On World Building

On World Building

Hugo award winning author N.K Jemisin was recently on Ezra Kline’s podcast, where she talked about world building and did a world building exercise. It’s a fun and fascinating episode and my fellow fantasy writers should definitely check it out, find it here

Jemisin has a very wholistic approach to world building, starting not just with the geography of her worlds, but with the atmosphere and gravity. After settling on the basics, she zooms in on an ‘element X’ the thing that the work is going to explore and makes the world ‘fantastic’ in some way. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms it was enslaved gods, in The Fifth Season it was the earth magicians known as Orogenes.

Jemisin has a masterful talent of taking her ‘element x’ and extrapolating it out. In particular the effect ‘element x’ would have on societies, the way people would react to it and build their cultures around it. She’s a writer who has thought long and hard on her world building process. Listening made me realize that I don’t have as tight grip on how I build worlds.

World building for me has always been fun. I world build on walks while listening to music. I world build at night to try and help me fall asleep. Once I have the energy going and the bare frame of the world, it’s easy and exciting. One thought leads to other; ‘They make their soldiers from a living pit, how do they make the pit? Do they also make living tools?’ And everything just keeps building.

But I realized that I’m much more genre focused in my process, even to a creative detriment, than N.K Jemisin is. Grant it, I’ve only written two novels, (find out more about the good one here!) and one of them is a direct reaction to the High Fantasy genre. But a lot of times when I start my world building I start it from a place of genre knowledge. I look at other people’s work, I write in reaction to them. I think about the tropes I like and want to emulate or explore and what tropes I don’t like and want to subvert. In other words, I don’t approach my worlds so much as worlds to begin with, but rather as stories.

Now as I world build I do start to gravitate away from the confines of genres. The Dairkkul started as a reaction to typically demonic, evil factions in Fantasy stories, but evolved to be their own complex people. Mostly this came from considering their ability to shape life out of Doom Cotta and the problems and moral quandaries that ability created. But even as I started to write the Dairkkul and decide their noble houses I still leaned on my genre knowledge and the overall ‘theme’ I wanted them to exhibit.

In general theme and genre define my worlds more than a logical or focused extrapolation might. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Ghets is meant to be a playground where I can fool around with fantasy tropes with semi-self-aware characters. And there are always questions that writers can’t answer or even address in their worlds/stories, because it will break them. But I do think that there is something to be gained by throwing genre away.

To create new, interesting worlds, we need to do more than just remix the tropes we love. I’m not saying we should abandon genre completely. Emulating and reacting to other’s work is the foundation of art and it’s good to know of the novels that are similar to your own. But rather than trying to figure out the box we’re writing in, it might be better to start with the world first and then let the natural formation of that world and it’s reaction to element X decide the theme and genre. Maybe for my next work I’ll try it more Jemisin’s way.

My fellow writers, what’s your take? How do you approach world building?

Problems with the ‘The Poppy War’

Problems with the ‘The Poppy War’

I recently finished The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang. The book’s first half was enjoyable, but it’s second half was frustrating. It encompassed a lot of the problems I see in fantasy novels. The world building was under-cooked, the pacing messy, the villains one dimensional and it’s grimdarkness unearned. Still, there’s something to be learned from it’s unevenness.

*****Spoilers for The Poppy War below******

The Poppy War is a pretty standard fantasy novel. It’s protagonist, Rin, starts off as an orphan and through a combination of hard work and a ferocious will becomes the vengeful avatar of a god. It’s a classic power story, complete with training montages and a special school. The school part is enjoyable and Rin is an interesting protagonist. She starts off normal enough, but shows hints of a power hungry side that threatens to overtake her.

However, once the title ‘Poppy War’ starts? (I’m actually not sure if it is a Poppy War, there were Poppy Wars in the past with the same enemy, but no one calls it anything other than ‘the war’ when it begins,) things quickly fall apart. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening, the reader has no sense of scale or the strategic value of any of the cities in play or even the bare geography of the Nikara Empire which Rin is fighting for.

Worse of all is the enemy Rin faces, the Mugen Federation. The Federation is bland and evil. They’re somehow more technically advanced than the Nikara, though we get no details at all about their equipment, fighting style or even their ideology and culture. Really, the only thing we know about them is that they will kill themselves for their emperor and think the Nikara aren’t even human. Oh, and they’re basically Japan.

This another problem with the Poppy War it leans way too hard on real history for its world building. Nikara is very obviously China, Mugen is very obviously Japan, there’s even a very obviously European faction with fair skin and tall ships across the ocean. R.F Kuang talked about how 20th century Chinese history influenced her and boy does it ever show. The opium wars is right there in the title and Kuang uses the details from the rape of Nanking when describing a massacre done by the Federation.

The mining of a real world tragedy to give a dark edge to the story and motivate the hero, didn’t sit right with me. It was so grotesque and hard to get through that it shocked me out of the story. I could dedicate a whole blog post to discussion of using details from a historical tragedy as fodder for your fantasy novel, but outside of it being in poor taste, it’s also not a great narrative device. Going grimdark doesn’t give your story weight, it can have the exact opposite effect, snapping suspension of disbelief. This is what makes tone and tonal consistency so important.

I never really recovered from the massacre and neither did the novel. The pacing became even more hectic and what world building there was frayed with inconsistencies and random betrayals. It all built to what was supposed to be an horrible act of genocide, the complete destruction of the Mugen Federation’s home island and everyone on it. But I didn’t care.

The Federation might as well have been orcs. There’s only one named Federation character and he’s a literal mad scientist, with a white lab coat and everything. (Doesn’t this book take place in medievalish times? Maybe? Another character treats a fucking crossbow like a machine gun, complete with a dull thud when it’s ‘out’.) The genocide fell flat. Mugen was never made to feel real. I didn’t care about it because the writer never did.

In many ways the Poppy War is a story that can’t live up to it’s ambition. It wants to talk about tragedy and sacrifice on a deep level, while also being an engaging action story. Achieving that tonal balance was always going to be difficult and the Poppy War’s bland, over the top antagonists and weak world building couldn’t sustain it. In some ways it asked both too much and too little of the reader. At the one hand we have to read through detailed rape and murder, on the other hand we don’t have to sacrifice anything when the hero burns a whole people away, because they were never described as people to begin with.

The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Problem of Pay Off

The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Problem of Pay Off

I’ve been listening to the audiobooks of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle recently. The books have something of a ‘geek cool’ rep to them. When they first came out everyone from my favorite webcomic to the dorm DM were gushing about them. And even close to ten years later I bump into people at writing groups, cons and parties that talk about The Kingkiller Chronicle the same way hipsters talk about obscure EPs.

Yet despite the rep and the fact that the book stars a fellow ginger, I simply couldn’t make it through the first one, The Name of the Wind. Even the audiobook with its excellent narration was painful, I would find myself shouting at Kvothe to ‘Get on with it already!’ (My favorite parts were when Kvothe, after doing this rambling, overly clever description, say something like ‘but I’ll spare you the details.’ I would always mutter ‘thanks? But why this time? You certainly didn’t spare them anywhere else!?). The Kingkiller Chronicle is supposed to be a story told over the course of three days, but honestly Kvothe is such a blowhard that it feels like it takes three months.

The Kingkiller Chronicle has a novel framing story. Chronicler, a famous scholar and scribe, hunts down the legendary figure of Kvothe who is in retirement and running an inn with his otherworldly apprentice Bast. Kvothe agrees to tell Chronicler his whole story and help separate what is legend from what is truth. From there the majority of the novels are in first person with Kvothe telling his story, with interludes in the ‘present’ at the Waystone Inn.

Kvothe can be a trying storyteller. He often feels like someone’s overly designed RPG character. He’s a master musician, wizard (though magic doesn’t exist in this world! Though it also totally does), swordsmen and thief. He’s smart, cunning, handsome. He’s a mythical figure that everyone knows about, with thousand of tales that have been repeated over and over again all around the civilized world…and he’s also like under thirty, maybe not even twenty-five.

I’ve always found instant, ultra-competent characters annoying, even more so when they are ultra-competent teenagers, which Kvothe is for the first two books. On top of that he’s melodramatic and tragic when we meet him in ‘the present’ at the Waystone Inn. And none of his tragedy or his skill feels earned when he’s introduced. We’re told Kvothe’s a tragic legendary hero, not shown it. But that’s fine, because Kvothe is going to tell us his story and the truth behind his amazing legacy that everyone can’t stop talking about, the one he even quotes in detail as he begins his tale….

Expect he doesn’t.

The Kingkiller Chronicle’s true sin is one of pacing and pay off. Every event in Kvothe’s life seems to require a hundred pages of in depth detail to get through, even when they’re not that interesting, like the time Kvothe wandered around a fucking woods for months just feeling sad. By the time the first book ends, Kvothe has maybe done one or two things of note and none of the things he specifically talks about when he begins his tale. The second book is more interesting, but it’s still stuffed to the brim with words.

I don’t know how many times Kvothe talks about going over to Eolian to play music, or how many cute but platonic interactions he has with his love interest Denna, or how many times he talks about longing to play the fucking lute, but there are just strenuous pages of this stuff that builds to almost nothing. As someone who has also wrote a five hundred page fantasy novel that I’m sure seems like it goes on forever (Find out more here!), I have a hard time begrudging Rothfuss some of these asides. And I will admit the more I listened, the more I enjoyed Kvothe’s story, mostly because interesting things started happening in the second book, but it is still overrun with chaff.

At the end of one of Kvothe’s episodes (the story is at times very episodic), Kvothe stumbles upon Felurian. Felurian is a Faye creature and is equal parts seductive and frightening. Kvothe ends up in a dual of sorts with her and tricks her in a very folklore- style way. It works, and it’s over pretty quickly and I thought Rothfuss was finally picking up the pace. But then Kvothe stays in the Faye with Felurian for what feels like forever. Pages are spent taking about how he learned to kiss from her and how they wandered around naked. It stretches and stretches, finally something interesting happens again, but rather than having that propel Kvothe to his next adventure he spends some more time with Felurian recovering from the event. Chaff like this swipes the momentum of the story out at the knees.

Rothfuss writing often feels more indulgent than engaging, as if he left too many darlings alive on the page. But even so, I’m listening. I will download the next book whenever it’s finally released. The novel is frustrating because it has potential, not because it’s bad. Kvothe can be clever, some of the details of his world interesting. But Kvoethe should have learned more from those quiet Adem mercenaries than just fighting. As his friend Tempi said, ‘one word can say more than many’.

The Problem of Progression

The Problem of Progression

Publication; that is the elusive goal that I, and many other writers on this site, are after. We envision it as finish line, a medal we can wear that says ‘Author’. If you’re published you’ve made it, you’ve moved from dreamer to doer, amateur to professional. Lay people out in the world will take you seriously, you’re not just that guy at the party ‘working on his novel,’ you’re legitimate.

I know thinking that way is a trap, but it’s one that I often fall into. There are so few tangible bench marks in writing that publication becomes alluring. A clear sign that you are doing something right; that you’ve progressed. Often in my day to day writing I can’t tell if I’m getting better, if I’m challenging myself enough, if I’m too afraid to share my work, if I’m really ‘moving forward’ or what that even means.

We like the idea of progression, that one step leads to another. It’s one of the reason RPGs are so fun, you level up, you have real rewards for your experience. The stories we hear about success follow that same linear structure and when we look back on our own success we often organize our history into a clear path of progression.

But that path is never clear. It’s marked by failure, experimentation, stalling and hurdling leaps. You don’t move forward as often as you move in an angle, you’re footing never certain until it is, the demarcation lines of success only visible when you turn around, what’s head is nothing but fog.

I’m at a point in my writing that I know that I’m not a beginner and I know I’m not an expert. I would love to be intermediate, but I have suspicion that I’m several style books behind that (seriously, I’m in dire need of regular line editing). I’ve been writing consistently for close to ten years, mostly creative work, mostly creative work that no one’s read.

When I started writing, the path forward was easy to see and the goals tangible: write a short story, write a novella, write a novel, edit a novel. Writing advice was easier to find or at least more relevant. There’s a lot advice out there about ‘finding time to write’, hell I’ve got some if anyone wants to hear it, but I’ve found the time and done a fair bit of writing and now I’m not sure the way forward. The more I learn about writing, the less I seem to know.

When everything is murky like this it’s best to get out of your own head. Talk to someone who knows you. I have a friend who is a creative too. He’s read my work and we bounced ideas around together. He was able to explain how arriving at the murky part of my goal meant that I had gone farther than before. I’ve progressed to a point where I have no real experience to base it on and need to do some experimentation. I need to prod different avenues, I need to fail a little and find out what works and what doesn’t. The unknown can be exciting; an opportunity.

If you don’t have a friend, you have yourself. Tell yourself your story, look back, see the points where you’ve done well and how they’ve led you to this moment. Remember the missteps, the rejections, the work you’ve abandoned. They are part of the path, they’re not so much dead ends as circular steps, spinning you around and leading you forward. When facing the fog, pick a direction, any direction, work out the steps to it and start moving. You’ll find that you stumble and slide and maybe it’s not worth going there, but at the very least it will eliminate a heading.

Writing is art and art isn’t neat. It can be hard to define. It can be nebulous and therefore it’s success can feel that way too. Embrace it. It’s okay to get lost for a little bit, if you keep trying different ways to move forward, you’ll eventually improve. Don’t focus on one goal other than to be better, to grow, to learn more. Or at least, that’s what I’m going to try. I’ll let you know when I find my way out of the fog.

How to Write a Fight Scene

How to Write a Fight Scene

Fights, like sex, can be some of the hardest scenes to write. They’re always in danger of getting bog down in detail, or they’re the subject of comically obtuse metaphors, or are just plain confusing and the reader has no idea what’s happening. I’m still trying to master fight scenes myself, but here are some techniques I used to make them fast pace and exciting.

The Blow by Blow

This is the most common type of fight scene. It’s best used for duels or fights that take a while and don’t require too many participants. In the ‘Blow by Blow’ the writer is acting like the announcer of a boxing match, giving an account of every swing and block.

Blow by Blow scenes are the easiest scenes to do, but they can very quickly devolve into tedium. Visual media has print beat when it comes to these types of fights. What’s more exciting: watching the final battle in a Marvel movie or hearing your friend describe it? Writing can be very immersive and give us things we can’t experience in film. The taste of sweat, the thoughts of the duelist, the feeling in their shoulders.

Also try not to linger when doing a blow by blow scene. If a character does something fast like a jab, don’t drag out the description. If something happens quickly keep the description quick. Remember that you are dealing with more than just the five senses, you have movement too, you want your writing to convey the speed, and flexibility of the action.

The Abstraction

Writing isn’t a visual media so every fight scene, even the most technical blow by blow, is an abstraction. But what I mean by abstraction is focusing less on creating a fight scene at all, but rather focusing on the feeling, the motion, the way someone fights. Abstractions are best used for big battles, were everything is confusing, and you can use little details to build a sense of dread, or when a hero is fighting a bunch of henchman and dispatching them quickly or even if you want to introduce a threat.

Abstraction can be hard to describe so here’s an example of what I’m talking about from my novel Ghets:

Reez was like a wildfire, cutting and burning and consuming, with each swing she grew hotter, with each cut she grew madder. She blazed through her enemies, on them quicker than they could react, could think, she was an explosion in the middle of their ranks.

The whole thing is more a metaphor than fight. I don’t tell how Reez was defeating anyone, just trying to convey a beserker like style. I tend to prefer writing abstractions for my fight scenes. The feeling of what’s going on is more important than the than physical moves of the actors involved. But abstractions do have their short comings. They’re always in danger of becoming too abstract, the metaphor running away from any sense what’s actually happening. They’re also not great at conflict.

When I say conflict, I mean the push and pull of the fight. In the scene above I focused on Reez, the people she was fighting weren’t important. But most fight scenes, be they duels or battles, are a contest between two parties. What makes them interesting and dynamic are the ways that those parties try get ahead or around their opponent. Present a problem for each fighter to overcome or try to out think.

Don’t show the fight

There’s one final strategy for fight scenes and that’s not to even bother with them. In the greatest action movie of all time, Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a scene where Max runs off to take out the ‘Bullet Farmer’. We don’t know what he does to defeat the Bullet Farmer. We just see him run off, and then come back after an explosion. He’s covered in blood and carrying a bunch of stolen weapons.

The scene is wonderfully bad ass, but we never see what Max actually did. Instead we only have the aftermath and the other characters’ reactions to Max. This makes Max seem tough. He did something so cool we can’t even imagine it. It’s the same principle as the old horror movie conceit that the monster is scarier when you don’t see it. Describing the devastation or aftermath of a fight can make your character seem more competent or powerful than going in detail on the fight itself. It’s also easier for the reader to follow.

On a similar note, try treating some of your fight scenes like comics. Rather than doing a true blow by blow think of the best parts, the most thrilling. Only describe those, like the panels of a comic book. Don’t worry about the connective tissue linking the panels too much, just describe the scene like it’s all in slow motion. One or two cool moments is all anyone remembers about a good fight anyway.

Now that you’ve got some techniques, give them a shot, experiment! Let me know what works for you! Go fight!

Dear Beta-Reader

Dear Beta-Reader

I’ve been writing a lot about my novel Ghets recently and that’s because I’ve finished draft II! I’ve been working on this book for two years now and it’s finally ready to be shared. I put out the call for beta-readers and sent the novel to friends, family and acquaintances. The novel is far from complete at this point. I need to collect all the critiques and edits from my beta-readers and use them to sharpen the book into draft III. After draft III I’ll either be lucky enough to have an agent and publisher or I’ll need to hire an editor for draft IV and then finally publish the thing myself.

I know it’s a lot. So, let’s not get ahead ourselves. For this post I’m sharing the letter I sent out to beta-readers to thank them and let them know what I’m looking for. You might find it helpful, if you’re thinking about using beta-readers for your own project. Also I’ll never say no to people reading Ghets so if you’ve checked out the chapters I’ve posted and want to be a beta-reader too, let me know!


Dear Beta-Reader,

First, I want to thank you so, so, so, much for taking the time to read my novel. I know it’s long and it’s asking a lot of you. But just by reading this book and giving your critiques, edits and insights you are helping to shape this story. Books, like all creative works, are collaborative, the storyteller reacting to listener, feeding off their energy and emotion. It’s like a dialogue. And like all dialogues it helps to know what we’re discussing.

In truth, I will take any edits you have to offer, but please don’t overextend yourself trying to correct every spelling, wrong word or grammar mistake. There are a lot of them and I will hunt them down with the help of an editor during the next draft.

What I’m looking for right now are ‘big picture’ reactions. What about the story worked for you? What about the story didn’t? Where was the writing confusing, where you couldn’t tell what was going on? Were there any characters that felt unnecessary? And most of all, were there repetitive chapters or sections, or chapters that you felt didn’t add anything? This book is on the long side and I would love to be able to trim it down.

I will take any critiques you have to offer. If you couldn’t finish the book because of the time commitment, that’s fine! Just tell me what you thought of what you could read. Same is true if you dropped this book because the grammar was so bad, or because the general writing was awful, or because the story isn’t your thing. You don’t need to finish it to give me your thoughts. And please, be honest! I won’t be upset. In college I had my writing torn apart by my ex-girlfriend and her new ‘poet’ boyfriend during creative writing club. If I can survive that and still want to write, I can survive anything.

Once again thank you so much!

Why an Orc?

Why an Orc?

As I wrote last post there are problem with Orcs. But despite those problems I still wanted to include orcs in my fantasy world and even make my protagonist one. Orcs are fun! Their dumb and violent tendencies can make them mischievous, even endearing if presented in a certain light. And as the ‘evil minion’ race of hundreds of fantasy novels orcs feel like the underdogs. Maybe they’re just misunderstood? Maybe what is so often seen as barbaric in orcs is just a different point of view?

Like any longstanding antagonist orcs have gone through several revisions and become heroes. Stan Nicholls novel Orcs: First Blood, tells a story of human orc warfare from the orcs’ point of view, taking a traditional band of orc warriors and making them the protagonists. Terry Pratchett’s orcs are near extinct and suffering from a case of bad propaganda. And then there’s the Warcraft games.

Warcraft started out with a traditional Tolkien set up. There was an evil army of orcs vs. an alliance of humans, dwarves and elves. The first two Warcraft games had the orcs invading from a dark portal led by evil wizards and hell bent on conquering and killing everything in sight. But with the third Warcraft game Blizzard (the game studio behind the Warcraft series) decided to do something different.

Blizzard deconstructed its orcs and the very idea of orcs as the ‘barbarian other’. They took inspiration from what happened to historical ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ peoples after they were conquered. The orcs of Warcraft III start off enslaved or kept on hemmed in reservations. Their story becomes a fight for freedom and once they achieve that freedom they desire to go back to their traditional ways. The orcs are still violent, a warrior culture, but one that is more complex and less aggressive than the conquers they used to be. They even finally defeat the demon overlords that led them astray in the first place.

The orcs of Warcraft moved from mindless evil to at worse worthy antagonists, all while keeping the things people loved about them. They’re still big and green and mean. They still have pointy armor and say funny made up words like ‘zug-zug’, but they’re given their own needs and desires. They now do stuff outside of fighting.

When coming up with my own orcs I took inspiration from Warcraft, as well as Wahammer, Tolkien and all the others. The orcs of Ghets like to fight, drink and eat meat. They have green skin (as well as purple, orange, and pretty much any color). They’re a proud warrior society, that fights in ‘hordes’. And they’re the underdogs, despised by both Aphetrria the land of Order, and Neradoom the land of Chaos. But in Ghets, the orc’s ruling body, the ‘Okkore’ is the closest thing there is to a medieval UN.

The orcs of Ghets were created by the god Kor to act as border guards, to prevent Aphetrria and Neradoom from killing each other. They take their mandate seriously, and even went so far as to conquer both lands to put an end to the millennia long war. It didn’t work, and by the time the novel begins the Orcs are trying to learn from their past mistakes.

I don’t spend too much time with the Okkore in Ghets, I’ve got more planned there for another novel. Reez is the orc that readers get to know the best, since she’s the lead. Reez is all the stuff I love about orcs with none of the baggage. She’s a carefree adventurer that’s always cursing in funny made up words: guck, gunking guckers. She loves to fight and get into trouble, but she’s not mean or even mercenary in her thinking or actions. She’s clever without being condescending and most of all she doesn’t take herself seriously.

Reez would find the abject barbarism of orcs like those in the Shadow of Mordor series to be comically over the top. Like the people she comes from, Reez is down to earth, an orc that’s good at fighting, but is into other things than just conquest and plunder. She’s got her bones in the old greenskin trope, but she’s grown out of them into her own character. I really like spending time with her and I hope you will too!