Where World-Building Starts

Kate Elliott is writing an excellent series of World-Building Wednesdays, and today’s post, The Flowering of an Image, focuses on the germination of a world — what kernel it is that turns into a place in which stories can live.

Elliott says that her world-building most often begins with an image which then spurs the characters and the story. The two things then grow together, the world informing the characters and plot as much as the characters and plot define the world. That symbiosis is something I discover in my own writing as well. Something I decide about the world will trigger an event, and some need the characters have will make me flesh out a bit of the world.

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Tintagel Island, Cornwall (2006) – Which I visited on account of it being the place where King Arthur’s story started, according to legend

Sometimes, though, I can fall a bit into a world-building pit. It’s not so much in the need to outline or write out an encyclopedia — though in some cases I’d happily do so — but I end up exploring the world by letting characters wander through it. Interesting to me, but not something that really advances the narrative. Part of editing is finding ways to inject the details of the world into the action. I do keep lists, though, of important facts. For Aven it’s been a lot of geographical concerns — what do different provinces produce, what sort of people live on which of the Seven Hills, and so forth — and a lot about the magic. I also have some historical notes about where my AU diverges from the reality of Roman history.

For me, though, the story tends to begin not with an image, but with a statement — sometimes of narrative, but far more often, of dialogue or introspection. An image will often follow, but I tend to hear a character’s voice before I clearly see them or the world around them. The words they want to use, the cadence, the rhetoric, those are the things that start to spin a character for me.

So, I thought it might be fun to trawl through a few of my projects — both those still in-progress, those set aside and perhaps to be revived someday — and see if I could find and identify those starting phrases. Wonderfully, I managed to unearth a document of scraps that I started back in 2009. Some of those scraps turned into larger stories. Some have been finished, and some haven’t — and one of them is on is way to publication! But it provided me with some good examples of what seeds I start with:

  • “Oh, you are such a poor liar. You haven’t the talent for it, so you may as well not try. Come now.” She pouted, quite prettily. “I’m your sister. Who can you tell, if not me?”
  • “I could no more leave this city than leave you, Mari,” he said. “To do one would be to do the other, and to do either…” He shook his head. “Unthinkable.”
  • “How many times did you fling yourself into danger without a second goddamn thought?”
  • “He does love me,” she commented, more to herself than to Kara.
    “In his way,” Kara supplied.
    “Not even that,” Arhena said, twisting a few golden strands around her finger. “I think he really does. He’s just… not one to show it in the usual fashion.”
  • “That girl’s kept her heart locked up a good long while now. I think it might finally be ready for some fresh air.”
  • “And you, Highness, are the daughter of a desert witch masquerading as a princess. But I’ve never held that against you.”
  • It wasn’t, after all, a nice thing to hear about yourself, to know that you’d gone from a well-mannered, perfectly-coiffed debutante to being little better than a mad dog in want of a leash.
  • ‘That’s the trouble with putting down roots,’ she thought. Her fingers itched as she stepped over towards where the mare was tethered and unwound the reins from the fence. ‘They do make it harder to fly…’

I’m realizing, looking at all of those, how many of them are moments of great passion — so many of my stories, no matter the genre, do feature a romance between two strong, stubborn people — or how many of them are the lead heroine wrestling with herself in some way.

There are worse places, I think, to start a story.

From Moodling to Manuscript: The Revision Process

I’m starting 2016 off strong! I’ve just completed and sent off the first round of revisions under official DAW Editorial guidance (as opposed to Connor’s editorial-agent guidance). Those edits are the reason I haven’t been blogging here much through the fall — I could never quite justify to myself writing a blog post when I knew I needed to be working on the novel!

If you follow a lot of writers on social media, you’ve probably seen them discussing revisions, most of which tend to boil down to the following sentiment:

Samwriting

Personally, I actually enjoy revising, as I’ve discussed before. It’s like a puzzle. But it can be frustrating, in part because it’s sometimes harder to track progress. It’s often charted in hours, as word count alone doesn’t really matter. You can think of it in terms of pages or chapters revised, but then you get to a point where something you change at one point means a change to four other chapters, so now those go from “done” to “undone”… and that can make progress feel a bit murky.

So! I thought I might share a little light on the process. Of course every writer’s revision experience is going to be different, but this is what mine looked like:

  1. Phone call with The Editor: A giddy thing! Much like my first phone call with my agent Connor, much of this conversation was just about the book in general — what the things were that had appealed to her about it (like me and Connor, she has a background in classics!), the characters and the world, things she had questions about, things she’d like to see expanded or explicated a bit better. One of the big things we discussed was about narrowing down the focus a bit.
  2. Editorial letter: I’m convinced at least part of the purpose of the letter is that editors know debut authors are too giddy upon that first call to retain many details later on. Sarah’s letter to me touched on all the major topics we’d covered in the call (at least to the best of my dizzied recollection), but went into a lot more detail, particularly when it came to the character notes she wanted me to try and emphasize. Some things were smaller aspects of my major characters — fleshing out threats and desires, finding places where a single line or paragraph might add valuable information — and some were about larger things for smaller characters — giving motivation enough to make villains and supporting cast alike fully-realized humans in their own right. There were also notes on pacing, which actually spurred my largest edits.
  3. Re-read the manuscript: I actually hadn’t touched Aven in quite some time, since we were out on sub for ten months before it sold. I did the first read-through in PDF, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to start changing things as I went. I just needed to re-familiarize myself with the story as it stood! I’m so glad I took this time, because it reminded me just how much I love these characters — and how excited I am for other people to get to meet them.
  4. Re-read again, making margin notes: I moved back to Scrivener for this. The Inspector feature is brilliant for things like this. I used the notecard to summarize what was already there, and then the notes section to jot down ideas on what could be moved, added, deleted, or changed in order to get the editorial notes working for me.
  5. Moodle: “So you see, imagination needs moodling, – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” – Brenda Ueland. I subscribe to the profitability of moodling, bu it’s also a thing to be careful of, because I also subscribe to another quote: ““Planning to write is not writing. Thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Researching to write, outlining to write….none of this is writing. Writing is writing.” – Robert Jolles. I find car rides an ideal time for moodling. It’s not time I could spend doing much else besides being in my brain. I’ve found many plot points and turns of phrase while winding my way around Afton Mountain.
  6. Major changes: The front quarter of the book needed more reconstruction than the rest of it — rather like knocking down a wall to create an open-concept in one part of a house, but only needing to spruce up the paint and add a little new furniture in the rest. I tackled the biggest challenges first. This sometimes meant having to keep more than one editorial note in my head at a time, but it also meant that I wasn’t wasting time writing things that I would just end up undoing later on.
  7. More moodling: This was the stage, honestly, that took the most time. After I finished the main restructuring, I needed time to sort out a solid plan on how to attack the rest. I did a lot of opening up the Scrivener document, looking at scenes and the editorial letter side-by-side, and just thinking. Sometimes I would take a single note and scroll through, looking for ideal points to address it. Other times I’d wallow in a single chapter. I was, slowly, formulating a plan of attack.
  8. Going in deep: And once I’ve got that plan, I can work swiftly. I dove back in, armed both with my Inspector commentary and some handwritten notes, and worked through start-to-finish. Well, nearly start-to-finish. There’s still often a lot of back and forth as I need to work through consistency errors, avoid repetitions, etc.
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  9. Final read-through in hard copy: I always do this before sending a full manuscript off for anyone else to read, to reduce potential embarrassments. It also helps me make sure I haven’t missed any opportunities to take a note — I had the print-out of the notes with me as I did this read-through. Mostly, though, these were down to line edits. There were only a few places where I wanted to add a line or a paragraph; the rest was adjusting typos and finding small inserts and deletions. My habit is to mark the corner of each page that I alter, to make it easier to go through during the next step…
  10. Assimilate changes into manuscript: Back to the Scrivener doc! Merging all of my handwritten line edits back into the main manuscript doesn’t actually take all that long, I found. This is also where I do a search-and-replace of some of my most pernicious filler words. (Everyone has them; mine are “rather” and “somewhat”).
  11. Send it off!: Export, create a separate document with the tracked changes (a bit of a trick in of itself when you’re coming out of Scrivener into a .docx, but I’ve figured out how to do it in Word 2013!), glancce to make sure no formatting’s gone wonky, and then — off it went, to Sarah and Connor!

So! That’s been my process since mid-September. And now… I wait! There’ll be much more to do, I’m sure, once Sarah’s had at the fresh meat. 😉

Lucky is a Low Bar

This is a post I started writing a month ago, and then didn’t finish. This is the kind of post I’ve started writing a lot of times, and have never finished. I’m prompted to do so today by the bravery and strength of my cousin, who’s told her story of abuse in support of another woman who was abused by the same man.

Courtney says a lot of very true, very scary things — about how an abuser operates, how crazy and irrational they can make you feel, how hard it can be to admit what happened even to yourself, the challenges in coming forward, and how terribly, terribly common experiences like this are.

If you think you don’t know a woman who’s been raped, assaulted, or abused, you are just straight-up wrong. Most just don’t talk about it very openly. I don’t even have to look outside my own family to find multiple stories. That number goes exponential when I start counting friends. Which is just horrifying.

So.

A while back, I read Being a Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence. This is far from the first such testimonial I’ve read, and I know it won’t be the last. Every one feels familiar. These experiences are universal. We don’t all experience them the same way, but we all know these stories. So this essay left me with the feeling that we should all — all girls, all women, all uterus-bearers who’ve faced these things — should write essays like this. Like maybe the sheer weight of a few million voices showing that these things happen to us will make some kind of a difference.

And then I thought that we all already are, all the time, and it has not yet mattered.

But the only way to fight is to keep talking. To keep telling the stories. To keep challenging the status quo that tells us to quiet down and just deal with it.

These are the facts of our lives. They shouldn’t be.


I am four years old the first time I can remember someone telling me I couldn’t possibly know something because I’m a girl. It’s an argument about dinosaurs. Girls don’t like dinosaurs, so girls can’t possibly know anything about dinosaurs. I’m a tiny ball of tow-headed fury, because I know I’m right about how many fingers a T-Rex had.

I’m five or six and curious about something on the news. A man’s been arrested for doing something behind a school in our county. I ask my dad — a prosecutor — about it. He has to find the words to tell his kindergartner about a sexual predator. For years, I will wonder what exactly he meant by “he made girls put their mouths on his penis”.

In the fourth grade, a boy teases me and pulls my hair for weeks. I’m told this is a sign he likes me. One day, he shoves me on the blacktop during a game of volleyball. I’ve finally had enough, so I shove him back. He grabs my pigtail and slings me to the ground. My knee, elbow, and arm are badly scraped up. My knee is also jarred so much that I will limp for two days, and enough skin comes off that when it scabs over, I won’t be able to fully bend my knee without cracking it all open again, but if the principal hadn’t happened to be passing by at the time, I don’t know if he would have been held accountable at all. My mother and father are furious. The boy’s mother makes him come to my house with flowers to apologize. My classmates somehow learn of this and say he’s my boyfriend now. I have to accept the apology but never want to speak to him again. To this day, if I get a dark enough tan, you can see a scar from this scrape on my knee.

The next summer, I’m walking my dog, alone, feeling very grown-up and responsible. A car passes me. A few minutes later, it circles around the median to pass by again, now with the windows down, and boys start shouting things I don’t even understand yet. They circle by to do it again, and while I don’t understand all of their words, I understand that they mean me harm. I try to ignore them, which just makes them yell louder. They’re driving by slower each time, pacing me until another car comes up behind them. The next time they are forced to go by, I tighten up the dog’s leash and bolt through the nearest backyard. I’m terrified of them and terrified someone will ask why I’m trespassing as I cut across neat lawns and bramble-filled easements to get home. My dad asks why I’m all scratched up and muddy. I don’t tell him about the boys. I’m worried he would find them and shoot them. The boys are barely old enough to drive. I am ten.

A confident and forthright child, I walk with my shoulders back and my chin up. When I am thirteen, my male friends start telling me this makes me look stuck up. Eventually the descriptor morphs into “bitchy”. I start looking at the ground when I walk instead. It will be over a decade before I realize I’m still walking like this and try to correct the behavior.

I’m fourteen when a boy shoots up Columbine High School. As it comes out that he may have done it because he felt bullied and ostracized, I feel confused. I’ve been bullied and ostracized for years now, but it’s never made me want to kill anyone, or think I had the right to.

As a senior in high school, a freshman friend of mine disappears at a dance, held in a hotel during a theatre convention. I don’t know where she’s gone, but a guy in his twenties was leering at her earlier. I find them in a stairwell. He’s got her pinned against the wall. He tells me to mind my own business and go away. I pull her away from him, push her out the door, and tell him that if he follows us a single step I’ll scream bloody murder. We go back to the dance.

I’m a sophomore in college and hanging out with other cast members after rehearsal. I’ve been playful and flirtatious with several of them over the course of rehearsals, but never with real intent. One guy, a senior very popular in the troupe, offers to hang with me as I’m waiting for the trolley. It’s cold, so we duck into the nearest building. After a few minutes of chatting, he tells me I’m gorgeous, grabs my wrist pulls me to him, and kisses me. He asks if I want to go back to his place. I’m flattered by the attention but not interested in him, and the kiss is sloppy and aggressive, so I beg off. In the meantime, I’ve missed the last trolley to my apartment, but choose to walk home rather than accept his offer of a ride. He doesn’t try anything again, and I don’t think anything of it. Months later, I learn that he spent the rest of the semester telling everyone what a slut and cocktease I am.

I’m in my early twenties when the man I think is the love of my life emotionally abuses me through relentless gaslighting. He never says it’s because I’m a woman, but everything in the language he uses is gendered. I’m too irrational. I’m too emotional. I’m too selfish. I’ve lost control. I can’t possibly understand. I should stop expecting so much of him. I should accept what he’s willing to give me. I’m acting too much like his crazy ex-wife. I don’t appreciate how much he loves me. When he hurts me, it’s my fault. When he loses control, it’s only because I made him. For two years, it doesn’t occur to me there’s anything wrong with the relationship. For two years after it ends, I’m still not ready to call it abuse. How could a strong, smart girl let that happen to her? How could she not know?

Twice at parties, I put all five-foot-three of myself, trembling with rage, between a woman and the man who wants to hit her. Both men look startled that I have the nerve to stand up to them. I know, someday, I will probably get hurt doing this. I know I can’t stop.

I’m twenty-six and an ex-boyfriend with whom I am on with friendly terms starts getting handsy whenever we hang out together. I have no interest in renewing the relationship, and tell him so. He persists. After one group dinner when he wouldn’t stop stroking my leg beneath the table, even when I tell him three times to stop, when he tries to take me by the waist in the parking lot on our way out, I snap and scream at him. He is so offended by my outburst that we never speak again. He swears up and down to our mutual friends that he never sexually harassed me, whatever I have to say about it.

I’m twenty-nine and becoming inured to gross comments during the interactive theatre work that I do, but still, the guy who tells me, “You make my dick hard. I bet you like that. I bet you wanna tell everybody about it” manages to astonish me.

I’m thirty years old, my heart bleeding for the women I know and love who’ve suffered, and thinking that I’m lucky. I’ve only been physically assaulted infrequently. I’m not still with my abuser. I haven’t been raped. I’m not dead.