link for writers / gamers – medieval demographics

This is perhaps one of the most useful fantasy tools I’ve run across in a long time. I’m just sorry that I didn’t have it for last year’s ‘World Building Month’ event.

Medieval Demographics Made Easy, by S. John Ross.
“Numbers for Fantasy Worlds.”

Basically, this page discusses how many people can fit onto so much land– medieval population density, how big a town must be to support certain occupations, and how this all pertains to world building and specifically, gaming or writing in a fantasy setting. For anyone who ever wanted to add realism in an economical set-up, this is for you.

end of november

… And the beginning of December.

NaNoWriMo. It actually seemed to get easier, since last year. Not working full-time probably had something to do with that. I laughed, I cried, I killed off large portions of my cast. At one point I realized that I’d started a chapter wrong, and instead of erasing, put in a page break, wrote ‘chapter six’ over again (still haven’t titled that one) and started it again.

It seemed to have turned out alright, though.

All that work, paid off in the end.

Fifty thousand words. That’s half the size of your typical fantasy novel. And it’s half of mine; I need to finish.

Instead of officially joining NaNoFiMo (National Novel Finishing Month), I’ll be holding the same pace through December. Since I’ve figured out that it’s the personal graph that keeps me going, I’ve recreated the NaNo graphic in Photoshop to reflect December as well. My absent status in the blogging world will continue… but I’ll be back for the new year.

NaNoFiMo Count

How’d the rest of you do?

starting the 3rd draft

I’ve started the 3rd draft of Blue Crystal today.

I haven’t finished my plot-scrub. I’ve made some changes, questioned some motives, filled in several characters, but the detailed chapter-by-chapter plot lies incomplete on my notebook. I think it’s time to admit that I’m not much of a plotter. Which isn’t to say that I won’t be using all the ideas that I did come up with for those chapters.

I’m resetting the word count bar. I’m also putting up the first five hundred words in my excerpt page. Go take a look– I think this draft is already much better than the last.

(intelligent) magic

I’ve been reading through one of the Forgotten Realms series– not a particular favorite, but since D&D is a hobby of mine, and because some of the aspects of the books are interesting, I’ve been slogging through them.

One of the things that annoys me is just a little detail. Anyone familiar with the D&D magic system knows that the spells are geared to be balanced game mechanics, and doesn’t really hold a lot of internal consistency, or even any economic sense. I can accept fireballs, I can accept bolts of lightening flying from wands, teleportation, shadow-stepping, slow-falls, ect.

But I can’t accept an enchanted whip.

Not just any whip, either. This whip is fashioned to have snake-creatures instead of lashes, which will occasionally speak to their wielder, warning of poison, eavesdropping, ect. And when she uses this whip, the snake heads will sink their fangs into the victim, poisoning them.

I’ve seen this whip in action for three books now. And every time the snake heads bite down, they inject poison. So you have long, extended battles with this weapon in use, and all I can think of is ‘where do they get all that poison from?’.

Since the snakes never eat, never drink, never diminish, I can only assume that they somehow repeatedly conjure poison up from nothing, expending no energy or resources to do so: a never-ending supply of venom, by nature of the design. Nothing else in the book does this. I don’t see good, cheap poison readily available. It’s a ridiculous mental image, but I keep picturing the characters getting into financial straights and trying to figure out how to milk this amazing whip.

CHARACTER: “Here, you guys each grab a head. Now, whip, when I say ‘go’, start squirting poison.”
WHIP: “F*** you.”
CHARACTER: “Hey, you always contributed this stuff before…!”
WHIP: “I demand death first. It turns me on.”
CHARACTER: “Hmm. So you’d say that you’re rather ‘limp’ right now?”
WHIP: *attempts to murder the character*
CHARACTER: *holds up the vial, tries to hide behind it* “The tube, not me, the glass tube!”

Please, fellow fantasy writers. Do not do this. Please think carefully about your magic/magical items/magical effects.

writing craft: the art of repetition

Since I’m taking a break from my book, I’ve decided to write a bit about craft and technique.

Repetition is a subject that I don’t see nearly enough coverage in craft essays. True, it is not a necessary element to a book, of less importance than characterization or plot. A writer does not need to know this to make a good story. Still, it is a tool that a writer may use to strengthen the elements in their story, and well worth thinking about.

When a reader sees a character behave in a certain way, they make judgments about that character. They will expect this character to do something similar when placed in another situation like the first. The reader judges the character by his actions and his insinuations. This is characterization.

When the character repeats himself as expected, this is called consistency.

And if three characters do similar things for similar reasons at different times, though their situations and their personalities differ, this is a repeating motive, one of the elements of repetition. It enhances a theme in your work, it sets the tone of your story. It plays with the prejudices the reader has toward your world, your events, and your characters.

Repeating elements can be used for foreshadowing. Say that four characters have a gun in a story. The reader will anticipate a time when someone draws it, will assume a need for weaponry (either in the situation, or because of characterization), and adjust their attitudes accordingly. It will be off-putting if no one makes use of said guns in some manner. Even if they’re not drawn, reliance on a weapon when fighting something like hunger can be a potent mental image.

Repeating elements are a base. They make the reader familiar with the setting. Let a church be a setting for a particularly happy scene. Take that same church, put some different characters in, and have something terrible happen. Put the church in again a third time, and the reader will have some very strong emotional connotations with that location.

dacha, the literary funeral

As previously mentioned, I killed a character and abruptly had trouble writing again. I kill a lot of characters. The path my literary endeavors have taken me on has been littered with bodies of fictional friends and enemies. I don’t usually have this problem writing, and I’m not sure why it’s bothering me now.

So to commemorate Dacha, and perhaps to gain some ‘closure’ (I don’t really believe in the concept myself, but what’s the harm?), I thought I would write her a eulogy.

Dacha was a remarkable woman, impressive in girth and skill. She may not have had the qualifications to present a heroic figure, but she fared well as a secondary character. She made my hero uncomfortable for her own amusement, worked with my heroine to protect and help her, and littered my book with pieces of colorful, if course, dialog.

Such phrases included:

“… You know, that’s almost scarier than me naked.”

“Weapon? Oh, honey, I don’t need a weapon. All I have to do is sit on you and fart. You won’t be getting up again, I promise.”

“Aha! Dickless, spineless, and brainless! … He must think with his stomach.”

“Sure I’m a lady! I’ve got the teats to prove it and everything!”

Rest in peace, Dacha. You died victorious, and were avenged swiftly. And your loss made my test readers cry aloud: a dozen outraged, horrified gasps of, “No, not Dacha!” disturbed the air of the library reading room that night.

Until the third draft, my friend.

an excerpt

I’ve been having trouble with a fight scene, so I went back to try it again, focusing more on the set up this time. Better, I think.

The chamber that Rylan stepped into was large, over twice as long as it was wide, and their path was a set of gallery railings that ran along the walls. Halfway through the room a walkway spanned the width and divided the room in two, and two jeweled chandeliers hung down on either side, ropes of glittering diamonds and sapphires dangling almost carelessly. The lights were pinpricks of gold from the candles that spanned along the rail, just enough to see the stairs across the room. “That one?” he whispered.

Dacha panted louder than he spoke, slightly bent and shrugging her shoulders in time with her breathing. She nodded. Rylan took the lead, and chose to walk around the wall and avoid the walkway. Saffira’s lantern behind him threw a giant’s shadow on the far wall. Dacha may have been out of breath, but adrenaline gave Rylan the impression that his heard had moved behind his ears. He moved at a walk for Dacha’s sake, both swords free of their sheaths and his eyes scanning to and fro. There were four doors on the upper level aside from their intended staircase, one at each corner. Four silent, black mouths.

Two footsteps beyond the first corner, Rylan heard an extra set of feet on the tile floor. “Saffira!”

The wild woman spun between her companions and the open doorway, and she blocked high. The black axe crashed onto the large knife and forced Saffira to her knees. Two other guards moved past him with short swords in hand, and Rylan heard the sound of crossbows loading across the room.

a precursor to world building month

Once upon a time, when I was trying to avoid defining a plot, a beginning, or an end to the vague story-idea I had in my mind (a few years ago– internet role play, of all things, taught me how to move a story along, but that’s another issue entirely), I used to build static characters that only had situations, not actions, and worlds with details but not events. I made maps. I drew terrain, and defined linguistic patterns so that I could have realistic naming conventions for the cities.

Saint Know-All brought up the point that world-building can be completely distracting from the writing process, and I thought that I’d address that. World building is done to enrich your story. It requires action, and relevance to the project. It needs to contribute. After all, there’s not much point detailing characters that won’t be mentioned in the story. And world-building is important in genres other than fantasy and sci-fi.

Building a planet, galaxy, alien races, and government are all world-building. But so is defining the layout of a character’s house, the kind of furniture in the front room, the name of the street that said character lives on, the gossip that is spread around, and the statue that was defaced in the local park. No one can completely define the place they’re writing… and when you start mapping out blades of grass, you’ve probably gone too far. So first, before we begin our world building project, we’ll need to define its scope.

Simply put, where does the story go, what topics does it consider or touch on, and what are we going to see most often? Detail that.

For instance, if your character is a member of the local nobility, you should have a very, very good idea of how their system works, what the local issues are, and what duties fall to whom in the government. Even if a king isn’t introduced, you should know what kind of man he is and what he will and will not involve himself with. What people eat halfway across the world from said character will not be considered important, unless the character has a penchant for foreign delicacies.

world building woes

Recently I started reading an enormous book (700+ pages) that had, among other things, fantastic world building. History… no, it wasn’t just history. It was economic history, military history, artistic history, mythological history, the history of arcana, discrepancies between the histories and difference of opinion based on source. It spanned racial customs, clothes, weather, standards for different classes, idioms, the difference between different districts in a city, children’s skipping rhymes. It included little details, always relevant, always practical: a minor character took a room not far from a butcher, and the main character can’t help but notice the smell every time he comes by to see her. And the method of immersion into this world was so well done that finding more about it felt as if I were slipping into a steaming bath, or cuddling up to a down blanket. I get excited when the author writes a few pages of summary or explanation; I feel as if I can safely laugh at the show-don’t-tell Nazis now that I’ve seen it done so well, so efficiently, in such an entertaining and smooth fashion.

I have a difficult time reading new books. I can’t turn off my internal editor, which tends to focus on plot, theme, and composition. So when I’m trying to read for fun, I keep finding myself considering the question, ‘If I’d written this, would I be proud of myself?’. When I find that the answer is ‘no’, I tend to stop reading. And when I find something as detailed, complex, and well-done as this, I start raising my standards. My novel just got a little worse.

June was ‘Villain Month’. That seemed to go fairly well. I think I need a ‘World Building Month’ next, a concept that was mentioned a few weeks ago. I do want to finish this draft of my book first, but there are fifteen days of July left and roughly twenty thousand words to write. And I get anxious the closer I draw to the grand finale. That puts me at 1,333 words every day (including this one) until July. … On the bright side, it’s not as bad as NoNoWriMo.

Here are my goals, then:

  1. 1,333 words a day until the book is finished. I estimate that will let me finish the book before August.
  2. Finish ‘The Name of the Wind’.
  3. Write a book review.
  4. Possibly send girlish fan-letters to Patrick Rothfuss.
  5. Start the hype for ‘World Building Month’. Set it for August.

I’m imagining that World Building Month will be more useful to writers of speculative fiction than contemporary fiction. Even so, solidifying a good, living setting does deserve some attention. So, since Villain Month met with such approval, I’ll be doing the same thing. Anyone interested in signing up and joining in the event are welcome.

writing fantasy: the dilemma of familiarity

Recently, my mother found a book at a library sale with very rich writing. It was an older book, hardback, the red of the cloth cover faded and an unexciting title, the spine gently folded and indented with use. Contemporary marketing would sniff. And then my mother pointed out the first page. The prose felt rich and alive, taking a broad image of Italy and expounding on it with beautiful, subtle analogies to paint a vivid picture. I read enough to know that it was a particular strength of the writer in question.

I thought about the style and technique the author used, and after a time it pained me to realize that I can’t do the same, not easily, in fantasy. Robert Jordan might have, but then, Robert Jordan’s work could be used as bludgeoning weapons in the military if they ever ran short. Non-series fantasy writers have to contend with the fact that if they want to draw in a sense of such familiarity with their world, they’re going to have to sweat blood to weave it. One doesn’t write that the spell growled like a Harley motorcycle when using a historical setting.

I once heard it mentioned that fantasy was the easiest genre to write, because there were no rules, but that fantasy is also the hardest genre to write well. To take full advantage of the blank canvas, the author is stripped of many of their literary tools. The more original the setting and story, the less you have to work with.

I’ve found people who can do this well; Patrick Rothfuss (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors the more I go into his debut novel) has such an intricately built world that his novel feels like a bath, completely submerged. Rich prose, mature characters make up for the unfamiliarity. A gripping plot won’t let someone put the book down. Yet, it seems that worldbuilding aside, the process of creating familiarity from scratch is not a well covered topic.

A few things I’ve noticed about fantasy books that are exceptional (and I consider most of these inseparably linked to each other):

Maturity. People are people. As readers, we can accept mostly fleshed characters and improbable reactions to situations. But I think at some level, we know that it wouldn’t happen like that. The behavior of people around, the background and the appropriateness of their reaction to what happens around them are vital. We know if someone is pulling something contrived– it’s what bothered me in the otherwise enjoyable ‘Lies of Locke Lamora’. Convince me that your people are people, even if they’re bugs, aliens, or elves. I know all about people.

Repetition. Repeating themes, or elements in the story, bringing old settings back later in the story settles the reader down. It’s a familiar place, or a familiar situation, and since they’ve seen it before, they know what to expect. One bad fight in the dark, written well, with consequences, will set expectations up for another. Realize the effect repeating elements, themes, settings, and characters have, and use them.

Depth. Also known as world-building, character building, and just about every other sort of building that you can do for a story. Know everything– be able to write hundreds of pages on the culture, history, art, economy, geography, mythology, and religions you’ve invented. Show very little of that, and only when required by the story. This is about as easy as swallowing a ring of car keys, reaching down your own throat, and plucking them out again.

(See? Another analogy that wouldn’t work in a fantasy novel quite as well). And last…

Consistency. High king of fantasy, duke of literature, lord of all he beholds. Cross him, and your literary efforts will crumble to ash and salt in your hands. Do not break the rules that you lay down.