What I’ve Been Writing Lately . . .

. . . has been partly No Flying No Tights review – the last Pokémon one just went up – and partly the next bit of Looking Like Lani.

Am having an interesting time of it because I keep realizing that I’ve made some assumption that doesn’t actually make sense for the culture in which Lani lives. Basically, most of my fantasy stories take place in the same world, but the others are all on one continent with cultures that do vary, but aren’t nearly as different from one another as they all are from the continent on which this story occurs. So I’ll catch myself picturing, say, an inn, the way it would be on the first continent – which, being based loosely on medieval Britain, feels pretty familiar to me anyway. And then I’ll go, “Wait, this building wouldn’t be made of wood,” or, “They wouldn’t actually put in interior walls here.” It’s kind of fun, actually, to keep rethinking these things.

Otherwise, doing lots of reading and lots of working, and all is going pretty well.

Boy, Will Spell-Check Like This Entry

An interesting line of questioning struck me today.

I’ve already pondered the relative merits of rabbits and smeerps. Today, though, it occurred to me that I’m not sure the goblins in my fantasy world are so similar to the goblin archetype – what there is of a goblin archetype, anyway – that calling them that is the best option. So: calling a goblin a smeerp?

This is a slightly nerve-wracking idea, because my fantasy world includes my own versions of a number of common fantasy species, including elves and dragons, as well as original species that have names I made up because they don’t approximate any fantastical creatures I know of. Calling goblins smeerps could be a slippery slope. While readers are unlikely, in my case, to say, “Hey, those smeerps are totally just goblins with a different name!”, it’s quite possible they would say, “Hey, those eerps* are totally just elves with a different name!” In a few cases, it would be just absurd. No matter how different its powers and behavior might be, a horse with a horn in the middle of its forehead is a unicorn, and to call it otherwise invites ridicule.

I’ve read fantasy that included monsters that were definitely orcs or goblins but were called Nar’kizul or Ur-gizen or whatever, and I’m not sure it added much to the story. On the other hand, I don’t want readers’ minds drifting in the direction of, say, the Gringotts goblins, or even the awesometastic Labyrinth goblins, while reading my stories.

So, something I’m thinking of at the moment.

*Because of the eers. Get it?

Sometimes a Smeerp is Just a Smeerp

I recently ran up against an interesting worldbuilding issue: a reason for smeerps.

In case you’re not familiar with the convention of “calling a rabbit a smeerp”, it is when a writer of sci-fi or fantasy includes something that is clearly recognizable as an existing object, concept, or creature (e.g. clock, love, rabbit) in a non-human (or at least non-Earth) society, then refers to it using a made-up word in an attempt to make the society seem exotic. (The rabbit may also have some token alien characteristic, like different coloration.)

This ranges from being a bit silly (apparently parts of the Star Wars canon refer to dice as “chance cubes”) to being a good example of how a culture views things differently from ours. Perhaps your culture is full of tiny carrot-shaped people who are terrified of rabbits and refer to them as Hopping Death. What I ran into, though, was a totally different reason for . . . smeerping?

It stemmed from the type of clothing that the protagonist of my new novel wears. This is something between a sari and a toga – and therein lies the problem.

If I call it a sari, immediate reader assumptions could include:

  • This story is supposed to take place in India
  • This is a female-specific garment
  • This is a garment with Hindu significance

None of which are true in my story.

Similarly, “toga” calls immediately to mind Ancient Greece and Rome. Then, of course, there’s the fact that neither “sari” nor “toga” is an entirely accurate description of the garment (though saris can be worn so many ways that it’s hard to say that one couldn’t look like this).

In photos I’ve seen of garments that approximate what I want here, they tend to be described as “robes.” Unfortunately, the word “robe” carries a set of connotations in high fantasy. Connotations like sleeves. Again, not quite right.

So I smeerped it, using a made-up name and working in a brief description of how it’s worn. This works out well, because I can avoid using an approximate word that doesn’t quite describe what I mean. It occurred to me, though, that I might have used a made-up word even if the object I wanted looked EXACTLY like a sari, just to avoid the other associations. I don’t want someone thinking I’ve made a mistake when a male character appears wearing this garment, and I don’t want people pointing out that my characters aren’t good Hindus.

On a more basic level, though, I don’t want to use a word that seems out of place. Decades of frequent appearances of European objects in fantasy means that their use doesn’t make readers go, “Hey, how can there be a castle? This story must take place in actual medieval Europe, because that’s where castles exist.” I suspect, though, that a sari or a toga would, at the very least, throw people for a loop. Since my setting is based loosely on India, I don’t want readers thinking I’m doing things “wrong” when they see some variation. If I were basing it more closely on India, I’d still want to be careful of using a term which not only has Hindu significance, but could, again, cause readers to think the setting actually was India. (Many words have religious significances, of course, but I try to avoid that when I reasonably can.)

So! Smeerpage as a force for good! Huzzah.

While We’re on Safari

I was thinking about fantasy ecology and worldbuilding the other day, and I decided to try a little experiment. I dug out the Monster Manual 3.0 for Dungeons & Dragons. This is a guide to the critters living in a world that has been used as a setting for oodles of stories, in the form of books (the Dragonlance chronicles, for example, and about eight billion others) as well as the interactive storytelling world of role-playing games. Let’s see what conclusions we can draw!

“Fantasy,” After All, has Several Meanings

Writing fantasy worlds is great. If you think something would be awesome, and you wish it existed, you can throw it in and examine the implications that ripple out from there! And that goes not just for elves and dragons. It’s just as true of, say, total gender equality.

Certainly not everything in fantasy is, or should be interpreted as, some author’s perfect world. Elements like gender equality – or racial equality, religious freedom, and other serious issues – can be handled any number of ways. Maybe a particular issue is irrelevant to the themes of the work, so the author spends little time on it. Maybe the author chooses to make a point by using a uniquely fantastical approach that allows readers to look at the issue from an unconventional view. The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones, for example, contains racial conflicts between two human races in a fantasy world, neither of which much resembles any specific ethnicity of the real world. This lets readers think about racial conflict – and the dynamics of nations at war – without pulling in preconceptions about specific real-world races and cultures. (This can also be said of any conflict between humans and other intelligent species in fantasy or science fiction.) Then, too, an author might write a world that is the opposite of her ideal, making readers think hard about the danger of extremes. Science fiction often takes current ideas through to possible logical conclusions, ending up somewhere strange and sometimes disturbing.

There is real value, however, in writing a world as you’d like to see it. Obviously, if you’re serious, then you need to account for:
1. How this developed/how it works, and
2. How it affects everything else.
That’s true whether you’re talking about dragons or societal constructs. Of course, with dragons, you get more leeway in answering Question 1. After all, no one expects your world’s explanation to make an impossible creature possible. If, on the other hand, your world is full of humans with no unreasonable prejudices, readers may be a little more skeptical of the explanation, “Because of magic!” That shouldn’t be a deterrent if you want to try. After all, fantasy is about imagination, and imagining a thing – whether on the level of an individual or a society – is the first step to achieving it. (Except, you know, for things that were achieved totally by accident.) If even your fantasy world can’t be made to function like your ideal for the real world, that says something about either your imagination or your ideal.

The above is a long, winding introduction to my topic of the day, which is the following: Gender assumptions are sneaky, sneaky, sneaky. My fantasy worldbuilding and writing, as you may have guessed, tries to avoid culturally-ingrained sexism and gender stereotypes. This is because:
1. I would not enjoy writing a world where average people – i.e. people who aren’t necessarily unpleasant antagonists – are routinely sexist.
2. I can give female characters the same sorts of adventures that male ones could have, and they don’t have to dress up as boys to have ’em.
3. I want my world to express two ideas: That sexism isn’t an inherent and unavoidable starting point for a culture, and that a world can function with real gender equality – can function better in some ways than ours does, or at least than ours did at a more-comparable point in history.
I recognize that I’m missing out on some dynamics and potential conflict, but I’m happy with the trade-off.

A lot of sword-and-sorcery fantasy is based largely on a mixture of Tolkien and European medieval history – hardly a haven of perfect equality and acceptance. My world, I realized recently, has more in common with Elizabethan or early Stuart-era Britain. That gives me a rough reference point for technology and cultural sophistication (i.e. the sizes of cities), but obviously a lot of things have to work differently to make this a world without sexism. Mostly, I’m pretty pleased with the results. But I’ll say it again: sneaky.

What caught me specifically was the reactions of characters toward antagonists of their own genders. My current novel, The Dogwatchers, has a young female protagonist from a working-class background. When she encounters a girl her own age who is frilly, privileged, and nasty, she is made to feel plain. Not only does the antagonist tease her about her looks – her very presence causes the protagonist to feel self-conscious about her appearance. That felt organic to write, natural to my own experience.

But: Would I have written that of a male character?

Of course not. Male characters seldom feel “plain.” Indeed, we are much more rarely aware of a male protagonist’s opinion of his own attractiveness than we are of a female protagonist’s opinion of hers. But what does intimidate male characters? Antagonists who are described as physically threatening. You know the ones. They are “hulking.” They may not even be the actual antagonists so much as his goons – think Crabbe and Goyle. If Harry had been female, and Draco and pals were three “mean girls,” would Harry have worried about how big they were? Again: of course not. In one of the later books, Pansy Parkinson taunts Angelina Johnson about her appearance, saying her hair looks like worms. Draco does not make fun of Harry’s hair. That simply isn’t the way male characters operate.

It concerned me to realize this. Rowling’s characters act normally given that, for most cultural intents and purposes, they live in our world. But in a work that attempts to portray gender equality, why did I find myself writing female characters who feel good or bad based on their looks, while male characters skip merrily along without giving their appearances a second thought? The unsettling idea was brought home by this article, which claims that in our culture men are taught to value “universally accepted ethical ideals” like compassion, kindness, courage, and integrity, while women are taught to value their physical attractiveness and purity – essentially, their sexuality, whether they choose to use it or not. Neither of these is actually true of The Dogwatchers – the protagonist puts more stock in her own intelligence, bravery, and kindness than in her attractiveness, while a major male character is insecure about his appearance because it is so unusual.

In the end, I decided that the scene with the frilly antagonist was fine, but that this was something to keep an eye on. It’s easy to look back at Elizabethan times, with all of the associated prejudices, and think that one is writing a sexism-free society. It’s much harder to recognize some subtle forms of sexism that are still kicking in modern-day America.

Anyone else have examples of sneaky, sneaky gender assumptions, from fiction or reality?

Then Again, Bath is a Real Place

A combination of things – among them unreliable Internet access – has prevented me from updating much recently. I’m not sure I can still in good conscience call this a “weekly” blog. But I’m back! I have sent a few agent queries out for Rabbit and Cougar, and plan to send more this week. In the meantime, I have something else to talk about.

Recently, a friend and I were talking about worldbuilding, and then the other day we went to Bath. These things are related because I find Bath to be a good visual metaphor of one thing we’d been discussing: keeping a consistent feel in the world you’ve created. Bath feels like a world of its own because of the Bath sandstone. For anyone who’s never been there, the whole city is a historical site, and virtually every building is at least paneled in sandstone of the same color. It’s as if the whole city were carved out of one big rock, or all splashed by the same (pale yellowish) paint. This is despite its having Burger Kings and Indian restaurants packed in with art galleries, modern and classical, tourist shops, the Baths once frequented by Romans and the Assembly Rooms visited by Jane Austen.

Naturally, any well-crafted fictional culture – or even any single city – is likely to have diverse populations and institutions and remnants of various historical periods. This can add richness, but the culture does need to be drawn together by common elements or risk seeming random and poorly-conceived. If, for example, a fantasy world contains characters named Aletha and Hedric and also characters named Terry and Doug, supposedly from the same place and with similar backgrounds, the world will seem inconsistent. (This is worse when half of the characters in one culture have generic old British names such as Will and half have names the author made up that are filled with Xs and cannot be pronounced without years of training and possibly a second tongue. Do not speak to me about apostrophes.)

This is a funny problem because, as often happens when fiction imitates real life, the fiction must make sense in a way that reality sometimes doesn’t. Obviously, most people do not have to be convinced that something could work in an unlikely way if they actually see it working that way. A real-life culture that seems to lack coherence is not seen as “unrealistic.” Still, that doesn’t mean you can get away with it in your worldbuilding.

So, how to do this? A lot of generic medievalesque fantasy writers do it without much difficulty simply by basing their worlds on Britain at a certain time period. There’s nothing wrong with that, assuming the story, characters, and writing are good. One of the continents in my fantasy world was created basically that way. Things can be more difficult when basing a culture on another real-life country just because it’s done less, so people are less sure how to take it. You don’t want to create a race or civilization that seems like an offensive stereotype of a real people – think of some of the criticisms of certain Star Wars aliens.

Naturally, you want to do as much creation as possible going forwards rather than backwards – that is, thinking, “What would logically proceed from this?” rather than, “How can I make this thing happen?” You can certainly work with the latter if you have one or a few important traits you want in your culture and are flexible on the rest. For example, if you want to write a fantasy plot that involves a lot of sea travel, then you must create at least one civilization that possesses ocean-going ships or other means of transport. This is not a problem. If, say, you’re also determined that this civilization lack a technology common to the rest of your world, then you have to account for why travelers and traders using their port have not introduced this technology. Things become more complicated. If you put too many demands on a civilization before you create it, you can build yourself into a corner. If, on the other hand, you simply start with what the people would have had (say, a coastal area at the mouth of a river in a warm climate, with rich soil), then you can make your culture from there in a way that makes sense. Depending on how you do it, this can mean a lot of research, but you can borrow from existent (or historic) cultures that shared similar features – your civilization might do things in a different style, but is likely to develop similar kinds of technology, practical clothing, and so on. You do have to be careful that you don’t borrow something that in reality was caused by a factor your world doesn’t have: Religion will trip you up here, because it is behind so many traditions and may not be the same as the beliefs in your world. You also have to keep in mind things that your world has and reality doesn’t that could have affected the culture’s development. If there is magic, for example, or if multiple intelligent species coexist, that should be accounted for.

If you’re not writing fantasy or science fiction, you may have an easier time because a civilization more similar to reality will have more things you can just assume. If you are writing fantasy or sci-fi, here are a few things you might consider to keep each culture you write consistent.

1. Names. This does not have to be a pitfall – it can be an opportunity. Names can be a great way to establish differences between cultures – you just want to be consistent within each culture. One way to do this is to adapt (or blatantly steal) names from different languages. It’s a silly example, but if you have characters named Marcus and Furianus who meet someone named Elizabeth, the names will draw a stark cultural line between the two groups. Obviously, a fantasy world could be a place where a civilization exists that encompasses both names, but it would be hard to do something like this well. Similarly, if you make up all of your names, try to make them sound consistent – you might want to think a little about the sounds of the languages your people speak.

2. Dress. What is the climate of this civilization like? What are common occupations? What materials and dyes are available? Do certain colors have religious or societal significance? Maybe only mages wear red, only royalty wear white, or purple is worn only in mourning. Remember also that people in different places may come up with different ways to solve the same problem due to their varying resources and beliefs.

3. Speech. If you have a character who is not speaking his/her first language, how might that affect word choice and order? Even if everyone speaks the same language well enough for it not to matter, some people may have traditions of speech – being more formal, for example. Consider also things that go along with speech: accents, hand movements, and possibly other gestures such as bowing.

4. Supernatural Elements. If your world has magic, it may not be the same kind all over. Even if it is, it may not be regarded the same way everywhere. Like technology, certain kinds of magic may be more advanced in places where they are more practical: Agricultural magic in a farming area, for example. Magical creatures, too, may be approached differently by different societies. Maybe one culture reveres dragons, another hates and fears them, and another has never heard of them.

You can add to the coherence of your fantasy civilization through many other elements – architecture, manners, traditions, beliefs – but the above are ones that seem especially likely to come up and may involve less research than some others. Not everyone wants to think about things like architecture. Consistency is important even if only one culture appears in your story, and it is sometimes easy to slip. Still, it can be very rewarding to build a culture in detail, and it may lead to more story ideas!

Crossing the Pond

This entry is quite late, but in my defense, I and my two fellow travelers had to go from our homes to New York City, then to London, and are now in Exeter. Most of the writing I’ve been doing recently has been on my resume (“CV” over here), as we’re trying to find jobs for our six-month stay.

My biggest writing bonus here so far has probably been a long visit to the British Museum. Museums are fantastic sources for people who write in settings other than the here-and-now. Quite possibly, they are even better than graveyards.

Of course, one of the reasons the British Museum was great was to get a look at entirely different cultures, and just being here supplies some of that, too. Britain gives fantastic glimpses of the past, too. Towns contain random buildings that are older than the United States is as a country – not to mention the medieval walls, Roman baths, and so on. All excellent for someone who writes medieval-based fantasy.

Someone recently asked me why so many fantasy writers set their stories in medievalesque worlds. The simple answer, as far as I know, is as follows:

A. King Arthur mythos
B. Tolkien

Truly, fantasy writers tend to be fantasy readers, and a cycle has evolved in which those who will go on to write fantasy are heavily influenced by fantasy that takes place in medievalesque settings. There are advantages to writing this kind of fantasy. One of these, admittedly, seems to stem from the aforementioned cycle: Because it’s what they’re used to, it’s easy for readers to enter a world that isn’t Earth, but is like Earth five hundred to nine hundred years ago, or thereabouts. It’s easy to come up with powerful magic, because magic can be very strong just by doing things that are easily accomplished with modern technology, but cannot be done by nonmagical means in the medieval-type setting. Also, I think medieval times lend themselves to fantasy because so many people really believed in magic back then.

For me personally, it has largely to do with the toys. Assuming you’re writing human characters, people are people are people – human motivations and emotions have not fundamentally changed in the past few thousand years. Given that, why not choose a backdrop you like? I enjoy exploring the implications of a world with magic, several intelligent species, and no religions. I also like castles, horses, swords, precious metal coins, and having an excuse to call a shirt a “tunic.” 😛

That said, I do see great opportunities in terms of non-medieval fantasy. Dragons Over London was set in the modern world, and I’ll probably set things there again. At the moment, though, I have a lot to say and do with my fantasy world.

Building a . . . Fantasy

This week, I’d like to talk about world-building. I’ve done quite a bit of it this week in addition to, and in conjunction with, editing Rabbit and Cougar. It’s a big topic in fantasy writing, so I won’t tackle everything, but here are a few points.

Fantasy worldbuilding is about much more than the fantastical. To make a world real, you must consider logic. Consider it early and often. Any fantastical assumptions you make must be followed by the proper logical progressions. This is a major factor with things like magic, especially because it can be difficult to think of everything that might follow a certain development, but it is also important to the economy, politics, social relations (including those between different intelligent species, if your world has more than one), and even ecology of your fantasy world.

This applies to non-fantasy as well. Let’s say you’re writing a non-fantasy book (for some reason ;P) set in Virginia, and you decide to make up a town because you don’t want to deal with making mistakes about real places or getting sued by anyone. If setting is going to be any non-negligible part of your story, you need to have some idea of the reason your town exists and how it works: What are major employers? Is it a college town? A farming area? Historical site? What is there to do? If you want your setting to be a city of 80,000 people, then make sure they have a reason to be there. Conversely, if your town has a population of 5,000, you may not want to give it a major shopping center or university. Make your setting make sense.

Medievalesque fantasy, my main writing area, has some special challenges. In a town, city, or other settlement: What is the main water source? People will not usually settle in a place without readily available drinking water – unless you have designed a species that doesn’t need it. Where do the inhabitants get food, and what kind? Clothes? What do they do for entertainment? With whom do they trade, and for what? I recently had issues when I realized that a character owned a frying pan whose society had virtually no way to obtain metal. That had to be reworked, and my understanding of the character’s society deepened as I actually decided how they would use other materials in situations when we might use metal. Indeed, it led to a convenient plot point.

Ecology, too, can be a real issue in fantasy. Many fantasy writers seem tempted to throw a whole bunch of apex predators into a world which otherwise, it seems, contains mostly the same animals we have on Earth. What, one wonders, do their dragons eat? And sphinxes, leviathans, chimeras (chimerae?), basilisks, and so on? Do any of them compete with predators we would recognize? (I once saw a program in which a dragon and a tiger fought out a territorial dispute.) How many of these creatures – and the answer is often “all of them” – eat people? Can they survive on people alone, or do they also eat livestock and large wild animals (buffalo, deer, whales, or things that in this world are top-tier predators, such as bears).

(As an interesting point, it seems that humans reached their current evolutionary stage on Earth starting as prey animals. With our intelligence and tool-making abilities, we turned the tables on our predators, many of which are now endangered. Keep in mind, if your fantasy world lasts for vast periods of time – say, several generations of long-lived dragons or elves – that humans will have had all this time to find ways to defeat, or at least deflect, their predators. They may even have magic in addition to tools, depending on your world.)

In my worldbuilding this week, I found a wonderful ally in a humble little book called The Audubon Society Nature Guide to Eastern Forests. I was, at the time, trying to get a feel for what it would be like to tramp through an oak forest; we have none in my immediate area, and my characters were walking around in one. It outlined different types of forests, explaining where each was found and why: the environmental factors, from temperature to soil content, that caused certain plants to grow, and how those plants plus weather, altitude, etc. affected the animals living there. I discovered that what I really wanted was an oak-hickory forest, and was immediately furnished with a long list of species found there.

The point I mean to make here is that ecology, like all of the various worldbuilding factors, can be done right or wrong even when no fantastical elements are involved. If you have a vast tundra with no wildlife except for the occasional snowshoe hare and large packs of wolves, then you have apparently invented wolves which feed on snow. As such, they should be little danger to travelers. And in a fantasy world, if you provide no reason why a thing should be different from our world, people assume it is not. (Think of gravity: unless you say otherwise, readers will assume that your characters walk on the ground and that dropped objects fall down.) This means that there are aspects of the world where you can make mistakes based on non-fantasy things. (This is common with horses. I have read many commentaries on the lack of realism associated with horses in some medievalesque fantasy. Do not let this happen to you.) Even in a world with magic, snakes cannot wink unless you expressly provide a reason why your world’s snakes have eyelids when Earth’s do not. This is a reason to research anything “real” that you plan to include and with which you are not already quite familiar – even if only very few readers, those who are experts in the area, catch an error, wouldn’t you rather not have that error? Besides, sometimes you come up with fun new facts, some of which you might use. I researched foxes over the past few days because a fox figures prominently in Rabbit and Cougar. I learned that foxes wag their tails when happy and that their “happy sounds” include clucks, whines, and what sound like human screams. I even read – though I need to check this – that they lack the facial muscles to bare their teeth. How interesting is that?

(Well, a lot, if you’re writing about a fox.)

Even if you don’t include everything – and please, don’t include everything – that you know, it’s usually better to know more. For example, the fact that my oak-hickory forest even has foxes implies that it has things they can eat – and I know what they are. That the forest contains mice, rabbits, insects, and berries (and oh yes, I do have specific species) may not come up, but knowing this will keep me from being inconsistent (for example, having the character who lives in this forest see a mouse and say “whoah, what’s that?”).

Research and good world-building makes the writing easier and more satisfying. It gives the story a deeper and more thought-out feel and allows you to confidently and correctly use specific examples. (I now know, for instance, what undergrowth grows in oak-hickory forests.) Your readers will appreciate it. And it’s loads of fun – win-win!

Magic! (Some Restrictions Apply.) Also: Moving It!

My biggest writing revelation of this past week was a possible new factor to tie together my fantasy world’s magic system. If I can get it sorted out right, it should give the magic system some limits that don’t seem arbitrary as well as giving the world flavor – and a reason for not using gunpowder or electricity. The lack of those technologies is, I admit, one of the flimsy points in my fantasy world – one of the points where the true, out-of-story reason is simply “because I want my characters to use swords and candles.”

I don’t want to get specific about this new concept at the moment. This is partly for security reasons (I am somewhat paranoid about putting specific ideas on the Internet, especially as this journal will hopefully soon be embedded in a website that I will publicize to the utmost of my ability). The other reason is that I have not entirely figured this out yet – it will probably have implications for my magic system that will require changing otherwise-completed works. (Not a bad time for it, actually, as I meant to do some editing on those works as soon as I can get around to it. Never a dull moment!) It may raise more issues. I only hope there will be no problems too, well, problematic, to be solved in a way that works for my world.

Beyond that excited, if cryptic, explanation, I have also made some progress on The Dogwatchers. Specifically, I’ve blundered through what I think may be the toughest (read: least-interesting, most exposition-heavy) scenes in the story. It will need to be absolutely dismembered in editing. But it is done! And now I can move on in the story.

That part of The Dogwatchers also made me consider an element of many novels – the Big Move. This is when the protagonist spends most of the story in one physical location, or at least calling using one place as a home base, but that place is not where s/he started out. Obviously, this does not appear in all stories: most journey stories, such as the Lord of the Rings books, do not have a home base, while some (especially series) take place entirely in one spot. (Arguably, though, a journey story can begin with a Big Move from the starting location to the journey itself. For plot purposes, this can be similar to other, clearer Big Moves.) Sometimes, too, location is not very important to the story.

The Big Move is common to many stories. A Little Princess. Most of the Harry Potter books (though it is most pronounced in the first one). Moby Dick (even if the second location, the ship, is itself mobile.) (I read things that aren’t British children’s literature! Really!) And, of course, Howl’s Moving Castle. Sometimes, the move is not permanent, but still seems to qualify as a Big Move for its significance to the story; I might argue that Jane Eyre has a Big Move when Jane goes to Mr. Rochester’s house, though she does not stay there for the remainder of the book.

Often, the story cannot really begin until the protagonist is in place. Often, the place itself is special, but is made much more so by what came before and the transition: certainly the Harry Potter series wouldn’t be much without Hogwarts, but neither would Hogwarts be so special if the reader didn’t Harry’s miserable life with the Dursleys, then his wonder and delight at the change. Sophie certainly could not have started out at Howl’s castle – but she must go there, or there is no story. One could call some of these Big Moves metaphors for beginning a journey out of childhood, becoming free, and so on, depending on the story. Sometimes, too, it may be as simple as allowing the protagonist to explore a fantastic place with the same first-time curiosity as the reader. Along those same lines, it makes it easy for readers to get to know new characters as the protagonist meets them.

Regardless of purpose, the difficult scene I wrote this week dealt with the reasons behind the heroine’s Big Move. I flipped through a lot of my favorite novels to reassure myself that my protagonist was not making her Big Move too late in the story. Some of what I found surprised me. It takes Harry a long time to get to Hogwarts in Book One! Some characters, on the other hand, start their stories already on the train (or car, flight, etc.) to their new location. Some may even fake out the reader – think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (“Oh, they’re going to live in a big house with a wacky old professor. Or in Narnia!“)

Identifying the Big Move, if your story has one, can be helpful to plot structuring. It is easy to organize events into what happens before and after, especially as some things may only be possible in one location or the other. One easy way to tell whether a location change is a Big Move: Does it figure in the short-short synopsis of your story? I.e. “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard, goes to a magical school, and fights a villain with the help of his friends.” Notice that the phrase “goes to a magical school” really is key to the story – otherwise, you’re left with a totally different impression of the book. If the shortest summary you can make of your story’s plot includes a location change, then it may be helpful to think of this as your story’s Big Move.

RavenCon and Advanced Fiction Final

Late again! I’ll try to do better. It’s still within the right week, though, and since I only ever claimed to try for once-a-week entries, that’s about good enough.

This past weekend, I went with a group of friends to RavenCon. This is a science fiction and fantasy convention with a literary focus, and at least two of the friends who came with me also write fiction (including fantasy). I’d been to the con twice before, and it was great. This year was also a good time, though the panels were perhaps down a little in terms of literature. (The con was ambitious this year in other ways, such as the masquerade.) My three con-going occurrences of most note writing-wise are as follows.

1. I got a fun writing idea. This happens to me all the time at conventions and conferences. Maybe it’s just being saturated in a writerly environment, making me think of things in terms of how I could write them; oh, wait, no, I do that constantly. Maybe it’s hearing other people toss ideas around. Who knows. Anyway, the very first panel I attended upon my arrival Friday evening was called “Writing the Perfect Blurb.” (I could tell from the description, and it was confirmed in the panel, that the name should have been something like “Writing the Perfect Cover Letter.”) The panelists were several authors and an editor of a sci-fi/fantasy magazine. At one point, an author panelist was trying to point out good versus bad ways to approach an editor.
“So, let’s say you want Ed” – the editor panelist’s name was indeed Ed – “to read your story on . . . oh . . . cross-dressing dragons.”
“Ha,” I thought. “How would you have cross-dressing dragons? I don’t see -”
“DING,” said my brain. I took notes. Now, I have actually written this story (more on that after we leave RavenCon).

2. I learned things about podcasting. This could be important because of my hope to podcast Dragons Over London this summer. A number of RavenCon’s guests had podcasts, and there were several panels on the subject. I went to one on podcasting for promotion. One panelist was an author who had podcasted a book, and there were three other people who just had podcasts (though they sounded interesting; two were comedy, and one was about technology and the future). Anyway, they talked mostly about their content (largely interviews), and I took notes, but then asked the author some questions afterward. She recommended that I go to the hour-long workshop on podcasting later; I said I could make it to the first half, probably, but the second half coincided with a panel on literary worldbuilding. She was nice, and said that if I came she’d try to tailor it to me.
I did go to the workshop. The author, who was the moderator, asked a question or two that were helpful to me, but the workshop was largely on technical stuff. This could have been fascinating to me, I think, if put in a way that was not utterly terrifying. The panelists had brought something like twelve microphones between them, massive amounts of wire, microphone stands, interfaces, laptops, cases, headphones, and more. The table looked like someone’s attempt to hotwire an alien radio station. Also, most of the other people at the panel seemed to already know a lot about podcasting. As best I could tell, they were there in order to say things like,
“Oh, the Luna. That’s a nice one. I got one of those on eBay for sixty bucks. I got really lucky.”
It didn’t help that I had to leave halfway through. However, when I reached the worldbuilding panel and told Becky briefly about what had happened, she assured me that podcasting is not scary and alien, but doable.

3. I almost learned things about worldbuilding. I say “almost” because, while the panelists gave lots of good, true, important advice, I’d heard practically all of it before. I’ve been to panels on worldbuilding – in fact, I’m pretty sure I went to one at RavenCon last year. Anyway, a few basic points for those who wonder what kind of things the panel covered:

– be internally consistent.
– think through all the implications of anything you change. (This ties into the previous Do.) If your magic system allows people to easily speak with the dead, realize that you will have trouble writing a murder mystery.
– make the rules clear quickly, at least to the extent to which your point of view character would know them. If your POV character is a psychic but can only read the minds of redheaded men, make this clear in some way, or people will wonder why the character isn’t reading the mind of that woman who holds the vital information. Likewise, if your character can read minds and you don’t let readers know, they’ll feel baffled and left behind when he starts peeking into someone’s thoughts. Possibly the worst is to have a POV character who clearly has some powers (i.e. we know she’s a mage), but does not explain how powerful they are or what they do. You could probably get away with one or the other, as long as you give an idea of both (i.e. she controls fire, but is only a novice and much less skilled than older and more practiced mages).

– assume all of your people are nice, nonagressive, and upstanding (unless there’s a reason they would be). If your world has people who use magic and people who don’t, and mages don’t rule the world, there had better be a reason why not.
– make your entire world – or even its countries – a monoculture. Even people who speak the same language often have different cultures. Within any group of reasonable size (a country, a town, possibly even a large family) will be conflict: any time when people have different priorities, they will have conflict. With different philosophies, alliances, politics, etc., potential for such conflict increases.
– make your aliens like humans without a reason. If they evolved on a planet just like Earth, maybe.
– make things too regular. This is rather like the monoculture issue; if your vision for Country A is that it is extremely capitalist, that doesn’t mean that every single person there favors the capitalist system. Not to say that you need to have a token communist or anything, but don’t make your characters carbon copies. This goes for natural things as well. You have to be careful not to throw people off, but most rules do have exceptions.

As someone who writes a lot of fantasy (and has put loads of work into worldbuilding), my favorite advice ever on writing magic came from a book called The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy. (I highly recommend this book and its follow-up, The Fantasy Writer’s Companion. Funnily enough, I got both at RavenCon.) It has a lot of great advice, but I found the part on magic systems particularly helpful, as magic is a huge part of any world which uses it. Not only does it set parameters for the possible, it can change the tone of the world. The Complete Guide suggests considering three things when designing your magic system and analyzing how it will affect the rest of your world: power, price, and availability to the general population. The book talks about these factors in terms of ratings from 1 to 10. It’s actually pretty easy to translate a system into numbers. For example, magic in the Harry Potter universe is probably an 8 or 9 in power (can do almost anything possible within the world), a 2 or 3 in price (many spells cost nothing in materials and virtually no time or effort; most spell components of even difficult spells seem to be easily obtained within the world), and a 1 or 2 in availability (most people cannot use magic, at least not under ordinary circumstances, and cannot be taught).

Interestingly, you can design a world for any combination of ratings; it’s just going to be a world more or less shaped by its magic. For example, if someone told me to design a world where magic had a 1 in power, a 1 in price, and a 10 in availability, I might set up a system wherein all the people can, by snapping their fingers, change the colors of their eyes. Common, easy, and fairly useless magic. If you were to, say, change the price to 10, you would have a world where no one was likely to use magic at all (say, it takes a lifetime of study and the replacement of your hand with a fist-sized diamond to change the color of your eyes). On the other hand, you could have a world with a 10 in power, a 10 in availability, and a 1 in price. Now everyone has magic that can do anything. Your world might be chaotic, but could certainly be written. A 5 in each might represent a world in which all women (or the firstborn of every family, or all people of a fairly common race) can use magic, which is powerful enough to do most things modern technology can, but for which the more powerful effects require years of training and hours of set-up time. If you want a fun worldbuilding prompt, take a ten-sided die (or random number generator set from 1 to 10), roll three times, and set up magic systems to go with the numbers you get.

My major fantasy world uses a magic system which is probably a 9 power, 4 or 5 price, 3 or 4 availability. If you write fantasy and care to comment on a magic system you’ve developed, feel free!

This brings me, sort of, to the story I wrote on cross-dressing dragons. I enjoyed it very much. I find that, no matter how I work at the short stories I write for class, most of my favorite short stories are ones for which the idea just came to me. This is the first such that I turned in for Advanced Fiction. (Most ideas I get are for longer pieces.) I edited it and turned it in as the final story for my Advanced Fiction class.

I feel it worth noting that my Advanced Fiction class had a barbecue at the end of the semester, during which two of my classmates made and played a drinking game based on English-major terms. They called it “Allegory.” Since we mostly knew each other in the context of writing, such terms kept coming up. Someone would use words like “narrative flow” or “point-of-view violation.” “Allegory!” they would shout, and take a drink of beer. Becky and I, who don’t really drink, were highly amused. Eventually, both players ended up in the host’s neighbors’ wading pool. (I think the neighbors were lending it to our host, as it was in his house’s yard, but he said it belonged to them.)

Just thought I’d mention it as this blaze of nerdy, writerly glory seemed an appropriate end for an excellent creative writing class. As a hopeful creative writing professor-to-be, I’d love to teach classes as well as Professor Robbins did us.