of change. Don't look at having to rework something as a failure, and don't fear having to learn how to do things better.

Don't linger over your opening more than you need to. Don't let yourself be caught up in the 'perfection mode' when it stops you from finishing the work, whether off the start or later in the story.

Only you can tell the story in your head and you owe to yourself to do it in the best way you can. That means acknowledging that you might make mistakes and fixing them. Learn the joy of fixing things and making your story even better. You'll be happier for it, and your readers will appreciate the extra work.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Project Report 1 Water/Stone/Light: Genre and Characters

I thought I might make a few posts chronicling the passage from idea to novel for a new work I just started. With luck, I will have all the pre-work done before NaNo. It's hard to say if I will get there. The more I work on this one, the more I see that I need to do. If I don't get all the pre-work done in time, then this might hold over to be my first novel of 2012.

Let's start with 'Where do ideas come from?'

In many cases, they just grow out of an amalgamation of things that meld together over time and suddenly hit me over the head. This is not quite the case for the new fantasy novel, Water/Stone/Light (titles are apt to change). I can trace this one directly to C.J. Cherryh's blog ( talk about their two new kitty friends along with the older, more sedate cat. The first new kitten needed a playmate so he would leave the older cat alone. They brought in a one year old from a cattery.

And this is what happened on my end:

July 25th, 2011 at 1:31 pm
I came awake this morning with an odd idea for a story. Something about an elderly queen saddled with an untamed, unruly young heir. In a fit of desperation, she orders that a noble house send him a companion. One house has a young man they’d just as soon be rid of — timid, scholarly, and useless (so they think) in a land where they’re guarding the dangerous borderland. So off he goes to live at the High Court.

Intimidated by the queen and worried that he might overstep the line with the heir, he finds he must call on the military training forced on him in previous years to take command and on his love of all things scholarly to draw the attention of the boy.

And then what? Does the young heir, tired of the life he never wanted, take off and the companion has to find him? Is the boy kidnapped? Is it all part of a plot and the prelude to an invasion? Are they the two who must go back to rescue the queen?

AAAAIIIIEEEE. I really don’t need a new plot bunny. But there it is, staring me in the face. I wonder if I could twist this around into an sf story, despite the fantasy feel. I am overrun with fantasy right now.

Hmmm. Or an Urban fantasy of some sort?


So, there is the basic core moment of inspiration. What has happened since then shows how stories grow, morph and change.

The first point was to settle on a genre. While I felt I had a lot of fantasy ideas lately, this one just called out for epic fantasy. I tried it out with a couple other genres, but every idea I got to add to this story went right back to fantasy, so I took that as a sign.

Next was to look closer at the main characters, the queen, the prince heir and the companion. It was with the companion where I started making drastic changes from my original idea. I kept the companion who came from 'seclusion' to take on the heir. But the Queen isn't stupid -- she can see the boy is going to need a firmer hand. So she sends for the Queen's Spy (oh? And who is this?) and tells him to get her sister's illegitimate son who is known for being able to take care of himself. I think she has word that something drastic is going wrong, and she wants the boy to have the sort of companions who can help him.

So now I had a triad . . . and I decided I really wanted a female character to offset them. I have some servants to deal with and a few are female, but they are going to have a special role. I wanted . . .

Ah. The Prince Heir needs to be betrothed. And the first ties of betrothal are done with magic so they can get a slight 'feel' for each other without being intrusive. This means the betrothed is aware when the three plan to escape the castle.

No, I'm not entirely certain why they are escaping yet. I have a vague idea of the trouble, but right now I'm looking at the very basic little steps of character creation.

Okay. So I have:
Queen Omi -- In her 40's, married the King when she was quite young and he was older. The King has been fighting a border war for a number of years, and she has her hands full with the running the kingdom. Their son died in battle and she had to call in her daughter's son as the new heir. (Does this mean no female can rule? No. I decided the boy's mother isn't suited to rule.)
Prince Zuki -- Spoiled, sixteen year old who has no respect for women (based on his bubble-headed mother and a domineering grandmother on his father's side). He has moments when he can be reasonable and even likeable before something else sets him off. He is untrained in anything resembling court etiquette and he does not want to be at court.
Fatim (Companion 1) -- Son of border lord and not suited to the kind of warrior life that the lord and his sons face. He's been secluded in one of the temples. (Start of world building and magic began here, but I'll show that in another post.)
Kontor (Companion 2) -- Son of the Queen Oni's younger sister and an unknown man (Though the father is believed to be a foreign envoy. The rumor is wrong, of course.) He's a rogue, troublemaker and can take care of himself. And does he owe the queen some service? A favor?
Amira (Betrothed) -- One of the Queen's Ladies in Waiting. The Queen needs to get the Prince Betrothed immediately. He's already over the age where it should have happened, and she chooses Amira because she is headstrong and can, hopefully, handle him. She is also from the mountainous northlands and she's used to hiking, hunting, etc. She is not going to be a wilting court flower when they are out on their own.
There are a number of other characters I need to work up, just so I have an idea of who is around and how they influence things, even if they are not present. Oh yes, this means King Sefu, of course. My big question (and one I have not yet answered) is why the Queen feels she must have this done right now, with the heir in place and so many decisions made immediately (like the betrothed). That will come with the plot. I work with characters first then look around and ask 'why are you doing that? What's the problem?

The Queen's Spy, the Vizier, Fatim's father and brothers, a number of servants, court officials (and a battle there between her people and the Vizier's people, as they rival each other for power within the court structure) . . . There can be very many lesser characters here.

And I have not moved out of the court yet. However, in order to do that, I had to start world building, which I adore. I'll cover the basics of that in the next post on this project.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Zette's Take: Try New Things

The problem of being complacent

Writers can sometimes get into a kind of rut they don't even see. They are enthralled with one or two genres and a particular type of character. Titles and names change, but after a while they run the risk of retelling the same story in new clothing. This is especially true for those who have purposely tied themselves to a single series, reusing the same setting, characters, etc. Six books into the projected twenty volumes, and they're already reworking the same situations and getting vaguely worried about how to change things around.

You don't have to be writing several books in the same setting to find yourself faced with this problem. The problem can also be caused by a mindset which ties you too strongly to certain types of work.

Every writer should want to expand his or her storytelling arsenal. So what's the answer?


The first thing to read is fiction. Pick up new books or old favorites. Step away from your world for a while and look at what others are doing. No, you aren't going to steal from their plots, but you will be inspired by them. Movies and television shows can also be forms of inspiration at this point. However, I suggest reading first because you are working with words, and seeing how words work for others can help you refine your own abilities. Look at the material you like and study how the author creates the illusion of life.

I know many writers have trouble reading fiction after they begin to learn the tricks of writing good fiction and see how poorly written other books might be. This seems to be especially true of new and popular books. Instead of denigrating the author's writing ability and the intelligence of those who enjoy the books, make a real effort to find out what it is that drew people to the books. Study them in an attempt to learn to do better. Poor writing skills did not draw the reader, so what did?

Are there books you used to enjoy but don't now? What drew you to them? What did you see now that doesn't work as well for you? Almost always the last answer will be the writing style. As writers, we become more sophisticated in what we see and want from others. We start applying our style and knowledge to the work of others and judging it badly. Sometimes, though, you need to consider a shift in writing conventions. Jane Austen had different rules and expectations. So did Robert A. Heinlein. In both these cases, their books have lived past their respective ages because something strong still calls to people. This is the sort of thing you're looking for.

You might also look at reviews of books or set up questions for others to see what draws them to certain books.

And at the same time ask yourself what drew you to certain books, even if they no longer hold you the way they did when you were younger. Ask those questions especially of the books which drew you into writing the genres you now write in.

Read books on writing, try stuff

After authors have been working for a while and published a few things, they often stop bothering to look at any book, article or blog on how to write. I think this is a huge mistake. I think both new and old writers can benefit from reading about writing. This is for the same reason as I said above: we get complacent in what we do.

Reading books on writing can provide help in several ways. The first, of course, is to correct some problem. Newer writers might have specific needs, such as learning about POV (I would suggest Orson Scot Card's Character's and Viewpoint -  as a very good starting point) or correcting grammar problems (for which I suggest Anne Stilman's Grammatically Correct - ).

What can people who have mastered the basics learn? Perhaps they'll find a new idea on how to approach their old ideas. They might find the one little gem that sparks a whole new change, or they might find reinforcement for old habits that have gone lax.

Studying specific techniques on help change or improve in certain areas where you feel you might need more help. Description of actions, for instance, or creation of non-evil antagonists.

Don't just read these books, though. At the very least, do some practice writing based on things you discover. Create a character based on an archtype or make a list of four or five clues to a mystery and see how you could mislead readers away from the true answer.

Look at other genres

What? Other genres? I would never write (the genre of your choice)!

This may be true, but that doesn't mean you can't learn from some of the other genres. Let's look at the three most obvious: fantasy, mystery, and romance.

First, nearly every novel is a quest. The two main characters -- your protagonist and antagonist -- are after something which is going to put them into conflict. Just because it is the diary of a recently killed corporate executive does not make the essence of the quest any different than looking for the lost spell book of an ancient wizard.

This is made very clear in The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler (, who has adapted the work of Joseph Campbell into an outline of mythic storytelling for authors.

What about mystery? That's pretty obvious. Yes, there are often mysteries to be solved, even a book that isn't a mystery by genre. Learning how to plant clues and mislead readers may very well be the answer you need to strengthen a straightforward storyline. Who, why and how can be as critical to a thriller or even a horror novel as it is to a detective mystery.

And romance? There are many stories which had a romantic subplot but are not part of the romance genre as a whole. However, if you have trouble imagining romantic moments (which does not always mean sex), then look into how the genre devoted to those stories manages it.

Expand your storytelling ability

All of these suggestions are ways in which to expand your storytelling ability and create new ideas which will liven up the types of stories you want to tell. This isn't meant to set you on a career in a new genre, though if you find you have a story you want to tell, it doesn't hurt to try your hand at something entirely new. Be daring. And always remember that no one has to see it but you.

If you are not willing to explore and experiment with your work, then even you are likely to get tired of your own writing. Remember, there is no one right way to write -- there is only the right way which works for the story you're telling. Every story is different. Be willing to approach each one in a new way.

Get an attitude change; new is not bad

New is not evil. Change is good for the writer's soul. Try new techniques, read new material (even outside what you normally would) and be willing to open yourself to new writing experiences. You will be happier for it, and your readers will love you all the more.