Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
How Well Can You Play Jazz?
In the grand scheme of things, there are some elements of storytelling that make a larger impact than others. Character, point of view, scene, dialogue, these are all textual, the brass nuts and bolts your readers will engage with directly. Then there are elements of craft that are more supportive, behind-the-scenes, the framework and scaffolding that keep your story together.
Worldbuilding falls into this latter category. No matter what you do as a storyteller, regardless of genre or narrative intent, you will have to build worlds for your characters to inhabit. If you’re a genre writer (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc.) odds are you’re in need of more of this scaffolding than, say, a writer of contemporary adult fiction, or really, anything set in a non-magical or non-hyper-technological world.
For instance, if I want to write a family drama set in Waco, Texas, I can most likely get away with using my imagination. A gas station in Texas is the same as a gas station here in my home state of Colorado. A bar is a bar, a home is a home, a restaurant is a restaurant. Now, if I I’m a very skilled and enterprising writer, I might actually travel out to Waco, especially if I’ve never been there before. I might walk the streets, soak in the ambience, listen to how the locals talk, how they interact with each other. Nice, right? Conversely, I could do it the lazy way and just use Google Maps. You know, worldbuilding for slugs.
Don’t worry, there’s no judgement here. I’m slug number one. Anything worth doing is worth doing the easy way, or so my habitual procrastination always tells me. Still, you may find it difficult to easily jot off scene details when your story is set on an intergalactic space station, or in a magical realm full of wizards and dragons, or perhaps in a unique and genre-bending setting heretofore unimagined by non-writing mortals. Like dragons tearing ass through awesome space stations. Bestseller material. I’m sure of it.
As with everything, novice writers tend to lean on advice found on the internet or in books on craft published thirty years ago. Take it from your local writing advice guy, there’s nothing wrong with that. We all need instructors, examples, positive influences to look up to, no matter how experienced we become. Worldbuilding advice from certain genre masters includes meticulous research, lots of thinking and planning, note-taking, mapmaking, character family lineage, alien astronomy, mythical world histories, languages built on complete working syntax and sentence structures.
And far be it for me to second-guess the masters. However, it must be noted that even they aren’t huge on taking their own advice. I once had a professor who picked the brain of Fantasy author George R.R. Martin on this very subject. When asked how it was he built such engrossing, immediately present and lush worlds, Martin didn’t rattle off dry advice like, “I draw up detailed maps,” or, “I don’t write a single word until I have the look and feel of every fork and every knife placed on each house dining hall table.”
Nope. It seems the creator of the Game of Thrones series likes to wing it. He said, simply enough, that if he wanted a character to have a fork in her hand, he’d describe it on-the-fly and then move on to the next thing. Dialogue, for instance, which can convey information about a world in subtle yet effective ways. He’d then need to describe a goblet or a roaring fireplace into which his character could spit the unwanted rind of a piece of old cheese. Was there a history behind that fireplace? Yeah, maybe. And in this way, his worlds build themselves automatically. In other words, for him the process is organic, unrehearsed, true to the spirit of conjuring stuff from fairy dust and raw intuition.
Not to suggest Martin eschews preparation in every case, because I’m sure he doesn’t. Never start a book without thinking about it at least a little. You know not to do that, right? Stephen King offers similar advice to Martin’s in his seminal autobiography/writing manual, On Writing.
“Description should begin in the writer’s imagination and finish in the reader’s.”
By which he means an economy of words and ideas is our best friend. After all, we don’t write fiction to glorify our own intellects. At least not all of us do. We write to entertain, edify, enlighten, shock, or otherwise affect our readers. Let them participate. Don’t overburden them with extraneous fluff.
Generally speaking, I don’t do much worldbuilding. Some writers come to see it as a crutch, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s a matter of comfort and personal style. There are many highly skilled authors who do take the time to establish their working narrative milieus in exacting detail before committing them to an initial draft. I can’t fault them for this. I’ll just say that for the majority of us, especially those of us who are just starting out, all that detail can become a liability. What’s to stop us from using it—all of it—to create infodumps of mythic proportions? You know what an infodump is, don’t you? It’s when a writer loses confidence and shoves a pile of overcooked world down my throat.
“Look! There’s story here! Don’t choke on my custom third-age elf lore, please. I made it just for you.”
It’s okay to play jazz a little bit, throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. You never known what your narrative needs until it asks you directly. Trust me on this. Ever overprepare for a job interview? Caught off guard by unexpected questions, flustered now, rattling off hyperbole and corporate nonsense instead of real knowledge acquired through years of experience. Too much worldbuilding can become a mess precisely because we think we know what to expect yet never seem to.
Sometimes we fall into a rut and overprepare because it’s easier than the actual writing. It’s a different animal, playing with your characters in real terms. Everything you do up to that point is academic and therefor inert. Besides, improvisation as an author’s best friend. You may find over the course of your career it’s your saving grace. You’ve got instincts. I say use them. The best stories ever told have had an organic, unaffected, natural quality, don’t you find? Besides which, I like Jazz. It’s surprising, fresh, sometimes complicated, but never boring. Unless you like Country, and if that’s the case, I need you to stop reading this blog post and go develop a decent sense of music.
Joking. Only joking.
Well, that’s about it for Craft and Practice this month, folks. Drop me a line in the comments section below. Are you a meticulous worldbuilder? Do you find that a more improvisational approach is best? In November, we’ll take a look at a sister topic, character development. See you then!
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
We’re all tired of staying at home during this recent crisis. It seems like everyone has been affected in different ways, but no one has gone unscathed. Our world has changed in recent times. We, as authors and lovers of the written word had many of our in-person writing events – conferences, conventions, and book fairs – cancelled due to the appearance of COVID 19. To to emulate all those events we look forward to each year and are missing out on now, and to chase away some of the boredom of social distancing and isolation, WordCrafter presents the 2020 Stay in Place Virtual Writing Conference on Tuesday, April 28 from 8 am to 8 pm.
This is a unique event, the first of its kind, and one you won’t want to miss. Free presentations and author takeovers will be occurring on the Facebook event page, and interactive workshops and panel discussions will be offered for a minimal fee on the Zoom platform. Interactive panel discussions and workshop session can be accessed individually for $5, or an all access pass to all interactive sessions can be purchased for $50. Tickets can be purchased on the Facebook event page. Watch for your Facebook event invite from me or one of the many wonderful authors involved with this conference. Send me a message through my WordCrafter page or through the event page if you have further questions, or if you would like a half an hour author takeover spot to promote your own work.
This has been a huge undertaking to organize and set up an event such as this one, but I haven’t done it alone. Without my 22 talented presenters, this event couldn’t happen. We have a great line-up, with international bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson presenting the keynote on the interactive platform.
And that’s just the beginning. Take a look at the talent that has lined up for presentations, workshops and panel discussions.
Award winning and national bestselling speculative fiction author Mario Acevedo will be offering a presentation – “The Power of Motivation: What Your Characters Do and Why”
USA Today bestselling multi-genre author Dan Alatorre will be a member of the interactive book marketing panel discussion.
Multi-genre author Chris Barili will be presenting “Writing in the Face of Adversity” and giving an interactive workshop on “Writing Across Genres”.
Award winning fantasy author L.D. Colter will be offering a presentation on “Short Fiction”.
World builder and speculative fiction author Kieth R.A. DeCandido will be offering an interactive workshop on “The Business of Writing” and he is the moderator for the media tie-in interactive panel discussion.
Award winning novelist Guy Anthony De Marco will be a member on both the short fiction and world building interactive panel discussions.
Fantasy and science fiction author Anthony Dobranski will offer two presentaions, “How to Swim Upstream: Not being in the mainstream of your market/genre” and “Working with Others: How to direct others in a project”. In addition, he will offer two interactive workshops. “Business Class Tarot” and “The Savage Horror of Writing Back Cover Copy”.
Author for young readers, Jason Henderson will be presenting “Story Ideas and the Choices You Make” and moderating the interactive book marketing panel discussion.
Media tie-in author Kevin Killiany will be a member on the interactive world building, media tie-in, and short fiction panel discussions.
Award winning young adult fantasy author L. Jagi Lamplighter will be on the interactive panel on world building, and moderate the interactive short fiction interactive panel discussion.
Award-winning science fiction author J.R.H. Lawless will be a member of the book marketing interactive panel discussion.
Award winning and New York Times bestselling multi-genre author Jonathan Maberry will be a member on three interactive panel discussions: short fiction, world building and media tie-ins.
Award winning multi-genre author Bobby Nash will deliver a presentation on “The Importance of Promotion”, as well as being a member of both the media tie-in and book promotion panel discussions.
Science fiction and fantasy author Jody Lynn Nye will offer a presentation on using humor in science fiction and fantasy writing, “Bringing the Funny: how to apply humor to your writing” and she will be a member of the world building interactive panel discussion.
Award winning fantasy author Ellie Raine will sit on both the short fiction and world building interactive panel discussions.
Award winning multi-genre author Art Rosch will offer a presentation on “Creating Villains We Love to Hate”.
Award winning multi-genre author Sean Taylor will offer a presentation on “Visceral Story Beginnings”.
Science fiction author and marketing expert Alexi Vandenberg will be joining the book marketing panel.
Award winning poet and author Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer offers a livestream presentation “The Gateway to the Unknown: A Poetry Thought Shop”.
Author and educator Rick Wilber will be a member of the short fiction interactive panel discussion.
Award winning and New York Times bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Dave Wolverton/David Farland offers a”Promoting Your Book BIG” and he is a member of the interactive book marketing panel discussion.
You can find a full schedule here. I do hope all of you will join us for this unique writing event. It’s the first of its kind and we could be making history. You can be a part of it, too. Join us.
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My guest today on “Chatting with the Pros” is an award winning and best selling author who has written countless novels and over 56 national and international best sellers. A majority of his works fall into the science fiction or fantasy genres, but he writes across many genres. In a recent introduction for “The Big Idea: Kevin J. Anderson“, an article about the latest release in his short fiction collection, Selected Stories, John Scalzi calls him, “one of the most prolific authors working today”, and one look at his immense book list on Amazon would leave no doubt that this is an accurate assessment. (You can find my review of selected stories here). He’s written a lot of books, 56 of which have hit the national and international best seller lists, and he’s been writing for many years, and I’m sure we will find his knowledge and experiences enlightening. Please help me welcome Kevin J. Anderson.
Kaye: You have written at least 56 national or international best sellers. What makes a good story in your mind?
Kevin: People want to read a good story with an exciting/interesting plot, a well-developed setting, and engaging characters. Make it a story you WANT to read, with clear prose and action. I don’t like muddled, glacial-paced stories where the prose is just too precious.
Kaye: Why science fiction and fantasy? Why not western or romance or mystery? What’s the attraction?
Kevin: Well, I’ve also written plenty of mysteries, and some of my work has been set in the old west, and most good stories have a strong romance component (though I don’t write category Romance or Westerns). I like to tell an interesting story, and I move around a lot among genres, even though I am primarily known for science fiction or fantasy. I grew up in a very mundane small town in rural Wisconsin, and I was captivated by SF/F from an early age, because it showed my imagination what was possible. I wanted to go to exotic places, whether they were filled with aliens or dragons. Science fiction took me to a much wider universe. (And as a skinny, nerdy kid with glasses and a bad haircut, “romance” wasn’t much of a possibility, so I stuck with spaceships and swords.)
Kaye: You wrote several Star Wars and X-Files novels. Is it difficult to immerse yourself in someone else’s settings and characters enough to pick up a thread and run with it in the same tone and writing style? How do you go about getting yourself into that mindset?
Kevin: It’s no more difficult than trying to immerse yourself in the old west or ancient Japan for a historical. A writer’s job is to absorb the story, characters, voice, and setting. I was already a big fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, and Dune, and I enjoyed going to work in those universes. In each instance, I would completely surround myself with the property — whether that meant watching the Star Wars films over and over again, or the episodes of the X-Files, or repeatedly rereading DUNE and its sequels. You pick up the manner of speaking, the “look and feel” of the world, and you make it into your own story.
Kaye: You’ve done several collaborations, including books of the Dune series, with Brian Herbert and the Clockwork books which you collaborated with Neil Peart, drummer for the band Rush. What is the biggest challenge when collaborating on a book?
Kevin: You both need to have the same vision for the book—which means a LOT of talking and brainstorming ahead of time—and you both need the same work ethic (so each partner puts in the same amount of time and effort…a tortoise and hare collaboration will just cause a lot of friction), and you need to be flexible. There’s never only ONE way to write a sentence or describe a scene. I would never want to collaborate with a diva!
Kaye: Do you belong to any writing organizations? If so, which ones? Do you feel your membership in these writing organizations have been helpful in your writing successes? How so?
Kevin: I belong to the Horror Writers Association (and edited three anthologies for them, the BLOOD LITE series), IAMTW (International Association of Media Tie-In Writers), and SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, although some of their recent decisions have made me so upset that I would not renew my membership if I wasn’t already a lifetime member. The problem with such organizations is that you can become to engrossed in the politics and bickering that you forget your real purpose, which is to WRITE.
Kaye: You’ve written several series, including Saga of the Seven Suns, Dan Shamble P.I. and the Clockwork books? Are any of your books stand alone? Why do you lean toward series?
Kevin: I’ve written many standalone books. The one I just finished last week, a vampire/serial-killer thriller STAKE, that’s not part of a series. But I like to tell big stories, and once you’ve done all the effort of world building and character building an entire universe, you want to spend some time. To me, a trilogy is perfect — a beginning, middle, and end, with enough room to tell the story and describe the world in all its glory. Pragmatically speaking, it’s a much better decision commercially to build a series, because readers will want more and more, and each new book will help sell copies of previous volumes. Can you imagine if A.C. Doyle had stopped after writing only one Sherlock Holmes story?
Kaye: Science fiction authors create whole worlds from their imaginations, often with new languages created in their own minds, and you have created many. How do you go about creating a new language?
Kevin: Hmm, creating languages? I’m not really a linguist and I don’t know that I’ve developed full languages (though I do use weird words). I just make up the words by making what seem to be the appropriate sounds, linguistic flavors, scary sounds for monsters or villains, softer or ethereal sounds for pleasant things. I can’t really explain it more rigorously than that.
Kaye: Your work has won many prestigious awards. Which award are you most proud of? Why?
Kevin: Awards are awards, and it’s nice to have them, but I really prefer READERS. That’s what makes your writing worthwhile. It’s not terribly prestigious, but the award I value most is one I received very early in my career, when I received a trophy with an engraved brass plate and everything, naming me “The Writer with No Future” because I could produce more rejection slips than any other writer at an entire conference. To me, that didn’t mean I was a failure as a writer or that my work was awful—it proved that I was more persistent, that I kept trying, kept getting better, and never gave up. I still have that trophy.
Kaye: In addition to being an author, you and your wife, Rebecca Moesta, are publishers at Wordfire Press, but originally you were traditionally published. Why the switch to being your own publisher after being traditionally published for so many years?
Kevin: Survival. No choice. The publishing industry has undergone a tremendous upheaval equivalent to the Industrial Revolution, and I could either be a mammal and evolve or stay a dinosaur and go extinct. I am still traditionally published (four books released in 2018, in fact, and a new 3-book contract from Tor Books for an epic fantasy series), but I also have a lot of backlist titles that were out of print and my fans wanted to read them. So I started releasing them myself with all the innovations of new technology. It’s just another alternative.
Kaye: What does Wordfire press offer as a publisher for other authors?
Kevin: We are nimble and flexible, and we can produce books and get them to market far quicker than a traditional publisher can manage. But when you work with an indie publisher, or if you do it yourself, then you have to do all the work, all aspects of it. It’s another income stream and another way to get your book in front of your audience.
Kaye: Is Wordfire taking submissions? What type of fiction is Wordfire looking for?
Kevin: Not really, I’m afraid. When we are open, we’re looking for established writers who don’t need their hands held, writers who already have their own platforms, fanbases, and marketing efforts because we have to rely on them to do the work that a whole department at a traditional publisher would do.
Kaye: You recently signed on as an adjunct professor at Western State Colorado University and you are a finalist candidate for the director of their Certificate in Publishing program. What prompted you to venture into the world of academia?
Kevin: Actually, I’m now a full professor and I run their Masters program in Publishing. I will start the first group of MA students this coming summer. There’s a LOT of paperwork and bureaucracy in academia! I have taught writing and publishing quite often at countless writers’ conferences and conventions, most notably our own Superstars Writing Seminars, which is just hitting its tenth year. Becoming a professor and teaching at a beautiful university in the Colorado mountains is great, offers a little more stability than freelance writing, and (the bane of all freelancers) it gives me health insurance and benefits I wouldn’t otherwise get.
Kaye: Any writing pet peeves?
Kevin: I don’t like artsy-fartsy stuff, dense prose and opaque plots. Tell me a great story with a cool setting and interesting characters!
Kaye: Creating characters, developing plot, world building – what is the most challenging part of writing for you?
Kevin: Those are all fun, but if I had to choose I would say I have most difficulty with building rich, fleshed-out characters. Plotting and worldbuilding—that’s what I excel in.
Thanks to Kevin for sharing with us today. He’s given us food for thought with some really great answers. You can find more about Wordfire Press here: https://wordfirepress.com/. Kevin and his wife, Rebecca Moesta, head up the Superstars Writing Seminars each year in February, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for those interested in learning the business of writing. If you’d like to become a member of the Superstars Tribe, or would just like more information about Superstars, visit the folowing link: superstarswriting.com. Visit the links below to learn more about Kevin J. Anderson and his works.
Join us next month on “Chatting with the Pros”, when I’ll be chatting with romance author Maya Rodale. You can catch the monthly segment “Chatting with the Pros” on the third Monday of every month in 2019, or you can be sure not to any of the great content on Writing to be Read by signing up by email or following on WordPress.
In March, Writing to be Read celebrates science fiction and fantasy, and everything in between. Science fiction springs from imaginings of what ifs, regarding technological advancements and futuristc worlds and universes, while fantasy fiction involves impossible or improbable events usually involving magic, or magical creatures or objects grounded in myths, legends and folklore of old. Both of these genres takes us to fantasical places and awe readers with amazing feats of courage, and good usually overpowers evil. Both entertain us, and are often addicting. In the current book market, there are many books which fall into a genre that is somewhere in between.
There are more subgenres for both of these genres than a person is able to count, including stories which feature elements of both. When I wrote my thesis proposal for what will one day be my science fantasy series, Playground for the Gods, I was told there was no genre for a story with both science fiction and fantasy elements. But in fact, there is such a genre as science fantasy, and there are many books out there today that fall into it. I recently reviewed one featuring alien life forms and a powerful magic object, Rogue Crystal, by Jordan Elizabeth in last Friday’s post.
As mentioned above, Playground for the Gods was originally proposed as my thesis story. It is a tale of aliens, Atlans, who come to pre-historic Earth when their planet is destroyed, and act as gods and godesses, forming human beliefs about devine matters, and creating the fondation for myths and legends of ancient history. The character names were all chosen from ancient summerian names, and many of the subplots parrellel those same myths and legends, adding new twists. In order to maintain the appearance of gods, they use their advanced technologies to appear magical and all powerful, each one wielding the ability to fall into different personas throughout time, providing basis for all world myths and religions around the globe.
It’s a lot of story, and many said it was too big and couldn’t be done, so I broke it down into four novels, which follow the Atlan through earth’s history to present day, and perhaps even beyond Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle tells the tale of the Atlans arrival on Earth. and tells how the heroine, Innana tries to stop the same Atlans who caused the destruction of their home planet from detroying their new home, as well. All whhile working to find a cure for her sister, Ereshkigal’s wasting desiese which is eating her up from the inside out. This story is curently with my beta reader, although I was hoping she’d have it back to me by now, so I could share my excitement, because it is very close to being publication ready.
Among the great science fiction authors we find familiar names: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. More recently, we have Robin Wayne Bailey, Richard Bachman, who we all now know is Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Scalzi and Kevin J. Anderson. (Don’t forget to catch my interview with Kevin J. Anderson next Monday on “Chatting with the Pros”. You won’t want to miss it.) Fantasy authrs who may come to mind are J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, R.A. Salvator, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Kevin J. Anderson. As you can see, there is some crossover of authors from one genre to the other; there are authors who write in both.
P.S. Be sure to check out my science fiction time travel short, Last Call, and my dystopian short, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in the Collapsar Directive science fiction anthology (Zombie Prirates Publishing).
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The title is Songs of Earth: A Teller’s Tale, and the author, Eugene W. Cundiff is a story teller in following with the best of the tradition. A well-crafted science fiction post-apocalyptic story, with excellent world building, this book keeps the pages turning. Cundiff captures the imagination and doesn’t let go. I didn’t want to put it down.
Songs of Earth is a tale of an abandoned civilization, left by the Mongers, those who came before them, to fend for themselves in a harsh environment as best they could. On Luna, Elisheva is a Teller’s apprentice until the terraforming technology that enables their existence quits and she is sent with a group of Miners, a Marshall and an Engineer, on a journey into the wastelands, from which no one ever returns, to attempt repairs. In thier quest to save thier people, they uncover the secrets the Mongers never intended them to discover and travel much farther than any of them ever imagined they would have to repair the damaged machinery. And they solve the mystery of what happened to those who went into the wasteland before them, including Elisheva’s brother, but they aren’t the answers Elisheva had hoped to find.
Songs of Earth follows story telling traditions in exquisite form. I give it five quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.