Category Archives: WorldBuilding

Writing Conference Report 2020–Character & Setting

As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This covers character & setting/world-building topics. Structure & plot was last month, and business topics will be next month.

Poison 101
Very few things will kill you quickly. Most of them are inhalants. Nothing will kill you immediately.
Animal: venom, sting, bacteria, penicillin & antibiotics, smallpox, viruses, allergen, etc
Vegetable: alkaloids, ricin, mushrooms (non-poisonous mushrooms can pick up poison from nearby poisonous ones)
Mineral : carbon monoxide, chlorine, radiation, arsenic, (accumulate in liver and hair)
Synthetic : drugs, pesticides, herbicides
Methods : Inhalation, topical (mucus membranes or skin, ingested, injection (including snakes and insects and platypus)
Symptoms : find in material safety data sheets
Can build a small immunity to some things (but iocane powder doesn’t exist).

Oaths & honor
Before breaking a norm /belief can touch the reader, the importance of the norm must be established.
Secondary characters are for contrast.

Loving the other (mermaids, vampires, etc)
Use a variety of internal conflicts, physical conflicts, external conflicts like societal norms.
Girls like the thought of someone extraordinary loving them.

Lost Technologies
Watch PBS Nova
Why can’t we do stuff anymore?
Tech disappears at height of its use. Mechanical calculators gave way to digital, etc.
Flint-mapping (artwork), Damascus steel, oiyas potteries (auto-water plants by seepage), metal knife for fire-starting instead of flint, Iroquois lost skills when trading for easier products, obsidian surgery tools, Saturn V rockets (each hand-built), heirloom seeds, craftsmen, enigma machine (tech parts have changed), Thor Heyerdahl, obsidian arrowheads (some made to break & slice)
Rediscovered after WWII: colossus encoder (decoder?)
When writing, if an idea doesn’t advance story, toss it.
M.S. Stirling recreated lost technology.
Why would you need to? Eric Flint (book 1600?) Town went back in time & had to fit in.
If your beta reader says bored, listen!
Look at leap tech (rich can afford) vs common tech (context is key). Example: shovel for the rich (need shoes to protect feet), poor used sticks.

Pointy Sticks & Fried Dough
What are constants in many/all cultures?
Stereotypes dominate thing that describes them.
Funeral rites: how does your culture handle it? Describes human value.
Celebrate special events, holidays, commemorations: yes, no, how?
Taboos? What do they look like?
Superstitions, myths about monsters, fears.
Ask family/friends “what did you eat for dinner growing up?”
Who has power, who makes choices?
Money, form of wealth, trade.
Social economic differences: clothing, education, where allowed to live.
What is your starting point and how do you build around it?
Show-not-tell through character’s eyes.
Read outside your genre. How do other genres discuss food, etc. Transform it to your culture, deepen & change it.
How do you balance different languages & slang?
How does language fit in the story you’re telling?

When Should Your Character Outsmart You?
Writing species smarter than humans: their learning, interactions, emotional intelligence
Smart characters come up with solutions faster than you.
Construct character from back: you do research, they have answer
Many ways to demonstrate intelligence, and they shouldn’t have them all.
So much research.
BS to make them sound smart. Make up words, things they can talk about.
Don’t go into more details than needed for story.
Make character relatable. People like human disasters.
What are environmental pressures? How do they evolve?
Culture, species, political. What was childhood environment? Vulcans=logic, Klingons=violence, etc. Find ways to relate.
What pressure drove human evolution processes? Prey or predator? Evolution & culture values?
Facial features demonstrate emotion in humans.
Communication with each other is valued.
What leads to higher intelligence?
Hive mind? For greater good?
How much do they worry about food & shelter? Once safe, can think about arts, etc.
Why does one race think they’re smarter than another?
Can intelligence be warm/welcoming?
They have something we don’t understand.
Need to be in competition with something.
Repercussions of getting intelligent?

Disabilities aren’t Superpowers
Write disabilities to give character depth
Disabilities are part of life; adapt & go on.
Are they an asset or not? Are a lot of work, but can gain a skill with practice.
Monk TV series: physical disability
Avatar movie skips training steps
Disabilities become normal over time
Don’t use disabilities to gain sympathy in romantic comedies
Mental disabilities still affects everyday life
Fight, flight, or flee? When is it life-threatening?
Sounds, like MedAlarms, are like WWII alarms & can panic vets.
Examples: Toth, Last Airbender; Numbers TV series; Captain America movie, Falcon character
Writing tips: people are people; don’t give backstory, give clues; research everyday details of disability; some people wallow until death, your character has to make an active decision. How do they compensate & get through life?
Is plot around disability or about character growth?
Borderline Curiosity Disorder & Hoarders are disabilities.
How do people live with someone with a disability? What changes are made? Look at people around character.

Casual Violence
Why is murder/honor killing acceptable? Make sure to answer why and motivation.
Killing vs murder: murder is against law/society.
Blood offerings: why?
State sanctions vs war: innocent person selected as scapegoat to satisfy god or natural disaster (usually low caste)
Honor killings by psychology today: Reputation is what protects you; if damaged, it ruins everything. Highest form of currency.
Honor: N. European gets honor by throwing lot with stronger man/best corporation. Middle/ S. European honor from family/family first. If can’t support family, someone must die. India: knock off bride for better bride. Mid East: groom pays for bride. Iran: honor killings frequent. Women used to be able to prevent, but now capital won’t listen to locals. Aztec: stage battles to capture sacrifices.
Willing self-sacrifice vs punishment: usually built into law structure.
US has so much killing (illegal but socially acceptable?) 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, etc.
Honor killings: video games, movies?
Untouchables & consequences: no one cares; tainted person becomes outcast, rejected to maintain order.
Castes of society: lower caste shame, dishonorable reincarnation, mental health issues

Horses
Cattle drive: each cowboy had seven horses. Grain-fed horses: only need one, but must bring grain.
Camping needs water, wood, and grass.
Horses are prey & prefer herds.
They sense tension & stress.
Stallions, geldings, or mares. Stallions have one-track mind when intrigued. Charge & hit hard. Mares have hormonal cycles; some will go psycho.
Read Horsetamer by Walter Farley
Cutting horses are like colliers for sheep: Youtube
Programmable.
Hard ground naturally trims hoof. Check hooves daily; stuff gets stuck in it.
Horses are afraid of paper bags & water.

Dragons
How do humans deal with being prey? Other species smarter.
Do you live in keeps? Trees, walls, etc.
Cooperative hunting, etc. Fight or flight?
Consider life cycle. Do they consume everything? Do they turn on each other? What’s the balance nature provides?
How much does predator move around? How much energy used?
Small predators: are humans scared of it? Snakes rattle, spiders, swarms. Just kill you or kill & eat you? (Hunt in groups)
Cats: watch their behavior.
Are there triggers for being attacked? (Non-threatening to attacking)
Other species attacking–do humans develop defense mechanisms?
How do humans defend against intelligent predators or societies?
How do you protect against night predators?
Species like us but different lead to war/death or truce/division.
Apex predators reproduce slower, try to protect the few left.
Can they walk among us & pass as one of us?
How can they communicate with us? What happens with the communication?
Mixed species association–learn to trust each other.
Trap/hunt together as pack.
Things that scare us are things most like us
United enemy or united problem?
Cats take care of small problems & live a comfortable life.

I always learn a lot at my writing conference, so if you have a chance to go to one, give it a shot!

Happy writing,
M.C. Lee

Writing Conference Report 2020–Structure

As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This post covers structure/plot topics. There will be another next month on character & setting, and one after that on business topics. Whew!

Firming Up a Sagging Middle
Use cliffhangers every chapter, such as physical danger, new characters, bad news, epiphanies, messages, romance, what’s behind the door, something to cheer about, decision to make, foreshadowing, awe, death, blow up something.

Everything about writing in 3 minutes
Stories are ripples in status quo.
Hero has problem. Acts. Makes problem worse! Deal with worse problem. Hero solves problem or problem solves hero. Can’t return to prior status quo.
To help your subconscious, clearly state the problem, then give it 1-2 days to work.
Write down the ideas.
Feed your subconscious with books, movies, walk, zoo, etc.

Story Mapping
Plotting or outline 3 ways:
1) Intuitive (pantser)
2) Plotters (story map), sometimes start at end & work backwards
3) Hybrids
Character-driven stories lend themselves to intuitive writing.
Plot-driven stories (mystery, thriller, sci-fi) have to know outline.
Historical & fantasy can go either way.
Why create story map in advance? Shorter writing time, place clues/red herrings, force reader to turn page by placing & answering questions, avoid dreaded blinking cursor, easier revisions, most publishers require story map in advance, helps with unexpected problems like ghostwriters/dead authors.
Proposal for trad pub is first three chapters + outline.
Does plotting story in advance stifle creativity? Depends.
Story mapping process.
1) Start with really cool idea.
2) Let idea marinate.
3) Record ideas.
4) Timing.
5) Write synopsis.
6) List of scenes.
7) Write book.
Some people like to color-code by POV or character.

Light in Darkness: Horror Stories
Horror is 7% words, 55% body language, and the rest is voice.
Subtlety/description is better than all dialogue/narration.
Horror as genre is a myth, created by booksellers to sort books, first invented for Frankenstein.
Hollywood can’t replicate the feelings in books, so they use gore and shock. Books can convey feelings.
Uniquely moral setting genre–good vs evil.
Two kinds of horror: hostile (not good) and redemptive (you can climb out of dark pit of soul).
Bible is godly horror (redemptive story).

Future of Fantasy
RPG is going into fantasy & ebooks, like Choose Your Own Adventure.
Noblebright is next trend, trying to do good & right.
Need motivation that makes sense. Need to elicit emotional reaction from reader. Does character impact reader?
Covers for youth are different than covers for adults.
Jen Lyons uses footnotes in ebooks to do worldbuilding. (Big debate: distracting vs expansive. Runs risk of breaking narrative.)
If you rely on a map, rewrite it to let readers know where characters are.
Mental health stories (heroes & villains) are upcoming trend. Makes them more relatable.
Second-world fantasy will always have place but needs to be relatable to humanity.

Lines Between Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Sci-fi: technology
Fantasy: magic, nature
Marketing might be only difference. Genre exists for shelving purposes. Trappings determine how book is classified & need to be at beginning of story.
Star Trek is soft sci-fi (about people). Inception is hard sci-fi, then fantasy in dream machine.
Tailor presentation to audience.
Gandalf is soft magic system. Hard magic system/science needs same tone throughout book.
Don’t spend too much time worldbuilding. You can get away with anything if it’s entertaining.

Structure vs Character-Led Stories
Rules base vs follow heart type
Writer needs to know ending of plot-based story or will have issues.
Review structure & character journey
If you paint yourself in a corner, is that the story?
Needs to be a set up and pay off
Need red herrings
Get readers involved by the how (thought & motivation)
Character & world building is the what
Types of structure:
Heroes Journey
Broadway
3-act Hollywood
Shakespeare
Aristotolian structure: boom, everything goes
Characters: What do they want? Include foreshadowing/hints.
Sometimes you pants it, then go back & structure
Don’t write directly to story beats
Look at ending, promises you made.
Need a good motivation for characters.
Understand difference between plot (logical sequence of evens to reactions) & conflict (creates plot)
Characters in relationship & environment create conflict
Character vulnerabilities: why?
Character needs to CHOOSE, not be blown in wind.
Anything that makes you want to write is good for you.
Goal, motivation, conflicts (relationships), should be felt.
Need smarts & hearts.

Stereotypes & Tropes
Stereotype: usually demanded by fashion
Cliche: overused ideas, becomes tiresome
Trope: literary shorthand to achieve emotional effect. Can’t be the rule & the journey.
2nd world fantasy: have stereotype, then break it.
Stereotype reveals a lot about a character. They exist for reason–why? It’s reasonable to expect certain things, cultural expectations.
Make your villain somewhat identifiable.
Characters are more compelling when there are dynamic aspects.
Zombie: no reasoning, no race, an elemental force.
Write a story from the POV of an orc.
Tropes: when to avoid? When used wrong. What does it accomplish? Use for emotional response. Reflect reader’s expectations in your genre. Do not use trope to replace plot.
TVTropes.org
Examples:
Romance: happy ending
Horror: evil villain
Thriller: master mind
Action: needs romp at start
Sci-fi: tech, sounds futuristic
Fantasy: discover, sense of wonder
Western: watch Silverado
Things not to do:
Romantic comedy: She’s been terrible to him & he still kisses her. Or honorable the whole time & then turns bad.
Don’t use stereotype to avoid character development.
Read short stories to learn tropes.
Read reviews on genres you want to write, pos or neg.

If you ever get the chance to attend a writing conference yourself, I recommend you do. 🙂

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Favorite Writing Books

Writing (Craft) Books:

The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write with Emotional Power, Develop Achingly Real Characters, Move Your Readers, and Create Riveting Moral Stakes, by Donald Maass

Story Pitch: The How To Guide For Using A Pitch To Create Your Story, by Scott King

You Must Write: Success Through Heinlein’s Rules, by Kevin McLaughlin (some craft, some business)

Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology, by Brandon Sanderson et al

GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction, by Debra Dixon

all the Emotional Thesaurus books, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson

Behind the Book: Making The Death of Dulgath, by Michael J. Sullivan

Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction, by Larry Brooks

Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K. LeGuin

No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells, by Alice Orr

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: 6 Steps to Writing and Publishing Your Bestseller!, by Phillip Athans

How to Write Killer Fiction, by Carolyn Wheat

Aliens and Alien Societies, by Stanley Schmidt

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, by K.M. Weiland

The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, by Noah Lukeman

Building Better Plots, by Robert Kernen

The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing: Everything You Need To Know About Creating & Selling Your Work, by Writers Digest Books

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card

Wrede on Writing, by Patricia C. Wrede

The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester

Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card

Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read, by Dawn Parrett Thurston

Plotting Your Novel Workbook: A Companion Book to Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, by Janice Hardy

Writing (Business) Books:

Successful Self-Publishing: How to self-publish and market your book in ebook and print, by Joanna Penn

Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should (Let’s Get Digital, #1), by David Gaughran

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur. How to Publish a Book, by Guy Kawasaki

Become a Successful Indie Author: Work Toward Your Writing Dream, by Craig Martelle

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published, by Sheree Bykofsky

Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives and Other Introverts, by Joanna Penn

Author 2.0 Blueprint, by Joanna Penn

Pulp Speed for Professional Writers: Business for Breakfast, Volume 9, by Blaze Ward

The Secrets of Success, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (it’s a single chapter/booklet, but a lot to ponder)

Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, by Mark Coker

HOW I SOLD 80,000 BOOKS: Book Marketing for Authors, by Alinka Rutkowsky

Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook, by Helen Sedwick

Darrendrakar Genetics

A fan asked me how Darrendrakar genetics work. Well, it’s more complicated than *I* can understand completely, but let me at least tell you a few things.

If you’ve read my young adult Unexpected Heroes fantasy series, set on the world of Kaiatan, you’ll know that the shapeshifters in the country of Darrendra have one alternate form that is as natural to them as their two-legger form. (You can’t call them human. “Human” is a Terran species, and “humans” can’t change shape, sorry. Darrendrakar do go by “man, woman, or person,” though.)

In book one, Wind of Choice, the shapeshifter we get to know the most is Ludik. His alternate form is a black jaguar. (Trivia: any of the big cats, when black, can be called panthers.) He comes from the kindred (tribe) of cats, called Felid. Furthermore, he comes from the sub-group of “big” cats, which includes lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and the makarodonts that include such lovely specimens as sabre-tooth tigers (although the Darrendrakar call them something else).

In Darrendra, any of the big cats are cross-fertile, as is evident from Ludik’s mother being a tiger and his father being a lion. This is different from Terra (our Earth), where you almost never get that sort of thing, except for mules. (But sometimes…  http://ligerworld.com/shasta-the-first-ever-liger-in-America.html ) On the rare occasion you get a cross on Earth, the child is not fertile. In Darrendra, they are. In fact, you can get all sorts of results, depending on what genes run in the family. The Darrendrakar don’t have “mixed” children, like ligers. The genes will fall out on one side or the other, or select from other ancestral genes. Ludik has two brothers that are lions, a brother and sister that are tigers (one orange, one golden), and a sister that is a jaguar (but spotted instead of black).

Oddly, Ludik’s identical-as-two-legger brother is a lion (not a jaguar) when he changes shape. Why they look so similar as people and so different as cats is one of the mysteries of Darrendran biology that I can’t explain. And if you ask a Darrendrakar, he’ll just shrug and ask why not.

What you DON’T get in Darrendra is the big cats crossing with the small cats (not housecats, but cheetahs, mountain lions, ocelots, etc). Well, they could mate, but they either wouldn’t have children (most likely), or their children would be sterile. (Within the small cats, they are cross-fertile between types, just as the big cats are within their own group.)

The same difficulty works across Darrendrakar kindreds. Sure, a Felid and a Canid could marry, but they wouldn’t have children. Add in the typical uneasy peace between kindreds, and an interkindred marriage would be pretty difficult. Even without being “forbidden,” that kind of reality tends to discourage most interkindred romances.

This is also why you hardly ever see marriages between the four different peoples on Kaiatan. The winged Iojif, the shapechanging Darrendrakar, the gilled Nokai, and the solar-powered Iskri almost always marry someone from their own kind. And you never, never see an avian with gills or a solar-powered shapeshifter. The genes do not mix that way.

So, what did I leave out that you want to know? Leave a question in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer it!

Language of Flowers

My YA fantasy series has a culture that communicates with their goddess and each other by using flowers and their cultural meanings. I’ve been asked if I invented that idea. Well, the goddess part, yes, but the flower part, no. Here are some articles you can read about the well-established practice of sending messages with flowers, including a list of meanings.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_flowers

http://languageofflowers.com/flowermeaning.htm

http://thelanguageofflowers.com/

https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/publications/flowers/flowers.html

http://www.stranges.com/language-of-flowers/

You might notice a few discrepancies between the websites, or between the sites and my books. In that case, please consider my books to use the Darendrakar version of the flower language, translated to the best of my ability.

Agrimony (go look it up),
M.C. Lee

Kinship

I write about different fictional cultures, and I like that. I do use some ideas from real (Terran) life, as well as some ideas that I make up (or don’t realize come from real life). And I do research lots and lots of things. I find it fun, most of the time.

One of my story characters, Nia, comes from a culture with pretty loose family rules and infrequent marriage. She led me down a path of kinship research that was highly entertaining, except when I couldn’t find the right term for a kinship relationship. (After trying several exotic terms, I finally settled on the simpler “near-sibling” and “far-sibling” terms for some of her brothers and sisters.)

If you like dabbling in anthropology, here are some fun kinship articles for you.

An explanation of kinship terminology, and a glimpse at several different systems (how families are set up and who is considered related): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinship_terminology

Kinship terms (what relatives are called) in different languages. Click on each language to explore: http://www.omniglot.com/language/kinship/index.htm

The particular character I was telling you about has a highly complicated family due to her culture, so I had to draw a genogram to keep track of her family. It isn’t a standard genogram, because I didn’t bother with dotted lines, and I had to break some rules in order to get everything down. (If you can do better, let me know how, & I’ll adjust.) It does, however, allow me to know who’s who and how they’re related, as well as random facts I threw in for my own writing convenience.

But before you look at her family tree, here’s an explanation of genograms in general: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genogram

And a look at the rules used to create them: https://www.genopro.com/genogram/rules/

And now you can scroll back up to my current best attempt at Nia’s scrambled family tree. 🙂