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.

Goodreads Ratings and the Curse of the One-Star Review

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For those returning visitors who may be finding yourselves a bit disoriented, welcome to the new Inkless, fresh from a facelift and chemical peel.  Feel free to poke around and explore!

Book reviews.  Authors love to have them.  Perspective buyers love to peruse them.  Readers can sometimes be successfully cajoled into leaving them if there is some kind of valuable bribe involved.  Those five little stars are so critically important to making sales and hitting goals that authors will bludgeon all their friends, acquaintances, Twitter followers, and blog browsers into leaving just a few kind words and a rating that might push them an inch or two higher up the best-sellers list.  We agonize over every criticism and nod our heads in agreement at every minor piece of praise, soaking up admiration like particularly snooty sponges each time a reader sees it our way.

A good review is one of the best things that can happen to a writer whose self-esteem hangs by a thread, and getting panned can sting so badly that it wipes out weeks of potential productivity as wounds are nursed and fragile egos rebuilt with the aid of cookies, kitty cuddles, and hard drugs.

But what’s worse than a bad review from a reader who didn’t like a character or felt cheated by an ending?  An unintentionally bad review, left completely by accident, that is still displayed prominently and drags down a book’s average rating.

Anyone who has browsed Goodreads has probably come across this painful phenomenon.  Books that haven’t been released yet have user ratings down in the two-and-a-halfs, or novels that have received nearly universal acclaim still have a smattering of one-star reviews next to random readers’ names.  These one-star users never leave a comment explaining their decision.  They may give four and five stars to everything else on their book list.  They appear callous, heartless, and careless: the enemy of all that is good about exchanging opinions with fellow readers; the bane of authors everywhere.

Why do they do this?  Because, most of the time, they have absolutely no idea that they are causing the author so much unwarranted angst.

In my experience, one-star reviews on Goodreads are nearly always the product of mistaken identity.  The user hasn’t the faintest recollection of having rated the book.

Before Dark the Night Descending was available for purchase, I had at least three one-star reviews on my record, and the first impression was terrible.  I was tearing my hair out.  How could anyone hate something so much when they hadn’t even read it?  No one was going to take a chance on the first book of a new, self-published series if it was already being condemned by the all-important stars.  It wasn’t fair, and it spurred me to action.

I messaged each of the users.   “It was just a stray click.  I was trying to add it to my reading list,” one said. “I had no idea – I’m so sorry,” said the others.  They were looking for an excerpt, or trying to click away, or perform some other harmless action that tripped them up.  All of the users involved retracted their reviews immediately and promised they would review my book again after they had actually read it.  Everyone was very nice, and I thanked them all profusely, but the experience wasn’t just embarrassing for both sides of the equation.  It should be totally unnecessary.

Readers trust Goodreads for advice from their peers about what to pick up during their next trip to the bookstore, and authors count on Goodreads for the publicity that keeps everyone in business.  So why is it so easy for readers to accidently mislead their fellows, hurting authors and the reputation of Goodreads in the process?  Why do we have to experience so much grief over something that seems so easy to fix?

One solution would be to require, as Amazon does, a minimum amount of text before posting a review.  But I can see why Goodreads wouldn’t want to change their dual-review system quite that much.  I like the fact that you can just leave a star without thinking of some pithy comment to put with it.  Leaving a star is easy, and encourages readers to rate more books more quickly, which is generally a good thing.

Another solution would be to ask a reader, “Are you sure you meant to leave one star?” before allowing them to submit the entry.  I suppose that might run the risk of artificially inflating the rankings of books that really are total stinkers – a snap review is often a more honest one, and I think that usually works in everyone’s favor.  You don’t want someone second-guessing themselves if they actually did hate something.

So here’s my answer: just make the reader aware of what they did.  Add a little pop-up to the review process that says, “You just gave a one-star rating to Dark the Night Descending.”  If they meant to do it, they’ll ignore the prompt.  If they didn’t mean it, maybe they’ll go back and change their mistake.  Everyone wins.  Authors won’t suffer, readers won’t be unduly inconvenienced, and the integrity of the Goodreads empire will remain whole.

Readers, does that sound fair?  Authors, wouldn’t you like to see a little more quality control?  Let’s make sure that what we’re doing matters, and that our opinions are properly counted.  That seems like a five-star idea to me.

Book News and Other Upcoming Developments

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Hello, everyone!  I don’t know about you, but I’m finally ready to leave this cold, miserable winter behind in favor of budding trees, daffodils, warm sunshine, and a little taste of what’s coming your way this summer.

As you all know, I’ve been plugging away at Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow, the second book recounting the adventures of Arran Swinn, and I’m happy to say that it’s close to being in good shape for publication.

General release will likely happen at some point during the early summer, possibly in June (if I can get my act together).  The grand cover reveal and teaser excerpts are on their way, of course.  I may also be in the market for a beta reader or two, and I suspect my volunteers already know who they are.

In addition, I will be making my very first convention appearance at the end of July.  The ninth annual Pi-Con will be taking place in Connecticut from July 31 to August 2, during which time I will be participating in a writer’s workshop, contributing to some panel discussions on writing and fantasy, and doing a reading from Dark the Night Descending (probably), signed copies of which will no doubt be available for purchase.

I’m pretty excited to be taking part in the program, and I hope some of you Northeasterners will try to join me for moral support.  It’s not a huge convention, but it seems like a great place to get my feet wet and meet some cool, local-ish nerd fans.

So please wish me luck as I work to stamp out all those nasty typos that seem to breed in every work-in-progress.  I’m very pleased with the book so far, and I know you guys will be, too.  Stay tuned for more updates!

Get a Kindle Copy of Dark the Night Descending Free!

Surprise!  For the next three days, April 8 to 10, you can pick up a Kindle copy of Dark the Night Descending for free.

Click here to order from Amazon!

Click here to download for Kindle!

That’s right!  If you live in the Northeast, you’re going to need something to keep you company during our latest little snowstorm.  If you live anywhere else…just keep it to yourself, okay?  Our soon-to-be-frozen crocuses and daffodils will thank you for it.

No matter where you call home, a good book should always be on the radar, so head on over to Amazon and see if mine takes your fancy.

For those of you who have already taken the plunge, now would be the perfect time to leave a review and use the mighty influence of your opinion to help other readers make the right life choices.

Please feel free to spread the word and share with your friends, too!

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Dark the Night Descending

Arran Swinn knows a thing or two about nightmares. After all, they killed his father. When the sun goes down, the Siheldi come out, and surviving the onslaught until daybreak can be little more than a gamble without the right protection.

Thanks to a dash of luck, a little daring, and an heirloom from his father, Arran can provide protection these days – for the right fee. Guiding seagoing merchants along the haunted trade routes is easy money…right up until he takes on a secretive passenger who proves to be almost as bad as the Siheldi themselves.

With the daylight fading and the ocean rising, Arran finds himself saddled with an illegal cargo, a bargain for his soul that he can’t hope to keep, and the unwelcome scrutiny of Megrithe Prinsthorpe, a tenacious trade inspector intent on seeing him hang for his misdeeds.

After uncovering a plot that could replace the Siheldi with something much worse, Arran must decide just how much he’s willing to sacrifice to the spirits that have had him marked out since the night his father’s death changed his life forever.

Where the Light Bends at the Cracks

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I’ve been quiet lately.  Usually when blogs go quiet, first for a few days here, then for a few weeks after an apologetic update, it means they’ve started down an irrevocable road to the dusty, inactive server rooms of purgatory.  The number of blogs that are eventually abandoned is staggering – up to 95 percent, some sources claim – and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t contributed to that number three, four, maybe even five times before.

But this is not one of them.

The thing about writer’s blogs is that you only really have three options.  One, you document the ups and downs of your process in painful, monotonous detail, and bore everyone to tears.  Two, you turn it into an angst-dump for everything but writing, laboring under the mistaken believe that anyone cares about the reasons you’re not working on your magnum opus.  Three, you make yourself into a resource by gathering news and information, interviewing authors, writing book reviews, making connections, and generally offering a place for people to get something back from your work.

I’ve done all three to various degrees (I’m doing number two right now), and I’ve learned that the only blogs that even have a chance of surviving the depressing rate of attrition are the ones that tackle option number three and truly take off.  I think I’ve had moderate success starting to build a resource for people, and I like doing that.

The problem is that it takes time and investment.  Plenty of it.  I know this because that’s what I do for my day job, and it’s a lot of work.  In the past, I’ve had the luxury of having a few spare minutes in the afternoon and evening to pound out a few hundred words of helpful self-publishing know-how, or brainstorm a short story just to keep my fiction muscles limber as I work on bigger things.

But as most of you know, this has been a hard winter for me.  I’ve been sick – and I’ve only recently acknowledged to myself that that’s what has been happening.  Sleeping poorly has always just been a fact of my life, and I never considered it anything other than an annoyance that I needed to push past and get over.

Starting in September, for whatever reason, it turned into a full-blown chronic illness that needs medical treatment (on top of all the other conditions that contribute to the problem and are hellishly difficult to manage), and the process of receiving help has been so slow and torturous that I’m still waiting to set up an initial appointment with a second specialist who may be able to help me at some point – if I can get my insurance in order.

The tale is not unique.  If it was, I wouldn’t have a day job writing about how to improve patient management in the healthcare system.  And my problems aren’t as bad as other people’s problems.  I’m generally healthy; I can walk, breathe, see, and hear; I have full use of most of my faculties; I am not suffering with anything that will kill me sooner rather than later.  I’m grateful for that.

But it’s hard to be wake up every day so fatigued that my brain doesn’t have a chance in hell to hold back the depression and anxiety constantly waiting to pounce, or so groggy that driving to work becomes impossible, or so shattered and drained that I can’t do anything other than stare at the TV and eat things that are bad for me and cry and wait for the day to be over so maybe I can try again next time to stop wasting precious hours of my life.

So if you want to know why I’ve been quiet, it’s because I am keenly aware that the only things I have to say are gloomy and frustrated, negative and off-putting, and I’d rather go dark than spend time broadcasting the fact that I’m just not feeling well enough to do anything else.

I don’t like making the things that are wrong with me into the central feature of who I am.  I don’t go on message boards and hang out with other sleepy people, and I don’t want an Insomniacs Anonymous badge to wear on my lapel so everyone will ask me about it.  Sickness is a transient state of being: a separate entity that sometimes latches on to you, and I prefer to remember that instead of making my entire life about one single that’s happening to me.

Luckily, being sick hasn’t entirely stopped me from getting things done.  I’m doing very well at my job, because I’m pouring all the energy I have into it.  I still go to archery every week, whether I feel too tired or not, because I need to relieve my stress.  I’m still working on my fiction, albeit a little slowly.

Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow is a book full of frustrated people facing obstacles much bigger than themselves, and I think that editing it while in such a mood is a benefit rather than otherwise.  I’m very nearly done with a major pass at it, and I’m pleased with how it’s coming along.  It’s going to be a great book, and since I never heard back from that agent who expressed interest in the first one, I will probably be self-publishing it at some point during this spring or summer.

So there are things to look forward to, and reasons to keep my blog alive.  I’m not giving up on self-publishing.  I’m not giving up on anything, really.  I’ve just got to break this siege before I can attack the next targets I’ve set for myself.  I’m going to keep chipping away at everything, because the problems I’m facing are solvable.  The time will pass.  The appointments will get made.  The answers are there.

For those of you who want to stick around, thank you.  For those of you who don’t…well, I doubt you’re even reading this right now.  But I hope you will all come back for my next book release, whenever that may be, and celebrate the fact that no matter what you’re facing, there’s always a way to get things done.

SFWA to Accept Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors as Members

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Self-published fantasy and sci-fi authors who meet minimum income requirements will now be able to become members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers America (SFWA), one of the biggest and most respected groups for speculative fiction authors in the industry.  Among other activities, SFWA is responsible for running the Nebula Awards, the Golden Globes to the Hugo Awards’ Oscars.

“Writers write. Professional writers get paid a decent amount for what they write,” said SFWA President Steven Gould. “For the past five years, it’s been apparent that there are ways to earn that decent amount that were not being covered by our previous qualification standards. Though these changes took a substantial amount of time, I’m grateful to everyone who worked toward this end.”

Vice President Cat Rambo said the move would help SFWA “[adapt] itself to the changing face of modern publishing,” which sounds really nice for an organization that has been trying to rehabilitate itself after fierce allegations of sexism that took out its previous president and sparked ongoing debates about the role and representation of women and minorities in a genre traditionally dominated by improbably muscled shirtless white dragon-slayers saving blonde sexpot damsels in distress.

So while this gesture at inclusion is super cool for self-published authors who have made at least $3000 off a single novel or those who have sold at least 10,000 total words of short fiction for six cents per word, it’s not clear exactly how many self-pubbers are going to qualify.  My guess is that there won’t be many.

Recent data suggests that the majority of self-pub authors earn between $1 and $4,999 per year, but that’s a pretty big range, and it’s likely that most of the authors fall close to the bottom of it.  The data also doesn’t indicate whether those authors have published one book or one hundred, so it’s hard to tell if there will be an influx of Active members.  To nab an Associate membership, authors have only to sell a single story of at least 1000 words at the same six-cent rate.

“We are using existing levels of income but are now allowing a combination of advances and income earned in a 12 month period to rise to the qualifying amounts,” the announcement says, which may help self-publishers that rely on momentum instead of pre-sales to work their way into the target zone.  But it’ll be hard to tell the real impact of the decision until indie authors start to put in their applications.

Having more or less followed the inclusiveness flame-war over the past few years, I can’t say I’m a big fan of the SFWA or how they handled themselves.  They have some big problems that need to be worked out in the long term, and I’m not sure that I would join even if I could manage to approach the financial requirements.

But I do think this is an important signal to the speculative fiction industry, and the traditional publishing machine at large, that powerhouses like the Big Five only make up one lane on a road that’s broadening as we speak.  I like to see anything that shows self-publishing gaining acceptance in meaningful ways, and I think it’s a good gesture.  Only time will tell if it’s a meaningful one.