Friday, July 30, 2010

Theories of Love

Okay, let's start with something positive. Love through the lens of psychology. In Western society, at least, love is thought to be the deepest and most meaningful of emotions. It is the Alpha and the Omega. The best of the best. Love rates higher than happiness. Love can be viewed in a number of ways, as a multifaceted attitude, an emotion, a need, interpersonal attraction, or even simply a series of behaviors initiated by a chemical response in the brain. This post will talk about how psychology views love and a bit on common opinion. That way, it can both help you figure out how love should work in your stories, and also help you decide what your characters believe.

So, on to the actual theories (if you're still with me):

Biological View

If you take the biological view, love is like hunger or thirst and satisfies the same end goal as lust: child production. Lust makes you take notice of potential mates, romantic attraction makes you focus on a mate, and attachment leads you to actually tolerate your mate and the child long enough to rear it! Not exactly a glorious explanation of love though it may be an opinion that you, or one of your characters, might hold. Characters who take this rather pragmatic view are probably less likely to lose their head or even fall in love in the first place. They may well choose their mates with a bit more of a practical eye. Of course, people can be the biggest cynics in the world and get bitten by the love-bug but they're less likely to have many romantic 'illusions'.

Psychological Theory

One of the leading theories on the psychological side, is Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love. Basically, love is made up of three different things: intimacy (the extent to which they confide in each other alongside feelings of bondedness), commitment (expectation of permanency and shared achievements and plans), and passion (the heart hammering and sexual side of things).

Nonlove is a sense of absence of all those positive qualities of love. The partners may fake an attachment in public but generally have little to do with each other.

Liking/friendship is a sense of truly bonding with someone, feeling close to them, and enjoying their company, but without any intense passion or even long-term commitment. While they may be quite upset to learn the other will be leaving soon, they can readily come to terms with it, because it's simply the loss of a companion that bothers them and not the loss of a future together.

Infatuated love is the pure, whirlwind passion that is most commonly found in novels, particularly Fantasy novels involving squabbling characters with nothing in common. This can generally disappear quite quickly as it lacks the long-term commitment or even the deep understanding and bonding with the other partner to sustain it. Of course, over time, infatuated love can become another form of love as other aspects develop. Some people can become quite addicted to the heady experiences of infatuation and jump from bed to bed in pursuit of it. Generally, this form of love requires more than a one night stand - if the passion is high enough to warrant the title, then it's probably high enough to sustain itself over several nights, at least, if not weeks or even months. This is often a highly sought after love to experience on holiday as it lends a pleasant quality to the entire experience.

Empty love has neither intimacy nor passion to give it any real sparkle. It may be that a stronger form of love has dwindled over time or the individuals have had their marriage arranged for them or that they married for individual or communal gain.

Romantic love doesn't involve any long-term commitment but does involve a lot of sharing of pasts, hopes and dreams, as well as a passionate enjoyment of each other's company. This is the Western ideal of the start of the relationship. In fact, if most romantic movies and other such tales are to be believed, this is the Western ideal full stop as it's rare that long-term commitment gets a look-in. Heart rates go up at the sight of them, hours are spent in eager conversation, and people are eager to meet and greet again.

Companionate love is similar to friendship love but far more lasting as there is a long-term commitment of shared goals and values. It's lack of sexual desire makes this form of love quite looked down upon in modern, Western society as a relationship whose flame has gone out and some view it as hell to be stuck within it. However, while the passion may have gone out (or never existed in the first place) there is a deep affection and commitment leads to a strong bond of its own. This form of love might be found also in the platonic close friendships and family relationships that people have.

Fatuous love is rarely explored and it probably should be. This is probably what happens after all those Fantasy novels including hateful characters bedding each other probably winds up. Commitments are made (normally by the end of the book so as not to bore us with the lack of will-they/won't-they) after a whirlwind courtship and marriage. Trouble is, they've never really gotten the chance to get to know each other. Perhaps they preferred not to or simply didn't think of it at the time.

Consummate love is the so-called complete form of love as it comprises all three of the aspects in relatively equal dimensions. Their passion for each other hasn't dimmed (they're the eighty-year-olds that make the rest of us squick), they know so much about each other, and they can't imagine being with anyone else. They try to deal with their issues as they have an eye on the long-term but they do take a moment to indulge.

Of course, relationships can ebb and flow. Nonlove can become consummate love as the boxes are ticked off. An arrangement marriage can glow brightly as Empty Love becomes imbued with passion and intimacy over time.

The Character Therapist speaks on Abuser's mentality

Well, I came across this wonderful article and this one on what makes an abuser's mind tick. I've mentioned Jeannie's wonderful blog before but this is worth directing you to just because the post is quite thought-provoking. It's always difficult to understand why 'bad people' do the terrible things they do. What motivates them? How do they justify that?

I think I might do some of my own reading into the subject. See if I can find more reasons behind the abusive mind-set, in and around my scheduled posts on studies of emotion. Probably bore the hell out of you guys but I'm a psychology student so nyah! I can research / post what I want to.

*does the little dance of power*

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Subtlety ... or Understatement Is The Win

Maybe it's just because I'm Australian but I've always preferred well-worded understatement to emotional outbursts - in film, books, and videogames. I think my preference might also be that the big screaming, gasping, gurgling, is normally a bit out-of-proportion or they don't sit well with the character, or they're melodramatic and theatrical rather than gutteral and grotesque. After all, most people will have their characters sob and wail and pull their hair in dramatic defiance - a beautiful icon of human emotion! But in truth humans are ugly when they're highly emotional.

Gutteral grief means eyes so swollen they're almost shut, twisted grimaces that almost make a mockery of the human features, red faces, hitching breath, possibly even choking on their own sobs which might lead to dry retching, and other signs of emotional ugliness.

Rage isn't handsomely defiant - it's again twisted exaggeration of the face, jaws clamped so tight the teeth go white, unattractively red faces, and a lurch of fear or confusion in the viewer's bellies. It also tends to spill over into actions people wish they hadn't done - particularly if they feel frustrated by other people's reactions to their rage. They lash out verbally leaving behind scars they'll regret or they bite their tongue and simmer in hate-stew or they smack, shove, or hit someone nearby. They might even 'kick the dog' so to speak and take it all out on some innocent schmuck. It's completely unattractive.

The heights of joy have a word attached to them: hysteria. Hysteric fits of giggling, confusing passages of disconnected thought, lots of loudness and hype, and a lot of very confused spectators who might be able to smilingly go along with it but feel somewhat disconnected.

Of course, normally what you get are angry declarations and ruminations that inspire or intimidate; weeping maidens that wrench the heart but make them all the more beautiful like kicked puppies whimpering into the night; or shining eyes and joyous exaltations. I mean, they do all have their place. Anger isn't always rage, sorrow can be sad yet sweet, and joy can be pure and simple, but the writer isn't always clear on that point. The reactions don't even necessarily fit the character or the personality (innocent girl returns home to find everyone spread about like crumbs from a toddler's cookie). So I guess I've just grown tired of it.

Also, they keep reaching these crescendoes, particularly of grief and rage, yet never seem to feel gutted by it. Remember the last time you were caught in the throes of grief or rage and how you felt afterwards. Relief, sometimes. Other times you just felt drained and numb. If your grief or rage keeps being triggered, well, there's something off with your state of mind and you're likely to do something crazy.

Generally, you're better off with under-stated unless you're dealing with theatrical cultures in my book. A few perfectly formed words can describe things so perfectly where lines of over-emphasis would just have me shrink back away from it. I've been reading a few WWII diaries and one of the women on the Home Front plum broke my heart. Everyone thinks she's so cheerful but in truth, she smiles because she doesn't know what else to do. The lines are dynamite and they're injected into otherwise homely scenes.

I think I'll do some research into some of the big emotions later and do up a few articles on them.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I miss it. I get up at 7:30, bum around for an hour and a half, and that's the sunlight I actually see. Luckily I have big windows in the dining room / computer room where I normally sit in the mornings. Okay, so I normally get up at 8:00 because it's damn cold at 7:30 (a whole 8 degrees celsius! I'm sure all you folk in England would gasp at such frightfully chilly weather in winter!) and we try to keep our electricity bills down low by only putting on the ducted heading for a few hours a day.

Anyway, not the point. The point is that I get off work at 5:00PM most days, catch a bus, and by the time I get off the O'Bahn at home, it's 5:45 and it's been dark for almost half an hour. We go for a lot of walks, me and my fiance, but it's almost always dark at night. No wonder I'm so pale.

I never realized how early night fell in winter until I got this job. Now I crave Spring, not just for the weather, but for the sun!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Philosophical Rant: Comprehension of the Other

Forgive me for going off on a bit of a tangent but, trust me, it's relevant. I've realized that the greatest intimacy with another person comes when you take a step back from them. It sounds counter-intuitive, but bear with me as I explain. As infants, we viewed the world as an extension of ourselves. We couldn't comprehend that our perception of the world wasn't the world or that the people we met weren't simply a part of us. As we grew older, we began to divide the world into I and Not-I. Of course, this division has never been perfect and often we fall back into bad habits with people we are most familiar with.

How often have you made assumptions based off your own belief systems when dealing with someone else, even when that assumption doesn't fit anything else you know about that person? While you doubtless know on a literal level that other people are distinct organisms, wholly separate from us, and yet relating to us on a number of levels, how often do you actually acknowledge it with the people you're close to?

Sometimes consciously looking at another person and really acknowledging their complete and utter separation from us as thinking, feeling organisms in their own right, can really help you see them in a new light. Cutting through those assumptions, taking a step back, and going 'Wow, you are you' can really assist a person in understanding someone else better.

I think this is important to consider for writers on a number of levels. So:

First of all, I believe that all writers are philosophers and psychologists. We try to understand the human condition. What better way to do that then to learn more techniques on recognizing and understanding differences.

Secondly, it's an important point to note when writing your character's perspective. So often we make assumptions based on our own core beliefs, even when those core beliefs are not shared by the person in question. This is something that should happen with out POVs. They shouldn't be able to accurately guess everyone's motivation all the time. There should be a sense that the image being received (and shown to us) is a biased one.

Hopefully some of my rant made some sense. I'm new to trying to put philosophy into words.

Also, apologies to people who dislike the term 'organism'.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Envy Bug

I've gotta admit that I'm quite envious of all those people who have 100+ Followers lurking on their pages. I'm not sure why. I'm sure I'd feel self-conscious about my work if I had a bigger audience. Well, okay, I am a bit of a prima donna (years in a youth theatre will do that to you) but I'm sure that I would at least be forced to edit. And worry about pacing myself so that I've got enough free space in my head left to make more posts.

Of course, I'd have to say that my cardinal sin is Envy. Fairly feline in that respect. It's primarily Attention that I envy. Attention and people socializing without me. Very much the only child that I used to be for 10 years before my little sister came along.

On the plus side, I can put thoroughly non-productive posts up about twine and not worry too much about irritating massive amounts of people.

So, what's your favourite? Twine or wool? And why?

Side Project: Call of Cthulhu Monographs part 2

Well, I guess the reason why I locked down last time was because I was up to the artwork part. Got to place all your own art in them. Being a writer, not a drawer, I naturally put that off. I'm finding it easier now that I'm forcing myself to do it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Side Project: Call of Cthulhu Monographs

Well, I've dug out the old side project. A London Home Front monograph submission for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game that I have left in a state of near-completion. Man, I've been working on it every so often over the past four years. On the plus side, it's looking good ... even if it hits my ego to see how long I've spent wasting about not finishing it. Ah well, it'll be worth it when it's done.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Advice on Developing Geological / Climate Development

For Rosentia Island, I knew I wanted a decidedly Australian flavor so when I built my world map I placed the continental mainland in a similar region to Australia and placed Rosentia Island along the southern coast of that continent. I knew I didn’t want to use a cut-and-paste Australia so I made sure the mainland continent is far larger than Australia (closer to Russia in size) and gave it a ‘spine’ of mountain ranges that cut through it suggesting far greater activity in the tectonic plates. Later, when developing my continent, these details alone will provide significant differences from Australia will give me license to world build creatively.

Since Rosentia Island isn’t far from the spine of mountain ranges, when I began looking at mineral resources I started researching volcanic rock. I settled on granite as I used to live near a Granite Island and knew a bit about the texture and look of granite. Since the mineral resources of Rosentia Island is simply background material, I used the internet to dig up some basic information on the formation of granite and some of its shapes (i.e. tors and rounded massifs). Books are better for more in-depth and precise information. I also researched what other rock might develop alongside granite but have so far had no luck.

The real world Granite Island, despite being both smaller and uninhabited, became a starting point for my Rosentia Island. I researched its geological beginnings to understand how Rosentia Island might have been shaped. The size of the island was determined through considering how long I wanted a journey across the island to take (2 – 3 hours from west to east).

The story needed both stretches of wilderness and a settlement that had lasted centuries. Some dark secrets have kept down the population but it needed something more to justify the expanse of wilderness. Thus I made it a harsher island. The rockiness in the middle defeats most attempts at crop lands and helps protect a few stretches of the open woodlands to the far west. The western and central parts are also higher above sea level and more hilly even in the wooded parts. This is also keeps a large stretch of the island relatively unpopulated as most can’t be bothered walking far up-hill. To reduce the impacts of deforestation I not only gave them a re-planting cultural custom (if you’re not clearing for farmland, replant for tomorrow) but also decided that in a bushfire-prone country, they would build their houses out of stone. It also helps that the temperate climate keeps that many seasons warm enough that fire places are unnecessary for much of the year.

Wikipedia can also be handy for designing islands and mainlands by looking at some of their categories. Check out coastal geography:

World Building Example: Rosentia Island Geography

This is an example of the geology and climate of Rosentia Island. I'm including this just so you can see how another writer sets up their world, what information they include or track down, etc. As I'm no geology student, some of this may be slightly off but I won't be quoting this in the novels itself so that should be okay.

Climate Region: Warm temperate. Temperature in winter averages 16C during the day and 6C at night with a risk of frost in low-lying areas. Temperature in summer averages 30C during the day and 20C at night with a risk of heat waves (generally high 30s due to coastal winds) for weeks at a time in the world-equivalent of January/February. This most often occurs when the weather comes down off the northern Ihlander salt plains. The mean sea surface temperature varies from 14C in winter to 19C in summer.

Ecological Regions: There are three primary biomes in Rosentia Island: scrubland, open forest, and coastal. Scrubland dominates the rockier, wind-swept regions to the west and center of the island. Open canopies of predominantly eucalypt forests cover the rolling hills in the outer and more eastern areas of the island. The coastal biomes obviously dominate the beaches.

Geological History: The granite that makes up Rosentia Island formed 10 km below the surface of the earth around 480 million years ago. The granite formed when layers of sediment were folded by the extreme pressure in the world’s crust alongside melting of the base rock by the extreme heat. Rosentia Island was located at a weak point in the world’s crust – a weak point formed by the footprint of an ancient spirit when it leapt from this world to the cosmos – which gave room for the molten rock to force its way upwards to the surface where it cooled and hardened into granite. Sediment has been layered over this land on a number of occasions, often linking it to the greater land mass, but a war between the weather spirits, sparked by the greed of a tidal princess for the storm prince’s electrical crown, caused the gradual erosion of the land, both exposing the granite beneath the dirt and eroding the land link between Rosentia Island and the main land.

Geography: The island is 14.7 kilometres long (2 hour walk) and 9.5 kilometers wide (1.5 hour walk). Large swathes of the south and west coastline are filled with steeply sloping granite cliffs. Along the north, particularly the north east, there are sandy surf-beaten beaches. The north-west Flycatcher Bluff (so-named after the old glass house of a long-dead Rosentia lady who grew carnivorous plants within) has an old lighthouse that overlooks the Shipgutter Cove whose rocky shallows consume any ship that ventures too near.

The ocean shelf in this region experiences cool-water non-tropical flows and these conditions favour growths of carbonate-producing bryozoans, coralline algae, sponges, molluscs, and asteroids. Much of the ocean shelf surrounding Rosentia Island is rocky but the region to the west has more pronounced granite features due to more severe weathering due to tidal / wind strength differences and due to the original geologic formation though the tidal influences is greatly reduced inside the cove. The original granite formation occurred less commonly to the eastern coast of Rosentia Island and this has allowed for a safer approach for ships and other vessels. There is also less severe weathering on the eastern side allowing for greater sediment build-up, a richer top soil, and thus more arable land.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Paranormal Activity

Sometimes, movies just really show you how it should be done. This horror movie has exquisite pacing and manages to tread the line between being subtle enough that you could believe this might happen to you, and overt enough to keep you interested. I think this is the must-see horror movie of the year. After watching it, I just itched to inject more darkness into my stories. I could see the pacing structure blossom before my very eyes. I will say no more. You just have to watch it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

My Novel = Not That Bad

Wow, I've been going over it again and revising it and I realized something today: It's not that bad. I mean it. Really. Here I was griping about the merry-go-round of the whole thing and I see now that it's all been to good effect. My novel is far more interesting. The characters are dynamic. The pacing is fine. The dialogue is distinct. I'm even fixing up some of the more dull descriptions. In short, I might end up querying the novel because even if no agent finds it to their taste, it'll be because of random matters like over-saturation of the market, or Fantasy not being successful enough, or it being too Australian, or too many good novels coming in. In short, it won't be because I'm a crap writer. Perhaps I won't be 'good enough' or my subject matter won't be. But the novel is actually *gasp* okay!

Nautical Research

While I'm not writing historical fiction, I do think it important to do as much research as I can on my areas of interest. One thing that I have been researching quite extensively is sea travel. My novel has ocean-faring technology set at about the mid-1700s so I aim most of my research at around that era. I've found it best to research from a number of resources.

Fictional works (especially historical writers as they are held to higher standards). Pros: Events in the novel might inspire you; Assists in figuring out how best to describe certain parts of the ship, shipboard life, or certain maladies such as the sights, sounds, and texture of a ship; and it fills both your fiction and research quota. Cons: The author's research might not be as excellent as you assume. You might perpetuate certain myths. The terminology is rarely described so you normally only have context to rely upon.

Web-sites (general research). Pros: There's often a lot of pictures and explanation of terminology. It's easy to read. One good site for example is: Cons: Many web-sites are just copy-pasted content from other web-sites. There's rarely any references or other ways of checking the validity of the content creator's research.

Author sites, Blogs, and Newsletters. Pros: Authors of historical fiction based on ships often include information that they've found. The author will often discuss how they do their research. Julian Stockwin, for example, offers a lot of information and even links to sea shanties and other such things. Cons: The value of the site really depends on how much research they do.

Non-Fiction Books. Pros: Books often include reference lists to let you know just where they sourced their information. More information is given, and in greater detail, than on web-sites that tend to be rather concise. Cons: Finding the particular piece of information you require can be finding a needle in a hay stack. Finding a book on the subject can also be tricky (try state libraries or historical societies first and foremost; public libraries in the port areas of town might have local history books; and universities might have some in their history section).

Interviews. Pros: You can ask them about their sources and where they got their information from. It's even better if you can convince them to read the trickier scenes in your book to give you technical advice (warning: they may really not want to do this). Cons: The interviews can be tricky to arrange.

The Real Deal. Pros: Who doesn't want to sail on a ship of the correct era? Will assist in picturing the ship and understanding certain restraints (speed, size, etc.) Even a very modern boat can give you a better understanding of the ocean. Cons: May be prohibitively expensive. Many of these ships are built along tourist lines and are by no means historically accurate.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I Write Like...

Well, I was blog surfing today, as per usual, and I came across John Smith's blog that pointed out this rather neat web site that tells you who you write like. I popped in Chapter 1, a 9-page chapter involving a little kid caught up in a bizarre demonic summoning ritual and guess what?

I write like
Arthur Conan Doyle

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

It's not even the same genre! Is this a fact that I need to accept about myself? That I write like dark fantasy like Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes? Or is this site just making stuff up? You decide!

Physical description is not a dirty word

I've noticed that a lot of novels are starting to shy away from description, particularly in fantasy. They want to avoid the 'He was tall and slender with long black hair pulled into a pony tail and piercing grey eyes'. That's an understandable desire. However, you don't HAVE to describe people like that. People try to portray either their ideal or real selves through what they wear, how they style their hair, their make-up, and their posturing. Other people take what they look like and then make their own assumptions based on that.

Crime novels, in particular, have learned the art of describing personality through appearance, often giving a double whammy of describing both the POV and the described person at the same time.

Her eyes, on any other woman, would have been considered a warm brown. Somehow, set in her weathered face, surrounded by frown lines and lips pulled thin through years of disapproval, those eyes had all the warmth of a long-dead corpse left out in the sun.

Okay, that description is a fairly colorful one, but you get the point. Imagine that the POV is describing his mother ... his mentor ... his nemesis ... the Queen. It puts twists on each one of them. It describes the relationship, his assumptions, and a bit about the personality of the other character.

I like personal description. They build character. Don't fear it. Do find your own spin on it.

Giving A Sense of Place through Description

This year I've been reading widely across genres. I've read an Ed McBain (Crime), Brent Weeks and five Robin Hobb books (fantasy), a Dan Abnett Warhammer 40k novel (science fiction / horor / crime), a Dan Simmons (historical / horror), two Edwin Thomas (crime / historical / comedy) and a Lilith Saintcrow (urban fantasy / cyberpunk). Each of these authors have very different styles but I think I've finally noted what it is that draws a sense of place.

Telling Details

You've doubtless heard of this term before but I don't think I've ever fully realized until now what it means. It's description as clue. Each line fulfills multiple functions. It is even better if each line is precise. Rather than a few vague, sweeping descriptive sentences ("The officer sat fearfully behind the desk in the enormous waiting area, watching over both the large, double doors and the sweeping staircase") it builds in a few precise details that can suggest the rest ("The officer sat stock still and sweating behind the steel folding table in a corner of the enormous lobby, watching over the large mahogany doors and the sweeping marble staircase"). The reasons why the second line is better are multiple:

* Precision in that second line aids author credibility. Authors that speak with precision suggest that they've put a lot of thought into the description. It wasn't just the first thing that flew off the keyboard. So, don't say desk when you mean table. Don't say waiting area when you mean lobby.

* The Description gives a clue to the character's personality or mood. My example line of description suggests fear though the personality clue isn't as strong here as it could be. Perhaps not the POV's fear, but a sense of fear surrounding him/her. The minor character is quite stressed and awkward, the description makes him sound almost caged in.

* The Description assists the reader to make assumptions. The officer seems anxious, which suggests that he fears trouble. Whether the trouble is a superior officer or an oncoming war isn't mentioned. The clash of the table compared to the building gives a clue that perhaps the mansion wasn't always housing officers. Perhaps it was commandeered to the purpose..

* The Description allows the reader to make assumptions. I don't need to belabor the point on how this place is quite rich. I don't need to describe the oil paintings on the wall or the heavy velvet curtains. The readers can assume based on the staircase and the large doors. If there weren't any paintings on the walls, but there was dusty or faded squares of paint where paintings once hung, then that would be a valid and useful telling detail.

* Foreshadows the future. The location isn't safe. People aren't comfortable. It suggests oncoming trouble.

* A sense of history. There is a clash here between what was (a mansion) and what is now (the entrance hall hastily turned into a lobby) and this is shown also through the clashing descriptive elements. Notice how the clue is there and ready to be built upon. I didn't need to begin the scene with information on how 'Ever since the mansion was commandeered three years ago by the harsh commander so-and-so, the officers have been nervously tip toeing around'. I could simply show, bit by bit, through each descriptive element, dialogue, etc. the same thing.

So remember, when writing your description to check if it is precise, provides a clue (foreshadowing, personality, mood), and has a sense of history. Each line doesn't need to do all of these things but the more that the lines, or paragraphs, of description achieve, the better things are.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fantasy and Animals

Many fantasy worlds are lonely places. There's no critters in sight. There might be ravenous wolves wishing to snack on a poor maiden, or howling creepily in the distance. Other than familiars and horses, that's about it. There's few mentions of ants, leeches, and mosquitoes, and the trouble a poor, wandering princess or naieve farm boy. Sometimes you get the latter two, but for some reason, the former (and most annoying - ants are soulless Lovecraftian entities that draw strange symbols on the ground in their writhing formations) don't get a lot of air time as the evil soul-sucking monsters they are.


I'm a voyeur. I love getting that sense of place. Whether it's feeling the vibe of that rusted out car that reeks of possum pee that the redneck kid sits inside to think in a YA novel, or the black tuber forests buzzing with flies that lay eggs in people's eye lids and corners of their mouths in a Science Fiction novel, or the poignant description of mangy dogs skulking about beside equally mangy kids in the urban squalor of a fantasy novel, most places are best described when there's that sense of life.

Yet so many novels feel empty. They might give air time to the teeming masses of faceless humans but they rarely give a sense of a place that is filled by other creatures. What of bird-poop-covered statues and ant-ridden (Oh God, the ants!) trash or ducks with their strings of ducklings? If animals do pop up, there's often a sense of the cliche. The world is filled with wolves and rabbits and prettily singing birds.

Liana Brooks is doing a bunch of wonderful world building articles and one of her latest focuses on Ecosystems. I'm going to give her article a really good read multiple times so that I can remember in my own novels that a sense of place is best achieved when the place isn't empty of life. Particularly in the wilderness.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Premise

It's strange how something so simple as what-the-story-is-about doesn't come to me until well after the novel is written. During the process I have an idea. Perhaps I even have some sense of the plot. Yet the premise, that summary paragraph, the truth of the story, the full concept, lays in wait in the sub-conscious. Some never find it. They go on and on about the primary conflict, the obvious issue, even when that's not really what the story is about. They focus on what happens or why it happens. Not on what the story is truly about.

Still, there's something magical about the premise. It brings a certain clarity to mind. It distills the essential nature of what you're trying to achieve. So I would strongly suggest coming up with the premise of the novel at every stage of it. You'll probably be wrong the first few times. You might be wrong every time. But at the very least it'll help you regard your tale more clearly and consistently. It'll also help you prepare for the query writing phase.

This is the premise of the Butterfly Lady as I see it:

A web of conspiracy holds a small boy's fate in thrall, for his soul has been damned to a taint that slowly but surely turns him into a monster. Jason Arneil struggles to free himself from the lies and deception that threaten to damn him and, in doing so, must flee his island home and journey by ship to Port Vedic in the hope that someone there might discover a cure for his curse. But in that bustling city, he finds only answers that threaten madness and a desperate choice between two forms of damnation.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A different editing technique

I've decided to clean up the flow of the chapters themselves (as opposed to the novels) by spotlighting different chapters at random. So I listed out all the chapters and I bounce randomly from one to another (such as from Ch. 29 to Ch.18). This keeps me from polishing the same 8 starting chapters over and over.

The trouble is that the later chapters are horrible compared to the early ones and it's such a slog to have to get them into fighting fit condition. It's damn near depressing looking at the clumsy and awkward phrasing. It's okay once I get into the thick of the chapter but the start of each one is daunting as I pull my mind out of what went before and start afresh. I do think it's helped, even though it's steadily increased my word count as I realize a whole bunch of necessary additions to each chapters to make them less stop-startery.

The Merry-Go-Round of Editing...

To all those writers out there who have finished their first draft, I ask: Doesn't it make you dizzy? The endless repetitions of combing through your manuscript. The constant queries of your mind's eye. The multiple issues, the bubbles in the flow of character development, the heaving of pacing when it should be flowing, the garish flowering of descriptions that were meant to be mere garnish, and the biggest question licking at your ankles like the very fires of hell:

Will this novel ever be finished?

To quote Valve (a videogame publisher), it'll be done, when it's done. But just when will that be? With every pass through I see more faults, more issues, not less. As my skills are honed and my abilities strengthened, I see my failings as an author more clearly. But what is to be done? Grit my teeth and send it out when I know that it is certainly not complete? Continue on the merry-go-round 'just one more time'? Scrap it and start over?

I think the most painful part of all is the simplest fact that no one can ever judge the answer for us. We must judge ourselves.

I can only imagine how terrible it would be to edit to a deadline.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Who wants to be a published author?

I know that the answer should be yes and in a way it is for me. At the same time, it isn't. I write my novel because I yearn to write it. I edit and polish it partly because that's just what you do and partly because it's easier for me to edit than face a brand new page. When this is done, I will send it off to agents because, again, it is just what you do. If it is accepted, due to all of new millenium's fears of being scammed by folk you can't see (very unlikely I'd get an Adelaide agent), I would probably be deeply sceptical. Once assured as to the agent's good intentions, I would wait and write and do my bit and be startled were it to find a publisher.

But what happens when it lands on a book shelf?

Well, I would try to promote it as, again, that's what a person ought to do. But how would I feel? I don't know. There'd be a flush of pride there but also one of loss. My novel, unpublished, is wholly mine. A few others read it, critters, but those critiquers aren't people I'll ever meet and so, in a strange way, can't wrest it from me. Having it on a shelf will remind me that my 'baby' is being looked at and read and that the readers are re-defining the characters and story in the light of their own experiences. Some lines might be unintentionally (for me at least) funny or funny lines boring. Excitable characters might be seen as stupid. Ones I designed to be stupid might be considered wise. I have lost control.

And to make it worse: what if I find something in the novel that I don't like? I no longer have the power to change it because it's already out there...

So I believe that seeing my book on the shelf would be a bitter-sweet experience. Similar (though hopefully not as intense as) seeing your child get accepted to a prestigious university over six hours away. A moment of pride and loss. I wonder, am I the only one who would feel this way?

The Brake Pad

Since I talked about conflict yesterday, I thought I should give mention to the Brake Pad. The Brake Pad is a delightful little term I've heard most used in relation to video games (no, don't click away - you can hone your craft by learning from ALL forms of storytelling). For those who play videogames, you have probably noticed that by necessity a lot of games ramp up the conflict by spewing danger at you. There's a rockfall, some bad guys, a scene where your dead daughter runs away from you, some bad guys, a puzzle that might eat your hand, some bad guys... A lot of first-person shooters are particularly bad with this. Those who never play videogames probably think that this is what gamers want in a game. That the pinnacle of a good game involves dealing with an endless array of monsters.

Not so!

Most of the best games, from humble shooter (Half Life) to frantic survival horror (Silent Hills) to RPGs (Final Fantasy) to action adventure (Prince of Persia) include what are lovingly referred to as brake pads. Short lengths of time when nothing jumps out at you. Where there are no puzzles. Where those flickering shadows hide nothing from you. Where there's no cut-scene or Non-Player Characters to distract you. There is nothing but you and the game world.

These are the bits where you begin to worry. You wonder what's coming up. It's as though the game world is holding its breath. Your finger twitches on the trigger. You slow your Avatar's speed. You look all around you. It's quiet ... too quiet. These are often some of the tensest scenes in the game. The horror games, in particular, seem to delight in them. The sheer contrast between peace and action make you sit up and take notice.

I think that some authors, upon hearing that there should be conflict on every page, forget about the silent conflict. It doesn't have to be something repeatedly rammed into the reader. It doesn't have to be introverted wailing. There is a silent conflict in someone doing the rounds at various shrines, consciously avoiding all thoughts of the Big Push over the trenches that is about to come (why do fantasy worlds with scorching rays never have trench ware fare?).

Remember, that sometimes it is in those moments of peace that we settle into the mind's of the characters. Keep the tension up too high and you'll jolt us out of any empathy for the characters. Yes, we might find it a page turning thriller, but too much conflict makes for painful empathy.

So, remember that in the peaks and ravines of higher and lesser conflict, there can always be a genuinely tranquil moment within the story.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I want the Tough Guide to Fantasy Land

The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land. I wants it.

Writing In the Crosshairs blog

Again I've been cruising around and again I've found a really neat blog. This one includes sample writing that is drop-dead gorgeous and some very thought-provoking posts. The one I'm linking you to right now follows the theme of world building (vaguely - it's more about characterization) that I've been focusing on. The blog post title is: Is Your Novel Real? and it discusses the various facets that makes your novel feel real. If your novel doesn't feel real, than the reader is going to have a tough time connecting with it. I think it's an awesome read and I also believe this blog is one worth watching.

The Writer’s Toolkit

Cruising around the blogs as I have wont to do, I came across this blog post at The Writer's Toolkit on how eavesdropping assists a writer get an ear for dialogue. It’s not anything I haven’t heard before but this post does set it out in an inspiring and interesting manner that has actually encouraged me to finally get around to do it.

I think the main reason I don’t is that I have a terrible ear when it comes to picking out one voice from the crowd. Even at a sit-down dinner with only 8 people talking, I’m likely to lose in the crowd the voices of people only two seats down from me.

The other reason is much simpler: I’m lazy.

That aside, it’s something I should do, especially now that I’m writing largely in the perspective of children and teenagers. While my tales aren’t contemporary, and thus I don’t need to get an eye for the speech rhythms, I do need to understand the inter-relationships and general comprehension levels, alongside other things. So I think the next time I am lucky enough to be on a bus with children, I’ll surreptitiously observe their interactions with each other, other passengers, and their family.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Breakfast Rant

Oh, I almost forgot the other tidbit health professionals never warn you about. Breakfast. Sure it boosts your metabolism and you’ll gain weight if you keep skipping it. However, when you first start having breakfast, that kick in your metabolism will leave you hungry all day. I can only imagine the number of dieters that start eating breakfast and then cry through the rest of the day due to a growling belly. The truth is, it passes. If you’re about to start eating breakfast after a long time without, stock up on healthy snacks and then snack the day away. If you’re counting calories, you probably will go over your limit over the next 3 – 4 days. After that point, however, your body will calm down.

Why health professionals never warn you about this, despite the fact that I’ve double checked my experiences with three others (I know, only three, but still – that’s a whopping 100% agreement rate!) and they all went through the same.

Random tangent on greedy bodies

I’ve noticed that the body can be as greedy as the mind. Where once an unhealthy person craved doughnuts for the mind-pleasing taste, a healthy person has to deal with cravings for more water, better quality sleep, and less toxins. Every time I try for a more balanced lifestyle, my body starts to loom over me like a Mafia Don. I used to get by with nothing more than the odd glass of water and the fluid from my food. Now my body wants at least 2 glasses of water a day or it complains by making me feel thirsty. It’s as though it once thought a drought was on, so it behaved, but now realizing the rain has come it’s decided to strong arm me into obeying.

If I fix my sleeping patterns, my body will point out my tiredness signals instead of smothering them. If I eat a whole berlina, even the really jam-filled part of the bun, then I’ll feel a bit queasy from the crazy levels of sugar that my body is no longer used to. This is the one aspect of healthy living that nobody ever tells you about. Eat well, live well, and your body becomes a prissy princess that won’t shut up about your body’s needs. I guess it means I’m growing more in touch with my body, but damn it, I didn’t know my body was such a nag!


Without conflict there isn’t a story. We’ve all heard this maxim yet, true as it is, and yet some follow it more than others. I know that in a lot of best-selling fantasy authors (Robin Hobbs and Brent Weeks immediately spring to mind), there is always some form of conflict on the page. It is almost as though they look at each plot point and think to themselves – what conflict could come from this? What is the worst reaction that this character could have? What is the best reaction that also has the worst repercussions? An almost exhausting labrynthe of twisting conflicts normally ensue where people clash again and again in an almost dizzying dance of pain and splendor.

It has been suggested that such complex sets of conflicts are the recipe to a best-selling, ‘unputdownable’ novel. But how often do our stories follow such formats? How often do we let our protagonist off easy? How often do we identify the potential conflicts lying between our characters and then play off them?

I guess one trick would be to actually ask ourselves those questions as we work and then force ourselves as authors to face the true repercussions.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Chapter 12 - plot holes, I have them

Well, my critters have sky rocketed to chapter 22 but in my typical snail-like fashion I'm up to editing Chapter 12. I've been shown a few plot holes, nothing major, that need fixing. Details that need dropping a little earlier ... skills that need revealing ... points that I thought were obvious but weren't ... and character development that was in sync, then I edited, and is now out of sync. It sounds like a lot but thankfully most of it involves small issues that should be easily dealt with. It just means going back and adding a few things here and there.

Rant on Robin Hobb's 'The Liveship Traders'

I feel almost treacherous complaining of this as I well and truly love the series and think that Robin Hobb is a masterful world builder who takes conflict to its natural (and often painful) conclusion. This is not an author that shirks repercussions by any stretch of the word. However, there are two niggling issues I have with the story. The first, and simplest, is how Robin Hobb doesn’t bother to equip some of her new scene first paragraphs with a pronoun. Now this isn’t an issue in a one-character story but it does get annoying when you have at least a dozen POV characters who switch about once per scene. I’ve gotten really good at picking up the nuances of the paragraph and sussing out which POV is manning which scene but it would be easy for her to fix that little bug. Especially since this isn’t her first trilogy.

The second niggling issue is how bad the Chalcedean nation is. They are completely morally reprehensible by most social standards and seem to have no redeeming features whatsoever. They are a war-like race of violent men who were the first to traffic in slaves and who coldly rape any unescorted woman they lay their eye on. They even try to rape, under the view of their crewmen, the female servant of a 'guest' aboard their ship even though the woman didn't count as 'unattached'. While this isn’t an impossible combination of social traits, it does smack a little bit of the typical fantasy Dark Kingdom of Evil. Of course, Robin Hobb does do some pretty nifty things like showing how even an evil nation like Chalced influences the world around it - not through war but through changes in fashion and social norms which is something often ignored by fantasy authors, but still … the Chalcedeans are a terrible people.

On the other hand, the one Chalcedean POV character is drawn artfully enough and I even came to understand his particular honor code and way of thinking. Kyle Haven, an immigrant to Bingtown, was a sometimes charming and always dominant man who strongly believed that he had to independently save the fortunes of the family he married into. Due to his history, he saw nothing wrong with turning the family ship into a slaver to do so. Nor did he see anything wrong with demanding his son obey him absolutely (and without hating him) and expected everyone to understand that he was only trying to do his best. In truth, he WAS trying to do the right thing. It just happened to be the wrong thing and he was too arrogant to see it. I saw him as a sympathetic villain whom I nonetheless rooted against.

Now that I am halfway through the third book, I change my mind. When compared to his people, Kyle Haven is a revolutionary figure who single-handedly pulled away from a brutal heritage to come to terms with female strength. His ability to at least try to reason with women, his complete non-violence to his wife, generally non-violent treatment of his wayward son, and complete lack of rape and general self-restraint shows him to be a shining example of how nurture doesn’t determine who you are. I now applaud him and hope that by the end of the novel he is brought back into the fold as a more humble and deeply changed man.

The trouble is, I'm not sure if the author intended that contrast!

Designing Cultural Customs

When developing a culture, a lot of thought is often put into the religion, gender structures, hierarchies, and education of the society. One often ignored issue that can provide a lot of story hooks and conflict between people is that of social ettiquette (I'll call it customs from now on for brevity's sake). Customs can vary widely - particularly in places where travel is difficult - and there are variations within certain sub-cultures (i.e. poor vs. rich, military vs. civilian, young vs. old).

Of course, for us fantasy writers, we have to first develop these customs before we can see where the conflicts might lie and that can be rather daunting. There's a huge array of social customs that you can develop (greetings, insulting behavior, gift-giving, courting, superstitions, stigmas, farewells). Even a society that appears on the service to be rough-and-ready or laid-back will have its own set of social rules. Generally these customs are a social lubricant, providing a shared set of norms and assumptions, to make it easier for people to relate to each other and anticipate behavior.

This makes it sound easy. Just invent a set of social rules, watch them clash, and that's that. However, customs aren't arbitrary. If you remember my earlier post on symbolism, a society's customs are often steeped heavily in what is considered symbolically 'good' or 'bad'. A society that values a non-confrontational attitude will have quite different customs to one that values exuberance and emotional forthrightness. Why are certain things considered inappropriate? What does this represent to them?

Even a single social rule can have a multitude of reasons. You don't have to accept the first answer you come up with. If it still doesn't fit right, brainstorm a little. What other possibilities could there be? Do certain sub-cultures respect the same custom but for different reasons?

As an example, one of the customs in the Realms is that you don't complain about the rain. The possible social reasons behind this might be: It'll anger the sun spirits; It goads the rain spirits to keep raining; Rain is depressing and complaints about depressing subjects bring everyone down; Any and all complaints are considered little more than worthless whining in a stoic society; or even Wishes might come true and a drought-stricken land needs all the rains it can get. In the Realms, it's actually the latter reason. One of the cruelest things you can say to a Realms person is: 'May it never rain on your city's/region's celebrations' because the Realms will use anything as an excuse to celebrate and if that came true then there would be a year long drought!

Friday, July 2, 2010

General World Building Research Advice

First of all, write down what you already want for your imagined setting. It just has to be a few details such as architecture, climate, flora, or fauna. Then hit the books. Find real-world locations that have these things and research them to learn what climate influenced those flat-roofed adobe houses, what sort of history / environment encourages collectivism, and what sort of landscape suffers a lot of thunderstorms.

You might need to tinker around with your ideas once you find the facts, though. Those flat-roofed adobe houses aren't going to last long in a tropical land filled with heavy rain or even a cold area full of snow so you might need to make choices. Does your inspiration for architecture stay? Or your first choice of climate?

Of course, researching only the country most superficially similar to your Imagined Land may lead to the Cut-and-Paste mentality. This is where fantasy authors who do not wish to do either an urban fantasy or an alternate Earth-style fantasy, simply copy a single country whole-sale. The most obvious examples for this are England, Ireland, and Japan.

So if you're using a climate / architecture similar to Mexico, also look at other countries which share similarities with what you're going for. Even a brief read through of a few books, encyclopedia entries, or web-sites, can give you fresh inspiration for how humans might function in such a land.

Now you have done your foundational research, what are looking at the other cultural issues and catastrophes. How have other countries reacted to plagues? What sort of history / religion have set up caste systems in other countries? How has the industrial era affected different countries?

If this sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. You don't have to spend that much time world building. You can either create an alernate-earth-style fantasy setting or you can simply let the culture bloom in your mind. Still, research does help, is a lot of fun, and can inspire you to see the world (both real and the imagined one) in a different light.