Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow: Happy (Belated) Launch Day!

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Click here to order from Amazon!

So!  Yesterday was technically Launch Day for Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow, but since I had a truly awful and rotten 24 hours, which included spilling an entire 16oz iced tea on the kitchen floor moments after running out of paper towels (the day after doing exactly the same thing on the living room carpet with coffee), I’m just going to pretend that today is Launch Day instead.

Happy Launch Day!

Those of you who pre-ordered your Kindle copies should have received them already.  A very big thank you to everyone who pre-ordered!  It was a nice thing for you to do.

Those of you who wish to order a paperback can now do so from Amazon or directly from the CreateSpace store (which gives me a slightly larger slice of the profits).

I realize that the launch of the second book in a series is kind of a weird thing.  If you haven’t read the first one, then this entire exercise is meaningless to you, and my next two launches as I finish up the set will grow even more meaningless still.  Sorry about that.

But now is a really great time to start reading Dark the Night Descending if you want to catch up!  It’s very good, I promise.  There are ships and evil spirits and shapeshifting sea creatures, plus enough snarky sarcasm to keep you entertained if none of that really does it for you.

Thank you very much for bearing with me during my brief bursts of self-promotion.  For those of you who have read Dark the Night Descending and/or are planning to read Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow, I will conclude with my usual plea to please, please leave book reviews on Amazon or Goodreads.   They are priceless and wonderful and amazing, so do it!

Hey, Traditional Authors: Self-Publishing Isn’t the Easy Way Out

NB: In case you’re interested in winning a copy of Dark the Night Descending, even though it’s self-published, I’m giving away five books on Goodreads right now!


Twitter is great for many things.  It helps you share and communicate.  It provides an endless stream of adorable cat pictures.  It delivers breaking news in bite-sized nuggets, and it can satisfy your occasional need to get outraged about something a complete stranger says.  I think you can guess which one this blog post is going to be about.

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No, not that one.

Myke Cole, a military fantasy author, retweeted this comment and image by the magician behind Fantasy Faction, one of the biggest genre communities out there.

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And I was not happy.

First of all, despite the assertion that there are exceptions to what he obviously believes is a rule, the flow of this chart is insultingly reductive.  Let’s establish one thing as the basis for all the arguments to follow: Self-publishing does not equal giving up. 

Self-publishing is a conscious choice, not a reactive one, and it does not mean you don’t care about the quality or ongoing improvement of your work.  Self-publishing does not mean you don’t seek the help of professional editors and artists.  Self-publishing requires knowledge, talent, marketing savvy, and perseverance – all without the cozy validation of having been one of the “chosen ones” of traditional publishing.

Self-publishing is not the easy way out.

In response to the chart, I scribbled out one of my own, and it immediately sparked a flurry of responses from Fantasy Faction and others:

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Now, if you can get past the poor handwriting (and the fact that maybe it implies the use of readers as guinea pigs, which was not what I meant), you can see that a) the path that leads an author into self-publishing can be a little more complex than a single rage-inducing rejection, and b) the path that develops after self-publishing can lead to any number of amazing things.

You can kind of follow the Twitter conversation here, but I’m just going to go through and make some points that came out of that discussion and my own experiences with the perceived conflict between traditional publishing and the broad spectrum of indie options out there.

Self-publishers aren’t all hopeless, disgruntled rejects

There is a pervasive assumption among traditionally published writers that self-publishing is a secondary choice, and one that is only made when something goes wrong in the traditional publishing world.

If an agent won’t take you to the prom, you’re likely to run with tears streaming down your face into the loving arms of Amazon KDP, that perfect fairytale boyfriend who will accept you for who you are with all your flaws, not just how you sell yourself to the rest of the world.

That isn’t always true.  Yes, KDP takes anyone, because KDP makes a lot of money off of doing what they do.  Yes, a lot of self-publishers have experienced frustration and rejection from the traditional publishing world.  Yes, it is possible to upload a complete mess of a manuscript with a hand-drawn cover and a cringe-inducing storyline.

But a lot of people don’t.  Self-publishing is a gold mine for many authors.  It offers more control over content.  It offers a quicker turnaround time.  It offers opportunities for higher royalties and higher revenues.  It offers an enormous potential readership – and the number of traditionally published authors turning to self-publishing as a better alternative is growing by the day.

Sometimes they are authors who have secured an agent but not a book deal.  Sometimes their traditional contracts have lapsed with mediocre sales, and they choose not to renew their arrangements because they can get higher royalties and quality products from CreateSpace or Smashwords.  Sometimes they are traditionally published authors who know they can pursue both paths to make the most profit.

There are as many reasons for self-publishing as there are self-publishers.  To persist in the belief that we are all losers who don’t know any better is both narrow minded and ill-informed.

Quality is incredibly important to serious self-publishers

Even though Amazon and the other self-pub giants try to pitch the process as being easy as 1-2-3, it isn’t.  Let’s assume for a second that you actually care about how your product you present to the world.  Let’s assume you have some of the skills to create a quality book, but maybe not quite as many as you need.

Sure, there are people who will publish a sub-par product without editing or cover art.  But serious self-publishers who want to turn a profit will enlist the help of professional editors, talented cover artists, savvy formatters, and web design experts to make sure that they aren’t wasting their time.

Self-publishing doesn’t mean doing everything by yourself, and few people do.  Few self-publishing advice websites recommend going it alone.  Most will advise you to set up a budget for necessary services like editing and cover art – 90 percent of the discussions I had at Pi-Con this weekend were about how important it is to pay fair prices for good work from professionals in the self-publishing world.

A 2014 survey of nearly 2000 authors from Digital Book World found that more than a third of self-publishers hired a cover artist, a quarter sought formatting help, nearly 20 percent enlisted a content editor, and ten percent paid for marketing and promotion.

Source: Digital Book World

Source: Digital Book World

Crappy books don’t sell, and self-publishers know this as well as anyone.  They are willing to take money out of their own pockets to improve their products – and they don’t get advances.

There are terrible self-published books out there.  I can’t deny that.  But there are terrible traditionally published books, too.  You can’t deny that, either.

Self-publishing something does not mean you have no interest in improving your craft

One of the worst things about Fantasy Faction’s comments was the notion that self-publishers don’t care about becoming better writers.  Rejection by the gods is the only way to get better at your craft.  If you can self-publish, you’re not going to have any motivation to write books that are good enough to make it past the gatekeepers (a term, by the way, that agents absolutely hate).

Wrong.  I don’t know any writer – traditionally published, self-published, or with no interest in being published at all – who doesn’t strive to improve.  I don’t know anyone who ignores thoughtful critiques, or thinks they’re already at the top of their game, or who doesn’t try to write a better book every time they sit down to the computer.  You wouldn’t be a writer, and you certainly wouldn’t be an author, if you didn’t know that there was lots of hard work to do until you drop dead.

We are not slackers.  We are not complacent.  We are just like traditional authors – but we’ve got the balls to do it all ourselves.  Which brings me to my overall point…

There’s nothing easy about going it alone

Writers are creatures of self-doubt, and there’s nothing easy about overcoming the anxiety and uncertainty of putting time, money, and effort into publishing a book with no safety net.  Self-publishing is a risk, both financially and emotionally, and it requires just as much (if not more) courage, fortitude, and sheer bloody-minded determination as sending out queries to traditional agents.

As Myke Cole said in one of his tweets, writing is hard enough.  He couldn’t imagine how self-publishers could manage to do the rest themselves.  But surprise!  One way or another, we get it done.

Personally, I have devoted many hours to squinting at cover images while I edit my art, or screaming at Microsoft Word when my formatting is off.  I’ve stayed up late nights during the work week to finish editing a chapter or perfecting some tiny part of the publishing process.  I have spent days nervously waiting for things to get approved or shipped – only to have to go back and make changes and do it all over again.

It is hard work.  And most of the time, there are few rewards.  It’s discouraging to see my stats flatline for weeks at a time.  It’s not fun to try to urge my friends to leave reviews.  It’s not easy for me to market myself and take on all the self-promotion required to maybe, possibly get one user to add my book on Goodreads.  I have felt like a failure so many more times than I have ever felt like a success.

Self-publishing sucks…but I’ve been doing it for three years with absolutely no intention of stopping, because I love it.

I love holding a finished book in my hand and knowing that I made this.  I love having an Amazon page.  I love writing my blog.  I love those rare occasions when I get to talk to my readers and they smile and get excited and tell me what they think about my characters.  I love seeing my name in other publications, and striving every day to open up those opportunities for myself.  Even if I don’t sell very many books, I love feeling proud of what I do.

Self-publishing taught me that I can do so much more than I ever thought I could.  It taught me that it wasn’t too scary to put myself out in the world.  That I didn’t need approval from some big bad agent in the sky to express my ideas and my points of view.  That there are opportunities for everything if you’re willing to work for them.

Self-publishing is not a cop-out, and it doesn’t have to exist solely in opposition to the traditional route.  Readers want to read good stories, and I think it’s a great thing that there are now so many more ways for them to do that.  Traditional publishing will have to adjust, as all industries do when a disruptive force enters the marketplace, and holding on to damaging notions of the past will only make it harder for everyone involved.

Self-publishers want respect because we do enough to earn it.  I hope the traditional world will be able to see that someday, as the wheat separates from the chaff and it becomes easier to identify and read good self-published work.  There are wonderful, talented, amazing independent authors out there, and they don’t deserve the stigma placed upon them by the traditional publishing juggernaut.  It would be a shame to dismiss them all without taking a really hard look at what they do.

Hello, Goodbye: A Recap of My First and Last Pi-Con

so-long-9pi-smallerAs many of you know, this past weekend I attended my first fantasy/sci-fi/fandom convention in over a decade.  Yes, it has been that long since a bunch of my high school friends piled into someone’s car and drove out to Stony Book University for I-CON, a much bigger event with a much different flavor.

Despite sharing most of the same letters in their names, Pi-Con was a very different experience for me, mostly because I got take on a dual role as both attendee and panelist.

I spent the weekend running back and forth between meeting rooms, listening to fellow authors and experts talk about magic and marketing, fighting and food, publishing and perseverance when everything seems to be heading down the tubes.

I spoke about my enduring love of Tolkien and the importance of developing robust cultures and economies while constructing the details of one’s own worlds.  I moderated a lively roundtable discussion about what a book is really worth to a reader, and took turns telling silly, improvised stories with a group of smart and funny colleagues.

I suffered through this ignoble defeat during my scheduled reading from Dark the Night Descending:

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And this while attending the afternoon Steampunk Tea:

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And I even won a couple of costuming prizes for this (shown during a previous outing last year because I didn’t take that many selfies over the weekend):

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And I only sold one book.

It was a long and kind of exhausting event, if only because I had to do so much talking that my throat was getting raw by the end of it, but I’m very glad I went.  I met a lot of new people (some of whom, I have to confess, operated somewhat outside of my comfort zone), and heard any number of vigorously defended opinions, both popular and otherwise.

Everyone was friendly and engaging and willing to talk.  Everyone listened when I had something to say (usually).  Everyone wanted to be there, and everyone saw the opportunity to indulge in their passions during a safe and communal celebration of the fact that we’re all kind of really weird.

That’s the main reason people go to conventions and fandom events and whatnot, and I think that’s great.  Even for someone with a relatively significant degree of social anxiety, which definitely started to drag on me by the third day, I never really felt out of place, unwelcome, or not geeky enough to take part in something.  The atmosphere was very comfortable, and while I’m not sure how much con-going I’ll be doing in the future, I’m glad I got to experience this one.

ribbonI’m doubly glad to have been invited this year because this was the last Pi-Con.  After nine years, the event’s organizers have decided to go their separate ways, and the sense of finality and nostalgia was everywhere.  Even though I only attended this one event, it made me keenly aware of just how much effort goes into planning and executing these local gatherings, and I’m very pleased to have been able to help fill out the impressive program in whatever small way I could.

So thank you, 9Pi-Con, for giving me an invaluable experience to remember.  It was a great weekend, and you should all be proud of yourselves for a poignant send off to what was clearly a very successful near-decade in bringing people together.

And because I came back with a whole big box of unsold novels, I’m going to be doing a few Goodreads giveaways over the next couple of weeks leading up to the launch of Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow.  Stay tuned for more details!

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A happy Oliver welcomes me home

The Lightbulb Moment

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Stop pulling.  It was a striking thought, and one that sounded simple enough, though maybe it was a bit of a strange epiphany when it comes to archery.  After all, that’s the basic notion, isn’t it?  Pull back and let go.  To stop doing that seemed like it might be counterproductive.

But archery, like writing, is about taking the “basic notion” and turning it into something entirely different.  Archery is an art that requires a very fine balance between pushing and pulling and not doing anything at all, and sometimes you’re not entirely sure when to do what in order to achieve the optimal effect.

When I told myself to stop pulling, I wasn’t saying that it was time to pack up and go home after an hour and a half of sending arrows into the corners of the target.  It wasn’t.  It was just time to stop moving the string past my anchor point as I tried to bring my elbow around in line with my shoulder (an action that would actually be sort of necessary if I was using a clicker, but I’m not).

The pull made me shoot wild, varying my draw length and causing my fingers to roll sideways off the string as I tried to control the extra bit of unreliable power I was inadvertently giving my arrows.  I wasn’t relaxed.  I wasn’t consistent.

It wasn’t my grip, or my stance, or my fletchings; it wasn’t my aiming or my shoulders or a smudge on my glasses or any of the other thousands of things I tried to change and perfect for that first deeply frustrating hour and a half.  I was tinkering with everything other than the real problem, making it all worse for myself, and I could not for the life of me figure out what was going wrong.

Then I told myself to stop pulling.  I don’t know why it suddenly came to me, but it did.  And while I was immensely relieved to see my arrows heading back into the gold, I also felt like a total idiot for not realizing what I was doing wrong a little bit sooner.

I never know whether to laugh with joy or blush with shame when the lightbulb goes off, but I think I usually do both.  I treasure those moments very dearly, whether they appear during archery practice or when I’m plotting a new novel, and I feel lucky to be able to experience them.  But they also make me feel like a fool.  I should have seen the impossible, I tell myself.  It all seems so easy now.  Why wasn’t it easy before?

Because it couldn’t be, of course.  Lightbulb moments are like optical illusions.  It’s not a failing of character or intelligence if you can’t see the hidden picture until you do.  It’s just a trick of the brain: a strangely synchronized firing of synapses that happens when you least expect it, and the outline of the old woman’s face becomes clear.

Sometimes you have to tilt the paper or step back a little bit, but other times there’s no discernable reason why your eyes decided to refocus at just such a moment in just such a way, creating some nebulous, imperceptible change that illuminates something new in your world.

It’s one of those wonderful mysteries of life and learning, and it’s one of the reasons I keep doing what I do.  I think it’s rare to be able to pinpoint the exact moment when “can’t” turns into “can.”

I wish I could remember the first instant during my childhood that squiggly lines on a page became letters that conveyed meaning.  I wish I could quantify what happens when a plot device clicks into place and a new path of possibility swings into view, opening the gate to a long road of adventure.  I wish I could bottle it and share it with people whose ideas sidle up to them more gradually, so that everyone knows how great it feels.

If you’ve ever had a lightbulb moment, I hope you treasure it, especially when you’re running up against the wall of impossibility again and again.  Remember how it feels the instant after you’ve solved a problem.  Be patient and be persistent as you work towards the answer, because it’s going to come, eventually, in a flash of brightness that’s going to make you feel silly and amazing and brilliant and dumb.  I honestly can’t think of a better sensation.

Are you a lightbulb person, or do you get your answers in a different way?  I’m interested to hear if this is a more or less universal experience, or if none of you have any idea what I’m actually talking about.  Let me know in the comments!

Should Self-Published Authors Get Paid by How Much You Read?

The Internet, that great and glorious money-making venture, has done some amazing things for the humble self-published author.  As a marketing platform, it is unparalleled in scope – and with the help of e-commerce giants like Amazon, self-published authors have gained the ability to publish, promote, and sell their properties with ease and professional finesse.

But as we are all aware, the Internet comes with a darker side…and I’m not just talking about that weird subreddit you came across late last night.  You know which one I mean.  The World Wide Web has allowed online companies to come up with some really creative ways of squeezing dollars and cents out of their customers, and our old friend Amazon is trying a new tactic that may or may not be good for the self-published among us.

Amazon makes a lot of money off its independent authors.  We provide it with its milk and meat: it gets its products from us by selling our work through the KDP marketplace, and it gives us back between 35 and 70 percent of the royalties for the privilege.

On the other side of the equation, Amazon book-buyers tend to get a good deal out of the whole Kindle thing.  They get a wide choice of content along with the instant gratification of beaming novels right to their smartphones or tablets.  And self-published authors often underprice their works or offer them for free to get noticed, which book readers love.

Amazon doesn’t love that kind of underpricing quite so much, despite spending a lot of time expanding its free Kindle offerings.  Authors can enroll their books in KDP Select, which offers a five-day free promotional period and Kindle Countdown Deals in exchange for 90 days of exclusivity to Amazon.  It also provides automatic inclusion in the Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) programs, unless you opt out.

KOLL promises authors a piece of a monthly global fund based on how many readers download and read a portion of the book.

“We base the calculation of your share of the KDP Select Global Fund by how often Kindle Unlimited customers choose and read more than 10% of your book, and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library customers download your book,” Amazon says on its FAQ site.

“We compare these numbers to how often all participating KDP Select titles were chosen. For example, if the monthly global fund amount is $1,000,000, all participating KDP titles were read 300,000 times, and customers read your book 1,500 times, you will earn 0.5% (1,500/300,000 = 0.5%), or $5,000 for that month.”

That sounds great, right?  Sounds like a good reason to swallow the 90-day exclusivity contract in hopes of making some serious cash.  In April of 2015, the global fund was a whopping $3 million, and that’s a nice pie – if you can grab a piece of it.

The problem is that free books are often downloaded, but very rarely read.  That doesn’t do much good for anyone.  So in “response to author feedback from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read,” Amazon is ditching the ten percent metric for Kindle downloads and changing the system a bit.

Starting on July 1, “we’ll switch from paying Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) royalties based on qualified borrows, to paying based on the number of pages read,” the website says.  “As with our current approach, we’ll continue to set a KDP Select Global Fund each month. Under the new payment method, the amount an author earns will be determined by their share of total pages read instead of their share of total qualified borrows.”

Here’s how Amazon explains it in its own words:

If the fund was $10M and 100,000,000 total pages were read in the month:

The author of a 100 page book that was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

The author of a 200 page book that was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $2,000 ($10 million multiplied by 20,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

The author of a 200 page book that was borrowed 100 times but only read halfway through on average would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

Now, first thing you have to remember is that the monthly fund isn’t anywhere near $10 million at the moment.  It was $3 million just a few months ago, right?  So let’s not forget to cut all these numbers by a third.  Second of all, these download numbers are for superstars only.  Very, very few self-published authors earn that much money off of their Kindle products.  I certainly don’t.

The good thing, I think, is that Amazon does not mention any new threshold for payment to replace the 10 percent mark.  It appears that you can get a (tiny) share of the money if a reader browses just one page, which means the change might actually put a few fractions of a penny into the pockets of more writers.  But it’s probably only going to benefit people who write really long books.

What do I mean?  Let’s take…oh, I dunno.  Me?  I’m less likely to hit a 10 percent threshold with my typical fare, such as a 580-page opus like The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun, than I am with Salt and Oil, Blood and Clay, a short story collection that only clocks in at 65 pages.

For The Spoil, I would want to get paid for each download and by the individual page without the burden of meeting the 10 percent threshold.  Fifty-six pages is a lot to slog through if you’re not committed, and even if the book was downloaded a lot more often than it is, my readers rarely hit the ten percent finish line.  For Salt and Oil, where ten percent of the book is only 6 and a half pages, I wouldn’t benefit much from the new per-page system at all.  I might even make less, depending on how the calculations work out.

For more on the actual numbers, you should read this great post by C.E. Kilgore, who’s done all the calculations for us.

amazon-kdp-grTo alleviate concerns over variable formatting affecting page count, Amazon is introducing a standardized system called the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC v1.0).  But it seems to indicate that only consecutive pages starting with Chapter 1, as determined by the Start Reading Location, will count towards pages read.  That begs the question: are you out of luck if you’ve written a non-fiction book or academic text and your reader is only interested in one or two chapters somewhere in the middle?  I’m not really sure how the Start Reading Location thing works on a technical level, so I don’t have an answer for that one.

For my own part, I don’t really see a lot of benefit from KDP Select, and I’m letting my last few titles age out of the program in July.  I don’t plan to enroll any of my works again, since I’m looking into selling some international rights (a topic for another blog post), and I’m hoping to get a lot more out of that adventure than I do out of KDP Select.  I generally don’t like the idea of exclusivity, either, just on principle.

I think in general, the changes won’t massively affect the majority of low-earning, low-expectation authors, and I’m not sure that I’m really all that put out about it.  Do I like the idea of getting paid based on how much my readers get through?  Yes and no.  On one hand, books are no longer exclusively physical objects, so why should we sell them as such?  If I write boring books, I shouldn’t get paid for making my readers drool on their keyboards when they fall asleep after page three.

On the other hand, Amazon isn’t charging book-buying customers any less for only reading half the book.  They still pay the same flat fee, on top of their Prime subscription fee, and it’s only the authors who are getting the (potentially) raw deal.  Amazon may end up keeping more of the profits – probably otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it.  And that doesn’t seem right.

Do you think Amazon is being fair about this?  Do you think it will hurt self-published authors?  Do you think it requires an advance degree in mathematics to figure it out?  Let me know in the comments, because I’m truly undecided!

World Building 101: Four Steps for Designing the Fantasy Landscape

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Whether you’re self-published, traditionally published, or just writing for yourself, all fantasy authors have one big thing in common: we all love being the omnipotent rulers of our own little worlds.  There is something immensely satisfying about imagining our brave adventurers hiking through treacherous mountains or galloping towards the enemy on the field of battle, stirring passions in our readers as we fling fictional men and women into deadly conflict, hopelessly tangled in a complex web of fears, loves, hatred, and desires as they risk their lives for some noble (or ignoble) cause.

The bulk of any fantasy should be driven by these characters and the decisions that they make.  But the bones of every good story will be rooted in the earth.  I’m talking world building in its most literal sense: the way the landscape shapes cultures, inhibits movements, presents perils, and contours the personality of its inhabitants.

If you tend to think of geography as nothing more than that easy class you took sophomore year of college, you might want to reconsider its place in your writing repertoire.   Here are four important steps to take when integrating the landscape into your basic story development.

Draw a world map

In my opinion this is the most critical (and most fun) part of the world building process.  It doesn’t matter if you have artistic talent or not: you have to have a visual overview of what you’re trying to achieve.  Whether you’re working in a pre-industrial landscape where the majority of people are still tied to the villages where they were born or a steampunk metropolis with rapid transit opportunities, you’ll never know where your characters are going until you can see it for yourself.

Where are the farmlands?  Where are your cities?  Where are the trade routes, and who has control of them?  How long will it take for people to travel from the capital city to the Haunted Cave of the Magic Thing?  What’s going to get in their way?  How will your giant armies maintain their supply lines through rough terrain perfect for hiding rebellious partisans?  How will a colder or warmer climate change a battle plan?

Sketching out the mountain ranges, lakes, oceans, islands, and rivers, as well as the boarders between countries and the major routes of travel, can be a quick and simple way to get a better idea of how your world is going to shake out.  It doesn’t have to be publication quality, but it should at least be a solid guide for your own edification.

Look at some real maps to get an idea of how land masses are formed.  Mountains don’t just stick up in the middle of nowhere, and rivers don’t just spring up for the heck of it and flow any which way they want.  Get a handle on the basic relation of geographical features if you want to add a rich, realistic dimension to your landscape.

And don’t forget to draw things to scale!  Journeys are big deal in fantasy writing, and if you have multiple plot threads with people moving across the landscape, you want to make sure they aren’t crossing entire continents at an improbably rate of speed.

Adapt and tailor your cultures

It’s easy for fantasy authors to take the pick-and-mix approach to cultural development, and say, “Well, I want an Arab-based culture here, and a Mongolian-type tribe over there, and a Spanish Conquistador-esque arrangement on the next continent over.”  We all do it to some extent, because it’s really hard not to draw from what we know when we try to think about how people behave.

I’m totally fine with that – as long as you put your cultures somewhere that makes sense.  What made the Mongols so effective at being a ravening horde?  Their wide open grassland habitat and subsequent mastery of horses.  So don’t put them on a tropical island chain and expect anyone to believe they can be successful nomadic herders.

Do make sure that the people on those islands do island-related things like eat a lot of fish and build good boats.  They might intermarry at a higher-than-average rate if they’re isolated from other cultures.  That might make their family alliances stronger – or it might fuel an ancient feud inflamed by outside exploration.

This might seem like basic stuff, but it’s important to really think about how being near a major river will affect a culture’s development differently than being next to the sea, or how a character raised on rich farmland will have a different perspective on the gods and fates of your universe than one who has lived with drought and famine because a city upstream is diverting water or hogging all the grain.

Environmental stressors make great conflict-builders, but you need to understand the mechanics behind them if you want your world to feel realistic.

Build tension through history

My love of history has always informed my love of fantasy, because they are largely the same thing.  Sure, there are fewer (provable) elves in Dark Ages Europe than there are in Middle Earth, but that’s just semantics.  The way people have interacted with each other throughout our real history – the way they trade goods and exchange ideas and explore strange religions – has always driven how the fantasy genre unfolds, and that history is a breeding ground for plot points that can engross your readers in your story.

It’s all about resources.  It always has been.  It’s why people conquer their neighbors and why cities fall to sieges.  Grain, meat, water, minerals, metals, and wood are what empires are built on, and the back-and-forth of armies and politicians crossing physical and social boundaries to grasp at them is why history and fantasy are both so fascinating.

Old wars and old wounds are sometimes even more interesting than new ones, and they can add a richness and depth to your characters’ allegiances.  Did someone kill someone else’s ancestor in the battle over a strategic bridge?  Did a legion starve to death in the mountains because a storm took out the ships promised by the king?  Did someone seize a village or a mine that they ought to have left alone and made your hero an orphan?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to create conflict through the things that are important to people who don’t have grocery stores and mega marts to shop in.  For agrarian societies, the land is life, and the land is death, and the land is where you can spark some of the most interesting struggles your world is going to see.

Stay consistent as the action unfolds

Above all, be sure that when you make a decision, you stick with it.  You might want to write a world where rivers really do flow upside down, cargo dragons make mountains irrelevant, and everything is grown hydroponically underground.  That’s great!  Be creative, but be consistent.

No matter how your world operates, figure out what can go wrong with the system and crack that sucker open as widely as you can.  It doesn’t take much to make a delicately balanced universe come tumbling to its knees, but it has to be believable.

Ensuring continuity and consistency with world building takes a little bit of background work, to be sure, but I can’t imagine any situation where it wouldn’t pay off.  This doesn’t mean that you need to devote 12,000 pages to talking about alluvial deposits and glacial erratics and drainage ditches, but a spoonful of detail can make a world of difference (pardon the pun) to readers looking for an immersive and engaging escape.

Target Practice

 

Hello, readers!  I hope you all had a lovely long weekend (or at least a tolerable one, for those of you condemned to work), and had a chance to enjoy some of the wonderful weather we’ve been having here in the Northeast.  After the hideous winter we just endured, it’s nice to have a good, long taste of sunshine and greenery.

I’m going to tell you all about my springtime adventures – but first, I want to assure you that I haven’t been sparse with the blogging due to excessive frolicking or anything like that.  I have been working very hard on getting Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow into shape for publication, and I’m happy to say that I will be ordering my very first printed proof copy in just a few days.

I like to use the paperback for my last few major editing tasks (including my always-unsuccessful attempt at total typo extermination), which means that general release is imminent.

How imminent?  Well, it’s going to be a bit of a busy summer for me, so I’m going to tentatively say that launch day will be sometime in early-to-mid August.  It depends, right now, on how much work I still have left to do in regards to design and formatting and whatnot.

I will certainly be sharing more of the details and reveals and fun pre-launch activities as I zero in on a realistic release date.

In the meantime, how about some pictures?

I was here this weekend:

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That’s one of the overlooks at Tower Hill Botanical Gardens, a really beautiful spot to take in some flowers.

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You can also walk a few miles of forest trails, and meet local residents like this little fellow…

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…and this vigilant winged friend.

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It’s a good thing they’re both on the lookout for danger, because I’ve been working on my archery lately, and took to the woods (in a completely different part of the state) for the first time ever to snag me some tasty Styrofoam.

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Don’t worry, hunting real animals is not on my agenda.  This is called 3D shooting, which lets you practice some of the same skills you might use (unmarked distances, variable targets, uneven footing, branches and brush in the way) without actually hurting anything.

It’s especially difficult if you’re like me and shoot a recurve without any sights, stabilizers, or extra fancy equipment, because every shot is essentially a guess.  That’s actually a pretty good group of arrows, under the circumstances, even if they’re not directly on the orange spot.  And I didn’t lose any in the woods, which is even better.

For someone who has only ever shot indoors at a single distance without the interference of the sun or wind or anything else, it was really a whole lot of fun to challenge myself, especially since I am admittedly not really an outdoorsy person.  For a very short period of time, in a very safe and controlled environment where the only threat to life and limb is a bit of poison ivy and a few stray sticks, I get to feel a bit like one of my characters – and I get to understand exactly how quickly I would collapse and die in any of the situations I put them in.  Let’s hope I don’t get magically transported back in time until I’ve been able to improve my woodcraft a bit more.

So that’s been the deal at Jen Central for the past few weeks.  Editing, archery, more editing, more archery.  It’s not always easy for me to hit my targets with either of them, but I have been working hard, and things are starting to pay off.  I hope you are all seeing similar fruits of your labors, whatever they may be, as the summer rolls around.

Stay tuned to Inkless for more information about Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow in the coming weeks.  I assure you, it’ll be worth the wait.